Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- Terror in the Aisles (1984)

Day 27- 31 Days of Halloween- Terror in the Aisles (1984)

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.

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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).

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Forbidden fruit- Terror featured clips from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which was then banned by the BBFC 

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.

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4/5 out of 5 stars

Day 26- 31 Days of Halloween- The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Day 26- 31 Days of Halloween- The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

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.

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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).

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Redrum my arse

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.

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Broken mirrors/windows are passageways to other worlds

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.

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A detail from the UK cinema poster of the church ceremonial ritual

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.

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‘Are you sensitive? Do you sense things?!’

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.

The Watcher in the Woods can be seen here.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Day 21- 31 Days of Halloween- Cujo (1983)

Day 21- 31 Days of Halloween- Cujo (1983)

Adapted from Stephen King’s best-selling novel, Cujo tells the story of a rabid St Bernard dog terrorising and besieging a mother and her son in their broken down car.

This is a wonderful film, not just because of the car/dog storyline but also because of the rich characterisation (a trademark of King’s) which builds up to this scenario. Thank God for horror films that feature characters that are fully fleshed out, realistic and relatable to the audience. And an audience that the filmmakers warrant with having a modicum of intelligence. Thankfully the filmmakers had the good sense to carry over the nuance and eye for detail contained in the film’s source material and not dilute or erase it upon it’s transfer to the big screen.

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The original UK cinema poster

The movie is invested in portraying realistically flawed and multi-faceted characters and showing just how dark and dysfunctional life is for these players. Just as Donna’s husband Vic has created the advertising campaign for a cereal that is later found to have made several young children up and down the country vomit profusely, this is a perceptive peek into the whole ethos of the film. The professor in the commercial eats some of the cereal before showing the bowl’s contents to the audience and exclaiming ‘Nothing wrong here!’ This is a sarcastic and caustic comment on the artificial and ‘too good to be true’ world portrayed in the media (and particularly advertising) and the reality of the characters in the movie.

If the characters in the movie existed within the unreality of a commercial, Donna Trenton (the ever brilliant Dee Wallace-Stone) would be happily married, Charity Camber wouldn’t be in a violent relationship with her garage owner husband Joe and Vic’s advertising campaign would be a roaring success for a cereal that was rigourously tested before it went on sale.

But the film is only interested in depicting the reality for these characters without the sugar coating. Therefore, Donna’s marriage seems completely loveless to her to such an extent that she is having an affair with her high school ex-boyfriend Steve, Charity is trapped in an abusive marriage to her pig of a husband and Vic’s career might be in pieces after such an epic (and very public) fail regarding the cereal hes created a nationwide campaign for.

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A marriage on the rocks

But the movie is also about escape. Charity announces to Joe that she has won the lottery and wants to use the $5k prize to go away with their son to visit her sister. We see her taking clothes and photos for her trip and it’s suggested that this will be a permanent departure rather than just a week away. She seems to pack in a hurry so that her escape isn’t discovered by Joe.

Donna comes to the realisation that she wants to work at her marriage and goes to break the news to Steve that she intends on not continuing with their affair. It’s when Steve races outside to try to talk Donna round that Vic rides by and sees the two of them together. Steve then goes full-on Cluster B throughout the rest of the movie, firstly seemingly trying to violently sexually assault Donna in her kitchen (thankfully Vic comes in at that moment whereby Donna confirms that she has been having an affair to him) and then trashing her family home whilst she is at the garage being held hostage by Cujo.

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The ‘other man’- Steve Kemp

I love that Donna is shown to have some kind of psychic ability or finely tuned intuition. When she first sees Charity sat performing chores in the foreground of the garage her heart goes out to her as if she feels some of the pain that she experiences in her everyday life and purposely goes out of her way to speak to her. Likewise, when Donna sees Cujo for the first time before he’s turned into a rabid killer and is still a lovable St Bernard (albeit with a bite on his nose) shes still unsure and weary of him as if she foresees the horror to come.

Cujo the dog could be seen as a Return of the Repressed, a reminder of the brutal reality of life, a hurdle for Donna to overcome so that she can truly cherish the great things that make up her life and work on the areas (e.g. her marriage) which require more work. In fact, it’s when her son Tad is in a critical condition that her fighting spirit couples with her strong maternal instinct and she decides to become proactive even if it means risking her own life. It’s at this point that she leaves the car, grabs the baseball bat that shes noticed is on the ground and fights back. Cujo being a domestic animal turned rabid could be seen as a manifestation of Donna’s domestic sphere that has been turned upside down by her affair and that she now has to fight to mend and resolve her own situation.

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Donna prepares for a home run

Up until the book and movie of Cujo came out the St Bernard dog was either seen as cuddly or as a dog traditionally utilised as a helper (they are well known for their strong sense of smell and brute force which made them perfect for finding and rescuing those stranded in snowbound conditions) only makes it’s transformation even more extreme and subversive. Sharks were seen as killing machines and predators even before the novel and movie of Jaws were released.

The book differs from the novel is some key ways. I’m not going to go into the main way that they are different as I don’t want to ruin either experience for horror fans but I can understand why the filmmakers chose to conclude the film differently. If the film was ended the same way as the book the entire audience would have been alienated. Thats not to diss the conclusion of the book in any way. But seeing certain events unfurl before your eyes is very different to reading them off the page. Apparently King agreed and said that if he could rewrite any ending to one of his novels it would be Cujo and that it would resemble the film’s ending.

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I find Cujo to be a terrific work. Whenever Dee Wallace-Stone is in a film you know it’s going to be something special. She gives one of her best performances in this film and exhibits a range that is nothing less than astonishing. Her transition from mother and wife into a survivor who is literally fighting for her life and the life of her child is utterly believable and exquisitely acted. It’s another example of the reality portrayed in the film that a character who is seen as flawed and human can also be the main character and ultimately the hero of the piece.

It’s also worth noting that the film portrays the heat and airless conditions in the car in which they are stranded in perfectly and yet apparently the film was shot in winter and it was freezing!

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There are uniformly brilliant performances in the film. There needs to be special mentions to Danny Pintauro as Tad and Kaiulani Lee as Charity. Also, it’s great to see Dee’s late husband Christopher Stone as a such a dark character.

Lewis Teague’s direction is kinetic rather than static which helps the film move along greatly especially with the storyline that involves the dog keeping Donna and Tad in the car. It would have been very easy to have this sequence make the film drag through flat, uninspired direction in a scenario that revolves around one setting. Instead, Teague keeps the camera moving especially in an extraordinary scene whereby Donna ventures out of the car and is promptly attacked. To show her mental state after her attack the camera starts to move in 360 degree arcs. An ambitious idea in a cramped environment like the inside of a car. It works beautifully.

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Donna ventures out of the car. And instantly regrets it.

Donna really suffers in this film which is another nod to the reality of the movie as opposed to other more glossy motion pictures. There is much in common with Donna’s character at the end of the movie and Marilyn Burns at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Both have been thoroughly bloodied, battered and bruised on their individual trips to hell in their respective journeys. TCM and Cujo would make a great double-bill with both being claustrophobic horror films depicting mid-summer madness.

Yet another recommendation for the film was that good ol’ Siskel and Ebert hated it! The kings of the backhanded compliment called the film ‘dumb’, ‘flimsy’ and ‘dreadful’. However, King himself called the movie ‘terrific’. High praise indeed.

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Can your pussy do the dog? No but my St Bernard can do the can-can

I think Cujo is massively underrated and one of the best horror movies of the 80’s.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Day 20- 31 Days of Halloween- Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

Day 20- 31 Days of Halloween- Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

A madman escapes from an asylum. A group of female friends have a slumber party. Join the dots.

Mary Holden Jones brings to the screen a screenplay by Rita Mae Brown. This was supposed to be a ‘feminist’ slasher movie in what is considered to be a deeply misogynistic genre. Hence we have young women flicking through Playgirl, expressing their desires when it comes to men and women who show they can kick ass.

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The UK quad poster for the film

But is the film as good a slasher as it proports to be? It starts well enough with engaging characters, a great tone and a fantastic soundtrack. But when it comes to the actual horror it feels generic, unscary and very cliched. The number of tedious jump scares grates on the nerves after a while. And who is cruel enough to lock a cat in a closet?!

Yes, the killer has a big drill. Yes, we know what that signifies. Yes, we also know what it means when one of the women breaks his ‘big tool’ in two. If only this film built suspense and tension first I would have been more impressed instead of it relying on cheap thrills and techniques from ‘Slasher Movies For Dummies’.

There is some great humour in the film. Check out the pizza delivery guy getting killed with one of the women later feeling no remorse for tucking into the pizza. Hunger doesn’t abate just because the delivery guy gets drilled through the eye sockets whilst doing his rounds.

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But this is pretty anaemic stuff. Don’t waste your time. Watch Halloween (1978) instead. It may have been written and directed by a man but it’s a truly great feminist slasher pic.

1/5 out of 5 stars

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- The Forest (1982)

Day 18- 31 Days of Halloween- The Forest (1982)

Two couples decide to go camping in the woods. Arriving separately (darn that wonky radiator!), they soon realise that the woods aren’t as peaceful and reinvigorating as they first thought. It is in fact a killing ground for a father who mudered his philandering  wife, went mad and took his two young children to live in a cave. Unfortunately they got sick and killed themselves. Daddy has been killing anyone stupid enough to camp in his woods ever since and eating their remains. Insanity does that to you.

The Forest is one of the more, erm, extreme entries in the ‘City Folk vs Hillbillies’ horror genre which is really saying something when you think about how outthere some of the other films in this genre are (Deliverance and it’s ‘squeal like a pig’ sequence springs to mind and that was a studio film!).

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The film starts almost like a zany and not very funny comedy movie made for TV about the two witless and dull couples deciding to live in the wilderness for the weekend (you almost expect the TV listing to include the words ‘with hilarious consequences!’). Thank God the makers of this decided on making a horror movie instead. In the genre it’s quite natural to set up irritating characters to have them despatched by the ruthless killer. It puts the audience firmly on the side of the killer as we root for him to kill the boring couples in even more of a sick and twisted fashion.

I love the fact that the couple of guys decide to eat with the hunter whilst being blissfully unaware that a) he is the killer and b) the meat on the barbecue could very well be the remains of one of the women who arrived before them and was promptly bumped off.

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I also love the fact that the ghosts of the killer’s children appear to the campers to warn them that ‘Daddy’s gone a-huntin’!’ and to warn them if he’s near.

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The kills are gory (thankfully) and the scenery is glorious. This isn’t some lost gem of the horror genre but I’ve seen much, much worse. Check out the DVD/Blu ray release of this and compare with the VHS transfer thats on YouTube. The difference is astounding.

3 out of 5 stars

 

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Basket Case (1982)

Day 17- 31 Days of Halloween- Basket Case (1982)

Duane books into the sleazy flophouse Hotel Broslin with a large basket. It’s contents consist of his deformed twin brother who he used to be conjoined with. Both Duane and his twin are hellbent on enacting revenge on the surgeons who separated them against their wishes.

Basket Case will always occupy a special place in my dark little heart. When my family first bought a VCR in 1982 we rented two films. One was the cartoon of Captain America from the 60’s. This choice was intended for 8 year old me. And whilst Cap is very cool, it was the other film that intrigued me.

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It was rented to be viewed by the rest of my family when I had gone to bed. It was Basket Case. The forbidden always seemed more alluring to me. And after much pouting and pleading I was allowed to watch the film. It was an amazing night of mind-expanding and gleefully deprived family viewing.

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The film hits every bullseye it aims for. Theres humour (check out feeding time for the basket’s resident), gore (each attack is bloody as hell and very inventive) and well rounded characters whether they’re the main players or the supporting cast. In fact a film could be made based on any of the film’s characters and it would rock.

Whilst the film does contain very black humour this doesn’t dilute the horror sequences which pack a real punch still. In fact, Basket Case has an air of sleaze, filth and edginess that reminds me of another masterpiece, Bloodsucking Freaks. Both films capture a time when 42nd Street and The Deuce reigned supreme. Basket Case even takes us into one of the grindhouse cinemas. We even get a cameo by Sonny Chiba!

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The big reveal

Basket Case is The Evil Dead’s low budget filmmaking genius with John Waters’ writing brilliance. I can’t think of any higher recommendation to a fellow lover of warped cinema brilliance than that.

5 out of 5 stars

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- Contamination (1980)

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- Contamination (1980)

A boat sails into New York containing what appears to be innocuous boxes of coffee. However they actually contain alien eggs that cause people to explode when a change in heat cause the eggs to emit their contents.

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Yes, this is a cheap Italian Alien rip-off but it’s darn entertaining nonetheless. There might be considerable budgetary constraints but imagination can overcome any amount of limitations. This film is testament to that.

The film suddenly changes from a horror/sci-fi splatter fest and morphs into an action/adventure flick but this is where the film starts to lag. It doesn’t affect the film massively but you’re left wishing that the film hadn’t moved into this kind of direction.

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However, the ending brings the film back to it’s gory best as we get to meet the creature that actually produces these eggs. The ‘Alien Cyclops’ is really something to behold.

Check out Arrow Video’s Blu ray of this pic. It’s also something to behold.

3/5 out of 5 stars