Archive for the ‘It Came From the 80s!’ Category

Prom Night (1980)

Tuesday, October 21st, 2008

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The opening sequence of Prom Night is actually pretty creepy. Four children are playing a game called “killer” in an abandoned building, scurrying and giggling from room to room. A young girl, who wandered off from her older brother and sister, walks into the game, and the four children taunt and terrify her until she falls out of a window, landing on a plate of glass. Rather than going for help, the four vow to go home and never, ever, mention what happened to anyone. Then another plate of glass falls on the girl’s head.

Flash forward six years, and the deceased girl’s family are trying to cope. Mr. Hammond (Leslie Nielsen, yes, Leslie Nielsen) is the principal of the local high school, and his surviving children Alex (Michael Tough) and Kim (Jamie Lee Curtis) are trying to get their minds off of the tragedy by preparing for prom. Of course, the four responsible for the death all get anonymous phone calls, telling them something to the extent of “I’ll be seeing you soon.” Gee, I wonder if it’s the killer.

From the ten minute mark to about an hour into the film, it’s all set-up with no real suspense or plot. That’s saved for the last 30 minutes, which takes place at prom. Along the way, there’s some good stuff, mostly provided by David Mucci as Lou, the ugliest, oldest looking bully you’re likely to see in a movie anytime soon. Lou looks about twenty years older than any other “high school student” in the movie. Of the four guilty teens, Eddie Benton as the nasty, conniving popular girl Wendy is the only one who really leaves an impression.

One aspect to this entertaining but dated slasher film I really enjoyed was the excessive disco flavor to the production. If any sole pop culture artifact could be considered responsible for the “death” of disco, it might be this film. That being said, I got a sick thrill out of seeing Leslie Nielsen and Jamie Lee Curtis disco dancing at the prom.

Also, Prom Night was a Canadian production, and I never got tired of the actors talking about going “ooot side,” or asking what all the commotion was “aboot.” Unfortunately, the film transfer on the DVD I watched was awful, too dark in places (so dark, in fact, that some scenes I kind of had to guess what was going on) and the sound wasn’t very good either. It might have been the print itself, who knows.

Prom Night is by no means a “good film,” but I have a soft-spot in my heart for cheesy 80s slasher films. Always have, probably always will. Plus, this film contains a terrific decapitation scene. That’s got to be good for something.

Evil Dead II

Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

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There is a sadistic, savage sense of humor that pulsates through Evil Dead II. While Sam Raimi’s original film in the trilogy, The Evil Dead, was a terrific, inventive horror film, his sequel is a gory, intense horror/comedy hybrid, right up there with An American Werewolf in London, Shaun of the Dead and Re-Animator. It’s like Night of the Living Dead meets Deliverance meets The Three Stooges, co-directed by Dario Argento and Buster Keaton. Yeah, it’s kind of like that.

A good deal of the credit, of course, goes to the genius of Sam Raimi, who takes the film to the limits of taste, and then pushes it a little further. His vision in this film is cartoonish and horrific, subtle and over-the-top, super-cool and chaotic. The special effects team, led by the legendary Greg Nicotero, Howard Berger and Robert Kurtzman, also is responsible for a great deal of the impact that this film still has. Surely composer John LoDuca’s chilling and beautiful score is part of it, too.

But, without the inspired performance by Bruce Campbell, the film probably would not have such a devoted following, nor such a cherished reputation. In the first Evil Dead film, Campbell’s performance as Ash was competent, but there was a bit of woodenness to it (this was understandable, since it was his first film). However, his work in Evil Dead II is a joy to behold. It is over-the-top, ridiculous, undeniably hip and incredibly demanding from a physical stand point (there are scenes where Campbell’s body movements are timed to the slightest detail). There is a sequence where Ash’s hand becomes possessed by an evil spirit, and the hand retaliates against its master. It is a masterpiece of comedy and of suspense, and Campbell pulls it off perfectly.

There is a mini-controversy over whether Evil Dead II is a true sequel, or if it’s a remake. Here’s the story: the film is a sequel, but since Sam Raimi could not start the film with a recap from the original (there was a problem over the film rights with the distributors), Raimi retold the story of the first film at the beginning of this one. So, at the seven minute mark, the sequel officially begins.

In this one, Ash and his girlfriend Linda (this time played by Denise Bixler), drive up to an old abandoned house in the middle of the woods and Ash plays that dang recording and unleashes the dark forces of Hell, who immediately possess Linda, forcing Ash to chop off his darling’s head with a shovel. And then it gets weird.

Evil Dead II is funny because of its over-the-top presentation of the violence, especially in how many of the fights seem like they were staged by a Three Stooges fanatic (oh wait, they were). The excessive amounts of blood, guts, shattered bones, entrails and assorted body parts stop, at a point, being nauseating and start being funny. Two of the supporting performances also add to the underlining humor of the film, those would be the performances by Dan Hicks and Kassie DePaiva as the country bumpkin Jake and his hillbilly princess Bobbie Joe. Hicks, especially, balding, sweaty and sneaky, creates a human character every bit as reprehensible as the demons in the film. Sarah Berry as Annie, the missing professor’s daughter, adds a gentle, kind touch to a dark film. Richard Domeier, as the tall, blond hero type Ed, is your typical B-movie performance, until he turns into a hulking monster, that is.

I must, of course, also mention Sam’s younger brother Ted as Henrietta, the professor’s possessed wife, who was buried in the fruit cellar. His first appearance is an especially creepy moment. I can’t tell you how much I love Evil Dead II. It’s a blood-soaked treasure.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Sunday, October 12th, 2008

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There are many important rules that one picks up while watching horror films, some of which Randy the film nerd (maybe Jamie Kennedy’s only decent performance) warned us about in the film Scream. Two important ones that aren’t mentioned in his monologue are broken within the first twenty minutes of The Evil Dead: 1) Never vacation in an abandoned cabin in the middle of the woods, and 2) Never awaken ancient evil spirits, intentionally or unintentionally. If you do, your friends will probably all become possessed, and you’ll have to butcher them all to save yourself. Just saying.

Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead was a landmark horror film of the early 80s, and helped set the bar for inventive, terrifying monster films. It also was the first in an incredible horror trilogy, followed by Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness. According to the Internet Movie Database, Raimi is also set to direct next year’s Evil Dead remake, and also, there’s an off-off-Broadway musical based on the films.

While Evil Dead II is both a horror film and a comedy, and Army of Darkness is slapstick/horror at its finest, the original is a straight-up horror film with some comic elements. The film was shot over four years, by Raimi, producer Robert Tapert and star Bruce Campbell, and, believe it or not, it’s held up pretty well. It is ridiculously over-the-top in the blood and gore department (always a good sign for horror movies), and it’s also still frightening (watching it again recently, I was surprised how much I still jumped).

The plot is simply an excuse to show lots of possessed demon creatures, and lots of blood, guts and entrails. In other words, the good stuff. As Ash, the reluctant hero, Bruce Campbell, the great cult cinema star, is not up to his later performances in the series in this, his feature film debut. His acting here’s a little stiff, as is most of the cast. But, that stiffness helps add to the idea that these are just normal college students out for a weekend getaway. The four other main actors (Richard DeManincor as Scott, Betsy Baker as Ash’s girlfriend Linda, Theresa Tilly as Shelly and Ellen Sandweiss as Cheryl) suffer a lot of beatings and thrashings, perhaps none worse than Sandweiss, who gets raped by a variety of plants and weeds, who have been animated by the evil spirits. Ouch.  (Trivia note: Bob Dorian, the host of American Movie Classics, is the voice of the ill-fated professor on the recording Ash plays).

The 1980s had many important horror films that revolutionized the genre. The Evil Dead would definitely be one of them.

Cannibal Holocaust

Monday, October 6th, 2008

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It’s one of the most notorious films ever made. It’s been considered disturbing, grotesque, sickening and horrifying. The director, Ruggero Deodato, was arrested after several audience patrons claimed that several of the actors had, in fact, been murdered for the film (in court, Deodato presented the actors, alive and well). It was banned in several countries, including the director’s native Italy, where it was banned for three years.

Here’s the dirty little secret about Cannibal Holocaust: if it wasn’t for the ‘shocking’ and ‘disturbing’ moments (don’t worry, there’s a few), it would be kind of boring. The acting is completely pedestrian, and several elements to the film are incredibly cheesy. The basic story is four filmmakers (played by Carl Gabriel Yorke, Francessa Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen and Luca Barbareschi) journey deep into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about a tribe of cannibals. They are never seen again. Sometime later, a pipe smoking professor named Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) ventures into the jungle, led by the gruff guide Chaco (Salvatore Basile), to find out their footage, and to hopefully uncover the truth behind what happened.

If it sounds to you like Cannibal Holocaust perhaps ‘inspired’ the filmmakers behind The Blair Witch Project, then I agree with you; replace the cannibals with the witch, and you’ve got pretty much the same movie. Anyway, that’s the first half. The second half takes place back in New York City, where the professor watches the footage, and uncovers the truth, all right. It turns out the four young filmmakers are not entirely what they seem to be, and Deodato seems to be saying something about the media, how lies are fabricated to form truth, I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure, he doesn’t really get a cohesive message across. (I did, however, really like the musical score by Riz Ortolani).

There are two infamous scenes in the film, both involving violence towards women (don’t worry, the film is not only sexist but racist too, Deodato doesn’t miss a beat). The first is when a savage native, punishing his wife for adultery, rapes her with a stone phallus, and then beats her to death, shoves her corpse in a boat and pushes it out into the water (all while the professor and his two guides wait in the bushes, to follow the savage back to his village). The other moment that most people remember from the film is another young woman from a tribe, after she’s been raped by three different men, impaled through a pole, with the top of the pole sticking out her mouth. Classy.

In addition to the three rape scenes, multiple scenes of torture, deaths, we also have some classic cannibal action and a whole village being trapped in a hut and burned alive. That’s in addition to the seven, count ’em seven, animals who were killed onscreen. That’s right, the animal deaths were real, including the scene where they capture a giant sea turtle, cut off its head, rip open its shell and disembowel it onscreen (six animals die in the film, but one scene of a monkey being killed was filmed twice, with two different monkeys). Deep in the heart of the Amazon Jungle, with no studio executives around to tell him no, Deodato got away with a lot.

None of the violence in this film seems to further the story or be put into the film for any real point, it’s all shock value. This is one of those films that most horror film afficiandos (like myself) get to eventually, but I don’t think it will be worth watching for anybody else. This is one of those movies that you watch once so you never have to see it again.

Wolfen

Sunday, October 5th, 2008

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Wolfen takes the werewolf movie, and blends elements of a police procedural and a gritty urban thriller. It is also, subtly, an environmental film; it talks about the delicate balance between nature and humans that once was, and how that has been replaced by a more aggressive presence from mankind. It’s also pretty scary.

It stars Albert Finney, at his most haggard and sloppy. He looks like he hasn’t showered for about two years, and seems to be perpetually hung over. In other words, he’s obviously a New York City police detective. Finney plays Dewey Wilson, who is investigating a series of murders that are leaving the police department perplexed. Aided by a fast talking coroner (the late, great Gregory Hines) and his new partner Rebecca Neff (Diane Verona), Wilson slowly discovers that the murders seem to be animal attacks. Or do they?

Since the film is called Wolfen, and it’s a horror film, it’s safe to say that it might be a werewolf. But Director Michael Wadleigh and his screenwriter David Eyre (and the uncredited Eric Roth), working from a novel by Whitley Strieber, have crafted an unusual take on the werewolf film. Eventually, Wilson uncovers a connection between the attacks and a Native American activist named Eddie Holt (played by a very young looking Edward James Olmos), and learns about the legend of a tribe that could shift into wolves. The Native American mythology angle of the film is intriguing, as it adds a new element to the werewolf story.

It’s interesting that Wadleigh chose to make New York City, one of the most lively and vibrant of cities, look desolate and empty. The cinematography by Gerry Fisher evokes a sense of dread that is palpable, yet also quite humorous in parts (I especially like the shot of Finney and Verona at a booth in a pub, and the shot is framed on the edge by a woman passed out in the corner of the booth). The gentrification of the old neighborhoods of New York is definitely one of the film’s buried themes.

Albert Finney is well-cast as the gruff detective, but I though Gregory Hines as the coroner stole the show. I also really enjoyed Tom Noonan’s supporting performance as a wolf loving zoologist. There is a subplot involving Peter Micheal Goetz as the president of a security system that never goes anywhere, though it is pretty funny to see what passed as state of the art technology in the early 1980s.

Wolfen is a satisfying horror-thriller, and a unique take on the werewolf movie.

An American Werewolf in London

Friday, October 3rd, 2008

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Is An American Werewolf in London a straight-up horror film, or a tongue-in-cheek horror satire? Why can’t it be both? Few horror films can claim being both actually scary and very funny, and John Landis’ monster movie classic definitely ranks as one of the finest comedy/horror hybrids (Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg stated that this film was a key influence while they were making Shaun of the Dead). An American Werewolf in London stands as one of the key horror films of the 1980s.

The film opens with creepy, ominous shots of the English Moors while the smooth, silky voice of Bobby Vinton croons “Blue Moon” (a running gag in the film is the use of songs with the word “moon” in the title). Already, Landis is mixing scary with funny, as the moody, forbidding landscape of the English countryside is a stark contrast to the music. We are introduced to our heroes, David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), as they emerge from the back of a sheep truck (they are backpacking across Europe). This, of course, is another joke, as they are about to become like lambs to the slaughter (another reference one thinks of may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing).

Before long, David and Jack make their way to a small pub in the middle of nowhere called “The Slaughtered Lamb.” The scene in “The Slaughtered Lamb” sets up the next scene, as the local villagers warn Jack and David to stay off the moors, and beware the moon. The following scene, where Jack and David are wandering through the darkness, and wind up in the middle of the moors, is completely and utterly terrifying (even after seeing the film about a dozen or so times). One way in which the scene works so well is the dizzying, disorienting cinematography by Robert Paynter. Also, it helps that Naughton and Dunne seem genuinely terrified in this scene.

Soon, Jack is dead and David is in the hospital, being taken care of by the beautiful nurse Alex (played by Jenny Agutter). Only in the movies are nurses both this attractive. Anyway, David starts having some disturbing dreams that hint that something might have happened that fateful night. Oh, and he starts being visited by Jack, who happens to be dead. The make-up by Rick Baker is rightly amazing, and Jack’s deteriorating condition as the film progresses (he begins decomposing, and his skin gets green) is a great gross-out gag (The design of Two-Face in The Dark Knight probably owes a lot to Baker’s work on Dunne in this film).

Of course, the transformation sequence is spectacular, and influenced legions of films and filmmakers for years to come, but one of my favorite scenes has to be the werewolf attack in the subway. One of the pleasures of the film is the way that since most of the victims in this film are British, they are very prim, proper and polite as they prepare to meet their doom. The way the man in the subway tells the werewolf that he can assure him this is not very funny, is probably worth the price of admission. The subway scene remains, along with the transformation scene and the opening attack, one of the scariest parts of the movie.

I love An American Werewolf in London. It’s one of Landis’ best films, and it will always remain a favorite horror film of mine. It also has one of the great “fuck you” endings; it’s chaotic, mean and completely fits. Oh, and its use of that song by The Marcels is just about perfect.

Missing in Action

Monday, September 29th, 2008

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In the 1980s, two American action stars did what what our military was never able to do: win in Vietnam. Sylvester Stallone defeated those dirty bastards in 1985’s Rambo II: First Blood (what a confusing title,) and Carlos Ray Norris (or, Chuck, as he is also known) portrayed James Braddock in the Missing in Action films, where he killed just about every other person on the continent of Asia. Just about. In 1984, Missing in Action was released, followed right a year later by Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

The first two Missing in Action movies were filmed simultaneously (long before Peter Jackson “borrowed” this process for his Lord of the Rings films), and originally the second Missing in Action was going to be the first one, until the producers realized it wasn’t very good, switched the sequel to the original, and made the first one a prequel. Man, confusing. Anyway, the producers were right, but only barely. Missing in Action is probably not a good movie, but for a cheesy Chuck Norris 80s action film, it will do just fine.

All Chuck Norris characters have a moral code, which usually amounts to this; a lone wolf who does not want to be pestered with missions to right any wrongs, but eventually caves in and saves the day, killing lots and lots of gun-toting foreigners along the way (usually Asians, but if they’re not around, Russians or anybody from Latin America will do). As far as Chuck’s 80s films go, I prefer Code of Silence, Lone Wolf McQuade or The Delta Force, but Missing in Action is rightly mentioned alongside them. Invasion USA (where Chuck takes on the Soviet Union) is not as good as Red Dawn, a film that also deals with Russia invading America, but it’s entertaining (I also have a soft-spot in my heart for the God-awful Firewalker, a Indiana Jones rip-off with Chuck and Louis Gossett Jr. as his wise-cracking best pal.

Anyway, Missing in Action stars Chuck as Colonel James Braddock, a Vietnam Veteran and former P.O.W. who, as the film’s main story starts, has just agreed to testify in Vietnam that American soldiers are still being held prisoner in 1984 (the movie opens with Braddock’s capture, many years before). The diabolical General Trau (James Hong, who always seems to play evil Asians) denies that any Americans are still being held prisoner, but Braddock knows better, because it’s James Hong, and he always plays a bad dude. With the help of an intrepid reporter (Lenore Kasdorf), Braddock learns that there ARE American soldiers still in some hidden jungle prison.

Eventually, Braddock teams up with his old war buddy Tuck (M. Emmet Walsh, looking as grizzled and haggard as ever) to rescue his fellow soldiers. I guess Braddock and Tuck fought in ‘Nam together, although Walsh looks (even in 1984) pretty damn old. I’d say maybe he fought in World War I, maybe. The plot is just an excuse for Chuck to kill a lot of people. A lot.

Missing in Action is not as quite up to the level of one of Chuck’s true 80s classics (I really should write a review of Lone Wolf McQuade someday), but it’s violent and cheesy, and definitely a good 80s action film.

Waxwork

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008

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    Seven years after the perfect horror/comedy hybrid hit the theatres (that would be An American Werewolf in London), and eight years before Scream would show that it was ok for horror films to be self-referential and have a sense of humor, director Anthony Hickox created Waxwork, which is either a horror movie that is sort of funny or a comedy that is sort of scary.

The basic plot has lots of potential: a group of college students are invited to a special midnight group tour of the local wax museum, ran by the diabolical David Lincoln (played with tongue-in-cheek brutality by the great David Warner). The wax museum exhibits, however, are actually gateways to an evil dimension, where the victim…er, visitor, is sucked in to the exhibit, usually to be killed. This idea gives free range to the filmmakers’ imagination, and indeed, the exhibits range from the Wolf man to Dracula (for some reason, the Count is played by Miles O’Keefe), and the exhibits also include the Mummy, The Marquis De Sade and a legion of zombies.

Waxwork came out in 1988, and starred two actors who had tried, with varying success, to make it big. Zach Galligan (yes, from the Gremlins films) and Deborah Foreman (who is best remembered for her great work in Valley Girl) are both awkward and uncomfortable here, although after watching the film, I didn’t really blame them. My favorite supporting performance would be Mihaly Meszaros, as the diminutive butler at the Waxwork museum. He gives the film the quirky, creepy vibe that Hickox tries to achieve for most of the film’s running time.

The film attempts true horror in some scenes, as when Tony (Dana Ashbrook) falls into the Wolf man scene and meets his fate (that’s John Rhys-Davies as the wolf man in human form). It’s also quite effective when Zach Galligan’s character, Mark, stumbles into the zombie exhibit, and the film switches to black & white, a film joke that works pretty well. The movie gets pretty silly really quick, though, once Sir Wilifred (Patrick Macnee) is introduced, who heads a secret society created to protect the world from the Waxwork monsters. I don’t know, the movie works, kind of, at certain times, but then deteriorates into downright silliness at other times. So, in other words, it was made in the 80s.