More Horror from Decades Yore!
By Kristin Battestella
Low budget, bad, so bad they are good, or downright scary and entertaining – here’s a quick selection of good, bad, ugly, and macabre from those glorious seventies and eighties of yesteryear.
Dracula (1979) – Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) takes the Bram Stoker mantle for this update co-starring Laurence Olivier (hello) and Donald Pleasence (Halloween). The streamlined action gets right to it with the turbulent bound for London Demeter, and there are further changes from the 1924 play adaptation – including a Lucy Steward and Mina Van Helsing switcharoo. The howls, thunder, sound effects, and mood music by John Williams (Star Wars) match all the horror visuals, gore and ghouls, transfusions, transformations, chases, fog, and lightshow graphics perfectly. Not the usual Victorian as expected, the costumes and early cars are an Edwardian treat, and it’s quite nifty to see the traditionally Transylvania happenings take place in Britain instead. Unfortunately, the drab, dark, and surprising not colorful picture might make viewers today dismiss this as old and cheap. I understand the antique black and white-esque designs director John Badham (Saturday Night Fever) was attempting – and the patina does look nice. However, one expects a certain amount of grandeur with these otherwise wonderful art and set dressings. Some scenes are too flat and plain when they should have visual depth and be treats for the eye. Thankfully, the action, scares, and a decrepit Carfax Abbey work. The camerawork is creepy, with hypnotic zooms and suspense editing, too. Also of the stage revival, Langella, ironically, has the least accent of anybody. The other Brit cast seems to have a put on classic RP, but his delivery isn’t the clichéd Velcome one may expect. The suave Langella commands your attention nonetheless, and unlike today’s all action or teen dream vamps, the romance and predator balance here is just right. His charisma and the adaptation twists keep us tuned in to whatever new sensuous but oh so wrong treats will unfold next. By contrast, the ill Olivier is somewhat off. It’s amusing to see such a classy actor do horror, yes, but he’s more Velcome put on than Dracula. He reminds me of the Dracula: Dead and Loving It spoof! I wish there was a new blu-ray release with both this devoid and a colors galore version, and the changes here might displease traditional Stoker fans. Nevertheless, there’s still enough gothic, stylized, and fast-paced drama to make this one worth a gander.
Dolls (1987) – The demented little music and titular creepy, absently staring disembodied heads are immediately effective in this 1987 eerie from director Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator). The British style is also bemusing, with bad English punk chicks and yuppie Dynasty then-sophisticates creating a lovely little ensemble accented by askew filming angles and individual agendas. I know it all seems corny and passé, but the suspiciously broken down car on stormy night outside a spooky manor with a creepy kid, peculiar old people, and a wicked toy or two premise and gothic atmosphere more than make up for any datedness. Great candlelight, maze like interiors, and antique décor forgives any bad effects and doll animations – which are actually quite good considering the era. The seemingly obvious killer dolls may be cliché, granted, however, the unseen camera perspectives and slow reveal on who or what is doing all the slice and dice violence keeps the suspense and scary just this side of campy. I can see how some of today’s drinking game horror audiences could find this wonderfully humorous, and some scenes are indeed funny and charming, yet the witty and freaky morals are balanced wonderfully. Some viewers may also feel this is merely a supersized Tales from the Crypt episode. After all, there have been similar anthology tellings – Tales from the Hood immediately comes to mind, but more recently Dead Silence and of course, Chucky. Fortunately, at only 77 minutes, the spooky pace and fearful timing are just right here.
Prince of Darkness – Director John Carpenter reunites with Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China) for this 1987 companion piece to The Thing and In the Mouth of Madness, and his pulsing score adds to the freaky atmosphere. Although some of the eighties hair, big mustache hipness, and thirty something college feeling has not stood the test of time, other old technologies and the abandoned church designs are nostalgia cool. The foreboding religious implications and science secrets are also a fine premise, but there’s not a lot of dialogue to start and perhaps too much time is taken to clarify all the metaphysical and theoretical backtalk. Unfortunately, the younger cast delivering the supposedly heavy or likeability is as stiff as their Aqua Net – the forced romancey or hip scenes drag down the picture. I can’t believe that’s Jameson Parker from Simon & Simon! Rocker Alice Cooper, thankfully, is duly disturbing, and Carpenter has left a few Hammer references and hints to his other films amid the creepy crawlies, evil slime, and sinister symbolism. There are a few good scare moments and a great ending to set off the underlying ominous, yet this one feels as if it should be better than it is thanks to the slow pace filled with too many characters and poor intercutting. Even if this one isn’t quite up to what one expects from Carpenter, it’s still a fun watch for enthusiasts on a late night.
Watchers – An adorable, super smart, pc using dog you can’t help but love and so wish you could have stars alongside Michael Ironside (Total Recall) and the late Corey Haim in this 1988 teen horror chase based partly on the Dean Kootz novel and produced by Roger Corman (The Pit and the Pendulum). Thanks to a secret government science experiment gone awry, an evil monster is on the loose, too, and the vintage news reports and huge old equipment are also fun to see. Although, wow, Haim’s hair is bad, the early make out session is stupid, and the dark farm scares are a little slow to start; the steady variety of kills, frantic mash ups, and point of view editing heighten the scary build. Our monster isn’t revealed with a big CGI panoramic swoop or needlessly cool graphics, and screams, sound effects, and growls add to the rural location fears. It’s nice to see an ungraded or color tweaked picture and the photography adds to the old scares. However, the dated fashions and presentation make this one seem more juvenile than it probably is – a pink wearing, mulleted Jason Priestly (Beverly Hills 90210) calling a computer class teacher a dweeb from atop his BMX, yeah. Likewise, it’s funny to see Haim talking to a dog, because we’ve see him break the fourth wall in classics like Dream a Little Dream and License to Drive sans four legged pals. Though Barbara Williams (Thief of Hearts) is woefully unbelievable and Ironside may seem hokey, he delivers his expected badass. The writer’s strike and behind the scenes troubles are apparent in the iffy dialogue, but there’s enough twists and entertainment here and in the 1990 direct to video sequel starring Marc Singer and Tracy Scoggins for slightly older tweens or family horror nights.
The Devil’s Rain – William Shatner, Ernest Borgnine, Tom Skerrit, Ida Lupino, and John Travolta star in this somewhat infamous 1975 horror clunker. Things begin well and good with creepy music, eerie paintings, and lots of moans and groans over the main credits. There are scary storms, fearful ladies, and the Satanist dilemma gets on its way quickly enough. Unfortunately, bad makeup begets seriously corny gore effects; the picture is often too dark, and the sound is poor. One might like to call this a horror western due to the setting, but the dusty middle of nowhere just looks old and cheap boonies seventies instead. Unnecessary camera shots of movement from one place to another and slow, confusing scenes where nothing happens don’t help, either. Snails pacing is not foreboding, and the iffy mystery at hand amounts to a lot of double talk and threats but no real explanation. Poor editing between the storylines, visions, and shock photography are literally little more than a flash in the pan in attempt to shake up what seems like a convoluted, overlong episode of a bad horror anthology. The creepy rituals and black masses are perhaps too realistic, granted. However, segments that should be scary aren’t because the audience is too busy figuring out what the heck is going on. Can I get an exposition, people! The Puritan flashback might have been more interesting as the whole movie, but otherwise, one should only tune in for the cast amusements. This is just too nonsensical for anything else.