Halloween is my favourite time of year so October becomes a marathon of horror, discovering new gems and revisiting old favourites. Here are a list of eight films which don’t get enough love, which don’t often feature on recommended lists, but most definitely should.
Silver Bullet (1985)
Stephen King once claimed – in the hilarious trailer for his only writer/directorial effort, Maximum Overdrive – that nobody does Stephen King right. I’m not sure what that says about his marriage, but generally it’s true that feature adaptations written by the man himself turn out better. One such example is the wonderful Silver Bullet, based on a collaborative work with artist Bernie Wrightson titled Cycle of the Werewolf. It was originally intended as a calendar, with each month featuring a short piece narrating the attacks on Tarker’s Mills accompanied by Wrightson’s art. Unfortunately this plan didn’t pan out, and a novella was released instead with a selection of images.
Another of King’s ‘childhood passed’ stories, Silver Bullet is one of the best visualisations of his small town 70s America, utopian and yet haunted by violence. While the 70s setting holds the 80s vibe in check, everything else, from its producer (Dino de Laurentis) to its stars (Cory Haim and Gary Busey) screams 80s awesomeness. Haim plays a paraplegic boy who hurls around town in his motor-powered wheelchair (the titular ‘Silver Bullet’); Busey is the crazy uncle, swigging whiskey from the bottle and overflowing with dirty jokes. A nice level of gore and a werewolf designed by Carlo Rambaldi (designed E.T., engineered Geiger’s Alien) makes for a ghoulish treat that does a fine job of juggling some oddball gallows humour with its darker moments. Great werewolf films are few and far between, and despite (or perhaps because of) its hokier moments this one is well worth your attention.
As the silent era fell before waves of sound, Carl Dreyer created a work of horror with nightmarish qualities that are still potent today. Based upon J. Sheridan le Fanu’s collection of supernatural stories, In A Glass Darkly (he also wrote Carmilla, the source for dozens of lesbian vampire movies), Vampyr has the fragmented nature of a dream, which Dreyer beautifully fuses to the crisp black and white nitrate in a way that few films have ever managed. Filmed as a silent film – some dialogue was added as production was concluding due to the changing technology – the power of the image is all here. Every technical element induces dislocation and disorientation as we follow the protagonist on a journey that involves men without shadows and ancient vampires stalking the night. Best viewed in the wee hours of the night, when the silence and darkness of the world can blend with the film, Vampyr is a powerful, sophisticated horror that only improves with age.
Motel Hell (1980)
Rory Calhoun stars as farmer Vincent Smith, co-owner – with his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) – of the Motel Hello, and purveyor of the finest smoked meats around. Those fine smoked meats are sometimes acquired via the temporary residents, sometimes through booby trapping remote roads and capturing lonesome travellers Yes, ‘it takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s Fritters’, well, mainly people. And that isn’t even the most secret ingredient.
Calhoun had been a B player since your grandparents were kids, appearing primarily in westerns. He plays on this beautifully, turning the role into a master stroke at the end of his career. English director Kevin Connor (From Beyond The Grave, The Land That Time Forgot) directs Motel Hell like a Disney film, with picturesque farm locations and a ‘isn’t life grand and simple in the country’ vibe; cannibalism and chainsaw fights with farmers wearing pig heads fits surprisingly well. With a sharp satirical edge, Motel Hell eviscerates genres and American society with an unforgettable humour and chilling horror, veering happily from the sublime to the ridiculous. I love this film.
Lisa and the Devil (1974)
Acclaim for Italian director/cinematographer Mario Bava has steadily risen in the last 20 years. Previously his films had been significantly hard to find in any format that properly showed off his magnificent skills. A variety of distributors are now releasing his films on blu-ray, and the quality of his works puts the majority of films to shame. A silken shock machine, haptically caressing the viewer in a whirlwind of beauty, decay and impending doom, Bava at his best is yet to be matched when it comes to gothic horrors (or in the realm of slasher films, check out A Bay of Blood for his genre defining work that would set the bar incredibly high).
Lisa and the Devil was almost a lost film. Briefly seen at Cannes in its original format, the film was shredded by its distributor, with many new – and dreadful – scenes added, leaving Bava’s work on the cutting room floor. His original vision, only recently restored, stands as his last word on the European gothic horror film. It is a delirious nightmare, featuring Elke Sommer as a tourist trapped in a mansion with an eclectic assortment of Euro-weirdos. In the midst, Telly Savalas, as the butler, or is he the devil, pulling the strings and perpetually sucking upon his lollipop. Death haunts this place. This gothic has no need for the traditional black and white as the technicolor image captures the lurid decay of a corpse; the tactile rot of inescapable time imprinted on a place, upon a person. The necrophiliac desire that underpins such films, and perhaps the cinematic art at times, is laid bare in a hypnotically disturbing scene that collides sex and death as few films have. And did I mention Telly Savalas plays a diabolical figure with a lollipop?
Rolf de Heer, better known for dramatic horrors of reality (The Tracker, Alexandra’s Project) and the oddball horror comedy something-or-other Bad Boy Bubby, once made a film which could be lazily described as an 80s outback secular Signs. In a remote Australian town strange things are afoot; two brothers working a farm, one recently returned from the city and a stint in gaol, the other experimenting with farming practices, both experiencing complicated emotions with regard to the latter’s wife; a country cop, obsessed with pubs barmaid, burning with rage and murderous intent; and the breakdown of reality caused by a possibly alien intrusion. De Heer’s vision sets everything on edge: the punkish-nature of the city-brother feels strangely futuristic, and the damage wrought in the alien encounters feels frighteningly apocalyptic. All the while Terry Camilleri (Napoleon in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure) struts through the chaos as a Special Branch investigator who may or may not out to kill everyone to cover it up. If reality started to go wrong, this is probably what it would feel like. That particular strand of weird that Australia does so well is here fused in a fascinating bundle of arthouse and sci-fi.
The Living Dead Girl (1982)
When it comes to euro-horror it is very hard to escape the association of sex and death. It isn’t a causal relationship (as it is commonly represented in American horror, such as the slasher films ‘have sex and die’ dictum), but rather a frisson, an excitable sensation as the two collide. Georges Bataille, a fellow so outré he was thrown out of the surrealists, wrote at great length on the relationship between sex and death, of the powerful erotic and creative energies released in such a conflation. For those who are familiar with Jean Rollin, director of Living Dead Girl and an extensive selection of vampire films among many other euro-horrors, it will come as no surprise to discover his mother once dated Bataille.
Rollin dedicated his cinematic career to a continual engagement with eroticism and horror, beginning with his highly aestheticised erotic arthouse vampire films and slowly slipping down into semi-pornographic dreck. Never quite reaching the exploitative highs of Jess Franco (and yet arguably not making as many bad films), Rollin’s interesting in the more artistic qualities of horror cinema has kept him from being as well-known (if one can describe Franco as such). Mention The Living Dead Girl and most folks will think you’re referencing Rob Zombie’s musical output. It is perhaps Rollin’s last masterful work. It has that seedy texture so particular to low-budget European films of the 80s, cheap film stock and remote locations. Rollin somehow fuses that to a lyrical horror story with the force of an unexpected punch, leaving the viewer sick with the taste of blood. Catherine is resurrected after several years by idiots illegally storing radioactive sludge in her crypt. She is randomly re-united with her lover, Helene, and events slowly take a turn for the worse as they discover Catherine desperate need for human blood and flesh.
The script is lumpen and filled with the kind of connectives that any successful script-writer would tell you to avoid. And it doesn’t matter one iota as Rollin’s nightmare truly gets rolling. Filled with disgustingly effective gore that is always more about loss and death than it is about mere shock, this a truly evocative film that captures the dangerous power of loss, obsession, and the hungry dead.
The Signal (2007)
A film in three parts, each directed by a different person, The Signal is an odd amalgam of genres and visions for the end of the world. Rising above its incredibly low-budget, this American shocker viscerally portrays the end of the world via technology and bone-crunching violence. One night everyone in the city goes insane. There’s a signal in the broadcast technology, in the white static of the TV or the radio is hidden something that cracks human sanity wide open. Some just go kill crazy, others find their madness a little more insidious, slowly pulling at the edges like a monster intent on scalping your mind.
The primary narrative has Mya, who is cheating on her husband with Ben. Returning home after the broadcast of the signal, oblivious to its effects, she finds her husband Lewis at home watching sports with friends. And then the violence starts. From there, Mya goes on the run, and we switch to a house party where everything seems normal. Only there’s almost no guests and violence is only a heartbeat away as Lewis gate crashes the party in his quest to find Mya. The first ‘transmission’ as they are referred to, depicts the beginning of social disintegration. The second transmission slips into a weird and deeply black mode of comedy, with a splatter content that would make Fulci proud. Finally, the last transmission delves into full-blown post-apocalyptic sensibility as the city lies barren and the interpersonal relationships really begin to breakdown.
Despite its uneven nature, perhaps inescapable considering its structure and execution, The Signal is an excellent example of contemporary horror utilising the narrative strands and styles of the past in a very post 9-11 context. It deftly shifts between tones and modes to turn your stomach, make you afraid of your neighbour, and have you laughing out loud. You might even feel a little unstable by the end.
Way back in the day, before Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, Ivan Reitman made a little film called Cannibal Girls (with a tag-line like ‘These girls do exactly what you think they do’, the title definitely has to be written in capitals). Pre-dating The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by two years, this Canadian production has Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin as lovers on a romantic getaway to the frozen wilderness, where their car breaks down and they get stuck in a romantic little nothing of a town with a legendary house where three cannibal girls once lived, and now it’s a restaurant. The narrative feels like half a joke, so unfunny it’s not worth telling you the other half, so they don’t. Ever wondered what a script with legs trying to walk across ice would look like? This is it. Somehow this works. Ten minutes before the end of the film you will still wonder what the plot of this film is, and yet, if you are in the right mood, it will have well and truly unsettled you, and like all the best horrors (and many of the one’s mentioned here), will have left you wondering at the stability of reality and how easily we fear that all we know can be undone.
Filled with so many brilliant asides (this film contains the best cutaway shots ever), Reitman builds an insane world that does actually feel dangerous, even as it is so ridiculous as to be entirely worthy of mocking. Its shoddy weirdness becomes entirely hypnotic, broken only by the warning alarm which was inserted by American distributors and is including as a bonus on the DVD (and though very distracting, it adds wonderfully to the mix and I highly recommend it). It is important to remember the age of this film, as it prefigures all the spoof horror films – and many of the films that it would appear to be spoofing – by many years. Sometimes one finds cinematic magic in the weirdest and cruddiest of places. Yay for Canuxploitation!
By Ben Buckingham