Features / October 19, 2018
Directed by Stephen King
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (1986)
Go big or go home could certainly be the tagline of Maximum Overdrive, and it’s also my mission in defending what to some film fans is the indefensible. What’s the point of trying to invoke some sympathy for neglected horror movies if you’re going to pick sensitive poetic fare that anyone with a film degree and a black turtleneck could enjoy? There is fuck-all sensitive and poetic about Maximum Overdrive, and nor is there supposed to be. Stephen King promises us a story about killer Big Rigs flattening a variety of irritating Americans, and he delivers it in heaping, dripping spadefuls.
Based on the short story “Trucks” from King’s 1978 Night Shift anthology, Maximum Overdrive is the timeless tale of the possession—via spooky UFO/comet-based juju—of the earth’s machinery. A lesser director might have tried harder to belabor the theme of man’s overreliance on technology and disconnection from nature. King does wave a sweaty hand in that general direction, but ultimately just wants to watch a baseball coach get fatally nailed in the nuts by a homicidal vending machine—and who among us cannot say the same? Since this is We Are the Mutants, I should probably include something intellectual about the dueling urges of the Dionysian vs. the Apollonian, but wouldn’t it be more fun just to watch a tow-headed youth getting stalked by a possessed ice cream truck?
Yes. The answer is yes.
King is a horror aficionado who appreciates the sticky allure of the B movie, and Maximum Overdrive glories in every B movie trope available: the planetary threat from beyond the stars, the ragtag bunch of survivors, the schlocky set-pieces, the… AC/DC music. King might famously have called it a “Moron movie,” but sometimes it’s fun to be a moron, and good horror movies can be just as much about sheer, gross-out, eye-rolling, groan-worthy joy as they are about the eternal emptiness of the inner heart of man. “There was a long time during post production when I thought I had made a worthy successor to Plan 9 from Outer Space,” was King’s assessment. I’d agree with that, and hey, if nothing else, you get to hear Lisa Simpson call someone a “Goddamn asshole.”
I think the film is both underappreciated and deserving of a sequel. Picture it: the year is 2026. Youngster BILLY MCTEEN is smarting under the kindly but old-fashioned guardianship of his Grandfather, MAINE WISEMAN. Why won’t Gramps let Billy have a self-driving car like all the other kids? Why is he the only one with no in-home AI? But when unspecified cosmic disaster strikes, Billy alone escapes imprisonment by the maniacal machines, and is caught in a deadly race against time and technology to save the rest of the town in… MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE II: Hard Drive.
You can send me a check, Hollywood.
Directed by John Fawcett
Motion International (2000)
The Hollywood lycanthrope, established early on by Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941) and Herman Cohen’s I Was A Teenage Werewolf (1957), is an avatar of—maybe even a defense of—male aggression and/or male adolescence. Ginger Snaps is a brilliant subversion of that tradition, and perhaps the most complete feminist horror film ever made. Ginger and her sister Brigitte are unkempt, antisocial, doom-obsessed teenagers in the immaculately boring suburb of Bailey Downs. For a school project, they elaborately stage and photograph their fictional deaths, and they live by an equally grisly pact: “Out by sixteen or dead on the scene, but together forever—united against life as we know it.”
The day Ginger gets her period (a nod to Stephen King’s Carrie), she’s attacked at the local park by a wolf creature (it’s been eating the neighborhood dogs), and soon sprouts fur, fangs, and a little tail. She also develops the insatiable urge “to tear everything to fucking pieces,” a hunger she initially mistakes for budding sexual desire. The physical transformation elicits a social transformation: in a brilliant scene, we follow Ginger as she enters the main wing of her high school, attired in body-hugging new clothes, a couple of attractively placed grey streaks in her hair. She is self-conscious for a few seconds, but, by the time she finishes her long, deliberate strut down the hallway—the boys ogling in approval, the “it” girls resentful as hell—she owns the place. Each day brings Ginger a little closer to her animal self: she becomes the aggressor in her first sexual relationship; she beats the shit out of the queen bee (Danielle Hampton) who habitually bullied her and her sister; and she kills the janitor (Pak-Kwong Ho), telling Brigitte afterwards, “It’s like touching yourself… you see fucking fireworks.”
Ginger wants Brigitte to become a werewolf too—together forever—but Brigitte soon realizes that real blood and real death aren’t so fun. As Ginger becomes uncontrollable, the sisters start to drift apart, and Brigitte seeks out the local drug dealer (Kris Lemche) to come up with a cure. The final scene, with fully transformed Ginger pitted against her conflicted sister, the cure in one hand and a dagger in the other, is one of the finest and most poignant in all of horror. Katharine Isabelle (Ginger) and Emily Perkins (Brigitte) are wonderful throughout, and Mimi Rogers is perfect as the insufferable suburban-maternal-unit who, after she finds out her daughters have accidentally killed their classmate (the queen bee), is nevertheless unflinchingly loyal to them: “I’ll let the house fill up with gas, and I’ll light a match. We’ll start fresh: just us girls.” And that’s really what the film is about: the bond between the two sisters, between mothers and daughters, between all women, as they attempt to deal with the disease of predatory violence inflicted upon them by the male animal.
Directed by Colin Eggleston
Dugong Films (1978)
I don’t know if Australian chiller Long Weekend can be considered neglected anymore, because, unfortunately, it increasingly feels like nothing is, but it was one of those films that—thanks to British film licensing laws and spotty video shop selection criteria—existed for many years as nothing more than a dimly remembered review in some old magazine and a couple of even more dimly remembered black and white stills.
Inspired by an unpleasant-sounding weekend holiday writer Everett De Roche—who also penned four other memorable films, 1978’s Patrick, 1980’s Harlequin, 1981’s Roadgames, and 1984’s Razorback—spent on an isolated beach in New South Wales, Long Weekend emerged as part of two cinematic waves: the wave of people-versus-nature films that were selflessly extruded by production companies worldwide in the aftermath of Jaws, and the Australian New Wave, when the country’s art films and exploitation flicks exploded onto cinema screens around the globe. The film tells the story of an unhappy (and awful) urban couple who decide to spend the titular long weekend at a secluded Australian beach. They take their shitty approach to existence and nature along with them, of course, with the upshot that nature decides existence is something they don’t deserve.
Long Weekend sits at the center of a strange triangulation of Werner Herzog, The Birds, and The Blair Witch Project, and is one of the few films to share with this last the eerie sensation that nature’s indifference to humanity inspires. The film was a flop when it was released, and it’s easy to see why: it’s a meandering and dispiriting stagger towards a downbeat conclusion that isn’t even funny nowadays, when we’re all supposed to affect amused cynicism. Any denizen of 1978 expecting to see a Grizzly-esque battle royale where a battered humanity emerges triumphant from a scaramouche with the local fauna would have left the cinema feeling cheated.
Whether Long Weekend is actually a metaphor for the country’s colonial past or a dig at ‘70s consumerist mores—conspicuous shots of the mindless protagonist’s Adidas hint it might be the latter—I couldn’t tell you, but I can’t think of a better or more disquieting evocation of mankind as infesting animal blundering blindly and unthinkingly into conflict with its habitat.
Directed by Clive Barker
20th Century Fox (1990)
Horror author Clive Barker saw serial success with the Hellraiser and and Candyman franchises, both based on his work, but Nightbreed, adapted from his 1988 story “Cabal” and directed by Barker himself, has always been the poor, creepy cousin. A pity, when to my mind it better captures the sexual and surreal tone of Barker’s work than Candyman (A fantasy novel set inside a rug, anyone?) and is more flamboyantly fun than S&M goth try-hard Hellraiser.
Barker uses the Interview with the Vampire technique of telling his story from the point of view of the monsters, but somehow achieves the remarkable feat of keeping the monsters monstrous in doing so. Midian (the home/refuge/demonic Burning Man polycule) is a beacon of safety to falsely accused serial killer Boone, but it also holds its own series of threats and tests. I guess that comes with the territory when you source Trip Advisor reports from your mental hospital roomie who ends his recommendation with ripping his own face off. Usually a protagonist survives a horror movie because of his or (more often) her innocence, yet Boone is initially rejected from Midian by the ferocious Peloquin when he smells Boone’s innocence. Can we also show some appreciation for the line “God’s an astronaut, Oz is over the rainbow, and Midian is where the monsters live.” Fuck, I love Peloquin.
And Midian doesn’t survive the attack by corrupt small-town cops and a treacherous priest, Boone’s serial killer psychotherapist Phillip Decker (played with chilly-bonkers verve by David motherfucking Cronenberg!), because of any brave or noble act on Boone’s part. He literally releases insane abominations and destroys the whole place, casting the monstrous tribe out into the world once again.
Barker’s plots are never predictable, twisting in our hands like a slippery leviathan—probably a slippery leviathan we’re going to fuck while our nipples transform into small screaming faces—and Nightbreed exemplifies this fever-dream quality. The only character who never quite thrashes free of the tropes is Boone’s love interest Lori, but even she gets a decent amount of screentime, where she actively solves problems and shows courage, and scores a more interesting fate in the alternate ending, attempting suicide and being inducted into the ranks of the monstrous.
A victim of clumsy marketing, Nightbreed was trashed by the critics and failed to register on the pop culture barometer. Like many underappreciated horror movies, the film has gained its own cult following, but has never quite captured the public imagination the way that it should have. Perhaps it’s appropriate that a movie about outcasts should be an outcast itself.
Directed by George A. Romero
Orion Pictures (1988)
If you look at George A. Romero’s output, from the beginning of his career to the end of the 1980s, you’ll see a wealth of appreciated works—films that have found an audience of praisers and defenders. Take, for example, his original Dead trilogy: Night, Dawn, and Day have all been remade, as has his not-quite-zombies zombie flick The Crazies. Those who know him as more than the Godfather of the Undead are quick to cite the brilliance of Martin (1978), his take on the vampire genre. His EC Comics-inspired Creepshow (1982) is a cult classic with two sequels and a TV show currently in the works. Even his lesser seen fare, like There’s Always Vanilla (1971) and Season of the Witch (1973), have recently been rediscovered and given Special Edition Blu-ray releases from Arrow Video. Heck, even his bizarro Ren Faire flick Knightriders (1981) pops up in conversation on social media from time to time, if only in gif form.
Yet his last film of the ’80s, Monkey Shines (1988), seems to have fallen by the wayside. It has no remake, no special release, no fawning dissertations to be found. A film, apparently, without an audience. Which is a shame, because I think Romero’s man vs. monkey thriller (based on the synonymous 1983 novel by Michael Stewart) is genuinely quite good. In fact, I’d go as far as to say great. The story of a paraplegic man being harassed by his service animal, a terrifying little capuchin monkey named Ella, may sound laughable on paper, but the execution of the film is downright terrifying. At a time when third-rate slashers were all you could see at the cinema, Romero delivered a Hitchcockian chiller that is pointedly claustrophobic.
I’m not sure why I don’t see more praise being heaped upon this film. (Especially since wizard of gore, Tom Savini, provided the bloody effects—everyone loves Savini!) Again, perhaps it’s that people only remember the film as “monkey attacks man in wheelchair,” and they can’t imagine the rest being any good. But if I can think of one film that needs to be reappraised—a film I consider “neglected”—it’s Monkey Shines.
Directed by Ulli Lommel
The Jerry Gross Organization (1980)
If you don’t want to see a crazed psychodrama where shards of a haunted mirror, metaphorically representing the enduring effects of childhood trauma, embed themselves in the eyes of a mesmerically beautiful DuPont heiress (Suzanna Love), turning her into a possessed killer, directed by a German polymath who started out as an actor in a Russ Meyer film before working on many Rainer Werner Fassbinder movies and having Andy Warhol, whose creative associate he had been at The Factory, appear in his 1978 punk rock film Blank Generation along with Richard Hell—a film that for years was a regular member of the British list of banned Video Nasties (meaning that, depending on how mean your local police brigade was, possession of a VHS could, hypothetically, mean imprisonment)—then to be quite frank I don’t know what the fuck you do want.
That was a long sentence, but long sentences are necessitated by The Boogeyman, a demented explosion of visionary imagery and violence that could only have been made by someone with director Lommel’s background. Is it scary? Both no and yes, because it makes practically no sense and yet seems never to deviate from its own internal nightmare logic. It embeds itself in your imagination like a white-hot coin sinking into a pat of butter.
It was a toss-up for me whether to choose The Boogeyman or 1983’s The Devonsville Terror, where Love and Lommel teamed up again for another compellingly watchable eruption of color, violence and, in the latter film’s case, gender politics.
Directed by Frank Henenlotter
Palisades Entertainment Group (1988)
Meet Aylmer. He looks like an erection encased in a bowel movement, but he’s actually a brain-sucking alien parasite, “a living relic of civilizations long since forgotten,” who has attached himself to hapless young Brian (Rick Hearst). Aylmer has a particularly potent method for insuring eternal loyalty: he injects his victims with a syringe-like tongue at the base of the neck, inducing a high that is nothing less than cosmic. When the high fades, it’s hell to be alive. Pretty soon, Brian will do anything to get a hit. “He needs the brains,” Brian tells his cast off girlfriend (Jennifer Lowry), “but I need his juice.”
Writer-director Henenlotter is best known for the cult classic Basket Case (1982), but Brain Damage is his true masterpiece, if you can call a film in which a googly-eyed, showtune-singing phallus shoots out of the hero’s unzipped pants into the mouth of a female caller and sucks the brains out of the back of her skull a classic. When he’s high, you see, Brian has no idea what he’s doing, and thus, in tones resembling an erudite clown-for-hire selling poison candy to children, Aylmer (voiced impeccably by Chiller Theatre host John Zacherle) strings the poor sap along his path of destruction.
Filmed partly in the squalid corners of New York City during the crack outbreak, I suppose there’s a deeper meaning about addiction and Reagan’s ignorant, exacerbating War on Drugs, and there is an exquisite scene in which Brian tries to get off Aylmer’s juice in a seedy hotel room, only to be mercilessly taunted by the undulating creature from its perch on the dingy sink—but mostly what keeps the audience jonesing for more is the glorious absurdity of the ancient-penis-alien and Henenlotter’s often beautiful depictions of euphoria and misery.
Directed by John Carl Buechler
Empire Pictures (1986)
Speaking of cult followings, Troll 2, the insane not-a-sequel to Troll, has rightfully earned a rabid new fan base—including an excellent spin-off documentary—for being one of the most deliciously terrible horror movies of all time. Not-really-a-predecessor, Troll languishes in comparison to its weirder, more quotable progeny. It’s true that Troll is not quite bad enough to be bad-good, but is it not quite bad enough to be good-good? I think so. For a start, it has two Harry Potters and a Sonny Bono in it.
All cards on the table: for my birthday a few years back, I hosted a Troll 2 party. It was no surprise that everyone present laughed and/or gazed in bemusement at both the “film” and its accompanying documentary, but what was surprising (to me as well) was how well the first installment held up, captivating a crowd of sleepy people who’d eaten too much green cake until the wee hours of the morning.
The plot of Troll famously has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot of the sequel. Instead of a small child and his dead grandpa fighting the forces of darkness and vegetarianism, Troll begins with the more prosaic scenario of a family moving into a San Francisco apartment building packed with squabbling comedy characters. Harry Potter Junior’s sister Wendy is soon possessed by the titular troll and wreaks adorable havoc, terrorizing her brother (an awkward Noah Hathaway) and parents and going on a growling rampage that no amount of Ritalin could hope to stem. She soon gets nastier, turning upstairs neighbor Peter (Sonny Bono) into an enchanted forest replete with charmingly gruesome goblins in a delightfully grotesque special effects sequence. Peter’s apartment is a masterpiece of 80s sleazeball chic, if perhaps his introduction as a “single unattached guy into swinging” is a bit of an overshare. Ex-marine Duke (“books are owned and operated by liberal scum”) is quickly topiaried to death too, and the magical, evil world of the elves begins to spill over into the real world. Glamor granny/witch Eunice soon lays out the stakes—if Harry fails to defeat her ex-boyfriend Torok the troll, the world of magic will destroy the world of the mundane. Torok is not entirely evil, transforming dying professor Malcolm into a creepy elf to fulfill his childhood dreams, and turning Elaine from Seinfeld into a nymph to preserve her beauty forever. The troll himself is a genuinely creepy creation, although Jenny Beck as little sister Wendy gives a far more menacing performance as the Jekyll and Hyde adorable little girl/ranting ratburger fan.
It’s not a great movie, but it’s likable and screwy enough to keep one entertained for the duration, and the music is pure 80s horror-fantasy gold. And although I’m not going to claim that Harry Potter Senior’s bravura air guitar rendition of Summertime Blues is the definitive performance, it’s pretty mesmerizing. I feel that if Troll 2 hadn’t been such a tour de force of mesmerizingly strange movie making, Troll might have stood as a classic of the genre in its own right. It certainly deserves to.
The Arcane Sorcerer
Directed by Pupi Avati
If any of the three films I’ve chosen can justifiably be called obscure, it’s The Arcane Sorcerer (originally titled L’Arcano Incantatore). Director Pupi Avati is justly well-known outside of his home country of Italy for two fantastic horror films—The House with Laughing Windows (1976) and Zeder (1983)—but between 1970 and 2014 he somehow managed the superhuman feat of making 39 feature films. Avati is a bit of an enigma: on the one hand a steady-hand journeyman director; on the other hugely versatile and able to give touches of wholly personal magic to whatever genre he decides to turn his hand to—a sort of ideal overlap of hack and auteur. A vocal Catholic quite capable of producing cozy yet penetrating vignettes of small-town existence, Avati’s best work often seems to seek “to maximize the mystery of existence,” as Paul Schrader said of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer in his 1972 Transcendental Style in Film.
Set in the 1750, The Arcane Sorcerer, tells the story of Giacomo (Stefano Dionisi), a young seminarian fleeing a scandal, who makes a bargain with dark forces in the process. He is engaged by a monsignor (Carlo Cecchi) to take the place of his secretary, who died in mysterious circumstances. The monsignor lives in an isolated tower filled with books, and has been thrown out of the church because of his studies of the occult. As Giacomo is gradually drawn into his employer’s research into magic and telepathy, worrying secrets begin to emerge.
The Arcane Sorcerer is another slow film with no gore and no jumps, but it’s filled with memorably unsettling images—like the whispering noblewoman hidden behind a fresco, only her eyes visible, peering out through those of a painted owl—and a genuine sense of profound unease. The atmosphere of diseased supernatural unhealthiness mounts until, by the time of the film’s conclusion, it is almost unbearable, and viewers will be wondering if perhaps a quick Mass might not be a bad idea after all.