Tag 1980s

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp (1983)

You won’t be coming home!

Angela lost her father and brother in a boating accident when she was just a small child. Eight years after the accident, she is still traumatised and has problems fitting in at school. The problems continue when she gets whisked off to summer camp with her cousin, Ricky, where she starts to get picked on by the other girls. However, anyone with sinister or less than honourable intentions towards Angela soon meets their comeuppance.

 

One of the most infamous slasher films of all time, Sleepaway Camp would have been just another face in the crowd and lost amongst the tidal wave of 80s slashers if it wasn’t for its controversial ending. Few self-respecting fans of horror are unaware of the shocking climax here, even if you have yet to see the film. But if you know nothing about it and are watching it for the first time, the finale hits you like a sucker punch to the ribs. You’ll not see it coming a mile away and you’ll still have to go back and double-take to make sure you didn’t imagine it.

The ending. Without giving anything away, it certainly comes out of left-field. Not just for the reveal of the killer but the connotations and implications of the startling final shot, a shot which has been seared on my mind since the very first time I saw it. Sleepaway Camp does hold a special place in my heart as it was one of the three films that I studied for my university dissertation on masculinity in horror films. Along with The Burning and A Nightmare on Elm Street II: Freddy’s Revenge, it provided me enough ammo to discuss the role of the ‘final girl’ and why it wasn’t commonplace in the genre for a ‘final boy.’ The twisted and warped implications of this final sequence in Sleepaway Camp is the exact reason why I chose this film to analyse and support my views. Raising questions about sexual repression, behaviour and how we as a society view and construct gender, I’ve been entirely sure whether the director and writer actually had some deeper messages to send or whether the ending was purely for shock value. Either way, it provided me with enough ammo to absolutely nail my dissertation to a tee.

Sleepaway Camp’s iconic ending works because of the way in which it portrays its protagonist in the run-up. The film does a great job of making Angela one of the most sympathetic leading characters you’re ever going to see in a slasher film. Doe-eyed, reserved and genuinely looking like she’s about to break down with all of the torment she receives, credit must be given to actress Felissa Rose for bringing the character to life in such a way. It’s hard not like her and, because of her quietly-spoken grace, it’s easier to hate those who try to take advantage of her. The fact that she hardly speaks helps matters immensely given the appalling nature of some of the other performances in the film. By default, Rose’s performance is the best by virtue of remaining silent.

The fact that Sleepaway Camp is set inside another dysfunctional summer camp will draw the inevitable Friday the 13th comparisons. Whilst the two films share many of the same low budget qualities and grimy appearance, Sleepaway Camp is more concerned with unsettling its audience with a variety of dodgy-looking characters and secretive sexual allusions. It’s certainly a more ‘dirty’ film than any of the Friday the 13ths, with an undercurrent of filth and depravity running through the whole thing, and it’s certainly more mean-spirited. The adults who worked at the camp are sleazy, perverted and vaguely paedophilic. The rest of the kids there are a messy mix of bitchy girls, borderline rapists and leering sickos. I wouldn’t wish any kid the misfortune of staying at this place over the summer.

Whilst the camp staff are on the receiving end of the lion’s share of the savage deaths, the young campers are not spared either. This adds in an unsettling element especially given that the actors portraying them actually were teenagers rather than over-30s pretending to be kids again. This meant no nudity or sex, something highly unusual for an 80s slasher, and gives Sleepaway Camp another unique selling point. Not only is there a lack of sex but even the gore quota has been reduced. The body count is acceptable and the deaths are fairly decent and creative (death by bee stings, death by boiling water, etc) but it’s not the goriest of displays. You mainly get to see the results of the kills rather than the gruesome acts but the make-up effects are decent here and, what’s worse, is that the camera tends to linger on the bodies a bit, adding to that voyeuristic, creepy vibe that runs all the way through this.

 

Still harbouring that grimy early 80s horror feel, Robert Hiltzik’s seedy slasher plods along rather pedestrianly for the most but it’s only in that final few shots that Sleepaway Camp truly cements itself as one of the greatest. It doesn’t rely on the usual sub-genre tricks to keep its audience entertained. Definitely a film that would never be made today, sit back and enjoy one of the ‘dirtiest’ horror films going. You’ll need a bath after watching.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988)

For each of man’s evils a special demon exists…

After his son is killed in a tragic accident involving some dirt-biking teenagers, country store owner Ed Harley enlists the help of a mysterious backwoods witch who conjures up the vengeful monster named Pumpkinhead to destroy those responsible.

 

Make-up man Stan Winston’s directorial debut, Pumpkinhead has always been of those films which every self-respecting horror fan has heard of, and most have probably watched, but never really lists in their top five, hell even top twenty, horror films. There’s a big reason for that – it’s not actually that good. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad. It’s just…average. Despite a hefty dollop of Southern Gothic spread all over the film, there’s very little to Pumpkinhead that you won’t have seen before.

My main gripe is with the notion of who the audience is meant to support here. The whole concept of the demon being summoned by Harley to get revenge for his son’s death is fairly standard issue but has one glaring problem – the antagonist/protagonist dynamic is all haywire and is confusing to really emphasise with a particular side. As a group, the teenagers aren’t actually that bad. Sure, the guy who knocks his son over is a jerk but the other teenagers are remorseful, upset and genuinely shocked at what happened. It’s hard to want to see them get killed for their actions and it’s hard to see them as the antagonists. Given that Harley is portrayed as a sympathetic character, by virtue of conjuring up the demon to kill these teenagers, most of whom were innocent of any wrongdoing, he swaps over into antagonist territory. So where does that leave Pumpkinhead? It’s the monster, so it has to be the antagonist, surely? But then it was summoned by Harley to right a wrong, making it the protagonist? I’m not quite sure. Pumpkinhead’s main problem is knowing whom to support throughout proceedings – Harley, the teenagers or the monster. A few tweaks of the script to make the act of Harley’s son more malicious would have tipped the balance. But hey, this is Stan Winston we’re talking about here, and scripts weren’t his forte – monsters were!

Winston got this gig after his critically-acclaimed work on big budget box office hits The Terminator, Predator and Aliens but was clearly not trusted with a similar-sized budget. Instead, he has to make do with what limited resources he can and certainly does a fantastic job, particularly with the memorable titular creature, though Winston’s input in the creature was limited given his directorial duties. The crew he assembled to make it certainly don’t let him down. Pumpkinhead is a highly-original, towering, malicious creature with huge claws and a ferocious-looking face filled with revenge. The monster walks as fluidly as though it were really alive – it is impossible to spot how and where the model was able to move by itself. Due to the impressive-looking creation, Winston isn’t afraid to show it early and you get a good glimpse of it during the prologue. Opting to shoot the creature in an array of howling wind, eerie blue-tinted lighting, swirling fog and strobe effects, Winston maximises the appearances of the creature so that it comes directly out of the worst nightmare.

It’s a pity it doesn’t really an awful lot. It’s a good forty minutes of the way in before Pumpkinhead finally gets summoned and starts to dispatch the teenagers one-by-one. When it does turn up (surprisingly often it has to be said), all it seems to do is stand around and growl. Whilst other horror films of the late 80s were piling on the blood and guts to try and keep jaded fans coming back, Pumpkinhead doesn’t go down the same route and is a relatively bloodless affair, give or take a few clawings. Most of the kills are telegraphed, with little in the way of shock or suspense to them, and the manner of execution is rather tepid to say the least. I guess there were some limitations to the monster hence why it always seems to have a free run at its victims rather than jumping out at them.

Pumpkinhead’s other great strength is Lance Henriksen as Ed Harley. This was Henriksen in his 80s prime, before he succumbed to a life of playing grizzled old men in low budget horror films, and he is fantastic as Ed. You really feel sorry for him after his son is killed, conveying the right sense of anger and desire for revenge that we all feel after being wronged. He quickly realises his mistake after calming down, which has strong echoes for a lot of people and how they deal with their anger in real life – only whenever you get angry, I’m sure summoning a three metre-tall demon is not high on your priorities! The teenagers are the usual bland array of non-entities simply killing time in the script before their demise. As I’ve already said, most of them are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as Harley’s anger goes and it’s a bit unlucky that they are killed. However, the script does not make them sympathetic in the slightest, it’s just the plot that does that.

 

Pumpkinhead is decent for what it is – an 80s monster movie – but, Pumpkinhead himself aside, sorely lacks that memorable ‘it’ which is so essential in any horror film. It’s neither scary nor particularly exciting and once the novelty of the monster wears off, you’re left with a rather bland film which should have been better.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (1988)

Terrorists steal a secret toxin from a secret military base which infects one of them during the botched heist. He is promptly killed by the army and his body is incinerated. However the ash produced from the incinerator gets into the air and the toxin proceeds to reawaken the dead as flesh-hungry monsters. A trio of soldiers on leave help a group of teenagers stranded in the outskirts of town fend off the zombies. All the while, the army is trying to prevent the spread of the toxin by forming a quarantine zone and killing anyone who comes out of it.

 

Bear with me here. This is a review for Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (to give the film the name that it received on the UK DVD release that I watched). However its original title is Zombi 3. You see it’s a supposedly a sequel to Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2, which is more commonly known as Zombie Flesh Eaters. And Zombi was the name given to George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead when it was released in Italy, to which Fulci’s Zombi 2 was marketed as a sequel. This is all well and good because to throw a further spanner in the works, Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 (this film) has nothing to do with any of the films made by anyone before it and instead seems to be an Italian knock-off of Return of the Living Dead, complete with rock music opening sequence and a zombie epidemic that is caused through the ashes of a cremated zombie. And for good measure the film also includes ideas from The Crazies and The Birds, just to cover all of its bases. So with all of this in mind, it’s time to get cracking with the review.

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 will never win any awards for the quality of its final output but I have to say that, unashamedly, it’s one of my favourite zombie flicks simply for the fact that it’s a lot of goofy fun. Its uber-trash: terribly-edited, badly scripted, features a random plot which zips all over the place for the sake of creating set pieces and contains some jokey zombie make-up effects. But if you like cheese, including flying zombie heads that stealth-attack from freezers and the US army developing the gas canister which they worrying call Death One, then you’re going to have a field day with this one.

Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 has little plot. Once the virus has spread and zombies are on the loose, then it becomes little more than one chase-and-escape scene after the next as the characters attempt to flee for their lives from the hordes. I guess the writers had a great time coming up with set pieces but having to build a film around them seems like an ask too much. The film generally repeats itself over and over again, as a couple of characters split up from the others, go looking for something and then end up being attacked and eaten by the zombies. Rarely anyone survives whenever they’ve been the focus of the film for the last five minutes! Thankfully there’s a rather generous cast to dwindle down for the finale so you’re never a few minutes away from another flesh feast. And feast you shall because the effects team have a field day with the kills in this one. Aforementioned flying zombie head aside (because it looks rubbish), there’s a whole array of meaty dispatches which happen regularly and culminate with a zombie baby.

The ‘Godfather of Gore’ Lucio Fulci directed most of this but Bruno Mattei took over the reins and finished the film at some point when Fulci fell seriously ill mid-shoot with only fifty minutes filmed. Mattei was asked to devise a secondary plot to pad the film out with new actors and the result is a jarring and blatantly obvious dual-plot film which rarely crosses threads in any cohesive manner. You get the feeling you are watching two films.

It’s pretty easy to spot who filmed what though as Mattei, not noted for his amazing films, apparently just added loads of things that he thought would look good to the film. Fulci’s moments have tension and a sense of atmosphere and dread. His scenes are properly shot, constructed as best as they could be and generally give you the sense that the guy knew what he was doing behind the camera, even if it didn’t translate well in the final film. His scenes include the shot of the zombies waiting outside the hotel with lots of fog blowing around, eerie blue lights back-lighting the figures and a haunting score building up anticipation of the attack. In other words, the best bits of the film. Mattei’s scenes are blatantly hack-job quality, with all the trademarks of his other low brow horror films like Zombie Creeping Flesh (don’t ask what the name is supposed to mean) and Monster Shark in evidence here.

Perhaps this also explains why the zombies act differently depending on the requirements of the scene. Some of the zombies can run, some walk and amble around slowly, some hide away in the bushes or behind walls and spring out at their victims, others just let them walk past without batting an undead eyelid and some pull ninja-like moves. Some of them even start to use weapons like machetes. I think it was George A. Romero who once said that as soon as zombies started to move quickly and act human, then they might as well be any other cinematic monster. Zombies with weapons and running at full pace towards their unarmed and injured victims seems to be a bit of a mismatch in my eyes. I don’t know whether this inconsistency was down to the duel directing but it’s annoying, frustrating and really harms the film.

 

Far too disjointed to be anything but a cheesy midnight viewing with a few mates and beers, Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 is an unbelievably idiotic, incoherent and inconsistent splatter flick that does deserve a lot of the flak it gets from fans of Italian horror – but I can’t help but be entertained by its nonsensical charms. It was one of my first forays into Italian horror and therefore holds a unique place in my cinematic splatter education, becoming one of my favourite zombie films. Plus the soundtrack is rather good!

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆