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Bloody Birthday (1981)
If you're going to put "Blood" in the title, you should probably put some in the movie too
The set-up for this monumentally useless slasher-lite drivel centers around three children who are born in the same hospital during an eclipse, a serendipitous occurrence which results in them growing up without a conscience. As their tenth birthdays approach, the trio of youngsters apparently spontaneously decide to go on a killing spree, whittling down parents, siblings, teachers, and random canoodling teens in a variety of unimaginative and unimpressive ways.
The clumsy staging of the murders is signaled from the opening scene, when two amorous dimwits meet their ends after climbing into an open grave to have sex (the lass is modest, and while she has no reservations about getting down in a cemetery, she feels exposed out in the open, thus the novel change of scenery). This silly intro sets the stage for the 85 minutes of tedious and ludicrous shenanigans which unfold while we watch the malevolent moppets go about their brutal business without any of the clueless adults in the film ever becoming suspicious. The parental ignorance might be believable if the killer kids exercised any tact, but when they repeatedly smash one of the fathers in the head with a baseball bat and his wife readily accepts their explanation that his (gruesome, one would imagine) injuries occurred when he fell down a flight of four stairs, the plot begins to spiral into absurdity.
Despite the sanguinary bounty advertised in the title, Bloody Birthday may well be the most tepid offering of the era. Only a single arrow to the eye gag even registers a blip on the gore meter, and the majority of the paltry homicidal handiwork occurs off-screen. The overall presentation is so tame and pedestrian that the film is more on par with the After School Specials which were being cranked out at this time, so if your looking for a hidden gem in the '80s slasher canon you most assuredly aren't going to find one here.
Save for a few sequences of gratuitous nudity, the only marginally amusing aspects of Bloody Birthday are the presences of a couple of the decade's semi-icons. Future B-action regular Michael Dudikoff turns up in a couple of scenes to make out with MTV host-to-be Julie Brown and stand in a few funeral assemblies with a blankly morose look on his face. Anyone who actually remembers who Brown is will undoubtedly be delighted to witness the extended strip tease she performs for herself, so if seeing her naked is on your bucket list, this outing admittedly delivers mightily on that front.
The biggest problems here are the prepubescent executioners, who are undoubtedly the least imposing genre villains ever presented. The most vicious of the bunch is a bespectacled sociopath who strongly resembles Skippy from "Family Ties" and even though he seems to possess the inhuman ability to fire a handgun that weighs as much as he does without experiencing any sort of recoil, the goofy grin he displays while he busts his caps offsets any sort of menace his massive weapon conjures up.
It takes no less than three failed murder attempts on the one shrewd classmate who figures out the remorseless bunch is up to no good for our diminutive hero's older sister to finally step up and offer her assistance. This leads us into the film's flaccid climax, where the band of grade-school slayers stalk the interloping duo but merit themselves an epic fail. One of the predators is subdued when a bowl of water is thrown in his face, while Skippy Junior simply runs out of bullets and gets beat up.
Only the lone girl in the crew uses her wiles to escape capture, and her mother (head still firmly inserted into her own backside, evidently) sneaks her away from the scene and flees town with her. The movie's coda reveals that mom and daughter remain at large after changing their names and that the lethal little girl has claimed another victim, thus setting the stage for Bloody Birthday 2, which was fortunately never excreted.
This tripe also loses points for its derivative score, which blatantly lifts music from Friday The 13th in a feeble attempt to give the murders some sort of impact. Good idea, but when the most intense scenes involve a flaxen-haired fifth-grader hiding in cupboards to choke people with a jump rope, screeching violins are a pale substitute for actual shocks.
I don't fault anyone who holds this cheap time-waster in high esteem; after all, I have certainly given pieces of my heart to plenty of atrocious movies. But since the lack of gore nudges Bloody Birthday out of the "Splatter" category and the absence of anything resembling suspense makes even the "Horror" designation a stretch, I'm really not sure how to classify this one. Is "Utter Crap" considered a genre?
Child's Play (1988)
Every horror fan should play with Chucky at least once
If you can get past the charmingly silly proposition of a serial killer transferring his soul into a doll to perpetuate his murderous ways, Tom Holland's Child's Play offers up a tremendously entertaining mix of humor and horror and puts a novel twist on the relatively uncrowded "toys gone bad" sub-genre.
The events in the film revolve around six year-old Andy Barclay, whose mom gives him a coveted animatronic Good Guy doll for his birthday. Unfortunately for him, his new prize is possessed by the spirit of infamous mass strangler Charles Lee Ray, and when the repackaged slayer gets up to his old tricks again, no one believes Andy's insistent claims that "Chucky did it."
The most effective aspect of Holland's execution of the material is how he's able to wring some genuine scares out of a premise that automatically lends itself to unintentional comedy. Though the film wisely acknowledges its own goofiness by peppering the slasher elements with some keenly rendered zingers, the story itself is played fairly straight and the overtly sadistic nature of Chucky's homicidal rampage ensures that the tone remains as dark as the circumstances will allow. We pretty much know going in what this flick will have in store, but the excellently crafted pace generates an admirable amount of tension, and the way each propulsive layer of the plot unfolds makes for an engrossingly taut experience which belies the basic fact that our villain here is a four foot tall plastic plaything.
Holland certainly deserves credit for much of the film's impact, but his accomplishments are handily eclipsed by FX whiz Kevin Yagher, who created the chillingly cherubic Chucky doll and brought him to life. Yagher's orchestration of the mechanical effects that allow Chucky to switch from beaming best friend to snarling psychopath remain captivating even in the modern CGI era, and the level of realism presented with this decidedly unreal character is startling and magical. Though later installments of the Child's Play franchise would replace Yagher's puppetry with whatever technological trickery was available at the time, the Chucky icon would never again be this frightening and primally savage, or look nearly as impressive.
The limited capabilities of the the era actually augment the illusion rather than hindering it, and since the focus of the film is a plastic creation with limited jointing instead of a human being with full articulation, the doll's somewhat stiff and mechanical movements are more fitting than the sort of fluid animated motions you'll see in, say, Seed Of Chucky. The scenes of our blade-wielding antagonist methodically stalking down the hallway of the apartment where much of the action takes place are fearsome and indelible, and the sudden expletive-laden shift which occurs the first time Chucky reveals himself to the disbelieving mother of his "friend till the end" still packs a whopper of a jolt no matter how many times I've seen it. Despite Holland's sure-handed direction, this flick simply wouldn't work as well as it does without the efficiency of Chucky's menacing mien, and even if the notion of a killer doll strikes you as silly, there's no denying how powerfully that device is brought to fruition here.
Our non-robotic cast does an excellent job as well, particularly the always welcome Chris Sarandon, who portrays skeptical homicide detective-turned-intervening hero Mike Norris. Young Alex Vincent is a bit over his head tackling the wide range of emotions his role as Andy requires, but he does a great job considering his age, and the final bitter punchline he delivers to Chucky is a true gem. Brad Dourif seems to relish the excesses he's allowed to indulge as the voice of Chucky, and his witty, mirthfully malicious banter adds as much nuance and actual character to the doll he inhabits as Kevin Yagher's machinery does.
There isn't a ton of gore to be had here, but that dearth is actually pretty crucial to the plot since the initial killings are staged to look like accidents. Things get slightly more gruesome as the film proceeds, but the emphasis here is decidedly on suspense rather than splatter, so bloodthirsty viewers should probably be aware of that before they start imagining what nasty uses Chucky will concoct for the butcher knife he's grasping in most of Child's Play's promotional art.
Some slippery mythology hampers the storyline a bit, and while the introduction of an inner city voodoo shaman responsible for teaching Chucky his Dambala trick is essential to our understanding of the film's rules, the wisdom he dispenses ends up being the lone befuddling portion of this caper. You see, the impetus for Chucky's climactic pursuit of Andy is the necessity of shifting his essence into the body of the first person he revealed himself to, otherwise he'll be trapped forever in the doll vessel he occupies throughout the film. I get that, and I suppose it makes some sort of sense in the realm of Child's Play, but the fact that Chucky's black magic mentor even knows this does not. I'm not intimately familiar with sorcery, but it strikes me as odd that the transference of human souls into talking toys apparently happens with enough frequency for there to be an established course of conduct when that occurs.
This is ultimately a minor complaint, and taken as a whole Child's Play is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller. Though the rest of the extended franchise, with the lone exception of the surprisingly sharp Bride Of Chucky, is essentially useless, this inaugural outing has enough strong moments to make it readily apparent why subsequent film-makers were eager to get more mileage out of the concept (sadly, the foreboding finale suggested by the exit frame here was never explored). Even if the sequels have left a sour taste in your mouth, do the original the justice of giving it another look. Hi-de-ho, ha ha ha.
Terror Train (1980)
Not quite a masterpiece, but it definitely stays on track throughout
This humble slasher entry may seem a bit predictable and tame by modern standards, but it's important to note that Terror Train arrived pretty early in the cycle, so the elements that seasoned audiences will deem predictable were still relatively novel when the film was released. Even if the clever surprises this thriller has in store don't resonate quite as strongly today as they did during its original theatrical run, these reels have held up remarkably well, and while it's debatable whether or not we have a bonafide classic on our hands here, Terror Train most assuredly succeeds as an entertaining offering that deserves its legacy.
The presence of Jamie Lee Curtis at the height of her genre dominance adds immeasurably to the enduring impact of this affair, and as always she proves to be an engaging and resourceful heroine. She is pitted here against a vengeful masked killer stalking her and a group of college friends responsible for a grisly prank gone awry, who set out on the rails three years later for the rousing costume party that encompasses the bulk of the action. Though most of the characters are readily recognizable archetypes, Terror Train spends a bit of time establishing their relationships and nuances, which ultimately greatly assists the whodunnit aspect of the caper since we are provided with a handful of shifty suspects, and heightens the horror of the murders since we actually come to know and like some of the victimized teens.
The narrow corridors and confined nature of the transport greatly bolster the suspense, and as the body count rises the film wisely addresses the obvious question, "Why don't they just stop the train and get off?" The locomotive's course pins the group in the middle of a snow-covered mountain range during the dead of winter, which makes immediate escape from the killer's clutches an impossibility and provides a plausible explanation for the forced inaction of the prey. Once the scenario is established, we aren't inclined to ask too many nagging questions, and this liberation allows the movie to spin its web unencumbered by our skepticism, which it does with admirable efficiency.
Granted, the slasher movie formula doesn't explicitly require much, or any, adherence to logic, but Terror Train handles its material in a decidedly intelligent manner which forges a sense of believability that ends up being one of the film's strongest traits. Our masked madman (or woman?) shows some great cunning and ingenuity in concealing their crimes, donning the costumes of the slain to perpetuate the illusion that everyone is still alive and well, and therefore eluding suspicion for as long as possible. As the mounting unexplained absences become too much to obscure and the enormity of the killer's deadly plot takes shape, the preemptive reactions of the train's conductor and his crew are wholly realistic and sensible, and this refreshing lack of distracting stupidity deeply strengthens our immersion into the mystery.
Despite the evident savvy of the presentation, a few of the death scenes suffer from some clumsy staging that dilutes their effectiveness (the murder of one amorous lass requires us to accept that the killer anticipated the victim-to-be would ask them to remove their glove, so our homicidal antagonist presciently kept the severed hand of the fratboy they're impersonating hidden beneath the shed segment of the costume to perpetuate their ruse). The enactment of the murders reveals a predisposition to suggesting more than showing, but this actually serves the film well since the overall paucity of gore makes the few images of overt splatter far more impressive and memorable as a result.
Vintage Jamie Lee isn't the only time capsule gem here, and older viewers will appreciate the heavy use of throbbing disco tunes and saccharine prom funk during the party sequences. On that same note, the magic displays of a young David Copperfield also figure prominently, and his bag of tricks provides one of the best and bloodiest set-pieces in the film.
The climax, where Curtis finds herself facing the malicious murderer one on one, is excellently orchestrated and their extended and violent battle provides a big pay-off that is a fitting culmination of the tension steadily building throughout the film. The twist ending probably won't catch you off guard if you're a connoisseur of the genre, but it's still a nifty finish which relies on enough clues scattered along the way to warrant a re-viewing to investigate how the film-makers pulled their trick off.
Terror Train may veer off track from time to time, but any fan of '80s-era horror will find a lot to like here, and overall this is a trip well worth taking.
If you ignore the "Halloween III" in the title and accept the film for what it is, this really isn't all that bad
I want to make it clear right up front that I certainly understand why fans of the Halloween franchise roundly dismiss this third entry, and if you're inclined to cry "foul" because Season Of The Witch essentially ignores the events of the first two films and introduces a storyline that has nothing to do with Michael Myers, you should probably consider sitting this one out. In hindsight, I agree it wasn't a good idea to impose this outing as part of the series, but it's worth noting that John Carpenter and Debra Hill endorsed the deviation by producing Season, and while their experiment is deeply flawed because of its inconsistencies and inherently confusing because of its Shape-lessness, when you consider how horrendous the Halloween saga would become a couple of sequels later, there might have ultimately been some prescient wisdom behind their attempt to take their creation in a new direction.
Halloween III definitely has enough macabre moments to qualify it as part of the horror genre, but the nucleus of the film is decidedly anchored in the realm of science fiction. The story itself is a unique and novel yarn about a malevolent toy company that manufactures wide-selling Halloween masks which are outfitted with murderous technology intended to initiate a mass slaughter on Halloween night. A toy store proprietor stumbles across this sinister scheme, but before the panic-stricken man can share his knowledge, a stone-faced assassin in a suit and tie enters his hospital room and silences him forever, then pours gasoline on himself and self-immolates. The effective set-up establishes an intriguing mystery that makes even the dicier elements of the film engaging to uncover, and the deeper we plunge into the intricacies of the master-plan, the darker and more unsettling the movie becomes.
Granted, this material is probably better suited for an episode of The Outer Limits than a feature-length follow-up to a two-flick slasher suite about a ghost-faced serial killer, and the thematic distance between Halloween III and its predecessors becomes more and more pronounced as the film rolls on. But, while the episodic nature of Season is admittedly apparent because the film has trouble maintaining its momentum through its entire run-time, the majority of this oft-maligned excursion is pretty enthralling nonetheless.
Ironically, despite the absence of the Shape's butcher knife handiwork, III is one of the gorier episodes in the series. Better yet, the FX work is relatively solid, so when heads get torn from their torsos and craniums burst open to release wriggling hordes of insects and worms, the film conjures up some enjoyably gruesome tableaux. The fantastic nature of the plot allows for some creative conjurations in this department, and though many in the audience will be disappointed that this outing never ventures anywhere near Haddonfield, those looking for good old-fashioned splattery fun will find plenty of gooey diversions here.
Sturdy and reliable Tom Atkins serves as an excellent everyman protagonist to confront the film's mounting menace, and veteran character actor Dan O'Herlihy sells a convincing portrayal of our deceptively dangerous villain Conal Cochran, so even when the tale veers into oblique obtusity, the quality of the presentation remains high. The isolated community of Santa Mira, where the mask factory is located, is also well-essayed, and the claustrophobic dread generated by the all-seeing surveillance cameras and the omnipresence of Cochran's inhuman henchmen keep the proceedings rooted in a dystopian dynamic that will undoubtedly remind attentive viewers of the enslaved world later portrayed by Carpenter in his brilliant They Live.
There are a few befuddling devices introduced throughout the film that distract from the story at large, the most bizarre being the television screenings of Carpenter's original Halloween that appear along the way. Though this was probably intended as a sly wink to fans, the resulting fictionalization and minimizing of Michael Myers is an incongruous and somewhat insulting twist that falls resoundingly flat since it seems to diminish the inaugural outing of the series while doing nothing to augment this one. The messy climax is particularly troublesome, veering headfirst into hysterical oddity instead of resolving the story and answering very few of the lingering questions it creates. If we take the concluding events literally, the grand scheme of Conal Cochran is to make kids' heads explode, which triggers the release of poisonous serpents from the resulting cranial cavity to kill off their parents. Exactly how this is possible is never explained, and while the ensuing ensemble of bugs and slimy critters is gross enough to produce strong visceral visuals, the familiar and somewhat banal nature of these manifestations doesn't have nearly as much impact as the genesis of some foul monstrosity we've never seen before would. Surely, an evil overlord with the power to replace children's brains with slithering creepy crawlies by merely showing them a television commercial could summon up something more fearsome and exotic than rattlesnakes?
Since it lacks a worthy pay-off, Season Of The Witch ultimately winds up being a promising concept that doesn't really come to fruition. But until the film falls apart, it packs in enough immersive and interesting elements to be a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Halloween III isn't anywhere near perfect, but whether you count it as part of the series or not, it still handily surpasses several of the Michael Myers-led installments which followed it. Give it a fair chance and it just might surprise you.
Halloween 5 (1989)
No one seems to be able to kill Michael Myers, but this movie pretty much kills his franchise
Identifying which installment of the Halloween series ushered in the saga's slide into abject idiocy is a no-brainer (yep, this is the one), and you can also pinpoint the precise moment that irrecoverable shift occurs: roughly 40 minutes into The Revenge Of Michael Myers, when the silver-tipped boots of a mysterious Man In Black step off of a bus and onto the streets of Haddonfield.
Even aside from the introduction of the subplot that ruined the Michael Myers mythos forever, Halloween 5 takes hearty strides to be the worst entry in the franchise up to this point. The story makes virtually no sense, the logic that drives the key components of the plot ranges from flimsy to asinine, vital characters get killed off without anyone seeming to notice that they're gone for the rest of the film, and the ineptness of Haddonfield's law enforcement is presented to us via "send in the clowns" circus music that inexplicably chimes in when they're on camera.
A brief exposition reveals how Michael Myers survived being riddled with buckshot at the end of the previous flick: he was nursed back to health by a man who lives in a shack by the river, and The Shape was apparently somehow able to reside with this clueless samaritan for a full year without being discovered or arousing any suspicion from his house-mate. Danielle Harris reprises her role as Michael's traumatized niece Jamie, but while she was a delightfully spunky young heroine in Halloween 4, she's given very little to do here besides shriek and have seizures. After repeatedly stabbing her step-mom with a pair of scissors at the conclusion of part 4 (a savage act which all of the returning cast members are evidently totally cool with) Jamie has been remanded to a children's psychiatric care facility, where she's in the hands of brilliant and capable doctors who see no problem with requiring a young girl who was stalked and nearly murdered by a deranged killer on Halloween night to participate in a festive holiday costume pageant a mere year later.
The impending anniversary sparks Michael back into action, and he embarks on a mission to wipe out everyone who survived his last killing spree, and several more people who are simply around to be slaughtered (including a dude with a serious Fonzie fixation). Meanwhile, Jamie's psychic link with her uncle allows her to "see" his nefarious deeds while they're taking place, and she sets out to stop his reign of terror (strangely, the impetus for Jamie's intervention is the peril of her stepsister's friend Tina; Jamie's actual stepsister is the first to die, and not only does this fail to spur Jamie on, neither she nor anyone else in the film even mention Rachel again until the very end of this wretched tale).
The action is driven by the requisite stabbings and slicings you'll be expecting, but the death scenes are so dully telegraphed that they have very little impact. When the film-makers attempt to integrate suspenseful elements, the results are generally pretty lame, such as the sequence where Michael uses the Fonzie wannabe's car to pick up Tina, who obtusely thinks our lovable killer is her boyfriend wearing a mask. The Shape, having his would-be victim in his clutches and at his mercy, maximizes her vulnerability the way any sensible murderous psychopath would: he stops at a liquor store so she can go in and buy cigarettes, which allows her to get out of the car and promptly be rescued by the police. That same automobile also plays a pivotal role in perhaps the silliest scene in the film, in which Michael chases Jamie down ostensibly intending to run her over, but is somehow unable to get the souped-up muscle car going fast enough to match the speed of a panic-stricken nine year-old girl on foot.
One of the saddest aspects of Halloween 5 is how it renders Dr. Loomis a hysterical old coot who desperately needs to be put out to pasture. The Doc's climactic master-plan involves using Jamie as bait to lure Michael back to the abandoned Myers house, at which point Loomis essentially waves off a virtual army of policemen and SWAT troopers to face his nemesis all by himself. Worse, his ploy to finish Michael off involves soothingly counseling him and entreating him to let Jamie "make the rage go away." After hearing Loomis expound about Michael being the essence of pure evil and inhumanity for more than 10 years, this pop psychology tactic plays out as a resoundingly foolhardy approach.
However, the most grievous crime against the series committed here arrives during the final exchange between Jamie and The Shape, which results in a close-up shot of a tear running down Michael's cheek. So essentially, according to Halloween 5, the emotionless embodiment of murderous fury we've previously seen mow down a few dozen people in cold blood is actually a sensitive monster whose heart melts when someone calls him "Uncle."
The coda features the true purpose of the Man In Black coming to light when the enigmatic figure uses a machine gun to single-handedly slaughter a building full of cops and busts Michael out of jail. This cliff-hanger guaranteed another sequel would be forthcoming, but considering how awful this one was, that attempt at enticement resonates more like a threat than a promise.
If you're a fan of the series, any movie featuring Michael Myers is bound to offer at least a modicum of entertainment, and this entry certainly has a few moments that will keep you from ejecting the disc. But as a whole, Revenge is an absolute train-wreck. Halloween 5 may not be the worst movie ever made, but considering the unabashed disrespect it demonstrates toward the series that preceded it, it very well may be the most disappointing.
An uneven but overall solid chapter of the Michael Myers legacy
Let's get this right out in the open: John Carpenter's Halloween is probably the best horror film ever made. Keeping that in mind, any sequel is bound to elicit a measure of disappointment simply because matching or exceeding the peerless kickoff to this series is an impossible feat. But despite an extremely spotty track record, the (admittedly over-)extended Halloween franchise has its share of strong efforts, and this fourth installment certainly deserves to be mentioned in that capacity.
The most effective aspect of The Return Of Michael Myers is how closely it adheres to the atmosphere and spirit of the original, and though there is a clear effort made to incorporate some overt bloodshed to please fans of the '80s splatter cycle, Halloween 4 has even more in common with the first "Night HE Came Home" than the hastily made but suitably enjoyable part II. This offering faithfully duplicates the deceptively ominous leaf-strewn streets of Haddonfield, the manic fervor of the returning Dr. Loomis, and, most importantly, the deadly disposition of "The Shape" him(it?)self. At this point in the series, we're still a couple of sequels away from quasi-mystical ramblings about ancient Pagan symbols and "hip and edgy" self-aware contemporary updates, and, thankfully, we're a world removed from Rob Zombie's obtusely trippy white stallion hallucinations. So, the Michael Myers we get here is the same remorseless and unyielding killing machine we were introduced to ten years before, and his purpose is equally singular and inexplicable. That's precisely what makes him the perfect Boogeyman, and Return wisely maintains the air of menace and mystery that later entries watered down by neutering our series figurehead via ridiculous plot elements that were closer to parody than they were to anything resembling horror. Halloween 4 isn't about rappers doing battle with a pop culture serial slayer, it's about a malevolent force stalking and killing anyone who gets in its way, and at least in that sense, the film remains true to its aim.
The impetus for the titular Return is Michael's eight year-old niece Jamie Lloyd, the orphaned daughter of the, we're informed, deceased Laurie Strode (H2O et al. decided differently, but this development works for our purposes here). If you can accept the apparent psychic bond that allows Jamie to have nightmares about the uncle she's never seen before he re-appears in Haddonfield and Michael's myopic fixation on murdering a relative he really shouldn't know even exists, this cat-and-mouse aspect of the plot falls into place rather nicely.
Jamie is played by the debuting Danielle Harris, who delivers an absolutely fantastic performance, especially given her age and lack of experience. Harris was a great find, and even during the film's most harrowing sequences, her acting chops easily rival those of any of her more seasoned cast-mates. Her youth ends up being a major asset because of its direct deviation from the archetypes of the strict slasher formula, and the fact that a relatively defenseless child is at the nucleus of Michael's murderous rampage heightens the tension immeasurably.
Of course, Return does feature its share of goofiness. While the presence of Donald Pleasence is certainly welcome and integral to the story, his occasional dalliances with overblown histrionics create unfortunately cheesy moments out of a few scenes that should be bubbling with intensity. Also, though The Shape is as formidable and sadistic here as fans would hope for, his ability to teleport from an industrial power plant to a suburban neighborhood in the span of one scene, and to apparently hide beneath the chassis of a moving pick-up truck for several miles before climbing into the bed and catching the passengers unaware, strikes a serious blow against the hyper-realism that grounds the most potent terror elements in the series.
But despite the sillier aspects here, the film as a whole hits more often than it misses. Several references to Carpenter's benchmark such as an homage to the POV murder which launched the saga and Jamie's donning of a clown costume identical to the one worn by her uncle when he was her age keep part 4 closely tied to its source. Even better, the utilization of a few subtle shots of the iconic ghostly mask hidden deep in the background while the future victims go about their business completely unaware of their peril re-establish the lurking Shape persona which provided the original Halloween with its most indelible images. There's also a mirthful scene between the hitchhiking Dr. Loomis and a drunken fire-and-brimstone religious zealot that allows Pleasence to crack a smile for a change, which will remind savvy viewers of his endearingly coy grin after the "Lonnie, get your ass away from there" moment from 1978.
You'll have to decide for yourself whether the dicey twist ending really works, but it certainly does finish off the film on a tremendously dark and shocking note, which is in keeping with the fairly serious tone Return maintains throughout. Chalk that at as yet another touch which sets this entry apart from some of the unbearably ridiculous drek that followed it.
I'm not sure if I can definitively state that this is the best of the Halloween sequels, but it is most assuredly nowhere near the worst. I realize that's not a huge endorsement once you've seen how low this franchise proved itself capable of sinking later on, but you can consider it an endorsement nonetheless.
Night of the Demons 2 (1994)
A lot of tricks this Halloween, but very few treats
Though Night Of The Demons 2 tries desperately to inject enough humor and nudity to make up for its overall tedium and incomprehensibility, this slipshod sequel is nowhere near as fun or clever as the delightfully dreadful Kevin S. Tenney Halloween celebration which spawned it.
Amelia Kinkade returns as possessed party gal Angela, but this time the bulk of the action is shifted to a Catholic boarding school populated by a fresh crop of horndog teens who know all about the events in the first Night and eventually decide to throw their own party at Hull House. Of course, their visit sparks another demonic infestation, and thanks to a cameo from Linnea Quigley's lipstick tube, which one of the girls transports back to the boarding school, Angela is provided a fresh ground zero to begin converting members of the fun-loving gang into slobbering, wise-cracking unholy creatures.
It takes a really long time for any of this to transpire, and nearly the entire first hour of the film is spent introducing the characters and establishing the incoherent plot. In addition to the general archetypes (jock, tramp, jerky alpha male, etc.), Night 2 incorporates a few less conventional additions to the squad of potential victims, such as a nerdy scholar whose area of fascination conveniently happens to be demonology (naturally, he's very helpful in explaining most of the ins and outs of the story to us), a timid wallflower who's revealed to be Angela's orphaned sister (and has violent dreams about her sinister sibling which provide an excuse to insert some gore into the early slow spots), and a militant karate expert nun who brandishes a yardstick as if it was a katana and swings her rosary around like a pair of nun-chucks (I wasn't intending to make a pun there, but let's run with it... a nun pun run, if you will).
The film stumbles often and badly because it doesn't have any real focus, and much of what occurs during the course of the movie is sort of arbitrary and pointless. For instance, the set-up seems to leading toward the trip to Hull House, but once we get there, the totality of the excursion is basically a sex scene, a prank, and the death of exactly one ancillary character (thankfully the most annoying member of the cast bites it first). After all that build up, we end up retreating once again to the Catholic academy with the cursed cosmetic in tow, which would seem to provide an opportunity for Angela to whittle down a slew of people. However, the entirety of her visit to St. Ruth's consists of an homage to her seductive dance from the original Night, a prank, and the death of exactly one ancillary character (although we are also treated to a tasteful scene which features a serpentine phallus-beastie slithering out of the lipstick tube and crawling up between one girl's legs to nest inside of her). A couple of newly possessed minions cause a bit of mayhem in Angela's absence, but our leading lady busies herself by luring away her baby sis to either sacrifice her or convert her to the darkness, depending on which contradicting explanatory scene you choose to believe. Of course, Night's wicked antagonist wants her endgame to unfold on her own turf, so after spending two-thirds of the movie trying to figure out what the point of all of this is, we end up going BACK to Hull House, where more people die and Angela turns into a snake for no apparent reason.
The special effects are nowhere near as impressive as what Steve Johnson cooked up for Night 2's predecessor, but Angela's gooey come-uppance is a suitably gnarly set-piece. Elsewhere, gags like a demon playing basketball with his own head fall resoundingly flat, and while this FX crew was able to make Angela look almost the same as she did at her previous party, if you look closely you'll notice that the two most effective shots of her in all her demonic glory are actually recycled outtakes from the first film. This installment saves most of its gore for the climax and relies instead on diversionary nudity to maintain its momentum (the presence of the gorgeous Cristi Harris certainly helps in this regard), but the extended conclusion packs in enough splatter to provide a decent pay-off for the slow road getting there.
However, some of the elements at play here are so utterly stupid that they defy all reason (I'm still trying to figure out why killing a demon causes a cockroach to crawl out of its head). The most readily notable example of the concussed mindset at work here, aside from the incongruities of the plot, involves our previously mentioned kung-fu nun, who gets her head chopped up during the finale... and then promptly sprouts a new one (she explains to Angela that this is possible because of her "faith," which apparently renders her immune to decapitation).
I know we're not supposed to demand too much from a micro-budget horror sequel of this caliber, but considering how effectively Kevin S. Tenney translated these same elements into a tremendously enjoyable outing, it's hard not to be disappointed by the meager results in this case. Night Of The Demons 2 isn't a complete waste of time, but only the most forgiving genre fans will glean much amusement here. I'm not saying you absolutely shouldn't see this, but I would definitely advise those who had a blast at Angela's first party to drastically lower their expectations before they send in their RSVP for this one.
Night of the Demons (1988)
A randy and splatter-filled Halloween party that I still attend at least once a year
Though Kevin S. Tenney's bawdy bloodbath Night Of The Demons is a much different sort of celebration than John Carpenter's eponymous ode to my favorite Pagan holiday, it has likewise become a vital part of my festive preparation every year and I still return to it with the same frequency of of my visits to Haddonfield.
Night is assuredly a B-flick, but the creative production and wealth of delightfully gross gore effects elevate this outing well above its peers. There are enough great ideas here to fill out several like-minded offerings, and Tenney's demented funhouse approach serves the film incredibly well. Once the plot's demonic possession angle takes center stage, the action hums along with a series of dazzling and surreal set-pieces that announce Night's ambition to present itself as the most enjoyable supernatural slasher ever made. I'm not sure if it quite gets there, but it certainly isn't for lack of trying, and even if this joyously gruesome romp misses that mark, it isn't by much.
The story is centered around a group of charmingly crass and obnoxious teens who gather for a Halloween party at the imposing and infamous Hull House, a site with a murderous past and a slew of dark legends surrounding it. When one of their party games inadvertently summons forth a demonic entity that takes possession of a member of the group, the remainder of the horny bunch begins meeting increasingly grisly ends. According to the film's logic, being killed by a creature turns the victim into one as well, so as the ribald cohort's numbers are whittled down, the unlucky survivors find themselves stalked at every turn by a growing horde of their demonized former friends.
It takes a full half of the movie for Night to really get cooking, but despite the judicious pace, since this is one of the most likable collectives of unlikeable kids ever assembled in the genre, even their banal gonna-get-me-some hijinks and juvenile one-liners are genuinely entertaining. The extended introduction also allows plenty of time to immerse us into the dwelling itself, and since the film-makers chose a fantastic location for this fiesta, the intimate familiarity with Hull House's expansive grounds and myriad corridors fostered during the first act adds to the proceedings immeasurably.
When Steve Johnson's FX finally take control of Night Of The Demons, the results are uniformly exhilarating and utterly relentless. The demon make-up is magnificent, elaborate and grotesque enough to impress without relying on distracting rubbery prosthetics, and all of the high-impact splatter sequences are delivered with gusto. However, the most unforgettable effect here doesn't feature even a drop of blood, and if you only remember one thing about Night, it will assuredly be the moment when scream queen goddess Linnea Quigley shoves a tube of lipstick into her nipple for no apparent reason other than because she's a demon and she can do things like shove tubes of lipstick into her nipple for no apparent reason.
Though Quigley handily steals the movie, it was Amelia Kinkade's party hostess Angela who was ultimately flagged as the franchise player for the Night Of The Demons series, and deservedly so. Kinkade is simply awesome here, delegating the nudity and sex scenes to the other ladies in the cast to thrust herself into the role of the black-clad centerpiece for the stygian slaughter. Angela looks creepy even before she's transformed into a toothy temptress, but when Steve Johnson turns her loose, she becomes a fearsome and foul creature whose methodical lurking down the shadow-swept hallways in the decaying mansion provide the film with some of its most unsettling moments. If the image of Kinkade on the original theatrical poster alone isn't enough to convince you that you need to investigate Night Of The Demons, I don't know why you're even bothering with this review.
Elsewhere, there are touches of brilliance all over Night that demonstrate Tenney's artistic flair and his penchant for crafting unique experiences out of familiar material. The animated opening credit sequence deserves special notice simply because it's so freaking cool and establishes right off that bat that this is going to be an engrossing ride. Angela's morbid and wickedly sensual strobe-lit dance scene is a definite high-point, and the choice of "Stigmata Martyr" by Bauhaus as her impetus is particularly inspired (on a related note, I should further mention that the unconventional score by the director's brother Dennis Michael Tenney is also excellent). Additionally, the atmosphere inside the house is utilized for maximum effect, and the film boasts some truly chilling images and a few well-telegraphed scares.
Even if you aren't interested in exploring the subtleties, Night Of The Demons has an abundance of the visceral ingredients any discerning fan of cheesy horror will be looking for, especially when it comes to the graphic bloodshed and ample allotment of gratuitous nudity. Sure, there are a few clunky aspects, as you'd expect given the budget and era. But overall this is a seriously fun movie that delivers the goods on all fronts, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. Do with that information what you will.
"Your Sister" sucks
This dull and toothless example of how far sequels can stray from the greatness of their predecessor is so utterly stupid and incomprehensible that it doesn't even deserve its reference to Joe Dante's masterful gem in the title. The ludicrously lame sub-moniker should give you an idea of the level of intelligence you'll be dealing with if you decide to slog your way through this wretched mess, since the same minds who created this film also thought "Your Sister Is A Werewolf" was a good movie title. Amazingly enough, this isn't the worst name they came up with; their original idea was "Stirba- Werewolf Bitch."
Kind of sort of picking up where things left off, the action here begins at the funeral of Karen White (you won't recognize her because she's played by a stand-in; Dee Wallace wisely opted not to sully her good name by appearing in this), where we learn that she's not actually dead. Your Sister attempts to assert its originality by revising the guidelines of the lycanthropy mythology, and we're informed here that since the silver bullets were taken out of Karen's body during her autopsy, her werewolf super powers kicked in again and brought her back to life (conveniently, this doesn't happen until her coffin lid is closed after the memorial service, so there seems to be a few days of lag time on this go-go-resurrection). So, if we really think about this logically, that would mean that not only does every werewolf whose human body undergoes postmortem examination come back to life, but those who somehow get put into the ground without an autopsy or embalming taking place will have their skeletons rise from their graves after decomposition naturally removes the silver artifact that killed them from their flesh.
But, wait... That's not the most fascinating addition the concussed film-makers cooked up for this feast of foolishness. You see, according to Howling II, the REAL way to kill a werewolf is to, of course, drive a stake through its heart (?!), and this is the method of dispatch which defeats several of the creatures we meet in this film. It gets better. The monstress queen's lair, where our heroes must travel to in order to rid the world of the lycan curse once and for all, is located in the place everyone immediately associates with werewolves: Transylvania (??!!). Once the team of would-be werewolf slayers arrives and our female protagonist makes sure to point out that she brought cloves of garlic with her to protect them from the creatures, we have no choice but to wonder if director Philippe Mora even knew what movie he was making a sequel to.
Oh, and by the way, werewolves apparently also have the ability to suck the souls out of human victims to rejuvenate themselves. And shoot lazers out of their fingers that make people's eyes burst out of their heads. And, yes, I'm completely serious.
The creature FX range from serviceable to atrocious, and most of the monsters we see spend the film in a perpetual state of half-transformation, which is represented by clunky prosthetics that make them look more like puffy-faced apes than lupine shape-shifters; this impression is strengthened by the appearance of several of the fully formed beasts, whose bulbous, over-sized dimensions make it readily apparent that they're running around in modified gorilla costumes. This outing ramps up the gore and eroticism to make up for its sheer baffling inanity, so there is a lot more splatter and nudity on hand here than in the original Howling. If that sounds like an endorsement, go ahead and run with that, because it's the only thing close to one you'll find in this write-up.
The inclusion of the great Christopher Lee should be a point of interest, but his scenes are actually heart-breaking to watch. Ever the gentleman, Lee demonstrates grace and professionalism throughout this farce, but it's patently obvious by his demeanor and general lack of enthusiasm how mortified he is to be tackling such insipid material.
Miami Vice was the hottest show in the world when this was made, and, oddly, Howling II directly models entire sequences after that '80s staple. Any scene which features a car driving at night is shot and edited in a blatantly similar style, and the pulsing synth-rock soundtrack blaring in the foreground cements this homage. Unfortunately, the producers only sprang for one band to appear on the soundtrack and apparently only paid them for three songs; one of them is actually about werewolves, and you will have the dubious pleasure of hearing it over and over and over and over and over and over again throughout the film.
If you find yourself wondering why Sybil Danning was afforded such prominent placement in this movie despite the fact that, as evidenced by her performance, she has trouble even forming a four-word sentence like "Go get the girl," you'll get two reasons during her "check THESE out" scene, in which she tears her top off and exposes her breasts. The vital importance the film-makers place on this epochal shot is emphasized during the closing credits, where Danning's reveal is repeated precisely 17 more times (I counted).
The two stars in my score are solely for Christopher Lee's presence and the film's ample allotment of diversionary bloodshed (okay, we'll throw Danning's boobs in there too). Everything else in Howling II from the stilted introduction to the hokey climax is simply abominable. I love bad movies as much as anyone, but this is just plain unbearable.
The Howling (1981)
A smart, sexy, and genuinely scary horror classic that still has plenty of bite
The werewolf is sort of the neglected middle child of the horror monster hierarchy: gifted, unique, and brilliant, but eternally overshadowed by its dad the Devil, older vampiric siblings, mummified Egyptian stepsons from a previous marriage, and kid brother zombies who are always getting into trouble and keeping the family distracted. Of course there have been great, even legendary, films with lycanthrope antagonists, but that particular sub-genre is rather limited in scope. However, despite the admitted paucity of competition, I can still say with absolute certainty that The Howling is the best movie about werewolves ever made.
It makes sense that the film heavily references The Wolf Man, the eternal Lon Chaney Jr./Universal Monsters staple, because The Howling is executed in a way that clearly reveals its acknowledgment of its roots in the traditions of classic horror. The pace is restrained and meticulous, the atmosphere is a character in itself, and despite the film's utilization of creature effects that weren't even dreamed of in Universal's genre heyday, good old-fashioned ensemble acting is what truly drives the action in the piece. If this description makes The Howling sound like a dry production more suited for the theater stage, don't misunderstand me; this is bloody and ferocious fare that will greatly please fans of visceral horror. But it is the taut and well-crafted story, not merely the FX, that make this such a gem, and director Joe Dante is seasoned enough here to allow a gradual and steady immersion into the film's world before bowling us over with Rob Bottin's peerless set-pieces, which have all the more impact when they take command because of how effectively the movie has teased us with tantalizing glimpses throughout.
Though the creatures are understandably a feature attraction here, the main focus of the plot is on news anchor Karen White, who has become the fixation of deranged serial killer Eddie Quist and agrees to be used as bait as part of a police operation to capture him. Quist is seemingly killed during her harrowing and macabre encounter, and Karen is subsequently haunted by bizarre dreams and fuzzy, repressed recollections of what actually occurred that night. When she heeds a pop psychologist's suggestion that she and her husband should attend a therapy retreat he oversees at a secluded commune, the getaway does anything but assuage her trauma. Instead, Karen encounters odd and subtly menacing locals and the titular unholy moans emanating from the fog-shrouded forests. It doesn't take long for us to learn that the commune is located at the nucleus of the hunting grounds prowled by a pack of malevolent predatory beasts, and after Karen's husband is seduced and transformed by a sultry lady wolf, her and her visiting reporter friend begin to uncover the sinister secret of the commune.
I'll refrain from stepping up on my soapbox to deliver an impassioned soliloquy about how CGI has ruined the art of special make-up FX, but those who appreciate the magic of the wizards who revolutionized the art-form in the late '70s and early '80s will find the work of Rob Bottin here absolutely awe-inspiring. The climactic transformation scene is delivered unflinchingly and in real time, step by grotesque step, and the result is an indelible sequence that remains far more impressive and enthralling than anything modern film-makers handling the same material could ever cook up on a computer. The gore is used sparingly for maximum impact, but whenever it arrives, the results are stunning and gruesome. Perhaps most importantly, the werewolves themselves are a thing of fearsome beauty to behold, monsters that resonate as wholly believable extensions of the established mythology while still maintaining an innovative stroke of originality that makes them belong to this film alone. These creatures aren't merely big wolves, they are eight-foot tall bipedal killing machines with fangs and claws capable of tearing people to shreds, a skill that they demonstrate with acute proficiency during the course of the movie.
The performances are all excellent even when the roles veer into the melodramatic, and the presence of one of the power couples of '80s horror, Christopher Stone and Dee Wallace (later Dee Wallace Stone), as well as a marvelous extended cameo from beloved genre vet Dick Miller, will delight fans of the era. Both the gritty, sleazy streets that open the movie and the isolated location housing the commune complex are perfectly presented and utilized, the clues to the greater mystery are unfolded with the taut grace of a top-notch thriller, and the film as a whole feels like an entirely plausible representation of ancient folk lore-based creatures existing in a modern world.
The denouement falters slightly since Bottin's best tricks have already been displayed, but the sentiment of the finale is striking enough to end the saga on a dark and tragic note. If your love of the genre goes back to its natal days, be sure to stick around after the credits too, where you'll find a nice coda that bookends the homage to The Wolf Man present throughout these reels.
The Howling is, in my estimation, not only the finest and most enduring lycanthropy fable in the canon, it's also quite simply one of the best horror films of all time. Don't skip this one.