< Note: This page includes Horror, Thriller, and Psychodrama >
The Mafu Cage a/k/a The Cage a/k/a Deviation a/k/a Clouds a/k/a Don’t Ring the Doorbell a/k/a My Sister, My Love (1978)
dir. Karen Arthur
written by Don Chastain
w/ Carol Kane, Lee Grant, Will Geer, James Olson
Anemic and sullen-eyed with mane-like hair and squeak-to-shriek voice, Kane is surely a saint among cinema’s quirky. Jack Nicholson described her as a blend of Bette Davis and Peter Lorre. Though lauded for her early roles in Wedding in White (1972) and When a Stranger Calls (1979), and despite an Oscar nomination for her lead in Hester Street (1975) and an Emmy for playing Simka on Taxi (1980-83), Kane’s career never quite took off. Here she’s at her very best as Cissy, a disturbed young artist obsessed with her dead father and the mafu—meaning primates—that he studied in Africa. There’s no room in Cissy’s life for anyone but her older sister Ellen, played with understated urgency by Lee Grant (The Landlord, Visiting Hours), and family friend Zom played by veteran actor Will Geer (Salt of the Earth, Seconds). Cissy spends wistful days in a house crowded with their father’s artifacts, blasting tribal music, yet she’s given to rages that prove fatal for her cage-bound mafu. When Ellen, an astronomer, becomes romantically involved with a peer (James Olson of Rachel, Rachel and Andromeda Strain, and again with Grant in The Spell), only tragedy can result. Mafu Cage is my all-time favorite psychodrama, deemed a classic without a cult. Karen Arthur, the first female since Ida Lupino to earn a Directors’ Guild of America card, wisely hired cinematographer John Bailey and editor Carol Littleton who’d worked on her debut Legacy (1975) and went on to distinguished careers. But success at Cannes did not keep The Mafu Cage from sinking into obscurity. The DVD from Scorpion Releasing is 96 minutes with great special features. The full-length version of 102 minutes can only be found on VHS as The Cage with its misleading tagline “Carol Kane Is Lee Grant’s Pet Sister!”
Manitou (1977) dir. William Girdler
written by William Girdler
w/ Tony Curtis, Susan Strasberg, Burgess Meredith, Michael Ansara, Ann Sothern, Stella Stevens, Jon Cedar, Paul Mantee, Jeanette Nolan, Lurene Tuttle
Those familiar with Manitou may be surprised to find out that William Girdler (Three on a Meathook, Abby, Grizzly) took the movie seriously. His plot mingles gyno-horror and The Exorcist (1973), based on the first novel in a Manitou-themed series by UK Penthouse editor Graham Masterton. It all starts with a tumor on the back of Karen’s neck. Karen is played by Susan Strasberg of The Trip (1967) and Psych-Out (1968). Doctors discover that it’s not the big C but the big M—as in the rapidly maturing fetus of a midget medicine man named Misquamacus who can control the Manitou spirit in people and electronics. Wait until you see the “birth” scene! One IMDb reviewer recalls watching the movie with his family as a kid, after which: “Every time someone in my family got a zit it was ‘EWWW! THE MANITOU!’” All other special effects are unabashedly hokey, but so over the top it’s hilarious and very entertaining. The same can be said of Tony Curtis as the reluctant mother’s friend, a sham fortuneteller who turns to Native American stereotype John Singing Rock (Michael Ansara) for help. A must-see for psychotronic cinema fans.
Martin (1976) dir. George A. Romero
written by George A. Romero
w/ John Amplas, Lincoln Maazel, Christine Forrest, Elyane Nadeau, Tom Savini, Sarah Venable, George A. Romero
Martin is a shy young fellow who believes he’s an 84-year-old vampire. Maybe he is. His uncle, Tata Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), certainly believes so. But Martin’s cousin Christina (Christine Forrest) thinks their old-world Catholic family has brainwashed Martin with their fanaticism, nailing garlic to bedroom doors and even holding an exorcism. If Martin is a vampire, he’s a modern one who relies not on his gaze to subdue victims but sodium pentothal. He’s come to Pittsburgh to work at Tata Cuda’s grocery store, falling for a depressed housewife in the neighborhood (Elyane Nadeau). Their intimacy is strangely heartbreaking and not just because it’s doomed. All the while Martin anonymously confides his blood-thirst and past kills to a radio talk show, becoming known as “The Count.” No established actor could have played the antiheroic Martin like John Amplas, a tragic embodiment of sexual outsider, sexual predator, and sexual novice—all in one. Donald Rubinstein’s score, both melancholic and paranoid, is one of my favorites (on CD from Perseverance). Watch for Romero’s cameo as a visiting priest who praises The Exorcist (1975). He and Forrest would soon marry and work together on Dawn of the Dead (1979). For more on Martin, see my 2018 essay in PopMatters.
May (2002) dir. Lucky McKee
written by Lucky McKee
w/ Angela Bettis, Jeremy Sisto, Anna Faris, James Duval, Nichole Hiltz, Rachel David, Nora Zehetner, Will Estes
Angela Bettis is unforgettable as the title character, a disturbed young vet assistant whose outsiderness is at first sweetly weird…then “too weird”…and in the end tragic. “If you can’t find a friend, make one.” Or so goes the tagline. May’s work with a needle and thread is on par with Dr. Frankenstein but her loneliness and distorted perception of death are very much in keeping with Ed Gein. Roger Ebert’s positive review of May is reprinted in The B-List, a 2008 guide to low-budget beauties and cult classics. He says: “There are scenes of such close observation, of such control and body language, evoking such ferocity and obsession, that we’re reminded of Lady MacBeth.” Bettis explained to MovieFreak.com about the movie’s shaky beginning, taking two years to be released by Lions Gate who “kept trying to release it straight to video and all, treating it like this bad little horror movie. But then it just started getting this response everywhere it went, and [Lions Gate] slowly responded to that.” Bettis and McKee also made a male version of this story titled Roman (2006).
The Meateater (1978) dir. Derek Savage
written by Derek Savage
w/ Peter Spitzer, Dianne Davis, Emily Spindler, Gary Dean, Joe Marmo, Tony Anthony, Richard Nathan, Arch Joboulian
As for quirky stinkers, this is one I rank high on my list of re-watchable fare, and it’s even on DVD through a label called Mom N Pop Video Shop. Misleading title aside, The Meateater establishes its creepy/campy sensibility right away. We’re shown a rat-eating old hermit (Arch Joboulian) in an abandoned theater obsessing over footage of yesteryear’s platinum blonde goddess Jean Harlow. And then we meet the Websters, new owners of this theater, who seem a parody of white TV families at the time. They even sing the Oscar Mayer jingle together—“Oh I wish I was an Oscar Mayer wiener”—while eating ice cream cones! Townies disapproved of the theater’s previous owner, who showed so-called dirty movies like Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge (1971), and that’s why Mr. Webster promises only G-rated fare. Their grand opening feature is a nature documentary called Grizzly Safari and director Savage cuts wittily between this, the supposedly wholesome audience, and backstage violence. Once Mr. Hermit spots the Websters’ teen daughter with Harlow blonde curls (Emily Spindler), the surprisingly tight plot culminates in brain-splatter. I love all the townie characters, especially the women in brightly patterned polyesters. It never occurs to me to disparage this movie for its tackiness and bad acting. I prefer to praise it for its consistency. And thanks to Savage’s oddball sense of humor, which shows through his script and editing, I never find myself bored with The Meateater. The film’s overall ratio of creepy to campy should prove very satisfying for most fans of low-budget horror from the 1970s.
Motel Hell (1980) dir. Kevin Connor
written by Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe
w/ Rory Calhoun, Nancy Parsons, Paul Linke, Nina Axelrod, Wolfman Jack, Elaine Joyce, Monique St. Pierre
Bad boy, cowboy, and womanizer, Rory Calhoun owes his fame to the same hard-hitting homosexual agent who represented Rock Hudson and Tab Hunter. Toward the end of his long career he achieved cult status by appearing in lovable stinkers like Night of the Lepus (1972), Revenge of Bigfoot (1979), and Angel (1984). The horror-comedy Motel Hell, in which he plays jovial cannibal Vincent, is his best film of this era. The proprietor of Motel Hello and a longtime purveyor of smoked meats, Vincent’s motto is “It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.” His sidekick is hick sister Ida, played by the instantly recognizable Nancy Parsons a/k/a Beulah Balbricker of the Porky’s movies. Mikita Brottman, in her guide to cannibal movies Meat Is Murder, says the film presents us not with cannibalism as “a brutal return to savagery,” as per usual, but “an intelligent story of two people who are simply going about their business with a sense of order, decorum and pleasure in their work.” And that’s what is so funny about this murderous tale of backwoods capitalism. Roger Ebert liked this movie, writing: “Motel Hell is not nearly as gruesome as the films it satirizes, and it finds the right stylistic note for its central characters, who are simple, cheerful, smiling, earnest, and resourceful cannibals. …[A] welcome change-of-pace…it’s to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as Airplane! is to Airport.” Look for famed deejay Wolfman Jack. Motel Hell proved a successful departure for the director after a string of fantasies like The Earth That Time Forgot (1977).
Sneak Previews in 1980: Siskel & Ebert disagree on Motel Hell.
A fun 4-minute peek at how horror was thought of at the time.
Mother’s Day (1980) dir. Charles Kaufman
written by Charles Kaufman, Warren Leight
w/ Nancy Hendrickson, Deborah Luce, Tiana Pierce, Rose Ross, Holdem McGuire, Billy Ray McQuade, Robert Collins, Karl Sandys
Ike and Addley (McGuire, McQuade) are overgrown backwoods boys who treat their Ma (Rose Ross) with the utmost respect. She wears a neck-brace and gaudy jewelry while coaching them to be serial rapist-killers she can be proud of. When they abduct three female campers (Hendrickson, Luce, Pierce), however, and one is killed, the other two get revenge I Spit On Your Grave-style. Introductory scenes with each camper and a meaningful flashback to their undergrad days at Wolfbreath College, where alpha males ruled but didn’t rule them, position us squarely on their side. And while Kaufman portrays their unity as realistically heroic, he portrays the sadists as comically vicious buffoons educated by TV. Where I see clever traces of feminism and obvious satire, most viewers and critics see only more of the same male violence against women. Michael Weldon, however, in his Psychotronic Encyclopedia, says “the satirical point of this admittedly twisted comedy” is how it is “the launderized violence performed by the bland villains of television that makes a violent society livable, more than any gore show.” Branded a Video Nasty with its self-imposed X, it was produced by the director’s legendary brother Lloyd Kaufman and is now on DVD from Troma. The overlong remake (2010) miscasts Rebecca De Mornay as the mother.
Mum and Dad (2008) dir. Steven Sheil
written by Steven Sheil
w/ Olga Fedori, Perry Benson, Dido Miles, Ainsley Howard, Toby Alexander, Micaiah Dring, Mark Davenport
Influenced by Freddie Francis’s Girly (1970) as well as Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and its variant Frightmare (1974), while drawing from the real-life case of Fred and Rose West, this British sickie is an intense and satisfying addition to the twisted family subgenre. The victim-hero is Lena (Olga Fedori), an airport janitor whose coworker Birdie (Ainsley Howard) brings her home to meet the family: Mum and Dad (veteran actors Miles and Benson) and mute brother (Toby Alexander). The airport adjacent to their house provides an endless supply of victims, suitcases full of resalable goods, and the constant rumble of airliners overhead. Some victims like Lena, whom Mum calls Angel, are given the chance to become members of the family. If they resist, they’re killed and made into sausages. For the most part, the drama seems realistic—realistic for psychos living double lives. It adds up to barely controlled chaos in the form of a nuclear family and Fedori brilliantly toes the line between obedience and retaliation. An indelible final image!
Next of Kin a/k/a Hot Spell (1982)
dir. Tony Williams
written by Michael Heath, Tony Williams
w/ Jacki Kerin, John Jarratt, Alex Scott, Gerda Nicolson, Bernadette Gibson, Charles McCallum, Robert Ratti, Tommy Dysart, Debra Lawrance, Myrtle Woods, Vic Gordon
An original and stylish horror obscurity about a young woman named Linda (Jacki Kerin) inheriting a gothic-style rest home for the elderly in rural Australia. The setting seems mysterious and slow to Linda, like it’s holding a dark secret she must uncover. This is similar to how I feel as a viewer of the film. Though initially unsure about what’s going on, until Linda finds her mother’s plot-clarifying diary, the sinister and often surreal details keep my attention piqued. The plot shifts up its gears for an action-filled home stretch. All the characters are believably quirky, especially the dotty old folks as their unrealities overlap with the horrible reality of a psycho killing them off. The gothic atmosphere is heightened by Gary Hansen’s lurking, angular cinematography and Klaus Schulze’s electronic score. Barney is played by John Jarratt (horrifying two decades later as the killer in the Wolf Creek movies). Shameful that Next of Kin is so expensive on DVD, and rare on VHS, but it’s worth seeking out (as of 2021 it’s on Prime). It earned an honorable mention in the documentary Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008).
Night of the Demon (1980)
dir. James C. Wasson
written by Mike Williams
w/ Michael Cutt, Joy Allen, Bob Collins, Melanie Graham, Paul Kelleher
Not to be confused with the 1957 movie of the same title, nor Night of the Demons from 1988. In fact, anyone expecting an actual demon will be disappointed. For fans of cheapie Bigfoot movies from the 1970s, however, this is a super gory must-see. An officially banned Video Nasty, it is in my opinion an anti-masterpiece on par with Shriek of the Mutilated (1976). Its similar premise, a professor (Michael Cutt) and his students on expedition to research Bigfoot, is presented in flashback and includes many other flashbacks, all death scenes. So the campfire downtime is filled with splatter and the body count quite high. As drive-in reviewer Joe Bob Briggs might assess: heads roll, intestines roll, an arm rolls, a penis rolls, two Girl Scouts roll, a camper in a sleeping bag is impaled, and a guy’s face is burned to the bone. There’s also a plot twist involving a gothic cabin deep in the woods belonging to a mute called Crazy Wanda (Melanie Graham) whom Bigfoot once raped and impregnated. Bigfoot is a big-chested muscleman covered with fur, some of which wears off in the final killing spree. And what a scene it is! Code Red released the movie on DVD in 2016.
The Night Stalker (1971)
dir. John L. Moxey
written by Richard Matheson
w/ Darren McGavin, Carol Lynley, Simon Oakland, Ralph Meeker, Claude Akins, Barry Atwater, Larry Linville, Peggy Rea
A lineup of seasoned character actors is one reason to check out this cult TV classic that led to the series Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75). It’s about a vampire serial killer in Las Vegas. Atwater seems a poorly cast vampire yet that in and of itself adds a certain charm. After all, quirky Darren McGavin (Dad in A Christmas Story) is our hero Kolchak—a reporter whose need for a story compels him into the vampire’s lair. Carol Lynley, who almost got an abortion in Blue Denim (1959), plays Kolchak’s dancer girlfriend. Produced by Dan Curtis, it definitely possesses a Dark Shadows quality. With a dash of Dragnet. Fun for actor-spotting too. Look for Claude Akins, Larry Linville, Peggy Rea, and that quirkiest of character actors Elisha Cook Jr.
Nightmare in Wax (1969) dir. Bud Townsend
written by Rex Carlton
w/ Cameron Mitchell, Anne Helm, Scott Brady, John Cardos, Victoria Carroll
Cameron Mitchell, who’s like the Albert Finney of horror, plays the owner of a wax museum. He’s the jealous, disfigured type and he injects his victims with a substance that hardens them into the mediocre statues they deserve to be. The movie poster reads: “Frozen into zombies. Doomed to unbearable horrors. People puppets at the mercy of a fiendish madman in a chamber of torture!” Filmed at the Movieland Wax Museum in Los Angeles, it’s a slow-moving stinker but worth a look for Mitchell—then check out his unforgettable roles in The Toolbox Murders (1978) and Nightmare Never Ends (1979) (see below). From the director of Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (1976).
The Nightmare Never Ends a/k/a Cataclysm (1979)
dirs. Philip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Gregg C. Tallas
written by Philip Yordan
w/ Cameron Mitchell, Marc Lawrence, Faith Clift, Richard Moll, Maurice Grandmaison, Robert Bristol, Phil Yordan Jr., Norma Clift, Robyn Russell
Michael Weldon says in his Psychotronic Video Guide: “To me, any movie available under four titles, with three directors and Cameron Mitchell, is worth checking out. Naturally this is an uneven low-budget oddity under any title but, in a way, it’s an exploitation classic.” Mitchell plays a detective sergeant investigating murders committed by Olivier (Robert Bristol), a nightclubbing playboy who has strange powers over women and is seemingly ageless. Oliver is actually a devil with hoofs instead of feet. Marc Lawrence, of 1930s gangster movies and the quirky ‘70s fave Daddy’s Deadly Darling, plays two roles here: Mitchell’s cop sidekick throughout the investigation and an old Jewish man who recognizes Olivier from Nazi Germany. All this ties in with the author of a bestseller titled God Is Dead (Richard Moll a/k/a Night Court’s Bull), his surgeon wife (Norma Clift), and a defrocked monk (Maurice Grandmaison). The overacting is on par with the wild plot, hokey effects, and dream sequences, giving the movie an accidental sense of coherence. Jerking ahead summarily, Nightmare is like a psyhotronic roller-coaster ride. I find it very re-watchable. Writer Philip Yordan wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay Dillinger (1945) as well as Johnny Guitar (1954). Excerpts from Nightmare, by the way, were incorporated into the movie Night Train to Terror (1985). Look for the digitally remastered DVD from Mutant Sorority Pictures.
976-Evil (1988) dir. Robert Englund
written by Brian Helgeland & Rhet Topham
w/ Stephen Geoffreys, Sandy Dennis, Patrick O’Bryan, Paul Wilson, Jim Metzler, Maria Rubell, Lezlie Deane, Greg Collins, Daren Burrows
A generally reviled comedy-horror directed by Freddy Krueger himself. Stephen Geoffreys (Evil Ed in Fright Night) lights up the screen as a nice teen named Hoax whose biggest transgression is looking at bare-breasted tribeswomen in National Geographic. Otherwise he seems to be in love with his rebel cousin Spike (Patrick O’Bryan). Sandy Dennis, the Oscar-winner from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), is Hoax’s Aunt Lucy. Campier than she’s ever been, in a bodacious wigs and tacky housecoats, Dennis’s performance suits this movie perfectly. In one of several oddball scenes, she prays to God as fish rain from the sky. All the while, Hoax is unwittingly gaining demonic powers by calling 976-Evil for his daily “horrorscope.” He grows claws and plucks out the hearts of bullies who’d dunked his head into a school toilet. I recall, as a teen, my gaydar tingling as I watched Geoffreys. Indeed this Tony-nominated actor went on to star in about two dozen gay pornos in the 1990s, with titles like Guys Who Crave Big Cocks, Latin Crotch Rockets, and Transsexual Prostitutes 2.
Office Killer (1997) dir. Cindy Sherman
written by Tom Kalin, Elise MacAdam, Todd Haynes
w/ Carol Kane, Molly Ringwald, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Barbara Sukowa, Michael Imperioli, David Thornton, Alice Drummond, Florina Rodov, Eric Bogosian
Renowned photographer Cindy Sherman directs a modern office version of the Ed Gein case. One of our quirkiest actors, Carol Kane (Mafu Cage, When a Stranger Calls, Taxi), plays the intense yet childlike Dorine who’s coping with a domineering mother at home and the threat of downsizing at work. Her bosses and fellow employees (Ringwald, Tripplehorn, et al) may not make for one happy family but they’ll end up seeming that way once Dorine arranges their corpses around her living room TV. With camp humor, noir style, touches of melodrama and, above all, 45-year-old Kane, Office Killer is an effective blend of Psycho and psycho-biddy. That it was so coldly dismissed and forgotten is a shame. To find out why, check out Dahlia Schweitzer’s “Another Kind of Monster: Cindy Sherman’s Office Killer” at www.ejumpcut.org.
The Orphan a/k/a The Orphan: Friday the 13th (1977)
dir. John Ballard
written by John Ballard
w/ Mark Owens, Peggy Feury, Afolabi Ajayi, Stanley Church, Joanna Miles
Not quite the “screaming psychothriller” the ad above promises, but memorable nonetheless. The orphan, a teenager named David (Mark Owens), compulsively imagines running into his handsome dad’s open arms. There’s a hint of incestuous desire in these romantic hilltop fantasies. David’s aunt (Peggy Feury) comes to serve as guardian and he resents her strictness. His dad was more unconventional, an adventurer who’d rather explore Africa with his ever-present black companion (Afolabi Ajayi) than stay nested with his wife (Joanna Miles of Bug). David retreats to a large chicken coop, with his hen Apple Betty and a stuffed gorilla named Charlie, and sets up an altar to his dad. Things spiral downwards for David as the battle of wills with his aunt escalates. Based on a story by Hector Hugh Munro a/k/a Saki. Neither the writer-director nor Owens made any other movies. 80 minutes. Note on release date: Online sites post a 1979 release date but my video copy says its copyright is 1977. It is on DVD as of 2012, from Desert Island Films, but that does not mean there are a lot of copies floating around. Scout the lowest price for this one.
Paperhouse (1988) dir. Bernard Rose
written by Matthew Jacobs
w/ Charlotte Burke, Glenne Headly, Elliott Spiers, Ben Cross, Gemma Jones
Usually classified as horror or fantasy, this British obscurity feels more like a coming-of-age drama with dark dreams. A dangerous fever keeps 11-year-old Anna (Charlotte Burke) bedridden. She draws a house and then dreams it. As she adds more details over the coming days, she dreams them too. One of these details is a disabled boy (Elliott Spiers) whom her doctor (the great Gemma Jones of Duchess of Duke Street) tells her about, and another is her dad (Ben Cross). As her fever rages, she becomes trapped in her dream in which dad-turned-mean has trapped her and the boy in the house. Symbolic more than surreal, tense more than scary, adjust your expectations and shift into patience mode for this memorable cinematic experience. Paperhouse was praised by critics but ignored by video renters. It’s now available on DVD, at least for those with an all-region player, and has earned a 94% user rating on rottentomatoes.com—out of over 2,400 viewers. Bernard Rose went on to direct Candyman (1992) but not much else of note.
Parents (1988) dir. Bob Balaban
written by Christopher Hawthorne
w/ Bryan Madorsky, Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, London Juno, Graham Jarvis, Deborah Rush
Fametracker.com’s guide to character actors describes Bob Balaban (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Waiting for Guffman, Ghost World) as sardonic and nebbishy, a hyper-intelligent version of Droopy. Parents is his directorial debut. Set in a perfect town circa 1954, it’s about a wide-eyed yet opaque little kid (Bryan Madorsky) who’s troubled by a growing suspicion that his parents (Quaid, Hurt) are cannibals. His only friends are a precocious girl who claims to be from the Moon (London Juno) and his unconventional school counselor whom he doesn’t think of as “a real grownup” (Sandy Dennis). According to Mikita Brottman’s Meat Is Murder! A Guide to Cannibal Culture: “The images of elemental chaos which recur amidst the cozy domesticity reveal a mockingly subversive tale of unreliable adulthood, with its masks, its secret desires, and it sudden, uncontrollable hungers.” Clever and disturbing. The soundtrack features Dean Martin, Perez Prado, “Chantilly Lace,” and Angelo Badalamenti, ending with “Purple People Eater.”
The Passing (1985) dir. John Huckert
written by John Huckert, Mary Maruca
w/ James Carroll Plaster, Welton Benjamin Johnson, John Huckert, John W. Huckert Jr., Lyn Odell
I’m so thankful this lower than low-budget sci-fi drama found its way to DVD. It’s about elderly white man Ernie and his African-American friend Leviticus a/k/a Rose (Plaster, Johnson). Drinking buddies during WWII, they couldn’t be as close back at home because Ernie’s wife “didn’t much care for black men.” An innovative montage compares how Ernie would take breakfast up to his ailing yet complaining wife and now, his taking breakfast into his ailing friend Rose, kissing Rose on his forehead and calling him “dollbaby.” The men are so poor that when Rose needs new pajamas, Ernie shoplifts them. They plot a double-suicide in a scene that made me weep then chuckle. Instead of death, Ernie volunteers for experiments at some mysterious institution. This is where the old men’s storyline intersects with the film’s other storyline about Wade (played by the director) and his girlfriend Monica (Lyn Odell, singer for the all-female punk band Cheap Perfume). Wade has landed on death row for killing Monica’s rapist—what a scene!—and opts to volunteer for the same kind of “experiments” that Ernie has signed up for. The movie turns sci-fi on a dime but trust it. The strangeness is compelling, exaggerated by camera angles, tense score, and Huckert’s editing. The denouement returns a “rejuvenated Ernie” (John W. Huckert Jr.) to Rose, providing a winning final gesture. The old men seem like they were plucked from Errol Morris’s documentary Vernon, Florida (1981). Songs from the 1920s, Ray Henderson’s “That Old Gang of Mine” and Peerless Quartet’s “Pussy Cat Rag,” add authenticity too. Huckert next directed a gay serial killer movie called Hard (1998), also paid for with credit cards.
Phantasm (1979) dir. Don Coscarelli
written by Don Coscarelli
w/ Michael Baldwin, Bill Thornbury, Reggie Bannister, Angus Scrimm, Kathy Lester, Terrie Kalbus, Ken Jones, Susan Harper, Lynn Eastman, David Arntzen, Mary Ellen Shaw, Myrtle Scotton
A favorite for many who were 10-15 at the time of its release. Perhaps one reason is the spunky 13-year-old hero Mike (Michael Baldwin) who has abandonment issues after losing his parents. Mike, his older brother Jody (Bill Thornbury), and an ice cream truck vendor Reggie (Reggie Bannister) take on an evil undertaker referred to as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), his pack of hobgoblins, and flying silver spheres that kill—all part of an interplanetary slave trade scheme. Made for $300,000 over 19 months, on weekends by a group of loyal friends and film students as well as the director’s mom who did costumes, it’s grossed $11 million internationally. Now it’s on DVD from Anchor Bay, with a must-see special feature interview from 1979. I didn’t see it until 1982 when it aired on CBS as a Late Show movie. My mom loved horror and we stayed up to watch, trying not to scream and wake my dad upstairs. But as the tagline says, “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead.” Note on Phantasm II (1988): Scrimm is back, nine years later, as The Tall Man, going town by town to enslave the dead. Also back are the flying silver orbs that drill-kill, the Ewok-sized minions in monk-like hoods. Special effects will reward fans of bizarre gore. The film scrambles a bit but once it kicks in, it’s nonstop. In fact the major difference is that, instead of creepily unfolding, the sequel charges forward like an action movie. The real drawback is James Le Gros as Mike; Baldwin’s nerdy Mike in the original is much more appealing than Le Gros’s dreamboat Mike. Two more sequels followed.
Phase IV (1974) dir. Saul Bass
written by Mayo Simon
w/ Michael Murphy, Nigel Davenport, Lynne Frederick
This unusual eco-horror movie, set in the desert, opens with a seven-minute montage of ants in their dark corridors. Scientific experiments inadvertently improve their intelligence, to the point that they unite across species and take on humankind. The ants can strip flesh off a body, animal or human, in seconds. They attack scientists (Murphy, Davenport) in a biodome lab and not even a yellow, asbestos-like poison sprayed over the landscape will stop them—however cool it looks. The ending goes way over the top, a bold risk more suited for comic books, and yet the whole movie has a comic book feel and I wouldn’t change it. Nigel Davenport makes a great mad scientist. Special effects by John Richardson (Oscar-winner for Aliens) and art direction by John Barry (Oscar-winner for Star Wars). Saul Bass spent his career as a famous title designer (several Hitchcocks, e.g. Psycho), in turn directing several short films and Phase IV, his one feature-length film.
Pin a/k/a Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988)
dir. Sandor Stern
written by Sandor Stern
w/ David Hewlett, Cyndy Preston, Terry O’Quinn, Patricia Collins, Bronwen Mantel, John Pyper-Ferguson, Jacob Tierney
Terry O’Quinn, fresh from his acclaimed role as a killer patriarch in The Stepfather (1987), plays another dad in this absorbing psychodrama from Canada. He’s Dr. Linden, a 1950s-style authoritarian whose wife (Bronwen Mantel) obsessively tidies their home and whose kids call him Sir. A ventriloquist of sorts, Dad convinces his kids that the life-size anatomical dummy in his office, named Pin, is alive and eager to teach them about the human body. Years later he discovers the secret and alarming relationship his now adult son (David Hewlett of Cube, Splice) has with Pin. Determined to get rid of Pin, the doctor dies mysteriously—the first in a series of deaths. Splatter is not this movie’s style, though. Slowly paced but weird and memorable, it’s Cold War era theme of middle-class repression and the monstrous reminds me of The Stuff (1985), Parents (1988), and Society (1989). Pin is on DVD from Anchor Bay.
The Plumber (1979) dir. Peter Weir
written by Peter Weir
w/ Judy Morris, Ivar Kants, Robert Coleby, Candy Raymond, Henri Szeps
Some people write him off as a dummy but—as he defensively insists—he’s got a photographic memory. He rants about Dylan, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Full of rage but cunning, he’s Max—the plumber from hell (Ivar Kants). By sabotaging the bathroom pipes of an academic couple (Morris, Coleby) residing in the apartment building where he works, Max is able to terrorize the wife Jill in such a way that no one quite believes her. Weir considers Jill the film’s hero and was disturbed that some male viewers in 1979 identified Max as the hero. Whether one sees The Plumber as a psychological thriller or a black comedy may make a difference, perhaps. 76 minutes, made for Australian TV. Weir’s next movie is Gallipoli (1981). Judy Morris, by the way, went on to write The Eye of the Storm (2011) and cowrite Babe: Pig in the City (1998), Happy Feet (2006).
Pontypool (2008) dir. Bruce McDonald
written by Tony Burgess
w/ Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle, Georgina Reilly, Hrant Alianak
A Canadian spin on the zombie outbreak plot, Pontypool is low on gore but high on tension. Stephen McHattie (his career began with The People Next Door in 1970) is a radio deejay whose brand of cantankerous is akin to TV’s Dr. House. His in-studio assistant, younger and more even-tempered, is played by Lisa Houle. A snowstorm on Valentine’s Day makes for breaking news, as do bizarre reports of mob violence around town. We never leave the station, a restraint on which director McDonald (Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments) manages to capitalize both logically and dramatically. Imagine the chaos of the TV studio scene opening Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1979) but set in a radio station run by three people. Instead of leaving it vague, however, or offering a range of two or three possible reasons for the outbreak, Burgess’s script ends up offering one doozy of a reason and leaning on it a bit too hard. Otherwise riveting. Watch with volume up loud.
Private Parts (1972) dir. Paul Bartel
written by Philip Kearney, Les Rendelstein
w/ Ayn Ruymen, Lucille Benson, John Ventantonio, Lawrence ‘Laurie’ Main, Dorothy Neumann, John Lupton, Patrick Strong, Stanley Livingston
Paul Bartel, one of trash cinema’s gay auteurs, made several undisputed cult classics including Eating Raoul (1982) and Lust in the Dust (1985). This one, his debut, takes the cult classic cake. As described in Fangoria’s guide 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen: “Bartel tosses in sleazy atmosphere, prurient sex, and pitch-black comedy to create an I-can’t-take-my-eyes-off-the-screen, low-budget shocker. The story is set in the decadent underworld of Los Angeles in the 1970s, when both weirdos and normal folk alike were coming to grips with the sexual revolution.” 17-year-old runaway Cheryl (Ruymen) is the main character, staying at her Aunt Martha’s hotel. She snoops around the rooms of some very peculiar long-term residents, like a gay priest with an S&M fetish (Main, a recurrent voice for Disney), a senile old broad with a sunlamp (Neumann whose career dates back to 1944), and a young photographer named George (Ventantonio). George, the movie’s killer with a secret past, staves off his urges to kill by drawing his own blood with a syringe and then injecting it into transparent, water-filled blow-up dolls. Aunt Martha is played impeccably by Lucille Benson who ran the Susan B. Anthony Hotel on Bosom Buddies (1980-81). Also notable is Cheryl’s ‘good guy’ friend played by Livingston of My Three Sons (1960-1972). Bartel’s next film is Death Race 2000 (1975).
The Psychopath (1975)
dir. Larry G. Brown
written by Walter Dallenbach
w/ Tom Basham, Gene Carlson, Gretchen Kanne, Jackson Bostwick, John Ashton, Margaret Avery, Bruce Kimball, Carol Ann Daniels
Gay porn director Larry G. Brown made two indisputably eccentric features starring Tom Basham: an R-rated comedy about a gay biker gang called The Pink Angels (1976) (see Comedy/Drama M-Z) and this PG-rated psychodrama about getting revenge on child abusers. Basham plays Mr. Rabbey, a puppeteer for a children’s TV show. BadMoviesPlanet.com describes him as a young Roddy McDowall if Roddy McDowall was “on tranquilizers and mildly retarded.” Psychotronic Encyclopedia describes him as an infantile Anthony Perkins: “His incredible performance makes this less-than-great movie a must.” Rabbey’s wide-eyed vigilantism is like nothing I’ve seen, as is his response to chocolate cake. I also enjoyed the exaggeratedly bad parents who get killed by garden shears, a lawn mower, etc. Set in California. Avoid the unnecessarily cut VHS released in 1980. I found an uncut DVD transfer online.
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) dir. Larry Cohen
written by Larry Cohen
w/ Michael Moriarity, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, John Capodice, Malachy McCourt, Mary Louise Weller, Larry Pine, Eddie Jones, Shelly Desai, Nancy Stafford
Q is a giant winged lizard, an Aztec god reborn. “Q is coming,” repeats the trailer. “Its name is Quetzlcoatl. Just call it Q. That’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart.” Q looks very Ray Harryhausen as it decapitates a window washer or drips a rooftop sunbather’s blood onto pedestrians below. All the while a killer is skinning corpses as part of an ancient Aztec sacrifice ritual. Michael Moriarity (Bang the Drum Slowly, Pale Rider) plays a dumb ex-junkie crook who finds Q’s nest in the dome of NYC’s Chrysler Building. When his enemy is eaten by Q, he cries “Eat him! Eat him!” in a strangely poignant way. Carradine and Roundtree are cops. Candy Clark has an obligatory titty shot. Cohen’s It’s Alive (1974) and God Told Me To (1976, see Horror A-L) are also considered cult classics. Not much to come for Cohen after Q—most notably Bette Davis’s last film Wicked Stepmother (1989) and two more Moriarity features: a fun spin on zombification The Stuff (1985) and the Masters of Horror entry Pick Me Up (2006).
Revenge of Bigfoot a/k/a Rufus J. Pickle and the Indian (1979)
dir. Harry Z. Thomason
written by S. Dwayne Dailey
w/ Rory Calhoun, Mike Hackworth, T. Dan Hopkins, Patricia Kane
This is the only movie in this guide I’ve not fully seen. But it’s so quirky and earnest that I had to include a hopeful entry, as in hopeful for its rediscovery. Rory Calhoun (The Red House, Motel Hell, Angel) is Arkansas rancher Bob who befriends a Native American named Okinagan (T. Dan Hopkins). A local bigot, the titular Pickle (Mike Hackworth), seeks to spoil the racial harmony, alas, and it seems only Bigfoot can intervene—busting in on a country nightclub. Of the six user reviews currently on IMDb, four of them were extras in the film and recall it fondly. One, who attended the premiere, says, “It was fun to see several classmates in their speaking roles. I was fuzzily visible in one scene sitting behind David in the bar. The movie itself? Heh. You don’t get any more ‘B-movie’ than this incredibly corny lost comic-horror classic. I’d love to dig up a copy, but I’m sure it’s gone forever. Someone give Harry Thomason a call and see if he kept a copy, y’hear?” Harry Thomason and his wife Linda Bloodworth-Thomason went on to make the hugely successful TV series Designing Women (1986-‘93).
Roman (2006) dir. Angela Bettis
written by Lucky McKee
w/ Lucky McKee, Nectar Rose, Kristen Bell, Mike McKee, Eddie Steeples
Lucky McKee’s directorial debut May (2000) stars Bettis as the title character, a painfully awkward and increasingly disturbed loner whose relationship with death is akin to Ed Gein. Roman is a lower-budget companion piece with McKee starring as a male version of May. In fact, the film is also known as May 2: The Story of Roman. Though I saw the ironic end coming a mile away, I enjoyed the simple grit of this movie and found McKee’s angsty portrayal riveting. Bettis and McKee are pals in real life and it’s encouraging to see this kind of collaboration. Music (too much of it, frankly) by Alien Tempo Experiment 13 and The Breeders. If you loved May, check this out.
Savage Weekend (1979) dir. David Paulsen
written by David Paulsen
w/ Marilyn Hamlin, William Sanderson, Christopher Allport, David Gale, James Doerr, Kathleen Heaner, Caitlin O’Heaney, Devin Goldenberg, Jeffrey David Pomerantz
Finished in 1976 but shelved for three years, very little credit is ever given to this southern-fried stalker movie beyond the fact that it predates Friday the 13th (1980). I first saw it on Paragon Video and I was young enough to experience its intro as a jarring plunge into the depths of ‘70s sleaze: the banjo reminiscent of Deliverance (1972), a handheld camera catching glimpses of a lady running through the woods, the sound of a chainsaw and a hillbilly’s menacing grin. This is how the weekend ends. We flashback a couple of days to the arrival of this woman, a divorcee named Marie (Marilyn Hamlin), and her companions from New York City. They all dare to weekend among rural “upstate folk” whom the theme song says tend to “go crazy in the mind.” Case in point are grinning Otis (William Sanderson who plays Sheriff Dearborne on True Blood and EB Farnum on Deadwood) and sadistic stud Mac (David Gale who plays the decapitated doctor in Re-Animator). It’s been ridiculed for visible boom mikes but I can’t say I’ve noticed, perhaps distracted by the unexpected gay character who calls himself “Mother Nicky” (Christopher Allport). Early on he saunters into a tavern in bathing trunks and unbuttoned top and proceeds to beat up two toughs while sporting a semi-erection. Over the top and yet this almost pales next to a scene in which Marie fondles phallic cow teats. In the end David Paulsen’s film undermines the stereotypes on which it builds its tension, making it significant in the scheme of backwoods horror films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977).
Screamplay (1985) dir. Rufus Butler Seder
written by Ed Greenberg, Rufus Butler Seder
w/ Rufus Butler Seder, George Kuchar, Eugene Sede, Cheryl Hirshman, James McCann, Lonny McDougall, Bob White, George Cordeiro
There’s a lot of charm in this b+w cheapie inspired by German Expressionism and co-starring underground cinema icon George Kuchar (Hold Me While I’m Naked, Thundercrack!). Rufus Butler Seder is a one-man-band sort of filmmaker: he wrote the script, designed high contrast sets with large-scale backdrops, directed the film, and edited it. As well he played the protagonist, a newcomer to Hollywood named Edgar Allen. Edgar writes scripts about people he knows and in these scripts they get killed, a fate that subsequently befalls them in real life. Kuchar plays the smarmy landlord in a wifebeater. It’s a campy killer comedy, like Forbidden Zone strained through a fedora hat. All style, no gore. Despite the passionate attention to detail, Screamplay remains Seder’s only film. He now owns Eye Think, Inc. and makes optical art, specifically glass murals that create the illusion of an image in motion as one walks by. Screamplay, by the way, is on Troma DVD for under $10.
The Sender (1982) dir. Roger Christian
written by Thomas Baum
w/ Zeliko Ivanek, Katherine Harrold, Shirley Knight, Harry Ditson, Paul Freeman
With stones in his jacket, a suicidal telepathic (Zeliko Ivanek) tries to drown himself in a public lake full of kids. He wakes in a state hospital as John Doe #83. He can “send” his visions to others including his psychiatrist (Katherine Harrold). Shirley Knight, from The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1960), The Group (1966), and Endless Love (1981), plays #83’s mother who’s not really there. The whole movie is a series of things that aren’t really there or didn’t really happen, which I find a bit frustrating. Otherwise The Sender is a fun ride—bugs, rats, blood, electroshock therapy, brain surgery, explosives, and many asylum patients. I’m not sure how the doctors watch #83’s dreams on a monitor but they come to believe in his power. The confusing tagline is: “He has the power to make you live his nightmares and he’s dreaming about you.” Ivanek later became known for his roles on Homicide and Oz; he won a Supporting Emmy for Damages. The director’s career began with an Oscar nod as production designer for Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and worked its way toward a Golden Raspberry for Worst Director for Battlefield Earth (2000).
Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) dir. Michael Findlay
written by Ed Adlum, Ed Kelleher
w/ Alan Brock, Karen Hunter, Tawm Ellis, Michael Harris, Darcy Brown, Jack Neubeck, Ivan Agar
“It walks. It stalks,” says the tagline of this movie’s Yeti-ish creature: “It tears the shriek right out of your throat.” Shriek is one of my all-time fave cheapies. And it’s made by the most reviled couple in the cheapie business, Michael and Roberta Findlay, who brought us the infamous Snuff (1971). Shriek, politically benign in its haphazard joie de vivre, promises less and delivers more. The non-acting is compelled by sheer willpower, one of several weaknesses that altogether make for a kind of cinematic impudence I find most entertaining. Though the plot involves anthropology students investigating Yeti-sightings on a woodsy island, the most remembered scene involves a bathtub and a toaster. Reviews of Shriek hold its flaws against it, of course. Check it out if you like cheapies with personality. Available on DVD but best on VHS with its original soundtrack that includes Hot Butter’s moog-pop masterpiece “Popcorn.”
Sick Girl (2006) dir. Lucky McKee
written by Lucky McKee, Sean Hood
w/ Angela Bettis, Misty Mundae aka Erin Brown, Jesse Hlubik, Marcia Bennett, Mike McKee, Chandra Berg, William Finley, Nora Zehetner, Winona Ryder
Lucky McKee, after his success featuring Angela Bettis in May (2000), became the youngest director to contribute to Showtime’s Masters of Horror series. Other masters include Dario Argento, Tobe Hooper, Stuart Gordon, and John Landis. Sick Girl is a kitschy, queer update of The Fly (1958) with a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere and Bettis as entomologist Ida Teeter. Dumped by girlfriends who don’t like bugs, Ida finally meets Misty (former porn star Misty Mundae). As their relationship develops, so does a mantis-like specimen Ida keeps in her apartment. Eww, that proboscis! Ends on a gyno-horrific punchline. 60 minutes.
Silent Night, Bloody Night a/k/a Night of the Dark Full Moon
a/k/a Death House aka Zora (1972)
dir. Theodore Gershuny
written by Theodore Gershuny, Ira Teller, Lloyd Kaufman
w/ Mary Woronov, Patrick O’Neal, James Patterson, Walter Abel, John Carradine, Candy Darling, Jack Smith, Tally Brown, Ondine, Philip Burns, Kristen Steen, Lewis Love, Susan Rothenberg
Theodore Gershuny, his real-life wife Mary Woronov, and co-producer Lloyd Kaufman all worked together on the 1973 release Sugar Cookies, a sexpot-stylish nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) (see Comedy/Drama M-Z). This gothic horror is more awkward technically, its small budget evident right away, yet it achieves a serious tone and a timeless look. The story begins with a slick lawyer from the city (Patrick O’Neal) who’s come to sell a long-empty mansion in Massachusetts known as Butler House, staying overnight with his mistress in tow. Right away, an asylum escapee kills them with an axe. This is the first and most gruesome in a series of deaths. Diane (Woronov of Eating Raoul, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) narrates, telling us the mansion’s tragic and somewhat confusing history, including its years as an insane asylum. About half an hour into the film, she meets Jeffrey (James Patterson), heir to the Butler House and a product of rape. After his birth, his mother was committed and murdered in a patient uprising, dramatized in flashback. The film is considered a gem by more steadfast fans of obscure ‘70s horror, and its use of montage is especially good. Certainly not for the impatient. Warhol fans looks for his stars Ondine and Candy Darling in cameos. 81 minutes.
The Sinful Dwarf a/k/a Dværgen a/k/a The House of Lost Girls (1973)
dir. Vidal Raski
written by William Mayo
w/ Torben Bille, Clara Kelle, Gerda Madsen, Anne Sparrow, Tony Eades, Werner Hedman
Here’s a notorious “sickie” from Denmark. It opens as a little person with a cane (Torben Bille) approaches a woman playing hopscotch. He winds up a toy poodle that yaps as it walks toward her. He tempts her back to his mother’s dingy boarding house to play with more toys and she becomes one in a long line of ‘white slave’ whores. They’re kept in an attic room, naked and addicted to heroin. The plot centers on new tenants, a writer and his wife (Sparrow, Eades) who like to have sex a lot—not knowing Olaf watches through a peephole. All the while, Olaf’s mother Lila (Clara Kelle) gets drunk in the parlor with her brash friend (Gerda Madsen). Mom’s the order-giving, cigarillo-smoking, scene-stealing type, a former burlesque singer who does two numbers for us: one in Carmen Miranda mode and the other as Marlene Dietrich. Of course, the writer’s wife ends up discovering what’s going on in the attic. With tawdry colors and a schizo score, this anti-classic succeeds on its own terms. According to lore, Torben started out as a performer in children’s television and ended up in adult movies.
Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965)
dir. Mike Kuchar
written by George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar
w/ Bob Cowan, George Kuchar, Donna Kerness, Maren Thomas, Gina Zuckerman
One of this section’s only short films, and one of the only sci-fi films. The Kuchars in their time helped to define underground cinema, while resisting defintion; they do the same with the very concept of quirky. We are a million years in the future, though the jewelry is from yesterday’s bargain bins and the Romanesque setting is obviously someone’s small apartment. The future also holds ice cream cones, Clark bars, dialogue bubbles, George Kuchar as Prince Gianbeno, and robotic Fleshapoids made to serve the human race. When a mutinous Fleshapoid called Xar (Bob Cowan) kills his female master (Gina Zuckerman), he gets it on with a female Fleshapoid (Maren Thomas) and declares, “We are robots yet we are in love!” This no-budget legend—shot in 16mm and only 43 minutes—is a must-see for fans of obscure trash and genuine camp. The DVD also includes two very different Mike Kuchar shorts that I like even more. The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966) is 33 minutes and The Craven Sluck (1967) is 20 minutes.
dir. Brian De Palma
written by Brian De Palma, Louisa Rose
w/ Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley, Lisle Wilson, Barnard Hughes, Mary Davenport, Dolph Sweet, Olympia Dukakis, Catherine Gaffigan, Sealo
Brian De Palma is the Hitchcockian director for the 1970-’80s who’s never outdone his classics Carrie, Blowout, Body Double and this, the first and quirkiest of his thrillers. It’s the tale of a murder cover-up centering on mentally disturbed twins (played by the incomparable Margot Kidder of Superman and Amityville Horror) and their creepy doctor who looks not unlike John Waters (William Finley). A journalist (Jennifer Salt a/k/a Soap’s Eunice Tate, also an American Horror Story producer) witnesses the murder and, when not taken seriously by the police, hires a detective (familiar face Charles Durning of The Sting and Tootsie). These two opposing types have great chemistry, bringing subtle comedy to all the psychodrama. Kidder is tremendous, as she is in Black Christmas (1974). The twin theme suits De Palma’s breakthrough use of split screen. And there’s a hallucination sequence to rival Polanksi’s dreams in Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Cinematography by Gregory Sandow. Score by Bernard Hermann (Citizen Kane, Psycho). Look for the Criterion DVD.
Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things (1971) dir. Thomas Casey
written by Thomas Casey
w/ Abe Zwick, Scott Lawrence a/k/a Wayne Crawford, Don Craig, Yanka Mann, Robin Hughes, Marty Cordova, Maggie Wood, Mike Mingoia, Robert DeMeo, Sandra Lurie
A sleazy, low-low-budget psychodrama that Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Video Guide recommends as a “Who’s Who of Florida exploitation,” “very funny bizarro,” and “surefire cult movie material.” Aunt Martha (Abe Zwick) is a controlling bitch-daddy, real name Paul. He’s incognito and on the lam with his friend—probably lover—Stanley (Scott Lawrence) who is posing as nephew. They hide out in suburban Miami where the sun is glaring and the neighbors are nosy. Stanley hangs with hippies, freaking out when a girl tries to make it with him. The violence is shown in negative for a “trippy” effect and the score is jazzy. Its title positions Sometimes Aunt Martha Does Dreadful Things among psychobiddy movies like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), and What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971). It may not be trying to be a “gay film,” like The Pink Angels (1972), yet in hindsight it succeeds in a fascinating way. A must-see for trash cinema fans. On DVD as of 2015, from Vinegar Syndrome.
Squirm (1976) dir. Jeff Lieberman
written by Jeff Lieberman
w/ Patricia Pearcy, Don Scardino, Fran Higgins, Jean Sullivan, R.A. Dow, William Newman, Peter MacLean, Barbara Quinn, Carl Dagenhart
“Hey! There’s a worm in my egg cream!” With this cry begins Squirm, a quintessential 1970s horror flick. Close-ups on a bloodworm show its nasty little teeth as the score loops a grating/screeching noise. Thousands of these biting worms called Glycera, agitated by power lines downed in a summer storm, rise up to destabilize trees, plug plumbing, invade homes, and consume anything made of flesh—vanishing as abruptly as they emerge. The protagonists are local woman Geri (Patricia Pearcy) and her visiting beau Mick (Don Scardino), likable cohorts trying to solve the mystery of a missing antique dealer. Geri’s mom (Jean Sullivan) is a neurotic widow and her sister (Fran Higgins) a pothead in platforms, both great characters. They’re helped around the house by Roger (R.A. Dow), the slack-jawed son of a worm-farming neighbor (Dagenhart). Roger is kind of cute until he becomes “the worm face.” Yet another personal favorite that I remember watching on late night TV with my mom. Special effects by Rick Baker of American Werewolf in London fame.
Strange Behavior a/k/a Dead Kids (1981)
dir. Michael Laughlin
written by Michael Laughlin, Bill Condon
w/ Dan Shor, Michael Murphy, Fiona Lewis, Louise Fletcher, Dey Young, Bill Condon
Bill Condon would go on to win an Oscar for his Gods & Monsters (1998) screenplay but his career began with this low-budget spin on the serial killer plot. Filmed in New Zealand yet set in Illinois, it involves psychiatric research that turns volunteers psychotic. The captivatingly cold Fiona Lewis (Strange Invaders, The Fury) plays a university-funded mad scientist with fab hairdo. Michael Murphy (An Unmarried Woman, Manhattan, Tanner ’88) is the local sheriff who becomes suspicious. Not for everyone, it’s slow to start but has atmosphere and conviction. Dismemberment too. Fangoria included it in its movie guide 101 Best Horror Movies You’ve Never Seen. Also stars Oscar-winner Louise Fletcher (a/k/a Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and veteran actors Charles Lane and Scott Brady. Score by Tangerine Dream. I first had this film on VHS under the title Dead Kids and it’s too dark to see properly. Look for the DVD from Elite Entertainment or as part of their excellent Aussie Horror three-pack (with the cult classics Patrick and Thirst, both from the late 1970s). McLaughlin followed up with the cult classic Strange Invaders (1983).
Strange Invaders (1983) dir. Michael Laughlin
written by William Condon, Michael Laughlin
w/ Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Michael Lerner, Louise Fletcher, Fiona Lewis, Wallace Shawn, Ken Tobey, June Lockhart, Lulu Sylbert, Charles Lane, Mark Goddard, Dey Young, Dan Shor
This follow-up to Michael Laughlin’s obscure horror movie Strange Behavior is the most fun of the era’s retro sci-fi movies, with great face-removing effects. And ensemble casts don’t get much quirkier. It all starts with aliens invading the Illinois town of Centerville in 1958, a time—we’re told—of Eisenhower, twin beds, and Elvis from the waist up. Then after the credits, 25 years later, a woman named Margaret (Diana Scarwid of Mommie Dearest and Party Monster) must return to Centerville, leaving her daughter (Lulu Sylbert) with entomologist ex-husband Charlie (Paul Le Mat of American Graffiti). Unable to reach her for days, Charlie travels to the town where creepy locals try to kill him. It’s like two great intros for the price of one. And so a conspiracy unfolds involving a government official (Louise Fletcher a/k/a Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), a tabloid reporter (Nancy Allen of DePalma’s classics Dressed to Kill, Blowout, and Carrie), and a mental patient (Michael Lerner of Anguish, Life During Wartime). Looking like an Avon Lady for the New Wave era, Fiona Lewis—as one of the lead aliens—steals every scene she’s in. She kills Wallace Shawn! Lewis’s other films include The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), The Fury (1978), and Innerspace (1987).
Sybil (1976) dir. Daniel Petrie
written by Stewart Stern
w/ Sally Field, Joanne Woodward, Martine Bartlett, Brad Davis, Charles Lane, Jane Hoffman, William Prince, Natasha Ryan, Gina Petrushka
Very shocking for a ‘70s TV miniseries, full of abuse flashbacks to which many viewers would flashback for years to come. Myself included. But each time I’ve re-watched it, about half an hour in I remember, “Oh yeah they added that hokey romance part,” which isn’t in Flora Rheta Schreiber’s book. And now when I see Sybil’s sadistic mom (Martine Bartlett), she strikes me as high camp in a bad wig. Just as child Sybil (Natasha Ryan) so annoys me that I actually savor the moment when Mom trips her and says, “Have a nice trip! See you next fall!” The powerful scenes are between adult Sybil (Sally Field who won an Emmy) and her therapist (Joanne Woodward who’d starred in The Three Faces of Eve). I know I’m not the only person who’s fantasized about having Joanne Woodward as a therapist. The whole movie is like fantasy material for the emotionally disturbed, with Sybil’s range of personalities too perfectly diverse and her final integration too clean. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that Schreiber’s diagnosis was contested in the 1980s and again in the 2011 book Sybil Exposed. The American Psychological Association may no longer cite her book as nonfiction but, in my heart of hearts, there’ll always be a place for Sybil and her gang of internal stereotypes. 187 minutes. Note: Got to give credit to Charles Lane for his role as Sybil’s former doctor—a great scene. He accumulated over 350 supporting roles between 1931 and 2006, a legend among character actors.
Tony: London Serial Killer (2009) dir. Gerard Johnson
written by Gerard Johnson
w/ Peter Ferdinando, Frank Boyce
Touted as the new Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Tony has much more in common with Dahmer—both Dahmer the gay serial killer and Dahmer the grim but stylish film by David Jacobson (2002). As Tony, a long-unemployed city misfit, Peter Ferdinando dominates the screen by playing it meek. I’ve never seen an actor embody naivete and malevolence so acutely. The score, by The The (the director’s brother Martin Johnson), is a major contributor to the film’s atmosphere; subtle, sublime, and psychological, it’s The The’s first record in ten years. Tony on DVD includes the original short film with its unforgettable final image.
The Toolbox Murders (1978) dir. Dennis Donnelly
written by Neva Friedenn, Robert Easter, Ann Kindberg
w/ Cameron Mitchell, Pamelyn Ferdin, Aneta Corsaut, Wesley Eure, Nicolas Beauvy, Tim Donnelly, Faith McSwain, Evelyn Guerrero, Don Diamond, Kelly Nichols, Kathleen O’Malley
A notorious sickie that was publicly condemned by feminists, critics, and 60 Minutes. The poster shows a naked porn star (Kelly Nichols) and the killer in a ski mask (Cameron Mitchell) holding a drill. But he actually uses a nailgun to kill Nichols and the shocking thing is not the bloodless violence but her full frontal nudity. The first third of the movie shows a succession of such executions, motivated by the killer’s religious zealotry combined with his grief over a dead daughter. Cameron Mitchell (Nightmare in Wax, Nightmare Never Ends) gives the killer a perversity that is much more psycho-poignant than psycho-sexual, on par with Roberts Blossom as Ed Gein in Deranged (1974). This is especially true in the second half of the film, once he’s kidnapped Laurie. Played by Pamelyn Ferdin (whose poisoned mushrooms do in Clint Eastwood in The Beguiled, also the original voice of Peanuts’ Lucy Van Pelt), Laurie is the film’s amiable Final Girl. Unlike the “sinful” victims the killer dispatched so coldly, Laurie reminds him of his innocent daughter. His ramblings are passionate and he even sings “Sometimes I Feel like a Motherless Child.” Wesley Eure (Will on Land of the Lost) is his nephew and Aneta Corsaut (Helen Crump on Andy Griffith) is Laurie’s barmaid mom. A post-script claims that the film is based on events that took place in 1967. Banned for years in the UK, Toolbox Murders is now on Blu-ray. Maybe one reason I so love this movie is because I first saw it, and many “nasties” like it, not in a theater alongside reputed misogynists but on home video with my mom. Note: Other than both taking place in an apartment building, there is no connection between this movie and Tobe Hooper’s 2004 movie of the same name.
Tourist Trap (1979) dir. David Schmoeller
written by David Schmoeller, J. Larry Carroll
w/ Chuck Connors, Jocelyn Jones, Joan Van Ness, Tanya Roberts, Robin Sherwood, Keith McDermott
Motorists with bad luck enough to stop for gas in this dead southern town become figures in a wax museum—or a mannequin version thereof. The killer is a combo of Leatherface in Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1972) and Cameron Mitchell in Nightmare in Wax (1969). Let’s call him Plasterface or maybe Dollface. He’s also telekinetic. Tourist Trap, narratively a typical stalker flick, proves unpredictable with creepy quirks and genuine atmosphere. Some mannequins are played by mimes to add a dreamlike quality. Stephen King praises the film in his book Danse Macabre. And John Stanley, in his renowned movie guide Creature Features, says it “comes off powerfully with its cat and mouse terror, sink[ing] deeper and deeper into nightmare allegory.” Chuck Connors is best known for his lead role in the TV western The Rifleman (1958-1963). Tanya Roberts went on to be one of Charlie’s Angels in 1981. A very original score—at times sounding like a chorus of gasps—by Pino Donaggio (Dressed to Kill, Carrie, Body Double).
Trick ‘r Treat (2008) dir. Michael Dougherty
written by Michael Dougherty
w/ Anna Paquin, Leslie Bibb, Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, Rochelle Aytes, Quinn Lord, Lauren Lee Smith, Samm Todd, Moneca Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Brett Kelly
Trick ‘r Treat’s comics-styled opening seems a nod to Creepshow, the George Romero and Stephen King collaboration from 1982—a horror anthology featuring five separate stories and a cast of then familiar faces. Michael Dougherty offers four stories much more enterprisingly structured. Yes he moves from story to story but they all take place on one Halloween night in small town Ohio, held together by fairytale-gilded realism and a well-maintained tension that alternates between darkly comic and uncanny. Dylan Baker (Happiness) is slapstick-funny as the frustrated Principal Wilkins who poisons an overweight ginger kid (Brett Kelly) and buries the body in his back yard. Anna Paquin (The Piano) plays Laurie, a virgin among bitches who like to party their own way. Samm Todd, in her only role to date, goes to the quarry with some other kids to explore a legend known as The Halloween School Bus Massacre. And Brian Cox (Red, L.I.E.) plays old crank Mr. Kreeg with a cute dog and an ugly secret. He must battle a pint-sized, pumpkin-headed killer who haunts the periphery of all the stories. 82 minutes. DVD includes Dougherty’s original 4-minute cartoon called Season’s Greetings from 1996. In 2015 he directed a similarly styled holiday-themed horror film, Krampus, otherwise turning to superheroes and Godzilla.
Trog (1970) dir. Freddie Francis
written by Peter Bryan, John Gilling, Aben Kandel
w/ Joan Crawford, Michael Gough, Bernard Kay, Kim Braden, David Griffin, John Hamill, Thorley Walters, Jack May, Geoffrey Case, Simon Lack
As the tagline announces, Trog comes from “the boiling rage of a world hurled back one million years.” Critics said the same thing of Joan Crawford as anthropologist Dr. Brockton who adopts a troglodyte found in a cave. Despite opposition from conservative forces like Murdock (Michael Gough), who want Trog destroyed, Dr. B teaches it to play with dolls and even to speak. In Paul Roen’s movie guide High Camp, he says Michael Gough “is Joan’s perfect foil as a woman-hating (‘That female quack has made herself the star of the whole show!’), anti-evolutionist (‘That’s the talk of a heathen!’), faggy (‘Don’t you dare touch me!’) old crank who objects to the presence of the troglodyte in the neighborhood because it might lower property values. It’s a ridiculous part, but it permits him and Joan to wrangle like alleycats, with him earning dozens more hisses than the leading lady.” Check out Gough as a deadly serious patriarch in Crucible of Horror (1971), included in Horror (A-L).
Troll II (1990) dir. Claudio Fragasso
written by Rossella Drudi, Claudio Fragasso
w/ Michael Stephenson, George Hardy, Margo Prey, Robert Ormsby, Connie McFarland, Deborah Reed, Jason Wright, Darren Ewing, Jason Steadman
Loved for its ineptitude, especially by those who were kids when they first saw it on VHS. For more, see entry on the documentary about Troll II titled Best Worst Movie (2009) in Documentary (M-Z).
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis
written by Herschell Gordon Lewis
w/ Connie Mason, William Kerwin, Jeffrey Allen, Ben Moore, Gary Bakeman, Ben Moore, Linda Cochran, Yvonne Gilbert , Jerome Eden, Shelby Livingston
Pleasant Valley, Georgia—population 2000—celebrates its Centennial by ensnaring highway travelers with a fake detour sign and murdering them in crowd-pleasing ways. One woman gets stoned to death. A man is forced into a nail-lined barrel then pushed down a hill. First off, however, the travelers are cheered and made to feel like they’ve won a prize, a hicksploitation variation on Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery.” Tawdry colors and corny drawl are the rule, scored by banjo. “Yeehaw!” goes the theme song: “Oh the South’s gonna rise again!” Indeed. Is it such a stretch to imagine them all now in MAGA hats? Jeffrey Allen, star of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s This Stuff’ll Kill Ya! (1971) and supporting actor in Moonshine Mountain (1964), here plays the Mayor—a guffawing master of ceremonies. Connie Mason, a respectable-looking Playboy bunny, also starred in Herschell Gordon Lewis’s breakthrough movie Blood Feast (1963). It’s all lowbrow camp, dripping with personality, tenacity, and good ol’ Southern hospitality.
Undead (2003) dir. Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
written by Michael Spierig, Peter Spierig
w/ Felicity Mason, Mungo McKay, Lisa Cunningham, Rob Jenkins, Emma Randall, Dirk Hunter, Noel Sheridan
The Spierig Brothers establish right away a playful tone for this movie and that’s why I think it works. Shuffling together cannibal zombies and invading extraterrestrials, hands-on slimy gore and slapstick CGI, stereotypes and Australian accents, all in a comic book style, the Spierigs manage to get away with just about everything they try—some of it quite daring. It’s one of those quirky movies, though, that divides its viewers. After seeing so many zombie re-hashes, I easily embraced this gutsy little mutation. It’s quite re-watchable. 104 minutes. Next for The Spierig Brothers are the Ethan Hawke vehicles Daybreakers (2009) and Predestination (2014) followed by the dramatic ghost story Winchester (2018) that is as interesting as it is hollow.
Urban Evil (1999-2000) dirs. Ted Nicolaou, James Black
written by Raymond Forchion, Douglas Snauffer, Carl Washington, Benjamin Carr
w/ Darrow Igus, Larry Bates, Sarah Scott Davis, Leopoldo Mandeville, Java Benson, Russell Richardson, Jennia Fredrique, William Stanford Davis, Freda Payne
Full Moon Entertainment, headed up by cult director Charles Band, brought us the Puppetmaster movies (1989-98), softcore sci-fi like Timegate: Tales of the Saddle Tramps (1999), and three neo-blaxploitation movies collected here (in shortened form) as Urban Evil. The full-length version of “Demon Tunes” is titled The Horrible Dr. Bones. Darrow Igus plays the Satanic record producer whose hip hop turns listeners into zombies. The movie Ragdoll became “The Killing Kind,” a voodoo spin on the final tale in Trilogy of Terror (1976) about the doll hell-bent on murder. Lastly “Hidden Evil,” originally The Vault, explores an abandoned institution where slaves were once kept. Though shot on video and poorly written, the films utilize vivid colors and have an earnest quality that warms me to them—especially at 30 instead of 70-90 minutes each. When I read, over and over again, how Urban Evil is the worst movie people ever saw, the first question in my head is always the same: “But did you enjoy it?” If nothing else, watch for the guy’s head cut in half by a broken windowpane.
The Well (1997) dir. Samantha Lang
written by Laura Jones
w/ Pamela Rabe, Miranda Otto, Paul Chubb
A brilliantly realized psychodrama nominated for eleven Australian Film Institute awards. Pamela Rabe, who won for Best Actress, plays Hester, a middle-aged woman living on an isolated farm that’s seen better days. She takes in a drifter named Katherine, played intriguingly by Miranda Otto, and the two spend all their time together, bonding intensely. One night, driving home a bit drunk, they hit a man in the road and Hester decides to dump his body into the farm’s old well. Katherine comes to believe the man in the well is still alive and the women’s codependence turns toxic. The tense plot is perfectly reflected by Mandy Walker’s cinematography—as realistic as it is stylized, creating a sense of space either cramped inside or wide open and exposed outside. There are lots of greys and smoky blues, which intensify the occasional bursts of color, and the use of silence is similarly effective. The screenplay, another AFI winner, is by Laura Jones who wrote Gillian Armstrong’s High Tide (1987) and Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1990). The Well is a story that doesn’t let go even after the movie ends.
Werewolf of Washington (1973) dir. Milton Moses Ginsberg
written by Milton Moses Ginsberg
w/ Dean Stockwell, Biff McGuire, Michael Dunn, Katalin Kallay, Henry Ferrentin
An Elvira-hosted stinker on DVD. It’s confusing, poorly edited, and often under-lit. But how I enjoy Dean Stockwell’s out of control performance. His werewolf transformations are just hilarious. He plays press secretary to the President (Biff McGuire) and at times, fleetingly, the movie seems like it might be an insightful satire of the Watergate era. A scene in the White House bowling alley is downright slapstick. In another scene, the werewolf is befriended by a dwarf scientist (Michael Dunn, Oscar-nominated back in 1963) and they lick each other’s faces. Stockwell’s career, of course, stretches from Home Sweet Homicide (1946) and The Boy with Green Hair (1948) as a kid star to Blue Velvet (1986) and beyond as a cult icon, earning an Oscar nod for Married to the Mob (1988). As for the director, his debut film Coming Apart (1969) is the one for more soberly minded film buffs to seek out.
Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) dir. Lee H. Katzin
written by Theodore Apstein
w/ Geraldine Page, Ruth Gordon, Rosemary Forsyth, Robert Fuller, Mildred Dunnock, Joan Huntington, Peter Brandon, Claire Kelly, Peter Bonerz, Martin Garralaga
Based on the novel The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss, this daylight thriller opens with widow Clare Marrable at her husband’s casket. “Sad?” she asks of herself. This is answered with an upshot of her selecting flowers from a spray for a take-home bouquet. But her husband is not as solvent as she thinks. The camera literally backs her into a corner, Clare’s madness embodied acutely by the legendary Geraldine Page (The Beguiled, A Christmas Memory, Interiors)—underscored by slashing strings and anxious harpsichord. To get by, Clare begins to kill off her housekeepers. This lonely desert gothic, in Metrocolor, was produced by Robert Aldrich who originated the “psychobiddy” subgenere with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Clare is abrasive and puts on heirs, looking down her nose at her housekeepers, her condescension making for an unlikely web. “You’ve had such rotten luck with your housekeepers, Aunt Clare,” says a niece. And Clare, feigning handicap enough to be wheeled around in a chair, puffs on her cigarette and answers, “Have I? Actually, I think I’ve done quite well.” Along comes Alice Dimmock, played by the inimitable Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude, Rosemary’s Baby), to fill the position. Clare is impressed by Miss Dimmock’s encyclopedic knowledge and her backbone, but will she become Clare’s true companion or her undoing? Neighbors rent the only nearby cottage—dull, generic characters; I find myself rooting for Clare because Geraldine Page is just that good. Her career spanned Hondo (1953), Oscar-nominated for Supporting Actress, and Trip to Bountiful (1985) for which she won Best Actress. She and Ruth Gordon raise this mild thriller plot to cult classic keepsake. Some in their 40s-50s may recall it from airings on ABC in the 1970s or on VHS from Magnetic Video Corporation in the early 1980s.
What’s the Matter with Helen? (1971)
dir. Curtis Harrington
written by Henry Farrell
w/ Shelley Winters, Debbie Reynolds, Dennis Weaver, Micheál MacLiammóir, Agnes Moorehead, Peggy Rea, Yvette Vickers, Timothy Carey
Shelley Winters’ two contributions to the “psycho-biddy” genre that more or less began with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1964, also written by Farrell) are this one and the “Hansel & Gretel” themed Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972). Both are directed by cult movie icon Curtis Harrington and both mingle mild shocks with colorful sets and theatrical themes. Helen is the one to see if you’re game, more like a Tennessee Williams play. Winters and Debbie Reynolds are widows whose sons are imprisoned for a vicious murder. They move to Hollywood to start new lives, opening a school of dance for children. The performances are pure camp yet Harrington’s film is neither quite campy enough nor quite severe enough. It’s grown on me over the years, however, with repeated viewings. I’ve read how the sons, never onscreen, are allusions to murderous gay lovers Leopold and Loeb, which certainly adds an interesting layer to Winters’ breakdown. Agnes “Endora” Moorehead fans should watch for her as a preacher named Sister Alma. According to Patricia White’s unInvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability, “The ‘matter’ with Helen concerns not only her psychopathic murderous tendencies, but her fanatical devotion to the evangelist’s message and—surprise—her lesbian love for her ‘best friend.’”
When a Stranger Calls (1979) dir. Fred Walton
written by Fred Walton, Steve Feke
w/ Carol Kane, Charles Durning, Colleen Dewhurst, Rachel Roberts, Ron O’Neal, Tony Beckley, Rutanya Alda, Carmen Argenziano
Aside from her Emmy-winning role on Taxi (1980-1983), Saint of the Quirky Carol Kane is most widely recognized as babysitter Jill in When a Stranger Calls. Alone with kids asleep upstairs, Jill is menaced by a caller asking: “Have you checked the children?” The first 24 minutes are legendary, mostly due to Kane’s performance and how, as critic Vera Dika describes, “The visual field is fragmented as she is framed from a variety of different angles, alerting the spectator to the killer’s presence but not to his position within the space.” The movie then shifts to seven years later, when the psycho-pathetic killer (Tony Beckley) has escaped. It gets a bit hardboiled with too much chase, it’s true, but the actors are incredible. Charles Durning (Sisters, Muppet Movie) is the detective on the killer’s trail and the one and only Colleen Dewhurst (Annie Hall, Anne of Green Gables) plays a middle-aged loner whom the killer attempts to befriend. Still, like everyone else, I am glad to get back to the babysitter for the terrifying finale. Now married, Jill has kids of her own. It’s cheating but not confusing, by the way, to watch the first and last twenty minutes on YouTube. Walton directed a worthwhile sequel titled When a Stranger Calls Back for TV in 1993, reuniting Kane and Durning. For more on Kane, see above entries on The Mafu Cage (1978) and Office Killer (1997).
Willard (1971) dir. Daniel Mann
written by Gilbert Ralston
w/ Bruce Davison, Elsa Lanchester, Sondra Locke, Michael Dante, J. Pat O’Malley, Ernest Borgnine, Jody Gilbert, John Myhers, Joan Shawlee, Almira Sessions, Helen Spring, Alan Baxter
Willard’s mother (Elsa Lanchester of Bride of Frankenstein fame) rules their dusty villa-like property with phallic cane and an aggressive bell. “27 years ago tonight you were born in pain and suffering. They didn’t think I would live,” she tells him. “Give your mother a birthday kiss.” So begins this honorable cult classic based on the 1968 novel Ratman’s Notebook by Stephen Gilbert. Played by ever-busy Bruce Davison, whose career spans The Strawberry Statement (1970), Longtime Companion (1989), X-Men (2000), and Lords of Salem (2012), Willard is blonde and fresh-faced, sharing his breakfast with rats who live in the overgrown rock garden—particularly Queenie, Socrates, and big Ben. Willard retreats further into his rat world by bringing them into the house and to work where, tragically, Socrates is killed. “Ben escapes, after throwing Willard a long, hard glare,” philosopher Gilles Deleuze comments on the film in “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible” (1980): “Willard then experiences a pause in his destiny, in his becoming-rat. He tries with all his might to remain among humans. He even responds to the advances of a young woman in the office who bears a strong ‘resemblance’ to a rat—but it is only a resemblance. One day when he has invited the young woman over, all set to be conjugalized, re-oedipalized, Ben suddenly reappears, full of hate.” That rat-faced young woman is played by Sondra Locke, a rising star (Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Reflection of Fear). Ernest Borgnine was Willard’s biggest star at the time (coming between big hits Wild Bunch and Poseidon Adventure).The movie’s most memorable supporting player for me is Jody Gilbert in the neighbor role. Charlotte is as lonely as she is nosy, however, as cartoonish as she is sincere. Gilbert’s career includes memorable bits in Shadow of the Thin Man and Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (both 1941) and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The sequel to Willard, titled Ben (1972), is almost as good; I think it helps to watch them together. Lastly: Be sure to give Stephen Gilbert’s original novel a read and check out Crispin Glover’s remake!
Willard (2003) dir. Glen Morgan
written by Glen Morgan
w/ Crispin Glover, Jackie Burroughs, R. Lee Ermey, Elena Harring, Ashlyn Gere, William S. Taylor, Laara Sadiq, David Parker, Ty Olsson
Crispin Glover’s embodiment of Willard is a marvel, cavernously interior in the company of a mother who never allowed him any privacy. There’s not a corner of their old dark house to which Willard can retreat from his mother’s nagging cough. And she cannot retreat from the smell of rats. “All my life I could smell mice,” she insists, played with perfectly controlled hysteria by Jackie Burroughs (Dead Zone, Small Town Murder Songs). Cutting to black after the whimsical opening credits, it’s her voice we hear crying out: “Willard! There are rats in the basement!” The light clicks on and we see, ostensibly, from the rats’ perspective as Willard descends. He can’t bring himself to kill them, however, befriending them instead; indeed he curls up in bed with the one he names Socrates. Writer-director Glen Morgan amps up the emasculation theme for this Willard, and not just in mom bemoaning his lack of girlfriend or his boss (R. Lee Emery) berating him for wearing his dead father’s suits. We also see it in how Willard, flipping the script perhaps, proves to be petty and tyrannical himself, favoring Socrates over Ben—i.e., brains over brawn—with gaining cruelty. Tension and style are in constant balance in this remake that actually rivals its original. Note: Take a close look at the portrait of Willard’s father, by the way, and you’ll notice it’s a portrait of Bruce Davison. Also check the special features, or YouTube, for Glover’s cover of the Michael Jackson song “Ben,” theme to the original Willard’s sequel; Glover also directs his own music video for the song and it’s a treasure.
Without Warning (1980) dir. Greydon Clark
written by Lyn Freeman, Daniel Grodnick, Ben Nett, Steve Mathis
w/ Tarah Nutter, Christopher S. Nelson, Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Cameron Mitchell, Ralph Meeker, Sue Ann Langdon, Larry Storch, Darby Hinton, David Caruso, Kevin Peter Hall
A cheesy, somewhat gross little sci-fi flick from the director of Black Shampoo (1976) and Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977). There are camping teens, a Cub Scouts leader played by Larry Storch (of F-Troop fame), a truck-stop owner played by Jack Palance (Oscar-winner for City Slickers), and a town crazy played by Martin Landau (Oscar-winner for Ed Wood). Also look for a familiar face from Quirky Cinema: Cameron Mitchell (Nightmare in Wax, Nightmare Never Ends, Toolbox Murders). The alien, a humanoid people-eater, which we don’t fully see until the end thanks to many I-cam shots, throws fleshy little frisbees at people that burrow tentacles into their flesh. The effects were designed by Greg Cannom who went on to work on Jurassic Park. It never made VHS in the U.S. but Shout! Factory finally released Without Warning on DVD and Blu-ray in 2014.