1981 was a landmark year for the horror genre, seeing as it did the release of such lauded genre classics as Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead, David Cronenberg’s Scanners, John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, and Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond. It also inevitably spawned its share of stinkers (Porno Holocaust, anyone?), not to mention a host of low-budget films falling into the slasher sub-genre (sequels to Friday the 13th and Halloween, The Prowler, The Burning, et al) that came to define the decade in horror.
The thing is, as much as B-D would like to pen a proper remembrance to every single one of these films on our own (yes, even the bad ones) we simply don’t have the manpower to do so. Which is why we’ve has teamed up with five other major horror sites (Shock Til You Drop, Dread Central, Fear Net, Arrow in the head, and BC’s Terror Tuesday on Badass Digest) to collectively present 30th anniversary retrospectives on 30 of the most prominent titles (even six of us can’t cover ’em all!) for your reading pleasure.
For B-D’s part, we took on five very different films, each with its own very specific place in genre history: John Irvin’s supernatural revenge flick (and Peter Straub adaptation) Ghost Story; J. Lee Thompson’s cult Canadian slasher Happy Birthday To Me; Joe Dante’s werewolf classic The Howling; James Cameron’s ill-fated killer fish sequel Piranha Part Two: The Spawning; and Andrzej Zulawski ‘s psychosexual arthouse mind-fuck Possession.
After checking out our unique retrospectives on each of these titles inside, be sure to click on over to Shock Til You Drop, Dread Central, Fear Net, Arrow in the Head, and Badass Digest (Terror Tuesday) for reflections on a total of 25 more horror films that celebrate their 30th anniversaries this year.
Plot: After one of his twin sons is killed in a tragic accident, small-town mayor Edward Wanderley and three of his elderly friends – known collectively as the Chowder Society – are plagued by a series of bizarre occurrences tied to a dark event from their past.
Why didn’t Alice Krige ever become a movie star? It really is a travesty. Luminous, magnetic, sophisticated, with just a hint of danger in her eyes…ah, but there’s no going back, is there? And anyway, it’s to the benefit of horror fans everywhere that she didn’t become one, I suppose. Otherwise she might never have starred as shape-shifting mama vamp Mary Brady in Sleepwalkers, or as sadistic cult leader Christabella in Christophe Gans’ highly underrated Silent Hill adaptation – two roles that would’ve surely been “beneath” her had she ever managed to skyrocket to A-list status (or perhaps not; I guess we’ll never know).
Nevertheless, it all looked bright for the native South African actress in 1981. Not only did she attract praise for her performance as Sybil Gordon in Best Picture winner Chariots of Fire, she also won a pivotal role in that year’s big-budget Universal adaptation of Ghost Story, the best-selling 1979 novel by horror author Peter Straub. The film had pedigree to burn, what with Golden Age movie stars Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. heading up the cast – and yet Krige managed to steal the film from them all.
Of course, I’m not here to recap Alice Krige’s career but to give a retrospective on Ghost Story, a minor entry in the ’80s supernatural horror canon that’s nevertheless still better than its meager 36% rating on Rotten Tomatoes might suggest. I’d say the “6.0” user average on IMDB is a more accurate representation of the film’s overall quality, in that it’s a handsome, top-shelf technical achievement that boasts a few good performances but (ironically enough) never amounts to much as a piece of story-telling.
But I’m not here to review the movie, either. This is a retrospective. So I guess I’m supposed to tell you that this was the final film appearance for Astaire, Fairbanks, and Douglas (who died before the film was released), and that the film simplified Straub’s novel quite a bit, presenting it as a more straightforward supernatural revenge tale and doing away with the race of horrifying mythological shape-shifters that were presented as the main threat in the book. For this you can thank screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, who’d done such a wonderful job adapting Stephen King’s Carrie five years earlier but who missed the mark here.
And yet the film is far from bad. Outside of Krige’s mesmerizing dual performance as vengeful spirit Eva Galli/Alma Mobley, the film’s greatest assets are the elegant direction by John Irvin (aided by late, great cinematographer Jack Cardiff), who would go on to helm Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Raw Deal and the gory Vietnam War film Hamburger Hill, as well as superior (if scarce) makeup effects work by the legendary Dick Smith. There’s also a spectacular first-act fall from a high-rise that has to be seen to be appreciated (unconvincing early ’80s visual effects work notwithstanding). On the other hand, Astaire and company – hallowed performers though they may have been – for the most part wander about the film looking like they have no idea what movie set they’re on. (That’s not a crack about their age, by the way – I genuinely believe Irvin didn’t quite know how to use them.)
One of the more heavily-hyped horror films of that year, Ghost Story overcame its mostly negative critical reception and grossed a respectable $23 million (though it’s hard to put that number in context since there’s no budget information available), but it could’ve been so much more. That Alice Krige, though, man…what a stunner.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME
Plot: The members of an elite clique at a posh private school are stalked and murdered by a mysterious figure during the final days of their senior year.
A few notes for those unfamiliar with the film…’Happy Birthday To Me’ was a Canadian production helmed by Academy Award-nominated director J. Lee Thompson (‘Cape Fear’, ‘Eye of the Devil’) and starring Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, and Lawrence Dane. Released in the midst of the post-‘Friday the 13th’ slasher boom, the film – about an elite group of high school students who are stalked by a mysterious killer – stood out from its peers at the time due to its high production values, above-average acting, and stylish direction.
It’s also well-remembered for its bizarre third-act twist, a few inventive kills (in particular the shish-kebab murder, evoked in the film’s famous poster) and the fact that several members of the creative team (including two producers and original writer John Beaird) were also behind that same year’s better-known ‘My Bloody Valentine’.
And now, on with the retrospective…
Ginny Wainwright should be on top of the world. Attractive…wealthy…popular…and Daddy loves her so. And yet there’s something not quite right. Something having to do with her mother’s tragic death in that drawbridge accident a few years back…and the brain trauma. And the fact that her friends are starting to disappear now, one by one.
But these aren’t just any old friends, see. These are the “Top Ten” – the most elite group of students at Ginny’s posh Crawford Academy. The kind of kids who drink every night at the local tavern without so much as a second glance from the other patrons – an indifference borne of a genuine fascination, even an admiration, on the part of those adults who would no doubt admonish minors of a lesser social status for engaging in the same behavior. “Here they come again”, they’ll whisper as the kids pull up each night in their fancy cars. “And I’ll be damned if that Ginny Wainwright isn’t the prettiest one of all.”
The fact is, no one even seems all that concerned that some members of the Top Ten have stopped showing up for school – first Bernadette, then Etienne, then Greg. The group is known for playing pranks, after all – like the one with the mouse at the Silent Woman the other night (that’s the tavern). The owner threatened to report them to their superiors at the Academy, but it was all an empty show. The Top Ten are untouchable, you see.
But what nobody knows – except for the one who’s responsible, of course – is that these missing students won’t be coming back to school again, not ever. That’s because Bernadette, Etienne, Greg, and the others aren’t playing a prank; Bernadette, Etienne, Greg and the others are dead. Not only dead, but murdered in horrific ways: a slashed throat here…a crushed neck there…a shish-kebab down the throat.
What’s more, Ginny is starting to think she’s been causing the disappearances, only she can’t be entirely sure, what with the blackouts, and the memory loss, and the…brain trauma. The motive, however, is all too painfully clear.
You see, Ginny wasn’t always so popular. Mother was the gold-digging town whore from the wrong side of the tracks – shunned by the town’s elite after marrying Ginny’s father, a wealthy businessman with a nice big house. As a result, Ginny was shunned too. In fact, when Mother invited the Top Ten to Ginny’s 14th birthday party they never even showed. They probably wouldn’t have come in any case, but the fact is that Top Ten member Ann Thomerson hosted a party the same night. No contest there, I’m afraid.
Poor Ginny. Left with all that birthday cake and no one to share it with. No one, of course, aside from her drunken mother – a mother so consumed by her desire for acceptance she could no longer see straight. A mother so filled with rage at this cruel act of rejection that she took it upon herself to drive with Ginny to the gates of the Thomerson manor that rainy night and grip the iron bars like those of a prison cell, screaming and sobbing in her expensive blue dress as she demanded her daughter be granted access to the exclusive party. “God damn you!” she wailed at the retreating form of the groundskeeper, her salon-perfected blonde curls now soaked and ruined. “I’m a rich woman now!”
But it didn’t work. Ginny never did get to attend Ann Thomerson’s party. What’s more, Mother tried to drive the car over the drawbridge on the way back home, even as it started to open, even as Ginny screamed for her to stop. And the car fell through. And Daddy wasn’t there – away on business again. Breaking another promise, missing another birthday. And the Top Ten were at the Thomerson home, laughing and chasing each other through the rain, even as Ginny’s mother drowned in the roiling waters below the bridge. Leaving her daughter all alone. Leaving her to sing the only song she could’ve sung, given that there was no one else left now to celebrate with her on her special day: “Happy Birthday To Me”.
Plot: After being assaulted and nearly killed by a notorious serial murderer, news anchor Karen White is sent to a remote mountain retreat to recuperate and subsequently discovers that its inhabitants are actually werewolves.
It’s not right, really. In a year that saw two amazing cinematic werewolf transformations, somehow only one of them got recognized come Oscar time. That would be the incredible metamorphosis in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, for which Rick Baker took home the big award (his first of seven so far). But what about The Howling? Baker protégé Rob Bottin’s work on that film was arguably equal to that of his mentor (who left Bottin in charge of The Howling‘s effects after he exited the project for the bigger-budget American Werewolf), and yet the Academy couldn’t even be bothered to nominate him (or, perhaps more likely, its members simply couldn’t bring themselves to watch a low-budget horror movie not put out by a major studio).
And that’s kind of the way it’s been ever since for Joe Dante’s creature classic – generally regarded as one of the greatest werewolf films of all time, hallowed for Bottin’s startlingly mature effects work (he was only 22 at the time), praised for a sly satirical script by John Sayles…and yet still plagued by the perennial refrain: “…but ‘American Werewolf’ is better.”
Whether or not you believe that claim to be true, the “statistics” (i.e. the films’ average scores on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes) show the majority of critics and moviegoers to be AWIL adherents (both its 88%/76% critical/audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 7.5 user score on IMDB far outpace The Howling‘s 60%/60% and 6.5, respectively). As for me, I’m not partial to one or the other (though I happen to think AWIL is a little overrated).
In any case, The Howling absolutely deserves its reputation as one of the better horror films to come out of the 1980s. The second teaming of Dante and Sayles after 1978’s tongue-in-cheek killer-fish flick Piranha, the film was an adaptation of the bestselling 1977 novel by Gary Brandner, which took a far more straightforward approach in its story of a recovering rape victim beset by werewolves in a small California mountain community.
While the original draft of the script by Terence H. Winkless reportedly hewed much closer to the tone of the book, Sayles later imbued it with his trademark intelligence and wit after being brought on by Dante (who replaced original director Jack Conrad after he had a falling-out with the producers) and the studio to rewrite it. As a result, the schematic plotline of the novel was eschewed in favor of more sophisticated satirical jabs at both ratings-obsessed television news culture and the scam artist-infested self-help movement of the time (both equally worthy targets today, if not more so).
Dante also added in several self-aware nods to the werewolf genre, manifested throughout the film in production design details, dialogue references, and even character names (for example, Patrick Macnee’s therapist character is named George Waggner, after the director of the original Wolf Man). This “wink-wink” sensibility was rather rare in the horror genre at the time; only with the release of Scream and the bevy of late-’90s copycats that followed would it bleed fully into the mainstream (and become annoyingly ubiquitous).
It’s a testament to The Howling‘s quality that the main creative team behind it went on to even bigger accomplishments later in their careers – Joe Dante directed the hugely-successful Gremlins for Steven Spielberg, Sayles became a highly respected independent filmmaker and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, and Bottin would be nominated for an Academy Award six years later for his work on Legend, before being awarded a Special Achievement Oscar in 1991 for his spectacular makeup effects on Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Neither of which, notably, is a horror film.
PIRANHA PART TWO: THE SPAWNING
Plot: A host of man-eating flying piranha are unleashed on the unsuspecting residents of a Caribbean island following the wreck of a U.S. Navy ship nearby that was carrying their eggs.
There’s a surreal moment near the very beginning of Piranha Part Two: The Spawning – directly following an opening scene that has a not-so-bright scuba-diving couple being devoured by a horde of razor-toothed killer fish while having sex underwater – in which the words “Directed By James Cameron” flash across the screen. Surreal because the film that contains the phrase is so incongruous with the rest of Cameron’s body of work, which is made up of such incredible genre classics as The Terminator, Aliens, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Hell, I guess everyone’s got at least one stinker on their resumes.
And yet considering the infamous back-story behind the production, it may indeed be unfair to count Piranha Two as a legitimate part of Cameron’s oeuvre. While at this point he can never erase the film from his IMDB profile no matter how many groundbreaking Hollywood blockbusters he creates, the alleged conflict that took place behind the scenes paints an altogether more complex portrait that’s infinitely more intriguing than the film itself – which, despite what its “so-bad-it’s-good” reputation might suggest, isn’t even all that much fun to laugh at.
Hilariously, executive-producer Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Wikipedia profile boasts that Piranha Two “launched the career of director James Cameron”, a ridiculous claim considering it couldn’t be much further from the truth. After all, there’s a reason the then-twentysomething director tried to have his name removed from the film – because it’s bad. So bad, in fact, that any filmmaker hoping to carve out a mainstream Hollywood career for himself would’ve likely done the same.
But then, Cameron’s desire to have his name removed from Piranha Two seems to have been based on principle more than self-preservation, at least based on his claim (and the claim of several others involved with the project) that Assonitis not only took over production about two-and-a-half weeks in but exercised an iron grip throughout – arguing with Cameron over his every creative decision during principal photography and later denying him access to the editing facility.
Another juicy bit, recounted in Christopher Heard’s unauthorized biography “Dreaming Aloud”, later has Cameron breaking into the editing room in Rome and attempting to cut his own version of the movie while the producers were attending the Cannes Film Festival, before being caught and booted once again (sadly, rumors that an actual bootlegged Director’s Cut exists somewhere appear to be unfounded).
In fairness, the version of events probably all depends on who you talk to, and it’s indeed possible that by dissociating himself from the project Cameron (a notorious egotist) was merely attempting to strike any recognizable trace of artistic fallibility from his record. Regardless, given the sturdiness of the rest of his filmography it’s tough to see how a man as assertive and talented as he could’ve possibly been responsible for such a turkey.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s embarrassment over the finished product still didn’t keep him from later pegging Piranha Two as “the best flying piranha film ever made.” Which, all other considerations aside, I’d say is probably pretty accurate.
Plot: When a man finds out that his mentally-unstable wife has been having an extramarital affair, he hires a private investigator to track her whereabouts – only to discover something far more horrifying than he ever could have imagined.
No matter how one might feel after viewing this little slice of art-horror from Polish director Andrzej Zulawski – a highly allegorical work that was lumped in with Great Britain’s first batch of “Video Nasties” in the early 1980s – there’s no doubt it was designed to provoke a strong reaction, and in that it succeeded. Indeed, there is very little middle ground here, with the majority of viewers falling into one of two camps: a) Those who celebrate it as a baroque and brilliant cinematic masterpiece, and b) Those who deride it as a pretentious stew of art house gobbledy-gook. (Though the truth, ironically, more likely lies somewhere in between.)
This generally polarizing reaction is no doubt what Zulawski intended when he made Possesssion, though he certainly went a long way in providing ammunition for the latter argument by making the following pronouncement, essentially his answer to critics of the film: “To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence.”
Okay, so Zulawski sounds like kind of an a-hole. But hey, if nothing else the movie is a conversation-starter that’s given rise to a lot of very strong opinions. To illustrate, below I’ve pasted in a sampling of the most memorable user comments from IMDB (spelling and grammatical errors have been left unedited for your enjoyment):
*SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW*
“The horror that constitutes the film obviously has its roots in the female hysteria (one scene in a subway, remembered by Anna, has her miscarry, as she pours out blood and milk, the essence of her femaleness spilling from her; the toilet scene between Heinrich and Mark has a gynaecological terror similar to Argento’s ‘Suspiria’) and male bestiality that cannot be hidden by affluent modernity.” – Alice Liddel from Dublin, Ireland
“Its like watching a theatrical play in cinematic form on acid. A lot of acid.” – Yooooooffffff from the U.K.
“In case you dig surreal Art-Horror films in which beautiful women have sex with strange monstrosities, I recommend Walerian Borowczyk’s ‘La Bête’ (1975) over this one.” – Benjamin Gauss from Salzburg, Austria
“From the bit of special-features that I went through, I understand that the director wrote this film after experiencing his own divorce from his wife…all I can assume is that based on how POSSESSION is filmed, the break-up didn’t go so well.” – EVOL666 from St. John’s Abortion Clinic
“Sam Niels character has some shadowy job with the government and he’s been ‘away at the war’, while his wife has seemingly lost all control over her life due to an obsessive affair with…(SPOILERALERT) …a slimy tentacled creator which resembles an scaly abortion with the head of a carrot, like the baby from ‘Eraserhead’ had they let it grow up and reproduce with the sentient pile of zombie intestines from ‘Dead Alive’.” – Joseph Sylvers from the U.S.
“I think every guy’s worst nightmare is to loose his woman to some doped out kinky guy who does nothing but has sex with her.” – redrabbitbone from the U.S.
“This should not be watched by couples on a first date, or any couple whose relationship is not secure. Also, keep impressionable children away from it.” – groucho_de_sade from Houston, TX
“So Sam Neill tracks down Isabelle. He wants to see her new lover. He finds her screaming in ecstasy. On the bed is Isabelle having sex with a squid like monster! YAY!” – Dr. Gore from Los Angeles, CA
“There is comic relief from the guy who plays Heinrich and I don’t know if it was intentional or not. His wigging out in the bathroom was very amusing. He was like a Zen-Gay-Kung-Fu-Loving Hannibal Lechter.” – Jenniferofthejungle from New York
“The restaurant scene was opposing ends of the acting spectrum–Adjani convincing, Neill acting as if he were on his very first audition; it was laughable. And he never really got better, he just spent most of the movie mugging for the camera and grimacing at the right moments. He reminded me of Sally Field.” – Mae-Bea from the U.S.
“There is no denying, however, that it is an ineluctably compelling viewing experience. There is of course always a ‘third way’, which is that Zulawski’s vision represents a director who wanted to make a film about a woman who goes mad and has sex with an octopus.” – Michael from Bridgend, South Wales
“For the first hour, ‘Possession’ is tolerable and even randomly compelling, but then you realize there’s a whole other hour to go.” – Johnny_Numb, Hellfudge from Pennsylvania
“Can someone please explain what the hell happened in this movie?” – droogiedim77
“They eventually discover that Anna left them for a piece of homemade fungus that has its own apartment in the center of the city! Yes, fungus! Not just any type of fungus, but fungus that feeds on private detectives and their gay lovers. Mark replaces his lost wife with her own doppelganger while Anna has a miscarriage in the subway and floods half of Berlin with blood and pus. Are we confused yet??” – Coventry from Draconian Swamp of Unholy Souls
“Just received the DVD in the mail (thank God I only rented it) and it was everything I could do to keep from taking it out of the machine and smashing it into little bits. I don’t care about the imcomprehesebility of the film, but would someone tell Isabelle Adjani to just SHUT UP!!!!” – Jim M-2 from West Nyack, NY
“The direction stank like the ratatouie at my girlfriends sisters’ last tupperware party, musky and familiar, whilst the script itself could have been written by some dole reaping cudgehole who’s not left the confinements of his house for 10 years, drawn all the curtains and jerked off to all the naughty bits from Dario Argento’s back catalogue.” – David Foster from the U.K.