Tag 1980s

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.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆