Welcome to the darker side of AICN! M. L. Miller aka Ambush Bug here with another AICN HORROR: ZOMBIES & SHARKS column. Over the last month, we have lost two titans in horror. Both Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero offered up films that chilled my spine and warmed my dark soul. The horror world is much lonelier and less bright without these two great filmmakers, so I’m taking a break from AICN HORROR this week to honor these two amazing horrormeisters.
To start off, I had a one-hour conversation with Kristian Horn, who used to review for AICN COMICS as superhero and now runs the fantastic Part-Time Fanboy Podcast (found here). We talked at length about Romero and Hooper, their films, and their legacy.
Following that, I have collected reviews of some of Romero and Hooper’s films that I have reviewed through the years. This weekend, check out some of the films below or the tons of other horror films they have crafted. RIP Tobe Hooper and George A. Romero. You both will be sorely missed.
October is coming and I am looking for sponsors to advertise every day of the month alongside my picks for the best of the best in horror over the last year. So here’s an open call to advertisers interested in helping to keep this column running. Any inquiries should contact me here!
On with the horror reviews!
(Click title to go directly to the feature)
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974)
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)
EATEN ALIVE (1976)
SALEM’S LOT (1979)
THE FUNHOUSE (1981)
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)
MONKEY SHINES (1988)
INVADERS FROM MARS (1986)
THE DARK HALF (1993)
TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)
Retro-review: Available on BluRay from Dark Sky Films!
THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition (1974)aka HEADCHEESE, STALKING LEATHERFACE, LEATHERFACE
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Kim Henkel, Tobe Hooper
Starring Marilyn Burns, Paul A. Partain, Allen Danziger, William Vail, Teri McMinn, Edwin Neal, Jim Siedow, John Dugan, Robert Courtin, William Creamer, Ed Guinn, John Larroquette, and Gunnar Hansen as Leatherface!
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
As a kid, I was introduced to THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE through the collection of movie clips made into a movie called TERROR IN THE AISLES. That film acted as my first “Must See” list as it went through so many classic horror films at a rapid pace, offering up scenes from films I had seen interspersed with tons of ones I hadn’t. At the time, my brother and I would go to the video store, pleading with my mom to let us rent every film in the horror section. Every time we’d walk in, I’d approach the box marked THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, but something in me kept me from picking it up. I was an avid Fango reader as well at the time, and had read about how notorious the film was, so every time I approached the box, I was too frightened to pick it up. Finally, after we’d seen them all or everything else was rented, I decided to suck it up and check out this movie that was supposed to be so notorious.
And sure as shit, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE managed to scare the crap out of me. Not only did it push the envelope as to what was real and what wasn’t, it was filled with so much of the macabre from start to finish that it really does feel like more of an ordeal than a film. Now there are those who don’t go to the cinema to feel that level of unease and for those people, there are tons of other safe and tidy films out there to watch. THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE is dangerous and messy. The innocents are sweaty and real—some of them not even likable. And that’s even before we get to meet the Chainsaw family. There seems to be a layer of grime on the whole thing and just by viewing it, that grime gets on you and it takes a whole lot of scrubbing to get it off. Those were the feelings I felt after that first viewing, and it remains today as it is not a film I rewatch over and over, but it is one I appreciate and even fear.
One thing that stands out in this film is the ordeal Marilyn Burns survives in this film. I refer to the actress rather than Sally the character because I really feel that in this particular film, the struggle and torment the character survives is something so convincing and real that the emotion and torment we see her go through is real. As Sally, Burns is unafraid of appearing uncomposed or out of control. She is covered in filth and blood and while most of her lines are pleading with her captors to let her go, the vocabulary of horror she articulates in her screams is enough to fill a dictionary. The uncontrollable laughter Sally expresses upon driving away from Leatherface doing the Chainsaw Dance at the end is not only that sigh of relief the audience experienced having survived the film, but also the gibberish of someone close to the edge, if not already plunged over it, and Burns nails this so well it just feels real. Without Burns, this film is nothing. She’s the audience, getting chewed up and tormented by the sights and sounds of this film, and does it like no other actor I’ve ever seen.
The other thing that is a character of its own here are the sounds. Hooper gets into the makings of the odd variety of noises that appear in this film. Right from the very beginning with the bizarre cat’s meow bulb flash that flashes on the decomposed bodies makes for one of the most iconic and horrifying intros in film history. The fact that it only teases you with bits and pieces before revealing the nightmarish sculpture riding the tombstone exemplified how this film toys with you like a kitten with a mouse, digging its claws and fangs into you, but having too much fun to deliver the final blow to put it out of its misery.
The sense of family that is often the subject of the TCM films is interesting here. I always found it odd that there were no women in the Sawyer family. Maybe they were all products of abductees and that’s the reason why we don’t see any matriarchs. The fact that ambiguities like that exist in this film may be attributed to plot holes, but it’s definitely left things open for further entries to dissect. I always found the Hitchhiker to be the most interesting character since he is the runner of the team, both gathering body parts and luring folks to the house for slaughter. This is an interesting role and while Neal plays the babbling buffoon, his role is crucial here. But all of the family serves its purpose and plays characters more complex than most horror films. The Cook, who doesn’t have the stomach for no killin’, seems to be the one with the most amount of marbles, but the way he pokes and tortures Sally in the burlap sack, laughing in a rat-like manner, shows a cruel layer just below his seemingly harmless surface. And while the brute Leatherface could be just a simple mute monster (a type of killer we have seen over and over), here he is given almost a feminine role of cooking and cleaning, as well as a paranoid side as exemplified in the way he paces and has a mini-breakdown after killing those who dare enter the home. Gunnar Hansen communicates volumes with grunts and movements as if to say “Where the hell are all of these kids coming from, and what am I going to do with all of this extra meat?” The template for the killer inbred family has been copied over and over since TCM, but this is where it all started, and the reason it is something so many horror films revisit is because TCM did it to the best effect.
The 40th Anniversary edition is loaded with extras. Two collections of cut scenes (one with sound and another without) are offered. There's a documentary called TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE: THE SHOCKING TRUTH focusing on the impact of TCM on the masses at the time and how the magic was attempted to be repeated in the lesser sequels. FLESH WOUNDS is segmented into seven parts which range from interviews with Gunnar Hansen (Leatherface), Edwin Neal (The Hitchhiker), and John Dugan (Grandpa) to the exploration of the original house all these years later. There's an especially touching moment when Dugan breaks down and cries when recollecting the hell Marilyn Burns went through to make her iconic role as Sally so memorable.
There's also a featurette with Terri McGinn called OFF THE HOOK which goes into depth what it is really like to be hung by a meat hook. There's another extended interview with John "Grandpa" Dugan talking about the makeup and whatnot. Editor J. Larry Carroll talks about piecing together the film after it was completed in CUTTING CHAINSAW. Horror's Hallowed Grounds tours the sites from the film, plus there's a tour of Leatherface's house by the man who knows it best, Gunnar Hansen. Plastic surgeon Dr. W.E. Barnes presents a step-by-step, albeit silent, photo montage of the making of Grandpa's makeup. The complicated history of who owned the rights of TCM (at one point the mob had the rights) is dealt with in THE BUSINESS OF CHAIN SAW, and bloopers, TV and radio spots, and a behind the scenes still gallery rounds out the bonuses you get with this special edition.
The box itself is quite nifty as the disk case slides out of the case much like Leatherface slides open the metal door in his iconic debut scene. Finally, this 40th Anniversary Edition sports commentaries old and new. I've listened to older commentaries from Tobe Hooper, Gunnar Hansen, and cinematographer Daniel Pearl. There's another older one with the victims, Marilyn Burns, Allen Danziger, and Paul A. Patain. New commentaries come from Tobe Hooper, cinematographer Daniel Pearl, editor J. Larry Carroll.and sound Ted Nicolaou. So needless to say, everything you've ever wanted to know about TCM can be found somewhere in this amazing 40th Anniversary Blu.
SEASON OF THE WITCH (1972)aka HUNGRY WIVES
Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero
Starring Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly, & Joedda McClain
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
One of George A. Romero’s more obscure films, HUNGRY WIVES aka SEASON OF THE WITCH may not be as good as his DEAD films, but it still contains a lot of what made the man the horror master he is today. SEASON OF THE WITCH was made when Romero was still pretty fresh and inventive behind the lens. Though bored suburban housewives may not tingle the spine like hordes of living dead do, he still finds ways to make this film pretty creepy.
The film starts out with a trippy dream sequence as our central bored, repressed housewife Joan (played by Jan White) is following a suited man in the woods. In the distance someone is laughing and the whole sequence, as tree branches slap the damsel in the face leaving bloody lashes, proves to be disquieting to say the least. By the time church bells are ringing and the man is leading Joan around by a pink leash, you can probably tell by the not-so-subtle imagery this is a tale of the horrors of domestic subservitude.
To call this film slow would be a compliment. But I believe Romero’s snail’s pacing of SEASON OF THE WITCH was intentional to highlight the monotony of Joan’s existence and give her reason to turn to the world of witchcraft. I remember watching this film as a kid and being bored to tears by it, so if you’re the type of horror fan who likes a jump scare or a kill in every other moment, this isn’t the film for you. But SEASON OF THE WITCH does succeed in passing on feelings of unease. Because of the slow pace, Romero really lets you slip into Joan’s skin feeling the dread that she does. She has lived her life and now must stay at home, growing older, watching the same TV shows, having the same conversations with her husband, talking the same talk with other housewives sharing her same dilemma. It’s no zombie at your door. It’s a more real horror.
Romero’s dream sequences are really great here. It’s almost Lynchian in that the people walk around in a dream-like state and the barrier between dream and reality is always unsure. Romero keeps the camera tight, which could be intentional to give a claustrophobic feel or could be just due to budgetary limitations. SEASON OF THE WITCH is not the most exciting film, but it is one of those movies that uses metaphor in a pretty powerful manner and is further proof that Romero was at one point one of the most talented masters of horror out there. Watch this for the freaky dream sequences. They’re worth it, but you may want to push the fast forward button a few times.
EATEN ALIVE (1976)aka DEATH TRAP, BRUTES & SAVAGES, HORROR HOTEL, HORROR HOTEL MASSACRE, LEGEND OF THE BAYOU, MURDER ON THE BAYOU, STARLIGHT SLAUGHTER, THE DEVIL’S SWAMP, SLAUGHTER HOTEL
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Alvin L. Fast, Mohammed Rustam (as Mardi Rustam), Kim Henkel
Starring Neville Brand, Mel Ferrer, Carolyn Jones, Marilyn Burns, William Finley, Stuart Whitman, Roberta Collins, Kyle Richards, Robert Englund, Crystin Sinclaire, Janus Blythe, Betty Cole, Sig Sakowicz
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Tobe Hooper drenches this film with sleazy and grimy characters, and in more ways than one makes EATEN ALIVE feel like the slightly more lecherous half-cousin of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. While the plot meanders, there are enough insane performances by the cast to make this schocker worth checking out, especially with this new Arrow Films rerelease.
Judd (Neville Brand) is barely keeping it together running the Starlight Hotel. A Vietnam vet who lost his leg in the war, Judd makes a living doing his best Norman Bates impression as the hotel manager who has a very peculiar attraction out back along the swamp revolving around his pet crocodile, who conveniently disposes of any bodies Judd accumulates as he is batshit crazy and often goes after people with a scythe. The story takes place during one seemingly endless night where tons of people show up to Judd’s shithole hotel and meet their dooms.
There is an otherworldly feel that is only hinted at in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE that permeates EATEN ALIVE, which looks to have been filmed on a large soundstage rather than the expansive Texas landscape that captured the action of TCM. Vivid and dramatic red and blue lighting makes everything feel like it is taking place in a world vastly different than our own. The huge set piece of the hotel is often captured in its entirety in the wider shots encapsulating the perverse and deranged world Judd lives in. Always one to pay attention to the setting and inclusive of tiny details that most films would gloss over, EATEN ALIVE again shows Hooper’s obsession with fleshing out the deranged life of his characters with rooms filled with bizarre tchotchkes and antiques galore, accompanied by the ever-present honky tonk radio music, and Hooper is quite successful in making this film feel like some kind of place none of us have ever been or ever would want to go. Much like the intricate details of the interior of the Sawyer House in TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, the devil is definitely in the details in this devious looking film.
Batshit crazy is pretty much the flavor of the day here as indicated by much of the performances in EATEN ALIVE. Judd (Brand) is definitely off his rocker and gives a performance that is most reminiscent of Jim Siedow’s manic and perverse portrayal of the Cook in the original TCM. He is sheepish around women, avoiding their glances while obviously attracted to them and only when he has them alone does he muster up the courage to confront them, but when he does it comes out in frantic violence and the need to bind or kill them. It’s a nuanced performance that could be written off as just playing a few extremes, but being the connecting tissue of all of the people and events in this film, Brand does a fantastic job and shows a range of different levels of mental instability throughout.
Accompanying Brand’s performance are a trio of roles that are truly sensational. Robert Englund gives us a peek at how he would play Freddy Krueger in a few years as Buck who enjoys drinking, prostitutes, and anal lovin’. As Buck, you can see the cocky swagger Freddy often adopted when he knew he had his dreamers on the ropes and while he isn’t the main villain here, he is one of the folks you can’t wait to see killed and does a good job of being a bad person. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE’s William Finley is out of his mind in this film as a nebbish father who witnesses the croc attack earlier in the film and has a mental breakdown because of it. Finley is in a class all his own in terms of insanity as he shakes and contorts his body and face while trying to cope with what he just saw. He is completely over the top, but somehow he fits into this cartoonish world Hooper has created pretty snugly. Playing Finley’s wife is the late, great Marilyn Burns, who gives another arduous and exhausting role here as the victim who just won’t succumb to the torture and torment Judd inflicts upon her. I don’t know what Burns did to Hooper, but coupled with the beating she received in TCM, the actress sure does get the shit beat out of her in Hooper’s films. You won’t be able to watch this movie and not think of TCM when Burns is on the screen.
While many may feel the croc is somewhat fake looking, I actually thought through some clever editing and lighting, it does come off as menacing and delivers on the frights any time it crawls or swims into frame. There’s an especially fantastic chase sequence under the house as a little girl is crawling through trash and beams in order to avoid being eaten. The scenes where the croc chomps its victims in the water are equally terrifying, mostly because of the actor’s reactions and again, Hooper’s restraint to only show snippets rather than capture the croc in full frame. While it definitely shows its age, this EATEN ALIVE is a very potent horror film with fantastic performances all around and a very perverse and grimy perspective on the world the movie takes place in. Though I’m not a fan of remakes, if a director with teeth and a decent budget got involved, I’d definitely love to see this film remade. As is, Hooper meanders a bit in this dream-like setting, possibly to make the runtime for a full movie, but more likely to make one feel all the more uncomfortable living in this weirdly lit world of sleaze, blood, teeth, and insanity.
Accompanying this Arrow rerelease are interviews with actors and cinematographers who brought this film to life, as well as a documentary featuring the real life tale of Joe Ball, a cowboy who disposed of his loved ones via the alligator park he made as a roadside attraction. The quality of the picture is beyond amazing. I remember seeing this on VHS and hardly being able to make out the details. Here, every crimson-lit angle and shot is clear and crisp, making EATEN ALIVE look and feel like an entirely different movie.
KNIGHTRIDERS (1981)Directed by George A. Romero
Written by George A. Romero
Starring Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Tom Savini, Amy Ingersoll, Patricia Tallman, Christine Forrest, Warner Shook, Brother Blue, Cynthia Adler, John Amplas, Don Berry, Amanda Davies, Martin Ferrero, Ken Foree
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
George A. Romero’s answer to EASY RIDER comes to play at the Renaissance Fair in his modern take on Arthurian legend, KNIGHTRIDERS. I know I will take some flack for admitting this, but I always felt that the unrated cut of DAWN OF THE DEAD (which clocks in at a little over 2 hours) always felt a bit too overlong, and while the boredom stints at the mall were necessary in communicating how comfortable the survivors were beginning to feel in their new environment, a nip here and a snip there would have made it all the more entertaining for me. I mention this because I really feel the 2 hour twenty minute runtime of KNIGHTRIDERS could benefit from a trip to the barber itself.
Ed Harris plays King William or Billy, the leader of a ramshackle band of Renaissance folk. Unlike any Renaissance Fair I’ve been to, this one seems to be accepting of modern technology, specifically motorized carriages and more specifically motorcycles. So instead of noble steeds, the knights ride around on souped-up Harleys performing jousting challenges and feats of accuracy with swords, spears, maces, and other weapons. The story follows Billy as he struggles with the popular definition of motorcycle commercialism and how that somehow conflicts with the freewheelin’ way of life he chooses for his “Roundtable” of “noblemen”. While that is the central conflict of the film, other lesser conflicts seem to arise between his “Guinevere” Linet (Amy Ingersoll) and Alan (the Lancelot, in this story played by Gary Lahti). There’s also a bit of conflict Billy has with Morgan (played by Tom Savini in his best performance ever in a film), who plays this version’s Black Knight. Billy is also trailed by a mysterious Native American biker who he sees as his personal demon/spirit guide of sorts…I think.
Let’s just say Billy’s got a lot of issues.
The problem is that I think that, despite the length of the film, KNIGHTRIDERS lacks focus, and one of those conflicts would have made for a pretty fascinating film. Instead, Romero chooses to toss it all at Billy and by the end of the film, you really feel for the guy, not only because he is a heavy-hearted fellow, but also because he’s batting away one conflict after another in his country and western song of a life. When Billy breaks down and cries towards the end of the film, you feel the burden he carries as the leader and it’s a testament to Harris as an actor that despite a somewhat convoluted and unfocused script we still feel for him.
While Savini is not the main character, I understand why Romero chooses to follow him for an extended stint in the middle of the film. Savini is charismatic as hell here as the Black Knight Morgan. His flirtation with celebrity and his arc is the most concise and rewarding as far as story satisfaction is concerned. The fact is that Savini is a stuntman as well as an SFX guy and a hell of a good actor here; it’s surprising that his acting career isn’t bigger, as most of the time I see him in cameos in modern films.
The rest of the cast is filled out with some fantastic Romero go-tos. DAWN OF THE DEAD’s Ken Foree plays Little John (yes, I know Romero is kind of mixing stories here since Little John is a Robin Hood character). Patricia Tallman (who shows up later as the lead in Savini’s remake of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD) plays a naïve groupie of Alan’s who is heartbroken when his true feelings about Linet come out. Shrewd eyes will also pick out Werner Shook, who also later appears in CREEPSHOW, DAY OF THE DEAD’s Anthony Dileo Jr. as a corn salesman and Joseph Pilato (DOTD’s Rhodes) playing a disgruntled jewelry merchant. Stephen King also shows up in a cameo as a wiseacre member of the audience.
KNIGHTRIDERS for the most part feels like an “anything goes” production, as a lot of the action is just well-coordinated motorcycle stunts and other things captured while the extras are having fun in the sun. Romero was going through a marriage at the time of making this film, which might be the reason it’s so narratively scattered. Still, the strong cast seems to keep it all together. While this film definitely didn’t make me want to don my chainmail and rev up my Harley, by the time the ending comes around, you can’t help but feel like you’ve lived this life with the rest of these carnie-like Ren Fair workers.
In the end, KNIGHTRIDERS is enjoyable because of the fun idea of mixing swords and cyclery, but the meandering attention span and direction really makes you thankful the abrupt ending occurs when it does. Harris, who wasn’t quite a star yet when this film came around, shows the ability to carry a film despite its faults. This one’s got new interviews with Harris, Savini, and Romero looking back on the film, all of which feel both nostalgic and somewhat apologetic for the film.
Retro-review: Available BluRay from Warner Bros Home Entertainment!
SALEM’S LOT (1979)aka BLOOD THIRST, PHANTASMA 2
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Paul Monash (screenplay), from a novel by Stephen King
Starring David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb, Elisha Cook Jr., George Dzundza, Ed Flanders, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Geoffrey Lewis, Barney McFadden, Kenneth McMillan, Fred Willard, Marie Windsor, Barbara Babcock, Bonnie Bartlett, Joshua Bryant, James Gallery, Robert Lussier, Brad Savage, Ronnie Scribner, Ned Wilson, Ernest Phillips, Reggie Nalder as Barlowe!
Retro-reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
Sometimes checking out these films every week take me back to a simpler time. Having cool parents, they allowed me to watch all kinds of stuff most would deem inappropriate for a kid my age. I remember seeing the TV advertisements for SALEM’S LOT as a kid and begging my cousins who were babysitting my brother and me to watch it while my parents were out for the night. They caved and let us watch the first night of it, which is what I am most familiar with upon revisiting. Though I was at the ripe age of seven, I was ok until the scene where the vampire kid knocks on the window and asks the other kid to let him in. Living on a single level home and positioned in my room with a bed under the window, this was terrifying for me. I don’t remember this, but was told that after witnessing this on TV and going off to bed, I woke up, panting, covered in sweat, and wide-eyed—screaming about a kid at the window. Needless to say, I didn’t get to see part two of this TV miniseries event the next night.
SALEM’S LOT originally aired November 17, 1979 on a two night event. The Stephen King adaptation was directed by THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE guru Tobe Hooper and with that kind of parentage, the 3 hour film should be a surefire hit. And for the most part, it is a lot of fun. The problem is that the story feels more fit to be one and a half hour film length rather than three hour film length. Because of that, we are given a lot of unnecessary exposition, a lot of unnecessary characters, and scenes that feel as if they are repeated more than once.
SALEM’S LOT opens on a pair of would be vampire hunters; Ben Mears (David Soul) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), who are drawn to places of great evil inhabited by vampires. As with many of King’s stories, Ben is a successful writer returning to his hometown of Salem’s Lot and drawn to an old house he believed to be haunted as a youth. When an elderly man named Richard Straker (James Mason) moves into the old house with his business associate Kurt Barlowe (Reggie Nalder) who never seems to be home when Ben arrives to ask questions. Beginning a relationship with local hottie Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), Ben becomes obsessed with the house and it’s enigmatic residents. Meanwhile, Mark and his friends Danny (Brad Savage) and Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner) Glick (aka the kids that scared the mother-fuck out of me as a kid) are busy double dog daring each other to investigate the house from the ground level. Once folks start disappearing, it’s apparent to Ben and Mark that Barlowe is not on vacation, but actually a bloodsucker who is bent on turning the whole town of Salem’s Lot into vampires.
What works are the effects and the moments intended to be scares. There are quite a few jump scares in this film that still pack a punch. Scenes where the vampire rises from the ground in front of someone in the dark or where the vamps creep horrifyingly slow behind a person from the background that incite undeniable chills and shows that Hooper was on top of his game while making this film. Much of the terror that occurs in this film is still potent today and still causes chills in this jaded viewer—specifically the aforementioned scene where the vampire kid taps on the child’s bedroom door asking to be let in. The film plays with conventions that are in most vampire films, but adds a chilling new level to them, Putting that scene from a children’s perspective worked as well for me as an adult as it did with me as a wide-eyed kid. I also loved the often simple effects used. Mirror eyed vampires with a specifically positioned light make these bloodsuckers more potent than the CG fangers we see today.
Specific props go to Reggie Nalder who, much like Max Schreck and Klaus Kinski before him, embodies a Nosferatu not only through the excellent makeup, but also in his rigid and deadly movements which feel more serpentine than vampire, but conveys a deadliness that most cinematic vamps only wish to have.
The problem with SALEM’S LOT is that between the mirror eyed vampires and appearances by Kurt Barlowe, there is a lot of filler to make it a three hour length. Sideplots about infidelity and small town gossip add character, but often had my fast-forward finger twitching. Also, there is more than one scene where a vampire rises from the shadows to block out the scene with darkness and two visits by a floating vampire kid tapping at a kid’s window that still pack a punch, but are lessened once they are repeated. This filler is necessary given that the allotted time had to be three hours, so I understand why Hooper put in these extraneous scenes. Still. It makes the viewing a bit tedious when trying to watch it all in one sitting. It’s understandable that they weren’t thinking that one day this film would ever be watched in one sitting, so I will forgive this film for being a bit repetitive, especially since one scary event is repeated later in the film, which would most likely occur on the next night, rather than the next hour in a one and done viewing.
So if you can put up with some of the weightier, time-wasting bits, SALEM’S LOT is filled with a whole casket-load of terrors. Whether you saw it as a kid and want to revisit it or are experiencing it for the first time, it adapts one of King’s more potent stories through the talented lens of Hooper at his prime. Effects, scares, and an undeniable sense of dread throughout, SALEM’S LOT reminded me of childhood nightmares and as adult, still delivers the chills.
CREEPSHOW (1982)Directed by George A. Romero
Written by Stephen King
Starring Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, Fritz Weaver, Carrie Nye, E.G. Marshall, Vivica Lindfors, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Stephen King
Reviewed by BottleImp
I’m going to be bluntly unapologetic about this: I fucking LOVE this movie. CREEPSHOW has been a staple in my Halloween horror movie tradition since waaaay back when your old pal the Imp was a kid growing up in southern Connecticut. Back in the days of aerial antennae, before cable television was the ONLY way that you could get a picture on the boob tube, my brothers and I would eagerly await that time of year when WPIX Channel 11 would begin its annual “Shocktober” horror movie programming. In our eyes, George Romero and Stephen King’s ode to EC Comics was the star of that fright flick lineup, so much so that one year we finally recorded CREEPSHOW on VHS (remember those?) and watched that grainy, edited-for-television movie all year round. And now that I have my own unedited copy on DVD, I STILL watch the damn thing all year round. For whatever flaws the film may have, CREEPSHOW remains, as its tagline proclaims, “The most fun you’ll ever have being scared!”
The nod to EC’s classic “Tales From The Crypt” line of horror comics is evident right from the beginning of the framing story: an angry father (an uncredited Tom Atkins) throwing out the “crap” horror comics he finds being read by his son Billy (Stephen King’s son Joe, who today is a successful horror author himself). As a storm rages outside, the comic book flips open in the wind and rain, giving the viewer a shot of the opening pages of each story in this anthology (like EC’s Crypt-Keeper, the “Creepshow” comic book has its own host in the skull-headed “Creep”).
The first tale, entitled “Father’s Day,” tells the story of the wealthy Grantham family, whose fortune stems from the fact that the great-aunt of the clan (Vivica Lindfors) murdered her own father on the titular day. Thus every Father’s Day the family gathers together to celebrate, matriarch Sylvia (Carrie Nye) tells the young man who has just married into this murderous brood (Ed Harris). Naturally, the vengeful spirit of Old Nathan Grantham chooses this night to rise from his grave…in search, it would seem, of his annual Father’s Day cake. The Grantham family is delightfully slimy, so it’s no great surprise that they get what’s coming to them—justice, meted out in the best EC fashion. The makeup effects on the reanimated Nathan are pretty great, with his dirt-clotted skull crawling with worms, but the scariest part of this segment still has to be Ed Harris’ disco dancing. Brrrr…
Bonus Geek Opinion: If CREEPSHOW were an actual EC comic, I think this story would have been drawn by “Ghastly” Graham Ingels. The wicked, aristocratic family and the rotting cadaver are perfectly suited to Ingles’ fluid inking style.
“The Lonesome Death Of Jordy Verrill” is the second chapter of the film, and probably the weakest. That’s because the title character, a slow-witted oaf of a farmer, is portrayed by none other than the author himself, Mr. Stephen King. King definitively proves that he is no actor as he mugs his way through this story of a strange meteor turning Jordy into a human plant. Still, the tone of this segment is more humorous than the rest of the film (with the possible exception of the black humor of “The Crate,” but we’ll get to that), so King’s bug-eyed performance doesn’t feel too out of place. The other visual gags work well, like when Jordy imagines having to see a doctor about his new condition, and the doctor’s chair rolls across the floor is accordance with the tilted camera angle. Plus, “Jordy Verrill” has the distinction of introducing the phrase “Meteor shit!” to the horror lexicon, so that’s okay too.
BGO: With its humorous tone and the country-bumpkin character of Jordy, this chapter is tailor-made for EC and later Mad Magazine star Jack Davis to have illustrated.
Of all the stories that make up CREEPSHOW, “Something To Tide You Over” feels the most like it could have been lifted directly from an old “Tales From The Crypt” comic. Leslie Nielsen plays Richard, a wealthy sadist who decides to enact a horrifying revenge on his wife (Gaylen Ross) and her lover (Ted Danson) when he learns of their affair. Best known for his roles in AIRPLANE! and the NAKED GUN movies, Nielsen’s natural gift for comedy gives his Richard a charismatic joviality that becomes quite chilling when juxtaposed against his actions. The scenes of Danson and Ross buried up to their necks in sand as the tide roars inexorably over them is also very effectively shot, giving the viewer a sense of helplessness as the water hits the screen. Of course, a shit of a human being like Richard deserves to be punished, and punishment is delivered swiftly and deliciously ironically.
BGO: A lot of artists could have handled “Tide” had it appeared in “Crypt,” but I’m going to go with Jack Kamen on this one. I think his style would work well with Nielsen’s charismatic psychopath.
“The Crate” feels the most satisfying as a complete story; that’s probably because Stephen King had previously published a prose version of it before adapting it for CREEPSHOW. The discovery of an old crate in the dark corner of a university laboratory leads to Professor Dexter Stanley (Fritz Weaver) unwittingly unleashing a creature that had been locked up inside its box for nearly 150 years. Not only is this monster still alive after all that time…it’s hungry. The creature and the special effects are all well and good, but the real monster of “The Crate”, the wife of Dexter’s best friend Henry (Hal Holbrook), Wilma “Just Call Me Billy” Northrup (played to sneering, raucous, shrewish perfection by Adrienne Barbeau). When Dex races to Henry’s home for help in stopping the creature, Henry sees both a way to help his friend…and a way to help him with his own little domestic problem. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of black humor in this story. Henry fantasizes about killing Billy to the applause and congratulations of his colleagues, and their confrontation in the crawlspace where the crate is stored is a masterful blend of tension, hilarity and horror.
BGO: As with the previous segment, I feel that “The Crate” would work well under the pen of multiple EC artists, but I think Johnny Craig’s knack for portraying dynamic tension and emotion would be a good fit for Henry, Dex and Billy.
The final tale of CREEPSHOW’s quintet is “They’re Creeping Up On You.” This segment was edited from the televised version that I had grown up watching; most probably the cut was due to a combination of trimming the film down to a more appropriate length for broadcast…oh, and the fact that this story about a cruel Howard Hughes-like millionaire (E.G. Marshall, giving a wonderfully hateful performance) facing retribution for his actions via swarms of giant cockroaches is ONE OF THE MOST HORRIFYING THINGS EVER MADE. Seriously, I dare you to watch this chapter and not get itchy and paranoid that bugs are crawling all over you. Remember, too, that this was back in the day before actors and directors had the luxury of relying on CGI to cover them in insects. Sure, there were probably a few dozen plastic roaches for background scenes, but the majority of the footage features real, live, giant cockroaches crawling all over Marshall and his Spartan apartment. Geez, just writing about it makes me squirm. Let’s get out of here now, okay?
BGO: The horrifying realism is what really sells this segment, so an artist with a less cartoony drawing style—someone like George Evans—would be able to sell the creeping terror of the cockroach revenge.
CREEPSHOW wraps up with a final stab of EC brand horror as little Billy gets even with Dad, bringing the wraparound story firmly into the pages of the movie’s title comic book. Scary, funny, and most of all FUN, CREEPSHOW is one of those movies that should be in everyone’s must-watch Halloween horror list.
THE FUNHOUSE (1981)Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Lawrence Block
Starring Elizabeth Berridge, Shawn Carson, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff, Miles Chapin, Kevin Conway, William Finley, Wayne Doba as Gunther the Monster!
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Though Tobe Hooper will most likely go down in history for TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, the director did do some other effective films. Take THE FUNHOUSE for example. This was a film I saw the trailers for as a kid and was dying to see, but wasn’t allowed to do so. When I did get to see it, it was such a special experience that even if it was a piece of shit, I would have savored it because it was denied my viewing for so long. Luckily, though, THE FUNHOUSE is anything but and one of the best films I’m reviewing in this week’s column.
Elements of TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE abound in this stalk and slash film set in a carnival amusement park. Hooper’s attention to sleazy detail come to the surface once again as a quartet of teens make their way through sideshow attractions of two headed cows and dancing girls. The automated mannequins of the sideshow, as well as the other intricate set pieces designed for the funhouse ride itself, are insanely detailed, yet bear the grime of age and overuse. The rusty moving dolls click and whirr, moving in a ragged and unconventional fashion that one can’t help but be creeped out by. The carnival in this film comes alive and though in some cases the same actors are used (Kevin Conway is in this one in three different roles as three different styles of sideshow barkers), all exude that twisted carnie gruff and roughness that can’t be washed off.
Shades of Hooper’s sequel TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 also surface in this earlier film as the monster itself, Gunther, is motivated by sexual rage and is more of a walking, clawing, drooling penis monster than anything else, much like Leatherface in TCM2 with his tendency to use his chainsaw as a symbol for his sexuality in that film. The theme of sex and death is prevalent in most slasher films, but here it is present almost in every story beat. BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN is playing on the television at the beginning and a poster of Frankenstein’s Monster is prominent on the wall. This story of a monster looking for a mate moves to the forefront as Gunther first tries and fails to purchase sex from a fellow carnie, which ends badly and then pursues the two female protagonists throughout the film as they try to escape the funhouse they become trapped in. In a scene that is almost never shown in slasher films, one of the girls even offers herself up for sex in hopes to escape being murdered by Gunther.
Though slasher tome wasn’t necessarily written in stone yet in 1981, Hooper bucks convention by having his lead actress and final girl Elizabeth Berridge smoke weed, have sex, and even appear nude in a shower scene reminiscent of HALLOWEEN with a mask being slid over the camera and then voyeuristically entering the bathroom to disrupt a shower. Though some may see this as a swipe, it felt more like a wink to a fellow filmmaker who was having a particularly good run than anything else. The scene itself is also cut much like PSYCHO’s famous scene with choppy edits at the reveal.
The cast in this one is amazing, as Berridge went on to star in AMADEUS. The kid who plays her brother, Shawn Carson, went on to star in another carnival horror film SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, and the aforementioned Kevin Conway who went on to be a talented character actor in GETTYSBURGH and OZ. Hell, it’s even kind of cool that the writer of this film went on to write the abysmal 1990 version of CAPTAIN AMERICA. And if you look closely, you’ll recognize the PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE himself William Finley as the twisted pale-faced magician.
THE FUNHOUSE pulls no punches and puts the teens who think it would be a good idea to sneak out of the Funhouse ride and spend the night in the carnival making out and getting into goofy teenage no-good. It has some gory kills and an absolutely horrifying monster in Gunther, a split faced monstrosity who moves like a spastic and uncontrollable animal. Hooper even adds creepy little details which give off a feeling of unease, such as an apathetic mother’s alcoholism and a scene where a carnie who “rescues” the young boy suggesting that he may have molested him a bit before returning him home. All in all, if you’re looking for a truly effective stalk and slash film which turns convention on its ear and isn’t afraid to go for the jugular, THE FUNHOUSE is the place to be.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985)aka DAY OF THE LIVING DEAD
Directed by George Romero
Written by George Romero
Starring Lori Cardille, Terry Alexander, Joseph Pilato, Jarlath Conroy, Anthony Dileo Jr., Richard Liberty, Sherman Howard, Gary Howard Klar, Ralph Marrero, John Amplas, Phillip G. Kellams, Taso N. Stavrakis, Greg Nicotero
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
One of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite of Romero’s zombie horrors, is out on BluRay this week from the Shout! Factory. Though many folks have a soft spot for NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD for its metacommentary on everything from economic class structure to racism and for the fact that it’s the one that started it all and others love DAWN OF THE DEAD for the cool effects, fantastic comment on the consumer culture we were living in, and the strong storyline, I always felt that DAY OF THE DEAD was the underappreciated stepchild of the original three.
And that’s too bad, because this one has everything one could ever ask for in terms of zombie films. It’s got conflicted survivors cooped up in one small and claustrophobic space bouncing and trouncing all over each other. It’s got a strong heroine and a fun cast of characters played by really cool actors. And it’s got some of the best practical special effects you’re ever going to see in a zombie film.
The story is set in a military bunker where a group of optimistic scientists searching for an understanding of the zombie plague are in a constant clash with another group of hardnosed and even harder-headed military types who just want to kill anything in their paths that takes more time than it takes to unholster their weapons to understand. Leading the scientists is tough girl Lori Cardille, who shifts from soft to ballz-packin’ gritty in a heartbeat. The way she plays the character, she maintains her femininity, but still communicates to the Neanderthals she has to cohabitate with that she is not to be fucked with. On the other team is the late great Joe Pilato, who runs the military arm of this bunker like Napoleon on a bad day, screaming orders and wanting results and answers yesterday rather than waiting for the answer to come. Richard Liberty plays Doc Frankenstein, a slightly mad scientist who would rather explore the buried humanity in the zombies than kill them, while Gary Howard Klar plays the blunt object of the group whose sole purpose is to kick ass and take names. In between all of this metaphysical debate about the free thinking scientific mind vs. the literal and results-driven military is a zombie named Bub, a former soldier reanimated and rehabilitated by Frankenstein and able to do rudimentary tricks and even speak. Of course, when Romero does what he always does in these zombie films and tosses these extreme personalities together in a small space, sparks fly in all directions.
The thing that works best in DAY OF THE DEAD is the atmosphere. You can feel the wall closing in as the film progresses. Starting with wide open spaces as the scientists search for survivors on an abandoned Florida city street, we quickly move to the underground bunker and, in the final act, into the caves under the bunker which hold even more zombie terrors. Much like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which has a downward spiral-type movement to it, this sense of retreat and then coming out the other side may make for some pretty gross digestion metaphors, but that seems to be the way Romero likes to structure his films, with the ending taking place back out in the open as if the characters have been through a world of shit and are now shat out to live it once again.
Moving away from the metaphor which could be associated to both Romero’s obligation to do a zombie follow up to the hugely successful DAWN OF THE DEAD by people in power or as a comment on the rise of importance and presence of the military in American culture in the mid Eighties, this film is also notable for its fantastic practical effects. From guts pouring out on the floor to half-dissected zombies on an operating table, this is the best of the best in effects. Tom Savini, who always delivers something special, outdoes himself in DAY OF THE DEAD with not only the usually fantastic zombie designs, but also zombie attack scenes which have never been topped since. The scenes where the military is torn apart by the zombie masses is unique and gory to the maximum degree. Joe Pilato’s death by being torn apart is something that works seamlessly and fills you with waves of terror upon seeing his body torn asunder. The scene where one of the military men’s heads is torn from his body and still moving boggles the mind. And even the scenes of zombies biting into the flesh as if biting into a turkey leg are so visceral and tactile that is sends shivers down my spine just typing this sentence out.
My criticisms of the film are minimal. The music, while sometimes fun, is way too synth-heavy. A sign of the times, yes, but more often than not misses the beat in terms of fitting the dire tone of the film. My only other criticism comes from Romero’s slow shift to giving the zombies a personality. While Bub is a great character and Sherman Howard does a fantastic job portraying him, this shift which is much more evident in Romero’s last three zombie films demystified the zombie in my eyes and is one of the key reasons Romero’s zombie films after this one were less effective, in my opinion. The threat of the zombie masses is scary enough, but give them their humanity back and somehow it muddies the waters and now this rotting mass in front of you may be actually reaching out for a hug rather than wanting to dine on your brains. To me, this is too tree-huggy a concept--that the zombies can somehow be saved or humanized--and maybe I just prefer the nihilistic approach to the shred of hope Romero offers.
These days, zombies are almost passé and you have to do something pretty original in order to get noticed. While some of Romero’s other works might be more well known, DAY OF THE DEAD seems like the sum of all of Romero’s experience working on these zombie films. The storytelling is much tighter than DAWN, and the acting is better. And the effects are far and away more fun and gory than either of the other two.
LIFEFORCE (1985)aka SPACE VAMPIRES
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Colin Wilson (novel), Dan O’Bannon, Don Jakoby, Michael Armstrong, Olaf Pooley
Starring Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Mathilda May, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard, Nicholas Ball, Aubrey Morris, Nancy Paul, Chris Jaggerm Bill Malin
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
OK, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. HOLY BALLS OF SHITTING FIRE is Mathilda May hot in LIFEFORCE! I'm not ashamed to admit that I fondly remember fondling my member to the opening scenes of this film many times and I’m sure others can attest to this as well. Watching this raven-haired goddess prance around in the buff for the first portion of the film was one of the hottest moments in most likely all of sci fi history. So sorry to offend, but I had to acknowledge the shapely elephant in the room before going on with a proper review of this thing.
Now that that’s said, I can’t say enough good things about Tobe Hooper’s space vampire opus, which so masterfully blends sci fi and horror. Sure, it is reminiscent of a whole bunch of other sci fi films (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and ALIEN, for the most part), but Hooper does a great job of making somewhat of a hokey concept into a sci fi spectacular with lights and sounds and effects galore.
Sure, there’s a whole lot of old school serious acting over pretty ridiculous things. The concept of a spaceship hitching a ride on Haley’s Comet in hopes to conquer Earth one person at a time is about as ludicrous as the gratuitous nudity of Mathilda May throughout (not that I’m complaining). Still, the film has that kind of charm you just don’t see in modern films with actors such as Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay, Patrick Stewart, Michael Gothard chewing up the scenery and treating it like Shakespeare.
The true highlight to this film is the effects, which look a lot like the living dead effects seen in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, mainly because it was done by some of the same people. Here those sucked dry by the space vamps turn into shriveled husks which still live right up to the point that they burst into dust when they don’t get their life force fix. The puppetry of these practical effects, but be a little hokey, but they animatronics of the faces make them extremely effective. Seeing the faces emote real feelings is a testament to the skill of these artists from what seems to be a long gone age these days.
Seeing LIFEFORCE makes me feel as if I snuck into an old forbidden movie theater as a kid. All of the naughty bits offer up that forbidden feel and the old school concept of space vampires makes it all so much fun. Tobe Hooper does a great job here working with a ton of fantastic effects, from expansive space ship models, to corpse puppets, to the animation of the life force being sucked out of someone. All of it shows his skill at juggling fantastical imagery and making it all feel detailed and real.
The Shout Factory’s release of this film on BluRay is, as usual, filled with extras, which will make it a must for fans of this film. First there’s a commentary track from Tobe Hooper, then they have a Making of LIFEFORCE with all kinds of interviews with the cast made back in the day with a matching retrospective as cast and crew members recollect stories in the present. All in all, this Blu treats this sci fi schlocker as if it were a masterpiece, which in some sense it truly is.
Available on BluRay from The Shout Factory!
MONKEY SHINES (1988)Directed by George A. Romero
Written by Michael Stewart (novel), George A. Romero (screenplay)
Starring Jason Beghe, John Pankow, Kate McNeil, Joyce Van Patten, Christine Forrest, Stephen Root, Stanley Tucci, Janine Turner, William Newman, Tudi Wiggins, Tom Quinn, & Boo as Ellie the Monkey!
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
I love monkey movies. There is something about monkeys that fascinate me. If there is such a thing as a spirit animal, I believe a monkey is mine. So, I guess it won’t be a surprise to you to know that I have an affinity for the film MONKEY SHINES, one of the finer monkey horror films. I’d even dare to say that next to KING KONG, there isn’t another horror film that comes close to the awesomeness that George Romero was able to tap in making this film. Because Stephen King’s SKELETON CREW had a toy monkey similar to MONKEY SHINES’ poster, I always thought King had something to do with this film. Even up until I rewatched the film for this review, I believed this was a King adaptation, given that Romero and King had collaborated so well in the past. Still, even without King’s involvement, the movie is one of the more effective Romero films.
After a horrible jogging accident, the once healthy as an ox Allan (CHICAGO P.D.’s Jason Beghe) is rendered a quadriplegic. Returning home from the hospital, Allan is assigned a nurse, but his friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) who happens to work in a science lab developing a serum which amplifies the intelligence of capuchin monkeys, thinks he has a better idea in terms of assistance for his ailed friend. Trying to save his research from the hands of his greedy boss (the always amazing Stephen Root), Geoffrey takes his prize monkey Ellie and gives him to Allan. But this new treatment sparks a powerful link between Allan and Ellie and anyone who gets in between the monkey and her master are in trouble.
What I love about this film is that it is a love story between Allan and Ellie. In many ways, it’s a reverse of King Kong in that Ellie’s animalistic influence seems to bring out the beast in Allan, as his feelings of frustrations being trapped as a prisoner in his own body take shape in the actions of Ellie. A relationship between a monkey and a man can be laughable if done wrong, but Romero is able to finesse this into a believable and touching story. So first and foremost, the film is convincing in that you believe in this relationship between Allan and Ellie.
This is mainly due to some fantastically subtle acting by Jason Beghe as Allan. Only being able to move his neck and face, Beghe goes through a rollercoaster of trauma. From the shame he conveys in having to be washed by his mother as a grown man to the utter fear of being attacked by an angry parakeet, it’s a wonder Beghe didn’t take off after this film. It’s cool to see the man has had a great career since then, but this is a really nuanced and complicated performance; one that you would think lead to much more leading man roles.
But of course, being a fan of the monkeys, what makes this film for me are the scenes of monkey madness. Sure the monkey killing spree is cool. But Boo, the monkey that plays Ellie is absolutely adorable from the feats she performs to the facial expressions she makes. The trainers of this film really got the best out of this monkey. My personal favorite scene is seeing Ellie cleaning every inch of the house and doing chores. For me, I could watch that over and over.
Romero is at his prime here, tapping into many subtle little terrors in the runtime. I talked about the bathing scene up above but the utter humiliation Allan feels having everything in his life taken away from him is heartbreakingly horrific. The same goes for the parakeet scene, which again, could really come off as goofy, but never does due to Romero’s deft hand at tension. Realizing these terrors was Tom Savini and his effects team which consisted of WALKING DEAD director and KNB Effects alum Greg Nicotero, who seemed to have a blast making all of the monkey monstrosities. While Ellie’s performance was awesome, the effects by these guys made the horrors come to life.
Bells and whistles in this BluRay come in the form of a pretty awesome and brand new Making of featurette looking at the effects and the performances from the film. There’s also a lot of a deleted scenes, including a scene focusing on where the brain tissue Ellie is injected with comes from which really adds a lot to the story. There’s also the original ending which Romero preferred which has Stephen Root’s character taking vengeance against the world by developing his serum. While I enjoyed this ending, I found Root’s over the top laughter towards the camera laughable cartoonish. Having not seen MONKEY SHINES in probably twenty years, I thoroughly enjoyed this revisit to the film and thanks to the Shout Factory, you can enjoy the monkey mayhem too!
INVADERS FROM MARS (1986)Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Richard Blake (based on a screenplay by), Dan O'Bannon & Don Jakoby (screenplay)
Starring Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman, James Karen, Bud Cort, Louise Fletcher, Eric Pierpoint, Christopher Allport, Donald Hotton, Kenneth Kimmins, Charlie Dell, Jimmy Hunt, William Bassett, Virginya Keehne
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
I have mixed feelings about Tobe Hooper’s ode to old school sci fi. While I love the production design, the monster effects, and a lot of the work that went into the film to make it absolutely unique for its time, Hunter Carson, the child actor that this film is centered upon, makes me cringe every time I see him.
A young boy named David is a bit of an outcast and troublemaker. His astrophysicist father (Timothy Bottoms) and goofy mother (SNL’s Laraine Newman) are loving enough as they joke with him constantly and sit and watch the stars, encouraging his curiosity as to what is out there in the galaxy. But when he is tucked in for bed one night, he witnesses a large spacecraft land over the hill. Soon, David’s parents begin acting strange, as do his domineering teacher (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST’s Louise Fletcher) and other folks in his small community. Only his caring school nurse Linda (Karen Black) believes his rants about aliens landing and taking over the community. Soon, Linda and David find themselves in the middle of a full scale battle between alien mind-controllers and the US Army, with the fate of the world at stake.
Having proved that he could deliver all-ages style terrors with POLTERGEIST, Hooper decided to go the Amblin route again. When I say Amblin, I don’t mean that it was actually produced by the company, but that the film he made was much more akin to the children in peril escapist adventures such as GOONIES, EXPLORERS, and the like. In these types of films, the kids are the ones in the know, they usually are portrayed as smarter and more observant than the adults around them, and they often swear and act like mini adults. INVADERS’ David does all of the above in the film, cementing it in the subgenre. Still, this kid annoys the hell out of me as he is not that great of an actor and not very cute to boot. Since David is the center of this film’s universe, not liking the kid is huge and really makes me dislike this film despite its accomplishments.
Hunter Carlson being Karen Black’s actual son is probably the reason he got the part here, but to me he came off as unbelievable annoying as the center of this film’s universe. Yes, (SPOILER) this is all supposed to be a child’s dream and David is ordering around every adult in the film and saving the day all plays a part of that, but I think there could have been a little more subtlety at play in order to make this a bit more convincing. The film really loses steam when the army becomes involved and David begins barking orders at them, as it stretches the suspension of disbelief past its retention length. Seeing this annoying kid calling the shots drove me absolutely nuts, dream or no dream. So while this film has a fairy tale, escapist nightmare/dreamlike tone, the kid swears and shows more confidence, put-togetherness, and insight than everyone around him, and since he’s a little too old to be cute, it comes off as annoying. This works for the first half of the film where David experiences the paranoia and feelings of being an outsider as the people in his life begin changing. Hooper is able to harness that same type of paranoia that was so prevalent in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, where everyone and anyone could be not what they seem. Hooper does a fantastic job of making the world around David come closing in on him; mainly, though, the movie is carried by some solid acting by the adult actors, some fantastic paranoia music, and some clever lighting that changed the same sets which had a Norman Rockwellesque feel to it just minutes before.
Still, as with the elaborate settings in TCM, LIFEFORCE, TCM2, and other Hooper films, this film looks fantastic. The expansive sets are so intricately made that it makes you feel immersed in the level of detail at play. Stan Winston’s creature designs are amazing as well, using the man-in-suit motif in new and elaborate ways to make these creatures move and act unearthly by having two people in one suit and having them walk backwards instead of forwards.
What does it say about me that I can’t help but feel Hooper’s INVADERS FROM MARS is one big statement about one boy trying to understand his sexual issues? In this dream, he witnesses his father taking his mother over the hill and is shown squirming when he sees them be affectionate with one another. He orders around the hottie nurse for the whole film and she blindly follows (yes, I know it’s the actor’s mom, but not in the script). Later, the nurse gives David the keys to her apartment. And then there’s the ending, which suggests that the whole thing is not a dream and that the invaders are real, but it could also be seen as a boy bursting in the middle of his parents’ room in the middle of the night and catching them doing something he doesn’t understand. Even as a young boy, the bizarre way this film ends, with the viewer never seeing what the boy is screaming at before the credits, leaves the whole thing open to interpretation, and going the Freudian route was not a stretch for me.
Still, the expansive sets, the amazing practical effects, the use of lighting, the fun cast, and all of the other bells and whistles almost make me look past the icky subthemes and shoddy acting by the child star. Hooper incorporates goofy little details like the “incredibly slow moving mind-control needle” device and an alien leader that looks like a squished frog. INVADERS FROM MARS is a fantastic but flawed love letter to cool sci fi. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of fun stuff to be experienced with this new BluRay release. The disk also comes with a behind the scenes look back at the effects, the cast, and the production that shares even more insight into the dedication, blood, sweat, tears, and copper pennies shed to make this film. Seeing the bonus feature made me appreciate the film more.
THE DARK HALF (1993)Directed by George A. Romero
Written by Stephen King (novel), George A. Romero (screenplay)
Starring Timothy Hutton, Amy Madigan, Michael Rooker, Julie Harris, Robert Joy, Kent Broadhurst, Beth Grant, Rutanya Alda, Tom Mardirosian, Larry John Meyers, Patrick Brannan, Royal Dano, Royal Dano
Retro-reviewed by Ambush Bug
Having seen the zombie and non-zombie Romero films, I have to admit that THE DARK HALF is one of Romero’s best. Sure, the film gives in to some of the usual, old school Romero excessiveness, but still, the film is a fantastically distorted mirror story about Stephen King himself.
Timothy Hutton plays Thaddeus Beaumont, a writing instructor at a community college whose penname George Stark is quite a success in the trashy detective paperback business. When confronted by a blackmailer threatening to out his alter ego, Thad decides to release a statement, outing himself as Stark and burying the character for good. But this is a King story, and you just don’t bury your bad side without complications. The rest of the film is a game of wits as both Thad and Stark try to inhabit the same body, with only one of them able to do so. It’s a fight for survival which involves a lot of murder and destruction. Oh, and a lot of sparrows.
Though the King-isms like quirky characters, dark totems (in this film it’s the sparrows who are the transporters of souls), and fraying edges of sanity are somewhat well played out these days, THE DARK HALF is a particularly fresh take on that type of film. As with other King films, Thad plays a man who is misunderstood and even chastised for his gift (in this case, the gift being channeling a dark half of his soul into his writing), as throughout this film he is being accused of murder by the local sheriff (Michael Rooker). And like other stories like THE SHINING and MISERY, King once again delves into the perils one encounters while writing. In THE SHINING, it was writer’s block. In MISERY, it was having to write something you don’t really want to write. In THE DARK HALF, it’s more about trying on a darker character and the fear of being succumbed by that. All of these themes are fascinating, and translated rather well to the screen, but Hutton really brings it to life here as Thad/Stark. Hutton switches roles pretty effortlessly, giving worthwhile performances in both.
But what really impressed me was that this is a Romero who really does seem to have his head in the game here. Watching Romero’s modern films like SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD really left me wondering why I loved the director in the first place. But seeing some of the things that occur stylistically in THE DARK HALF remind me why he is who he is. And while gore is always something that comes up in the same sentence as Romero in discussions of his work, there are specific scenes here (such as a particular kill where Stark slices open a throat that occurs off-screen, but the blood splatter mimics the movement across the mirror (another symbol in this film since we’re talking about doppelgangers and reflection selves).
Still, the second half of THE DARK HALF proves to be the most tedious. Clocking in just shy of two hours, the film definitely could benefit from a twenty minute edit here and there. The final scenes in the log cabin drone on forever as Thad and Stark have their massive confrontation, and I was reminded of the more tedious scenes of banality in the mid-portion of DAWN OF THE DEAD during these times. Still, this is Romero in his prime with a big studio backing from one of the more viscerally memorable King novels, so THE DARK HALF is definitely better than most of the collaborations between the two titans of terror.
Retro-review: Available on BluRay from The Shout Factory!
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 (1986)Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by L.M. Kit Carson, Tobe Hooper
Starring Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley, Lou Perryman, Ken Evert, Harlan Jordan, Kirk Sisco, James N. Harrell, Barry Kinyon, Chris Douridas, Judy Kelly, John Martin Ivey, Kinky Friedman, Wirt Cain, Dan Jenkins, John Bloom, and Bill Johnson as Leatherface!
Retro-reviewed by Mark L. Miller aka Ambush Bug
I think I pretty much became a hardcore horror fan in the summer of 1986. I read FANGORIA religiously, and followed the harrowing road to theaters taken by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 as the film was battered by the MPAA and awarded an X rating. That meant my little town of Lima, Ohio would not be getting the film in theaters and I had to wait until the film came to video in order to see it. Released as unrated, I was able to see it despite the fact that I was only fourteen at the time, which was awesome, but the first release was heavily edited and I heard those edits would most likely never be seen. In the meantime, much to my family’s disgust, I bought the TCM 2 “Breakfast Club” poster and proudly displayed it on my wall and even dressed as Leatherface a few times, making my own skin-mask out of the remnants of Frankenstein masks I bought at the costume store. The film itself was a sort of teenage bucket list item for me to experience and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. It delivered much in terms of shocks, gore, and perversity; though there are some who dislike the film for the comedic, slapsticky leanings the narrative takes. Well, that’s my tale of obsession with TCM 2, my first X rated horror film and I was pleased as punch to be able to reexperience this film, in probably its most remastered and glorious form in this new BluRay rerelease from The Shout Factory.
The story continues 17 years after we last left the cannibalistic Sawyer family with Nubbins the Hitchhiker flattened by a semi truck, the Cook screaming as usual in the Sawyer home, Sally Hardesty laughing insanely in the back of a getaway pickup and Leatherface doin’ the dance as the sun rose across the Texas landscape. Things really haven’t changed much. Sure Sally is catatonic in an asylum and written out of the story, but the Sawyer family are still killin’ and cookin’, as evidenced by an early scene showing the Cook aka Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) accepting first prize in a state wide chili cook-off. When two yuppie scumbags are massacred in their car while calling into a radio show, their deaths are recorded by the station, making local DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) a target for the secretive cannibal clan who has thus far kept their existence under wraps from the authorities. Meanwhile, a vigilante lawman named Lefty (Dennis Hopper), who is the uncle of Sally Hardesty, sets out to prove his niece’s ramblings true by tracking down the Sawyer clan. Lefty convinces Stretch to re-play the tape of the murders on the radio and Leatherface (Bill Johnson) and his manic brother Chop-Top (Bill Moseley) lay siege on the radio station to get the tape and murder the witnesses. It all culminates in a battle royale in an abandoned amusement park which the Sawyer’s have been using as a hideout. Let the chainsaw battles begin!
What I love about this film is that it offers up a pretty elaborate world the Sawyer family live in. Through the ramblings of the insane family, you can piece together the history of sorts of the Sawyer family through the years and how it’s kept itself secret and in business for all of these years. Viet Nam vet Chop-Top (who was absent from the first film because he was in service at the time, BTW there’s a movie in there somewhere that I’d die to see) rambles on how his Veterans benefits helped start up the business the Cook is so worried about. The Cook continues to be the sort of patriarch of the family, constantly disciplining Chop-Top and Leatherface, despite his diminutive size, but they all call Grandpa—Grandpa, so does that mean, through incest with Grandma Chainsaw, the Cook is the father/brother of Chop-Top, Leatherface, and the Hitchhiker (their dead brother who they still cart around)? And while the switch from Sawyer to Hoggett is most likely a production rather than a creative decision, does this mean that, after the Sawyers were wiped out, Leatherface made his way across Texas to distant relatives for the Platinum Dunes produced films or maybe vice versa with Leather face leaving the Hoggett’s and ending up with the Sawyers, since those films were remake/prequels rather than sequels? If any family needs a Jerry Springer episode dedicated to it, it’s this one. I know I often over-think these films, but the mythos is rather fascinating if you try to put together the films, and that’s exactly why I like the Big Four slashers of the 80’s—fitting them together as an extended mythos is pretty damn fun and has been the subject of hours upon hours of online conversation by fans.
While Hooper argues that the original is very much a comedy, the comedy is front and center in this sequel. Immediately, the organ heavy and boppy soundtrack which plays over the credits lets the viewer know that this tone is a little different than the original. In my opinion, one of the worst aspects of the film is the score as it is missing the weird flashbulb screeching sound effects that caused so many nightmares in the original. TCM2’s score feels more like it would be at home in a RE-ANIMATOR movie than in this one. Having a film take place in a radio station requires some kind of popular-ish music, and some very cool tunes by the Cramps, Blondie, and other alternative and punk bands make listening to this one pretty fun. Still, the score that made the first so shart-inducing is nowhere to be heard.
The comedy is prevalent throughout, but it is of the darkest hue. Tom Savini’s effects are over the top. Heads are sawed in half and slowly slide off, Chop-Top’s famous plate is not likely possible, but it looks creepy as all get out. The over the top gore continues either through slapstick gore; as Leahterface gets a chainsaw through the gut and still keeps coming and the Cook gets sawed in the ass, giving room for the line “at least it took care of my hems!”, or though excessive gore as with Chop-Top’s vicious hammer assault on radio station manager L.G. (Lou Perryman) and the horrifying skinning sequence where Stretch is forced to wear L.G. skin on her face. This is gore the likes that was only hinted at in TCM. Here its gratuitous, overt, and over the top; but when you have Tom Savini doing your gore, of course, you’re going to swing for the cheap seats.
Some of the more perverse bits in TCM2 are its best as Leatherface literally uses the chainsaw as a mock penis, trapping Stretch and caressing the blade of the chainsaw in between her legs. Sure, the lines Stretch says to Leatherface, who is enamored with her, are pretty ridiculous as she says “Let’s talk about this.” and “I don’t think this is going to work out.” referring to their relationship, but this film at least gets points for going overtly Freudian. Leatherface is definitely overcompensating as he humps the air with his chainsaw between his legs. Hopper even has Leatherface come to climax in the uncomfortable scene and then going on a rampage in the radio station out of confusion, rage, and embarrassment. It’s this type of twisted sexuality that adds a layer or two to this film that most horror fears to go.
Thematically, one of the more interesting aspects of TCM2 was lost on the editing room floor as there were plenty more scenes involving the famous “Red River Rivalry” between the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma football teams. Given that this film series very much deals with the basest of behavior of one man against another, it’s not a coincidence that the carnivorous rivalry between sports fans is featured in this film. One of the deleted scenes involves fans of the rival teams facing off in a parking lot only to be interrupted by Drayton’s food truck with Leatherface and his trusty chainsaw jumping out of the back of it and lopping off limbs to and fro. While I’m glad Hooper deleted these scenes from the final film as they really are poorly executed and make for a goofier tone for the film, it does drive the man vs the animal within theme home.
Another aspect that gives this film a bigger than life feel are the cartoonish multi-colored lights that pop up all through the film. The radio station is drenched in red, indicating that this is a scene of absolute danger and sure enough it is. The final scenes are lit by a rainbow of colors significant of the insane carnival of horrors that take place during the climax. While the bone sculptures and odd body sculptures are reminiscent of the original TCM, the lighting is much more indicative of Hooper’s other early horror film EATEN ALIVE (reviewed here), which was lit with otherworldly lights as well.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 is filled with all sorts of amazing performances. While Hopper has said he hates the film, he does a fantastic job of being batshit crazy with revenge. Caroline Williams does frantic superbly and just as Marilyn Burns did so convincingly in the first film, you really believe she is petrified in these scenes. Jim Siedow in his final performance is cantankerous as ever as the Cook, constantly babbling and complaining, yet becoming creepily normal on a dime when it benefits him. Bill Johnson is not my favorite Leatherface, but he does pull off some rather uncomfortable scenes with Stretch. But stealing the show in this film is Bill Moseley as Chop-Top. He even is the one who challenges our final girl in the end, and not Leatherface himself, which leaves the Leatherface/Stretch romance storyline dangling, but gives the action to the most compelling bad guy of the bunch. Moseley continues to offer up memorable roles, but this is the iconic one that put him on the map.
With unique performances, brave themes, ballsy gore, and a sure handed grasp on pure insanity, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2 gets more right than it does wrong. Sure Hooper repeats himself by having a damsel tied to a chair with Grandpa swinging away with a hammer at a dinner party scene, but that’s become a TCM standard and at the time, it was more of a throwback than an imitation. The whole TCM series offers up a warped mirror to the modern American family and this film strongly upholds that tradition by articulating a rather deep commentary on small business and the importance of family. In my opinion, TCM2 was as watchable as it was all those years ago and if you’re a fan of the series, this is something no Leatherface fan should miss.
This special edition Collector’s BluRay is filled with more extras than you can shake a hand-held chainsaw at. Disk one is a new 2016 2K HD scan of the film from the Interpositive Film Element, a new audio commentary with Director of Photography Richard Kooris, Production Designer Cary White, Script Supervisor Laura Kooris & Property Master Michael Sullivan, another commentary with Tobe Hooper, yet another with Actors Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams and Special Effects Makeup Creator Tom Savini. There’s a new extended outtakes feature called “It Runs In The Family” Featuring L.M. Kit Carson and Lou Perryman, a new Behind-The-Scenes Footage Compilation From Tom Savini's Archives, an alternate opening credit sequence, deleted scenes, a still gallery of posters and lobby cards, Behind-The-Scenes photos, stills & Collector’s Gallery, theatrical trailers and TV spots.
If that’s not enough, there’s a whole other disk with MGM's Original HD Master with color correction supervision by Director of Photography Richard Kooris, a new featurette called “House Of Pain” featuring an interview with Makeup Effects Artists Bart Mixon, Gabe Bartalos, Gino Crognale and John Vulich, another new featurette called “Yuppie Meat” featuring an interview with this film’s first kills Chris Douridas and Barry Kinyon, yet another new one called “Cutting Moments” with an interview with Editor Alain Jakubowicz, another new one called “Behind The Mask” interviewing Stunt Man and Leatherface Performer Bob Elmore, a new Horror's Hallowed Grounds which revisit the locations in the film hosted by Sean Clark plus a special guest, the original “It Runs In The Family” featurette which is a 6-part feature-length doc featuring interviews with Screenwriter L.M. Kit Carson, actors Bill Moseley, Caroline Williams, Bill Johnson, Lou Perryman, Special Makeup Effects Artist Tom Savini. If that doesn’t fill you TCM2 fans up, I don’t know what will!
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of Hooper and Romero’s great films. Be sure to chastise me for not covering your favorite film from these greats in the talkbacks below! See ya next week, folks!
Ambush Bug is M. L. Miller, original @$$Hole/wordslinger/writer of wrongs/reviewer/interviewer/editor of AICN COMICS for over 15 years & AICN HORROR for 5. Follow Mark on the Twitters @Mark_L_Miller and on his new website collecting posts for AICN HORROR as well as all of the most recent updates on his various comic book projects on MLMillerWrites.com.
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