Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Review- Nico Icon (1996)

Note- Nico Icon can be found here on YouTube. Please make sure you switch on the English subtitles before watching as some sequences are in French and German.

I first became aware of the singer Nico in 1988, ironically the year the singer passed away. I was becoming a huge fan of Siouxsie and the Banshees and a new book had been published about the band. The first few pages went through the early lives of the band members and the bands they were listening to as they were growing up. Of course one of them was The Velvet Underground and Nico. The picture published to illustrate this however wasn’t one of the iconic monochromatic shots of the band wearing shades, black clothing and looking absolutely cool with it. Instead, the image was of Nico but after see had dyed her hair and wasn’t the glacially beautiful blonde chanteuse anymore. The pic was from 1970 and she was dressed in a cape. ‘What Goth could have become if more people had taken Nico to their hearts’, I thought.

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Shortly after this I started listening to and loving The Velvet Underground starting with their iconic first album. Nico’s voice was a revelation. Her teutonic vocals with her own sense of phrasing and meter were mindblowingly original. In fact, after hearing this album I bought The Marble Index and my love for Nico and her career was born.

On seeing the documentary Nico Icon on YouTube I decided to investigate further.

And I’m so glad I did. The film fully explores Nico’s legacy and metamorphosis brilliantly from her time as a model (a profession she hated as she saw herself as a blonde smiling object and nothing more), her introduction to movies with her turn in La Dolce Vita no less, her introduction to singing and then becoming a staple of Warhol’s Factory crowd (Andy famously described her singing style as like that of an IBM computer with a Greta Garbo accent) after being introduced to Warhol by Bob Dylan. Her stint as chanteuse on The Velvet Underground’s iconic first album (not to mention her relationship with The Velvet’s lead singer Lou Reed) followed shortly after this with her solo career as a result.

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From model…
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…to Warhol endorsed recording artiste

I wasn’t prepared for the emotional pull that the documentary has. The scene in which Nico’s aunt is listening to I’ll Be Your Mirror and starts crying because of the beauty of the music and her late niece’s vocals is incredibly moving. The fact that Lou Reed’s lyrics are displayed on the screen via the film’s subtitles show just how gorgeous they are.

The melancholic and reflective aspect of Nico’s music is also explored with songs as achingly stirring as You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone acting as a reflection of Nico’s life. She was evidently her own mirror for the world to see.

The transformation of Nico from blonde bombshell to Angel of Death is also examined. With this metamorphosis people who said to her that the change was too drastic and made her look ugly were met with joyous proclamations from the woman herself. She loved the fact that she wasn’t a blonde object of beauty anymore for others to ogle, an object.

She seemed to hate life and to be looking forward to death. She infamously became a junkie with her addiction to heroine (what else for the guest singer with The Velvets) which meant she toured constantly to supplement her habit. James Young is on hand to tell tales of what it was like to be in her band during this period with one incident involving her deliberately handing him a tour’s worth of used needles for him to dispose of when they were approaching border control whilst in their tour bus. ‘She was the Queen of the Bad Girls’, Young states. She also loved the track marks, rotting teeth and bad skin that the drug had bestowed on her body. ‘That was her aesthetic’, Young opines.

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Nico in the 70’s. Nothing scary about this pic at all…

Nico’s son Ari from her relationship with French actor Alain Delon (one of Nico’s other former lovers expresses that Delon was descended from sausage makers and even though he became a famous actor there was no getting away from his true family vocation in life) is also interviewed. We hear the shocking revelation that it was her who introduced him to heroine and that whilst he was once in a coma, she came to the hospital to record the noises his life support machine made to utilise on her next album.

But throughout the documentary one thing truly shines through and that is the music itself. There has never been any other artist like Nico in terms of music and image. She was a true individual with a back catalogue that is alarmingly and consistently brilliant. Whilst her first album Chelsea Girl was material written by others for her, her second album and every subsequent album after this starting with The Marble Index, showed that Nico wasn’t just an amazing singer and frontperson but also an astonishing writer. Her imagery and obsessions are just as idiosyncratic as her persona and are utterly intoxicating. Fortunately this is captured in the documentary with all phases of her music career being given an airing. And that’s one of the greatest aspects of the film- it encourages the viewer to investigate further and fall full-on into the disturbing, beautiful and esoteric rabbit-hole that is Nico’s oeuvre. And it’s an amazing place to vacate.

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Her transition from the blonde Ice Queen to the Angel of Death is extraordinary enough and reminds me of the transition that Scott Walker made from pop star pin-up to serious artist who made the kind of music that music critics can’t salivate over more. Nico was even more exemplary as when she started writing her own material we were suddenly plunged headlong into her own world with it’s own meanings and rules. It was a sphere of frozen borderlines, friar hermits and janitors of lunacy. What does it all mean? Who knows. But it works beautifully. We were invited into the mindscape of an island, a question mark, a true maverick and, dare I say, a genius.

This documentary is so good that not even the very pretentious device of snippets of dialogue appearing on the screen as text just as a subject is saying them can even ruin or tarnish proceedings. Thankfully this isn’t employed too often but why it was used at all is beyond me.

Proceedings are rounded off with a rendition of Frozen Warnings from the album The Marble Index sung by John Cale at the piano. It’s an apt tribute to a singer who Cale saw as someone truly exceptional even if the world is still catching up on Nico’s genius. But with a new biography coming out soon it appears that the wheels are in motion regarding this. This documentary is a great starting point for the uninitiated and familiar alike.

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Essential and one of the best documentaries about one of the best and beguiling subjects ever to grace the arts. Even Siskel and Ebert gave the film two thumbs up. But don’t let that put you off.

5 stars out of 5

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 29- Carnival of Souls (1962)

A teenage drag race goes dreadfully wrong with one car being forced off a bridge and into a river. From the car a woman, Mary manages to escape and clamber ashore.

However, Mary’s life after that isn’t the same. She seems to see ghostly figures when she seemingly disassociates herself with everyday life that is going on around her. One example takes place on a bus when she sees seemingly dead people coming for her. The film very creepily plays with space and time and does so without warning. The film is just as disconcerting and disorientating for the audience as it is for Mary.

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The ghostly figures she sees seem to be led by a man (in reality, the film’s director Herk Harvey) who seems intent on somehow coming for Mary to take her somewhere as yet unknown.

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Mary is a church organist by occupation but even this is affected now with her only playing the kind of funereal pieces that in the future The Cure would be playing in 1981. Yes, they’re that bleak! One priest who hears her playing stops her and deems her playing as ‘Profane! Sacrilege!’

Add to this a very sleazy and creepy housemate who gets off on perving on her as she gets out of the bath and won’t let up.

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The action builds up to an ending that actually takes place in an abandoned fairground. This all adds up to a truly great cinematic experience. There are sequences of this film that are far removed from anything I’ve ever seen in a motion picture before or since. The haunting photography, the use of some sequences such as a dancing scene in the carnival being sped up, the way the film takes the audience with Mary as she enters her limbo world where the dead walk and stalk her.

The idea of a limbo world between life and death was also brilliantly explored later on in the classic movie Don’t Look Now. Carnival of Souls went on to influence George A Romero who said that it was a huge influence on Night of the Living Dead as did David Lynch on Blue Velvet. The influence of the film can also be seen within the better parts of the Goth movement. The sequence where the undead run after Mary on the beach feels like a fantastic Goth version of something from a Fellini film.

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Carnival of Souls is an anomaly in cinematic terms, a one-off which is like no other. It’s also a masterpiece. I’m so glad it wasn’t forgotten. It was restored and released cinematically in 1989 after it’s original 1962 release and is now on the Criterion collection on Blu ray alongside the best of cinema. And rightly so!

***** out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 28- Dr Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)

As soon as I saw that this 1965 Amicus film was directed by Freddie Francis I knew that the direction and photography would be beautiful. And I was right! I was also excited as I knew that this was a horror anthology film and starred two heavyweights of the genre, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

As well as Cushing and Lee the cast also includes Alan ‘Fluff’ Friedman, Donald Sutherland and Roy ‘You’re a Record Breaker!’ Castle. We even get Kenny Lynch appearing in a cameo role.

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Travellers in a train compartment are joined by the very sinister Dr Schreck who whips out his deck of tarot cards and tells each of his fellow traveller’s fortunes. Each fortune told is a separate episode in this anthology.

The separate stories involve vampirism, a vine seemingly related to a Triffid that comes to life, lycanthropy, voodoo and black magic and a severed hand. I want to give more details away about each segment but there are so many brilliant twists and turns that writing any more would be like trying to tiptoe through a field full of landmines.

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Each episode is completely different from each other, taking place in a real breadth of locales and circumstances which keeps the film as a whole really varied and interesting.

This film has all the ingenuity of five separate mini episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. Each concept is unpredictable, genuinely ingenious and likely to surprise most viewers.

A joy from start to finish with perhaps the biggest twist coming after each of the characters fortunes has been told.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 18- Children of the Damned (1964)

A sequel to Village of the Damned which is less a continuation of the plot and instead like a film containing characters who possess the same powers as the children in the original but under different circumstances.

Whereas the original took part in a countryside idyll, the action within this film is based in London. A gifted child called Paul is studied and observed by the relevant governmental authorities. Other almost supernaturally gifted children are also discovered and brought to the city so that UNESCO researchers can witness them at work. They are brought from places as varied as China, Russia and Nigeria.

These gifted children then abscond from each of their respective embassies that they are staying in and take refuge in an abandoned church. It’s here that the authorities and the army find them and have to decide whether to try to coax the children out or destroy them if they pose a threat to humanity. It’s here that a tense standoff encroaches.

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This film as opposed to the original is firmly on the side of the children who we see as persecuted and in need of human support. The original depicted them as inhuman, devoid of emotion and empathy and very much as villains in a horror film. Children of the Damned elicits sympathy and compassion for the children who are shown as unjustly discriminated against, ostracised and treated as freaks in many ways. Having high levels of intelligence and other powers such as telekinesis are gifts but also hindrances. Witness the speech Paul’s mother shrieks at him that she should have destroyed him before she took him in her arms for the first time.

I made the mistake of reading the reviews for this film before I actually watched it. The few examples I could find were derogatory and very unflattering. They were also wrong, in my humble opinion. Children of the Damned may not be as good as the original film it is a sequel to but is still a vivid, well written, engaging film that is well worth a view. The shots of 60’s London are beautiful. A special mention to Ian Hendry (Repulsion) who heads a stellar cast.

***and a half out of *****

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31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 17- Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)

The head of a theatre troupe Alan (think of a cross between Charles Manson and Timothy Claypole in lurid and very colourful 60’s clothing) takes his fellow thespians (who he refers to as his ‘children’) to an island which is used as a kind of graveyard for dead criminals. He then assumes the role of a religious leader, puts on robe he just happens to have brought with him and  proceeds to try and raise the dead using his knowledge of magic. Whilst this (seemingly) doesn’t work they dig up the dead body of a man called Orville. However later on in the film the dead do indeed rise again and get their revenge. They board the actor’s boat at the end of the film.

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The director of this film is listed as Benjamin Clark but is in fact Bob Clark who went on to make the masterpieces Dead of Night and Black Christmas. Allan Ormsby who plays Alan went on to direct the excellent Ed Gein biopic Deranged.

This film has an interesting vibe to it that is similar to the counterculture early 70’s vibe of Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (but without the violence or genuine transgression). This is gritty low budget filmmaking that points to the drive-in but also to the arthouse realm.

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The colour palette of the cast’s wardrobe is like watching an acid trip with each character wearing a different very bright colour and when more than one cast member is in the frame together it’s a trip. In fact theres a shot in the movie of the cast members all lines up behind each other and it’s like a spectrum of colour. The audience members on certain substances must have loved this sequence.

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This is an interesting film but far from being some kind of 60’s classic. The title is very misleading also.

**and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 15- Village of the Damned (1960)

Mysteriously one day everyone in the village of Midwich suddenly lapses into unconsciousness. After a few hours everyone just as mysteriously wakes up. Two months later every woman in the village who is able to become pregnant finds that they are pregnant.  Whats more the embryos are found to develop abnormally fast.

The children look eerily alike with blond hair and strange eyes. They are also shown to possess intelligence way beyond their years. As the children grown older they are shown to be able to control other’s actions through using their ‘stare’ in which their eyes seemingly glow and hypnotise their prey. They are also able to read other’s minds. As if that wasn’t enough, they display a telepathic bond between themselves also.

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There soon develops a separation between the ‘normal’ children and indeed people of the village and the ‘gifted’ children. The twain very rarely mix except within their respective families.

But then strange and unaccountable deaths of locals start to occur in the village. One example is of a villager who was an excellent swimmer suddenly drowning. Another example finds the children causing a man to crash his car into a wall at high speed. The dead man’s brother tries to avenge his death but is forced by the children to shoot himself instead.

The children appear to have a complete lack of empathy, compassion or indeed, humanity. They appear to be complete devoid of emotion or warmth.

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When dealing with such entities it is realised that drastic measures have to be taken as has been demonstrated by other countries who have also shown evidence of similar mutant children in recent years.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you! The ending is a real shocker! In fact this is a superb adaptation of one of my favourite books (The Midwich Cuckoos) by one of my favourite authors (John Wyndham- and if you haven’t read any of his books I implore you to read some NOW!)

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Amazing direction, perfectly acted, a great sense of tension until the shocking conclusion. This film wasn’t just taboo then but also feels taboo now, such is the power of the material. This was remade by John Carpenter in 1995.

There was a VERY funny parody of this movie within The Simpsons with a new movie called The Bloodening playing at a Springfield drive-in. Have a look on YouTube for the clip. It’s The Simpsons at their best.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 11- The Sorcerers (1967)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 11- The Sorcerers (1967)

A Tigon film from 1967 regarding Marcus, a doctor (played by Boris Karloff) who practices hypnosis. His wife Estelle is also part of his practice as they search for a suitable subject for their experiments. Step forward swinging 60’s hip-cat Mike Roscoe (played by future Saint Ian Ogilvy) who Marcus picks up in a Wimpy bar (it sounds well dodgy, eh?!) Roscoe follows Marcus back to his house and his hypnosis machine whilst being promised good times with no consequence before Marcus uses the machine on him.

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After undergoing the hypnosis machine (this sequence is very aesthetically pleasing. Think of the inner sleeve portraits of the band from The Velvet Underground and Nico album with the projectiles of dots over their faces and you’re almost there) we learn that Marcus and his wife are able to experience whatever Mike is experiencing (but this is a double-edged sword as any physical injuries that Mike sustains will also be inflicted on the couple) with the pair being able to influence this by planting thoughts in Mike’s mind to force him to do whatever they wish.

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But with such an ability to control someone’s life there comes great responsibility and you will learn the controller’s true intentions and characters. Marcus becomes almost like an angel on Mike’s shoulder whilst his wife Estelle becomes the opposite and it isn’t long before she’s forcing him to beat up and even murder those around him. She even destroys the hypnosis machine when Marcus suggest deprogramming Mike’s current mentally malleable state.

This film is terrific but I knew it would be as it’s directed by Michael Reeves who made the similarly amazing Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm in the States). A fantastic premise, engaging characters but also very poignant as London life in the 60’s is captured beautifully from the ‘new’ of the hip clubs Mike resides in through to the ‘old’ of the streets, pubs and newsagents of everyday life. This film is like a time capsule and photographed handsomely.

The cast are uniformly brilliant but it’s the covertly evil Estelle, the Lady Macbeth of the film who steals the show. Her performance is astonishing as her face and eyes seemingly mutate and become more evil as her character does.

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A classic.

****and a half out of *****

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 7- The Haunted House of Horror (1969)

31 Days of Halloween 2020- Day 7- The Haunted House of Horror (1969)

This Tigon film takes place in Swinging London as we see a bunch of twentysomethings at a party who then decide to liven things up by going to an old out of town mansion that is reported to be haunted. The backstory as to why is that the family who used to lived there twenty years previously had all been butchered by a family member.

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Things go awry when the group decide to split up and explore the inside of the property with candles. Two members of the entourage are then killed with the rest fleeing the mansion in fear for their lives. The police then investigate.

The film explores an interesting conceit that the group members who weren’t murdered and escaped now have to grapple with regarding the murderer. Was it someone already at the mansion or more shockingly, was it a member of their group? Paranoia and ennui ensue.

The version of this film that I saw was a 2K restoration and looked gorgeous. The colour palate for the film is shown off beautifully with the finest in late 60’s mind expanding fashions being shown in all their glory. The interior design is just as ‘of the moment’.

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Frankie Avallone stars as the only Yank in the film (he also looks like he’s been beamed in from the 1950’s) whilst his co-stars include Richard O’Sullivan and Jill Haworth.

The kills are just as lurid, colourful and ‘pop art’ as the fashions with the blood being bright vivid red and very paint like. It’s aesthetically pleasing and reminds me of the blood used in George A Romero’s masterpiece Dawn of the Dead a few years later.

But whilst the film looks great and acts as a time capsule for what was going on in 1969 (albeit a sanitised filmmaker’s version), the rest of the film is a bit pedestrian. The police investigate, the groovy bunch decide to go back to the mansion to look for clues (!) and then the film concludes (no ending spoiler here). It’s mostly unremarkable with bland characters, not much plot and middle of the road dialogue.

A bit like one of the groovy beautiful characters in the cast, the film looks great but is quite empty. A shame.

*and a half out of *****

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A beautiful film but somewhat empty

Day 6- 31 Days of Halloween- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Day 6- 31 Days of Halloween- Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The ancient practice of witchcraft in Swinging 60’s New York.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into the gothic apartment building known as The Bramford. Guy is an actor who doesn’t seem to be getting the big breaks he deserves. That is until he meets the eccentric couple Minnie and Roman next door and then suddenly his luck changes. Could this change in his fortunes be coincidence or is there more than meets the eye?

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Everything about this film is perfect.

On watching this masterpiece again I really tuned into the themes of gaslighting, narcissism and coercive control that occur between the characters who have something to hide from poor Rosemary. Check out the subtle exchange of glances that are swapped between Guy, Minnie and Roman after the Castavets are told that Rosemary is pregnant.

The film is also about abuse and the need for the victim of that abuse to speak her truth and have her voice heard. The scene of her telling what she believes to be the truth to Charles Grodin’s Dr Hill is both liberating but then ultimately heartbreaking.

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Watch out for Polanski’s direction and marvel at how deft, innovative and revolutionary it is. The scene where Minnie is sat on Rosemary’s bed just out of view still makes me crane my neck to look around the door frame to see her more clearly. Now thats genius.

The film builds to one of the most unsettling climaxes in film history. And then the scene after that is is even more disconcerting.

Ruth Gordon’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever seen in any movie. The perfect alignment of perfect writing with an actress who was born to play the part.

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Look out for the cameo by William Castle.

I cannot recommend this film enough. If you haven’t seen it you’re in for a treat. If you have seen it then watch it again. You’re still in for a treat.

5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 30- Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A mysterious radiation thought to have been brought back to Earth after a space probe to Venus is bringing the dead back to life to feast on the living. A young woman named Barbara is visiting her dead father’s grave with her brother Johnny when…

This film has so much of a great reputation amongst horror fans and cinema scholars alike. Does it live up to this?

In a word- YES. Not only does it feel real (it’s based in the America it was made in and looks almost like a documentary) but you get the impression that the events that take place in the course of the film could actually happen. We are witnessing the fabric of society unravelling magnificently due to the disaster which has occurred. Life (and death) will never be the same again after this literally Earth-changing event.

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Hitchcock may have ripped up the horror rulebook by disposing of Janet Leigh’s character Marion Crane early on in Psycho when the audience wrongly thought of her as the main female character who would make it to the end of the film. But George A Romero goes one better in Night. Barbara is still in the majority of the film but is so traumatised by her ordeal that she is rendered catatonic for the rest of her tenure. And what a great performance it is- a mental breakdown captured on celluloid, a brilliant portrayal of a response to trauma. Watch the scene where Barbara comes across the music box. It’s one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen.

Romero also holds a mirror up to societal tensions and conflicts throughout the film. Duane Jones as Ben is the lead of the movie but is also African American- unheard of except when depicted by Sidney Poitier in mainstream Hollywood films that felt groundbreaking and progressive but also marginalised. These films squarely tackled race (and rightly so). But Jones just happens to be black and this is never mentioned in Night. His race isn’t an explicit issue in the film- but maybe directs the actions of other characters (check out the conclusion to Night. There are MANY different readings and interpretations of this. It’s the most shocking ending I have ever seen in a film and just as relevant today as it was back then. I actually get a shiver down my spine just thinking about it and what we see during the end credits of this film).

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Duane Jones plays Ben

But there are other societal echoes within Night. Notice how Ben gives his monologue regarding the backstory as to how he ended up at the farmhouse. Jones is truly astonishing especially here. But then watch how he reacts when Barbara tells her story- her account is no less serious or devastating as she’s just seen her brother being knocked unconscious after being attacked by a member of the undead during an event that should have been humdrum and routine. She is termed hysterical by Ben who tells her to calm down. Different oppressed sectors of society with equally disturbing back stories to tell but instead of each being given their time to share their experiences, a member of one group tells the other to effectively shut up. 50 years on, this film is still relevant.

This film also has a lot to say about the family of that time. The traditional family is under attack from the zombies (as Robin Wood expressed using his theory of ‘Return of the Repressed’). The notion of Mom, Dad and 2.4 children (possibly with an apple pie on the table) is no more. The new family in the farmhouse consists of disparate members of society who are forced together to survive against what has gone wrong in the outside world. In fact, in one scene we see Ben actually taking apart the notion of the family and the household from within as he starts taking apart furniture like the kitchen table to barricade the doors and windows with. The scene where the mother is stabbed to death by her daughter who has been bitten by a zombie represents the death of the outdated notion of the family in it’s purest form. The new killing and replacing what and who has gone before.

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Child kills parent, the new killing the old

The first time I saw this film it had actually been colorised but still worked. The thinking behind this colorisation was probably the video company thinking that all horror films made within a certain timeframe were ‘kitsch’, camp and unworthy of serious analysis or enjoyment. I believe the term is ‘so bad it’s good’ (vomit). I remember an advert for a screening of the film on the UK’s Channel 4 that billed the film as a typical 60’s drive-in B movie- cue emphasis on bad acting, rubbish make-up and all round tack. Wrong on EVERY count.

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It was a revelation when I first saw the film as it was intended to be seen in black and white. It’s actually a beautiful film with every frame resembling the work of the Nouvelle Vague rather than some Grindhouse fodder made on the cheap to be shown to the stoned.

I saw this film yesterday on the big screen. It was the Criterion 4K restoration and it looked and sounded amazing.

If punk is seen as Year Zero for music then this is Year Zero for horror and one of a whole slew of films that represented a turning point for American film in general.

Fun fact- this is the film on in the background when Harold is having a sandwich made in Halloween 2 (1981).

5 out of 5 stars