FIVE FILMS FROM...1987
(Directed by Peter Jackson)
There is NO WAY in Hell that somebody watching this for the first time in the 80s would say; “Hey! You know what this guy needs to do as a future project? A family-friendly large-budget studio-backed movie version of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ novels!”. That’s not to belittle this ridiculous low-budgeted sci-fi horror comedy, or what Jackson achieved during its long production. It’s just… Man! ... you can not get more polar opposite to a visually sumptuous box-office hit than this! The fact that Jackson went from this and is now just as highly regarded for his WWII cinematic restoration work (the frankly astounding “They Shall Not Grow Old”), is just as mind-boggling. The making of the film has become just as well-known as the director himself, and a go-to guide for any prospective filmmaker. It was shot by Jackson and his close friends on weekends-only during four-years, funded by the crew’s own money and equipment, and from a script mostly made-up on the spot. It was shot by Jackson (who also played two roles in the movie) using a 25-year-old 16mm camera, and with alien masks baked in his Mom’s oven! It’s an obvious labour of love from all those involved and is highly influenced by US horror and Tom Savini’s FX work. Much of it is filmed around Jackson's hometown of Pukerua Bay (Seriously!), north of Wellington. Although it eventually ran into censorship problems in its own territories, the production has that unique brand of infantile but infectious New Zealand humour that continues to run through later genre films like “Deathgasm”. The ramshackle “plot” concerns a mass disappearance of the occupants of a NZ township, which is investigated by members of the super-secret organisation Astro Investigation and Defence Service (AIDS… yes, that is the level of the one-liners during the running time). It turns out that the populace has been eaten by gangly aliens, who have packaged their tasty flesh and have plans to turn Earth into one big fast-food takeaway. But they have reckoned without ace agent Derek (Jackson), who is more than their equal… even with his brains literally falling out of his head!
Basically the whole thing is deliriously nuts, but played relatively straight, like a down-under Troma film taken to serious extremes. It starts with some gleefully gory set-pieces, as one poor dude gets the top of his noggin blasted off… and to add insult to injury, one of his colleagues later scoops stuff out of his cranium with spoon, in the manner of a soft-boiled egg. By all rights it shouldn’t really work, but you can’t help loving the sheer randomness of the “story” and the obvious fun everybody’s having on it. The early parts of the film might drag on a little (Derek’s cliff escapade goes on forever) and the cheapness of the SFX and gun-fights are noticeable. But by the time you’ve got used to the OTT gory laffs, and action sequence pastiches, you’ll be revelling in the splattery shenanigans. The evolution of Derek in particular is a sick delight. Originally a nerdy-but-violent government operative, he seems to make an early exit after tumble off a cliff. Instead he later comes to in a seagull nest, with his brains spilling out of a large slot in the back of his head. He circumvents surgery by wearing a hat and then a belt, to stop losing more… occasionally topping up the grisly contents of his skull with alien guts and bird gizzards. And if that doesn’t tickle your horror funny-bone, then you probably aren’t in the main target audience, but you’re missing a sick treat. Later sequences are superbly puerile, with alien vomit being served up as gruel (“Aren’t I lucky! I got a chunky bit!”). As well as some really silly lines (“I suppose you’re wondering why you’re soaking in 11 herbs and spices?”). Despite playing at Cannes to good reviews, the film was widely disowned by the NZ film and television authorities at the time, especially as they partially funded the release. Censored heavily by various countries, it happily became a cult favourite and launched Jackson’s career. Even if the humour and “splatstick” is not to your taste, you have to admire what the crew accomplished with practically zero budget and no “professional” equipment. Two characters played by Jackson even convincingly fight themselves at one point, despite the footage existing in different time-frames. After this, he went on to the gross adult Muppet satire (“Meet The Feebles”… STILL miles better than the recent “The Happytime Murders”), and the wonderful “Braindead” in 1992. BTW, if you’re wondering where the “Born Again” scene in that last film came from… let us introduce you to Derek and his chainsaw in the “Bad Taste” climax. You’ll thank us for it.
(Directed by Kathryn Bigelow)
Well before “Twilight” mangled Vampiric lore and made them the sparkly anti-heroes that no-one wanted, there was this superlative modern take on the undead, by one of the best female directors around. Not only that, but it also contains half the supporting cast of “Aliens”! Now Bigelow is probably best known for her action and drama ventures “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker” (for which she became the first female to win the best Director Oscar). But before this film, she was only known for filming the biker flick “The Loveless” in 1981 (which was the starring debut of Willem Dafoe, don’tcha know). However this slick genre movie was a collaboration between Bigelow and Eric Red (“The Hitcher”). Whilst it depicts a modern-day version of the classic vampire, it’s primarily filmed like a Noir/Western with a strong horror subtext. Around the this time, the bloodsucker was having something of a revival in the cinema, with “Fright Night” and “The Lost Boys” driving that popularity for re-imagining the fanged fiends in an urban sprawl. “Near Dark” was lumped in with that “movement” and was unfairly seen as a box-office failure at the time. But like most of the films that we cover in this blog, it has since gone on to be regarded as the accomplished cult movie that it always was. The concept was allegedly born from the fact that Bigelow and Red were having no luck getting a period Western budgeted. But as Vampires were suddenly cool again… The cast famously features Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton – best known as Bishop, Vasquez, and Hudson from “Aliens”. Well, Bigelow WAS married to James Cameron at one point. Apparently Hicks (Michael Biehn) was up for a role as well, but allegedly wasn’t a fan of the script. Johnny Depp also auditioned for the role of Caleb during casting. Stylishly shot by Bigelow, “Near Dark” tells the tale of Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar), a rancher in a small Mid-Western town. After meeting the mysterious Mae (Jenny Wright), he becomes unwittingly indoctrinated into a small clan of modern vampires, some of whom (the “Aliens” actors) have been around for decades. But the “newbie” must quickly choose whether to embrace his new family (and inevitably murder and drink people), or find a way back to his old one…
There is a slightly sappy and somewhat old-fashioned appeal to the central plot, and the emphasis is definitely on the bittersweet “romance” between Caleb and Mae. But this can all be swept to the side with the plentiful reasons for really loving this film. One huge plus point is the gorgeous soundtrack by German synth band Tangerine Dream, already well known for the music to films like “The Keep” and “Firestarter” and the … err … ‘classic’ US TV series “Street Hawk”. At the top of their game here, the film is packed full of ethereal and/or pulse-pounding electronic riffs. Tracks like “Rain in the Third House”, “Bus Station”, and “Fight at Dawn”; easily match the output of comparable artistes like Vangelis and Hans Zimmer, and could just as easily slot into a modern-day action flick or Chris Nolan epic. It adds such an important layer to the experience, matched by the performances of the “Aliens” triumvirate. Paxton in particular gives one of his best ever performances, as the cocky and (literally) blood-thirsty Severen. The infamous bar scene, where he ‘plays with his food’ and slashes the throat of a bartender with his razor spurs (“Finger’ Lickin’ Goooood!”) is a highlight. As is his assault on a speeding truck. Henriksen and Goldstein also deserve praise, as they play with the old world-weary-immortals motif, but give it a vicious angle. The concept of an “old” vampire being stuck in a kid’s body is also played with here, well before “Interview with a Vampire” and “Let Me In” solidified the idea. And if the characters of Caleb and Mae seem a little lightweight in comparison, at least they supply some humanity and heart to the tale. Visually Bigelow also catches lightning in a bottle, with slants on ‘realistic’ vampiric tropes. So you get characters covering up to avoid the deadly rays of sunlight, with them punching holes in skin like bullets when they’re exposed to them. (NB: Probably the most famous set image is of Paxton in this precarious state). The way in which the ‘problem’ of vampirism is cured is a little disappointing, but overall this is a multi-layered and highly enjoyable conjoining of Vamps and Cowboys. And you don’t even hear the word “Vampire” once…
(Directed by Tibor Takács)
One of the best ways to produce horror that appeals to a wide demographic would be an imaginative spin on a well-worn idea, albeit with a younger cast. The obvious modern equivalent would be “Stranger Things”. Think about Eleven and the crew. They’re all young teenagers or kids, but that doesn’t matter to the Mind Flayer or the Russkies. They’re in just as much danger as the adults, and that’s the mark of good story-telling. This highly-entertaining low-budget horror pulled off the same trick of imperilling its young leads with some nasty threats. Fred Dekker’s “The Monster Squad” did it around the same time, and this highly entertaining romp from Hungarian director Tibor Takács also does the trick. The story was imagined by screenwriter Michael Nankin when he was going through a ‘bad patch” and envisaged some of his childhood fears. It was originally going to be more graphic, but still ends up being pretty scary and dark, especially when the lead character is only 12 years old. The movie is best remembered now as being the cinematic debut of Stephen Dorff, and for being one of those horror experiences that just seemed to stick with you if you saw it in your younger years, much like “Poltergeist” or similar supernatural flicks. The narrative itself isn’t exactly overly original, and is very similar to certain movies (like the aforementioned Tobe Hooper scare-fest), with Joe Dante’s 2009 film “The Hole” being also suspiciously close in concept. Basically Glen (Dorff) is your average kid with healthy fears about being abandoned and stuff. But when a hole is unearthed in his parent’s garden, it starts a series of events that could lead to Demons being allowed into the world and running rampant across the Earth.
Like we say, Horror 101 – House built over gateway to Hell and protagonists unwittingly open it. Everybody’s had a go at that chestnut, from Lucio Fulci to Michael Winner. What makes this different (and very entertaining) is the sheer chutzpah of it all, some REALLY dark and creepy moments, and the youth of the main characters. It’s like a Goth version of “The Goonies”. Glen is joined by his (slightly older) buddy Terry (Louis Tripp), who just happened to be into heavy metal and demonology. They’re supported by Glen’s 16 year old sister (Christa Denton as Al). But you soon realise that the plot is not going to cut these kids a break. Shortly into the story (*spoiler alert*), the family pet gets it! It’s a little bit of a slow-burner, but as the events proceed you get some genuinely unsettling moments; one character literally tumbles into the ‘Gate’ and is bitten by little demonic minions after a fall, evil doppelgangers of the parents turn up and try to strangle Glen (!) whereupon he crushes Dad’s face into goo, a lead character gets ‘killed’ and has his eye stabbed out with a doll’s leg (!!), and there’s a terrific zombie as well (based on an urban legend about a construction worker walled up in the house). The effects are often pretty impressive for the budget spent. The little demons (which look like naked mole-rats crossed with Gremlins) are cleverly realised with forced perspective shots of actors in full suits and/or stop-motion animation. This leads to a couple of clever little sequences, with one showing a zombie collapse into hordes of the little buggers, or an amputated arm which dissolves into worms. The Lovecraftian climax displays a decently imagined “Old God” summoned to the surface and created with stop-motion again, although it comes across more like something from “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” rather than Cthulhu or Lucifer. But the film has some admirable guts as it seems to be irreversibly heading towards a surprisingly dark ending, and everything seems hopeless. (NB: We won’t spoil if there’s a ‘happy ending’… but what do you think?). Overall it’s a scary little opus that could be compared with something like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”, and could easily be an entry point for horror where you would like a shared experience with younger viewers, or less gore than usual. There was sequel made three years later (“The Gate II: Trespassers” / “Gate II: Return to the Nightmare”), which concentrated on Terry’s later confrontation with dark forces, but oddly centres on a captured minion and a “3 Wishes” scenario. There was even talk about a remake from ‘Bill & Ted’ alumni Alex Winter at one point. But despite all that, this neat little slice of 80s horror is still well worth digging up, even if the age of the cast and the sense of unoriginality gives you some pause for thought. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
(Directed by Dario Argento)
Dario Argento has appeared several times during the course of this blog and for good reason. The Italian master of horror is the man behind seminal films such as 'Suspiria' and 'Deep Red' and 'Tenebrae'. One of his often overlooked gems though is his cinematic treat, 'Opera'.
Sometimes described as the last great Giallo movie, 'Opera' tells the story of Betty, a young understudy who is given the role of Lady Macbeth in an upcoming production of Verdi's Macbeth, after the star is injured in a car accident. Although initially reluctant, she is a big hit with the audience on the opening night. However, a mystery figure breaks into the opera house during the performance and kills a stagehand when he discovers him. Later that night, the same assailant breaks into Betty's boyfriends house and kills him. To make things worse, the killer ties Betty up and forces her to watch (via one of the most horrible contraptions you'eve ever seen!). Now most normal people would go straight to the cops, right? Well Betty doesn't – mainly because she has some vague but extremely disturbing memories of the same killer murdering her mother when she was a child. Does she know the killer? And if so, why did he let her live but make her watch? All is revealed over the next (rather insane) 90 minutes or so.
'Opera' was actually very successful when it was released in Argento's native Italy – however it is one of those films that has generally received a mixed reaction from genre fans. But for us it sees him return to the top of his game (or somewhere near it). It's also the last high of a now long dormant sub-genre, which we'd personally love to see revisited.The film sees Argento return to tried-and-tested methods when it comes to storytelling and atmosphere. And for fans of his work it's like having an old friend round for tea. Films about hooded or cloaked psycopaths terrorising a woman are his bread and butter. It's also quite personal too – with the movie partly inspired by Argento's troubled time as Director of Verdi's Rigoletto two years previously. His take on it was a bit too controversial for the shows producers and he was unceremoniously dumped at the last minute. However the experience gave him a keen insight into the workings and dynamics of the world of theatre and opera. Where the movie really impresses is, as you'd expect, from a visual perspective. The camera techniques he employs are as innovative as you'd expect - the opening credit sequence is a joy. And the scene where someone gets killed via a bullet through a keyhole in a door are just top drawer. His use of colour and style are as breathtaking as ever as well and you'd be hard pressed to find a better looking film amongst his catalogue of work. In terms of horror, it scores top marks too. Giallo's are a weird blend of slasher, crime and mystery (with a bit of sex thrown in too) but the grislyness of the murders and the nightmarish imagery that 'Opera' conjures up makes this one of Argento's horrific films. Each murder feels almost artistic in it's savagery and the focus on eye mutilation – well, that's one we're particularly squeamish about!Add in some decent central performances and some preposterous plot twists and it all makes for a grand old time. Sure the ending feels a bit odd and tacked on but we can forgive it because the stuff that comes before that is so great.
(Directed by Stuart Gordon)
Sadly, we lost Director Stuart Gordon only a few weeks ago. Best remembered for films such as 'Re-Animator' and 'From Beyond', he wasn't the most prolific filmmaker after his mid-80's highlights but he still ranks as one of the most influential horror icons around. He's films were often controversial and sometimes pretty gruesome – but one of our faves is actually a bit more accessible – although just as barmy - as some of his more distinguished works.
Creepy doll movies are one of those odd little subgenres that seem to resonate with a lot of movie audiences. There's just something unsettling about dolls. It's probably something to do with that horrid feeling you get when you stare at one for too long that it may move it's eyes or start talking. Of course, this childhood fear has been exploited with films like Child's Play, Poltergeist and more recently, Annabelle and The Boy. However, one of the best and weirdest doll movies out there is Stuart Gordon's 'Dolls' – a film that actually predated possibly the most famous killer doll, Chucky, by a year or so.
'Doll's sees a a little girl named Judy – and her rather shitty parents – stranded in the English countryside after their car breaks down in a thunderstorm. They try to find some cover and chance upon a mansion although no one appears to be home. They break in but are soon discovered by homeowners, a kindly old couple called Gabriel and Hilary. They stay for dinner and are soon joined by a gang of hitchikers who are also staying at the mansion during the storm. During dinner, Gabriel informs his guests that he is a talented toymaker and that their house is loaded with puppets and toys and...dolls. Are they the cute kind of dolls and toys like Woody and Buzz Lightyear and that Slinky Dog? No, of course not. They're murderous little bastards of course!
One of the great things about 'Dolls' is the way Gordon brings them to life on screen. He has no problem lingering on blank stares and creepy but static smiles. But the stop animation that he employs here just makes the whole thing even more unsettling. A reboot would undoubtedly use more sophisticated methods but just like the clunkiness of Jason and the Argonaut skeletons, this old school approach is actually more effective (and nightmarish). Dolls is the kind of film that if you watched it when you were 10 years old, it would give you sleepless nights.
The other thing that makes 'Dolls' so good is that it's just a lot of fun. The tone is a bit more playful than most of Gordon's other features and although it offers up a decent amount of chills, it never takes itself too seriously. It's clearly inspired by James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) and retains the same sense of black humour and dark comedy. It's also one of those films that presses home some kind of moral code and not one that was about underage sex and drugs and rebellion, like most of the slashers around at the time. 'Dolls' is a bit more binary than that. If you're rude, uncaring or just a bit of an asshole, you are definitely more vulnerable – and watching these types meet their end is therefore more enjoyable.
Young lead Carrie Lorraine is also great to watch. So good in fact that she was nominated for 'best young actress in a horror movie' at the 1988's Young Artist awards. Playing a sweet innocent kid may sound easy but often it can come off as trite and glib. But the performance feels so genuine, it's hard not to root for her – especially as most of those around her are such bastards.
Of course some may point to the fact that compared to some of his other works, Dolls doesn't compare. And whilst it's true, that 'Re-Animator' and 'From Beyond' feel like seminal films worthy of cult status, 'Dolls' feel more disposable and silly, that doesn't mean it's any less enjoyable.