Ah, summer camp. Softball games, capture the flag, nightswimming, and life-changing boating accidents. Not to mention killer bees, child molesters, maniacs in the shower, and one kid with a whole lot of baggage, if you know what I mean. Sleepaway Camp is a slasher movie, and it depicts lakeside Camp Arawak as a pressure-cooker of hormones and teenage flop sweat. Into this fetid milieu step Ricky and Angela, teenaged cousins united by tragedy: a boating accident that killed Angela’s parents and sibling some years earlier. Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) might be a little awkward, but he just wants to fit in; Angela (Felissa Rose), meanwhile, seems downright disturbed, spending much of her time dead silent, staring down her fellow campers with a mournful, almost accusatory glare. Before long, some of those campers start dropping dead as surely as the flies that coat the glue strips dangling in Arawak’s kitchen. There’s a soup incident, a shower incident, and an incident involving a toilet stall and angry bees. There’s a bit of business with a curling iron that’s probably inappropriate in a movie starring underage actors. The slasher’s hands appear on screen, but do they belong to unhappy Angela? Overprotective Ricky? Or someone else entirely?
Consider the pig. Pork is damned near a gourmet food these days. Celebrity chefs will serve you layers of pork belly wrapped around potatoes, figs, even pineapple. They’ll dip bacon in chocolate, infuse it in vodka, or drape it across an ice-cream sundae, resplendent in its brown glory. Your local organic market probably sells artisanal bacon cured with dark, fine-grained muscovado imported from Mauritius and flavored with angel farts and faerie dust. The recent cinema has also celebrated the pig, via two excellent Babe movies and a decent adaptation of Charlotte’s Web. It wasn’t always that way, though. No less an authority than God Himself went Old Testament on pork back in the day, and it took the famous and completely disingenuous “Pork: The Other White Meat” campaign to rehabilitate swine for the U.S. market. What I mean to say is that the 1982 horror movie Evilspeak, in which a trio of crazed, Satan-possessed porkers burst into a bathroom and disembowel a nude woman taking a shower, couldn’t have done the humble pig’s reputation any favours. Continue reading
Amid the American horror boom of the late-1970s and early-1980s, when everything old was new again and once-dormant studio properties like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing from Another World, and The Fly were suddenly valuable franchises, the script for a remake of Cat People, one of the most subtle of all horror classics, somehow ended up on Paul Schrader’s desk. Why Schrader? Dumb luck, mostly. Certainly he had no great love for the source material, a 1942 horror film directed by Jacques Tourneur that Schrader famously (and charmlessly) claimed “isn’t that brilliant.” But he must have seen in the raw material the opportunity to make a deeply weird movie, one that fused a new mythology with a contemporary melodrama of fear, desire, and violence. The result is not just a personal expression of Schrader’s own sex-and-death preoccupations, but a sort of high-water mark for the quixotic attempt to meld visually sophisticated erotica with commercially savvy narrative storytelling.
There are bad movies and there are tantalizingly bad movies, and Saturn 3 is the latter–the type of bad movie that tickles the imagination and demands an explanation. On first blush, there’s nothing unusual about it. Released in 1980, it was clearly trading on the post-Star Wars mania for sci-fi movies. The casting of Farrah Fawcett, at the time a big star, was a reasonable commercial gambit. And the release of Alien a year earlier certainly explained the idea of a monster movie set in space. If you look at the credits, you simply get a sense of older Hollywood types–director Stanley Donen, actor Kirk Douglas–striving to keep up with the prevailing trends.
But then you watch the movie, and you wonder: what the hell happened here?
I’m pretty much on board with a horror movie about a creepy landlord who stalks his college-aged tenants, waging a low-level terror campaign against them by deliberately releasing pests into their living spaces. If he’s a sadist and a serial killer who keeps souvenirs of his victims (by which I mean body parts in jars), that just seems to go with the territory. If he’s also a hardcore Nazi sympathizer with a daddy fixation and a concentration-camp victim locked up in the attic, well, that sounds like it might be a little over the top. But if that creepy landlord-sadist-sociopath-Nazi is played by Klaus Kinski? Now you’re talking.
At a certain point about a third of the way into the home invasion thriller You’re Next, in which a wry indie comedy about a dysfunctional family gathering is interrupted by a wry indie slasher picture, a meathead sitting in the row in front of me started applauding. It was a slow clap. On screen, a man wearing a lamb mask had just punched a woman, hard, the force of his blow pushing her through a window. The meathead chuckled appreciatively before putting his hands together for the psycho. The woman crawled on the broken glass until the man in the mask pushed the sole of his boot into the top of her head, his axe following the arc of a golf swing before finding its mark. The meathead tittered delightedly about this and muttered something that I chose to ignore.
Writer-director Larry Cohen makes exploitation look easy. His iconic Black Caesar was basically a remake of Little Caesar with a black cast; his mutant-baby flick It’s Alive amplified the generational rift created in families by the social revolutions of the 1960s and early-1970s to horror-movie proportions. Cohen is so commercially savvy that his screenwriting career has continued, in earnest, into the 21st century, placing projects like Phone Booth, Cellular, and Captivity at the Venn-diagram intersection between high-concept appeal and low-budget execution. He also has an instinct for character, and it never served him better than it did in Q, which is the story of a little criminal in a big city as much as it’s the story of a huge feathered serpent lording over Manhattan. Q was set up quickly (in two days, to hear Cohen tell it), after Cohen was fired from an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, and it features a terrific cast (Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, and Richard Roundtree) improvising many of the scenes in a screenplay that was being written as the shoot progressed to take advantage of whatever New York locations Cohen was able to secure. The result isn’t quite a great monster movie, but it gets maybe 80 percent of the way there.
The early 1980s must have been a weird time to be Tobe Hooper. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had made him one of the most notorious directors in the world, and Poltergeist vaulted him onto the A-list. He would have been on top of the world if not for an extended controversy over that film: Poltergeist was produced by Steven Spielberg, and there were widespread rumors that he actually directed it, too. Hooper denied it and Spielberg issued oddly-worded statements that permanently muddied the waters. Whatever the truth of their collaboration, the controversy was a blow to Hooper’s reputation. His Texas Chain Saw felt almost like outsider art–raw and twisted, it was the antithesis of the burnished Spielberg style. Poltergeist, on the other hand, was the very quintessence of a Steven Spielberg film, from its familiar suburban family in distress to its richly-detailed mise en scène. If Hooper really did direct it, it doesn’t say much for his authorial voice that he left virtually no discernible fingerprints on the final product.