(R, Cinevista, 112 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: April 15, 1983)
It's a rare but welcome surprise when a cult film manages to trip you up. Midnight movie masses tend to flock towards the most inept, most earnestly dreadful movies ever brought to fruition, so the discovery of one which actually is novel and assured rather than derivative and amateurish is something I celebrate. James Nguyen is a hero to the Rifftrax audience, and Tommy Wiseau has his own Ed Wood treatment thanks to James Franco. But I was burnt out with both Birdemic and The Room instantly because they don't reward ritualistic viewing thanks to being both hopelessly shoddy and thematically sloppy. They exist purely for ironic pleasure, and this is one of the biggest turn-offs I have developed in response to a world of online criticism where arch glad-handing has allowed mediocrity to thrive in the places where genuinely great films deserve to occupy.
Liquid Sky is a deathlessly kinky anomaly in a cult movie pantheon that often requires neon signs advertising a film's ineptitude to get recognized. It's safe to say Liquid Sky has osmosed itself into fringe appreciation, especially when you ponder the inspiration for such musical provocateurs as Peaches and Lady Gaga. But I have the hardest time trying to explain Liquid Sky categorically. Is it a new wave Ms. 45 via Paul Morrissey and David Cronenberg? What do I make of a glamorous lead actress who plays a supporting role in male drag? Are the performance art take-offs embellished satire or another stretch at anthropological authenticity? How do I deal with the micro-plots involving a deadbeat junkie husband and a Jewish TV producer seducing a German astrophysicist? Are the heat vision visual effects transcendent of their shoestring appearance?
When a movie raises that many questions, my instinct is to watch it over and over looking for my own answers. And Liquid Sky hit me with that laser beam, in 1980s parlance, relaxing me with its deadpan charms enough to let the film's casual cruelty and "fashionable" desperation swirl around in my mind instead of slapping me upside the head. Conceived by Russian émigrés in tandem with an American performance artist, Liquid Sky is at once inside and outside the nihilistic DayGlo pageantry of the post-punk club scene. There is heroin, rape, catfighting, necrophilia, and enough free-floating hostility to make George Carlin seem like a pussycat. It's also visually and aurally sumptuous.
Liquid Sky takes place in the span of one day, and Slava Tsukerman labors to preserve a more unique portrait of New York than usual when compared to its seedier contemporaries. The Empire State Building is viewed as a shrine in the glow of golden hour cinematography. Not content with mere aerial shots, Tsukerman manages fresh footage of an airplane landing and makes the most of the window and rooftop motifs. The city streets are reassuringly heavy with traffic during lunchtime, and there is a dazzling make-up session conducted under black light that epitomizes the richness of the primary colors. There is also a nightclub sequence near the end which is rendered more extraterrestrial than the requisite UFO, which is no larger than a dinner plate and inconspicuously settles atop an apartment building cluttered with empty bottles and crates.
The alien craft is drawn to the penthouse suite occupied by model Margaret (Anne Carlisle: Desperately Seeking Susan, Crocodile Dundee) and dealer Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard: Alice, Sweet Alice) on the promise of heroin, which upon injection stimulates a chemical reaction in the brain which the aliens harvest for sustenance. Or at least so until now, as West Berlin scientist Johann Hoffman (Otto von Wernherr) has gone from noticing the bizarre pattern of deaths in drug-abusing punk circles to finding a connection involving sexual intercourse, particularly the rush of endorphins at the orgasm stage. The defiantly androgynous Margaret proves useful in the alien's mission as she is exploited by predatory soap stars, professors and failed artists, all of whom wind up with glass arrows lodged in their heads and/or vanish completely post-coitus.
Margaret was once of "Mayflower stock" before moving from Connecticut to Manhattan to pursue indoctrinated ideals of fortune, going from the notion of marrying a lawyer ("And on the weekends, we'd barbecue...") to waiting tables and wishing upon an acting agent instead. These modes of subservience and blind luck are shattered completely by the realization of her newfound power of sexual agency, which isn't limited to men. With her already outré face paint and hairdos, Margaret reaches the depths of her alienation even before she is emboldened to snatch a naive mate off the Danceteria floor ("Be nice to your audience") and send him off to a euphoric oblivion.
Her roommate Adrian is made of harder stuff, "concrete mazes, stone and glass." Confrontational and vulgar, this child of a hospitalized mother who once baptized a fancy restaurant with her urine is more of an outspoken nihilist than Margaret, who still retains tokens of gentle femininity (even when she turns primal, she's essentially Fay Wray as King Kong). Though she talks about relocating to Berlin, the European hub of glam culture and creative freedom, nothing becomes Adrian so much as her decadent New York environment. Whether reciting a ferocious poem devoted to her rhythm box ("It is preprogrammed/So what?/Who of your friends is not?") or writhing sensually atop the corpse of Margaret's acting teacher Owen (casting director Bob Brady), Adrian takes to being one of the damned with sardonic, sickening relish.
Trafficking in smack, Adrian's most pathetic client is Margaret's boyish opposite number, Jimmy. He latches onto Margaret at the start just so he can raid her apartment looking for the fix he can't afford, and proceeds to act even nastier to her as they share photo shoots. Anne Carlisle gender bends in the grand tradition of David Bowie by playing both these rival models, with trick photography and seamless doubles allowing them to be within striking distance of each other. As Jimmy, Carlisle flashes a 1000 watt sneer and takes cues from the Bowie/Ferry image of the debutante, slicked blonde hair and dapper tuxedo. The heated confrontation near the end between Margaret and Jimmy, where she is goaded into performing oral sex on the spiteful Jimmy, has to be seen to be believed.
The interactions between Margaret, Jimmy, Adrian, and the overbearing types courting them (from cocaine-huffing designers and their catty underlings to snooty reporters) are highly vitriolic comedy. Jimmy mocks Margaret by referring to her as an "ugly chicken" and steps on her toes, and her sadomasochistic response is to flatter his enabled ego as "the most beautiful boy in the world." Margaret is constantly defensive of her colorful style, as when Owen chastises her for looking like a hooker despite his history of wearing blue jeans as his own form of theatrical rebellion ("You thought your jeans stood for love, freedom and sexual equality while we at least know we're in costume"). Adrian's eulogy for the horny professor is delightfully profane and bitter ("You dropped dead fucking! It suits you well..."). And when Margaret is assaulted for the first time by soap opera hunk Vincent (Jack Adalist), who forces Quaaludes down her throat to render her docile, she resists with dry gusto. Incidentally, I didn't realize until a second viewing that Vincent would return later in the movie when Margaret accepts that there is one more score to settle.
Luckily, not all the humor is that black. Otto von Wernherr is endearingly straight as Dr. Hoffman, who asks his colleague Owen "How can I study the behavior of this creature if it's on private property?" His failed attempt to warn the defensive Adrian of the alien invasion is misinterpreted as a narco threat. And when he finds suitable space to conduct his studies, it's with Jimmy's mother Sylvia (Susan Doukas), the aforementioned Semite who works in television and throws herself at the duty-minded Donald Sutherland analog with an arsenal of playful bon mots ("You have protection from aliens? You have a laser gun in your pants?"). These lighter touches are effective counterpoints to the vagina dentata exhortations of Margaret, whose sci-fi venereal disease may arouse connotations with the then-nameless AIDS epidemic which was claiming hundreds of lives as early as 1982.
Credit joint screenwriters Slava Tsukerman, Nina Kerova (Tsukerman's longstanding wife) and Ms. Carlisle herself that Liquid Sky, while unavoidably rough due to a filming budget of less than $500,000, is never stilted or cloddish. Even as Tsukerman and DP Yuri Neyman seek to dazzle you with their ace location photography and vivid lighting, the characters in Liquid Sky possess inner lives and aggressive personalities. Margaret, jaded as she is, is played by Anne Carlisle with a voice as enthralling as her appearance. Paula E. Sheppard finds the sexiness in Adrian's hippie-gone-hostile patois. And the snide monotone Carlisle adopts for Jimmy is its own comic reward: when Sylvia tries to offer him a ride uptown, he matter-of-factly states "No, I'm going down."
Tsukerman also helped out on the film's eccentric score, composed on a Fairlight CMI handily available for public access at a library. This pricey synthesizer, which was big among experimental musicians for its ability to program natural sounds as musical notes (think Peter Gabriel's fourth album and Kate Bush on The Dreaming), allowed for variations on new and existing melodies, sometimes coming across as harsh (in that traditionally fast, processed "new wave" style) and other times gentle (bell-like and carnivalesque at a stately pace). He even feeds spoken dialogue into the keyboard for added disorientation, particularly the point where Margaret is taunted by all sides, especially from Jimmy, at her last modeling gig.
Liquid Sky has been a hard movie to come by, but Vinegar Syndrome offered a limited edition BD/DVD combo package (3000 units total) which sold out fast over the 2017 Black Friday shopping weekend. Restored from 35mm elements and remastered in 4k resolution, Liquid Sky is a revelation even if you only check out some of the screen caps posted at the AV Club. Slava Tsukerman and Anne Carlisle discuss the film in brand new interviews as well as an Alamo Drafthouse Q&A session (co-composer Clive Smith is also in attendance), although their commentary track is disappointing; recorded in what appears to be another apartment room, there are stretches of awkward silence which last for minutes where it would've been better to revert back to the soundtrack proper. The best option of all these bonuses is the 50-minute Liquid Sky Revisited, which boasts a wider array of participants (Kerova, Neyman, Doukas, and many more) as well as the chance to see Carlisle revisit shooting locations. The nightclub no longer stands, but I smiled knowing that a Petco has taken its place.
Liquid Sky has fast become one of my favorite movies of the 1980s. Here's hoping this alien artifact touches down again in a reissue format.
(R, Warner Bros. Pictures, 89 mins., theatrical release date: April 2, 1993)
There's an old maxim about horror movies and thrillers where one's enjoyment is directly proportional to the grandiosity of the villain. How many of the most beloved hair-raisers can you recall which were as good as their principal antagonist? Die Hard remains a towering inferno of a popcorn pic largely because of Alan Rickman's deceitfully debonair Hans Gruber, whose propensity to praise designer suits in one moment and then blow someone's brains out the next brought out the fiery urgency in the equally interesting hero, John McClane. In the Line of Fire worked a similar magic between Clint Eastwood and John Malkovich (Cyrus the Virus, anyone?), and who can forget Hannibal Lecter even after all those inferior spin-offs? There's even poker-faced appreciation of such slasher behemoths as Freddy, Jason and Leatherface, mythical characters who were never meant to be relatable to in the first place. The Crush wants to be on that plain so badly, you can hear writer/director Alan Shapiro's back snap like chilled celery at his self-elevation.
His anti-heroine is certainly a familiar type even by the lax standards of 1993, where Drew Barrymore graduated to femme fatale (cf: Poison Ivy) and Amy Fisher was a gossip rag fixture. But what really got me interested in revisiting The Crush reaches past an entire decade prior to Shapiro's film (and the year before my birth date), way back when a TV movie called Summer Girl premiered on CBS. That Diane Franklin vehicle casts a large shadow over every and all subsequent film I will ever see involving a teenage girl whose sexuality is so sociopathic, it threatens to expose the adult victims as even more childish than their adolescent tormentor.
And thanks to Shapiro, I've never felt more confident about such a generalization in my entire life, because The Crush is just that shallow.
This has nothing to do with nostalgia in regards to Alicia Silverstone, who rode MTV's gravy train to It Girl super-stature on the back of this film. Surely, I can remember seeing Aerosmith's string of Get a Grip video singles ("Cryin‘" and "Crazy" and "Amazing") knowing full well that the blonde starlet anchoring them was the joint winner of the network's trophies Best Breakthrough Performance and Best Villain for her portrayal of "Adrian" Forrester. And I grew up watching Silverstone's career reach the heights of Clueless and plumb the depths of Batman & Robin. And once Blast from the Past with Brendan Fraser came and went, so did Ms. Silverstone, making way for Reese Witherspoon and fading into the ether of '90s kid memories just like Diane Franklin at the end of the '80s.
More important is that The Crush occupies that nutty boom in Hollywood post-Fatal Attraction involving that most programmable of stock villains, the Deranged Interloper. I saw it in Pacific Heights, The Good Son and a dozen other movies involving crazed lovers, roomies, policemen, and nannies. There was hardly anything subversive about them except for their vocation, concocting cheap paranoia among the upwardly-mobile who had every reason to believe their temp secretary or their fruit-of-the-loom progeny were out to get them. The Crush is the jailbait-next-door equivalent of those films, and as good a reason as the death of the music video to feel upset stomach at the rise of MTV as pop culture gatekeeper.
Alicia Silverstone's first-time luck is certainly more fascinating than anything in The Crush, including the central character. While MTV and Fangoria latched onto her star, nobody in 1993 was singing the praises of Cary Elwes, not even with the forthcoming release of Mel Brooks' Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a deliberate echo of the goofy charm Elwes demonstrated in The Princess Bride. The Londoner was instead saddled with one of the weakest lead roles in cinematic history, his "hero-victim" Nick Eliot being the epitome of complicit dullardry. A bespectacled milquetoast and journalistic writer of the teensiest skill evident, Nick nevertheless cruises out to Seattle once hired for Pique magazine, a coastal tabloid whose managing editor (Matthew Walker) thinks his investigative talents are esteemed enough to land an interview with a notorious embezzler. He finds suitable living and working residence in the guest house of Cliff and Liv Forrester (Kurtwood Smith, Gwynyth Walsh), but nearly mows down their 14-year-old daughter Adrian before setting one foot on their property.
Nick's apparent detriments of intuition and acclimation come into greater focus once Adrian starts making her play on the dopey if handsome writer. No review would be complete without mentioning that Silverstone's character was named Darian when the movie initially circulated, based on a genuine underage suitor Alan Shapiro had the misfortune of attracting. The real life Darian's parents threatened to sue James G. Robinson, thus the name was changed to protect the guilty for subsequent television and home video releases, including its BD debut from Shout! Factory. Soundalike actors dubbed all instances of the name "Darian" and an obvious insert appears at one point, although those who still have eagle eyes at the end will notice one slip. And the theatrical trailer has yet to be tampered with, either on disc or YouTube.
Anyway, "Adrian" (quotes will be dropped as long as you know who I'm actually referring to) is half of Nick's 28 years and the Valley Girl as bookish overachiever, with advanced knowledge of entomology, equestrianism and classical piano performance. It's hard to watch The Crush in any format and not see Cher Horowitz shoehorned into the role of a lonely, disturbed prodigal child, albeit one with a truly Californian hardbody Shapiro ogles in scantily-clad close-ups to the tune of Auto & Cherokee's "Taste," which was previously heard in the end credits of Stay Tuned minus the female moans. This happens after she has stolen a kiss and sucked Nick's fingers whilst assuring him "Don't be afraid of me." She even calls him up to taunt him with the phrase "I got my period," getting a rise out of Nick despite no actual puppy sex going on.
Teasing is the nature of Adrian's game, as when Nick sneaks into her bedroom looking for a missing photograph and hides in her closet while she disrobes for a bath. He bumbles further, she turns around and flashes him full frontal with a grin. Making a break for the front door, Nick is greeted by Cliff Forrester, who takes him up to the attic where his failed childhood present, a restored carousel, sits in neglect while he does the usual possessive daddy shtick with a pair of pliers. Forget about the name change: this doting fruitcake of a father alone seems more like a lynchpin for legal matters. No wonder Kurtwood Smith's insult of choice on That '70s Show was "dumbass."
When voyeurism fails to sway him, Adrian gets really steamed and scratches an obscene word onto Nick's snazzy car. Having screwed herself out of any future acts of endearment, she erases the floppy disk containing his deadline interview with the reclusive embezzler after having successfully rewritten his previous article. In the single most ludicrous moment of this consistently overheated film, Nick realizes Adrian's sabotage during a staff meeting, drives all the way back to his house, calls out for Adrian, wanders into the girl's candlelit shrine to him in the basement, gets duly creeped out, seals up the basement with hammer and nails, rewrites the entire article from memory whilst ignoring Adrian's desperate phone calls, drives all the way back to the office, and arrives with his salvaged article well before sundown. We see that Nick had asked his photographer girlfriend Amy Maddk (Jennifer Rubin: A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Screamers) to stall for him, and I can only assume that she performed the same trick Winona Ryder used to wow the troops in South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.
Nick sleeps with Amy, who is then attacked in her bolted-up darkroom by a hive of wily bees...erm, wasps (?) fed through her air duct in a plastic bag but reappears at the end looking just as Karen Duffy-ish as ever, if not more so. Adrian also promptly arranges the horseback "accident" of her best friend Cheyenne (Amber Benson) when she sees her attempting to warn Nick somewhere more private. Only after Nick is evicted, fired and arrested on a sexual assault charge does Cheyenne, who was clearly out of the hospital before his disgraces (and why didn't he visit her there?), does she confess to Adrian's murderous past in time for her to be tied to Mr. Forrester's prized merry-go-round for a predictably vicious, slow motion-enhanced climax. You see what I mean about the previous paragraph highlighting the film's piece de ridicule?
There will be those in the bottom-feeding world of online critics who will tell you The Crush succeeds on some dubious camp level. Don't bother. Not only does Alan Shapiro, who previously toiled in Disney's made-for-TV wing, fail to measure up to the entertainingly lurid gaslighting and dementia found in Summer Girl let alone the rabbit-stewing tension of Fatal Attraction, but The Crush is far less provocative and sexier than David Fincher's music video for Billy Idol's 1990 hit "Cradle of Love." For all her deliberate Lolita poses, Adrian emerges as another somnambulant psychotic akin to Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son. And the exceedingly passive and bland Nick is a torpid substitute for Humbert. Romanticism is evoked through another literary staple, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, both physically (a poster for the 1939 William Wyler movie adaptation) and verbally, but the contributions of first-rate cinematographer Bruce Surtees and veteran suspense composer Graeme Revell are staggeringly unambitious, tailored as they are to Shapiro's prevalent crassness.
If his autobiographical elements are to be believed, The Crush is at once embarrassing and reprehensible. Nick is a hack writer whose work is improved by the proofreading of a 14-year-old girl and who, for all his supposed snooping credentials, can't even creep inside her house without acting the fool. He seems completely devoid of moral confidence let alone common sense (these have to be voiced by Jennifer Rubin, who makes the best of her ancillary love interest role), cloddish qualities unbecoming of a mature professional and which hinder any genuine sympathy for his mounting plight. Cary Elwes' faltering American accent attests to the lack of real sophistication in Shapiro's handling of this mild-mannered victim.
Adrian functions in a psychological vacuum just as well, nothing more or less than a vindictive brat whose fanatical devotion to Nick is, as is often the case with these movies, skin deep. Proffered as sumptuous virgin flesh ("You can taste it if you want"), Shapiro fails to establish Adrian as a social misfit from an wealthy if unhappy family and instead ratchets up the pout-lipped pathology to numbing indifference. She's a prurient sop to male vanity who makes a handy punching bag knowing you're too stupid to match wits with her. And because Elwes and Kurtwood Smith are that dense, it's naturally appalling to see Adrian taking a hit which sends her literally flying across the room.
But don't worry about a thing. Adrian gets such great psychiatric care, they don't even straitjacket her so as to prevent her from writing letters to the man whose life she tried to ruin. And there's a friendly staffer who keeps the cycle intact for the open ending. At which point, I mourned tearfully not for the direct-to-video which never was, but for the Channel Awesome episode that remains to be seen.
Oliver Stone's The Hand comes with an equally auteur-minded reputation for having aired some deep psychological sludge from the toxic waste barrel of the mind. To be fair, Stone (already having won an Oscar for his script for Midnight Express) is working from a Marc Brandel novel, The Lizard's Tail, whose bitter aftertaste was too strong not to fester into the movie adaptation. And given the choice between The Hand and The Crush, I'll take Oliver Stone over Alan Shapiro in a millisecond. He directs Michael Caine to an edgy, volatile extreme that is more grounded yet cheerfully over-the-top than Alicia Silverstone was allowed. Tinges of honest humor shake up the nastiness, especially when Caine's Jon Lansdale, a displaced comic strip creator, pounces on a lucrative teaching engagement only to wind up in California's closest equivalent to Hicksville, with its redneck bar, doltish students and woodsy cabin home raring to fall down around his ears.
Sadly, The Hand has a ridiculous plotline of its own and even shakier execution that draws more from classic creature features than contemporary baby boomer thrillers. A dispute between Lansdale and his unfulfilled wife Anne (Andrea Marcovicci) over her relocation to New York is settled prematurely by the accidental severing of Lansdale's right hand. The appendage is lost in the nearby grass field, and Lansdale finds his career takes a similar nosedive given he's no longer able to draw anymore. His burbling resentments are reciprocated by the missing hand, which goes about killing those who have angered him. These murders proceed even after Lansdale relocates to his professor gig, and come Christmastime with his family (also including Mara Hobel from Mommie Dearest as the Lansdales' daughter), he's dreading Anne's killing at either his loose hand or its mechanical replacement.
David Cronenberg made his name on a similar demonstration of biological revenge with The Brood, but Stone gets it started only to shut it down with attack sequences worthy of Ed Wood and a mean streak at the expense of fleshing out a juicy pulp premise. It's not required that a film about a repressed man's seething anger over his dippy wife's yoga fetish and his comic strip's unauthorized overhaul try to be tactful, since it does achieve a slow-burning cauldron of rage deserving of spillage. When Annie McEnroe (Beetlejuice, Howling II) as lustful local girl Stella Roche, a checkout clerk who plays teacher's pet in a fit of boredom, gets strangled by Thing for her carnal indiscretions, it's like...sheesh, the slasher movie lives.
The sentient hand restrains itself by not wrapping its rotting fingers around the neck of Charles Fleischer as the opportunistic "collaborator," David Maddow, who essentially overthrows Lansdale with the blessing of his agent, Karen Wagner (Rosemary Murphy). This makes Stella's demise seem all the more queasy and sexist, especially given Lansdale's grudge against Anne's self-help guru, a stereotypically fruity sensitive man. Caine's egomaniacal loner operates on a level of mental darkness that doesn't mesh with the B-movie revelation that he may himself be the real killer, an expository dump which falls upon the lovely Viveca Lindfors, guest appearing as a psychiatrist and who is as welcome here as in Creepshow and The Sure Thing.
Oliver Stone sacrifices himself by playing a drunken vagrant whose laughably convulsive death scene is made worse by the lack of a zipper on the front of his hobo pants. Needless to say, this doesn't mitigate the bilious disappointment of the ensuing movie, which doesn't earn all of its male pattern paranoia. Michael Caine, for what it's worth, remains a class actor who brings measured intensity to his character and who isn't as shouty as The Hand's reputation suggests. He did more braying in the opening scenes of Deathtrap, a better film but also a more deliberately stagy one. My own memory of The Hand is inexorably tied to viewing it Joe Bob Briggs' late night cable show MonsterVision, where the drive-in critic was caught off guard by faulty censorship during Caine's most vulgar dispute between him and Andrea Marcovicci (The Stuff, Jack the Bear). What better endorsement can you give Caine's work other than the fact that the folks at TNT were so invested in Lansdale's meltdown that they let a couple of four-letter words slide? Top that, Vincent Canby!
Stone bettered himself easily once he finally got to direct Platoon (again for Orion Pictures) and Born on the Fourth of July, projects which needed an intriguing failure like The Hand and a couple of sideline gigs for Milius and De Palma to attain some gravity as well as the all-important greenlight. The Hand tries for atmosphere even during its requisite POV shots and it all leads to nothing. At least here, as opposed to The Crush, tech levels appear to have more finesse. Can you imagine an effects team including Carlo Rambaldi, Stan Winston and Tom Burman giving it the college try? James Horner on the soundtrack, Richard Marks' editing prowess and J. Michael Riva doing the production design? Bruce McGill and Tracey Walter in supporting roles? That's my idea of Hollywood catnip if there I ever imagined such a brand.
(R. Pan-Canadian Film Distributors, 88 mins., Canadian release date: Mar. 8, 1983)
(R, 20th Century Fox, 105 mins., U.S. theatrical release date: May 28, 1982)
I think it's aboot time I tackled some early 1980s Canuxploitation, including one which was a certified Video Nasty. And they do have a few things in common, particularly the presence of both Michael Ironside, the balding, scowling king amongst Canadian B-actors, and Lenore Zann, who managed to survive a career in trashy thrillers with ample amounts of voiceover work and Democratic representation for the government of Nova Scotia. There's also a lot of women being threatened with knives, if that happens to floot your boot.
If you remember that Black Christmas was a North American (read: north of the American border) production way before Halloween and Friday the 13th, then it becomes less peculiar that the slasher boom that was birthed by Carpenter and Cunningham was dotted by flicks which wore their maple leaves on their sleeve. My Bloody Valentine is at the top of my list, and David Cronenberg was undoubtedly a rising talent in the field. And then there was Paul Lynch, who was inspired by Halloween producer Irwin Yablans to make his own festive murder mystery with Laurie Strode herself in the cast, given that she was shooting Terror Train concurrently.
The result was Prom Night, the Canadian horror blockbuster of 1980 and the lynchpin for Paul Lynch's subsequent career as not only director, but also as a producer. So in addition to helming 1982's Humongous, Lynch financed American Nightmare in 1981 with Anthony Kramreither, producer of Humongous, to the sum of CAD $200,000. The film's producer, Ray Sager, was Lynch's assistant director on Humgongous and many of the other big Canadian horror films at the time, including Terror Train and My Bloody Valentine. Its screenwriter, John Sheppard, would be employed by Lynch again when it came time for Olivia d'Abo vehicles Bullies, featuring Bernie Coulson from The Accused, and Flying, which starred some kid who was in a lot of forgotten Canadian films from the mid-‘80s. I think his name was...Keanu?(!)
Composer Paul Zaza, the workhorse that he was, tinkled this out between My Bloody Valentine and whatever Bob Clark project he'd go on to score. And in addition to Ironside and Zann, I noticed the rapist from Humongous, Page "The Hitchhiker" Fletcher, playing Zann's moralist fiancé who gets interrogated by Ironside at the moment his girlfriend is prime killer bait. American Nightmare, which is often trumpeted as a Canadian giallo for those in the know, is an exploitation film whose topic is essentially exploitation. When the brother of a missing 18-year-old prostitute seeks police assistance, Sgt. Frank Skylar (Ironside) decides to let her closest friends die without any hope for protection. When said hooker's closest friend tries out for a hostess gig on a fundraising telethon, the producer demands she drop her skirt and snap off her blouse. And the truth of the girl's disappearance involves so many skeletons in the family closet that one of the more repulsive is preserved on Betamax.
The opening scene leaves us no doubt that Tanya Kelly (Alexandra Paul: Christine, Baywatch) the street name of teenage runaway Isabelle Blake, was brutally murdered by her last client despite a phone call warning her to get the hell out. So despite the Hardcore similarities when Eric (Lawrence S. Day: How Sleep the Brave) comes investigating based on a frightened letter from his estranged sister, this isn't Schrader. Tanya's slayer conveniently stalks about her squalid, graffiti-strewn apartment waiting to pick off her roommates as they return home from the strip joint they all perform at, the Club 2000. The cops are hardly concerned with the girls' safety, preferring to see them as the dregs of society, so they're easy pickings. Even the friendly transvestite next door, Dolly (Larry Aubrey: The Vindicator), inadvertently helps by not only leading the killer to the strippers' place of employment, but returning to the apartment even after one girl has been murdered there and the heroine, Louise Harmon (Lora Staley: Risky Business, Summer School), has fled after discovering the killer broke into Dolly's own room.
Eric, taking time off from his famous lot as pianist, comes to Louise for answers regarding his sister, but they are resentful of each other to melodramatically defensive extremes. Louise is such a hardened cynic, she blows off the fact that Tanya/Isabelle has been missing for 48 hours by saying "They come and they go." She assumes the blandly concerned Eric is another prudish scold and indignantly blows him off. When he tries to reconcile following the framed-as-suicide murder of Andrea (Claudia Udy: Joy), it's Eric who gets offended by Louise's decision to audition for his father Hamilton Grant's (Tom Harvey: Strange Brew, Scanners II: The New Order) telethon. Mr. Grant runs a charity program for needy children called Uni-Save, yet drove both Eric and Isabelle out of their childhood home.
Such a pussycat is Eric that he has to say he's sorry to Louise twice ("You come to a funeral to apologize?"). It isn't until Eric rips a mugger's ear off in self-defense that they both cop to feeling scared. Louise even treats him to one of her routines at the Club 2000 as well as something much better than a lap dance in a motel room. Now Eric has the sack to confront Tanya's hotheaded pimp, Fixer (Michael Copeman: The Fly, Gnaw: Food of the Gods II), for possession of the videocassette revealing what became of his sister that the killer is trying so viciously to conceal.
American Nightmare is the proto-Stripped to Kill, developing an endangered community of erotic dancers including a topless juggler as well as Lenore Zann's memorable Tina, who straddles a pitchfork as she absorbs the leery energy of the red lights. Zann, it has to be said, may have beaten Amanda Wyss to the punch as a blonde damsel-in-distress. The movie threatens to establish her as the female star by offering us an intimate argument with Page Fletcher's Mark, who hopes to marry her out of this seedy environment. Louise doesn't factor until the first scene in the ladies' dressing room, and even then she seems like an ancillary character. Zann has a tremendously fragility on her face when she scrambles for eyeshadow, ignoring Mark's further points of lovesick contention. And Tina's showdown with the killer in the empty bar, set to gleefully taunting whispers as she pops the safety corks off her stage prop, is easily the film's sterling moment.
Lenore Zann gives the film's most sensuous, compelling performance. It's no surprise director Don McBrearty (Coming Out Alive) recycles her devil-may-care stage show for a brief reprise once he's exhausted all other avenues for T&A. Second best is Larry Aubrey's Dolly, who play-acts as one of the girls without going the full monty and whose panic is the least pharmaceutically-induced and the most endearingly humorous. Lora Staley is charismatic enough, but poor Lawrence Day (not to be confused with Lawrence Dane) dredges up memories of Scanners' lead Stephen Lack in that all of his screen presence is contained within his eyes. As for the eternal Darryl Revok, "Mike" Ironside, he cuts his dependably imposing swath largely because the make-up crew have left untouched that blister-like scar above his left cheek. Playing the insensitive if gritty detective without that fanatical menace, Ironside doesn't steamroll over the rampant sleaziness of the rest of the film.
American Nightmare was shot on 16mm in late 1981 but didn't surface on the Toronto streets where it was filmed until March of 1983. Its U.S. release the following year was straight to video via Media Home Entertainment. Michael Ironside didn't get to capitalize on his Scanners infamy until a full 16 months later when Visiting Hours premiered theatrically with major distribution clout from 20th Century Fox. By that point in 1982, a Canadian import called Porky's became the studio's biggest success story and, as Roger Ebert once put it, the era of the "Dead Teenager Movie" gave way to the "Horny Teenager Movie," equally low-rent and just as heavily criticized for sexism but with different aims.
Produced by the same team behind Cronenberg's splodey-head sleeper, Filmplan's Pierre David and Victor Solnicki, Visiting Hours corralled Oscar-winner Lee Grant (Shampoo) and returning Star Trek captain William Shatner and marked the English language debut of French-Canadian director Jean-Claude Lord (The Vindicator, Mindfield). It was part of a brief blip of body count films located in hospitals (HalloweenII, X-Ray) and an even bigger trend involving adult female celebrities in jeopardy (The Howling, The Fan, The Seduction). But what gave Visiting Hours its everlasting charge is the fact that it was seized by those limey gatekeepers of morality and tacked onto that notorious list of 72 allegedly obscene Video Nasties.
Turns out they just didn't like protracted scenes of knives being swept up against the half-naked bodies of pretty girls. Go figure.
Grant plays Deborah Ballin, a firebrand telejournalist who is rebuking speculation that a woman who shot her husband in self-defense faked her own tokens of domestic abuse. Shatner is her pushover producer and lover, Gary Baylor, who considers pulling the heated debate to avoid a libel suit. And Ironside's Colt Hawker apparently works as the studio's janitor and is not too pleased with Ballin's crusade for women's rights. Ballin comes home to find Hawker dressed in her jewelry and mad with homicidal rage, having already slaughtered her maid. He delivers one nasty knife wound and jettisons her out of a dumbwaiter, but she is saved when Baylor arrives to find her crawling on the floor in agony.
Thus sets up, to quote Frank Cotton from Hellraiser, "the cat-and-mouse shit" to come, with Colt Hawker taking time out from his fitful pursuit of bedridden Deborah Ballin, who is awaiting surgery in time for her follow-up interview concerning the battered wife on trial, to assault Lenore Zann's frizzy-haired Lisa after picking her up at a diner. He also endeavors to menace overworked nurse and single mother of two Sheila Munroe (Linda Purl: Crazy Mama, The High Country), who catches Hawker exiting the building after claiming two more victims, including an old woman whom the resentful psycho subjects to first-degree euthanasia, snapping photographs of her asphyxiating face. Screenwriter Brian Taggert throws in plenty of pat psychology for the burly misfit, from framed letters spewing vitriol at every minority to an ignoble father who was scalded with hot oil when Hawker was a boy and now lives in a rest home.
American Nightmare and Visiting Hours are indeed similar films not just in the pairing of Michael Ironside and Lenore
Zann. They are both painfully outside attempts at sensationalizing
social pathologies, courting those patrons of the arts who smuggle
liquor in their raincoats whilst catcalling the nubile actresses on
screen and cheering on their vile tormentor. They aren't developed
enough for subversion or lingering criticism, kind of like the
race-baiting Fight for Your Life. American Nightmare threatens to undo itself with every strip club interlude Don McBrearty serves up, but it does have small moments like the ones with Zann's Tina and Dolly the scared transvestite that humanize the deviant casualties. And the murder mystery plot outline affords it curiosity and anticipation.
Visiting Hours, meanwhile, is like a glossy rehash of Nightmares in a Damaged Brain with elements of Peeping Tom and The Fan mixed in. The post-Psycho swath of disturbed loner bloodbaths seem to run together if you dwell on them too much, and whatever earnestness the film conveys about "repressed hostility" (which another pundit talks about within ear's reach of the antagonist) is moot given that every woman Colt confronts is reduced to whimpering docility by his sick, self-righteous vengeance. Michael Ironside is a fine actor who can freshen up a routine villain with some welcome sarcasm (Watchers) or playfulness (Total Recall) or guilt (Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) or glazed hamminess (Destiny to Order). But with one fleeting exception where he cracks in the hospital's basement, Colt Hawker is basically a human bogeyman, the Shape of Halloween II without the costume, allowed unfettered powers of access and infiltration not limited to Ms. Ballin's operating room. Nobody at all can deduce his overwhelming presence save for Lisa, who trashes Hawker's room in retaliation and notices Sheila's face enshrined in his closet hit list.
Hawker's methodical prowess, epitomized by his self-mutilating last ditch effort to gain entry into the hospital, is stretched to the breaking point even further thanks not only to incessant stretches of pronounced victims creeping along unsafe houses, but also the bumbling way in which he fails to finish off Ms. Ballin every time he gets into that hospital. It's worth noting that he fails to kill Ballin, Lisa and even Sheila because these combined blunders drag the movie out to 105 minutes, during which time Taggert offers a few inconsequential lambs Hawker does successfully butcher, such as a meddling nurse and a gabby fellow with gallstones (R.I.P. Harvey Atkin: Meatballs, Funeral Home).
American Nightmare, for as shoddy as it gets, has the courage of its guttural convictions, whereas Jean-Claude Lord and the name cast he shepherds are a professional lot who seem to be squandering their talents. Lee Grant becomes more shrill with every scene, William Shatner seems like a complete and total afterthought and Michael Ironside coasts on his remorseless death‘s head glare. Lord is a more competent cameraman than either Rick Rosenthal or Boaz Davidson, but his occasionally tense set pieces would've had more power were they not attached to Brian Taggert's redundant, rudderless script. Taggert would go on to write the cheeky man vs. rat flick Of Unknown Origin, which was far more assured and also boasted richer contributions from director George Pan Cosmatos and star Peter Weller, but he's also responsible for Poltergeist III, another by-the-numbers spook show ripe with nefarious plot holes and teeth-rattling repetitions of character's names ("Carol Anne! Carol Anne!") where a decent story should've been.
Putting aside its memorable one-sheet poster art, Visiting Hours should itself be hooked up to a life support machine. And after having reviewed it twice in my lifetime ("Lenore Zaan?" "Video Nasties last?" Jay-sus!), I suggest we pull the plug.
FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE
(R, William Mishkin Motion Pictures, 86 mins., limited release date: Nov. 1977)
Looking back at the Video Nasties outrage via the two SeverinFilmsDVD packages I belatedly reviewed, I find it to my eternal amusement just how seriously the watchdogs of public morale took some phenomenally low-rent, dreadful movies. Even from the clips on show in the trailer reels and documentaries, that something like Snuff could trigger extensive media pearl-clutching is boggling to my mind. It was all based on the fear of depravity and corruption in children and never about the quality of so many of these films being skid row deficient. God knows that if there were discussion of the filmmaking merits of Snuff or any handful of titles charged with obscenity, a real discussion would be held and the whole furor would be exposed for the self-righteous farce it was. The argument was never about the seams showing in these films, and similar seams in the parliamentary crackdown on Video Nasties were effectively quashed by a self-serving deference to "morality."
One of the movies I staved off watching for the longest time until those two write-ups were completed was Fight for Your Life, which is unique in the history of the DPP 72 in that it has endured as a craw-sticker since being denied cinema certification in England back in 1981. It has not been released on UK video ever since the pre-classified tapes were seized by police, and Stephen Thrower's enthusiasm for it has gone unheard in the age of DVD. In this case, as with I Spit on Your Grave and The Last House on the Left, the combination of low-rent production and down-and-dirty subject matter has awarded the film a shelf life beneficial to any cult cinema gawker in the mood for the disreputable.
But unlike Meir Zarchi's bloodthirsty "take back the night" saga of retribution nor Wes Craven's implicating if frustrating knock on Ingmar Bergman, Fight for Your Life taps a grindhouse theme wholly uncommon to its vilified brethren: racial prejudice. Though director/producer/editor Robert A. Endelson and screenwriter/associate producer Straw Weisman ladle on child endangerment and sexual assault for that extra dose of queasiness, much of the harshness pertains to wall-to-wall verbal abuse and the demeaning reinforcement of stereotype at gunpoint. Whereas Krug Stillo felt compelled to demand Phyllis Stone piss herself in Craven's flick, Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson), the alpha psycho of Fight for Your Life, gets cross-country mileage out of the many ways the epithet "coon" can be used against the middle-class black Turner family.
Kane's particularly obsessed with breaking down the paterfamilias, reverend Ted Turner (Robert Judd). Though he bandies about "Deputy Dawg" and "Aunt Jemima" in regards to mother (Catherine Peppers) and granny (Lela Small), Kane's ire for "Martin Luther Coon" is fiery enough to demand Ted do a Stepin Fetchit shuffle, firing off bullets at his feet in the manner of a Wild West gangster. Ted, a devout Christian who sermonizes "the meek shall inherit the earth" almost every time at the pulpit, is even brutalized with his own good book by Kane, who tests the "turn the other cheek" philosophy to its depraved extremes. Kane's hard knock life is the source of some psychologically-deep impotence, which is how Ted and Grandma Turner dish out their own spiteful retorts in the fog of Kane's bigotry. In a more polished movie, a genuine battle of wills could emerge in the way Ted is enabled to act on his primitive rage only to push his virulent captor that one step further over the edge.
The only polish Fight for Your Life receives is from the fine folks at Blue Underground, who've remastered the film to a rather distressing sheen. I got the feeling that DVD is not the ideal way to view a movie like this, which cries out for thick grain, frequent projector stutters and a rowdy crowd willing to receive the pervasive invective for its ultimate reward. From its awkwardly-looped first scene, where a pimp dutifully shakes down one of his clientele for heroin, to the show-stopping duel between Kane and Ted, facilitated by a feeble police squad who undergo their own compromising of principle, Fight for Your Life is downtown gristmill fodder all the way.
As his behavior should make obvious, Jessie Lee Kane is indeed an extremely dangerous fugitive, who takes advantage of the police truck transporting him nearly getting fender bended by cold-cocking and then shooting the officer who decides to check on him. His accomplices on the run are the Hispanic thug Chino (Daniel Faraldo) and scar-faced Asian bogeyman Ling (Peter Yoshida), and the trio make off in said pimp's ‘76 Mercury on a violence-dotted run for the border. A liquor store robbery is witnessed by Corrie Turner (Yvonne Ross), Ted's daughter, whose captivity by the trio results in the ultimate appearance of these convicts at the Turner household.
Lt. "Rulebook" Reilly (David Cargill) commandeers one of the least-interesting manhunts ever, grating against the lax local jurisdiction of Captain Hamilton (Richard A. Rubin), while Kane and friends make themselves at home under the Turners' roof until sundown. Two family friends are sacrificed in the process, done in by the hulking Ling. Karen (Bonnie Martin), the white girlfriend of slain soldier son Val Turner (Ramon Saunders), is chased off a cliff while fleeing the rapist's pursuit of Ling, who then bludgeons preteen Floyd Turner's (Reginald Blythewood) best bud and blood brother Joey (David Dewlow), who also happens to be the son of Captain Hamilton.
Perfunctory and deadening rather than unpredictable and relentless, Fight for Your Life isn't as distressing as Last House on the Left or the similar invasion terrors of Straw Dogs and The Desperate Hours. A sequence in which Kane decides to "teach a lesson" to one of the Turner women with some rope and a tree peters out sans any truly disturbing lynching correlations, thus Endleson and Weisman fall back on the gang rape of poor Corrie as the breaking point for the family. The aforementioned beating of Ted with his Bible is presented in fast-motion POV that ridiculously undercuts the brutality of the moment. And the film's narrative momentum is so hokey that when the Turners pick up knives during one moment of convenient revolt, it also comes off an inconsequential despite further aggravation of the main baddie.
Robert Judd, whose only other acting credit was in Walter Hill's Crossroads (released in the same year Judd died), is the one relative unknown performer whose ascension to vengeance is natural enough to give them film a needed edge of vérité. But the main draw of Fight for Your Life is character actor William Sanderson in his screen debut as Jessie Lee Kane. In 1982, Sanderson's career picked up steam thanks to roles in Blade Runner, Raggedy Man and on TV's Newhart, but until then he was counted on to provide hillbilly menace in films like this and David Paulsen's Savage Weekend, filmed in 1976 but shelved for three years until The Cannon Group salvaged it. Sanderson's performance is equally as rough as Judd's if not more so, and Robert Endelson doesn't capitalize on those "sad eyes," to borrow a phrase which Granny uses to taunt Kane. There's more pathos in J.F. Sebastian's silent elevator ride to doom than there is any moment Kane grouses about his lost manhood.
There's also rougher justice meted out to Krug and Co. in Craven's Last House than there is to the criminals in Fight for Your Life. By the time the tables have turned for good, one of Kane's accomplices is shot in the groin and another flies out of a window to be impaled on a shard of glass. The basic purpose of these exploitation pictures is to watch cruelty reciprocated by the victims with rabble-rousing urgency followed by stone silence, yet between the rainbow coalition of hostility indoors and the worthlessness of the cops who arrive as Corrie is plainly being raped, Fight for Your Life is the kind of nihilism which indifferently shrugs it off by saying "You get what you pay for."
(R, Eurocopfilms/Almi Cinema 5, 96 mins, U.S. theatrical release date: Sept. 18, 1981)
Find some comfort food, improbable as it may seem, in a movie called Cannibal Apocalypse. Despite its title being censoriously taboo for the British government, this isn't another indigenous Italian melee of animal snuffing, barbaric torture and "are we the real savages?" philosophy. Antonio Margheriti begins in the jungle, but takes us instead to Vietnam with a passel of stock footage that eases us into the ensuing wartime mission. Sgt. Norman Hopper (John Saxon) comes upon an ambush, replete with surprise use of plastic explosive, but blasts his way out and locates a couple of POWs, including his hometown friend from Atlanta, GA, Charlie Bukowski (Giovanni Lombardo Radice). The captive soldiers, alas, have developed a taste for human flesh, and burly black prisoner Tony Thompson (Tony King) decides to take a nibble from Hopper's outstretched hand.
Such is the recurring nightmare/flashback Hopper endures in domestic life, and things get worse once Bukowski is granted a temporary leave from psychiatric hospice and tries in vain to rendezvous with his former superior. The rebuffed veteran decides on a matinee screening of From Hell to Victory only to suffer a lip-smacking relapse while observing a couple making out, necking the young woman quite literally. Fleeing the scene, trailed by a biker gang hankering for vigilante justice, Bukowski holes up in a flea market and takes arms against the marauders. Hopper is called to negotiate Bukowski's surrender, but he and his cannibalistic malady refuse to be contained much longer.
Perhaps the purest action director in the gut-bucket genre lorded over by Lucio Fulci and Bruno Mattei, Margheriti tempers the grisly chaos with energetic set pieces such as the opening 'Nam attack and Bukowski's civilian battle, humming a twisted "Yankee Doodle Dandy" as he feasts on one of the bikers. Having gotten the most bang for his buck, Margheriti suitably deploys some top-notch FX work from Giannetto De Rossi (of Fulci's Zombie and The Beyond fame) as the virus circulates, with an infected nurse locking and chomping tongues with Hopper's blood analyst and another of the rabid survivors getting a hole shotgun blasted through his stomach. The way it is filmed, the camera panning the victim's face down to the open wound and then back up again, is the most indelible money shot I've ever seen in a proudly Italian gorefest.
Margheriti also borrows from Fulci the scriptwriting services of Dardano Sacchetti (in a movie full of Anglicized credits, his is "Jimmy Gould"), who tries to incorporate some vague biological rationale for the cannibalism as well as frame Hopper's torment within concerns of betrayal on account of his wife, TV news reporter Jane (Elizabeth Turner). It seems that Dr. Phil Mendez (Ramiro Oliveros) was a former beau of Jane's, and the good doctor even goes so far as to say "You should've married me instead." A tragic story of renewed love is paid off, despite wobbly characterization that has Hopper succumbing out of nowhere to the childish advances of the teenage tart next door, Mary (Cinzia De Carolis). This tryst is meant set up something more ironic for the last reel.
At least Johns Saxon and Morghen (Mr. Radice) command the screen no matter the war zones. Saxon was vocal about his soul-crushing disappointment towards the cannibal subgenre in a documentary included on Image‘s DVD (which I ridiculously reviewed on Epinions.com once upon a time), but it doesn't show in his performance. And while I prefer Dario Argento's Tenebre, in which Saxon was a mere supporting star, Saxon is credible despite the material. Radice, however, looks the part of a boyish case of shell shock rather uncannily and acts with crazed vigor. To rightly contrast their playing styles, just watch the scene where Hopper talks Bukowski (love that literate name) into deflating a tear gas canister with urine. Radice is no stranger to Video Nasties, thanks to appearances in Umberto Lenzi's Cannibal Ferox and Ruggero Deodato's House on the Edge of the Park (he was also memorably drill killed in Fulci's City of the Living Dead, but that somehow escaped the Brits‘ attention).
Given the low-key plague scenario as well as the original Italian title being Apocalypse Domani (translation: "Apocalypse Tomorrow"), Cannibal Apocalypse tries to find some inspiration outside of George Romero, conjuring Cronenberg‘s Shivers & Rabid as well as Francis Ford Coppola. Margheriti is too pulpy a filmmaker to realize such a fascinating mash-up, but compared to Fight for Your Life and many of the sluggishly sleazy Video Nasties I'd just as soon forget, it's not a total detriment. If you want to read into it a particularly lurid translation of post-traumatic stress disorder, with electric saws grinding up human goulash in loving close-up and Saxon fitting himself back into his old Vietnam War uniform to accept his fate, you wouldn't be off-base. Personally, I embrace Cannibal Apocalypse for what it most resembles: a large pizza Margherita with double the cheese and tomato.
VIDEO NASTIES: THE DEFINITIVE GUIDE
(Unrated, Severin Films, approx. 14 hrs., DVD release date: June 3, 2014)
On May 9, 1984, BBC2 aired the ninth episode of The Young Ones, which was such a runaway alternative comic success that it was picked up by MTV in 1985, before the American network became synonymous with original programming. Like a live-action Beavis & Butt-head, the main characters, spurred on by punk rock caricature Vyvyan, seek instant gratification from the rental of a so-called "Video Nasty" but are too stupid to set up their VHS player. Vyvyan even fills the device with dish detergent because the tape box warned him to keep it clean and free from dust. Long story short: they never get to watch the magnetic beacon of their "all-night orgy of sex and violence." The feeble vampire they outwitted with lethal sunlight rises from the grave to reveal himself as the tape's owner, Harry the Bastard, now set to collect 500 quid in late fees.
That program, which featured a surprise performance by The Damned ("Only pop music can save us now!") of a song written specifically for it, was how many of the luminaries who became horror scholars and filmmakers learned about the flood tide of Video Nasties, certain videocassettes for exploitation flicks that reveled in depravity and brutality. Though a few were of films that were edited for British cinema release, for the most part, these tougher pills to swallow would never trouble a theater or television. They were hard to come by until the VHS revolution became official. Lax standards meant that gross-out movies were coming out on tape in their uncut formats and with no classification, often drawing attention to themselves with lurid cover art that promised forbidden thrills. Teenagers would consume them as rite-of-passage ceremonies, daring amongst themselves to not be chickened out by whatever extreme violence was just around the corner, prefaced by an flurry of tracking-defying snow on the image.
But a mere month after that "Nasty" episode of The Young Ones premiered on British television, the horror train came to a screeching halt thanks to the unchallenged passing of the Video Recordings Act by the UK House of Commons. It was a private member's bill drafted by Sir Graham Bright which became law September 1, 1985, and turned the British Board of Film Censors into a de facto classification group meant to regulate the distribution of VHS tapes. Criminal law was leveled at producers, distributors and retailers alike to stall the dissemination of movies which the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. 39 of them were successfully outlawed, another 33 were acquitted and a list of 82 were classified as "Section 3" and, thought not taken to court, were subject to lawful confiscation and destruction. Only through BBFC approval could they legally stocked on store shelves, and the censors' board became infamous for going further than the cinema committee in editing for content.
The story of my previous review on Video Nasties: Draconian Days focused chiefly on the circumstances of the VRA's royal assent, specifically the quirky attitudes of BBFC head secretary James Ferman and also the black market underground where horror buffs congregated, often times beset by overzealous enforcers eager to catch cineastes with illicit videotapes. But I also retired my current non-NTSC copy of Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide to purchase the same inaugural three-disc package in its proper U.S. release from Severin Films. At last, I can finally revisit Jake West and Marc Morris' 2010 predecessor to Draconian Days, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape, as well as the same barrage of movie trailers and commentary from several of the participants in the accompanying set, including Kim Newman, Alan Jones, Stephen Thrower, and Patricia MacCormack.
Furthermore, I can address in more depth somebody who popped up in the last review yet is important to me because he was the only person on the defense against the Conservative politicians and lobbyists who rammed the VPA down Parliamentary halls. His name is Martin Barker, who I referenced in tandem with Alex Chandon, the shot-on-video gorehound who made a talk show appearance where he was basically drowned out by the overbearing forces of reaction. It happened also to Mr. Barker, but when he got shouted down, it really does feel more like a gut punch than I could have anticipated watching the doco for the first time in years.
Martin Barker is now the emeritus professor at Aberystwyth University's film/television/stage department, but in 1983, he was another academic doing research on the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act 1955 and found a phrase (and other linguistic choices) which shared eerie similarities to the moral panic over Video Nasties in The Sunday Times: "Seduction of the Innocent." It was the name of a book by psychologist Fredric Wertham which was essentially propaganda stating that comic books published by DC and EC were the root of juvenile delinquency and aberrant sexuality. Werthem's views, which were duly challenged decades later when his findings went public, gave American congress and British parliament both the impetus for imposing restrictive, censoring regulations on publishers. In America, the Comics Code Authority was put in place to sanitize the content of pulp comics to often ridiculous extremes, and it successfully drove William Gaines into devoting himself full-time to Mad magazine to buck the Code.
Almost 40 years since the Harmful Publications Act, and with Margaret Thatcher's campaign promises amounting to nil, independent video stores which were cropping up at every gas station and candy shop were suddenly placed in the same position as the comic book merchants. The Helen Lovejoys of England, led by Mary Whitehouse, appropriated the label of Video Nasties as seen in the papers as did inspectors assigned to mass murders of ponies. Police raids became a recurring grievance and often times hilariously misguided, because the flexible definition of obscenity caused lawmen to presume pornographic intent in such movies as Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One and the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton musical comedy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The official DPP list of problem titles wasn't published for a while nor was it consulted by the BBFC, although James Ferman is quoted as having led the campaign to bring certain titles to the attention of Tony Hetherington.
What gives Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape such a fascinating, disturbing charge is, once again, the chance to hear from all sides of the debate. Whereas Ferman was given ample room in Draconian Days, this time the designated villain is MP Graham Bright, and even he doesn't seem so mustache-swirling compared to someone like Dr. Clifford Hill. In Martin Barker's findings, as well as his communication with Oxford Polytechnic's Brian Brown, ongoing research that Bright was certain will prove the negative affects of Video Nasties on children and dogs(!) were the results of Dr. Hill's sabotage against the Oxford staff and fabrication of the statistic that 40% of children had seen a Video Nasty. Bright still sees himself on the right side of history, but he was one of many gullible dolts who fell for the huckster's line regarding Snuff, one of the most infamous of the Nasties.
Snuff, as is well known amongst trash aficionados, was producer Allan Shackleton's retcon of Michael & Roberta Findlay's (The) Slaughter, an unmarketable Charlie Manson cash-in made in Argentina, 1971, and then shelved until 1975, resurfacing with an alternate ending which purported to show the crew of the Findlays' film murdering a girl for real. The immortal tagline used to promote it, inspired by urban legend, claimed that it was "made in South America, where life is cheap!" Such a trick was exposed as the hoax it was in Variety and the New York Times, not to mention the plainly visible amateur qualities of the "authentic" kill scene. but the snuff movie myth persisted and soon it was seen as a job for Scotland Yard. 1978's Faces of Death was another lynchpin for the "Nasty snuff" controversy, made all the more thorny because it was an American mondo mock-documentary (trigger alert: genuine animal killings and Holocaust atrocity newsreel) where people couldn't tell, or didn't even bother to tell for the sake of their crusade, where the stock footage ended and the re-enactments began.
Jake West and Marc Morris are clearly on the side of Martin Barker, who gives an impassioned closing remark that rings all the more true in this modern American political climate. They allow Stephen Thrower's palpable disgust over the insanity of the "British island mentality" obsessed with perceived contagion to bounce off Kim Newman's equally piercing observation on the incriminatingly gory cover art: "Did the ad people really not see where this was going to end?" While future creative types such as Neil Marshall, Christopher Smith and Andy Nyman reminisce on their childhood exposure to Nasties with warmth and humor, the sad truth is that Go Video, in a misguided bid for provocateur's publicity, sent Mary Whitehouse a copy of Cannibal Holocaust and apparently blew the lid off this Pandora's box of fanatical paranoia and draconian intervention. What the hell were they thinking in a clime when James "God's Cop" Anderton was the chief constable of Manchester?
I have to find some amusement, too, in the way Neil Marshall and Andy Nyman enshrine their first encounters with Meir Zarchi's notorious I Spit on Your Grave. Nyman, who is Jewish and wound up feeling offended by the Nazisploitation on show, also recalls being drawn to the yellow-bordered replication of the poster art for Zarchi's film, with its "sexy woman's arse" and the clutched knife and the threats of cutting, chopping, breaking, and burning four men (plus a mysterious fifth in the original adverts, including the trailer) beyond recognition. Marshall was so devastated that he refused to revisit it ever since he caught the Nasty taxi: "It might ruin the effect it had on me at the time." He even goes so far as to mourn the innocence of those dodgy tape dubs by criticizing A Serbian Film for its clean photography.
The jury is still out on whether A Serbian Film is the new Last Houseon the Left or the new Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The latter was viewed by Derek Malcolm, film critic for The Guardian, in preparation for a court trial where he claimed Romano Scavolini's eternally lousy slasher film was "well executed." The judge's response: "Well executed?! The German invasion of Belgium was well executed!" Nightmares' UK video distributor, David Hamilton Grant, was imprisoned for a year after releasing a gorier edit of the film instead of cinema-approved version. As Grant‘s lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, states "The problem with censorship test cases [is] they're never very good examples of the material." Well, there was one exception: Palace Video's Stephen Woolley and Nik Powell scored a coup in releasing Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead simultaneously in theaters and on video, where it became biggest-selling release of 1983, and then fought successfully against its prosecution.
The battle for Raimi's brilliant spam-in-a-cabin debut was won, but the war ended up feeling lost, regardless. The Tories were going around with sizzle reels of the most tasteless moments from the Nasties list as instant recruitment tools. None of them ever screened all of the movies in full, operating purely on upper class sanctimony and political gain. Poor Martin Barker, who has his say to disquieting effect in the 21st century, was earnestly trying to rise above the hysteria of the moral majority in the hope that at least 5% of the audience would come to some reasonable epiphany. Cuts, cuts, cuts were made to the very raisons d'être for these sensational bombardments, reducing them to the dreary piffle they actually were. And the Video Recordings Act of 1984, which we come to learn wasn't even sanctioned properly, meted out cruel punishment to the fledgling local retailers, hitting them with fines and prison terms before eventually doing away with them in pure oligarchic fashion by instigating the pricey classification process.
Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape manages to pole vault over the lowly yet high bar of nostalgia and land on the back mat of relevancy. Once you get past such gimmicky touches as digitally-enhanced VHS-style defects and at least one rather suspect personality in the clutch of genre specialists (more on that momentarily), the film is likely to invoke cries of "Never again!" in even the least seasoned horror buff. Though I have seen a great deal, if not all, of the 72 Video Nasties in my lifetime, nothing in those films is as unsettling as the ways in which a doddering, duplicitous coalition of wolves and sheep turned what has always been a socially harmless pastime into a scapegoat.
The first disc of the Video Nasties: The Definitive Guide package contains the fittingly 72-minute feature proper (albeit with no captioning or alternate language options), a motion gallery for the 82 "Section 3" Video Nasties and nearly an hour's worth of vintage UK video company idents/logos that will come as a surprise to many American viewers who can describe the Media Home Entertainment graphic from memory ("bawomp-bomp-bomp"). Disc two presents original trailers for the "Final 39," those movies which were considered violations of the Obscene Publications Act, and disc three corrals trailers for the "Dropped 33." Virtually all of these films have been released on UK DVD uncut as of 2017, with a few exceptions due to taboo content (I Spit on Your Grave, Deep River Savages, Faces of Death) and a dozen plus others merely down to lack of proper re-releases (Frozen Scream, Nightmare Maker, the cinema-barred Fight for Your Life). Only Love Camp 7 was denied a video certificate in the 2000s and was never advocated further like Last House on the Left.
The main theme throughout a huge swath of the original "DPP 72" is that they were, at their very core, rip-offs. Often times to the wary consumer looking to indulge their yen for ultra-violence, often times they were dopey, shoddy capitalization on a worthier, trend-setting title. Many still found amusement in the latter, naturally, but you can spot plenty of films that wouldn't have existed without Alien, Dawn of the Dead, Last House on the Left, The Night Porter, Halloween, and/or Friday the 13th. The Video Nasties became so popular as a result of major distributors being too pricey or afraid of piracy, and their reputations were sealed thanks to the outraged publicity. Every once in a while, you get a director like Tobe Hooper, Dario Argento or even Ruggero Deodato who managed to go beyond the call of duty. There's a lot of Joe D'Amato, Jess Franco and Lucio Fulci on the list, as well. These names are certainly disreputable but also phenomenal cult figures, too.
So on we go, through the dense fog of cannibalistic creature features, Third Reich torture shows and ample supply of slashers and body snatchers. You'll get Fight for Your Life, starring William Sanderson as a racist fugitive who invades the home of Christian blacks and makes sport of degrading the father. There's Ursula Andress doused in honey, as befitting her most famous role in Dr. No, to appease the Cannibal God. Clint Howard? Rachel Ward? William Shatner? Gratuitous Giovanni Lombardo Radice (a.k.a. John Morghen)? We got ‘em. The chintzy Herschell Gordon Lewis touchstone Blood Feast? The early Weinstein production that was like a rash on 1981? A supernatural shocker from a Fassbinder collaborator as well as the horrendously cheap sequel which leeches long stretches footage from its source? All these, plus countless oddities which have since been given lavish reissue treatment from Arrow Video, such as Eaten Alive, The Slayer, Contamination, Island of Death, and The Witch Who from the Sea.
The introductions to the 72 trailers, or at least the ones handled by the most revered horror writers, break down fairly easy like on the second Definitive Guide. Alan Jones emcees a lot of the Italian titles (Antropophagus, The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, Zombie Flesh Eaters), Stephen Thrower scores the Jess Franco leads (Bloody Moon, Devil Hunter) in between singing the praises of Andy Milligan and S.F. Brownrigg and Kim Newman will show up periodically for a slasher (Pranks, The Burning, Terror Eyes) or a major (Last House on the Left, Bay of Blood, Snuff). Old friend Patricia MacCormack has more to do here than last time, and the names not found in the earlier set but who chime in here include biographer Brad Stevens (who discusses Tobe Hooper and Abel Ferrara), professor Julian Petley (who dominates Cannibal Holocaust and the Video Nazties), Dark Side editor Allan Bryce (who contributes short, sharp shots at Cannibal Ferox, Don't Go Near the Park and The Toolbox Murders among others), and Birmingham buff Xavier Mendik (he does a fine job with I Spit on Your Grave, Dead & Buried and Unhinged).
Nucleus Films' Marc Morris and particularly Emily Booth feel like the oddest ducks in the gallery. Morris seemed to be at ease during the intros found on the Draconian Days set, but this time I felt he was working off a script when it came time to discuss Mardi Gras Massacre and Cannibal Terror, which is the second worst cannibal movie he's been tasked with next to Jess Franco's Cannibals from the Section 3 catalogue. He's essentially reciting full plot synopses of the kind you'd find on some of those collective VHS tapes' backsides. That suspicion is definitely true of Ms. Booth, who gives the set some minor sex appeal at the expense of credibility. Her intros to The Werewolf & The Yeti, Visiting Hours and Killer Nun provide the kind of over-pronounced TV hostess presence where you can surmise she's reading the trivia off cue cards. I pined for the Katarina Leigh Waters bookends from those Scorpion Releasing DVDs.
On the plus side, Stephen Thrower has more of an opportunity here to animate his enthusiasm. He's particularly amused by one technical note found in the screenplay of Andy Milligan's Blood Rites (The Ghastly Ones) and latches onto a ridiculous line of dialogue from Bloody Moon: "I bet he's never even made it with a girl, the phony Spanish lover!" He's still the most outwardly knowledgeable voice to be found, and among his many highlights are appraisals of Frederick Friedel's Axe and Andrzej Zulawski's Possession, starring Cannes' Best Actress of 1981, Isabelle Adjani, and featuring FX work from Carlo Rambaldi. Alan Jones shares press show memorabilia and biographical details pertaining to certain movies, as well as a disastrous introduction to Lucio Fulci on the set of one early 1980s project. His comments on Scavolini's Nightmare are to the point ("quite misogynistic, very trashy") and he stands up again for Antonio Margheriti in the form of Cannibal Apocalypse. And Kim Newman is as spirited as ever, talking about one particular "hand grenade of a movie" as well as such tripe as Don't Go in the Woods and Frozen Scream, which was on the prosecuted list for two months, the second shortest span next to Unhinged. He also shares the 10 minute precursor to the trailer for Cannibal Holocaust, the longest intro of them all, with Julian Petley and director Ruggero Deodato himself, who returns for House on the Edge of the Park opposite Xavier Mendik.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the one person whose academic verbosity left me a little dumbfounded, if not outright skeptical. That is, oddly enough, Patricia MacCormack, one of the secret weapons of the Draconian Days package. Never have I felt the gulf between scholarly interpretation and critical thinking blown wider apart than when listening to her mount peculiar defenses of Boogeyman II and Bruno Mattei's Zombie Creeping Flesh (Hell of the Living Dead). Given her humor in talking about a peculiar side effect of gorilla blood in Night of the Bloody Apes and her true-blue fandom in regards to Fulci's The Beyond, I don't know if I can fully agree with the shameless appropriations of Mattei's film (wildlife stock footage, Goblin soundtrack on loan from Dawn of the Dead) as merely a "greatest hits of Italian cinema" or the way Bogeyman I dominates Bogeyman II to offer a fresh reinterpretation of existing footage. It's one thing to bring up artistic pretension in regards to The Witch Who Came from the Sea, the other to turn a blind eye to the abysmal filmmaking of Boogeyman II and Zombie Creeping Flesh in order to find an accidental kernel of significance. What I ultimately glean from MacCormack's thoughts on those two, which aren't all that "well executed" when you get right down to it, is that Grade Z cinema is being elevated merely to Grade Y.
Final tho...Don't Go in the House! Oh, you did? Well, then Don't Open the Window!
You didn't listen. Again. Don't Look in the Basement! Goddamnit!! Fine.
Don't go for Don't Go in the Woods! Thank you. You chose wisely for
once. Now you take care of popcorn duties while I put in this VHS copy
of Night of the Demon.