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 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 imbues 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.

There’s 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

There’s 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 both 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 are both epic in their magnitude to emphasise just how out of their depth the teens are. By contrast, other shots are claustrophobically close when needs be.

There’s also the kick-ass ending which was such a massive surprise when I first saw it that I was astounded by its 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).

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

Day 22- 31 Days of Halloween- The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

I first learnt of this film’s existence by walking past a cinema at the tender age of 4 and seeing a poster for the double bill of this and a TV movie that was shown theatrically in the UK called The Savage Bees (to be reviewed tomorrow night). Even the poster for this genius double bill of terror fucked me up psychologically as I was obsessed with the idea of the villians of both films coming to get me when I was least expecting it.

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I finally saw The Incredible Melting Man years later on TV- and loved it. It harks back to the horror films made for drive-ins in the 1950s. The plot involves three astronauts going on an expedition to Saturn (“You’ve never seen anything til you’ve seen the Sun through the rings of Saturn”). But something goes wrong and the only surviving astronaut, Steve West comes back to Earth to find that his body is slowly melting. We find out that to slow this down Steve who is now insane, must consume human flesh to decelerate the decomposing process.

This film is ripe for people to call it ‘so bad its good’ as if its absolutely terrible. It isn’t- and not by a long chalk.

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Yes, sometimes the acting is a little, erm, natural shall we say (the actress who plays the mother who stops off to steal lemons reminded me of Edith Massey from John Waters’ films. Yes, her acting is that raw!).

But theres also some of the best special effects I’ve ever seen which were crafted by a young Rick Baker. Yes, the Rick Baker who won seven Oscars (take that cinema elitists). The melting effects are very aesthetically pleasing and the scenes in which El Melto sheds an eyeball and leaves his oozing ear on a bush have to be seen to be believed. Watching a severed head splat on a rock after going down a waterfall in slow motion is also a beautiful sight for horror fans.

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Theres also a cameo by a young Jonathan Demme as the boyfriend of a teenage girl played by none other than Janus Blythe who played Ruby in The Hills Have Eyes. Her performance is brilliant. I love any character that goes mad at the horror of what has just occurred. She does a great job with her character alternately crying and laughing manically.

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But theres also a greater depth to this film. There are many scenes of West walking up and down hillsides with the sun setting behind him and with the sounds from the expedition in his head. These scenes show Steve to be completely alone and nomadic. West is a melting freak but not through choice and is so grotesque that he’s utterly ostracised and feels completely separated from the rest of the human race. These sequences reminded me of the melancholic piano music at the end of each episode of The Incredible Hulk or the underlying sadness to the TV programme The Littlest Hobo. The audience feels pity for West and his condition rather than his character being a two-dimensional grotesque baddie with no other sides to his persona.

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Theres also a heartbreaking scene wherein Steve reaches a barrel of water on his wanderings and sees his reflection that makes him cry out and place his head in his heads.

This film also possesses a scene which is the hallmark of a really fucked up movie- someone runs through glass. A nurse runs through a plate glass door after seeing Steve’s face when he removes his bandages for the first time. If this ‘running/throwing yourself through glass’ scene is in a film you know its special and that you’re watching high art. The scene appears twice in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), twice in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984) and once in Halloween 2 (1981)- all great, fucked up pieces of cinema.

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Any film that features the lead character melt in a great big pool of ooze at the end and is then seen being swept up and placed into a trash can by a janitor is A-OK with me.

The next time someone tells you that The Incredible Melting Man is one of the worst movies ever made tell them to fuck off. They wouldn’t know great entertainment if they fell over it.

Day 12- 31 Days of Halloween- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Day 12- 31 Days of Halloween- The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

In the 80s I was obsessed with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Because of the popularity of this film an earlier Wes Craven film was re-released on video in the UK. That film was 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes. I first saw the video for this release on a video store’s shelves whilst on holiday visiting relatives. Some of these relatives were born again Christians and so I don’t think renting a film about mutant cannibals would really have gone down that well.

On returning to York and away from The God Squad I rented the film from my local video library. I loved it.

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The film was then released shortly after that on retail label Palace Horror and so I bought my own copy of the film which I then watched with shocking regularity.

After these releases the film then seemingly sank into semi-obscurity again. I hoped and prayed for a DVD release that was halfway decent.

It was a long wait but this actually happened courtesy of Anchor Bay. I remember seeing the request that had placed on many film industry forums for a negative that they could use as the basis for a release. When that release finally saw the light of day the wait was justified. The print had been restored as had the audio. The DVD was also chockful of extras including an alternate ending that none of the fans of the film knew about.

Whilst watching this film for this review I watched the latest release- Arrow Video’s 4K Blu ray which is the best edition of the film so far. The picture is so sharp that Post-It notes posted on a pinboard in the mobile home can be read and the sign outside the garage in the movie can be made out. Hooray for advancements in film technology. Another Arrow Video triumph.

The-Hills-Have-Eyes_ArrowThe film itself is about a family who are travelling to California but decide to look for silver mines that are off the beaten track. The family’s car and mobile home attached to it swerve off the road and the family find themselves stranded. Unfortunately they also find themselves under the unwanted gaze of a local group of mutant cannibals who have grown up in the area which is used by the Army to test nuclear capabilities. The film then develops into a battle between the All- American family and the cannibals.

On watching this film again for this review the strongest feeling I got was just how outrageous the film is. It certainly goes the extra mile in terms of plot and grittiness. In fact the film goes even further than director Wes Craven’s previous film Last House on the Left. At one point during Hills a baby is kidnapped by the cannibals for food. If that isn’t pushing the horror envelope then I don’t know what is! But whilst the film and it’s plot may be extreme there is never a sense that the film is ever gratuitous or sensationalistic but still sets precedents. A good point of comparison here is with the godawful remake from 2006. In this original version of the film there is a rape scene that is signified by the eyes of the victim widening. And thats enough for the audience to know whats going on. The same sequence in the remake is much more drawn out, unnecessary and involves the victim getting her face licked by her cannibal attacker. And thats just for starters. Enough said.

Speaking of Last House on the Left, the artistic leap between these two films seems huge. The Hills Have Eyes is positively polished by comparison to Last House in terms of technical ability, acting and direction. However, The Hills Have Eyes still feels gritty, subversive and downright dangerous- like watching a renowned video nasty classic for the first time. Both Last House and Hills use their low budgets feels to their advantage. It seems like Wes Craven believed that a lower budget just means you adapt to this and rise to the challenge creatively without sacrificing quality. Both films have a documentary and realistic feel to them rather than just being examples of exploitation cinema awash with bad acting.

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In fact, one of Hills’ many strengths is the acting. As soon as you see the name Dee Wallace on a cast list you know that the film will have a certain level of prestige and integrity. She is amazing as are all of the cast. In fact there are pieces of acting within Hills that seemingly exceed the horror genre. One example of this is when Doug gets back to the mobile home to find that family members have either been raped, shot or killed. And on top of that his baby daughter has been kidnapped. His acting on seeing his dead wife is incredible and extremely poignant.

The movie also made a horror icon of Michael Berryman. Even the poster for the film featuring Mr Berryman’s face was iconic. Imagine seeing that poster outside a cinema in 1977. Even if you didn’t know anything about the film you’d still go and see it as the poster and tagline are so brilliant.

Another example of The Hills Have Eyes as a cult classic is that it is endlessly quotable. It also goes to show that they might be nuclear mutant cannibals but they have some great oneliners. ‘Whats the matter? You don’t like dog anymore?!’

Craven has some very perceptive insights to convey regarding issues such as the family, the relationships within the family, the differences between the two families but also the less obvious similarities between them. I could go into these in much more depth along with my other theories about the film but this will be done soon in a separate article about the movie.

For me, The Hills Have Eyes isn’t just a stunning piece of horror cinema it feels like an innovative and genre-defining film that is just as important as The Exorcist, Halloween or Night of the Living Dead.

The Hills Have Eyes will always be in my Top 10 list of favourite films.