Halloween Report 2017: Best of the Swampflix Horror Tag

Halloween is rapidly approaching, which means a lot of cinephiles & horror nerds out there are currently planning to cram in as many scary movies as they can before the best day of the year (except for Mardi Gras, of course) passes us by. We here at Swampflix watch a lot of horror films year round, so instead of overloading you with the full list of all the spooky movies we’ve covered since last year’s Halloween report (and the one before that), here’s a selection of the best of the best. We’ve tried to break it down into a few separate categories to help you find what cinematic scares you’re looking for. Hope this helps anyone looking to add some titles to their annual horror binge! Happy hauntings!

Art House Horror

If you’re looking for an escape from the endless parade of trashy slasher movies & want a more formally refined style of horror film, this list might be a good place to start.

The Psychic (1977): “Unlike a great deal of Lucio Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen.”

Raw (2017): “I was beaten to the punch by Catherine Bray of Variety in the comparisons that were most evident to me, as she called Raw Suspiria meets Ginger Snaps,’ which was my thought exactly while sitting in the theater. The school setting lends itself to the former allusion, as does the stunningly saturated color pallette and the viscerality of the gore (which is less present than one would expect from either the marketing or the oft-cited fainting of several audience members at the Toronto premier), while the coming-of-age narrative as explored by two sisters with a complex relationship makes the latter reference apparent. Make no mistake, however: even for the strongest stomachs amongst us, there will be something in this film that turns that organ inside out.”

We Are the Flesh (2017):  “I’m in love with the way We Are the Flesh disorients the eye by making its grotesque displays of bloodshed & taboo sexuality both aesthetically pleasing and difficult to pin down. The subtle psychedelia of its colored lights, art instillation sets, and unexplained provocative imagery (a pregnant child, close-up shots of genitals, an excess of eggs, etc.) detach the film from a knowable, relatable world to carve out its own setting without the context of place or time. Its shock value sexuality & gore seem to be broadcasting directly from director Emiliano Rocha Minter‘s subconscious, attacking both the viewer & the creator with a tangible, physical representation of fears & desires the conscious mind typically compartmentalizes or ignores (like a poetically surreal distortion of Cronenberg’s Videodrome).”

It Comes at Night (2017): “What It Comes at Night captures more distinctly than any other horror or thriller I’ve seen before is the eerie feeling of being up late at night, alone, plagued by anxieties you can usually suppress in the daylight by keeping busy, and afraid to go back to sleep because of the cruelly false sense of relief that startles you when you slip back into your stress dreams. It’s in these late night, early morning hours when fear & grief are inescapable and nearly anything seems possible, just nothing positive or worth looking forward to.”

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017): “Oz Perkins’s sensibilities as a horror auteur are wrapped up in the eeriness of droning sound design and the tension of waiting for the hammer to drop. That aesthetic an be frustrating when left to rot in a directionless reflection on stillness, but when woven into the fabric of a supernatural mystery the way it is in The Blackcoat’s Daughter, it can be entirely rewarding, not to mention deeply disturbing.”

The Skin I Live In (2011): “At turns provocative and disquieting, The Skin I Live In is relentless in the way that its unfolding narrative forces the viewer to re-evaluate every previous scene with each new revelation. Do our sympathies for Roberto outweigh the fact that the well of his monstrosity is deeper and darker? His ultimate fate is a consequence of his inability to accept the reality of his life (which is related to his being a plastic surgeon, which is conventionally considered a position that exists solely due to society’s vanity) and let go of that which has been lost (which is more reflective of his well-intentioned scientific drive to build a better human skin through unethical experimentation, as well as his activities as a reconstructive, restorative plastic surgeon). It’s a film that rewards close attention and empathy; as each fleshy layer is peeled away, the viewer finds him- or herself challenged, but the experience is ultimately fruitful.”

Mainstream & Traditional Horror

It often feels as if we’re living in a substantial horror renaissance where metaphor & atmosphere-conscious indie filmmakers are revitalizing a genre that desperately needs new blood. These films are a welcome reminder that mainstream horror outlets & genre-faithful traditionalists can still deliver just as much of a punch as their art house, “elevated” horror competition.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983): “Everything about Something Wicked and its more modern contemporaries is commanded by a creepy feeling, an atmosphere established by roaring winds and empty settings like a suburb or a carnival that makes its characters seem like they’re the only kids on Earth, having to stage a world-saving battle between Good & Evil all on their own. Although this kind of kid-friendly creepshow is rarely as terrifying as you remember it being growing up, it’s the exact kind of film that sticks with you for life.”

The Silence of the Lambs (1991): “One of the most consistent pleasures of The Silence of the Lambs for me is in watching Jodie Foster & Anthony Hopkins try to out over-act each other. Foster’s thick Southern accent & Hopkins’s *tsk tsk* brand of mannered scenery chewing have always been a neck & neck race for most heightened/ridiculous for me, but this most recent rewatch has presented a third competitor in this struggle: Howard Shore. The composer’s string arrangements actively attempt to match the soaring stage play line deliveries from Foster & Hopkins, who similarly seem to be playing for the back row. The rabid horror fan in me wishes that the score would ease up and leave a more sparse atmosphere for the movie’s genre film sleaze to fully seep into, but the more I think about it, the more Shore’s music feels symbiotic with the lofty Greek tragedy tones of Jonathan Demme’s performers. I’m still a little conflicted about it even as I write this.”

The Cabin in the Woods (2012): “The film is at once a celebration of the horror genre as a cruel, ritualistic blood sport that serves a significant purpose in the lives of its audience and a condemnation of that very same audience for participating in the ritual in the first place. An ambitious, self-reflective work of criticism in action, Cabin in the Woods in one of the best horror films I’ve seen in recent years, not least of all for the way it makes me rethink the basic structure & intent of horror as an art from in the first place.”

Get Out (2017): “Instead of a virginal, scantily clad blonde running from a masked killer with an explicitly phallic weapon, Get Out aligns its audience with a young black man put on constant defense by tone deaf, subtly applied racism. Part horror comedy, part racial satire, and part mind-bending sci-fi, Jordan Peele’s debut feature not only openly displays an encyclopedic knowledge of horror as an art form (directly recalling works as varied as Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Under the Skin, and any number of Wes Craven titles), it also applies that knowledge to a purposeful, newly exciting variation on those past accomplishments. Get Out knows what makes horror effective as a genre and finds new avenues of cultural criticism to apply that effect to instead of just mirroring what came before, no small feat for a debut feature.”

Split (2017): “Split‘s D.I.D. premise provides a near-borderless playground for James McAvoy to chew scenery and he does so admirably, fully committing himself to the film’s brilliant stupidity. I think Split works best when it is genuinely creepy, though. M. Night Shyamalan is confidently playful with the film’s tone at every turn (even appearing onscreen to practically wink at the camera), but still mines his pulpy premise for plenty sincere tension & dread in a highly stylized, artfully considered way. Split truly does feel like the director’s return to glory. This is the moment when he loudly broadcasts to the whole world that he can still be highly effective within the pulpy genre box he often traps himself in without having to blow the container open with a last minute twist. Here, the twist is allowed to comfortably exist as its own separate, artfully idiotic treat, another sign that the filmmaker has finally become the master of his own brilliantly stupid game.”

IT (2017): “IT is an Event Film dependent on the jump scares, CGI monsters, and blatant nostalgia pandering (even casting one of the Stranger Things kids to drive that last point home) that its indie cinema competition has been consciously undermining to surprising financial success in recent years. What’s impressive is how the film prominently, even aggressively relies on these features without at all feeling insulting, lifeless, or dull. Even more so than well-received franchises like The Conjuring, Sinister, and Insidious, IT fulfills the major studio promise that big budget horror filmmaking can still be intense, memorable, and above all else fun. While indie filmmakers search for metaphorical & atmospheric modes of ‘elevated’ horror, IT stands as a declarative, back to the basics return to mainstream horror past, a utilitarian approach with payoffs that somehow far outweigh its muted artistic ambitions.”

XX (2017): “As a contribution to the horror anthology as a medium & a tradition, XX is a winning success in two significant ways: each individual segment stands on its own as a worthwhile sketch of a larger idea & the collection as a whole functions only to provide breathing room for those short-form experiments. On top of all that, XX also boasts the added bonus of employing five women in directorial roles, something that’s sadly rare in any cinematic tradition, not just horror anthologies.”

Ms. Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016): “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children isn’t likely to win over anyone who’s chosen to write off Tim Burton’s post-90s work completely (his recent, aggressively tone deaf comments on racial representation in Hollywood casting aren’t likely to help either), but it is a damn good spooky children’s movie, joining the likes of Goosebumps & ParaNorman as great starter packs for kids who need an intro to a lifelong horror fandom. It’s a genuinely macabre affair that might be better accomplished in terms of visual craft than it is with emotional deft, but still stands as Burton’s best work since at least Sweeney Todd. Of course, I’m a little more forgiving than some on the current Burton aesthetic, so mileage may vary there, but if any other director’s name were attached to this film I suspect it would’ve been praised with far less scrutiny.”

Weirdo Outliers

Halfway between high art & the depths of trash, these titles occupy a strange middle ground that defies categorization. They also are some of the scariest movies on the list in completely unexpected ways.

The Lure (2017): “The Lure is a mermaid-themed horror musical that’s equal parts MTV & Hans Christian Andersen in its modernized fairy tale folklore. Far from the Disnified retelling of The Little Mermaid that arrived in the late 1980s, this blood-soaked disco fantasy is much more convincing in its attempts to draw a dividing line between mermaid animality & the (mostly) more civilized nature of humanity while still recounting an abstract version of the same story. As a genre film with a striking hook in its basic premise, it’s the kind of work that invites glib descriptors & points of comparison like An Aquatic Ginger Snaps Musical or La La Land of the Damned, but there’s much more going on in its basic appeal than that sense of genre mash-up novelty.”

Society (1992): “Society was largely panned in its time for this disinterest in thematic subtlety, struggling for three years after its initial release in 1989 to earn a proper US distribution deal. Treating its class politics as a flimsy excuse for the disturbing practical effects orgy in its final act seems like a mistake to me, though, and I’m delighted that the film has been reassessed as a cult classic in the decades since its humble beginnings. The way it explores class divisions in the most literal & grotesque terms possible is highly amusing to me in an almost cathartic way. This is especially true of these earliest days in a Donald Trump presidency, where poking fun at the inhuman cruelty of the wealthy oligarchy feels almost necessary for survival, even if their status as the ruling class hasn’t at all changed since this film’s initial release.”

Spider Baby (1964): “Spider Baby focuses on the Merrye family, which is so inbred that they suffer from a terrible condition which causes individual members to mentally regress as they age until they become savages. The Merrye clan lives in seclusion, and once a member of the family has fully regressed they get isolated further until they become such a threat to everyone that they get moved to their own section of the basement. Virginia and Elizabeth are two of the three remaining family members of their dying line, not yet old enough to be shoved into the basement. Being isolated from society gives them a dark, sprite-like quality. Due to their regression they have no knowledge of circumstances for their actions. Together they wantonly romp about the house, taking in pet spiders, eating bugs and suspicious fungi from their yard, and bickering almost constantly. Elizabeth is as volatile as a three year old on a bad day. Virginia regularly ‘plays spider,’ which is a handy euphemism for murder. In their isolation, they act outside of society, with unkempt hair and make-believe games gone too far.”

Paperhouse (1988): “After two smaller films that are largely forgotten, Rose directed Paperhouse, which was a perennial favorite on IFC in the early 2000s, before moving on to direct cult classic (and his only other truly great film) Candyman released in 1992. Candyman is undeniably a horror film, and Paperhouse was largely lumped in with the horror genre upon home video release as well, despite not strictly deserving that distinction. It’s much more of a mood piece, with a relatively simple story elevated by striking visuals and a moodily beautiful score by Stanley Myers and Hans Zimmer.”

eXistenZ (1999): “eXistenZ feels like the beginning of David Cronenberg coldly playing with philosophical humor in conspicuously artificial environments, an aesthetic that became full fledged by the time he made more recent titles like Cosmopolis & Maps to the Stars. The joy is in watching him achieve that aesthetic through the technology-paranoid body horror tools of his earliest classics before abandoning them entirely.”

Pet (2016): “The cheapness of the film is apparent in several sequences that are genuinely cinematic in their framing but appear to be shot on low-end digital video; on the other hand, that same sparsity of funding also means that the film has room to breathe as a character piece, regardless of whether any of the character growth that we see is genuine. If Don’t Breathe is is a schlocky thriller with slick artistic design that disguises its crassness, Pet is a low-rent version of the same, with sufficient style but none to spare.”

Are We Not Cats (2016): “For all its dirty Detroit soul & doom metal sound cues, colorful Quintron-esque musical contraptions, and horrific flashes of skincrawl gore, Are We Not Cats is a film ultimately about intimacy & mutual addiction. As memorable as its grotesque, psychedelic freak-outs can be, their impact is equaled if not bested by the tender melancholy of lines like ‘When was the last memory you have of not being truly alone?’ The details of the romance that ends that loneliness construct a body horror nightmare of open sores & swallowed hair, but still play as oddly sweet in a minor, intimate way that underlines the film’s viscerally memorable strengths & forgives a lot of its more overly-familiar narrative impulses.”

80’s Slashers

Sometimes all you need to scratch your horror itch is watching a bunch of hot, young idiots get stabbed to death for their moral transgressions by an inhumanly persistent killer.

A Night to Dismember (1983): “A Night to Dismember is a Doris Wishman slasher, purely so. It finds the director shooting gloom & gore the way she usually shoots scantily clad women, following a very strict Halloween/Friday the 13th-style narrative structure to deliver its jarringly violent genre thrills. What makes it notably bizarre beyond Wishman stepping outside her usual genre box is that the film makes no attempt to tell a clearly intelligible story besides mimicking the general feel of a slasher. So sloppy it’s avant garde, A Night to Dismember adheres to a strict ‘Axe murders for all, coherent plot for none’ political platform. Almost unwatchable, yet undeniably entertaining, Wishman’s sole slasher is chaotic outsider art, a watch that’s just as challenging as it is inane.”

The Funhouse (1981): “The Funhouse comes across as a run-of-the-mill B-movie because it follows the generic B-horror movie storyline; a group of teens get high and decide to get crazy & spend the night in their local carnival’s funhouse. It really doesn’t get cheesier than that, but somehow The Funhouse manages to be seriously scary. […] The gruesome murders that take place in the funhouse filled with horrifying animatronic clowns and evil dolls will haunt your dreams forever, or at least for a day or two.”

The Last Horror Film (1983): “Besides the inclusion of kills from other horror pictures screening in-film at the Cannes Festival, The Last Horror Film also boosts its production value significantly by playing tourist. Intercutting shots of movie advertisements that line the streets of the festival (with particular attention given to an ad for the masterful Possession) and nude women sunbathing on nearby beaches, the film often plays like a much, much sleazier version of Roger Ebert’s video essays of Cannes from the 90s (clips of which are featured in the documentary Life Itself). The film’s plot & murders are almost treated as unneeded interruptions of its cheap pop music montages, where the main attraction is not murder, but people-watching.”

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982): “Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.”

Creature Features

Do you want to see some weird/gross/creepy/goofy monsters? Check out these bad boys.

Shin Godzilla (2016): “It plays like how I would imagine a creature feature version of The Big Short (a film I’ve yet to see, I should note): pointed & playful political humor that calls into question the very fabric of its nation’s strength & character. Instead of being attacked by predatory investors, however, the victims in Shin Godzilla face the towering presence of a giant, rapidly evolving reptile that shoots purple lasers & leaves a trail of radiation in its wake. Otherwise, I assume they’re more or less on the same vibe, but I’ll likely never know for sure since only one has the laser-shooting lizard beast & that’s the one I watched.”

Train to Busan (2016): “Train to Busan doesn’t reinvent the wheel; in fact, there’s an awful lot of 28 Days Later in its DNA, what with the Rage-like zombies, the urban environments, the involvement of military forces , and the ending. Still, placing the action on a train puts a new spin on things, as when one group of survivors is trying to reach another group in a distant compartment, with the horde between them. The interplay of light and darkness, the addition of color, and a child character who’s actually quite likable are all touches that this genre was missing. It’s such an obviously great idea that I’m honestly surprised it was never done before (despite searching my memory and the internet, I can find no evidence of previous zombies-on-a-train films).”

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016): “After a brief, forgivable trek through Search for a Cure zombie film tedium, The Girl with All the Gifts sinks into a fascinating exploration of the ways Nature reclaims human structures when given enough time and how human bodies are a part of that reclamation. Fighting against Nature’s course is proposed to be potentially futile, which is a pretty hefty lesson to stomach within a genre that’s often reduced to cheap jump scares and Michael Jackson dance routines.”

Slugs (1988): “While the basic premise of Slugs is both silly & clichéd due to the size & nature of its titular threat, the violence & technical skills of its various kills elevate the material to the exact kind of goofy brutality people are looking for in cult classic drive-in fare. These giant, juicy black slugs not only carpet the ground and invade homes from the drains of sinks & toilets; they also bite with sharpened fangs and burrow into unsuspecting victims’ skin. In lesser natural horrors, the slugs’ dirty work would be depicted through a discovered, picked clean skeleton. Here, the little bastards turn their victims into exploding, bloodied meat, covering the sets and nearly the camera in untold excess of blood & gore.”

Drive-In Era Relics

Here’s a few vintage horror relics that only could have been birthed from the drive-in & grindhouse eras of the genre’s now-distant past.

The Colossus of New York (1958): “Unexpectedly serving as a bridge between Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein & Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, I found the film far more inventive & thematically well-considered than I would have initially assumed. It looks from the outside to be just one of many cheap 1950s Frankenstein bastardizations, but the film pushes way past a simple brain transplant horror story into something that feels anachronistically forward-thinking. A lot of The Colossus of New York‘s initial appeal rests in its drive-in era charm & unique creature design, but it somehow amounts to far more than the sum of its parts.”

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960): “Cynically made as a cash grab in the wake of Christopher Lee’s Dracula finding popularity in Italy, this is a deliberately over-sexed work that anyone under the age of 16 was banned from watching at the theater. You can feel those trashy origins in every frame of The Vampire and the Ballerina, but the film still manages to be a surprisingly artful experience for me. Anyone who regularly enjoys a slice of cheap black & white schlock should get a kick out of the film’s creature designs & shameless, theremin-scored burlesque. What’ll really stick with you if you’re on that wavelength, though, is the strange relationship dynamics between its vampiric killers & the artfully odd images the film manages to pull out of a seemingly nonexistent budget.”

The Earth Dies Screaming (1964): “The alien threat of The Earth Dies Screaming is one thing after another, a continually shifting obstacle course that pummels its audience and its victims with just the right rhythm to remain surprising & just the right runtime to never outwear its welcome.”

Abby (1974): “For all that Warner Brothers did to bury Abby, they certainly had no issue taking some elements from it when drafting a script for The Exorcist 2, including the connection to ancient African myths and legends. That aside, Abby is marvelous, aside from a little bit of drag in Act III. Speed’s performance as Abby is heart-wrenching, as she struggles to make sense of the actions taken while possessed during her moments of clarity.”

Horror Comedies

Basket Case (1982): “In the annals of delightfully bad horror films, few can hold a candle to Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 freshman film Basket Case. Following the bloodthirsty trail of revenge left by a monstrous flesh sack and the (formerly conjoined) twin brother from whom he was untimely ripped, the film is weirdly disjointed but utterly charming, minus a tonally bizarre sexual assault that happens in the final moments.”

Brain Damage (1988): “Six years after the release of Basket Case, Frank Henenlotter unleashed a new ‘boy and his monster’ movie onto the world with Brain Damage, a film with a similar conceit to his first work but with even more disgusting special effects, a slicker production style, a new villainous creature, strong metaphorical subtext, and homoeroticism to spare. Though less well remembered than the cult classic that preceded it, Brain Damage is nonetheless a lot of fun, and may be objectively better than its predecessor.”

Multiple Maniacs (1970): “It’s impossible to divorce the context from the content in this case, because Waters is such a highly specific stylist & works so closely with a steady cast of nontraditional ‘actors,’ but even if the director had never made another feature in his life I believe the world would still be talking about Multiple Maniacs all these decades later. Horror films this weird & this grotesquely fun are rarely left behind or forgotten and, given the devotion of Waters’s more dedicated fans, I’m honestly surprised it took this long for this one to get its proper due.”

Office Killer (1997): “Cindy Sherman delivers exactly what I want from my genre films here, the exact formula that won me over in Tara Subkoff’s #horror. She mixes lowbrow camp with highbrow art production in an earnest, gleeful work that values both ends of that divide. As faintly silly as Carol Kane’s performance can be as a deranged killer, Sherman colors her background with a genuinely horrific history of sexual assault, where she constantly has to hear praise for her abuser in a work environment. She employs infamous provocateur Todd Haynes to provide ‘additional dialogue’ to make sure that discomfort seeps in. The sickly, flickering florescent lights of her film’s office setting afford it a horror aesthetic long before the kills begin, especially when she focuses on the harsh, moving light of a copier running in the dark. Even the opening credits, which glides as projections across still, office environment objects, have an artfulness to them missing from a lot of tongue-in-cheek horror.”

I Married a Witch (1942): “It’s very cliché to say that a film is “ahead of its time,” but I can’t think of a better way to describe Rene Clair’s comedy, I Married a Witch. For a film that debuted in the early 1940s, it’s got a very different style of humor when compared to other comedies that came about during that era. When I think of films of the 1940s, I think of Casablanca, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Meet Me in St. Louis, so watching a film that is about a resurrected witch that preys on a soon-to-be-married man just feels so scandalous!”

The Love Witch (2016): “The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally ‘bad’ movie about witchcraft & strippers.”

Blood Diner (1987): “A supposed sequel to the grindhouse ‘classic’ Blood Feast (a film I have zero affection for), Blood Diner is pure 80s splatter comedy mayhem. It boasts all of the shock value violence & misogynistic cruelty of its predecessor (this time at the hands of a female director, Jackie Kong), but has a lot more in common with ZAZ spoofs or Looney Tunes than it does with its grindhouse pedigree. Everything in Blood Diner is treated with Reagan-era irreverence to the point where this pointlessly stupid horror comedy starts to feel like inane poetry. It shocks; it offends. Yet, Blood Diner is so consistently, absurdly mindless that all you can do is laugh at its asinine audacity in its cheap midnight movie thrills.”

The Greasy Strangler (2016): “I found The Greasy Strangler to be an amusingly perverse provocation, one that works fairly well as a deconstruction of the Sundance-minded indie romance. I wouldn’t fault anyone who disliked the film for being cruel, grotesque, or aggressively stupid. Those claims would all certainly be valid. As a nasty slasher by way of Eric Warheim, however, that’s just a natural part of a very unnatural territory.”

Campy Spectacles

The Night of a Thousand Cats (1972): “Ever since I picked up its laughably shoddy DVD print at an ancient FYE for pocket change, the film has held a strange, undeniable fascination for me. It’s something that could have only been made in what I consider to be the sleaziest, most disreputable era of genre cinema and, yet, I return to it often in sheer bewilderment. You might expect a horror film with the title The Night of a Thousand Cats to be laughable camp, but somehow the inherent goofiness of a mass hoard of ravenous, man-eating house cats is severely undercut here. Much like with the mannequin-commanding telepathy of Tourist Trap, The Night of a Thousand Cats is far too grimy, loopy, cruel, and unnerving in its feline-themed murders to be brushed aside as a campy trifle.”

Mark of the Witch (1970): “Mark of the Witch is a fun little movie, and surprisingly impressive for a film made on such a small budget and with only local talent. The fun is mitigated in a few places by special effects failures (the fire that the possessed Jill uses in her rites at the wooded grove is no larger than a dinner plate, for instance) and some repetitiveness (the witch uses the same overlong invocation in a few separate scenes), but it’s obvious that all of the players involved are having fun, and that sense of bonhomie and good humor is infectious enough that it’s no trouble to get swept up in the moment.”

Resident Evil: Extinction (2007): “One of the ways Extinction shakes off its stylistic rut is by hitting the reset button, opening with the exact same scenario as the first Resident Evil film. Milla Jovovich’s zombie-slaying protagonist wakes confused & unremembering in the shower, finding her iconic red dress from the franchise’s debut laid out carefully on her bed. As she tries to fight her way out of a military takeover of her home, she’s killed, the scenario is revealed to be a simulation, and her body is dumped on a pile of similarly-dressed clones in a chilling image that recalls the excellent existential horror Triangle. While The Umbrella Corporation’s main stooge (Game of Thrones’s Iian Glen) is literally trying to clone past successes of the franchise with villainous intent, Extinction then blows its derivative, campy treats wide open by shifting from Matrix knockoff to Mad Max knockoff, taking the zombie-infested shit show on the dusty, dusty road.”

Resident Evil: Retribution (2012): “The fifth Resident Evil film, Retribution, matches (if not surpasses) Extinction‘s entertainment value as a standalone feature, but does so without having to step outside the franchise’s usual formula. Retribution fully embraces its zombie-themed shoot-em-up video game roots as well as its nature as a late-in-the-game sequel by conducting a simulated, virtual reality retrospective of the series where each film is a level that must be cleared on the way to the final boss. Here, Anderson establishes his particular brand of nu metal technophobia as its own distinct artform, turning what should feel like an exercise in generic action film tedium into high-concept, reality-bending sci-fi with a kick-ass female protagonist in the lead. It’s an amazing act of genre alchemy, one that completely turned me around on the merit of the series as a cohesive whole.”

Beyond the Gates (2016): “It takes a little patience to get into Beyond the Gates, but it’s pretty rewarding if given half a chance. There’s a lot of love for the VHS era of horror in the movie’s DNA, but unlike other throwbacks, it’s not beholden to that aesthetic or the trappings thereof. The film is currently streaming on Netflix, and is a delightful way to keep Halloween in your heart on a hot summer night.”

-The Swampflix Crew

 

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982)

William Asher is known for directing iconic television series such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched, so the fact that he directed the 1982 horror flick Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (aka Night Warning) is beyond strange.  His directing talent, along with the film’s unique story, take this early 80s slasher movie to another level.

When watching the film’s opening, I immediately thought of the  intense opening scene of our August Movie of the Month, The Psychic. In the opening of The Psychic, the main character has a vision of her mother jumping off a cliff. Instead of just watching the character jump and getting a distant view of the aftermath, viewers get to see this poor woman’s face get chipped off as she hits the cliff’s edges on the entire way down. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker takes a similar approach by having very aggressive opening that is totally unexpected. A husband and wife go on a trip, leaving their baby boy in care of his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell). While on the road, they realize the car’s brakes aren’t working. This happens a lot in horror movies, but usually there’s a quick crash and it’s over. Well, not this time. The car is screeching all over the highway, and when it eventually crashes into the back of a log truck, the husband gets beheaded by a log. The car then goes off a cliff and becomes as flat as a pancake. If that isn’t bad enough, the car catches fire and explodes.  All that happens within the first few minutes, so if that doesn’t signify that this is going to be an insane movie, I don’t know what would.

Aunt Cheryl becomes the guardian of her nephew, Billy (Jimmy McNichol), after the horrible accident kills her sister and brother-in-law. The film jumps to teenage Billy living with aunt. Cheryl has a peculiar obsession with her nephew that goes beyond being an overprotective aunt. One of the first interactions she has with Billy in the film involves him shirtless and asleep in his bed; she wakes him up by acting like a sexy cat. It quickly becomes apparent that she is sexually attracted to Billy, and it creates this unsettling aura almost immediately. Aside from the incest, Cheryl is an ordinary small-town homemaker. She pickles tomatoes, wears a hair handkerchief, and makes sure that Billy always has a tall glass of milk waiting for him. Her kind demeanor changes once Billy becomes interested in going to college on a basketball scholarship, and she does everything in her power to make sure that Billy never leaves her.

Cheryl’s murderous tendencies and violent past begin to surface once the fear of Billy leaving her becomes a reality. She initially attempts to bang the local TV repairman, Phil Brody, so she can have a man around when Billy leaves. He rejects her advances at first, but then he eventually asks her for a blow job, causing her to lose her shit and stab him to death. Billy and the neighbors find her covered in blood with Brody dead on her kitchen floor, and she claims that he was trying to rape her. I really do hate it when films indulge the “psycho woman that cries rape” scenario because it adds validation to the disgusting myth that women cry rape for attention.

Unfortunately, the ignorance doesn’t stop there. A homophobic lieutenant, Joe Carlson, doesn’t believe Cheryl’s accusations because he found out that Brody was homosexual. He believes that Billy was having sexual relations with Brody and killed him in a lovers’ quarrel. The reason he thinks Billy is gay is because he grew up without a father and was raised by a woman. Yes, this guy is the worst. I swear, every sentence that comes out of Carlson’s mouth contains at least one derogatory term for homosexual, and it’s so hard to not punch his face through the TV screen. He focuses so much on trying to get Billy to admit he’s gay that he ignores signs that point to Cheryl being a cold-blooded killer. One good thing about his character is that he isn’t portrayed in a positive light. His homophobia really contributes to his role as one of the film’s main antagonist, which is pretty interesting, as this film was released in 1982.

The Brody murder is only the beginning to Cheryl’s descent into madness, which brings out the Oscar-worthy acting of Susan Tyrrell. She starts to poison Billy’s milk in order to keep him from leaving her, but once he starts to find out secrets from her past, she quickly turns into a full-fledged monster, killing anyone that tries to come between her and Billy. She cuts all her hair off and goes into this sort of Neolithic state, and it’s one of the greatest moments in horror film history. Once Cheryl takes this turn, the pace of the film picks up speed and the murder weapons become more bizarre (hatchets, meat tenderizers, etc.)

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker is part soap opera and part slasher horror. The combination of the two makes for an amazing horror movie experience. It’s one of those amazing, unique horror films that got lost in the flood of 80s slasher movies, but it does a great job of holding its own.

-Britnee Lombas

Disturbia (2007)

The world of Rear Window riffs & remakes is a strange, fascinating realm that defies much of what you might expect from Hitchcock-inspired cinema. Outside of a few straightforward Rear Window riffs that keep the original’s story firmly housed in the thriller genre, films like the 1998 made-for-TV remake starring Christopher Reeve or De Palma’s Body Double, a lot of works that pull influence from the Hitchcock classic stray far from its murder mystery roots. What Lies Beneath hammers the film’s obsessive voyeurism into the shape of a ghost story. Addicted to Love and Head Over Heels focus on its gender politics humor and forge the unthinkable: the Rear Window romcom. Perhaps most oddly, though, the 2007 Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia rehashed Rear Window into a late-in-the-game version of the late 90s slasher typified in titles like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Urban Legend. In fact, the movie was pitched in those films’ heyday, only to be pushed back when word got out that the Christopher Reeve version of Rear Window was in production. Although the idea of rehashing Rear Window as a late 90s slasher is just as absurd as molding it into a romcom, Disturbia is strangely the only one of these Rear Window riffs that was sued for infringing on the rights of the short story “It Had to Be Murder,” the source material for the Hitchcock classic. The case was ultimately dismissed because the similarities were too broad, which is actually indicative of how Disturbia matches the power & the humor of the Hitchcock work: barely, if at all.

I don’t have a lot of experience with Shia LaBeouf as an actor, so I can only recognize him working in one of two modes: American Honey mode and Transformers mode. In American Honey mode, LaBeouf is a Serious Artist who uses his natural charisma as a sleazy snake oil salesmen to find something a little ugly, but very true in his character onscreen. In Transformers mode, he’s a gross clown who asks you to laugh along & identify with that sleaze instead of cringing in recognition. Disturbia firmly boasts a Transformers-flavor LaBeouf, a falsely macho teenage clown who asks you to continually exclaim, “What a goof!” as he lazes around watching Cheaters, plays video games, and lustily spies on the girl next door through his trusty (and likely crusty) binoculars. It’s clear that the macho teen boy audience is when Disturbia is aiming to make its money. Early on, LaBeouf gets a supposed Big Cheer moment when he punches his (presumably underpaid, overworked) high school teacher in the jaw and lands himself on movie-long house arrest. What follows is a PG-13 version of an American Pie-style comedy where he woos the Next Door Hottie by openly drooling/spying and But I’m a Nice Guy!-ing her. It eventually works and just when they’re about to have their Big Kiss, character actor David Morse swoops in as a creepy next door slasher villain who steals their attention, nearly saving the film single-handedly. Morse is effectively, undeniably creepy as the possible serial killer these teens spy on and attempt to expose to skeptical adults. As he’s on house arrest, all LaBeouf can do is watch in horror as the evidence against Morse builds and more potential victims wander into harm’s way. He’s just like a wheelchair-bound James Stewart in Rear Window (just 10x more annoying).

To be fair, my frustration with Disturbia is not entirely LaBeouf’s fault. Were the film actually released in the late 90s when it’s nu-metal slasher mode wasn’t yet stale and I was a teenage shithead myself, I likely would’ve been onboard. Even now, David Morse’s expert work as the cold-hearted killer is almost enough for me to forgive the film’s mid-00s hard rock braggadocio and lame, teen-friendly bro humor. In essence, though, this is frequently a comedy where the jokes just didn’t work for me and only rarely the Rear Window slasher I desperately wanted it to be. The most interesting aspects director DJ Caruso, who’s also responsible for this year’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage of all things, brings to the table here are the ways the film updates & perverts the original Rear Window dynamic. There’s something less pathetic & more understandable about a teen creep spying on his neighbors through his house’s windows than Stewart doing so as an adult man. Technological updates like Internet search engines & video recordings also change the dynamic of LaBeouf sleuthing around for info on his killer next door. If you’re curious about the ways Rear Window has been reshaped & reimagined since Hitchcock’s heyday, Disturbia is a must-watch, especially for David Morse’s terrifying presence and the novelty of that seminal classic being filtered through a generic PG-13 slasher that should’ve been released in the days when KoRn was king. Once that novelty wears off, however, you’re left with a lowbrow teen comedy that seems to think it’s hi-larious to watch a teenage Shia LaBeouf construct towers made of unwrapped Twinkies and stomp out flaming bags of dog shit. Just know what you’re getting into.

-Brandon Ledet

Prevenge (2017)

Actress Alice Lowe is best known as a feature player in Edgar Wright productions like Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. Her debut feature as a writer and director is notable not only for bringing that Edgar Wright-friendly sense of humor into the realm of a high-concept slasher, but for also being a Herculean feat of physicality & filmmaking efficiency. Lowe directs and stars in Prevenge herself while seven months pregnant, filming all of the project’s principal photography in just eleven days. I’d usually find that kind of microbudget production efficiency impressive in a Roger Corman kind of way no matter what, but Lowe’s very visible late-pregnancy state and dual roles on either side of the camera raises the bar on that already inherent filmmaking badassery. Lowe’s real life pregnancy also affords Prevenge an amusing sense of authenticity you don’t typically see in high concept horror comedies. Pregnancy anxiety drives a lot of the humor and the terror at work in Prevenge and there’s something transgressive about Lowe’s pouring so much of herself into that central driving force, especially once it accumulates a body count.

Lowe stars as a single mother who murders total strangers at the command of the voice in her head, a high-pitched, cartoony presence that seems to be broadcasting from the fetus growing inside her. As a tag team, the mother & her unborn, bloodthirsty daughter initially seem to be on a vigilante mission against modern culture, like in the Katie Holmes comedy Miss Meadows or the excellent psychological horror Felt. The mother slits the throats of the creepy men who hit on her and the women who systematically keep her down (including a heartless business executive played by The Witch‘s Kate Dickie) in what appears to acts of moral vigilantism. The familial pair of killers aren’t choosing their victims at random, however, and the source of the perceived wrong they strive to correct through bloodshed (almost always by knife) is gradually revealed through a series of flashbacks. This sets up two parallel races against the clock that might prevent their revenge mission from being fulfilled: the impending birth of the child and the possibility of someone discovering the connection between the victims before they’re all disposed of.

Prevenge is strongest in its first act, when it takes satirical aim at the ways we discuss the nature of pregnancy. When doctors assure the pregnant mother/ruthless killer, “Baby knows what to do. Baby will tell you what to do,” it’s doubtful they mean that a literal voice will come from the fetus with demands to stab strangers to death in their own living rooms. There’s some real-life tension seated in that dynamic too, which includes lines like, “It’s like the baby’s driving and I’m just the vehicle.” Prevenge can feel delightfully transgressive in these moments, but once it pulls away from natal care satire and settles more into a traditional slasher formula, its tone begins to soften, meander, and fade. The mystery of the absent father and the connection between the seemingly unrelated victims isn’t nearly as interesting as the more pointed critiques lobbed against the ways modern medicine treats pregnancy as well as legitimate anxieties over forfeiting your mind and body to the wants and needs of a new being growing inside you, possibly with murderous intent.

As a filmmaker, Alice Lowe shows immense promise here. There’s great specificity in the imagery of her various set pieces, from the reptile predators of a pet shop to a sparsely attended disco night at a dive bar to the fancy dress costumes of a Halloween party. Her screenplay is wickedly funny in its best moments as well, like when the foul-mouthed fetus comments on her mother’s nextdoor neighbors loudly fucking, “Listen, Mommy! That’s how I was made,” or when Kate Dickie’s heartless business executive explains, “We’ve had to make some really harsh cuts. It’s a cutthroat world.” She also, smartly, refuses to turn away from the brutality of her staged mother-daughter kills, making for a very bloody version of a modern horror comedy. I do think Prevenge loses some focus once it shifts from satirical pregnancy horror to psychological murder mystery, but I was mostly impressed here by how Lowe pulled off such a successfully slick, icily funny picture on such a miniscule budget and so late in her own pregnancy. She managed to make a no-budget horror comedy into a strikingly personal, visually memorable work, which is no small feat for a first time filmmaker.

-Brandon Ledet

The Mutilator (1985)

I find myself very much conflicted about where to land on the mid 80s by-the-books slasher The Mutilator. That kind of indecision seems to be appropriate for the film’s tone, though, which is hilariously at war with itself, maybe even intentionally so. After a brutally cold introduction in which a young boy accidentally shoots his mother dead, The Mutilator switches to the schmaltziest sitcom music imaginable as the same kid, now college age, vacations to the beach with a group of friends. There’s an interesting, even amusing clash in those two tones, the horrifically violent & the lightheartedly goofy, that makes The Mutilator at the very least memorable despite its adherence to every known slasher trope. The problem is that only one side of that divide is at all interesting to watch and it ain’t the snappy dialogue between the college age victims.

Like with most slashers, there’s no real mystery to who’s killing off these beer-swilling knuckleheads one by one. The little boy who accidentally commits matricide on his father’s birthday (while cleaning the dad’s guns as a present) is responsible for driving his old man homicidally insane. Before the teen slaying begins, the old man fantasizes about shooting, slashing, and axing the young child down in his dreams, which is usually a place even the most brutal of horror films won’t dare to go. The brutality only deepens form there, as The Mutilator tries to justify its existence in the variety & viciousness of its kills. Characters are destroyed by chainsaws, pitchforks, battle axes, and fence boards, then hung out to dry on meat hooks like gigantic fish waiting to be gutted. The film even boasts one of the nastiest kills I’ve ever seen on celluloid, one involving a woman’s genitals and a gigantic fish hook, which is where I imagine it got saddled with an X rating. Unfortunately, the stretches between those kills are brutal in their own way, as they’re desperately devoid of any entertainment value, a hopelessly dull exercise in treading water (sometimes literally so).

The Mutilator’s comedic failure is in mistaking a funny joke for someone making a funny face while saying anything. The most amusing the film ever gets is in its musical cues, like an early motif during the matricide intro that includes the saddest version of the “Happy Birthday” song imaginable. There’s also a titular “Fall Break” theme song meant to match the film’s original title, Fall Break. It’s too bad that the acting in this film is unbearably awful, with line readings like “Jeez, would you look at all this shit,” that make John Waters dialogue seem subtle by comparison. The brutality of The Mutilator’s gore and the frivolity of its pop music soundtrack make it fascinating as a novelty, but it’s too boring for too many lengthy stretches to justify a recommendation. I’m not at all shocked to learn that this is filmmaker Buddy Cooper’s sole feature, but I do think he managed to make something that could at the very least be called a memorable oddity. This is the exact kind of slasher fodder that would’ve inspired the dumb horror movies I was watching as a teen, particularly I Know What You Did Last Summer, but that context isn’t going to hold the same personal significance for everyone tuning in. For most folks, I’d suggest seeking out The Mutilator’s vicious kills through a YouTube highlight reel or a curated .gif set. That’s all most people will remember from the film anyway, as they are strikingly brutal.

-Brandon Ledet

A Night to Dismember (1983)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

campstamp

Doris Wishman is primarily known for her work in sexploitation cinema, building her career as a low-energy, oddly punk version of Russ Meyer with films like Nude on the Moon, and Another Day, Another Man. Once you get into the back half of her career, however, there are plenty of weird genre outliers that complicate that reputation, like the killer breasts espionage thriller Deadly Weapons. Nothing I’ve seen from Wishman so far, though, Deadly Weapons included, has been comparable to the way out of bounds, dissonant horror cheapie A Night to Dismember. Although the film stars porn actress Samantha Fox and makes occasional use if her nude body, it’s a work that finds Wishman operating far outside her sexploitation comfort zone. A Night to Dismember is a Doris Wishman slasher, purely so. It finds the director shooting gloom & gore the way she usually shoots scantily clad women, following a very strict Halloween/Friday the 13th-style narrative structure to deliver its jarringly violent genre thrills. What makes it notably bizarre beyond Wishman stepping outside her usual genre box is that the film makes no attempt to tell a clearly intelligible story besides mimicking the general feel of a slasher. So sloppy it’s avant garde, A Night to Dismember adheres to a strict “Axe murders for all, coherent plot for none” political platform. Almost unwatchable, yet undeniably entertaining, Wishman’s sole slasher is chaotic outsider art, a watch that’s just as challenging as it is inane.

I can’t say with total confidence that I fully understand the plot of this picture. A young woman is released from a mental institution where she’s imprisoned for supposedly killing two teen boys. Her siblings conspire to have her re-committed by gaslighting her with prankish “hallucinations” and by framing her for a series of axe murders. That’s all I’ve got. Rapid, continuous narration from a detective who worked on this case of violent crimes is the only aspect of A Night to Dismember that affords the film any level of cohesion. There are a few scenes of badly dubbed dialogue that if you squint at them just right feel as if they belong to a proper feature film, but for the most part the movie a jumbled mess of candy red blood, kaleidoscope graphics, and brief flashes of nudity. It’s a full-length exercise in oddly disjointed editing, but I found an enjoyable sense of kinetic energy in that constant, off-kilter disorder. From the opening scene where a woman axe murders her sister in a bathtub to light-hearted elevator music, to the narrator’s instructions to contact authorities with any intel in the whereabouts of the killer over the end credits, A Night to Dismember is a total nuclear meltdown of a mess, but it’s an undeniably entertaining mess. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before, which makes it a valuable work as a cinematic experience, even if some of its most interesting results might be attributable to ineptitude.

Headless necks squirt blood in tidy steams, knives are rhythmically stabbed into victims’ throats, hearts are ripped out by hand, fingers are severed, a skull is crushed under a spinning car tire: Wishman’s horror show features gore galore. Some scenes are much stranger in their visual effects: disembodied hands reach to grope our would-be final girl from all directions, dreams of fratricide are accompanied by orgasmic moans, unexplained skulls & 80s computer graphics overlay the action, lightning strike stock footage straight out of 1930s horror appear to signify dread. Wishman forgoes her duties as a storyteller here to deliver a disorienting montage instead of a proper feature film. She readily supplies the basic components of blood & tits 80s horror, but makes no effort to reign them in as an understandable narrative. A Night to Dismember bluntly delivers the goods with no concern for justifying their presence onscreen. It’s just as blatantly to the point as it is a total mess and I greatly admire the punk energy Wishman finds in that sloppiness even if it is a constant struggle to understand exactly what she’s doing onscreen throughout the experience.

According to Wishman herself, most of the film negative for the original version of A Night to Dismember was destroyed in a lab, which made the constant, overbearing narration necessary to tell a cohesive story. The VHS cover art for the film claims an 80 minute runtime and the original poster credits an entirely different actress than Samantha Fox. It’s widely believed that the original version of the film was intentionally “lost” & re-shot to include Fox, completely ditching the story told in the first version to boost ticket sales with a recognizable actress. Not having seen the lengthier version of the film, which is apparently hosted by a different narrator & follows a more supernatural plotline, I can only report that the short, hour-long version of A Night to Dismember is an entertaining oddity, a fine example of avant garde filmmaking at its trashiest.

-Brandon Ledet

Madhouse (1974)

three star

campstamp

One of the most depressing questions I encounter in everyday conversation is “Who is Vincent Price?” It comes up more often than you’d expect. I got it when I dressed as Price’s version of The Red Death last Mardi Gras. I got it when I was working at a movie theater with a bunch of skateboarding goofballs over the past year. It’s far from cool of me to have Kids These Days moments like this when I’m still just shy of 30, but what is the deal with kids these days anyways?  What are they teaching these whippersnappers in school? Surely there’s room in the curriculum for a little Vincent Price 101. Also, I remember the days when Vincent Price movies cost half a nickel and get off my lawn.

Madhouse would be far from my first choice for titles to show the young & curious who Vincent Price was, but it is an interesting addition to the horror giant’s resume because it’s explicitly about his own celebrity. Basically playing a fictionalized version of himself, Price appears here as the aging star of a horror series centered on the wicked Dr. Death. Relying on old clips mostly pulled from Price’s collaborations with Roger Corman in the B-movie legend‘s infamous Poe Cycle (which shared a producer in Madhouse‘s Sam Arkoff, naturally) the meta horror of this film is a little weak in that it constantly reminds you of the superior work Price made in his heyday. There’s a lot of interesting details in the film’s set-up, including Hollywood satire & the idea of a masked killer framing the “real” Dr. Death by recreating kills from his various films, but that novelty eventually wears off (in favor of a Brannigan-esque trip to London) and large stretches of the movie ultimately feel punishingly dull. Anyone with a vested interest in Vincent Price’s career (or meta horror in general) might get a kick out of Madhouse, but that appeal is unlikely to be universal.

That’s not to say that the film is stylistically lacking. Madhouse seems to intentionally ape the style over substance mentality of the giallo genre, even daring to lift images directly from the works of folks like Dario Argento & Mario Bava. A gloved hand enters from off screen wielding a shiny knife intended to slash a young woman down. The faceless mannequins of Blood & Black Lace appear for an odd jump scare. A trench coat, fedora, and mask combo shroud the identity of the killer to make for a sort of murder mystery where the murder is obviously more important that the mystery. Like the giallo it mimics, Madhouse exists as a sort of proto-slasher that would predict many horror trends of the late 70s & 80s to follow. It’s just unfortunate that the space between the kills feels so dull, especially once the Hollywood satire & meta horror fade to the background.

As much as I feel deeply dispirited when one of These Damn Millenials™ doesn’t know who Vincent Price is by name, here’s where I have to admit that I don’t know much of anything about the actor outside his onscreen roles. For instance, I always assumed that he was exclusively homosexual, based mostly on his campy, fey way of performing. Although a public ally to the gay community, Price apparently was married to several women & fathered multiple children. As a fan not previously in the know about this aspect of his personal life, my favorite parts of Madhouse were the ones showing Price’s fictional surrogate interacting with women, who are driven absolutely mad with lust for him. At the beginning of the film he’s depicted as an aging, wealthy actor engaged to marry a young porn star. Late in the proceedings he develops a weird sort of domesticity with an insane woman who raises hordes of spiders as her “babies”. In between these connections there’s several young groupies fighting for the chance to be near him. What’s odd about this is aspect is the way the film criticizes the film industry’s misogyny problem while also participating in it (as most slashers do by nature). In one breath Madhouse will criticize the way young women are left by the wayside at the wrong end of slut-shaming or mere aging. In the next the film will follow that sentiment up with wonderfully bitchy exchanges like “You scared the pants off me.” “Who hasn’t?” It’s an uncomfortably compromised balance, but it does reveal aspects of Price’s personality/sexuality that I was previously unaware of, a detail I appreciated greatly.

I enjoyed Madhouse well enough as a silly little meta horror with taglines like “Lights, Camera, Murder” & as a reflection of who Vincent Price was as an oddball celebrity, but I don’t think the film would hold the same level of interest for those not already predisposed to enjoy the actor’s work/aesthetic. For folks seeking a better introduction I’d recommend checking out pretty much any one of the Roger Corman classics this film tries to pass off as Dr. Death flicks (except for maybe the incomprehensibly inept The Raven; yikes!). The man had a massively impressive career with dozens of titles that help define the best classic horror has to offer as a genre. Unfortunately, Madhouse is more of a distant echo of those works than an active participant, interesting context or not.

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)

EPSON MFP image

three star

campstamp

The Roger Corman-produced “Massacre” film series, which had its origins in the not-intended-to-be-connected The Slumber Party Massacre & Sorority Party Massacre, is such an intrinsically-1980s franchise that it really had no business extending itself into any other decade. That’s why it sorta makes sense that both films individually enjoyed a last-gasp sequel in 1990, one final return to the well for a dying enterprise. Sorority  House Massacre II was a mess of a generic slasher, one that confused the origin story of its source material to the point where it was downright impossible to tell what, if any, film it was supposed to follow. Released the same year, Slumber Party Massacre III is a run-of-the-mill genre exercise as well; it’s just one with enough sense & clarity to stand as a logical disciple of its predecessors. Honestly, if it weren’t for the deliriously goofy heights that Slumber Party Massacre II took the franchise to, it might’ve even stood as one of the best of the franchise. As is, it’s serviceable.

Is there any need to go into the details of the plot of Slumber Party Massacre III? There’s a pretty solid formula to these things. Teen girls with access to an empty house decide to throw a girls-night slumber party. Horny teen boys attempt to crash the party in hopes of causing sexual mischief. A mysterious killer murders them one at a time, leaving only a few survivors to promise/threaten the potential of a sequel (despite the sequels typically abandoning characters/plot-lines from earlier films anyway). The killer in question is different in all three of the Slumber Party films, but the murderous creeps do all share the same weapon of teen destruction: a massive (& massively phallic) power drill. Throw in some gratuitous nudity & lingerie-clad lounging and you have the basic structure of any & all Slumber Party Massacre films laid out in detail. Slumber Party Massacre II complicated this set-up with some Looney Tunes-level screwball comedy & classic MTV cheese, but the first & third films in the franchise are more or less entirely straightforward. As long as you’re not looking for anything too unique or remarkable in the formula (besides the loaded imagery of that power drill) you’re likely to enjoy Slumber Party Massacre III for what it is: a no-frills VHS-era slasher.

There are a few variations that Slumber Party Massacre III brings to the table, though. The first thing I noticed was that it introduces a lot of exterior space to the equation. The film begins with the girls playing volleyball in high-waisted bikinis on the beach. Once their game is over, they’re trailed, chased, and spied on in a way that recalls a lot of traditional slashers’ mode of terror that was missing in the earlier films, setting up the voyeuristic killer dynamic that will haunt their sleepover party later. The films’ living room dance party/strip tease is nothing new, but the way it’s crashed by a bonehead gang of dudes’ Halloween mask prank is interesting. I’ve also championed this series as a whole for feeling remarkably feminine for a slasher property despite the inherent softcore porn salaciousness of their titles (going along with the franchise’s tradition of female directors this one was helmed by a Sally Mattison), but Slumber Party Massacre III stands as the first & only film in the franchise to reference both cunnilingus & female masturbation. I found that somewhat surprising.

What really makes Slumber Party Massacre III stand out, though, is the way it fully engages with the phallic imagery of its gigantic power drill murder weapon. The drill-wielding killers in the earlier films are escaped mental patients & mystical sex demons who command the phallic power of their murder weapons without much thought given to their reasoning. The killer in Slumber Party Massacre III, as a change of pace, has a legitimate reason for using the drill the way he does. He has access to an uncle’s lumber yard where he would conceivably be able to obtain a drill of that size. He also suffers from an embarrassing case of early onset impotence which makes the meaning behind the giant drill kills all the more disturbing (especially in a gruesome, climactic seduction/murder). The kills are also more sexualized in order to play into this theme, including an early murder in which the maniac moves the drill back & forth into his victim rhythmically (Gross.) and in a hilarious death involving a bathtub & a plug-in vibrator.

As potent as those predatory sexuality themes are in Slumber Party Massacre III, the movie is, of course, a largely goofy trifle. There’s plenty of campy touches to the film’s proceedings. A dressed-in-black D&D nerd described only as “the weirdo” shows up only to be creepy & promptly disappear unexplained along with at least one other potential-but-not-actual killer. When the girls arrive to party at the house, they bring along one six pack of beer to split between them that seems to last forever. The cans read “Beer” in plain letters, just like their brandless pizza box reads “Pizza”. One particularly buffoonish victim is eliminated by being impaled on a real estate agent’s yard sale sign. You get the picture. Slumber Party Massacre III is a goofy home video horror with a few gruesome kills, some deliciously corny acting/dialogue, and sexual energy that alternates from girlishly playful to deeply uncomfortable. If you’re looking for anything more than that from a film of this ilk, I highly recommend checking out Slumber Party Massacre II instead. It’s easily the most worthwhile film in the series to track down.

-Brandon Ledet

Slumber Party Massacre II (1987)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

campstamp

Four films into the Roger Corman-produced “Massacre” collection & I feel like my efforts have finally payed off in a significant way. Sorority House Massacre was a delightfully dreamlike slasher, but it was cheap & derivative in a way that kept it from achieving anything too special. The Slumber Party Massacre was a by-the-numbers genre exercise with brief flashes of feminist-bent satire that were exciting, but mostly lost somewhere in their translation from script to screen. Sorority House Massacre II bridged the two properties, mixing & confusing the plots of the two original features to the point where no sense could be made of their central mythology (which, I assure you, was never intended to be shared). Slumber Party Massacre II, thankfully, brings a sense of purpose & unique charm to the (very loosely connected, if connected at all) Massacre franchise. It’s the first film of the series I’ve seen that felt like something truly special, the exact kind of bonkers midnight monster schlock that’s so mindlessly trashy & gratuitous that it approaches high art.

Courtney, the younger sister of one of the few nubile survivors of the original Slumber Party Massacre, ditches visiting her traumatized sibling in the hospital (“But Mom! It’s my birthday! I don’t wanna go to a mental hospital!”) in order to practice for The Big Dance with her all-girl New Wave garage band an at unsupervised (and unfurnished) condo. Of course, a group of goofball boys crash the party in order to make out & cause mischief. Despite warnings from her sister (who speaks to her through nightmares) to not “go all the way”, Courtney does the deed with the hunkiest of the bonehead beaus anyway, an act that releases a killer sex demon bent on killing everyone in the condo (seriously). Before having sex, Courtney falls into a routine of seeing nightmare images that recall the loopy flashbacks I enjoyed so much in Sorority House Massacre, but pushed to a much goofier extreme (severed hand sandwiches, killer raw chicken, a mutant zit spewing a river of puss, etc.) only to have everything snap back to normal when she calls for help. Her buddy/drummer asks, “Are you on drugs or something?” and Courtney responds with a perfect, gravely serious deadpan, “I wish I was, Sally.” It isn’t until after she has sex that these horrors become “real” & Slumber Party Massacre II devolves into supernatural horror/screwball comedy antics.

Slumber Party Massacre II gets everything right on its approach to slasher-driven mayhem. The origins & specifics of its killer rock n’ roll sex demon are just flat out ignored. All you know, really, is that he kinda looks like Andrew Dice Clay (although I’m sure they were aiming for Elvis) with a Dracula collar on his leather jacket & a gigantic power drill extending from the neck of his electric guitar (or “axe” in 80s speak). He mercilessly disembowels & impales teen victims on his monstrously phallic weapon/musical instrument all while shredding hot licks & doling out generic rock ‘n roll phrases like “This is dedicated to the one I love” & “C’mon baby, light my fire” before each kill. The best part is that this irreverent killer antagonist, although supernatural & unexplained, feels clearly purposeful. He not only plays directly into the slasher genres teen sex = instant death trope in a hilariously exaggerated way, he also stands as a perfect fit for the film’s overall aesthetic of a dirt cheap MTV relic. The film’s nightmare sequences & playful girlishness intentionally mimic/mock cheap music videos (right down to the smoke machine & bare bones sets) so it makes perfect sense that the killer would be a rock video knockoff with a phallic guitar murder weapon. Early in the film the girl band dreams of big success in ambitious statements like “Some day we’re going to be in movies & rock videos & everything,” and “MTV here we come!” What they didn’t expect is that MTV would come to them, wielding a gigantic power drill & an endless abundance of cheesy rock ‘n roll one-liners. All this & the camera taking the POV of a television while the girls watch the sister-Corman production (and flawless masterpiece) Rock ‘N Roll High School & dance around the living room in their undies (or less).

There are isolated moments that made the three Massacre films I had watched prior feel occasionally worthwhile, but Slumber Party Massacre II puts them all to shame. Written & directed by Deborah Brock, Slumber Party Massacre II includes everything recommendable in the earlier films, only pushed to their most exaggerated extremes. Its kills are bloodier. Its self-parody is funnier. Its nudity is more enticing. Its characters & dialogue, although awful, are far from memorable. I even have favorite characters in this film (a power couple of the impossibly attractive/horny Sheila & the perfect cad/Adam DeVine prototype T.J.) when I couldn’t name you a single character in any of the Massacre films I had watched before. So far in this franchise I’ve been championing Sorority House Massacre as a favorite due to its surprisingly strong femininity (for a slasher, anyway) & loopy dream/deja vu imagery. Slumber Party Massacre II outdoes it on both counts. The music video nightmare imagery is far more plentiful/bizarre than anything to be found in Sorority House Massacre & its mock sexiness (although it mimics male masturbation fantasies like pillow fights & car washes for a comical effect; at one point some male lookers-on exclaim “I didn’t know girls really did this stuff!”) is far more playfully feminine in an authentically girly way. It even achieves all this without airlifting its killer from John Carpenter’s Halloween with little to no changes in his backstory the way Sorority House Massacre does, opting instead to bother creating its own monster to terrorize its buxom, half-dressed teens (R.I.P. Sheila). Barring the highly unlikely event that Slumber Party Massacre 3 is an even better turn for the franchise it feels safe to say that this film is the most worth tracking down under the “Massacre” imprint. More importantly, it’s one of the most deliriously fun VHS era slashers I’ve ever seen, within or without the franchise. I highly recommend checking it out no matter how much you care about the “Massacre” films as an enterprise.

– Brandon Ledet