FIVE FILMS FROM...1990
The Exorcist III
(Directed by William Peter Blatty)
Another film that was given a surprisingly m’eh reception at the cinematic box-office, only to mature into a much loved and underrated classic, as well as being a fitting follow-up to the all-time great original. The huge fart of a film “Exorcist II – The Heretic” was released in 1977 and had killed the franchise stone dead for 13 years. Unsurprisingly disillusioned with that movie treatment after the superlative reception of his screenplay in the first film, author/director Blatty lobbied to make a film based on his follow-up novel called “Legion”, which is basically what “The Exorcist III” is. Rather than catch-up and torment poor-old Regan MacNeil again, the plot focuses on (mostly) secondary characters from the original, 15 years after Damien Karras (Jason Miller) kissed the concrete steps. The plot cheats a bit and makes out that Karras was best bro’s with Police Lt. William F. Kinderman (a wonderfully cranky George C. Scott) when they were just acquaintances at best… but just go with it. Anyway, around the same time that Regan was exorcised, the “Gemini Killer” James Venamun (a PHENOMENAL Brad Dourif) was executed. So, all these years later, why does a new spate of “Gemini” killings seem to be happening. More strangely, why does the deranged stranger in psych ward look just like Damien Karras!!
Ah, man. There’s just so much stuff to love about this film. Admittedly it has its own surreal, nightmarish world and realism takes a holiday. But even so, it boggles the mind that Scott was nominated for a Golden Raspberry award (WTAF?!) for a golden turn and that nearly all reviews were average at the time. For a start; “Tubular Bells is back”, it’s an “adult” horror (no teenagers apart from Kinderman’s in-peril daughter), It DOES link to the original film in a most disturbing way, Dourif is absolutely terrific as he wails and gibbers some great lines (“Gracious me. Was I raving?”), and it’s disturbing on a gut level without being full of OTT gore (or projectile vomit). It’s the “quiet moments” that hit home and creep you out; Kinderman being silently appalled as he views the entire blood supply of a victim stacked neatly in bottles, the monologues between Dourif and Scott, Scott’s irrational hatred of the carp in the bath (!). It “feels” like a proper “grown-up” horror movie, in a way that many didn’t at the time. Musings around the nature of death and Hell, sit appropriately with diatribes about mortality and the unfairness of life. And then, of course, there is THAT SCENE! An absolute masterclass in suspense and shock, it centres almost entirely on a static shot of a hospital corridor as people come and go during the night shift. There are false scare and strange noises, as a young nurse is spooked by the thought of the recent murders, she checks out various things over ten full minutes or so, until …. BAM! Blatty hits you with a demonic wail on the soundtrack, a fast-track camera zoom, and one of the best cinematic jump scares of all time. Only years later, when the film became more appreciated, was the scene regularly voted one of the scariest film moments in several polls, beating “The Shining” and the original “Exorcist”. The Exorcist TV series did a homage of it, and it’s regularly ripped off in films like the recent “Black Christmas” remake.
Of course, it’s not perfect. Blatty himself said that studio interference caused some problems, and there are different cuts to choose from (all pretty good it has to be said) The final exorcism feels like an unnecessary bolt-on and the ending is sudden, if somewhat effective. Even so, it’s a terrific film, and it proved that there was still some creativity left in the franchise, which was partially realised in the 2 Seasons of the recent series, if not the messed-up attempts at two prequels. Watch it again, and see if you can spot the brief cameo by Samuel L. Jackson and Dourif’s in-joke about Chucky…
Night of the Living Dead
(Directed by Tom Savini)
As classic as the original NOTLD was in 1968, most people are aware of the copyright problems and release issues that meant George Romero didn’t see a whole lot of money from the production. Romero was attracted to the project when he heard that 21st Century Film Corporation (the studio Menahem Golan went to after Cannon started to go south) were thinking about a remake, and thought he’d better put a foot in the door. To that extent, it gave him a chance to update his screenplay, and he championed legendary SFX maestro Tom Savini to have it as his directorial debut. With Romero and Savini on board, it should have been a dream project for both. Add to that concept, a very tasty cast consisting of horror icon Tony Todd, stuntwoman and actor Patricia Tallman, Indie genre regular Tom Towles, and the ubiquitous Bill Moseley. Using the advances in SFX, the undead were to be shown in greater physical reality than before (allegedly based on real autopsies), but the plot structure remained largely the same. Barbara (Tallman) and Johnny (Mosely) are visiting Mom’s grave in Pennsylvania, and Johnny is still an asshole (“They’re coming to get you, Barbara”). Unexpectedly assaulted by a reanimated corpse, a shaken Barbara takes shelter in the dilapidated farmhouse and is soon joined by Ben (Todd), Cooper (Towles), and several other refugees. But it turns out that the flesh-eating dead are not as dangerous as the living, and a surprising Alpha figure fights to survive.
In many ways, the plot is a beat-for-beat remake of the first film, with the opening shots and situations almost playing out the same with similar characters. Even the source of the reanimation is left teasingly vague once again. But once all the players are assembled in the house, then things begin to shift subtly. Most of the change has to do with Barbara. In the original NOTLD, she starts as timid and prim and then descends into a catatonic state of fear, being a burden to her fellow house-sitters. But here, Tillman initially plays her as still quite prim, but she gradually changes into a pragmatic action-heroine and the main character, making her great fun to watch as she totes shotguns and pummels zombie’s heads. The racial themes are still there and embodied by the conflict between Ben and Cooper, but the ending veers slightly from the nihilistic tone of the original, and slaps in a satisfying cold one, along with the emphasis on the old social message (“They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us.”). Tallman had an early connection with Romero, doing stunts and acting in his first projects, and she later became best known for her “Babylon 5” character, but she’s really good here, and it would have been nice to see her in more action franchises. Her toughened Barbara is a well-judged change, and she turns out to be the smartest one of the bunch, even more than the stubborn Ben. There’s a lovely moment where she escapes the house, and with a sob (as she pushes away an ineffectual Mothering Zombie) realises that the undead were minor threats when treated properly, as she’d been saying all through the film. As these are archetypal Romero ghouls, they’re the slow and stumbling variety with little intelligence, and they’re true to the spirit of the first film.
So, by all accounts, the film should have been a rousing success and a triumph for Romero and Savini. Err, not so much. Savini called it “the worst nightmare of my life” and fought with the studios all the way, saying that not even 40% of his ideas made it to the screen. The film needed some cutting in production to avoid an NC-17 rating, and the lack of severe gore was one reason why Savini thought it didn’t make a bigger impact at the cinema. But even with all that, this is still a superior remake. The gender update makes all the difference, and the impressive undead are some of the most impressive specimens until TWD raised the bar. It’s well worth checking out, even if (or when) you have seen the 1968 original.
(Directed by Ron Underwood)
You can’t beat a good old-fashioned monster movie, and this is an absolute cracker. A much-beloved film that spawned a franchise that refuses to die, with the 7th movie just about to hit streaming channels (“Island Fury” – which sounds like a “Jurassic World” pastiche from the synopsis). Although not a massive hit at the cinema at the time (despite the good reviews), it smashed it on home video rental and created the fandom that it now enjoys. It was the first film from Ron Underwood, who went on to direct “City Slickers” and the “Mighty Joe Young” remake, as well as a ton of episodes of popular TV series, including “Fear the Walking Dead”. The note-perfect cast includes Kevin Bacon (“the single most fun time I’ve ever had making a movie in my entire career”), Fred Ward, Michael Gross, Reba McEntire (the C&W singer in her first role), and Victor Wong. The plot sees Valentine “Val” McKee (Bacon) and Earl Bassett (Ward), jobbing handymen stuck out in the nowhere Ville of Perfection in Nevada. On the day they try to leave town, they find a dead body stuck up an electrical tower, apparently scared to death. Then they discover that a group of giant tunnelling worms have invaded the local area and are chowing down on the small population. Isolated by the situation, the two unlikely heroes’ team up with survivalists and a scientist to try and outwit the slimy burrowing critters.
The fact that “Tremors” was very nearly called “Land Sharks”, and yet is a solid million miles away from the CGI dope-fests that you get on the Syfy channel with similar titles, tells you everything really. It is a warm, witty, soul-food of a genre film that entertains immensely. The main reasons for this being; the snappy dialogues between Bacon and Ward, the sly and dry humour (“Who died and made you Einstein?”), the fact that the existence of the worms is played entirely straight, and the fact that they’re named “Graboids”. Along with all that is the quality of the SFX. Just before CGI started to spoil the party, the Graboids are mostly realised by animatronics and puppetry and look pretty damn convincing, even in the bright desert sunlight. If you’re entirely honest, the premise has sort-of existed for a while in Sci-Fi stories. There’s “Dune” for a start and the “Outer Limits” episode called “The Invisible Enemy” in 1964 (with Adam West!), that has sand-dwelling carnivores. But the combination of the neat “Ground-is-lava” aesthetics, the formidable creatures, and likeable characters, works so well that you’ll be sad when it’s all over.
It’s not just us either. The fact that the films (now focusing on Burt Gummer: Gun-Nut) are still going is mainly a testament to the ever-lasting love for the film. However, it didn’t stop the short-lived Syfy series in 2003 from being cancelled. Also surprising was the much-hurrahed TV pilot directed by Vincenzo Natali (“Cube”) and produced by Blumhouse and starring Bacon! Featuring the actor returning to the character of Val for the first time since the original, it was intended to kickstart a series. For many reasons (most of which remain unknown), the series was nixed, and the pilot has never been seen. Boo! Still, we’ll always have the original…
(Directed by Frank Marshall)
There have been a few spider movies over the years. Perhaps the greatest is Jack Arnold's Tarantula (1955), closely followed by The Kingdom of the Spiders (1977). More recently we've had Eight Legged Freaks (2001), Big Ass Spider (2013) and Itsy Bitsy (2019) – but you have to go back thirty years to find that last truly great Arachnid horror – and that is Frank Marshall's Arachnophobia.
Here in the UK, there are four creepy crawlies that give people the heebie-jeebies more than any other. Moths, Daddy Long Legs and Billywitches (shudders at the last one). The fourth is one that causes terror on every continent. The Spider! There's something about the way they move – the ability to go from stationery to running 100mph in a split second. Also, the eight legs thing is weird isn't it? And the multiple eyes. Plus, they look like the facehuggers from Alien. But you know what's even scarier than a spider? A poisonous giant spider from the tropics!
The first film released by The Walt Disney Studios' Hollywood Picture Label (it was a time when they were branching out into more adult fare), Arachnophobia begins with the discovery of a species of spider deep in the depths of the Venezuelan jungle. Unfortunately, one of the scientists on the expedition dies of a fever – so the crew head back to the US. However, the hapless scientist didn't die of a fever – he was bitten by the newly found spider. And what's worse, the spider has hitched a ride to the US in his coffin! Once out, it gets jiggy with a female domestic house spider and she bashes out hundreds of offspring, all gifted with daddy's venomous biting skillz...
There's probably a debate to be had as to whether this film really deserves a place in a list of 'horror' films. It's produced by Disney for goodness sake. It's a dilemma the film's producers had too. Should they market it as a horror? A comedy? A thriller? Well, it's kind of all three. In the end they put it out as a 'thrill-omedy'. (Now there's a term no one ever needs to hear again). And whilst the film does retain a sense of humour and is only 12-rated, it's still about a load of spiders running amok and killing people so it's 'horror' enough in our eyes.
But why does it deserve to be on the list? Well, for start it's got a fantastic cast. Jeff Daniels excels in the lead as a doctor with a fear of spiders. It's perfect! John Goodman and Julian Sands provide great supporting roles too. Goodman's turn as the zany exterminator is particularly great. Unlike most of the other modern features mentioned, Arachnophobia eschews CGI for practical effects – with most scenes actually using real-life spiders (although no spiders were actually harmed during the making of the film). This decision was something of a masterstroke from first time director Frank Marshall and makes everything feel that bit more authentic.
It may take inspiration from B movies of decades past but Marshall had a pretty big budget here (over $20m) and Arachnophobia is a suitably slick production. It's true that there is more dark humour to be found here than straight up horror but there are enough jolt-inducing scenes and spider gags here to keep you on the edge of your seat (or preferably off your seat if you're on a toilet). Those who have a genuine fear of spiders will undoubtedly feel an extra level of tension for large parts of this, but hey, I'm scared of sharks (who isn't?!) and I still watch that every few years.
Rumours of a remake have been going around for a couple of years now – with horror king James Wan apparently attached in some form. However, until then we've just got to make do with this. Which is fine, because it's kind of awesome.
Fun fact: The climactic final fight scene took two weeks to shoot!
(Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace)
All horror movie fans, regardless of whether they're into books or not – will be well versed with the works of Stephen King. His influence on the genre is undeniable and many of his works have been adapted for the big and small screen (with varying degrees of success). Avid readers all have strong opinions on what the best King book is. The Shining, Carrie, The Dark Tower, The Stand are all popular choices. One of his latest books The Outsider has also received rave reviews (and a pretty decent TV mini-series too). However, for us, the best – and scariest – thing he has ever written is the epic story about a group of friends battling an obscene and ancient evil that manifests itself as a clown (amongst other things). I am of course talking about IT.
For the uninitiated, IT tells the story of the seven members of 'The Losers Club' – a group of friends living in the New England city of Derry in the 1950s. As local kids start to go missing (or turn up dead), they start to realise that this is just the beginning of an onslaught by an otherworldly monster who feeds off the fear of children. This evil – which calls itself (among other things) Pennywise the dancing clown, has been part of Derry's history for centuries. With the adults seemingly oblivious to what's going on, it's up to the crew of misfit kids to end Pennywise's reign of terror once and for all...
There has, of course, been a recent adaptation of this incredible novel. Plans for a new IT had been going on for several years. Initially it was to be a TV mini-series and True Detective director Cary Fukunaga was attached to direct. However, the plans changed and we ended up with two films from Andy Muschietti, which were both pretty decent (the first better than the second). However for people of a certain age, they had already been haunted by Pennywise before. Not just in the books – but on screen too. And yes, technically it's a mini-series but Tommy Lee Wallace's 1990 adaptation of the book is still going on this bloody list...
Make no mistake, this is a flawed piece of film-making. It's never going to be possible to include all of the themes and elements of an original work the size of IT within a few hours and Lee Wallace's version bypasses some important ones. The second half (or part two of the mini series) where we focus on the Losers Club as adults is undoubtedly less effective too. The climactic battle scene is also a bit of a misstep too. However, there's so much good stuff here that these criticisms become a mere frustration rather than fatal errors.
Lee Wallace didn't read King's novel before working on the film. Instead he thought it would be better if he didn't have the source material tainting how he viewed the screenplay (written by Lawrence D. Cohen). It's a fact that makes it even more remarkable that the film manages to really capture the atmosphere and characters of King's novel so well. In some respects it feels even more true to the novel than Muschietti's remake. A lot of IT is ultimately about friendship and confronting your fears – as well as a whole myriad of other human evils such as racism and child abuse – and thankfully, Lee Wallace's interpretation finds enough time to explore all of this in sufficient depth.
But, let's be frank, the main reason that this film terrified a generation of youngsters during the 90's (including yours truly) is because of Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise the Clown. Now Bill Skarsgard's performance in the remakes is perfectly fine and unsettling in a different way. But the Pennywise of the 90s original is probably unmatchable. Those eyes, those teeth – the way his expression would turn from friendly to within a second. It really is one of the best horror monster portrayals we've ever had. And it wasn't just audiences that were terrified of him. On set, most of the cast were uneasy when on set with him, partly due to the fact that Curry pretty much stayed within character between takes.
In terms of King adaptations, this is right up there amongst the best and deserves a revisit if you haven't seen it in a while (and have a spare three hours!)