Retro Horror Girl Power
by Kristin Battestella
Gather the girlfriends 'round and go back thirty years or more for this batch of foreign and domestic chillers steeped in murderous sisterhood, paranormal dames, and sexist serial killers.
Alice, Sweet Alice – Frantic Hail Marys, church bells, rectories, and crosses in nearly every scene steep this 1976 slasher in layers of iconography alongside matching yellow jackets, similarly named long hair lookalikes, sisterly favoritism, and saint versus sinner parallels. Little Brooke Shields (Suddenly Susan) is fond of her priest, goes to confession, and is gifted with a crucifix necklace while twelve year old Paula Sheppard (Liquid Sky) wears a mask to scare the cook. The ceremonial crown, veil, and white dress feel medieval bridal amid the Latin sanctity and old fashioned Sunday best formality – composed women in hats, gloves, pearls, and Jackie O suits are soon hysterical once murder blasphemes the sacred within its very walls. Creepy hints of the strangling attack, feet dragging beneath the pews, and a charred fate intercut the kneeling at the altar and passing wafer, turning the white confirmation into a black funeral. The uptight roosts point fingers, cast blame, and belittle husbands, but the parents are also too busy to notice the gluttonous downstairs neighbor obsessed with cats promising not to bite Alice if she visits him. Out of wedlock, divorced, and remarried taboos squabble while hidden periods and no long playing with dolls maturity layer the well done shocks and mask scares. Intense lie detector tests, cold yes or no questions, and scary needle movements add atmosphere along with thunderstorms, bugs, and basement hideaways. This murder acerbates a preexisting family strain, and such repressed attitudes would almost rather there be a grief approved death than admit to potential schizophrenia problems. Retro cameras, typewriters, big phone booths, classic cars, old school police, and formal psychiatrist interviews reiterate the mid-century rigid while prank calls, cramped stairs, and penetrating stabs invoke a frenzied response with violent twists. Do some of the victims get what they deserve? Confessions, warped revelations, mother madonna saintly and magdalene whore shaming cloud the case, and the children pay for the sins of the father indeed. This is a taut little thriller with fine scares, mystery, and parables made horror.
The Hearse – Divorced teacher Trish Van Devere (The Changeling) deals with nosy realtor Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane) not to mention ominous headlights, dark roads, phantom winds, visions in the mirror, and a freaky uniformed chauffeur in this 1980 spooky. There is an initial proto-Lifetime movie feeling and the picturesque Golden Gate Bridge vistas remain just another driving to the horrors montage as our jittery dame heads to the recently bequeathed home of her late aunt for the summer. The Blackford neighbors, however, are unwelcoming gossips, and the minister says any standoffishness must be her imagination. Of course, her shorts are very short and despite a flirtatious sheriff, cat calls while jogging, and compliments about the resemblance to her aunt, all the men must help her roadside and make women driving jokes while doing so. Those trees just jump out into the road! Thanks to whispers of past pacts with Satan, they don't expect her to stick around long, either. The then-edgy music knows when to be quiet, adding to the isolation, crickets, and woman alone creepy. Covered antiques, leftover fashions, period pictures, and attic relics invoke a museum mood – an intrusion by the living justifying the faulty electric, slamming doors, creaking stairs, rattling pipes, and ghostly faces in the window. A music box plays on its own while a mysterious necklace, ironic radio sermons, and the titular highway pursuits escalate along with footsteps, intruders, and shattering glass. The tracking camera pans about the house in an ambiguous move that's both for effect and someone – or something – approaching. Likewise, reading the diary of her devil worshiping aunt alongside a new whirlwind but suspicious romance creates dual suspense – which can certainly be said for that Hearse when it pulls up to the front porch and opens its back door. The black vehicle, white nightgown, and choice reds increase with candles, coffins, and funerary dreams. Pills and long cigarette drags visualize nerves amid bridge accidents, disappearing bodies, rowdy town vandals, and gaslighting decoys. The solo reading aloud and talking to oneself scenes will be slow to some viewers, and at times the car action is hokey. The mystery can be obvious – it feels like we've seen this plot before – yet the story isn't always clear with low, double talk dialogue. However, it's easy to suspect what is real with interesting twists in the final act, and the adult cast is pleasing. Well done clues keep the guessing fun, and several genuine jump moments make for a spirited midnight viewing.
Phenomena – Jennifer Connolly (Labyrinth) and Donald Pleasence (Halloween) star in this 1985 Italian production from director Dario Argento along with Walkmans, a giant computer, overhead projectors, retro school buses, huge headphones, big boob tube TVs, off the shoulder sweatshirts, and crimped hair. The horseshoe phones are so hefty one breaks through the floor when it falls, and top heavy metal names such as Iron Maiden anchor the score. Pretty but bleak Swiss scenery, foreboding roads, suspicious chains, and an isolated cabin speak for themselves with blood, shattered glass, cave perils, scissor attacks, and strangling violence contrasting the rural vistas and scenic waterfalls. The on the move camera tracks the scares, panning with the staircases, chases, and penetrating knives rather than hectic visuals working against the action – leaving heartbeats, ticking clocks, and rage music to pulse the frenetic dreams. Congested tunnels, dark water, and rotting heads build tension alongside sleepwalking shadows, blue lighting schemes, and saintly white symbolism. Insects, monkeys, and bizarre medical tests collide with missing teens, amnesia, and an old school sense of being lost in the foreign unknown. Despite the young protagonist, the horror remains R without being juvenile or nasty. Although necrophilia and rape are implied amid girls in short shirts, dirty old men, and killer penetrations, the innuendo isn't like today's overt teen T-n-A exploitation. Doctors and a strict headmistress suspect epilepsy, schizophrenia, or drugs before the otherworldly but friendly communication with animals – cruel schoolmates and religious extremists view such talents or swarming commands as demonic rather than embracing the literal fly on the wall fantastics. Would you follow bugs to the scene of the crime to see the decomposing victim through their eyes? The notion to be in tune with nature and commune with insects as allies is unique in a genre usually reserving such crawlies for scares, and cool bug eye viewpoints, covered mirrors, freaky dolls, and maggots accent the deceptions, twists, and escalating revelations for some gruesome surprises and a wild finish. And oh my gosh there is a classmate wearing a Bee Gees t-shirt. Want it!!
Tenebre – Onscreen book pages set the deadly state of mind for this 1982 Argento thriller as retro airports, phone booths, jealous dames in furs, and saucy innuendo give way to duty free shoplifting, vagrants, and daytime assaults – building intrigue that is both crime thriller and horror with killer vignettes, gore, and bizarre scenery. Pages shoved in the victim's mouths add warped personality as reporters cry sexism and cheap thrills inspired by the manuscript. Stylish nudity and slasher voyeurism raise tension as the camera peers through windows in search of the next victim while the pulsing electronic score peppers the clashing metaphors – disloyal literary agent John Saxon (Nightmare on Elm Street), male versus female cops, a feminine voice wielding a straight razor male weapon. Subtitles would have helped the low volume and off dubbing, but typewriters, record players, and flash cameras accent breaking glass frights, dark room developments, and pieces of the unseen killer's lair. Although murders in a book made real may be a common plot now, the slightly abstract lack of polish and low budget freaky adds to the American in Rome angst, threatening phone calls, shoe fetishes, and phallic parallels. The stark visuals mirror the cold, harsh detachment – something is hiding in plain sight with white clothes, red symbolism, beach-side sexual aggression, and gender bending encounters as our clues. Are young women flirting with older men asking for violence? The multi-layered life imitating art giallo expectations add commentary on such tropes with dual investigations, puzzling notes, and a detective reading detective novels but unable to solve what's on the page. Breaking and entering violations, symbolic penetrating attacks, and a whiff of Catholicism accent killer dogs, chases, double crossings, repression, and frazzled nerves as the quality deaths escalate into bold violence and visual confirmations. Despite a previous Nasty notoriety, this isn't torture porn for the sake of it and may actually seem tame compared to today's shocks. Fortunately, this remains an intelligent cross genre thriller and taut mystery with red herrings, insider psychosis, and wild film within a film veils. After all, who is the voyeur if not viewer?
Don't Answer the Phone – Sweaty rituals open this 1980 bizzarity before a nurse in white, heavy breathing, strangulation fetishes, and sexual violence. Old radio designs, big headsets, giant switches, tape reels, pay phones, and chalk boards in the precinct add retro pastiche, however, a padding police research montage merely opens file cabinets, passes papers, and sighs over manila folders as our killer strolls along the Walk of Fame before finding the seedy side of town. We know nothing about him save for an army jacket, and the fake Spanish accent used in calling the radio psychologist is pointless. Snippy cops say this serial strangler is good overtime money, and hokey killer workouts/pep talks don't mix with serious patients and therapy sessions recounting abuse. Rather than sticking with the forensic samples, hairs, and bite mark clues or the female doctor who could solve the crime, every strong woman with a breakthrough dies. Such prey rather than empowered gratifies the violence – apparently it's not the killer's fault when he replays the abuse of an incest victim as sexy. Um, no. Prayers, candles, and warped visuals try too hard to be inside the scandalous when the detectives and radio host evidence should be the core. A crime thriller peppered with real world heightened horror moments is fine, but interesting police psychologist theories are ignored for a black pimp more upset at being called dumb than a racial slur – amid a supposedly comical raid where the cops bemoan filling out the forms for shooting said black pimp. o_O This needed either the investigation perspective with his prank calls alone or an unseen following of the killer. Hearing his cues at the photography sessions and luring models are enough fearful suggestion. Instead, all cops are wisecracking assholes one step behind what we've already seen because evidently we're supposed to feel sorry for the crying killer when he's selling his fetish photos of the victims. This is not PTSD from the Vietnam psychopath trope, as the murderer whines about the usual childhood killing of the dog, wetting the bed, and a step-dad who didn't like him, and the attempted gritty defending of this crazy racist vet rapist who's just getting a bad rap seems more like porn or snuff with the hardcore excised. I would say it's dated in this approach, but female exploitation used for manpain excuses is still onscreen today. I'm repulsed by this terrible film, least of all because nobody even noticed the killer never wore gloves.