What could be more perfect for a quiet night in with your lover this Valentine’s Day than that film where Jeff Goldblum infamously keeps his mummified testicles in the bathroom cabinet? I am teasing of course, because as David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986) is at heart a tragic love story and not just a classic horror it seemed the obvious film to revisit for this week’s Flashback Friday.
So not unlike The Blob (1988) which we have previously covered here is another rare example that remakes can put a new spin on the source material and actually work. On its surface The Fly is very much a conventional horror film but with Cronenberg’s infatuation of the human body metamorphosising stamped all over it. The Fly is quite rightly renowned for its revolting and nightmarish imagery courtesy of the Oscar winning special FX by Chris Walas and Stephen Dupuis. The transformation of Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) from man to a human/fly hybrid (affectionately nicknamed “Brundlefly” by Seth himself) remains to this day one of the greatest, grotesque and slow burning transformation sequences in horror film history. Perhaps a sign of the times but Seth’s physical decline was often misinterpreted as a metaphor for Aids back in the late eighties which Cronenberg refuted by explaining he likened The Fly to a generic terminal illness such as cancer.
But as I already mentioned deep down The Fly is a love story between a woman and the man she loves gradually turning into a house fly (both physically and mentally) which will inevitably end in tragedy. Both Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis are great as the doomed lovers Seth and Veronica; they really make you care about what these characters are going through and what it to become of them. Goldblum in particular is reminiscent of John Hurt’s performance in The Elephant Man (1980) as despite hours in the makeup artist’s chair he still turn in an emotive performance. In fact I would go as far as claiming The Fly is the performance of Goldblum’s career and for all its infamous stomach churning set pieces this is Cronenberg’s most tender and beautiful film.
So there you have it, you can either settle down to the inevitable repeat of Love Actually (2003) this Valentine’s Day or if you’re looking for something horrific and tragically romantic to accompany your M&S Dine in for Two look no further than The Fly (best enjoyed after you’ve eaten).
Not unlike Jeffrey Dahmer, Jerry (Ryan Reynolds) is just another worker at the factory but unbeknownst to his work mates and love interests he leads a secret life of unspeakable madness and murder. Jerry has foolishly ignored his psychiatrist’s orders to take his medication to manage his schizophrenia and now “the voices” are commanding him to do very, very, very bad things…
So begins Marjane Satrapi’s black comedy, a little horror gem I’d had recommended many moon ago but have only just got round to watching. The first thing that stands out about The Voices are the visuals as Jerry’s delusions are all the colours of the rainbow and the kitsch of vintage TV commercials and in contrast the reality when Jerry actually considers taking his medication is dark, gritty and full of squalor and decay. The polar opposite visuals work really well giving the film almost that WOW factor of the black and white to Technicolor contrast of The Wizard of Oz (1939). The comedy element of the film hit the mark in a bizarre kind of way as Jerry takes conflicting morale guidance from his talking cat and dog (Mr. Whiskers and Bosco respectively both voiced by Reynolds) and later the severed heads of his victims that he keeps in the fridge. Likewise the horror element is tremendously effective and while most of the actual violence is left to our imagination there’s enough disgusting sound FX and implied action to make the audience squirm. Madness is the key theme in The Voices and Marjane echos this by treating us to a crazy and chaotic film which completely immerses the viewer inside the mind of a madman.
There were two weaknesses The Voices had for me the first being Ryan Reynolds. Now I admit I have warmed to him over the years (I thought Blade Runner 2049 (2017) would be a disaster but I was wrong) and despite turning in a good performance I think in the hands of another actor Jerry could have become as memorable a big screen psycho as Patrick Bateman. Secondly while the humour works I wouldnt class it as hilarious while in contrast the horror elements (most notably a brutal stabbing of Jerry’s first victim) are so well done its pretty difficult to watch.
The Voices is undoubtedly a very good black comedy but it just falls short of greatness as it doesn’t bring the gore and laughs together as seamlessly and memorably as say American Psycho (2001) and while Reynolds is solid in the lead he just doesn’t make as memorable a killer as Christian Bale did in the aforementioned film or Michael C Hall in Showtime’s Dexter.
Tom Holland’s writer/director debut is not only one of the finest examples of eighties horror comedy but in my top three greatest vampire films of all time! It’s really hard to begin to do this cult classic justice in words but I’ll stake my reputation on it and have a stab at it (bear with me as I work through my repertoire of puns)!
The only other film that perfectly balances horror and comedy like Fright Night is John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London (1981) in my humble opinion. Unlike its big eighties vampire rival The Lost Boys (1987) Holland’s film definitely plays its horror more straight and is much better versed in vampire lore. Like An American Werewolf in London, Fright Night is effortlessly funny and at no point does the humour clash awkwardly with the horror aspects. On top of all that very much like The Lost Boys Fright Night has its fair share of of immortal lines, most famously “Oh, you’re so cool Brewster”.
The assembled cast are all excellent most notably Chris Sarandon as the devastatingly handsome, woman chomping vampire Jerry Dandrige and Roddy McDowall as his nemesis: Peter Vincent the Fearless Vampire Killer. Sarandon is effortlessly charming and menacing in the lead role while McDowall is out of this world playing a cowardly washed up TV star who steps up to the plate to battle the armies of the night. I also have to give a big shout out to Jonathan Stark who is both entertaining and creepy as Jerry’s goon, Billy Cole and last but not least the absolutely hilarious Stephen Geoffreys as Evil Ed who not only gets all the best lines but completely steals the film for me.
At the risk of sounding completely biased I should try and point out some flaws but other than some slightly dated FX in the more visually ambitious portions of the film Fright Night is pretty damn difficult to fault. An inferior sequel was to follow in 1988 and then a frankly embarrassing remake in 2011 but none of these hiccups can dull the shine of the original eighties classic. Scary, hilarious and a kick ass soundtrack to boot it was love at first bite when I first saw the poster for Fright Night in the video shop back in the mid eighties. Even though I have revisited it hundreds of times over the years and know it off by heart my love for this film never dies.
Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On: The Grudge (2002) was one of the most memorable of the Japanese horror film revolution. While the plot was hardly anything to write home about Shimizu created a dark, doomy and claustrophobic atmosphere and although the film played out like a series of unforgettable nightmarish sketches it gave us an iconic monster largely due to Takko Fuji’s creepy and contorting performance. Ever since the feature length film the franchise has been gradually watered down through various remakes and sequels until we arrive at this 2020 reboot.
After teasing us with a reference to the now overly familiar haunted house in Japan this latest installment switches action to the USA but instead of having the ghostly woman, coal eyed son and black cat in tow the curse is reimagined as an American family. Nothing wrong with bending the rules and trying to freshen things up but the clichéd opening scene this one tries to distance itself from is ironically the best bit of the film. Forget plot; forget atmosphere, forget originality, forget entertainment and forget scares because The Grudge has none of it. Trust me, I wear a Garmin watch and my heart rate was a steady 50BPM for the duration of film and looking around me in the cinema there was not one jump let alone a scream. In fact all this actually has in common with a horror film is the trademark croack of the ghost that hails back to its Japanese origins and Lin Shaye of Insidious fame shoehorned in for good measure.
Straight to video horror films with shoestring budgets are easy targets but when you get something like The Grudge (2020) with its $10-14 million dollar budget and nothing to show for it but the cinematic equivalent of a dung pile Hollywood needs to be held to account. If writer/director Nicholas Pesce treating his audience like they’re plebs for 90 minutes isn’t insulting enough the woeful ending invites you to sit through the end credits for another scare/twist. Now I will sit through the end credits of a Marvel film for a hint of what it is to come and I will even sit through Evil Dead (2013) for a Bruce Campbell cameo but I did not have the patience to do so for The Grudge. After seeing this monstrosity a tiny part of me felt bad for crucifying Pet Sematary (2019) because at least that had a run of the mill opening half hour where as they make a pig’s ear of The Grudge from the BBFC certificate onwards and all Pesce’s film achieves is it illustrates why reboots should be given the boot.
With Cassandra Peterson winning the Golden Raspberry as a leading lady; the film in which she starred in crowned Worst Picture at Stinkers Bad Movie Awards and failing spectacularly to recoupe its $7.5 million budget Elvira’s big screen debut was hardly a roaring critical and commercial success. But is it really that bad? Paradoxically the answer is both yes and no.
Let’s face it I don’t think Peterson had her eyes on bagging the Oscar when she embarked on this project in the same way the team behind Sharknado (2013) didn’t imagine they had put together a classic creature feature. In many ways both Elvira and Sharknado are deliberately guilty pleasures; unashamedly awful and B-movie like. There is a plot here if you want one, as the motor mouthed and sexually liberated horror hostess arrives in a God fearing, backwater town to claim an inheritance only to be the focus of a literal witch hunt by the zealots after corrupting the youth of Fallwell. But the storyline is something of an afterthought as we are treated to 96 minutes of Carry On humour and Eighties kitsch.
Cassandra Peterson lights up the screen as “Yours Cruelly” dishing out double entendres and deadpan humour that would be right at home in a classic British sitcom and on her looks alone its easy to see why this Gothic cougar has gained such a loyal following. As Elvira’s big screen debut I think this film is a resounding success as it deliberately sets out to be trashy and camp and delivers on all fronts. Sure, in a post feminist world the Carry On humour won’t be for everyone and a film as unashamedly tacky as this would never get full marks from any film critic but I still consider Elvira Mistress of the Dark to be gloriously awful in a wonderful way and a great showcase for Peterson’s talents.
A straight to video sequel, Elvira’s Haunted Hills (2002) was to follow largely spoofing Hammer Horror and although most fans consider this superior I will always have a soft spot for Elvira’s financial disaster of a debut as its utter trash with a heart.
Inspired by the true story of a disastrous expedition that mysteriously left nine Russians dead back in 1959 The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013) sees a party of cocky American film students armed with the latest gadgets head into the icy wilderness to solve the mystery. Unsurprisingly when you insist on making camp in a place the locals affectionately refer to as “The Mountain of the Dead” our Millennial friends are in for a rough night.
With the glory of the nineties behind him with the likes of Die Hard 2 (1990), Cliffhanger (1993) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) it would appear Renny Harlin has been demoted to straight to video gigs. From the blurb The Dyatlov Pass Incident looks like yet another “found footage” film which thanks to The Blair Witch Project (1999) we’ve had twenty years of aspiring film makers thinking they can hit the big time with a shoestring budget and a shaky hand held camera. Luckily The Dyatlov Pass Incident has cobbled together enough funding where its executed like your conventional film and the found footage aspect is mercifully sparse.
Given his background and experience its no surprise Harlin’s film is competently assembled but it has a lot lacking such as characters you give a rat’s arse about; any sense of doing battle with the unforgivable Russian wilderness and its greatest flaw is its not remotely scary. Harlin doesn’t bother with signposted scares nor does he bother with trying to convey psychological terror if anything he seems more interested in capturing the stark beauty of the Russian landscape. Predictably The Dyatlov Pass Incident dissappears down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories suggesting the yeti, UFOs and the Soviet army could be to blame. The film opts for the most ridiculous explanation and consequently one that could have used a bigger budget as the supposed show stopping special FX in the closing act are rubbish.
The Dyatlov Pass Incident is your meat and potatoes horror film; its passable but very bland and uninspiring stuff. However, it did keep my attention for the duration of the run time and even throws in a nice little twist at the end giving the whole film a circular feel but coming from the man who gave us “Cliffhanger” he doesn’t do so here.
The Descent (2005) may just be the most frustrating horror film I have ever seen. I’ve revisited it several times over the years hoping I’d come to a different conclusion but my verdict ultimately remains the same and let me tell you why. Firstly, I must confess I was never a massive fan of Neil Marshall’s writer/director debut Dog Soldiers (2002). Sure, its adequate as far as werewolf films go but I found the scares and laughs as tired as the monster costumes so I didn’t have high hopes for The Descent. However, I will begrudgingly admit it when I am wrong and as I sat there in a cinema in Hull some 15 years ago now it occurred to me I was going to have to eat a man sized slice of humble pie!
I would go as far as saying the majority of Marshall’s tale of six women going caving only for it to end in unspeakable horror is masterful film making. Marshall really gets across those primal fears surrounding darkness and claustrophobia as the caving party venture deeper underground. Even though the caves were built in Pinewood studios, England (while the film is set in North America) the subterranean experience is completely believable bolstered by some excellent performances from the cast as panic and despair overcomes the group. There is an impending feeling of doom running throughout The Descent which proves a nice segway into the clever “reveals” of the creatures hiding in the shadows.
However, as soon as the “Crawlers” (humanoid descendants of cavemen as Marshall helpfully points out even if the film doesn’t) are revealed The Descent lost traction for me personally. All those qualities I loved about the first hour with its intense menace and psychological terror descends into a dumb gore fest. Any sense of tension and subtlety is abandoned in favour of going down the exploitation route. Eli Roth’s Hostel was to be released a couple of months later thus ushering in the age of “Torture Porn” but it makes no apology for its gorehound credentials where as I couldn’t help thinking The Descent had so much more to offer after such a strong start. Inevitably we find out some of the characters are harbouring secrets as dark as the predicament they find themselves in and even though there were alternative US and UK endings when The Descent hit the big screen neither could salvage this one for me.
The Descent is by no means a bad film and it deserves praise for keeping the torch of British horror films alight following the success of Shaun of the Dead (2014). The Crawlers themselves are passable and convincing monsters (albeit pretty forgettable ones) but overall considering how well put together a whopping portion of the film is and some great turns from an all female cast (kudos again Mr Marshall) I couldn’t help thinking The Descent would maybe have made a better psychological chiller/survival film than a horror flick.
Cameron’s Closet has the dubious honour of been one of two eighties horror films that I found so terrifying I uncharacteristically never made it to the end. The other one was Creepshow (1982) and so disturbed was I as a boy by the appearance of “Fluffy” my Mum had to return the VHS to Woolworths and exchange it for the “Teen Wolf” animated series (1986-87); but that’s a horror story for another day. Not that it had preyed on my mind as much as if the kids ever got home at the end of “Dungeons and Dragons” (1983-85) but many years later curiosity got the better of me and I braved stepping back into Cameron’s Closet.
On paper this one sounds promising as a detective and psychiatrist try to help a boy with telekinetic powers who finds himself at the center of a series of grisly murders after accidentally summoning an ancient Mayan demon that is inconsiderately squatting in his closet. With a script supplied by Gary Brander (of The Howling (1981) fame) and adapted from his own novel alongside special FX by Carol Rambaldi (who has the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) on his CV) and a score by Harry Manfredini (Friday the 13th franchise 1980-2009) how could Camerons Closet not be a winner? Well…where do we begin?
First off everything about Cameron’s Closet looks cheap and nasty; the whole package has this awful TVM feel to it. That bargain bin ethos continues into the special FX department where I can only assume Rambaldi only had a budget of a tenner to work with or he’d left his understudy in charge because visually its a car crash. A decapitation blatantly using a a mannequin; visible wires as a victim swan dives out of an upstairs window and the demon looking every inch like a man in a rubber suit.
The potentially interesting themes of psychology, the interpretation of dreams and telekinesis research remain untapped and although the cast do an admirable job (Gary Hudson in particular is great as the arsehole stepfather) of trying to look invested in the project even Daniel Day Lewis could do nothing with this script. The lack of terror and tension clashes awkwardly with Manfredini’s OTT score then there’s all these inexplicable moments dotted about the place such as the soft porn incestuous shower scene? Then after all that ropey filmmaking; wasted potential and head scratching moments Cameron’s Closet limps to an end in a not very convincing display of animated lighting leaving me not so much disappointed but embarrassed I found this film the stuff of nightmares as an 8 year old.
Yet despite the catalogue of crap I have listed I still kind of have a soft spot for Cameron’s Closet because its such an oddball of a horror film. Yes, the monster in the closet is a bit of a horror trope but this take on the cliché is neither one of those so bad its good films or one that is so shite you have to fast forward most of it or abandon it all together. For better or worse (and its probably the latter) Cameron’s Closet is definitely out there and on its own and reminds even the most nostalgic of us that not every eighties horror film could be a winner.
Chuck Russell’s big budget remake of the classic fifties B-movie was a commercial disaster upon its release in 1988 but fortunately history has turned out to be kinder than the critics and The Blob has gone on to become a cult favourite. When I revisited this eighties video nasty the best part of three decades later it’s not hard to see how Russell’s magnificent reworking has found a loyal fan base.
Russell obviously knew it would be difficult to make a man eating purple jelly scary so he compensated by bringing together the best of eighties special FX and a parade of ingenious and inventive death scenes (the blocked drain bloodbath scene is unforgettable). Even though The Blob is very much in the comedy horror mould and unashamedly eighties to the core there is also something dark and anti Hollywood about Russell’s film as the faceless, mindless, ravenous organism has no qualms about eating children (albeit it pretty annoying ones). The Blob even touches on the themes of date rape and government corruption so for all the ridiculousness there are some Easter eggs of intelligence dotted about Russell’s film. Another notable surprise is before Frank Darabont became a renowned director with his acclaimed Stephen King adaptations, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999) he penned the scripts for A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987), The Fly II (1989) and this forgotten gem.
Renowned for its big budget special FX the majority of the trickery still looks impressive and revolting in the present day. Perhaps the only thing that lets The Blob down is the introduction of CGI very much in its infancy for the big finale which looks really ropey compared with all the excellent practical effects on display.
Remakes get a lot of bad press (justifiably so when you consider the updates of The Fog (2005), Halloween (2007) and Pet Sematary (2019) to name a few turkeys) but back in the eighties there was a winning streak of taking a B-movie and turning it into something more. The Holy trinity of this period was The Thing (1982), The Fly (1986) and The Blob all of which are renowned for their disgusting special FX and all of which managed to better the source material. The Thing is the straight up balls to the wall horror film; The Fly the gut wrenching, tragic love story while The Blob is the joker in the pack. Russell’s film doesn’t take itself too seriously but delivers more gore and laughs than any horror fan could hope for. If like me you are partial to a beer, pizza and horror film night Chuck Russell’s The Blob is an essential.
Werewolves have always fascinated me, I have a soft spot for the classic story of usually a nice guy (or girl) who ends up inflicted with a curse through no fault of their own and so begins the battle with the beast within. As great as a premise werewolves are in my opinion it doesn’t translate well onto the big screen and though I may be able to cobble together a handful of respectable examples (The Howling (1981), Silver Bullet (1985), Dog Soldiers (2002) etc) the only werewolf film I would call phenomenal is John Landis’ 1981 horror comedy An American Werewolf In London.
Where do I begin with this one? From the initial werewolf mauling on the moors that is delivered with such ferocity and conviction it is horrific enough to put people off rambling for life; to nightmarish dream sequences with jumps galore and a less is more approach reminiscent of the psychological terror in Jaws (1975) Landis comes up trumps with the scares. If you can get past Landis’ English stereotypes of bumbling policemen and pinstripe suited businessmen talking posh An American Werewolf In London is also an accomplished comedy. In particular when it employs gallows humour such as the undead giving our doomed hero, David (David Naughton) suicide advice in a porn cinema in the middle of Picadilly Circus. The extremes of gore and nightmarish imagery with farce and comedy as black as Rasputin’s beard shouldn’t work but Landis somehow gets away with it. The film also succeeds as a tragic love story as nice guy David finds himself more and more at the mercy of the monster inside him just as his nurse turned lover Alex (the gorgeous Jenny Agutter) begins to fall hopelessly in love with the doomed American. Inevitably the story is to end in tragedy but like the chills and the laughs it is handled beautifully so much so there may be a tear in your eye by the time the end credits roll.
Then of course is Rick Baker’s Oscar winning special FX which largely stand up to scrutiny even in the CGI dominated world. Highlights being the gore makeup as the ghost of Jack (Griffin Dunne) gradually decomposes with each visit he makes to David and of course the iconic metamorphosis from man to werewolf. In the past Hollywood dealt with the transformation in a wishy washy blur but in An American Werewolf In London the camera stays with David for every hair spouting; bone contorting, skin stretching minute and even in the present day I still consider Baker’s work as some of the best practical effects to emerge from the eighties.
The only thing that lets the film down is after building nerve shredding tension with the aforementioned less is more approach Landis decides to gives us too much werewolf. Nothing wrong with that per se but under the spotlight scrutiny of DVD and BluRay the man in the fur coat wheeled around in the wheelbarrow isn’t as terrifying a spectre as you remember from when you rented this classic from the video shop or begged your parents to let you stay up after the watershed to watch it on late night TV.
So overall a scary; funny, love story with an astounding cast (watch out for the hilarious cameos from Brian Glover and Rik Mayall) which not only deserves its status as a cult classic but is easily both my most highly regarded eighties horror comedy and my favourite werewolf film of all time.