‘For A Little Extra Publicity’- An In Depth Look At The Role of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981)

‘For A Little Extra Publicity’- An In Depth Look At The Role of Narcissistic Personality Disorder in Frank Perry’s Mommie Dearest (1981)

Mommie Dearest has the wrong kind of reputation. It was conceived as a movie version of Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina’s tell-all book regarding her upbringing and the years of abuse she endured at the hands of her mother. Instead, it’s now synonymous with being campy, ‘so bad it’s good’ and as being one of the worst films ever made. This article will show that all of these tags are wrong, the result of lazy journalism and hack film criticism and that Mommie Dearest is far more complex and ahead of it’s time than most film critics, journalists and viewers give it credit for. There is more to Faye Dunaway’s central performance than meets the eye.

But first, a little background as to how the film came to be made.

The book of Mommie Dearest was published in 1978, a year after the death of Joan Crawford. It was a huge sensation and topped booksellers lists, eventually selling 4 million copies and that was only in hardback form!

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It’s transition to film was always going to problematic. Joan was beloved by both industry insiders and moviegoers alike and so there would instantly be a lot of opposition at such a hatchet piece making it’s way onto the screen before it had even been made. 

Another group that would be waiting in the wings to give their verdict on the movie was the gay community. Crawford was and quite possibly still is the biggest gay icon to have ever graced the silver screen. In fact the only other actress to rival her in the eyes of gay viewers was her real life nemesis Bette Davis who would later star with Joan in the horror movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Crawford was such a gay icon that her image and the very iconography surrounding her was a telling indication of all things ‘gay’ and used to great effect to imply this in other films. During the explosive revelations that unfurl in The Boys in the Band, a character feigns boredom and grabs a coffee table book on Crawford to peruse instead. Ms Crawford’s presence isn’t out of place in this landmark movie which deals with gay men and their lives.

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Harold browses a book entitled The Films of Joan Crawford in ‘Boys in the Band’

Within the movie Heathers, Christian Slater and Winona Ryder’s characters have just bumped off a duo of school jocks but are trying to frame it as a double suicide of two men in a homosexual relationship. The artefacts they leave behind to confirm this are mineral water, mascara and a Joan Crawford postcard as well as a fake suicide note. Joan’s inclusion leaves no doubt that the pair must have been nelly.

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A Joan Crawford postcard as signifier. A sure sign about someone’s sexuality.

Joan Crawford once stated in an interview that of the then current crop of Hollywood actresses, Faye Dunaway was the only one who she’d like to portray her in a film. In her book published in 1971 entitled My Way Of Life, Crawford stated that, ‘Of all the actresses, to me, only Faye Dunaway has the talent and the class and the courage it takes to make a real star.’

And she was right. Dunaway was the last of a dying breed- an exceptional actress with an incredible acting range, a palpable strength and was a real star reminiscent of the kind that Hollywood used to foster the talents of decades before.

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The director chosen to helm Mommie Dearest was acclaimed director, Frank Perry. His previous works included such lauded works as The Swimmer and Diary of a Mad Housewife.

With everything in place to make an esteemed biopic of Ms Crawford and her adopted daughter that might bag Dunaway a clutch of awards and even an Oscar for her portrayal, why is the film today seen as such a cult classic rather than as a universally celebrated mainstream landmark? What was it within the finished film that appealed to lovers of more marginal cinematic pleasures that resonated so powerfully? Is there any kind of explanation for the extremities of the film? I believe there are plenty of signifiers regarding this in almost every scene within the film. 

Mommie Dearest had the tagline of ‘Faye Dunaway IS Joan Crawford’. A huge part of the movie’s success and if it would be believable and actually work was to be if Dunaway could convincingly look like Crawford and behave like her. Crawford was an actress who was beloved by the movie-going public who thought of her as a friend as well as a star and actress. People had seen her in so many movies that she felt almost like someone they knew. This meant that Dunaway had her work cut out for her. If her depiction of Crawford didn’t look, feel or sound right then the movie’s plausibility was impaired right from the start.

This reminds me of the movie Superman in 1978. Whilst big names (including the acting Holy Grail, Mr Marlon Brando) were secured and in place to star in the film, the tagline and the conceit it hinged on was as the tagline stated ‘You’ll believe a man can fly.’ Thus, if there was one whiff of wires, dodgy visuals as were used in other previous screen incarnations of The Man of Steel or any cheap techniques used to show Superman airborne then this would turn this huge budgeted movie into a Superflop. Of course, by the time we see Superman fly (and the filmmakers cheekily don’t show this until well into the running time of the movie after Clark had travelled into the cocoon of The Fortress of Solitude and gestated into Superman) we do see that the wait was worth it.

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Superman The Movie- a tagline that a lot hinged on. The wait was worth it too as seen below

The same happens with Mommie Dearest. Yes, we get a picture of Faye as Joan on the film’s poster but any kind of picture editing trickery could have been applied to make the likeness plausible. The audience need to see Faye as Joan moving before their eyes on the movie screen.

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We don’t have to wait as long as we did with Superman but director Perry still tantalisingly keeps us on the edge of our seats for the ‘big reveal’. But this first faceless scene isn’t some filler introduction that feels unnecessary or is only played out to build to the first glimpse of Crawford. We get to see how a typical day in the life of a Hollywood heavyweight would begin and how dedicated Joan was at what she did.

This is also a very important scene for fans of Crawford who saw her as Hollywood Royalty. Crawford wasn’t just a great actress but also, and more importantly for some, a star. Everything was done for her fans and we get a glimpse of how all-consuming this was with the 4am wake-up call, the straps applied under her chin being taken off and discarded, the ice facial (Ms Crawford has finished washing her face with boiling hot water and grabs a couple of handfuls of ice which we saw her prepare earlier and presses them into her face. ‘Ah! Youth!’ John Waters exclaims on his audio commentary for the movie when this sequence is onscreen). 

The scrubbing of the arms, hands and nails is very telling in this scene as we will see later in the film. Ms Crawford seems to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and a severe, irrational hatred of germs and dirt.

This film was possibly the first to depict this and is one reason why there is more to Mommie Dearest than others would have you believe. This condition and it’s depiction in the film will be examined in more depth later on. Back to the ‘big reveal’.

We then get to see her being taken to the studio. Even in the car we see that she’s hard at work- inspecting the script, making amendments and recommendations, signing 8x10s for fans.

Whilst she is in the studio we are teased with specific facial features being made up but still not the whole face. We see an eye and her lips at the start of their cosmetic transformation and then when they fully made up.

This is a great scene as it shows how Joan had a trademark look and how her appeal was reliant on image, make up and how this image was intertwined into every role she played. This could also show Joan’s false self, the mask she wears for fans which is VERY different to her real self underneath this artifice.

We next get to see her being dressed for her role and the care and precision taken in this process.

And then we get a studio lackey pop his head round the door of La Crawford’s dressing room asking if shes ready. And BOOM! We get to see Faye Dunaway spin around in a swivel chair she is sat in to face the moviegoing public as Joan Crawford for the first time. Eyebrows and all! And it was worth the wait!

The Big Reveal
The big reveal. ‘Eyebrows drawn on with stencils’ noticed John Waters. And he’s right.

The next scene hints at the insanity at the dark heart of the movie. Joan, her faithful housekeeper and personal assistant Carol Anne and Helga, Joan’s housekeeper are cleaning the house. Joan inspects her worker’s cleaning efforts and on seeing a large pot plant, asks to move it. On doing so there is found to be dirt under it which enrages Joan who insists on cleaning it herself. She then says to Helga after first shouting at her that, ‘I’m not mad at you, I’m mad at the dirt!’, the first of many lines from the film that transcends the movie and it’s script and took on a life of it’s own. Joan’s OCD has reared it’s ugly head.

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On the arrival of Joan’s boyfriend Greg Savitt, they head upstairs for some ‘afternoon delight’. It’s with this that we get the tremendous scene in which Joan is in the shower, letting the water seemingly melt her perfectly coiffured hair and wash away her mask of make-up. She is in an OCD sufferers nirvana- a shower!

JoanShowerIt’s the next scene that we see Joan get broody as the topic of children and the whole premise of the film (and book) comes to the fore. Does she sincerely want children or does she just sees the opportunity for the extra publicity she will garner from having them? The occasion is a photo op that involves Joan giving Christmas presents to orphans at a Catholic orphanage. This shows the sheer perversity of Hollywood, the false ‘too good to be true’ way that stars were depicted in those days (the photos taken at such an event would have been so syrupy that they could have given the magazine readers diabetes by just looking at them) and how surreal such a set up was. There are nuns, orphans, Joan but most importantly for her, photographers! It’s here that a small blonde haired girl catches Joan’s eye as we see her get broody- for more column inches!

A walk on the beach with Greg provides Joan the chance to provide backstory by telling him that she can’t have kids, having had numerous miscarriages with her previous beau, Francois Tome. Greg warns Joan that it will be nay impossible for her to adopt a child as she isn’t married and so the child wouldn’t have a father figure in it’s life and shes been divorced not just once but twice.

This leads to the scene in the adoption office in which Joan is informed that indeed her application for adoption has been rejected. Joan sees red (the first real glimpse of Joan changing into Godzilla in an instant), grabs the adoption application folder out of the agency woman’s hands and curses her (as a funny aside, John Waters on his commentary for the film yells ‘Hit her!’ when this happens. And I’m surprised Joan didn’t!).

Yet the next scene shows that rules can be bent as Joan prepares for the arrival of her first child from sources unknown (‘You cost me a lot of favours’, Greg says to the baby. Joan describes him as nothing but a ‘crooked lawyer’ in a later scene which might explain how he acquired a child for Joan) when she is finally brought to Casa Crawford. There’s a hilarious moment where Joan takes her new baby in her hands for the first time. This exquisite and innocent baby comes face to face with the overly made-up, utterly artificial face of Joan/Godzilla and is quite something to witness.

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In fact, the first time I saw Mommie Dearest this scene reminded me of when the xenomorph comes face to face with Jones the cat in Alien.

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Tellingly Joan says to the child ‘I’m going to give you all the things I never had!’ Joan was born Lucille Fay LeSueur in San Antonio, Texas to Thomas E. LeSueur who worked in construction and Anna Bell Johnson. It’s clear within Mommie Dearest that Joan thought she should have been born into a family that had a higher social standing. The fact that she was born into such blue collar and ordinary circumstances shows how entitled she felt with entitlement being a massive indicator of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (more about this later).

The next scene depicts Joan’s daughter named Christina as a young girl at a lavish birthday party thrown by her mother in her honour. On first glance this scene is strangely reminiscent of the birthday scene from The Omen but obviously minus the nanny hanging herself. Instead we get Joan dressed in a similar costume to her daughter and looking utterly bizarre and sinister because of it. There are echoes of Baby Jane wearing one of her child star costumes even though she is a grown woman. Her attire may be cute on a child star but is utterly creepy on a grown adult. In fact, in her book Christina said that on some occasions such as when her friends came over her mother wanted to be just like her daughter and to be seen as an equal to her. One occasion was when Christina had her friends over for a sleepover. Joan was keen to be just ‘one of the gals’ and even insisted that her and her friends referred to her as ‘Stinky’!

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Joan as big child in her birthday dress. Resplendent with HUGE eyebrows.

Yes, the occasion is a birthday party for her child, but the reason why everyone is there is because Joan is. We see other children at the party, soldiers (!) but again, more importantly, photographers. We also see that Joan has adopted another child, a boy named Christopher. Whilst Joan coos over Christopher whilst being shot by the paparazzi as the soldiers look on, she exclaims to her spectators ‘I’d like to adopt every unwanted child in the world. No-one should be unwanted. Life is tough enough when you are wanted!’ She’s presenting an image to the world of being the perfect mother, a sickening and unrealistic ideal that, as the course of the film shows, is completely false and couldn’t be further from the truth.

In fact, later in this scene Joan’s mask almost slips. She calls over Christina whilst she is still being photographed by the bank of paparazzi attendant. When Joan suggests to Christina that it’s time to open her presents, her daughter notices that she has a huge grass stain on her frock. Whilst Joan says it doesn’t matter, Christina insists that one of their staff can clean it off and that it won’t take long. Joan is adamant until a photographer says that, in fact, the grass stain might show in the photographs. Joan is forced to back down and allows Christina to have the stain removed. We see Joan angered by this. She has been shown to be wrong and sees this as her own daughter, who is just supposed to be a mere accessory for her own image, seemingly getting the better of her.

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Usurped! She will pay for that.

Also, when Christina returns to open her presents and to be photographed doing so, the gathered press frame the pics so that Christina is centre-stage with Joan being relegated to the sidelines- Christina the subject, Joan the accessory. This upsets Crawford massively. This scene also shows the start of the power struggles that occur between Joan and Christina. Throughout the film we’ll see that when Christina (or anyone else for that matter) causes some kind of narcissistic injury to Joan, she gets her own back and with more severity if she can.

It’s worth introducing Narcissistic Personality Disorder here. Joan exhibits many facets of this condition and explains why the film and it’s lead character are so extreme. NPD is a personality disorder that involves someone who has an irredeemably low sense of self-esteem and self worth and will do anything and everything to remedy this situation and inflate their low, empty self, (apart from self-reflection and self-development which the narcissist is incapable of) however dark these actions might be. The feeling gained from elevating their fragile low self is known as narcissistic supply and is like a drug to a narcissist.

NPD is classified as a Cluster B Personality Disorder. Other examples of personality disorders in this group are psychopaths and sociopaths which should show how dark and dangerous NPD really is. Narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths all share the trait of a complete lack of empathy and an inability to possess it which is also a telling sign of how malevolent these personality disorders are. In Dr Grande’s excellent video What is Narcissistic Personality Disorder, he categorises the criteria for NPD as set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as being a grandiose sense of self-importance (the narcissist needs to be recognised as being ‘superior’. Woe betide anyone who doesn’t comply), a preoccupation with unlimited success (this could manifest itself in terms of success, money and power), a need for excessive admiration (this is to prop up their very low self-esteem. They constantly want to be complimented) and a massive sense of entitlement (they expect everyone to look at them favourably. As everyone has some sense of entitlement, the narcissist’s is hugely disproportionate when compared to non-narcissist’s. The narcissist wants EVERYTHING and NOW!), exploiting relationships for their own gains and, as previously mentioned, a lack of empathy (this makes the task of exploiting relationships with others very easy for narcissists. Narcissists can’t connect with the verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate what type of feelings someone is experiencing or possesses). Narcissists also exhibit chronic envy (this can manifest itself as them being envious of others and delusions of others being massively envious of them) and huge levels of arrogance (they will be condescending towards other people they view as ‘inferior’ and beneath them).

Someone with NPD doesn’t deal well with criticism. They perceive it as humiliating which leads to a sense of shame and even depression. Narcissistic injury is a term which refers to what a narcissist experiences when they sense perceived or actual criticism, when others attempt to control them (they only like to control others), or if others call them out on their terrible and degrading behaviour of others. This ‘injury’ sets into motion a series of techniques that the narcissist will use to redress the balance and humiliate, degrade and possibly destroy the perpetrator whilst giving the narcissist huge amounts of supply.

Even worse, if the narcissistic injury is bad enough for the narcissist, this might make them very quickly change for the worse and fly into a fit of what is called ‘narcissistic rage’ in which their mask of false self comes off completely and we see the true horror of what is beneath and how evil this person’s actions can be (we will see this in a handful of scenes within Mommie Dearest which mark the film out as so extreme and why lovers of cult cinema almost levitate towards the film like it’s so kind of exploitation film fan magnet, if you will). 

Another important facet of narcissism to note is that many speak of the ‘mask’ narcissists wear and the image they try to project onto the world. The narcissist seeks all of their validation from external sources as they don’t seek to address their low self-esteem themselves through self development to ultimately seek self- validation which is so much healthier. The image they project is crafted to try to satisfy their need for this external validation and admiration to the maximum. This mask or ‘false self’ is a massive lie and fabrication which hides their true dark and damaged self. When the mask slips the narcissist’s true self and what lies beneath this mask is apparent for the whole world (or just a select few) to see. And it’s never pretty.

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The Narcissist’s mask and the darker self underneath it

A great example of the type of person who would seek validation solely from external sources (from fans and the public in general) who also has a professionally crafted, honed and polished manufactured image or mask would be a huge Hollywood star. Which is why we’re here!

The kind of madness and crazy-making behaviour that the narcissist creates is so extreme that it would appeal instantly to the fans of exploitation, ‘cult’ cinema with events being so over the top, accentuated and completely nuts that fans of this broad genre would be more than just satisfied but leaping to their feet to applaud, as we’ll see as events unfurl within Mommie Dearest. 

Far from being the over the top movie depiction of child abuse which seems exaggerated complete with events and emotions turned up to 11 for the cinema screen, Mommie Dearest is the most complete and uncensored depiction of Narcissistic Personality Disorder presented on celluloid so far. It makes later depictions of the disorder (The Devil Wears Prada instantly springs to mind) somewhat mannered and conservative by comparison. The fact that NPD was only classified in the DCM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the text used to diagnose psychiatric conditions and used by psychologists, psychiatrists and clinicians professionally) in 1980 and Mommie Dearest was released the following year, shows how far ahead of it’s time the film really was.

Of course, Joan in real life or the persona depicted in the movie was never professionally diagnosed. Another facet of narcissists is that they have an inability to self reflect on their condition and would deny possessing it if they were accused of having NPD. They would probably try to turn the diagnosis around to try to imply that in fact it’s the accuser who has the condition rather than themselves (another narcissist trait is employing this technique which is referred to as D.A.R.V.O. which stands for Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender). It might be pointed out that this essay isn’t a definitive diagnosis as Joan isn’t alive to be assessed professionally and so I can only go on the behaviours laid out in the movie which is based on Christina Crawford’s version of events from her upbringing i.e. a subjective second hand chronicle of events. 

And so the earlier event at the birthday party sets into action a chain of events that we will see replayed throughout the movie- Joan besmirched, sometimes by something that actually happened, sometimes not but rather something that has somehow triggered a narcissistic injury which makes her try to get revenge and engage in oneupmanship to make herself more powerful than her opponent and gain narcissistic supply to inflate her perpetually low self esteem and self-worth. After the party, Christina is marvelling at all of the presents she has received. She loves one doll especially. Joan asks if this is her favourite present. When Christina says,’Yes’, Joan responds with,’Good! Then that’s the present you’ll get to keep!’ whilst saying that the other presents will be donated to the orphans who have nothing. We see Christina deflated and upset by this. Joan has restored the power dynamic in their relationship that had been reversed momentarily at the party and in front of onlookers.

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In every dream home a heartache- the ‘one gift rule’ is implemented

Greg enters with a bracelet for Christina but on hearing about Joan’s ‘one gift rule’ persuades her to let Christina keep both his gift and the doll.

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Greg says Christina can keep the doll and the bracelet

But this scene also shows something else and that is that Christina can be somewhat stubborn and possesses a rebellious streak. When asked about the present to Christopher that Joan has made Christina give him so that he doesn’t feel left out, she screws up her face, picks up his present and then casually chucks it to one side out of resentment. It would appear that Joan isn’t the only diva in the Crawford household. There are more examples of Christina’s brattishness that maybe explains why audiences side with Joan within the film, even when she is inflicting on her daughter the most brutal child abuse and neglect. The match between a beloved and iconic member of Hollywood Royalty (not to mention a huge gay icon) and a brattish, privileged adopted child living in the lap of luxury was never going to be a fair fight in the eyes of the audience, especially cult film audiences. Viewers were always going to cheer for Joan.

The following scene shows Christina swimming in the huge swimming pool that is part of Casa Crawford. This scene also further plays out the power struggle between Joan and her adopted offspring. Joan says to Greg poolside that she doesn’t want Christina to grow up to be a ‘spoiled Hollywood brat’ and pushes her daughter to practice and swim more even though the child is at the point of exhaustion. 

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Just as Greg is leaving he turns to see a race in the water between Joan and Christina. Even with a headstart Joan wins easily and doesn’t concede defeat to her child. We even get to see Joan exit the pool with perfect poise and a movie star walk almost as if the press are present. Joan is always ‘on’. 

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Joan beats Christina in the swimming race…

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…and even finds the time to walk out of the pool like the movie star she is. Esther Williams eat your heart out.

On leaving the pool Joan the narcissist can’t help but taunt her daughter with ‘You lost again!’ 

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Rather than letting her daughter win on purpose Joan sees her victory as a life lesson for Christina by telling her that her win was down to her being ‘stronger and faster’ than her and overrides Christina’s protestations about size and age. This was an easy win for Joan in terms of the race and the acquisition of power and narcissistic supply. The narcissist will always win when it’s possible to do so and certainly not concede or feign defeat even for a small child who just so happens to be their offspring. 

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With this Christina says that if thats her attitude she’s not going to play with her anymore. Joan smacks her behind for this and locks her in a poolside building.

There was something very masculine and somewhat otherworldly about Joan Crawford, in real life and not just in this movie. Her shoulders and use of shoulder pads accentuated this further. It brings to mind the quote by Alan Bennett regarding the similarly masculine character of Beverley Moss in Abigail’s Party when he described her as having ‘shoulders like a lifeguard and a walk to match’. These masculine shoulders have also provided another reason for various drag queen’s love of Crawford and Dunaway’s portrayal of her.

Mommie Dearest perceptively portrayed this facet of her with Dunaway’s wardrobe. The swimming scene perfectly shows this. Look at the shoulderpads of Joan’s robe. These aren’t natural looking shoulder embellishments but a quarterback’s shoulder guards. These give Joan an air of being all powerful, unconquerable and invincible. There are similar wardrobe embellishments that emphasise Joan’s body shape that are perfect for certain extreme scenes throughout the film that we will examine in due course.

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After this we see Joan have a run next to Carol Ann who is driving one of Joan’s gorgeous vintage cars. This short scene gives a glimpse not just of Joan’s commitment to being a huge Hollywood star but also of her internal battles and worries that she is obviously wrestling with and vicariously getting out of her system through her arduous exercise session. ‘Fans should know the price you pay’ Carol Ann says to which Joan replies, ‘Mayer should know the price I pay. The biggest female he’s got. Ever had. And he’s burying me alive.’ Joan then follows this with much muttering and a brief sequence of truly manic running that is very disturbing. The mask has slipped and the demon beneath is briefly viewed. 

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She arrives back home to hear from Gregg on the phone that he has secured a dream role that she had desperately wanted. She is over the moon with this. She tells Carol Ann with Helga looking on. Notice how everyone present is happy with this news or rather everyone present is permitted to be happy. Contrast this with the earlier scene that also features both Carol Ann and Helga whereby they were both on tenderhooks as Joan inspected their cleaning efforts. This is very telling. The narcissist likes control and that includes the control of other’s emotions. It’s almost as if Joan is dictating which emotions it’s acceptable to feel as she is letting her staff know when it’s OK for them to be happy (when she is) and when they aren’t allowed to be (when she has discovered dirt under a potted plant which means Joan has the right to be angry. Her staff, accordingly, have to be apologetic and meek). The narcissist really is the centre of their universe and the most important person present with other lesser (in the mind of the narcissist) people orbiting around them whilst knowing their inferior status and standing.

However, this jubilant scene suddenly becomes the opposite as Joan goes to look for Christina to tell her the good news. On looking in her bedroom and not finding her there she instead finds her daughter in Joan’s bedroom, in front of the many mirrors that the ever-vain Joan has. Christina is unaware that her mother is watching her as she pretends to be her mother whilst accepting an imaginary award, thanking her fans and luxuriating in the imaginary attention of the collected fans and press.

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The superficial and shallow emotions of the narcissist. Joan gets her dream role and is jubilant (notice how the narcissists’s emotions dictate those of everyone in their vicinity)
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That is until she discovers Christina imitating her. Happiness quickly switches to anger. 

On seeing this a more emotionally stable person would think this scene was adorable and the ultimate compliment with Christina pretending to be her massively famous mother as she obviously looks up to her as some kind of hero and role model, a person to try to aspire to be. But this is Joan Crawford! She accuses Christina of trying to humiliate and mock her. There is also an air of Joan feeling that Christina is trying to step into her shoes. Joan had worked hard to get to where she is and she wasn’t going to vacate her throne, even for her daughter. Joan’s insecurity is bubbling to the surface. 

The ‘imitation’ first half of this scene reminds me of the scene from the trash masterpiece Pink Flaminogos with Raymond and Connie Marble’s ‘rather furtile’ manservant Channing being caught pretending to be them whilst they are supposedly out of the house. ‘I was just playing!’ Channing protests as the pair expose him mid-act and humiliate him accordingly.

However, the second half of this scene in Mommie Dearest turns unexpectedly chaotic, feels out of control and is yet another reason why the movie is so beloved of the cult cinema fraternity. On snatching away a scarf of hers that Christina is wearing, Joan tries to brush out the setting lotion that her daughter has put in her hair to try to imitate her mother. When it won’t brush out, Joan grabs some scissors out of a drawer and proceeds to frantically, hysterically and manically cut Christina’s hair whilst hollering ‘I’d rather you were bald than looking like a tramp!’ As Christina is imitating her mother, does this mean that Joan thinks of herself as a tramp?! Narcissists also use projection and project their feelings about themselves onto their prey. This film is a therapist’s wet dream.

In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘Are Narcissists Happy?’ she explains that narcissists possess very superficial emotions and because of this can switch emotions very quickly. With these emotions being surface level rather than deep, a narcissist can go from happiness (Joan rejoicing that she has just received the role she wants) to disbelief and/or rage in an instant (Joan seeing her daughter imitating her and perceiving this as Christina trying to either share or take over completely her spotlight and what makes her feel ‘special’). 

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This scene is so frenzied, so insane that it’s easy to see why the film has a fond place in the hearts of cult cinema fans the world over. For a second the audience gets the impression that rather than just cutting her daughter’s hair, Joan will start to actually physically maim her, which is also seemingly felt by Joan as after cutting massive sections of Christina’s hair off she looks at the scissors in her hand as if the thought of maiming her with them would be a fitting conclusion, comes to her senses and throws them across the floor.

This scene shows the emotional instability, fragility and extremities of Joan’s emotions, how she can turn from jubilation to destructiveness and all consuming anger in a heartbeat. If film fans and critics thought that this adaptation of Christina Crawford’s book was going to be lily-livered and wouldn’t depict the true horror of what she lived through then this scene (along with other notable stand out scenes to be explored later) proves the opposite. The film doesn’t go the extra mile in depicting these extreme events, it goes a lot further.

The next scene provides the impetus for another chain of events in Joan’s world.  Joan arrives at a restaurant with Greg but is forced to dine with studio head L B Mayer even though she states that she has a separate table booked for just her and Gregg. ‘I insist!’ Mayer says with a hard glare as Joan tries to escape to her own table whilst he has financial backers dining at his. Joan being there would lend the meal some glamour and proof of the kind of star that Mayer’s studio cultivates and who bring in money for them. Joan is an accessory, a cash-cow, akin to a rented escort for the evening.

‘You’re aces!’ Mayer says to Joan to which she quips back ‘Thats good because aces beat kings!’ (first pic below) ‘Not in Hollywood, dear!’ is how Mayer responds (second pic below). Joan has lost that battle and publicly (her face in the third pic below says it all!). This scene is also very telling as Joan now knows how Christina must have felt because of how her mother has viewed her all along- as an accessory and dehumanised because of it.

And we don’t have to wait long before we see these repercussions. We witness Joan and Greg in her bedroom back at her mansion. She is livid with what happened at the restaurant which she solely blames on Greg. If only he had walked into the restaurant together they would have had dinner at their table rather than Greg entering first and gravitating to Mayer’s table. ‘Hauling me over like some kind of picked up floozy!’ Joan remarks.

As she pours her umpteenth drink Greg remarks that ‘When you were a kid that made you look sexy. Now it just makes you look drunk!’ This dig at her age causes another narcissistic injury for Joan which results in her throwing a drink over him.

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When Greg states that he didn’t walk into the restaurant because Joan was beseiged with fans she states ‘You expect me to ignore my fans? They are life and death to me, baby! They’re the ones who really made me.’ This is very telling and is also narcissistic behaviour- her self esteem and self worth are so low that she needs the love of others to feel good about herself and seeks external validation rather than being able to obtain it from within. The blind adoration of her fanbase would do this for her. Anyone who doesn’t unconditionally love Joan or sees behind her mask will be dealt with accordingly- as we see now. Greg then states ‘You were the shop girl who fought her way to the top. Made a great success.’ He then stipulates it more plainly. ‘The truth is you’re getting old!’ to which she replies ‘You’re nothing but a rotten crooked lawyer!’ When Greg gets up to leave, even at one point grabbing her shoulders and shaking her with rage, she backs down, breaks down into tears and begs him not to leave. He also astutely accuses her of acting which is another way of him saying that he sees through her and her false self. Her tears, if they are genuine, might be yet another sign that Joan suffers from Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissists hate being abandoned.

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Greg does leave and because of this is excised from Joan’s life on every imaginable level. The next day Joan and Carol-Ann are found cutting out Greg’s image from every photograph that he is in.

The control freak Joan is clearly attempting to erase her past. Christina notes that it appears that if her mother doesn’t like you, she can just make you disappear. In her book this was actually pertaining to another older adopted child that Joan took in. Something had happened to make Joan hate the child, their possessions and any trace of them removed from her household and her life, never to be mentioned again, as if they had never existed or been part of her and Christina’s life in the first place. The child’s name was Christopher. Tellingly, he was replaced with another son who Joan also called Christopher as if the older one was merely replaceable, same name and all. 

We then see a team of staff putting photographs of Joan into envelopes for her adoring fans. The fans made her after all! And they give her the adoration and validation her fragile ego demands to elevate itself. The sending of a signed image of herself to her fans ensures that their love and adoration for her will always still be there. 

There’s another overlap with John Waters’ oeuvre with the next scene in which Christina and Christopher’s loud playing wakes Joan up. Joan shouting at them from an upstairs window in reminiscent of Peggy Gravel shouting at similarly noisy children after her window is smashed by a baseball.

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Joan screaming at her children is reminiscent of…
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…Peggy Gravel in John Waters’ Desperate Living

Christina is seen bringing her mother her coffee on a tray after this and saying, ‘Sorry, Mommie’ whilst being completely compliant and meek after this incident even though she was just being a child and playing boisterously with her brother. This is also a trait of people who have a narcissist in their lives. In Dr Ramani’s excellent video ‘The Narcissist and the Handmaid’ she explains how victims of narcissists will act as ‘handmaids’ to the narcissist to minimise any toxic behaviour or catastrophic fallout that may come from the narcissist. This is very common when the narcissist is a parent, especially one with an addiction problem. The victim is desperately trying to make their life as stress free as possible by making the narcissist’s life as smooth as possible even if it puts themselves or others at a disadvantage. In this instance Christina bringing her mother her coffee, apologising and addressing her mother in the way her mother prefers is an example of this. In some instances if the handmaid also enables the narcissist’s toxic actions towards others then so be it, if it makes their life a little easier and less toxic.

Joan being an all-powerful presence who can make people and things disappear is also evident in the next scene. Joan spies on Christina telling her dolls off (and tellingly validating one of Joan’s narcissist episodes) for waking her mother up who has a very important meeting with studio head L B Mayer and needs some peace and quiet before that! When Christina returns to her bedroom later she finds that all of her dolls have been removed. On asking her mother about it Joan remarks that maybe the same could happen to Christina if she misbehaves! This scene is especially notable because Joan is reclining on a chaste-longe wearing a turban, matching white bath robe and applying skin cream to her elbows! The film just continues to give and give. 

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Joan’s meeting with head of MGM Studios L B Mayer doesn’t go well. Out of nowhere, Mayer says that Crawford will leave MGM as cinema owners have voted her ‘box-office poison’. This visibly rocks Crawford so that she starts to weep. She requests for Mayer to do her the courtesy of escorting her to her car. But he doesn’t and Joan has to endure the Walk of Shame in all it’s terrible glory.

This leads to such a deep narcissistic wound that it initiates one of Mommie Dearest’s most infamous scenes and quoted lines. Joan has gone berserk in her rose garden (and changed into a ballgown to do it!) with a pair of garden shears (!)

Carol Ann wakes Christina and Christopher up so that they can help to clear up the roses that Joan has hacked away. It’s here that we see something within the film that isn’t explained but is within Christina’s book. We see Christopher is fastened into his bed by some kind of harness type contraption. This was known as the ‘Sleep Safe’ according to Christina. It was used to fasten small toddlers into their beds only Joan had had it modified for Christopher so that even though he was older than the age it was originally intended for, it could be used to stop him from getting up in the middle of the night for committing some terrible deed such as using the bathroom! This act of power and control is also indicative of Joan’s narcissism. How dare he get up to empty his bladder when it might wake her up?!

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The ‘Sleep Safe’ used to stop Christopher from taking a leek in the middle of the night

As Joan undertakes some frantic midnight horticulture she repeats Mayer’s damning, ego-bruising words (‘box office poison!’) as they violently swirl around her head. She is also shown to have cuts to her face and shows that her rage is stronger than any kind of superficial self injuries. Her face is just one step away from Regan MacNeil’s in The Exorcist.

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Just when this display of narcissistic rage couldn’t get any more extreme Joan hollers, ‘TINA! BRING ME THE AX!’

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With that she starts to manically chop down a tree in her garden until it is triumphantly felled. This is one the most demented, surreal, nightmarish and brilliant sequences ever filmed in the history of cinema. It also demonstrates the extra mile the film and Faye Dunaway went to fully portray just how bizarre the circumstances were. Joan focussed the rage that she couldn’t aim at Mayer against an object that couldn’t answer back and could be successfully destroyed. Why she chose her garden is anyone’s guess.

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Maybe Joan was tapping into this side of herself when she chose/was driven to star in films later in her career that were aimed more at the exploitation/cult film crowd out of necessity. She was certainly no stranger to wielding an axe either onscreen or during promotion for these types of films and whoever cast her must have recognised the manic and extreme side to her on-screen persona.

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Joan with ax onscreen…
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…and off

After this mindfuck of a scene we see (relative) stability restored and a new day with fresh drama (but minor compared to Joan’s attempts at horticulture). Carol-Ann has been chosen to read lines from Mildred Pierce with Joan so that Crawford can learn the script. Tellingly, one section of the screenplay resonates with Joan a little bit too much. It’s suggested by Mildred’s daughter (voiced by Carol-Anne) that her mother is from the wrong side of the tracks and maybe thats why her father left. With this Joan full on slaps Carol-Anne across the face which understandably halts rehearsals.

This is very perceptive of the film. With Joan being the ‘shop-girl who made good’ (in the book of Mommie Dearest, Christina mentions the rumours of Joan becoming a prostitute at one point to claw her way to the top) she is only well aware of the circumstances she was born into and is deeply ashamed of them. In fact, her other issues (NPD, OCD) could maybe be explained as being the result of her childhood and this sense of shame of not being born into money. Her sense of grandiosity and entitlement suggests that she should have been. These are also key facets of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

After the slap Joan replies with her next line from the script that seems just as apt to what has happened in real life (‘I’m sorry I did that. I’d’ve rather cut off my hand’). But this scene also has an extra layer of meaning- Joan is rehearsing because this is the first time in years that she is being made to take a screen test for a role. This is understandably a huge step backwards for Joan and reminiscent of when she first started and all of that time’s associated fears and uncertainties for her. This also must have bruised her already oh so fragile ego.

Another scene that highlights Joan and her need for control is the lunch scene. Herself, Christina and Carol-Anne are eating rare steak but Christina complains because she doesn’t like it as there’s blood oozing out of it.

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There then ensues a battle of wills. Christina is adamant that she won’t eat the steak. Joan tells her she can’t leave the table until it’s finished.

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Joan goes back to her later on and says she can leave the table but not until shes taken the still uneaten steak to the fridge. The steak is then produced again for her evening meal which Joan insists on her eating on her own in her room. The steak is then seen untouched beside Christina’s bed as she sleeps when Joan checks on her late at night. When Christina comes down for breakfast the next morning she finds the steak again waiting for her to be finished. When she still doesn’t finish it she is made by Joan to put it in the bin.

Whilst this scene emphasises Joan’s need for control and the extraordinary lengths she will go to to make Christina bend to her rule, it’s shows the reality that Joan had to face. Far from being the ready made fan club that she envisaged when she thought of adoption and the press columns this would afford her, Christina was a stubborn child as some children are and so what manifested itself was a battle of wills between Godzilla and a small child who was asserting herself. 

It’s very telling when Joan wins the Oscar for Mildred Pierce and leaves her home to address her adoring fans and the press outside her mansion.

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Check out Christina’s expression when she is closing the door on her Mother’s throng. She is in awe when she is shown just how alluring and appealing her mother’s kind of celebrity is. 

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Christina gets to experience first hand the kind of adoration that her mother receives…
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…and she loves it!

Now comes the scene that is the most extreme in Mommie Dearest, the scene that would secure the film it’s place in film history (whether the boring film purists like it or not) and which the studio would use to promote the film as a cult classic when they saw that audiences were going to the film and laughing and quoting lines as they would with any prime slice of cult goodness. 

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In Christina Crawford’s book she would describe what happens next as one of Joan’s many ‘night raids’. Apparently out of nowhere, her mother would become enraged in the middle of the night, waking Christina and Christopher abruptly out of their slumber for some kind of misdemeanour (which she’s intentionally looked for to enact punishment) one or both of them have committed, whether it made sense to them or not.

We see Joan (slavered in cold cream on her face and wearing an Alice band and nightrobe) going through her daughter’s closet whilst her little ones are sound asleep. She makes sure each of her daughter’s dresses are equally spaced apart from each other in her closet, another indicator of her need for control and order (her control, her order).  She suddenly notices, horror of horrors, one of Christina’s dresses on a wire hanger.

The beginning of this scene is extremely telling and fully illustrates the kind of hair-line trigger emotions the narcissist possesses. Anger can rear it’s volcanic head at any moment whether the reason for this can be perceived by others or not.

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Joan looking through her daughter’s dresses in the middle of the night whilst Christina and Christopher are sound asleep. She looks at the garments almost lovingly…
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…but then, shock horror, spots the unmentionable- a wire hanger
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Uh oh. It’s safe to assume the loving mother has left the building. We are about to see narcissistic rage of EPIC proportions!

With this Joan swipes the hangers and dresses on them with manic gusto and singles out the offending article that the frock is hung on.

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Christina and Christopher are woken abruptly by their mother shrieking ‘No wire hangers! What’s wire hangers doing in this closet when I told you no wire hangers EVER?!’

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But as Joan explodes and wreaks havoc on her daughter it’s clear that the dress and the hanger it’s on isn’t the real reason behind her volcanic outburst. ”I work and work till I’m half-dead and I hear people saying ‘She’s getting old!” she hollers. She also shrieks that Christina treats her dresses like dish-rags and shows her disregard for the expensive garments bought for her by putting them on wire hangers. The true motivation for this burst of narcissistic rage is also extolled by Joan when she yells ‘You live in the most beautiful house in Brentwood!’ as she later beats Christina with another wire hanger she unfortunately found in the closet. This is the reappearance of the shop-girl past of Joan as she admonishes her daughter for having all of the luxuries she felt she was entitled to but didn’t receive. She is punishing her daughter because of her own past. 

Within the documentary ‘The Estate of Joan Crawford’ it’s stated by Christina that this incident may have been sparked as when Joan was growing up she helped her mother in one of her jobs by working with her in a laundry. When clothes were returned to their owners cleaned and pressed they were placed on wire hangers. The sudden sight of this offending object may have reminded Joan of her impoverished past.

This is an uncomfortable scene to watch on many different levels. The first is because this is child abuse being betrayed in a no holds barred fashion the likes of which hadn’t been seen in a mainstream Hollywood film before. It is obviously very disturbing. But there’s more to this scene that makes it surreal and bizarre. This isn’t just anyone beating their offspring. This is Queen of Hollywood, Joan Crawford. And she looks and acts like someone possessed.

Her face is so bizarre, demonic and Medusa-like throughout this scene that at times we were treated to seeing Dunaway’s eyes almost pop out of her skull. During her rant, her bug eyes remind me of the eponymous villain of the old horror movie The Reptile.

Whilst this scene is one of the most talked about and loved amongst fans of the film and cult movie lovers, it’s enjoyed not as out and out camp or because it’s ‘so bad it’s good’. It’s because it’s so extreme and perfectly depicts Joan’s mood swings and fits of all-consuming narcissistic rage. This film possibly showed the first ever depiction of this type of rage on celluloid. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have someone with NPD in their lives can vouch for the accuracy of this sudden and very extreme outburst. 

Dunaway’s performance here is extraordinary. Her face gurns and seemingly mutates. She truly was ‘in the zone’ and very brave to forego dignity or beauty to give an exceptional performance. NPD isn’t pretty in it’s ‘warts and all’ horror when the ‘false mask’ slips and she fully conveys this.

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The gurning, ugly side of Narcissistic Personality Disorder portrayed amazingly by Dunaway.

Joan starts manically and frantically throwing all of Christina’s dresses out of her closet and onto the floor. Christina pleads with her mother to stop. Joan then looks for another wire hanger and on finding one wields it in her hand whilst demanding that her daughter get out of bed. 

She tells Christina to clean up the mess that ironically she has created (we’ll see this happen again within the second part of this scene). Christina, visibly shaken and scared stiff, complies and starts to put the dresses back on their hangers. This is again typical behaviour of those unlucky to have been subjected to narcissistic rage and the threat of it- acting as a ‘handmaid’ (as discussed earlier) to try to placate the narcissist so that their narcissistic rage simmers down and dissipates. Christina would also have been acting out of sheer terror when she started putting her dresses back on their hangers.

As Joan’s rage seemingly reaches fever pitch she starts to beat her daughter with the wire hanger in her hand. 

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Joan finds another wire hanger and demands that Christina get out of her bed
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If the effects of narcissistic rage had a face
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Christina starts clearing up the dresses Joan has thrown on the floor. This is the victim of narcissistic abuse acting as a handmaid to try to make the situation less stressful for them by placating the narcissist
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Joan starts to beat her daughter with the offending article she has found- the wire hanger

It’s worth noting that after she has beaten Christina with the hanger, she then goes to the adjoining bathroom to crouch down to seemingly have a think. It’s almost as if she is mentally digesting the massive episode of violence that she has just inflicted and the chaos she is at the centre of.

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After attacking Christina with the wire hanger, Joan turns and walks towards the bathroom.
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Here she turns…
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…and squats down for a while.
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It’s almost as if she’s trying to mentally digest the momentous act of violence which she has just inflicted.

This is reminiscent of the scene at the climax of Taxi Driver in which Travis Bickle shoots the pimp Sport. He then goes and sits down on a stoop nearby. This is an odd moment of calm within a tumultuous and violent scene. 

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In Taxi Driver Travis shoots pimp Sport…
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…then walks to a nearby stoop…
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…and sits down to contemplate what he has just done

But this brief moment of calm proves to be fleeting as Godzilla is back for Round Two.

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Joan rises…
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…and is back for Round 2

It’s noteworthy in this part of the scene that with her twisted appearance and face cream that is now almost like a cracking panstick applied to her face, Joan bears an uncanny resemblance to Heath Ledger’s take on The Joker.

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Christina’s reaction to Joan’s Joker visage

Also, when Joan prompts Christina to thank her for her beating with her preferred ‘Mommie Dearest’ after it, she opines ‘When I asked you to call me that I wanted you to mean it’ which is then followed with an otherworldly and utterly disturbing hiss from Joan as she drags Christina into the bathroom for more madness.

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‘These scenes transcend camp’. Joan as hissing supernatural beast

In this scene Joan seems almost like a supernatural being or malevolent force of nature. People have spoken about narcissistic rage as being like demonic possession. This is depicted eerily well here. In her review of the movie in The New Yorker on Oct 12th 1981 (and collected in the book ‘Taking It All In’) Pauline Kael wrote ‘these scenes transcend camp’ and she is right on the money as was the rest of her positive and very astute review. This scene is the epitome of the film going well and truly beyond camp and steering into darker and more troubling waters. This is Exorcist territory. Also, notice the way that it’s almost like Joan invades the personal space of the audience as her hissing possessed face comes right towards the camera. Who needs 3D with such a scene like this?

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The extreme close-up used to chilling effect…
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As Joan even invades the personal space of the audience as well as Christina

This really is an extraordinary performance by any standards with Dunaway’s facial gymnastics and seething Medusa as another facet of her depiction of one woman’s personality disorders and dark metamorphoses. 

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It’s in the bathroom that Joan’s OCD kicks in with her shrieking that the bathroom isn’t clean and that they must clean it together. She even points at imaginary dirt, wipes the surface of an immaculately clean sink and shows the dirt (that isn’t there) to Christina as ‘proof’. 

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Joan pulls out a canister of cleaning powder, putting a small portion of it on the floor and hysterically telling Christina that they will scrub together.

Notice the vulnerability, irrationality and fear in Joan’s voice as she says to Christina that they will clean the floor together and sets this in motion by saying ‘Go! Scrub hard!’ She sounds so child-like as this seemingly echoes the upset child inside and whatever trauma it was from her own childhood that has now manifested itself as her current OCD. 

But this cleaning soon becomes more frenzied with Joan wildly flailing the powder around the room by waving the canister like some kind of possessed being and even beating Christina a couple of times with said container.

Joan’s cleaning and scrubbing becomes dangerously out of control and manic as it’s clear that her irrational OCD has kicked in and is now running the show. We are seeing pure NPD and OCD, a very dangerous combination. 

This wild episode then cumulates in both Joan and Christina dissolving into tears in the middle of a bathroom completely covered in cleaning powder.

This could be seen as some kind of wish fulfilment on Joan’s part just like the earlier incident involving Joan throwing all of Christina’s dresses onto her floor. Here she complains to Christina that the bathroom was dirty when it wasn’t and so she makes sure that by the end of her shit-fit it is dirty and needs to be cleared up. 

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Joan’s OCD in this scene could also be seen to be triggered by her start in life. She never had the advantages that Christina has been afforded and no matter how hard she scrubs, she can’t change the past and the dirty smear that forever stains her psyche because of it . This also shows a massive amount of entitlement (again, this is also a narcissistic trait) on the part of Joan. She should have been born into different circumstances, better circumstances but wasn’t. She deserved better but didn’t get it.

After Joan has gotten up to leave she turns around to her daughter and demands that she cleans up the mess. She is then asked how.

The supernatural being shows it’s face again as Joan says, ‘You figure it out’ and then her face contorts to such a degree that she goes slightly cross-eyed as she surreally leaves the room.

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Crosseyed and Painful- the contorted face of Joan after her OCD/NPD meltdown as she exits stage left

One of the most unexpected aspects of this scene is that Christopher was actually present in the same bedroom as the abuse was going on. We see that he has escaped the constraints of his Sleep Safe to come and console his sister and say that he will help her clean up the mess.

Christina urgently tells him to get back into bed as he will be in massive trouble too if Godzilla sees that he has escaped his bed and is trying to help her. Christopher reluctantly goes back to bed.

‘Jesus Christ!’ is how Christina responds when her mother has left and is surveying the carnage of Godzilla’s havoc. Her use of this phrase feels like an obscenity from the mouth of a being too young to use it but far too advanced in what she’s been through already.

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The next scene couldn’t be more different from the madness we’ve just witnessed. It shows the facade and false image Crawford and the Hollywood machine have crafted. Joan, Christina and Christopher are participating in a Christmas radio special regarding how La Crawford and her children will spend the festive season. It’s such a deceptive depiction of family love, harmony and perfection that it is almost vomit-inducing in it’s falsity and artificiality, especially the end in which Crawford and her offspring recite the last lines of Twas The Night Before Christmas for the audience. But this scene is also very perceptive as Joan extols the virtues of motherhood and not spoiling her children. ‘Discipline mixed with love is such a good recipe!’ Quite! But in what proportions?

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The fact that this farcical and completely dishonest scene is straight after the infamous ‘wire hangers’ scene shows the sharp contrast between real life as suffered by Christina and the fake life scripted by Hollywood and Joan for radio listeners and film fans worldwide. If this scene is the equivalent of Joan’s false self then the savage scene before this is her true self, the mask slipping off completely.

Another scene after this that is also very telling is when one of Joan’s suitors/meal tickets arrives at her house to be met by Christina who seems to take on the role of bartender for such occasions (‘Easy on the Scotch, Christina!’) as we note that she seems to have done this before (‘I make all my Uncle’s drinks this way!’) This is also an example of someone with a narcissistic parent who acts as a handmaid to the narcissist to make their own life as free from toxic fallout from the narcissist as possible.

This scene is also noteworthy as when we see Joan (in a thoroughly bizarre start to the scene) as she is admiring her legs in a way that suggests admiration but maybe also one of ‘Have I still got it?!’ This question may still be resounding around her head just as the taunts of her being ‘box-office poison’ do. Oh, the transitory, fickle world of Hollywood. This wonderfully surreal scene (within a wonderfully surreal movie) is yet another example of the sense the viewer gets that literally anything could happen within Mommie Dearest. Like so many scenes within the film, this also gave birth to a whole new generation of drag queens.

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Christina brings her suitor (a producer named Ted Gilbert) to Joan who bemoans that the script that he brought her is no good. When he leans in to Joan for intimacy her face changes to one of neutrality. It’s apparent why Joan is with him which is what she may be able to get from him. When she has obtained as much as she can from him she will then ditch him (known as ‘the discard’ and also a trait of narcissism) for other fare. This idea of seeing others as merely objects and/or commodities that are useable in some way that is advantageous is also symptomatic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Others are seen by what they can do for the narcissist or what they can bring. This scene also hints at something that Christina explicitly states in her book and that is there were rumours of her mother becoming a prostitute to claw her way to the top. This clearly hasn’t changed with Joan prostituting her affections in exchange for a film role/star vehicle that might make it possible to clamber onto her throne again.

Christina rearrives with a fresh drink for her mother even though one hasn’t been requested which alarms Joan. Her daughter also seems to be in no hurry to leave and is even dismissed to leave by her mother. She leaves slowly with lots of knowing and suggestive backwards glances that further enrages Joan. ‘That’s quite an extraordinary young lady!’ remarks Gilbert.

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A knowing backwards glance from Christina
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This causes a narcissistic wound with Joan

Another narcissistic injury brings another act of retribution from Joan as we next see her driving Christina (despite tearful pleas of protest and remorse from her) to Chadwick’s Country Boarding School. We see the full cycle that we have seen many times in Mommie Dearest- the stubborn child who Joan the narcissist wants to be labile and subservient instead being bolshy, this causing a narcissistic wound with Joan who must be all powerful which causes narcissistic rage from her as she takes revenge.

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Narcissistic revenge from Joan. Tearful protestations from Christina as she’s being taken to a boarding school to live.

She is met by Mrs Chadwick (the ever brilliant Priscilla Pointer) who surprisingly soothes her by saying, ‘I understand just how you feel. I understand!’ This environment could be just what Christina needs in that it will be a peaceful and more emotionally calm respite from the psychotic high drama of life with Joan.

The film then flashes forward several years as we see Christina now as a teenager and capturing the attentions of a young male classmate. This storyline will be picked up later by the film.

We then see Joan and Christina in a very upmarket restaurant as a waiter flirts with Christina who duly flirts back. Her mother sees all of this and reprimands her. ‘Flirting can be taken the wrong way!’ she opines maybe because it wasn’t her who was being complimented by the waiter. We see that Joan’s narcissistic ways haven’t abated in the time away from her daughter with her ordering for them both of them without any hint of consultation with Christina (she orders the New York steak and rare to boot which takes us back to the earlier incident). Another display of her need to wield total control and power even when it comes to what her daughter will eat.

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Joan orders rare steak for two
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Christina’s reaction to this

When Christina proudly tells her mother about her great grades at school she is met with her mother chastising her about whether she has completed her Christmas card list even though the Yuletide season is months away. Joan will get the upper hand, even if her means of achieving this are irrational and completely insane.

But whilst all of this can be seen to be yet another feast of Cluster B traits from Joan, the scene then sails onto more sensitive and heartfelt waters (well for Mommie Dearest anyway). Joan explains to Christina that she has had to let go of their home-help Helga and that she will need her help around the house. We get to see Joan’s hands during this shot with another aside that is as strange and unexpected as the one of Joan inspecting her legs that we were blessed with earlier. Is there a reason for this? Does it correlate to a later scene in which Joan is drunk and surrounded by gifts she has bought for herself? Maybe it hints at the possibility that Joan isn’t as broke as she makes out. Helga is let go but her jewellery stays?

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As Joan tells Christina about letting go of Helga, we are granted a shot of Joan’s immaculate nails and exquisite jewellery. Is this to implicate that Joan isn’t broke at all (as we will see later with the results of her shopping deliveries)?

This leads to a scene that almost shows Joan as human. Almost. She goes down to join her daughter in the laundry.

JoanAndChristinaDoLaundryTogetherMommieDearestJoan explains to her that she is having financial difficulties. She also explains that because of this Mrs Chadwick has decided to let Christina stay on at her school but on the work scholarship programme. Joan looks genuinely downbeaten as she reminisces and says that she did the same thing when she was young, scrubbing floors to get through school. And then the unthinkable happens. Joan starts to show genuine (or is it) vulnerability and breaks down in tears as she says that she has lost her contract at Warner’s and states that she has ‘no money, no contract, no studio’. ‘I’m scared’ she cries to Christina as we see her tearful confession. The mask has slipped but rather than exposing the all too common gargoyle beneath we see her softer, all too human side.

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ChristinaConsolesJoanMommieDearestAfter this we see Christina go to find her mother but after seeing her comatose on a couch shouts to Carol-Ann as she fears the worst and that her mother has actually topped herself.

ChristinaDiscoversAComatoseJoanMommieDearestCarol-Ann then duly tells her that in fact shes just passed out drunk.

ShesDrunkMommieDearestWhats more she is surrounded by lots of newly bought items such as shoes even though she had told Christina that they were broke. Was this a lie (narcissists love to lie)? Was this Joan claiming victimhood (narcissists love to play the victim)? Or was this Joan telling the truth but going out and spending money she didn’t have to prop up her fragile ego and try to prove that her status as a once huge member of Hollywood Royalty was still valid even though she has been told her star is on the wane?

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They help Joan up and get her to bed. Joan says to Carol Ann that she is a ”Lousy substitute for someone who really cares” on seeing her! Joan being drunk in this scene and being seen part-taking heavily within other scenes within the film is also indicative of narcissistic behaviour. Some narcissists can’t take the truth of who they are and so rush to find solace in many different addictions whether it be drink, drugs or serial promiscuity. This is done as a means of escape from who they are and as a distraction from their real dark self. 

TipsyJoanmommieDearestBack at school, Christina goes to the school’s stables to get with jiggy with the boy who she’s caught the attention of but is then caught and reported by a student who thought she was in a relationship with the boy caught rolling in the hay (literally) with Christina. This wouldn’t be the last time we see Christina’s shocking choice of underwear in this film (more of that later). RomanceAtTheStablesMommieDearest

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Christina has a roll in the hay, we get to see her disturbing taste in underwear and then she is busted. Even without Joan there’s still high drama.

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ChristinaBustedMommieDearestWhen Joan is notified of this she storms in like the force of nature that she is and accuses Mrs Chadwick of running something akin to a brothel rather than a school despite the school owner’s protestations that what Christina was caught doing was completely natural. This black and white thinking of Joan’s is again a key trait of narcissism. Why see shades of grey when you can think the very worst scenario has occurred? There’s more drama to be had with pretending the worst has happened. What’s more Mrs Chadwick states that Christina and the boy have just been placed on probation for what has happened but it’s Joan who grandly states that Christina must leave this wicked school which is seemingly (but only in Joan’s head) teaching her such wicked ways. It’s worth noting that during this exchange Mrs Chadwick accuses Joan of overreacting whilst Joan counters with the opinion that Mrs Chadwick is, in fact, underreacting. If any one line of dialogue could epitomise the whole of Mommie Dearest it’s surely this!

On the drive home Joan is apoplectic with rage. On seeing that her hip-flask which is conveniently stashed in the glove compartment of her car is empty, Christina drolly remarks ‘There’s a liquor store to the right.’ But whilst she thinks this is a stinging put down to her mother she is aced with the following comeback from The Queen of Venom- ‘I might have known you’d know where to find the boys and the booze!’ And another catchphrase associated with the film is born.

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‘There’s a liquor store on the right’ A stinging putdown but also indicative of Christina learning to act as a handmaid to her narcissistic alcoholic mother
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Hipflask and stinging one-liner at the ready after a perceived narcissistic injury. ‘I might have known you’d know where to find the boys and the booze!’

But Christina’s line about the liquor store isn’t just a catty putdown for her boozy mom. It’s also indicative of a child with a narcissistic parent (with addiction problems natch) acting as a ‘handmaid’ to her narc parent as we’ve seen before within the movie.

What happens next goes down as one of the most extreme scenes in film history just as the ‘wire hangers’ scene does. This scene is loved by fans of Mommie Dearest and cult cinema and just goes to show how edgy even mainstream Hollywood cinema could be at one time.

Joan and Christina arrive home to find journalist Barbara Bennett in their house writing a piece on Joan. La Crawford has sternly pre-warned her daughter of Barbara being there and that she should be on her best behaviour, even though as the scene plays out it should have been her who paid heed to her own words of advice.

It’s also worth noting that again this is an extreme scene resplendent with an extreme outfit Joan is wearing with, yet again, shoulder pads that would make a quarterback jealous.

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Shoulder pads that would make a quarterback blush

On entering the house Joan is regaled with the carefully crafted fan magazine bullshit that Bennett has concocted so far (‘Movie star manages to have it all. Career, home and family!’) After a brief exchange with Christina, Bennett remarks how Chadwick has taught her some very good manners to which Joan counters that she has just been expelled, as big a lie as the tommyrot that Barbara has been writing. But just as Barbara’s lies are sickly sweet, Joan’s lie is blackly venomous and meant to injure, besmirch and ruin Christina’s reputation to Bennett. Her lie shows Joan doing what comes naturally to the narcissist. Paradoxically this could, ironically for someone like Joan, very well find it’s way into print. For someone like Joan to whom image is everything, this could prove fatal. She only has herself to blame but hence, would never admit this to herself. She seems not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies as we will see as this scene develops.

Christina is quick to counter to Joan’s untruth with ‘That’s a lie!’ Joan and Christina then carry on their discussion/slanging match in another room and away from Barbara. Joan is still under the impression that Christina got expelled and seems to believe the lie herself even when it was her who unnecessarily took her daughter out of the prestigious school. When Christina states again that it is a lie she is slapped by her mother but defiantly turns her head back to face her mother again after each slap.

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Joan slaps Christina…
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…but finds Christina defiantly reacting against each slap by turning her head to it’s original position.

The narcissist in Joan then angrily responses ‘You love it don’t you?! You love to make me hit you!’ as if she is substantiating and validating why she has struck Christina and as if to show that Christina is the guilty party. This is, tellingly, a tactic used by those with Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is known as DARVO (as stated earlier) which stands for ‘Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender’ whereby the narcissist projects their own toxic behaviour onto the victim of their actions and then blames them for it. It’s a classic example of victim blaming that a narcissist will employ. Joan is stating that Christina is the guilty party in this scenario as she made Joan hit her.

Joan’s statement is also an example of the tactic used by narcissists which is known as ‘gaslighting‘ whereby the narc will try to distort reality to sow a seed of doubt in the mind of their victim. Christina was meant to start to think, ‘Maybe I am to blame here’ and back down accordingly. This fails in this instance however as it appears that her daughter is well aware of what the truth is and thus sees through the lies and distortions. 

After being joined by Barbara, Joan redirects her to find Carol-Ann if she needs anything. With Ms Bennett out of the way Joan just gets worse. 

She has experienced enough of a narcissistic injury already but this is compounded by the spat being witnessed by Bennett which surely acts as a direct attack on what she holds most dearly- her false persona, the Hollywood Royalty mask and her reason d’etre as Bennett could very well report to the outside world what she has witnessed. ‘You deliberately embarrass me in front of a reporter. A reporter! I told you how important this is to me. I told you!’ she screams. Her body language and gesticulations are key here and show what a genuinely great and nuanced performance Dunaway gives. As she says, ‘a reporter’ for the second time she stretches out her forearms and fingers in Christina’s direction. We then see her bring her hands to herself as she shows that she is the target of this perceived incoming attack from her daughter. She brings her hands close and onto her body and then brings her hands up to her chest to show how fatal this will be and that her whole being, her soul and her very core are under threat and will be adversely affected. This is an extraordinary piece of acting. 

Joan is under threat now on every level. Joan’s public image and ‘false self’ is everything to her. If this public image is reported to be a lie by a reporter along with the truth that her private life isn’t as rosy as Joan’s PR spin would have you believe then the adoration and validation she receives from the general public is threatened and as a result of this her very being will be destroyed. This situation of not being able to obtain supply would be disastrous for any narcissist. They have no means to self-validate hence the false self. This could lead to what is known as narcissistic collapse

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Notice La Dunaways acting here. When she says for the second time ‘a reporter!’ she holds out her forearms and fingers out to her daughter (the source of the perceived attack)…
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…and brings her hands to her body to show that she is the target of Christina’s attack…
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…and then proceeds to lift her hands to her chest…
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…to show how fatal the damage will be on her.
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This is a wonderful piece of acting.

This is then abruptly interrupted by Christina who demands to know ‘Why did you adopt me?’ If there was every any exchange in the whole film that gets to the core of matters being played out in front of our eyes, it’s this. Joan is genuinely shocked and taken aback. She even looks as if she has been slapped herself. The elephant in the room has been identified, brought out into the open and forced to be discussed. To this Joan replies with ‘What?!’ whilst looking mortally wounded. When her daughter repeats the question Joan feigns compassion and says, ‘Because I wanted a child! I wanted someone to love’ to which Christina responds with ‘Don’t you act for me! I wanna know! Why did you adopt me?’ Note that this was the second time in the film that Joan has been told to stop acting with ‘acting’ being another term for her narcissistic false self as Greg said the same in the scene where he leaves her life for good. This forceful demand for the truth makes Joan’s mask slip for her to *shock horror* tell the truth. ‘Maybe I did it for a little extra publicity’. The mask has momentarily slipped to which she then slips it back on and tells Tina, ‘That’s not true! You know that’s not true’. ‘Maybe just a little true’ Christina responds as if what she has known all along has been brought out into the open at long last.

With this Joan makes sure that the point or target of the hostility within the argument is directed back at her daughter as she says that she doesn’t know what to do with her to which Christina screams ‘Why not?’ Notice Dunaway’s amazing performance here again as she trips down the first step she has to walk down to get closer to her daughter. Joan would never have normally done that as her movie star persona demanded perfection and poise at all times. She has been damaged by this toxic conversation/argument with Christina.  Her narcissism then comes to the fore again with her entitlement making her say, ‘I don’t ask much from you girly! Why can’t you give me the respect that I’m entitled to? Why can’t you treat me in the way I would be treated by any stranger on the street?’

Christina then responds by bellowing ‘Because I am not one of your fans!’ This scene could have easily been a ‘the worm has turned’ type scenario with the downtrodden finding their power, using that power and sticking it to their oppressor. Instead Mommie Dearest goes the opposite way which is why it’s now regarded as one of the most infamous, uncompromising and extreme films ever made. When Narcissistic Personality Disorder is at play this kind of extreme behaviour is completely plausible.

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There couldn’t have been a bigger insult made to Joan. A narcissist seeks validation and approval externally akin to the kind she receives from her fans. It’s obvious she wanted an instant fawning, sycophantic fan club to be at her side at all times in the form of her adopted children. She also wanted the extra press that her brood could garner her. Instead she had a rebellious, assertive daughter who stood up for herself and reflected back to Joan other more complex emotions rather than just pure unquestioning adoration. 

Such a scene in a more conventional biopic would have concluded with Joan backing down and learning the error of her ways. As this is Mommie Dearest and a prime slice of cult filmmaking, the following happens.

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The ultimate narcissistic injury to Hollywood Royalty member Joan Crawford will bring the ultimate display of narcissistic rage from her. This scene is really something special…and this is just the start.
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Again, look at the mastery of Dunaway’s performance. The demon has been unleashed again. And it’s far from pretty.

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Joan rugby tackles Christina down to the floor by her neck, takes out a very expensive side table and lamp in the process…

…and proceeds to strangle the very life out of her adopted daughter/fashion accessory whilst shrieking lines such as ‘You never loved me!’, ‘You’ve always taken and taken’ and ‘You never wanted to be my child!’

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Notice Dunaway’s performance here and how she eerily and expertly conveys the narcissistic mask of false self slipping to show the demon underneath it. Again, as Pauline Kael stated Mommie Dearest ‘transcends camp’.

There’s even a backwards shot of the proceedings that shows Christina’s very unattractive knickers for a second time as if once wasn’t vomit-inducing enough as she flails her legs around wildly as she’s being throttled by her mother.

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The flailing knicker shot. This is yet another scene that just keeps giving for a cult cinema audience

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Carol-Ann and Barbara both rush in and attempt to wrestle Joan off her daughter. Joan then suddenly flings back her arms to get them off her and roars like some kind of beast as Godzilla makes another appearance during the film. Joan’s narcissist rage is there for all to be horrified by.

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I am Joan. Hear me roar!

This scene of utter insanity ends with Joan screaming that Christina ‘Get out!’ as she lies on the floor clutching her throat and making choking noises. 

The next scene depicts Christina being induced into a convent school and is eerily calm and serene. This transition is at complete odds with the previous scene of complete and utter madness. It feels like, in fact, Frank Perry knew very well that he was making a cult film and that the movie should have a knowing black humour intertwined within it. It’s also one of the most jarring and blackly funny scene contrasts I’ve ever seen. We see Christina’s induction into the convent school as retribution from Joan because of her colossal tussle with her mother, the effect coming after the cause. She is told that her mother has requested ‘the strictest discipline for you. There will be no privileges. You’re not to leave the school. There will be no telephone calls, in or out, no visitors, no mail.’

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The effect of Christina’s defiant attempted ‘uprising’ against Big Bad Joan- being inducted into a convent school. No privileges, maximum discipline specified by her mother for her daughter’s stay

In fact another great aspect of the film as a whole is the way the edits and gaps between scenes is so dizzying and kamikaze. An edit can mean either later that day or several years into the future. It disorientates in much the same way as someone hitting you in the face repeatedly with a metal tray would. These edits and sensations all add to the extreme nature of Mommie Dearest. Again, you feel like anything can happen.

The film flashes forward as we see Joan getting married to Pepsi Cola CEO Mr Alfred Steele. Was it for love? Now that we know Joan’s narcissistic traits, we can presume that the answer is ‘No’. Narcissists see others as objects and as what they can bring for their own nefarious gains. The head honcho at a huge corporation like Pepsi Cola could bring a hell of a lot to the life of the Hollywood actress with a career well past it’s prime. 

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Joan becomes Mrs Alfred Steele

We see Christina leave the convent school and arrive home to Joan who asks her to introduce herself to her new father. There’s a marvellously awkward scene where Christina goes up to Steele who is swimming lengths in their pool and says, ‘Hi Daddy. I’m Christina!’ before they cordially shake hands.

It’s at the building renovation of their new apartment cum Pepsi showhome that we see Joan and Christina discussing Tina going into acting. She explains that she is working nights so she can go to auditions during the day. She also asks her mother for a little financial help but, of course, Mommie Dearest says no and that ‘doing things on your own is best’. But we then see Alfred give her some cash in private and out of sight of Joan. We also see Alfred asking Joan to cut back on her spending and the plans she has for their new building. When she objects to this he says ‘This isn’t Hollywood. This is the real world!’ This is reality vs Hollywood make-believe again just like this is the true self vs the false self that Joan has concocted to hide her dark heart. 

Within this scene we get another prime slice of Joan being all powerful and the stroppy diva that audiences of the film all know and love. There are discussions being had about the layout of the apartment and specifically about a bearing wall that is blocking the view. Joan responds with her own solution for the problem- ‘I’ll tell you what to do. Tear down that bitch of a bearing wall and put a window where it ought to be’. Joan has delivered this line as if it’s a speech from one of her own movies to demonstrate that the leading lady can be strong, assertive and have better ideas than those around her. But this isn’t a film, it’s real life and so her bizarre and out of context Oscar winning speech results in exchanged glances and aghast expressions of all those around her. This is another example of the distance between Joan’s reality and actual reality not to mention that a bearing wall actually holds up part of a property as opposed to a partition wall. But as we’ve seen from previous scenes in the film, Godzilla loves to destroy so maybe this was her intention all along. 

Another jarring cut takes us to a board meeting of Pepsi Co which Joan is a member of as we now learn that her husband has passed away.

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Hollywood glamour meets boardroom stuffiness

JoanAtBoardTableMommieDearestThe other members explain that Al was in debt when he died and that they will give her plenty of time to repay that debt. They also stipulate that they will have to take back the Fifth Avenue apartment. When others voice their opinion that they thought because of this Joan would want to leave her position on the board this gives Joan ample opportunity to flex her muscles. When she says she wants to stay on the board they say that they have already retired her. She voices that she has fought bigger monsters in Hollywood than in Pepsi Co and that she will publicly come out against their product. This makes the other board members quake as they understand the power of a huge star and how important celebrity as a concept is for the advertising and revenue of a product. Joan holds the aces here and it also gives us another of the film’s most infamous lines. ‘Don’t fuck with me fellas! This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!’

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Joan recognises that her star power can be used against Pepsi Co just as it can be used for it and so ‘It’s a sword, cuts both ways!’

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The board en masse backs down (the subtitles on the movie’s DVD says that the head of the board ‘Clears his throat’!) from La Crawford’s threat and continues on with her as a senior member. Another win for Joan, another massive source of narcissistic supply.

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Just as Christina and Joan together at the apartment renovation (the previous scene) appeared to be cordial towards each other, we see Joan unexpectedly turning up at Christina’s NYC pad and even bearing gifts- a set of pearls that were the first present that Al gave to her. She gives them to Christina in what might be seen as a period of their relationship that seems to be quite peaceful and drama-free. In reality this is probably the narcissistic trait of breadcrumbing in which a narcissist will every now and then throw their source of narcissistic supply a few crumbs of kindness, admiration or even (fake) love. This is done as a play of power for the narcissist and also to keep their source of supply in place. Christina will think that things between herself and her mother are finally OK and that maybe her mother has turned over a new leaf. But leopards (and narcissists) never change their spots. 

This is proved in the next scene as we see that Joan has more tricks up her sleeve. After Christina is rushed to hospital with an ovarian tumour, the producer of the daytime soap she is starring in goes to the hospital and meets Joan instead who just so happens to mention that Christina will be incapacitated for quite some time because of the tumour and the surgery to remove it. Joan asks to speak to the producer again. It’s here that we see why. It appears she had an idea regarding her daughter’s absence from the TV series.

Christina is woken up in her hospital bed by a nurse who is turning on the television so that she can watch the soap she normally appears in. She is shocked to see that her mother is appearing as her character even though Joan was 60 years of age at the time and playing a 24 year old. This decision to include Joan as her daughter’s character wasn’t just farcical but also bizarre. It was also symbolic of Joan’s narcissism to usurp her daughter and kick her off her pedestal. It must have irked Joan that her daughter had dared to enter the same profession that Joan was (once) a part of and was (at one point) very well renowned and revered within. Joan clearly has no qualms about stealing her daughter’s limelight even whilst she’s in the hospital.

Another disorientating cut happens as we seemingly venture forward by several years. We see Christina getting ready after Carol Ann (visibly much older) has brought a gown for Christina to wear to accept a lifetime career award on behalf of Joan as her mother is now too old to accept it herself. We see that Joan is now is incapacitated due to old age. She watches the award ceremony in bed.

But when Christina looks into the camera and tearfully says ‘I love you, Mommie Dearest’ there is more pain than love in her proclamation and the audience now knows why. In fact, when she says it the movie’s audience instantly thinks of the wire hangers scene where she was forced to use the same term of endearment to her mother. 

We see Joan start to cry on seeing this. 

We then jump forward to Joan’s funeral and Christina going to see her embalmed mother’s body.

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There’s a very poignant scene in which she starts to cry on seeing her dead mother and says the words ‘No more pain’. How apt. Who would want to live the life of a narcissist?

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But even at Joan’s funeral and the reading of her will we see that Joan has one last ace up her sleeve to serve from beyond the grave. Even mortality can’t diminish Joan’s desire for power, control and narcissistic supply. It’s explained that Joan has cut both her and Christopher from her will ‘for reasons that are well known to them.’ ‘As usual she has the last word’ Christopher remarks to which Christina knowingly replies ‘Does she?!’

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Christina and Christopher at their mother’s will reading
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‘As usual she has the last word’
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‘Does she?!’

But what the film cunningly leaves out is the fact that before her death Joan had found out that Christina was planning to write a book about her upbringing and that it would be far from complimentary. Joan spoke about this with Charlotte Chandler in her Vanity Fair article.

Christina’s book came out and repainted Joan as a child abuser but wasn’t the all powerful trump card that she hoped it would be. Plenty of people came forward to voice the opinion that Joan was far from the monster Christina tried to paint her as. Two notable examples were the two other daughters adopted by Joan, Cathy and Cindy who said that Joan was never abusive to them with Cathy confirming this to Charlotte Chandler in the same Vanity Fair article

Myrna Loy, in addition to being a family friend, had occasion to work with both Joan and Christina Crawford, and wrote about Christina in her autobiography, “I’ve never known anyone like her – ever. Her stubbornness was really unbelievable. She would not do a single thing anyone asked her to do. Christina wanted to be Joan Crawford, I think that’s the basis of the book she wrote afterward, and of everything else. I saw what her mind created, the fantasy world she lived in. She envied her mother, grew to hate her, and finally wanted to destroy her.” Others stepped forward to defend Joan including her first husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Bob Hope, Cesar Romero and Barbara Stanwyck.  

Whilst the book didn’t manage to tarnish everyone’s opinions of Joan ‘Hollywood Royalty’ Crawford, the movie and it’s legacy arguably won Joan a new generation of fans. Christina wasn’t to know that the movie would become a cult classic and that cult audiences would cheer on Joan as the protagonist and see the scenes of child abuse as surreal Grande Guignol resplendent with immaculately decorated interiors. 

When the movie was released it received mixed notices with some being massively scathing like the review that appeared in Variety (‘Dunaway does not chew scenery. Dunaway starts neatly at each corner of the set in every scene and swallows it whole, costars and all’) and the review from noted film critic Roger Ebert (‘I can’t imagine who would want to subject themselves to this movie…It is unremittingly depressing, not to any purpose of drama or entertainment’).

Whilst Vincent Canby’s review in The New York Times was negative it did mention the perceptive assertion that ‘It achieves that state of wild, out of control melodrama that is both comic and horrifying’. It also talked about ‘the ferocious intensity of Faye Dunaway’s impersonation’ (of Joan) and that ‘the woman in this film is much more interesting and comprehensible than the fabled character depicted in the movie magazines and reminiscences on the same literary level’. Back handed praise wrapped up in a generally derogatory review.

Gene Siskel’s review in The Chicago Tribune was similarly not altogether negative and he even gave the film 2 and a half stars as opposed to his Sneak Previews partner in crime’s rating of 1 star.

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Screw Variety. Here’s the review from The Yorkshire Evening Post.

The film did receive enough positive reviews (or at least enough positive parts of reviews) that an ad could be cobbled together by Paramount which brought all of these together and showed that the film was of considerable merit. 

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But special notice has to be paid to the review by Pauline Kael (mentioned previously and which can be seen in her excellent collection of reviews ‘Taking It All In’) that marvels at Dunaway’s performance and doesn’t see the extreme scenes as mere melodrama on steroids but rather as channeling Joan’s damaged psychological states. She mentions that maybe Dunaway and Crawford were both suffering from a ‘folie a deux’ which literally translates as ‘madness for two’. Kael wonderfully and astutely sums up the whole movie. 

Even with these largely disparaging reviews Paramount noticed that the film was still drawing crowds but the kind of crowds who went to see cult films and midnight movies. Paramount quickly tried to capitalise on this and issued a new poster emphasising the ‘wire hangers’ scene (see earlier in this article for said poster) which Frank Yablans the film’s producer and co-writer tried to sue Paramount over. The studio even employed drag queens clutching wire hangers to stand in the lobby for screenings according to John Waters on his commentary for the film on the ‘Hollywood Royalty’ edition of the DVD. The fact that Waters of all people should be asked to provide a commentary for the film decades later is testament to the film’s ‘cult’ status.

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Godzilla stomps into Yorkshire

Mommie Dearest featured heavily in the nominations for a new set of awards, The Golden Raspberry Awards known less formally as The Razzies. These awards were designed as a celebration of the worst films made in that year, an anti-Oscars if you will. Mommie Dearest was nominated in the 2nd year of the awards in a number of different categories with the film clinching the Razzies for Worst Picture, Worst Actress (this was a joint win with Bo Derek in Tarzan The Ape Man), Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Supporting Actress.

Whilst this may have sealed the film’s reputation as ‘terrible’ or ‘so bad it’s good’ with more conservative film fans (those behind the scenes at The Razzies who chose the nominations are invariably just as conservative and dull in their tastes in cinema), the Razzies quickly earned a reputation as a set of awards that in fact had an uncanny knack of highlighting films that were actually brilliant examples of cult cinema. In some cases these films were merely ahead of their time on first release and would receive the plaudits they deserved years later. Need proof? The previous year’s Razzies would nominate such gems as The Shining, Cruising, Dressed To Kill and Friday the 13th in different categories as examples of the worst the film industry had to offer in 1980! All of these films are now regarded as either cult classics or bona fide masterpieces. When Mommie Dearest was nominated so was Tangerine Dream’s groundbreaking score for Michael Mann’s Thief for Worst Musical Score and Heaven’s Gate for Worst Picture. I’d love to see what those at The Razzies though of as good cinema.

The reputation of Mommie Dearest continued to grow and grow with cinemas booking the film even though it had long finished it’s general release run. The film’s status as a cult classic was sealed with the kind of people who obsessively watched John Waters’ and Russ Meyer’s films paying particular attention. It was almost as if naming Mommie Dearest as a film you loved was like giving a knowing wink to other lovers of edgier and darker cult cinema that knew no limits. It meant you knew your stuff when it came to all things ‘cult’. 

With all of this going on it must have appeared to Christina that rather than her having the last laugh as was intimated by the film’s final scene, Joan was enjoying it instead. Christina would publicly denounce the film as being more about her mother than her and the fact that she wasn’t paid as she was quick to state when interviewed by Larry King.

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The Leeds cinema listings for when Mommie Dearest was released. Plenty of amazing fare on offer!

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But then the funniest thing started to happen. She started to appear at midnight screenings of the film. There was even a tour organised in which Christina would introduce the film with a Q&A after it with proceeds going to charity and giving her the opportunity to promote the new edition of her book. It was almost as if the cult juggernaut of Mommie Dearest couldn’t be stopped under any circumstance so why not join in and milk it for all it’s worth. If you can’t beat em, join em, right?!

With all of this analysis regarding the film and the narcissistic abuse it depicts, am I somehow stating that Mommie Dearest can’t be enjoyed as a cult film anymore, that audiences shouldn’t enjoy the film in the same way that they enjoyed it before because of the horror of some of the events depicted within now that we know more about narcissistic abuse? My answer is NO! Mommie Dearest is a headfuck of a movie. It’s surrealist Grand Guignol and the most extreme scenes are shot to accentuate this quality. Yes, there’s abuse depicted which gives the film an underbelly of darkness and grit that almost makes the audience want to avert their gaze especially during the wire hangers scene and the other extreme sequences. 

The events depicted are based on someone’s life and show that abuse can occur in even the most privileged of settings. And that’s where the brilliance and cult cinema goodness of Mommie Dearest lies. The abuse depicted in the film isn’t being inflicted by a white trash Mom in a trailer park. Rather, it’s in opulent settings. It’s reality versus the image that has been carefully crafted by Hollywood and the many press agencies and fan magazines. It’s the fact that the abuse is being inflicted by one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.  It’s so unexpected with the surface being scratched away to reveal the dark underbelly of Christina and Joan’s private lives. Any film that contains a sequence involving a member of the Hollywood A-list (and not to mention that she’s dressed in a bathrobe and Alice band whilst slathered in face cream) beating her adopted child with a wire hanger will always be brutal but will always cause the audience to open their eyes wide and outwardly exclaim ‘What the fuck!’ This is nearer to The Exorcist than the ‘campathon’ others would have you believe.

And with such bizarre situations there is a level of dark humour present which is closer to gallows humour than out and out ‘laugh out loud’ comedy. This is in the same way that certain sequences are funny within The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (‘Look what your brother did to the door!’) or Taxi Driver (during the Dantes Inferno-esque climax to the film Iris screams that Travis not shoot a client she is with with Travis completely ignoring her and shooting him anyway. This sequence wouldn’t be funny if it wasn’t within a truly gruesome sequence at the climax of a very dark movie).

The way the more extreme sequences within the film are filmed also lends to the unreal nature of the film as a whole and cements it’s cult status. Whether it’s the flailing knickers shot or the sequence of Joan armed with an ax felling a pesky tree in her rose garden whilst dressed in a very expensive ballgown, these sequences are one part dark, three parts ‘WTF!’

And whats more, it contains one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever seen let alone the best rounded depiction of the full madness of Narcissistic Personality Disorder ever captured on celluloid. I hope the film starts to get the kudos and acclaim it so richly deserves. And if it educates people as to the full horror of NPD then all the better. 

If this essay was a TV programme at this point a voice-over would chime in proclaiming ‘If you were affected by any of the issues featured you can contact…’ and this is what I want to write here. Narcissistic Personality Disorder and narcissism in general still aren’t known about by the majority of people but needs to be. Apparently 1 in 10 people are narcissists which means that potentially 10% of the population are seriously dysfunctional people wreaking havoc on those who are unfortunate enough to be in their orbit. Your education starts here. Do your research, learn how to work on yourself to repel these seriously fucked up people and how to get these monsters out of your life. Also, learn how to heal after narcissistic abuse.

Here are some great YouTube channels to start your journey-

Doctor Ramani- https://www.youtube.com/user/DoctorRamanDurvasula

Michele Lee Nieves- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6Wl7WhoeTw_dTDbAM3J7Fw

Surviving Narcissism- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCIELB1mz8wMKIhB6DCmTBlw

Dr Grande- https://www.youtube.com/user/RioGrande51

Therapist Talks- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKLuZmFAonlg_hBB3X_-kOw

Melanie Tonia Evans- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCtIVcBdfm2hZGd0V0tEFtxw

If Mommie Dearest resonated a bit too much with you and brought back unpleasant memories from your past, maybe a good place to start when visiting the YouTube channels above would be by looking up about Narcissistic Mothers. Believe me, there’s plenty of material!

Poster of the Week- The Exorcist (1974)

Poster of the Week- The Exorcist (1974)

William Friedkin tells a great story in his autobiography about Warner Bros’ marketing department and how they wanted to market The Exorcist on it’s completion. The idea they came up with was a drawing of Regan’s bloodied hand holding a crucifix (referencing the infamous masturbation scene) with the tagline ‘For God’s sake, somebody help her!’

For obvious reasons he declined this idea. Instead he spoke to them about the Magritte painting The Empire of Light and how he wanted the poster for The Exorcist to be inspired by that.

TheEmpireOfLight

From this came the iconic poster for his movie. The mystery of Max Von Sydow’s character outside Chris McNeill’s house with light poring out of the window but whilst cloaked in darkness. A poster that is perfect for a masterpiece like The Exorcist. And the general public agreed with the film breaking records faster than cinema ushers could break open smelling salts for patrons who had staggered into the lobby to faint.

TheExorcistQuadPoster

A friend of mine went to see the film on it’s first run and said that members of St John’s Ambulance were waiting in the cinema for the inevitable fainters and/or vomiters. Now that’s style.

And whilst we’re at it I’m loving the visual blitz of this UK Exorcist double bill poster. The hot pink is everything.

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Soundtrack of the Week: Prom Night (1980)

Soundtrack of the Week: Prom Night (1980)

Every week I’ll be recommending one of my favourite soundtracks and why I like them. Hopefully this will inspire you to investigate more, buy the album or dig it out of your collection if you already have it so that you bask in it’s glory again.

This week is the turn of the Paul Zaza/Carl Zittrer soundtrack for the 1980 Canxploitation slasher movie, Prom Night.

PromNightSoundtrack

Whilst the film should have been a feeble Halloween/Saturday Night Fever/Carrie hybrid, it proved to be so much more. Great moments of terror, tension and genuine grittiness are punctuated by disco scenes (disco certainly doesn’t suck when it comes to this film!) leading up to the prom, great moments of character development and an introspection that is way too nuanced for other slasher fare of the day.

This is all perfectly manifested in the music on this soundtrack too. Firstly though I have an admission to make- I didn’t even know this soundtrack existed remastered on CD and expanded with extra tracks not included on the original vinyl LP. When I heard that some of the tracks were for pieces of music not used in the original film I thought, ‘Oh no! Filler!’ How wrong I was! The extra songs greatly embellish and expand upon the general vibe of the film.

The tracklisting works very well indeed. Theres the sturm und drang of the music used to underpin the terror scenes (the brilliant piece which accompanies the killer calling each of his future victims is here), the joyous disco songs (my life is better for knowing that there is a song titled ‘Love Me Til I Die’ in a disco inspired slasher movie) that are featured also find their way onto the CD along with others that weren’t used which are just as fantastic.

Prom Night

Just as Synapse’s Blu Ray of the film helped to resurrect the film with a flawless restoration and a whole plethora of extras, this soundtrack contributes to this resurrection with Prom Night ready to rightfully takes it’s place amongst the vanguard of the slasher movement. Yes, it’s not as good as The Undisputed Champion of this subgenre (Halloween, in case you were wondering) but it’s at the forefront of the B+ movies which followed in it’s wake.

Prom Night the soundtrack is available on Perseverance Records.

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1989

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1989

There’s a video for this list here.

10. Beware! Children At Play

BewareChildrenAtPlay

A Troma movie that pushes the boundaries- even for Troma!

Children are disappearing in a small town in America. Rather than being abducted they are in fact being recruited to join a religious cult which practices cannibalism.

This is Children of the Corn on steroids. I first learnt of this movie when I saw the trailer and my mouth dropped open. Apparently Lloyd Kaufman said that it was this trailer that was shown before a screening of Tromeo and Juliet at the Cannes Film Festival (!) and caused most of the audience to leave!

This film is so taboo because it depicts children not only carrying out numerous crimes such as murder but also the town’s adults killing them for their actions. Cue numerous scenes of children being shot, killed with pitchforks etc. Remember to repeat to yourself whilst watching this- ‘It’s only a movie! It’s only a movie!…’

Tasteless, irreverent and controversial. But still just a film. Moral guardians and virtue signallers- get over yourselves and go and watch Dumbo for the thousandth time, dullards.

9. The Church

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In centuries gone by a group of Satanists are slaughtered, their bodies buried and a huge church built on top of the bodies to try to eradicate the evil.

The film then fast forwards to the present day (well, 1989) as we see Evan a librarian starting at the church on the first day of his job. Weird, seemingly supernatural things start to happen at the church. A first day in a new job is bad enough without a battle between good and evil being thrown in as well.

This film is a Goth’s dream come true (although no self-respecting person would have been a Goth after 1987). A slowly creeping sense of dread, a location sent from Heaven (no pun intended), a great cast and an amazing soundtrack. Also, VERY disturbing kills and horrific looking demons. The makeup and special effects for this film are amazing.

This was originally intended to be the third entry in the Demons series of films but was then conceived by director Michele Soavi to be a separate entity that would be more sophisticated than Demons 1&2. It is too, although I love the sleazy splendour of those films.

8. The Horror Show

TheHorrorShow

I read about this in Fangoria and Gorezone in the late 80’s and it looked so demented and gory that I didn’t know if it would actually be released in the UK. But, quelle horreur, it was released and uncut as House 3, part of the House franchise.

On being fried in the electric chair, serial killer Max aka Meat Cleaver Max promises revenge on the cop who sent him there, Lucas McCarthy. Max means it too after making a pact with the Devil which means that he can wreak havoc from beyond the grave.

Two of cult cinema’s biggest icons Brion James and Lance Hendriksen star as Max and Lucas making this unmissable entertainment. The effects have to be seen to be believed. They pushed the boundaries regarding how far they could go in those days when it came to taste and decency. The effects are gross which is music to the ears of any discerning horrorhound. There’s also a depraved and sick sense of humour at play within the movie which makes it even more likeable.

This film has nothing to do with the House series of movies but was just given that moniker in the UK so that more people would rent the movie. It was actually released as a stand alone movie in the US called The Horror Show.

A great movie that history has treated very well with the ever excellent Scream Factory releasing it all spruced up. And it deserves that kind of release.

7. Shocker

Shocker

Wes Craven goes full ‘horror baddie as anti-hero’ which was just what the Nightmare on Elm Street sequels (which ironically he didn’t have anything to do with) had morphed his creation Freddy Krueger into. Only this time the film promised to be a lot more graphic and full-on than what Freddy had become hence the tagline ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’.

Horace Pinker is a voodoo studying serial killer who kills the family of the policeman who is pursuing him, Don Parker. Parker’s older foster son feels that he has a connection with Pinker through his dreams. This proves handy as it leads him and his father to Pinker’s rundown TV repair shop (when he’s not a serial killer he’s actually a TV repair man). Pinker aims his sights on Jonathan’s girlfriend as retribution but is then arrested and scheduled to be executed in the electric chair. However, he’s made a pact with the Devil and will become pure electricity after his execution. And this is the next stage of the film as Pinker now has supernatural powers and can use electricity and electrical devices to possess others to do his biding for him

Whilst this film and it’s plot devices (all of em!) feel undisciplined and lacking any clear boundaries or rules regarding Pinker and what his newly found powers can permit him to do, the film is still great fun. Pinker is a great baddie and a great badass with some of the funniest one-liners and some innovative gruesome kills. Apparently Craven had to submit the film 13 times to the MPAA to get it’s certificate down from an X rating to an R. And it shows! Some of the gore scenes are still especially close to the knuckle and the film feels grittier and more hardcore because of that.

I also love the messages Craven is making about television, the media and popular culture in general. Shocker was a very crafty way for Craven to make a later phase Nightmare franchise entry that wasn’t a part of the series and without Krueger. Fans of the series were privileged enough for Craven to give them a taste of what a new Nightmare (pun not intended) might have been like if Craven returned to the fold.

A wild ride and Mitch Pileggi is bad-ass.

6. Puppet Master

PuppetMaster

André Toulon is a puppet maker who happens upon an old Egyptian formula which is able to create life and so he gives life to his puppets. The Nazis seek to use this knowledge and are in hot pursuit which makes Toulon take his own life but not until he has hidden away his puppets for safe keeping in a wall panel. Some years later four psychics investigate the case of Toulon which leads them to his mansion. Along with his widow, they uncover the secrets of the Puppet Master in the worst possible way.

This film belongs to the ‘evil puppets/dolls/toys’ genre with other notable entries such as Dolls, Dolly Dearest, Demonic Toys and Dollman. In fact, it was this movie that crossed over with Demonic Toys for a future franchise entry.

Ever since the Ray Harryhausen skeleton scenes in Jason and the Argonauts the use of stop motion animation could be used to terrifying ends within fantasy/horror movies. This is one such film. The puppets are the stuff of nightmares, the Nazi background to the narrative is interesting and the locale of Toulon’s mansion is a very creepy setting for the majority of the film’s action.

Highly recommended.

5. Parents

Parents

Michael is living in middle class suburbia in 1950’s America. He has very disturbing dreams and suspects that his parents are cannibals after he finds body parts hanging up in the cellar. Can he convince his school counsellor that he is telling the truth?

Parents is an expertly directed and acted dissection and subversion of the dewy eyed nostalgia towards 1950’s Americana. The reason I saw it was the oh so wholesome artwork of the video artwork that depicted the parents in their perfect kitchen preparing dinner. The image was perfect, pure cheese and very atypical. But there was blood dripping from the movie’s title and the tagline was ‘A new name for terror’ which signified that this was, in fact, a horror movie.

I once read a description of the film that said that this was like an episode of Goosebumps directed by David Lynch. And I couldn’t put it better myself.

Theres a great sense of humour at work within the film. When Michael is served dinner he remarks ‘Who were the left-overs before they became left-overs?!’

Props to the excellent cast that includes Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt and Sandy Dennis- all perfect.

4. Society

Society

Every so often a film would be featured in Fangoria and Gorezone that looked so genre expanding when it came to special effects, make-up and general ickiness that I just had to see it when it reached these shores. But, with the BBFC in full swing this was not always the case. It took me many decades to see Luther The Geek in the UK after first reading about it and poring over the pics in my horror magazines for it to be then banned.

A Beverley Hills youth suspects his wealthy parents may not be what they proport to be.

This is a funny, horrifying and very shocking commentary on the Reagan’s America of the 1980’s with it’s different social strats and inequalities. The film also has some great observations regarding consumerism and those lucky enough to be able to buy into it fully and their insatiable addiction to it.

The director of this opus, Brian Yuzna was the producer of movies as fucked up as Re-animator. His directorial debut shows the same kind of restraint (i.e. none, thankfully) and limitless imagination and vision for this project that is effortlessly translated onto the screen.

The ending has to be seen to be (dis)believed.

3. Tetsuo

Tetsuo

I actually saw the sequel to Tetsuo before I saw the first film. I loved it so much I made it my duty to track down the original and I’m so glad I did.

Shinya Tsukamoto’s film is a black and white gritty looking masterpiece of surrealist visuals, mutation body horror and metal fetishism as we see the lead character eroticising the idea of himself becoming part man, part machine and then finding that it’s actually happening.

The original ads for this film mentioned the ‘two Davids’ Cronenberg and Lynch and their influence permeates this movie. But this isn’t some bad crude cut and paste of the different components and styles that are staples of their films. Tsukamoto has his own vision and it’s this that primarily shines out the brightest from this audacious, brilliant film/experience for the senses. Man Ray can be seen as an influence on this film also.

A disorientating, brilliant experience.

2. Pet Sematary

PetSematary

Louis Creed and his family move into their dream home which is perfect except for the very busy road at the front of their property.

The family cat is killed on the road. Louis is advised by a neighbour of a burial ground behind their property which has the power to reanimate the dead. Louis buries the cat but is shocked to find the cat comes back but as an evil version of itself.

Louis’ young son is then killed on the road. Should Louis bury him in the supernatural burial ground and hope that he comes back to life unscathed or should he take the cat incident as a sign not to?

This excellently directed yarn has much more emotional resonance than similar horror fare probably because the source material was so well written and personal. Stephen King, for many years, refused to talk about his source novel as it was too dark for him to go into. The scene where Louis’ young son Gage is run over and killed is horrific to watch and the lengths his father will go to try to bring him back is completely believable as this character will do anything to turn back time even if it’s been shown to have cataclysmic consequences.

Mary Lambert’s direction also brilliantly ramps up the tension amazingly with the actual horror scenes being especially unnerving and uncomfortable. This film could have been a second rate TV movie with the wrong director on board. Thankfully Lambert proved to be exactly the right woman for the task with the varied events in the film being handled expertly when it comes to either sensitivity or horror.

Horror fans will also be pleased to note that this film features Herman Munster himself Fred Gwynne as Jud Crandall the next door neighbour who tells Louis about the burial ground and it’s strange powers.

This film has just been given the 4K UHD treatment and this can only be seen as a worthy  judgement as to the film’s worth.

1 Intruder

Intruder

A supermarket closes and the staff start to restock for the next day. A jealous ex-boyfriend of an employee is making a nuisance of himself and had to be removed from the premises shortly before it closed for the night. The employees then start to be dispatched of by a killer who is locked in the store with them.

What is it about supermarkets and shopping malls that make them so brilliant as locales for horror movies?

This film was directed by Scott Spiegel who was a high school friend of Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell who both star here. This was also produced, and indeed stars, Lawrence Bender who was later introduced to Quentin Tarantino by Spiegel and the rest, as they say, is history.

This film is terrific with the darkened and isolated location of the supermarket being perfect for a killer to be running rampant within. The deaths are gory, innovative (my favourite being the head sawn in two by a meat slicer and then put back together but not aligned. One of the best special effects I’ve ever seen) and carried out with real panache.

There are some great directorial flourishes that are also noteworthy and set this head and shoulders above other late 80’s slasher fare. For example, check out the camera shot through the dial of a telephone. Inspired.

Watch out for the unexpected and brilliant ending.

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1988

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1988

Theres a video for this list here.

10. Rabid Grannies

RabidGrannies

A group of relatives meet to celebrate their elderly relations birthday (but have disclosed that they are only there so that they may be left something in the old duck’s inheritances when they pop their clogs). A black-sheep nephew of the octogenarians who practices the black arts has been excluded from proceedings but sends a supernatural gift that turns the lovable grandmas into evil, homicidal maniacs. Fun ensues.

This film is from Troma (of course). Within this Belgian horror film, the gore and blood flow and there is also a delectable sick strain of humour at play that make the film feel like no other movie I think I’ve ever seen.

Demented, wickedly funny and one of a kind.

9. The Blob

TheBlob

A remake of the Steve McQueen classic. A meteorite emits a strange pink goo type substance that is in fact alive, harmful to humans and intent on wreaking havoc. It seems to be completely sentient. This 80’s version determines the slime as in fact, a biological weapon that was sent into space after being concocted by scientists on Earth rather than being an alien entity.

By 1988 when this remake was made, special effects had progressed at such a dizzying pace that it was felt that anything was possible. Director Chuck Russell takes full advantage of this with not only The Blob doing things onscreen that could only have been dreamt of in the original film. Also, the blob itself looks aesthetically beautiful, akin to a huge oozing mass of pink bubble gum.

Kevin Dillon is certainly no Steve McQueen (but, to be fair, no one is) and this remake doesn’t have the amazing theme song that the original had, but as a special effects laden 1980’s remake this film more than accomplishes (and with real panache) what it aims to do.

8. Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood

Fridaythe13thPart7VarietyAd

This film is basically Jason vs Carrie as one of the latest crop of teens has telekinesis. Whats more she’s accidentally awakened Jason who was chained beneath Crystal Lake thanks to Tommy Jarvis in the previous film.

This was the first film with Kane Hodder as Jason. He seems completely at home right off the bat with his first inhabitation of the role displaying a real flare and strutting confidence.

We get some great kills, some great moments of sly humour (but not the amount of meta-humour synonymous with Part 6) and a fantastic final confrontation. We also get some of the finest helmet hair ever captured on film, with ‘do’s’ so severe that they very possibly could be just as bad (if not worse) than any of the atrocities committed by Jason.

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There are also some great character archetypes that the film hams up to- the bitch, the evil doctor, the ugly duckling. There’s a shrewdness to proceedings that is really enjoyable and helps pull this entry out of being just a generic late 80’s slasher movie.

But there were also other, more radical ideas being pushed forward when this movie was being mooted. Barbara Sachs, a Paramount producer wanted this movie to be the one Friday that was seen as being ‘arty’ and wanted it to even be in the running when the Academy Awards came around. Seriously! At one point there were even mutterings of trying to attach a director of (previous) high standing to the film with one possible nominee being Fellini. Yes, seriously!!!

This all came to nothing though as John Carl Buechler who had directed Troll was employed instead. He does a great job but the mind still boggles at the idea of Fellini directing proceedings and Jason going up to collect the Palme D’Or.

7. Child’s Play

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Another movie that kickstarted a brand new and very profitable horror franchise was Child’s Play.

Catherine Hicks plays a single mother who gives her young son Andy a new toy (named Chucky) akin to the old ‘My Buddy’, the awkwardly large doll for boys (!) from the 80’s.

Very early on this movie steers into dark waters. When Chucky starts killing people beginning with Maggie, Andy’s babysitter, the police make Andy the key suspect. The issue of killer kids is still a taboo and ironically one of the entries in this franchise would be linked to the real life case of the two killer kids who murdered James Bulger in 1993.

The doll scampering around to kill people looks and feels very sinister and uncomfortable as it looks like a child is actually committing all of these atrocities (a child was actually used to act as the killer doll). Brad Dourif as the voice of Chucky is amazing as he shows that even when he isn’t on screen he can still light up a role.

A very good start to an inventive, funny and intelligent franchise.

6. Killer Klowns From Outer Space

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A film for everyone who finds clowns really sinister and scary (or sexy because of that).

A young couple are busy making out at Make Out Point when they see what looks likes like a falling star and so go to investigate. It’s there that they find, of all things, a circus tent. The alien beings in said tent all look like clowns but they aren’t here to fall over and entertain us. They hate humans and want to harvest us in bright pink cocoons. They also kill humans as witnessed by Deputy Sheriff Mooney who arrests one of them. It slaughters everyone else in the cell along with the deputy.

Fortunately the Sheriff proper realises that the Klowns are a serious threat to the entire town and sets out to stop them. Will he succeed or will they?

This film is by the Chiodo Brothers and is like a really brightly coloured acid trip with this startling vision having darker undertones beneath the surface. This is also one of those movies that has it’s own reality and an amazing vision that is fully and brilliantly conceived and realised by the filmmakers.

This film is now seen as a cult classic and I can fully see why. A sequel has been mooted for years. I hope it comes to fruition.

5. Maniac Cop

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A cop has supposedly gone psycho on the streets of New York which causes citywide panic and retribution with cops being shot or steered clear of by scared civilians. The main suspect is a policeman called Jack with another cop called McCrae diving deep into the case and trying to stop the killer as he doesn’t think Jack is responsible.

This is another film by William Lustig who made Maniac and Vigilante. With this movie he again comes up with the goods. Not only is this a cult film fan’s dream cast with Bruce Campbell, Tom Atkins and Richard Roundtree (not to mention cameos by Sam Raimi and Jake LaMotta who is Lustig’s uncle) but this is a great concept for a movie. It has plenty of tense night-time scenes on grimy, terrifying New York streets (a Lustig speciality). There’s also the genuine shock scene when Maniac Cop is revealed with the legend Robert Z’Dar and his awesome jaw coming to the fore.

Maniac Cop was cut by 5 secs by the BBFC when it was first released in the UK. This involved the shower scene that involved a stabbing and facial mutilation.

This film was followed by two more Maniac Cop movies.

4. Phantasm 2

Phantasm2

It was because of Phantasm 2 that I learnt of the first film. Barry Norman on his regular film review programme reviewed the movie and voiced the opinion that he didn’t even know there was a first Phantasm film. At that point I had to agree.

I rented Phantasm 2 before I got to see the first film and loved it. It was (like the first movie) unlike any other film I had ever seen, with bags of imagination and nothing over-explained. The film had a mysterious aura about it.

This film continued it’s exploration of the sinister and malevolent Tall Man with Mike from the original film (but played by a different actor) leaving the mental institution he was resident in after the events of the first film and returning to Morningside Cemetery where he starts exhuming graves. Just as he suspected, they are empty. This convinces Reggie (also from the original) to help Mike investigate further and try to stop The Tall Man.

A bigger budget, more ambitious visuals and more complex plotlines (there seems to be more of an emphasis on the psychic element that was just hinted at in the original film with the seer and her granddaughter) permeate this sequel. There are also more guns, action and gore with the spheres being given a redux and more murderous implements to kill with.

But theres still mystery, intelligence and innovation. And whats more, it’s still ingrained in this second film as it was in the first. The viewer is free to interpret events in this film and try to decide if they are actual or imagined.

Phantasm 2 is a very worthy sequel to a masterpiece.

3. Scarecrows

Scarecrows

Ever since I read about Scarecrows in an old issue of Gorezone I knew I had to see it. When I did finally see it, of course, it was cut by the BBFC. But even in this cut form it still made for a great film.

A plane full of mercenaries have stolen millions of dollars and are flying away to Mexico with their bounty. However, one of them swipes the loot and parachutes from the plane into a cornfield. Two others parachute after him to be joined by the others upon landing the plane. They all meet in a house adjoined to the field. They spot the loot which is in the field but what they don’t know is that they will have major problems retrieving it as the cornfield is home to three paranormal scarecrows who are actually alive and hate those who trespass onto their terrain.

This is a brooding, dark hued film which is perfect for such a dark and gory movie. The horror of the scarecrows is intensified by the way they have been lit with all of the action taking place at night. This lends a very sinister air to proceedings especially with the haunting locale of the nocturnal cornfield.

There’s also great characterisation with the backstory warranting it’s own prequel. The sense of mistrust and paranoia permeates the action and prepares the audience to expect the unexpected. This is no generic 80’s horror movie.

I finally saw the uncut version and it was well worth the wait. As was seeing the film on Blu ray after I first saw it on VHS all those years ago.

2. Dead Ringers

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More double crossing now with twins being perfectly suited for this.

This David Cronenberg movie stars Jeremy Irons as twin gynaecologists with one twin, the narcissistic Elliot, seducing and then discarding some of the women who come to their practice with his more submissive and introverted twin Beverly taking over from Elliot in the relationship but without the woman being aware of the substitution.

The twins carry out this abusive practice with actress Claire (Genevieve Bujold). But Beverly seriously falls for her and after beginning a relationship together, refuses to ‘share’ her with Elliot (which causes a serious rift in their relationship) and starts to share her addiction of prescription medication.

After she has lunch with one of her friends she learns that Beverly has a twin brother. This triggers earlier doubts she had had regarding Beverly and how differently he acted after their first dalliance together. She confronts Beverly about this and tells him that she knows what him and his twin have done.

After a reconciliation between Beverly and Claire, there is more drug use between the two before she leaves town to work on another film. With her gone, Beverly becomes depressed, starts taking more drugs and becomes obsessed with mutant women with abnormal genitalia.

Yes, there’s lots going on here! This couldn’t be more different from the plot to Friday the 13th Part 7 if it tried. This film was another example of Cronenberg going from strength to strength. Just as The Fly had been a huge hit without any sign of selling out or compromise (in other words it was just as gross as his earlier films!), Dead Ringers was Cronenberg’s most accomplished film to date. The plot had plenty of scope for his breed of body horror (check out the horrific women’s examination implements that are made for Beverly as he becomes more deranged and drug-addled), but this time it was his most polished film with a stellar and VERY well respected cast. Cronenberg aimed high with this project and asked Robert De Niro to play the twins but was turned down. He also asked William Hurt but he wasn’t comfortable playing twins. Jeremy Irons has a formidable reputation, rises to this challenge and does an amazing job. His mix of equal parts refinement and derangement was perfect for this role. Genevieve Bujold was another actor of undeniable class who was perfectly cast as Claire.

The critics almost universally threw bouquets at Cronenberg’s feet with this film. It was intelligent, perfectly realised and gorgeous to boot with the subject matter being pure Cronenberg. Many critics and fans think this is his best film. They may be right.

1 Monkey Shines

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When an athlete (Allan) is hit by a truck and left a quadriplegic, a scientist friend recruits a monkey that has been trained to help assist disabled people to fully carry out their lives. Ella the monkey starts to bond well with Allan but soon this bond becomes a lot darker as he thinks that there might be some kind of telepathic bond with his new companion which then transforms into Ella enacting revenge on anyone who Allen displays anger towards. This escalates quickly.

This was Romero’s first film since the amazing Day of the Dead three years before and was further proof, if it were needed, that Romero continued to make intelligent horror films and that, just like Cronenberg, his directing career continued to flourish and evolve into unexpected avenues.

A film about a psychotic, telepathic monkey reeking havoc in a disabled man’s life was new territory for Romero and (yet again) he knocks it out of the park with deft direction, all round amazing performances and a tension that becomes palpable with every passing scene.

The film still has the ability to shock. I could say more but I’m not going to ruin this film for anyone. This is a noteworthy entry in Romero’s stellar body of work and one of his best films.

 

 

 

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1986

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1986

Theres a video for this list here.

10. Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives

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Jason was killed in Part 4. But just as that installment was supposed to be the literal ‘Final Chapter’, it had been such a success that Paramount made another film. Part 5: A New Beginning involved Tommy Jarvis still seeing Jason everywhere, especially as new murders start to happen around him. Instead, it turns out that an ambulance driver has adopted Jason’s hockey mask and chosen to dispatch of all of the teens in the vicinity. His identity was only revealed at the end of the film.

Friday fans weren’t happy. They wanted Jason and not some tribute act. Their disappointment was indicated in the poorer box office returns for Part 5. So Paramount decided to resurrect the big guy. Jason would be back and (hopefully) the studio would profit handsomely from this.

How do you resurrect a supposedly dead horror film character? Easy, especially if the film franchise in question isn’t exactly known for it’s logic or coherent timeline. After all, Jason was supposed to have drowned in Crystal Lake prior to the first film. Tommy Jarvis is suffering from PTSD (never explicitly stated in the film but the flashbacks and hallucinations are symptomatic of this) and goes back to Crystal Lake with a friend to put Jason well and truly to rest. They dig up his coffin and open it so that Tommy can burn the corpse. However, with an iron railing from a nearby fence, Tommy stabs it into Jason’s body out of sudden rage when faced with him again. Lo and behold, a lightning bolt strikes the railing which resurrects the killer like a Frankenstein for the MTV generation (theres a great shot of worms falling off Jason’s face as he gets up). He arises, kills Tommy’s friend and puts back on his hockey mask thats nearby. He’s ready for business. Tommy escapes and spends the rest of the movie trying to convince people that Jason is back and then trying to stop his foe.

The supernatural elements to Jason’s resurrection was something Paramount must have loved. It meant that Jason would never really die, could be brought back to life at any time without a reasonable explanation and still make them money.

But there were still risks being taken with this film. It contained a sly humour that wasn’t present to such a degree in any other of the films. Most daringly, there was a meta humour present whereby the film would gleefully reference and gently poke fun at the conventions of cinema and in most instances, horror cinema and the slasher subgenre.

The title sequence of Jason Lives shows this in all it’s glory as we see Jason’s version of the James Bond gun barrel sequence. Instead of firing a gun, Jason throws a knife at the perpetrator whilst we see the blood then gush down. A knowing homage. The Friday 13th fanbase would instantly be divided into two camps. The ones who love the dark, brutal and more serious films and view The Final Chapter as their favourite and those who liked this less serious, more laid back venture with the kills still bing brutal but the build-up being laden with gentle winks to the camera and those in the know.

There are other humorous asides in the film. The cemetery being called ‘Eternal Peace’, the woman in her car who sees Jason and remarks that shes seen enough horror films to know a man in a mask in the woods is never a good thing, the American Express card drifting by on the top of a puddle after a victim is murdered. Theres also a hilarious scene in which Jason’s woods are swarming with paintballers with one of them thinking Jason is one of the competitors.

But whilst there are jokes and subtle references galore, there are great kills as well. The film also attempts to give the fans something new and to expand the canvas of the series as well. One way the film does this is by introducing bigger spectacles that haven’t been seen in the series previously. The scene involving the bus had never been attempted in any previous films and the shots of Jason on top of the huge vehicle feel like something new and grander in vision. The films were little by little changing as they needed to to reflect an ever-changing audience and not to stagnate and grow lazy by just depending on the formula used during the iconic first four films.

Ironically, Part 6 made less money at the box office than any of the other installments. But, it found it’s audience even more on home video and remains many Friday fans favourite entry in the franchise.

9. Chopping Mall

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A shopping mall gets a new state of the art security system consisting of robots that patrol the mall and tackle thieves through the use of lasers whilst also being able to shoot them with tranquillisers. All ways in and out of the mall are also secured with shutters which make it virtually impossible to get in (or out!)

You know what happens next! The system malfunctions due to the mall being struck by lightning and the robots become killing machines as we see after they bump off the system’s technicians and a caretaker in an early scene.

There are four couples in the mall as they stay on after-hours to party, have sex in the beds in the furniture store they are in (three of them work there) and to fall foul of the killer robots.

What is it about malls and horror movies that makes them work so well together? This is certainly no Dawn of the Dead but it’s fun, camp, kitsch and great fun, a true popcorn 80’s film.

But also, it’s a Roger Corman movie so we get Corman royalty such as Paul Bartel, Dick Miller, Gerrit Graham and Mary Woronov in roles.

I remember seeing this great big hunk of cheese in 1986 and thinking that American malls were so much more fun than the soulless 70’s shopping precincts we had in the UK. Especially as they had killer robots.

8. House

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A best selling horror author moves into his aunt’s house after she hangs herself in her bedroom. Here he encounters all manner of supernatural shenanigans.

And shenanigans is the right word as this is, and I never thought I’d be uttering these words on my website, a family horror film. The movie is bright and breezy and the monsters fun (but still scary). But this is the kind of horror movie that the whole family can sit through as long as the kids aren’t really young and can see the monsters and ghouls for what they are- grotesque parodies of other people from author Cobb’s life. The ugly female creature is a reverse manifestation of his beautiful actress (soon to be ex) wife, the green and rotting soldier is his buddy from Nam who thinks Cobb left him to perish. These ghouls are one step up from the scarier elements of The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.

This was directed by Steve Miner who also directed Friday the 13th Parts 2 and 3. George Wendt stars of Cheers fame as does William Katt who, of course, was Tommy Ross from Carrie.

This was so much fun when I first saw it with my mates in 1986. And when I watched it again the other day, it was still fun. Arrow’s transfer of this movie is flawless.

7. Critters

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A criminal species of aliens are being transferred to a prison planet but in the process they hijack a spaceship and escape. With Earth in their sights they are pursued by two intergalactic bounty hunters.

They land in rural Kansas and start to cause havoc and mayhem.

Whilst this may sound ‘fun’ and a family film like House, Critters is much more aimed at adult horror fans with more ‘horror’ than House and less of a bright and breezy feel to proceedings.

Dee Wallace Stone, E Emmett Walsh and Billy Green Bush all star and bring a lot to the film. This feels like a moderately big budget movie rather than some cheap and corny alien flick.

The critters (of Krites as they’re called earlier in the film) can frenziedly eat rather like piranha (we see them eat a cow in this manner which makes them a threat to animals and humans alike), fire quills from their foreheads and also travel at high speed by rolling away.

I love the depiction of small-town American life that this film captures with it’s rural/farmland idyll and one scene taking place in a setting of All-Americana, a bowling alley.

Theres also a great sense of playfulness and humour to the movie that comes through loud and clear to the viewer.

This film really reminds me of the movie, Tremors released a few years later.

6. The Hitcher

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1986 sounds kind of lightweight so far, doesn’t it? Quasi-funny aliens, family-friendly spectres and ghouls. But whilst there were a spate of PG-13 horror films that had as many funny moments as horrifying moments, there was, almost to balance things out, a spate of horror movies that were the complete opposite- unhinged, unrepentant and willing to push the boundaries.

One was The Hitcher starring C. Thomas Howell as a motorist travelling from Chicago to San Diego and stops to pick up a hitcher (Rutger Hauer). This in turn unleashes a shitstorm of epic proportions. The Hitcher reminds me of Spielberg’s Duel but with a seemingly unstoppable psychopath taking the place of the truck.

After John the hitcher pulls out a knife and saying he had cut off the arms and legs of the last person who picked him up, Jim (the driver) notices that the passenger door is unlocked and pushes him out of the car as it’s moving. This starts a series of both people crossing paths (or should be roads) with each other until the film’s climax.

The Hitcher is a very well made and beautifully shot B movie. It’s also close to the edge, has a brutality that was pushing boundaries for movies at that point and remains a fan favourite for just that reason.

It is also open to many readings. One possible reading involves the underlying gay subtext to the film with one scene where the duo have to go through a roadblock due to construction work, implicitly bringing this up and out into the open.

5. Night of the Creeps

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It’s always a special year when a movie with Tom Atkins in it makes my Top 10 list.

A fraternity prank involving the thawing of a cryogenically frozen corpse sets into motion a tale involving alien brain parasites (!) that turn humans into zombies.

This film is a fantastic yarn. Not only is it an excellent film but it’s also a brilliant homage to horror of old with several sub-genres being resurrected (pun not intended) and referenced. Also, look out for the character names that name-check others within the genre (Cronenberg, Landis, Corman etc).

This is also a prime Tom Atkins vehicle and, as ever, he shines as ex-cop Ray Cameron. The script is littered with acerbic one-liners for him to utter, which he does with relish.

This film bombed royally when it was first released. But, thankfully, it found it’s feet on home video and became a huge cult classic (just like director Fred Dekker’s next film, The Monster Squad).

4. Vamp

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An ultra stylised vampire film starring Grace Jones (!) that has aged extremely well.

AJ and Keith want to get their way into a college frat house and so decide to hire a stripper for the evening to seal the deal. They puruse the local strip joints in the seedier parts of town and after entering a bar called After Dark, become set on asking Katrina, a stripper they have seen to come to their frat house. AJ goes backstage to try to convince her but she seduces him and then bites his neck.

So sets in motion a whole chain of events that includes more vampires and, of all things, an albino street gang. It would seem that nearly everyone working at the club is a vampire.

With the stylisation of this film being so central to it’s vision, this could have aged really badly and looked ‘sooo 80’s’ and been all surface and no substance. Thankfully, it’s neither of these and looked even better now than when I first saw it. There has also been a pristine transfer issued on Blu Ray by Arrow which means the film looks better than ever before.

The colour palate for this film is extraordinary and you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Grace Jones with red hair!

3. The Fly

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Scientist Seth Brundel (Jeff Goldblum) shows Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis), a journalist, his transportation pods (not a euphemism) and how he can transport anything from one to the other. He still has to work on the idea though as living beings aren’t transporting properly yet (we see what happens when Brundel tries to transport a babboon and it actually gets transported inside out). Brundel promises full publishing rights to Quaife when the idea is perfected.

Brundel does perfect and tweak the idea and transports himself from one transporter to the other to prove it. However, a fly has entered the pod as well and so Brundel is transported but also combines with molecular structure of the fly.

He soon starts to transform and manifest his new Fly component. He becomes markedly stronger, starts craving sugar and starts to sprout thick hairs on his back. And that’s just the start.

The Fly was a huge hit in 1986 and it’s great to see that after years of directing his body horror films, David Cronenberg’s reputation and body of work started to grow in prestige. Could someone as esoteric as Cronenberg ever make a film which would *shock horror* involve a huge studio and maybe even be a huge hit? The answer was Yes. 20th Century Fox was behind The Fly along with Mel Brooks’ production company, Brooksfilm. And all of this happened without any kind of sell out or compromise. The Fly feels through and through like a Cronenberg film with it’s minutiae for procedure, science and what the stomach turning results are. And, boy, these sequences don’t disappoint. The bar-room arm wrestling scene is still as painful to watch as when I first saw this on VHS.

The unexpected also happened- The Fly won an Oscar. It was for Best Make-Up and it was richly deserved. Jeff Goldblum’s transformation into part-man, part-fly is inspired, horrifying and extremely gross (perfect for a horror film).

2. Manhunter

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FBI criminal profiler Will Graham comes out of retirement to try to help apprehend a serial killer known as ‘The Tooth Fairy’. This involves meeting with one of his old nemeses, Dr Hannibal Lecktor who almost killed Graham.

Whilst Silence of the Lambs was the mainstream Hollywood movie that introduced the world to Hannibal Lector (without the middle ‘k’ too) then Manhunter was the arthouse movie in which he first appeared.

Whilst Silence has a lot to like about it, it does have moments that make me roll my eyes. The one-liners (especially the too showy speech abut fava beans and a nice Chianti resplendent with slurping sound effects) and general showiness does feel a bit forced and kind of vulgar to the Lecktor in Manhunter and Thomas Harris’ books.

With Manhunter the only downside is the change of title forced on by the film by it’s producer Dino De Laurentiis. The book by Harris was actually Red Dragon after he had produced a film with Dragon in it’s title that had flopped. He also didn’t want cinema goers to think the move was a kung fu vehicle. Two stupid reasons but Manhunter isn’t that bad a title for a movie.

Manhunter is a Michael Mann so the visual aspect of the movie is of paramount importance. The way every single frame is composed, the colour palate (notice the colours used for intimate scenes and more striking hues used for more disturbing episodes), the surreality of certain scenes (especially the showdown between Graham and Dollarhyde aka The Tooth Fairy) and how they have been filmed to accentuate this.

Whilst Silence was a huge hit on it’s release, Manhunter flopped but was lauded by critics on it’s release, to be appreciated more over the years with it’s release on home media. Which is ironic as Manhunter is the better film.

1 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

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I first heard of this film in 1991 when Malcolm McLaren reviewed it on a Channel 4 arts show. I thought Mr McLaren would act all edgy and say that the film was very tame and didn’t affect him at all. How wrong I was! He said that he had seen the film 3 days previously to review it and hadn’t slept since! It had scared the shit out of him and that it was like he had watched a documentary rather than an actual motion picture. As soon as I heard him say this, I knew I had to see this film (although with a title like this I was bound to see it anyway).

The film was released on video in the UK after being massively cut by the BBFC but it still remained a harrowing, powerful piece of work the likes of which hadn’t been seen by film audiences before. It really was like we had fly on the wall access to serial killer Henry and his prison pal Otis (based on the real life Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole who were actually a couple in reality but not within the parameters of this film) as Henry coerces (not that he needs much coercion) Otis into killing and passes down his wisdom to him regarding topics such as Modus Operandi and not getting caught. Henry also outlines some of his philosophy regarding what murder is like (‘It’s always the same and it’s always different’).

The film is peppered with unexpected intervals whereby we’ll suddenly see one of Henry’s victims just after he has killed them- the woman slumped on a toilet, her top pulled down to show her breasts, suspenders and stockings also on view with a broken bottle protruding from her maimed, mutilated bloody mouth. Or the Mom and Pop in a general store both shot dead. Or the dead naked woman’s body floating face down in a lake. These intervals are also accompanied by their respective screams. We also see other clues as to Henry’s crimes. The hitchhiker he picks up who is clutching an acoustic guitar in a case which Henry later brings into the kitchen where Otis and Becky (Otis’ sister who comes to stay with them) are sat. When asked where he got it from he just says he ‘picked it up’. Theres also the scene later on in the film where he offers to take Becky out for a steak dinner as he has a new Visa card he wants to try out. ‘You have a Visa card?!’ Becky laughs to which he responds ‘Who do you think you’re associating with?!’ It’s not explicitly stated where Henry has received this credit card from but it can be reasonably guessed.

We even get to see the stalking of a woman Henry has seen in a shopping mall car park, as he follows her to her suburban home. On seeing that her partner meets her to unpack her shopping, he drives away. But on being instructed to keep the canister of bug spray from his former job by his boss, he uses this prop to go to the woman’s house on a later occasion and finish what he had hoped to do earlier. We don’t see the murder but we get to see the aftermath. As cartoons play on a TV screen, we see her dead on the couch, a length of cord around her throat, cigarette burns on her chest.

And then there are the murders that take place on screen. These include the homosexual guy who stops for Henry and Otis’ (fake) car breakdown, the sleazy and sarcastic (but very funny) TV salesman who finds a TV actually being brought down on his head screen-first (‘Plug it in’ Henry tells Otis, providing the film with a scene of gallows humour. This sick and unintentional comedy peppers the film just like the bloody intervals revealing Henry’s victims do. More on this bleak humour later), the pair of prostitutes they have rented with Henry breaking both of their necks to the astonishment and dismay of Otis.

And then there is the home invasion scene that was and still is the bane of many film classification boards the world over and one of the most notorious scenes in the history of film. Henry and Otis break into a home whilst the family are enjoying an otherwise quiet night in. Otis is seen fondling a woman sat on his lap but whilst she is desperately try to get away, Otis holds her arms behind her back so that she can’t. Henry is seen kicking her male partner who is tied up, has a bag over his head and is on the floor at Henry’s feet. Henry is also filming the whole incident on a camcorder taken from the TV salesman they killed earlier. As all of this is going on, the front door suddenly opens and a ten year old boy walks in, sees whats going on and makes a bolt for the door again to notify someone. He doesn’t make it though as Henry beats him to it, tackles him to the floor and breaks his neck. Otis breaks the neck of the woman on his lap and is just about to sexually abuse her further when Henry tells him not to. We then see that the action is actually being watched by both men on their TV whilst they sit on a couch in their apartment. They are watching the incident for pleasure.

Becky is coming to stay with them as she is running away from her abusive husband. During her stay with her brother and Henry, she will slowly fall for Henry. She will also reveal details of her own backstory over a game of cards with him- the abuse she received at the hands of her father, the fact that she only got into a relationship with her violent husband Leroy so that she could escape her Dad. Otis had previously mentioned to Becky that he had met Henry in the jug and that Henry was there for killing his Mama. He also demands that Becky doesn’t mention it to Henry which, of course, she does. Henry tells her about it, how his mother was a whore, how she’d make him sometimes wear a dress and watch as her and her male friends had sex and then after the deed they would sit and laugh at him. The fact that he gets the method he used to kill his Mama wrong says so much. Henry also details other aspects of his upbringing- his father who was a great man before he lost his legs, the bicycles that his father gave him and his brother that were too big but were sold before he had time to grow to be able to use it properly, the brother who had ‘bone disorder’ and was deformed.

The film isn’t the quagmire of depravity that the film’s reputation suggests. There is some great black comedy within the film with the ‘Plug it in’ scene highlighted earlier being one of them. One such happens when Henry breaks the necks of two prostitutes in quick succession. On seeing Henry killing for the first time and not even knowing that he was capable of something like that, Otis’ face changes to one of disbelief of almost comic proportions with him almost looking into the camera at the audience and breaking the fourth wall. It bizarrely provides a laugh for the audience in the bleakest of situations. In fact, Otis is also a great source of humour in other scenes in the film. On picking Becky up from the airport, she has a huge suitcase and a paper bag with her belongings in them. Otis chooses the paper bag to carry and leaves her to struggle with the suitcase.  On driving to his apartment, he asks her about her husband Leroy. When she gets upset and says she doesn’t want to talk about him anymore he agrees and asks if shes hungry and wants something to eat. Theres then a short pause after which Otis asks her if she thinks Leroy is hungry and then wickedly smiles.

Just as there is (very dark) humour in the film, Henry is also depicted as charming and completely human in some scenes. If serial killers looked like the monsters they are on the outside, they wouldn’t get close enough to kill anyone. We see Henry making a waitress blush by saying she has a nice smile. Near the end of the film he meets a woman and her dog in an alleyway and goes on a charm offensive, mentioning how lovely her dog is and asking it’s name. He can use his charm when he wants to get close to a subject to kill them.

A note here about the music used within the film. The score brilliant mirrors Henry’s behaviour and temperament. For the most part it suggests a steady air of impending doom and menace whilst during the murders it curdles into wild explosions of sound complete with stingers when Henry stabs or attacks someone. These sound devices utilised during the murders wouldn’t be out of place in a slasher movie and their use here is very important. Henry feels completely separate to almost every other horror film especially the slasher genre. The use of slasher film type music shows that it can be used to even more terrifying use when utilised by such a realistic film as Henry. The film reappropriates this music and gives it a new meaning. The tagline used for the film was ‘He’s not Freddy. He’s not Jason. He’s real’. This film is so invested in real life that it’s power, rawness, and menace comes from that fact.

The three central performances within the film are amazing as are their characterisations- the wide-eyed naivety and gullibility of Becky, the already corrupted and willing to be further corrupted Otis. And then theres Henry. Michael Rooker’s performance is nothing short of brilliant and is one of the best performances I think I’ve ever seen. He is a walking, talking realistic portrayal of a psychopath and sociopath. He seems to inhabit the character and, as cliched as it is, he is Henry. And with the drawl of Droopy the Dog. Apparently he stayed in character for most of the film’s shoot. A crew member would drive him to the set every day and he would talk about his background, sometimes as Michael, sometimes as Henry. Rooker’s wife found out that she had become pregnant whilst Rooker was working on the film, knew that he was in character whilst he was shooting it and so waited until filming had completely finished before she told him the good news.

I could say more about Henry but to do so would completely ruin the film for new viewers and expose major spoilers. I’ll just say that the film is now recognised as the classic it truly is, is now uncut in the UK (and many other countries) and is available in 4K on Blu Ray (I remember seeing a print before this restoration that was on Netflix here in the UK and it looked dreadful! This new anniversary edition makes up for this with the film looking and sounding the best it ever has).

A truly astonishing piece of work and not for the faint hearted. I could write more about Henry and analyse it in more depth. And I will.

 

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1985

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1985

Theres a video for this list here.

10. The Mutilator

Mutilator

Family horror here! Teenager Ed accidentally kills his mother whilst cleaning a rifle for his father (imagine what a headfuck that would be). After his father (Big Ed) discovers his dead wife’s body, he has a breakdown.

Fast forward a few years and Big Ed asks his son to close up their second home which is situated at a beach side location. Ed takes some friends with them so they can spend some time there first during their Fall Break (the original name of the movie). But, Big Ed is already in the property but keeps his presence a secret as he plans to do away with his son as revenge for what he did to his wife.

So begins a killing spree as Big Ed dispatches of the teens one by one and by using different implements for each murder (this inspired the great tagline for the movie ‘By sword, by pick, by axe, bye bye!’). The kills are brutal, the family angle is interesting and theres one murder involving a huge fishing hook being used on a female victim that is extremely unsavoury and really great for a slasher movie.

Nasty and mean spirited- perfect for it’s genre.

9. Fright Night

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Part horror film, part boy’s own adventure.

Could Charley Brewster’s very good looking next door neighbour really be a vampire as he suspects? Several women have gone missing and this makes Charley suspect Jerry Dandridge as the culprit. Charley goes to Peter Vincent who was renowned for playing a vampire hunter in a series of films to help him in his quest to put an end to Jerry’s bloodlust after the police don’t believe him.

This is a great movie featuring a genuinely original plot that leaves you guessing until the very end and without it ever feeling stale, tired or stooping to cliche.

On top of this theres a very interesting subplot, that is, if you can detect the signifiers. Jerry doesn’t live alone, he has a ‘housemate’. They curate antiques. When they’re seen together in the film they act protectively towards each other and obviously care deeply about one another. Theres also the scene where Billy cleans Jerry’s wounded hand but does it whilst hes on his knees. In silhouette through the window shade, it looks like something very different.

It’s obvious that they are being portrayed as being a gay couple but without the film explicitly saying it. What would be the perfect alibi for a vampire who is making his way through the local (female) prostitute population to satisfy his bloodlust than to appear to in fact be gay and for your other half to provide alibis for your actions?

And so this was very daring of a mainstream horror film to contain such a subtext. It also raises interesting ideas regarding double lives- the homosexual who isn’t out yet, the vampire who isn’t out yet.

A great vampire movie that is daring, gory and just as charming as Jerry is. It’s also a great love letter to older horror traditions of vampire hunters and conventions also.

8. Silver Bullet

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A low-key adaptation of Stephen King novella Cycle of the Werewolf.

A serial killer in a local town is actually found to be a werewolf by wheelchair-bound Marty (Corey Haim) who defends himself against attack with a well aimed firework that is fired into the creatures eye. With this visible wound it is now easy to ascertain who the culprit is when the werewolf has transformed back to being human as the eye injury will be easily noticeable. And then battle commences to stop the creature.

This is another King adaptation that wasn’t a huge production but found it’s audience on home video. Small town America is captured really well, Haim is on top form but it is his tipsy Uncle Red who steals the show. It’s my favourite Gary Busey performance in any of his films.

The kills are effective, the tension is brilliantly generated and the werewolf is genuinely scary. I love the fact that he looks more like a bear than the result of some multi-million dollar special effects whiz.

Don Coscarelli of Phantasm started directing this but then quit the production half way through.

7. Chiller

Chiller

A made for TV movie directed by Wes Craven that was issued on video in the UK.

A wealthy businessman, Miles Creighton has himself cryogenically frozen after his death. But then the container holding his frozen body starts to make him thaw. His mother asks surgeons to operate on him to resusitate him as this can now be performed because of recent advances in medical science.

But it soon becomes apparent that he has changed and now doesn’t seem to have a soul or conscience. There are suddenly unexplained deaths with all roads leading to Miles.  It’s only after the local priest Father Penny (Paul Sorvino) is taken to the hospital in critical condition that Miles’ mother is forced to face up to the fact that Miles is responsible as the priest tells her as much. It’s now up to her to stop her son from killing again.

This is a strange film that I loved as a kid, watched a few years ago, found to be boring and then watched again the other day and really liked. It depends on your mood. If you’re in the mood for something that is suitably restrained, non-flashy and remember that this was made for television then you’ll get the most out of this.

The cast are really good with Michael ‘Swan from The Warriors’ Beck as Miles and Paul Sorvino as Father Penny. It’s an interesting conceit and I’m glad I enjoyed it again when I recently watched it. Some movies are like that. They are dependent on mood and can’t be enjoyed at just any time. Another film like that for me is Driller Killer. Sometimes I think it’s an amazing examination of madness in rundown New York. Other times I find it to be the most tedious and slow movie ever made.

6. Cat’s Eye

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Yet another low-key Stephen King adaptation.

This one is an anthology of three vignettes linked by the same cat strolling through. The first story involves the extreme measures employed by a company that smokers can sign up to to quit. The second is about a mob boss finding out that his wife is having an affair, having her lover kidnapped and then forcing him to walk around the outside ledge of his apartment. If he succeeds he will grant his philandering wife a divorce. If not, well, hes dies as he will have fallen to his death. The third story is about a little girl who has to contend with a troll that is trying to kill her with the cat coming to her rescue.

This film is basically Stephen King’s Tales of the Unexpected. Each segment is expertly directed, well acted and full of great twists and turns. It was a nice touch to have the cat as something that links all of the stories together and I love the idea of a cat getting to see and experience some of the most bizarre scenarios imaginable whilst it’s owners are oblivious.

A very young Drew Barrymore, James Woods and Candy Clark from Larry Clark’s brilliant Q are some of the actors that are great in this.

5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

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I saw this when it was first released on video in 1986 after being obsessed with the original. It was…unexpected. It wasn’t the sequel I had wanted but it was still interesting and my Gaydar was going off like crazy!

It was probably the scenes that took place in the S&M bar that made me pick up on the gay subtext the most especially the death of the sadistic gym teacher- naked, from behind and having balls fired at him. What could it all mean?!

The story of effeminate outcast Jesse (perfect name haha) becoming a body for Freddy to be reborn was intriguing but didn’t really make sense. He was shown to be still at work at the dreadful conclusion of the previous film. There was also the scene at the pool party that defied the rules of the first film. Freddy has just appeared to loads of teens. Were they all asleep at the same time then?!

But other than that the film is an interesting experiment, with a look and feel that the first film had even if the events it was portraying were very different.

A sequel that took risks rather than seeking to establish a formula.

4. Demons

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Strangers on the streets of Berlin are invited to a mysterious cinema for a free screening. They take their seats, the film starts but then one by one they become froth-mouthed demons. At one point those who haven’t succumbed to a similar fate make it to the exits to find they’ve all been bricked up.

I love the fact that some of the humans start to use promotional props used to advertise other films to fight off the demons. Although I’ve never seen a motorbike used in a cinema foyer to advertise a film before.

This Lamberto Bava shocker is all visual thrills that was originally to be part of an intended anthology film. But Bava took to this story more than the other two being proposed and so decided to develop just this story and make it into a feature length film.

Yes, this isn’t a film that you’d seek out if you wanted nuance and detail. This is a visceral, gory and bloody ride that full of interesting visuals and thrills. One of the women who becomes a demon is wearing spandex. If this doesn’t cause you to investigate this film then nothing will. It’s gory, extreme but also very, very camp which is part of it’s brilliance. Just let this film wash over you and you’ll love it.

3. Day of the Dead

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Another film that my opinion flip-flopped over significantly over the years.

The zombie epidemic has now spread to such an extent that zombies are now everywhere and humans are few and far between. The few human survivors live in underground bunkers like the one in which we find the film’s characters. Theres a distinct tension between the head scientist in the group, Dr Logan and Captain Rhodes, the head of the soldiers assigned to protect them.

Logan and his team are desperately trying to find an end to the zombie pandemic but Rhodes seems opposed to him, his team of scientists and the fact that zombies are kept in the bunker with them, harnessed and restrained so that experiments can be carried out to try to find answers. It’s this mistrust between the scientists and the military that is the basis for a lot of Day’s events.

When Rhodes takes charge of the bunker and everyone in it he then says that they have to work under his command and anyone who disobeys will be executed.

Just like in the opening scenes of Dawn of the Dead where the scientist who is trying to use logic to find a way out of this emergency is ridiculed in a TV studio, here the scientists are ridiculed and looked down on with skepticism by the military led by the vile (and possibly psychopathic) Rhodes.

When Logan is asked to show Rhodes what progress he has made, he is shown his pet project. Bub is a zombie who shows signs of remembering his former life, can utter a few human words and has been successfully trained by Logan to use a gun, listen to a Walkman and even salute Rhodes- huge steps when dealing with the undead. Rhodes scoffs at this ‘progress’ and orders all zombies to be killed when one of them isn’t harnessed in properly and kills two soldiers.

Romero viewed the military in the same way within his film The Crazies. He saw them as bloodthirsty, ruthless and adverse to progress or rationality in the midst of a disaster.

When I first saw this movie in the 80’s I loved it, then as a teen I though it was too talky with not enough action (ahh, the folly of youth!) but I reinvestigated it when it was released by Arrow and I love it again now. The gorgeous cinematography, the intellectualism regarding the pandemic, the evolution since Night and Dawn, the zombies who are now actually rotting and looking worse than ever.

***SPOILER***

It’s a great moment when the zombies are eating Rhodes’ intestines and his dying words are ‘Choke on em!’

2. Re-Animator

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I remember going to a midnight screening of this one of my local cinemas. As myself and my friend were too young to go on our own my friend asked his Dad if he would accompany us. He agreed but didn’t know what sort of film this was. Boy, did he get a rude awakening! He even made the audience laugh at one point as when a character on the screen said ‘I can’t belive this is happening!’ he responded very loudly and grandly, ‘You and me both!’

Herbert West is a scientist who has invented a serum that when injected into a dead being can bring them back to life. He conducts experiments to test the serum on first a dead cat and then on dead human subjects. A rival, Dr Hill wants to take credit for the serum and wants West’s notes regarding it so he can take the credit for the discovery and so attempts to blackmail West to get what he wants. After being beheaded by West, Herbert reanimates both the head and body of Hill separately. For the rest of the film we see Hill’s headless body wandering around, sometimes with his now unattached head in it’s hands.

It was the severed head of Hill that caused consternation for the advertising regulators in the UK upon the release of Reanimator. The movie’s poster depicted the severed head with it’s face in the direction of the viewer so that there was absolutely no doubt as to what it was. This was deemed to be too much for the general public. The film’s distributor instead plumped for the head to be turned around as the back of the head would make it more ambiguous for any of the faint of heart.

This movie is so good. The humour is sick (on reanimating his friend Dan’s dead cat he says ‘Remember, it’s got a broken back. Don’t expect it to do the tango!’), on point and the premise wildly entertaining. The scene between Hill’s headless body holding his head and as it tries to have it’s wicked way with the character Megan’s strapped down naked body is something that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

This film being so zany, gross and intelligent was a cinematic blend that was such a great shot in the arm (pun not intended) for the horror genre. This film felt like it was light years ahead of the more generic entries in the slasher subgenre. By 1985, horror was mutating and evolving in interesting new directions and this film was leading the way.

1 The Stuff

TheStuffProduct

A white goo is found to be bubbling out of the ground by workers. It’s found to be edible, sweet and highly addictive. The yoghurt like substance is then branded as The Stuff, sold and marketed. It sells like hot cakes as it’s sweet, highly addictive and, most importantly, has no calories! But, unfortunately, The Stuff is actually a living, toxic and parasitic organism that turns it’s consumers into zombies before eating them from the inside.

Because of The Stuff and it’s success, sales of ice cream are affected to such an extent that former FBI agent David ‘Mo’ Rutherford is hired by confectionary industry insider Charles Hobbs to find out exactly what The Stuff is and how it’s success can be sabotaged. Rutherford also teams up with a young boy called Jason who sees that The Stuff is actually alive and the dangerous addictive effects it can have. I love the part of the film where Jason becomes to a one-man army against The Stuff, attacking displays in local supermarkets and smashing glass freezers that contain the product.

This film is not just a really effective horror film but is also very humorous and also a very perceptive satire on advertising, consumerism and even the military (Paul Sorvino stars as a retired Colonel who leads a squad to battle the zombies and destroy the product using brute force). Its very telling that when the workers discover the goo bubbling up from the ground they instinctively want to taste it.

I love the adverts we see for The Stuff as well as it’s logo and packaging. The film is so perceptive and accurate that it feels like this could actually happen! Dollars and pounds are more important to corporations and capitalism over humanity and safety.

A great film from the great Larry Cohen.

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1983

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1983

There is a video regarding this article here.

10. Twilight Zone: The Movie

TheTwilightZone

An anthology of separate short films from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, George Miller and John Landis.

This homage to the original Twilight Zone TV series much loved by both television and horror fans works really well as the spirit of the series is kept intact but advanced into the 80’s and given the budget afforded to a big Hollywood film. It means the scope of the ideas is expanded immeasureably.

My favourite segment is undoubtably Dante’s ‘It’s a Good Life’ which blew my mind when I saw it as child and still blows my mind now. It’s akin to taking acid whilst watching Looney Toons cartoons alongside The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I will be forever haunted by the girl with no mouth and the giant eyeball.

All of the segments are amazing but there is an added poignancy to the Landis directed ‘Time Out’ as Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children who weren’t working under acting rules in California were killed in a scene involving a helicopter.

The sequences that bookend the main segments are just as good as the main content of the film.

This film was such a hit that the old TV series was relaunched.

9. The Keep

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Warning- this is a Michael Mann so expect stylisation to be turned up to eleven.

‘Nazis are forced to turn to a Jewish historian for help in battling the ancient demon they have inadvertently freed from it’s prison’ is how the plot for this film is described on IMDB. I was dreading providing a plot summary for this film as, even though I’ve seen it plenty of times, I still don’t know what the fuck is going on during much of it’s running time.

This seems to be a film more concerned with taking the viewer on an incredible journey rather than presenting a linear and clear narrative. And that’s absolutely fine if there is intelligence and substance to proceedings. And The Keep is such a film.

You will never see another film like this again, it truly is a completely unique experience, a feast for the senses and will have your noggin a-joggin’.

This was a very troubled production and apparently a much longer cut exists that would be perfect for a Blu ray release. The film’s detractors would possibly compare this to rolling their eyeballs in grit but I’d love such a release. There are many others who share my view too.

8. Curtains

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This Canuxploitation flick started as a low-key hidden gem that over the years has come to prominence through word of mouth and more and more fan raves. If it wasn’t for the internet this film may still have remained buried.

Method actress Samantha has herself committed to a local asylum to properly research for the forthcoming role in a film in which her character is mentally unstable. However, when she is committed she is left to rot in the nuthouse by the film’s director Jonathan who decides to audition other actresses for the role whilst shes out of the way.

Samantha realises what has happened, wants to enact revenge and so escapes from the mental facility. Five other hopefuls arrive at Jonathan’s mansion to audition for the role. But then strange, grisly things start to happen.

This film is highly original (the plot for one), has some wonderful twists and turns with a keen eye for skillful and quirky direction. The sequence in which the killer ice skates over to her latest victim is both extremely disturbing (the killer’s mask is something resembling a hagged old woman’s face and is a sure entry into the Horror Mask Hall of Fame). The fact that a scythe is being brandished and that the killer is skating emphasises the surreality and nightmarish quality to it. This scene is also a triumph of skilful direction and editing.

A newly acknowledged classic that deserves it’s place in the very best of the 80’s.

7. Psycho 2

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Just like a sequel being made for Halloween, making a follow-up to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho would require balls of steel.

And just like Halloween 2, this movie isn’t as good as the original (naturally) but it’s still a great film. Everyone’s favourite Mother’s Boy and psychologist’s wet dream, Norman Bates is set free from the mental facility he has been a resident of since the end of the previous film. He has been classed as fully rehabilitated and no longer a threat to the people outside the asylum and so is free to go. But Marion Crane’s sister Lila isn’t happy about this and wants Norman to return to his padded cell.

We see Norman take a job as a short-order diner chef after kicking out Dennis Franz’s sleazy creep who has turned The Bates Motel into the kind of place where rooms are rented by the hour and fake names are written in the register.

We then see strange things start to happen like Norman finding notes left by his ‘Mother’ who, of course, has been dead for years. After one of Norman’s colleagues from the diner, Mary moves into the Bates House even stranger and unnerving things start to happen. Is Norman losing his grip on sanity once more or is someone gaslighting him to think he is?

A great cast help this sequel immeasurably, as do great cinematography (Dean Cundey strikes again) and brilliant directorial flourishes care of Tom Holland who took on the job. The film also has a feel to it that feels completely different to the first film but very gritty and claustrophobic.

Theres also one of the most unexpected and brilliant endings I’ve ever seen. Freud would have a field day with this scene and what it represents.

6. The Lift

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This Dutch film is about a killer lift. Yes, really.

The lift in question is checked over by a repairman, Felix after it fails to open up when power returns to it after a storm has caused a power failure and people were trapped inside. When the lift still continues to malfunction, Felix starts to dig deeper and sees that a corporation called Rising Sun are connected with the lift company and suspects that they may be up to no good after investigating them in old back copies of local newspapers.

Lifts have always provoked fear in people and this film fully exploits this. We see people trapped in the lift- and worse! One unfortunate person gets his head stuck in the doors of the lift. But this film also has it’s tongue planted in it’s cheek. Watch the sequence where the lift interacts with the little girl and scares her just for the hell of it.

I also love the fact that the hero of this film is a humble, blue collar lift repairman. I also love that they sought to flesh out his character more. His wife thinks hes having an affair as he’s so obsessed with the lift that he spends inordinate amounts of time there. She even leaves him and takes their children with them.

In the second part of the film we see that the lift develops it’s own mind and so won’t be shut down or will try to kill those who try it switch it off. This is very Terminator-esque.

On top of all of this the film gives us a real flavour as to what Dutch life was like in the 1980’s and it’s beautiful and very conducive to being photographed on film.

The lift itself is also coloured beautifully with the inside of the small space being lit to emphasise it’s claustrophobia and demonic intent. Who would have known that a film that sounds like the most whimsical piece of fluff ever would in fact be this entertaining and well made?

5. Videodrome

Videodrome

Max Renn (James Woods) is the CEO of Civic TV, a production company making base level, rating grabbing programmes. He is then shown a new show called Videodrome, a show that transmits violent S&M sex and murder of it’s participants. Max starts to transmit the show. He then becomes involved with Nicki (Debbie Harry) who gets aroused by the episode of Videodrome that she sees and goes to audition for it. But then she doesn’t return! Max then investigates further as to what has happened to her and tries to know more about the mysterious Videodrome and learns of someone called Brian O’Blivion who knows all about it. Max then goes to meet him when he learns that he is in a local homeless shelter. Max then finds himself falling down a very strange and warped rabbit hole!

It’s almost impossible to make a synopsis of Videodrome’s plot without thinking ‘WTF?!’ It’s not only the narrative that is extreme with this film, but also the visuals and the themes of just how far entertainment is willing to go and how far the audience is willing to go to satisfy their needs.

The visuals have to be seen to be believed with Max beginning to see hallucinations (a side effect of watching too much Videodrome). One hallucination involves him discovering a mouth like wound appearing on his midriff which videotapes can be inserted into like a VCR. That’s only one far out visual within this extrordinary film.

Is the film a knowing prediction of numerous television and cable channels run amok? A pastiche of how some people saw the video boom as only a short distance away from real sex, violence and murder being able to be seen of anyone’s living room?

One thing is for sure and that is that it’s one of Cronenberg’s very best films with the master being at the top of his game. Videodrome was also, ironically, a huge hit on video and is recognised as a masterpiece that it is now part of The Criterion Collection.

4. Christine

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Stephen King’s brilliant novel about a possessed Plymouth Fury named Christine, a nerdy teenager and how he changes after the car seemingly takes over his life.

John Carpenter directs one of King’s novels for the first time (he was due to direct Firestarter but lost the gig as The Thing had tanked at the box office. We can only imagine how that film would have differed directed by Carpenter) and does an amazing job. The film fully captures the effects of Arnie buying the car and becoming obsessed with it and how this affects his family, friends and enemies alike. Christine is very possessive of her new owner and seeks to punish those who try to hurt Arnie in any way (and hurt her) and any love interest who might get in-between her and Arnie.

It’s a fascinating conceit and it’s great to see the nuances and details contained in King’s amazing book are brought to the screen brilliantly well by Carpenter.

Theres also a great soundtrack by Carpenter and Alan Howarth. Listen carefully and you can hear similarities between the music here and their soundtrack for Halloween 3 that they composed the previous year.

3. The Dead Zone

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Another Cronenberg movie adapted from another Stephen King novel. Christopher Walken plays Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher who awakens from a five year coma to find that he can tell the future by touching someone. The future isn’t set and so can be changed.

This film showed Cronenberg’s versatility as a director as here he made a simple (for him) film that wasn’t overcomplicated (he even ironed out any overly complex issues such as Johnny’s brain tumour that were evident in the novel) and was very straightforward.

A truly startling quality to the film is it’s poignancy. Johnny uses his gift to save the daughter of a nurse in his hospital when he sees a vision of her young daughter in a fire at their home. He later predicts the death of a boy he is helping to tutor at the request of the boy’s wealthy father. Johnny sees that the boy falls under the ice when he is playing ice hockey as he is too heavy. Johnny persuades the father to prevent his son from going to the game and the disaster is prevented.

The film also displays poignancy within the personal life of it’s lead character. Johnny also goes to see his girlfriend after he awakens from his coma to find that she has moved on with her life and even has a family now.

Johnny also uses his gift for massive issues that could potentially affect huge numbers of the public. He helps to identify a serial killer known as the ‘Castle Rock Killer’. Then he turns his attention to politician Greg Stilson, attends one of his rallies but makes sure to shake his hand thereby predicting what will happen in the future. He sees Stilson launching a nuclear war against the Soviet Union as he’s ‘had a vision!’

This isn’t body horror, there is no blood, engorged bodily organs or weird phallic creatures transmitted from body to body in this film. In fact, you’d be mistake for this being directed by someone else but Cronenberg. If any of his films show what a master auteur he is, it’s The Dead Zone. It showed he can stray away from his usual brilliant territory and still make a brilliant piece of work. And not only is this one of Cronenberg’s best films, it’s also one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel that has ever graced the screen.

2. Sleepaway Camp

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Shit starts to get weird at a summer camp where some of the campers meet very violent and grisly deaths.

Whilst this could have been the most generic premise for a slasher movie ever, instead we get something off the wall, VERY left field and completely unexpected.

This movie pushes the boundaries and provides something that then and especially now could be seen as extremely un-PC. One of the characters is the camp chef, Artie who is also a pedophile. Whilst his colleagues joke about his vile tendencies I found myself thinking ‘WTF!’ But it would appear that this has been done as a build up to what happens next. After Artie has tried to creep on the young lead character of Angela, he finds his instant karma by falling into a large pan of boiling water after someone knocks over the chair hes standing on.

There are other kills that are extremely well executed and painful to watch- an arrow through the throat of the camp owner, a boy locked into a toilet cubicle and a hive of bees thrown into it with said character (who had pelted Angela with water balloons) getting stung to death, a girl called Meg getting stabbed in death in the shower, four children hatcheted to death in their sleeping bags and the camp bitch, Judy having a red hot curling tong inserted into her vagina whilst she is suffocated with a pillow over her face.

Whilst the kills are extreme, so is Angela’s backstory. She was on a boating trip with her father and his boyfriend (her father comes out as gay after getting divorced) and her brother, Peter when they were run into by another boat after theirs has capsized. Her father and brother are killed instantly.

When another camper kisses Angela she instantly has a flashback to when her and her brother secretly watched her father and his boyfriend having sex. This prompts Angela to run away from him and from the situation. I’m loving that the film asserts that seeing an incident such as two men in bed together could so massively damaging to someone’s psyche. If thats the case, I’m fucked. Whilst some watching the movie at this point will scream ‘That’s homophobic!’ just take a look at the kind of film you’re watching and when it was made. This is a prime slice of exploitation cinema made in 1983. The film doesn’t hold back with any of the topics it covers. It’s reality is heightened, exaggerated massively and if it offends some people then the filmmakers have succeeded.

Which leads us to one of the most shocking scenes in not just horror history, but in film history. And no, I’m not exaggerating. I’ve seen lists within highly respected film magazines, journals and websites name this final scene as being in the same league as Salo and Irreversible. Yes, it’s that shocking and yes, it’s that unexpected. Oh, and no, I won’t be telling you what it is.

1 Cujo

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Yet another adaptation of a Stephen King with 1983 being a bumper year for great films made from his work.

A young mother and her child pull into a mechanic’s as her car is spluttering it’s last breaths of life. What she doesn’t realise is that the area is being terrorised by a giant St Bernard dog called Cujo that is actually rabid. What happens is that they are now stranded with the dog attempting to attack them if they try to leave the car.

The main ‘siege’ segment of this film is like a very intense play with just three players. The clastrophobia is ramped up as Donna tries everything she can to somehow get out of the car to get to the adjacent house and call for help as her son’s health is deteriorating swiftly. The humid weather is also conveyed effortlessly with the viewing experience being just as uncomfortable for the audience as it is for Donna and Tad.

But its also the build up to this scene that is so interesting. Donna is shown not to be the smiling unreal mother from the world of more pedestrian films and advertising. Her marriage is on the rocks and she has been having an affair behind her husband’s back.

There is also interesting characterisation regarding Cujo’s owners with the mother Charity taking their young son to stay with her sister and get him away from her alcoholic husband, Joe.

It’s this characterisation which expands the canvas regarding the film massively and prevents the movie being just a mildly interesting B-movie.

Another plus point is that there are unformly great performances from all of the cast but especially from the ever-brilliant Dee Wallace who rises to the challenge of depicting the trapped mother whose maternal instincts come to the fore as she must escape to save her son and herself. The siege scenes are a masterclass of brilliant acting, fantastic staging and how tension is evoked, heightened and sustained expertly. These scenes are some of the most nerve-racking I’ve ever experienced watching a film.

When I saw Cujo for the first time I felt it was greatly overlooked. Recent times have been kinder to the film with a stunning new Blu Ray release that gives the film the loving treatment it so richly deserves.

 

 

 

 

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1981

Top 10 Horror Movies From 1981

Theres a video of my choices on YouTube here.

10. The Burning

TheBurning

One of the most notorious films involved in the Video Nasties debacle, (but not the most notorious. That honour is reserved for another movie on this list) this was severely cut by the BBFC for cinema and video release. However, Thorn EMI Home Video accidentally released the film uncut before this version was recalled.

The film was so contentious for the BBFC due to the infamous raft scene which is still an outstanding piece of film. It’s strangely beautiful, like a savage, painful and bloodspattered ballet due to it’s choreography and editing. It also involved Tom Savini who was responsible for all of the make-up effects for this film so you just knew this movie would be extra special. The prostitute being dispatched with a pair of scissors also, ironically, met with the censor’s scissors also.

This should have been an anaemic Friday the 13th rip-off which instead is as good as many of the entries in that franchise. A great backstory involving a prank on a summer camp caretaker gone horribly wrong, the deformed killer making his way back to the summer camp with revenge on his mind via an eventful visit to a prostitute resplendent with 42nd Street sleazy locale, a problematic Final Girl who is in fact a guy (and a voyeuristic perv), bloody kills and early roles for Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. The characters are well written which obviously puts this head and shoulders above such fare.

This was also the first film by production company Miramax and it’s co-owner Harvey Weinstein. And another reign of terror of a very different kind began.

9. Burial Ground

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A film that had been on my radar for a while when I first saw the poster for it in a book about extreme horror movies. When I eventually saw it (not easy as it wasn’t readily available in the UK due to it’s graphic nature) it was worth the wait. Craggy faced Italian zombies who seemed to really hate the living as displayed in the gory death scenes.

But I didn’t expect the whole sleazy subplot regarding Peter Bark’s character and his mother. No, I won’t reveal all as it would ruin a huge surprise for those who haven’t seen this film yet. Suffice to say, my jaw hit the floor when I saw it for the first time.

When this film eventually surfaced on UK video it had been cut by 3m 11s (ouch!). It’s now uncut on YouTube.

8. Just Before Dawn

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Jeff Lieberman is a legend and has made many films that I hold dear (Squirm and Blue Sunshine being two of them). Just Before Dawn is his very original take on the town folk vs hillbillies subgenre and also on the slasher movie genre and is utterly brilliant.

Quirky characters, twists galore and an ending that is both funny and surreal. Chris Lemmon and George Kennedy star in this movie that was unavailable for many years but is now (rightfully) on Blu Ray. Look for the deluxe edition on Code Red.

Expect the unexpected.

7. The Howling

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Werewolf movies were like buses in 1981. Wait long enough and three came along at once. One such movie was Joe Dante’s The Howling that skillfully blends horror and comedy to tell the story of Dee Wallace’s Karen, a plucky TV reporter who agrees to meet serial murderer Eddie Quist who seems infatuated with her. Things turn bloody as Quist is shot by the police with Karen having to escape to a resort at the recommendation of her therapist (played by the ever brilliant Patrick McNee) to try to come to terms with what happened. Things then get really weird.

Whilst this film is very funny and there are lots of references to the werewolf genre and it’s legend for the eagle-eyed, this isn’t some vile horror comedy in the vein of the appalling Scream. This film does the horror brilliantly and the sequence in which Karen goes to meet Eddie in a cubicle in the back of an adult bookshop is one of the most unnerving sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.

I remember reading the Gary Brandner book after seeing this movie and it’s very different but just as fantastic.

Look out for legend Roger Corman’s cameo waiting for Karen to finish her call in a phone booth, entering after she leaves and then checking for spare change. Fantastic.

6. Friday the 13th Part 2

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Yes, Jason being alive after drowning in Crystal Lake doesn’t make sense. Do you watch Friday the 13th movies for realism or a coherent timeline?! Do you?!!

Alice, the Final Girl from Part 1 returns but is quickly dispatched by Jason in the first few minutes of this sequel (loving the fact that Jason then takes the whistling kettle off the stove after killing Alice with an ice pick through the temple. He’s a good boy after all! He also doesn’t mind that a little cat has joined him. He’s good with animals!) Adrienne King who played Alice doesn’t really even remember starring in this sequel as she had her own shit going on in real life- she was being stalked before the phenomenon of stalking was more widely talked about. He even broke into her apartment whilst she was in it so with her scenes in this film it really was the boundaries between life and art being blurred.

But I digress. This entry into the franchise sees Jason before he acquired his iconic hockey mask, instead donning a cloth sack over his head with one eye hole cut out of it. It’s reminiscent of the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

We have some iconic kills too- machete to the face of a guy in a wheelchair before he goes down a large outdoor staircase backwards (Jason believe in equal opportunities when it comes to killing), a spear impaling two people at once as they have sex (ripped off from the Bava Giallo movie Twitch of the Death Nerve which a member of the  Friday Part 2 crew helped to distribute in the U.S.), someone being killed after falling into a rope trap that leaves them suspended upside down prior to their gruesome fate.

This film also has the distinction of granting the viewers to see inside Chez Jason, a makeshift shack that our hero has made in the woods. He knows a thing or two about decor! It’s within here that we see a shrine to his dead mother. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you all but I love the fact that the film makes sure to establish that the Final Girl, Ginny (Amy Steel, one of the series best characters) has previously studied psychology because her plan at fooling Jason is so intricate that it would require a psych major (!) The ending is unexpectedly slapstick in places but this emphasises the comic book type dimensions to this entry.

A great sequel and one of the best in the series.

5. An American Werewolf in London

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Another of the trio of excellent werewolf movies that was released in 1981 (the third was Mike Woodleigh’s Wolfen that didn’t make it into my Top 10 but missed out by a whisker. It’s a very different beast (pun not intended) to the other two films but is still amazing and well worth finding).

Spookily, this film has also mixes horror and humour but whilst making sure that the funnies don’t dilute the horror just like The Howling. A couple of American chums are hitchhiking across the North Yorkshire Moors and come across a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb (a huge red flag!) where the drinkers inside (Rik Mayall and Brian Glover feature among them) aren’t too friendly but send the boys on their way after a few drinks and warn them ‘to stay on the road!’ They don’t and one of them is brutally attacked by some kind of wild animal. The other wakes up in a hospital in London and…

This film is a treat. Gorgeous characters (including fantastic characters that feature in only a small way but make such an impression that they win the audience over- an example is the uncooperative little boy who is a patient of Alex the nurse played by the gorgeous Jenny Agutter).

This film also acts as a time capsule as we get to see Piccadilly Circus when it was a sleazy den of inequity as David meets his dead and decomposing chum Jack (who appears as a ghost) in the porno cinemas of the area.

We also have quite possibly the best transformation scene in film history, a very scary sequence in an underground station and lots more besides . With all of this you have a genuine masterpiece. I remember this film when it was released when I was 6 years old. It featured in every newspaper and magazine we had knocking around the house and I remember posters and billboards on the street for it. It worked too. It was a huge hit and deservedly so.

4. Halloween 2

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How do you follow up a film as great as Halloween? A sequel would seem like it was doomed to failure, especially with John Carpenter deciding not to direct it.

But Halloween 2 still succeeds admirably. Yes, it’s not as good as Halloween and if the original is an A+++ movie, then it’s sequel is a B+ film.

The decision to carry on straight after the events of the first film still seems audacious and original. Laurie is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to recover from the injuries she endures at the hands of Michael Myers. But Myers follows her there and picks up where he left off.

Cue some very disturbing sequences involving the disturbing sight of Michael Myers walking inhumanly up and down quiet nocturnal hospital corridors and being seen doing so on CCTV monitors which is very unsettling. It takes a while for Myers to catch up with Laurie but when it happens it’s well worth the wait. Props to the director Rick Rosenthal for making her POV shots slightly blurred to convey that she is sedated and groggy. The chase scene through the hospital is amazing with Laurie having to climb through a tiny window, fall onto and then walk through broken glass with bare feet and then wait for a lift door to close as she sees Michael approaching. One of the tensest and best chase scenes I’ve ever seen.

Theres also a revelation as to possibly explain why Myers wants the same fate to become of Laurie as he meted out on Judith years before this.

I remember the first time I saw this was on Thorn EMI video which was cut to take out the hypodermic needle through the eye effect and severely reduce the brutality of the therapeutic pool scene. They’re all restored now though and show Halloween 2 to be a classy film which still packs a punch.

3. The Pit

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File this film under ‘Quirky’. This movie still isn’t as well known as it deserves to be. Hopefully the recent Kino Lorber Blu Ray will help more people discover this gem.

Jamie is a rather misunderstood 12 year old. But he has a secret discovery- a pit full of creatures called Tra-la-logs who are hungry for human flesh. The movie sees Jamie lure those who tease and ridicule him to the pit and then feed to the creatures who live within. ‘They don’t eat chocolate’ Jamie says at one point to illustrate their carnivorous tendencies (plothole nicely sewn up!)

There are so many great idiosyncratic aspects to this movie- the fact that Jamie confides everything to his teddy bear (the working title of this movie was Teddy. As filming went over schedule, the novelisation for the film came out with the title of Teddy- except the film was now to be called The Pit. Oops. The novelisation apparently also differs quite a lot from the final movie).

I love the humour within the film too, some of which is so quick that you might miss it. The entire town seems to be mean to Jamie but it’s great for the audience. Those who are mean to him are like characters lifted by a John Waters movie. In fact, The Pit at times feels like an especially edgy after school special directed by Waters.

Something else about the film I love is that Jamie is really dirty and inapproropriate in his actions and deeds. He’s 12 years old in the film (9 in the book apparently) and so on the cusp of puberty. He doesn’t realise that sneaking into the bathroom whilst his babysitter is in the shower to write on the mirror ‘I love you!’ in her lipstick is wrong.

Later in the film he also takes pictures of the mean little girl and her mother as they do aerobics dressed in leotards. This is also, obviously, massively inappropriate. In real life, he’d be arrested. For audiences of exploitation cinema, Jamie is a boon. And an instantly entertaining character.

2. Scanners

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Ahh the glory days of video. This was one of the first videos I ever saw on the great Guild Home Video label, resplendent with the minimalist electronic Guild intro which brings back so many memories for me.

This feels like a genre movie completely subverted by David Cronenberg with a down and out man shown to have the power to destroy adversaries just by thinking about it. Whilst this is happening we see a conference into these thought powers taking place with  a smartly dressed person in front of the audience asking for a volunteer so that he can demonstrate his powers. He doesn’t realise that the person who volunteers also possesses similar powers but to a higher level and not with malevalent aims. Cue quite possibly the best practical special effect in film history and a sequence that would instantly give Scanners cult classic status.

But this film has a lot more going for it then just one perfectly executed (pun not intended) special effect.

Not only are we introduced to the concept and capabilities of scanning and scanners but we also get to see scanner vs scanner as the newly cleaned up Cameron Vale from earlier is told of a very powerful and utterly ruthless scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside in an example of perfect casting) and his dastardly plans. It’s a race against time for Vale to stop Revok and his team of scanner assassins. Who knows what Revok and his followers could accomplish if they aren’t stopped. The previous conference and Revok’s display of power there was only a potential taster of what might be to come.

The locales Cronenberg uses within the film are extraordinary with the glass and metal world of downtown Canada, the shadowy concrete organisations such as ConSec (a staple of Cronenberg’s work) and the extraordinary lair of fellow scanner Benjamin Pierce who explains that his art keeps him sane. We get to see a whole range of very disturbing and fascinating pieces of art and how he sees the work because of his ability to scan. Witness the giant plastercast head that Vale and Pierce walk into to discuss Revok.

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When Vale and Revok finally meet it doesn’t disappoint. There are revelations, plans proposed by Revok to team up and then a duel to the death- with surprising results!

Scanners based it’s publicity around the extraordinary special effect that it showed within the first few minutes of it’s playtime. It also gave it’s audience a movie that was a rollercoaster ride that was just as brilliant, visceral and intelligent. Cronenberg reeled em in and gave em a film that most horror fans would never have normally seen. Now that’s subversive and brilliant. Cronenberg would do the same with the amazing Crash which proved so controversial with the BBFC years later.

1. The Evil Dead

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Young friends persevere to make a horror film, get it finished and then get it distributed. Their new distributor has a hand in the new Cannes Film Festival and shows the film there. Stephen King just happens to see the film, raves about it and suddenly the movie starts to garner press and accolades. King’s endorsement was used in the film’s advertising and helped to get the film distributed worldwide.

But whilst everything was going well, a moral panic in the UK deems the film as ‘obscene’ (even though lead protestor and busybody Mary Whitehouse admits to never having seen the film (!) as she ‘didn’t need to’) which led to it being banned. The fact that it received an X rating in the US (the kiss of death of most cinemas now wouldn’t show it and most newspapers wouldn’t carry ads for the film) didn’t help matters either.

So, is The Evil Dead the most depraved, ugly and vile film ever made? Of course not. I first saw the film quite by chance. The film had been banned on video in the UK but one of my older brother’s friends was the daughter of the owner of one of our local video shops. During the ‘Video Nasties’ furore video shop owners were sent lists of films that had just been banned and instructed where to send these films back to. My friend’s father knew that a lot of business owners weren’t complying with this and more importantly, this wilful non compliance wasn’t being followed up on or leading to more serious repercussions later on. So, he didn’t send the films back and instead she brought The Evil Dead to our house when I was about 9 years old. And look at me! It did me no harm whatsoever…

The thing that struck me the most about the film was it’s comic book humour, cine literacy and the sheer innovation to make things work even though the filmmakers had a tiny budget.

Yes the film is still scary and brutal (the woods rape scene is very close to the edge still and feels out of place in the film. Sam Raimi the director said he wouldn’t include it if he was making the film today). But it’s also very funny and surreal in equal part. An example- when one of the characters is stabbed in the ankle with a pencil, the blood doesn’t splatter or gush out as would happen in real life. It pours out like a tap has been switched on resplendent with a sound effect of water being poured for good measure. The film disorientates and leaves the audience feeling dazed and confused but in a very novel way. This is especially evident in the latter part of the film which finds the last man standing, Ash on his own, his mind playing tricks on him through fear and disbelief. But the situation he finds himself in is also to blame with the ancient evil that has been unleashed completely changing the logic of his known world and making it a dark and lethal place. Check out the surreal sequence in which blood starts pouring out of every place it can pour out of within the cabin, including into the inside of lightbulbs! As Stephen King said when he sang the film’s praises, The Evil Dead made him look at films and what a film can convey in a completely different way.

If this was a comic (and theres plenty of comic-book devices within the movie) it would most probably be an EC Comic- fantastical, exaggerated and ghoulish all at once.

Originality, innovation and subversion are why The Evil Dead is my favourite movie of 1981.

 

 

 

Excursions Into Hell: My Favourite Filmgoing Experiences

Excursions Into Hell: My Favourite Filmgoing Experiences

With the news that Female Trouble, John Waters’ meisterwerk and design for living is being shown, my noggin got a joggin’.

I started thinking about the films that I’ve been lucky enough to watch on the big screen and with an audience.

My favourite filmgoing experience has to be when I got to see a film that I never thought I’d ever see in a cinema AND in the format that it was intended to be seen in. That film is the brilliant Friday the 13th Part 3D. I had moved to London from York in 1994 to study film and had started to go to the amazing but very high-brow (although it can’t be that high-brow as they let me in…) National Film Theatre known as the NFT to London’s cineastes and skinny latte drinking set.

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Shortly after graduating from Uni and getting a job (real life is worse than ANY horror film) I heard that the NFT were to show a season of 3D films which were to be actually shown in 3D using the vintage technology that was required. I then read that the third Friday the 13th film would be part of the season. I have never bought a cinema ticket faster in my fucking life!

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Friday the 13th Part 3D starts with the end of Part 2 which isn’t in 3D. The NFT film snobs were sniggering at how corny this sequence was and were clearly thinking that their tastes in film were so much more elevated than this supposed generic slasher film they were watching on the screen.

But then, Part 3 started in earnest. If you haven’t seen the film, the 3D is brilliantly done. The makers of the movie really knew how they could make full effect of the 3D process and were willing to use it to blow audience’s minds.

The first glimpse of the 3D happens when the titles literally shoot out of the screen at the audience out of the decapitated head of Pamela Voorhees. But to really show how awesome the process was and how far it could be taken, the titles come forth but only part way before they come out even further so that they are right in front of the audience’s noses. It was a great piece of showmanship on the part of the filmmakers- ‘Here’s the 3D. Oh, hang on, we can do better than that! HERE’S the 3D!’

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With that first 3D one-two punch by the film I have never heard such a scream of excitement emitted by a cinema audience (and it sounded like every single member of that audience squealed in delight) before or since. The film was so well crafted with so much thought placed on the 3D aspects and how the gimmick could be used in so many innovative ways. A movie that was primarily made for horror fiends had just demonstrated that it could also work on the snobbiest film audiences imaginable and completely enthral them. Now that’s genius.

The 3D was used for both comical purposes to make the audience chuckle ( these involve yo-yos, juggling, a joint being passed towards the audience) but more importantly it’s also used so that spectators can experience the sheer pain of Jason’s killings. There is one scene in which Mr Voorhees squeezes a bit too hard on a character’s head and one of his eyeballs shoots out of it’s socket and straight at the audience. In another we get an arrow shot from a harpoon that Jason has fired at another victim. This also shoots her in the eye (after wheezing towards us first). It’s almost like the filmmakers wanted to exploit the ‘eye injury’ angle with this being a 3D movie. They were making the movie as painful as possible for the audience. Hooray for 3D!

We even get Jason staggering towards us whilst he’s mid-battle with the film’s Final Girl with an axe sticking out of his hockey mask.

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This screening was such a success with the NFT’s audience that there was even applause when it finished. The audience whooped, yelped and had a jolly good time. Job done.

I went to see Jaws 3D the following night. Even in 3D it’s dreadful and further testament to the innovative use of the format by Friday’s filmmakers.

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Shortly after this screening I heard about a season of films showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (known as the ICA), another establishment of all things high culture and respectability. All of the films chosen were then (1998) still banned by the British Board of Film Classification (the BBFC- as you can tell we like our acronyms here in the United Kingdom or UK *haha*) and were all banned horror movies with some appearing on the infamous Video Nasties DDP List. Through some legal wrangling the ICA had asked the BBFC to let them be shown for one day only.

Thus, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Driller Killer, Zombie Flesh Eaters, House by the Cemetary, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain and Zombie Holocaust were all shown whilst they were all still banned in the UK.

The thrill of seeing these forbidden fruits of the Video Nasties era when they were still banned was palpable. James Ferman was still the Director of the BBFC and was notoriously strict when it came to horror (it was under his regime that The Exorcist and Texas Chain Saw Massacre remained banned. He seemed inflexible when it came to art of any kind and clearly behind the times).

But things were about to change when it came to TCM. The movie was released in early 1999 in London when Camden Council were granted a license to show the film within it’s area boundaries only. For this release the film even had it’s own certificate of ‘C’ for Camden. Only people who were 18 and over would be able to watch the film in a cinema. I saw the film during this release.

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I remember I had gone into London to browse the many film memorabilia shops that existed around the West End then (all sadly gone now unfortunately) and then to go onto the gay scene with it’s numerous bars that were close to the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue. As I exited the excellent Cinema Store I walked past the ABC Cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue and saw that TCM was showing. I didn’t know about this release until I saw the poster outside the cinema.

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This was also my first visit to this particular cinema with it’s gorgeous carved frieze on the outside. It reeked of history inside and out and with further investigation I found out that it went back decades and was even used for film premieres.

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The afternoon screening of TCM only had two other people in it. Watching TCM is like going to Hell (in a good way) for an hour and a half and it seemed really perverse that one minute I was trolling the West End and was then immersed in one of the most intense and frightening horror movies ever made. I remember none of the punters in that screening left before we had seen all of the end credits through to the end. The house lights then went up, we exchanged looks to each other as if to say ‘What the fuck have we just been through together?!’, smiled and then left.

A favourite more recent screening that sticks in my mind was when my local arthouse cinema showed Pink Flamingos. The Hyde Park Picturehouse here in Leeds shows a cult film most Saturdays under the banner of Creatures of the Night. The cinema is located in a part of Leeds which has a huge student population. Hence, you have plenty of students who attend these screenings, a minority of whom think that ‘cult’ means ‘rubbish’. These people obviously don’t know what cult cinema is and wouldn’t know shit from clay. I’ve attended screenings here of films such as The Terminator, The Warriors and Christine which, unfortunately, this clueless and jaded minority have thought it appropriate to snigger at and ridicule. As a side note, these people will never ruin a cinema screening for me. I would never give them the satisfaction or feed their narcissism in such a way.

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A surefire way to tell if your film still has ‘it’ when it comes to cult cinema is to see and hear how the audience reacts. Right from the get-go Pink Flamingos shocked the audience at this particular screening into submission. At the start of the film there was a stunned silence of utter disbelief at what was being seen and then there were howls of laughter at all the right places with screams of disgust at all the appropriate scenes also (the dog poo scene especially) as Divine and co won the hearts of the punters.

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In fact, there have been a few John Waters related screenings that stick in my mind. Firstly, the time I went to see his live film This Filthy World in New York which he attended. He answered questions after it. Also, the time he taught a film class that I was lucky to be invited to in which he showed one of his favourite films, Boom! starring Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. We all then talked about it and asked him about his career…But that has been covered by myself in a previous blog post. Talking about it again might be seen as bragging *walks away whistling*