1980s

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

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I am surprised that I it has taken me so long to review a werewolf film given the number floating about. An American Werewolf In London was a good film to put right this lapse. The film opens in a long aerial sequence of the imposing English countryside (far away from the urban jungle of London) which reminded me greatly of the opening of The Shining released a year before. We meet David Kessler and Jack Goodman, two young American tourists played by David Naughton (Midnight Madness) and Griffin Dunne (Dallas Buyers Club) respectively as they come across a small village pub. The Slaughtered Lamb is a pub for ‘local folk’ and after an altercation with a few of the locals, the two hikers leave into the dark night. The pair completely ignore the locals advice of ‘Beware the moon’ and ‘Keep to the road’ and head off singing into the open moorland, an unwise idea at the best of times. The locals, feeling guilty go after Jack and David but are too late, the tourists have been attacked by a hideous wolf killing Jack and mauling David, putting him into a coma.

When David wakes up three weeks later in a London hospital he starts having horrific nightmares and is visited by a decomposing Jack, trapped forever to wonder the Earth until the bloodline of the werewolf that killed him has gone, which, of course, is David. When he is discharged David moves in with his nurse, played by Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) which seems somewhat unethical to me but this was the 80s I suppose. Alone on the night of the full moon he transforms into a werewolf and terrorizes the whole of London, killing several people.

The special effects in An American Werewolf in London are really good, especially considering that it was made in an era before CGI. The werewolf is one of the best I’ve seen on film, neither a hirsute man in need of a manicure or a normal wolf it is something out of nightmares, a giant black-haired beast with large yellow fangs and flashing eyes. The transformation from man to beast is definitely the set-piece of the film with the agony of bones transforming, limbs changing and whole physiology shifting in clear detail. That said, the special effects of the slowly decaying Jack are also excellently realised.

I really enjoyed An American Werewolf in London, it wasn’t too long and had a clear story arc, albeit predictable. Written and directed by John Landis (The Blues Brothers, Twilight Zone: The Movie) it is a fun film to watch when you are not in the mood for anything particularly scary or that requires too much thinking about.

Rating: 5/5

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Fun Fact: All the songs in the soundtrack have the word ‘moon’ in the title, including Blue Moon, Moondance and Bad Mood Rising.

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Cannibal Holocaust (1980)

Cannibal Holocaust

The film begins with an aerial shot of the Amazon, or Green Inferno as it is referred as, that would be more at home in a nature documentary with David Attenborough’s whispering tones over the top than the gore fest that follows. We then return to the US where a news reporter fills in the backstory of a team comprising of Alan Yates (Gabriel Yorke), Faye Daniels (Francesca Ciardi), Jack Anders (Perry Pirkanen) and Mark Tomaso (Luca Barbareschi). These four twenty-something year old film maker’s dangerous journey into the Amazon to make a documentary about a cannibalistic tribe. This scene to not only serves to fill in the viewer with the films story but also highlights the social context of the film with the space race and the lack of knowledge of our planet.

Cannibal Holocaust follows Harold Monroe (Robert Kerman) an anthropologist professor searching for the missing documentary makers. Alongside the professor are his guide Chaco (Salvatore Basile), a younger guide and a Yacumo prisoner, through which they are taken to his tribe. The film features many different Amazonian tribes, alongside the Yacumo there are the Yamamomo or Tree People (the cannibals of the title) and the Shamatari or Swamp People.  After ingratiating himself with the Tree People, Monroe gains the film reels from the deceased film crew and returns to New York.

Cannibalism is not the only tribal ritual mentioned in the Cannibal Holocaust which also includes a ritualistic killing of a woman due to adultery and a spirit quest. Throughout the film there are plenty of wonderful shots of the Amazon rainforest and its animal inhabitants including a jaguar, parrots and a sloth. Whilst it is clear that these bits of footage have been spliced in, it never the less highlights the wildness of the rainforest. Director Ruggero Deodato (House of the Edge of the Park, Last Cannibal World) continually builds the tension, with seemingly innocent scenes suddenly interrupted with morbid and gruesome reminders of the main subject of the film. For example, Monroe is frolicking naked in the river with several tribal women when suddenly he sees the skeleton and belongings of the documentary makers strung from a nearby branch.

It is easy to see why this film has earned the debatable title of ‘most controversial film ever’ as it (unsurprisingly) features long unadulterated footage of cannibalism but also scenes of genocide, rape and castration and it is certainly one of the more controversial films I’ve ever seen. This claim was probably heightened by the fact that the four main stars were told to ‘disappear’ for a year after the movie was released to give the impression that the film was non-fiction, leading to a (serious) murder charge for Deodato when returning to Italy, which was subsequently dropped when all four actors arrived to testify safe and sound.

This film is not one to be watched lightly but in light of the documentary teams behaviour leads both Monroe and the viewer to question who the real heathen is here, the cannibals who have been living in the same way for centuries, the callow film makers who herd the Yacumo into a hut before setting fire to it for the sake of making an ‘interesting’ documentary that will earn them a small fortune or the New York TV executives who think the film is sensational and makes money off the suffering of the tribespeople?

Fun Fact: Ruggero Deodato based the Cannibal Holocaust on the real life disappearance of a crew filming cannibals in Africa.

Dead Kids aka Strange Behaviour (1981)

Dead Kids

Dead Kids, or as it was later released, Strange Behaviour begins with the murder of a teenage boy in a black out. The first scene is a good set up for the feel of the film with a clever but unrealistic use of silhouettes to show the murder and a callous radio show presenter commenting on the drowning of several local teenagers. The film focuses around the Chief of police, John Brady played by Michael Murphy (Batman Returns, X Men: The Last Stand) and his son Pete, played by Dan Shor (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Tron). Pete is an A grade student and needs to earn some quick cash for an application to the local college. On the suggestion of his friend, Pete volunteers to take part in a psychological study conducted by Dr Gwen Parkinson (Fiona Lewis) furthering the work by the deceased Dr LeSange (Arthur Digman). Dr LeSange, although dead still has a significant presence at the university with a dedicated office and presenting lectures via old films. It also transpires that there is history between John Brady and LeSange with Brady holding the doctor responsible for the death of his wife who was the doctor’s assistant.

As the body count increases, it becomes clear that the murders are not being perpetrated by the same person. With a brief description of the killer and the identity of the victims who are all children of the people who first investigated the immoral experiments of LeSange, Brady is led to think that the scientist is not as dead as first thought.

Although the film is made in New Zealand, it is set in Galesberg, Illinois and the whole cast are American actors, giving it the feel of a typical American film and as such has all the expected hallmarks of a Hollywood slasher flick including horrible surprises behind shower curtains and teenagers being murdered whist getting busy in the back of a car. Incidentally Illinois is where the director, Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop) grew up. The soundtrack is typically 80s and comprises of electronic music, including music by Tangerine Dream and Pop Mechanix. The film has a soft focus look around the edges adding to the feeling of mind control and losing control that is central to the film.

The films finale is astonishingly tense and a great climax, although not wholly unexpected. The film rattles along at a fast pace, as it should being only 87 minutes long. Dead Kids is a not your usual horror film with an unusual plot and a lack of morality. Whilst some of the ideas may not be particularly believable, such as the spontaneous set dance at the party, I think that this is an underrated film from the era and I would recommend it to anyone. Dead Kids was originally intended to be the first in Laughlin’s Strange trilogy, however the third and final film was never made after the poor box office success of the middle film, Strange Invaders and after having watched Dead Kids/Strange Behaviour, I will be on the lookout for a copy of the second film.

Fun Fact: The teenager murdered in the very first scene is played by the screen writer Bill Condon, who went on to write the screenplay for Chicago and directed the final two Twilight films.

The Sender (1982)

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The film starts dramatically with an unsuccessful suicide attempt on a public beach. The young man who tried to drown himself has no memories, including his name and he is assigned the name John Doe #83, played by Zeljko Ivanek (Argo, Hannibal). The story centres around Dr Gail Farmer (and her large 80’s perm), played by Kathryn Harrold (Desperate Housewives, Raw Deal) who treats John Doe at a state mental institution. Dr Farmer starts to notice strange things occurring in relation with the new patient, including a bathroom scene in which blood starts pouring out the taps and mirrors and a bedroom full of rats.

I did not massively enjoy this film, finding it in many ways predictable with limited (if any real) scares. It relies on many horror film favourites, including the creepy old man C.O.M, a troubled mother-child relationship and a ‘twist’ at the end (that I predicted half an hour into the film). It does however call into question the way mental illness was treated in the 1980s, for example the use of electroshock therapy as a cure for severe depression. Dr Farmer and Dr Denman (Paul Freeman), Dr Farmer’s boss, have a conversation about the treatment (Dr Farmer against, Dr Denman for) in which Dr Denman states that no patient has ever reported any pain to which Dr Farmer counters with not that they remember. When John Doe undergoes the treatment, all the staff in the room administering the electroshock therapy are lifted off the floor and electrocuted, experiencing the pain that it causes, showing how it feels and why it is no longer used.

The C.O.M in The Sender is in fact a creepy old woman, played by Shirley Knight (who goes on to star in Desperate Housewives alongside Kathryn Harrold). The C.O.M is in fact John Doe’s mother who, as well as knowing more than anyone else has the annoying habit of unexpectedly disappearing (and appearing) without a trace.

The acting in the film is very well done, with Ivanek’s John Doe convincingly confused and child-like and Harrold’s portrayal of Dr. Farmer as a substitute mother figure is first class. The Sender is directed by Roger Christian, who also directed Battlefield Earth which is regarded as the worst film ever made, winning Worst Director, Worst Picture, Worst Picture for the Decade and Worst ‘Drama’  of our first 25 years (and 5 others) at the Golden Raspberry Awards. Whilst The Sender does not reach these dizzying heights of badness, it does not encourage me to watch more films by Christian.

Maybe it is because it is not what I expected that I did not enjoy this film. When I read the description of this film I was expecting an evil demonic man who controls the people surrounding him into making them commit horrific acts. However, the ‘villain’, John Doe, is a misunderstood, frightened young man whose fears are projected onto the people around him. I would classify this film as a horror film in only the broadest sense, rather I think it is better thought of as a psychological thriller.