Tag Archives: video nasty

RetView #18 – The Slayer (1982)

Title: The Slayer

Year of Release: 1982

Director: J.S. Cardone

Length: 86 minutes (uncut)

Starring: Sarah Kendall, Frederick Flynn, Carol Kottenbrook, Alan McRae

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Along with The Evil Dead, this understated and often-overlooked cult classic is one of the original video nasties, meaning it was one of the 72 included on the infamous ‘banned’ list comprised by the British Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in 1983 in the belief that they contravened the Obscene Publications Act. Written and directed by J.S. Cardone (best known for The Forsaken, Shadowzone and the 2008 version of Prom Night), The Slayer can be seen as more than a simple slasher film following in the footsteps of Halloween and Friday the 13th, as it contains legitimate supernatural elements and a depth sadly lacking in most films of this genre. It is practically impossible to examine the intricacies and sub-plots without dropping the odd spoiler, so be prepared for that over the next couple of paragraphs.

Artist Kay (Kendall) is one half of a professional, upwardly-mobile couple. But all is not well. She suffers from terrible nightmares, usually involving the gruesome deaths of friends or loved ones. Concerned that the dreams are affecting her work, her family arranges a holiday for her, her husband, and another couple, on a remote island off the coast of Georgia. They are taken there by plane. Before leaving, the pilot, a thoroughly unnerving character called Marsh, serves up a cryptic warning which sets them all on edge. It then transpires that the island is the very place Kay has been dreaming about and further alarm bells ring about half an hour in when one of their number is killed when he gets his head stuck in a trap door. That scene is probably what led to the ‘video nasty’ classification. It’s pretty fucking gruesome. Over the next few days, everyone is slaughtered except Kay. But this is where it gets interesting. With every killing, alternate possibilities are put forward for the discerning viewer to decipher. Is Marsh the creepy pilot the murderer? Has the island somehow allowed Kay’s nightmares to merge with reality? Is a supernatural entity from her dreams, a la Freddy Kreuger, the culprit? Or is Kay herself the one doing the killing? If so, does she even know she’d doing it? Or is she plain crazy?

I wish I knew the answer. But the truth is, I have no fucking clue. I loved the way all these possible scenarios, and probably a few more that I missed, overlap and are presented to the viewer leaving he or she to make up their own mind about what’s happening. It’s much better than being spoon-fed information and then left to digest it. The last few minutes, where you think everything will be revealed, are as close to genius as you would expect from a so-called video nasty. Kay barricades herself in the holiday home, Marsh appears and she kills him. But it isn’t revealed whether Marsh is there to save her or do her harm. The house catches fire, she opens the door to make her escape, and is then confronted by the monster from her dreams. Mind. Blown. Oh, but there’s more. Because then she wakes up. Yes. One of the crappiest plot devices in the history of plot devices, the old ‘it was all a dream’ chestnut, is wheeled out. Or is it? You see Kay is a little girl again, it’s Christmas morning and she’s in her parent’s house. What the absolute fuck. We are never told whether she’s having a flashback or if she really did dream the whole thing. This final refusal to offer any kind of resolution is the most frustrating aspect of all. Until that point, you were willing to withhold judgement and wait and see what transpires. We are the audience. Sure, fuck with us all you want, that’s what we are here for and some of us like it, but don’t insult our intelligence. Also, am I the only one who wanted to see more of the monster?

The Slayer (also known by the frankly much better title, Nightmare Island) wasn’t a big hit with reviewers, with most criticizing not only the non-committal approach to storytelling but also the film’s pacing. However, most praised it for the well-made kill scenes and generally good production. The director does a great job of instilling a sense of trepidation and isolation, which later turns into desperation and despair.

Trivia Corner.

The scene which caused most concern with the censors is one where a female victim is stabbed through the back with a pitch fork, the prongs emerging from her chest. In most versions it was cut completely, but restored to the 2001 UK DVD release (weirdly, it has never been released on DVD in the US). It’s comparatively innocuous by today’s standards, and surely every 1980’s slasher flick needs a pitch fork, right?

 

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RetView #9 – The Evil Dead

Title: The Evil Dead

Year of Release: 1981

Director: Sam Raimi

Length: 85 mins

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Betsy Baker, Hal Delrich

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I remember the first time I saw The Evil Dead. I was in my early teens, and my folks had one on holiday leaving me home alone. I scared myself so much that I stayed awake the entire night with every light in the house switched on. Apart from an early encounter with An American Werewolf in London, that was my first experience of being absolutely shit scared by a film. During subsequent viewings, I learned to appreciate the crude humour as well as other aspects like the kick-ass script and innovative cinematography. But that first time, it was all about pure, unadulterated fear. I was absolutely terrified, and traumatised for weeks afterwards. It was brilliant. If I had to pin down the single most frightening aspect of the whole movie, it would be the trapdoor leading to the cellar. It still gives me chills thinking about it now. I’d love to live off the grid in a secluded log cabin in the woods. But if it has a trap door leading to the cellar, you can fucking keep it.

Wait a minute, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s rewind a little. If you haven’t seen Evil Dead (why?), it goes something like this…

Five college students go on vacation to a secluded log cabin in the woods which, as I mentioned, has a trapdoor leading to the cellar. You could probably attach any kind of metaphor to this. It could represent hell (the underworld), our subconscious mind, or any number of other things. But for the sake of argument, let’s just call it what it is. Obviously, the college students go exploring, and find some audio tapes made by a researcher who talks about something called the Book of the Dead, a book of spells and incantations bound in human flesh and written in human blood. The tapes summon demonic entities which, one by one, possess the students. The next thing you know, people are speaking in tongues and getting raped by trees left right and centre. The scene where Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) initially falls under the influence, levitates, and stabs her friend through the ankle with a pencil before being locked in the cellar is utterly horrifying. She keeps pushing her hands through the gap in the trapdoor and making gurgling noises. Ew. As you can probably imagine, things deteriorate drastically from that point on and pretty soon Ash (Bruce Campbell) is locked in a nightmarish battle for survival. Things don’t improve much when he realises the only defence against his possessed ex-friends is dismemberment with a chainsaw. Needless to say, it gets messy. Real messy.

The only thing letting the side down is the quality of the special effects, which though innovative for the time, sometimes come across as cheap and tacky. But you have to remember The Evil Dead was made almost forty years ago and cost around $350,000. Finances were such an issue that the crew consisted almost entirely of Raimi and Campbell’s family and friends. Largely as a result of an appearance at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival (where it was seen, and later emphatically endorsed by one Stephen King) the movie did manage to generate around $2.6 m, small potatoes in comparison with the $212 m raked in by that year’s biggest hit Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Germany, it was released in theatres and on video at the same time, and dominated the charts only to be banned shortly after. A heavily-censored version was released in the nineties but the ban on the original wasn’t lifted until 2016. This version is still preferable to the 2013 big-budget re-boot, largely because of the unpolished, rough and ready approach. It’s no surprise, either, that none of the original cast with the exception of Campbell went on to have much of an impact on Hollywood.

Trivia Corner:

At the end of filming, the crew put together a time capsule and left it inside the cabin’s fireplace. The cabin was later destroyed (Sam Raimi has claimed to have set it on fire himself, but he might have been joking) but the time capsule was discovered by a couple of Evil Dead fans. Hooray!

 


RetView #2 – Shock Waves

Title: Shock Waves

Year of Release: 1977

Director: Ken Wiederhorn

Length: 90 mins

Starring: Peter Cushing, Brooke Adams, John Carradine

Welcome to the second installment of my #RetView series, following last month’s Lost Boys feature, where I re-watch and review ‘forgotten’ horror classics. I love old horror movies, and it’s always fun to revisit them. Or in this case, belatedly discover them. I recently saw Outpost, and Outpost: Black Sun (aka Outpost II) on the Horror Channel, and decided I kinda like Nazi zombies. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the whole idea of twin evil. Total nastiness.

On watching the Outpost double-header, I realized that the whole Nazi zombie thing is an actual sub genre. Admittedly, this mini-revelation making me feel only marginally less of a freak. In recent years we’ve had the Dead Snow films, Blood Creek and several other notables that I can’t remember off the top of my head. This all reminded me of a film I saw when I was a kid which frightened the absolute shit out of me called Zombie Lake. The original plan had been to track it down and watch it again to see if it was still scary, or if the intervening three decades or so had lessened its impact.

Whilst searching for it online, I kept seeing references to this other film, which is credited with kick-starting the whole Nazi zombie craze long before Zombie Lake. When I saw that it starred Peter Cushing, I was sold. Come to think of it, unkillable Germans have been a ‘thing’ of mine for quite a while.

Carrying the impressively corny tag-line, ‘The deep end of horror,’ Shock Waves was directed by Ken Wiederhorn (best known for Return of the Living Dead Part II and Eyes of a Stranger) and unleashed on an unsuspecting public in the summer of ’77. For context, it came out just when serial killer Son of Sam (David Berkowitz) was at his peak, if that’s the right way to say it.

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The film opens with Rose (played by Brooke Adams, who is perhaps best known in horror circles as being Christopher Walken’s love interest in the Dead Zone) being rescued from a little boat in the sea. Slowly, she remembers how she got there. She’d been traversing some islands on ‘one of those small dive boats’ when the engine seized, stranding her with a bunch of other people including the captain (John Carradine) and his mate, Keith, who is afflicted with tragic hippy hair and a 70’s porno ‘tache. As the boat flounders in the water that night, it is stuck by a ‘ghost ship’ which isn’t really a ghost ship, not the supernatural kind anyway. It’s something much worse.

In the morning the captain inexplicably turns up drowned, which understandably sends the rest of them into a mild panic, and after finding the boat is taking on water decide to decamp to a nearby island which, conveniently, comes equipped with an abandoned hotel. Now you’re talking. When abandoned hotels are involved, you just know it’s gonna be zombie time soon. Except this one isn’t really abandoned, Peter Cushing lives there. Now the alarm bells would really be ringing, because murder, monsters and mayhem followed that guy around like herpes.

In Shock Waves Cushing plays the role of an eccentric recluse, who later reveals himself as a former SS commander who, during the war, was in charge of a fearsome bunch of misfit soldiers he moulded into an unkillable aquatic fighting unit. When they proved too difficult to control, he sank their ship. Or, he thought he did. Yep, it was THAT ship!

It all goes a bit south when zombies start coming out of the sea. Do you hear me? They come out of the sea! Eventually. I’m not sure why all needed diving goggles, but they otherwise seemed in extraordinarily good nick considering they’re supposed to have been literally dead in the water for thirty-odd years.

I was a bit disappointed to find that these aren’t the flesh eating kind of zombie. They’re more the throttling kind with a penchant for drowning people. In the sea, ponds, swimming pools, even, on one memorable occasion, a fish tank. Basically, if it has water, the fockers (sic) will find some way to drown you in it. This obviously limits their creativity somewhat. But still, I suppose any Nazi zombie is better than no Nazi zombie.

Things go down a predictable enough path from then on. The zombies slink about looking menacing, not saying much, and taking out the tourists one-by-one. They reserve an especially nasty demise for their old commander, who they presumably haven’t forgiven for trying to annihilate them. The film plays for atmosphere than shocks, which are few and far between, but one thing that really creeped me out is the musical score. For the most part, especially when the zombies are in attack mode, it’s a long, unbroken high-pitched whine, which is both annoying and unsettling. In the end, we come full circle to find Rose, rather the worse for wear, being rescued from the boat. The sole survivor. About those diving goggles, it’s revealed toward the end that if you remove them, the zombie dies. It’s never explained how or why this works, but fuck it, small details.

Shock Waves didn’t do much at the box office, and only really started receiving attention when it was released on VHS during the video nasty heyday of the 1980’s. Though it has attained cult status amongst horror movie aficionados, especially since being released on DVD in 2003, it has generally failed to impress in wider circles. Patrick Bromley of DVD Verdict summed things up nicely when he wrote, “More concerned with atmosphere than with shocks, it avoids a number of what would become the cliches of the genre; the flip side of that coin is that it delivers little of what we want from a zombie film.”

Trivia Corner:

Alternative titles used in various overseas territories included Almost Human and Death Corps, both of which are probably better than Shock Waves.

Come back next month for more #RetViews!


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