The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
It turns out that the granddaddy of torture-porn and Slasher-poitation, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, isn’t as exploitive or graphic as its reputation would make you think. It’s actually just some good old fashioned psychological horror, much closer to the economically controlled thrills of Hitchcock than the splatter flicks of Herschell Gordon Lewis. The film is kinda-sorta based on the misdeeds of serial killer Ed Gain (also an inspiration behind the book Psycho), but perhaps more of a direct result of the graphic violence from the Vietnam War seen nightly on television news. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may have a set-up that now seems overly familiar, but where it goes was wholly original and how it gets there is utterly horrifying. Shot in a docudrama style, its ultra realistic feel makes it seem even more real; it’s like The Battle Of Algiers meets The Hills Have Eyes.
The ultra low budget flick opens with a somber voice-over narration (read by John Larroquette) announcing that the film is all true (and also giving the impression that it’s deeply important). Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) and her group of groovy twenty-something friends in their mystery-machine like van are on their way to visit her rural grandfather’s house. Stupidly they pick up a straight razor wielding loony (Edwin Neal) who should have been the first warning that this is one part of Texas you might be advised to stay out of. Eventually they each make their way to a creepy old farmhouse nearby where they are killed off, except for Sally; as the last survivor she’s in for a long night of terror.
Trick 'r Treat
WARNING: Review contains spoilers.
Trick 'r Treat might just be the greatest Halloween horror film to date. Not only do most of the horror films that people choose to scare themselves with around the holiday not even circulate around the event, but those that do, such as the films that make up the Halloween franchise, fail to approach the mysticism of Halloween itself. Don't get me wrong, many of them are awesome movies, but they use Halloween as a crutch instead of integrating it into the plot.
Friday the 13th:The Final Chapter
Franchise films are a bittersweet realm. They stay fairly safe when they reach the prequels and sequels, but everything past that tends to get a little sloppy. The reasons are usually quite simple: either there were too many hands in the cookie jar in production, a bad team working on the film (director, casting, etc.) or, the plot just gets exhausted to the point of being tasteless and dull.
The Friday the 13th franchise is perhaps one of the most successful overall, coming in second to A Nightmare on Elm St. Up until the fifth or sixth film, you can pretty much find something amusing within each story. When you think about it, there are several films you can make about an impenetrable boogeyman who attacks oversexed (or in the case of this film, undersexed) teenagers who camp on his turf.
The Dead Zone
David Cronenberg. Stephen King. Christopher Walken. You need no other excuse to check out this movie other than the fact that it’s the one and only time that those three names shared credit space at the opening of a film; and at a time when they were all creatively at the top of their game as director, writer and actor respectively. The Dead Zone is based on King’s successful novel of the same name, adapted for the screen by Jeffrey Boam (with a polish by David Cronenberg) and stars Christopher Walken at a time just before he became the "go-to" eccentric character actor in just about everything.
Walken plays Johnny Smith, a content school teacher who has a passion for his job, the admiration of his students and is engaged to the love of his life. But one fateful night, he’s involved in a terrible car accident that puts him in a coma. When he awakens, six years have passed, his limbs have suffered from atrophy, his job is gone and his fiance is now married to another man and a mother to a child that isn’t his. But he’s also awoken from his deep slumber with an unlikely gift; the gift of second sight. One mere touch and he’s able to not only see your past and present, but also see your future.
Let me cut right to the chase. Bereavement is a real-deal horror film in the sense that it depicts some of the most horrific things I’ve ever seen in a genre movie. But the nastiness is necessary and the payoff is earned in the delicate and capable hands of a skilled filmmaker/storyteller such as writer/director Stevan Mena. Yes, this film also acts as a prequel to Mena’s debut feature Malevolence, but it’s also a rare anomaly in the genre. It’s a film that strives to satisfy two different audiences; those that love the first film and want to learn the backstory that comes before the original. And then there are those who are simply walking into it blindly just wanting to see a new, original horror movie. In that regard, he succeeds at delivering what both audiences would want with Bereavement. The biggest difference between the two is that if you already know the previous feature, you kind of know where this story has to inevitably end in order to line-up with Malevolence; whereas newcomers will probably be shocked by the grim, dark descent that the story takes.
Bereavement opens pretty much the same way that Malevolence does; with the kidnapping of little Martin Bristol at the hands of deranged serial killer Graham Sutter. It then cuts 5 years later, and we follow Allison Miller (Alexandra Daddario), a young teen who is forced to move in with her uncle Jonathan (Michael Biehn) and his family after losing her parents in a car accident. She takes some solace in her budding new relationship with her neighbor William (Nolan Funk), whom her uncle doesn’t approve of. But William also has problems of his own. He struggles to care for his verbally abusive, invalid father with hopes of one day "getting outta this town." The great thing about the story arcs of both Allison and Martin is that they run concurrently and eventually collide. Much like Mena did with Malevolence, he’s again combining two genres in the same feature. For Malevolence, it was the action heist film that became a “slasher” movie. Here, it’s pretty much a serious, straightforward hardcore drama that eventually becomes a "slasher" flick.
One of the most remarkable things about the movie Malevolence is how much it authentically captures the vibe and spirit of the early '80s “slasher” films it tries to homage with such reverence. In fact, after I initially saw it in its limited theatrical run back in 2004, I immediately jumped online to confirm that it was in fact a recently made feature film and not a long lost gem from the '80s that was only just then surfacing. Sure enough, upon a bit more research, I discovered that the goal of writer/director Stevan Mena was to emulate the horror films that had had such a profound impact on him growing up. And in that regard, he completely succeeded.
Malevolence opens with the kidnapping of Martin Bristol, a 6-year old boy from Pennsylvania who is forced to watch the evil deeds of his deranged captor, serial killer Graham Sutter. The film then cuts ahead 10 years later where we’re introduced to Julian (Brandon Johnson) and Marylin (Heather Magee) who along with Marylin’s brother Max (Keith Chambers) and Kurt (Richard Glover) are planning a daytime bank robbery. When things don’t go according to plan and the robbery is completely botched, the criminals flee with 2 hostages to their rendezvous point out in the countryside of Pennsylvania, just next to the old Sutter place and meat & poultry slaughterhouse. When they venture out towards the Sutter property, they inadvertently garner the attention of the long dormant killer at the house and uncover the horrors that have been going on there for over a decade. From then on, it’s just a matter of trying to survive the night.
In terms of B-Movie all-star casts this crazy British flickVenom can’t be beat. All working at their highest ham level, you have the insane German method madman Klaus Kinski (Aguirre: The Wrath of God), and then there’s the American Sterling Hayden who in the fifties was a total stiff playing a lot of tough guys but then reinvented himself in the seventies as an solid character actor (The Godfather). Also on board is the great British actor Oliver Reed (The Devils) who was equally famous for his up and down career as he was for his drunken on-set behavior. Adding some more class to the cast is another terrific British actor Nicol Williamson who, other then his great performance as Merlin in Excalibur, never quite had the career he should’ve had. Rounding out the cast in the female roles, there’s swinging sixties British starlet Sarah Miles (Blow-Up), fashion-model-turned-actress Cornelia Sharpe (Serpico) and the always sexy Susan George (Straw Dogs). For a low budget flick Irwin Allen couldn’t have assembled a cooler line-up.
Director Piers Haggard was fresh off directing Peter Sellers’s final film, a horrible wreck called The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu. He replaced the American director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) who was fired for creative reasons days into filming Venom. What’s ironic is that a few years later Hooper would make one of the craziest British genre mash-ups of all time, the zombie/alien/vampire flick Life Force. In the meantime Venom still stands as another solid genre mash-up; it’s both a kidnapping thriller and a snake-on-the-loose flick, and it does both very well.
A young, neatly dressed boy sits in his room mumbling the lyrics to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme with the words, “couldn't put the pieces back together again” the most audible. He's kneeling over a puzzle in deep thought when his mother enters the room and peers over his shoulder to look at it. It's a jigsaw of a naked woman, and in disbelief and outrage she starts slapping her son around. She instructs him to go get a plastic bag so that she can throw away the “filth.” She compares him to his no-good father and breaks the mirror with his framed portrait before rummaging through his things looking for a smut stash. The boy returns with an ax and hacks her to death before sawing off her head. He then returns to and completes his puzzle with blood-smeared hands. During the time it took for him to dismember his mother, their maid quizzically stood outside the home wondering why no one answered the door. She worries that something's amiss, so she gets a pair of policemen to break the door down. The boy hides in the closet while the maid and the officers search for him and his mother. They find her head on a chest of drawers and him standing in a closet hollering for his mother and creating the impression that an intruder killed her. The adults believe him and send him to live with his aunt.
Forty years pass and the plot is now focused on a university at which a girl has been murdered with a chainsaw. The details become grizzlier when they discover that a part of the girl's body is missing from the scene. Detectives Bracken (Christopher George) and Holden (Frank Brana) are on the case snooping around the school and asking questions. The Dean (Edmund Purdom) of the university is more than willing to give them access to the school’s resources in order to catch the killer. Meanwhile, Kendall (Ian Sera), the campus Romeo, is flirting with a girl he intends to meet later at the campus pool. Their meeting never happens because she becomes the killer's next victim. The detectives start to believe that someone on the campus is the killer, so they interview the staff and look to Kendall for help in profiling students since they've ruled him out as a suspect. Despite their diligence, more girls are found cut to pieces. The viewer watches from the killer's point-of-view as each stomach-churning death unfolds. The disgust is amplified by extreme close-ups of the chainsaw sinking into what looks like real flesh, and the sound of the killer's heavy breathing alongside blood-curdling screams. You then see cut-away shots of his gloved hands returning to the old bloody jigsaw puzzle and carting limbs into an industrial-sized refrigerator.
The summer of 1975 saw a decline in beach activity and beach resort profits, not because of anything that happened in real life, but because what happened in the cinemas that summer. It was a little film, by a twenty-something director, that due to technical problems was barely able to get out of the water. At the time of its release Jaws may have been the biggest cultural blockbuster since Gone With The Wind. It was all the talk, all the rage, and its effect on beach life and the reputation of sharks is still felt today. But more importantly, hype aside, Jaws is also some good old-fashioned filmmaking, and is still one of the greatest adventure, horror films ever.
In the mid '70s it was rare for a director of a major studio movie to only be in his 20s, but after a string of acclaimed TV movies, including the landmark thriller Duel, Steven Spielberg was called a wunderkind. His first go at the big screen, The Sugarland Express with Goldie Hawn, was a well done road picture. Though it was steeped in '70s rebellion, it didn’t come close to revealing just how in touch with the pulse of audiences Spielberg would prove to be.Continue Reading
The People Under the Stairs
The People Under the Stairs is absolutely bonkers. It's as if David Lynch and Wes Craven took a field trip to the ghetto and came away with an outrageous idea for a thriller/horror movie. Everett McGill and Wendy Robie of Twin Peaks take on another strange domestic role as a brother and sister who never seemed to grow out of playing house and who like to steal children. The movie shares the same violent color schemes and unsettling (yet somehow humorous) dialogue that you find in practically every Lynch film.
Following the newly 13-year-old Poindexter “Fool” Williams (Brandon Quintin Adams), the story opens up with a tarot reading from his older sister Ruby that warns of a year filled with death and ignorance. The two siblings are struggling to make ends meet as their mother is slowly dying of cancer. They're the only tenants remaining in a building that their landlord wishes to tear down in order to make room for condos and tenants who aren't predominately black. Ruby's boyfriend Leroy (Ving Rhames) is a petty criminal who's tired of seeing families thrown to the streets and offers Fool an alternative in making the payments they need to stay there. He's come across a map of the landlord's home and plans to rob it. Rumor has spread across generations that the steep rent and poor conditions of the ghetto has led to a ton of profits for the landlord. This money, thought to be a mass hoard of gold coins, is said to be inside and Leroy wants to get his hands on it.Continue Reading