Tag 1980s

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

In Space No One Can Eat Ice Cream!

Mike and Debbie, a pair of young lovers, decide to follow a shooting star that has landed outside of their hometown and they discover a mysterious circus tent in the middle of the woods. Exploring inside, they find dead people hanging in what looks like candy floss cocoons and sinister clown-looking aliens walking around.  Rushing in to town to alert the local police, they are frustrated when no one believes them and thinks it’s a prank. They don’t realise that the clowns have followed them into town.

 

An affectionate throwback to the 50s sci-fi flicks of the past that used to be shown in drive-ins (The Blob immediately springs to mind), Killer Klowns from Outer Space has garnered one of the biggest cult followings known. And there’s a good reason for that. For all its silliness and ridiculousness, it’s one of the most creative horror-comedies to come out of the 80s and certainly something that you’ll not likely to see replicated any time soon. This is a film which does anything and everything it can to live up to the promise of its title, a true labour of love from its directing team.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the perfect example of a film which exists solely based on its central idea. Everything you can associate with clowns and the circus is brought to life and twisted into all manner of horrific forms – balloon animals come to life, pieces of popcorn are eggs for clown-headed snake monsters, cream pies are laced with acid, Punch and Judy shows take on sinister new meanings, giant shadow puppets eat spectators and the clowns make human ventriloquist dummies. It’s a film full of wacky and kooky ideas and your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you can suspend your disbelief for a while and enjoy the sheer creativity on display. The film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to delivering on the absurd premise – these are aliens that just so happen to look like clowns after all. But for each of the bad taste kills, there is a nightmarish quality that lies under the surface once we find out just why the aliens have landed on Earth.

The plot is structured exactly the same way as those 50s sci-fi films, where the young heroes discover a threat, try to warn the adults, are ignored and then have to save the day when the threat comes to town. Of course, the audience are in on the act from the start as we see exactly what Mike and Debbie have uncovered but the dramatic irony is that no one else believes them for the stupidity of the story they appear to be concocting. Killer Klowns From Outer Space is extremely pacey and the klowns are on the screen right from the early going – no slow reveals here. The narrative can sometimes be too dependent on the loose collection of kill scenes and klown set pieces strung together, but it doesn’t really need to be doing anything overly dramatic. Simplicity is the key here.

The Chiodo Brothers were known for their effects work so it’s no surprise to see that the film’s strengths lie in the production values, the sets, the make-up and, of course, the special effects. With a low budget, the Chiodos know how to get maximum mileage from the tools at their disposal. Apart from some obvious miniature and composition work during the finale with Klownzilla, the special effects generally hold up. The ray guns that turn people into the cocoons are a simple effect and the spaceship itself looks decent as it takes off. The sets are colourful and wacky, like you’d get in some Halloween haunted house attraction, and really add to the aesthetics. Literally everything you seen on the screen to do with the klowns has been designed to perfection. It’s attention to detail on a grand scale.

But the undoubted stars of the show are the ‘klowns’ themselves. Believe me, if you ever had Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) then you’ll want to stay well clear of this one as these creatures are terrifying. The demonic rubber masks give them human qualities, with just the right amount of Otherworldliness – you know these chaps aren’t local lads from Barnums! Generally tall and imposing, with huge red noses, sharp animalistic teeth and hairdos which must have taken ages to style properly, give the clowns a menacing physical presence despite the cartoonish appearance. The costumes look fantastic too and during the finale you really get to see just how many variations with both make-up and costumes they created for the film.

The cast isn’t particularly brilliant – both Grant Camer and Suzanne Snyder were hardly ever going to make it big after this but their relationship on-screen is good enough to pass muster. Likewise, for the annoying comic relief sidekicks Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi, though most of their irritability comes from the script trying to make them funny rather than anything they do personally. It’s veteran hand John Vernon who steals the show as grouchy Officer Mooney, the old-fashioned cop who believes in being sterner with the younger generation. Vernon gets to spout the infamous “You’ll never make a dummy out of me” line, oblivious to the fate that the klowns have planned for him.

Topping off the film is an excellent soundtrack from John Masssari, with plenty of calliope-style circus tunes suitably matching up what is happening on screen – the perfect combination of light-hearted fun and dark, brooding danger. There’s also a highly-catchy punk theme song by The Dickies, which bookends both sets of credits nicely. They just don’t make soundtracks like they used to!

 

In a genre filled with knock-offs, copy-cats and derivative rehashes, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is arguably the most unique and original comedy-horror ever made. The Chiodo Brothers had a wacky vision for a film and they saw it through to the very end with this fantastic amalgamation of ideas and practicality. Time has been extremely kind to this film and the whole production design still looks fantastic.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Demons (1985)

Demons (1985)

They will make cemeteries their cathedrals and the cities will be your tombs.

A pair of students decide to ditch their evening class after being given two free tickets to an unknown movie at the recently re-opened Metropol Theatre in Berlin. During the screening of the movie about people turning into demons after opening a tomb, one of the attendees cuts themselves on a prop metal mask from the film that is being displayed in the theatre foyer. This causes them to be transformed into a demon and they start slaughtering members of the audience, who in turn become demons too. When the other people in the audience try to escape, they find that the exit doors have been sealed and that they are now trapped inside the theatre with a horde of demons after them.

 

Demons was one of my first forays into Italian horror – I think Zombie Flesh Eaters was first – and I certainly had no idea what to expect. Growing up on a strict diet of British (good old Hammer) and American horrors, it can be a little jarring to dive into the world of Italian horror cinema, where plot is less rigid, logic is not as strictly adhered to, and writers aren’t confined by well-established tropes. Demons is the perfect embodiment of everything that made the Italian horrors of the 80s so ridiculously entertaining, yet so perplexing and puzzling at the same time.

Director Lamberto Bava cited this as his personal favourite out of all of the films that he has directed and it’s easy to see why. The simplistic plot, sort of like a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons instead of zombies, is easy to follow though incomprehensible to fathom out. Its utterly absurd, with the writers using literally anything they can think of to write themselves out of a hole and expecting the audience to buy it (the helicopter crashing through the roof for no other reason than to provide the survivors with a way to escape is the obvious example). Even the characters make no sense – a shifty-looking usherette appears to be ‘in’ on the whole thing at the start with a load of dodgy close-ups only to fall victim to the demons like everyone else, whilst don’t even get me started on why there’s a blind character going to the cinema. Even the story itself radically changes direction at the end, from a Night of the Living Dead-style siege flick with demons to a post-apocalyptic nightmare in the final scenes. But until you get to that point, Demons has a cracking pace and is full-throttle for the majority of its running time. It does sag a little in the middle once the demons have taken over the theatre and killed off a lot of people but picks the pace back up considerably towards the end where everything-but-the-kitchen-sink is thrown at the screen.

Bava does creating some striking images throughout the film. Used on many of the film’s posters and DVD covers, there’s a brilliant slow-motion shot of the demons walking up the stairs, shrouded in dry ice and eerie blue lighting; their yellow eyes glowing in the dark. The filmmakers used a closed-down movie theatre to shoot inside and it really adds to the production, giving it a sense of scale and grandeur that studio sets would have inhibited. Bava clearly learnt a lot from his famous director father, Mario Bava, and his cinematography is generally atmospheric. Neon lighting, dry ice and shadows and darkness are all used effectively to create plenty of tension and suspense within the confines of the theatre. It’s hardly a film that is going to be known for its atmosphere though and Demons has become an ultimate crowd-pleaser in the gore stakes.

Demons is gruesome and gory, with violence being the name of the game. People don’t just instantly turn into demons, but the transformation is slow and painful. Close-ups of fingernails being forced out of cuticles and teeth being brutally pushed through by sharp fangs will have you squirming. The demons are slobbering monsters, dripping blood and green goo, with pulsating neck wounds, and that scratch and claw away at their victims, ripping apart throats and, in one particularly nasty scene, the eyes of a victim and the scalp of another. The gore is cheesy in some places, but it’s far more convincingly brought to life than plenty of the zombie and cannibal films that Italy was churning out during this time. The body count is high, and the kills are all evenly paced out to keep things exciting and unpredictable. Some characters meet earlier demises than you’d expect. A standout set piece involves a demon hatching through someone’s back – certainly as impressive as any sort of transformation sequence you’d get from Rob Bottin or Rick Baker.

The energetic performances from the cast are embodied by the scene-stealing turn from Bobby Rhodes as a pimp who is only too quick to take charge when things go from bad to worse. I’m not sure whether it’s just the dubbing job done to his character but he’s so aggressive and assertive right from the first scene until his last. Rhodes would return as an unrelated character in the sequel and steals the show again. The two young couples who form the bulk of the main cast are all decent in their roles given the circumstances – trying to comment on acting in a film which is dubbed is a tall order!

Demons not only has a terrific original soundtrack from Claudio Simonetti, one of my favourite Italian composers, with some really catchy tunes (including the title music which is a real earworm), but it also has a bizarre collection of 80s rock and heavy metal from the likes of Motley Crue and Billy Idol which doesn’t quite fit in with some of the sequences they’ve been matched up with. There is an extended sequence featuring a guy on a motorbike with a samurai sword whilst a thundering heavy metal song blasts away in the background.

Like many Italian horror films of the late 70s and 80s, Demons has spawned a ridiculous number of ‘sequels’ – only one true sequel but a whole host of other films which have alternate titles using ‘Demons’ in them.

 

Demons is one of my favourite guilty pleasures – an immensely entertaining horror film with lots of spark and ideas, utterly ridiculous and beyond fathoming at times, and buckets of blood and grisly special effects. A roller coaster ride of epic 80s Italian splatter at it’s finest.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

House (1985)

House (1985)

Ding dong, you’re dead.

Author Roger Cobb is a troubled man, having been separated from his wife; their only son Jimmy disappeared without a trace and his aunt committed suicide by hanging. On top of everything else, he has been pressured by his publisher to write another book. After his aunt’s funeral, Cobb decides to move into her house for a while to write his new novel about his experiences of Vietnam. He quickly becomes haunted by visions of demons from his past and wonders if he is going crazy.

 

No this is not a change of genre for me as I review Hugh Laurie’s TV drama. House is the first instalment of a horror series which I’ve never really gotten around to watch. There’s four of them in the House series but the front covers and posters never did it for me, and I’m not the biggest fan of ‘haunted house’ films – my query is why someone would willingly choose to stay in a house that is being tormented by ghosts and spirits when they could run for the hills at the first opportunity. Thankfully, House isn’t your typical run-of-the-mill haunted house film, gaining something of cult status upon its release back in the 80s, and the end result is something a million miles away from what I was expecting.

A trio of good hands from the Friday the 13th series get together here to make a screwball film which could only have come about in the 1980s. With producer Sean Cunningham, director Steve Miner (who directed the second and third Friday the 13th films) and composer Harry Manfredini, as well as a story by director/writer Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps and The Monster Squad), House is a silly 80s cheese fest which is a lot of fun if you like your horror and comedy rolled up together with a knowing wink and shrug of the shoulders. Unless you stick with it past the first third, you’d never think that House would turn out the way it does. Its almost as if the script originally had the film panning out as a serious supernatural thriller but then the writers seem to give up that idea and just throw in a load of rubber monsters and goofy humour. It works! There’s a vibe here along the lines of some Raimi-esque The Evil Dead film, though House never quite reaches those levels of silliness or scariness.

The tone is light-hearted and not too overtly frightening – think of Dekker’s The Monster Squad for something along a similar tone and atmosphere. Take for instance a scene in which Cobb chases a little child around the house – a child who has a dismembered hand crawling up his back. The slapstick approach to the scene allows the tone to remain light, despite a child being in danger. Other scenes involving Cobb trying to stop said hand from attacking his attractive neighbour who is flirting with him and blissfully unaware of the corpse in the bags add to the slapstick approach. But it never quite goes all of the way with the comedy, holding back from really going the extra mile. This is a big problem with House – it’s fun without being hysterical. You’ll sit and smile at some of the goings-on, but you’ll rarely crack out into fits of laughter.

Despite lacking a killer instinct with anything it throws at the camera, House does get its make-up effects spot on and has a lot of fun with them. The copious number of latex monsters that inhabit the house and attempt to kill Cobb keeps things flowing nicely and the pace is film is swift. They look ridiculous but the practical rubber effects do lend the proceedings a goofy charm and have that unmistakable 80s look, despite the obvious limitations. It’s here where a bit more pushing of the envelope and the rating would have worked. More blood and guts, particularly with the disposing of the demon version of his ex-wife, would have worked wonders to add more hilarity and ludicrousness. I guess House was never designed as that kind of film. The less said about Big Ben, the hulking zombie remains of one of Cobb’s old Vietnam comrades, the better. He turns up in the final third and supposedly links all of the little narrative strands together in his “it was me all along” speech. He looks like a rejected version of Jason Voorhees from the Friday the 13th films (or at least the later ones where he was actually a walking corpse). He’s easily the weakest-looking of the monsters on show here, though that’s probably because actor Richard Moll is a little more recognisable underneath the make-up than some of the other actors in make-up are.

William Katt makes for a decent lead role, handling the serious elements just as easily as the comedy and action moments as and when they are required. There are other actors in here with supporting roles, but they don’t really contribute a whole lot to the narrative – this is Katt’s film from the start. He does have rather dull one-note delivery, but it works to convey the different moods and feelings that Cobb experiences. Seeing his facial reactions to some of the sights and sounds he faces is one of the highlights of the film – the scene where he sets up a row of cameras and dons his Vietnam gear in preparation for midnight is great. Unfortunately, the big pay-off in the finale where Cobb redeems himself is underwhelming but that’s because the film had shifted gears from the emotional thriller aspects to willingly embrace the cheese and dorkiness of the whole thing.

 

If there’s one thing you can say about House, it’s that it manages to deliver a fair amount of silliness, though without any true laughs or scares. Some of the effects have aged badly and the film is a little too lightweight for its own good, but it’s rarely boring. You just don’t seem to get enough of anything good whenever it crops up. It’s not for the want of trying but I guess rose-tinted glasses will make fans who grew up on this remember it in a lot better light than it probably deserves.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Beyond, The (1981)

The Beyond (1981)

Behind this doorway lie the terrifying and unspeakable secrets of hell. No one who sees it lives to describe it. And you shall live in darkness for all eternity.

In Louisiana’s Seven Doors Hotel in 1927, a lynch mob murders an artist named Schweick, who was in the middle of finishing a grotesque painting which could open one of the Seven Doors of Death, allowing the dead to cross into the world of the living. Several decades later, Liza Merrill, a young woman from New York, inherits the hotel and plans to re-open it. Renovating the hotel activates the hell portal, and she contends with increasingly strange incidents as the dead begin to cross over into the real world.

 

It was extremely difficult narrowing the plot down to such a small synopsis, but I think I’ve done a decent job in simplifying a narrative which doesn’t really have much else to say than ‘weird stuff happens because of a portal to Hell.’ The Beyond is Italian horror at it’s most infuriatingly strongest – some stomach-churning gore set pieces but without a coherent narrative to link everything together in an acceptable form. The second in director Lucio Fulci’s Gates of Hell trilogy (along with City of the Living Dead and House by the Cemetery), The Beyond is yet another case of the ‘Godfather of Gore’ going for broke where his strengths lie but failing to keep it all glued together when he isn’t dripping the screen with splatter.

The Beyond can be best described as a vivid nightmare, filled with bleak and depressing images, an oppressive and brooding atmosphere and a general sense that things won’t turn out the way we’ve come to expect from a UK/US horror. This is where the film’s strengths lie – because you have no clue what is going on, thanks to the fractured narrative, just go with the flow and expected the unexpected. Chances are, that’s the only way you’re going to survive this because trying to predict what will happen next is largely impossible and will just lead to frustration. I first watched this about ten years ago, hadn’t got a clue what was going on, became bored and disengaged. My recent second viewing at least allowed me to see it from a different angle and it was all the better for it, rather than trying to piece together the story and make some sense from it. Amidst all of the randomness and copious use of drawn-out shots, there is some decent cinematography and a few bits where the film threatens to fulfil it’s promise. There’s an effective score from Fabio Frizzi which adds to the ambiance and with all of the zombies, supernatural goings-on and ghosts present, Fulci certainly covers all of the bases. It’s a shame that the zombie finale is so bland and low-key and seems to have been tacked on simply for the added-on value of zombies.

The Beyond was originally on the UK’s ‘Video Nasties’ list in the 1980s as one of 33 films which were never prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, but which could have led to the police seizing the film from retailers if they felt the material in question was in breach of the Act. The Beyond was dropped from the list when the BBFC realised they had already made cuts to the cinema version. Nevertheless, the uncut version remained elusive until 2001. I guess everyone got their knickers in a twist back in the 80s because The Beyond isn’t any less gory than a number of other big horror releases from the time period. If you think you’re going to survive a Fulci horror without seeing one of his ‘eye-popping’ gore effects, then you’re mistaken! You’re also in for a bonus treat as eyeballs are both scraped out from the front in one scene and pushed out from the back of the skull in another. Try making it through any of these moments without squirming – eyes are the killers for me as far as gory effects go and any sort of trauma to them just brings out the wincing. Another trademark Fulci gore sequence, the throat ripping, is also present as one woman is on the receiving end of a dog’s bite. Bodies are also dissolved in lime and acid, with various levels of effectiveness. In some scenes, the gore is cartoonish and so obviously a dummy/mannequin head or prop being used. Whilst some of them don’t look convincing nowadays, you’ve got to give them some credit for trying to create something out of virtually nothing (as far as budget goes). This is definitely not a film for the squeamish, regardless of the varying quality of the effects.

Fulci favourite Catriona MacColl returns in an unrelated lead role again, doing her utmost to make some sense of the nonsensical script. Not only is MacColl an attractive lady but she’s a bit of a prototype for the strong feminine lead roles that would come later in the genre. She’s not the helpless, screaming damsel-in-distress type but a character who works almost equally with the male lead, David Warbeck, to get to the bottom of the mystery. This isn’t a character-driven film and it’s to their credit that both MacColl and Warbeck do their best to hold it together as Hell rains down upon them.

 

Some say it’s Fulci’s best work and though I can understand the reasoning behind that, I much prefer Zombie Flesh Eaters (to give Zombi it’s UK title) or City of the Living Dead. Sometimes surreal, sometimes crazy, always gory and other times just plain ridiculous, The Beyond is a nightmarish film which will drive you insane with it’s lack of logic and story progression but sicken and repulse you with it’s visceral punches. If you’ve never seen it before, my advice is to watch it twice before coming to a final judgement.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of the Universe (1987)

Masters of the Universe (1987)

A battle fought in the stars, now… comes to Earth.

On the war-torn planet of Eternia, Castle Greyskull is coming under threat from the evil Skeletor who wants to rule the planet. A group of freedom fighters, led by the heroic He-Man, are accidentally transported to Earth by a mysterious key which holds the power to make Skeletor practically invincible. Once on Earth, He-Man and his friends team up with two teenagers as they attempt to find the key and return home. However, Skeletor and his henchmen are soon hot on their trail.

 

Part of me loves this film for being He-Man’s only big screen outing to date (and that’s 2018 to be precise). Part of me hates what they did for transporting him all the way to Earth and robbing him of everything that made him unique in the cartoon. Part of me wants to laugh at how badly they’ve ripped off Star Wars. Part of me remembers this fondly for being the first film I can ever recall going to see at the Canon cinema in Stockton. I’m so confused with this film. I love to hate it and hate to love it.

Masters of the Universe is a fairly ambitious attempt to bring the toy line to life – forget comparing this to the cartoon as it’s virtually impossible to do. Fans of the franchise would be aware of the number of rather impossible challenges that, for 1987 at least, would be present if the toys were fully adhered to. The likes of Battlecat for a start! To create something that would have resembled He-Man’s faithful fighting mount would have been far too expensive and complicated for a film in 1987. So, what we get is a reasonable stab at reinventing He-Man with a more modest budget and outlook, though everything that made the character has been stripped away, turning him into little more than a big bloke with a sword. But why, oh why did they have to set most of the film on Earth? I want to see He-Man and his gang battling Skeletor on Eternia, not some high school in America. Made by Cannon Films with a fairly substantial $22 million budget, Masters of the Universe should not have been this underplayed and watered down. The whole mythology of Eternia is given way to contemporary Earth – not good for the story but convenient for the budget. You have a load of intergalactic heroes and villains duking it out in record shops and school gymnasiums – hardly riveting stuff that an exotic foreign planet would have lent to such sequences. Even filming in a desert or some mountainous areas would have been better as they could have passed it off as Eternia!

As I’ve already alluded to, the Star Wars ‘influences’ are too obvious. Comparisons can be made between the likes of: the imposing villains in Skeletor and the Emperor and the way in which they act, dress, use lightning-like powers and their similar demise; the black Eternian soldiers and stormtroopers; the Imperial March-esque signature music theme for Skeletor; the duel between He-Man and Skeletor and the lightsabre battle between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker; the bounty hunter-like nature of Skeletor’s mercenary group compared to Boba Fett and the other creatures from The Empire Strikes Back. How would this film ever function if the makers had never seen George Lucas’ film series? Actually, going back to the music, I’m being a bit harsh. Bill Conti’s soundtrack, whilst derivative of both Superman and Star Wars, is decent enough and adds some nice motifs to the different characters. It’s pity that what happens on-screen isn’t nearly as exciting as the music.

Dolph Lundgren was a decent casting choice for He-Man. Whilst he’s not the greatest actor (a total understatement given his monosyllabic performance here), he certainly looks the part and I’d be hard-pressed to think of anyone else who would have suited the role back in 1987. This was his first leading part, having impressed the world in his supporting role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. He gives it his all and looks to be enjoying himself without overstepping into camp territory. Surprisingly for a main character, he’s not given an awful lot to do and he falls into the backdrop too often, allowing his more vocal companions to further the plot along. He’s there to kick ass when needed and that’s about it.

Opposite him is Frank Langella as Skeletor. The cartoon depicted Skeletor as a rather effeminate villain, cackling and screaming and generally being a massive buffoon, whose plans never came to fruition. Credit to Langella for turning a silly villain into a dark, terrifying bad guy who really gives off that ultimate sense of evil vibe. Langella is quite frankly, superb, as Skeletor and gives a spirited performance which the film really doesn’t deserve. Maybe Langella was a massive fan of the cartoon or toys and wanted to do the character justice for his kids or something? There must be a reason why he put in so much effort to the role.

Robert Duncan McNeill (Star Trek: Voyager) and Courtney Cox are pretty awful as the two teenage leads. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to centre a film featuring a hulking, semi-naked, blonde Arian male fighting a talking skeleton who shoots electricity out of his hands on a couple of human teenagers with relationship issues needs to sort themselves out. Fans of the toys will also be disappointed to note that few of Skeletor’s henchmen make an appearance – Evil Lynn is here (the wonderful Meg Foster) and there is a character called The Beast Man, but they’re too forgettable to really make much impact on the story. The action sequences involving He-Man and Skeletor’s minions simply fall into the generic laser fights trap that any Star Wars film would feature. Squint your eyes close enough and you’ll be forgiven for thinking Han Solo was firing at stormtroopers.

 

Masters of the Universe was an expensive flop, which ultimately led to the end of Cannon Films, and rightly so. It’s such a flawed, badly-amalgamated mix-up of Conan and Star Wars with little real resemblance to the toys or cartoon that it’s a wonder it ever got the green light. Still, nostalgia works wonders for this film and I can’t help but love it. It is entertaining and pretty fun and light-hearted for the most with a few decent moments. It’s definitely a case of ‘what if?’ and with the right budget and right people taking control of certain areas, it could have been a defining 80s fantasy film. Could have been…

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, A (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985)

The Man of Your Dreams Is Back

A new family move into the house on Elm Street and it isn’t long before the local teenagers begin having nightmares about Freddy Krueger. This time, Freddy attempts to take over the mind and body of Jesse, the teenage boy in the house, in an attempt to continue his heinous crimes against the Elm Street residents.

 

The laws of cinema dictated that a sequel to the hugely successful A Nightmare on Elm Street would be rushed out as quickly as possible and here we had it, only a year after Wes Craven’s genre classic struck horror gold. Much of the success of the original stemmed from infamous bogeyman Freddy Krueger, who had become an iconic horror character within the space of one feature film. Audiences wanted to see more of the pizza-faced villain and to strike whilst the iron was hot, this sequel was pumped out very quickly, with little thought to quality apart from the $$$ that the studio was expecting it would bring in. It shows.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is a poor sequel in comparison to the original but on its own it stands up fairly well. Unfairly maligned, the film may not be everyone’s favourite sequel but I’d question anyone who favours it over Parts 4-6. After an imaginative opening in which Freddy Krueger drives a school bus full of teenagers into the desert where the ground begins to give way, revealing Hell beneath, the film quickly grinds to a halt. It’s not that there isn’t a decent story here because there are some interesting ideas floating around (more on those in a moment) but it’s that the script just doesn’t do anything with them. Jesse seems to experience one weird dream after another but he doesn’t end up resolving anything or learning anything on his own. Freddy has to spell it all out for him and the audience because the script is too weak to give us any real progression of the story.

Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy from the original gave the audience someone to root for and cheer on but there’s no repeat of her here. Instead, Jesse (Mark Patton) spends the bulk of the film sulking or brooding and is one of the most miserable leading characters I’ve ever seen. Jesse is not likeable in the slightest, though not exactly in the ‘I hate you so much I can’t wait for the killer to get you’ category. He does manage to convey the inner torment that Freddy is causing Jesse, particularly towards the middle section of the film where the nightmares became weirder and more vivid and Freddy begins to make his move.

At least Freddy is still scary here. He’s kept in the background for most of the film but when he does appear, he’s mean, sadistic and manipulative. He needs Jesse in order to return to the real world, though more should have been done with this side of Krueger’s personality. He probably has about the same amount of screen time as the original, which is good as he doesn’t become overexposed, and he’s not firing off cheesy one-liners yet. Robert Englund was the only person to return from the original and he carves out another fantastic Freddy performance. Those expecting Krueger to up the body count a little more in the fashion of Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers will remain disappointed. Despite slashing his way through a group of teenagers at a pool party in the film’s most memorable scene, Krueger doesn’t really do a lot of damage. He’s still in the psychological torture stage of his character development, playing and toying with his main victim to extract the maximum satisfaction from his revenge.

This has been dubbed the ‘gay’ A Nightmare on Elm Street film and for good reasons. There seems to be a not-so-hidden message about Jesse ‘coming out’ about his sexuality. He’s got a ‘No Chicks’ sign on his door. He runs away from his girlfriend after an awkward romantic encounter to spend the night in the masculine safety of his shirtless best friend. During a sleepwalking incident, he ends up in an S&M bar where he meets his high school gym coach who then proceeds to take him back to the school for a late night workout. With loaded dialogue like “there’s a man trying to get inside of me” and “Fred Krueger! He’s inside me and he wants to take me again” it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that Jesse is a man with a sexual dilemma. Whether A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge was progressive in its approach to homosexuality during the AIDs scare of the 1980s or whether this was all unintentional, this homosexual subtext was that strong that I wrote about this film as part of my university dissertation (alongside The Burning and Sleepaway Camp). The homosexual subtext does absolutely nothing to subtract from the quality of the film, in fact it improves it tenfold because it’s something a little different.

Despite the interesting ideas in the film, this is the dullest of the series by a long way. It does have its moments, but these are too few and far between. There’s a great moment where Freddy emerges from inside Jesse’s body, complete with a rather gory body ripping, and there’s another gross-out moment involving Freddy’s tongue. I can’t help but wonder how much more mileage they could have got out of the film with a few more of these ‘is it a dream or isn’t it a dream?’ sequences.

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge has the ideas and the vision but fails to match up to them with a paltry budget clearly designed to cash in for maximum profit and a sense that this doesn’t really do anything with the character of Freddy Kruger or some of the surviving story from the original. It gets unfairly criticised and having watched it numerous times as part of my studies, I have a greater liking and understanding of it than I ever did before. However, Freddy would bounce back bigger and better with the next sequel. This one stands out as some kind of anomaly within the Elm Street franchise.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Maniac Cop (1988)

Maniac Cop (1988)

You have the right to remain silent…forever.

A killer dressed in a police uniform begins murdering innocent people on the streets of New York City. It turns out that a vengeful former cop has taken to branding out their own style of justice, determined to make people pay for the awful things that happened to him when he was unfairly imprisoned on made-up charges.

 

I can’t believe it took someone as long as they did to make a film about a killer police officer. This was the 80s, a decade known for being the playground of the slasher flick where all manner of deformed caretakers, jilted lovers and murderous siblings turned into serial killers, taking aim at the nearest bunch of partying teenagers they could find. What better stock character to turn into a psycho than one of the people meant to be protecting you?

Definitely a case of a film which sticks rigidly to its title, Maniac Cop doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an exploitation film and wears its heart on it’s sleeve. This is a rare film which actually delivers on its promises and then some, combining action and horror in equal measure. William Lustig had helmed the disturbing and controversial Maniac a few years earlier and applies himself well again, lifting a little bit of the grime and sleaziness and playing it straighter to avoid offending as many people. He has a certain eye and flair for the low budget carnage that ensues in his films and he sure can milk every penny from the finances. The film looks good, with the darker side of New York being exploited as much as it can to add a sense of atmosphere and tension to the night time scenes. This is certainly a city where you wouldn’t want to be out at night.

Not only can he create the right mood, but Lustig is skilled at directing action pieces and throws in plenty of exciting moments here, including the great finale where the maniac cop attempts to escape justice by fleeing in a police van.  Getting the balance between being a low budget action film and a suspenseful slasher just about right, the narrative veers across the borderlines a few times. The slasher elements work better in the first half of the film, as Cordell racks up a decent body count from law-abiding citizens in the means streets of New York. He’s pretty handy with whatever police accessories he’s carrying – he’ll even use wet cement if the need arises. The kills are decent enough and filmed well to convey a real sense of atmosphere. When the action begins to ramp up in the second half of the film, the horror elements go out of the window somewhat but by this point, the audience know the stakes are high to stop this guy.

Director Lustig has assembled a cracking cast to really add some class to proceedings. Bruce Campbell, still fresh-faced after his appearances in the first two The Evil Dead films, takes on the leading role of the rookie cop. It’s far from Campbell’s best work, and he plays it completely straight, but his youthful appeal is a nice contrast to the ever-reliable Tom Atkins. He is somewhat underused in a smaller role as the more experienced Detective McRae and it’s good to see the pair work off each other in the screen time they get. Richard Roundtree, of Shaft fame, adds more credibility as the police commissioner. All three men get a decent chunk of screen time too which was nice to see. Too many low budget horror films hire named actors to give top billing to and then only give them a few minutes of screen time for budgetary purposes. Cohen’s script allows all three men to shine in the roles they’ve got. The fact that the focus of the film is on adult characters with jobs and lives, rather than annoying teenagers in the woods somewhere, lends the narrative more of a gritty edge.

They’re not the only stars in the cast but special note should be given to Robert Z’Dar. He is the maniac cop of the title and is a mountain of a man. His Officer Cordell is one of the most imposing villains to come along in an 80s horror flick and gives Jason Vorhees a run for the money in the physicality stakes. It’s no wonder that Z’Dar returned for the two sequels – his deadly character just smacks of franchise as there was so much more you could do with the notion of a killer cop. Sadly, the sequels, nor this for that matter, never really played on the paranoia and fear that a vigilante member of the police would create for a town or city and turn the character into something of a one-note slasher. Cordell does have a back story which is explored here but that fades into the background and becomes irrelevant when he murders innocent people.

The soundtrack is effective, with a pulsating typically-80s synthesised to accompany the thrilling moments and a haunting whistling song to be paired with the flashbacks to Cordell’s miscarriage of justice. I do like a good synthesiser score. Finally, no review would be complete without highlighting the fact that Maniac Cop also sports one of the greatest tag lines from an 80s horror film, hell any film made – ‘You have the right to remain silent…forever!’ ranks up there with the best.

 

With an effective director-producer-screenwriter pairing of William Lustig and Larry Cohen, Maniac Cop is one of the horror genre’s most unappreciated entries. A solid, entertaining way to indulge in some of the 80s finest exploitation offerings and essential viewing for any genre fans.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Slumber Party Massacre, The (1982)

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Close your eyes for a second … and sleep forever

Left alone for the weekend when her parents go away, teenager Trish decides to hold a slumber party for some of her school friends. What she didn’t count on was recently-escaped psycho Russ Thorn deciding to gate-crash the party with his power drill.

 

The epitome of the 80s slasher or the ultimate nadir of the sub-genre? It’s hard to decide whether The Slumber Party Massacre should be celebrated as one of the best things to happen to the slasher or have a cheap pop at it for reducing the sub-genre to its ultimate base elements. Everything that was popular about the slasher flick was streamlined into this film, unfortunately also highlighting everything that was wrong with it at the same time. Minimal plot. Minimal characterisation. Maximum carnage. Played as straight as an arrow. That seems to be the motto here.

The Slumber Party Massacre wastes little time getting down to business, letting us know who the killer is from the start and dispatching a couple of victims early on. At a lean seventy-seven minutes long, the film never truly outstays its welcome but even at that length, it gets a little repetitive after a while. The wafer-thin plot is literally a one-line summary (I’ve stretched it out to two for the introduction), the main character is the de facto heroine simply because she’s the one organising the party and the killer is just a complete nutter because of his love for power drills. The film doesn’t even bother trying to expand or explain anything beyond what the audience needs to know to get through to the next scene. Made during the heyday of the slasher, the audience is expected to know the sub-genre tropes off by heart. Why bother with a motive for the killer when you can see him drill holes into people? Why develop the girls as characters because we’ll root for them by default when a psycho starts chasing them?

Low production values give off exploitation/grindhouse vibes, firmly supported by an effective synthesised score which carbon dates the film smack bang into the early 80s (coupled with some classic 80s clothing and hairstyles to boot). There’s nothing overly complex about how this was made – a few simply urban locations, a big house and a few side alleys and gardens. Throw in lots of girls who quite happily take off their clothes for the camera (and the female director doesn’t shy away from exploiting every last second) and a group of token guys who gate-crash the party to add to the body count. There’s nothing more to it. You’ll have seen this done a million times before and a million times after – what makes The Slumber Party Massacre that bit different is that it gets in there early, back in 1982, where such sort of satirical slasher had yet to really kick off in earnest. There’s a bit of humour scattered around – let’s face it, you won’t be scared in the slightest watching this, despite a few generic ‘boo’ scares such as the obligatory cat jumping out into the camera moment.

Once you get over the fact that the killer looks just like a normal bloke wearing some denim and holding a power drill and not some guy in a mask, he can be quite fun. He’s not hidden in the shadows, though the film could have used him more effectively if they didn’t keep showing us close-ups of his bored face. He’s not given loads of unnecessary back story. He’s just a nut job with a drill – simple, but effective. I’m not too sure on the superhuman powers he seems to exhibit in the final third as the surviving girls throw all sorts of things to him and he keeps coming back. Thankfully, he’s pretty adept at killing people and so the body count is substantial (eleven kills altogether, not including the killer), fairly well-scattered through the running time and reasonably gory. The fact he keeps using the power drill for the most part keeps the kills relatively generic but at least there’s a bit of blood and gore as a result.

 

It’s light-hearted and cheesy, definitely a product of its time, and just about makes it over the line without getting too irritating and outstaying it’s welcome. The Slumber Party Massacre is fairly pacey, full of naked women, has a decent body count and some effective stalk’n’slash moments (or I should say stalk’n’drill) – I just don’t hold it in as much esteem as some of my fellow genre fans.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

They’re Back From The Grave and Ready To Party!

Two bumbling employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air which promptly reanimates a cadaver in the freezer. After their boss arrives and decides to cover everything up, they chop up the cadaver and the trio head across to the nearby crematorium to burn the remains. Unfortunately, the ash is caught in the rain outside and the entire graveyard is reanimated, which is not only bad news for the men inside but also for a group of teenagers partying there.

 

THE original zombie comedy movie, Return of the Living Dead was like a breath of fresh air into the zombie genre in the mid-80s after George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead had spawned a never-ending slew of exploitative Italian knock-offs which had worked the formula to death. Another zombie film like the rest would have been the final nail in this sub-genre. Along came Return of the Living Dead to straighten the score. No relation to Romero’s trilogy despite the title, Return of the Living Dead is a horror-comedy classic which is almost unrivalled in the affection that horror fans have for it.

Horror-comedies are all the rage now and have been for some time but if you think back, there weren’t too many efforts before Return of the Living Dead came along. You’d have to go all of the way back to the likes of Abbott and Costello pairing up with the famous Universal monsters in the late 50s to really find a decent example of a successful horror-comedy teaming. Return of the Living Dead’s success and popularity would prompt one to ask ‘why had that been the case all of these years?’ Surely someone had a decent idea to mix comedy and horror together but it seemed like a no go, especially during the bleak days of the 70s backwoods horror cycle which added a raw element of realism to the previously-glossy horrors of the 60s. However, the 80s provided the perfect decade to dare to be different and so Return of the Living Dead came along, providing the template for horror-comedies for years to come.

Return of the Living Dead is naturally funny. This isn’t a gag reel filled with jokes – the humour is organic and comes realistically from the hysterical reactions that the characters have to what is going on around them. You have a trio of established actors in Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa who attempt to hold everything together before they burst out laughing. The sharp, witty scripts helps them, their comic timing is impeccable and their deadpan reactions to everything that happens just makes the film a hundred times funnier than it was ever conceived to be. Karen is the standout here and his performance, particularly during the first quarter of the film as he tries to deal with the reanimated cadaver, is hilarious. Coupled with younger actor Thom Matthews, the pair make up quite the comedy duo as their prying around in the basement causes all of this carnage to go off – it’s the slapstick-like visuals and the constant wailing of Karen that really cause all of the laughter.

The bulk of the laughs are confined to the first half of the film and once the full zombie outbreak happens, things get a little more tense and serious. Unlike many horror-comedies, Return of the Living Dead constantly reminds the audience that it is watching a horror film to go with all of the goofing around and manages to tread the fine line between laughs and scares. There are some true scares to be had amongst the hi-jinks and for all of their silliness, the zombies are actually pretty frightening at times. The first appearance of the cult ‘Tarman’ zombie in the basement sends shivers down the spine: a slimy, skeletal monster with a jelly-legged walk, Tarman is an awesome make-up effect. He remains one of the most indelible images of 80s horror, with his oily complexion, jerky movements and cries of “BRRRAAAIIINNNSSS” ringing out onto the screen. Tarman does get to feast on some brains too in a rather icky moment but the film’s goriest (or at least suggestively gory) scene is when half of a mounted anatomical dog comes back to life. I found that more distressing than any sight of zombies eating brains! And I’m no dog lover too!

Writer/director Dan O’Bannon cleverly plays upon audiences preconceptions of what a zombie film is supposed to be – you know, the shuffling flesh-eating fiends with the whole ‘trauma to the head to kill them’ thing – but then re-writes the rules with fast-moving monsters who take more a blow to the head to stay down and can talk and act based on their former lives. The script is set within a film universe where Night of the Living Dead was apparently based on true events and the remains of that original zombie outbreak were hidden away in canisters. That’s about as far as the subtle self-awareness goes as the film was originally perceived as a sequel to Romero’s films before O’Bannon came on board. The characters don’t do too many stupid things to further the plot, the irony here being that everything they end up doing makes the situation worse despite doing what they saw happened ‘in the movie.’

Not only content with twisting around the zombie genre, Dan O’Bannon purposely makes his cast full of punks as a sort of a middle-fingered gesture towards 80s slashers which had casts of faceless stereotypical teenagers. Funnily enough, most of the punks end up being faceless stereotypical teenagers but there are a few memorable characters, most famously Linnea Quigley’s Trash, who strips off on a gravestone and ends up being naked for the rest of the film to fulfil the requisite T&A quota.

Return of the Living Dead also features a great punk rock soundtrack. Whilst I’m not the biggest lover of punk, the soundtrack fits beautifully with all of the carnage going on. The title track ‘Party Time’ by 45 Grave is a head banger and kicks off the zombie outbreak with a real explosive energy.

 

Though this has the 80s stapled all over it, Return of the Living Dead is still as excellent today as it was back then. Brimming with comic energy, overflowing with great set pieces and still managing to provide enough chills and thrills to remind you of its horror roots, it’s the perfect party film to watch every Halloween.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Nightmare on Elm Street, A (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

If Nancy doesn’t wake up screaming she won’t wake up at all.

Nancy Thompson has been having recurring nightmares about a sinister, disfigured man who tries to mutilate her in her sleep but it’s only when she finds out that her friends at high school have been having the same dreams, that she realises something is seriously wrong. As the physical effects of what happens in their dreams begin to appear on their bodies in real life, and as some of her friends begin to die, Nancy knows that no one will believe what is happening to them and decides to take matters in her own hands.

 

It’s no exaggeration to state that A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of horror’s most famous films. Hell, I could argue that it’s one of the most famous films ever made. Almost everyone has heard of the film and, if not, you’ll have heard the name of its main antagonist, Freddy Krueger. Spawning one of Hollywood’s longest and most financially successful horror franchises, it’s funny to see the rather quaint origins of this global behemoth in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. Made on a low budget of $1.8m, the film brought in over $25.5m in box office (it made its budget back in opening week alone) and firmly established director Wes Craven as the ‘Master of Horror.’ A Nightmare on Elm Street was released at the tail-end of the golden age of slashers in the early 80s. Audiences had become tired of seeing the same formula rehashed time and time again, with a cast of teenagers being subjected to slaughter at the hands of some masked assailant. Craven brought those ideas on board but subverted them in a way that no one else was doing at the time. As a result, A Nightmare on Elm Street stands head and shoulders above the majority of its 1980s horror counterparts.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is almost a ‘How To Do Horror’ for film students and is a testament to late director Wes Craven who was a lot more skilled behind the camera than people give him credit for. His eye for detail, coupled with the cinematography by Jacques Haitkin, is fantastic, using a mix of shadows, blue-tinted lighting and natural light to give many of the scenes a surreal, dream-like quality to them. This isn’t just your typical man-in-a-mask slasher film but something greater and something which plays upon a deeper level of fear than your average horror film. The atmosphere throughout the film is unnerving, bleak and very ominous. Craven builds up great levels of suspense in a number of scenes, from the attack on Tina in the opening ten minutes, chasing Nancy through the boiler room or the race to save Rod. The characters are never too far away from Freddy’s clutches and the whole ‘don’t fall asleep’ plot is just a writer’s dream. How can anyone survive for too long without sleep?

Craven continually toys with the audience, blurring the lines between dreams and being awake, between fantasy and reality, and so you’re never quite sure whether what you’re watching is real or not. Some scenes are clearly dreams, some are clearly reality but there are many scenes in which you believe the characters are awake turn out to be dreams and vice versa. Keeping the audience guessing allows Craven to play with our expectations as he removes the signposted barriers saying ‘dream’ or ‘reality’ for full effect – look at the sequence in which Nancy is taking a bath. Craven flips the sequence numerous times to ensure that the audience remains on tender hooks.

A Nightmare on Elm Street is more character-driven than its contemporaries but that doesn’t mean to say it shies away from delivering the gory goods when needed. The sequels would focus on elaborately cartoonish dream death sequences but here they are played out for full horror effect. Whilst there are only a handful of deaths, the ones that are given to us are highly memorable. The first death, in which a girl is tossed around a room by an invisible Freddy and has her stomach cut open, is still effective in conveying the sense of the supernatural and how the characters are powerless to resist. However, it’s the legendary ‘geyser of blood’ scene where one unlucky victim is dragged into their bed that is the most impressive.

One aspect to the film that is sorely, sorely overlooked whenever people review it is the Otherworldly soundtrack by Charles Bernstein. The main theme begins with a creepy piano number, a little more low key and subtle than other horror films, before the electronic synth kicks in. These slower tracks build up the suspension and unease nicely as you wait for something louder to kick in. Thankfully, the pace of some of the synth tracks picks up during attack or chase scenes. It may be too 80s for some people but the music is just an extra tool that Craven uses to shape the scares. If you’ve got a spare few minutes, head to Youtube and check out the track ‘Run Nancy’ which is one of my favourite film scores – menacing, chilling and building to a nice crescendo.

Finally, what review would be complete without addressing the elephant in the room. A Nightmare on Elm Street gave birth to one of, if not the, biggest pop culture icon of the horror genre – pizza-faced child killer Freddy Krueger. Long before he started throwing wisecracks in the sequels, shilling lunch boxes in TV ads and participating in boxing-style showdowns with Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger was not only a sadistic bogeyman but he’s always been a child killer. Confined to the shadows for a large part of the film, Freddy is someone straight out of your worst nightmares. With his trademark red-and-black striped sweater, his fedora and his knife-laden glove, he is a truly iconic horror character who manages to chill you, scare you and even make you laugh (inappropriately that is but comedy is always a good valve release for fear). The first full appearance of him in the alley, with eerie low key lighting and a ghostly blue tint, is still terrifying to this day. Freddy enjoys tormenting his victims, perversely toying with them in their vulnerable sleep state, and taking great pleasure from his acts. However, he still has a raw anger and aggression, a rage which drives him to commit these acts of revenge, boiling underneath the surface. Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger rightly etched him into horror lore. His performance is superb, easily floating between all of Freddy’s emotions at the flick of a switch. Caked underneath layers of superb make-up, Englund is unforgettable in the role and allows his personality to shine through. It’s no wonder he became typecast as a horror villain in the years following.

Equally as good in this film is Heather Langenkamp as Nancy. A nice mix of youthful vulnerability and innocence and sheer-minded determination and strong-headedness, Langenkamp makes for an appealing lead who doesn’t really let Freddy get the better of her. There’s a reason she was brought back for two further sequels. Johnny Depp’s acting debut doesn’t exactly give you a taste of what would be to come in later years but he’s not too bad and has one of the most memorable last scenes ever committed to horror.

If there’s one thing that almost ruins A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s the ridiculous ending. I’m not sure how Craven ever thought that final scene would give everyone an appropriate send-off. Not only is it confusing but it kind of undermines a lot of stuff that happened before it. I can understand he wanted to throw one last curveball with the whole ‘is it a dream or is it reality?’ double take that had been used so effectively throughout but it clearly is one time too many.

 

I guess it’s a generational thing where you have to have watched certain films by a certain age for them to leave a lasting impression. Horror films of the 70s and 80s still have the raw ability to chill today and A Nightmare on Elm Street did for me for sleeping what Jaws did for swimming for me as a kid. I’m sure teenagers today prefer the awful remake and think that this would be dated and ‘looks fake’ as the case is with most films made pre-2000. But A Nightmare on Elm Street is a fantastic horror flick, equally scary, surreal and sinister with lots of memorable moments, a once-in-a-lifetime villain who just works on so many levels, a great cast who bring to life their characters with relish and a soundtrack which aids the mood immeasurably. Wes Craven’s death was global news when it happened in 2015 and bulletins carried A Nightmare on Elm Street as his main work. Rightly so. It has become one of the most influential films ever made, not only in horror but in any genre.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★