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

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

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

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

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

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Christmas Evil- another horror masterpiece

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The park search

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

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

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

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Barb doing what she does best

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

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Mrs Mac drinking. Again.

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

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Jess and Peter have the ‘big talk’

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

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

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

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

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

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

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Blackenstein (1973)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 5- Blackenstein (1973)

Eddie Turner steps on a landmine whilst serving in Nam and loses his limbs as a result. His fiance Winifred is a physicist and looks to her former teacher Doctor Stein (his name is a red flag already) who has recently won the Nobel prize for his work regarding DNA and so may be able to graft new limbs onto Eddie. What could possibly go wrong? Well, lots. Dr Stein’s assistant Malcomb is knocked back by Winifred and so to retaliate he contaminates the DNA solution used in Eddie’s operation so that Eddie turns into an uncontrollable killing man-beast. While he appears bed-bound by day he secretly goes on killing rampages at night.

As you may have guessed this is the blaxploitation version of Frankenstein and was made after Blacula (the blaxploitation version of…do I really have to tell you?!) was a hit at the box office.

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The main word when describing this film is FUN. Yes, it’s cheesy in places but so what? It’s a perfect time capsule of the genre and what horror and drive-in audiences were lapping up at the time. And if I had been around during this era I would have been with them doing the same.

I’m loving that Eddie’s first port of call is to pay a visit to the male nurse we saw being abusive to him earlier in the film. I also love the fact that the punishment that Eddie doles out is to rip off one of the orderly’s arms. Who said there was no such thing as irony in films like this?

Blackenstein is also noteworthy as John Waters’ starlet Liz Renay is one of Blackenstein’s victims. Yes, Ms Renay from Desperate Living!

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My face for he world to see! Yes, Liz Renay stars in this film!

Look out for the Severin Blu ray that restores two versions of the film (the theatrical and slightly longer home video version). The film has never looked or sounded so good.

Grade- B-

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 2- Let’s Scare Jessica To Death (1971)

Jessica, her husband Duncan and their friend Woody arrive at a new house in the country that Jessica and Duncan have bought. When they arrive they are surprised to find someone squatting there. They ask this person, Emily to join them for their evening meal and then to sleep there for the night.

The next day Jessica asks Emily to stay at the house until she finds somewhere else to live. From here on in strange things start to happen to Jessica. She has already just been discharged from a psychiatric hospital into Duncan’s care and so she doesn’t share what is happening as she thinks Duncan and Woody will think these events aren’t real and are merely down to her psychological state.

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In fact, the notion of gaslighting and the doubting of one’s reality feature prominently within the film.

Jessica starts to see a blonde girl who appears at chosen times but then runs away again. When she is out swimming, someone or something grabs her under the water.

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Jessica and her husband find items in the attic that belonged to the previous owners of the house and decide to sell them to the antiques dealer in the local town. He tells them the history of the family who used to live in there- they were called the Bishops and their daughter Abigail drowned just before her wedding. But he tells them that locals say that in fact she isn’t dead and is in fact a vampire who is always on the hunt for fresh victims.

To give away anymore plot points would be to ruin the film and so they will end there! Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a fantastic gem of a film. Made in 1971 by director John Hancock, it has an air and feel all of it’s own. I love the fact that we are privy to Jessica’s thoughts which add another layer to the film and a palpable paranoia to proceedings.

There’s also the subtext of the city folk vs the locals that feels fresh here rather than cliched. And the locals of the local town are very unwelcoming indeed. In fact, they’re downright scary. And why are they all bandaged in some way?

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There are elements of Carnival of Souls within the film and Hancock’s film feels like it had some kind of influence on Spielberg’s Something Evil (which, by the way, STILL hasn’t been issued on Blu Ray. Scream Factory are the perfect candidates for this. Just a thought).

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is a forgotten gem that isn’t forgotten anymore. In fact, it’s reputation has deservedly snowballed since it’s original release.

Hancock went on to direct the early De Niro masterpiece Bang The Drum Slowly which is also highly recommended.

Grade- B+

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Friday the 13th (1980)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Friday the 13th (1980)

One of my earliest memories involves the film Friday the 13th (those who know me are rolling their eyes and thinking ‘This doesn’t surprise me!’) I’m 5 years old and I’m running towards my local cinema, The Odeon in York. I regularly go there when my family venture into town as there are posters and lobby cards outside the cinema to pore over in minute detail. This is especially rewarding when said artwork is for a horror film.

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On this occasion Friday the 13th is showing and I’m ogling the poster and lobby cards like they are part of some ancient source of wisdom. What does it all mean? Who could be killing all the teens which the poster states were dying horribly one by one? What does the kindly older lady in one of the lobby cards have to do with this? Maybe she tries to save the teens throughout the course of the film…

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The quad poster for Friday the 13th. Notice the tagline that was so alluring to a 5 year old. Hell, it’s still alluring.
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The lobby cards for the film.
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The lobby card of the ‘kindly older lady’. Maybe she helps save the teens throughout the film…(don’t laugh, I was only 5)

It would be a few years before I finally got to see the film on video and my timing couldn’t have been better. I actually saw the first film after Part 3 which had just been released (more of that in a future article). A new, longer and gorier version of Part 1 was newly released on VHS (Warners actually initially got into trouble after it was discovered that an uncut version was originally released on video in the UK. This version has been successfully passed with an X rating for it’s UK cinema release. After the film was seized by police during the Video Nasties furore, Warners decided to play it safe and release the version that was cut to ensure an R rating in the US instead). This new video version was completely uncut and so I could see the film as it was intended to be seen.

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The original UK video release (ahhh- Warner big box videos. Beautiful!)

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The uncut 1987 UK VHS release

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I wasn’t disappointed. But after experiencing the series at Part 3 when a formula had been struck upon, I was surprised at how different the first film was compared to the rest of the series.

The film starts at the site where (most) of the rest of the series takes place, Camp Crystal Lake but here is a sequence that takes place in 1958. A couple of oh so wholesome teenaged camp counsellors have taken a break from singing ‘Michael, Row The Boat Ashore’ to find a more private place to make out. They are then found by an unseen assailant who kills them both.

We then get the credit sequence for the film which consists of the logo for the film crashing through an invisible pane of glass. This is reminiscent of the one page ad that Sean S Cunningham took out in the film trade press magazine Variety to reserve the name of ‘Friday the 13th’ as the name for a horror movie after Halloween had been such a success. Cunningham was thinking of other occasions that would also be great for the basis of a horror movie and so that no one else would base a film around that day traditionally associated with bad luck. Conversely, if anyone else had already used the same name for their project in the past, they would see the ad and approach Cunningham to ask him to change the title of his projected movie and avoid a potential lawsuit.

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The ad was also a great way to see if any potential backers could be encouraged to stump up the cash for the project that didn’t even have a cast, crew or even screenplay attached to it. The project literally just had the film’s name.

The film then flashes forward to Friday 13th June, The Present Day as an onscreen caption informs us. Teen Annie is making the journey to the same camp to be their cook. Annie is very irritating from the outset as she sees a nearby dog, asks it if it knows where Camp Crystal Lake is (the dog whimpers and walks off. And for good reason) and so she ventures into a nearby diner to ask the same question. She hitches a ride with a trucker who during their journey tries to dissuade her from taking on the role. He talks about the camp being jinxed with two kids being killed there in ’58 (the prelude to the film), the young kid who drowned in ’57 (more about him later), fires being started later on and even bad water preventing the camp from being reopened in ’62. Annie takes not one bit of notice of the old coot and ventures onto her new job.

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Annie asks a dog for directions…
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Dog turns it’s head away, whimpers and leaves

After she is dropped off by her new trucker friend, she is then picked up to complete her journey by someone in a 4×4. Who could this mystery person be? Annie notices that the driver has missed the turn-off for the summer camp and appears to be travelling insanely fast. Annie decides to jump from the moving vehicle and make a run for it from this nutjob, even though she twisted her ankle.

Annie decides to escape through the forest that surrounds her but is persued and eventually caught by the person who was driving the 4×4, identity still undisclosed who slashes her throat.

Two things are remarkable about this scene. Firstly, it was a young Tom Savini who is doing the special effects for the movie and they are nothing short of amazing. Annie’s death is a prime example. Secondly, the killer’s identity hasn’t been revealed and so it gives the film the flavour of a Giallo film with the film being as much a whodunnit as it is a horror movie.

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The identity of the killer is kept hidden until the film’s climax. This reminds me of the ‘whodunnit’ element of Giallo films
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Another example of Tom Savini’s genius

Annie’s murder happens in front of our eyes as do the demise of several other characters but the film also shows that it can be very restrained and wasn’t just interested in blood and gore. The characters of Ned and Brenda are both murdered off-camera with their corpses being revealed later to the audience throughout the course of the film. Ned goes to investigate a noise that he’s heard and his mutilated corpse is later shown to be on the top bunk of a bed whilst Jack and Marcie make love in the bunk below.

Brenda goes to respond to a cry for help in the pouring rain at the archery range later in the movie but we don’t get to see her death but just hear her scream. Her body is then thrown through the window when Alice has barricaded herself in a cabin after discovering Bill’s dead body pinned to the generator door.

Likewise, Bill’s dead body resplendent with arrows is discovered by Alice but the actual murder is never shown. The script for the film references his dead body as being ‘in a travesty of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian’ (the painting of San Sebastian below is by Andrea Mantegna)

The characters who make up the counsellors are actually quite endearing rather than the irritating specimens from other slasher movies who you can’t wait to bite the bullet. And yes, one of the actors (Kevin Bacon) went onto much bigger things. Bill is also played by Harry Crosby whose Dad was Bing Crosby.

The person who is reopening the summer camp is Steve Christy, the son of the original owner from decades before. I love the fact that he looks like he belongs on the cast of a 70’s gay porn movie. A coloured hankie (worn around his neck rather than in either his left or right back pocket), bare chest, denim shorts (almost Daisy Dukes) and lumberjack boots are all dead giveaways. Maybe he mistook Camp Crystal Lake for Fire Island.

Fun fact- the movie was filmed at Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in Blairstown, New Jersey. The guy who owned the site was called Fred Smith and he kept talking about his neighbour called Lou. And then his neighbour came to the set for the first time. And it was Lou Reed! People on set said that he visited the set a number of times and was super nice with everyone. One day, he even pulled out a guitar and performed a few songs for the cast and crew. Can you imagine being on the set of Friday the 13th and watching Lou Reed perform?! That’s a truckload of awesome right there.

Cast members also say that because the crew were all from New York City they would constantly play the likes of The Ramones and Patti Smith on set which is also awesome.

The final girl Alice shows from the outset that she is resourceful whether it’s getting cabins ready or nailing up guttering. She is also shown to be artistic judging by her drawings.

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But more importantly, she is later shown to be resourceful and logical when under pressure such as after she has discovered Bill’s body pinned to the back of the generator room door. She dashes back to the main cabin and starts to try and secure the front door with a rope lassoed over a wooden beam and barricading it with a chest of drawers, a chair and logs. She then arms herself with a baseball bat and cooking fork.

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Resourceful ‘Final Girl’ Alice secures the cabin door with a rope, barricades said door, grabs a baseball bat and lantern but still isn’t done yet.
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That’s better! A roasting fork to go with the baseball bat. The mark of a true Final Girl.

But she also diverges from the so-called slasher movie conventions for Final Girls as stipulated in Carol J Clover’s seminal mediation on gender in the slasher film genre, Men Women and Chainsaws. She is seen to be in an on-off relationship with Steve Christy rather than being a chaste virgin. She is also shown to participate in a game of Strip Monopoly and can even be seen having a sneaky toke on a spliff.

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‘But Steve. You look like a 1970’s homosexual…’
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Playing Strip Monopoly and smoking grass in a slasher movie. They’re fucked.

But, Alice also has the Final Girl quality of foreshadowing or being almost psychic that something bad is going to happen. When things start to go wrong later on in the film and Bill and Alice are looking for their co-counsellors, Alice senses that things aren’t right. She even suggests that they could hike out of the camp to get away to safety.

Another facet of Friday the 13th that sets it apart from the other movies in the franchise are the moments of comedy that occur. The character of the cop on his motorbike comes out of nowhere and feels like a prototype Tackleberry from Police Academy.

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The authority figure who is more like comic relief. The sheriff in the film.

Crazy Ralph acts as both a comedy figure (watch the hilariously awkward cycling scenes) and as a freaky, quasi religious doom bringer (‘I’m a Messenger of God!’ ‘It’s got a death curse!’ ‘You’re all doomed!’) who can be seen as another and lesser source of fear for the film’s characters. Check out the scene in which Ralph steps out of the pantry and startles Alice.

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Crazy Ralph hiding in the pantry
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Alice’s reaction to her unexpected visitor
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‘I’m a messenger of God!’ Ralph acts as clairvoyant for the viewer but more as a source of terror and/or bemusement for the characters.

But he also acts as a genuine predictor of bad things to come at the camp as we will see throughout the film’s running time. Notice when Ralph is actually on camp grounds. He can’t wait to get away fast enough whether on foot or on his push bike.

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Alice’s fright caused by Ralph coming out of the pantry turns to bemusement. The audience heed his warnings but the film’s characters don’t. And now they’re all dead. Just sayin’.

Within the slasher movie conventions there normally is one member of the ensemble who display almost psychic qualities and who very quickly foresee the terror that awaits everyone and in some instances they can become quite hysterical because of it. A good example of this in a horror/quasi-slasher movie in which a group of people get picked off one by one is Lambert in Alien.

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Lambert in Alien. Her second sight means she picks up on the dangerous situation herself and the rest of the Nostomo’s crew are truly in and we see her emotionally disintegrate very quickly because of this.

There’s also the speech from Marcie regarding her not liking storms after one has started at the camp. It’s because of a dream she’s had on numerous occasions in which she’s watching a storm with the rain coming down heavier and heavier which then suddenly turns to blood. This was actually the piece of dialogue from the screenplay that the actresses auditioning for a part in the film would have to recite.

But the jewel in the crown of Friday the 13th is the killer and the person who portrayed her. Firstly, the killer is shown to be Pamela Voorhees- a woman. This was completely unheard of then in horror movies and a massively unexpected twist for the film. The idea of a psychotic woman was still a taboo in real life and the movies and this is something that the movie uses beautifully. Mrs Voorhees is introduced near the very end of the film. Events that happen after this are worthy of in depth analysis to highlight what an extraordinary character she is and what a truly awe-inspiring performance this is.

But first, we have a slight detour. Notice how Alice’s raincoat gets caught on the handle for the oven? She just allows it to come off naturally rather than unhooking the part that has became caught. Was this because the later fight scene that was to come involved biting? Even Mrs Voorhees couldn’t have made much of an impact on trying to bite through the thick yellow plastic of a raincoat (although with her gnashers she might have been able to…more on that later).

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The strange ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ sequence in which Alice has her raincoat stolen by an oven. She is now extremely vulnerable from Mrs Voorhees’ teeth (an entity in themself)

Also, notice how after we’ve seen Alice barricade the front door we then see her remove all of the furniture she had placed in front of it because she sees some headlights approaching. It’s a wonderfully surreal moment.

The killer being female works well within the film. See how after Alice has started to uncover the dead bodies of her fellow camp counsellors, on running outside she sees Mrs Voorhees and after asking who she is (‘Why I’m Mrs Voorhees, an old friend of the Christies’) she is happy enough with the explanation to run into Pamela’s arms for reassurance and to tell her about the horrors she has just discovered. If this person had been male, Alice would have been a lot less trusting and more suspicious. He could have been the person responsible for these atrocities. But with this stranger being female and traditionally seen as nurturing, caring and empathetic, Alice feels satisfied to try to get her help and get to safety.

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Betsy Palmer played the role and had been typecast throughout her career as ‘the girl next door’. For an actress with a reputation for being wholesome and unthreatening to take up this role was a massive shock. Palmer had up until this moment been eager to break this typecasting but had actually taken on the project after her car had broken down. She had seen an ad for a cool little car called a Scirocco which her role in this film would pay for. She read the script, thought it was in her own words ‘a piece of ****’ and thought that the movie would disappear without a trace but she’d still get her car!

But Ms Palmer was too much of a consummate professional to just turn in some anaemic performance by numbers and gives us such a turn that her performance is still one of the most chilling and insane depictions I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.

A red flag that appears for Alice at the start of this encounter is that Mrs Voorhees doesn’t appear to be afraid whatsoever and goes into the cabin to investigate even though Alice has told her about the camp counsellors who have been killed and whose bloodied and mutilated bodies she has been unfortunate to have seen. She even tries to gaslight Alice by saying that it’s the storm that has made her afraid rather than anything else. When Pamela insists on investigating further, Alice pleads with her not to as she could be killed too. ‘I’m not afraid!’ Pamela asserts and ventures into the cabin. The fact that Mrs Voorhees isn’t scared about this strongly suggests that she’s either, very brave, very dumb or that she’s the killer.

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‘I’m not afraid! Psychotic maybe, but not afraid!’
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Mrs Voorhees ventures inside to ‘investigate’. Her distinct lack of fear is a red flag for Alice

On entering the cabin, Pamela sees Brenda’s body and laments about how young she was and ponders what kind of monster could have done such a thing (a huge red flag as she is the killer. She appears to be unable to reconcile herself with the fact that she is the killer or she suffers from multiple personalities). She also opines how Steve should never have opened the place again as theres been too much trouble.

Her speech then becomes more agitated when she starts to talk about a young boy who had drowned years before and how the young counsellors who should have been watching him had been too busy making love. Notice Alice’s body language here. She knows all is not right with her current situation and her new acquaintance.

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Notice Alice’s body language on hearing Mrs Voorhees speech about the camp and the counsellors not doing their job
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She realises that she is in real danger as Pamela is seriously unhinged and may actually be the killer

Pamela explains that the person who drowned was actually her son and that not only was she the cook at the camp then but was actually working the day he drowned. Her ability to unpredictably become violent is shown as she says that Jason ‘should have been watched every minute’ and grabs Alice by the arms and gives her an abrupt shake to emphasise the point. She is just about to disclose that her son was disabled but quickly stops herself and mentions that he ‘wasn’t a very good swimmer’ instead (this also stops her reminiscences that are becoming violent and brings her back to earth again).

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Mrs Voorhees gets violent during her speech about the camp after she discloses that the child who drowned was her son Jason
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‘He was…he wasn’t a very good swimmer!’

She then suggests that Alice and her ‘can go now’ as she strokes Alice’s hair. But Alice’s hunch that all is not right means she resists this as she says that instead they should wait for Steve Christy to come back. Voorhees says ‘That’s not necessary’ which is another red flag (as she’s killed Christy) before she starts to have flashbacks to her son drowning. She even starts to respond to her son’s pleas for help within the flashback. Oh boy.

This part of the scene is also very interesting as within the original script it was very different. There was a whole plotline in which we’d have a clue as to the killer’s identity. The murder of Barry and Claudine (the frisky counsellors who are the first to be killed during the film) originally would see Mrs Voorhees (who would still remain faceless within the sequence so that the film still had the ‘whodunnit’ aspect to it) lose her small finger. During the scene in which Mrs Voorhees’ character is introduced and Alice is realising that she’s a nutjob, when she says to Alice that they ‘can go now’ Pamela was going to stroke Alice’s hair and the audience would see that she’s missing her little finger thus revealing that she’s the killer. This ‘missing finger’ idea feels like something from a Giallo movie and was used a couple of years after in Lucio Fulci’s movie The New York Ripper which featured a character who was missing two fingers from his right hand.

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The ‘missing fingers’ motif as clue was used in Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper in 1982

This part of the scene shows that Alice’s hunches were spot-on and she’s now with someone who is very deranged and very dangerous. Mrs Voorhees explains that Jason was her son and today is his birthday (whilst fixing a very scary grin on her face). Alice asks about where Mr Christy is but this goes unheard by Pamela who is in the zone and thinking aloud that she couldn’t let them open the summer camp again, could she? Not after that had happened. She then laments her ‘sweet, innocent Jason’ whilst again visualising him drowning.

However this is abruptly shattered as she then starts to personally accuse Alice of letting her son drown and of not paying any attention. Her raison d’être is now revealed. She is forever avenging the death of her son by killing the camp counsellors who are just as horny and irresponsible as Barry and Claudine who weren’t watching Jason. If they had watched him he wouldn’t be dead now.

To emphasise that she has now turned very nasty indeed she knocks over a table that is in her way.

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Mrs Voorhees’ mood suddenly changes as her evil side comes to the fore

Mrs Voorhees then reveals that she is wearing a knife in a holder strapped around her waist (one hell of a way to accessorise) that instantly reminded me of the Manson Family and also the character of Crackers in the John Waters film Pink Flamingos who also wore the same thing which is visible during the home invasion scene within the film. Waters was seemingly Manson obsessed at the time and so the two could have been connected.

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The ultimate accessory for the psychopath about town
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‘Look what you did to him!’

Pamela goes for Alice with the knife but it is batted away with a poker that Alice grabs who then hits Pamela with it on the back as she falls down.

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Sean S. Cunningham directing the poker scene

What happens next is that Alice discovers more bodies in what constitutes a kind of ‘Big Reveal’ or ‘shocking denouement’ in which The Final Girl (Alice) is in no doubt that her adversary (in this instance, Mrs Voorhees) is murderous and that her life is in serious danger. She must now fight for her life against this foe or she will end up the same way as the other victims that have now been revealed to her in such a dramatic fashion. The idea of the ‘Big Reveal’ is a slasher movie convention with the most obvious example being from 1978’s Halloween in which Laurie goes over to the house across the street and finds the victims of Michael Myers that are revealed in ghoulish fashion.

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The ‘Big Reveal’ or shocking denouement within Halloween. Michael has set up a varitable House of Horrors for Laurie to inadvertantly walk into with Annie’s body being the centrepiece along with the revealing of Bob and Lynda’s corpses. Such is the genius of Carpenter’s film that the killer is part of The Big Reveal as his white mask comes out of the darkness

She races outside to the 4×4 that Mrs Voorhees arrived in and sees the dead mutilated body of Annie the camp cook who never actually made it to the camp (not alive anyway. Does that mean that Mrs Voorhees was driving around for most of the day with Annie’s dead body in the passenger seat?! I hope so) and then the body of Steve Christy who has been suspended upside down from a tree and suddenly flops down as Alice approaches.

As Alice is revealing the bodies that have been placed in her path, Mrs Voorhees gets up after being struck with the poker. This sequence is another example of how ‘in the zone’ Betsy Palmer was. Notice her gait and body language as she gets up and gets ready for Round 2. She looks almost inhumane, almost supernatural. As we’ll see later, Betsy Palmer truly went the extra mile for this performance and made her character into something almost paranormally chilling not just with the delivery of her lines but also through her body and the shapes she throws as the character. This performance really is something extra special.

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Another example of what makes Betsy Palmer’s performance in this role truly exceptional and scary as fuck. Even her body language is off-kilter and off-centre

As Alice runs into the woods we see Pamela recover from the blow from the poker and rise to her feet. She sees her quarry running away and starts talking in her son’s voice. ‘Kill her Mommy! Kill her! Don’t let her get away, Mommy! Don’t let her live!’ to which she responds in her own voice, ‘I won’t Jason! I won’t!’

This internal monologue that we’re privileged to see where Pamela is taking on the voice and persona of her dead son and then replying as herself is really something to behold. If there’s only one thing scarier than the close-up on Pamela’s voice it’s when the camera cuts back to her to an extreme close-up on her eyes, nose and mouth. And this shows another scary thing about the film and Mrs Voorhees’ character- her teeth. She appears to have twice the number of teeth of an average person and in certain shots she looks like half-woman, half-piranha.

Alice makes it to another cabin and finds a gun but no bullets. Mrs Voorhees enters and states ‘Come dear. It’ll be easier for you then it was for Jason!’ She then channels her dead son whilst saying (with the camera in extreme close-up of her face again which is again very unsettling) ‘Kill her, Mommy! Kill her!’ whilst advancing on Alice. Alice tries to strike Voorhees with the gun but this is quickly batted away by Pamela. Check out the noise she makes when she does this. It’s a cross between a really evil alley cat and something other worldly and completely pissed off. I love the part of this sequence in which Alice throws random objects at Voorhees who merely deflects them away with her arms (and even underneath her chin!) with a rictus grin on her face.

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Alice starts to throw objects at Mrs Voorhees to slow her down but she just deflects them away. Notice in this scene how Pamela resembles some kind of unstoppable, almost supernatural force- a foreshadowing of her son in the sequels

When Pamela actually gets to Alice she gives her a good slapping and then throws her onto a table and gives her another round of slaps (this part of the sequence is fantastically directed with the camera acting as a POV shot for Alice so that it looks like Mrs Voorhees is actually slapping around the audience. And look at how chilling and otherworldly Palmer’s performance is here).

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The many faces of Pamela Voorhees. Notice how scary she is when she’s giving Alice/the audience a slapping.

The camera as the POV for Alice also gives us an idea of how close to Alice Mrs Voorhees gets which makes the experience so much more unsettling and chillingly personal. This was a great directorial device.

Alice then uses the rifle to strike her in the crotch (yes, really) and then in the face.

Again, as Alice gets away we get to hear Voorhees in voiceover as she says in her son’s voice ‘Kill her, Mommy! Kill her! She can’t hide! No place to hide! Get her, Mommy! Get her! Kill her! Kill her!’ Her mouth is then superimposed over footage of Alice getting to the main cabin again as she speaks as Jason.

Alice then hides in the pantry and hears Pamela entering the cabin as she can hear objects being broken and smashed to the ground. There is a very creepy shot in which we see the lights in the cabin being switched on and light streaming in between the gaps of the planks that make up the pantry’s wooden door. There is also a great shot of the door handle that Alice is crouched below suddenly turning.

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The seriously scary shot of light coming through the slats of the wooden door whilst Alice hears Pamela smashing and breaking things as she goes through the room

And what happens is the second most famous (or infamous) scene of someone breaking down a door in film that year. The first, of course, is that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. This is interesting as well as Betsy Palmer says that when her performance was getting a little too over the top, Sean Cunningham would rein her back in by saying ‘Remember Jack Nicholson in The Shining’ as if to remind her not to get too exaggerated as Pamela Voorhees. The only thing is that The Shining hadn’t been released by the time shooting started on Friday the 13th. Maybe time had affected memories and facts.

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Here’s Johnny! You wait long enough for a door to be broken down in a horror film and two such sequences come along at once…
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Here’s Pammy! The second most iconic ‘door being broken down in a horror film’ scene of 1980

As Voorhees gets into the pantry she takes an impressive swing with a machete (some serious foreshadowing for the rest of the franchise here!) but it is batted away by Alice who uses a frying pan which she also strikes Voorhees on the head with. She turns the unconscious Pamela over with her foot and on seeing blood coming from her head decides that she won’t be getting up again and that she is safe.

She then goes down to the beach but is then confronted by Voorhees once again. It is during this tussle that Voorhees bites Alice’s arm.

It is of course this sequence that ends with Alice picking up the machete that Pamela had tried to attack her with and beheads her with it. Check out Pamela as she gets up just before she has her head lopped off. She has all of the abnormal and very scary gait of one of the skeletons modelled by Ray Harryhausen from the movie Jason and the Argonauts. Her body is all right angles complete with a demonic expression on her face.

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The skeletal gait of Pamela Voorhees on the beach just before her expression changes when she sees whats about to happen to her
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Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts

Her beheading puts paid to this with her startled expression as Alice literally chops off her head. This is Savini’s piece de resistance for a movie that features some of his best work. This sequence would have been outrageous for a horror audience in 1980 as nothing as graphic had been seen within a mainstream horror movie up until this point. The fact that Voorhees hands are clenching and opening again as her headless body falls to the floor makes it all the more graphic (and blackly funny). Alice gets into one of the canoes and lets it drift into the lake.

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Pamela is shocked out of her scary stance as she sees what is about to happen…
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Alice swings the machete and…
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Notice that even after she has lost her head (literally), Mrs Voorhees still opens and closes her hands as her body falls to the floor. A great touch.

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Adrienne King with Tom Savini and Pamela’s head prop

But there is one more scare that Cunningham has up his sleeve for the audience. We see Alice in the canoe with it now being daytime. I love how this scene is softly lit like some kind of sanitary towel commercial. ‘Yes, you too can canoe with confidence! Even during that time of the month…’

Of course, everything points to the fact that Alice is now victorious and safe. The music playing over the soundtrack is piano music along with a slightly off-kilter synth giving the scene a surreal slant.

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The sanitary towel red herring sequence. Alice is now safe. Or is she?!

Then when the audience is lulled into this being the end of the movie with the Final Girl enjoying the tranquility of the lake, Jason’s rotting and algaed body leaps up out of the water and pulls her under.

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‘He’s behind you!’ Jason makes his debut

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And this scene shows another example of Tom Savini’s genius- the rotting corpse of Jason who had been in the lake all of this time.

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We are then shaken out of this with a close up of Alice’s screaming face as she’s just been shocked awake by a nightmare as she resides in a hospital bed.

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As if events haven’t been traumatic enough for her she then has the indignity of being forced to get a shot of sedative in the butt whilst her doctor and a local policeman look on.

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Alice gets a sedative in the butt. Brilliantly awkward and painful to boot.

I’m also loving the silent doctor in this scene. The raising of his eyebrows indicate that he’s either an acting genius or was merely brought in at the last minute. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which one is most likely the case.

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The more you know, the less you gotta show. The Marlon Brando of Friday the 13th

She enquires whether there was anyone else who actually survived but the policeman lets her know that there were unfortunately no other survivors. She then asks about the boy Jason who pulled her into the lake that the police recovered her from. The policeman looks quizzically at her and says that there was no sign of any boy. ‘Then he’s still there’ she states. And with this and one last shot of the lake and a ripple on it’s surface, a horror franchise was born.

It’s great that another star of the movie is given the last shot and that is the beautiful lake and shoreline.

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The film was hated by critics on it’s release. Gene Siskel from The Chicago Tribune got his knickers in such a bunch over the film and the fact that *shock horror* Betsy Palmer could star in such a movie that he published the name of the town that she lived in and asked people to send hate mail to the Post Office there so that the letters of disapproval could be forwarded to her. But he published the name of the wrong town. D’oh! He even relished giving away the ending of the film as to her character being the killer. His review reads more like a narcissistic tantrum from a man-child than a rational review by an adult film critic.

But who cares what stuffy and pretentious film critics thought. The film opened and did amazing business eventually making $59.8m against it’s budget of $550,000.

Fun fact- the credit sequence for Star Wars cost more than the entire budget for the first Friday the 13th film.

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Friday the 13th opened the same week as Cruising here in Leeds. Steve Christy would approve.

Yes, Friday the 13th isn’t Halloween, the film Cunningham looked to to outline a formula for a film that was familiar enough to make money. But then again, few horror films or indeed any films are as good as Halloween. But whilst Carpenter’s masterpiece is an A+ movie, Friday the 13th is a B+ movie. It’s interesting to see the embryonic first film in a franchise before a formula was struck upon. There’s murders and suspense but also quirky characters, a whodunnit element that feels like something out of a Giallo film and a performance that is truly one of the best (and most deranged) in horror history. Add to this a killer (pun not intended) soundtrack and you have a bona fide cult classic.

But also, the first 4 films in the franchise embody a golden time for horror fans as there was a renaissance for the genre that was largely down to the slasher sub-genre. Filmmakers and studios were seeing that horror was profitable and so it was almost as if there was a new slasher movie or horror film released every week. The newly formed Fangoria Magazine embodied this new golden era. The Friday the 13th franchise and Fangoria Magazine almost mirrored each other and captured the magic and innocence of the time and the 80’s in particular. Issue 6 wrote about Friday the 13th around the film’s release in an article that examined how Tom Savini created the effects for the film.

For all of these reasons this is why Friday the 13th is in the Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame.

Meathook Cinema Salutes…Jeff Lieberman

Meathook Cinema Salutes…Jeff Lieberman

I first heard of the director Jeff Lieberman when I recalled seeing the artwork for one of his films, Squirm on the video shelves in the 80’s. The sleeve depicting a shower head dripping with worms instead of water with some of them having crawled under the skin of the scared woman in the picture (this shot was actually taken specifically for the video art rather than being a still from the actual film) burrowed (pun not intended) into my brain as it was so eye catching and disturbing to my young eyes.

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It would be several years until I saw the actual film and after I had read further about it in John McCarty’s excellent book The Modern Horror Film. This great book also introduced me to such other horror masterpieces such as Mother’s Day and The Devils.

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Squirm concerns Fly Creek in Georgia where a huge storm has felled electricity wires which causes them to pump huge amounts of voltage into the ground causing the worms within to become carnivorous killers. The morning after Geri, a local of the area goes to pick up her new boyfriend Mick who is visiting her. Fly Creek has a worm farmer (!) and the truck that he uses is the vehicle that Geri uses to pick up her beau. The 100,000 worms that were on the back of the truck all escape meaning that the killer worms (specified as bloodworms natch) are far from being few and far between. The action kicks off (or should that be slithers off) when Mick finds a worm in his egg cream in the local diner.

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Squirm is a fantastic update of the monster movie genre of a few decades before. But Lieberman embues it with a deft and very witty script, idiosyncratic lead and side characters alike and a tongue in cheek sensibility. There are also very perceptive and funny observations of small town life especially when a big city outsider views them with fresh eyes. Much of the film feels like we are seeing these through the eyes of Mick with the locals being either a bit crazy and/or not very friendly.

But this playfulness doesn’t detract from Squirm being a highly effective horror film that has suspense and gore in equal measures. It helps enormously that Rick Baker was assigned the task of the special effects and he doesn’t disappoint.

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Squirm does for worms what Jaws did for sharks. Squirm also unleashes literally shitloads of worms onto the characters to battle against and for the audience’s enjoyment. There are even scenes that show writhing, slithering oceans of worms which take your breath away as to how such a feat was accomplished on screen and the audacity to accomplish such feats. This is also naturally great fun for fans of all things icky horror.

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The film also has a strangely apocalyptic ending that has religious ‘end of days’ connotations and takes the movie to a whole other level rather than just being a throwback to the killer animals genre.

The movie denotes another great addition to Don Scardino’s filmography alongside such other gems as He Knows You’re Alone and Cruising.

Great fun and it’s brilliant to see the original uncut version (the film was cut by distributors to try and get a PG rating) looking and sounding fantastic thanks to Arrow Video.

The next film that I discovered by Lieberman came about in a very strange way. I was getting into Siouxsie and the Banshees and learnt that in 1983 the band temporarily split into two side projects. Siouxsie and drummer Budgie became The Creatures whereas Steven Severin and Robert Smith became The Glove. Smith and Severin named their album Blue Sunshine after the Lieberman film of the same name (I once asked the director if he had heard of this album that was named after one of his films. He replied that indeed he had and even had the album’s artwork framed in his living room).

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Whilst the film was released on video during the heady early days of home video in the UK, it had gone out of print and disappeared completely.

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As luck would have it as soon as I had arrived in London to undertake a film degree, the movie was being shown at the NFT a few days later. I went to see it and was bowled over at how original and brilliant it was.

Blue Sunshine concerns a spate of seemingly random cases of people going on murder sprees after first losing all of their hair. This is linked to a form of LSD they had taken ten years earlier that lies dormant in the system of the person who has ingested it but then turns that person into a bald headed homicidal killer.

Lieberman has a field day with the different circumstances in which the now upstanding pillars of the community suddenly become maniacs. The babysitter scene is worth the price of admission alone as is the scene in which one character undergoes his transformation in a shopping mall disco after first complaining about the music (this would count as a very witty addition to the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement).

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The German VHS sleeve featuring the homicidal babysitter

There is a sense of urgency to proceedings as someone who witnessed the first transformation is actually mistaken as the killer who killed three women by throwing them into a blazing fireplace. Hence, Jerry has to gather evidence in order to clear his name whilst doing all of this on the down low so that he doesn’t get arrested by the police who are looking for him.

Witty but not played for laughs, innovative and horrifying, Blue Sunshine walks a fine line and completely accomplishes what it sets out to convey and does so with verve and panache. I’ve never known a film with the same feel or look as Blue Sunshine which makes me love it even more. It really is a one-off and fantastic because of it.

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Again, it would be quite a while until I could get my mitts on another Lieberman film I had read a lot about but wasn’t available in the UK. It would be whilst I was living in Sydney that I would be able to see the hillbilly/slasher variant Just Before Dawn on vintage VHS.

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The wait was worth it. Just Before Dawn is just as innovative and imaginative as Lieberman’s other films.

The five kids who are venturing up mountain to a house that one of them is inheriting are the complete opposite to many young teens in both slasher movies and within the deranged hillbilly genre. They’re likeable for a start and it feels like they have a purpose rather than just being the kind of vacuous morons who you can’t wait to see get sliced and diced.

Theres also another great twist regarding Just Before Dawn that is so simple that I’m surprised no one else used it earlier. There are in fact two killers who are identical twins and built like Brunswick bricklayers. I love the fact that one of them takes the red hat and vest of Vachel, the first person we see him kill in the film and is seen wearing them throughout the rest of the movie. This reminds me of The Hills Have Eyes with the character of Pluto wearing Bob Carter’s false teeth around his neck after he has been killed. In fact, Lieberman insisted that he had seen neither Hills nor The Texas Chain Saw Massacre prior to making his film.

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Pluto from The Hills Have Eyes sporting Bob Carter’s false teeth
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The killer in Just Before Dawn wearing Vachel’s red hat and vest

Theres a great scene in which two of the kids, Megan and Jonathan go skinny dipping. What they don’t see is that one of the killers has actually entered the water as well. We earlier saw Jonathan going underwater and pulling Megan’s legs which she playfully squealed and screamed at. We then see this happen again but this time Megan looks out to the furthest shore to see Jonathan there who waves back. She then screams and starts to frantically swim to him as she realises that whoever and whatever was tugging at her legs underwater wasn’t her boyfriend. A fantastic scene that is bother very scary and very funny. It’s little touches like this that helps to set Just Before Dawn apart from the majority of uninspired entries within both the slasher movie and demented hillbilly genres.

Vachal’s demise at the hands of one of the killers also goes to show how brutal the movie is. He is stabbed from behind with a machete which exits through his groin.

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Another great thing about the movie is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography. Yes, it’s difficult to make such beautiful surroundings look unimpressive but the scope and vision here is both epic in it’s magnitude to emphasise just how out of their depth the teens are and claustrophobically close when needs be.

Theres also the kick-ass ending which was such a massive surprise when I first saw it that I was astounded by it’s originality and audacity. No, I’m not going to reveal it here.

And so for these three movies, this is why we salute Jeff Lieberman. He made movies that defy expectations, breathed new life into tired old genres where cliches had become de rigour and he granted horror fans with having a modicum of intelligence. Oh, and he still made kick-ass horror films.

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His other movies are also worth investigation such as his movies Remote control, Satan’s Little Helper and the short film he made, The Ringer (which conveniently is on YouTube).

Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

Review- Alice Sweet Alice (1976)

I love the horror films that are unlike any other films in the genre and stand alone with their quirks and idiosyncrasies. One such film is Alice Sweet Alice.

The film was actually called Communion when it premiered at numerous film festivals but was then retitled Alice Sweet Alice when it was picked up by it’s distributor and then released in 1977. With one of it’s stars, Brooks Shields becoming a star in Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby even though she only appears in this film for all of about 10 minutes, it was then released again in 1981 under the name of Holy Terror. The film also received the ultimate seal of approval in the early 80’s when it was banned during the Video Nasty moral panic in the UK.

Not many horror films revolve around the issue of Catholicism but Alice Sweet Alice does and to horrific and chilling effect.

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We see Karen who is preparing for her first communion and her older sister Alice at home. It seems that whatever Alice does Karen whines about to their mother as is the case when Alice puts on her communion veil. This first scene seems to expand into a deeper theme within the film and that is what psychologists talk about regarding family relations when one child is treated as a ‘golden child’ (in this case Karen) and when another is treated as a ‘scapegoat’ for anything wrong that happens or any misdemeanour (Alice). The film expands on this further later in proceedings.

As revenge for Karen being such a brat, Alice lures her to an abandoned warehouse and scares her before locking her in a separate room and then threatening her if she tells anyone.

We see Alice wear a transparent (and very creepy) mask and bright yellow raincoat to scare their housekeeper Mrs Tredoni. Later on during the communion service we see someone wearing the same mask and raincoat bump off Karen by strangling her and then placing her body in a compartment within a bench then placing a lit candle inside for good measure. Could the person who did this be Alice who we had seen wear a similar mask earlier in proceedings?

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The film is very much a whodunnit as to whether it is Alice who is carrying out the murders and also if it isn’t her, then who is it and why?

Alice Sweet Alice is a proto-slasher movie and a fantastic one at that. Not only do we get the storyline regarding whether Alice is the murderer or not but also a brilliant character study regarding this character that goes into family dynamics that have only started to creep into public discussions recently.

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Add to this the very unexpected supporting characters who are as out-there as they are unexpected (check out the character of the bald, fat neighbour Mr Alphonso and you’ll fully understand what I’m talking about) and you have another demonstration of why this film really is a one-off and all the more brilliant because of it.

There are also moments of near hysteria within the narrative that feel like they’re straight out of a John Waters movie. In fact, when I first saw the sequence in which the character of Annie is stabbed I instantly thought of when the shopper has her feet stomped on by Dexter aka The Baltimore Footstomper from Polyester. The acting is unhinged and utterly genius because of it.

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Add to this some very inventive kills (check out the sequence in which Annie is killed in the hallway and when a later victim is thrown from a high building to land on broken mirrors down below) and one of the creepiest killer’s disguises I’ve ever seen (the director was influenced by Don’t Look Now in his choice of the raincoat).

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The look of the film is just as striking with a gorgeous muted colour palate that I’ve never seen in a film before and beautiful photography that means that this is so much more than just your average 70’s horror oddity. In fact it’s just one reason as well as the ones mentioned previously why this film is a complete and utter gem. The way to experience this flick is by going for the US Arrow Video Blu Ray. Their restoration of the film is a revelation and really something to behold.

Grade- B+

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

Leatherface and Me- Growing Up With (and Without) The Texas Chain Saw Massacre

I saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre at the cinema the other day. It’s been a long road but I feel like I’ve had my own personal journey with this horror masterpiece. After years of not being able to view the film, it grew in my mind to almost mythic proportions. When I finally got to see the film, was it worth the wait and would it live up to the hype?

From the very beginning there was a massive amount of controversy with the film in the UK. On it’s original planned cinema release it was banned outright by the BBFC. However, those were the days when local councils could override the BBFC’s official decisions and so, whilst some local authorities agreed with the Board’s decision, a number decided to allow screenings of the film.

The advent of home video would give the film a new, albeit brief, lease of life. The film was originally released on video in 1981. But in 1984 the Board decided that all videos had to be classified by them and so for three years or so the film could be rented and viewed in the privacy of one’s home. My father actually remembers seeing the film on video, an occasion which I wasn’t privy to. Maybe he had decided to watch it when I was safely tucked up in bed. My Dad’s attitude to me watching horror and violent films from an early age was rather laissez-faire to say the least, but maybe even he thought that the film that had such a shocker of a title would be too much for me to take at such a tender age. When he spoke about it, he did so as if to say, ‘Yes, I saw that film!’ accompanied by a startled look on his face. With such a backhanded compliment I now regard my not being able to watch the film with the rest of my family as akin to some kind of child abuse.

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With the Video Nasties moral panic, TCM was promptly banned. However, the parents of a friend of my older brother owned a local video shop and so, as many video shop owners did back in the day, they didn’t return any of the newly banned videos they were asked to take off their shelves. I got to see The Evil Dead via this route but my friend never showed anyone TCM as she had seen it and was truly traumatised by what she had witnessed. With this knowledge, the legend surrounding the film grew even bigger.

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There was an excellent film in the 80’s called Terror in the Aisles which was a compilation of the juiciest bits of horror movies that were segued by legends Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. Within the movie were clips of TCM along with scenes from another withdrawn classic, The Exorcist which meant the Terror in the Aisles was essential viewing. The scene in which Pam stumbles (literally) into the room covered with chicken feathers and adorned with bizarre home furnishings was included and was so perfect that the fact that the full film couldn’t be seen in the UK meant that I hated the BBFC even more than I already did.

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As I then started to get into punk rock I saw a picture of Johnny Rotten wearing the stickers given away to the patrons of the original screenings of TCM that was being shown in London against the BBFC’s wishes. The Sex Pistols had seen the film and were endorsing it on their ripped clothing. It must be something really shocking and I needed to see it, like, NOW!

TCMStickerTCMJohnnyRottenIt wouldn’t be until 1994 when I would finally get to see the film from start to finish. My friend Tom has scored some horror classics that he taped onto two blank video tapes for me with the jewel in the crown being TCM (the others were Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust and Driller Killer). And so that’s how I got to see the film- a copy that had been copied from a copy that had possibly been copied numerous times before with diminishing quality each time. The picture was fuzzy, some facial expressions were a bit hazy and fine detail was very much lacking. But hey, here was the film! And I loved it! But whilst it was and is such an intense and unnerving experience, there was something that I hadn’t been told about and hence wasn’t expecting- the humour. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ was one such moment. Another was the moment in which the garage owner takes the time to go back inside to turn the lights of his garage off just after he’s kidnapped Sally after explaining that the cost of electricity these days could send a man out of business.

Something that also caught me off guard but that I loved was how much the film felt like the most surreal and violent EC Comic that just so happened to have been turned into a film. The film was lurid, colourful and surreal.

Skip forward a few years and I’m living in London and have just completed a film degree. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has curated a festival of film screenings in which still banned horror titles could be legally shown for one day each after getting the green light from the BBFC. One of these films was TCM and so I could finally see it on the big screen.

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My original ticket stub for the ICA screening

But it was a wider release shortly after this and without the OK from the Board that would lead to the film being legalised. Just as years before local councils could usurp the Board and show films anyway, Camden Council decided to show the film at a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (and rather cheekily just a few streets away from the Board’s Soho HQ). I didn’t know about these screenings until I was walking past the cinema and my eyes jumped out of their sockets as I saw the poster. Camden Council even had their own certificate of ‘C for Camden’ for the film. I had planned an afternoon (and night) of drinking in London’s more salubrious gay bars but waylaid this to take an excursion into Hell first. The screening was amazing and the sound had been turned up to deafening levels. It really did feel like myself and the two other people in the afternoon screening (that’s right, there were only two other people in the whole cinema!) had undertaken a traumatic experience together and as the film ended we all glanced at each other, nervously laughed and then exited.

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My original ticket stub for the 1999 screening

It would be these screenings that would persuade the BBFC to reexamine their classification of the film and agree to pass it uncut with an 18 certificate. Another significant factor in these proceedings was that James Ferman had retired as Head of the Board. It was during his tenure that he had tried to cut the film to finally get it released. But he concluded that there was nothing that could be cut as there was very little gore and such an underlying sense of constant tension to the film that made it impossible to cut. So basically he was ensuring that the film remain banned for being a horror film that was too effective as a horror film. Ridiculous. Thankfully, common sense prevailed and the film was then passed.

The film was duly issued in the UK on both video and DVD by Blue Dolphin in 2000.

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But a funny thing happened just before this release. With the advent of the internet there was a website called Amazon (you may have heard of it) that was based in America where loads of horror movies were available uncut and could be bought and shipped to the UK. This was very much a game of chance with some films being seized by customs and some not. The films that were confiscated bizarrely included some titles that weren’t even banned in the UK at the time. The artwork of other VHS and DVD titles that boasted of their notoriety were being let through (the box artwork for The New York Ripper proudly stated the number of countries the film was banned in but was amazingly let through by customs to the ever grateful horror fan who had ordered it). I ordered the Pioneer DVD of TCM which was chock full of special features such as a director’s commentary and blooper reel and it got through. Yeehaw.

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With such a film as TCM now being available there was only one direction in which the releases from now on could go and that was to restore the film so that it could look and sound as good as possible. But with a film like TCM which has always had a grimy and gritty look to it, would these new restoration programmes mean that the film would loose some of this grit and dirt and look completely different?

Dark Sky picked up the film in the US and cleaned up the visuals and audio significantly for a 2006 DVD release. Suddenly, details that couldn’t be seen before were now visible. It was akin to layers of grime being lifted from a classic painting. There were also oodles of special features and presented in a 2 disc steelbook to boot. And more importantly, the look of the film didn’t suffer one iota because of these new efforts to make the film look and sound as good as it possibly could. The film still sounded like it always had with the bassy and subhuman tremors experienced still present but now sounding even more unearthly. 

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With the advent of Blu ray as a format and then 4K, this meant that even more work could be done on the film and even more care taken to present and preserve the film as the cultural force it had become. Again, Dark Sky took up the task and released a 4 disc Blu ray edition of the film, complete with 7.1 Dolby remix (along with the original mono soundtrack for the purists) and all of the special features imaginable (3 discs worth to be precise!)

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And it was this print that I saw the other day at a cinema that was state of the art and with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen this side of IMAX. It was ironic that I should be watching the film in such a beautiful cinema with gorgeous leather seats and state of the art projection equipment when the film would originally have been seen and experienced in grindhouses and Drive-Ins across America on it’s first run. But did the film still hold up in such surroundings? You bet it did! There was even nuance that could be only be picked up on the mammoth screen and details that could only be heard within the 7.1 remix that couldn’t be picked up in mono (the film gets gradually louder and bassier as the action goes on) with the later part of the film being the hellish (in a great way) experience that all TCM fans know and love. 

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So, as you can see my journey with TCM has been long and winding but so rewarding. The film being banned and then passed uncut and then released on new formats and after extensive work has been done on it has meant that the makers of the film have certainly got their dollars worth from fans like me. But the pleasure of snapping up each new release has been an absolute pleasure and I’m so happy that the film can be appreciated and savoured by future generations. TCM will always be in my list of my Top 10 favourite films. The wait was certainly worth it. 

Review- He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

Review- He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

This 1980 slasher movie concerns a jilted lover who kills his ex prior to her wedding day. He’s now been released from prison and intends on repeating history as he’s after a soon-to-be bride.

The film borrows heavily from Halloween (the piano score, the autumnal street shots etc etc) and even the title card for the movie uses the Friday the 13th font. But for what it is, it’s actually really enjoyable.

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The look of the film captures early 80’s small town America in all it’s soft gaze, wood panelled glory. The kills are actually well executed, inventive (watch out for the fish tank scene) and the killer is very scary indeed. He needs to work on his non-psycho face though as he looks like a serial killer even when he’s just out and about. It’s a bit of a giveaway.

The opening ‘film within a film’ scene is also fun. The kind of self-referential quality that the film possesses could in part be because renowned future film academic Vera Dika worked on the film as script consultant and as part of the editorial department. She would go on to write about the slasher genre and it’s conventions in her book Games of Terror.

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This film will never be a shining beacon of the genre but it’s a great way to pass an hour and a half. It’s also my favourite Tom Hanks movie.

Grade- B

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Visiting Hours (1982)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- Visiting Hours (1982)

Some of my favourite childhood memories involved me being in a local video shop (and there were quite a few in my area) and poring over the lurid and sleazy artwork for the horror movies. In the 80’s video shops were like art galleries for weirdos and I was (and proudly still am) one of these freaks.

One of the video artworks that I was obsessed with was for the Canadian movie Visiting Hours.

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When I rented the movie I wasn’t disappointed.

I love horror movies based in hospitals especially if they’re made in the early 80’s and are really nasty. Another example is of course, Halloween 2 which is a peach of a movie. But Visiting Hours is also a great movie. And the hospital the film is set it in seems to be a hundred times bigger than Haddonfield Memorial Hospital and has more than ten people in the whole establishment (staff included).

Visiting Hours concerns Colt Hawker (no, his character isn’t a gay porn actor even though his name sounds like he should be) who is obsessed with Deborah Ballin, a TV journalist who campaigns for female victims of domestic violence at the hands of their partners. She is shown defending one such woman who was driven to murdering her husband after he had abused her. Hawker is triggered by this because of a childhood memory he has which recalls his mother throwing a pan of boiling oil in his father’s face after he had tried to beat her.

Hawker invades Ballin’s home and sets out to kill her. After a really nasty confrontation Ballin is injured but survives and is taken to the local General Hospital. Colt learns where she is and starts to stalk her.

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What a double bill!

It’s in the hospital that most of the film’s action now takes place. It’s interesting to see that Colt will adapt any variety of aliases and roles to get to his quarry- nurse, orderly, surgeon and finally, patient.

Deborah seems to be so hated by him that even those who sing her praises or sympathise with her now being a victim of male violence become a target for Hawker. Nurse Sheila Monroe becomes one such with Hawker following her home to find out her address and later in the film invading it. Any strong woman is an enemy of Hawker’s and needs to be dealt with accordingly.

Of course, with such a villain and his repugnant views, the film was labelled as ‘misogynistic’ on it’s release. But several things make me think it’s actually a very conservative depiction of the kind of violence some women are subjected to. Yes, we get to see the sheer horror of Hawker and the crimes he carries out against the women he sees as assertive and liberated. But we also have the film’s final act in which the balance is reset and, without giving the ending away, a levelling of the playing fields with an ending that sees Hawker getting the justice he deserves and at the hands of one of the people he wanted to dish it out to. Ballin gets to experience first hand what she’s only ever had to talk about regarding other women’s lives. There is more retribution by female characters in the film but I’m not going to ruin the film with spoilers here.

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Loving this Turkish poster for the film sooo much! A sex scene starring Andrew Stevens whilst Jack Torrence watches outside with a knife. Needless to say, none of this happens in Visiting Hours. But it would make a kickass sequel. It’s not too late.

Also, Visiting Hours doesn’t titillate with it’s depiction of violence against some of the female characters within the film. And that’s a huge reason why I don’t think it’s misogynistic. It feels like the film has serious things to say about violence against women rather than making a trashy and extreme shocker.

Visiting Hours feels utterly serious and is almost devoid of any kind of humour or lighter moments. It’s also nasty and mean spirited in tone. In other words, it’s perfect for an early 80’s slasher movie. Unfortunately, the BBFC didn’t agree and the film suffered several cuts for it’s cinema release. These cuts were sustained for the eventual video release and the film was also (albeit briefly) put on the Video Nasties list.

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The casting of the film is also pinpoint perfect which is a major part as to why the film succeeds so brilliantly. Michael Ironside is just as amazing here as Hawker as he was in Scanners as Daryl Revok. He really was fantastic at playing psychopaths. In fact, when I see Ironside’s name on a cast list I know that it will be well worth a watch. Lee Grant is fantastic as crusading feminist Ballin and Linda Purl hits just the right tone as nurse Munroe. On top of that we get star power through William Shatner being a cast member and we even get to see the guy with the bald head and moustache from Cagney and Lacey.

But the hospital setting is a major part of why this film is so damned effective. Hospitals have always struck me as macabre places and this film feeds into this further. It’s why I love hospitals and this film so much.

Video Nasties Live Debate From 1984

Video Nasties Live Debate From 1984

It used to be really popular in Britain when I was growing up for the hottest topics of the day to be debated and discussed live in a studio with experts on a stage and an audience who would ask questions and contribute. A famous example is the debate regarding certain religious figures calling for the Monty Python movie The Life Of Brian to be banned on the grounds of blasphemy. John Cleese and Michael Palin debated the issue with Roman Catholic journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood.

A debate that was televised in 1984 regarded the Video Nasties furore and I actually remember watching it at the time! The link is below.

It’s so great to see representatives from both sides of the argument being in the studio and arguing their cases (notice those against the release of horror movies trying to talk over those who wanted them to be released).

I read Martin Barker’s seminal book Video Nasties around this time as I did the publication of Clifford Hill’s flawed study to see just how many kids falsely claimed to have seen the hotly debated cinematic shockers such as The Evil Dead and The Driller Killer.

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A seminal text

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A deeply flawed study

There’s also great footage of a video store of the time, a very funny reenactment of children watching said Video Nasties and some hilariously macabre music to accompany this. This creepy music is even played over the start of the TV debate.

But my favourite line from the whole programme must be MP Graham Bright asserting that these corrupting films not only affect children but also dogs. I do remember my dog at the time being somewhat murderous after we all watched Nightmares In A Damaged Brain for the first time but that might be because we had forgotten to feed her.

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The hysteria of the time must be unbelievable for people to comprehend in 2021 but these horror movies were Public Enemy Number 1 at the time and this moral panic lasted for years. I remember a local newspaper article complaining about the evil effects of horror movies in 1987 which launched an avalanche of angry and disapproving readers letters in the next issue. The editor noted that not one letter standing up for the movies had been received.

And of course the whole furore erupted again in 1993 after James Bulger was abducted and murdered with Child’s Play 3 becoming the 90’s version of The Evil Dead and a target of society’s scorn and bile.

Thankfully common sense prevailed. Or could this hysteria happen again?

This programme is here and my Video Nasties documentary playlist is here.