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.

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.

Review- Movies Are My Life (1977)

Review- Movies Are My Life (1977)

My early teenage years were when I discovered my three favourite living film directors- John Waters, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese.

It was whilst I was frantically hunting down all of the movies made by Scorsese after first watching Taxi Driver when I was 14 that I read of a documentary made in 1977 called Movies Are My Life. I had a friend who was lucky enough to have Sky TV on which there was a one-off screening of this and so I gave him a blank videotape and begged him to record it for me. He obliged.

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It didn’t disappoint. Over the years the tape it was on disappeared but it was just the other day that I was thinking about this documentary when I had the lightbulb moment that involved looking for it on the internet. And after a quick Google search, I found it!

It’s great watching it again. It was made in 1977 after Scorsese had finished shooting New York, New York and was editing The Last Waltz. This was an iconic time for Scorsese when he had made so many classic movies and was yet to make even more.

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Not only is the maestro interviewed about his career so far but his contributors and collaborators are also interviewed and it’s great to see such luminaries as De Niro, Jodie Foster, Steven Prince and Liza Minelli speaking about what’s like to work with such a visionary.

The film is also noteworthy as it shows the friendship that Scorsese had/has with Robbie Robertson. These were Scorsese’s wild years when he took certain substances to excess and ended up hospitalised because of it. The interviews with Robinson here capture this very vividly indeed (you’ll know what I mean when you watch the film!) A choice moment is when he looks out of the window into the night sky and says ‘It isn’t even dawn yet!’

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It’s great that this peeks into such a thrilling era of Scorsese’s filmmaking life was chronicled, not so great that this film was unavailable for so long. It’s fantastic that someone has uploaded it onto the internet but how long it stays up before it’s pulled down is unknown. If I was you I’d finish reading this, do a Google search and watch it now. Just to be sure. Note- the version on YouTube is cut. Go the Google route to watch the full version on the net.

Can we get a proper release of this gem, please?

Grade- A-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Are You In The House Alone? (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 31- Are You In The House Alone? (1978)

Gail Osborne is a 16 year old who starts dating Steve Pastorinis who goes to the same school as her. It’s also around this time that she starts to receive abusive notes stuck in the grills of her school locker and also abusive telephone calls.

For a film, let alone a TV movie to deal with an issue such as stalking in 1978 was very brave indeed as it hadn’t entered the public consciousness yet and was largely an alien concept. But Are You In The House Alone? deals with the subject very intelligently and exposes it for the vile, terrifying and horrific practice that it actually is.

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But the movie also deals with other issues such as Gail’s parents struggling with their marriage following her father losing his job. This again is dealt with brilliantly and feels integral to the plot rather than just feeling like padding to fill up the running time.

But Are You In The House Alone? also deals with rape, another taboo topic for 1978. It deals with it amazingly well with discussions regarding getting the rapist to court and obtaining a conviction against him being seen as being very difficult indeed.

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I love doing 31 Days of Halloween as it’s a great chance to revisit horror films that I have seen in the past but also to watch films that are completely new to me. Some of these I’m really glad I took the time to watch. A small minority bowl me over as they are just so powerful and brilliant. Are You In The House Alone? is one such film. When it ended I literally had to just sit and digest what I had just experienced and think about just how trailblazing the production was especially for that time and for the topics it depicted without any sugar coating or saccharine gloss.

Are You In The House Alone? is a very unsettling experience as it worms its way into your head and will stay with you long after it has finished. And it’s a rare instance of a TV movie rightly finding its way onto Blu Ray (thank you Vinegar Syndrome!)

Grade- A

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- Ants (1977)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 29- Ants (1977)

A hotel complex where a new building is being constructed is infested with killer ants.

I love the TV movies that featured a special guest star who was slumming it as work had dried up. Ants stars Myrna Loy as well as Suzanne Somers (!) and Lynda Day George (yes, the actress from Pieces!) so you know you’re in for a special time.

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I actually remember watching this on UK TV in 1980 when I was the tender age of 5.

I love the fact that whenever the ants appear on screen we get discordant violins on the soundtrack.

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This is surprisingly bright and breezy in tone until the ants become more prevalent within the storyline and then it becomes a lot more apocalyptic in tone (which is always welcome for cult film fans). The whole production is a triumph in camp however dark it tries to become.

Ants aka It Happened at Lakewood Manor holds up very well though. The TV movie was also issued on DVD in 2014. This might not be some kind of classic uncovered from the vaults but it’s nice to see it has a life after being shown on TV all those decades before.

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Grace- C+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- The Toolbox Murders (1978)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 25- The Toolbox Murders (1978)

This infamous film from 1978 starts with an anonymous man wearing a balaclava and going on a killing spree. He uses a different  tool for each murder such as an electric drill, a screwdriver and nail gun.

But then events take a bizarre twist as we get to see who the killer is and…to tell you anymore would ruin several surprises that the movie has in store. And it has plenty of surprises to shock us with!

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This film has such a notorious reputation and none so much as in Britain where it was firstly cut for its initial cinema release but then banned outright on video as it was then labelled as one of the more shocking video nasties.

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The UK video artwork

There is an authenticity to the killing spree we witness and with the film in general. The balaclava motif felt all so real as it was a staple of killers such as Ted Bundy who was prolific during this era. Also, The Yorkshire Ripper was killing women with the implements used in the film around this time which gives it an extra layer of horrific realness.

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The Ted Bundy murder kit. Notice the balaclava

Your jaw will hit the floor when you watch Cameron Mitchell’s central performance. It truly is demented genius.

I’m so glad that The Toolbox Murders is now appreciated as the fantastic piece of psychotic art that it truly is. Watch out for the 4K scan on Blu Ray. The film looks and sounds amazing and has finally gotten the treatment it so rightfully deserves.

Grade- A-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 22- Crowhaven Farm (1970)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 22- Crowhaven Farm (1970)

Maggie and Ben inherit an old farm by default (the man who it was actually left to had to inhabit the farm within 30 days but we see him attempt to move in in the dead of night but runs his car into a tree after swerving to miss a mysterious girl who intentionally caused the accident which results in the car exploding on impact). 

Maggie has a strong feeling that she’s been at the farm before and wonders if a phenomenon such as reincarnation actually exists as she remembers cooking in the farm kitchen, living on the farm and more sinister episodes. This freaks her out as she tells her husband Ben that she doesn’t want to move in even though he is excited at the prospect.

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There are quickly established links to witch trials that took place at the farm in years gone by. 

For a 1970 horror TV movie, Crowhaven Farm pulls no punches. There are some very taboo aspects to the plot that are just as taboo now as they were back then. With the short running time, the action zips along which adds to the quickly developing insanity of how the plot develops that lends a surreal aspect to proceedings.

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As I’ve said before, I hope a Blu ray company invests more in these made for TV gems and releases them looking and sounding as good as they possibly can with tons of extras. There are plenty of these movies to mine into and a horror audience who would gladfully lap them up. 

Grade- B

31 Days of Halloween- Day 18- Watch Me When I Kill (1977)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 18- Watch Me When I Kill (1977)

This prime slice of Giallo starts with us witnessing the murder of a pharmacist. A woman sees the murderer leave the premises which places a target on her own head. Her boyfriend undertakes some amateur sleuthing to try to find out who could be her would-be assassin. Many twists and turns ensue with a few very stylish murders thrown in for good measure.

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This is a really interesting film as the emphasis is on the whodunnit aspect of Giallo (the original pulp novels were actually crime novels that incorporated a whodunnit aspect as well as gruesome murders. These books had distinctive yellow pages with yellow being ‘Giallo’ in Italian) rather than the murders although these are fantastic in this film.

What more can I say? Beautiful direction, gorgeous locales, style coming out of every pore- this is Giallo, baby!

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You’ll never guess the ending in a million years.

Grade- B-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 17- How Awful About Allan (1970)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 17- How Awful About Allan (1970)

Allan (Anthony Perkins) wakes to find the family home is on fire. The fire kills his father and burns his sister. The trauma also makes him go blind. It was Allan who accidentally caused the fire as he placed cans of paint thinner too close to a heater making him take on a huge burden of guilt over such disastrous proceedings.

Allan returns home after being resident in a mental hospital. His sister explains that they will have to take on a boarder as the house can’t be upheld any other way. The man who takes the room instantly makes Allan suspicious. Add to this the blurry figure he sees who appears to be haunting him (Allan can now partially see the world but everything is distorted and blurred). Is this figure real or the imaginings of his fragile mental state?

There is paranoia and ennui seeping out of every pore of this made for TV movie from 1970. This was actually produced by Aaron ‘Charlie’s Angels’ Spelling and goes to show how fantastic horror made for TV was at one period of time.

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I could watch Anthony Perkins all day long. Not only was he a great actor but there’s something about his mannerisms and body language that makes him perfect for the screen, especially in horror ventures. He is in cracking form here as are all of the cast. Allan’s vulnerable state due to his impaired vision is fully exploited by the film and it works amazingly well as a device.

This was directed by Curtis Harrington who of course made the excellent Ruby starring Piper Laurie and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?

Watch out for the sting(s) in the tail. This film manages to have more than one trump card up its sleeve which it delivers expertly for maximum chills.

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As I’ve said in so many reviews thus far, this release deserves a fantastic Blu Ray release preferably on Scream Factory seeing as they are resurrecting other fantastic horror-themed TV movies such as John Carpenter’s amazing Someone’s Watching Me!

Grade- B

31 Days of Halloween- Day 16- Lonely Water aka The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 16- Lonely Water aka The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water (1973)

One of the fantastic things about growing up as a child of the ’70s and 80’s and being a horror fan were the Public Information Films that were shown at random times both day and night on British TV. These could convey any burning issue from the dangers of abandoned old refrigerators on rubbish tips through to the importance of not using different kinds of tyres on your car.

Some could be quite humorous in tone. But some were the stuff of nightmares. They set out to scare the living bejesus out of you. And by Christ, they worked. Everything from the dangers of Rabies, how you could be maimed if you misuse fireworks and, as you will see, what can happen to the show-off children who play near water.

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Lonely Water aka The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was made in 1973 and directed by Jeff Grant. The jewel in its crown was that Donald Pleasance was used to voice the ghostly monk who appears when a child is about to come a cropper near a river or stream.

The eagle-eyed will also see Terry Sue Patt aka Benny Green from Grange Hill as one of the kids.

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This Public Information Film scared a whole generation from even thinking of going near their local river. This would also have been the generation who would later see Jaws either at the cinema (if they were old enough) or when it was first shown on TV. I wonder how many of my generation actually have hydrophobia as a result of this double whammy.

Lonely Water is a masterpiece of horror that was permitted to be shown at any time pre and post-watershed on British television. Generation X has never gotten over it.

Grade- A+