I loved it when big name stars decided to degrade themselves by starring in Italian exploitation pics in the 70’s solely for a big paycheck. This Italian Jaws rip-off stars Henry Fonda, John Huston and Shelley Winters.
A seaside resort (a long way from Amity though) has become the feeding supply of a giant octopus. John Huston’s news reporter and a marine biologist cast the blame on Fonda’s construction company Trojan who have been building an underwater tunnel and using extremely high radio signals in the process. This has royally p*ssed off Mr Octopus which has taken to attacking divers and anyone else unlucky enough to cross his underwater path and thus becoming Octo-fodder.
Like most other high(er) budget Euro horrors from this period this is camp, slicker than your average Jaws clone and an efficient popcorn rollercoaster ride of a movie. It does what it says on the tin, the cast ham it up for all it’s worth and it’s good fun while it lasts. OK, so theres nothing to have Mr Spielberg looking over his shoulder here but it never leaves you thinking ‘Thats 90 minutes I’ll never get back!’
Layabout crazy cat Jerry (played by the director Ray Dennis Steckler under the hilarious pseudonym Cash Flagg), his girlfriend Angela and his friend Harold go to the seaside to visit a carnival there. After getting their fortunes told they see the fortune tellers sister Carmelita who is a stripper. Jerry is seen by Angela to be staring a bit too intently at Carmelita and so leaves in a huff with Harold. With them gone Jerry decides to go and watch Carmelita’s strip show (the carnival has it’s own nightclub that holds such entertainment. The name of this establishment is, wait for it, The Hungry Mouth which rivals only The Flaming Cave Lounge from John Waters’ Female Trouble in terms of a brilliant name for an establishment of that kind).
Jerry is then lured to Carmelita’s dressing room where he is hypnotised. This then turns Jerry into a ruthless killer of which afterwards he has no memory of. He had in fact killed two characters whilst he was in his murderous trance-like state. He also tries to throttle Angela to death the next day.
Carmelita’s plot is then revealed. She has been throwing acid into people’s faces which turns them into zombies (!) and then keeping them captive.
But Jerry then decides to confront Carmelita as he keeps having flashbacks and knows that something isn’t quite right ever since he visited Carmelita at the carnival. This all builds to a very eventful climax.
This is pure Drive-In B movie goodness. Theres so much to like here. The hypnosis scenes, the hallucinatory dream sequence Jerry has, the zombies, the song and dance sequences at the nightclub (one of the girls can be seen chewing gum as she performs her dance moves. Now that’s attention to detail and classy to boot!).
The film also has a colour palate which can make your eyes water. I had several acid flashbacks whilst watching this gem.
I first found out about this film from reading the cult film bible Incredibly Strange films from Re:Search publishing at the tender age of 14. This book treats Steckler as some kind of god in much the same way more pedestrian film fans look up to John Ford. And they’re right. Steckler is an Orson Welles for the perverse.
Healthy horny idiots go camping in the woods (I know, an alien scenario for a slasher film!) The woods they go to were the location of a bloodbath decades earlier as someone from a gypsy camp was falsely accused of rape by a female member of the townsfolk. The townsfolk burnt down the gypsy settlement but one of the younger members of the travellers escaped albeit with massive amounts of burns. The present day campers get the feeling that someone is watching them and then start to be dispatched by You Know Who.
The Prey was made in 1980 but not released in the States until 1983. Edwin Brown was directing porn movies before he decided to branch out into horror. And it shows! The sex scenes in this movie are a lot more raunchy than in other slasher movies. Theres a longer version of this film called the ‘Gypsy Cut’ which contains a full prologue regarding the traveller characters. This sequence is VERY sexual and feels like the sequences of porn movies that you see before sexual organs get an airing. This includes the kind of flat acting that you could only see in pornography.
The film feels like it wants to establish the fact that it’s a Hillbillies vs City Folk movie and even has a character playing a banjo!
But whilst this is a blatant Friday the 13th rip-off theres enough here to hold your interest. The kills are very effective (courtesy of special effects guru John Carl Buechler), the cinematography is stunning (even if scenes shot in a forest are pretty hard not to portray as beautiful. Check out the scale of some of the shots and how the humans are sometimes shown as minuscule in comparison to the woods. Also, check out the abseiling scene). Theres also a very unexpected ending that shows that Ol’ Scarface has other plans for the Final Girl rather than killing her. This reminded me of the backstory to the mutant family in the masterpiece, The Hills Have Eyes. The kill of the Final Girl’s friend before this is also very left-field and takes the audience by surprise (no, I’m not going to disclose what it is!)
Check out the Arrow Films Blu ray. Both cuts are on there along with a gorgeous transfer and plenty of extras.
This 1965 Roman Polanski film centres on the character of Carol, a beautiful woman who works at a beauty parlour whilst living with her sister Helen in South Kensington, London. Shes very childlike and seems to be not only sexually repressed but actually repulsed by men. Matters aren’t helped by a persistent young man called Colin who tries to woo her. The fact that she is aloof and standoffish only seems to make him work harder on trying to melt this Belgian ice queen. Carol is also perturbed by her sister’s relationship with Michael who has started to stay overnight in their flat. Helen and Michael go to Italy for a holiday leaving Carol all alone in the flat.
Repulsion is anything but plot driven and is more a psychological study of Carol’s ever disintegrating mental state. And a genius representation at that!
The scenes up until Helen going on holiday provide constant signifiers of Carol’s instability and mental decay- the cracks she seems to be obsessed with in the pavement and those she actually sees appear in the walls of the apartment, the frantic scratching and wiping away of imaginary ticks, her tendency to lapse into mental abandonment (a sign of past trauma in psychological terms, often as the result of sexual abuse), the sounds she hears on the other sides of the walls. There are plenty of signs of her sexual repression and abhorrence of men also. Colin tries to kiss her which prompts her to run home, brush her teeth and then vomit. She sees Michael’s razor and toothbrush on a shelf in the bathroom and clears them away frantically as if her personal sphere has been invaded and contaminated by them.
But it’s when Helen goes on holiday and Carol is left alone that things accelerate at a dizzying speed and her mental decline worsens at a dramatically faster pace. The image of the skinned rabbit on a plate is extremely potent as it is left out to decompose throughout the film. Carol’s work colleague later notices it’s head in her handbag later in the film. The domestic space of the flat that should be a sanctuary from the outside world is turned into a sinister and thoroughly nightmarish place to contend with by Polanski. There are shadows that appear in the light under door jambs as if an intruder is outside which develops into Carol having visions that men come in to rape her in her bed. There aren’t just cracks that appear in the walls now but hands that unexpectedly shoot out of them to indecently grope her body.
It’s ironic that during this part of the film she staggers around her flat wearing a Baby Doll nightie that traditionally signifies innocence but because of this has conversely become a potent fetishised image exactly because of it’s traditional iconography. Innocence is to be sexualised and sullied in the eyes of male gratification.
Carol starts to descent deeper into madness at a rate of knots as we see her embroidering on her sofa as she alternately hums and weeps to herself, frantically ironing whilst we see that the iron isn’t even plugged in (a knowing comment on gender roles?) and manically writing on window panes.
But the film also depicts what belies those who dare to penetrate (pun not intended) Carol’s domestic sphere even if it is nightmarish and dysfunctional for her psyche. Firstly Colin literally breaks the door down to get to her but is then clubbed to death with a heavy candleholder. The landlord who is collecting his overdue rent is slashed to death with Michael’s straight razor.
What does all of this mean? Is it a commentary on the burgeoning permissiveness that was becoming evident in British society? Is Repulsion a comment on the encroaching Women’s Liberation movement and feminism in general? It could even be a comment on Gay Rights and Gay Liberation with Carol being so repulsed by men because she is in fact gay.
I actually think the film is a disturbing portrayal of the consequences of child abuse. Notice the family photograph that depicts Carol as a child. Even here she is aloof, distant and looks disturbed. The final frame of the film is of this photograph but shadows obscure everyone in the picture bar Carol and a male family member before it focuses on just Carol herself. It’s obvious that this is the implication which gives the film a sad lilt, echoed by Chico Hamilton’s oddly melancholic end musical suite. Add to this the earlier instances of disassociation and the signs and signifiers of childhood sexual abuse are omnipresent.
This film is a masterpiece and one of Polanski’s best. The cast is perfect with the gorgeous Catherine Deneuve turning in one of her finest and most nuanced performances. It takes a special kind of actor to convincingly conjure insanity and mental instability and Deneuve knocks it out of park. Her performance evokes sympathy, shock and fear from the audience.
The film is also a beautiful time capsule of Sixties London. Check out the scenes of South Kensington and the attention to detail and how glorious it all is.
A bona fide classic. If you haven’t seen this you need to see it NOW!
Another one of my favourite VHS rentals as a kid was Terror in the Aisles. Essentially a compilation of clips from horror movies, this is That’s Entertainment for weirdos. And it works beautifully.
A major reason why this works is the sheer breadth of the films that are used from the old to the new, the well known to the obscure. There are also films used that aren’t strictly horror movies but are still examples of how suspense can be brilliantly generated in a film (Midnight Express, Night Hawks).
This film was also extremely popular in the UK as it contained clips from movies that were either banned by the BBFC (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or discreetly removed from video shelves by them (The Exorcist).
Another masterstroke by the movie are the links that involve horror royalty Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen in a cinema pontificating on horror tropes and what makes them work. These sequences are priceless. Look out for a young Angel Salazar as a ‘feature moviegoer’.
Themes such as the villain and the victim/Final Girl are examined with the respective appropriate clips being used to illustrate the filmmakers points. Theres also a lesson in suspense by the master himself, Mr Alfred Hitchcock.
This is a great compilation for either the young horror hound looking for new thrills or the seasoned purveyor of all things cinematically depraved. I never thought this film would see the light of day on Blu ray because of the logistical nightmare associated with a compilation like this and rights issues. I’m very glad to say that I was wrong. A few years back Universal released Halloween 2 (1981) on Blu ray with Terror in the Aisles as one of the bonus features. An essential purchase.
I battled to get to my cinema to see Kanye West’s new film Jesus is King through bitter winds and freezing temperatures.
I got to the cinema somewhat dishevelled but in one piece. This film was the perfect antidote to this. A gorgeous and very uplifting preview of Kanye’s new gospel flavoured album that was full of passion and euphoria that is contagious and sweeps you along with the whole vibe of the piece.
The visuals are interesting and experimental. Images come in and out of focus and are framed what looks like a circular lens that acts as the frame for the visuals. This frame grows and shrinks according to what the music dictates. Architecture, nature and the actual gospel choir are all used to evoke imagery that gels brilliantly with the majesty of the music.
This cinematic curio exudes an element of artistic expression that is sorely missing with most mainstream, multi-million selling artists but never comes across as an artist trying his hardest to be ‘arty’. It all feels organic, natural and like a very accomplished concert film that turns the genre on it’s head. No, it’s not as brilliant as The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense but it is still a brilliant artistic achievement rather than some vapid, overlong commercial for Kanye’s new album.
A(nother) project that Mr West can be proud of. And it sure beats the vapid releases of other huge artistes who could only dream of something as ambitious as this.
I was lucky enough to see this in IMAX which suited both the visuals and the sound perfectly. Kanye, the pleasure was all mine.
Disney Pictures once made a horror film. Really! In the early 80’s they decided to capitalise on the horror boom and make a scary film for young adults.
The Watcher in the Woods was made in 1980. It holds the honour of being possibly the most rented VHS tape of yours truly when he was a young boy (Supergirl was a close second). I saw the film when I was 9 and loved it from the first time I saw it.
The film concerns a family renting a large house in the country which is suspiciously being let out at a very low price for some reason (always a red flag in a horror film. If this ever happened to me I’m pretty sure I’d ask about whether an Indian burial ground was beneath the premises in question). Theres one catch though- the rather sinister old woman who owns the property will be living in a room in the huge rambling mansion.
Pretty soon strange, bizarre things start to happen. Could there be something which explains this? Is there something that happened in the past that is the cause of these occurrences? Of course there is. This is a horror film, albeit one made by Disney Inc.
I watched the film again recently for the first time in years and I’m glad to say that the dark magic the movie held for me as a child hasn’t dissipated. There is something about the disquieting goings-on in the movie that feel like ingredients of a classic, quintessentially English and utterly unsettling ghost yarn. Everything points to a girl called Karen and what has happened to her.
Her ghostly omnipotent presence is felt in numerous different ways such as the youngest daughter, Ellen (played by Kyle Richards from Halloween) going into a trance and writing Karen’s name backwards on a dirty barn window (The Watcher in the Woods came out before The Shining and so it’s this film that owns the honour of giving audiences the first glimpse of an unnerving sequence involving a child writing something disturbing backwards). She then gets a new puppy who she calls Nerak (the name she wrote earlier and Karen’s name backwards).
The older daughter Jan also has her share of visitations from Karen in other disturbing ways. When a window breaks she can suddenly see her in the broken glass wearing white, blindfolded and crying for help. The same thing happens when a mirror is broken. She also sees Karen in a hall of mirrors at her local funfair. This imagery suggests that Karen is trapped somehow between dimensions, as if broken glass and mirrors can see beyond the rational world and into the beyond.
The film also suggests that both Jan and Ellen possess some kind of ESP or second sight which is triggered in different situations. In a huge plot reveal, the elderly owner of the property, Mrs Aylwood (played by the very Ms Bette Davis, no less!) also picks up on the fact that Jan reminds her of her daughter Karen who, it is revealed, disappeared decades before in mysterious circumstances. Suddenly Jan knows who the girl is in the visions.
But the film also mines into a fear of that particular time that was just starting to gain national attention. That was of the existence of prowlers and perverts who could harm children and young teenagers in a number of different ways. One of the characters in the film is called Tom Colley and it’s suggested at one point that he could be the watcher in the woods that the film’s title makes reference to. Why is he shown to be watching the two young girls so intently and then ducking out of view so that he isn’t noticed? In fact, his appearance and early scenes in the film reminded me of an episode of the children’s drama Grange Hill that was brave enough to cover the issue to alert kids and parents like of this phenomenon.
Another facet of the story that greatly adds to the film is the storyline as to how Karen went missing. During an eclipse four children (one of whom was Karen) practised an old ritual they had heard about which was something akin to an occult ceremonial rite in which they kinked arms around Karen in a local church not knowing that this childish excursion into the paranormal would have disastrous consequences for her. She is now trapped in a supernatural netherworld or limbo and appears to the newest child occupants of her old house (Jan and Ellen) pleading to be freed. This idea of an ancient ritual also suggests an old English ghost story in much the same way the events and imagery used within The Wicker Man do.
But whilst I watched this as a child and thoroughly enjoyed the film, I wasn’t to know of the troubled production and reception of the film and how Disney responded to this. The screenplay that was originally written for the film was by the genius Brian Clements who has written many classic British dramas including the brilliant Thriller series. But his version of the screenplay was based too closely to the source novel A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall that was way more nuanced that the version of the film that I eventually rented on video. The original novel went to great pains to explain what the actual watcher was and why it was haunting the environs of the mansion and it’s adjacent woods. Within the novel the watcher is described as-
”a female alien humanoid-child. She was described to have a pointy chin, an upturned nose and wore a long flowing robe. Fifty years before, her parents had taken her to a ceremonial coming-of-age ritual on their home planet in which she was to view earth, but Karen, during her walk, was too near the portal when it opened and the two changed places. She is here as an observer and communicates with her race through telepathy.”
Whilst this would have been great to read off the page of a novel it would have been hard to depict in a motion picture. It would have required deft adaptation in terms of screenplay and a massive increase in budget and effects to successfully convey. But the filmmakers tried their best to depict this in the film’s original version. How was it received? Critics and audiences alike doubled up with laughter when the watcher was revealed at the end of the film.
This obviously didn’t sit well with Disney. They pulled the original version of the film from theaters after just 11 days of it playing and replaced it with a re-release of Mary Poppins (!) instead. The film’s conclusion was then rewritten (a crew member said that over 150 different endings were penned!) before a suitable ending was agreed upon and reshot, but not using the original director John Hough but the uncredited Vincent McEveety instead. This new final scene is the ending that exists today and is a lot more simplistic and in keeping with the rest of the film. There is no big reveal and it works so much better for that reason. Sometimes in a horror film, mystery is better than a flawed reveal resplendent with a complicated backstory ten minutes before the movie is due to end. However, this original ending does exist and can still be seen. The amended version of the Watcher in the Woods was released the following year in 1981.
The Watcher in the Woods is a peach of a movie. Classic haunted house/haunted surroundings tropes are handled by a great director and with an all-star cast. The events of the film never feel cliched or hackneyed. Grand Dame Bette Davis gives a truly great performance. Watch the scene where she meets Jan for the first time and utters the following in inimitable Bette Davis fashion- ‘Are you sensitive? Do you sense things?!’ all in close up. It chills to the marrow whilst making you think ‘They don’t make actresses like that anymore!’. The scenes of her with Kyle Richards in which we see that she’s not so sinister after all are beautiful to behold.
In fact, Ms Davis insisted that she could play the scenes of her character as a younger woman in the film. However this didn’t work after make-up tests were carried out and she just didn’t look 30 years younger. When the director said that she just didn’t look convincing enough Bette looked in the mirror and quipped ‘You’re Goddamned right!’ Another actress was employed to depict the character three decades before.
There was much derision of the choice of Lynn Holly Johnson for the part of Jan as she was more famous at that time for her ice-skating endeavours than for acting. But she brings a dewy-eyed innocence to the role as the young teen who is still very innocent and naive, even a little aloof. She was perfect for the role. Diane Lane was meant to have been cast in the part as was reported in The Hollywood Reported when the film was announced but Lynn was cast instead.
I honestly think The Watcher in the Woods is a classic horror film. A brave move for Disney that paid off, even if it took a rethink and a reshoot to fully realise it’s potential. If only they had done this before it’s release a few red faces at Disney could have been spared.