I first discovered the documentary Who Took Johnny from Artforum magazine when John Waters named it as one of his Films of the Year for 2014. I found the trailer for it on YouTube and it REALLY freaked me out.
Johnny Gosch was a 14 year old boy who went missing whilst delivering newspapers in 1982. His parents reported his disappearance to the police but very quickly they appeared to just give up trying to find out what happened to him, where he is and if he was still alive. Johnny’s mother Noreen quickly became a one-woman crusade trying to do what the police should have been doing all along- trying to locate her son.
After seeing the film’s trailer I started to try to find the film but with no luck. And then the film was added to Netflix here in the UK!
The documentary doesn’t disappoint and is indeed just as brilliant as Mr Waters stated. There is so much credence to the saying ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’. This film epitomises it! Watch and be amazed, maddened and very, very surprised.
And another thing- this documentary isn’t for the faint of heart. Not just that but after watching this YouTube will start to suggest similar documentaries relating to similar topics to you. PROCEED WITH CAUTION! I have seen some of these other documentaries and just like this documentary they require nerves of steel. It’s a very dark rabbit hole to fall down.
I remember the Video Nasties furore like it was yesterday. With my father being an avid Daily Mail reader and staunch Thatcherite I felt like I had a front row seat with the then Tory government seeking to ban the very films I loved when they were released on video in the early 80’s.
I saw most of the media coverage regarding this as it happened. I’ve also seen the later retrospective takes on the moral panic regarding the so-called ‘Video Nasties’ but there is one documentary that perfectly captures the sense of fear, paranoia and scapegoating for the ills of society unfairly placed on these horror films which some were even calling ‘snuff movies’ (!) I’ve uploaded this here for your delectation. Please watch and prepare for your jaw to drop as you witness a frankly unbelievable episode from history in which, at the time, there seemed to be plenty of authoritative voices against these videos but none in the mainstream media who were standing up for them. It was akin to book-burning.
Hopefully we can learn from this sad era. It could never happen again. Or could it? With this documentary reminding us what happened, more and more this seems like an episode of unjustified censorship which can be consigned to history where it belongs.
The project of Psycho 2 was a poison chalice. On one hand, it provided a director with the opportunity to prove themselves by making a sequel to a bona fide horror classic by a master auteur. It also made available the possibility of continuing a story of one of cinema’s greatest and most complex characters, Norman Bates.
But on the other hand, the film would certainly be met with howls of derision from some cinema purists. Also, some would see a sequel to such a horror landmark as being cheap, an exercise in making a fast buck and the finished film would certainly draw comparisons to it’s superior first film.
Richard Franklin accepted the offer to act as director and does a pretty good job.
Everyone’s favourite Momma’s Boy Norman leaves the asylum he has been an inhabitant of for the last 22 years as he is judged to be satifactorily rehabilitated enough to be let loose into the wider community. Marion Crane’s sister Lila (Vera Miles returning to replay the role and a definite plus for the movie) vehemently opposes this move however and wants to see him locked up out of harm’s way forever.
Norman takes a job in a small diner near his home and it’s here that he meets Mary Samuels (Meg Tilly) who has just split up from her boyfriend and finds herself homeless. Norman offers her board and it’s here that the freakiness starts. Norman starts to see notes supposedly from his dead mother. Unexpected murders occur. Could Norman be up to his old tricks again? Or is he being gaslighted into lapsing into his old murderous ways?
It’s interesting that for this 80’s sequel the director knew that horror had not only advanced and evolved as a genre but that it was at that point in time enjoying somewhat of a renaissance with the slasher subgenre dominating the box office with seemingly new films being released almost every week. These films relied on gory and (in the best examples) innovative death sequences. Psycho 2 duly notes this and so we get some doozy gore scenes. The sequence involving a victim receiving a knife through the mouth exemplifies this. In this regard the sequel is like another sequel to a horror classic, Halloween 2. In the three years between the original John Carpenter classic and it’s sequel the horror genre had accelerated forth like a cinematic juggernaut with deaths becoming more explicit and graphic. Whilst there is little gore, blood or graphic violence in Halloween, it’s sequel includes scoldings, hypodermic needles in eyeballs and a hammer to the cranium to mention just a few ways as to how victims are disposed of.
There is even a nod to the slasher genre within Psycho 2 as we see two frisky teens break into the basement of the Bates House to indulge in atypical slasher teen activities like, y’know, making out whilst smoking pot. Mother wouldn’t have approved.
The film has a great feel and look that I haven’t experienced in any other film. It has a very grimy atmosphere. The fact that De Palma staple actor Dennis Franz is one of the cast playing a sleazeball who has turned the Bates Motel into a ‘rent rooms by the hour’ motel for those of lower morals also helps foster this dirty vibe. Psycho 2 feels like the innocence of Norman and the first film has been (for the audience’s entertainment) been defiled and is irretrievably gone (in a good way). The film is very astute in this way as maybe it was a comment on society in general.
Another major factor that helps establish this sleazy air is the amazing cinematography by the ever brilliant Dean Cundey (another factor that helps lift Psycho 2 from just being a cash-in sequel). Check out the astonishing camerawork that almost levitates and prowls around the outside of the Bates House as we see first the teens and then later Lila gain entry via the basement. In these scenes the camera feels like an ever present supernatural and voyeuristic entity as we see events that only an ever watchful killer would.
Of course, we’re waiting for Norman to go mad during the course of the film and this is brilliantly shown in the scene in which Norman is seen by Mary talking on the phone to his dead Mother and asking her what he should do next. This scene shows the brilliance of Anthony Perkins in this role. Psycho 2 would have been half the film it is if he hadn’t have returned to reprise a role he made all his own.
Add to all of this a final scene which is one of the most unexpected scenes in horror history (no, I’m not going to ruin it!) and you have a very good 1980’s sequel to a horror classic. No, it’s not as good as Psycho but then few films are. But it’s still well worth investigating.
Another one of my favourite VHS rentals as a kid was Terror in the Aisles. Essentially a compilation of clips from horror movies, this is That’s Entertainment for weirdos. And it works beautifully.
A major reason why this works is the sheer breadth of the films that are used from the old to the new, the well known to the obscure. There are also films used that aren’t strictly horror movies but are still examples of how suspense can be brilliantly generated in a film (Midnight Express, Night Hawks).
This film was also extremely popular in the UK as it contained clips from movies that were either banned by the BBFC (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) or discreetly removed from video shelves by them (The Exorcist).
Another masterstroke by the movie are the links that involve horror royalty Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen in a cinema pontificating on horror tropes and what makes them work. These sequences are priceless. Look out for a young Angel Salazar as a ‘feature moviegoer’.
Themes such as the villain and the victim/Final Girl are examined with the respective appropriate clips being used to illustrate the filmmakers points. Theres also a lesson in suspense by the master himself, Mr Alfred Hitchcock.
This is a great compilation for either the young horror hound looking for new thrills or the seasoned purveyor of all things cinematically depraved. I never thought this film would see the light of day on Blu ray because of the logistical nightmare associated with a compilation like this and rights issues. I’m very glad to say that I was wrong. A few years back Universal released Halloween 2 (1981) on Blu ray with Terror in the Aisles as one of the bonus features. An essential purchase.
Disney Pictures once made a horror film. Really! In the early 80’s they decided to capitalise on the horror boom and make a scary film for young adults.
The Watcher in the Woods was made in 1980. It holds the honour of being possibly the most rented VHS tape of yours truly when he was a young boy (Supergirl was a close second). I saw the film when I was 9 and loved it from the first time I saw it.
The film concerns a family renting a large house in the country which is suspiciously being let out at a very low price for some reason (always a red flag in a horror film. If this ever happened to me I’m pretty sure I’d ask about whether an Indian burial ground was beneath the premises in question). Theres one catch though- the rather sinister old woman who owns the property will be living in a room in the huge rambling mansion.
Pretty soon strange, bizarre things start to happen. Could there be something which explains this? Is there something that happened in the past that is the cause of these occurrences? Of course there is. This is a horror film, albeit one made by Disney Inc.
I watched the film again recently for the first time in years and I’m glad to say that the dark magic the movie held for me as a child hasn’t dissipated. There is something about the disquieting goings-on in the movie that feel like ingredients of a classic, quintessentially English and utterly unsettling ghost yarn. Everything points to a girl called Karen and what has happened to her.
Her ghostly omnipotent presence is felt in numerous different ways such as the youngest daughter, Ellen (played by Kyle Richards from Halloween) going into a trance and writing Karen’s name backwards on a dirty barn window (The Watcher in the Woods came out before The Shining and so it’s this film that owns the honour of giving audiences the first glimpse of an unnerving sequence involving a child writing something disturbing backwards). She then gets a new puppy who she calls Nerak (the name she wrote earlier and Karen’s name backwards).
The older daughter Jan also has her share of visitations from Karen in other disturbing ways. When a window breaks she can suddenly see her in the broken glass wearing white, blindfolded and crying for help. The same thing happens when a mirror is broken. She also sees Karen in a hall of mirrors at her local funfair. This imagery suggests that Karen is trapped somehow between dimensions, as if broken glass and mirrors can see beyond the rational world and into the beyond.
The film also suggests that both Jan and Ellen possess some kind of ESP or second sight which is triggered in different situations. In a huge plot reveal, the elderly owner of the property, Mrs Aylwood (played by the very Ms Bette Davis, no less!) also picks up on the fact that Jan reminds her of her daughter Karen who, it is revealed, disappeared decades before in mysterious circumstances. Suddenly Jan knows who the girl is in the visions.
But the film also mines into a fear of that particular time that was just starting to gain national attention. That was of the existence of prowlers and perverts who could harm children and young teenagers in a number of different ways. One of the characters in the film is called Tom Colley and it’s suggested at one point that he could be the watcher in the woods that the film’s title makes reference to. Why is he shown to be watching the two young girls so intently and then ducking out of view so that he isn’t noticed? In fact, his appearance and early scenes in the film reminded me of an episode of the children’s drama Grange Hill that was brave enough to cover the issue to alert kids and parents like of this phenomenon.
Another facet of the story that greatly adds to the film is the storyline as to how Karen went missing. During an eclipse four children (one of whom was Karen) practised an old ritual they had heard about which was something akin to an occult ceremonial rite in which they kinked arms around Karen in a local church not knowing that this childish excursion into the paranormal would have disastrous consequences for her. She is now trapped in a supernatural netherworld or limbo and appears to the newest child occupants of her old house (Jan and Ellen) pleading to be freed. This idea of an ancient ritual also suggests an old English ghost story in much the same way the events and imagery used within The Wicker Man do.
But whilst I watched this as a child and thoroughly enjoyed the film, I wasn’t to know of the troubled production and reception of the film and how Disney responded to this. The screenplay that was originally written for the film was by the genius Brian Clements who has written many classic British dramas including the brilliant Thriller series. But his version of the screenplay was based too closely to the source novel A Watcher in the Woods by Florence Engel Randall that was way more nuanced that the version of the film that I eventually rented on video. The original novel went to great pains to explain what the actual watcher was and why it was haunting the environs of the mansion and it’s adjacent woods. Within the novel the watcher is described as-
”a female alien humanoid-child. She was described to have a pointy chin, an upturned nose and wore a long flowing robe. Fifty years before, her parents had taken her to a ceremonial coming-of-age ritual on their home planet in which she was to view earth, but Karen, during her walk, was too near the portal when it opened and the two changed places. She is here as an observer and communicates with her race through telepathy.”
Whilst this would have been great to read off the page of a novel it would have been hard to depict in a motion picture. It would have required deft adaptation in terms of screenplay and a massive increase in budget and effects to successfully convey. But the filmmakers tried their best to depict this in the film’s original version. How was it received? Critics and audiences alike doubled up with laughter when the watcher was revealed at the end of the film.
This obviously didn’t sit well with Disney. They pulled the original version of the film from theaters after just 11 days of it playing and replaced it with a re-release of Mary Poppins (!) instead. The film’s conclusion was then rewritten (a crew member said that over 150 different endings were penned!) before a suitable ending was agreed upon and reshot, but not using the original director John Hough but the uncredited Vincent McEveety instead. This new final scene is the ending that exists today and is a lot more simplistic and in keeping with the rest of the film. There is no big reveal and it works so much better for that reason. Sometimes in a horror film, mystery is better than a flawed reveal resplendent with a complicated backstory ten minutes before the movie is due to end. However, this original ending does exist and can still be seen. The amended version of the Watcher in the Woods was released the following year in 1981.
The Watcher in the Woods is a peach of a movie. Classic haunted house/haunted surroundings tropes are handled by a great director and with an all-star cast. The events of the film never feel cliched or hackneyed. Grand Dame Bette Davis gives a truly great performance. Watch the scene where she meets Jan for the first time and utters the following in inimitable Bette Davis fashion- ‘Are you sensitive? Do you sense things?!’ all in close up. It chills to the marrow whilst making you think ‘They don’t make actresses like that anymore!’. The scenes of her with Kyle Richards in which we see that she’s not so sinister after all are beautiful to behold.
In fact, Ms Davis insisted that she could play the scenes of her character as a younger woman in the film. However this didn’t work after make-up tests were carried out and she just didn’t look 30 years younger. When the director said that she just didn’t look convincing enough Bette looked in the mirror and quipped ‘You’re Goddamned right!’ Another actress was employed to depict the character three decades before.
There was much derision of the choice of Lynn Holly Johnson for the part of Jan as she was more famous at that time for her ice-skating endeavours than for acting. But she brings a dewy-eyed innocence to the role as the young teen who is still very innocent and naive, even a little aloof. She was perfect for the role. Diane Lane was meant to have been cast in the part as was reported in The Hollywood Reported when the film was announced but Lynn was cast instead.
I honestly think The Watcher in the Woods is a classic horror film. A brave move for Disney that paid off, even if it took a rethink and a reshoot to fully realise it’s potential. If only they had done this before it’s release a few red faces at Disney could have been spared.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
I think Cujo is massively underrated and one of the best horror movies of the 80’s.
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.
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.
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.