FIVE FILMS FROM...1983


Christine

(Directed by John Carpenter)

By now (and seemingly forevermore) studios had realised that adaptations of Stephen King bestsellers could mean big bucks at the box office. But many fans were looking forward to this particular project, being as it married the Maine Man with a Master of Horror. “Christine” (which shouldn’t be confused with the 2016 bio-drama about Christine Chubbuck) actually went into production before the book was even published, which acted as a barometer for just how hot King’s material was in the early 80s. The story celebrated (and demonised) America’s obsession with automobiles, and he picked the model of car (a vintage red '58 Plymouth Fury) for its sleek feminine looks and the fact that it was a ‘forgotten’ classic. Carpenter himself was licking his wounds after the so-called financial ‘failure’ of “The Thing” at the time, and took the film as ‘a job’ rather than a project he was passionate about. Nevertheless it grew into an interesting melding of the two genre maestro’s styles, even if it only gained a cult reputation after strong home video rentals (a common occurrence for plenty of horror titles at this time). At one point the movie could have had Kevin Bacon (who did “Footloose” instead), Scott Baio, and Brooke Shields (!) in the cast, but it eventually fell to Keith Gordon (as tragic anti-hero Arnie Cunningham), John Stockwell, and Alexandra Paul to portray the leads. Character actor Harry Dean Stanton also appears as a troubled Detective. In essence the story is about a love-triangle… it’s just that one of the party is a sentient car called “Christine”, who will kill to protect her owner and has Wolverine-like healing abilities.

It has to be said that other ‘vehicular-horror’ movies (such as Spielberg’s “Duel”) are more accomplished than “Christine”, and whilst the material is effortlessly entertaining, it’s not the most haunting work that King has written. But this is still a mostly underrated film with some superb moments, which contains an enjoyable bit of method acting from Gordon (who goes from nerd-to-cool-to-psychotic in the space of 110 minutes). Apart from Gordon, it’s all about the visuals, the soundtrack… and the car… which it nails. The other lead characters are a bit too wholesome to get behind, but when Christine is trashed and disrespected and goes on the hunt for victims, it really picks up the pace. The 50s call-backs are fun and allow for a groovy soundtrack including Little Richard and Buddy Holly, as well as Arnie gradually adopting the fashion sense as he becomes ‘possessed’ by the car. But the standout scenes show the car relentlessly driving down victims in typically dynamic Carpenter fashion, along with his trademark electronic music themes. The best moment shows Christine bathed in flames, zooming along to run over a character as the soundtrack pounds. There are also neat shots of the car repairing itself, and a memorable climax where its hood is ripped off leaving something resembling a spiky-toothed maw in its absence. The plot is changed a little from King’s (where Christine is possessed by the spirit of a previous owner), and simply has the car evil and apparently sentient from ‘birth’. Perhaps there are plot-holes and “Prometheus”-straight-line-running-away-from-trouble moments to mock. But overall, it still manages to hold up after all these years and provide some quality enjoyment. This is mostly due to the fact that Carpenter manages to actually give the car some personality, which still leads many fans to consider ‘her’ the main character. Good four wheeled fun.

The Dead Zone

(Directed by David Cronenberg)

Light-King struck twice in ‘83, as another quality Stephen King adaptation hit the silver screen during this year. Not only that, but it was another production that was helmed by another genre auteur, namely Canada’s David Cronenberg. Often considered to be one of the best King adaptations at the time, it also marks a change for the director as he produces one of his most emotional and heartfelt films. The project was in development right from the point when it was published in 1979, and the screenplay ping-ponged between a version written by Jeffrey Boam (“The Lost Boys”), and a new treatment from King himself. (NB: Opinions are divided as to whether it was Boam or Cronenberg that finally got the script into the filming sweet-spot). It benefits from a top drawer cast that includes; Herbert Lom, Tom Skerritt, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen, and a truly affecting performance from Christopher Walken. Around this time Walken became mostly known for playing deranged or damaged characters (“The Deer Hunter”, “True Romance”), but his performance as Johnny Smith is hugely underrated and nuanced, creating a tragic hero for a modern take on destiny and psychic powers. (NB: Bill Murray was King’s personal choice for the role!). Following the novel fairly closely it sees the calm and unassuming Smith, fall prey to an accident and wake from a coma after five years. Whilst his personal life has transformed, he has gained the ability to not only see a person’s future but to dramatically change it…

Whilst the bones of the narrative are pretty straightforward, Cronenberg’s adaptation of it is excellent. Those used to the director’s cold clinical style in the likes of “Scanners” and “The Brood” may be surprised at the depth of empathy and characterisation shown here. Johnny is a thoroughly tragic figure; snatched from a contented life, granted an unwanted gift, and driven to own a terrible responsibility. It’s a lovely balanced turn from Walken, which makes the lead character wholly sympathetic, even when he commits adultery with his ex-girlfriend (C’mon, the guy deserves a break!). He also matches up with character actor Lom for a surprisingly sweet friendship, where a bromance forms between Johnny and his neurologist Dr. Sam Weizak (who basically becomes his Jiminy Cricket). Like the novel, it’s quite episodic and tracks four major sub-plots in order. The only really ‘horrific’ one involves the tracking of the “Castle Rock Killer”, leading to a denouement with a pair of scissors that still hurts to look at. Otherwise there are clever images involving Walken being present during a mass drowning and a house fire. And whilst we have the rules of time-travel and fore-knowledge banged into our heads these days (Would it be ethical to kill Baby Hitler if you knew his future before the crimes took place?), this is played out very nicely here with Sheen’s would-be President, which is a million miles away from his tenure as Jed Bartlet in “The West Wing” (whilst disturbingly close to some modern counterparts). It’s hardly a ‘fun’ romp, but it is emotional and compelling genre and a change of pace for both King adaptions and Cronenberg’s ‘Body Horror’. It also explains the “Butterfly Effect” way better than any of the films in that franchise. Very much recommended, and it remained such a popular piece that it directly inspired the well-regarded TV show with Anthony Michael Hall, that ran for six seasons from 2002 onwards.

The Keep

(Directed by Michael Mann)

A film that was mis-marketed and eventually became the very antithesis of a cult offering, this weird and wonderful WWII horror was something different. Luckily it keeps on being ‘rediscovered' every few years or so. To say that it had a ‘troubled production’ is like saying Jason Voorhees has some anger management issues! And to be honest it is admittedly an experience that exudes atmosphere-over-content, but (apart from “Manhunter”) it remains Mann’s only foray into horror. Based on the 1981 novel from F. Paul Wilson (which formed the starting point for his apocalyptic series of books known as “The Adversary Cycle”… which has no bearing on this cinematic adaptation), it’s a highly stylised gothic horror set in Romania during the height of WWII. However Wilson certainly didn’t care for this movie, and made his feelings well known. The filming was scheduled for 13 weeks in September ’82, but actually ran to an event-filled 22 weeks. In fact the visual effects supervisor (Wally Veevers) passed away during the shoot, leaving several major FX sequences unrealised. That was just one of the problems, as Mann finally submitted a cut that was originally in excess of 210 minutes. Test screenings encouraged changes, as did studio wrangling, so the theatrical version was cut to 96 minutes, had an entirely new ending and missed several large chunks of important narrative. At the time it was certainly perceived as an unmitigated failure. And this was despite a cast including rich international talent like Scott Glenn and Gabriel Byrne, not to mention the first major US feature appearances of Sir Ian McKellen and Jürgen Prochnow. In simplistic terms, the story sees Nazis awaken an ancient evil in the titular building, which then threatens to overwhelm mankind.

There’s really no denying that “The Keep” is a mess and could have been so much more. But despite that (and the fact that it still holds only 40% on RT), it remains a beguiling visual feast and a personal favourite for many. For a start there is a gorgeous soundtrack supplied by German synth band Tangerine Dream, which is easily their best cinematic work (apart from the sublime “Near Dark”), but is sadly missing from some edits due to rights issues. There’s also some splendid (over)acting from Sir McKellen, who rejuvenates during the proceedings and rails against the despicable Nazis, before having a pre-Gandalf you-shall-not-pass moment with the Big Bad. More than anything though, there’s tons of atmosphere and some truly visual blow-outs; the revelation of a massive cavern (complete with “2001”-alike monoliths), running foot soldiers silhouetted against glowing crucifixes, the aftermath of a battle with the ground strewn with bodies and smoke. Despite the fact that much of the effects work was bodged and is of that zappy-Ghostbusters-animated variety, it still looks sumptuous in places and goes completely over the top with the light-shows. Although he looks a bit rubbery (and identical to Oscar Isaac in “X-Men: Apocalypse”) towards the end, evil entity Radu Molasar is sufficiently creepy and given to magnificent existential monologues… whilst blowing up Nazi heads and sucking their souls out. (NB: As a fun aside he’s played by Michael Carter, who also played the doomed Underground passenger who misses his train forever in “An American Werewolf in London”). Although it was actually shot in a former slate quarry in North Wales, the sets look otherworldly enough to engage and feel different to other horror films of this type. It’s always going to be a love-it/hate-it experience, but with home media versions of this cult film still spotty and incomplete it remains something to hunt down and revel in.

Angst

(Directed by Gerard Kargl)

When you think of Austria (in horror terms), you probably think of Veronika Franz's unsettling psychological horror Goodnight Mommy (2014). There have been a clutch of other Austian horror features released since then (Blood Glacier, The Dark, Attack of the Lederhosenzombies) but none of these have come close to matching it in terms of quality. You have to go back a few decades in fact to find something of comparable quality – and that film is Gerard Kargl's deeply disturbing Angst. It's a film that many may have never even heard of, which is a shame, because it's a bit of a masterpiece.

Baed on the real life mass murderer Werner Kniesek, Angst tells the story of a young man with a history of mental illness and violent tendencies and recently released from prison, roaming around looking for his next potential victims. His initial attempts (on a couple of girls in a diner and a taxi driver) come to nothing but when he breaks into what he thinks is an empty house, he stumbles upon a wheelchair bound (and intellectually disabled) young man. Soon the young man's mother and sister return home and the intruder seizes his chance and attacks them before tying them up. To tell you what happens next would be to spoil the film but suffice to say it's a pretty brutal and harrowing hour or so.

Angst was banned all over Europe upon its release in 1983 and in retrospect, it's not hard to see why in a way. It's a pretty violent film. In fact, Bloody Disgusting's review said it made 'Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer' look 'tame'. Every now and then there's a film that gets under your skin and for most people who have sat through Angst, it's one of them. It's nihilistic, it's harrowing and at times, quite shocking. The fact it's all based on a true story only adds to the brutality of it all. These elements are partly why the film has remained so obscure for the last few decades. Films as humorless and bleak as this are not necessarily the ones that you recommend to people (well, unless you're us). But it's not just the shock factor that makes this film notorious and worth your time.

The main reason that Angst has so many admirers is due to the fact that it's a really effective piece of film-making. The camera work by Zbigniew Rybczynski is almost otherworldly at times and Erwin Leder is chillingly plausible as the psychotic killer. It's not easy to successfully portray a deeply troubled schizophrenic killer but he nails it. Kargl's film may be depressing but it is extremely innovative in its approach and the way the murder scenes are filmed are uneasily realistic. The over the shoulder shots that are deployed make it really feel like you are in the thick of the action. Like Funny Games (Michael Heneke), you almost feel complicit in the crimes that are unfolding. It's hard to watch – but an insight into the mind of a murderer is always going to be a rough ride, but still one that deserves acclaim and recognition.

Fun fact: Due to financial constraints and the controversy surrounding the film, director Gerald Kargl never directed another film after this one.

Sleepaway Camp

(Directed by Robert Hiltzik)

In our 1982 selection we included a over the top and corny slash flick ('Pieces') so guess what? We thought we'd pick another one. To be fair, there are a whole host of them to choose from in this period of horror history and although there were a few other candidates none of them really come close to the joyous carnage of Sleepaway Camp (1983). There's a remake in the works apparently but until then we should take some time to reflect on the original – a film that still shocks even to this day.

Plot wise, it sounds vaguely similar to several other slashers of the time. After a horrible boating accident kills her father, a young girl called Angela moves to live with her aunt. Flash forward eight years later and Angela and her protective cousin Ricky are sent off to a summer camp. Ricky has been before so he is used to all the summer shenanigans but the sullen and introverted Angela doesn't take to it so well and is doesn't get along with her fellow campers – which is no surprise because most of them are assholes. However the bullying and bickering isn't the most dangerous thing going on at the camp. Not by a long shot. Angela's fellow campers start getting knocked off one by one by a mysterious assailant (in entertainingly gory and original ways we hasten to add). Who is the killer and what is their motive!? Oh you'll find out!

Made three years after 'Friday 13th', Sleepaway Camp was one of those movies that belonged to a wave of features that tried to appeal to a certain audience; mainly young adults and teens looking for some bloodletting and a bit of light titillation. Summer camp setting? Check! Irresponsible counselors? Check! Children being shit to each other? Check! Psychopath running around killing people left, right and centre? Check! However, rather than feeling derivative and unoriginal, Sleepaway Camp has its own clear personality which elevates it above standard slasher fare.

Ok, the dialogue and acting is completely uneven. But this is a low budget film and it was Director Robert Hiltzik's debut feature to boot, so some slack has to be cut. What he does get right are the horror elements of the movie and that is why it's such a memorable moviegoing experience. There's a lot going on here; the characters are all a little odd, there are some interesting sexual and religious subtexts, it's got weird flashbacks. The pacing is pretty relentless and although it's cheesy in parts, Hiltzik manages to effectively generate a genuinely uneasy and creepy atmosphere amongst all the dodgy stuff. There are a handful of great death scenes too (someone gets killed with a curling iron!) but the main reason that Sleepaway Camp has developed a cult following and deserves its place on this list is the ending of the movie. It's been over thirty five years since this film was made and there have been only a handful of final scenes that match the shock-factor that Sleepaway Camp delivers. It makes the movie what it is; a slasher classic.

Fun fact: The movie was shot in early fall. It was set in mid-summer, so the crew had to spray paint brown leaves and grass green to keep continuity.

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