A Dollar and a Dream: THE EVIL DEAD (New Line Cinema 1981)

In 1981, the inspirational British sports drama CHARIOTS OF FIRE edged out Warren Beatty’s sweeping socialist epic REDS for Best Picture at the 54th annual Academy Awards. Bah. I’m here to say THE EVIL DEAD is a better movie than either of them! At the very least, it’s a helluva lot more fun! It features a stunning debut for writer/director Sam Raimi, who, though he had far less money to work with than Beatty or CHARIOTS director Hugh Hudson, demonstrates some mega talent on a mini budget.

Sam Raimi (r) and Bruce Campbell, 1981

Raimi was a movie mad kid from the suburbs of Detroit who experimented with making Super-8 shorts as a teen with his friends, including EVIL DEAD star and cult icon Bruce Campbell . They put together a 1978 supernatural slasher called WITHIN THE WOODS, hoping to attract attention and make it into a feature. Raimi managed to scrape up about $90,000 through friends and family, and shot his spooky, Lovecraft-inspired film at a remote cabin in rural Morristown, Tennessee. He caught the attention of Irvin Shapiro, a distributor specializing in foreign films and low-budget entertainment. Shapiro was one of the founders of the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and got Raimi’s little horror flick a screening there. Who should happen to be in attendance than Stephen King , who gave THE EVIL DEAD a glowing review, and the rest is history!

The plot is deceptively simple: five youths taking a break from college drive out to a secluded cabin in the Tennessee woods. Hearing noises coming from the basement, the boys investigate, and stumble upon some occult-related items and a tape recorder. What they’ve found is the ancient Sumerian Book of the Dead, “bound in human flesh and inked in human blood”. Playing the tape, an incantation summons the demons of Kandara, and the horrors quickly mount up as the friends are possessed one by one…

Raimi improvised and overcame his budget restrictions by using several techniques. A judicious use of close-ups are shot, and much of the movie is drenched in shadows and fog. Cameras were mounted on wood and pulled by rope to get the desired tracking shots. Much of THE EVIL DEAD’s eerie atmosphere came during post-production, where supervising sound editor Joe Mansfield created horrifying movie magic. Joseph DoLuca’s score was chilling, and he’d continue to collaborate with Raimi on later films. Detroit editor Edna Ruth Paul cut the whole thing into a cohesive piece of work, along with her assistant, future director Joel Coen.

The gross-out factor was instrumental in making THE EVIL DEAD a huge hit, especially among drive-in fans. The film was considered one of the most violent of its time, and still manages to shock some more sensitive viewers. There’s plenty of blood, guts, and gore thanks to special effects wizards Tom Sullivan (makeup) and Bart Prince (cameras), but the intense horror is laced with Raimi’s warped sense of humor, which I can certainly appreciate (check out the closing credits tribute to Joe Palma – Three Stooges buffs will know what I’m talking about!).

It seems like Bruce Campbell’s Ash has been battling THE EVIL DEAD forever! The character appeared in two sequels, and the late, lamented Starz series ASH VS EVIL DEAD. The whole EVIL DEAD universe has taken on a life of its own, with video games, comic books, a 2013 reboot, and even an Off-Broadway musical! Sam Raimi has gone on to mainstream success with DARKMAN, THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, the underrated neo-noir A SIMPLE PLAN, FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME, and the Spider-Man franchise from 2002-07. And to think, it all started with a kid and his Super-8 camera, a dollar and a dream.

The Prey’s The Thing: THE PROWLER (Sandhurst Films 1981)

While flipping through the channels late one Saturday night, I came across a title called THE PROWLER. It was not a remake of the 1951 film noir directed by Joseph Losey and starring Van Heflin and Evelyn Keyes, but a slasher shocker with a couple of noir icons in the cast, namely Lawrence Tierney and Farley Granger. Intrigued by this, I decided what the hell, let’s give it a watch! And though Tierney and Granger are in it, their screen time is limited, and I discovered the real star of this film is makeup/special effects wizard Tom Savini.

The plot is your basic “psycho-killer on the loose terrorizing coeds” retread, but the backstory was enough to hook me. We begin with newsreel footage of the troops returning home from WWII in 1945, and a graduation dance at a California college. Pretty young Rosemary Chapman, who wrote her soldier boy a Dear John letter, is with her new beau out in a secluded area, when suddenly a masked, pitchfork-wielding soldier sneaks up and brutally murders them both, leaving one red rose in Rosemary’s hand. (Side note: the MC at the dance is played by Carleton Carpenter, who had a brief career as an MGM star in the early fifties, and scored a #1 hit record dueting with Debbie Reynolds on “Aba Daba Honeymoon”). Flash forward to 1980, and the college coeds are about to stage their first graduation dance in thirty-five years. Senior Pam McDonald is dating Deputy Sheriff Mark London, who’s put in charge of things while his boss Sheriff Frazer (Granger) leaves for a fishing trip. Old Major Chapman (Tierney), who likes to watch the coeds undress from his home across from the dorm, disapproves of staging another dance at the scene of his daughter’s death. Oh, and there’s a robber/killer in the neighborhood, and enough suspicious characters in town to fill a police lineup, like simple-minded delivery man-boy Otto!

After some exposition introducing us to the future victims (intercut with our masked killer preparing for carnage), we get down to the gore! A young lad gets ready to join his ladylove in the shower, when suddenly The Prowler attacks, stabbing him through the head with his bayonet, then impaling said showering girl under the running water with his pitchfork, leading to a fairly neat transition scene of coeds cutting cake at the big dance (complete with a generically lame 80’s rock band). Pam and Mark have a tiff, and when he accidentally spills punch on her dress (spiked, of course!), she heads back to the dorm to change. Big mistake, Pam, for the killer is still in the house, and though she manages to escape, he stalks her, when suddenly she’s grabbed by the wheelchair-bound Major. Breaking free of the geezer’s clutches, she runs headlong into Mark, uttering the obvious words, “Someone was chasing me”. No shit, Pam!

Our heroes decide to investigate the Major’s house, and though he’s nowhere in sight, we get more exposition about the 1945 psycho-soldier who was never found, including a red rose pressed in a photo album. The next victim is attacked in a pool, her throat slashed by that bayonet, followed quickly by a slaughtered chaperone who gets it through the neck. While a couple of horny kids (one of whom is Thom Bray, soon to gain fame as nerdy Boz on TV’s RIPTIDE) sneak down to the basement for some private canoodling, Pam and Mark do some more investigating at the local cemetery, discovering Rosemary’s grave unearthed and the pool victim’s body in place of the deceased. Returning to the Major’s house, the lights are cut off and Mark is knocked unconscious. The lights go back on, and Pam finds Rosemary’s decaying body stuffed up the chimney, then she’s once again stalked by the masked psycho-soldier through the house. Hightailing it up to Rosemary’s old, sheet-covered room, our girl hides in the first place any self-respecting killer would look, under the bed! But apparently, the psycho-soldier (or the screenwriters) hadn’t seen enough of these films, because he trashes the room looking everywhere EXCEPT UNDER THE BED!

Pam bolts to another room, and somehow manages to trap the killer’s pitchfork in the door, snapping the tines off (what, now she’s Wonder Woman?). He bursts through the door and is about to claim another victim when suddenly (things happen suddenly in these films, have you noticed?) he’s blown away by… simple-minded Otto (and what’s he doing there, anyway?). But it’s not that easy to kill a psycho-killer in this kind of movie, and after wasting Otto, The Prowler tussles with Pam, unmasking as (SPOILER ALERT) Sheriff Frazer! Pam reaches for the gun and Blows His Head Clean Off in a gruesome special effect by Savini that scared the beejezus out of me (well after all, it was late at night!). There’s one final scene involving Pam that’s fairly startling and we’re done.

You can throw logic out the window while watching THE PROWLER, as it’s full of unanswered questions: Why is Sheriff Frazer on a killing spree? Was he the original soldier that killed Rosemary? What happened to Major Chapman? Did he just vanish into thin air? Why didn’t the killer waste Mark instead of knocking him out? Why didn’t he look under the damn bed? Where the hell did Otto come from? And what of those two horny teens in the basement? Did they get killed, or did the nerdy Thom Bray finally get lucky? Director Joseph Zito and screenwriters Neal Barbera (son of TV cartoon king Joe Barbera) and Glenn Leopold (who wrote for Hanna-Barbera) leave a lot of strings hanging, and though it’s slow-moving in places, especially during those exposition scenes, the film still manages to generate some suspense and plenty of frights courtesy of the great Tom Savini. Zito would go on to direct some big hits for Chuck Norris (MISSING IN ACTION, INVASION USA), the Dolph Lundgren starrer RED SCORPION, and Jason Voorhees himself in FRIDAY THE 13TH: THE FINAL CHAPTER (which as we all know wasn’t the final chapter after all).

Farley Granger
Lawrence Tierney

Besides the all-too-brief appearances by Granger (THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , Hitchcock’s ROPE and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN), Tierney (who doesn’t even rate a speaking part; he just sits in his wheelchair looking menacing) and those previously mentioned, the cast is for the most part unknown. Vicky Dawson (Pam) came from the world of Soap Operas, and once costarred in the short-lived Saturday morning series HOT HERO SANDWICH, which was evidentially geared toward pre-teens discovering the wonderful world of puberty! Christopher Goutman (Mark) also came from the soaps, as both an actor and later a director. The rest of the players aren’t anybody I’ve (or probably you, unless you’re one of them or their relative) ever heard of, but that’s okay. Slasher films like THE PROWLER weren’t meant to be star vehicles, they’re instead all about the gore, and as I said earlier the real star of THE PROWLER is Tom Savini and his genius in making this outrageous stuff look believable enough to scare the pants off you. He certainly succeeded with this little gore-fest, especially if you’re watching late at night… alone in the dark!

 

Slashed To Thrill: Brian De Palma’s DRESSED TO KILL (Filmways 1980)

Brian De Palma was a big deal back in the 70’s and 80’s, and his films like CARRIE, SCARFACE, and THE UNTOUCHABLES are still discussed. Yet works such as SISTERS, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, OBSESSION, BLOW OUT, and BODY DOUBLE seem unjustly neglected today, and some critics deride him for his over the top sex and violence. DRESSED TO KILL finds De Palma in full Hitchcock mode, an homage to PSYCHO that The Master of Suspense himself cited as more like a “fromage”, but one I find still entertaining.

The film begins with a sizzling hot shower scene with Angie Dickinson as Kate Miller, remarried mother of  science nerd Peter  (Keith Gordon, CHRISTINE ). Kate has problems in her marriage and with her own mom,  not to mention being a nymphomaniac! She’s seeing psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine ), but seemingly getting nowhere. We follow her to  New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she engages in an erotic game of hide-and-go-seek with a complete stranger. They have sex in the cab, and at his apartment. Leaving the encounter, Kate steps into an elevator… and is brutally slashed/hacked to death by a tall, blonde woman in dark glasses brandishing a straight razor!

When the elevator stops, young Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) witnesses the horror within. She’s brought tp police headquarters where Detective Marino (Dennis Franz) is investigating, where we discover Liz is a call girl, “a Park Avenue whore” as Marino calls her. Peter and his stepdad are devastated, as is Dr. Elliott, who refuses to give nay information out on his clients. Liz becomes the prime suspect, but Peter starts his own investigation, learning the tall blonde woman is one of Elliott’s patients, a patient who is now stalking Liz…

De Palma keeps things suspenseful, with a jolting scene in the subway, and the gripping psycho-sexual drama played out in Elliott’s office while a thunderstorm rages outside. I won’t spoil the killer’s identity for those of you who haven’t viewed this thriller (though it’s not hard to figure out if you’ve seen PSYCHO)… but I will tell you De Palma wraps things up with a double – make that triple! – twist ending. The director (who also wrote the screenplay) draws not only from Hitchcock, but other sources like Goddard and Antonioni, especially in the art museum scene. His use of sound, like that of Hitchcock, adds immensely to the atmosphere, and split-screen imagery is utilized in a scene with Caine and Allen. Pino Donaggio’s score evokes Bernard Herrmann , and DP Ralf Bode’s imagery is superb.

Let’s talk for a minute about Nancy Allen. The cute-as-a-button actress, who was married to De Palma at the time, makes a great woman-in-jeopardy as Liz, and was one of the brightest stars of the late 70’s/early 80’s. Allen made her film debut in 1973’s THE LAST DETAIL at age 23, and gained major recognition as “mean girl” Chris in De Palma’s CARRIE. She starred in Robert Zemeckis’s first movie I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND, and was well-known for her roles in BLOW OUT, STRANGE INVADERS, THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT, and the first three ROBOCOP flicks. Nancy’s pretty much retired from acting, working with environmental and breast cancer causes, but it’s always nice to go back and view her work (and yes, I still have a crush on her!).

Michael Caine seems more invested in the part of Dr. Elliott than he does in other films of this era. It’s a good, juicy part, and Caine is more than up to the task. Angie Dickinson, in the Janet Leigh role, is still sexy at 49, though that’s not her nude in that shower, but a body double (former Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson). Dennis Franz as Marino is practicing for his Detective Sipowicz in TV’s NYPD BLUE, which isn’t a bad thing. Keith Gordon is good as nerdy Peter – so nerdy he even rides a moped!! And in an interesting side note, former AIP honcho Samuel Z. Arkoff is the film’s executive producer.

I don’t know exactly why Brian De Palma’s work is largely ignored today, save for a handful of films. He’s still cranking ’em out, and has an upcoming production DOMINO scheduled for release this year. His movies, especially those made in the 1970’s and 80’s, are well worth watching, and the sexy horror DRESSED TO KILL ranks as one of his best in my book. It’s time for a new generation to rediscover De Palma!

Ho-Ho-Horror!: SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT (TriStar 1984)

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Deck the halls with slaughtered bodies, fa-la-la-lala, lala-la-la!

What better way to spend the Yuletide Season than with SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, a movie about a psycho Santa running amok in Utah? This 1984 slasher shocker was directed by Charles E. Sellier, Jr., usually associated with wholesome family fare like THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS, IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK, and ANCIENT SECRETS OF THE BIBLE. But Sellier occasionally dipped his toes into exploitation (THE BOOGENS, THE ANNIHILATORS), and hit the bloody nail on the head with this one. The movie was considered controversial in its day, and TriStar actually pulled it from theaters a week after its release due to protests from national PTA groups. Today, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is regarded as a classic of the slasher genre and holds up quite well next to fright films like FRIDAY THE 13TH and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET.

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We begin our tawdry little tale in 1971, with the Chapman family driving their station wagon to visit Grampa at Utah Mental Hospital. Gramps is catatonic until mom, dad, and baby sis leave the room. Then the creepy old geezer scares the beejeezus out of young Billy, telling him Santa Claus is going to punish him for being naughty. Billy’s pretty freaked out by this, but the worst is yet to come.

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An armed robber in a Santa suit (the always welcome Charles Dierkop) kills a clerk, and ends up with “thirty-one bucks? Merry fucking Christmas”. The crook pulls the old “broke down by the side of the road” routine, hoping to score, when who should pull up but the Chapmans. The killer Claus shoots dad in the head and rapes mom, slashing her throat in the process. Billy runs and hides, scared to death while Santa searches for him.

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Cut to 1974, where we find Billy and his sister at St. Mary’s Orphanage. Sister Margaret is sensitive to Billy’s fear of Christmas, but Mother Superior is an old-school ogre who thrives on punishment. When Billy’s caught peeping through a keyhole at two teens gettin’ it on, Mother Superior doles out the punishment with an iron hand, her mantra being “Punishment is absolute…punishment is good”. Holy Catholic guilt!!

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Ten years later, Sister Margaret helps Billy get a job at Ira’s Toy Store. Things go well at first, until Christmastime. When Mr. Simms’s Santa breaks his ankle ice skating, he recruits Billy to don the red suit and beard of Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick. At the after-hours Christmas party, the employees get drunk celebrating. Billy follows two of them to the backroom, and catches them in fragrante delicto. This is more than he can handle, and he brutally murders them both. After slaughtering the rest of his coworkers, Billy leaves to go on a killing spree, creatively exterminating another sexually active pair (one of whom is cult movie queen Linnea Quigley) and some punks before heading to the orphanage, axe in hand and ready to “punish”.

Didn’t anyone think of sending Billy to a therapist? I guess we wouldn’t have a movie if they did. Robert Brian Wilson is outstanding as Billy, though the film’s (then) controversial nature kind of did in his career. Wilson got work on soaps and TV episodes, but by the 90s he was out of acting altogether. Seen today, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT is fun, a big hunk of 80s Xmas cheese with boobs and gore galore. The movie spawned five (!) sequels and a 2012 remake, none of which capture the loopy spirit of the original. So snuggle in your beds with visions of sugarplums dancing in your heads this Christmas…

But you better watch out!!

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Halloween Havoc!: BLOODY BIRTHDAY (Ignite Films 1981)

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When I sat down to watch BLOODY BIRTHDAY, I was expecting a big slab of 80s cheese. What I got instead was a suspenseful (albeit far-fetched) horror film about three murderous children. The little darlings were born during a solar eclipse which, according to astrology buff Joyce (Lori Lethin), blocked Saturn during their births. This makes then completely without empathy. I don’t know about that, but I do know one thing: these are the creepiest fucking kids since Spider Baby!

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Cutie-pie Debbie (Elizabeth Hoy) keeps a murder scrapbook and charges 25 cents to let kids watch her teenage sister Beverly undress through a closet peephole. Steven (Andrew Freeman) is a shy child with a fondness for knives. And nerdy looking Curtis (Billy Jacoby, later Jayne) is a total psycho who shoots people. These enfants terrible kill a teenage couple doing the wild thing in a cemetery in the opening scene, bash Debbie’s sheriff dad (Bert Kramer) in the head with a shovel, lock Joyce’s brother Timmy (KC Martel) in an abandoned refrigerator, shoot the teacher (Susan Strasberg), and generally behave badly. Joyce figures out they’re causing all the mayhem in Meadowvale, and the murdering moppets trap her and Timmy inside Debbie’s house, terrorizing the frightened siblings with guns, knives, and a bow and arrow!

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Director Ed Hunt piles the terror on thick during the film. Hunt’s responsible for cult films like STRANGE INVASIONS (1977), PLAGUE (1979) and THE BRAIN (1988). BLOODY BIRTHDAY is his best by far. The cast is peppered with familiar faces like Strasberg, Ellen Geer, William Boyett, Ward Costello, and even Michael Dudikoff!  You’ll also see Jose Ferrer, slumming it in a small role as a doctor. As in most 80s thrillers, there’s tons of gratuitous nudity involved! The whole movie’s got that Totally 80s feel, from Joyce’s giant headphones, the fashions and hairdos, and even the posters on Beverly’s wall (Van Halen, Blondie, and Erik Estrada, among others). Beverly was the film debut for Miss Julie Brown, a Totally 80s actress/comedienne who had some success in film, TV, and music. In fact, I’ll end this review with Julie’s Totally 80s (and Totally Un-PC) video for her hit song, “The Homecoming Queen’s Got a Gun”!