Tag 80s Comedy-Horror

Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

Mr Vampire Part 3 (1987)

The Taoist priest Mao Ming uses his ghost friends to trick people into believing their houses are haunted so he can go in and exorcise them. However, the two ghosts humiliate Chiang, an assistant of great Taoist Master Gau, who quickly captures them in a jar as punishment and warns Ming to follow the right path. Breaking into Gau’s house to save his friends, Ming opens the wrong jar and accidentally releases the ghost of an evil witch instead. With the witch and her minions causing havoc across the village, it is up to Ming to join forces with Gau to try and stop her.

 

After the disastrous attempt to move the Mr Vampire franchise into a modern day setting with more of a focus on the slapstick and silliness in Mr Vampire II, director Ricky Lau goes back to some of what made the original such a hit in the first place. The good news is that Mr Vampire Part 3 is marginally better than its predecessor. The bad news is that it’s still far too silly for its own good.

There’s no storyline to follow from the previous films and, as these Mr Vampire films are unconnected, it should make it easier for the writers to come up with interesting stories for the characters to venture through. But there is no semblance of plot to Mr Vampire Part 3 at all. It’s purely a collection of madcap cartoon-esque sequences involving kung fu, magic and lots of annoying gurning and mugging for the camera by the actors involved. I’m not even sure it looked good on paper as the narrative has too many sudden stop-start moments where the story suddenly heads off in a different direction. At least there is one, admittedly flimsy, thread to follow throughout the film, even if it doesn’t really hold everything together that well. The problem is that there are too many supporting characters to go around – both monks have their own helpers, and both sets of helpers serve the same purpose in acting as comedic foil. They’re all fighting for the same screen time which is probably why the story goes in all manner of directions, just to keep as many of the characters happy as possible.

Being back in a period setting helps Mr Vampire Part 3 massively. The magic and mystic aura works better in a Republic-era China than it does in a contemporary environment, with all manner of superstitions and occult practices just fitting better into a more ignorant age without the benefits of modern technology. The corny 80s special effects fit the bill perfectly here too, with weird laser beams and flashes of light working well to create a real sense of the supernatural, even if the sound effects sound like a video game boss fight. They don’t detract from the action and are merely little add-ons, something a lot of big budget films in today’s era could learn from.

There are some decent moments of action anarchy in Mr Vampire Part 3, in particular an early sequence where fraudulent priest Mao Ming, having freshly ‘exorcised’ his ghost friends in order to trick a wealthy businessman, suddenly realise that there are real ghosts in the house. But then other sequences drag on for far too long and rely on the same joke – there’s no sense of restraint. A scene involving the invisible ghosts messing around with a bumbling idiot inside a restaurant goes on forever, as does a scene involving a melted ghost stalking Mao King inside a spa room. Billy Lau (I wonder if he’s any relation to the director) was funny in the original but his screen time was lower and he was never the focus of the scene, rather a supporting participant in it for others to play off. Here, he seems to be the focus of many of the film’s cringey slapstick sequences and overexposure to his goofy character is to the film’s detriment.

Lam Ching-Yang reprises his titular role, playing it straight for the most part but not taking things ultra-seriously and he has the deadpan down to a tee by this point in the franchise. It’s easy to see why he became typecast. One of Mr Vampire II’s biggest mistakes was keeping the character off-screen for as long as it did before he was introduced. He pops up earlier here, though still a little too late given he’s the main character and is given some fancy moves in an action sequence in the forest. We sometimes forget that these are kung fu films as well as horror and comedy and this is rectified with some well-choreographed fight scenes early on. The energy on display during some of the specific routines is ridiculous, something the rest of the film does at least manage to capture. Mr Vampire Part 3 is rarely slow and quiet, which can get a little in-your-face at times, especially when the punchline or the gag has outstayed it’s welcome.

And sadly, despite the title, there are no hopping vampires to be seen here at all.

 

Mr Vampire Part 3 was a step back in the right direction for the series, albeit a baby step. It does a few things right in getting back to the series’ roots but there is still much of a focus on the goofy supporting characters and the balance isn’t quite right between the comedy, horror and action. This is meant to about Mr Vampire, not the goofballs mugging for the camera around him.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return To Horror High (1987)

Return to Horror High (1987)

School spirit has never been this dead.

In 1982, a mysterious serial killer caused panic at Crippen High School but was never caught. Five years later, a movie company decides to make a feature film about these events – on location at the now-abandoned school. But when members of the cast and crew start to disappear without a trace, it seems as if history is repeating itself.

 

1987 and the slasher boom has already come and gone. Any ounce of originality, and let’s face it there was hardly any to begin with, had been bled dry. Audiences had been subjected to the same formula over and over, with lessening results. Unless you were one of the big hitting franchises like Friday the 13th, no one was flocking to the cinema to see your second-rate slasher and the best you could hope for was some prolonged shelf-life in a video store. There is this weird era between the ‘golden age’ and the post-modern 90s horror that is just a void of any truly remarkable slashers. With subtle hints that this would be something of an early precursor to the meta-horror of Scream, Return to Horror High looked to do something a little different and go for the film-within-a-film route, trying to subvert the genre with varying success. There had been other attempts earlier in the decade, with Student Bodies being one that springs to mind, but nothing had really worked.

Sadly, any real pretence this had to become something satirical and witty quickly evaporates once you realise Return To Horror High is literally a one-trick pony, where you’re not sure what you see on-screen is part of the film or part of the film-within-a-film. Far too often, there’s an elaborate kill scene filled with gore but then it is revealed to just be part of the film getting made and that the character isn’t actually dead. This works for the first instance, but then it grows tiresome as you realise the writers don’t have anything else up their sleeves. One scene is hilariously interrupted by the sleazy producer who pops into frame complaining that the camera should be focused on her breasts as that’s what the fans want to see, prompting the actress to go on a bit of a feminist rant at him. As well as the film-within-a-film structure, the whole narrative is framed around the sole survivor recounting the story to the police and also linking it back to the original murders, making the story even more confusing with a series of flashbacks to two different times and then back-to-presents. The combination of the two gives Return To Horror High a haphazard flow, pulling you out from a particular time to go backwards and forwards, or whether it’s real or not. It’s confusing to say the least.

Return to Horror High is messy though and not afraid to spill the red stuff. Given that this was made in 1987, the slasher film was living up the stereotypes that the producer in the film wanted – tits and blood – as there was nothing else left for it to do to shock audiences. Whether the gore is ‘real’ or part of the film-within-a-film concept, it’s effective enough and looks to have a sizeable budget. The best sequence involving someone tied upside down with a giant fan propeller moving towards him is like something out of a Saw film, albeit without the seriousness. There is a stronger emphasis on the humour over the horror throughout, so the goofy nature of the film can become a little overbearing with the amount of slapstick and one-liners. This contradicts with the horror elements as the slashing side of things can get quite serious. The two are weird bedfellows here, neither fitting well with the other.

With the story all over the place, the actors try their best but it’s a tough ask. George Clooney makes his screen debut here but blink and you’ll miss him as he’s quickly ‘written’ out of the film. Lor Lethin plays three different roles in the film, rather confusing given that the only noticeable difference between her characters is the wigs she wears, making it difficult to know just which character she is playing in a certain scene. Highlight of the film is by far and away Alex Rocco, who famously played Las Vegas casino owner Moe Greene in The Godfather, who is an absolute riot as the sleazy producer who just wants to see more tits and blood on the screen. He is almost like the inner voice of many of the target demographic. The problem the characters have is that there are so many of them and it isn’t until the halfway point before you realise just who the main characters are meant to be. By this point, you won’t really care less about them, and the rest of the story, as a result. The twist ending is ludicrous (you’ll never spot it a mile away though!) and another kick below the belt after you’ve tried to stick with the story for so long.

 

The dual storytelling approach of Return To Horror High creates a disjointed narrative, difficult to follow and leaving the audience spending most of their time figuring out just what the hell is going on. It’s a shame as there is some decent material here but despite the script thinking it was smart in trying to constantly fool the audience, it just trips them up one time too many.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House (1985)

House (1985)

Ding dong, you’re dead.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Return of the Living Dead, The (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator (1985)

H.P. Lovecraft’s classic tale of horror

Talented medical student Herbert West has discovered a serum that re-animates dead bodies, though his previous human experiment in Switzerland ended in catastrophe. West goes to an American college where he moves in with student Daniel Cain. Immediately suspicious of West, it isn’t until Cain stumbles upon an experiment with a dead cat that he begins to believe in the serum. But when word of this discovery gets out to renowned brain research Dr Carl Hill and he tries to get his hands on the serum, West and Cain find themselves in an ever-worsening situation involving murder and reanimated bodies.

 

Cult classics don’t come much more cult than Stuart Gordon’s legendary 1985 horror-comedy Re-Animator. Though slightly dated in its appearance nowadays, Re-Animator is still a superbly horrific and humorous film in equal measure. Perfecting the art of black comedy to a tee, Re-Animator is based upon the Herbert West–Reanimator short stories by famous horror master H. P. Lovecraft which is a Frankenstein-style tale about a scientist who believes he can bring the dead to life by injecting them with a re-agent serum that he has designed. As we know from the world of literature, meddling in things that humans can’t comprehend doesn’t end well and this is no exception.

Re-Animator would never be made today. It was a labour of love from a team of people which was a lot like the effort that Sam Raimi and co. put into The Evil Dead. With low budgets forcing the makers to get creative and practical in their approaches, the films took the genre by storm. Whilst it gets overlooked in favour of Raimi’s ground-breaking film, Re-Animator has rightly been heralded as the genre-busting favourite it has become on its own two feet – it was a rare thing for famous critic Roger Ebert to be constructive about a horror film but he loved Re-Animator like most reviewers do.

Combining gut-wrenching home-grown splatter and fiendish “you shouldn’t laugh but you will” comedy is never an easy feat in the horror genre but Re-Animator gets the mix spot on. The gore is plentiful, sometimes gross, but never 100% realistic and this adds to the nature of the film. As things get out of control and more blood starts to flow, you just get to sit back and enjoy the silliness. The film knows that it’s a bit on the loopy side and goes with the flow, becoming even more outlandish in the process. It would be virtually impossible to watch this with a straight face. Part of the reason this works so well is down to the script, which treads the fine line flawlessly throughout the film, and creates some interesting characters.

Thankfully these characters were cast without fault. Jeffrey Combs is brilliant as the slightly-insane Herbert West. Right from the first moment you see him on the screen, he is a magnetic presence with his off-beat delivery and you’re unsure as to what is going through his head at any one moment. Should you root for him or hate him? Combs plays it straight throughout which is great as some of the deadpan situations the characters find themselves in could have been daft if everyone was goofing around. Much of the humour in Re-Animator is based on sight gags, the highlight of which being West and Cain’s struggle with a re-animated cat in the basement where the art of slapstick comes into its own. Special mention should be given to the late David Gale who plays Dr Carl Hill and spends a great portion of the film with his head sitting in a tray of blood as his decapitated body stumbles around trying to do tasks for him. Also of note is Barbara Crampton as Cain’s love interest Megan, who looks good, gets naked a couple of times and gives a new definition to getting head in the film’s most perversely funny moment.

The comedy only goes so far though and it’s up to the horror-based elements to come into their own when this happens. As mentioned, the film is gory and it gets progressively worse as the film goes on with zombies, decapitations and electric surgical saws all coming into play. There’s lots of violence though due to the nature of the film it comes off very cartoony as opposed to anything sinister or serious. There is a line in horror where gore goes from gross to comedic if handled in the right way and Stuart Gordon and co. know exactly what they are doing. It was one of the goriest films of its time and was butchered upon VHS release back in the day. But we live in an era of Saw and Re-Animator looks a little quaint now. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not for the faint-hearted but the bad taste boundary is always maintained.

Richard Band’s theme, which is a none-too-subtle reworking of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho theme, sets the tone of the film during the title credits, adding a bit of mystery and eeriness to proceedings. It’s the icing on top of a very blood-soaked cake.

 

Any self-respecting horror fan should see Re-Animator. From the decade that brought us so many classic B-movie splatter flicks, it’s a twisted little film which comes with a massive reputation and delivers every second of its running time. A must see.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Night of the Demons (1988)

Night of the Demons (1988)

Angela is having a party, Jason and Freddy are too scared to come. But You’ll have a hell of a time.

On Halloween night, a group of teenage friends decide to hold a secret party at Hull House, an abandoned funeral parlour. Here, they gather together in front of a mirror to hold a séance but unwittingly unleash an evil force which begins to take them over one-by-one.

 

Night of the Demons represents the ultimate best and the worst of 80s horror. If you’re looking for a complex plot, interesting characters, stunning cinematography and serious approach then you’ve definitely come to the wrong place. Coming off as more of a goofy teen version of The Evil Dead, Night of the Demons is a definite crowd-pleaser, full of scares, gore, nudity and a dose of sickly black humour all touched up with a truly 80s vibe. It received a limited theatrical release but found its following on home video during the glory days of video rentals and has become something of a definitive 80s cult classic. You’ve got to love the 80s and the home video market for opening up a whole new world of entertaining and fun horror flicks that just wouldn’t have been made otherwise.

It’s a party night film, that’s for sure. Probably best watched with a group of preferably drunken mates, Night of the Demons wins awards purely for being something so innocent, so watchable and so enthusiastically entertaining. It’s not intending to be The Exorcist or The Shining. There are no real intentions to seriously scare and get under the skin. It’s not Shakespeare for the horror crowd. It’s there to provide some thrills, spills and a few gags like you’d get on a visit to a classic Halloween haunted house. The opening animated title sequence with a classic 80s synth-rock soundtrack should prove what sort of credentials that this is aiming for. Though it does owe a lot to Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, probably more than it would like to admit.

Director Kevin Tenney virtually steals Raimi’s ‘demon POV’ cam with long, sweeping forays through the house when the demons are unleashed.  There are 360° camera shots, clever camera tricks involving mirrors and shots from other innovative angles. He does well to use these shots as Hull House looks fantastic inside with a vast array of basements, staircases, corridors and rooms for the characters to fumble around in. Dimly lit and decidedly creepy, Hull House is the perfect setting for such a film and the camera makes excellent use of every dark nook and cranny, with demons popping up left, right and centre off-camera to startle the viewer. Tenney’s camera tricks and use of visuals to generate some suspense is highly skilled and if I’m being blunt, deserving of a more respectable film. Cheap scares they may be but they are effective at conveying the moody vibe.  However the film isn’t all about the cheap scares and flits between some serious scaring and outright joking around on occasion, with the uneven balance never really clicking in favour of either.

Night of the Demons doesn’t set out to break the mould though it’s happy to live up to genre expectations and so the gratuitous overindulgences which genre fans have come to love are on full display here. The gore and nudity is at the forefront of Night of the Demons charm and you won’t find too many better examples of 80s excess than here. The make-up effects are superb with hideous demon transformations, eyes being gouged out, tongues bitten off and, in the film’s coup-de-grace moment, a possessed teenager manages to make a tube of lipstick disappear into her exposed nipple. The practical nature of the special effects adds to their charm. The best non-gore special effects moment is reserved for Angela, the goth girl who gets possessed, as she floats down the halls and corridors of the house. It’s a weird, unnerving effect which adds to her supernatural aura.

The majority of the nudity is supplied by Scream Queen Linnea Quigley, who provides the breasts for the aforementioned lipstick moment (undeniably two of the reasons why Night of the Demons has become such a cult 80s classic for teenage boys). Cast-wise the film is near enough spot on. All of the performances are stuck in the 80s with their dated portrayals but like everything else, this adds into the charm. Cathy Podewell is Judy, the virginal girl who spends most of the film dressed as Alice in Wonderland. Podewell is unbelievably cute and emits a nice innocence about her, even if she is somewhat a little bland at times. Hal Havins as Stooge makes for an annoying and obnoxious loudmouth and the other actors fit firmly into their stock 80s teenage character roles: the preppy good guy, token black guy and so on). Amelia Kinkade is worth a mention as Angela, turning her into some Freddy Krueger-like puny-spouting horror figure who would return in the next two sequels.

 

Night of the Demons works perfectly well as what it sets itself out to be from the start – a campy low brow fright fest which relies heavily on genre staples to deliver constant mindless fun. Though it has dated somewhat with the 80s hairstyles, clothes, music and character stereotypes, Night of the Demons should be required viewing at Halloween parties.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆