I’m going to have to cram a bunch of history up front in this review, so if you already know most of it, please forgive me. I feel it sets the stage properly for those among you who aren’t nerdy enough to have a vast and swelling knowledge of the ins and outs of British censorship efforts, Italian slasher-thriller movies, and the joyous day those two tastes were plunged together into a scrummy treat known as the “Video Nasties” list. Let me first take back to a time when Samantha Fox was still a fox (maybe she still is; I haven’t seen her in years) and the world was just beginning to discover the pleasure of home video systems. England has always had a somewhat contentious relationship with cinema censorship, and certain types who like to get upset over idiotic things were worried about the fact that the rules governing the rating, licensing, and editing of films for release to British theaters had not been written in a language that would allow them to be applied equally to films distributed on video. This little lapse in the foresight of censorship laws to anticipate the invention and subsequent wildfire-like spread of VCRs meant that films previously cut or banned could be legally (more or less) distributed in uncut format on videotape. It seems like they could have solved this dilemma by simply adding “and videos, too” in biro at the end of the book of law, but that’s not how England does things.
I cannot count “point of view” films among the styles of film making for which I possess much tolerance. Aside from rarely being the least bit convincing as “found footage,” relying as they do on the conceit that assorted people would continue to film an incident long after the extreme danger factor would move just about any human in the world to put down the camera and run, there’s just not too much about them that I find appealing. They’re too jittery, too shallow, too… well, obnoxious. The POV films I’ve seen to date have either proved to have remarkable little staying power (The Blair Witch Project, ground zero for this trend, was fun the first time when I knew nothing about it but becomes less impressive after that) or were simply unwatchable from the get-go (Diary of the Dead). Maybe if they spent less time on characters bickering and screaming “What is that???” while flailing a camera around, I would warm to them.
In 1958, Dracula would return in name but not with the familiar face of cinema’s best-known and most beloved Dracula, Bela Lugosi. Bela would return to the screen several times as a vampire, but never again as Dracula. So Dracula returned in Return of Dracula without Bela, and Bela returned in Return of the Vampire, without Dracula. Granted, Return of the Vampire pushes Bela’s character, Armand Tesla, as close to Dracula territory as it possibly can without getting slapped with a lawsuit, but that’s all part of the fun of vamping in the aftermath of Universal’s 1931 landmark Dracula, to say nothing of the need to occasionally satisfy/pay the estate of Bram Stoker. And Dracula or not, Return of the Vampire feels like the legitimate sequel to Dracula, even if intellectual property says it isn’t. Disentangled from all that, however, we are still left with an exceptionally enjoyable horror film with a unique setting and interesting lead character.
In the wake of the success of Universal’s 1931 shocker Dracula, there were many attempts to continue and/or cash in on its success, but for one reason or another, Universal itself was never able to capitalize on Dracula the same way it did when it turned both Frankenstein and The Mummy (and later, The Creature from the Black Lagoon) into franchises. Even in the later monster team-up House of… films, Dracula was at best a supporting player, even when his name was in the title, and the vampire prince of darkness didn’t really interact with the other monsters (or the main storyline). The fact that Dracula was so closely identified at the time with Bela Lugosi, and that Lugosi himself never returned to the role (at least in an official capacity), probably hindered Dracula from becoming the same sort of series as did the other Universal monsters. But where Universal failed, others were ready to step in and try to hitch their wagon to the Dracula gravy train…err, or some metaphor like that. Dracula liked gravy, right?
Some great directors die in the midst of their career and leave behind an inadvertent final film that does not reflect the quality of their larger career. Few would argue, for example, that Family Plot is a fitting capstone for the career of Alfred Hitchcock, or that Stanley Kubrick’s career was well served by having Eyes Wide Shut as his swan song or that Sam Peckinpah’s career ended well with The Osterman Weekend. On the other hand, some director’s die while working and leave behind a final film so stunningly perfect as their final statement that it seems hard to believe the whole thing wasn’t planned by some benevolent supreme being. Had the legendary Bruno Mattei’s life and career ended on any note other than Zombies: The Beginning, then truly this would have been a cruel and uncaring universe. But end with Zombies: The Beginning it did, and so Mattei departed this mortal coil via a film that is the perfect summation of everything he ever contributed to the world of cinema.
In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
Oh Death Spa, what have you done? All those years I spent bad-mouthing slasher films from the 1980s, then you go and immediately make yourself one of my all-time favorite horror films by being one of the most cracked, absurd examples of horror film making one is likely to stumble across. It’s probably because you actually have less to do with the American slasher films that permeated the horror scene during that prolific decade and instead can count yourself the peer of batshit insane Italian horror films from the same decade. You are less Jason Vorhees and Friday the 13th and more Lamberto Bava and Demons. I loved you when in the first five minutes you gave me Ken Foree in micro-shorts, full frontal nudity, and attempted murder by steam room. But then you just kept piling absurdity on top of insanity, so that by the time we got to the frozen flying eel, I was willing to pledge my very soul to you.
As we entered the 1980s and the dawn of the Reagan Years, we didn’t have much to worry about. Other than a recession, the ramping up of terrorism in the Middle East, the threat of nuclear war with the Soviets, and people popping the collars on their Polo shirts, things were pretty cool. With nothing to occupy our national sense of anxiety, we retreated into the realm of made-up, silly crap over which to fret and wring our hands nervously. The primary focus of our societal outrage and terror: heavy metal music. And more specifically, the role Ol’ Gooseberry played in its popularity. America’s collective hysteria over Satan and his sinister ability to seduce impressionable youths and bohemians into the folds of his cloven arms began in the late 1960s when hippies started dabbling in Occultism, witchcraft, sex magick and the occasional murder of Sharon Tate.
If exploitation cinema can be traced to a single wellspring from which all its filth and fury flows, an argument can be made that said wellspring is Dwain Esper. Writer, producer, director, and all around impresario, Esper may not have made the first exploitation film. The silent era was rife with exploitation and sleaze, usually masquerading under a flimsy veneer of “cautionary tale,” like 1913’s The Inside of the White Slave Traffic. I’d be willing to go to the mat, however, in defense of Esper’s position as the godfather of the exploitation industry as we know it today. His impact goes far beyond being a mere director. Working with fellow exploitation godfather Louis Sonney (father of exploitation cinema legend Dan Sonney), Esper helped establish the network of theaters and concept of regional circuits that served as the foundation for the exploitation film. From burlesque to motion picture to roadshow, Esper had a hand in all of it, and for that, his name should be forever enshrined as one of the true pioneers in the history of the motion picture (it’s not). But even if he’d never done any of that, even if all he’d ever done is direct Maniac — known also by the slightly less sensation title of Sex Maniac — he would still deserve to go on the Mount Rushmore of strange film. Incidentally, the Mount Rushmore of strange film is located in an abandoned central Florida amusement park, and it’s made of fiberglass.
This is another one of those fragmented movie memories for me, where the only thing I could remember about it was “Amanda Pays turns into a fish” — and even that I eventually convinced myself happened in Leviathan. But when I rewatched Leviathan and discovered that Amanda Pays does not turn into a fish at any point, protected as she was by the power of Peter Weller’s rolled bandana headband, I knew I had to figure out which film it was where she did turn into a fish. Luckily, you type “Amanda Pays turns” into Google, and the first auto-complete that comes up is “Amanda Pays turns into a fish.” Internet, you are truly a good friend. So anyway, it turns out it was The Kindred, and since I was on a fishy underwater monster movie kick and couldn’t remember anything about this one, I decided to track it down (surprisingly difficult) and see what else happens besides the woman who dated both The Flash and Max Headroom turning into a fish. Turns out not much.