Sam Ashurst's House Of Horror: Killer bees, evil twins and psycho Santas
27th May 2011 | 08:00
Plus! London's midnight movie scene
Hello fright fans, my name's Sam Ashurst and I'm Total Film's resident cult horror expert.
I spend so much time banging on about '70s giallo movies, '80s VHS trash classics, '90s serial killer flicks and '00s foreign chillers that TF have finally decided to give me my own column. Possibly to shut me up.
Each week, I'll be dissecting the latest DVD and Blu-ray releases, uncovering hidden gore gems, and rummaging through my VHS collection to bring you some of the most bafflingly beautiful video covers from the '80s.
And come back every Friday for exclusive clips, interviews and cool competitions to get your plasma pumping.
So, take off your razor-tipped gloves, hang up your cobweb-covered hat and gently rest your bone-blunted axe beside the door.
And welcome to my House Of Horror...
Out: Monday £7.99 DVD
Somewhere, buried deep down in this Scandinavian take on J-horror, there's a truly great film struggling to surface. Sadly, it's being repressed by a slightly muddled narrative and repetitive shocks.
Which isn't to say there's nothing to recommend here. Central star Jonas Malmsjö is astonishing - think Michael Fassbender with a constant frown and you're halfway there - and supporting psycho Björn Bengtsson appears to be channelling one of the greatest of all the b-movie gods, Brad Dourif.
The story itself is a decent enough starting point; a priest travels to a small parish to investigate the circumstances of his father's death, and finds himself confronting the ghosts of his own past.
The ghosts look a bit like Sadako with a blonde rinse, and are initially quite shocking. But they appear so frequently (often in broad daylight) that it's hard to maintain that early fright-level.
It just makes me wish the script had fallen into the hands of an experienced filmmaker, and not a first-timer. Psalm 21 had the potential to be a response to There Will Be Blood, with more jump-shocks.
The superb central performance and transcendent final five minutes deserve far better. But as it stands, Psalm 21 will only be remembered by a few.
To win a copy of Psalm 21 on DVD, send me Brad Dourif's killer character name in The Exorcist III (1990). Send your answer to email@example.com, the first person to reply wins the DVD. And good luck! (Ed's note: This prize has now been claimed. Well done Jerry!)
Out: Monday £9.99 DVD
Despite the high concept potential, evil twin horror flicks are few and far between. And whilst Seconds Apart isn't anywhere near the best of the micro-genre, it's still a surprisingly enjoyable entry.
That's mainly down to the performances of the two identical leads, who come across like Daniel Radcliffe playing Donnie Darko in one of Max Fischer's school plays.
That's actually meant as a compliment, as is the observation that Seconds Apart contains a career-best performance from Orlando Jones.
I know, I know, you can count stand-out Orlando Jones performances on one severed finger (and even then, probably only after seeing this film) but he really is impressive here - an appropriately weary presence amongst the occasional chaos.
And there is chaos. The story is absolutely ridiculous - the evil twins use their paranormal powers to trick people into having fatal visions, filming their reactions to answer a question only revealed in the final seconds - but it's fun enough to allow you to suspend your disbelief.
Be warned: Seconds Apart, like so many modern horror movies, is shot on digital video, but there's enough craft here (particularly in a couple of nicely edited shocks) to elevate it above its limited budget.
And I can definitely see it gaining a bit of a cult following - especially if teenage girls notice the heart-throb appeal of the two leads.
So, if you only buy one evil twin movie, make it Dead Ringers. If you only buy two - and let's face it, all collections should have two - pick up Seconds Apart. If this thing had been released on VHS in the ‘80s, you’d probably already own it.
The Nameless (1999)
There are many, many cult classics in the long history of Spanish horror. The House That Screamed (1969) Tombs Of The Blind Dead (1971), The Cannibal Man (1973), Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (1974), Santa Sangre (1989)... I could go on and on.
Jaume Balagueró's debut feature, The Nameless, is as impressive as all of them.
Arguably the first of the current wave of Spanish horror that's still gripping us today (though Alejandro Amenábar's 1996 film Tesis so perfectly fits the template of '00s Spanish horror you could release it in cinemas tomorrow and people would probably think it was made yesterday) The Nameless has every element we've come to expect from Spain's scare output.
Near-constant tension. A fragile (yet strong) heroine facing the darkest elements of humanity. A third act twist that makes you question everything that's come before it. All these elements and more appear in The Nameless.
But there's one thing it has that sets it apart from many of the films that followed it. It's absolutely terrifying.
It's a masterclass in horror editing, almost Lynchian in its near avant-garde combination of sound and image. It's clearly crafted by people who deeply care about the art of the scare.
I'll give you one small example. At one point, out of nowhere, sped-up stock footage of a spider climbing a tree-branch is dropped into the action. It's only very vaguely relevant - linked to a bit of throwaway dialogue in the film's third-act - and has absolutely nothing to do with what's happening in the scene, but it's scarier than seeing a tarantula climb onto your birthday cake.
The story does contain a couple of serious logic lapses (which are hard to discuss without spoiling many of the key surprises), but it's the way it's delivered that makes The Nameless stand out.
So, the next time you decide to hold a Spanish horror marathon, by all means include the likes of The Orphanage, The Devil's Backbone and [REC], but make sure you add The Nameless to the mix.
Just don't watch it last. You'll definitely have nightmares.
Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
The tale of Silent Night, Deadly Night's release is almost as tortured as the hideous past of the film's main protagonist.
That's despite the fact it opened on the same weekend, even initially outgrossing, A Nightmare On Elm Street.
Yep, that's right, a Christmas flick you've probably never seen, whose biggest star was a pre-Return Of The Living Dead Linnea Quigley, did more money on its opening weekend than the flick featuring both Johnny Depp and Freddy Krueger.
But then the protests started, and the film's success story unravelled faster than a slasher-killer's sanity, or his victim's innards.
Morally outraged by the flick's depiction of Santa as axe-wielding maniac, Christian groups took to the streets and to their typewriters, sending messages via placards and letters to their local politicians and newspapers - and remember, this was the early days of a witch-hunt that would reach its peak when The Daily Mail described Wesley Snipes and Sean Connery actioner Rising Sun as a snuff movie - getting the film pulled from cinemas a mere two weeks later.
Even respected reviewers got caught up in the moral panic. Leonard Maltin hated it, asking in his review "What's next, the Easter Bunny as a child molester?"
Roger Ebert took it a step further, reading the entire production list out on his TV show, uttering the solemn words "Shame, shame." after every name.
Watching it now, it still retains the power to shock. Early scenes in which a sweet little kid is terrorised by his crazy grandfather shortly before watching his parents brutalised by a convict Santa certainly make for queasy viewing.
This is a dark flick, painting an unrelentingly bleak picture of childhood, the Catholic church, and toy store employee politics (that third one being possibly the most serious of the issues we all face in our day-to-day lives).
It's also one of the rare slasher flicks told from the perspective of the psycho, who, let's face it, is usually the character we really care about.
We follow our hero from innocent kid to cruel killer - experiencing every slap in the face he experiences along the way.
By the time he starts hanging people with fairy lights, or carving them like turkeys with Stanley knives, we're so invested in his plight we want him to go after people who 'deserve' their fate, feeling disappointed every time he doesn't.
Profitable enough to have spawned four sequels, yet not iconic enough to have left any sort of lasting legacy, Silent Night, Deadly Night's place in horror history is conflicted. But like the tragic anti-hero it centers around, it deserves attention.
This mini-feature was written because @Nilbog requested it. If you want me to cover one of your favourite trashy horror flicks from the '80s (I've seen all of them), leave a comment below.
The Swarm (1978)
I'm not going to try to defend The Swarm. It's bad. So bad, you should probably remove it from your collection and throw it behind the nearest sofa.
And then you should immediately retrieve it. Because it might be bad, but it's also hilarious.
This is a disaster movie in which the film's main threat is just a distraction from the film's true catastrophes - the acting, the dialogue, and a plot so dependent on coincidence at least two characters are forced to comment on it.
It's a film that features Michael Caine talking a kid out of imagining a giant bee ghost. That's a fairly extreme reaction to being stung twice.
It's also a film that contains the following exchange:
Michael Caine: "I'm afraid to speculate (pause). But I think the bees did this. I think they tore up the plastic cups to build their hives."
Army bloke: "No bees are that smart."
Michael Caine: "Suppose these bees are."
So, just to make that clear, Michael Caine states he doesn't want to speculate, before going on to posit a situation that had never previously taken place in human (or bee) history.
I'd argue that conversation contains at least three points of speculation, all from the one person who said they didn't want to speculate. How this thing didn't win a Best Screenplay Oscar is beyond me. It's clearly very experimental.
It's a film in which a small town decides to go ahead with a large-scale flower festival, despite the fact they've been clearly told they're about to be invaded by 22 million killer bees. I'd argue that's pretty much the only reason to cancel a flower festival, as traditional as they obviously are.
The Swarm is called The Inevitable Disaster in France, which is either a reference to the likelihood of a massive flower festival attracting a giant cloud of killers bees, or we should probably start wondering what the French know that we don't.
Some people might argue The Swarm isn't a horror film. But anything that involves people dying of mutant bee stings, bees being compared to chainsaws, and Michael Caine awkwardly flirting with Katherine Ross, counts as a terror flick in my book.
Though, actually, I laugh so much watching it I should probably be arguing it's a comedy.
Whatever it's supposed to be, The Swarm is a terrible, terrible movie. I'm deeply ashamed of how much I enjoy it. Just not enough to ever get rid of it. Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a film to rescue from down the back of my sofa.
Looks Like: A skeleton that's been dipped in toxic waste uses half-finished masks to make people think he's crying. For some reason.
Actually Is: A love letter to b-movies, Popcorn sees a gang of film students stage a horror movie all-nighter at a run-down local cinema to raise funds for their teacher.
But when a real killer shows up, the kids have to try to survive the night - against a foe who wears the faces of his victims as masks.
Complete with fake film homages and practical effects in-jokes, Popcorn is a movie geek's dream film, fun from start to finish.
It doesn't feature a glowing green skeleton wearing a mask, though. Not at any point.
It does, however, feature a lot of reggae. A lot.
Imaginary Dialogue: "Did that radioactive skeleton really think we were going to buy his dumb disguise? For one thing, we could still see the top of his skull. For another, we could see his boney hands holding up the mask. This is awesome!"
There are so many cool horror events going on in London at the moment, you can pretty much spend every night watching great films in unusual locations if you want to.
Case in point, a couple of Saturdays ago I went to see a Hammer horror double-bill at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology as part of the Museums At Night project, before running across town to the Dalston Rio to catch Who Can Kill A Child on the big screen with a bunch of like-minded folks at the insanely cool Cigarette Burns Cinema.
Both were extremely memorable, but for very different reasons.
I'm pretty sure she's wearing a vulture on her head
Seeing Hammer classics The Gorgon and The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb surrounded by ancient artifacts was probably the weirdest experience of the two.
This wasn't the full turn-out
It's not every day you get to watch Jeanne Roland face-down a lumbering mummy whilst sitting next to a genuine mummified corpse.
Pass the popcorn pal
But, despite the fact we watching the films close enough to Egyptian antiques to smell the mustiness, the overall atmosphere felt a bit like being at a parent's dinner party.
The screen wasn't much bigger than a telly, the sound definitely wasn't booming, and free wine was handed out between breaks.
This is an event that's more about getting people into the museum than the films themselves, to the extent that the Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society John J Johnston gave away pretty much the entire plot of The Gorgon during his introduction, disregarding the fact that finding out exactly what happens at the end might be a bit of a spoiler for those in the room who hadn't seen it.
Still, despite that flaw, I'd definitely recommend keeping an eye on the website for more Museums At Night screenings, it really is fun to stroll around a museum after-hours before taking in a couple of flicks, but maybe lower your expectations in terms of the actual film-watching experience.
For Cigarette Burns Cinema events, on the other hand, if anything you should be raising your expectations.
Because not only do you get the very best cult films screened on the Rio's beautiful big screen, you get a DJ spinning themed records, a specially crafted t-shirt stall run by the super-hip Dee Dee's Vintage and occasional guests-of-honour poking their heads in.
CBC's t-shirt selection; weapons aren't optional
Here, the coolest film kids gather to celebrate a joint love of cinema, drinking beer from plastic cups and listening to the likes of Sonic Youth as they wait to go in.
Teenage Riot not pictured
If the Museums At Night event felt like being in your mum and dad's lounge while they have some friends over, Cigarette Burns Cinema feels like your parents have gone out of town, and you've relocated yourself to a local drive-in with a keg of beer and all your mates.
I loved it so much I'm even getting involved in the next one - I'll be conducting a live on-stage Q&A with star Caroline Munro and writer/director Mike Ezra as part of CBC's screening of trash classic Slaughter High on Friday 3 June. Hopefully I'll see some of you there.
Why You Should Watch It:Troll 2 fans, welcome to your next DVD purchase.
Killer fish Z movie Creatures From The Abyss has it all. A script written by someone whose first language is Martian, acting that's being conducted at gun-point, and special effects that make Big Mouth Billy Bass look like a devastating warning from a dystopian future.
Or, to put it another way, it's BRILLIANT. Check the above clip for more information, and if you manage to get through it without at least one chuckle, you probably campaign for fish rights in your spare time, and I can only apologise.
Killer Quote: "Die you motherfucking sons of bitches, die! Argh! Argh! Argh! Die! Argh! Argh!"