FIVE FILMS FROM...1979


Murder By Decree

(Directed by Bob Clark)

When filmmaker Benjamin "Bob" Clark died in a tragic accident in 2007, he left behind an incredibly eclectic filmography that included classics from several different genres. There was the perfect family festive romp with the much-loved “A Christmas Story” and the quintessential U.S. sex comedy with “Porky’s”. There were also several highly regarded genre movies, not least of which was “Black Christmas”, which is generally accepted as being a major influence on the modern Slasher film. Then there was this nigh-on perfect marriage of fiction and reality, as Sherlock Holmes takes on the case of Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. Differing greatly from the earlier same-premise film “A Study in Terror” (where the “Ripper” was just a fictional aristocrat), the story was written by playwright John Hopkins (who wrote the Bond film “Thunderball”). It was heavily influenced by the book “Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution” (by Stephen Knight), which first supposed that the Freemasons and the Government itself were directly involved with the Whitechapel Murders, and a subsequent cover-up. The movie sees Christopher Plummer don the Deer-Stalker hat as Holmes, with James Mason as his erstwhile companion Dr John Watson, as they try to sift through the (often real-life) clues left by Saucy Jack.

There’s so much to appreciate about this marvellous film, which has gone on to win a lot of fans from late-night TV showings. There’s that phenomenal cast which also includes the likes of; Donald Sutherland, John Gielgud, Anthony Quayle, David Hemmings and Geneviève Bujold. There’s the intricate plot (which has gone on to influence other Holmes/Ripper tales), which includes a lot of detail from the actual murders and actors playing historical figures (often in a very unflattering way). But perhaps best of all is Plummer’s outing as the original Dark Night Detective. It’s a fantastically layered performance which defies the usual cold depiction of the character, without betraying the literary version in any way. Plummer plays him as a man clinically obsessed with facts and justice, but also one who lets his emotions occasionally float to the surface. So there are atypical moments where he literally rages against Government officials and Asylum staff, and even shows tenderness towards the female victims and his friendship with Watson. Mason and Bujold also give fine support in their roles, and there’s some welcome humour in the tale (witness Holmes’ clumsiness with his bolas/scarf). “Decree” also works from a mainstream genre perspective and the sequences depicting the Ripper (and his hansom cab) abducting victims in fog-shrouded streets, along with maddened eyes and bloody corpses, are very effective. The climax is particularly ghoulish with Holmes literally stumbling across the final murder, with the gruesome scene lit by firelight. The only downside is the unconvincing miniatures of the London skyline, but otherwise this is superior stuff for Sherlock satisfaction.

Salem's Lot

(Directed by Tobe Hooper)

Given the huge success that “Carrie” was at the cinema, it was no surprise that it heralded an eventual deluge of adaptations sourced from Stephen King novels. What was a surprise was that one of the best turned out to be a made-for-TV production, and that it would be directed by the man who gave us “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”. Warners Bros Studios originally tried to develop the project as a major feature length film, but handed it over to its TV department when things didn’t fall into place. It was originally aired as a 2-part miniseries with the second episode airing a week later, but several edits exist with prologue/epilogue sequences and some additional violent details. But to be fair it works fine whether you catch the “movie” or miniseries version, and King himself is a fan of it… which is no mean feat as it’s one of his favourite novels. It was written by the author to comment on the “death” of the typical small American Town, and also as a damned good vampire/haunted house story. The cast is very solid and includes David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, Geoffrey Lewis and Reggie Nalder. The plot mostly follows the structure of King’s novel (with some notable diversions) as a successful author returns to his hometown of the title, just as a cadaverous vampire moves into the local spooky property and plots to turn the whole place into his personal smorgasbord.

The miniseries was a major event in the lives of a generation of UK genre fans, when it played over two nights on late-night BBC television. And since then, the reputation for being a truly scary experience was cemented in place on both sides of the Atlantic. Unusually the TV format made the adaptation work in ways that King never anticipated. In the novel Kurt Barlow is a Dracula-ish figure, mostly resembling a normal human. In this adaptation however he is imagined as a hideous mute Nosferatu, an albino rat-toothed snarling blood-sucker. It works so well, that even King approved of the change, along with several other differences to his story. It’s hard to describe the impact it had at the time, but it was a TV water-cooler moment for sure. Crammed full of genuinely scary moments that are surprisingly bloodless, it imprinted many unforgettable vignettes on people’s memories after viewing. Highlights include; Barlow’s face suddenly appearing full-screen to sup on a jailed victim, Ralphie Glick floating and scratching at his brother’s window, dead-faced Mike Ryerson rocking in a chair and hissing “llloook at meeee…”, and so much more. It really is top-stuff and delighted horror fans of all ages. It also benefits from several homages to classic horror aside from the “Nosferatu” ghoul, the Marsten house is a direct nod to “Psycho” for a start. Whilst the story moves a little slowly at first, the gradual introduction of the vampires is masterfully done. Instead of wires, the fanged kids were attached to boom cranes and filming was done in-reverse. It looks creepy even with today’s standards. Larry Cohen directed “A Return to Salem’s Lot” in 1987, which is a very loose sequel and somewhat sympathetic to the vampire characters. There was also another TV miniseries in 2004, which was closer to the book and starred Rob Lowe. But nothing has really touched the original in terms of jump-scares and atmosphere.

Zombie Flesh Eaters

(Directed by Lucio Fulci)

Lumbered with various misleading titles around the world, this gut-munching opus from Italy picked up a notorious reputation in the U.K. and was unfairly vilified. In fact the uncensored version would become something of a “Holy Grail” for hardcore horror fans in ol’ Blighty. Whilst it’s best known under the “Flesh Eaters” moniker in this territory, American/Italian viewers probably know it best as “Zombi 2” or “Zombie 2: The Dead are Among Us”. The sequel-related title originated from the global success of Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead”, which was re-edited into a version known simply as “Zombi” in Italy. The lax copyright laws over there, allowed the studio to advertise this as a direct sequel, although this was entirely against the wishes of Fulci, who certainly did not shoot it as such. In fact rather than copy Romero’s Living Dead lore, these walking corpses were to originate from voodoo, as were most corpses before NOTLD. The story sees Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia’s sister) and Peter West (the great Ian McCulloch) hoof it to a Caribbean Island to find her missing father, unaware that it has become the birthplace for a zombie plague.

It might seem odd, particularly given the graphic gore that we now see on mainstream TV in shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones”, but ZFE was once the poster-child for the “Video Nasty” in the UK (and several other countries). Released on video in England in 1980 in a censored edition, it was banned outright in 1984 as a "nasty". It was only re-released in 1992 with heavy cuts, again in 1999 (still with cuts), and only in an uncut version in 2005! Much of this was due to the gore sequences, with plenty of the scissor-snipping due to the sequence where Paola (Olga Karlatos) has her head slowly dragged to a splintered door, gouging her eye out on sharpened wood. But leaving all that notoriety aside (and the glee with which people would hunt down overseas copies with all the gore intact), this is a neat grindhouse experience. The cause for the outbreak is frustratingly vague, as we just get voodoo drums in the distance and offhand descriptions of rituals. But we do get creepy shuffling corpses with effective make-up and maggot-infected mummies literally rising from the grave. As well as being gory, it’s surprisingly atmospheric, with Fabio Frizzi's score (a slow-paced dirge) adding a great deal to it. Whilst the acting and dubbing isn’t that great, the effects certainly are. There’s also one astounding scene which famously depicts an underwater zombie duelling with a shark! This was shot for real, with a Tiger shark being sedated (and fed copiously to make sure he wasn’t hungry), with his trainer playing the dead guy getting his limb chomped on. Now generally available to most territories (and without the collapse of Western civilisation… believe it or not, moral campaigners from the 80s), ZFE is a low-budget classic of its type and well worth keeping an eye out for… (Arf!)

Phantasm

(Directed by Don Coscarelli)

A number of the films we've listed in this series have been ones that – although receiving mixed (or downright negative) receptions at the time - have gone on to gain new followers or appreciation or even achieve cult status. Don Coscarelli's 'Phantasm' is one such film.

Shot on a very small budget, the cast and crew were mainly aspiring amateurs and Coscarelli had a hand in pretty much everything. He wrote, directed, edited, produced and handled the cinematography. Coscarelli had been inspired to make a horror movie after seeing the reactions of audience members to a couple of jump scares he had included in his previous feature, a comedy-drama called 'Kenny and Company'. He was also of the opinion that horror movies were a safer bet in terms of making your money back. He was proved partly right. Phantasm performed better than his previous two finished features – but it wasn't the success he hoped it would be.

Phantasm was inspired by dark fantasy novel 'Something Wicked This Way Comes' by Ray Bradbury and it tells the story of a teenage boy called Mike who discovers that something really dodgy is going on at the local cemetery. After secretly observing a funeral from the safety of some bushes, Mike spots a very tall undertaker (brilliantly played by Angus Scrimm) who, instead of completing the burial, lifts the 500 pound casket and loads it into the back of his hearse. As Mike flees the cemetery, the undertaker seems to knock him off his bike using telekinesis or some other form of psychic shit. Mike is soon drawn in to a surreal nightmarish world of zombie dwarves and weird oversized insects...

Yep, it sounds totally nuts doesn't it? That's because it is! The storyline is obviously bonkers – it's a weird mixture of fantastical sci-fi and gory horror with a dash of black humour thrown in for good measure. But it's the sense of oddness that makes this a special viewing experience. There's a real sense of the surreal to Phantasm and a lot of it has an unsettling dream like quality to it. At times it feels almost Lynchian. Some will find it all a bit too weird and there are a shit load of unanswered questions by the end of the running time. But that's not really the point. The ambiguity of it all just makes the whole thing that much more unnerving and thought provoking. Like a nightmare, there is no explanation or attempt to pander to desires for a logical conclusion. And we're fine with that. Plus, there are a load of follow up movies that...well, actually, they don't really answer most of those questions either. The Myro soundtrack (influenced by Mike Oldfield and Goblin) works terrifically too.

But the kudos really goes to Coscarelli for who the film was obviously a real labour of love. He never really went on to make anything better than this (ok maybe Bubba Ho-Tep) – but there's no excuse for not revisiting them quirky cult gem.

Fun fact: Don Coscarelli got the idea of The Tall Man's living severed finger while drinking from a styrofoam cup. He punched his finger through the bottom and started moving it. He loved the visual effect of it and decided to include it in the story.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

(Directed by Werner Herzog)

German film-maker Werner Herzog's an interesting guy isn't he? He's been shot at during an interview, he once saved Joaquin Phoenix from a car wreck and famously ate his own shoe off the back of a bet he made with an amateur film-maker - hence the film 'Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe' (1980). More importantly though, he has made some bloody interesting movies including 'Aguirre, The Wrath of God' (1972) and 'Cave of Forgotten Dreams' (2011). Herzog isn't really known for his work in the field of horror, but he has got two genre features to his name – 2009's 'My Son, My Son, What Have, Ye Done?', a rather mixed bag based on the the true life story Mark Yavorsky. The other – and better – horror film he made was a wonderful re-imagining of the Dracula tale called 'Nosferatu the Vamypre'.

Herzog considered F.W. Marnau's 'Nosferatu' (1922) to be the best film to ever come out of Germany. He had been itching to do his own updated version of the story but due to potential copyright infringement (Bram Stoker's widow was after anyone who attempted to use the name 'Dracula') it never happened. Until 1979 that is! By then, Stoker's widow has passed away and the copyright for Dracula had entered public domain so Herzog set to work on his new vampire feature.

And what a feature it is. The storyline contains some key elements from Marnau's 'Nosferatu' but Herzog changes things up enough for things to feel a bit fresh. This time around Jonathan Harker is an estate agent in West Germany who is instructed to travel to Transylvania in an effort to woo a potential buyer who has seen a property he likes in Harker's home town. Harker leaves his young wife behind but takes a little portrait of her with him for company. Big mistake! The potential buyer is obviously none other than Dracula - and once he sees the portrait of Harker's missus and realises he will be her neighbour, he agrees to buy the property in question. Harker ends up locked inside Transylvania castle whilst Dracula gets on a boat and heads off to Germany to pay Harker's wife a little visit...

There have been countless (heh, see what we did there?) Dracula movies over the years but 'Nosferatu the Vampyre' is undoubtedly up there with the best of them. Rather than being a slithering one-dimensional bloodsucker, Herzog portrays his leading vamp as a lonely and afflicted soul who hates the curse he carries. It tells the Dracula story as if it were a tragedy - Herzog properly brings out the weight of human despair. And although there is some blood-letting and a few scares, this is all about brooding atmosphere and gorgeous dream-like visuals. Some may find the lingering shots of misty mountains and majestic rivers a tad dull – but for others, it's a delight for the senses. It all moves along at a rather relentless pace as well. Those that The cast are top notch too – with notoriously volatile actor Klaus Kinski is a revelation as Dracula.

The film was a critical and financial success at the time and it's no surprise that it holds a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you haven't seen it, go watch it.

Fun (and disturbing) fact: The scene where Nosferatu arrives in the city required thousands of grey rats. Real grey rats were unavailable and therefore white ones were painted grey and used instead.

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