The Texas Chain Saw Massacre- 31 Days of Halloween- Day 1

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre- 31 Days of Halloween- Day 1

I first saw this classic when I was a late teen and studying for my A-levels in college in 1994. My friend taped this for me on the same tape as Last House on the Left. With it being copied from a copy the picture and audio were crappy but somehow this added to the experience of watching a film that at that time was banned in the UK.

Watching the film for the first time was a confusing experience. I knew that it was a powerful film regarding the horror aspect of the movie but I wasn’t expecting the humour that the film contained. It truly is gallows humour but its there loud and clear. ‘Look what your brother did to the door!’ barks the old man. ‘Get back in that kitchen!’ he then barks to Leatherface in a bizarre twist on the maternal role of the extended family.

I also wasn’t prepared for the surreal content I was seeing. The end dinner scene with Sally tied down to an armchair that literally had arms. The frantic shots of her eyes and indeed the veins in her eyes along with the buzzcut music that made up part of the soundtrack.

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The eyes have it- Sally’s hysteria

It took me a while for my brain to process and comprehend these components. I then came to grips with the films intention- these elements were like an E.C. Comics publication. If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was one of those comics then there would be a lurid illustration of a terrified Sally on the front cover strapped down to the chair during the dinner scene with face shots of the ghoulish cast of The Old Man, The Hitchhiker and Leatherface buried in a side panel.

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The armchair dinner scene

Indeed, Tobe Hooper has acknowledged the influence of E.C. Comics on the film’s vision. ‘I started reading [EC comics] when I was about seven,’ he told Cinefantastique in 1977, ‘I loved them … Since I started reading these comics when I was young and impressionable, their overall feeling stayed with me. I’d say they were the single most important influence on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.

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An example of an E.C. Comic- gaudy, surreal and terrifying in equal measures

The film’s beginning is a well paced introduction to the film’s upcoming events. With hindsight, whilst the build up to the first kill is well paced and crammed full of significant events you realise that this reletively gentle when compared with whats to come. The full horror of the ‘Saturn in Retrograde’ will be discovered at full pelt soon enough. The asking for directions to the old house resplendent with the old drunk/seer sat in a tyre on the ground, the encounter with the garage owner and the humour of the car window screen washer, picking up the hitchhiker and the first interaction with a member of the family, the rundown old Hardesty house with the spiders in the corner of one of the rooms, the old creek that has dried up long ago…most horror films would love these kind of events, visions and plot elements. The audience is already engaged and fascinated.

But then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre isn’t any horror film. With the character of Kirk entering the cannibal’s house a shocking chain reaction of carnage, insanity and psychosis begins. These elements are turned up to 11 and don’t drop down again for the rest of the film’s duration. This film has murder on its mind and will do everything to satisfy this need.

This movie is a physical, mental and emotional assault on the senses not just for the characters but also for the audience. The teens learn this on entering the cannibal’s house. But its not just the teens who have their senses assaulted. So does Leatherface. Hes just as confused, scared and freaked out by these strangers invading his home. But its the teens who are truly powerless and suffer the most. The dinner scene in which Leatherface starts pawing Sally’s hair but then invades her personal space by sticking his made-up dead skin mask into her face is intrusive, disgusting and violating. Tobe Hooper knows this and so turns this into a POV shot so that the audience gets to fully comprehend what the lead character is enduring at this time.

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In your face. The invasion of personal space and assault on Sally and the audience’s senses

At this point Sally starts gnarling, growling and crying as something emotionally primeval is brought to the surface. Its here that I’d like to celebrate the Marilyn Burns’ performance. Every time I watch this film her acting leaves me breathless. This feat has to be seen to be believed (like the film itself) as she portrays disbelief, terror, resilience and ultimately insanity. I realise that these are just words and do nothing to fully encapsulate this performance. How good is her portrayal of someone steered towards madness? Compare the end of this movie in which the bloodied, bruised and battered Sally is now being safely driven away in the back of a pickup truck to Dana Kimmell’s attempt at trying to portray insanity at the end of Friday the 13th Part 3. One is masterful, the other is half hearted and utterly unconvincing. The bad emphasises the brilliant.

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Insanity lived rather than acted. The greatest performance in horror history?

In fact, whilst most horror movies dream of one great performance that goes the extra mile, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has at least five. Burns’ performance is one. The performances of the actors portraying Leatherface, The Hitchhiker, The Old Man and Grandpa all pull out the stops and are batshit crazy and brilliant for it.

Another major reason why I love this film is because no backstory or explanation is given for the family or the events depicted herein. There are clues- the gruesome sculptures made of bones and body parts in the family home (taken from the real life case of serial killer Ed Gein on which the film is loosely based) suggest previous victims, conquests and adventures. The talk of family members being employed by the
local slaughterhouse and being the best at their job also suggests part of the family’s history (and their possible unemployment- the Hitchiker says that the airgun used to kill the animals ”is no good. It puts people out of jobs…”). The Old Man has a garage business as ‘he takes no pleasure in killin’ ” as is later disclosed in the later dinner scene. But there is no clear history given for the family or the events that the film depicts. This lends a massive sense of mystery to the film and gets the audience something to think about long after the film has ended. Explanation would kill this film as it would kill nearly all of the great examples of any genre. I just wish the filmmakers who inflict remakes on the world would take heed of this fact.

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‘Say (head) cheese!’ A family snapshot. No backstory, all the better for it

On closing this review I’d just like to speak about the availability of this film on home media. I watched the film for this review on Dark Sky’s 4K blu ray. I’ve never seen the film look or sound so brilliant. I never expected this film to get such a loving restoration treatment- but it has and for that I’m eternally grateful. This film certainly deserves it. This release is a far cry from the first time I saw the film on a grainy fifth generation VHS copy.

If you’re a horror fan and haven’t seen this then you can’t call yourself a true fan of the genre. If you’re a fan of film in general the same applies. Let this film get under your skin (pun not intended). Your life will be better for it.

Hanging On The Telephone

Hanging On The Telephone

The telephone has always held sinister connotations for me. I grew up in a time before mobile phones, when everyone had a landline and telephone systems were positively archaic. This primitive system meant that calls couldn’t be traced easily. This was perfect for every nutjob, crank or serial killer to call you. And this happened to people a lot! These kind of calls were a regular occurrence in our neighbourhood and indeed everywhere.

I also remember reading as a kid an article in Reader’s Digest about how everyday and seemingly innocuous appliances had traumatic effects on a few unfortunate select people. One involved a woman who always went into panic on hearing a telephone ring. This was because on answering the phone years before at her home she could hear her kidnapped husband being tortured.

Its interesting how this phenomenon of different kinds of telephone terror manifests itself in the horror films of the time. This is a further example of art imitating life and vice versa.

One prime example of telephone trauma in the horror genre occurs in the film Black Christmas. This film is seen as a forerunner of the slasher film as it was made in 1974 and concerns a group of sorority girls who are bumped off one by one in the sorority house they are having a party in before they all leave the next day for Christmas.

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Prior to this they receive a series of threatening and disturbing phone calls from the killer. In fact to call these calls disturbing is a massive understatement. These calls are so horrific that in the original UK cinema release of the film these calls were cut out of the film. Heres one example.

Another great example of the telephone used to get use is in the masterpiece Halloween by director John Carpenter.

Carpenter lovingly depicts a quintessential small town in America called Haddonfield in Illinois. Everything seems to be completely normal here in an almost Norman Rockwell type way. However the town holds a dark secret. Years before an 8 year old boy called Michael Myers killed his sister Judith with a butcher knife. And on Halloween in 1978 he has escaped and is returning home. And not to go trick or treating.

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The telephone establishes the normality painted by Carpenter regarding the town. Teenage girls call their friends to gossip and idle away the time. They also call their boyfriends like the character Annie does. Whilst their conversation turns to carnal delights the threat posed by the returning killer is unseen by Annie as she too busy planning an evening of hide the salami to notice the pale faced boogeyman who lurks at windows and to the side of open doors.

Here Carpenter subverts the quintessential everyday activity of calling a friend  or boyfriend. Just as the character Dr Sam Loomis (who presided over Myers during his time in a mental asylum and is now in hot pursuit of him) chillingly tells the town sheriff ‘death has come to your little town’. After this the viewer sees how the idyllic small town charm of atypical Haddonfield is once again about to be shattered and the viewer is made privy to this. The spectator can see the killer lurking behind Annie as she in engrossed in her phone conversation. We are watching the prelude to a massacre whilst the characters are blissfully unaware.

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The telephone later becomes an actual tool of murder later on in the film. As Lynda’s boyfriend has begun to act very strange indeed whilst dressed in a sheet like a ghost on reentering their bedroom she calls her friend Laurie. What she doesn’t know is that the person (or should that be entity) hidden from view is actually Myers. Just as she is about to speak to her friend she is strangled with the telephone cord. Laurie interprets this as at first a joke (she had received a call earlier from Annie which she had misinterpreted as an obscene call when all she could hear was chewing) but then decides to investigate further and heads on over to the house opposite where the call has come from thinking that this is another gag by Annie. Here the telephone has directly led to a characters murder by being used as a weapon and has also led another character to curiously enter the house where the murder has just taken place. Two birds, one stone. Almost. Heres Lynda’s demise. ‘See anything you like?!’

When A Stranger Calls was released shortly after Halloween and is based on the ultimate telephone based urban legend- a young babysitter receives a series of blood curdling obscene phone calls that get worse as the night progresses. She calls the police who try and fail to trace the calls to a precise location. As the teenager is close to becoming catatonic with fear she receives one more phone call. It isn’t the nutter whos been making her night of babysitting almost intolerable. Its the police. And they are calling to say that they have discovered that the calls are coming from inside the house!

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Whilst this plot device seems cliched these days, back in 1979 this was still pretty fresh as a film plot twist. It was handled by director Fred Walton with noticeable aplomb as the scene builds and builds with palbable tension which eventually erupts into one of the most tense scenes in horror history. In this clip the killer elaborates what he wants with his victim. And the result is utterly chilling.

This scene is interesting as the police are shown as condescending and just a little bit stupid. The fact that they don’t take the victim seriously only adds to the tension. The fact that they can’t trace the call quickly also gives the killer another advantage. The killer has a plan and is in complete control. He uses the telephone as an instrument with which to first destroy his victim emotionally and psychologically and then finish her off when he comes down the stairs. Two out of three isn’t bad.

The filmmakers knew that the ‘calls are coming from inside the house’ was so well known amongst American teenagers that they even used this plot device as central to the films advertising. They reckoned if audiences knew what was a major part of the film they’d flock to see the film rather than thinking that a huge plot twist was being divulged and stay away in droves. The filmmakers were right as the film was a huge success and rightly so. Heres a TV spot for the film.

Whilst this film seems to revolve around the scenes involving the telephone there is plenty more to love it. Its not just the first and last scenes that are remarkable. The killer is played with unhinged brilliance by Tony Beckley who passed away just after the films release. Watch the scene in which his character stands naked in a public restroom and gazes into the mirror. This is one of those performances which really does go the extra five miles. Unhinged, psychotic and utterly brilliant.

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Watch also the performance of esteemed actress Colleen Dewhurst as the barfly who has more than a passing air of Bette Davis about her. After witnessing a bar room brawl she remarks ‘I ask myself why I still come to this dump!’ This film is a treat from start to finish and is a masterclass in tension both in the direction and the acting. High five to the location scout too- those shots of the tunnel being built which are part of Tracey’s walk home are so striking and beautiful.

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A slasher movie that was made in the wake of Halloween was Prom Night (1980). This film features the great Jamie Lee Curtis and whilst not being as brilliant as Halloween its still an amazing movie. The film is like a heady mix of Carrie, Saturday Night Fever (or should that be Roller Boogie) and yes, Halloween.

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There is a sequence in this film that is truly nightmarish as the killer (who could it be?!) calls each of the teenage characters who are preparing for that nights prom. The killer is in a sparse room with just a telephone, a list of each of the kids he wants to call and some gritty mood lighting. Add to this a stern and truly frightening music piece for this scene and you have one of the most unsettling scenes I’ve ever seen in a horror film. Part of this scene is in one of the film’s tv spots.

1982 spawned a low key and little known oddity in the shape of Murder By Phone (aka Bells). A phone can actually kill people just by them answering it. A madman has perfected a certain frequency that can actually kill people just by listening to it. This movie is camp but also a prime slice of cansploitation that looks great and is played straight. Yes, it was never going to win any Academy Awards for that year but thats a mark of excellence, right?

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The kills in this film are really something to experience and here they are.

As the 80s progressed telephone companies began to invest more in being able to track where a call was coming from. A major device used by horror movie directors was now gone. I actually learnt about how phone calls could now be traced from personal experience.  It was 1987 and I was 12 years old. Whenever my father went out at night (which was a lot as he had just divorced our mother and was going through a second adolescence if you will) my brother and I surrounded by his friends would scour the local paper for ads placed by readers. We’d then ring the unlucky people with (what we thought were) hilarious results. An example would be people who had placed an ad about a pet that was missing.

Me: ‘Hi. Have you lost a dog?’

Person who placed the ad: ‘Yes I have.’

Me: ‘Is he an Alsatian?’

Ad owner: ‘Yes it is.’

Me: ‘Does he have a red collar?’

Ad owner (now getting excited) ‘Yes he does!’

Me: ‘And he’s called Rover?’

Ad owner (now beside themselves with joy): ‘Yes! Have you seen him?!’

Me: ‘Yes! He tasted lovely’

And this point I’d slam down the phone. Myself, my brother and all of his friends would dissolve into laughter.

I was on a Saturday afternoon not long after that my father spoke to my brother and I. Someone from British Telecom had called. They had traced dozens of prank calls to our number and would be monitoring the phone line for the foreseeable future. If the abusive phone calls continued then they would ban us from having a phone line. We had been rumbled. My father bought a phone lock (we had one of those bright red telephones with a dial where the lock would be fitted) and used it whenever he wasn’t in the house.

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Leave it to fellow lunatic John Waters to revive the nuisance call on film. His film Serial Mom contains a sequence in which loving mother and psychopath Beverly Sutphin calls a neighbour, Dottie Hinckley who she hates for being domestically inferior in her eyes. Waters rightly captures the mixture of hatred, dark humour and distress involved to making nuisance calls and receiving them. This is probably the most infamous scene within an already impeccable movie. This scene is like a lovingly sick tribute to the art of the malicious phone call. I understand your love, John.

There have been other horror films about obscene phone calls that were made in recent years but most feel contrived and somehow unauthentic. I prefer the horror films involving telephone terrorism which were made when the threat of such an intrusive and foul act was still a reality for many people.

I’ll ask you again- have you checked the children?!

 

 

Review- ‘The Blob’ (1958)

Review- ‘The Blob’ (1958)

***CONTAINS SPOILERS!!!***

I haven’t seen this since I was a kid and I loved it. Would this film still be as enthralling now that I was a world weary and cynical adult?

The film was made in 1958 and concerns a mysterious meteor that crash lands on Earth and releases a gelatinous type living organism that engulfs and eats anyone that gets in its blubberous path.

This film is gorgeous. From the nifty title sequence- tumblr_llg0briFQU1qbhsbe

right through the to the locations used-Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, US: Participants in the 13th annual Blobfest

This film is as 1950’s America as apple pie, Coca-Cola and hamburgers. If Norman Rockwell made a sci-fi film this would be it.

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The film also features the debut performance of a new young actor named Steve McQueen. He does a great job as the all American teen who is inquisitive, plucky but considerate.

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Whilst the movie and its characters could sound like some kind of 1950s propaganda film regarding the wholesome American way of life the film is never cloying or irritating. The characters are quirky, likable and engaging.

You get the impression that was made for the drive ins and indeed it was. When it was originally released it was released as a double bill with I Married a Monster From Outer Space. But The Blob was quickly given a release all of its own as soon distributors felt that the film merited it. It certainly does- yes its shlock horror from the 50s but its one of the best examples of this and aesthetically its beautiful. It also captures perfectly a time in American history that was truly iconic.

The actual blob could be seen to signify the creeping growth of communism which was seen as the number one evil in America at this time. The most obvious signifier of this is that the blob is bright red. Also the way that the organism engulfs and takes over its prey is testament to that line of thought.

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The films ending is also like some kind of wishful thinking- the characters in the film discover that the creatures doesn’t like the cold and so use fire extinguishers containing CO2 to destroy the monster. But the film is left open- there could be a sequel/reappearance of the threat of communism! Be afraid, be very afraid. In fact there was a sequel made called Beware The Blob in 1972 and directed by none other than Larry Hagman.

I wondered about the legacy of this film and if it was well respected in American culture and the medium of film specifically. And then I saw that it was- this is evident because it was released on Blu ray on the prestigious Criterion label in the States. High praise indeed and thoroughly deserved. This film is much more than just a classic movie- its a time capsule.

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Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- ‘The Warriors’ (1979)

Meathook Cinema Hall of Fame- ‘The Warriors’ (1979)

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I first saw this amazing piece of nighttime New York craziness on VHS like many other cult cinema fans. The first video releases here in the UK were the kind of films that were supposed to appeal to a young demographic and so action, horror and sexy coming of age comedies were all widely available and marketed with gawdy, lurid artwork. This made going to the video store such a brilliant experience.

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It contains one of the best opening scenes for a film ever- the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island all lit up with the darkest most twisted analogue synth you’ll ever hear over it. This film concerns the gang known as The Warriors travelling into the heart of New York to go to a gang summit wherein the leader (Cyrus) of the most powerful gang lays out a plan for the gangs who outnumber the police to take over the city. This would have been a brilliant premise for a film anyway but then Cyrus is shot and word spreads (via the guilty party) that it was actually The Warriors who are responsible. And so they have to make their way home unscathed. So already this film deserves kudos- to take a plotline and completely eschew it in favour of a completely different story. Inspired.

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The film plays like some very dark and nightmarish comic book set in the near bankrupt and life-endangering New York of the 70s. Each gang has its own identity complete with dress, hairstyles and, sometimes make-up (check out the uncredited gang in the opening sequence who are dressed and made up as evil clowns). I love the depiction of New York as completely crime-ridden and downright dangerous. The Big Apple is rotten to the core. This was also evident in the opening credits of The Equaliser

The film also depicts the danger of youth in the same way that A Clockwork Orange does. In the eyes of the right wing tabloid readers the teenagers of the world are running rampant and are responsible for almost every crime under the sun. This would also be evident in some of the Public Information Films from the 70s

This film also contains one of my favourite scenes from any of the films I’ve ever seen. The Warriors finally make it onto a subway train after having to literally fight their way there. This short scene says more than a dozen sociology books could try to convey.

The film was released and was an instant hit. It grossed $3.5m in its opening weekend. However there were incidences of violence between real life gangs who went to see the film. It has been noted-

”The following weekend the film was linked to sporadic outbreaks of vandalism and three killings — two in Southern California and one in Boston — involving moviegoers on their way to or from showings.

This prompted Paramount to remove advertisements from radio and television completely and display ads in the press were reduced to the film’s title, rating and participating theaters. In reaction, 200 theaters across the country added security personnel. Due to safety concerns, theater owners were relieved of their contractual obligations if they did not want to show the film, and Paramount offered to pay costs for additional security and damages due to vandalism.

Hill later reflected, “I think the reason why there were some violent incidents is really very simple: The movie was very popular with the street gangs, especially young men, a lot of whom had very strong feelings about each other. And suddenly they all went to the movies together! They looked across the aisle and there were the guys they didn’t like, so there were a lot of incidents. And also, the movie itself is rambunctious — I would certainly say that.”

The film would go on to make $16.4 million at the box office- far more than the budget it was made on.

Eagle eyed cineastes may have seen in the film American Gigolo that there is a huge billboard advertising The Warriors in LA. This appears to have been crossed out by another gang who have initialed their handiwork as VGV.

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This was actually a piece of cross-film advertising by the same studio Paramount who had a West Coast gang film out at the same time called Boulevard Nights.

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To go even further Paramount actually started showing double-bills of the Warriors and American Gigolo in selected cities around this time. This is a brilliant but puzzling double-bill.

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More about this can be read here.

Rather bafflingly the film was also a favourite of President Ronald Reagan. Did he not see any echoes between the nightmarish vision of New York crime and the real New York?

If you’re going to watch this film please look for the original version rather than the Director’s Cut in which the director felt the need to insert comic book style panels. Mr Hill- we all already knew the film was intended read like a very dark comic book. Please don’t patronise us.

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Turn on, tune in, drop out

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I’ve just heard thats theres a new 4K print of Jeff Lieberman’s cult classic Blue Sunshine that is being shown in cinemas in the US.  This thrills me for a number of reasons- firstly, its a kick ass film and fully deserves the 4K treatment. Also, its being shown in cinemas and so an audience will be given the opportunity of seeing this masterpiece on the big screen. Finally, the fact that this relatively obscure film is being given a 4K restoration is fantastic. I honestly thought that it would be the already recognised classics of cinema that would get this kind of attention and not brilliant low budget cult films.

I first heard about the film through my love of the pop group Siouxsie and the Banshees. In 1983 whilst Siouxsie and Budgie were getting all back to nature with The Creatures, Steven Severin and Robert Smith were watching video nasties and going on adventures of the chemical variety. The name for their group was The Glove and they named their album Blue Sunshine. I read in an interview that they had taken that name from a film.

In 1994 I left home to go to University in London. The week after I arrived I saw that the National Film Theatre were showing the film. I eagerly went along and was amazed at how disturbing yet funny this film was. A group of hippies decide to drop a new strain of acid called Blue Sunshine in the late 60s. Ten years to the day that they did this they lose all their hair and become homicidal maniacs. In the film this happens to one person whilst hes in a disco. Genius.

I hope this 4K restoration is transferred to Blu ray. I hope more underground cinema gets this treatment.

 

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I remember as a kid being obsessed by the posters on display outside my local Odeon cinema. And not just the posters but also the lobby cards underneath showing various scenes from the films. These were the days before posters were stringently censored in the same way that films were in the UK (and yes, posters were altered if they were deemed to be too graphic. The poster for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 was just a black affair as the original featured Freddy Krueger in full eye-splitting technicolour. The poster for Reanimator featured a severed head and this was also altered so that the back of the head could be seen rather than the face as it lay in a metal tray).

I remember some time in 1979 seeing this poster for a double bill of The Incredible Melting Man and The Savage Bees. I was 4 years old.

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The poster that made me lose many nights sleep…

If anything caused me the most nightmares as a child it was this poster. It was like someone had just told me that there were many dangers in the world and that we were all fucked. And I loved it. There was a darker underbelly to life and the door to that had just been opened for me at an early age by a B-movie double bill poster.

I’ve seen both films and both are brilliant. The Incredible Melting Man has a gorgeous transfer onto Blu ray by the ever excellent Scream Factory. But what has happened to The Savage Bees? If this was also to get the Scream Factory Blu ray treatment I’d be ecstatic.

 

 

 

Welcome!

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As this is a new site I thought I’d take some time to introduce myself. My name is Simon and I’m a film aficionado. I studied film for 3 years in London and am undertaking a teacher training course so that I can lecture in the subject.

But before you think that my tastes in film are constrained to the so-called classics of the subject I will have to correct you. I was born in 1975 and remember first hand the birth of video in the UK, the home video boom and also the ensuing Video Nasties controversy. I was lucky in that my parents were very liberal when it came to my viewing habits. The first two videos rented by my parents when we first started bought a VCR were Captain America (a cartoon version from the 60s) and Basket Case. I was much more interested in the latter and wasn’t disappointed. Its still one of my favourite slices of exploitation cinema.

The local video stores were my training ground when it came to learning about my tastes in cinema. Video releases in those days focussed more on the most graphic, lurid and sensationalistic movies with artwork that was just as attention grabbing. I would spend hours in these video stores salivating over video art that featured rotting green zombies, kickass Kung-Fu masters and blaxploitation actresses brandishing shotguns. In other words, I was in heaven.

From there I started to explore more films and even some arthouse movies. I also learnt about the work of auteurs who were highly respected. But before you think I was watching stuffy and boring old nonsense I’d just like to point out that the auteurs I’m talking about are people such as John Waters, William Friedkin and Hershell Gordon Lewis.

I then moved to London to study film and had at my disposal the best cinemas in the world showing all manner of the obscure and cult. When I arrived I went to see a retrospective of Russ Meyer’s work at what I though was an art cinema. It actually turned out to be a porno moviehouse. But I’ll save that story for a later posting ; )

My taste in Film and TV is eclectic to say the least. Within this website I’ll be extolling the merits of Public Information adverts, killer nun movies, gems set in women’s prisons, rape revenge films, animals vs humans shockers…the list goes on and on.

Do you love edgy and extreme cinema? Welcome aboard!

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