FIVE FILMS FROM...1977
Kingdom of the Spiders
(Directed by John 'Bud' Cardos)
1977 was a HUGE year for animal-horror flicks. No prizes for guessing this had a lot to do with the phenomenal success of “Jaws” and the resultant nature-goes-nutzoid offerings. So these 12 months saw a lot of films like “Grizzly”, “Tentacles”, “Rattlers” and “The Food of Gods” in the Grindhouse theatres. Most were of the variety of animals-get-pissy-with-interfering-humans or science-creates-mutants. But “Kingdom” was one of the more notable and oddly effective examples of these exploitationers, and one of the first to exhibit some sense of environmentalism. It was directed by one-time stuntman Cardos, who personally persuaded the one-and-only William Shatner to headline this. He would later direct further guilty-pleasures like “The Day Time Ended” and “Mutant”. But this film became a cult favourite and stuck in people’s memories for more than just Shatner’s memorable (over)acting. After all, the fear of spiders is one of the most common shared phobias across the world, and this B-movie raked its nails over that particular blackboard with great aplomb. Set in rural Verde Valley, Arizona, it follows Shatner’s veterinarian as he realises that the isolated town is under siege from masses of Tarantulas. Refreshingly the eight-legged villains are not mutated, but have evolved a pack mentality to combat the overuse of pesticides which has all-but-eradicated their food source in the area. Unlikely – Yes. Scary – Hell, yeah!
Although the film has that TV-movie sheen that many low-budget offerings have from this period, and it uses stock music on the soundtrack, there are other reasons for “Kingdom” to be recommended. For a start, they went all-out with the Spiders. Yes, there were hundreds of rubber models used on some scenes, and the crew even drew them onto buildings for wide shots of the town (which were amusingly still visible years later). But a huge amount of live tarantulas were procured by offering Mexican spider wranglers $10 for each one they could find, which genuinely led to $50,000 of the film's minimal budget going towards just that. And because Tarantulas are fussy little buggers, they had to be kept warm and in separate trailers, err… containers, so there was no (for the time) mistreatment of the animals. Basically it captured the nightmarish aspect of every Arachnophobe’s fear, by “keeping it real”. This is something that no film has done since, with the exception of (appropriately) “Arachnophobia” in 1990. The extras REALLY earn their money here, and the extensive shots of “corpses” covered in scampering spiders, or fleeing from hordes of the little beasties, will make arachnid-hater’s spines tingle with relish. Other uncomfortable scenes include a young girl trapped on a bed by them, or a group dropping from a roof onto a victim’s head. *Brrr* All absolute nonsense of course, but it achieves exactly what it sets out to do, has the Great Shat in fine form, and also includes an excellent low-key ending on par with Hitchcock’s “The Birds”. Rumours of a sequel/remake continue to periodically surface…
The Hills Have Eyes
(Directed by Wes Craven)
Wes Craven could have stopped directing after his infamous debut (“The Last House on the Left” obviously) in 1972, and he would have still been remembered as a significant horror filmmaker. But luckily for us, the producer from “Left” (Peter Locke) persuaded him to remain in the genre. Looking to do something “more sophisticated” (his words, not ours), he chanced upon the historical legend of Sawney Bean, the genuine bogeyman who lead a clan of cannibals in 16th Century Scotland that preyed on travellers in the wild moors. This led to Craven scribing the story of a modern-day cannibal clan (although it was originally due to be set in the future), as it would allow him to incorporate some of his familiar themes, as well as pay homage to one of his favourite films (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). The screenplay eventually became a notoriously hard shoot in the Mojave Desert, which tested every single member of the crew. Included in the cast were the soon-to-be-horror-favourites Dee Wallace (“The Howling”) and Michael Berryman. Basically the scenario was “Backwoods Horror” but set in a harsh desert environment, as an All-American family are picked off by a merciless feral equivalent of themselves.
The material gave Craven plenty of scope for sub-text. The main motif of “civilised” people descending into savagery when motivated by revenge or rage (like “Last House”) is the most obvious one, but there’s also intelligent parallels with various moral or political themes (if you want to read them into it). The comparisons between strict lawman patriarch Big Bob (Russ Grieve) and Papa Jupiter (James Whitworth) can’t be a coincidence, and neither are the family units. Time might have dulled the ferocity of the violence a little, but there’s still enough invention and nasty incidental details to disturb even today; the family talking about having the baby as Thanksgiving lunch, Mars casually ripping the head from a caged bird and drinking the blood like a vodka shot, and the sadistic burning of a main character (leaving wisps of smoke coming from his mouth). The fact that all of the cast (even the dogs and the baby, godammit) give good performances only heightens the impact of some scenes. One particular sequence with Jupiter railing against a corpse whilst he eats its flesh, (“You come out here and stick your life in my face!!”) is especially on-the-nose and shows Craven’s flair for turning melodrama into good horror. There’s also a dark vein of black humour which runs through it (“Do you always try to stop trespassers by hanging yourself?”). Definitely one of Craven’s best, but ignore the later do-it-for-the-money sequel in 1985. However Alexandre Aja’s remake in 2006 (which was produced by Craven) is also pretty good.
(Directed by David Cronenberg)
This follow-up to “Shivers” is probably the closest Cronenberg ever got to filming a zombie apocalypse movie. Coming close-on-the-heels of that movie, “Rabid” expands some of the themes within that narrative and opens it up way further. Whereas vampirism and blood-lust are the main genre hooks, Cronenberg uses his focus on body horror and plays on the fear of an unexplained pandemic. Instead of the “virus” infecting a single tower block, here it’s whole cities (Quebec and Montreal) that threaten to be overrun by the infected. Brilliantly the film is titled “Enraivecida na Fúria do Sexo” (“Enraged by Sexual Fury”) in Brazil, and just goes by “Rage” in other territories. There are definite sexual analogies and links, but this is mostly the director at his coldly clinical best. At one point Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”) was earmarked to star, but was curiously rejected by the studio for her accent. This led to porn star Marilyn Chambers being cast, and despite all the sniggers and obvious connotations in the plot, the actress is actually pretty good in the role. She plays Rose, an innocent road accident victim who unwittingly gets an experimental graft that causes her to become a carrier for a violence-inducing disease, akin to a new form of Rabies (hence the title).
This being Cronenberg of course, there’s a lot more weirdness to it than that simple synopsis. Rose’s graft inexplicably results in a sharp phallus-like tube emerging from an orifice in her armpit, rather than sharpened molars or anything vampiric. So the initial infected are hugged whilst the befuddled “heroine” ingests their blood. It makes for some queasy trademark body-horror from the Canadian auteur with her victims suddenly turning into foamy-mouthed nutcases after an 8 hour incubation period, and passing on the disease with their saliva. We’re mighty used to “rage-zombie” epidemics these days, but this was a fairly original concept then. With Cronenberg’s eye for detail and his documentary-style cinematography, it allows for some nasty moments, such as a surgeon snipping off a nurse’s finger mid-operation or a commuter snacking on a fellow passenger’s ear. It neatly mined the fear of diseases and epidemics at the time, with genuine rabies scares being pretty normal in the 70s. Rose’s transmission of the virus can easily be seen as an analogy for STD, and the inert fears that promiscuity will lead to a major downfall for humanity. This leads into the downbeat ending where the main character’s refusal to recognise her condition has major repercussions. Knowing Cronenberg, this is also probably a satirical comment on the “morality” movements at the time, and the authorities’ inability to deal with any kind of emergency whatsoever. It’s not as accomplished as some of the director’s later works (and the over-dramatic soundtrack grates a bit), but it’s still worth checking out. It will be interesting to see what the Soska Sisters remake (literally due any day now) will make of the material.
(Directed by Mario Bava)
Italian horror Director Mario Bava is one of the people credited with the rise in popularity of Giallo movies as well as the creation of the slasher genre. In more recent times, critics have also suggested that his sci-fi horror 'Planet of the Vampires' had a direct influnce on Ridley Scott's 'Alien' (1979) – both from a story and visual perspective. Titles such as 'The Girl Who Knew Too Much' (1963) and 'Blood and Black Lace (1964) are often cited as Bava's finest works but his last feature movie is also one that is worth your time too...
'Shock' is one of those movies that often gets overlooked as it was a 'possession' movie that was released as part of the wave of demonic/possession movies that populated movie theatres in the mid to late seventies after the success of William Friedkin's The Exorcist. And whilst it isn't in the same league as that (what is?) it's still a worthy haunted house/possession flick that is often overlooked.
In Shock, Dora, a woman recently released from a mental institution, moves back to live in the house she used to share with her husband from her first marriage – who died under mysterious circumstances. Her son and new husband accompany her. However her new hubby is a pilot so he isn't at home very much and Dora is left to care for her son whilst try to deal with her fragmented memories of her first husband's death – as well as trying to recover from all the electroshock therapy whilst she was in the mental institution. She's also haunted by strange dreams and hallucinations and soon comes to the conclusion that not only is the house haunted, but that her son is possessed by his deceased father. What a nightmare eh?!
Although it feels a little dated at times and doesn't always hold up in places as well as you'd like, 'Shock' is a truly atmospheric and creepy viewing experience. There are a couple of decent jump moments but for the most part, it's the way that Bava creates a real sense of foreboding and eeriness that elevate this above some of its peers. The first half is rather slow if we're being honest but stick with it because the last forty minutes or so are when things get cranked up a notch. The small cast are excellent all round – with Daria Nicolidi (Dora) stealing the show as the mentally unhinged and fragile lead. David Colin Jr is also effectively creepy as the possessed kid too. He's involved in a handful of disturbing moments, including one where he asks to sleep with his mother and then fondles her throat in an erotic manner while she is sleeping, his hand appearing as the hand of a rotting corpse. Ewww! Throw in a great score and a pretty satisfying finale and you've got yourself a chiller worth checking out. Maybe not Bava's best work but still, it's Bava.
Fun Fact: In the United States, it was re-titled 'Beyond the Door II', presented as a sequel to Ovidio Assonitis's 1974 possession film, 'Beyond the Door'. However, the films were not linked in narrative or content, and the decision to change the title was solely for marketing purposes in America.
(Directed by Peter Carter)
John Boorman's 'Deliverance' (1972) and Tobe Hooper's 'The Texas Chainsaw Massacre' (1974) effectively kicked off the whole 'hillbilly horror' sub-genre. Sure, vampires are scary – as are demons that can possess you and make your head rotate 360 degrees. But you know what's equally as scary? Weird looking rednecks who want to hunt down and kill your preppy ass! Turns out that Georgia and Texas aren't the only places you have to be on the lookout for these lumbering weirdos though. Turns out, even Canada isn't safe!
In Peter Carter's low budget horror-thriller 'Rituals' (or 'The Creeper' as it is also known), a group of doctors head out on an annual camping trip in Northern Ontario to take a break from their hectic lives, get back to nature and bond with their fellow man. However, it's never that simple is it? They soon realise that they aren't alone in the great Canadian wilderness and they're soon stalked and picked off by an unseen menace.
One of the great things about 'Rituals' – and there are many – is the fact it keeps you in the dark regarding the big bad for most of the movie's running time. For the most part, Rituals feels like a survivalist thriller but the looming unseen menace forces this into horror territory. Whereas 'Deliverance' is slick and polished, 'Rituals' is grim and grimy yet beautiful at the same time; some of the visuals are really quite breathtaking and for such a low-budget movie, the production values are surprisingly good – one scene where someone gets their hand blown off is especially impressive. However whilst there is the odd moment of gore and violence, for the most part the film's strength lies in the exhausting and intense journey into hell that our central characters embark on.
The acting is also worth mentioning too, with Hal Holbrook as good as you'd expect as the lead. And whilst it's always fun to see a bunch of annoying sex crazed teens get picked off in backwoods slashers, focusing the story on a group of middle-aged men is refreshingly effective. The chemistry and dialogue between them feels genuine and it all adds to the gnawing feeling that this all feels too 'real' – which only adds another level of dread and menace. Their gallows humour and world-weariness is a nice change from the jarring energy and naivety of the aforementioned sex-crazed-teens we are normally made to watch.
'Rituals' is a film that has kind of spend several decades in its own wilderness – with a VHS release in the early 90's. And it was only available to buy on DVD from 2006. It's a shame because it's up there as one of the most compelling and tense survivalist horrors.