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11 September, 2010

High School Horrors

If Horror Films of the 1970’s and ‘80’s were a reliable indicator, then it was a miracle that anyone survived the experience of attending High School.  There were Slashers roaming the hallways, mad killers in math class, even the senior prom might be interrupted by a pissed-off chick with telekinetic powers.  Forget ‘peer pressure’ and SAT scores—you just hoped you’d live to see Graduation Day.  And even that wasn’t a guarantee you’d survive to pick up that diploma.

One of the conventions of the archetypal Slasher film of the 1980’s was that the pool of victims was primarily young, good-looking teens—late high school or college age, old enough to be sexually active but certainly not adults.  Within that pool there would be the stereotypical victims:  The ‘jock’, the bitchy, stuck-up ‘pretty girl’, the ‘outcast’, the ‘good guy’, the sweet, innocent, ‘girl next door’—who, because she didn’t have sex, was often the lone survivor—and other, just as easily recognizable, characters that populated the corridors and classrooms of these fictional institutions.  Most of these were faceless rabble—body count fodder for the Slasher du Jour.

From the beginning of the Slasher craze, the late teen demographic has been targeted, not only on-screen but also at the box-office.  The teen-age male has historically been the greatest fan of Slasher movies, and they adapted early on to give the typical fan of the genre what they wanted to see.  That meant, to paraphrase the great Joe Bob Briggs, “more Boobs and more Blood.”

The earliest Slasher Films, Bob Clark’s BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) and John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), were somewhat restrained in terms of blood and gore, particularly in comparison to the films that followed them.  Both films started out with excellent stories, strong directors with clear visions of what they wished to put on-screen, and talented casts able to execute the directors’ wishes.  They were able to build a natural suspense into their movies without relying on an overabundance of cheap scares and easy shocks.

In 1980, however, Sean Cunningham’s FRIDAY THE 13TH would prove to be the game-changer in the Slasher genre.  Eschewing the reserved, restrained approach (and perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of the weaker script and cast with which he had to work), Cunningham, with the able assistance of make-up effects artist Tom Savini, set out to raise the bar in terms of bloodshed.  Instead of working to build real fear and suspense, they built a body count, with gallons of fake blood used as the mortar.  The fact that this approach worked, to the tune of $39 Million in domestic release, was not lost upon competing studios.

Seemingly overnight, the Slasher Film became the dominant form of Horror.  Before the end of 1981, no fewer than two dozen Slasher Films were released, several focusing their attention on the education system.  The first, and most notable, of these was PROM NIGHT, directed by Paul Lynch and released the same year as FRIDAY THE 13TH.  Starring the first Scream Queen of the Slasher era, Jamie Lee Curtis, along with Leslie Nielsen and Michael Tough, PROM NIGHT was filmed in Canada and released by Avco Embassy on 18 July 1980, on 1,200 screens nationwide.  On a budget of $1.6 million (CDN), this tale of high school revenge for a sibling’s death grossed nearly $15 million in the US, a very respectable number.  It also spawned three sequels, and was remade (poorly) by Nelson McCormick in 2008.

Far better in terms of quality, though not as widely popular, was THE PROWLER, released in 1981.  Directed by Joseph Zito, and featuring make-up special effects by Tom Savini, this was a tale of a mad Slasher carving his way through a small college’s student body, dressed in army fatigues, gas mask, and helmet.  The film starred Farley Granger as Sheriff George Fraser, a man with a secret in his past, along with Vicky Dawson and Christopher Goutman as Pam and Mark, two young lovers who are stalked by the killer.  THE PROWLER was released in November of 1981, with little fanfare or notice.  Though Savini has stated that it contains some of his best effects work, it remains something of a ‘lost’ classic of the Slasher genre in comparison to it’s more famous brethren.

Another early ‘80’s entry in the crowded Slasher Film arena was Herb Freed’s GRADUATION DAY, released on 1 May 1981.  The story begins with the sudden death of a young female track star during a meet, and the return of her sister, a US Navy officer, to their small town, just as its preparing for the High School graduation.  Starring Christopher George, Patch Mackenzie, and Michael Pataki, the genre’s conventions are already in place less than a year after FRIDAY THE 13TH defined them.  The unseen, unknown killer; the large body count; the inventive, if impractical, death scenes; the “Sex equals Death” motif—all are present here.  Once the formula for Slasher Film success had been discovered, it was copied—slavishly.

In 1984, Wes Craven, the director who had risen to prominence with films such as THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and THE HILLS HAVE EYES, decided to reinvent the Slasher Film.  Craven avoided the silent, stalking killer that typified the movie Slasher.  His creation was instead a wisecracking spectre, the ghost of a pedophilic child-killer haunting the dreams of the children of those who killed him.  That killer’s name was Freddy Krueger, and the movie was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

Boasting an excellent script (by Craven), superb photography, and Craven’s usually strong direction, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET became the template for a new direction in Horror over the next decade.  Less a Slasher than a supernatural demon, Krueger, played to perfection by Robert Englund, was the prototype of a new class of screen monster.  Englund was backed up by strong performances from a cast composed of veterans and newcomers, people such as John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Heather Langenkamp, and Johnny Depp, in his first screen role.

The influence of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET continued to be felt on the genre for the remainder of the decade.  Similarly-themed creatures, hellspawns, and demons, from THE LEPRECHAUN, to THE WISHMASTER’s Djinn, to Pinhead, the leader of HELLRAISER’s Cenobites, began to push the traditional Slasher Film aside.  While they retained many elements of the Slasher Films, their victim pools typically skewed older than those for the Slashers.  As the Slasher Film waned in popularity (though never disappearing completely) through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, High Schools and Colleges became somewhat safer, though not totally safe, from the predations of masked killers and silent stalkers.

By 1996, the Slasher Film genre was ripe for reinvention, and once again it was Wes Craven, working with a script from Kevin Williamson, who called class back into session, with the hip, witty, self-aware Slasher hit SCREAM.

Starring Neve Campbell, Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox, David Arquette, and Matthew Lillard, SCREAM stood the conventional Slasher genre on it’s head, poking fun at the form while still managing to be a very effective Horror Film.  Released on 20 December 1996, it got off to a slow start, earning just $6.4 million of its $15 million budget in that first week.  By the end of it’s third week in release, however, it was approaching $40 million in Box-Office receipts, and, much as A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET had done twelve years previously, had redefined the Horror Film.  Almost overnight fans were witness to what I refer to as the “Dawson’s Creek meets Freddy Krueger” School of Horror Films, movies which introduced a new paradigm to the Slasher Film.  Gone were the old stereotypes of the Slasher Film victims; now new models were introduced.  The average Slasher Film victim was no longer anyone most of us would have been familiar with when we were horny, stumbling, mumbling, pimply-faced youths surviving the daily pain-in-the-ass that was secondary education.  They were uniformly good-looking, uniformly wealthy, uniformly cool—and uniformly boring.

The few characters that existed outside the paradigm, be it due to lack of money, lack of looks, or lack of cool, were there to serve one of two purposes.  One, they were there to provide early fodder for the killer, and would quickly find themselves chopped, hacked, sliced, and/or diced into body count stew.

The second purpose such characters served was to provide a few red herrings as to the identity of the killer, who in the new paradigm wasn’t some escaped lunatic or mutant son of an insane camp counselor.  The killer in this new model Slasher Film came from within.  This new paradigm soon dominated the Horror genre, with SCREAM giving birth to two (soon to be three) sequels, along with numerous take-offs, such as URBAN LEGEND, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, and the most original of these, FINAL DESTINATION.

However, lest one believe that the only danger to be found in the hallowed halls of academia were hook-handed Slashers and machete-wielding maniacs, in 1998 director Robert Rodriguez took us on a field trip back into the 1950’s, the heyday of the Alien Invasion movies such as IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and INVASION OF THE BODY-SNATCHERS, with THE FACULTY.

Starring Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, Josh Hartnett, and Clea DuVall, this story of a High School where the faculty has been taken over by alien invaders was scripted by the same Kevin Williamson who had previously written SCREAM for Wes Craven.  While it did moderately well at the Box-Office, it failed to become the genre-changer that SCREAM had been two years before.

Another High School Horror Film failed at the Box-Office, but became a cult hit in video release.  2001’s GINGER SNAPS, a Canadian Werewolf movie directed by John Fawcett, and written by Karen Walton and Fawcett, saw only limited theatrical release in the US, though it did well in its native Canada.  It was also well-received by critics, and soon developed a solid fan following.  It stars Emily Perkins and Katherine Isabella as Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald, teen-age sisters struggling with feelings of depression and alienation while growing up in the small town of Bailey Downs.  The girls are obsessed with death, to the point of photographing themselves in staged ‘death scenes’ for a class project.  One night they encounter the “beast of Bailey Downs,” a creature the townspeople believe is responsible for a rash of mutilated dogs that have been found in recent days.  Ginger is bitten by the beast, and soon it becomes obvious to her sister that puberty isn’t the only change Ginger’s undergoing.

Though the genre had been trending away from the High School Horrors for several years, the recent spate of reinventions of many of the 1980’s Slasher Films has reinvigorated it to some degree.  HALLOWEEN, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, even PROM NIGHT have been remade lately, with varying degrees of success.  The audience for the Slasher Film hasn’t changed, demographically speaking, to any significant degree since the 1970’s, and in truth, neither have the long line of on-screen victims.  Both keep going strong, and that, I’m happy to say, shows no sign of changing.

Changing Times, Changing Tastes?

Like most things about us, our tastes, whether in movies, music, food, or any facet of popular culture, changes over time.  We grow, mature, gain wisdom.  What we loved as teens now seem terrible, and vice-versa.  Don’t believe me?  Dig out those dusty old ABBA albums (if you’re near my age…) and try to sit through one from beginning to end… that’s it, just try.  Couldn’t do it, could you?  Now, what CD’s are in your car right now?  Would you have liked them when you were 15?  Not a chance.

Recently, it occurred to me that my tastes in food have altered through the years.  Things that I once would’ve given absolutely no thought to trying I now enjoy on a regular basis, while foods that had been my favorites have completely lost their appeal.  Similarly, my taste in Horror has altered to a large degree.  Though most of the movies that I loved then I still love, that’s far from true in every case.

Now, I don’t mean that I’m somehow “outgrowing” my love of Horror and Science-Fiction films, or that I’ve suddenly developed a fondness for Julia Roberts—Hugh Grant movies.  However, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that many of the movies that I loved as a child have since lost whatever appeal they originally had for me, or that I now love movies that, quite frankly, once bored me silly.

When I was ten, in 1974, I was deep into my Monsterkid years.  Stacks of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazines filled my room, nestled against equally large stacks of comic books, all watched over by an assortment of Aurora’s Monster models.  During this time, I was blessed with an older sister possessed with two enormously beneficial qualities… a car with a spacious trunk, and rather liberal ideas on just what movies our parents would consider acceptable for a ten-year old to see. 
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, IT’S ALIVE, CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS… these are just some of the gorefests I first saw at the local Drive-In, courtesy of my sister.  Another movie I owe her for is Herschell G. Lewis’ groundbreaking gore classic, BLOOD FEAST.

BLOOD FEAST, the 1963 film that truly started the splatter genre, impressed me greatly when I first saw it on a long-ago north Florida summer night.  Now, though I still recognize it for the pioneer it was, I also recognize that it truly was a stink-fest of a film.

Now I find myself less interested in gore, and more in story.  Better able to appreciate the subtleties of a JU-ON or SECRET WINDOW, rather than the sledgehammer of FREDDY vs. JASON or HALLOWEEN:  RESURRECTION.

Believe me, I haven’t totally sworn off spurting blood and torn flesh.  Two of the best films of the past ten years (SHAUN OF THE DEAD; DOG SOLDIERS…) had more than their share of blood, guts, and gore.  They also had exceptionally good stories, great acting, and directors that understood how to make use of all three elements, all things that have become increasingly important to my viewing enjoyment over time.  Though film-makers once loaded their films with blood and gore to cover weak scripts and poor production values, modern directors are learning that you can make a good movie that’s also a gory movie.

I also have a much lower tolerance for stupidity than I had at a younger age.  Though any good Horror Film requires a certain suspension of disbelief, they should try to make some sense, if only within the confines of the movie itself.  One of the better examples of this principle is M. Night Shyamalan’s THE SIXTH SENSE.
This movie established a series of rules for the film’s universe, and played faithfully by them.  Thus, when the ending was revealed, the viewer’s first reaction was usually “Damn, I should’ve figured that!”  Most movies, however, make no attempt to be so rational, so intelligent.  We are simply along for the ride; if the movie makes sense, fine.  If not, oh well.  Well, I for one have gotten to the point where I need a little rationality in my cinematic fare, a little salve for an old and tired brain that’s seen far too many movies aimed at audiences with an average I.Q. less than their average age.

Thus it is that, more and more, I find myself looking to the classic Universal Horrors, or to the great 1950’s-era Creature Features, for my viewing.  There is something refreshing in the simple innocence, the naïveté, of those films.  Perhaps it is nostalgia, my pining for my lost youth.  Perhaps as I age, my tolerance for blood and guts has diminished.  Or perhaps I’ve just grown to expect more from the limited time I can take to watch a movie these days.  At best I can squeeze three or four hours of free time out of each day.  When I use those for viewing a movie, I don’t usually want to waste the time on CABIN FEVER, or HOUSE OF THE DEAD.

I need entertainment, not shocks…  I need Whale and Hitchcock, damnit, not Boll and Roth.  I need quality, not quantity.  In short, I need my classics.

“The Best [Euro-Horror] Movies You’ve Probably Never Seen”

For fans of European Horror Films, Amando De Ossorio is one of the legendary directors of the sub-genre.  Not as well-known as Fulci or Argento, not as prolific as Franco or as talented as Bava, he nonetheless is remembered as one of the greatest European film-makers ever, based solely on his iconic creations, the Knights Templars of the BLIND DEAD series of films.
Beginning in 1971, with the release of LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO  ~aka~  TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD, a unique form of undead menace graced the screens of theaters and Drive-Ins in Europe and North America.  While similar in style to the Romero Zombie-Verse of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, De Ossorio’s Satan-worshipping, blood-drinking, flesh-eating Knights of the Egyptian Cross were in a class all alone.  Evil in life, they became even more so after death, chasing down victims on gray-black spectral chargers, hunting them down by the sound of their beating hearts.
Based on the historical Crusaders known as Knights Templars, De Ossorio’s version, to put it mildly, deviates significantly from the historical record.  These Knights are a cult of Devil-worshippers, executed for their crimes, blinded so they could not threaten people, even after death.  But neither killing nor blinding them kept them from seeking out fresh prey through a series of four films from 1971 to 1975, continuing from the first with EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS  ~aka~  RETURN OF THE BLIND DEAD; EL BUQUE MALDITO  ~aka~  THE GHOST GALLEON; and LA NOCHE DE LAS GAVIOTAS  ~aka~  NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS.
While the quality of the series varied from film to film, hitting it’s nadir with the very weak EL BUQUE MALDITO in 1974, it was always stylish and atmospheric, highlighting De Ossorio’s talent as a director and photographer if not as a screenwriter.  The best of the series, at least in my opinion, was 1972’s EL ATAQUE DE LOS MUERTOS SIN OJOS.  Not only does it retain the stylistic elegance of the first film, but throws in some of the best action scenes of the series, including a suspenseful scene where the survivors of the initial Templar massacre struggle to rescue a young child caught outside with the dead knights.
Now those of you who are regular readers of this column know that I’m a big fan of Euro-Horror, and you probably know why.  The answer is a simple one:  Innovation.
Let’s examine one year, a year that featured the release of several landmark Horror Films—1960.  While Hollywood was churning out such blockbusters as THE AMAZING TRANSPARENT MAN and THE LEECH WOMAN, European film-makers were producing bona-fide classics like ET MOURIR DE PLASIR  ~aka~  BLOOD AND ROSES and LA MASCHERA DEL DEMONIO  ~aka~  BLACK SUNDAY.  Does that mean there were no good American Horror Films produced that year?  Hardly.  Am I trying to imply that Hollywood was totally incapable of original, innovative Horror?  No, though that statement’s not far from the truth.  One of the greatest, most innovative Horror Films ever made, Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, came out in 1960.  THE TIME MACHINE and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER were also excellent 1960 releases, though neither was exceptionally innovative or original.
Innovation, though, is something that Hollywood finds itself unwilling to do.  Whether from fear of failure, or lack of imagination, Hollywood simply cannot get its collective thumb out long enough to come up with an original thought.  While this syndrome has become more pronounced of late, it’s hardly a recent phenomenon, as demonstrated by our look at 1960.
However, European directors felt no such constraints… or if they did, they didn’t let them affect the quality of their work.  Directors like Bava, Argento, Fulci, Rollin, and Franco may not have always been successful, but they made movies that were unmistakably their own, films that stood apart from the common herd.  You may not have liked their work, but you damn sure recognized it as theirs.
De Ossorio was that type of director.  Though his movies have their share of detractors, and his themes left him open to personal attack, (most often describing him as “misogynistic”…) he made the films that he wanted to make, and they were unlike anything else.  From the history he constructed for the Templars, to the distinctive design of their reanimated corpses, even to the unique method of filming the Blind Dead Knights in slow-motion that so effectively imparted a sense of the unreal, an air of supernatural, to the Templars, these films were different.  The combination of these factors, and others, have made these films some of the best of European Horror, even though few Americans are, or rather, were, familiar with them.  And those who have seen them probably saw a heavily edited VHS release, which could hardly convey the true quality of De Ossorio’s work.
That hopefully changed in 2005, when Blue Underground released an absolutely breath-taking boxed set, The Blind Dead Collection.  Beautifully restored to their original release condition, with the original language tracks in place, it’s easy to see just why these films were so highly thought of when they first hit the screens of European cinemas.  By the time they reached the American Drive-Ins and Grindhouses, cuts had already been made that reduced the films’ effectiveness.  The movies were each cut further in order to fit into broadcast slots, as well as making them Television friendly.  Along the way, De Ossorio’s original concepts became so muddied and disguised that in direct comparison, they seem like different films.
And thanks to Blue Underground, that direct comparison, at least for LA NOCHE DEL TERROR CIEGO, is easily accomplished.  In addition to the original wide-screen Spanish release of De Ossorio’s masterpiece, they’ve included the edited, dubbed, pan-and-scan U.S. video release in its entirety.  Watching them back-to-back, as I did recently, only made me appreciate the original all the more.  The plot, which seems to make little sense in the edited version, jumps into crystal clarity in the original.  Though I speak not a word of Spanish, the dialogue between the principal characters became far more comprehensible in the original, sub-titled version than in the one where I could actually understand what the actors were saying.
When I say that these are the best Euro-Horror films you’ve never seen, I’m fully aware that many of you probably have seen them; may even have the beat-up, fading VHS’s in your collection, just as I did.  You might even now be composing angry e-mails, ready to inform me just how big a fathead I am.  Fine.  But unless you’ve seen these movies the way they were meant to be seen, the way De Ossorio wanted them to be seen, then just hit that delete button.
Because, unless you have seen them in their original form, they are the best Euro-Horror movies you’ve never seen.

The Heyday of TV Horror

Network Television has always had something of a love-hate relationship with Horror and Science-Fiction programming.  While some of the best episodic TV ever done has been in the genre realms, too often it has gone unappreciated by the very executives profiting from it.  Relegated to undesirable time-slots, starved of financing, subjected to unfair editorial oversight, and then quickly axed when they failed to deliver up to expectations, those were, for many years, a few of the problems faced by genre series and their fans looking for a small-screen fix.  Case in point:  The original run of STAR TREK.  Premiering on September 8th, 1966, NBC executives worked against the series from the beginning, shifting it’s time-slot several times, finally consigning it to a virtual death sentence of a slot—Friday nights at 10pm.  Saved from cancellation following its second season by a now legendary letter-writing campaign launched by the show’s fans, it simply couldn’t generate sufficient ratings to prolong its life past the end of the third.  The last first-run episode was broadcast June 3rd, 1969.  In past years, that would have been the end of the story; in this case it was not, as we all well know.

Still, for all the dislike evinced by television executives for genre programming, it’s hard to deny the fact that it works, and, given the proper respect, works well.  At no point in time was this more in evidence than in the late ‘60’s to mid 1970’s.

Though Science-Fiction, and to a lesser degree Horror, had been part of the Television blueprint since the earliest days, it really reached its peak starting in 1969 with the debut of Rod Serling’s NIGHT GALLERY.  Similar to Serling’s acclaimed TWILIGHT ZONE, though with more emphasis on pure Horror than its predecessor, NIGHT GALLERY was consistently one of the most effective genre programs ever, with well-written, literate, imaginative scripts; great production values; and some of the best actors working in television at the time.  Each week viewers were treated to three or four short vignettes, each introduced by Serling through the device of a painting, which served as a visual metaphor for the segment’s title.

The series ran through May of 1973, and while it wasn’t the groundbreaking series that TWILIGHT ZONE had been, it pleased its fans, myself included.

However, NIGHT GALLERY was far from the only genre program to hit the small screen during the first half of the decade.  One of the better ones lasted only a season, (1972-73…) and went through a title change in mid-course, but GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR left a lasting impression on this young Monsterkid.  Superbly written, if not always as well-executed, it was, for it’s time, the most frightening program on television.  It was certainly my favorite, until the premiere in September, 1974 of the greatest Horror series ever, KOLCHAK:  THE NIGHT STALKER.

The brainchild of Jeff Rice, the pilot for the series was created by prolific producer-director Dan Curtis, adapted from Rice’s novel “The Kolchak Papers” by Richard Matheson, with John Llewellyn Moxey directing.  It aired as an ABC-TV movie on January 11th, 1972, and became the highest rated television movie to that point, a position it held for some time.  A sequel, THE NIGHT STRANGLER, followed a year later, and the series eighteen months after that.

Though it lasted an even shorter period of time than GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR, the long-term impact of this series can’t be discounted.  It not only transformed Darren McGavin from an average, though skillful, character actor, into a pop culture icon.  It also inspired similar series that followed it, most notably THE X-FILES.

But the greatest contribution that Television made to the Horror genre during the first half of the ‘70’s was the large number of high-quality well-written Made-for-TV Movies that were produced in those years.  Between 1969 and 1975, over eighty Sci-Fi and Horror Films were produced by the Big Three networks, including such gems as Curtis’ DRACULA (1973), HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS  ~aka~  DEADLY DESIRES (1972), TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), Spielberg’s DUEL (1971), and of course, the aforementioned THE NIGHT STALKER (1972).  Many of these were broadcast on ABC, the network for horror when I was a child.

One of the better ones however, GARGOYLES, aired on November 21st, 1972 on CBS.  This was one of my favorite movies as a child, with great-looking creatures, a very scary (well, to an eight-year old, at least…) plot, and an open ending that, a mere decade later, would’ve resulted in at least three sequels.

Another under-appreciated TV movie from this period is DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, an ABC Made-for-TV Movie first broadcast on October 10th, 1973.  The plot was somewhat original, concerning a family who finds their ancestral home infested by small creatures who may be demons summoned by the wife’s late father.  Starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, this better-than-average TV horror was recently remade (albeit somewhat loosely…) as INHABITED (2003), an altogether inferior effort.  Though the original is not an easy movie to track down, the effort is worth it.

Tonight, when we are relaxing in our comfortable recliners, with a bowl of popcorn and a cold drink, and reach to pick up the remotes that can instantly bring us hundreds of channels of entertainment and information, it might do us some measure of good to ask ourselves if we’re really better off.  If you’re anywhere near my age, or older, then you can remember a time when just three networks fought it out for our attention, and they did battle with high-quality, original programming, a phrase that’s become something of an oxymoron in the age of SURVIVOR and AMERICAN IDOL.  We can remember a time when some of the best, most entertaining horror and science-fiction work being done was for the small-screen.

I for one think we’re lucky to have those memories, and can’t help feeling just a little sorry for those who don’t.

DVD Review: THE PROWLER

Title:  THE PROWLER

Year of Release—Film:  1981

Year of Release—DVD:  2003

DVD Label:  Blue Underground




The early ‘80’s were the height of the Slasher movie craze, and 1981 was perhaps the high-water mark of the genre, with no fewer than thirteen different Slasher Movies being released.  These ran the gamut from the superb—PIECES ~aka~ ONE THOUSAND CRIES HAS THE NIGHT and MY BLOODY VALENTINE, to the average—HALLOWEEN II; HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, to the execrable—HUMONGOUS; HONEYMOON HORROR.  And a 17-year-old Unimonster was there in the theaters for most of them.  FUNHOUSE, FRIDAY THE 13TH, Part II and HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE were just a few of the movies that I saw that year, by any measure a very good year for Slasher-fans.

But one that escaped my notice until just recently was Joseph Zito’s THE PROWLER, available on DVD from Blue Underground.  My introduction to this movie came while viewing the superb documentary on Slasher films, GOING TO PIECES: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE SLASHER MOVIE [Starz/Thinkfilm].  THE PROWLER was one that the documentarians focused on, including interviews with the director and behind-the-scenes footage of the film’s special effects and make-up creator Tom Savini.  What they described was a complete unknown to me, and it intrigued me enough to begin hunting for a copy of this movie.

It’s June 1945, and the war in Europe is over.  Hundreds of thousands of GI’s are returning to the States, most to pick up their lives pretty much where they left off.  Others however, the thousands of ‘Dear Johns’ dumped by their wives and sweethearts while they fought for freedom, are coming home to piece shattered lives, and in many cases shattered psyches, back together.  In Avalon Bay, the former sweetheart of one such ‘Dear John’ is attending her graduation dance with her new beau.  They slip out to share a quiet moment alone, only to be brutally murdered, impaled together on a pitchfork by a helmeted, masked killer in combat fatigues.

Thirty-five years later, the school is preparing for it’s first graduation dance since the night of the double murder.  The Sheriff (Farley Granger, in what amounts to a brief cameo…) is departing on his annual fishing trip, leaving the town in the hands of his deputy (played competently by Christopher Goutman).  He and his girlfriend Pam (the lovely Vicky Dawson, in an underwhelming performance) discover that a killer is once again stalking the graduation dance, and that his next target might be Pam herself.

While the premise is nothing original, borrowing heavily from earlier entries in the Slasher genre, the execution is far better than most.  Zito’s direction never lets events wander too far afield, and the pacing is well managed.  The script, by Neal Barbera and Glenn Leopold, provides a better than average starting point for that direction, and the cast of unknowns does a decent job with the material they’re given.  Though the film features a pair of former stars in cameo roles, (the above-mentioned Granger and Lawrence Tierney as Col. Chatham, father of the girl murdered in 1945…) their contributions are minimal.  The true star of the film is the make-up effects of Tom Savini.

From the pitchfork murder of one young woman in her shower, to the swimming pool throat-slitting of another, to the climactic death scene, Savini’s effects work elevates this movie above it’s contemporaries.  When it comes to blood and gore exploding across the screen, no one does it better than Savini; it’s a shame that he has apparently forgotten this aspect of his career in order to pursue acting and directing.

The DVD comes with several bonuses that are worth checking out, most notably a behind-the-scenes reel of Savini’s team setting up and performing the effects shots.  Tidbits such as that are always fascinating.

THE PROWLER is a movie that escaped my notice the first time around, but I’m pleased to say that I have discovered it at last.  For those who enjoy a good, old-fashioned Slasher pic, it’s one that’s hard to beat.  I’d call it a definite rental; a buy for fans of the genre.

DVD Review: BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)

Title:  BLACK CHRISTMAS (2006)

Year of Release—Film:  2006

Year of Release—DVD:  2007

DVD Label:  Dimension Home Entertainment




Bob Clark, the director who was recently killed by a drunk driver, will forever be known for what must be the best Christmas movie I’ve ever seen, 1983’s A CHRISTMAS STORY.  The tale of young Ralphie Parker and his quest for an official Red Ryder, 200-shot, Range Model Air Rifle, (with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time…) the film is one of the most humorous and heart-warming I’ve ever seen, capturing perfectly experiences that are common to most children, regardless of era.  Clark also helmed another of my favorite comedies, released in 1980—PORKY’S.  This raunchy, risqué teen sex-comedy is one that I never seem to tire of watching.

However, before he became known for his comedies, Bob Clark was one of the new breed of independent Horror directors, a contemporary of Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, Curtis Harrington, and Larry Cohen, that burst on the scene in the early ‘70’s following the success of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.  Without the constraints of a major studio production, these filmmakers were able to push the envelope in ways heretofore unexplored.  Most of their efforts were, quite frankly, less than successful; Clark’s own first feature, 1972’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, was a thoroughly unmemorable, though mildly entertaining, rip-off of Romero’s NOTLD.  His next film however, DEATHDREAM, was much improved; and in 1974 he laid the foundation for the Slasher genre with BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Set in a sorority house over the Christmas break, as a lunatic hiding in the attic hunts those young ladies who didn’t go home for the holidays, this film laid down several of the conventions that would be developed further four years later with the masterpiece of the Slasher film, John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN.  Now, Glen Morgan has remade what is arguably Clark’s best Horror Film, with both Clark’s blessing and his imprimatur as Executive Producer.

This new version is faithful to the original, without being a shot-by-shot restaging of it.  It also answers many of the questions that were purposefully left unanswered in the 1974 version.  This has a mixed result; part of what the fans remember about the original film is the vagueness of the ending, and I think that leaving some secrets buried would have been a better choice.  But today’s horror fans seem to prefer their loose ends neatly tied together, and gathering the threads probably produced a more ‘commercial’ film.

The story of the killer, Billy, is told in a series of flashbacks to his childhood in the home that later became the Sorority House.  His abusive mother kills his loving father, setting the pattern for the young boy’s psychopathia.  As an adult, he eventually kills both her and her second husband, and is busy devouring her when the police arrive.  Committed to a mental institution, he escapes, heading back home… to what is now the Delta Kappa Alpha house.

The cast is good, though not spectacular, and the young women of the sorority are certainly beautiful.  Though most of the faces are familiar to viewers, there are no household names present, not that the material really requires much star power.  Morgan’s direction is competent; nothing inspired, but smooth and capable.
While remakes are difficult to pull off successfully, Morgan and co. do a very good job here.  Perhaps it has more to do with the lack of familiarity most fans have with the original, never a big commercial success, than with the changes inherent in this version.  Still, for whatever the reason, BLACK CHRISTMAS works, and works very well.

My disc is the special BlockBuster Video© Unrated Edition.  How this differentiates it from any other Unrated Edition escapes me, but no matter.  Dimension usually does a good job packaging their films, and this example is no different.  The audio and video quality was good, and the disc had a full selection of sound and subtitle options.

The release has several excellent features that should please viewers.  There is a very good behind-the-scenes documentary that includes comments from Bob Clark.  I would imagine these were among his last comments on his early horror films, as his death came not long after the DVD’s release.  Concerning his early films, he remarks that, in order to break into the business, you had to either “…make pornos, or make horrors.  And I didn’t want to make pornos.”  The documentary stands as a far more interesting look at this talented director than as a look at the making of BLACK CHRISTMAS.

Perhaps the best of the special features are the three Alternate endings; at least one of which would have been an improvement over the ending of the U.S. released version.  (The International release had one of these alternate conclusions…)  These are presented in sufficient depth and detail to allow a true comparison to be made, and each viewer to make their own choice.

In my “2006 in Review” column over at www.creaturescape.com, I discussed this film in conjunction with my look at the Remake of the Year, and stated that I had heard good things about this film but would reserve judgment until I had seen it myself.  Well, I’ve finally seen it, and must admit that I was very pleased.  It’s rare that I see a remake that I enjoy, and one that exceeds and expands upon the original is rarer still.  This one does just that, and does it with some flair and a dash of originality.  Not much, but enough to make a difference.

I got my copy from the four for $20 bargain bin at BlockBuster Video, (a definite recommendation, I might add…) but even at the list price it’s worth consideration.  I say give it a try… and have a scary Christmas.

DVD Review: FREDDY vs. JASON

Title:  FREDDY vs. JASON

Year of Release—Film:  2003

Year of Release—DVD:  2004

DVD Label:  New Line Cinema




As a confirmed fan of the FRIDAY the 13th series of films, (less so of the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. movies) I’ve been hearing rumors, and rumors of rumors, of this project for a full ten years, ever since the rather obvious clue at the end of JASON GOES TO HELL:  THE FINAL FRIDAY (yeah, right… where’s truth in advertising?).  When it became clear that it was finally coming to fruition, I must admit that I felt no small amount of trepidation; Hollywood does not have a sterling record of managing such projects either wisely or well.  While the two franchises had admittedly fallen into disreputable circumstances long before this was a gleam in Sean Cunningham’s eye, they had, more or less, managed to remain true to their core fans.  The thought of the potential disaster that this could become certainly wasn’t a pleasing one.

Those feelings were amplified as the early reviews of this film began to come out.  Though there were scattered positive opinions out there, most of the fan reviews I saw were decidedly harsh, doing nothing to improve my outlook at this movie.  But the box office numbers were very impressive, and I felt that there just might be something worth checking out.  As soon as the DVD was released, I quickly, though with some measure of reluctance, bought my copy and sat down to see just which camp was right.

First, in the interest of full disclosure, I must be totally honest.  I did not expect to like this movie.  In fact, I expected to hate it.  I had myself all worked up to deliver a true grade-A rant about this one.  But I won’t be delivering that rant, because something unexpected happened while I was watching it.
I enjoyed it.  And not just a little—I really liked it.

Ok, so it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before.  The story is very good, though, better than the norm for both series.  Though Freddy’s dialogue sometimes goes a pun too far, it’s nothing that we’re not used to by now; indeed, Krueger’s wisecracks are as much his trademark as his glove or ratty sweater.  The plot is tight, coherent, and logical, for the most part.  Though there are holes here and there, it’s certainly not your average Campers go to lake; have sex; get drunk; get slashed… style of plotless, formulaic, stock-footage montage of murder that the last few examples of both these series (barring WES CRAVEN’S A NEW NIGHTMARE, which I felt was a tremendously original concept, very well done) provided.  The story actually serves to lay new foundations for both characters, especially Jason.  To discover new ground in characters this long-established is amazing, something akin to discovering an unexplored island in the middle of Lake Michigan.

The casting, though decent, is about average for the F13 series of films, and actually below par for the NIGHTMARE… franchise.  The actors show up, and do their jobs, but, with one exception, there are no standouts among the supporting cast.  That lone exception is Katharine Isabella, late of GINGER SNAPS fame.  She has a unique, intense look that really comes through on the screen, and a gift for being the ‘bad’ girl.  The rest are standard, typical “central casting” stereotypes, adequate, but not impressive.  But let’s be honest.  They’re only here for Body Count fodder.  Everyone knows who the stars of this film are.

Though he’s stayed very active in the genre apart from the NIGHTMARE ON ELM ST. films, Freddy Krueger is as much Robert Englund’s signature role as Dracula was Lugosi’s.  And Englund was at the top of his form in this outing, his eighth as the wisecracking, throat-slashing ghost of a sadistic child-murderer.  Not a likable character; Englund has, nonetheless, made him a thoroughly enjoyable one to watch.  Though this series never captivated me to the same degree that the F13 series (or even more, the HALLOWEEN franchise) has, I’ve always enjoyed the character of Freddy Krueger, one of the true icons of the modern Horror Film.

Perhaps the most recognizable Horror icon of the past thirty years, however, is Jason Voorhees.  Almost a direct antithesis of Krueger’s garrulous style, the ever-silent Jason has hacked, slashed and carved his way through eleven films (though his appearance in the original film was admittedly brief).  While he’s been played by several different actors, and though his look has altered over time, this is the same living-dead unstoppable slasher that we first met in FRIDAY The 13th: PART II (1981).  Sure, he’s aged, he’s been to Hell and back, with a little detour to outer space, maybe he’s mellowed a little, right?  Wrong.  He’s still the silent, relentless, killing machine, out to punish teen-agers for indulging in sex, drugs, and/or rock and roll.

Yu’s direction, though very good, is nothing too original.  He manages the action very well though, and doesn’t let the flow of the film bog down too much.  Some of that is inevitable; very few films can maintain a frenetic pace for long.  But the pauses are kept to an acceptable minimum, and the pace doesn’t suffer.  Some of his directorial choices aren’t what I’d have liked, but that’s not totally bad.  It would be difficult to be specific without revealing too much of the plot; suffice it to say that he leans a little too much to the safe, conventional side of the coin.  While that’s probably for the best, it would have been nice to see something really daring for this movie.

The Special Effects are good, about average for a medium-budget film like this one, though nothing about which to get excited.  They are well done, though, and the CGI effects are blended smoothly into the physical shots, making for very convincing FX sequences.  No Academy Award nominations here, but you won’t feel cheated, either.

The DVD is superb, packed with extras, including interviews, commentaries, deleted scenes, behind-the-scene segments, and more.  While I seldom make use of all those extras, they are nice to have, and do make recommending the purchase of the DVD easier.

To sum it up, this is one of the best movies of 2003, and is a definite buy.  A lot of you may have the same preconceived notions that I had; abandon them, and give this movie a shot, you won’t be sorry.  Your opinion of the ending may depend upon who you’re a bigger fan of, Freddy or Jason; but give it a try.  While nothing, in my opinion, can beat out HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES as the Movie of the Year 2003, this one runs a close second.