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The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Still as raw as freshly packed steak
I've seen this film probably a hundred times, but just got back from seeing it on the big screen for the first time, and I was gobsmacked by how effective and absolutely ghastly it really is. I'm not sure if I forgot, or if seeing it on a restored 4K print was just that overwhelming, but regardless, the experience reinforced my belief that it is quite possibly the greatest horror film ever made, and without a doubt the greatest American horror film of all time. We all know the story: a group of hippieish young people are traveling through Texas back country to visit old family property. Meanwhile, a string of grave robberies and desecrations are occurring in the locale. The innocents meet with the perpetrators of the crimes, and utter madness breaks loose.
Tobe Hooper will never outlive the reputation of this film; nothing he has made before or since has come close to the level of mastery here. The tension in "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" lies in a lot of places, but one of them is in the space between Hooper's precise attention to detail and the borderline guerrilla filmmaking technique that the film employs. Having not seen the film in its entirety in several years now, I always seemed to remember it as an exercise in dread as opposed to one in serious, skilled filmmaking, but I was completely wrong it's both to the tenth degree. It is a gritty and raw film that is very much visually unpolished on a surface level, but it's also gorgeously shot and rich in subtext. Every zoom, every pan, and every angle is precise and calculated the purpose is primarily to unsettle or abhor us, but also to make us feel the desolation of the landscape and the helplessness of the surroundings. Deliberate shots of the hot Texas sun and the glowing moon work in correspondence with the film's astrological and premonitory warnings, as well as its ever-mounting sense of dread that spills over into complete deprivation in the last act.
The realness of the performances also really intensifies the proceedings. The characters and actors who embody them look and feel like relatively normal college kids not ones who are up to no good, either remember, this film predates the slasher as we know it (although it is integral to the construction of that prototype) but just normal kids out for a drive on a languid summer afternoon. Marilyn Burns' tormented performance is unrestrained and completely real her screams, tears, and battle wounds are unforgettable, and even Paul Partain's hokey take on the anxious and annoying disabled brother feels authentic. The only rivalry comes from the film's antagonists; the backwoods clan of father, sons, and the inexplicably zombified grandpa who turn humans into food and furniture, and exude levels of debauchery and lunacy rarely captured on film. Their family affairs are at times darkly humorous, but the film never loses its seriousness to this. It still feels like a funeral march from beginning to end.
"The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is one to be experienced to be believed; it really is a sensory experience (or rather, an assault on the senses). It's gorgeous and it's hideous, and everything from the calculated cinematography and natural performances to the orchestra of horrific sounds, screams, and buzzing chainsaws make it one of the most savage and robust offerings of the genre. It's a film that is still scarier than anything that has come out of American cinema in decades, and, just as it will outlive Hooper, it will outlive all of its sequels, remakes, and imitators, because it's just that darned good. While watching it on the big screen, my twenty year old friend who accompanied me was gripping my hand throughout half of the film, and almost jumped out of her seat twice. While timeless classics tend to be few and far between for genre films such as these, "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" is one of a diminutive minority that has not lost an ounce of its vitality after four decades. 10/10.
Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
From runaway hitchhikers to the Manhattan Project
Based on the pulp novel by Mickey Spillane, this utterly bizarre film noir features Ralph Meeker as private investigator Mike Hammer, who makes the grave mistake of picking up runaway psychiatric patient Christina Bailey (Cloris Leachman) on a rural road late one night; shortly after, they are attacked, he witnesses her murder, and the two are tossed in his car and pushed over a cliff. Hammer survives, but finds himself in a web of mystery surrounding Christina's perplexing warnings that ultimately lead him to a mysterious box that is hot to the touch, filled with light, and emits ungodly sounds straight out of hell.
Robert Aldrich, who later infamously directed the cult thriller "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?", directs this quirky and surreal film with a great deal of flair while it at times appears as through-and-through noir, there are plenty of weird twists and turns in the labyrinthine plot as Hammer ventures from character to character, trying to piece together just what the ghostly Christina was caught up in. It's a talky film that relies on a lot of "he said, she said" in relaying crucial plot content (the matter of fact as well as the totally bizarre), but its pacing is even handed, its characters straight shooting, and its spooling of the peculiar details candid and effective.
The black and white cinematography lends a significant darkness to the film that enhances its overall off-kilter tone; this is bolstered by the fact that the bulk of it takes place at night. The acting here not astoundingly great, but it's not exactly subpar either the dialogue is admittedly hokey at times, but given the pulp novel source material, this is forgivable, especially since the film makes up for all of this in mood and presentation. Ralph Meeker is a solid leading man, oozing masculinity and an ego that borders on chauvinism while the female counterparts playfully dance around him aside from Leachman's character, who wryly indexes him within the first five minutes she's also the first to die. Feminist readings of the film aside, "Kiss Me Deadly" is probably the most bizarre film noir in cinematic history, and it's also one of the darkest. Its influence can be seen in contemporary film, explicitly referenced by Alex Cox in "Repo Man" and in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," and more subtly in the works of David Lynch.
The infamous final scene is jaw-dropping and unexpected, and potentially (depending on how you want to look at it) leaves the audience with more questions than answers. Given the Cold War context in which the film was made, the nuclear angle is the most plausible and discussed of course, but Aldrich's dramatic presentation of the iconoclastic "Pandora's box" is still more unnerving than radioactive fallout, the apocalypse, or Pinhead and his vassals. 9/10.
Just Before Dawn (1981)
One of the most sophisticated and unjustly forgotten slasher films of its decade
"Just Before Dawn" focuses on five young hikers who make their way into the backwoods of Oregon to a piece of property whom one of them owns; unfortunately, they get more than they bargained for when an ogreish killer ends up on their trail. Rope bridges, waterfalls, an abandoned church, and the dense Oregon forest set the stage here for a whole lot of fun and some surprisingly sophisticated thrills.
It had taken me a long time to get around to seeing this film, but boy, oh, boy, what a surprise we have here! Taking pointers from "Deliverance" (and also heavily reminiscent of "The Hills Have Eyes", despite the fact that the filmmakers refute having even seen that film before writing the script), "Just Before Dawn" is one of the slickest and most dazzling backwoods slasher pictures to come out of the 1980s.
While the general premise clearly has little to offer in terms of originality, the production values here really elevate the film incredible cinematography of the landscapes and forests are gorgeous while conversely terrifying, and the individual cast members and their on screen chemistry is incredibly believable. Sophisticated and well-placed curves in the plot also make for some understated moments of awe and terror; in another's hands, the script here could have taken the "Friday the 13th" route, but there is plenty of clever writing and a serious attempt at tension and suspense. The haunting whistling score adds another layer of ominousness to the film, blurring the lines around the film's diegesis and composition is it the soundtrack, or is someone whistling at us from the woods? Is there a difference? Jeff Lieberman's direction here is amazing, and Deborah Benson is perfect in the film's central role.
At the end of the day (or rather, beginning), "Just Before Dawn" is one of the most under-viewed slasher thrillers of its time; while it is cherished by a great few, it is not a film that has fully received the audience it deserves. Pitted against 98% of the slasher fodder that was the 1980s, it is the cream of the crop moodily shot, well-acted, well-written, and indelibly atmospheric. The film's peers of the time that attempted similar things (the atrocious "Don't Go in the Woods" comes to mind) did so with about 1/10th of the grace, and its influence has bled on into contemporary films (see "Wrong Turn"). Really, the bottom line is that "Just Before Dawn" is a class act all around. Imagine how shocked and giddy I was when I found out after watching it that it was basically filmed in my backyard! I think I've officially got summer hiking plans now, sans backwoods maniacs with machetes (or at least I would hope). 9/10.
The infamy of "Nightmare" no doubt largely centers on the fact that the film's distributor faced prison time for refusing to cut down one scene from the film for its release in the United Kingdom. I mean, after all, how many horror films have that under their belt? The plot follows a disturbed schizophrenic who escapes from his experimental psychiatric hospital in New York City and heads down the coast to Florida, where his wife and children reside, killing along the way before making an attempt at his final hometown hurrah.
With "Halloween" and "Maniac" being obvious influences here, "Nightmare" feels much more like a '70s picture than it does a product of the '80s, and its confluence of influences might be precisely why. The film's formula is fairly straightforward, although its subject matter is remarkably dark, insofar as it has to do with a man who can't help but want to slaughter his own children it's a macabre affair all around, and the grindhouse aesthetic only bolsters the film's sinister tone. It's part slasher film and part psychosexual thriller, with leading man Baird Stafford playing the villain who's entire distorted existence seems to hinge on his childhood experience of witnessing his father's affair (and subsequently slaughtering both parties in their bed). The film does meander a bit between the realms of dramatic thriller and splatter epic, but it's an engaging watch none the less.
I'd be lying if I said that the real attraction here for most people is the remarkable gore effects, which were controversially credited as being the work of Tom Savini turns out Savini was apparently just a friend of the effects director and didn't actually work on the film, but regardless, the film showcases a plethora of elaborate murders with some remarkably nasty special effects; throats are slashed, people are stabbed, and heads roll, and Romano Scavolini makes sure his audience has front row closeups to all the nitty gritty details. The special effects work, though dated in some regards, is still surprisingly effective.
Overall, "Nightmare" is a deserved cult classic that would appear to have come from the drive-in era of the late '70s; despite the fact that the film was made in the following decade, it retains a gritty exploitation feel in which violence is the central spectacle. Like I said, it's a dark movie and a gratuitously violent one. It's the kind of thing you watch and then want to shower after. Like after a humid Florida evening, the film leaves you feeling slightly grimy, but that's what it sets out to do from the first reel. 7/10.
Angela Baker is back in "Sleepaway Camp II," but this time with a sex change, and a hunger for killing immoral teens at the summer camp in which she works. Among her arsenal of hunting tools are knives, fire, a chainsaw, guitar strings, and battery acid!
While the original "Sleepaway Camp" was a B-movie through and through, it maintained a level of seriousness and a sophisticated tension throughout; it's a remarkably dark slasher film, thematically and visually. "Sleepaway Camp II," on the other hand, trades in Robert Hiltzik's macabre chops for cult director Michael Simpson's self-referential slasher schlock. "Sleepaway Camp II" is a completely uninhibited and shameless sequel that derails the seriousness in the first film, opting for straightforward gags and black comedy.
The film does not really have a plot so to speak; there is no twist either, which, for being the offspring of a film that made its name because of these things, is kind of surprising. It is really just a platform for Angela to butcher teenagers in a ridiculous number of different ways. There are gore effects o'plenty, and many of them are quite good; some of them quite silly. It's not a film that can be taken seriously by any stretch of the imagination, but because of that, it is a rare piece of entertainment that is aware of its utter implausibility and yet completely engaged with it. Pamela Springsteen goofs along through her role and is often hilarious but never frightening, and the supporting cast is well above the cut.
As a sequel, "Sleepaway Camp II" is out there, but as a self-aware spoof of films like "Friday the 13th," it's really quite amusing. There is no intellectually stimulating material here, but it's a good way to goof off for an hour and a half. That said, it pales in comparison to the substance of the original film, with its twisted plot and ruthless conclusion. The biggest highlight here? Stabbed in the back and drowned in a leech infested porta-potty. How low can you go? 6/10.
Final Exam (1981)
"Once you get outta school, nobody cares what your grades were"
If you're a student at Lanier College, the only thing worse than being one of the few whose finals fall on the last day of the semester is being confronted with the madman who has arrived on campus just in time for the end of finals and the end of lives, too. Needless to say, the unlucky coeds who are still at school won't be getting any studying done tonight.
Free of the obligatory gore and gratuitous sex that dominated the '80s slasher as we know it, "Final Exam" takes its cues from "Halloween" and "Prom Night," emphasizing quiet terrors over confrontational scares. I was shocked by the fact that the film seems to have gotten a lot of flack from people who have deemed it far too "boring" and complained about its lack of "back story," so just let me say this: you're wrong.
Is "Final Exam" a masterpiece? No. But its detractors are overlooking the fact that one of its most unique tenets is in that it fails to ascribe to the conventional stalk-and-slash formula by a madman with mommy issues. There are no masks, no motives, and no over-psychologizing of a mythical lunatic. It's a random account of a random killing spree, and while some feel that's a cop out, the flip side is that this approach is the film's greatest contribution toward anything original. When you strip the film down beyond that, it's fairly routine, though of a higher caliber than most films of its era. There is some classy cinematography and some deliciously creepy, subtle shots of the killer looming around. The film also makes ample use of its abandoned college campus setting, much like films such as "Girls Nite Out" and "The House on Sorority Row" did in the following years but let's not forget, "Final Exam" was something of a pioneer for the college campus slasher as we know it, whether you want to admit it or not. Solid yet quirky performances from a cast of unknowns also help keep the film afloat.
Overall, "Final Exam" truly does not get enough credit. As a slasher picture, it's a slow burner, but it's got enough eerie cinematography and ominous atmosphere to engage before the body count starts to rise. As I said before, it unabashedly takes its cues from "Halloween" and other slasher trend-setters from the late '70s, but its denial of a tedious back story or any real denouement forces it outside of the box, even if just a little. Either way, I found the film a splendid exercise in subtle spookiness, and I've never found an empty college campus so eerie although maybe that's just because I graduated from a very urban university. 8/10.
Night of the Demons (1988)
The Halloween party to end all Halloween parties
"Night of the Demons" has a group of ten teenagers throwing a Halloween party in an abandoned funeral parlor; led by prankster Angela (Amelia Kinlade), the party starts out in good spirits, but it's not long before spirits of the dead start possessing each of the kids, turning them into ravenous monsters with an appetite.
I remember seeing the VHS cover for this film at the video store as a child, and it haunted my dreams for years. Every time I went into the video store, I'd avoid the horror section at all costs just so I wouldn't have to see that awful monstrosity on the VHS slip. Now, as an adult who has seen the film, it seems rather silly given the minutely comical tone of the movie, but no less, it is a testimony to the effective makeup work and special effects employed in this film.
Plot-wise, what we really have here is essentially a hybrid of "The Evil Dead" and "Hell Night," but the film is still wildly enjoyable despite the derivations. Kids running amok in a dusty funeral parlor where each of their friends are transforming into monsters, while meanwhile, Angela, the "queen bee" of the party is perhaps the most horrific of all. The film has a slightly humorous edge to it at times, yet still has plenty of scares and splatters up its sleeve to keep the most jaded horror fans amused and entertained. Amelia Kinkade and Linnea Quigley are the highlights of the cast despite ostensibly being supporting characters, but the whole cast is much better than the material demands.
"Night of the Demons" is, at the end of the day, a solid flick that doesn't demand serious viewing in fact, I'd say it works against that but it's still a remarkably well made film with impressive special effects and a hearty mix of gruesome violence and edgy humor. The Bauhaus dance sequence is just one of many party favors offered. 7/10.
Solid thriller despite Castle's schlock reputation
"Lucy Harbin took an axe, gave her husband forty whacks, when she saw what she had done, she gave his girlfriend forty one." So is the life of Lucy Harbin, played by dynamite Joan Crawford. After spending twenty years in an insane asylum for her crime, she is released and goes to live with her daughter on their farm property, but it is not long before goings on around the farm seem to point to Lucy's questionable sanity (and innocence).
While William Castle earned his reputation for schlock-ridden gimmicky horror films, his pictures with Crawford are true gems; this film and "I Saw What You Did," to be specific. While Crawford's meditated approaches to performance are part of what made these films so effective, it is inarguable that these films were well written and well directed. Penned by Robert Bloch, the author of "Psycho," "Strait-Jacket" plays on Harbin's potential madness like piano keys it's routine, sure, but for 1964, it's still a fresh approach to insanity on film. What's most surprising though is, as in "Psycho," the way in which the film's conclusion turns on its audience, and the plot twist is just as unexpected to a 21st century audience as it was in 1964.
Crawford's dedication to her role in the film is astounding, and in "Strait-Jacket" she is able to take a stab at the madwoman villainess whom she played opposite to in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" two years earlier. Crawford's determination and gall really pay off for her, because the role, no matter how dramatic or emotive it is, is convincing. Diane Baker plays opposite as Crawford's tormented daughter and is able to hold her ground against the grand dame of madness.
Overall, "Strait-Jacket" is a solid thriller with Castle's schlocky touch, but its writing is sophisticated and its performances impressive enough to elevate it far beyond any sort of gimmick. The plot twists and Crawford's anti-demure playing of her character make this worth a watch. Along with "I Saw What You Did," "Strait-Jacket" is among Castle's classiest and most calculated thrillers. 7/10.
The Honeymoon Killers (1969)
A corrosive cult thriller; expressionless expressionism
"The Honeymoon Killers" is one of those films that you want to shut off because it's so damned tenebrous, but at the same time you don't really want to look away. The thin plot follows an overweight, depressed nurse who meets her prince charming after her mother places an ad in the lonely hearts section of the local newspaper. The problem? Her smooth-talking Latin boyfriend wants to take her along for the ride on a killing spree of innocent women.
Among all of the drive-in grindhouse fare to come from the late 1960s-early 1970s, "The Honeymoon Killers" may be the cream of the crop; it's not sleazy enough to be shelved among its counterparts, but it's also not sophisticated enough by most standards to be thought of as anything else. It's a remarkably ugly film in just about every sense of the word its characters are vile, its story is downright macabre, and it has one of the most downtrodden but effective endings of any of its peers of the time period.
Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco turn in ingenious performances here and have a surprising chemistry with one another. Also featured is a young Doris Roberts (beloved mother on television's "Seinfeld") as Stoler's friend. Directed by Leonard Kastle (and his only feature film), it is well-shot and takes advantage of its stark black-and-white photography to create effective mood and make even daylight scenes potential threats. Other horror films of the era that feature similar use of photography (Herk Harvey's "Carnival of Souls" comes to mind) may have done so more effectively, but what the photography really bolsters in this film are its bleak depictions of violence. The murder scenes in the film are tonally flat, and that may be why they are so shocking. There is no dramatic cue music, no thunderstorms outside, no killer with a knife just silence, screaming, and the thwack of a hammer against the skull.
Released in the wake of Charles Manson, it's not surprising that "The Honeymoon Killers" was relegated to the drive-in circuit, and in some regard it deserved to be there; at the same time, it had the chops to be playing at art house theaters as well. Its straight-talking documentary style strips the film of any and all potential variation in tone, but its flatness is part of what makes it so appalling and so realistic. It's gritty and expressionless, but still masterfully done and fraught with emotion. It's a remarkably well-made film, but it's so direct that it at times feels dangerous to watch; the fact that it's based on an actual killing spree only amplifies the sentiment. 9/10.
Domestic drama? Horror film? I doubt even Zulawski knows
Andrzej Zulawski's infamous cult film has Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill as a troubled couple living in Berlin. After returning from a business trip, Mark (Neill) finds his wife, Anna (Adjani) wanting to divorce him for inexplicable reasons. The film chronicles the deterioration of their relationship as Anna exhibits increasingly psychotic behavior, going back and forth between the apartment they share with their son, and an abandoned flat where Mark believes her to be holding secret rendezvous with someone... or something.
It's been said that Zulawski wrote this film during his divorce from his wife, which is pretty damned clear. It's difficult to explain the film in terms of plot beyond what I've already said, so I won't even bother, but I will say that it is magnificently crafted in just about every way possible. As a meditation on divorce and how people deal with remnants of what was once a relationship, the film is astounding. Beyond that, however, is the fact that it's operating on levels far different it's also a horror film, a creature feature, and perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, all rolled under the blanket of a twisted domestic drama.
Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill turn in jaw-dropping performances here. I've heard accusations of overacting in this film, and I simply don't see it. Adjani's wicked, otherworldly presence in the film is haunting; she turns from frustrated mother to murderess to madwoman writhing on the floor of a subway tunnel having a miscarriage, and you never once question her or her motives, no matter the level of madness her character reaches. She is both touching and horrifying, and the catalyst around which the entire film hinges. Neill plays her counterpart with extreme precision as well, communicating the emotions of a husband driven mad by his wife's infidelity, and an abusive control freak who will stop at nothing to possess her.
Zulawski tells the story among the gloomy cityscapes of Cold War Berlin, and the photography in the film is stunning in all its greyness. It's a disturbing film in both content and imagery; the scenes of domestic violence are just as disturbing as the gruesome murder scenes and Adjani's infamous copulation sequence with the tentacled monster whom she's been nesting away. The last act is particularly compelling, mainly because of how out-there it really gets, and the ending follows in line. I still don't know what to make of it; what I do know, is that is was brilliant, and that it demands repeat viewings.
Overall, "Possession" is a gobsmacker. Ajdani and Neill's performances are reason enough to check the film out, but there are some utterly bizarre plot twists and shocking special effects here that will satiate fans of thrillers and creature features alike. The film's duplicitous nature makes it a difficult one to really pin down, but conversely is also one of the most fascinating things about it; it's a domestic drama, and a horror film, and a creature feature, and perhaps even a love story. Regardless, the end effect is that we are ultimately as uncertain of what the film is as we are of Anna's schoolteacher doppelgänger, or her grotesque paramour locked away in the abandoned flat. In any measure, "Possession" is a ruthless tale of betrayal and desperation, and I think that's one of the few things Zulawski and his audience would agree upon. 10/10.