Tag 1980s

Monster Squad, The (1987)

The Monster Squad (1987)

You know who to call when you have ghosts but who do you call when you have monsters?

A group of young children are members of the Monster Squad, a club who idolise anything monster-orientated in their treehouse hideaway. When they find out that real monsters including Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster have invaded their small town, they realise that it is up to them to save the day as the adults would never believe them.

 

‘The Goonies with monsters’ is how most people view The Monster Squad and whilst that comparison is largely accurate, it does do this fantastic film such a disservice as there’s far more going on here than being a horror-based version of Spielberg’s kids classic. Co-written by Fred Dekker and Shane Black (considered one of the pioneer screenwriters of the action genre with the Lethal Weapon films under his belt), the smart script both pays homage to the old films and brilliantly brings them up-to-date for the then-modern era of the 1980s. This is a film which plays upon the premise that monsters, and all things horror, are the coolest things to a bunch of twelve-year old boys. They are falling in love with the genre for the first time here in their little monster club, and the audience is reminded of their first forays into the genre.

There is something quaint and innocent about this whole film that has attracted such a cult audience over the years. It wasn’t very successful upon its initial release, but time has been extremely kind to The Monster Squad over the years. I’ve never been entirely sure who the film is targeted at – I think it is meant to be a children’s film, though there is far more bad language and serious action (quite a few people die in this one) than you’d probably want to subject your own kids to. Perhaps it’s this confusion which led to both adults and children thinking it was for the other age group and deciding not to watch it. Regardless of who the film was geared towards then, it’s clear that adults have taken this to their heart, particularly those in the thirty-forty demographic who will have been young when this was doing the rounds. There is a real love and affection for the genre shown across almost every aspect of the film and it’s this endearing concept which has kept it feeling fresh.

The Monster Squad is by far from perfect and this is largely down to the plot, which is fairly loose and coincidental and harks back to the monster mash team-ups from the 40s, where the narrative was just a sketchy mess of ideas designed to throw the big monsters together. The prologue is little more than a MacGuffin to give the monsters a reason to be in suburban America, but the film assumes you don’t really care about that and just proceeds to go with the flow. The Monster Squad borders on being funny and scary from herein out. It’s funny in places, though you wish it was funnier in others. Legions of fans across the world won’t help but raise a laugh whenever they hear the “Wolfman’s got nards!” line but the film really needed more silliness like that when it matters.

Stan Winston provides the updated make-up jobs on the monsters and they all look fantastic. Frankenstein’s monster is probably the easiest one of the group to get ‘right’ and Winston opts for the classic look here. It’s the revamped versions of the Wolfman, the Creature and the Mummy which look great, particularly a brief werewolf transformation sequence that deserves more appreciation. It’s a pity that the latter two don’t get much to do in the film at all. The bulk of the monster action involves Dracula, portrayed by Duncan Regehr, and the Monster, played by Tom Noonan. Regehr’s Dracula isn’t the best incarnation of the bloodthirsty count you’re ever going to see but he manages to switch between the elegance and menace of the role well. However, it’s Noonan’s Monster who steals the show, as the lumbering brute develops a sweet relationship with a little girl. Throwbacks to the infamous scene in which the Monster stumbles across a little girl next to a lake in the original 1931 version, The Monster Squad develops the innocent bond even further here, leading to a heart-warming moment during the finale which will have even the most hardened souls reaching for the tissues.

At under eighty minutes long, The Monster Squad is one film where you actually want the production team to have rolled with it a little longer, even for another ten minutes. The film is pacey and light-hearted for the most, so you’ll be able to sit back and breeze through it. Surprisingly, the youngsters cast in the lead roles are all excellent – Andre Gower, Michael Faustino, Bobby Kiger and Brent Chalem (as ‘Fat Kid’) will not get on your nerves like the know-it-all kids from other horror films, and work together well. However, it’s little Ashley Bank who steals the show as the sweet, good-natured Phoebe who steals the Monster’s heart with their touching, though short-lived, friendship.

 

The Monster Squad is not perfect but it’s close. It’s rare example of a film which will have you reverting to your twelve-year old childlike state once again no matter how many times you’ve seen it. It brings back your own memories of watching horror films for the first time, whilst delivering a solid slice of 80s horror-comedy action at the same time.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

House by the Cemetery, The (1981)

The House by the Cemetery (1981)

BEWARE THE DEMON FORCES OF THE…BLOOD BEASTS

A New England home is terrorised by a series of brutal murders, unbeknownst to the guests that a gruesome secret is hiding in the basement. It seems that the previous owner, Dr Freudstein, hasn’t quite vacated the premises.

 

Released way back in 1981 (the year of my birth), The House by the Cemetery is the third film in the Italian director Lucio Fulci’s ‘Gates of Hell’ series, a loose trilogy of horror films that also includes City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. It was one of the films that suffered greatly in the wake of the ‘Video Nasties’ frenzy in the 80s and was actually one of the thirty-nine unfortunate souls to be prosecuted by the Director of Public Prosecutions. It beggars belief that it was finally released uncut in the UK in 2009 – showing everyone how ridiculous the prosecution was in the first place but also how much our tolerance for on-screen violence and gore has gone through the roof.

I never quite got The House by the Cemetery and it’s by far and away the weakest of the three films by a considerable distance. If you thought the others were bad as far as logic and sense goes, you haven’t seen anything yet because this one makes even less sense, even if the underlying story is far more straightforward. There is a lot of unnecessary supernatural stuff floating around, inadvertently creating massive plot holes, when actually it could have worked purely as a simple slasher flick. But like most Fulci films, things happen without a real point and the copious violence and gore on show is pinned together with thin narratives. Best not try to piece together too much of the flimsy story because you’re only a few scenes away from something completely turning that upside down. There’s rarely any character development, ideas that are introduced are never fully fleshed out and the endings are open to interpretation (meaning you won’t have a clue). Some of this might have worked with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond due to their nightmarish doomsday-like scenarios but not here with the more traditional story.

For Fulci, this is restrained stuff. There are his trademark gore set pieces – the film kicks off with a suitably-visceral death – but they’re too few and far between, with the time being filled with some truly lethargic padding. Surprisingly, there is a lack of his trademark ‘eye trauma’ moment where something sharp sticks into a human eye. But this time around, the jugular is the prime target for the killer of the piece and there are a couple of gushing kills to make even the most hardened horror fans squirm. The gore splashes around at much-needed moments of aruduous pacing but Fulci fails to really build upon true suspense. A frustrating trademark of Fulci’s is to have one of the characters being menaced simply stand there in fear and wait for whatever is terrorising them to get closer and kill them. It doesn’t exactly crank up the tension.

Whilst City of the Living Dead and The Beyond featured lots of zombie and supernatural forces, The House by the Cemetery features just the sole protagonist. An unseen assailant is responsible for some of the on-screen kills early in the film and it’s only in the final third of the film where we actually see Dr Freudstein in all of his Frankenstein-like glory in the basement. The nice twist here is that the mad scientist has actually become the monster as he harvests body parts to keep alive. Gianetto De Rossi has done a super job in bringing to life Freudstein and the doctor’s first grisly appearance is definitely worth the wait. Sadly, all he does in the final third is groan and shuffle around like a typical Fulci zombie, and it raises the question of how he’s managed to kill so many people when he groans loudly and shuffles along at a snail’s pace. Don’t even get me started on how no one has ever checked the basement in the newly-bought house. He wasn’t even hiding behind a fake wall, just down there in plain sight of the stairs!

Fulci regular Catriona MacColl returns, having already been tormented in both City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, and is the usual dependable hand. The least said about little Giovanni Frezza, as her young son Bob, the better. Frezza’s dubbing has been given to a woman and his screams and cries are laughable, and his incessant whimpering in the finale is the most annoying sound you’ll hear for a long time. You’ll be wishing Freudstein does him in, and quickly too!

 

The House by the Cemetery is fairly tough going for any horror fan but die-hard Fulci lovers will no doubt appreciate his attempts to move away from the more overt gore outings into something supernatural akin to The Shining. Those who aren’t use to his brand of Italian horror are better off viewing his earlier works.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Just when you thought it was safe to be dead.

Two canisters of Trioxin, the ‘zombie gas’, fall from the back of a military convoy as it passes through the town of Westvale. There, a group of kids accidentally open one of the canisters as part of an initiation. The gas quickly spreads through the graveyard and soon the town is overrun as the dead start coming back to life, seeking the brains of the living.

 

Following up what many people believe to be one of the best zombie films of all time, not least one of the most entertaining horror-comedies ever put to the screen, was always going to be an impossible task. And it’s a task that director Ken Wiederhorn sadly fails at in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Return of the Living Dead was a fresh, exciting take on the zombie genre which combined some hilarious comedy with some truly effective scares and atmosphere and managed to perfectly balance the two together with a punk rock mentality to go with it. Return of the Living Dead Part II doesn’t manage to get the balance right and is all the worse for it. Though this can easily be attributed to the loss of Dan O’Bannon, the director and writer of the original, who didn’t return for this one. His input is sorely missing here.

Bizarrely, Return of the Living Dead Part II comes off more like an inferior remake than any true follow-up and it significantly tones down the violence and gore. With the combination of a kid in one of the main roles, something suggests they were targeting a younger audience who clearly enjoyed the lure of the video cover of the adult-orientated original in the rental store. In place of the violence and gore is a more comedic approach, which barely works. Too much slapstick and not enough smart writing is this film’s main problem, though that comes down to a director who is obviously not comfortable with the comedy material he’s been presented. Ken Wiederhorn previously directed atmospheric Nazi zombie flick Shock Waves so he’s got the horror credentials, he just lacks the finer touches of the funny bone to go with it. A dancing Michael Jackson-esque zombie and a severed hand which gives someone the middle finger are among some of the cheesier moments I can remember. They’re just not particularly funny and come off as a little desperate to make the audience laugh.

Return of the Living Dead Part II isn’t scary as a result. There was something genuinely terrifying about the situations the characters in the original found themselves in, from the paramedics getting mobbed by zombies to a guy having to throw himself into a crematorium to avoid turning into a zombie. There’s nothing even close to that here, despite the characters finding themselves in tricky life-or-death situations, and the feeling of repetition from the original just continues to dominate proceedings here. Only a different finale, involving the surviving characters luring the zombies to the electricity plant with a fresh batch of brains, gives the narrative any sort of new life and direction. By that time, it’s too late.

James Karen and Thom Matthews, arguably the two breakout stars of the original as the bumbling employees who caused the entire outbreak, are back but as totally new characters. Whilst the dynamic between the two isn’t as good in this one, as the script is weaker, they do share a few decent moments. As before, Karen is by far the funnier of the two and his incessant whining is funny, even if it’s a bit overplayed now. There’s a few nods to their prior roles – “I feel like we’ve been here before. You… Me… Them!” – but these characters just stand out as much. Only Phillip Bruns as a barmy doctor makes any sort of impression from the new characters, with Michael Kenworthy’s young Jesse being one of those annoying know-it-all kids who frequently popped up in the 80s.

The zombies look more cartoony than scary – even the famous Tarman zombie looks like a cheaper knock-off costumed version. From some weak-looking puppets to a bunch of extras wearing some low rent Halloween masks and make-up, these zombies don’t look like they’ve been rotting in the ground for too long, with the majority of them all still nicely suited-and-booted in their Sunday best. The gore is virtually non-existent here and what little we get is far too timid to be effective.

 

You almost want to like Return of the Living Dead Part II more than you do because of it being a sequel to the original but any sort of originality and novelty value that the original had has simply been frittered away here with some poor choices of tone and direction. It’s not overly terrible, but if Return of the Living Dead Part II didn’t want to be compared to the original so badly, it should have tried to do its own thing rather than recycle the same thing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆