Tag 1980s

Paganini Horror (1989)

Paganini Horror (1989)

Desperately needing a new hit to appease their producer, a female rock band acquire an unpublished score by legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini and head to his old remote villa to shoot a music video for their latest track. Little did they know that the sheet music is cursed and that they have unleashed the spirit of the dead composer and unlocked a gateway to Hell.

 

One final hurray for the Italian horror genre in the 80s or a damp squib to end the decade? I’ll give you a second to guess which category Paganini Horror falls into. A film with a bit of potential but with no clue on what it wanted to be, Paganini Horror is the epitome of how desperate the Italian horror genre was at this point in history; a film which did little success at the box office in Italy and didn’t really get much of a look-in across the world, consigned to obscurity and dodgy video bootlegs for decades. Now in a time where niche distributors in the UK and US are finally releasing these lost old school horrors for contemporary audiences, Paganini Horror sees the light of day to a whole new fanbase.

Paganini Horror comes with a bit of history between producer Fabricio De Angelis and director Luigi Cozzi. Angelis wanted a simple horror film whilst Cozzi wanted to play on his science fiction credentials by making something more fantastical. What we end up is a film which satisfies neither man – a timid horror film without any real scares or gore and a sci-fi film where all of the wacky cosmic stuff had been cut out by the time it hit theatres. The mish-mash of approaches is obvious. There are no rules. No limits. No restrictions. Like the majority of surreal Italian horror films from this era, you can’t even try and comprehend what is going on – just sit back and accept all of the nonsensical stuff on display. The plot meanders from idea to idea and not settling down with one clear direction – you’ve got Paganini slumming around the villa killing people, invisible forcefields preventing people from leaving and green fungus which melts people into piles of goo amongst other incidents that occur. It’s all very bewildering, especially with a twist ending which tries to explain everything that has come before it.

Paganini looks to be pitched as some sort of Freddy Krueger-like villain, stalking and killing with his Stratovarius complete with a retractable blade, but he’s hardly in the film enough to make a real impression. Instead, you have the characters exploring the villa, crawling around the same blue-lit tunnels, green glowing pits of Hell and red-coloured corridors. It’s just the sort of cheap and tacky Halloween funhouse you’d get in a carnival but it’s purely superficial atmosphere due to a lack of real scares or tension. Above all, and the cardinal sin for any film from my point of view, is that Paganini Horror is just dull. There’s a lot of crazy stuff floating around but there’s also a lot of nothing, with too many scenes just involving characters standing around talking about what is going on (and a dreadful script full of exposition to explain all) or walking around exploring the villa.

This being the 80s and featuring a rock group as the main characters, if you think you’re going to survive without hearing some of their songs then you’ve got another thing coming. I’m not sure we needed to listen to the entire blatant rip-off versions of ELO’s Twilight and Bon Jovi’s You Give Love a Bad Name being blasted out by the band, but it does waste valuable screen time in two lengthy sequences. However, they’re kind of catchy in that 80s Italian rip-off way and I have immediately downloaded them to add to my cheesy Italian horror rock collection (Clue in the Crew’s The Sound of Fear from Zombie Flesh Eaters 2 will take some beating)

Donald Pleasance cameos in a throwaway role as the mysterious dealer who sells the score to the group. It’s probably the easiest pay cheque he will have ever received, working only three days and getting a free holiday to Venice out of it. Bizarrely, he’s dubbed over by someone else in the English language version of the film, making him sound like some low budget Pinhead. The rest of the cast are your typical group of 80s fashion victims, ineffectual male characters and cute but vapid females. Flicking between the English language dub and the original Italian version, it didn’t make much difference to the performances, consisting of really bad overacting, shouting when not needed and a general sense of phoning in it. Pretty standard for Italian horror at this time.

 

Cozzi denounced the film as the ‘poorest film in the history of the cinema’ and though he’s got something of a point, Paganini Horror is by no way the worst Italian horror film you’re ever going to see. It’s cheesy enough, mad enough and quick enough to provide some entertainment but the film is very much scraping the barrel of the genre at this point.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Pit, The (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Drop In Anytime.

A renegade doctor is shot dead and entombed with his fiendish experiments in the basement of an abandoned wing of a mental hospital. Twenty years later, a mysterious woman is admitted with amnesia, and her arrival is marked by an earthquake which cracks the seal to the Dead Pit, freeing the evil doctor to continue his work.

 

That is only a half of the madness on offer in The Dead Pit, a cheesy 80s horror fest which goes by the letter of that decade’s genre output. Projecting itself across video store aisles with some classic 80s poster artwork of a zombie doctor appearing to lead an army of zombies behind him, this was the type of film young horror buffs, not old enough to rent it themselves, would have dreamt of watching as kids: gore, nudity, and violence in abundance. Of course, being young horror buffs, we would have had little awareness of everything else that makes a good film and so it’s nice to see how these films stack up in adulthood.

What The Dead Pit lacks in plot and coherent story, it makes up for in gore and fun. There’s so much more on offer here than just your generic zombie film. The script chucks in everything but the kitchen sink, sometimes too much for its own good, and tries to keep things from becoming too routine. Not sure how to resurrect the mad doctor from a twenty-year absence? Simple: just have a random earthquake. How are you going to kill zombies without resorting to the usual tropes? Simple: have a nun in there firing off holy water at them all. There are about a hundred and one questions you’ll have whilst watching and, whilst the film tries to answer a few as well as throw in some nifty twists, for the most part you’re better off ignoring them and going with the flow.

First time director Brett Leonard certainly does his best to belay the $350k budget and really crafts a decent mood and atmosphere, using an actual mental hospital for filming and making the most of some neat 80s-style red and blue lighting effects shining through the windows whenever some supernatural shenanigans is going on. The smoky green dead pit of the title, appearing during the finale, is also effective, as is the trademark 80s synth score, combining to give the impression that you’re having some lurid hallucination. Leonard gets to grips with some of the horror movie techniques such as having things pop up outside the frame of a shot, really making the most of every shot to craft suspense and a feeling of unease. Leonard would go on to direct The Lawnmower Man and the similar style and mood is evident there, just with a bigger budget.

The zombies don’t show up in the film until well over half-way through, so until then it’s just up to the mad doctor to provide the chills. With glowing red eyes and fairly tall and imposing, Dr Ramzi makes for a decent villain and starts to kill off a few of the orderlies and nurses walking around the hospital in the middle of the night. Ramzi likes his patients alive and kicking whilst conducting improvised surgery and so expect to see plenty of syringes into skulls, scalpels across throats and, in one of the film’s most impressive set pieces, a nice bit of scalping and cranium removal. The film is surprisingly gory for such a low budget flick – heads roll, faces melt, people are ripped apart, and the aforementioned surgery. The zombies don’t do as much damage as you’d expect them to do, nor do they look particularly ‘zombie-like’ having been rotting away for twenty years, but they pose a few problems for the survivors in the finale. Sadly, Ramzi’s unnecessary one-liners water down the character a bit, like some sub-par Freddy Krueger – the comedic tone is out of place.

Cheryl Lawson is the lead female and, in her first feature film, spends the majority of the running time parading around in the teeniest of white cut-off tank tops and knickers (and without a bra too), baring all and providing the requisite nudity – I’m not too sure whether her outfit is standard issue for an asylum though! It doesn’t hurt that she’s gorgeous and has a decent pair of lungs but she’s too inexperienced to hold the fort whenever the carnage goes away for a bit. That said, no one else in the cast really does anything to help her out. You’ve got a load of standard issue low budget horror performances, with some blandness, some droning, some hyperactivity and some overacting all visible. The cast all play it straight, with the exception of

 

The Dead Pit is a cheap schlocker, designed for some cheap chills, thrills and spills and nothing more. But there’s a little more substance to it than most of its ilk: it’s atmospheric, graphically gory and surprisingly-well shot for such a low budget genre offering.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

To All a Goodnight (1980)

To All a Goodnight (1980)

You’ll Scream ’til Dawn

At the Calvin Finishing School for Girls, a student is teased by her friends during a game and falls from a balcony to her death. Two years later during Christmas vacation, a small group of girls stay behind to sneak in their boyfriends for some festive partying. But one by one the students begin getting murdered by a killer in a Santa Claus costume.

 

Pre-dating Silent Night, Deadly Night by a few years, To All a Goodnight is the first full-length feature film to throw a killer Santa Claus good and centre into the fray (I’m not counting short stories from anthology films like Tales From the Crypt). However, most people remember the infamous former, as well as 1980’s Christmas Evil, purely because they do a better job of using the jolly character for nefarious purposes. Hardly in the top ten of holiday-themed horrors, To All a Goodnight is a slasher which beat Friday the 13th to the punch by a couple of months back in the day but one glance at this and you’d think it a cast-off from the dying days of the 80s.

Director David Hess should have been able to churn out a better offering for his first directorial outing. After all, the guy was something of a genre staple throughout his acting career with credits ranging from nasty characters in The Last House on the Left to House on the Edge of the Park and should have known a thing or two about how to craft an effective horror-thriller. But he was let loose with a camera, a ten-day shooting schedule and little else by the looks of it. To All a Goodnight is dreadfully dull, brought about by deathly interactions between a bunch of horrendous actors who are trying their hardest to make a terrible script sound even worse. At a certain point during the film one when red herring has turned up dead, I thought that the film was going to kick in for the Final Girl finale before I realised I was little over half-way through! With the sluggish pace of the film, that felt like I’d been sat there for hours, let alone forty-five minutes.

The story itself is wafer-thin, as evident in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it prologue (not sure which one came first in 1980 between this and Prom Night but it’s virtually the same introduction, only shorter), and doesn’t know what it wants to do with anything apart from have the characters lounge around their bedrooms or the living room all of the time. People go missing and they continue to sit around. They even discover a body and report it to the police, whereby they continue to hang around the house despite the fact there’s a murderer loose! Hell, they don’t even acknowledge there’s a problem until the final third of the film even though pretty much all of their friends are now missing. These characters deserve to die for their stupidity and obsession with sex. I know that slasher formula dictates that the bulk of the younger characters are meant to be full-on with their feelings and hormones but this lot swap partners and move on without a second guess.

There is a substantial body count here, with no fewer than fifteen corpses to add to the tally by the end of the film. That’s impressive for any early 80s slasher and it’s just such a shame that the majority of them are so poorly planned and drawn out for maximum impact. There’s little tension or suspense with any of the kill scenes – the killer just pops up and does the deed with little fanfare or build-up. There is a decent variation in the methods of dispatch and, whilst not going to win any awards for most gory slasher, there is a bit of blood splashed around. And whilst the killer does sport the classic red Santa outfit, the difference here to the rest of the Santa slashers that followed is that the killer actually wears a creepy old man mask to go along with it. It’s a good costume but as the film is too dark and there’s little creativity in the camerawork, the killer is badly wasted. Even the creepy gardener who is thrown in there as a red herring doesn’t seem to have a proper role apart from randomly appear in the bedrooms of some of the girls at weird times of the night.

 

To All a Goodnight is a generally fright-free festive frolic which is a real chore to sit through. Clunky, uninspiring and failing to make the most of the holiday theme, it’s strictly one for purists. There are much better Santa slashers out there to fill your perverse needs at this time of the year!

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire II (1986)

Mr Vampire 2 (1986)

A professor and his two bumbling assistants find the bodies of a man, a woman and a child preserved in a cave. However, the bodies are really vampires and return to life when the prayers pinned to their foreheads are removed whereupon they proceed to cause chaos in the laboratory. The child vampire hops out into the streets. It is found and befriended by two children who take it home and hide it in the closet away from their parents. Meanwhile, one of the assistants has been bitten and goes to seek the help of the herbalist Lin Ching Yin. As Lin goes to help vanquish the vampires with his remedies, the reporter Jen, who desires Lin’s niece, determines to get photos of what is in the laboratory but instead unwittingly releases the vampires.

 

Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West. There is something lost in translation between the East and West, and I’m not just talking about the languages spoken and/or subtitles. Western audiences have never clearly taken to the Jiangshi, the hopping vampires of Chinese folklore, which look more like what we know as zombies than suave Counts with cloaks and fangs. But for those living in Asia who have grown up with these stories, Mr Vampire was a perfect blend of gentle horror, kung fu action and physical comedy. Following hot on the heels only a year later, Mr Vampire II attempted to strike whilst the hype was still high.

Despite the presence of the same director and same writer as the original, Mr Vampire II is a fairly shambolic attempt to replicate the same formula. It’s a sequel in all but name, as the story moves forward into the present day and doesn’t have anything to do with the original save for the inclusion of some hopping vampires. But it ramps up the silly comedy, tones down the kung fu and doesn’t really do anything scary in its eighty or so minutes of running time. There is no real plot to the film other than the synopsis mentioned above and the narrative just drifts from one ‘crazy’ set piece to another with no real progression or conclusion. The film opens with the professor and his assistants scouring tombs for things to sell and doing all sorts of ‘hilarious’ things, then proceeds to follow them back to their laboratory where they continue to do the ‘hilarious’ things. It’s not long before their antics cause the vampires to awaken and thus ensues more carnage and ‘hilarious’ goings-on, only with the hopping vampires now. I could understand this being in the middle of the film but there’s a big glaring issue with Mr Vampire II – where the hell is the lead character? It’s around forty-minutes into the film when we finally get to see the man of the title, ‘Mr Vampire’ himself Lam Ching-Ying and it’s ridiculous that it takes this long to see him. He’s virtually a supporting character in his own franchise, though Ching-Ying does what he can with the weaker material.

Mr Vampire II’s comedy is pitched at a lot lower level than its predecessor. Yes, there was plenty of slapstick and silly shenanigans in the original but the juvenile humour here is a desperate attempt to make the audience laugh. Take for instance the opening sequence in which a snake slithers up the trousers of one of the bumbling assistants – it’s something that little kids might get a chuckle out of it but they’re hardly the target demographic here. To add insult to injury with the juvenility, one of the three vampires is a child and so there are plenty of cute kid moments involving the vampire child and a human child forming a bond, like a perverse version of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. You can tell how quickly this one was rushed out due to the unexpected success of the original as there’s so much thrown at the screen with the hope that something sticks. Almost everything that made the original such a mega-hit has been jettisoned in favour of childish antics.

The original was never truly scary but the film did have a nice cinematography to it, giving us that otherworldly feel to the reanimations and hopping ghosts. The ancient setting allowed for some effective atmosphere to be created, which the contemporary setting here doesn’t come anywhere near matching. The corpses look too human as well – no one seems to question why the bodies of the man and woman seem to be so fresh and lifelike when they pull them out of the tomb. Compare these to the decaying corpses seen in the original and films like Encounter of the Spooky Kind and even simple things which could have made a difference to the ambiance have been neglected.

 

It’s tragic to see such a quality horror-comedy as Mr Vampire get such an appalling sequel. The staggering drop in quality between the two films is ridiculous and Mr Vampire II becomes a real slog to get through. Keep that magic yellow paper slapped onto the vampires and let them be.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Mr Vampire (1985)

Mr Vampire (1985)

Master Ko, a Taoist priest, is asked by a struggling businessman to oversee the reburial of his dead father in the hopes of rekindling his family’s good fortune. Ko’s two bumbling assistants stumble onto a bad omen before leaving the remote graveyard. Deciding to take the corpse back to the mortuary, Ko suspects the dead elder suffered a wrongful death. The priest and his students soon find themselves up against supernatural forces and a very powerful vampire.

 

If you’ve never heard of Mr Vampire then you’re missing a real treat, though actually getting access to it over in the UK is problematic. Like many Asian films which have been big successes in the Far East (Godzilla films, I’m looking at you), there doesn’t seem to be much interest in releasing them over here and whilst Mr Vampire did receive a DVD release a few years ago, the sequels and rest of the sub-genre that it spawned are nowhere on the radar. It’s such a pity as Mr Vampire is one of the best horror-comedies that the 80s put out and because it’s not Anglo-centric, it opens up a whole new world of mythology, superstitions, beliefs and magic that we, in the West, are totally unfamiliar with.

Sammo Hong’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind in 1980 had set the precedent for this horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid genre, but it is with Mr Vampire where this niche genre really struck gold. It’s a ridiculously madcap film that balances the slapstick comedy with plenty of frenetic kung-fu action and makes sure that the horror elements are not left on the back burner. The physical humour has not dated in the slightest, made more absurd by the crazy situations in which the characters find themselves facing. Nothing is lost in the translation between East and West – if anything, the film is all the better for having an element of the exotic and the unknown as it makes things more interesting than your generic Western horror-comedy. Mr Vampire is still relatively unknown to a lot of Western audiences. The Hong Kong horror-comedy-kung fu hybrid was such a success back in the 80s, it became a cultural phenomenon in Asia, much in the same way as something like Ghostbusters did here in the West.

Ko and his assistants have to deal with some Jianghsi. And if you don’t know what they are, then the film does a decent job of covering the bases. These Jiangshi, hopping vampires from Chinese folklore, are not like our Western vampires in the slightest (no dressing in smart suits with cloaks, changing into bats, being scared of garlic, etc). Some audiences may find the sight of the ghosts decked out in 1600s Qing dynasty era clothing, arms outstretched and hopping along in lines to be rather comical but there’s nothing funny about how deadly these things actually are. Whilst Mr Vampire plays up on the comedic aspects of the vampires, they can kill you in many different ways and are a lot tougher to beat than Count Dracula and co. It is this unveiling of Chinese folklore to those not familiar with it that will be one of the biggest appeals to Anglo horror fans – it adds unpredictability to the narrative. You’re not quite sure how the threat will be dealt with but are introduced to all sorts of magical papers, chicken blood recipes and sticky rice methods which are the Asian equivalents of your wooden stakes and garlic to a vampire.

It takes a good thirty minutes or so for Mr Vampire to really kick into action gear but it doesn’t stop from that point onwards. You could argue that the film is little more than a series of kung fu-comedy set pieces and I couldn’t really disagree. The narrative is a little wonky at times, with the main premise being too thinly-written to really stretch out over the whole feature length time. There is a slight deviation throughout Mr Vampire, no doubt to boost up the running time, featuring one of Ko’s assistants falling in love with a ghost and Ko having to break the curse. Whilst this doesn’t add anything to the narrative in the slightest, it isn’t an unwelcome side-track as there is plenty of comedy to be had watching Ko attempt to save his assistant. From then on, the madcap film just goes in a crazy ride through a number of sequences which perfectly blend some fantastic choreography alongside a number of real laugh-out-loud moments. Nobody seems to take a breath either

Lam Ching-Yang made an appearance in the aforementioned Encounters of the Spooky Kind but here he gets a leading role and makes it his own. Lam is fantastic in the role, trying to deadpan most of what is going on but getting bogged down in the madcap stupidity of his assistants in the process. He can handle the stunt work perfectly and has the role of the Tao priest down to a tee – it’s a role he felt typecast by, but the film gave him his big break and he starred in no fewer than eight sequels and knock-offs of Mr Vampire. Both Ricky Hiu and Chin Siu-ho are hilarious as his bumbling assistants and the three make for an effective trio. The stunning Siu-Fung Wong is also a nice addition to the cast as the ghost who bewitches one of Ko’s assistants.

 

If you’re worried about indulging in something as far away from the streams of watered-down Western horror-comedies as you can possibly get, then Mr Vampire is your answer – if you can obtain a copy. A relentless, hilariously entertaining mix of kung-fu, horror and comedy, made with real enthusiasm and zest, it’s definitely one of the best films to ever come out of Hong Kong. The fact that it is so little known in the West is both a travesty or a well-kept secret, depending on your outlook.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Doom Asylum (1988)

Doom Asylum (1988)

SLASHING with a snicker, SLAUGHTER with a smirk…

A group of teenagers wind up on the grounds of a creepy abandoned asylum and think they have found the perfect place to have a party. However, they don’t realise that the asylum is home to a deformed maniac who was driven to madness by the death of his fiancé many years ago.

 

Made in the dying days of the slasher era during the late 80s, Doom Asylum is scraping the barrel just about as much as it can. Guerrilla filmmaking at it’s best (or worst) with a micro budget, extremely short shooting schedule, a dearth of skill in the audio and visual departments and scripts, make-up effects and actors looking like they were picked up in the local second-hand shop. Clearly with a sub-zero budget at their disposal, the makers of Doom Asylum tried their best but it’s hardly going to touch the likes of The Evil Dead or The Blair Witch Project in the budget versus quality stakes.

Doom Asylum is borderline parody, and I’m not quite sure whether that’s intentional or not. There are plenty of comedic and light-hearted moments, even during some of the more serious kill sequences – one victim telling the killer she is a Republican and voted for Reagan in attempt to save her life comes off as rather forced. It doesn’t help when the script is truly appalling and delivered by a group of actors so stilted and monotone in their dialogue that you’d think they had stage fright. Doom Asylum is probably most famous for being the film debut of Sex and the City star Kristin Davis, who is far too attractive to be playing a nerdish bookworm, and no doubt will deny this film’s existence on her resume. I would. I’m already trying to erase it from my mind as I write this review.

Doom Asylum is at least gory. The demented lawyer has a large group of teenagers to dispose of and does so in various ways, which is a good given how irritating the characters are. The gore looks extremely cheap at times, with obvious dummies and prosthetic limbs, but the killer keeps the kills racking up fairly frequently and you’ll be impressed at the make-up effects given how low the budget clearly was. I am sure this looked ‘amazing’ on grainy VHS back in the days of the video rental stores to give it an extra edge – the sort of front cover you’d notice as a kid when you were in the video shop but were never allowed to rent until your dodgy friend was able to source a copy. At least they managed to film inside a real abandoned asylum to give the narrative a bit of realism and scope. But there’s literally no tension or suspense whatsoever as the characters just walk around a lot through the hallways of the asylum. And I mean a lot.

The pizza-faced madman off the poster looks like a bargain basement Freddy Krueger and has his annoying habit of spouting off lame one-liners. For some unknown reason, the bulk of the film is set during the day and so this guy’s make-up is exposed in every single shot you get of him. He’s not menacing in the slightest, nor is he funny enough to make the jokes work. There are attempts at humour but none of the script writers have a funny bone to know what would work and what would fall flat – the large majority of it doesn’t even get off the ground. I guess the makers of this were rolling around in hysterics at the things they’ve written but no one else will find it funny.

There’s also a lot of black and white footage lifted from old Tod Slaughter horror films from the 1930s-50s which the killer sits back and watches in his abandoned asylum lair – it’s blatant padding to keep the run time resembling a real film and not some amateurish hour-long home movie.  Some of the footage is a lot more interesting than the actual film however and has made me curious about these vintage British horrors released around the time that Universal were hitting their Frankenstein-Dracula-The Wolfman peak.

 

With a plot you could squeeze onto a postage stamp, a set of actors who would struggle to recite a nursery rhyme and a total lack of anything resembling tension, fear or seriousness, Doom Asylum is an excruciatingly bad watch, even for ardent slasher fans.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Pit, The (1981)

The Pit (1981)

Jamie wouldn’t kill anyone…unless Teddy told him to!

Jamie is a lonely preteen boy who struggles to make friends and whose sole comforts come in the form of the reptiles in his terrarium and his teddy bear. One day out in the woods, he makes a disturbing discovery – a pit where prehistoric troglodytes have somehow managed to survive. Starting to feed them with raw meat bought from the butchers, Jamie soon realises their insatiable appetites need bigger quantities of flesh and so anyone who crosses his path is taken on a little trip down to the woods.

 

Hey, this was from the 80s after all – random stuff happened all of the time in horror films! Following on the tried-and-tested revenge plotline that so many horrors were sticking to at the time, The Pit puts a slightly different twist on the narrative. Rather than some guy in a mask coming back years later to get revenge for being bullied as a kid, Jamie is quite happy to feed his enemies to the troglodytes in the woods. Well, needs must and in this case, Jamie is very needy.

The Pit was a big let-down given how many rave reviews there are out for it. The basic storyline is, even for this site, too daft to be taken seriously and the execution is even worse. Slow, plodding and with not much atmosphere or excitement, I reckon the story would have worked better with a comedic element to it given the hokey nature of the storyline. Instead, to its detriment, The Pit is played straight and serious. There are times when the film looks like it’s going to break out into self-awareness (such as Jamie wheeling the old woman towards the pit) but no one behind the camera was clever enough to embrace this side and instead, we get a dour, monotonous and overly talky affair which only really picks up speed at about half-way through when Jamie starts feeding the troglodytes. Even then, the gore is minimal, and you don’t see much, if anything. He just pushes people into the pit and that’s it! More frustrating is the final third of the film, where Jamie seemingly disappears whilst the police investigation into the deaths takes centre stage. The structure of the story is jarring and looks to have been winged together as they were filming.

As Jamie, Sammy Snyders plays one of the most obnoxious kids ever put to film – he’s got a face only a mother could love, and his eyes hide a lot of deep anger and resentment. I’m not sure why the writers thought giving him the characteristics he has here would be a good thing – he’s meant to be a sympathetic leading character given his troubles around making friends and generally being normal. He’s not only obnoxious but his character is inherently creepy and a bit of a pervert, becoming smitten with his new babysitter and trying to express his love in strange ways – by basically feeding anyone who gets in his way to the troglodytes. If I was this babysitter, I’ve have taken on a new client asap. Snyders does a good job in bringing the role to life though and you certainly wouldn’t want your own kids hanging around with him. The funny thing is that he’s actually referred to as being autistic on the box of the old VHS tape. In today’s world, he’d just be any other kid, maybe with a bit of medication and professional help depending on the severity of his autism, but in the world of 1981 he’s this psychopathic loner.

The troglodytes are just as bad as you’d expect them to be in something as low budget. They look like drunken ewoks and you rarely see them in their full glory, with the director opting to keep them hidden down in the dark pit for as long as he can and only reveal their shining eyes glaring up at Jamie. There’s no attempt to explain how they’ve survived this long (they’re hungry little bleeders so how on earth have they been eating?) nor how they’ve managed to survive in this tiny pit. In original drafts of the script, the monsters were said to inhabit Jamie’s head and he was the one doing the killing which would have made a lot more sense. But there’s a lot of things happening here which make little sense, like why Jamie’s parents decide to go on holiday but are seemingly gone for the entire film. Have they deserted him? There is a talking teddy bear which tells him to do bad things but that’s never explained, nor is the twist ending, though it makes for a rather poetic final shot.

 

The Pit is a dull, wholly weird film where I’m not quite exactly sure what the makers of the film had originally set out to do. There are odd moments of inspiration, but I think they’re accidental rather than deliberate. Snyders makes for a memorable protagonist/antagonist but there’s little else here aside from the random weirdness. If ever a film was gagging for a proper remake, then this is it!

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Student Bodies (1981)

Student Bodies (1981)

13 1/2 Murders + 1423 Laughs = Student Bodies

A murderer known as ‘The Breather’ begins to kill off students at Lamab High School. One of their classmates, Toby, inexplicably finds herself at each of the murder sites and becomes the prime suspect.

 

The recent Blu-ray release proclaims ‘Long before Scream, this was the original movie that asked audiences to tick-off the tributes’ and whilst that isn’t too far from the truth, Student Bodies has less in common with Craven’s seminal classic and far much more in common with the absurdity of the Scary Movie franchise (which in turn took it’s lead from the old Airplane and The Naked Gun style humour). It’s surprising to see that even in 1981, when the slasher flick was in peak form, that Student Bodies has enough wits about it to start to deconstruct the sub-genre, such was the formula that had already been established. Late 80s I could understand, but this came along during the same year as minor classics such as The Burning, The Funhouse and My Bloody Valentine.

Student Bodies tries to do to the slasher genre what Airplane and The Naked Gun did to their respective genres and that’s lampoon them in a million different ways; some funny, some not. This is a genuinely good-natured film which pretty much falls flat on it’s face with the sheer amount of misses in it’s scatter gun approach to comedy. Your enjoyment of Student Bodies will depend on your tolerance for really stupid jokes – silly one-liners, daft sight gags, groan-inducing puns and some utterly maniacal characters. Literally no stone is left unturned to try and elicit a chuckle from the audience. The humour has dated significantly (jokes about Africa for a start) but for every couple of fails, there are a few hits – though not as many as you’d hope for to keep the running time from dragging as badly as it does. Laughs get particularly sparse during the finale where the film opts for a crazier slant than it had been heading along.

On-going jokes involving a blind teenager will make you hate yourself for laughing, there’s a rolling on-screen body count number keeps the viewers up-to-date with the kills, helpful notes pop up to highlight points of interest, and there’s a public service announcement directed at the ratings people (who rated this R despite the fact there’s no explicit sex or violence) which ends in hilarious fashion to warrant the R-rating for profanity. Too many of the jokes go on for longer than they needed to and too many are repeated. Maybe there’s some sort of generational difference that my parents would have find some of the stuff in here funny (with 70s and 80s pop culture knowledge, in much the same way I would get more of the Scary Movie pop culture references that today’s teenagers wouldn’t) but a large chunk of the jokes, and I’m going to say 80%, are just not funny in the slightest. I’m not sure whether this was one person’s sense of humour forced onto the big screen or whether people had different tastes in comedy.

Due to the comedy falling flat on its face, you would hope that the other side of the film, the horror elements, would at least be bearable. Student Bodies’ narrative plays out like a serious slasher but without any of the tension or scares. There’s the opening scene similar to Halloween (and later, Scream), the introduction of the angelic Final Girl, killer’s POV shots, a load of red herrings (the film goes to great lengths to introduce as many potential killers as possible) and a constant flow of deaths without any real sense of atmosphere or suspense keeping everything working. There is little gore as you never get to see anyone killed, only a few bodies tucked away in bin bags. A plot twist at the end comes out of left field and feels like a total cop-out, clearly only being written that way to include a nod to Carrie.

The performances don’t work in conjunction with the material. This group of amateurs have hardly made another film between them since Student Bodies was released and there’s good reason – they’re not very good. Bordering anywhere from wooden to downright over-zealous, the group bumble their way through the script from one lame joke to the next crazy sequence. The deadpan nature of the material needs good, steady hands to deal with it. Look at how Leslie Nielsen, or to a lesser extent Anna Faris, did with their star turns in The Naked Gun and Scary Movie films respectively. That’s how you sell a parody like this to an audience. And yes, there is an actor actually called ‘The Stick’ in this (that is his name), playing Malvert the janitor. He’s an unusual specimen who will either make you laugh or creep you out to no end.

 

The trailer covers all of the best gags in Student Bodies and so you’ll spend most of your time groaning at all of the failed opportunities rather than laughing along. It’s not a horror film, and it’s a stretch to really call it a comedy. Student Bodies is a failed attempt to parody a sub-genre which hadn’t yet worn itself out enough to parody in the first place.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆