I own a frankly absurd amount of movies (roughly 5000), and I’m subscribed to several streaming services. In short, I have a lot of films that I haven’t got around to watching (sometimes for many, many years) immediately to hand. For the past decade plus I’ve been too busy in October to indulge in the Shocktober horror marathons that a lot of my friends do, but as I’m not doing the London Film Festival as press this year, I thought I’d take the opportunity to delve into the back catalogue of horror I’ve had waiting to be watched.
From September 15th until October 30th, I’ll be watching at least one new to me horror film every day, and providing collections of capsule reviews week by week. On Halloween itself, as ever, I’m planning an all day marathon of some of my favourite horror films.
I hope you’ll find it interesting following as I dig further into a genre I’ve always loved, and maybe find some hidden gems along the way yourselves.
Dir: Roland Joffé
When we play the movie trivia card game, Cinephile, every time someone amasses 200 points, they get to create a card to put in the deck. At his first opportunity, one friend of mine made a card for Elisha Cuthbert. I’m fairly fond of The Girl Next Door myself, but she’s not an actress I’ve ever held in particularly high esteem, so when he did that I made a note to see some more of her films. This, perhaps, was not the place to start.
If Pascal Laugier’s masterpiece, Martyrs, were as bad and as devoid of meaning as its detractors would have you believe, it would be this movie. Model Jennifer Tree (Cuthbert) is kidnapped and held prisoner by a mysterious assailant who regularly makes her believe she is undergoing various tortures, only for her to wake up and discover that they were a psychological trick. In the adjacent cell is a man named Gary (Daniel Gillies).
Though it’s not especially nasty by the standards of the genre, this is surely one of the nadirs of so-called torture porn. I’d call it an empty exercise in style, but for the fact that only one shot (when Gary first reveals himself through a message scratched on a dirt encrusted window between the cells) is even half stylish. The story is paper thin and instantly predictable, at least the alternative ending on the DVD, had it been left in, might have suggested some psychological impact of the events, but as it is the film just stops. The characters may as well be dolls puppeteered around a set for all the insight we get into them. It’s not the fault of the cast, there’s nothing for them to even try to salvage here.
I’d even prefer to have been offended, at least then I’d have felt something.
Dir: Luciano Ercoli
The effect of Dario Argento’s The Bird With the Crystal Plumage on the giallo was clearly seismic, because the examples that pre-date it often look like an entirely different genre, this being a case in point.
Luciano Ercoli’s film is much more a straight thriller. It doesn’t have the baroque murders or explicit violence of many later gialli, what it does share with them is a twisting mystery plot and striking imagery. The mystery concerns Minou (Dagmar Lassander), who is blackmailed by a man (Simón Andreu) who tells her that her husband Pier, a struggling businessman (Pier Paolo Capponi) has killed a man to whom he owed money. Presented with proof, she sleeps with the blackmailer to get it back, only to be further blackmailed when he produces photos of their tryst.
Unlike many later gialli, which can be a real struggle to follow, to the point that I sometimes think the solution to the mystery was arrived at with a dartboard that had portraits of the cast mounted on it, this one is glaringly obvious. This is a problem, because while Ercoli’s actors and his camera are doing a good job going through the motions of generating suspense (for instance a scene over dinner between Minou, Pier and their friend Dominique (Nieves Navarro)), the script just doesn’t support them.
That said, Forbidden Photos is never dull, thanks largely to the brilliant work of cinematographer Alejandro Ulloa. The vivid colours and sharply contrasting shadows, combined with the way Ercoli moves the characters through them, are never less than arresting. The use of red is especially striking. Along with the costume and make up design (Lassander and Navarro hardly go a scene without some complex change of hairdo), the photography alone makes the film worth watching.
It’s a predictable tale, but Ercoli tells it effectively enough that I never minded not being surprised by the plot’s turns, it’s just a pleasure to watch the first steps of a genre done so well.
Dir: Amy Holden Jones
At first glance, this is just one more indentikit film from the slasher boom of the early ’80s. However, there some interesting things at play here that mark The Slumber Party Massacre out among its peers.
It is notable that all of the films in this franchise, including the recent, more overtly comedic, reboot are written and directed by women. For Amy Holden-Jones with this film, there were obviously things that she was expected to deliver that make the film similar to any slasher made by a man at this time, notably the gratuitous nudity, which feels as focused on giving a male audience something ogle as usual. However, Holden-Jones and writer Rita Mae Brown sneak in some sly commentary, verging on parody at times.
The film’s motiveless killer is identified in the opening sequence, through a newspaper headline, and there is never any effort to hide him. This makes what we’d usually see as fakeouts in the screenplay ring pretty hollow, but never even attempting to give a reason for his killing spree as he picks off a group of high school girls at a slumber party one by one reads to me as a way of reflecting women’s experience with male violence. The motive doesn’t really matter, it’s the fact of it.
I don’t want to over intellectualise The Slumber Party Massacre because neither, I think, do its makers. It wears a lot of the commentary on its sleeve (the phallic drill as a weapon, often seen between the killer’s legs), but also uses it for comedic effect (the final girl’s ‘castration’ of it at the end of the film). In between these moments, this is standard, if enjoyable, slasher fare. If you want to take the commentary on board you can probably do a far deeper read than I’ve attempted here, but you can also enjoy this as a nuts and bolts horror movie which, while it doesn’t break new ground in its plot, won’t disappoint genre fans, whatever level they want to look at it on.
Dir: Deborah Brock
Well, you can’t accuse writer/director Deborah Brock of simply rehashing the last film for this sequel. On the other hand, she’s definitely liberally inspired by A Nightmare on Elm Street.
One of the survivors of the original, Courtney, the little sister of the family next door to the masscare, has grown up. Now a senior (played by Crystal Bernard), she’s going away for a birthday weekend with the girls she’s in a band with, to an empty condo their bassist’s father just bought. Before going, and while there, Courtney is having nightmares about a leather clad guitarist whose instrument has a massive drill on top of the neck, and it starts to seem like he has crossed from dreams into reality.
I’m not sure I’d call Slumber Party Massacre II a good film, but it is a wild, weird and entertaining one. It drops (most of) the gratuitous nudity of the previous film as well as its more overt commentary and leans into bizarre and pretty well shot, if often derivative, dream sequences. The bath sequence is a direct lift from Nightmare on Elm Street. Brock also has some fun with the writing, pre-dating by over a decade the way Final Destination nodded to iconic directors in its character’s names.
Between those moments the first two acts aren’t especially interesting, and the girls’ band is woeful. However, I can’t dislike a movie that goes so wonderfully bonkers in its last twenty minutes. At one point the killer destroys a birthday cake with someone’s severed arm. Later it has him tell us straight to camera that “now it’s time for the fun part”, then stalk his victims while singing and playing riffs, and then there’s Bernard’s great, if brief, badass final girl moment, capped off with a terrific burn stunt. If ever you could call a film gloriously stupid, it’s this one. Take the grade in the same embracing the lunacy spirit as the movie
Slumber Party Massacre III (1990)
Dir: Sally Mattison
After two movies that marked themselves out; the first with some winking commentary and the second by being all out nuts, the Slumber Party Massacre series finally settles for being as cookie cutter slasher movie as the title would lead you to expect.
There are some okay effects here, but the whole thing has a listless feel, from the robotic performances (Maria Ford, clearly hired largely to show her boobs, is notably terrible) to Sally Mattison’s dull presentation of the material (she’s said she’s not a horror fan, and that fact screams at us out of every frame of the film).
There’s not much to say about this, other than it’s obvious why it killed the franchise for three decades before the remake brought it back to the fun and irreverence of the first two films.
Don’t Answer the Phone (1980)
Dir: Robert Hammer
A strangler (Nicholas Worth) is killing and raping women in LA. As Police investigate, a psychologist (Flo Gerrish) with a call in radio show is drawn into the investigation, when it becomes clear the killer has been calling in.
At a glance, Don’t Answer the Phone is little more than a notably sleazy serial killer film. It may not dwell on gore, but it certainly leers at its attractive female victims as they are all stripped topless, usually before being killed, but occasionally after. It’s not difficult to see what got this film on to the section 3 Video Nasties list (meaning that it was never prosecuted), indeed it’s probably only the lack of blood that kept it out of court in the UK.
Squint and look past how distasteful it is though, and Don’t Answer the Phone is trying to be more than just a collection of murder set pieces. The Police investigation is often depicted as inept, even corrupt, as detectives break into houses without warrants, are dismissive of profilers, threaten to arrest the ‘psychic’ they bring in for knowing too much and generally blunder their way through the case. If this film were better written, and if the various scenes from the investigation felt like part of a joined up narrative, this might pass either as satire or as serious commentary. As it is, it misses both targets, but at least the aim is detectable.
The other thing that marks the film out is Nicholas Worth. In a film full of stilted performances, he goes full on here, making the killer, Kirk, an absolute nightmare of a man. Looking, and sometimes sounding, like a store brand Alex Jones, Worth makes for a repellent figure. Sleaze drips off the sweaty, porcine, Kirk even when we see him in normal daily life, and his psychopathy oozes out in every killing in a way that feels uncomfortably real. The film that surrounds him is neither as serious nor as accomplished, but there are shades of Joe Spinell’s work in Maniac in how credibly danger lurks barely beneath the surface of this man.
Don’t Answer the Phone isn’t a great film, in fact for the most part it’s not even a good one, but Nicholas Worth’s performance makes it an interesting watch, if you can stomach a level of sleaze you’ll want to shower off afterwards.