Tag Non-Slasher Psychos

Joy Ride (2001)

Joy Ride (2001)

It started as a joke. Now the joke is on them.

Two brothers going on a road trip to pick up a girl decide to have some fun on the CB radio they had installed in their car. Assuming the role of ‘Candy Cane’, they pretend to be a lonely and attractive girl looking for love. When a trucker with the designation of ‘Rusty Nail’ begins to show an interest, the brothers decide to play a prank on him by arranging to meet him at a motel. When the prank backfires in a deadly way, the brothers realise they’ve gone too far. But Rusty Nail isn’t finished with them and proceeds to stalk and torment them.

 

Taking plenty of inspiration from such road terror flicks as The Hitcher and, most obviously, Duel, Joy Ride is an effective and mildly thrilling piece of fluff which is far better than it has any right to be. Coming slap bang in 2001, right amid the teen horror boom brought on by Scream and its numerous pop culture-referential clones, Joy Ride wisely decided to skip the self-awareness and goes back to basics. Joy Ride was renamed Roadkill in the UK, presumably due to the phrase ‘joy ride’ referring to criminals breaking into and stealing a car before going for a little spin. But I’m using the Joy Ride title here as it’s far better.

Producer and co-scripter J.J. Abrams was, back in the day, a jobbing screenwriter most famous for TV show Felicity and had a few films under his belt but nothing major – he was probably impatiently waiting like the rest of us for Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, unbeknownst to anyone that he would go on to take control of one of cinema’s biggest and most beloved franchises. Though the script has plenty of gaping plot holes – such as how Rusty knows so much about these characters and how he always seems to be one step ahead of them – the choices that the main characters make are generally good and logical. In one particular scene, instead of hanging around a motel room waiting for something to happen, the freaked-out teenagers simply jump into their car and speed off, which any sane person would have done in that situation. Abrams keeps things ticking and keeps the audience guessing. There are a few twists along the way here, nothing too shocking, but enough to stop the film from drifting into autopilot. There’s little chance of that happening though, as set piece follows set piece – Abrams mantra that audiences will let lapses in logic slide if everything else in the film is working clearly evident throughout the swift hour and a half running time.

Director John Dahl channels his inner Hitchcock as best he can, plying on the noir elements with a distinct twentieth century expression, giving his interiors green or red hues, setting a lot of the film at night, and dwelling on the seedier underworld of long-distance driving from motels with porn on the television sets to grubby gas stations. The initial prank sequence, where the brothers sit in the room next door and listen to what is going on, features excellent sound design, ramping up the tension without the audience seeing a thing. Dahl also throws in some excellent set pieces, particularly a chase inside a huge cornfield where Rusty uses the search lights on his truck to locate the hiding teenagers. In fact this cornfield set piece was part of the original ending (it was included on the DVD as a bonus feature and you can see why it was ditched, along with all of the other bits they originally planned) but new scenes were shot and added as the creative team struggled to find the right ending. The problem by this point is that the film keeps trying to top itself and up the ante every time the teenagers and Rusty lock horns. Joy Ride slowly begins to run out of petrol with too many false endings but has the good decency to finally quit whilst it’s ahead. The ending finally decided upon is satisfying enough to close the plot (although not enough to prevent a sequel).

Paul Walker stars in the same year as The Fast and the Furious hit the cinemas, with the filmmakers no doubt hoping to capitalise on his sudden stardom (though I’m guessing Joy Ride was made first and just sat around idly as the creative team messed around with the script and reshoots). Walker is ok in the role; he’s basically just plying the same Paul Walker character he did in The Fast and Furious – drives fast, shouts a lot and does little else. Steve Zahn tones down his goofiness and he and Walker play off each other perfectly as the brothers, with a little tension between them under the surface. Leelee Sobieski, third-billed, doesn’t even appear until about forty-five minutes into the film and then her role is simply to act as bait and become the damsel-in-distress. Arguably, she ruins the dynamic of the two male leads who had been working fine together and taking it in turns to take control of the situation.

Perhaps the best performance in Joy Ride comes from someone who is never seen – Ted Levine, famous for his role as Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (amongst many other films) provides the voice of Rusty Nail, only heard through the CB radio. His bass tones, full of intimidation and authority, are the perfect output for the truck driver, with Levine crafting Rusty Nail as an almost-supernatural menace whose actions speak just as loud as his words. The fact we never see the character in the flesh is immaterial – by just a voice alone, this character is more intimidating than 90% of cinematic slashers, psychopaths and madmen.

 

Joy Ride is highly underrated thriller which went under the radar a lot, most likely overshadowed in the same year by Jeepers Creepers which had a similar plot of friends travelling across country on a road trip being terrorised by someone/something. Is it a genre classic? No. Is it going to be on your repeat watch list? Probably not. Is it a great way to spend an hour and a half? You bet. Joy Ride is a pleasant surprising suspense thriller with enough tricks to keep you hooked.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Dead Pit, The (1989)

The Dead Pit (1989)

Drop In Anytime.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

Masters of Horror: Pick Me Up (2006)

When a bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere, the passengers split. Some decide to stay at the bus and wait for help, some accept an offer of a life from a truck driver and Stacia, a female traveller, opts to walk to the next motel or town. But it turns out that the group have been caught in a bizarre turf war between two serial killers – one who drives trucks and murders hitchhikers and another who hitchhikes and murders the drivers. Now they both have their sights set on Stacia and a cat-and-mouse game begins as to who will have the honour of murdering her first.

 

One of my favourite episodes of the Masters of Horror series, Pick Me Up is a sharp and black-humoured take on the great urban legends of hitchhiking – is the person flagging down a ride going to be a mass-murdering psychopath, or is the person driving going to want to string you up on a meat hook somewhere? It’s a familiar trope for horror and one which is the focus of this episode from the first series. The ‘Master of Horror’ at the helm of this one is the late Larry Cohen, responsible for such cult hits as Maniac Cop, It’s Alive and Q, The Winged Serpent.

It’s no secret that there are two serial killers on the loose in this episode and so the story wastes little time in getting their dirty deeds out into the open. The material is played slightly tongue-in-cheek, with Cohen poking lots of fun at the usual conventions for this type of story – broken down vehicle in the middle of nowhere, truckers saving the day, sleazy motel rooms, etc. The characters from the broken-down bus are all fully self-aware of the folklore surrounding hitchhikers and random people showing up in the middle of nowhere to offer assistance and it’s perversely funny to see one female lecture her boyfriend about being murdered and being called cranky and paranoid, only to suffer the fate a few minutes later.

The main thing that’s different about Pick Me Up that is focuses on the antagonists rather than the protagonist. Usually, the final girl is the one who gets the most screen time and plot development but here, the script opts to feature the serial killers as the main stars. It’s an interesting take on the material which isn’t done enough in horror as we get a glimpse into their psyches and the reasoning behind the slaughter. More attention is paid to their natures, rather than their deeds, and so this episode isn’t full of blood, even if one scene inside a motel room may make some people squeamish, despite there being a reasonable body count for such a short feature. The threat poses by both men is expressed mainly through the quality performances of the two leads.

Long-time Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty stars as Wheeler, the truck-driving serial killer, and he steals the show in virtually every scene he’s in. Moriarty was always good at playing eccentric characters and you never quite knew what you were going to get with him. But his wily veteran schtick is the perfect match for Warren Kole’s brash upstart, Walker, who comes off as the ‘not quite the boy next door.’ Poor Fairuza Balk gets caught in the middle here, with a one-dimensional screaming female role which could have been given to anyone. The fact her character carries a knife with her and has the bad ass goth girl thing going on should have been the signal for the script to have her standing up to the killers more often. Instead, she spends the second half of the episode tied up and desperately trying to escape. The two men are so well-connected in their few scenes together, that she ends up playing second fiddle.

Pick Me Up it at its best during these tense scenes of one-upmanship between the two serial killers. The first, a meeting outside a motel room, is full of double-entendres and subtle nuances, where both characters are virtually talking in code to each other whilst their female target stands idly in the middle. The second, a more open-ended discussion about their true intentions in the front seat of the cabin, is like watching two stags competing to be the alpha. It’s such a shame that it takes too long for the two to cross paths and a good twenty minutes are wasted before they do. The cat-and-mouse narrative works perfectly for a short feature like this and Pick Me Up reaches its logical conclusion before it runs out of road or does a u-turn and goes back over itself. There’s some just time for one more sting in the tail right at the end, which leaves a very Tales from the Crypt-esque taste in the mouth.

 

Pick Me Up is a great example of a competent director ‘getting’ the Masters of Horror format and working it to its most profitable within the time constraints: plenty of suspense, genuine eeriness, outbursts of violence, unpredictable and all tinged with a morbid humour to keep it entertaining. It’s not the best episode of the series but it might very well be the most enjoyable.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Dead and Buried (1981)

Dead and Buried (1981)

It will take your breath away… all of it.

In the small coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, a number of tourists are being sadistically murdered. Sheriff Dan Gillis begins to investigate but finds it strange when the victims seemingly turn up alive a few days later. The events seem to point to eccentric local mortician William G. Dobbs who treats his corpses as works of art and takes great pride in making sure that they remain beautiful after death.

 

The advent of DVD in the late 90s and early 00s really allowed a lot of obscure titles to be brought back to life and exposed to new audiences who hadn’t lived through the 80s home video boom. I remember seeing Dead and Buried when it was released on DVD back in 2008 to little fanfare and being pleasantly surprised. Now I’ve made the upgrade to blu-ray and found that the film is even better than I remembered it to be. Originally banned as a ‘video nasty’ in the UK during the 80s, it was not one of those prosecuted and was eventually released uncut in 1999. It is almost ludicrous to look back and see the bedfellows that Dead and Buried found itself with: there’s no comparing this to Cannibal Holocaust or SS Experiment Camp. This is a near-masterpiece of horror.

It’s hard to write a really in-depth review without giving too much of the plot away – Dead and Buried works best when you have no idea what to expect. Mixing elements of Night of the Living Dead and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as having a distinct slasher-vibe during the murder scenes, the film does a superb job of creating a sense of paranoia. Just what is going on in Potter’s Bluff? The well-paced narrative provides enough clues as you go through the story to ensure that your attention is consistently hooked. Not skirting over the fact that we know just who is responsible for the murders from the opening scene, it’s amazing how well the film keeps this mystery peddling – we become focused on the ‘why?’ rather than the ‘who?’ This goes all the way from the opening scene right up until the finale where even then there are still a few questions.

The excellent atmosphere and mood is one of Dead and Buried’s key successes. The dimly-lit, grainy cinematography oozes suspense, foreboding and the feeling that something is not quite right about Potter’s Bluff. The washed-out, classic ‘ghost story’ visuals reminded me of John Carpenter’s The Fog. Likewise, the small town setting and otherworldly goings on really hammer home the comparisons. This is truly a drab place where you wouldn’t want your car to break down and have to be introduced to the eerie locals. Director Gary Sherman and cinematographer Steven Poster deserve high praise for their work here. They know what type of mood they want to portray and they succeed in doing that. It’s a pity that Sherman didn’t try his hand in the genre again after this one because he has a keen eye for detail.

Another of Dead and Buried’s strengths is the visceral violence which punctuates the morbidly serene nature of the rest of the film. People are burned alive, have syringes stuck into their eyeballs, are melted with acid and have rocks smashed into their heads. The film doesn’t glorify the kills but they are shocking because they happen so matter-of-fact that it’s almost a natural occurrence for the town. The killers just look on with little emotion and watch their handiwork come to fruition. Late special effects maestro Stan Winston was the man tasked with the job of keeping everything running smoothly in the practical effects department and he does sterling work, particularly in a number of effects late on in the film. Again, to explain more would be to ruin the film.

Jack Albertson will forever be known to movie lovers the world over as Grandpa Joe from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory but his creepy mortician character here is as far away removed from his cuddly, lovable character as is humanly possible. It’s a great casting choice against type and really enhances the mood of the film. He steals every scene that he is in here, particularly the one in which he gives a stunning soliloquy on his ‘art’ of making dead people look beautiful again. James Farentino makes an excellent lead man, slowly coming apart at the seams as it appears everyone in the town is involved in these murders except for him, or so he believes! Robert Englund has small role as one of the townspeople.

I said ‘near masterpiece’ in the introduction and Dead and Buried comes close to going all of the way. However, the final third is where the film begins to lose steam and focus and it becomes a tad messy which was a real shame as the preceding two thirds were superb. A number of plot twists are introduced which in turn reveal a number of a plot holes. It’s not exactly going to ruin your enjoyment of the film but it does stop the film from becoming an all-time classic. Apologies for the sketchy details but Dead and Buried’s strength lies in not having the faintest clue what is going to happen during its running time. It’s hardly a one-watch film as it stands up to repeated scrutiny. But that first viewing is a real doozy.

 

It’s a travesty that Dead and Buried is not as widely known or regarded in the genre as it should be. A near perfect horror film with a great cast, nearly water-tight script and an atmosphere that is second-to-none, it’s the type of great quality horror film that they just don’t make anymore. If Carpenter gets a load of praise nowadays for The Fog, then Sherman deserves to share the podium alongside him.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★☆ 

 

 

Death Factory (2014)

Death Factory (2014)

One night, six serial killers, one bus load of victims…

A group of people are stranded in the middle of nowhere when their bus breaks down. They head off to a nearby tourist attraction called the Death Factory, which is closed and is in the process of being sold to a mysterious bidder who wants to purchase it. The attraction is an off-beat tribute to some of history’s most infamous serial killers including Ed Gein, Jack the Ripper and William Gacy and the owner has collection an assortment of artefacts associated with each of them including blood samples, electric chairs and more. However when one of the group reads from a book of spells that the bidder leaves unattended, the serial killers rise from the dead to continue to indulge in their murderous lusts.

 

Cinematic slashers only exist because of their real life counterparts. Without the likes of Ed Gein, there would be no Norman Bates, no Leatherface and no Hannibal Lecter or at least not as we know them. Aside from factual documentary-style portrayals of their lives which attempt to understand the men behind these crimes, the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, William Gacy, Ed Gein and the Zodiac killer have rarely been painted as fictitious characters or played for laughs or cheap shocks. After all, these are some of the most disgusting, despicable men who ever walked the face of the Earth. Sexually assaulting and murdering children, cannibalising victims and using body parts for furniture and fittings are unspeakable crimes and it’s right that we never glorify them or turn them into anti-heroes as the likes of Leatherface and Michael Myers have become. Step forward Death Factory, a low budget film which attempts to break the taboo by featuring some of history’s most hated serial killers in some form of horrific Avengers Assemble-style mash up.

Truth be told, Death Factory has got a nice idea in theory but falls flat on its face when it comes to executing it. The fact that it is so poorly made, treats the killers like daft cartoon villains and generally uses them for cheap gratification rather than tell any proper story with them just adds to the insult of using them in the first place. Thinking about the film reminded me of a home haunt that people create on Halloween in their back gardens or garages – a lot of darkness, some flashing lights, background noise and a lot of mates jumping out wearing Halloween masks of famous serial killers. Death Factory is pretty much that but on a bigger budget.

Things don’t get off to a great start with a prologue that goes on for far longer than it needs to and serves little purpose in the scheme of the things. You can tell already that the script is padding itself out as much as possible. At seventy-five minutes, the film really needs every minute it can to craft together something logical and coherent and give us an explanation as to how and why these serial killers rise from the dead but fails to do so. Like a lot of things in Death Factory, I guess the script just wants the audience to overlook a lot of what happens and suspend their disbelief because of the ‘famous serial killers returning to life’ storyline.

It doesn’t matter where you go in the cinematic universe but buses, schools, workplaces, etc. always contain a perfectly diverse mixture of characters. I’m sure if I got on my local bus, there’d be a load of old people, some young, single mother with a kid and pushchair and maybe one or two people heading to work because they can’t afford a car. Here there’s a preacher and his wife, a pair of aggressive goth/alt-types, two ditzy cheerleader-esque characters, a sleazy bus driver, the token black character and a couple of square-jawed heroes ready to save the day. I’ve pretty much summed up their characters within these brief descriptions and nothing much changes throughout. They’re introduced by the nature of their characters, rather than any proper development, and are promptly split up and fed to the various serial killers. Cue lots of boo moments, a bit of gore, some unpleasant suggestions as to the nature of the serial killers’ real life crimes and a lot of running around.

For me, the film’s main problem was that, being from the UK, I know very little about the serial killers who were assembled for the film. Taking Jack the Ripper and Ed Gein out of the equation (as any self-respecting horror fan should know how many famous cinematic monsters Gein has inspired and Jack the Ripper needs no introduction), I’m pretty sure that the rest of the serial killers were all nasty pieces of work yet I know very little about them to be able to ‘appreciate’ their presence in the film. I had a hard time distinguishing who was who, how many people they killed, what methods they used to kill their victims and when they were executed because they are so poorly brought to life. I’m sure my US readers will not have that problem (likewise if the UK did their own version with the likes of the Yorkshire Ripper, Harold Shipman, etc). This disengaged me a lot from proceedings. Having read up on some of them after watching, I felt that it was in poor taste that they had been turned into Freddy Kruger-like slashers. For documentary-esque horror flicks charting their individual stories – fine. Using them like this is a little disappointing in all honesty but the film botches their inclusion so badly that you’ll have a hard time relating to the real life crimes. They’re literally nothing more than one-dimensional caricatures here and could have been called Billy Bob, Mick or Dave for all I would have cared.

 

The plot potential of Death Factory was excellent however the amateur end product we’re presented with is an embarrassingly inept film which tries to revel in its trashy premise but due to poor editing, poor pacing and a poor script, it comes off as corny and exploitative. If you’re going to use some of the most notorious serial killers to walk the planet, at least use them correctly.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

House of the Long Shadows (1983)

Room for every nightmare… A nightmare in every room.

Making a bet with his publisher that he can write a trashy horror novel in just twenty-four, American writer Kenneth Magee heads off to an abandoned manor house in Wales so that he can write in peace, quiet and, more importantly, in a suitable atmosphere. However, upon arrival at the old house, his expected solitude is disturbed by a number of individuals who arrive at the house throughout the night. Magee soon finds himself at the centre of a decades-old family secret that is to be put to rights tonight.

 

House of the Long Shadows is what I would call the 80s horror equivalent of The Expendables. The only film to feature four of the biggest names in horror, if not the biggest, the film was a last dying gasp from an Anglo-horror cycle which had started back in the late 1950s by Hammer, had a glorious heyday which changed horror films as we know them today, and had gradually died out as audiences flocked to see the likes of Friday the 13th and The Exorcist. Though they had individually worked with each other over the previous decades, this would be the first time that Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and John Carradine would all star in the same film…and better yet, they would all share screen time in a historic moment for horror fans. Reuniting these legends for one last hurrah was designed to capitalise on their names alone and hope that they could still draw at the box office. Sadly, House of the Long Shadows was not a commercial success, though it’s not for the want of trying on the part of the four men.

It’s a shame that House of the Long Shadows is such a dull affair because Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are all excellent in it, it’s just the script that falls completely flat. More of a whodunit murder-mystery set inside a creaky old haunted house, the film is slow, lethargic and doesn’t really kick in until two thirds of the running time have passed. It spends the bulk of its early running time introducing the setting and trying to build up a sense of Gothic atmosphere. Whilst the haunted house setting, with creaky floors, secret passages, grand staircases, furniture covered in white sheets, gloomy basements and such like, complete with requisite thunder and lightning, might have worked back in the 1930s, it fails miserably to generate any sort of atmosphere in the modern setting. With audiences de-sensitised to violence, this old school throwback appears quaint and antiquated and the clichés just aren’t scary anymore.

House of the Long Shadows spends far too long putting all of the pieces in place. As great as Cushing, Lee, Price and Carradine are in it, there’s only so much time you can spend listening to them talking to each other and slowly expanding upon the plot (I mean in a character sense – I actually could have sat and listened to them all night if they were doing a round-table discussion about their careers). It gives them nothing worthwhile to do for ages – a crime against humanity when you one of the greatest casts in horror history. The film does begin to pick up as the mystery begins to unravel and the final third, when the characters start to wind up on the receiving end of some unpleasant treatment, definitely hits the right notes. There is a bit of blood and a bit of violence but with the elder actors involved, it was never going to be a bloodbath. The narrative leads up to a number of convoluted plot twists (one of which is predictable from the very beginning) which begin to make little to no sense if you think back over the course of the film and begin to pick holes.

Not only was House of the Long Shadows the first time the four horror maestros ever teamed up, it was sadly the last time that Cushing and Lee were to pair up, having done so twenty-three times prior. The film brought down the curtain on one of the most, if not the most, prolific horror partnerships of all time. Cushing went into semi-retirement after this which was a pity as he clearly had a few more good roles left in him.

**Spoiler alert – though it was to be their last film together, House of the Long Shadows ironically marked the only time that Lee managed to kill Cushing on-screen, with Cushing doing the honours in a previous six horror films.**

As I’ve alluded to, the four men all work wonderfully together and it’s a crying shame that they never had the opportunity to do so previously when they were all a little younger and spritelier. Each actor gets a fantastic entrance in the film, with Price’s being the highlight (and which plays upon expectations that it might be someone else), and a few moments to shine on their own before they’re joined by the others.

Carradine, starring in films since the 1930s, gets the least screen time but nearly crippled with arthritis, he does what he can with his smaller role. Carradine had the lesser of the careers in comparison with the other three men, appearing in a number of low budget films in glorified cameos in his late career, so his reduced part is fitting with his reduced status. Lee is his usual stern and authoritarian self, playing his part with command and control and keeping a lid on the proceedings with a no-nonsense approach. Lee came off like this a lot in his films which is a shame because when he was able to let loose a little, be it on camera or behind the scenes, he was actually a very warm, approachable individual.

Cushing gets to have a lot of fun, playing around with a bit of a speech impediment in his role as the cowardly, nervous Sebastian. In something of a role reversal from his early career, Cushing’s character is scared of everything, can’t make rational decisions very quickly and isn’t much use in a tricky situation. Unlike a lot of his ‘evil’ roles, this Cushing character is actually very sympathetic. It’s Price who steals the show, delivering his lines with all of his flamboyant gusto and faux Shakespearean delivery. His “Please! Don’t interrupt me when I’m soliloquising” moment is an excellent nod to his reputation as something of a hammy actor.

The younger supporting cast are dreadful is had to be said. Dezi Arnaz Jr., as Magee, deserves a lot of stick for his wooden performance (if acting against those four men didn’t get you to raise your game in the slightest, you didn’t deserve to be an actor) and the least said about his ‘love interest’ Mary, played by Julie Peasgood, the better. Every line she delivers is woeful. If this is the best that director Pete Walker could find to play off against the titans, they he really needed to look harder.

 

A unique slice of horror history that will never happen again in cinema, House of the Long Shadows falls pretty flat as a feature film in itself but let’s face it, everyone will watch this to see the four veteran actors do what they had been doing for years…only this time on the screen together and doing it with a lot of obvious fun. No matter what the quality of the end product, horror audiences were always going to hold this in a special place in their heart. The film is pretty rubbish, however the history and legacy make it essential viewing.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Don’t Go In The House (1980)

Don't Go in the House (1980)

If you do…then don’t say we didn’t warn you

Donald is a disturbed man who has suffered from years of abuse at the hands of his mother. Lacking social skills and stuck in a job stoking coals in an incinerator, Donald’s fragile state of mind is shattered when his mother dies. Unable to cope with the trauma, Donald begins hearing voices which tell him to lure young women to his house where he burns them alive in a purpose-built fireproof room.

 

Long banned in the UK and labelled as one of the 80s video nasties, notorious exploitation horror Don’t Go in the House has finally been released uncut in all of its controversial glory. It had a short-lived status as a ‘video nasty’ due to it being tagged along with a number of more sinister films which started with ‘Don’t …..’ and was available with three minutes cut from the running time. Now that we live in a more tolerant society subjected to nastier and more malicious horrors like Saw and Hostel, these three minutes were restored and it has been released uncut for the first time. Don’t Go In The House can best be summed up as ‘killer burns naked women alive with a flamethrower’ and it is another of those ‘misogynistic male killer with mommy problems’ horrors which started off with Norman Bates in Psycho and was brilliantly realised in the 80s with Maniac.

Often labelled as a slasher film, Don’t Go In The House is more of a psychological thriller but it’s content and approach means it can be placed alongside the likes of Friday the 13th and Halloween, just don’t expect anything nearly as impressive. You see there are two kinds of this type of horror: those that follow the victims and those that follow the killers. Those that follow the killers tend to be raw, seedy and generally tougher to watch than those which follow the fun and frolics of the unsuspecting victims. Those that follow the killers do so in the name of Norman Bates and take cues from how Hitchcock presented the character as a likeable, well-meaning young man who just so happened to have some major psychological issues. Don’t Go In The House stays with this tried-and-tested approach but it isn’t Psycho.

Let’s cut straight to the chase. Don’t Go In The House isn’t a great film. Its threadbare story hardly gives us any characterisation, from Donald to his priest and his best friend, and little happens except Donald snaps and starts killing women. Like the rest of these psychological horrors which deal with male killers with mother issues, Donald’s character is depicted as the victim. It’s not his fault that he’s like he is and he’s dealing with his new-found situation in the only way he knows best: violence. What was done unto him is now being done unto others. However Donald’s characters is so one-dimensional that you’ll be hard-pressed to feel real empathy for the character. This isn’t really the fault of Dan Grimaldi who plays Donald with a wide-eyed cluelessness as if he is totally detached from society and real life. It’s down to the script which gives us literally no reasons to care about anyone in the film.

The film drifts aimlessly once he starts killing women and falls into a repetitive cycle where he picks up a woman and then the film cuts to the aftermath. We don’t get to know too much more about Donald. His best friend is even more anonymous as the only other character with any sort of development but he’s virtually useless to the plot. Donald has hallucinations of his victims coming back to life and haunting him as charred corpses. He scowls at the camera. He walks around his house. He sits in a chair and contemplates what crazy stuff he can do next. It’s monotonous material and the audience is sat waiting for something, anything, to get worked up over. The problem is that the film peaks too early and then never manages to get back to that level of intensity and shock.

Don’t Go In The House is infamous because of its scenes of pyrotechnic terror – well actually its one scene of pyrotechnic terror. The film only shows us one of his female victims being burned alive and it’s that striking an image that the film doesn’t show us any more victims being incinerated. That image is sketched upon our minds throughout the film and so we don’t need a repeat viewing. The scene in question was way harsher than I was expecting: a young female florist accepts a ride home from Donald before he convinces her to come and meet his mother. Whilst in the house, she is knocked unconscious. The next time we see her, she’s chained up from the ceiling, completely naked and then dowsed in gasoline by Donald, now wearing a flame-retardant costume. As the poor woman begs for her life, Donald unleashed the flamethrower and, with the use of some reasonably satisfying special effects, the woman writhes screaming and howling as she is overcome by the flames. The next shot we see of her is a charred corpse hanging in the same position. It’s a grim scene, one of the most depraved I’ve seen due to its graphic detail and sheer unpleasantness. It’s basically the scene that led the film to being banned – the rest of the film never comes close to being as nasty or as graphic.

 

Don’t Go In The House isn’t as sleazy or disturbing as similar grindhouse exploitation thrillers but it will leave a sour taste in your mouth with that one scene of fiery cruelty and there is enough of an unsettling atmosphere to keep promising that it will get better even if it doesn’t. Its undeserved reputation as a video nasty is certainly just that and the fact that it is now uncut will hardly set feminists rushing out with their banners of protest.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker (1991)

He’s Home… But He’s Not Alone.

Young Derek is left traumatised when his father is killed by a mysterious Christmas present that was left for him on the doorstep in the middle of the night. The present was meant for Derek with a warning not to open until Christmas. It turns out that a local toymaker is making these deadly presents with the intention of killing children and Derek is next on his list.

 

Having long-abandoned the killer Santa theme, the Silent Night, Deadly Night series did what John Carpenter had originally envisioned for the Halloween franchise: making standalone horror films linked together with a particular holiday theme, in this case Christmas. Whilst this only lasted for two films once the traditional slasher stuff had finished in Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out!, it still provided a platform for some interesting non-traditional Christmas horror material. Horror producer and director Brian Yuzna, one of the men behind the Re-Animator films, was in the producer’s seat for this one and his knowledgeable touch is clear to see. There is a definitive Halloween III: Season of the Witch vibe to this sequel in which an evil businessman plans to murder children during one of the year’s biggest holidays. Whilst this isn’t on the same scale, there’s still a cruel and devilish tinge to the proceedings here. Like a gift that keeps on giving, the film contains plenty of bizarre ideas and moments which will leave you wide-eyed in amazement.

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker is a solid horror flick which doesn’t take itself too seriously and would have probably been more successful standing on its own two feet instead of being tagged with the sequel moniker. It’s got an obvious second-rate budget which holds it back on numerous occasions but it’s got far more to do with the festive season than the bulk of the other sequels and manages to inject some mean-spirited fun into its running time. This is still not a film for the Christmas purists who will be enraged at the sight of a man dressed in a Santa suit kidnaping a small boy or toys coming to life killing people. But hey, people don’t take this stuff seriously, do they?

The interesting premise was never going to live up to potential so it’s to the films credit that it manages to come out as good as it does. Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker dangerously settles into a quasi-slasher formula during the middle portion of the film, as someone gets in possession of a killer toy and is promptly dispatched by said toy, but this is dropped for the finale. One can only wonder how much effective the kills would have been with a bigger budget (or whether they have been cut down). The standout sequence featuring the babysitter and her boyfriend being attacked by a multitude of toys in the bedroom is imaginatively realised. Robotic hands, snakes, army soldiers, tanks, and a remote-controlled car with circular saw add-ons launch an assault upon the unsuspecting couple. Considering all of the toys are actual props, the way in which the sequence is devised really gives you the illusion that these killing machines have life. The idea of a face-hugging Santa toy is a bit absurd, though the face change in ‘mood’ from happy Santa (with the toy playing festive music) to the maniac Santa (with the funeral march now the music of choice) is a nice touch).

Veteran actor Mickey Rooney is the evil toymaker, which is an ironic bit of casting given how vocal Rooney was in showing his hatred for the original when it was released amidst a storm of controversy in 1984. I guess he needed the money for his Christmas presents in 1991. Rooney is fantastic in the role, barking mad and frothing at the mouth in some scenes as he rages against his son, Pino. The rest of the cast is pretty forgettable, though two people from the previous sequel are brought back for very brief cameos, no doubt to add continuity to the series.

Anyone who figures out why Rooney’s character is called Joe Petto will then figure out the plot twist at the end of the film. Believe me, it was totally out of nowhere but I liked it. Films that take creative chances with the material and do something out of the ordinary always get bonus marks in my book, even if the execution isn’t so hot. Thankfully, whilst Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker‘s twist makes no sense in the slightest, the manner of its execution is staged well enough to get you to suspend your disbelief for a few moments.

 

If it’s not the sight of a robot dry-humping a woman whilst shouting “I love you mommy” or the street kid wearing rocket-propelled skates, it’s the manner in which Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker goes about its business with the minimal fuss that will have you smiling afterwards. It’s never going to become a seasonal classic but for a fourth sequel it holds up far better than it has any right to and will provide a different alternative to the usual Christmas-themed horror suspects at that time of the year.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Psycho II (1983)

Psycho II (1983)

It’s 22 years later, and Norman Bates is finally coming home

After twenty two years in an institution, Norman Bates is finally deemed sane and released back into the wider world, much to the disconcert of Lila Loomis, the sister of Marion Crane who was brutally stabbed to death in the shower. However due to budget cutbacks, Norman isn’t sent to a halfway house and instead finds himself returning home to the Bates Motel, where a social worker pops in to see him from time-to-time. He gets a job working in a local diner and befriends a young waitress who agrees to move in with him. But it isn’t long before he starts getting mysterious phone calls and notes left for him by ‘Mother’ and homicidal feelings that he had managed to suppress begin to resurface.

 

How do you follow up one of the most influential films of all time? Well you wait until the original director has died before you tackle the material. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the most critically-analysed films ever made but a sequel whilst the director was alive was never going to get off the ground – Hitchcock would never given the green light to a sequel for any of his films. So out of respect, it was only after Hitchcock died in 1980 that attempts were made to follow up his landmark Psycho with a sequel, a daunting task for anyone.

Psycho II was made at the height of the slasher era where Michael Myers, Jason Vorhees and soon-to-be Freddy Krueger and their numerous copycat killers were slicing and dicing their way across hordes of the teenage landscape. So what better era in which to bring back the original slasher himself, Norman Bates? Psycho II could have pandered to the masses and turned Norman into a bodycount maestro but director Richard Franklin resisted the urge to cash-in on the current trend and instead crafts together a masterfully-conceived horror film which does Hitchcock’s original huge justice.

Right from the start (well technically not true as it recaps the shower scene from the original but you know what I mean), Psycho II never once pretends to be aping Hitchcock. This is its own film, not designed to recapture the artistic talents of Hitchcock but to further on the story of Norman Bates, nothing more. With this mindset in place, Psycho II then proceeds to deliver a gripping story which continually asks the question of whether Norman has slipped back into his insanity or whether he is being played for a fool by someone who wants to see him back in the asylum. Wisely constructing the film around another standout performance from Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, the film weaves an intricate tapestry of questions which don’t leave you with the answers until late in the day. One minute you think he has snapped again but the next minute you’re not so sure. The film keeps pulling the rug out and introducing new evidence for and against both scenarios and isn’t happy until the final reel. It will keep you guessing right until the end and even then, you’re not so sure.

This said, there are plenty of nods to the original. The homecoming scene where Norman finds himself coming face-to-face with the creepy house on the hill for the first time in years is fantastically spooky. Seeing the motel again, that shower, the stairs where Martin Balsam was murdered….it all brings back powerful memories of the original for not only Norman but the audience. The running shots of various knives around the diner and the house keep our expectations firmly at the forefront of our minds. We expect Norman to go crazy at some point and use them. In a perverse twist of logic, we the audience actually want Norman to be turn out to be crazy. It’s a fine line between protagonist and antagonist that the film keeps skirting over by reflecting on our memories of the original and our preconceptions of what is going to happen here.

Psycho II is  a character-driven film which avoids capitulating to the 80s requirements of over-the-top splatter and gratuitous nudity. Whilst Psycho II resists the urge to turn Norman into another Michael Myers, the success of the slasher film during this decade didn’t go unnoticed here and so the film is slightly more violent and graphic than the original but nothing overly gory. The time lapse between the original and Psycho II really help the authenticity of this one to shine through. Though the original would have been replayed countless times on the television over the years, the gap between cinematic releases (and thus allowing for the natural aging of Anthony Perkins and returning actress Vera Miles) keeps the film feeling fresh – this isn’t just a rush-job sequel made two years later.

Anthony Perkins owns the film. Whilst his Norman Bates isn’t the fresh-faced, seemingly-innocent young man he was in the original, he has managed to retain the nervous stutter, twitchy eyes and general sense of likeability. Norman has been through hell in the asylum and goes through hell as he tries to readjust to normal life. Perkins’ performance has the uncanny ability to draw sympathy from the viewer. We know he’s guilty of the horrific crimes he committed in the original yet we can’t help but feel sorry for him as his fragile mental state breaks and he slowly slips back to being a complete fruitcake.

Helping him along the way is the immensely likeable Meg Tilly who plays the waitress who moves in with him. For all intents and purposes, she is the audience for the film. At first she’s apprehensive of Norman after finding out about his past. But then as the film progresses, she grows to like him and feel sorry for him as he seems like a decent guy deep down. But then towards the end, she’s not so sure whether it’s all an act or not. Tilly’s character arc travels the same way as the audience and it’s effective in eliciting a response from us.

The only thing that is missing is the infamous Bernard Herrmann score. It is like having the Jaws sequels without John Williams’ infamous shark theme, the Star Wars sequels and prequels without the Imperial March or the Halloween sequels without John Carpenter’s trademark theme. Granted there is no replication of the shower sequence for it to re-appear but you’d have thought they would have found somewhere to put it, even for posterity.

 

Psycho II is perhaps the most underrated sequel of all time and really deserves more critical acclaim than it has had. When it’s only major flaw is that it isn’t Psycho, then you know you’ve got a great film on your hands. A worthy successor to Hitchcock’s film which stays true to its spirit, Psycho II continues the story of Norman Bates with delicious menace and skilful delight.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Christmas Evil (1980)

Christmas Evil (1980)

You’d better take care…Santa is coming to town!

After witnessing his mother getting a little too friendly with Santa when he was a kid, Harry grows up to be obsessed with Christmas. Working in a toy factory, he keeps a record of which children in the neighbourhood have been naughty and which have been nice. Eventually he is driven over the edge after seeing his company’s disregard for the quality of the toys they make and he goes around town dressed as Santa, killing those who don’t believe in the magic of the festive season.

 

Often thought of as a slasher flick that latched onto the nearest free holiday-themed day that writers could find in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Christmas Evil is not THE film about a killer Santa which got American parents picketing cinemas, despite the similar poster featuring Santa about to pop down a chimney holding an axe. That, my friends, is Silent Night, Deadly Night. But by the time Christmas Evil has finished, you’d be wishing that you’d put that one instead to get your fill of foolish festive frights.

I think part of the problem here is the way in which Christmas Evil has been marketed, clearly painting itself as a slasher film and hoping to attract the blood-thirsty audiences. It isn’t anything of the sort though, ending up as some second-rate loner-turns-into-psycho movie which just so happens to be set at Christmas. I don’t know where the blame lies – the title was even changed from You Better Watch Out into Christmas Evil so whether it was a director’s thing or a producer’s decision remains to be seen. Whatever it’s called, the fact remains that it’s a dull affair. Like Christmas, you spend way too long waiting for it to happen and then it’s all over in the blink of an eye.

Christmas Evil is certainly, well, Christmassy. The theme is in full effect here – festive music, decorations, trees, snow and lots of guys in red suits and white beards. In many respects it does a better job at recreating this time of the year better than most mainstream schmaltzy Christmas films try to do. Shot on a low budget, one-time only director Lewis Jackson gives the film a decent polish, never once belaying it’s lack of cash. Along comes the mean-spiritedness of the film which, surprisingly enough, isn’t  aimed at the main character but at others around him. For all of his murderous moments, Harry  isn’t the Norman Bates of the holiday season – he’s a nice guy who loves Christmas and is sick of the way others treat it with contempt. He just wants to bring the true spirit of Christmas back to the masses. For this reason, the film tries to earn your sympathy for the character and it does a reasonable job of getting it. But it’s hard work getting there. Boy is Christmas Evil slow, arduous work.

The only redeeming factor to Christmas Evil is Brandon Maggart who jumps into the role of Harry as if he’s going for an Oscar. His slow turn into a psychopath is believable enough but it’s a shame that not much is done with it in the end. It takes too long for him to snap and when he does, he doesn’t really do anything that he wasn’t doing before – well with the exception of a few murders! This isn’t a body count film but when it’s bandied around in the ‘slasher’ sections I expect more than four deaths, three of which happen within thirty seconds of each other. I’m sure that it would take more than four people to die before the delusional Harry was satisfied that he’d got his message across.

Despite the film trying to play itself off as a serious character study, there are too many silly moments strewn throughout which beg the question of why the writers didn’t go for the black comedy approach from the get-go. From a bunch of kids making a human shield around the killer Santa to ward off a group of torch-wielding adults to seeing a load of guys dressed as Santa in a police line-up to an ending which presages the most famous scene from E.T. by a couple of years, the film plants its tongue firmly in its cheek when it deems it necessary. But then in the next breath we’re expected to take Harry’s human drama seriously. It’s an uneven line crossing an one which could have been made clearer at the start.

 

Like an unwanted pair of socks or a Christmas jumper, by the time Christmas Evil has finished, you’d wish that Santa had skipped your house completely. There is more character work in here than a dozen slasher flicks but there’s little else to go on and in the end, it’s so slow that you won’t need the glass of wine to doze off on Christmas Day afternoon – stick this on instead and watch the Zzzzzs start to fly.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆