It makes sense that, for my first post, we’re going to talk about horror movies. After all, Halloween – the only holiday that matters – is just around the corner, and for me horror cinema has been a big influence on, well, everything.
I was fortunate enough to grow up in a horror renaissance. The VCR brought thousands of horror options into the home. Particularly gruesome or bizarre horror movies, which usually had a hard time opening and remaining in cinemas, found a second life in home collections. This was also a time before infomercials dominated the late-night airwaves, and depraved young minds were treated to weekly horror showcases from USA Up All Night, MonsterVision with Joe Bob Briggs, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. For many of us, these programs (along with MST3K) were formative. It certainly was for me. Hell, my first crush was a busty blonde by the name of Barbara Crampton who had a, um, rather intimate scene with a decapitated head. I was ten years old when Dad showed me Re-Animator. Mom was NOT happy.
So for all you kindred spirits, here’s a short list of some of my all-time faves that, for one reason or another, were largely overlooked or forgotten.
After producing the horror classics Re-Animator and From Beyond, Brian Yuzna turned to directing his own films and created… this. Society isn’t a good movie. In fact, it is a very bad movie. And, it’s GLORIOUS.
Society stars teen heartthrob Billy Warlock as Bill, the adopted son of a wealthy Beverly Hills family. Despite his privileged position in life, Bill has a difficult time relating to his blue-blooded family. These feelings of alienation are amplified as, nearing graduation from high school, his family starts behaving in cryptic, frightening ways that point to some sort of grand conspiracy. I won’t spoil the ending for you, other than saying it is absolutely bug-fuck insane and will stick in your memory for a long, long time.
For me, Society falls into two categories of horror. The first is social dread, the anxiety of not fitting in and feeling inferior to the “normal” people in your life – something many horror fans can personally relate to. The second is body horror which, if you stick around to the end of the film, gets cranked up to eleven. I dare you to find twenty minutes of more grotesque special effects than what you’ll see at the back end of Society.
Not that Society isn’t without many, many flaws. It’s campy as hell. It’s sexist. It’s so-eighties-it-hurts. Moments of pure revulsion are broken up by shockingly bad puns and attempts at humor. But, none of that detracts from the entertainment value of the film, because you don’t watch a film like Society unless you can tolerate a lot of goofiness.
The Sadist (1963)
Loosely based on spree killer Charles Starkweather, The Sadist is a simple but very well-made kidnapping/hostage movie. Three schoolteachers on their way to a baseball game pull into a rural pumping station seeking a replacement fuel pump for their car. The station appears to be deserted until the trio are confronted by a gun-wielding teenager and his airhead girlfriend.
The teenager is Charlie Tibbs (unnervingly played by Arch Hall), subject of a nationwide manhunt for a killing spree across several western states. Tibbs needs a car, and holds the teachers hostage while one of them fixes the broken fuel pump – all while knowing that Tibbs intends to kill them once the work is completed. It doesn’t help matters that Tibbs is the titular sadist, and delights in humiliating his hostages as they try to forestall the inevitable.
The Sadist is somewhat dated – it came out more than fifty years ago, after all – but still remains a solid suspense movie. Tibbs torments his victims, the hostages plan escapes, and everyone is forced to stake their survival on split-second decisions. One thing I like about this film is that the hostages have fairly realistic reactions to the situation they find themselves in. They vacillate between heroism, self-interest, bargaining, and hysteria. Another thing I really found myself appreciating was the portrayal of Tibbs. Too many movies fall into the trap of portraying killers as either refined savants, or delusional maniacs. Tibbs is neither: he is a leering moron, a simpleton child drunk with power and control. He may not have the depth of Hannibal Lecter, but he’s a good stand-in for any bully you’ve had to suffer in your life.
As the most recent film on this list, many of you may remember hearing about William Friedkin’s (of the The Exorcist fame) Bug. Adapted from a play by Tracy Letts, Bug is a psychological horror film documenting the descent into madness of two lonely, vulnerable people.
Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress who is struggling to maintain her sanity after an abusive relationship and the disappearance of her child. Michael Shannon – one of my absolute favorite actors working today – plays Peter, a drifter who claims to be a discharged soldier. The pair strike up a relationship, based as much on their mutual loneliness as any real attraction. Agnes still has no idea what happened to her child, and lives in terror of the day her violent ex gets out of prison. Peter insists the Army did illicit experiments on him, and complains about intel-collecting bugs implanted under his skin. As their attachment to one another increases, the pair begins to reinforce each other’s delusions.
First and foremost, Bug is a film about paranoia. Two vulnerable people – a grieving mother, and a traumatized soldier – plumb the depths of paranoia, becoming less rational, and more destructive as they spiral toward self-annihilation. It’s a harrowing watch.
Bug came and went with little fanfare and modest financial returns. That’s a shame. If you want to see a couple of great performances, and an underrated horror flick, make sure to check it out.
God Told Me To (1976)
Most horror buffs have at least a passing familiarity with Larry Cohen, the genius behind such schlock-fests as Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, and It’s Alive. Throughout his career, Cohen’s formula has been, 1) have a monster, 2) have a macho protagonist, and 3) get weird. His 1976 film God Told Me To really goes for that last bit, which is why it may be one of Cohen’s most overlooked and unappreciated movies.
Tony Lo Bianco plays Peter, a New York detective investigating a string of bizarre murders. The murders appear random in nature and were committed by seemingly normal citizens whose only justification was that God commanded them to commit the crime. Peter, himself a devout Catholic, eventually traces the crimes to a cult leader and, in the process, must confront uncomfortable truths about his faith and his own identity.
God Told Me To is part horror movie, part police procedural, and part science fiction film. Unlike Cohen’s other works, which are usually straightforward, much of the movie is left intentionally vague. At times, it’s downright surreal. It’s a thought-provoking film that, while still retaining much of Cohen’s signature campiness, manages to drive off the cliff and crash into the middle of crazy-town. It has some heady (and quite disturbing) sci fi elements, as well as some very incisive commentary about organized religion, which may be why it is an oft-forgotten part of the Cohen canon.
Wake in Fright (1971)
Legend has it that Wake in Fright, or Outback as it was known in its native Australia, was nearly lost to the world until some enterprising hero restored the only known print. To that person, I give you my thanks: Wake in Fright isn’t just one of my favorite horror movies. It’s one of my favorite movies, period.
Wake in Fright stars Gary Bond as John Grant, an Englishman working as a schoolteacher in a remote part of the Australian Outback called “The Yabba”. In reality, he is an indentured servant: convicted of a petty crime in Sydney, he agreed to pay off his debt by teaching school in the educator-starved outback. Hoping to return to Sydney for Christmas break – and, eventually, England – a series of events strands John in The Yabba with no money, no hope, and nowhere to go.
When Wake in Fright premiered, many critics unjustly labeled the film as ozsploitation, and its reputation/commercial success suffered for it. Wake in Fright is not an exploitation movie. The residents of The Yabba are not murderous hillbilly cannibal rapists. Throughout the film, John is never in physical peril. In fact, the locals are friendly and gregarious to the point of aggression, particularly when compared to a reserved Englishman like John.
Broke and lonely, John finds himself forced into the company of the locals. Their lives consist of alcohol abuse, gambling, fighting, and other forms of self-imposed misery. The more time John spends with them, the more he becomes like them. This is not the story of a man being hunted down by rednecks with machetes. It is the story of a man’s fall into savagery and complete spiritual destruction.
Donald Pleasence costars as Doc Tydon, an alcoholic, nihilistic doctor who serves as John’s spiritual guide/tormentor throughout the journey. I’ve always viewed Donald Pleasence as an actor akin to Nicolas Cage; he will play up, or down, to the material he is given. If it’s a campy movie, Pleasence will will be a scenery-chewing ham. In Wake in Fright, Pleasence is an absolute force of nature, an unstable degenerate philosopher whose drunken tidbits of wisdom hint at the film’s true meaning.
I haven’t even talked about the music. Or the camerawork. Or the kangaroo scene – if you want to witness spiritual destruction, ask somebody who’s seen the movie about the kangaroo scene. Watch the look that comes over their face.
Wake in Fright is a rare gem of existential horror. It’s the perfect movie for anyone that’s ever felt trapped in their shitty small town, anyone who’s had to spend a holiday with trashy relatives, or anyone who has looked at the community around them and thought, “There for the grace of God go I.”