After watching the terrifying masterpiece that is Black Christmas, I was inspired to check out a few more horror films from the long list I've been compiling. I have to say, Black Christmas still wins.
Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things, Bob Clark, 1972
Bob Clark’s first film isn’t quite up to par with Black Christmas, but we’ll call it a practice round. A pretentious theater director wearing some ridiculous striped pants drags a troupe of actors to an island that serves as a burial ground for criminals, where he digs up a body and performs a ritual to raise the dead that doesn’t seem to work. While it was most likely intended as a joke—he’s hired someone to pop up out of one of the graves—the director seems disappointed and takes it out on the actors, going to great lengths to debase them. Of course, it turns out that while the ritual doesn’t take effect immediately, that doesn’t mean it won’t take effect eventually.
Martin, George Romero, 1977
This psychological horror movie about a teenager who may or may not be a vampire is somewhat of a departure for George Romero. Unlike his cinematic predecessors, Martin does his bloodletting with syringes and razor blades rather than fangs, which seems to imply that he’s just a bit of a weirdo. His uncle, however, is resolutely convinced, calling him “Nosferatu” and harping on the alleged family curse. While the truth is left somewhat ambiguous I’d lean more towards his being human—disturbed, but human. The industrial suburbs of Pittsburgh are put to good use, serving as a fittingly desolate backdrop to this strange and captivating story.
The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven, 1972
Inspired by (or maybe just based on the same source material as) Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring, two girls go to a rock concert—except before they even make it inside they try to score some grass off of a guy who brings them back to his apartment, where they’re kidnapped by a gang of sadistic escaped convicts who tie them up and put them in the trunk of their car.
The film’s most harrowing moment arrives when the car breaks down and Mari emerges from the trunk to realize that she’s parked in front of her own house and there’s nothing she can do about it. Feet from the solace of her loving parents, she’s instead dragged into the woods to face degradation and her ultimate demise.
After raping and murdering the girls, the killers clean themselves up and unwittingly knock on the door of Mari’s parents’ house to ask for a place to sleep. The parents quickly figure out what’s going on and exact their revenge; these scenes, which entail a chainsaw and a blow job that ends in castration, are somehow anticlimactic and disappointing—this can be said of the whole movie, I think. I suppose I could have just hyped it up too much in my mind, but I was not impressed.
The tone wavers between sadistic and incongruously slapsticky, due in part to the soundtrack’s almost upbeat hillbilly music. There’s also the ridiculous subplot involving a couple of bumbling, donut-munching cops that could have been out of something like Super Troopers. They see the killers’ car but think nothing of it, realizing their mistake when they hear a radio dispatch describing the abandoned vehicle. They attempt to head back but run out of gas on the way, unsuccessfully trying to hitchhike with a group of teenagers who extend their middle fingers at the pigs, and a grossly stereotypical toothless black lady driving a truck full of chickens. I’ve read that the contrast between the film’s soundtrack and its disturbing imagery is intentional—which is certainly interesting, but I nonetheless found the result to be rather ineffective.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, Robert Wise, 1951
Not exactly a horror film but I’m including it in here anyway. This space age classic is a little bit high-minded in its messages about mass hysteria and man’s inability to cohabit peacefully with other nations. And I must say, I found it a little weird that the important announcement that this moralizing alien traveled all the way to Earth to communicate is that if humans don’t shape up and dispose of their nuclear weapons, his planet will bomb the shit out of them.
Regardless, I enjoyed the vintage sci-fi imagery, replete with flying saucers, massive killer robots, and a silver-clad spaceman wearing what amounts to a goldfish bowl over his head, and was rather amused to discover the origin of the phrase “klaatu barata nikto.”
The House by the Cemetery, Lucio Fulci, 1981
This is the first movie directed by Lucio Fulci that I’ve seen, and I found it to be pretty unimpressive. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he hasn’t done better—I’m not totally dissuaded from seeking out other films in his oeuvre. (I hear there’s a pretty good one involving a killer who quacks like a duck.)
It has a particularly memorable opening scene, wherein two people sneak into a vacant house to have sex but somehow get separated. Thinking that he’s playing a trick on her, the girl goes to look for her beau and is stabbed in the back of the head, the knife coming out the other side through her open mouth. However, it kind of goes downhill from there.
Dr. Norman Boyle and his family move into a quaint New England house so that he can continue with a research assignment that one of his colleagues was working on (the colleague having just committed suicide). Immediately, the family notices some weird goings-on, and tries unsuccessfully to move to another house.
One of the high points is a creepy little girl (who I guess is really a ghost?) who used to live in the house and makes a habit of visiting Boyle’s son, who might be one of the most annoying children in cinematic history. The girl continually conveys a message of warning, but it’s wasted on the kid, whose parents of course dismiss his silly antics.
So apparently this perverted doctor, whose name is a pretty good amalgamation of two other famous doctors, once lived in the house (I guess he was the father of the creepy little ghost girl?) and was known for performing controversial experiments on his patients. As it turns out, he’s still there in the basement, kept alive by consuming fresh human blood. Although he’s not really living in the strictest sense of the word—when Dr. Boyle tries to kill him, a clump of maggoty innards resembling a nasty-ass sausage link oozes out of his side.
This movie had the potential for greatness—creepy ghost children are always a nice touch—but the film would have benefited from some more careful plotting. While unexplained phenomena can definitely be a good thing in horror films, in this case I’d say it errs on the side of too much vagueness.
Blacula, William Crain, 1972
In this melding of horror and blaxploitation, an 18th-century African prince meets with Count Dracula, who turns him into a vampire and seals him off in a coffin, where he remains for centuries until two gay interior decorators buy the castle’s contents, unwittingly shipping him to 1970s Los Angeles. When they open the coffin, which they had been thinking would be a pretty fierce guest bed, they unleash a vampire whose intense thirst for blood has not been satiated for about 300 years.
Blacula, as it turns out, can be pretty sexy when he’s not in vampire mode, and despite his odd getup (i.e. a flowing black cape), he manages to seduce a woman he believes to be the reincarnation of his wife. Her sister’s boyfriend, however, is the cop investigating some of the odd murders that have been happening, complete with missing bodies—a.k.a. victims who are turned into vampires and thus wake up and disappear from their own funerals. It’s not exactly scary, but pretty entertaining and campy—I couldn’t help but let out a few utterances of “Let the cartoons begin!”