|by Erin Free, Shane Bassett and John Harrison.
The horror film is the scowling, neglected, bastard child of the modern cinema. It's the genre that critics dismiss, that police blame for the actions of mass murderers and that "normal" moviegoers won't admit to liking. To some, horror films are a grotesque joke, to others a deep investigation of terror and desperation, and to some flag bearers, they're the best films of all. Unlike Wes Craven's smash hit Scream, which reinvented horror with a cheeky wink at the audience, the gritty indie spirit of The Blair Witch Project takes this much maligned genre back to its most primal essence. It redefines horror without special effects and maximum blood spray, and relocates it in the most frightening place of all: the mind. We cast back to find the films that laid the groundwork. Films made outside the studio system by some truly original minds. Without the trail blazed by the likes of George. A. Romero, Tobe Hooper, David Lynch, John Carpenter and Wes Craven, the makers of The Blair Witch Project would've been just lost in the woods. Much more than just "video nasties", these are bloody fingerprints at a cinematic murder site where fear rules.
BLOOD FEAST (1963)
Blood Feast is famous for being the first "gore" movie. Made by former porno director Herschell Gordon Lewis, this 1963 cheapie was the first time that audiences got to see blood flying and people ripped limb from limb. It's all shoddy and bargain basement, but Lewis knew where his audience was (drive-ins and inner city grindhouses) and gave them what they wanted. It's about an Egyptian God and his sacrificial blood rites, but that's not important. It stars a Playboy centrefold, and lots of people get chopped up. Blood Feast is the film that started it all, and subsequently the one that a lot of feminists and purveyors of good taste would like to burn.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968)
With a local butcher as an investor, director George. A. Romero was already on his way to making a gore splattered classic with Night Of The Living Dead. When zombies start clawing and limping their way through the streets of Pittsburgh, heads are ripped off, entrails (courtesy of the butcher) are pulled out and brains are eaten. But Romero is a talented director, and he knows how to ratchet up the suspense. He homes in on a group of people hiding from the zombies in an isolated house, and mirrors the zombie rampage with their very human sense of fear and helplessness.
Before the Blair Witch cast her sinister spells, John Carpenter's Halloween was the most financially successful independent horror film of all time. A superb exercise in controlled terror, this is the blueprint for all eighties "stalk-and-slash" films, with a faceless killer carving his way through a slew of unwilling victims. Michael Myers is a demented, mask-wearing maniac who chops up the teenage population of a small suburban town. Halloween shaped much of modern horror's aesthetic: you fuck, you die; walk outside, you die; and the killer's never really dead, even if he's been stabbed and thrown off a building.
THE BROOD (1979)
Canadian master director David Cronenberg first truly worked his demented magic with The Brood. In a pulsating feat of imagination and perversity, Cronenberg invents a new form of psychiatry where patients "physicalise" their mental torment. Massive welts, deformation, and, in the case of nutter Samantha Eggar, a "brood" of killer children, externalise the inner horrors of these psychiatric patients. Cronenberg created a new kind of horror film: cold, clinical, cerebral and driven by an almost paralysing fear and fascination with the grotesque possibilities of the human body. With lacerating intelligence, the truly original Cronenberg gives new meaning to the word "gross".
GOD TOLD ME TO (1977)
Larry Cohen (It's Alive) is a master in the world of horror films and exploitation cinema. He pumps his films with a lurid but always socially relevant quality, and God Told Me To is by far his most ambitious and fascinating effort. It analogises the story of Christ with an alien hermaphrodite that seeks world domination with the help of a group of business tycoon "disciples". Awash with Catholic imagery, grotesque violence and social comment, God Told Me To shows a low budget king at the height of his powers.
THE DRILLER KILLER (1979)
Most horror films are set in the Deep South, the darkest recesses of the human imagination or the seemingly safe environs of suburbia. But not Abel Ferarra's. His violent, almost palpably intense films come straight from the street. The Driller Killer was one of the first horror films to be labelled a "video nasty". Ferarra rides the mind of a man driven to kill-drilling homeless bums by his slipping place on the fringes of society. Ferarra would later hurdle out, but The Driller Killer is a fine example of how good horror films can be when they're imbued with intelligence and meaning.
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972)
Wes Craven,s controversial first feature is still, sadly, unavailable in Australia. A variation on Ingmar Bergman's classic The Virgin Spring, The Last House On The Left is a grim, disturbing portrait of rape, murder and retribution, American style, with David Hess (who also performed the music for the film, which has recently been released on CD for the first time) unforgettable as the lead villain. Essential reading: David. A. Szulkin's mammoth book Last House On The Left - The Making Of A Cult Classic, published in the UK by FAB Press in 1997.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974)
One of the few masterpieces of modern horror, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an unrelenting nightmare, where the viewer actually feels the pain that Leatherface and his demented brood inflict upon their young victims. Writer/director Tobe Hooper went on to commercial success with Poltergeist, before fading with a string of misfires like Invaders From Mars, Life Force and the inevitable Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1987), which not even Dennis Hopper as a chainsaw wielding bounty hunter could save. Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned in Australia until 1983.
FRIDAY THE 13th (1980)
Stripping the Halloween formula to its bare basics, director Sean Cunningham created the prototype for a whole slew of (mostly abysmal) teen "Stalk & Slash" flicks. Former fifties TV star Betsy Palmer plays Mrs. Vorhees, a psychotic mom who uses knives, axes and any other sharp instrument at hand to knock off young counsellors (including an unknown Kevin Bacon) at Camp Crystal Lake. Mom's mongoloid son Jason would take over the killing chores for the film's many sequels, the best of which were the 3D Friday The 13th: Part 3, and the stylish (at least for this genre) Friday The 13th, Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan.
ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS (1979)
Designed as a quick cash-in on the European success of George Romero's Dawn Of The Dead (1978), Zombie Flesh Eaters ushered in a whole genre of gaudy Italian zombie movies, and made a cult icon of its director, the late Lucio Fulci. Set on a living-dead infested Carribean island, Zombie Flesh Eaters contains some memorable set pieces, including an underwater battle between zombie and shark, and the infamous "splinter through the eyeball" scene. Fulci went on to The Beyond, Murder Rock and others. A massive biography on Fulci has just been published in the UK, where he has a huge fan base.
I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978)
Meir Zarchi's film went largely unnoticed until it surfaced on video in 1983. Though ugly and depressing, this still holds an important place in the history of modern exploitation. Buster Keaton's grand niece, Carmille, plays a young writer who retreats to an isolated cabin to work on her novel, where she is raped and abused by a trio of local cretins. She subsequently arms herself with a knife and an axe, and sets out for vengeance. I Spit On Your Grave was recently banned in Australia, but you can still find it at many video stores.
At the time of its release, Maniac was reviled even by most horror fans who were no doubt expecting another harmless Halloween clone. Thankfully, in this post Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer and Seven climate, William Lustig's film has re-emerged as a convincingly effective portrait of a serial killer on the loose in New York. As the title villain, character actor Joe Spinell (Taxi Driver) delivers a tour-de-force performance that will make your skin crawl. Spinell also produced and wrote the original story, but died just before production of the planned sequel. Most of Tom Savini's incredibly gruesome make-up effects were cut from the Australian video print, but a re-mastered Director's Cut is available on import.
CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1978)
A team of young documentary filmmakers disappear while shooting a project in the middle of nowhere. A while later, their footage is recovered, and it reveals what happened to them. Sound familiar? The makers of The Blair Witch Project claim that they've never seen this gory Italian movie directed by Ruggerro Deodato, which takes place deep in the Amazon. Don't rush down to your local Blockbuster looking for it, as this is one film that will never get a commercial release.
BLOODSUCKING FREAKS (1978)
When it was released on video, Bloodsucking Freaks created instant notoriety, as well as a few upset stomachs. It remains unparalleled in its viciousness toward women, and is required viewing for anyone interested in the history of deviant cinema. To the great relief of many, director Joel. M. Reed was never able to raise the money for his proposed sequel, and star Seamus O'Brien was murdered in his apartment before the film was completed (perhaps the killer got a sneak peek at the rough cut). A very brave Siren Entertainment has re-released Bloodsucking Freaks in a Director's Cut.
SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE (1982)
This is one of horror's worst, and, believe it or not, was written by feminist author Rita Mae Brown. What is meant to be a parody just turns into bad horror. Still, it's an absolute hoot to watch. A driller killer does a runner from the local mental institution and gate crashes a slumber party of scantily clad teenagers hoping to join in on a pillow fight, but instead, he "takes care of them". This massacre is lovingly low budget, not afraid to show its tackiness, and ultimately makes for a cult video classic.
If you're an Eraserhead virgin, have a stiff drink before watching this experimental masterpiece from David Lynch, an odyssey that took him 5 years to complete. Filmed in glorious 35mm black-and-white, this is a weird ride into the desolate world of Henry Spencer. There are disfigured babies, open skulls, musical numbers and even some adultery. It's slow and strange, but a work of genius, and a delight for those so inclined.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984)
What has become an embarrassing franchise actually began life as an early Wes Craven (Scream) spine tingler, which had audiences in fear of razor gloved child molester, Freddy Krueger. Entering his victims' dreams was Freddy's tactic and he happily slices and dices a bunch of teenagers desperately trying not to fall asleep. This surprise blockbuster helped finance the set up of the current major indie studio, New Line Cinema.
BASKET CASE (1982)
Unbelievably demented schlock about telepathic Siamese Twins separated at birth who cause bloody havoc upon arriving in New York. One is a seemingly normal young man, but his jealous, picnic basket dwelling, deformed brother sneaks up on his victims and indulges in some pretty gruesome eating habits. Made on a shoestring by director/editor/screenwriter Frank Henenlotter, it has now been given the Directors Cut treatment with the assistance of horror maestro Larry Cohen. Basket Case has "cult" written all over it from the first frame, but beware of the rancidly disappointing sequels.
THE EVIL DEAD (1983)
Definitely one of the most influential demonic resurrection horror films of all time. The radical camera work alone is a sight to behold, while the square jawed hero of this nightmare-in-the-woods journey, Ash (Bruce Campbell), is a man on the edge of sanity. Director Sam Raimi lovingly takes the audience through every one of Ash's bone-crunching moments. Raimi was low on budget and low on plot when he made this gem, but even today it's still referred to by horror masters as one of the finest.
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originally posted: 12/19/99 21:36:27