FIVE FILMS FROM...1976
The Town That Dreaded Sundown
(Directed by Charles B. Pierce)
One of the first (and most popular) docu-horrors around is 1972’s “The Legend of Boggy Creek”. With its unusual mixture of creepy reconstructions and eyewitness accounts of an Arkansas-based Sasquatch, it became a cult film and as much an important slice of Americana as it was a “monster flick”. So it was only right that its director would go on to make another real-life mystery into such an enduring movie. It’s famously based on the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” that took place in that area during 1946. Attributed to a masked individual who became known as “The Phantom Killer” by the media, at least eight people were attacked during 10 weeks of terror, with five of the victims subsequently dying. The murders were never solved, and Pierce takes almost the same approach with the subject matter as he did with “Boggy Creek” (and even worked with the same writer, Earl E. Smith, on the screenplay). So despite the grim and frequent narration from Vern Stierman (who performed the same duties on “Boggy Creek”), we get seasoned actors like Andrew Prine and Ben Johnson play fictional versions of genuine people involved in the investigation. The film itself treads a surprisingly canny path between outright exploitation (the murder sequences have a very “slasher pic” quality about them), and a fascinating telling of actual crimes during a transformative era in US history.
Admittedly the film does play somewhat fast-and-loose with verifiable facts about the case. The infamous sequence where a female victim is bizarrely killed with a trombone she was carrying, is in fact a total fabrication - Her real-life counterpart was shot and actually played the saxophone. But by and large, the rest of the narrative at least “feels” accurate and compelling, even if little embellishments are added and timelines are slightly altered. Whilst we are bombarded with true-crime films and exposes on TV and Cinemas these days, this is a genuinely unsettling offering that earns its “really-happened” stripes far more than other murder bio-pics. We get a genuine sense of paranoia from the (real) townsfolk, a palpable fear from the innocent victims, and even the unwarranted malice from the bag-headed villain feels authentic within the documentary-aping constraints of the film. Initially derided by mainstream critics, and earning one lawsuit from a relative of a victim, it has gone on to be appreciated as a cult film ahead of its time. To highlight this, Texarkana holds an open-air screening of the movie every Halloween. The surprisingly good remake/sequel with the same name in 2014 is also worth checking out, owning a couldn’t-be-more-Meta plot heavily relying on that very screening and details in the film, as well as the original murders themselves. And yes… it is highly likely that the Phantom Killer inspired Bag-Head Jason from “Friday the 13th: Part II”..
The House With The Laughing Windows
(Directed by Pupi Avati)
Amongst a number of Giallo pictures that were released in the 70s, this macabre offering stands out as something that was both accomplished and unusual. It was somewhat of a latecomer to the International market, only cropping up at festivals and home-media many years later. Like some of the best Italian genre and mystery movies, “La casa dalle finestre che ridono” has that almost-indefinable feeling of forbidden knowledge and esoteric spin on artwork that characterised much of Euro-Horror in this decade. Avati would go on to collaborate with Lamberto Bava (“Macabre”), also worked on the infamous “Salo”, and continues to produce screenplays for modern TV and award-winning productions. Outside of Italy this remains his most-well known work though, and retains themes of religion and sadism. Unlike other similar films though, the murder set-pieces are few and far between. Despite an opening scene depicting a graphic stabbing and torture of a character, a lot of the tension is understated and it concentrates on the mystery rather than elaborate slaughter sequences. The narrative follows art expert Stefano (Lino Capolicchio), as he arrives to restore a fresco showing the martyring of a Saint (mirrored in the credit sequence). As he uncovers more of the artwork, he finds that the influence of the mad painter who produced it still lingers in the remote Italian village where it resides.
Beautifully photographed and with a chilling soundtrack, THWTLW relies more on atmosphere and hinted cruelty, rather than overt gore. There are some graphic moments, but some are of off-screen and one relies on a painfully obvious dummy-fall. That said, there’s a real creepy tone to the proceedings. The marshy, lonely area of the village is hauntingly captured in the Ferrara province of the Emilia-Romagna region in northern Italy. There are deserted houses, furtive villagers, and hidden secrets all over the place. So much so, that it lends a Lovecraftian feel to the story, even though the threats are not of the supernatural kind. Instead we get a tale of evil that is gradually introduced, with the occasional trademark preposterousness that infuses many Giallo plots, and clues that are teasingly given as to the nature of the murderer (including a big one in an early painting). If you appreciate this type of sub-genre, especially one with a more labyrinthine plot, then this is a cracker. Eli Roth is also a big fan, and admits that it partially inspired scenes in “Hostel”.
(Directed by Jeff Lieberman)
Thanks to the phenomenal success of “Jaws”, animal-horror was massive in the mid-70s. But amongst the exploitation flicks about killer bears, killer whales, killer apes, etc; there was this offbeat horror about… err… killer worms. Whilst they might not seem the most obvious target for creature features, this film has actually gone on to attain a Grindhouse-Classic status, and is more entertaining than you might expect, even if it was amusingly ripped-to-shreds as part of the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” series (“Come on! No-one is THAT Southern!”). And believe it or not, Kim Basinger and Sylvester Stallone reportedly auditioned for roles, with Martin Sheen also attached at one point! The first feature-length film from Lieberman, he claimed to have been inspired by a childhood incident and Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Lieberman would go on to direct the well-regarded genre movies “Blue Sunshine”, “Just before Dawn”, and “Satan’s Little Helper”. But “Squirm” remains his most famous (and lucrative) exploitationer. Set in a small town in Georgia, it details the (unlikely) repercussions of a massive electrical surge in the muddy grounds of “Fly Creek”, which drives millions of worms into a flesh-craving frenzy.
Nutty as that premise is, it doesn’t make the visuals of hordes of worms engulfing characters that less nasty or revolting. And that’s the main hook here, which milks that primal fear (linked to burial no doubt) that kicks in at certain points in the movie. Helped by the fact that Oscar-winning SFX-er Rick Baker worked on the makeup and effects, the visuals are suitably disgusting. Alright, it’s very much an exploitation film of its time, and it mostly feeds into that so-bad-its-good appetite that most of us have (especially during the slow-paced first half). Nobody’s going home with an award for their thespian duties either. However it’s all played straight and there are some genuinely loathsome (if not wholly realistic) scenes of actors having skin latched onto by the pesky invertebrates, and disappearing into a quagmire or a wall of the wriggling weirdos. There’s also a skeletonised victim and a literal “Worm-Face” to look forward to. With the whole film shot on a shoestring and in only 24 days, the sequence showing a tree squashing a house wasn’t faked and could’ve easily have taken out half the cast! And if you thought that a shark roaring in “Jaws: The Revenge” was dumb, wait until you see umpteen worms squeal like a pig! Very much a guilty pleasure, it still finds time for some dark humour, and respected US critic Leonard Maltin gave it a good review at the time. Ideal late-night-foolish-fright-fodder.
(Directed by Lawrence Gordon Clarke)
Ok so we know that we said we wouldn't make a habit of including short movies on here but sometimes the shorts don't get as much love and attention as their feature-length counterparts. With that in mind, we want to tell you about The Signalman, one of the BBC's Ghost Story for Christmas segments that graced the small screen back in 76'...
Whilst all of the other segments of the BBC's Christmas special were adaptations of works written by M.R. James, The Signalman was actually based on a Charles Dickens short story, written over a hundred years previously. Set in the 19th century, it tells the story of a traveller who encounters a signalman on a deserted part of the railway track. The traveller, shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun with one arm, waves to the signalman and cries out "Hallo, Below There". But he is puzzled when the railway worker not only does not reply to him but actually seems to be afraid of him. When the traveller reassures him that he has no reason to fear him, the signalman welcomes the stranger into his signal box. He tells the traveller that he is haunted by the image of man who appears at the mouth of the railway tunnel to warn of impending disaster.
Fans of atmospheric British ghost stories will dig this big time – and there will certainly be a number of UK based folk out there (who are probably in their 50's) who will remember this haunting them as a child. It's essentially a two-hander, with most of the running time being dominated by The Signalman (played by Denholm Elliot) and the Traveller (Bernard Lloyd) and thee strength of their performances play a huge part in the success of this effective little chiller. Like all great ghost stories, it's ambiguous, gloomy and steeped in tension. Sometimes the scariest stuff comes not in the form of jump scares and payoffs, it comes from great storytelling, gothic visuals and an eerie sense of the unknown – and The Signalman has all these in spades. It'll leave you feeling a little cold at the end too. In a good way.
The Girl Who Lives Down The Lane
(Directed by Nicolas Gessner)
If you go past The Last House on the Left, you may find The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. A French-Canadian produced mystery horror that stars Jodie Foster and Martin Sheen. What's not to like? Our thoughts exactly!
Based on a Laird Koenig novel, TLGWLDTL (It's so much quicker to write that) tells the story of Rynn Jacobs, who, along with her father, have recently relocated to a town in Maine. However, her father's absence and (Foster) the girl's strange behaviour soon awake the suspicions of her narrow minded neighbours. Whenever people drop by to enquire where her father is, Rynn tells them that he is out of town or 'busy'. However when her snoopy landlady (and her letchy son) visits, things begin to unravel as Rynn desperately tries to keep up the illusion that she is leading a normal life. However, anyone that ventures down into the basement discovers that the situation is far from normal...
Truth be told TLGWLDTL is a little bit lurid – as some of the story involves grown ups trying it on with a young teenage girl. Some also compared the sexualisation of Foster's character to her role in Taxi Driver (made in the same year). On the flip side, the film can also be viewed as a children's rights movie (they are few and far between to be honest). Indeed, the adults who attempt to intrude in Rynn's life pose a threat. There is in fact, a lot more to the story than the objectification of a teenage girl and more focus goes on the struggle of a young person surviving in an adult world.
Foster herself has actually never been overly keen on this movie apparently, but it has developed a bit of a cult status over the years and her performance is one of the trump cards the film holds. Sheen is effective as always but Foster gives quite a complex yet natural performance as the troubled teenager.Critics have suggested that it isn't really a horror movie but this more down to the subdued tone and focus on characters rather than plot. It's actually a rather disquieting, compelling and provocative film that eschews violence and blood for mood and suspense. Director Nicolas Gessner gives the whole thing a polished but almost dream like quality which only heightens the sense of mystery and intrigue. It's an under-appreciated gem (although it did win a couple of Saturn Awards back in the day) – and it's worth your time, if only for Foster's astute performance.
Fun fact: Jodie Foster was thirteen at the time of filming and refused to appear nude in the bedroom scene. Thus, her older sister, Connie Foster (uncredited), was used as her body double in the film's brief nude sequence.