FIVE FILMS FROM...1989
(Directed by Steve Miner)
Okay, guess the film from the strapline: "He's come from the past to destroy the future"—some kind of sci-fi "Terminator" rip-off. Well, yes … and no. It's a wonderfully eclectic film that somehow exudes a peculiar charm and imagination that similar films in the late 80s and early 90s never managed to capture again. If you want to see a Scottish "Withnail" fight against a pony-tailed blonde man-witch, while accompanied by the lead actress of "Fame" and "Footloose" and using Olde Worlde Magick, then this is just for you. It's directed by Miner of "Friday the 13th" franchise fame, as well as "Lake Placid" and "Halloween: H20", and written by David Twohy, who also wrote "The Fugitive" Ford remake and the Vin Diesel "Riddick" movies. Apparently, it had a delayed nightmare journey to the screen. It was shelved for a couple of years due to studio finances, and also allegedly had some issues with the leading lady who wasn't so keen on her ageing prosthetics (which is probably why they're a bit crappy). Be that as it may, when it was eventually released, the cheesy/edgy mix of horror and fantasy became a firm favourite of many during the "Blockbuster" video rental golden age… this writer included. Starting in 1691, in Boston, Massachusetts, a powerful Warlock (who's never given a name but is played with a snidey smugness by Julian Sands) is awaiting execution. But he's apparently a sire of Satan, and the old feller himself creates a time vortex to whisk the Warlock away to the far future of 20th Century. However, he is pursued by Witchfinder Giles Redferne (a barnstorming performance by the great Richard E. Grant) who follows into the future and modern-day America. There the Warlock is tasked with finding the unholy bible ("The Grand Grimoire") and saying God's name backwards to reverse creation! As you do… Meanwhile, Redferne has joined forces with snarky waitress Kassandra (Lori Singer) who is ageing 20 years a day due to witchy shenanigans. And they're trying to stop Armageddon.
There's so much to love about this movie. For a start it has a couple of edgy moments that are surprisingly nasty; Sands kills an unbaptised boy (offscreen), so he can boil his fat to make a flying spell, and he plucks the eyeballs from a clairvoyant to make a gloopy "compass". The whole thing relies on those "zappy" digital 80s F.X. that sees cartoony red ectoplasm shoot from Sand's fingers (and down someone's throat!), along with some none-too convincing stop-motion, and some iffy "You'll believe a man-witch can fly" Superman effects. But though those have dated, they work for the atmosphere and the story has plenty of imagination to make up for it. There's a delightful exploration of many superstitious spells like hexes and evil eyes, not to mention the effect salt has on a Warlock, or what a "Holy Hammer" will do to his feet! It's just so unorthodox and off-the-wall that even the standard fish-out-of-water subplot with Redferne works a treat. Mind you, a lot of that is due to Grant's endearing performance, playing the witch-hunter like he's a character from a Shakespeare play with plenty of emotional baggage and a no-nonsense attitude to modern-day malarkey. Just watch the way he delivers a javelin throw to the flying Warlock with a weather vane, or freaks out when confronted with his own tomb (another clever touch). The bitchy interludes between Grant and Sands are great, and there's even some undeniable chemistry between Singer and Grant, despite the alleged difficulties. Modern fantasy-horror fans may wonder what the fuss was about if they check this out (and it's probably best to avoid the two direct-to-video sequels), but this was great fun for a generation. Watch out for a backlash from us oldies if a remake is mooted!
(Directed by Brian Yuzna)
A wonderfully sick and twisted treat that became a cult movie almost immediately and unexpectedly pushed the envelope for genre movies in many ways. Oddly, this wasn't the case in the U.S, at first, and it didn't become a genre favourite over that side of the Atlantic for several years. Not in the U.K. and Europe though. We took to its twisted social themes and outrageous storyline right from the start. Using his work on "Reanimator" as leverage, Yuzna made this as his directorial debut. There are no real "names" in the cast, apart from Billy Warlock, who was just shooting to fame in the notorious "Baywatch" series. But it's the crazy plot and crazier SFX that make up for any other shortcomings. Yuzna had been bouncing ideas around about a horror play on social themes, going from religious cults, to slasher groups, to aliens, before settling on…. Well, whatever the hell it is. Basically, it's all an exercise in paranoia and class segregation, with a final act that descends into fleshy body horror, with surreal overtones from Salvador Dali (No, really!). Not to make that sound too highbrow, it's also refreshingly dumb in some respects with some great clunky one-liners said with appropriate gravitas ("You were right Billy, I am a butthead!"). The plot sees Bill Whitney (Warlock) as a privileged young student living the high life in Beverley Hills, with his rich parents and sister. But as he comes of age, he hears (and sees) some disturbing things about his family and their friends. It all comes to a climax (nearly literally) in the final act when it's revealed that the upper-class don't just live off the lower classes… they literally feed on them as well!
The film is quite slow-paced and developed a reputation pretty quickly in the U.K. during its cinema release, as being a film that would sock you unexpectedly in the face with its final scenes after a long build-up. There are teases throughout the storyline that Billy might just be imagining all the weird body imagery that pops up, and that there could be a logical explanation. Then it all gears up from the final "party" scene that introduces you to the ruling classes in all their glory and the practise of "shunting" (don't ask!). It's a ludicrous, wild sequence with melting body horror and perverted desires ("If you have any Oedipal fantasies you'd like to indulge in, Billy, now's the time!"). It also satisfies that feeling that most of us have that the upper-classes are a different breed to most of us. The paranoia element is also an underrated part of the story, and Yuzna admits that he was inspired by both "The Spiral Staircase" (1946) and "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Not for the ending though, which is basically "The Thing" after an ecstasy overdose. Those gloriously gloopy F.X. (with no blood to upset the MPAA) were devised by Screaming Mad George, who used it as a benchmark for his other works following the release. It likely caught on quicker in the U.K. and Europe because we could stomach the mad twist in tone, and the none-too-subtle social parody given our love for that type of humour and horror. If this is something that's passed you by, seek it out and find out what "shunting" is all about.
The Fly II
(Directed by Chris Walas)
Hands up who didn't know that this direct sequel to David Cronenberg's fantastic body-horror classic even existed. Well, it does, and while it doesn't approach the greatness of that all-time classic horror remake (and has some truly face-palming moments that we'll come to later), this is actually an enjoyable (if workmanlike) sequel. It even raises the gore level of the first film and has a comparable lead performance by Eric Stolz. Cronenberg himself isn't a fan, and Geena Davis refused to be involved (resulting in a cameo by look-alike actress Saffron Henderson in the beginning). In fact, the storyline (which is messily credited to 4 people, including genre regulars Frank Darabont and Mick Garris) does a decent job of advancing the plot from the first film, even if there is only one returning character. John Getz comes back to chew the set as the bitter and crippled Stathis Borans ("Dissolved my hand and my foot with fly vomit! I had no love for the man. He "bugged" me!"). Walas is primarily known for his fine work on SFX, with this being his directorial debut, and probably the reason everything goes Nutzoid in the final reel. But before we get to that, the story starts with Veronica Quaife (not-Geena Davis) giving birth to Seth Brundle's maggot before promptly carking it. It turns out that the maggot is actually just a cocoon, and there's actually a normal little tyke inside. Well, we say "normal"… but he actually turns out to be a genetic mutant who reaches puberty in 5 years, is called "Martin", and is played by Stolz. (Fun Fact: Keanu Reeves turned down the role!). Martin Brundle is also a genius and is coached and raised by Bartok Industries (who funded his father's experiments). The trouble is that once Martin reaches that difficult age, starts to notice girls (Daphne Zuniga as lab assistant Beth), his genes change into something even worse than this father…
If you ignore the pedigree and a couple of shonky effects, you can have a lot of fun with this sequel, which is mostly just straightforward exploitation fun that turns surprisingly gory towards the end. Stolz does nudge it up a level, with his sympathetic performance as Brundle Jr, especially during his metamorphosis scenes ("I'm… getting … better!!"). His chemistry with Zuniga works well (if you ignore the fact that he's five years old in the romantic scenes… eew), and there's a hiss-worthy turn by Lee Richardson as Bartok. The biggest elephant in the room is a horribly realised mutant dog (a result of a transporter accident) that looks like the mutt from "Fraggle Rock" after being run over. It makes some of the more emotional scenes slightly snigger-worthy. However, it's nicely structured, and by the time we get to the much-anticipated Martin-Fly scenes, we get a proper monster movie. One complete with acid-dissolved faces, people broken in half, and one of the squishiest head crushings ever committed to film. Great fun! Yes, it's all a little bit silly and nowhere near Cronenberg's standard, but as a guilty pleasure and a standard sequel, it does the trick well enough. It does make you wonder whatever became of Geena Davis and her proposed "Flies" reboot though…
The Woman in Black
(Directed by Herbert Wise)
If you ask most people what comes to mind when you say 'The Woman in Black', you'll likely get one of three responses. 1) The 1983 novel written by Susan Hill 2) The successful stage play – based on the Susan Hill novel or 3) The recent film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe. That's all well and good – they are all great in their own way. However, one or two more seasoned genre fans may reference the 1989 British TV adaptation, which is something of a hidden gem...
Most will probably be familiar with the plot of The Woman in Black (it's not wildly different across the various mediums) but here's the low-down. A London solicitor called Arthur Kidd (played by Adrian Rawlins) travels to a coastal town in the North East of England to attend the funeral and settle the estate of one of his clients, a reclusive widow named Alice Drablow. The locals are a bit reluctant to talk about her or her home, Eel Marsh House. Arthur then spots a woman in black at the funeral and then again at a graveyard outside Eel Marsh House (which you can only get to via a tidal causeway). He rushes inside the old gothic looking building and soon finds pictures of a young woman who looks uncannily like the woman in black that he has been haunted by – as well as some disturbing audio recordings. He heads back into town and is warned not to return to Eel Marsh house – but realising that there's something 'off' about the situation, he heads back there to try and uncover the truth about The Woman in Black...
Directed by veteran TV director Herbert Wise, 'The Woman in Black' was aired on Christmas Eve (ha, imagine being a kid and watching THAT before you tried to get some sleep that night!). It was a pretty big success at the time but seems to be one of those that often gets overlooked during discussions of the best ghost movies out there. The Changeling, The Shining, The Innocents, The Sixth Sense etc usually get most of the love but this humble TV movie definitely deserves its place amongst them.
Like most truly great supernatural horror films, the strength of The Woman in Black eschews blood and guts and cheap scares for a dread laden atmosphere. It's actually the restraint that the film shows that elevates it above some of its more bombastic peers. It's old school, traditional storytelling and it's perfect for those that like slow burn horror. Few films have the ability to get under your skin and haunt you afterwards but for thousands of impressionable young people, this is exactly what it did upon it's initial release. It's not just a case of kindertrauma though – with many people feeling the same sense of fear upon a rewatch when well into adulthood.
The desolate and gloomy English landscape gives the whole thing a murky Victorian gothic vibe. It's a film full of shadows and whispers and fog and creaking floorboards and candles and isolation. The perfect film to watch late at night by yourself. A sense of mystery and grief is combined with alarming and distressing imagery and the results are pretty suffocating. Director Herbert Wise dettly builds the suspense and tension throughout the film but never overplays his hand.
The acting is also really quite excellent for what is essentially a TV movie and Adrian Rawlins gives a fine portrayal of the young lawyer who is in over his head. However it is the reveal of the woman in black herself that seems to have scarred audiences for decades. It's a showcase of perfect set up and execution and it all culminates in a truly frightening reveal.
If you think that you've had your fill of The Woman in Black via the Radcliffe version or the 2014 sequel, then think again. Try and track this one down. It's very different – and in our eyes, a better horror movie.
(Directed by Bob Balaban)
We had considered putting The Burbs on this list to be honest. However the fact that it's a) a bit too famous and b) is not really a horror film, kinda put the kibosh on the whole idea. However, there is another film that was released in the same year that feels a bit like a darker, more macabre version of the Burbs. That film is Bob Balaban's 'Parents'.
So where The Burbs revolved around a clutch of people who suspected one of their neighbours were part of a murderous cult, Parents tells the story of a little boy who thinks his parents might be cannibals. At the centre of the story is ten year old Mike, who is a very socially awkward kid – but who also has a rather vivid imagination. He also has weird (and rather grim) dreams that indicate all may not be well inside his head. However, this doesn't change the fact that his parents do seem to be quite odd. His father in particular (played by Randy Quaid) is quite a menacing figure and after doing a little bit of detective work, young Mike soon starts to suspect that his parents are killing people and feeding them to him at supper time. Is he imagining the whole thing or are his folks a couple of murderous maneaters?
On the Letterbox app, one of the top reviews describes this as 'a Goosebumps episode directed by David Lynch' – and they're pretty much spot on with that assessment. It's part of the reason we dig it and also an explanation as to why it failed to connect with mainstream audiences upon its initial release. 'The Burbs' succeeded because it was accessible and family friendly (for the most part). 'Parents' is neither of these things. It's an 18-rated concoction of body parts, quiet menace, super black comedy and suburban familicide. And it's a lot of fun.
Most people will recognise actor/director Bob Balaban for one of his many on-screen appearances (including Phoebe's estranged dad on 'Friends'!). But he's also a prolific behind the camera too, albeit mainly working on TV shows such as Nurse Jackie and The Twilight Zone. However, he did make several feature films in his time, with Parents being the standout – and one of his earliest projects too.
Balaban really makes this macabre little story feel especially claustrophobic and weird and there's an ugliness to it that's hard to shake. It's stylish and the 1950's backdrop works perfectly but there's something about the combination of innocent post war suburban family drama and the feeling that something really insidious is going on that's really quite disturbing. It's also a film that keeps you in a state of paranoia as you are never really sure if there is actually anything sinister going on. There's a bit of the whole 'unreliable narrator' thing going on here and they milk it for all it's worth here – and to great effect.
It's also a film full of great performances. Randy Quaid usually plays affable characters but his portrayal of the father of our little nuclear family is really quite disquieting. Mary Beth Hurt is wonderfully over the top and her outward exuberance is as unsettling as Quaid's quiet menace. Special praise is reserved for Bryan Madorsky, who plays Mikey. He's so believable as the awkward and troubled young protagonist – and it's kind of shocking that this was his only on screen performance. He was never in any other movies!
Although the comedy elements may be a bit too pitch black for some people's taste – and this is not a family film by any stretch of the imagination, Parents is one of those movies that wasn't appreciated in its own time – and deserves a lot more love.