Faster, Meathook Cinema! Kill! Kill!

Faster, Meathook Cinema! Kill! Kill!

I first heard about the opus Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! when I bought a book that still remains like a cine-bible to me, Re:Search’s Incredibly Strange Films. There was a chapter on Russ Meyer (as there should be in any self-respecting book on cult cinema) and I was instantly taken with the huge picture of goddess Tura Satana using her martial arts expertise to throw a man to the ground whilst wearing a black catsuit and matching black gloves. ‘I need to see this film!’ I vowed.

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The essential Incredibly Strange Films
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How said book featured Faster Pussycat. As if I wouldn’t see this film

The film centres around three go-go dancers Varla, Rosie and Billie. When they aren’t at work dancing erotically for their male patrons, they enjoy nothing more than driving their cars FAST in the desert. We see them play a game of chicken until a jock couple show up. A fight breaks out, resulting in Mr Jock (actual name Tommy) having his back broken by Varla. His girlfriend Linda is drugged and taken along for the ride. The three women next encounter a gas station and the people who run it including the owner who has been injured in a railway accident. Varla is told that apparently the compensation he received, as a result, is stashed somewhere on the premises. She decides to find out where so that she can steal the loot.

If this film plotline doesn’t sound like the most awesome you’ve ever read, you’re probably on the wrong website. Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is a film in which the women call the shots, the outsiders are shown to win (the scene in which Mr Jock is killed epitomises this) and all whilst the lead characters are kitted out in the best fashions EVER. It’s a world of karate chops, knock-out drops, flick knives and pure sleaze.

But there’s so much more to the film than just cult film goodness. It showed that marginal cinema could also constitute what the readers of Cashier Du Cinema would call *gulp* art. The film looks beautiful, as the home media releases have shown more and more over the years. Just like Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, with each new release and restoration, the film gleams more and more. Will we see Faster on Criterion someday? Let’s hope so.

The film also made a star of Tura Satana who would go on to epitomise cult cinema badass cool and clad in black rebellion. Satana’s back story is as larger than life as her role in Faster Pussycat, especially what prompted her to learn the martial arts she so effectively displays to great effect in the film. Satana would later become a major draw when she attended cult movie conventions later on in life.

Add to the mix one of the best theme songs ever (sung by the Bostweeds) which had the perfect endorsement- it was covered by The Cramps.

It’s also a film in which almost every line of dialogue is dynamite. Again, this reminds me of the best of John Waters with the example of his meisterwerk Female Trouble instantly springing to mind. Bloodsucking Freaks is another film that exemplifies this level of perfection when it comes to a genius screenplay. The script is so primed to perfection that the film hits every bullseye it aims for head-on.

It’s also one of the most influential cult films ever. If this movie was a stick of rock, it would have the film ‘CULT’ running through it. It’s as pivotal as Pink Flamingos (Faster Pussycat is one of John Waters’ favourite movies), Eraserhead and El Topo.

When I arrived to study Film at University in London, I saw that there was a retrospective of Meyer’s work showing at an art cinema in Piccadilly Circus. ‘Wow! Art cinemas are showing the bodies of work of my favourite cult directors here! Isn’t life great?!’ There were multiple screenings of all of his oeuvre but most screenings were devoted to Faster. It was during the first screening that I realised that it wasn’t an art cinema, however. Single guys would move from seat to seat after the lights would go down. It was only after a while that I fully grasped what was going on. This wasn’t an art cinema at all but a porno movie house. A guy even sat down next to me and tried to feel me up (‘Erm, excuse me, you’re making me miss one of the greatest films ever made!!!’)

Whilst on my Film course, I was undertaking (and it was an undertaking) a module called Images of American Women (!) There would be a presentation/seminar given by each of us at the end of each lecture on any film that we wanted to talk about that depicted, y’know, American Women. My classmates gave their presentations on such fare as Terminator 2 and Thelma and Louise. So far, so bland. I decided to give mine on Faster Pussycat and was all prepared with a handout consisting of photocopies of the pages from Shock Value by John Waters regarding what he thought of the film and clips to show including the opening of the film and then the clip in which Varla kills the jock. To show how Faster Pussycat was influential in wider popular culture, I showed some of the video for Say You’ll Be There by The Spice Girls in which they depict futuristic vixens in the desert. Faster Pussycat but with a sci-fi twist (and with music nowhere near as brilliant as The Bostweeds).

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The Spice Girls video for Say You’ll Be There- Faster Pussycat with a sci-fi twist. Here’s Old Spice.

My classmates loved it. All except one (there’s always one). The new voice of dissent came from the girl who looked like she had a poker shoved halfway up her backside. The girl who played the cornet (!)  in the Uni orchestra. The girl who I saw perusing the Alanis Morrissette official website in the computer room. ‘That film isn’t real life, though is it?!’ she scoffed. ‘No film is real life’, I replied. ‘But what I mean is that film isn’t real to life!’ she continued. ‘Can you let me know the name of a film that is just like your life?!’ I replied. There was then a very awkward silence that was shattered by Jane, an American lesbian and classmate who suddenly said to Lil Miss Cornet Player, ‘You chose Thelma and Louise for your presentation. Is going over a cliff in a Cadillac real life for you? Is that like your life?!’ And with the snorts and titters of laughter from others in the room, I closed my presentation.

Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! will always be in my Top 10 films of all-time. If there was ever a more perfect film, I haven’t seen it yet.

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Cujo (1983)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Cujo (1983)

Amongst the slew of Stephen King film adaptations that were released in the 80s was the film version of his fantastic 1981 novel, Cujo.

Cujo is the St Bernard dog who is bit by a rabid bat whilst he chases a rabbit. Slowly but surely he transforms from a loveable family dog into a slobbering, rabid killer.

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There’s so much to love about the 1983 film that was based on one of King’s best books. Firstly, if Dee Wallace Stone is starring in a film, in my book, it instantly gets an extra star as her acting chops are superb. Her use of method acting especially within the horror movies she has starred in works very well indeed, even if the boring film purists would say that such a technique wouldn’t work with such a genre. As someone on the set of The Howling said ‘She actually believed that werewolves existed for the duration of her working on the movie!’ Which is exactly why she’s such a kick-ass actress. And her turn within Cujo is no different. Here she plays Donna Trenton, a woman who is having an affair with her high school old flame behind her advertising husband’s back.

Which brings us onto another reason why Cujo works so well. The film is faithful to the book (except for one MASSIVE plot point and I won’t be saying what it is. You need to watch this movie and read the book. You’ll thank me for this) and so King’s fantastic character arcs and the turmoil of their lives aren’t smoothed over or written out completely for this screen adaptation. And so we get adultery, domestic violence, alcoholism and someone’s career dying a death (in stark contrast to the 80’s Yuppie dream depicted in the adverts of the time).

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We also get an extraordinary sequence involving Donna’s son going to bed and the nightmarish circumstances that surround such an event. This sequence is like a Siouxsie and the Banshees song made flesh. It’s exquisite. Kudos to director Lewis Teague, although the entire film is testament to his directorial genius.

And then we get the sequence based solely in their malfunctioning car as Donna and her son are held under siege in their vehicle by the rabid dog. Not since The Texas Chain Saw Massacre have we as an audience experienced the sticky, clammy suffocation of such stifling weather conditions as Donna has to think of how to get out of this situation as her son starts to experience the effects of dehydration. These scenes are worth the price of admission alone. We see Donna go from rationally trying to get out of this nightmare to becoming a fearless warrior as her maternal instincts kick in and she is prepared to do anything to save her son.

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In fact, one of the things that amazes me the most about Cujo is how Wallace Stone didn’t get at least an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal. Yes, her performance is that good. In fact, I feel that within the sub-genre of Stephen Kind adaptations, Cujo is criminally underrated. It’s time for a proper reappraisal.

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

It’s 1990. I’m tuning into the excellent Moviedrome series of films on BBC2 with each cult film in the series being introduced by director Alex Cox.

The film being shown that night was John Carpenter’s second feature film Assault on Precinct 13, his reworking of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and my mind was blown. I had been a fan of Halloween since I had seen it a few years before this and desperately wanted to see Assault but tracking it down was very hard indeed due to the video release being out of print. That made this screening even more essential. I recorded the film and watched it over and over and over again.

The film concerns a police station in the crime-ridden suburb of Anderson, California closing down with a cop named Bishop being assigned to oversee this for his night shift. He arrives to see that there are still a few staff working in the police station. Unfortunately, the local gang named Street Thunder have decided to announce a ‘cholo’ (meaning ‘to the death’) against the police as the pigs had killed six members of their tribe. That night they will seek their revenge because of this.

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Members of Street Thunder

Add to this a bus transporting Death Row criminals that has to make a stop at the police station and a distraught father who is catatonic with grief who also arrives at the near derelict locale. Add together all of these ingredients, blend together and voila! You have a kick ass movie.

What is it about the film that makes it so good? There are many reasons.

Firstly, the look and feel of the film are amazing. Carpenter’s use of Panavision gives the film a panoramic (duh) scope that is not only inspired but also epic.

This aspect ratio also makes the film very sinister in places with the Panavision making the dark, shadowy corners of the police station and it’s environs even more creepy. In fact, there are a number of parallels between Assault and Night of the Living Dead with the black leads of both films, the character who you think is going to be a major player in the film’s narrative being completely sidelined because of their catatonic state (Lawson is the father who reminds me of Barbara who very quickly retreats into herself shortly after she reaches the farmhouse in Night) and the zombie-esque qualities of the Street Thunder gang members who are just as omnipotent, numerous and expendable as Romero’s undead.

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Another great quality that Assault possesses is that whilst it contains a great deal of humour this never overbalances the horror and suspense. Whether it’s Napoleon Wilson and Wells playing ‘potatoes’ to decide who goes out to hot-wire a car or the plathora of funny one-liners uttered by one of the film’s characters (‘I have a new plan. It’s called ‘Save Ass’), these moments never make Assault descend into a horrible sludge of geek humour or derivative dialogue (yes, I’m thinking of you Quentin Tarantino). The screenplay for Assault crackles with electricity.

Assault also contains one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, something that is still talked about by many film critics, journalists and fans. I’m not giving it away but it remains taboo even today.

The characters are another reason why I love the film so much. Napoleon Wilson is yet another legendary Carpenter creation that includes Snake Plissken, Michael Myers and Jack Burton. How did he get his name? (I think the arm breaking scene is a good step in the right direction when pondering this point regarding his backstory). In fact, we want to know everything about his life that led to the night captured within Assault’s narrative.

And yet every character is just as enigmatic and brilliantly realised whether it be Bishop who just wants a quiet night shift or Leigh who is working at the police station still. I love the scene in which Bishop whispers to Leigh what he had carved into a desk as a child that had prompted his father to drag him to that very same police station years before to be ticked off by a cop there. The audience never finds out what it was. I love mystery in film, something that modern filmmakers know nothing about but should. Overexplanation hinders so many films especially the vile horror prequels that get churned out nowadays.

In fact, the character of Leigh is a fantastic updating of the Hawksian woman- tough, resourceful and icily sexual. Witness the scene in which Napoleon finally finds someone with a cigarette. Leigh gives it to him and even lights it. This scene in itself is one of my favourite moments in film history. In fact, there are many scenes with Assault which are lay claim to that mantle. Another example is the gang attack on the police station which quickly turns into a beautiful ballet of bullets. It’s impeccable.

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Add to this one of Carpenter’s best music scores (which is really saying something. His music for Assault is minimalist, gritty and utter analogue synth perfection) and you have a bona fide masterpiece. I was honoured enough to see the film at a midnight screening here in Leeds a few years ago and it was great to see one of my favourite films on the big screen.

A film I love from start to finish. All killer, no filler.

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

I’ve always been fascinated by the writing of, and indeed, the legend of playwright Joe Orton. It was so refreshing to discover someone who was, shock horror, a confident homosexual in the 60s rather than some simpering, guilt-ridden closet case. I remember when I arrived in London to study film, a friend told me about an organised tour entitled The Joe Orton Walk that went to the sites of public lavatories where Joe looked for casual sex. A worthy tribute as ever there was one.

Stephen Frears’ 1987 film adapts John Lahr’s fantastic biography of Joe with the working-class boy from Leicester venturing to London to join the RADA (darling) and pursue a career in acting. It’s here that he meets Kenneth Halliwell who becomes his partner and co-conspirator. But this union would come to a horrifying conclusion as the tutored (Orton) would eclipse his teacher (Halliwell) and accomplish everything he wanted to but that which was beyond his grasp (you could say it was ‘Beyond Our Ken’ haha).

We get a fantastic depiction of being gay in London in the 1960s where sex was everywhere with a knowing look or if you knew the relevant places to frequent. We also get a vivid depiction of the gay paradise of that era, Morocco.

Orton was ‘punk’ before ‘punk’. His plays poked fun at society’s hypocrisies through his amazing use of language and his fantastic, laser-sharp wit. The library books he altered the covers of and wrote new liner notes for were another example of his playful subversion. I love the fact that the existing examples of these books have now been preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come. And to think that this act actually earned Orton and Halliwell six months holiday at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Outrageous.

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Frears’s directs amazingly aided and abetted by a screenplay by none other than Alan Bennett. The cast is also uniformly brilliant with Prick Up Your Ears being an example of perfect casting- Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Halliwell and Vanessa Redgrave as the regal but irreverent Peggy Ramsey.

I also loved the parallels between Kenneth Halliwell and Lahr’s wife that the film establishes. This is very perceptive indeed.

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And something else which is remarkable about the film is that it’s currently on YouTube for your delectation. Watch it before it gets taken down.

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Kes (1969)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Kes (1969)

I was brought up in Yorkshire and still live here (I just got lucky, I guess…) but even I have a problem with the Barnsley accents in Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kes. Thank God for subtitles and online Yorkshire dialect translators.

Billy Caspar is a 15-year-old youth who is due to leave school soon. He is permanently dishevelled, looks unwashed and is smaller than everyone else in his class. He always seems to be in another world, maybe because his existence in his grim 1960s town is so brutal. He discovers a nest of kestrels and early one morning steals one as a pet.

Billy and his kestrel quickly become inseparable as Billy trains and cares for it.

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Kes is nothing short of astounding. A film that was made just after the boom in ‘kitchen sink dramas’, it blows my mind that a film featuring characters with the broadest Yorkshire accents would eventually be so revered that it would be released on the prestigious Criterion label when it was released on home media.

Billy is daydreaming his way through life but is approaching a critical juncture. He is due to leave his soul-destroying school life and is due to enter the equally vile world of work.

Kes (the name he gives the kestrel) gives him a purpose in life and shows that there are things that fire his interest and can even win him admiration and attention (witness the impromptu presentation he gives on his newly found passion to his English class). It’s a cruel irony that the horrific event that occurs near the end of the film (I’m not going to ruin it, but I will warn you that it’s one of the most upsetting scenes I’ve ever seen in a motion picture) occurs just after his meeting with a school careers advisor. We literally see Billy’s hope, his newly found sense of freedom and his passion snuffed out in one fell swoop. It’s devastating.

Whilst there are plenty of fantastic performances by already established actors (Lynne ‘Ivy Tilsley’ Perrie, Brian Glover), it’s Ken Loach’s insistence on using ‘real’ people who had never acted before that is the revelation here. Kes feels 100% authentic on every imaginable level.

Loach’s greatest find when it came to authenticity and real people being captured on film, was the casting of David Bradley as Billy. Bradley’s performance is nuanced, multi-layered and, most of all, utterly captivating. It’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen in a film and one of the most audacious and brilliant casting decisions also.

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David Bradley and director Loach on set

I’m so glad that the sheer brutality of the dark years when corporal punishment was permitted in school has been captured here also and shown as the archaic practice it really was. If you don’t feel a twinge of emotion at the youngest boy’s reaction to getting the cane then you don’t have a soul. Corporal punishment in schools was outlawed in the UK in 1986, the very year I entered a secondary school. My timing was impeccable. I could still sense that some teachers were gutted that physically punishing a child had been made illegal and that their real reason for being a teacher had been taken away from them.

Kes is beautiful but don’t forget to switch on the subtitles. Loach says that for the American release of the film, some parts were dubbed to try to make some speeches a bit more understandable for those not from South Yorkshire. But even this didn’t work. One American film executive said that he had a better chance of understanding Hungarian films than he did of Kes.

Review- The Running Man (1987)

Review- The Running Man (1987)
So I reinvestigated The Running Man last night. The last time I had watched it was in the 80’s on VHS. I remember it as not being one of Arnie’s best efforts.
On watching it now I found some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen from Arnie (which is REALLY saying something), hamfisted attempts at social commentary and more cheesiness than an Edam factory.
But maybe these aren’t criticisms because IT WORKED!
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It’s a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s also aged very well indeed with great special effects that look great as they pumped megabucks into the production. You get what you pay for (Yes, I’m thinking of you Escape From LA).
In fact, there was more than a passing nod to Escape From New York and They Live (but not as good as either).
I also love that it takes place in 2017. Their predictions as to life in the future are unerringly accurate (Alexa, booking a holiday through a screen, differing views being punishable by law…)
Also, we get a great supporting cast, fantastic source material and solid direction by Paul Michael Glaser. And I had forgotten about the iconic Harold Faltermeyer score.
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I’m so glad I rewatched this noisy wild ride of a film.
4 stars out of 5

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Slithis (1978)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Slithis (1978)

One of the best things about Yorkshire Television, when I was growing up, was the eclectic fare that made up their schedules. At night they showed the most wonderful and unexpected films you could ever imagine. They also showed films you had never heard of before that were either unavailable on video because of some silly oversight or they were caught up in some rights limbo which denied their exposure to a wider audience.

I used to scour the TV listings and use the timer on our prehistoric video machine during the 80s to record anything on late that sounded vaguely of interest to a cult film fan like myself. And there were plenty of movies offered up that I found interesting.

One such was Slithis from 1978, a monster movie that I’m so glad I recorded.

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There’s a monster on the prowl in 1978 Venice Beach who starts by killing the dogs in the neighbourhood but then starts killing humans. But don’t worry. There’s a local journalism teacher (!) and some of the nerdiest scientists you’ve ever seen who are on the trail of the sub-aquatic being named Slithis, a product of a leak from a local nuclear plant.

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Nerd scientist

This is amazing cult film goodness. A man in a rubber suit is always better than the CGI monsters you see in modern-day horror films. I love Slithis’ look and the way that the film’s lighting and colour palette changes dramatically whenever he makes an appearance. It’s important to light your leading man in the best way possible.

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Slithis is ready for his close up…

I also love the locale of Venice Beach that was used with the settings being so beautiful and full of such eccentrics, bohemian types and winos. You get the impression that these extras were captured on film just the way they were which is fantastic. I wish I was a meths drinker in 70’s Venice when Slithis was doing the rounds. But I digress…

There are also scientist types who give you the impression that they aren’t actors at all but just knew the director and were asked to appear. Their acting is erm, raw. Think Edith Massey but rawer (and if you think that’s some kind of insult, you obviously know nothing of my cinematic preferences. It’s a compliment of the highest order. No ‘so bad it’s good’ nonsense here!)

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An interview with director Steve Traxler

I was amazed by Slithis when I first saw it and I get more and more from it with every screening. It would make a great double-bill with the equally brilliant Blood Beach. Both self-aware and brilliantly executed horror movies from the ’70s which also contain a deft sense of humour.

But as if this wasn’t enough, I then learnt that Slithis had his own fan club! Yes, you heard that right. HIS OWN FAN CLUB!!!

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I loved what I read about the publicity used regarding the release of this film. Every patron would receive a Slithis Survival Kit on the purchase of tickets to the movie. This kit (in reality a pink or yellow piece of folded cardboard) included information regarding joining the Slithis Fan Club, how patrons could help promote the notion that Slithis is, in fact, a victim (he is, after all, the product of nuclear plant leakage) rather than a foe and, most importantly, the information that if you keep the kit on your person at all times or stash it under your pillow at night then Slithis would know and won’t come to pay you a visit when he inevitably stalks your neighbourhood.

You could even send off for a Slithis 8×10, a Fan Club membership card and merch order form.

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As if that wasn’t enough, the campus screenings of the film (notice where the film played and that the film’s producers already knew the demographic who would dig Slithis the most) would involve someone wearing the actual costume from the film for the occasion.

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Here’ssss Slithis! The suit gets an airing at a screening

There’s a great press clipping of one such screening with a picture of Slithis walking alongside students from the University of Nebraska.

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This is all very William Castle (actually, Castle would have gone one further and not told anyone about the costume and had someone wearing it jump out unexpectedly at the audience towards the end of the screening) and that just makes me love the film even more.

Do you remember showmanship? Do you remember films that were, y’know, fun?!

That’s Slithis. And it’s a terrific monster movie to boot.

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- The Exterminator (1980)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- The Exterminator (1980)

Ahh, the giddy days of home video. In the early days of this new and very exciting medium, there were loads of videos that featured the gaudiest and lurid cover artwork.

One film that had such artwork that I will always remember was The Exterminator. The box depicted a muscled man wearing what looked like a black motorcycle helmet whilst firing a machine gun. It suggested something grittier than your average action flick.

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When I finally saw the film I wasn’t disappointed.

Robert Ginty plays John Eastland who we see in the film’s opening scene as a soldier being captured by the Viet Cong. He escapes after being saved by his best friend Michael Jefferson (but not before he sees another friend being beheaded, a scene that would prove problematic for the BBFC. Stan Winston was the SFX whizz who designed the dummy for this scene, film fans).

The action then transfers to a jungle of another kind, New York. Eastland and Jefferson are working together in a warehouse. After seeing gang members stealing a shipment of beer, they are confronted by both men with Jefferson kicking their asses. However, the gang members track him down and leave him crippled (another graphic scene that would be excised in different countries).

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This propels Eastland into action as he becomes a one-man vigilante who tracks down the gang members and then the mob who have been making his employer pay protection money and even skimming the top off all of the employee’s wages.

The Exterminator is gritty, extreme, VERY gory and brilliant fun. Director James Glickenhaus knew exactly the audience he was aiming this film at. This was aimed squarely at the audiences who would go to see films in 42nd Street grindhouses (part of the film even takes place in some of the sleazier establishments of The Deuce), drive-ins and as part of midnight movie double-bills (The Exterminator played with The Postman Always Rings Twice (!) in the UK).

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But it was also made for the new medium of home video on which the genre of horror or exploitation wasn’t seen as a bad thing but instead as a major selling point. With so many shocking and lurid video artwork being on the shelves of the video shops I spent hours in, the artwork for The Exterminator still screamed out to me.

People have criticised Robert Ginty in the lead role as being devoid of the necessary charisma or leading role chops for such a film. I disagree. Ginty plays an everyman, someone who is sick of being pushed around when there appears to be no real justice by conventional routes of law and order. Of course, there are strong links between this film and Michael Winner’s masterpiece Death Wish but there are also links to Taxi Driver, Maniac and The New York Ripper because of the themes, locales and time frame.

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The Taxi Driver-esque similarities start here

Look out for the uncut version of The Exterminator as there are plenty of versions, especially in the UK, that are cut. I bought the DVD distributed by Synergy who had submitted the film to the BBFC a second time to try and get some of the previous cuts waived. They then proceeded to release the film uncut anyway and completely ignore the 22 secs of cuts the board had recommended. Hooray for Synergy!

One review of the film says that Glickenhaus knows nothing about framing, lighting or direction in general. Poppycock! When I saw the film in widescreen for the first time I noticed these very aspects and marvelled at them. The film is lit, directed and coloured like a very gory comic book. It’s beautiful to behold and reminds me of The Warriors.

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The comic book colour and framing of the film

You know you’re in for a good time when the death scenes within the film involve an industrial mincing machine, a flamethrower and an electric knife.

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The mincing machine scene

The Exterminator will always hold a special place in my black little heart.

Review- The Fan (1981)

Review- The Fan (1981)

I’ve wanted to see 1981’s The Fan for the longest time and finally, it was shown on TV here in the UK (the channel Talking Pictures is amazing and never disappoints!)

Sally Ross (Lauren Bacall) is an actress who is heading a Broadway musical. She is also the target of super-fan and super-stalker Douglas Breen (Michael Biehn) who professes his undying love for her in numerous letters that are intercepted and responded to by Ross’ assistant who grows increasingly worried about the mental state of this particular fan. She even raises it was Ross who admonishes her for treating a fan badly. But then things go from bad to worse.

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I’m pretty sure I’d have the same expression as the woman on the left if I got to meet Lauren Bacall

Was the wait to see this film worth it? YES! There’s so much to love about The Fan.

Firstly, I found myself aghast at the cast. Not only do we get Bacall, Biehn and James Garner but also Hector Elizondo, Griffin Dunne and Dwight Schultz (from The A-Team!) We even get a non-speaking cameo from Charles Scorsese (father of Martin) in a theatre audience scene.

The Fan doesn’t skimp when it comes to the gritty and deranged nature of stalking which wasn’t a crime or behaviour that had been discussed widely at that point yet. Although, the film was released a few months after Mark Chapman shot dead John Lennon outside The Dakota Building (where Bacall used to live spookily enough) and so stalking was set to enter the zeitgeist and prompt more conversations. Biehn is excellent as Douglas Breen with the scenes in which we see him at a typewriter professing his love for Ross in his typed letters reminding me of the telephone scenes from Prom Night- dimly lit, claustrophobic and scary as hell.

In fact, Biehn is fantastic at turning from loving to psychotically menacing at a dime. He’s perfectly cast.

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The film is also very gory that mirrors a lot of films that were bigger budget efforts but didn’t skimp on the blood perhaps to tap into the demographic who were going to see slasher movies. In fact, there’s an amazing scene in the New York subway in which you definitely get a Dressed To Kill vibe that apparently this film’s producer Robert Stigwood had just seen.

There’s also a nod to Cruising with one scene involving the killer getting picked up in a gay bar and leaving for a tryst which takes place on a rooftop. Sex and death go hand in hand with this scene. What would Genet say?!

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Cruising in a gay bar. Is that Truman Capote next to Douglas?!

I love the look of the film with it having a certain haze as if there’s Vaseline on the camera lens.

Another thing I loved about The Fan was that it’s a great New York movie. This actually feels like a cleaner and more genteel vision of New York from that time. Maybe the filmmakers thought there was enough sleaze in the events taking part in the film without depicting the sleazier locales of the city as well.

And then there’s the camp. Not only do we get divine creature Bacall gracing the role of Sally Ross but with the action revolving around her heading a Broadway musical, we get deliciously gay rehearsals and even get to see the finished product on opening night resplendent with a song that was subsequently nominated for a Razzie (a sure stamp of approval) that was written by Tim Rice. Hell, we even get Do The Dog by The Specials over one earlier scene in a record store. Talk about contrasts.

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The unbridled camp of the stage show Never Say Never. Silver lame, dry ice and raspberry neon. A design for living.

The Fan bombed at the box office on its initial release and was derided by Bacall who hated how gory and violent it was. James Garner even said it was the worst film he ever made. Some reviews were fair but others were really bad (yes there’s that Gene Siskel again).

I love The Fan and feel that maybe audiences didn’t fully engage as at that time stalking as a crime hadn’t entered public consciousness yet. Remember, another film that dealt with stalking was The King of Comedy which was released the following year and also underperformed. Some films are way ahead of their time and judged very well by history with both films finding their audiences and being appreciated more now.

One person online said that this would make a great double-bill with The Eyes of Laura Mars. That’s very true. Both films are as camp as a row of pink tents but with gritty and genuinely disturbing scenes that reflect the slasher film sensibilities of the time.

Look out for the remarkable edition of The Fan on Blu ray on Scream Factory.

4 and a half stars out of 5

The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

The Gift That Keeps On Giving- What Makes Black Christmas So Darn Scary?

I had heard so much about the original of Black Christmas from 1974 by the time I finally got to see it. Its reputation as being the main film that inspired the slasher movie sub-genre pre-Halloween was well established with horror fans salivating over it and singing its praises to the heavens.

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‘Let’s see how scary it really is!’ I said to myself as I watched it on the DVD brought to us in the UK by the excellent Tartan Video. It was Christmas Eve and I was all alone in a shared house that all of my housemates had vacated to go home for the holidays. I can honestly say that I have never felt so scared, unsettled and downright terrified in all of my life.

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Years later and I’ve just arrived in Sydney to start a year-long vacation/working holiday and as it’s almost the Yuletide season I see that my local cinema is showing a double-bill of Black Christmas and Christmas Evil which I had heard John Waters say was the best Christmas movie ever made. Christmas Evil was every bit as brilliant as I hoped it would be.

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Christmas Evil- another horror masterpiece

But a very curious thing had happened. I found my second viewing of Black Christmas to be even creepier and scary than the first.

So what is it about the film that works so well? In less imaginative hands Black Christmas could have been far more generic and less inspired, especially if it had been made when the slasher genre had kicked off. But the fact that the film was made prior to this means that there were no genre conventions or expectations to constrain it and so the sky was the limit.

The film concerns a group of sorority sisters and their house mother being together in their sorority house just before they all depart for their Christmas vacations. They don’t realise that they will be departing but in a much bloodier way than they could have imagined. They start to receive obscene phone calls but don’t realise that the deranged person making them is already inside the house. In fact, this is one major plot device that the audience is privy to as we even get a shaky POV shot of the killer making his way to an attic window to enter the residence. He makes said attic his HQ of terror if you will. The decor is suitably demented and creepy as hell with an old rocking horse and shop mannequins in it.

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The killer climbs into the attic of the house…
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…which is resplendent with such sinister artefacts as an old rocking horse

Of course, this plot device has been used sooo many times since but this was all very new in 1974 when the film was made and released. Black Christmas brilliantly mines into the urban legend of The Killer Upstairs that has been told countless times around campfires with the odd tweak or variation according to the person telling it.

The fact that the killer is using a separate phone line to make the calls whilst being in the same house as his prey has also been used since with 1979’s excellent When A Stranger Calls fully exploiting this idea and also referencing the same urban legend. But this was a full five years after Black Christmas was unveiled to the world. Director Bob Clark also says that back then it was very common for one property, especially a multi-residence property like a sorority house, to contain many different phone lines for the multiple occupants.

And these aren’t just any kind of disturbing phone calls. These are calls that Clark wanted to be as disturbing as possible and he really excelled at this! He used multiple different actors during these telephone calls to convey the different personalities inhabited within the killer who later identifies himself as Billy. If these calls don’t scare the bejesus out of you, you’re either lying to save face or you’re trying to be an edge lord. These calls veer between being sexually explicit, feral, unhinged and animalistic.

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But the film also depicts something that was happening to millions of homes around the world at that time. The primitive methods of tracing a call in the film and how difficult it was was a very accurate portrayal. In those days technology regarding telephones was in its infancy and so this left many people vulnerable to prank calls. It also left them vulnerable to calls from people who wanted to do more than just scare whoever was unfortunate enough to answer the phone. Black Christmas was reflecting back to audiences something that wasn’t spoken about back then and how scary and potentially traumatic it was. It was a practice so widespread that it resonated massively with audiences.

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The almost impossible task of tracing the calls within the film mirrored how difficult it was in real life

The calls suggest that you’re watching something a lot grittier than how other horror films operated up until that point. The Exorcist had been released the year before and pushed as many envelopes as possible whilst not merely for some tedious attempt at shock value. You get the feeling that Black Christmas is doing the same but in a very different way.

In fact, another feature of the film that makes it feel utterly unsettling is that whilst everything is going on in the house, other similarly dark events are playing out in the wider community. A young girl has gone missing. Some of the film’s characters join a search party in a local park to look for the girl and her body is discovered. Just as the film depicted the horror of the nuisance call, it also depicted the full horror of child abduction with many such cases seemingly happening with shocking regularity at that time and continuing to happen to this day.

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The park search

In fact, this sequence is given an extra layer of poignancy as the father of one of the sorority sisters, Clare who he was due to meet him that morning but didn’t show up, takes part in the search. After reporting her missing to the police, Clare’s father searches for the other missing girl unbeknownst that she has been murdered at the hands of Billy who has suffocated her with a plastic dry-cleaning bag. He places her body in a rocking chair in the attic with the film cutting to her body resplendent with the startled expression on her face still under the plastic.

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Clare’s body in the rocking chair with the plastic bag still over her head

Another great feature of Black Christmas is the characters. One example is Barb who provides the film with a hilarious scene whilst interacting with a very gullible and inexperienced cop when they report Clare missing. Her drinking becomes endearing to the audience (check out the scene when she’s letting a child have some of her booze) but could also be used by her to mask the fact that her mother seemingly doesn’t care about her. Mommie Dearest has decided to go away for Christmas with her latest boyfriend and these plans don’t involve her daughter.

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Barb doing what she does best

Another character who likes to booze is eccentric housemother and cat-lady Mrs Mac. We see that she has alcohol stashed in all kinds of places in the house including in a hollowed-out book in her library. This character along with Barb provides a lot of the comedy within the film. But just because there are comic interludes these don’t detract from the feeling of unease and terror the film generates for the audience.

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Mrs Mac drinking. Again.

Jess is having problems in her relationship with her pianist boyfriend Peter when she discovers that she’s pregnant. She says to him that she is going to have an abortion which provokes the testy retort from her other half that she talks about it almost as if she’s ‘getting a wart removed’. Billy references this later in one of his phone calls, thus making her think that Peter could be the killer.

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Jess and Peter have the ‘big talk’

The actual murders themselves are something to behold in the film. Not only are they shocking and very well executed (pun not intended) but are also beautifully directed sequences. Clare’s shocking murder only ten minutes in, housemother Mrs Mack’s almost slapstick sequence involving a hook after she’s discovered Clare’s body, Barb’s exit with the glass figurines by her bed of which Billy utilises one to stab her. These wouldn’t have been out of place in one of the best Giallo movies never made. In fact, Black Christmas seems to hold quite a few similarities with some of its Italian counterparts.

The sorority house feels like another character within the film. The dark wooden shadowy passageways, cubbyholes and nooks and crannies to which the killer has full access are the perfect locale for the film to take place in.

The cast of Black Christmas is also a strong point for the film with a list of actors that is like a roll call of the creme de la creme of cult filmdom. Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Keir Dullea, John Saxon to name but a few. Again, if Black Christmas had been made whilst the slasher movie was in full flow, maybe some of these actors would have declined to take part as some may have felt they were above such fare.

Carl Zittrer’s music for the film is suitably unsettling, surreal and downright macabre. Apparently, the composer achieved the score by tying different objects to the strings of a piano to distort and warp the sounds it made when played. He would also record music and then playback the results at a slower speed to further manipulate the results until they were suitably unsettling enough. He certainly succeeded.

Whilst I’m rhapsodising about the film, there’s plenty more I could say but to do so would spoil the experience of seeing this masterpiece, especially for the first time (although multiple viewings seem to enhance the film’s stature in my head as I pick up things that I didn’t hone in on during previous viewings).

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Black Christmas is a one-off. It has its own feel and sense of terror and dread that no other film has ever come close to replicating. There are very few horror films that actually frighten me but this movie scares the pants off me. It’s the Christmas gift that keeps on giving.