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 31- Are You In The House Alone? (1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade- A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grace- C+

31 Days of Halloween- Day 27- Eyes of a Stranger (1981)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 27- Eyes of a Stranger (1981)

Lauren Tewes stars as Jane, a Miami newsreader who suspects her neighbour of being a murderer who’s crimes she reports on with shocking regularity. She lives with her blind deaf-mute sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh’s first starring role).

This was another example of a film I had been meaning to watch for the longest time (since about 1989 when I read about the film in Kim Newman’s seminal book Nightmare Movies) and sought it out after one of my friends was talking about it online (see, Instagram isn’t all bad).

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And my! What a film it is! The film doesn’t shy away from the violence the women characters are subjected to. Rather than being titillating for the sicker audience members it feels like it depicts realistic portrayals of the kind of abuse some women are subjected to. The camera doesn’t flinch away from these even though most audience members will do.

I liked how the film played with genre expectations regarding the violent episodes. The first victim Debbie asks her boyfriend to come over and this lulls viewers into thinking that this instantly makes her safe from the killer’s advances. This couldn’t be further from the truth as Stanley instead just dispatches of the boyfriend (Tom Savini carries out the special effects for this movie and as usual does an absolutely fantastic job. Debbie’s boyfriend is beheaded and his head placed in her fish tank) and then moves onto her.

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This sequence is also very perceptive as Debbie rings the police and complains about the awful abusive phone calls she has been getting from the killer. The policeman she speaks to is far from sympathetic and complains that whenever violence against women is reported and warned against on the news this creates a huge spike in abusive phone calls from other sickos. He then says he will send out a phone officer to see her but during the next day and when it’s too late! The police’s inactivity and scepticism is portrayed and is still an issue today towards women who report similar behaviour. There is a story in the news at the moment about a young woman who was being stalked and sent abusive messages which she sent to the police who failed to act. She was eventually killed by her stalker.

The film also shows how the telephone as an appliance can take on sinister connotations. A victim who is being telephoned in her office late at night can’t even get away from her stalker contacting her when she steps into a lift to go to her friend’s house for safety as there is a phone in the lift that he calls her on. The threat of the killer is shown to be omnipresent and inescapable.  Again, the film led us to believe that this would be victim would be safe after she had arranged to leave her workplace and venture out to safety.

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A film that Eyes of a Stranger reminded me of was the TV movie written by John Carpenter in the 70’s, Someone’s Watching Me! starring Lauren Hutton and Adrienne Barbeau. Both take place in the same time period with the primary action taking place in apartment complexes. Theres an element of surveillance within both films, with Jane watching her accused’s apartment which is opposite hers and Hutton’s character doing the same in the TV movie.

One sequence that made me perch on the edge of my seat was when Jane enter’s Stanley’s apartment when he is out but is unaware that he is returning. The execution of this scene was expertly handled and the outcome handled with real aplomb and without any filler or unnecessary padding whatsoever.

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I also loved the scene whereby the killer meets Tracy for the first time and surmises correctly that she is deaf, blind and mute. The sequence in which he moves the objects she has placed down just out of reach is almost like some kind of gaslighting as if he wants her to question her actions and let her know that he is there. The rest of this scene is also stellar but to go into that would ruin the film’s ending which I’m not going to do!

Eyes of a Stranger is a fantastically powerful film that depicts the violence endured by women that never slips into being some kind of misogynistic or moralistic vehicle. Any woman could have fallen prey to Herbert and the full horror of this is shown even if these scenes are rightly uncomfortable to watch. A sobering thought is that as the film was being made The Yorkshire Ripper was still at large and blighting the lives of not just his female victims but ALL women as they had to adjust their lives accordingly because a woman hating psychopath was at large and had been for several years.

Grade- B+

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade- B

31 Days of Halloween- Day 6- House III: The Horror Show (1989)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 6- House III: The Horror Show (1989)

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.

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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.

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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.

Grade- B

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).

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. 

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.