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Amityville II: The Possession

(Directed by Damiano Damiani)

This particular film was a direct cash-in on the popularity (and some would say notoriety) of “The Amityville Horror”, the “real-life” ghost story that was a box-office smash in 1979. Whilst there are a bewildering number of films with “Amityville” in the title (23 and counting!!), this was an attempt to (sort of) cover the genuine murders that took place at 112 Ocean Avenue before the Lutz family moved in. It’s actually based on the book “Murder in Amityville”, whereby a theory of possession is supplied by the author Hans Holzer to explain the reasoning for Ronald Defeo Jr. to kill his entire family. So the whole thing is actually a prequel to the events of the original film, but the screenplay (written by Carpenter collaborator Tommy Lee Wallace) substitutes the fictional Montelli family for the DeFeo one. It’s a slightly odd decision as it distances any of the genuine events from those shown in the film, but given that the plot includes incest and demonic entities erupting from bodies… it’s probably a wise one. Damiani was the prolific and multi-talented Italian filmmaker brought in by the Dino De Laurentiis Corporation, and the project was actually a Mexican/American production. The cast included “Rocky” regular Burt Young, James Olson (“The Andromeda Strain”), and iconic US starlet Diane Franklin. The narrative depicts the influence that the “Devilish” house of Amityville has on young Sonny Montelli (Jack Magner), and the efforts of Father Adamsky (Olson) to perform an exorcism on him.

The Amityville franchise immediately went whack-a-doo-numb-nuts after this film, with later movies featuring a cursed clock (“Amityville: It’s About Time”) and suchlike. But whilst this movie still strays a fair way from the truth (Defeo Jr. was an unstable drug addict for a start), there’s enough realism and nastiness mixed together here to create a genuinely unsettling “possession” movie, which has more in common with “The Exorcist” than the first tale. The film itself was generally reviled by critics, although some noticeably preferred it to the original. But it is far superior and noticeably darker than pretty much every other entry in the franchise. For a start there is some surprisingly accomplished cinematography which actually manages to disturb on a gut level; the movie takes on the POV of the demonic presence several times as it travels from the fly-pit in the cellar, moaning as it passes a crucifix and flying around poor Sonny as it takes over his personality. It makes for some oddly scary “Evil Dead”-like zooms and pans, particularly as characters look directly into the camera. Although we’re inundated with possession-movies these days, the way in which Sonny is corrupted by a hellish presence is done pretty well with some decent make-up effects (one standout moment has his face literally change on one side only) and body transformations, which Magner sells really well. It does copy “The Exorcist” a little too closely at times, but there’s an unusually frank desire (allegedly driven by Damiani) to make this a more genuinely shocking affair for its time. So the uncomfortable incest element is added, and the murder of young innocents isn’t sugar-coated in any way. There’s a tremendously dark ending (“Do not forsake me!”), a glimpse of a white-skinned demon that would feature in further sequels, and the last appearance of Lalo Schifrin’s shivery “La-La-La” music theme. All in all, it’s very underrated and head-and-shoulders above the very silly sequels that would follow it.

Halloween 3: Season of the Witch

(Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace)

If you subscribe to the Multiverse Theory, then in an alternate universe Michael Myers died permanently at the end of “Halloween II” (1981), and cinematic audiences are still being given a new “Halloween” film every year with a different standalone story…. At least that was the idea that lay behind this belated cult classic and one which creator John Carpenter stood behind. However “Halloween 3” underperformed, “The Shape” returned and the rest is history. Originally to have been directed by Joe Dante, and based on an original screenplay by the writer of “Quatermass” (Nigel Kneale… who later demanded that his name was removed due to the graphic violence), it was eventually helmed and adapted by Lee Wallace. It’s a deliberately beguiling mix of science-fiction and horror, and (for the time) had some exceedingly strong gore effects with the mass murder of children as a major plot point. Interestingly it actually features the original “Halloween” screening on the TV at various times, so make of that what you will. Otherwise it features the permanently drunk n’ horny Dr Dan Challis (the brilliant Tom Atkins), finding out the hideous truth behind the Silver Shamrock masks… and that bloody commercial that still manages to lodge inside your head after 37 years.

Despite the fact that it was panned at the time and was considered to be a relative failure (although it still pulled a healthy profit), the film has become a cult favourite. The backlash that occurred on its original release was mainly because the public (and critics) were expecting more slashery-shape-shenanigans, and weren’t open to the “anthology” idea of different stories. And you have to give credit for this wacky story: Stonehenge rocks stolen to power scientific witchcraft spells, which melts kid’s heads to mush and releases venomous creatures from the abyss! Not only that, but the plan is being driven by a Bond Supervillain (Dan O'Herlihy in great form), with an army of homicidal humanoid robots that put “Westworld” to shame and vomit orange juice on death! It’s basically Bond + Quatermass + God-Knows-What… and it’s glorious. Not only that, but (although several edits exist) the original version is surprisingly graphic; human heads are ripped off, fingers are shoved into eye sockets, and faces are zapped into grotesque messes. It is in no way subtle, but it plays like a young horror fans dream. There’s no point in trying to dissect the plot or examine the credibility, as people have already pointed out that the time difference between PST and EST ruin the proceedings, let alone the logistics of smuggling a large section of the UK’s most beloved monument into America. Suffice to say, you should just relax the brain and enjoy one of the most ridiculous season-themed horrors there is. Whilst we’ll always love “H20” and last year’s reboot of the franchise, a part of us will always wonder what would have happened if more outrageous standalone stories had been told. But we’ll always have (*altogether now*) “Silll…verrrr Sham-rock”.

Q: The Winged Serpent

(Directed by Larry Cohen)

The recent passing of genre maestro Cohen reminds us of his many quirky contributions to the genre, both from directing and writing. However this nutty modern monster movie remains one of his quirkiest and most entertaining productions. Apparently one of Cohen’s favourite projects, it originated from his idea of “something” making a nest at the peak of the famous Chrysler Building in New York. After being fired from the Mike Hammer detective film “I, the Jury”, he completed casting and a script for this creature feature within a week. Apparently at certain stages Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy were considered for the lead roles, but they went respectively to David Carradine and Michael Moriarty. The cast also includes “Shaft” himself, Richard Roundtree in a major role. The plot actually plays out something like a cross between “Jaws” and “King Kong”, as a mythical flying dragon is summoned to New York and starts snacking on the Big Apple. Much of the time is spent with the cop (Carradine) trying to hunt down its lair, and a low-level crook (Moriarty) who uses his inadvertent knowledge of the beast to his own grubby advantage.

It’s not quite a straightforward monster movie, as Cohen films it like a gritty buddy-cop movie as Moriarty’s sleazy chancer tries to extort money from the city. And it’s mostly his lively method acting that catches the attention here, as his character swings from being likable to detestable and back again. Critics appreciated his work and it led to Moriarty and Cohen working regularly together over the years on projects like “The Stuff” and “It’s Alive III”. There’s still plenty of time for unlikely creature capers though, as the sweeping soundtrack accompanies something soaring around the skyscrapers, picking up topless rooftop bathers and construction workers. It’s all preposterous stuff of course, but Cohen has pithy fun with it all. The film opens with a sex-pest window-cleaner being beheaded, a scene with a chicken being carved cuts to the discovery of a flayed corpse, and blood and body-parts (literally) rain down on pedestrians. How a couple of Aztec sacrifices could attract this “Flying Serpent” to New York is left frustratingly vague (Is it really supposed to be Quetzalcoatl the God?). There’s also the fact that a bloody great lizard could fly around the Metropolis with very few people noticing, although a character feebly tries to explain it with line-of-sight and the Midday sun. None of that matters though, as the snazzy stop-motion work (from by Randall William Cook and David Allen) is joyous to watch, and comes across like an X-rated version of a Ray Harryhausen film. Low budget or not, this is still fun to watch and a modern remake would no doubt use cheap CGI and ruin the charm. In a final bit of karma, despite a limited cinema release “Q” actually went on to make much more money than the larger-budgeted “I, the Jury”, which must have pleased Cohen no end…

Variola Vera

(Directed by Goran Markovic)

One of the aims of this blog series is to hopefully introduce audiences to the odd title they might have never come across before (hence why titles such as The Thing aren't on this list). We're relatively hopeful that some of you at least won't have heard of this one – and if you have, then you will probably understand why it's included here. It's bloody grim!

Yugoslavia isn't really a place known for producing much in the way of genre films. Actually, that's an understatement. Much of that is down to funding obviously but part of it is probably because that part of the world has undergone some really traumatic events and horrors over the last few decades. The ethic conflicts of the 90s are the most recent and far reaching for sure, but in the early 70s Yugoslavia had to endure another event; the last major outbreak of smallpox in Europe. 175 people were infected and 35 died. The epidemic was eventually brought under control by enforced quarantine and mass vaccination. Goran Markovic's movie, Variola Vera, made ten years after the outbreak in 1982 attempts to tell the true story of the outbreak – with horribly effective results.

Variola Vera sticks pretty closely to the real events with regards to the source of the outbreak. A Kosovar pilgrim on his way back to Belgrade from the middle-east buys a flute from a dude who looks a bit under the weather (always a bad decision) soon becomes ill and is admitted to hospital. However, they misdiagnose his condition and before too long, other patients in the hospital are displaying similar symptoms. When the authorities eventually realise that they are dealing with smallpox, they declare martial law and attempt to quarantine those infected or believed to be at high risk.

Altough Variola Vera is an adaptation of true events and involves fictional characters, it's power still resides in the fact that it is based on real events and it's all done in a way that feels queasily real and grounded. In 2019 in the first world, it's hard to really believe that a disease could bring a country to a standstill but it's happened countless times throughout history and due to the fact there are so many viruses and infections and that they are always evolving and mutating, the threat is still very real. It's not beyond the realms of possibility that something like this will happen in your own country during your lifetime.

What Variola Vera does so well is play on these fears and it does a pretty grand job of creating a really nightmarish and bleak atmosphere at the same time. The direction and script may be a bit unpolished for long stretches but Markovic manages to make the whole thing so damn heavy and grim that it's kind of unimportant. It's one of those movies that stays with you long after the final shot and keeps you up at night, worrying about the potential of bioterrorism and scary shit like that. The score is haunting too – and not in a good way – whilst the Serbian and Yugoslav cast give some really terrifically believable performances too. The practical effects aren't bad either.

Whilst this isn't the kind of movie you want to be watching with a group of mates, if you're after 100 minutes of anarchy, death, disease, paranoia and medical horror then you can't go wrong with this.


(Directed by Frank J Piquer. Simon)

Slasher movies were a huge thing in the 80s. The Halloween, Friday 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises may grab most of the attention (and rightfully so perhaps) but there were a shed load of other top-notch slashers out there that often get overlooked. One of these was J. Piquer Simon's 'Pieces'.

Ever since The Texas Chainsaw Massacre entered the collective consciousness in 1974, grisly over-the-top and shocking horror movies were being made left, right and centre. Here in the UK (thanks in part to the Daily Mail), there were a whole bunch of these that we missed out on during the 80s. 'Pieces' was one of these movies. The film was seized and confiscated in the UK under Section 3 of the Obscene Publications Act 1959 during the video nasty controversy. Thankfully though, those days are behind us now so unless you live in Gilead then it should be now possible to catch this slasher gem wherever you reside.

Like most great movies of this type, Pieces begins with the origin story of its killer. It's 1942 and 10 year old Timmy is happily playing with a jigsaw puzzle. However it's not a jigsaw puzzle of Venice or a Vettriano painting. Oh no, it's of a nakey lady! His mum walks in and gives him some grief and tells him to dispose of it. When Timmy returns, he is carrying an axe and he proceeds to chop his mum up into pieces. When the police turn up, Timmy hides in the cupboard and when they find him they obviously think he's been a witness to the crime, not the perpetrator. Little Timmy is sent to live with his Auntie. We then zoom ahead forty years and see a mysterious black clad figure open up a box which contains the blood soaked clothes of Timmy's mother (as well as a photo of her) and the nakey lady jigsaw – which is now covered in blood. The mysterious figure begins to put the puzzle together. What does this mean? Well, Timmy is back! And a bunch of campus kids are gonna feel his wrath!

'Pieces' is one of those movies that divides audiences. Some love it's trashy exploitation feel whilst others think it's laughably bad. Thing is, there are aspects of the movie that are very good and some that are very bad - but the latter stuff usually enters the 'so bad it's good' territory, which makes for a hugely entertaining viewing experience. The dialogue is absurd at times and there are plot points that just seem downright bonkers! The fact that it's set in Boston yet predominantly filmed in Spain just adds to the weirdness levels too. However the sheer audacity which the film operates at on as a slasher movie is something to behold. It's gory, it's gratuitous, it's grimy, it's graphic. Fans of grindhouse fare will really get a kick out of it. If you take the film seriously you are going to hate it but if you go in knowing that it's all just a bunch of nonsense, you'll have a blast. Plus, the ending of the movie is so utterly insane that you have to applaud it.

Fun fact: None of the female stars of the film knew how to play tennis, even though they were supposed to be portraying "professional" players. A tennis coach had to be hired so that they could learn to lob the ball in a convincing enough manner to make the film believable

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