In the late ‘70s and early ’80s, in the wake of Halloween’s record-setting success, producers were madly scrambling to grab any remaining holidays to center their own slasher movie around. As slasher films typically hinge on payback for some perceived (or actual) past betrayal or wrong, Valentine’s Day – a day famous for fostering bitter disappointments and hurt feelings – was an ideal candidate for the slasher treatment.
One of several slasher productions made in Canada in the early ‘80s (along with Prom Night, Happy Birthday to Me and Terror Train), My Bloody Valentine proved easy for slasher buffs to adore, even if the MPAA – then on a crusade to neuter the new wave of splatter films – demanded heavy cuts be made before it awarded MBV an R-rating. To have the film released with all its bloodshed intact would’ve been nice but what makes MBV work is its attention to character and atmosphere so its FX didn’t have to be its key selling point. An uncut version of the film was finally released on DVD in 2009 in time for the release of the 3-D remake, but while it was nice to finally see more of FX master Tom Burman’s work, as it turned out it didn’t really improve upon the version that fans were already familiar with. In its original, R-rated form, MBV was all it needed to be.
Director Wes Craven has made horror history many times over and, most impressively, done so over the course of several decades. He first changed the landscape of horror in the ‘70s with The Last House on the Left (1972), then in the ‘80s with A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and again in the ‘90s with Scream (1996). With all respect to those seminal shockers, though, my own personal favorites from Craven’s catalog tend to be the less heralded ones. Number #1 for me is 1981’s oddball offering Deadly Blessing.
Released at the height of the slasher craze, Deadly Blessing employed some stock elements that were already over-familiar from the sub-genre – a rising body count, macabre deaths, menacing POV shots, multiple red herrings, nubile females in peril (including a young Sharon Stone in her first film role), and, of course, the killer’s identity is concealed until the climax. In those ways, Deadly Blessing is easily identifiable as a horror film that came out in the same year as Happy Birthday to Me and Graduation Day. It bears well-worn earmarks of the slasher genre that place it in its particular era. But beyond those familiar riffs, Deadly Blessing is much more idiosyncratic than the routine slashers that it shared marquee space with in ’81.
At the time that the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre was released in 1974, modern horror franchises were a rarity.
The classic monsters of old had, of course, spawned many sequels during their Universal heyday and later remakes in the Hammer era but the groundbreaking slasher films of the then-current day – seminal shockers like Psycho and Texas Chainsaw – did not immediately generate follow-ups, for whatever reason. But once the ‘80s arrived and horror hits were being spun into franchises with increasing frequency, studios decided that it was time to excavate their back catalog and cash-in – hence the return of characters like Norman Bates and Leatherface to the horror fold.
I believe that every horror fan has a list of movies that came out before their time that they wish they could’ve experienced first run in the theaters. As much as one can still appreciate classics like Jaws or Night of the Living Dead even if they first encounter them decades after their initial releases, the fact is catching up with a classic after the fact can’t quite compare with the seismic experience of seeing a game changing film fresh out of the gate with an unsuspecting first-time audience – long before every moment of the film has been committed to the cultural lexicon.
If I had my own movie going time machine at my disposal, at the very top of my must-see list would be 1960’s Psycho. I would love to see that film with an audience that had no idea what was going to happen – and even more, to experience it with an audience that wasn’t jaded by the many decades’ worth of slasher pics inspired by Psycho.
With the final installment of the Twilight saga now out, horror fans seeking some counterbalance might be craving a film slightly less sympathetic towards bloodsuckers and less interested in wooing the teen girl demographic. To that end, I recommend John Carpenter’s Vampires.
Based on the novel “Vampire$” by John Steakley, Vampires saw Carpenter indulging his long time love of westerns as hard as he ever has. This is a straight up cowboy and Indians style story with James Woods starring as Jack Crow, a vampire slayer under employment by the Vatican who leads a team of fellow slayers in a covert, Catholic Church-endorsed campaign to purge vampires from the face of the earth.
Crow and his crew do a brisk business ferreting out vampire nests and they’ve got a pretty efficient system going for wasting “goons” that involves spearing them in their nests and dragging them out via steel cables on a winch into the sunlight but when Valek (Thomas Ian Griffith), the king of all vampires, puts his boot down hard on Team Crow in a surprise ambush, killing all but Crow himself and Crow’s right hand man Tony Montoya (Daniel Baldwin), Vampires becomes about Crow’s single minded hunt for Valek. Making this about more than payback is the fact that Valek is in pursuit of a holy item known as the Bérziers Cross that will figure into a ceremony that will give vampires the power to walk in the daylight. And if that happens, then it’s game over for humanity.
Upon its release in 1982, Halloween III: Season of the Witch proved to be as welcome with Halloween fans as Tootsie Rolls are to trick or treaters. Few movies were given the bum’s rush so quickly and so few films brought together so many fans in near universal disdain. For years, if you asked horror fans how they felt about Halloween III, the stock response would be that they hated it.
So how is it that it’s become practically fashionable to like – even love – Halloween III? Plenty of films see their reputations improve over time but the turnaround in opinion on Halloween III to the point where some fans now call it the best of the Halloween sequels is nothing short of miraculous.
The unlikely road to redemption for this once-despised film comes down to three points…
Much to the frustration of filmmakers and studios eager to find reliable cash cows, it’s no easy task to create a successful horror icon – one that can be endlessly exploited in sequels, reboots, and remakes. It seems that the only way for it to happen is for it to happen by complete chance because whenever filmmakers deliberately set out to create the next Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, the attempt typically falls flat. That’s even true even when the successful creator of an icon tries to catch lightning again – witness the failure of Wes Craven’s Shocker (1989), the movie that was supposed to make the mega-watt madman known as Horace Pinker into a household name. Mitch Pileggi (The X-Files) played Pinker to the hilt in that film and the gimmick of a villain able to travel through any electrical device had potential but audiences didn’t show any appetite for Shocker, much less for a Shocker 2. Likewise, Max Jenke of The Horror Show (1989) proved to be a one-and-done slasher villain as did The Trickster from Brainscan (1993) and, well, the list goes on.
Up until 10 years ago it looked as though zombies were dead and buried. But in 2002, the first Resident Evil movie became a hit and spearheaded a new age of zombie cinema – bolstered by the release of 28 Days Later which followed months later in the UK and came to US theaters in 2003. Now, with the fourth Resident Evil sequel arriving in theaters, the acclaimed TV series The Walking Dead beginning its third season, and zombies even appearing in kid’s films with the ghoulish stop motion pic ParaNorman, it’s hard to remember a time when zombies were out of fashion. At yet, prior to Resident Evil, zombies had been deep underground for more than a decade.
The film that seemed, from a commercial standpoint, to put a bullet in the head of the zombie genre was 1990’s Night of the Living Dead remake. After NOTLD ’90, there were still some classic entries in zombie cinema – like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992), Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte, Dellamore (1994), and Brian Yunza’s underrated Return of the Living Dead III (1993) – but they were all either limited release or direct-to-video, films that found an appreciative cult audience rather than mainstream popularity.