The Silent Scream 1979
Directed by: Denny Harris
Starring: Barbara Steele, Rebecca Balding, Cameron Mitchell
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Perhaps it’s because they were generally more amateurish projects, or maybe it’s just that funding was often hard to secure, but I’ve always wondered why so many slasher movies from the peak years suffered problematic productions. Titles like Moon In Scorpio, Scalps, Truth or Dare, Killer Party and especially Curtains never saw light of day as they were initially intended and the issues were certainly visible in the final print. Silent Scream was completed in 1977, but was considered unreleasable by director Denny Harris. He hired an entire new cast and brought in Jim and Ken Wheat to re-write the script at his own expense. Together they decided to make it more similar to the boom that had swept cinema around that time, the slasher genre.
Now the major difference between the titles that I mentioned earlier and Silent Scream is that for once the movie that we ended up with worked superbly. Whereas for example Curtains never escaped its muddled backbone, if I hadn’t have read the stories of a troubled shoot, I would have been none the wiser here.
In the rush to find housing before the new semester, four students end up at a recently refurbished house overlooking a remote beach. A couple of hours after they move in, they are shocked when one of their number is brutally murdered by an unseen fiend during the night. Little do they know that the deranged killer is closer than they could ever have imagined.
Whilst I have no doubt in my mind that Halloween played a part in the inspiration for the final version of Silent Scream, the fact that it was released so close to Carpenter’s classic means that it avoids many of the traditional trappings. Instead, the Wheat brothers seem to have followed the blueprint of features like Black Christmas and Psycho to come up with the synopsis for this doom-laden thriller. Even if we do get the standard troupe of teenage victims, there’s no sign of trademarks like the have sex and die rule. I found it refreshing that the heroine’s characterisation didn’t follow the path that would become a cliché and the story feels closer to reality because of that. The four key personalities are so well developed during the opening scenes that it’s tough to chose who we think will succumb to the killer’s blade first. This gives the picture an extra shade of suspense that only adds to the solid mystery.
Harris had been a big fan of horror movies and he rallied valiantly to get his first film produced. After watching how professionally everything had been put together, I had no idea that this was the work of a debutant and I’m still surprised that it’s his one and only motion picture credit. A slick juxtaposition of fixed camera angles and shots that loom ominously give the feature an extremely polished look and a fitting score from Richard Kellaway adds an extra layer of class. What impressed me most about the film was that the screenwriters took something as unoriginal as a tale of a bogeyman in the basement and twisted it continuously keep viewers guessing. The decision to include a corny doo-wop tune as the psycho’s calling card worked along the same methodology as utilising childlike themes such as a clown or a doll. Once combined, these elements gave Silent Scream an incredibly creepy tone of subtle menace that remained constant throughout.
It’s often forgotten that the art of acting is not just spouting lines of dialogue with emotion. I was saying to a friend just recently that if Brad Pitt ends his career without an Oscar, it would be almost criminal. It could have been easy for him to become a Rom-Com king and trade on his looks, but he always chooses audacious roles that for whatever reason he hasn’t yet been acknowledged for. Barbara Steele shows here that she can deliver a performance via body language and gestures that puts her a level above her peers. She steals every scene in a brilliant portrayal that must’ve motivated those around her to up their game. The dysfunctional family stereotype is skewed to perfection and it never reaches the realms of over indulgence.
Silent Scream is a brilliant slasher movie and amongst the best of the genre. Whilst it may be more of a Hitchcockian nod to Psycho than a true teenie-kill feature, it delivers blood and scares like the best of them. Quite why it is not as fondly thought of as The Burning et al is an enigma and I definitely think you should re-visit it sooner rather than latter.
Final Girl √√√
Billy Club 2013
Directed by: Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer
Starring: Marshall Caswell, Erin Hammond, Nick Sommer
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
I don’t remember the last time that I’ve anticipated a slasher movie quite as much as I have Billy Club. To be fair though, it’s logical as to why I’m feeling this way. It’s from Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer, the creators of Blood Junkie, which was one of the best genre entries of the past decade. Junkie achieved the admirable feat of mixing campy SOV wit with a smart synopsis and it was shot with an ambitious pizzazz. It’s also worth noting that it’s not just a SLASH above that have been counting the days for the release of this one either. Horror forums, sites and critics across the world have been extremely vocal in their support for the project and I haven’t seen quite this kind of buzz since the 3D remake of My Bloody Valentine was rumoured.
With Billy Club, Rosas and Sommer have approached a theme that really needs a credible entry, – ‘the sports slasher’ – and their choice of sport is baseball. We’ve been here before of course in 1998 with The Catcher, but the fact that my one-star review of the film is the most positive that can be found on the net, tells you all that you need to know about its quality. Another title, Sawed from 2004 also included a psychopath with a b-ball bat, but aside from the weapon, it offered little else to be considered as a comparison. There was still a gap in the market for an addition that could stand the test of time due to such a unique and popular subject matter. Add on top of that the fact that it is based around Halloween and all the elements were there for a real slasher treat.
A guy travels back to his town of birth to meet up with his former teammates from his school baseball team. Things haven’t been the same for them since a kid that they used to know went mad and killed his coach in cold blood. Upon his return, it seems that he has stirred the wrath of the psychopath and before long he’s fighting to protect not only his own life, but also that of his hi-school sweetheart…
The second major motion picture after a successful debut for a filmmaker is always the hardest to produce. Despite the experience and critical praise that has been received, there’s a lot more pressure to improve upon what was done previously and it’s tougher to build the same level of motivation. I remember when Donnie Darko was released all those years ago, I waited patiently for Richard Kelly’s follow up. When Southland Tales hit screens five-years later, there was no sign of that same spark. I’m happy to say that this is by no means the case with Billy Club and in fact, it’s the total opposite. What we have here is a pitch perfect slasher movie and instead of being strong in just the odd area, the crew have delivered the complete package
As is common in these pictures, the bogeyman’s motive is linked to an incident from the key characters’ childhood. Instead of following the typical Halloween/Prom Night methodology of showing you this event at the outset, it is unravelled in glimpses as the plot gathers momentum. This authentic approach works wonders in sustaining the mystery and it also builds an underscore of tension that doesn’t waiver all the way through. I consider myself amongst the best at guessing the identity of a masked maniac in whodunits, but in honesty, this one had me stumped until the revelation scene. I’d like to be able to state that I was cheated by the screenplay, but I wasn’t; I’d been outsmarted at every turn. It also helps that we are given personalities that grow on us as the story unfolds and the performances are strong enough for us to develop bonds with the cast members. I was especially impressed with Marshall Caswell’s turn as the male protagonist and he looks to be a fine actor that can handle numerous emotional levels. I can’t believe that this was his first full feature.
Blood Junkie was marketed as a horror comedy and it did have a number of scenes that were highly amusing. Club’s humour is far more subdued, but when it strikes, it’s handled with care. There’s a hilarious skit in the mid-section that sees a youngster accidentally consume a large amount of shrooms and the directors utilise colours and camera trickery to portray the effects of his hallucinations. In my review of Intruder, I highlighted Spiegel’s energetic photography as highly addictive and entertaining. Well there are examples of the same panache here and it works perfectly to set the tone. When the killer turns up, he does so with menace and his guise (a modified umpire mask and lumberjack get-up) recalls the best backwoods loons. In time honoured slasher tradition, he crosses faces from a team-photo, however this time it’s done with a blow torch that’s also used to stamp the victims with their shirt number post-mortem. You’d expect a film so ripe in so many places to be equally as gory and we are treated to some outrageous kill scenes. These do aim more for realism than extremity though and I believe that suits the film’s set-up perfectly. Whilst the chase sequences are suspenseful and the bogeyman does have that hulking Jason Voorhees-like frame, the best chills for me came from the discovery of the killer’s lair and the childlike score that accompanied it. I found these moments to exude an adept aura of creepiness.
I recently went to see Fincher’s Gone Girl at the cinema and about halfway through, I got that exquisite feeling that comes only when you’re watching a great film. It’s best described as the dropping of your critical guard and just letting the filmmaker’s takeover because you are secure in the knowledge that these guys know what they’re doing. I had that same impulse whilst sitting through Billy Club and I honestly can’t give it any higher praise than that. It makes a change to see a movie that lived up to it’s potential and I was over the moon that it did so. Let’s work together to make it the success that it deserves to be and then we can remain in hope that Rosas and Sommer give us another slasher movie sooner rather than later. Club has already picked up three awards prior to its release and I’m confident that it will receive more after November the 4th. Pre-order your copy without delay.
I had always predicted that it would take a big budget hit to bring back the slasher genre. Movies like Billy Club are making me think otherwise.
– Drew Rosas and Nick Sommer have given me some T-Shirts to give away to lucky readers to follow the November the 4th launch. All you have to do to is answer the questions here and you will be in the mix to receive one. Check back on Halloween for the link 🙂
Killer Guise: √√√√
Final Girl √√√
Rosemary’s Killer 1981
aka The Prowler aka The Graduation
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Starring: Vicky Dawson, Farley Granger, Laurence Tierney
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So here we have it, my favourite ever slasher movie. (I don’t include Halloween in that, because well – that’s everyone’s favourite). I found out about Rosemary’s Killer when I was at school and by the strangest possible means. My buddies and I used to have a sly cigarette in an old shed in the woods nearby to where I lived. We would always find ripped magazine pages covering the floor and as devious thirteen-year-olds, we would hope to uncover something interesting amongst the mess. Anyway, one night I went there alone and as if by fate, lying in the corner was a horror fanzine in pretty good condition. I was already a huge fan of the genre and so I scurried home to study the pages in the comfort of my bedroom. There in loving colour, my eyes first met with the iconic image from one of the finest killings of the category; – ‘The swimming pool murder’. You can see it in the picture to your right and it is also the background of a SLASH above. I immediately began a hunt for a copy on VHS, which much like my search forGraduation Day, would continue for much longer than I’d hoped.
Now without eBay and Amazon, my method for tracking down slashers was restricted to car boot sales around the London area. I found lots of titles during my travels, including Night Screams, Nightmare (Dutch uncut copy!) Ghostkeeper, Stormbringer,One by One, The Demon, Fatal Games and Psycho Puppet. However the one that I REALLY wanted remained elusive. It started to become an obsession, but after months of trying, I finally came to the disappointing conclusion that I would probably never see the darn thing. Then through a twist of fate, I found a video-search agency that came to my aid with an almost pristine copy. The price of £30 was daylight robbery, but for me it was mission accomplished and I probably would have paid £50
Avalon Bay is getting set for the first annual dance since a young couple were viciously murdered 35 years earlier. The youngsters of the community are eagerly anticipating the event and spend the day preparing and decorating the town hall. The junior Deputy is alone for the first time as the Sheriff has gone on his annual fishing trip and stress levels are raised when it’s revealed that a wanted criminal that slashed two young females could be heading to the area. As darkness descends, it becomes apparent that there’s a maniac dressed in World War 2 army fatigues stalking the Bay. Can the Deputy muster the courage to stop him?
Rosemary’s Killer is not only one of the best examples of stalk and slash cinema from the golden era, but it’s also one of the most underrated. The movie ticks every box in terms of the relevant trappings and instead of just ticking them, in a few places it completely surpasses them. I like the World War II gimmick and I think that the killer’s disguise is an absolutely brilliant touch. His calling card of leaving a rose by his victims is creepily effective and there’s a great moment towards the climax where he offers it, almost romantically, to the final girl before attempting to ram a pitch folk through her! In 2007, a low budget entry by the name of Rose of Death attempted to utilise the same idea, but failed to add the slash with panache necessary to pay tribute to this sterling effort.
It’s Zito’s pacey direction that sustains an awesome amount of suspense during the first half, which works, because even when not much happens, we are kept fully aware that something could at any moment. Other parts of the film equally excel in their technicality with some beautiful photography and a focused score. I especially liked the staircase stalking sequence, which in true popcorn fashion, keeps everything tight by having the intended victim make all the wrong decisions.
Vicky Dawson makes for a classy final girl and she works well in partnership with Christopher Goutman. For relatively inexperienced performers, they carry the picture comfortably and they deliver only one or two weak moments. I thought Dawson was unfortunate not to have built a longer career in cinema, because much like Amy Steel in Friday the 13 girl who was watching this with me said, “tough girl” – my sentiments exactly. Farley Granger added class to the cast list, but it’s been confirmed that he had a horrible time on set and suffered some uncomfortable sweating during the make-up effects. Laurence Tierney’s on-board too, although I have no idea why, his character is barely used to much effect and was probably a waste of budget.
Tom Savini’s effects once again steal the show and there’s no denying that Rosemary’s Killer is amongst the best of his work. We feel at times that what we are watching is almost too realistic and the swimming pool killing even includes an aftermath shot that’s uncomfortable in its authenticity. It happens as the victim’s lifeless body sinks to the tiles below and her legs begin to twitch as her nervous system comes to terms with the fact that the lights are going out for the last time. The best part of the sequence was actually a mistake from Savini, because at the same time as the gallons of blood seep from her wound, some bubbles also appear under the water (from the pipe pumping the goo). Instead of re-shooting, the effects master recommended that Zito utilise the footage as is, because the bubbles look as if they were the last gasps of the dying teenager’s breath.
It’s been noted that the plot structure is similar to the same year’s My Bloody Valentine and the two would work superbly on a double-bill. Strangely enough, what one title lacks the other boasts in abundance and if you were to mix the two together you would have the perfect slasher film. Whilst MBV also has some great kill scenes (equally as gratuitous) and a good-fun factor that adds momentum to the plot, it lacks any decent suspense. Rosemary’s Killer on the other hand is nail-bitingly tense in places, but has some serious problems with its pace.
Now I picked my favourite slasher film when I was about fourteen years old and much like my love for the Arsenal (the closest team to where I lived), I must admit that it was a ‘teenager’s decision’. Adults have the ability to analyse; step back and view the bigger picture before making a choice. Young minds do everything spontaneously and I didn’t notice the faults back then in Rosemary’s Killer, that I see today. As I said, it starts superbly and comes across almost like an anxiety marathon. My Mrs and I were watching it together in silence, knowing full well that there would be a shock at any moment (And I have seen this flick a lot of times). Then after about thirty minutes the rapidity dries up and the film can’t maintain the same thrust.
It’s not necessarily the fault of Joseph Zito, but the script wastes too much time building the mystery in locations that are drab and overtly dark. Some parts could have been much shorter or removed completely during post production to make the film slicker. I especially thought that the length of time used when the Deputy was contacting the Sheriff was ridiculous and ultimately ended up being a pointless diversion.
Despite those issues, this is still one of the best entries of the golden period. It does drag a bit in the development of the plot, but the excellent kill scenes and two fantastic leads more than make up for it. Joseph Zito was widely tipped to be a future horror maestro after his work on this and Friday the 13th The Final Chapter (one of the better sequels of the series). When horror began to lose its way towards the second half of the decade, he moved over to action-orientated flicks, which didn’t give him the same chances and his career unfortunately faded.
I would say that Rosemary’s Killer, even under its superb two alias titles, is a perfect example of a solid horror director’s work. It’s also a time-capsule from the best year of the slasher genre thus far. I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember but still not once too many. Enjoy…
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl √√√√√
Symphony of Evil 1987
aka Coda aka Deadly Possession aka Sinfonía Del Diablo
Directed by: Craig Lahiff
Starring: Penny Cook, Arna-Maria Winchester, Liddy Clark
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
It’s a well-known fact amongst those that know their horror movies that Australia hasn’t exactly excelled itself with the quality of its output within the slasher genre. It’s intriguing then that within the space of a month, I’ve found two credible efforts that successfully manage to disprove that fallacy. Firstly, I came across the creepy Cassandra, which mixes erratic photography and razor sharp editing to a surprisingly credible effect. Then I discovered the ambitiously restrained and meritoriously tense Symphony of Evil…
Taking a large slice of Halloween‘s appetizing pie and filling the spaces with a few Hitchcockian nods just for good measure, this confident offering is perhaps one of the most commendable long forgotten entries to the stalk and slash cycle. It succeeds mainly because it chooses to follow the path of down to earth realism over far-fetched gore and gratuitous shock tactics. The protagonist of the feature is not a bimbo in a Wonderbra. Instead, she’s an ordinary young woman who finds herself in a tricky situation, which helps to give the film an undeniably naturalistic edge.
Director Craig Lahiff also accepts with glee, the challenge of giving his female characters complete control of the script without relying on sexual overtones to make them appealing. There’s no needless nudity or even any slight references towards it; and to be honest, it isn’t something that’s missed.
A masked maniac is slaughtering musical students at an Australian university. A young innocent woman becomes involved in the plot when her flatmate is brutally murdered. With the body count mounting, it becomes clear that the psychopath has intriguing motives.
To say that Symphony of Evil was ‘inspired’ by Halloween is like saying that Joan Rivers has had a touch of plastic surgery. The film borrows heavily from the title that it so obviously tries to emulate, leaving very little to disguise the obvious influences (the killer stalking the hospital, the Michael Myers-alike disguise etc). Imitation however is not necessarily a bad thing if it’s handled correctly and Lahiff’s opus feels more like a tribute to Carpenter’s classic than it does a rip-off. Lahiff conveys an impressive flair for building suspense and in places he builds a tone that’s remarkably tense. A perfect example is the sword-murder about halfway through the runtime, which incorporates brooding photography to create a foreboding environment that makes good use of those ageless stalk and slash clichés.
The performances from a likable cast are fairly comfortable and there’s even a classy score that’s vaguely reminiscent of John Williams’ theme from Oliver Stone’s masterpiece, JFK. The characters are competently scripted and approachable, which builds a decent amount of sympathy for our heroine. Evil doesn’t boast a huge body count, so the actors are given a lot of screen time and dialogue to keep things moving. Thankfully, they do a fine job of keeping us intrigued and are amicable enough to win over the audience with realistic performances.
Because the synopsis takes place at a classical music school, the production team get the chance to experiment with an excellent operatic soundtrack, which satisfies both cinematically and audibly. Frank Stragio’s work does wonders to help sustain a good level of energy, which is great because during the moments where not a lot happens, you’re always aware that something is just about to.
Like many eighties slashers, Symphony of Evil focuses heavily on the mystery of discovering who it is behind the creepy mask, which is possibly the feature’s only flaw. Guessing the killer’s identity is a relatively simple task and more thought should have been put into giving us more suspects or at least a credible red-herring. It’s interesting that despite earning the respect to be trusted with bigger budgets from this offering, Lahiff never improved upon his work on this atmospheric murder-mystery. Heaven’s Burning was a so-so thriller that had the added bonus of starring Russell Crowe. His most recent movie Black and White was promising, but hardly a worthy follow-up to such an ambitious debut. It proves that bigger budgets don’t always make better features and it seems that with Symphony of Evil he struck the perfect medium.
If you like slasher movies, then you’ll like Symphony of Evil – there’s really nothing else to say. It is good enough to sit comfortable alongside the likes of The Dorm that Dripped Blood
Final Girl √√√
aka Night Crew: The Final Checkout aka Intruso en la Noche
Directed by: Scott Spiegel
Starring: Elizabeth Cox, Sam Raimi, Renée Estévez
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Every decade creates its own individual cultural characteristics that are easy to look back on and distinguish as key to that era. Even though perhaps there has been little invention during the last fifteen years or so, the tail end of the twentieth century delivered a multitude of creation within the entertainment industry. The fifties will always be remembered for the birth of rock and roll, whilst The Beatles, Bob Dylan and the introduction of the ‘make love not war’ anti-Vietnam mentality of Western youth signified the cultural identity of the sixties. Vivid images of white suited, medallion sporting men and disco divas became synonymous with the seventies, but it was the eighties that will be remembered for launching the most memorable generation landmarks.
Slasher films also played a strong part in defining the personality of those (in)glorious years. Despite the invasion of titles during the post-Scream outbreak of 1996, there will never be a time that can compete with the genre’s initial overkill period. It all began with the notorious, “kill her mommy” lines of Friday the 13th and despite a fall in popularity as the decade progressed, studios were still producing cycle entries consistently right the way through. I have said previously in my review of Maniac Cop that despite many believing that 1981 was the peak of the entire cycle, 1988 also should be acknowledged, if not only for the sheer amount of releases that hit shelves. Intruder is easily one of the best of those…
It tells the tale of a group of staff in a super market that are asked to work through the night, pricing down all the stock as they all have been made redundant due to the closure of the store. As they lock the shutters for the last time, it becomes apparent that an unwelcome guest has crept in amongst them. Before long, they are being stalked and killed one by one by an unseen maniac.
In film, as in life, timing is everything. Whether it be that of a screen comedian or the understanding of the span of suspense by a director, the clock can be a vital tool in the creation of cinematic perfection. The reason I write this is because as it stands, Intruder is an obscure slasher movie that is highly regarded by those that have seen it. If, however, it had been released eight years earlier, I would be writing the review of an out and out horror classic. Spiegel’s opus has enough wit, gore, audacity and creativity to be ranked amongst the best of its ilk and it is only purely due to the multitude of titles that it was released with that it has been so unfairly overlooked.
If Sam Raimi’s adventurous direction makes him the outlaw of Hollywood sensibility, then Scott Spiegel should be Billy the Kid. The Jesse James of eccentric cinematic vision. Here is a man whose modus operandi seems to be to imagine the most audacious and outrageous camera angle possible and then in the same breath attempt to shoot it. Although, much like mayonnaise on chips, you’ll either love his flamboyant approach or hate it; kudos should be given for his brazen audacity and outlandish vision.
What we have here is a pie-eating contest of slasher clichés, which add up to a mega-feast of tongue-in-cheek over-indulgence that leaves you begging for more after the final curtain. The gore is Intruder’s biggest selling point. Heads get lopped off, crushed and sawed in half; and much like the work of Fulci, everything is filmed in loving close-up. A movie can sometimes become an extension of the film-maker’s personality and having watched Scott Spiegel’s interviews many times, this, his signature feature, is truly a case in point. It’s a shame that such a modest, down-to-earth and clearly talented director has never reached the heights of his high-school buddies, Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell.
Paramount Studios– the enemy of all gore hounds after their stringent censorship of countless genre classics – were responsible for changing the name of Intruder from the much better Night Crew: The Final Checkout. Their VHS release also, characteristically, cut out all the gore. The first copy that I watched was the BBFC’s rated version, which in all fairness was still a well-produced and competent slasher – but it’s the uncut print that is the real gem. Obviously Spiegel’s effort is no Halloween and it’s something that the director is well aware of. If, however, you asked me to pick the best fifty – hell, best twenty – genre classics, Intruder would certainly be amongst them somewhere alongside Carpenter’s seminal favourite.
Very few know that Intruder is a remake of an old Spiegel 8mm feature that he shot during the early eighties, titled Night Crew. Credit has to be given to Lawrence Bender’s slick production skills, which turned an equally gory, but ultimately mediocre Halloween-clone (which the aforementioned short most definitely was) into a stand-out slasher classic. This project would act as a learning curve for Bender who would go on – through Spiegel’s introduction – to become one of the most important producers of the last twenty years. It’s strange to think that this low-budget stalk and slash flick would be the first step on the career that would bring us Quentin Tarantino and a host of Hollywood hits including, Good Will Hunting.
OK, so the cast were never going to turn up at the academy awards, but they do enough to get the job done and a nod to Dan Hicks, who delivers a highly committed performance. One change that I would have made would be to have given Renee Estévez (sister of Charlie and Emilio) the lead role over Elisabeth Cox, who I felt was the weakest link in places. The ‘twist’ ending – which I really enjoyed – has been seen before, although I am convinced that it was just coincidental rather than Spiegel borrowing from other genre pieces. There’s also a decent whodunit plot running, which is stupidly ruined by the packaging on many versions that gives away the killer’s identity on the front cover. Doh!
Intruder is by far one of the best slasher movies of the eighties and should be a member of every avid fan’s collection. It mixes black humour and gruesome slaughter outstandingly well and basically takes the guide book to making a slasher movie, reads it and then blows it out of the window by maximising every damn page/trapping. This is how slashers are supposed to be and Señor Spiegel is welcome back here anytime to have another crack at a genre classic…
Final Girl √√
Nightmare at Shadow Woods 1983
aka Blood Rage
Directed by: John Grissmer
Starring: Mark Soper, Louise Lasser, Marianne Kanter
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Firstly, before we get going, I must confess that this review is of the old US video version under the name of Blood Rage. The film played briefly in theaters as Nightmare at Shadow Woods and I also have Dutch and Argentinian copies that were released the same way. There was a budget disc that came out quite recently, but it cuts out all the good stuff, so if you are looking to track this down after reading, go for the VHS ONLY. Well, at least until it gets picked up and given the care and attention that it should have received long ago…
Although this overlooked little gem wasn’t marketed as an out and out gore flick, in its uncut form it certainly delivers on the red stuff. It was shot in 1982 and finished early the following year, but it didn’t get released until 1987 when the stalk and slash style of horror had seriously become old hat. There are many such examples that you can find here on a SLASH above, where features have been left on the shelf for whatever reason, but in the case of Woods, it is a real disappointment that such a fun little entry has become totally obscure.
There’s something uniquely satisfying about watching a gory film. It may be impossible to put it into words, but there’s a reason why an uncut version of a splatter fest will always favour that of a censored print. Humans have a morbid curiosity and it’s fun watching an actor getting his face cut in half with a bench saw, when you know it’s just prosthetics…
We kick off at a drive in movie theater. A mother is far too busy making out with her lover to notice that her twin boys Terry and Todd have crept out of the car and headed out onto the forecourt. After a brief confrontation with a teenage viewer and his girlfriend, one of the twins hacks the unfortunate jock to death with a handy axe that he picked up on route. Clearly a quick thinker, Terry gives the hatchet to his dumb-founded brother and leaves him to face a life behind bars in an asylum for a crime that he did not commit.
Fast forward ten years and Todd, who has been in a catatonic state since that fateful night, begins to recollect the fact that it is actually his twin-brother that should be held accountable for the grisly murder. Armed with the truth, he escapes the hospital to clear his name and bring his sibling to justice. Meanwhile the news of Todd’s escape, coupled with the uncomfortable fact that his mother is about to get married, sends Terry back on a maniacal rampage.
What we have here is the slasher movie equivalent of a ’67 Pontiac Firebird. Nowadays it may look a bit clunky and rough around the edges, but that doesn’t diminish any of its coolness. John Grissmer obviously set out with the ambition to fill his feature with all the necessary ingredients for it to rival the hard-hitters of the horror market during that period and if it weren’t for a few post-production issues, he would have succeeded wholeheartedly. As I mentioned earlier, the gore is spread thick and fast throughout the runtime and there’s no space left for sentimentality as the killer stalks his victims with a mean-spirited air of arrogance. In most traditional slasher films, the antagonist is either an unknown entity with no link to his victims outside a lust for murder or more commonly it’s a psychopathic colleague that’s seeking revenge, but conceals his identity from those that he stalks. Grissmer’s psycho kills indiscriminately and celebrates the fact that he is slashing those that look upon him as a friend. He taunts as would a playground bully and like the most fearsome schizophrenic, he has no apparent realization of the grotesque acts that he is committing.
Future Oscar nominee Ed French’s gore effects are heavily underrated and hold up well against some of the cycle’s more renowned bloody treasures. My favorite of the bunch would have to be when Maddy discovers the corpse of her boyfriend in the apartment complex and unaware that he has been murdered, she prods him to ascertain why he is failing to answer her questioning. As his body falls forward, the head splits completely in half through the middle and it’s a decent and credibly handled scare. This is one of many neat directorial flourishes on display and the final stalking scenes build some flashes of suspense and tension. The budget restrictions are obvious, but the film holds it’s own against its slasher siblings.
Mark Soper steals the show here playing both of the evil twins with an intelligent and well researched performance that defies his lack of experience. Instead of just going for the obvious and giving his separate characters distinctive vocal twangs, his body language, composure and stride are uniquely delivered and therefore look almost unrecognizable as the work of the same actor. He has a ball playing the maniacal killer and his ‘cranberry sauce’ lines are chillingly dark and brought to mind something that Jack Nicholson might ad lib. Louise Lasser, a good actress usually, is hit and miss here as the mother. I guess that she did manage much more ‘hit’ and the role was a difficult one. I also quite liked the innocent (and heroic) final girl who was played well by an unknown who had very few previous screen credits. Bruce Rubin’s screenplay is conventional of the slasher genre, but smart with the majority of its twists and gimmicks. It also does well to set up scenarios that develop the story and maintain the pace. Do you remember the scene in Halloween when Laurie Strode is screaming and in desperate need for help from her neighbours, but they dismiss her cries as drunken malarkey? Well, there’s something similar here when a kiddie is pre-warned not to open the door because there’s someone dangerous about. Later, when the heroine is fleeing and looking for a place to hide, guess which house that she runs to and begins frantically knocking?
What I did find disappointing though was that Rubin didn’t make the most of an ambitious plot by adding a possible element of mystery. We know from the start that Terry is the psychopathic sibling, but with a bit more adventurous scripting, we could have been left deciding which of the twins is the true killer until an archetypal revelation climax.
With that said, Woods still remains a top top splatter flick and would be a great sister companion for The Prowler or My Bloody Valentine from the same period. It is scary, well-written, fast moving, unique and on top of that mega gory. Ray Peterson was a rock and roll singer in the late fifties who had a four-octave voice. His songs were brilliant and he covered everything from doo-wop to up-tempo ballads, but only boasted a handful of minor hits. Woods in a way is similar to Peterson, because it has it all; – and for reasons that no one can provide, it never got the respect that it deserves…..
Final Girl √√
The Funhouse 1981
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Jeanne Austin
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
We humans all reflect on poor previous experiences and wish that we had chosen a different option, a different set of words or a different solution. It’s a common thought process to imagine what might have been had we reacted to a bad situation in a different way. No matter how successful, happy or influential someone may be, we all carry regrets that weigh heavily upon our shoulders like anchors. Deep inside every one of us is a dreamer that yearns for a chance to relive past experiences armed with the knowledge that we gained the first time around. Although turning back the hands of time is an impossible act, the ability to do so would be beneficial to each and every one of us.
This mentality applies in all walks of life, and cinema is no different. Imagine for a moment that after John Carpenter’s Halloween set the standard, the genre loosened its restraints and pushed forward to greater heights. Instead of the intoxicating pollution of minimal brained and non budgeted features that plagued cinemas after 1978; what if studios had spent time and money investing in the cycle and pushing new boundaries for its ongoing development? Despite an astoundingly negative reputation, the slasher genre, when handled correctly, can provide exemplary results. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock…
In 1981, Tobe Hooper was a director with the world at his feet. Hot on the heels of his cult classic features The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive, the director had been recognised by movie mogul Steven Spielberg and his name had become well respected in Hollywood circles. With the weight of a major studio behind him, Hooper decided to invest his talents in the fashionable slasher genre, which on paper promised to provide a feature that would finally rival Carpenter’s classic.
Hooper makes no effort to disguise Funhouse’s slasher heritage and he launches his entry with a scene that references two of the genre’s heavyweights. Whilst showering, our protagonist Amy is stalked via Carpenter-alike steady-cam in an opening that successfully sets the mood for the remaining runtime. The carnival has arrived in town and Amy and three of her teenage friends have decided to go along for the opening night. Despite warnings from her parents, the youngster bows to the pier pressure from her boyfriend and they arrive to be entertained by the lights and attractions on display. Ritchie has the ambitious idea to spend the night in the Funhouse, believing that the group can make-out and spend time alone without the intervention of their parents. It soon turns out to be a fateful plan, when the teens witness the brutal slaughter of one of the workers. Alone and locked in the carnival until morning, the troupe are stalked by a maniacal assassin with no chance of escape.
An endless amount has been written about Tobe Hopper’s fall from grace. The rapidity in which his career and quality of output hit a downward slope was stark and unrelenting. The Spielberg collaboration that gave us 1982’s Poltergeist promised us so much and was supposed to launch Hooper as a Hollywood suspense maestro that could maybe share a status with past-greats like Hitchcock and Kubrick. Unfortunately the opposite happened and he never hit the heights that had been predicted. Nowadays, horror connoisseurs look back on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the only truly outstanding feature in his portfolio. That’s somewhat unfair on The Funhouse though as this is an equally shocking and grim vision of terror.
Chainsaw Massacre’s strengths were its excessive use of terrifying sound, a skill that Hooper successfully repeats in this follow up. The final scene is an excellent juxtaposition of visual and audible horror and the film maintains a harsh and unrelenting feeling of danger that surrounds the heroine. Mixing bright flashes of light and the ear piercing chimes of steel cogs and chains, the director creates an atmosphere of unease that provides the right mechanical backdrop for a tense showdown. The final girl here is obviously different from any that we had been treated to in the genre prior to this and at no time did she show the bravery of a Laurie Strode or a Ginny Fields. She cowers away at the smallest of noises and spends the majority of her confrontation dumbfounded, petrified and in a state of shock. Although Elizabeth Berridge is reputedly no fan of the genre and spent years criticising the film and others like it for their content, there’s no denying that she delivers a fantastic portrayal and it’s breath taking watching the extent of her visual transformation into a terrified wreck
Modern day humans are obsessed with their image, and Hooper makes a smart social commentary as the youngsters glare in amusement at the freaks on display at the carnival. Their brash attitudes are ruthlessly avenged when they realise that they are alone with something that they had previously considered to be defenceless against their mockery. Revenge is served coldly as the protagonist emerges psychologically warped and drained like the creatures on display at the ‘freak show’. Funhouse’s subtle ethical theme shows an intelligence largely unseen in the genre.
The depth of author Larry Block’s script is given due respect by the vision of a director at the top of his game. We are treated to some crisp photography and shadow play that’s planned with finesse. Set pieces are skilfully conveyed and the circus freak makes for an authentic and creepy bogeyman. Much like Halloween, Hooper takes the decision to steer away from gratuitous gore and builds a credible underlying momentum of growing dread over a longer period of time. The killer does not begin to stalk the teens until at least an hour in to the feature, but we never get bored or never feel like the terror is far off. This is mainly due to some well-developed characters and a tense and well-streamlined runtime. John Beal’s rangy score works perfectly to sustain the moods in places.
Why Tobe Hooper never became the horror maestro that so many predicted is a mystery. Funhouse proves however that there is more to his catalogue than a Chainsaw Massacre in Texas. By far one of the best of the early eighties slashers, this entry deserves to be remembered. On a footnote, Funhouse was bizarrely and inaccurately banned briefly in the United Kingdom as part of the video nasty phase.
Final Girl √√√√
Directed by: Bill Crain
Starring: Jennifer McAllister, Laura Albert, Kenny Johnson
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
Bill Crain’s rarer than a bus in the rain ‘slasher’ movie certainly doesn’t follow the standard guidelines that have become so common in its counterparts. The bogeyman this time around uses grenades and small arms as well as an awesome array of melee weapons; – ingredients that are rarely seen in most post-Halloween genre pieces. Thankfully, there’s still just enough familiarity to keep slasher buffs from checking the rule book and the plot never strays too far from the path that you’ve grown to expect. I was truly flabbergasted to learn that this has never been released in its country of origin, which is strange for me as it seems to be a picture that has been well financed and produced. I would love to understand the reason behind this, but with so minimal information available on the www It’s hard to uncover any trivia. Nowadays, Mirage has become something of a phantom on the VHS market and a highly sought after piece for true collectors.
It all takes place in the middle of the dessert, which as I’m sure you’ll agree is a unique location for a slasher. Four Youngsters head out for a night away from the commotion of the city. Chris (Jennifer McAllister) and her boyfriend Greg (Kenny Johnson) meet up with amusing new age hippies Trip (Kevin McParland) and Mary (Nicole Anton) at a make shift camp site in the midst of the dune-like wilderness. Greg’s older brother Kyle (Todd Schaefer) and his buxom girlfriend Bambi (Laura Albert) soon turn up to join the body count applicants in their quest for an early grave. Kyle used to date Chris before his younger brother took the liberty of stealing his squeeze – something that Kyle doesn’t seem too keen to forget. Sound like a motive for a massacre? Well what did you expect? Before long an unseen someone driving a truck with tinted windows joins the gathering with a unique set of tricks up his sleeve. Will any of the kids survive to turn up for a sequel?
Due to the fountain of (false) information that is the IMDB, I was confused for ages as to who directed this film. It’s listed there as being directed by Bill Crain, but he has been given a separate profile to William Crain – the man behind Midnight Fear and a few popular TV shows. I quickly found out that both are one and the same person and that explains why Mirage looks so confidently put together. It’s certainly been stylishly photographed with some superb work from DP Michael Crain, and there’s a real talent for building suspense on display from the man in the hot seat. R. Christopher Biggs’ gore FX are imaginatively created and bloody, and a big thank you to the half-hearted employee over at the BBFC who inexplicably let this pass through UNCUT on a usually stringent 18 rating. A couple of the murders are indeed extremely gruesome. One guy gets buried up to his neck in sand before coming face to face with a grenade, while another ends up literally legless after loosing a battle with a chain and a pick up truck! We spend the majority of the runtime seeing only the killer’s boots as he steps out of his vehicle and stalks the youngsters. Later, he is revealed to be someone that completely shattered the image of what I was expecting. I mean that in a good way, obviously. There’s a unique mix of moods here and the atmosphere manages to be creepy, brutal and mercilessly unforgiving in places. The stand off between the maniac and the final girl seems more mean-spirited than usual. He seems to thoroughly enjoy taunting her and looks as if he wants the torture to drag on as long as possible.
The screenplay earns points for not overdoing the use of stereotype with its defined characters. There are two brothers who bicker very much how you’d imagine siblings would argue, and then there is a couple of lovers whose conversations and jesting reminded very much of the kind of jokes that I share with my partner. It’s that level of realism that makes Mirage play like it is more focused and believable. The majority of slasher films that I watch are filled with personalities so shallow and situations so extreme that you never feel true sympathy or recognition of the terror that you are watching on screen. Bambi, who is one of the girlfriends, is a real beauty. I have previously mentioned that I am attracted mainly to busty girls and she has a figure to die for. There’s an ambition here to involve the viewer in the action and I think that it allows Crain’s effort to separate itself somewhat from the more common-or-garden entries.
What I also found credible, were the restrained and controlled performances from a cast who overcome weaknesses in the level of their emotional dramatic competence by playing things straight. I remember a conversation that I had with Christian Veil after he had completed the slasher movie Evilbreed.
Mirage is a good late entry to the cycle that was somewhat unfortunate to miss a boom year placing amongst the slasher elite. When you consider that this was made with just a cast of seven and a pick up truck, you have to say that they did a damn fine job. Any slight dramatic flaws don’t detract credibility from the net result. I especially liked the subtle homage to Halloween during the conclusion, which I really advise you to look out for and see if you can spot. Unfortunately you’ve probably got more chance of finding liquid gold in your coffee mug than you have of ever tracking down a genuine copy of Mirage. If, however, you are lucky enough to find this one covered in dust on the top shelf of your local video store, then make sure you pick it up straight away. Recommended.
Final Girl √√√√
The House on Sorority Row 1983
aka House of Evil aka Siete Mujeres Atrapadas
Directed by: Mark Rosman
Starring: Kate McNeil, Eileen Davidson, Harley Jane Kozak
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
In 2009, there was a great, but brief, period of revival for the slasher movie. What with My Bloody Valentine 3-D doing impressive business at the box office and the special edition DVD of the original feature providing fans with all those eagerly anticipated gore scenes during the same week, it was most definitely the freshest breath of life for the category since the release of Scream in 1996.
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the special edition of MBV and it motivated me to dig through my collection and re-visit a few other cycle entries that had been gathering dust on my shelves. It seemed then to be the latest trend to remake eighties slasher movies and The House on Sorority Row was another that was picked to receive an updated re-birth.
If titles such as Madman and The Prowler were rivals to the gore-led Friday the 13th films of the early eighties and were inspired by Sean Cunningham’s visually graphic depiction of the slasher formula, then Mark Rosman’s bizarrely under-rated entry took its lead from Carpenter’s ‘less is more’ approach. Sorority Row does not boast a bunch of outrageously gory kill scenes and its bogeyman does not sport an audacious mask. It does, however, offer a slick suspense-fuelled runtime of classy directorial embellishments and down-to-earth and believable characters.
In order to get revenge on their unforgiving house-mother, seven sorority sisters plan an audacious prank. Unfortunately, the joke backfires and the elderly owner of the house ends up dead. The youngsters do their best to cover-up the ‘accident’, but it seems that someone witnessed the killing and begins to stalk and gruesomely slaughter them. Who could be behind the murders?
Slumber Party Massacre is generally recognised as the key sorority slasher, which is a shame, because The House on Sorority Row is much stronger and infinitely more deserving of that status. From the off we see that this is a cool and classy thriller thanks to Rosman’s razor sharp direction and some tightly edited scares. The film successfully juxtaposes the innocence of child-like imagery such as clowns and dolls with the dementia of a revenge-fuelled maniac and creates a deeply macabre atmosphere. There’s some chilling flourishes spaced frequently throughout the feature, which include the victims finding toys before they are slaughtered and the classic ‘decapitated head in the toilet’ trick.
The director skilfully utilises John Carpenter’s use of shadow-play to build suspense and the bogeyman remains mysteriously shrouded in the darkness of his non-identity. Perhaps one of the film’s key strengths is the realism of its characters. Many of the latter Scream-inspired slashers would fail because of their persistence in attempting to make a cast of purely beautiful people seem factual. Let’s face it, we don’t all look like glamour models and we don’t all have a rich mummy and daddy a phone call away, so how can we relate in any way to a story depicted using that methodology? Rosman recognised this and instead of a giving us a synopsis full of brainless-bimbos, the characters here are natural and in effect, not without their flaws.
Rosman had previously worked alongside Brian De Palma and was the Assistant Director on Home Movies from 1980. He learned a lot along the way and some of the stylish photography was particularly impressive considering that this was the twenty-four year old’s feature début. The hallucination scenes towards the climax are creative horror-imagery at its finest and the operatic score is at times pulse-raising. That final scene, which sees the killer raise from the shadows in creepy clown attire, is as iconic as anything from the life-span of the genre and the fact that the heroine is heavily sedated only adds to the plausibility of her chaotic state of mind.
Credit also must be given to the cast who carry the plot comfortably and Kate McNeil was superb as the easily-manipulated Katharine. Eileen Davidson puts in a good stint as Vicky and the dramatics remain competent right the way through. Like many eighties slashers, the final version that was released was not as the director had intended and an extension to the ending was filmed and re-edited just before release. Let’s hope that one day we will get a special edition disk with all the deleted scenes restored.
The director has stated in the past that he was not a particularly big fan of horror cinema and that he made this feature just to get a foot on the Hollywood ladder. That’s somewhat tough to believe as House is a movie that’s well-aware of its genre trademarks. The links with Halloween are too numerous to be coincidental and its doubtful that such stylish horror-imagery could be conveyed by a half-hearted auteur. The fact that Rosman was executive producer on the remake must prove that he still has a place for terror somewhere in his heart. Luckily, said rehash turned out to be good enough not to be an embarrassment to the legacy, but it still never got close to the classy style that was delivered here. One of the key attributes to the original’s strength is its realism and the sympathetic motive of the bogeyman, which was somewhat lost in the recent bigger budgeted update.
This is by a long way one of the best of the early eighties slasher flicks; if you haven’t already seen this suspense-marathon, you need to be asking yourself why not???
Killer Guise: √√√√√
Final Girl: √√√√√
Urban Legend 1998
Directed by: Jamie Blanks
Starring: Alicia Witt, Rebecca Gayheart, Jared Leto
Review by Luisito Joaquín González
So here it is, one of the first reviews that I wrote of a slasher movie. I posted this way back in 1999 and wanted to see if I still agree with what I said after eleven long years. I have updated some parts of it, but it’s still pretty much the same… Enjoy!
There’s something that I have to get off my chest before I begin my review of Jamie Blanks’ much-maligned slasher/whodunit, Urban Legend. What caught my attention initially was the fact that it boldly states on the front cover that it’s the: `Bloodiest teen slasherfest to come over from the states so far...’ That, I thought to myself, was one hell of a bold statement to make. Could it be a film gorier than Nightmares in a damaged brain or Rosemary’s Killer? Could it even be a flick with more goo than Blood Rage, The Burning or the uncut Intruder? If so how did it gain a certificate from the BBFC? Or could it be that the unnamed reviewer from The Sun, who wrote that article was trying out some highly hallucinogenic shrooms? I’m afraid that after watching, I believe that the latter is probably the closest to the truth because although Urban Legend has its moments, gore is definitely not one of the movie’s strong points.
Now, before watching UL I was biased into thinking it was going to be absolutely terrible after the amount of bad publicity it got from its UK release. Almost every review that I read was warning the viewer to avoid it at all costs. But to anyone, who has got a video library filled with as many, how can I put it, ‘matter of taste’ flicks as mYSELF, will know that is all the invitation I needed.
After an exciting opening, we are shown a campus named Pendleton University and introduced to a few likely suspects or victims that are discussing the recent murder of Michelle Mancini, a girl that was killed in the pre-credits. The conversation then turns to the legend of the ‘Stanley Hall Massacre’, where It’s rumoured that 25 years earlier at that same college, a professor went berserk and killedd ‘a whole floor’ full of students before stabbing himself through the heart with a honey knife. In good old slasher tradition, the kids decide to have a party to commemorate the aforementioned kill frenzy, which you know is definitely going to be a bad idea.
Before long a butcher in a parka coat puts in a few appearences and starts working his way through the cast in some pretty imaginative ways. Natalie, our obvious heroine, witnesses most of these murders but of course, no-one else sees them or believes her, especially the somewhat suspicious Deane. As more people disappear, the killer’s motive is revealed and it’s left up to Natalie to stop him.
To be honest, and I’m going to be an individual here, I can’t for the life of me see what those writers think is so bad about Jamie Blanks’ first attempt at a horror movie. Seeing how this was his directorial debut (previously he had worked as a camera operator on action flick The Huntsman) I think he’s done a really good job. I was so puzzled when I had finished watching this flick that I rang up two of my friends and invited them to come around and view it with my girlfriend and I. All three agreed that it kept them on the edge of their seats; and one even went as far as to controversially say it was better than Scream.
Each murder gets more imaginative than the last, with the killer going to various lengths to stage the most unique methods of slaughter. They are based around popular urban legends and most are brimming with cheesy innovation. The opening gimmick is brilliant with the way it cheats the audience into a false sense of security, and who can honestly say that they didn’t jump when Damon bit the dust? I agree that when the butcher’s identity is revealed you are left wondering how he managed to perform those killings unaided, but that is by no means grounds to say that the film is poor. If you’re watching a slasher movie for sensible continuity, then you’re on a losing team there buddy.
What lifts Urban Legend way above average is its wonderful imagination, pulsating energy and ability to make the most of its bag full of good ideas. It also benefits from a haunting score and a strong cast, which were at the time of release, mostly unknowns. Jared Leto has since gone on to earn roles in Fight Club and American Psycho, not to mention The Thin Red Line. He is an actor that I have seen many times, but feel that as of 2001, he hasn’t yet been given the right role that he can really sink his teeth in to. Here though, he does the basics superbly and shows much promise in his delivery. Alicia Witt is solid as the final girl and there’s a fair turn from Rebecca Gayheart as her bubble head friend. This was made before Tara Reid had developed a reputation as a party girl and she was then hoping for a career as an actress. She found some chances initially, but couldn’t do enough to hide her limits as a dramatic success. I did kind of hope that her character would survive, although that’s likely because she was arguably the hottest of the chicas. In fact, Blanks is quite ruthless with the cast and not many players avoid the assassin’s blade.
We are treated to a couple of effective jumps and false scares and some wonderful flowing cinematography, which keeps the energy level at maximum. Due to the slick momentum, things also gets impressively tense toward the end, as you play the game of work out the killer’s identity. The story keeps on twisting and pointing the finger at everyone who appears on screen and you can’t help but carry on guessing. I even enjoyed the OTT motive and even though the actor struggled to deliver a believable portrayal of insanity, the revelation just about works.
So all said and done I think it just goes to show Urban Legend is a matter of taste movie; you’ll either love it or hate it. I must admit that I actually thought it was fairly enjoyable and remains far more entertaining than the one-toned Valentine. Don’t be dissuaded by the poor publicity that circled this one, its well worth checking out.
Final Girl: √√√