After many months of anticipation for this year’s Horrorthon, the day finally arrived. It was hard to sleep the night before, as it felt like Christmas for horror movie lovers. At 10 am, a full hour before doors were supposed to open, the line was looped most of the way around the lobby of the Ibrahim Theater at International House in West Philadelphia.
After the doors opened, and the crowd settled into where they were going to be planted for the next 24 hours, the fine folks from Exhumed got up to make their announcements. Prizes were given out, and a humorous “good cop/bad cop” approach to rules emphasized the importance of no talking, no MST3K style screen shouting antics, no cell phone usage, and *no* vaping. Each rule got good applause, suggesting that this is a crowd that really appreciates its movie theater behavior better than your average American.
Each member was given a program with a full schedule- but instead of titles we had hints to what the movies might be, with the extra structural hints of knowing that 1) all movies were released in the 1980’s and 2) they would be presented in chronological order. A raffle opportunity asked people to submit their guesses ahead of time, in order to win prizes at the end.
And then the movies began, each with interludes of classic horror movie trailers.
Motel Hell (1980)
One of the few movies of the night that I had already heard of, Motel Hell is an extra trashy, grindhouse take on the “mystery meat is humans!” horror movie conceit. It concerns a couple of unlucky motorcycle enthusiasts who stumble upon the titular “Motel Hello,” with a pesky, rarely working “O” light that keeps sputtering in and out, in case we didn’t get the point. Rory Calhoun plays the innkeeper, who really spends most of his time as a farmer/butcher, tending to his famous smoked meats and (human) garden. The hotel is rarely featured, to the point where it should really be called something like “Harm Farm.” Motel Hell got one of the more enthusiastic audience responses. It’s a film that features a chainsaw battle between a cop and a man wearing a decapitated pig head. It was the perfect mood setter for the rest of the day.
The Boogens (1981)
Horrorthon always has some duds, and this was certainly one of them. But even the duds have value, and plenty of things to enjoy. This one is a Rocky Mountain set monster flick, that the program suggested was a loving callback to the creature feature of the 1950’s. Mining explosions awaken long dormant creatures that terrorize two young couples, one of whom looks and acts like a C-list stand in for Andrew McCarthy. The movie trope of “scary old man wandering around warning people” was in full effect here, and because his presence goes unexplained for so long, the audience burst into laughter every time he inexplicably sauntered onto some corner of the screen.
Visiting Hours (1981)
This one is a Canadian production, starring Lee Grant, Michael Ironside, and a strange/fairly pointless extended cameo by William Shatner. While this slasher flick was overly repetitive and too long, it was the first movie of the day that felt like it had something to say beyond the shocks, gore, and bad jokes. Ironside plays a woman hating, psychopathic murderer out to get Lee Grant, who plays a brave lawyer speaking out in defense of the victims of domestic violence. It felt like an appropriate year to see this movie screened.
The most widely recognized and mainstream movie yet, Cujo famously stars Dee Wallace as the mother of a young boy, both of whom get trapped by a rabid St. Bernard when their car breaks down out in the country. Based on a Stephen King novel, it features King’s trademark use of horror as psychological allegory- this time as a way to explore the emotional neglect that can creep into any picture perfect marriage. The metaphors were far more powerful than the actual horror itself, which was unfortunate when it had such a good thing going.
Eyes Of Fire (1983)
I took a break to get dinner- it’s rare that attendees make every single screening. I chose to save my energy for later.
Night Shadows (1984)
The Walking Dead wasn’t the first piece of Zombie media to be set in Georgia- this C level horror flick starring Wings Hauser and Bo Hopkins did it way back in 1984. A couple of big city boys wind up stranded in a small southern town with a dark secret, when their car is run off the road by a truckful of southern “redneck” stereotypes. While full of laughably bad line readings and corny jokes, this ultimately was the worst film of the festival. I can’t imagine a movie exists with worse looking Zombies- they’re blue, for crying out loud!
Scream For Help (1984)
So far, the festival had yet to show a truly great movie. Fortunately this one proved to be the peak of the mountain for the whole night. I had never heard of this riff on the “crazy stepfather” genre. A quick look around Letterboxd suggested that folks like to frame this as a sexploitation Nancy Drew story, as protagonist Christie (Rachael Kelly) is out to prove that her stepfather is not only cheating on her mother, but plans to kill them all as well. We get a full voiceover explaining everything from her POV, and a majestic, old Hollywood style musical score from John Paul Jones (yes, THAT John Paul Jones). Its setting in the rich suburbs of New York City, and lush interiors made it feel like Douglas Sirk directed a trashy 80’s horror flick. And I do mean trashy. Some moments in here (one in particular, regarding Christie losing her virginity) belong in the hall of fame of bad taste. The entire crowd was losing its shit all the way through. It was the perfect midnight movie- a viewing experience I will never forget.
The Mutilator (1984)
I also took a break for this one, to stay up for the promise of very rare, first time screenings of prints they had been searching for for twenty years, which were yet to come.
The Hitcher (1986)
Horrorthon always leaves room for a few choice canon films, though with a “no repeats” rule that list dwindles year after year. I was glad when the title frame of The Hitcher came onscreen, as it was a blind spot for me. Rutger Hauer stars as the titular hitchhiking madman, who haunts C. Thomas Howell and Jennifer Jason Leigh like the original Anton Chigurh, on one awful day while driving across the deserts of Texas. It’s the kind of movie that must have been a near perfect script, stripped down to bare essentials with nearly no backstory. It was my favorite of the festival, and the perfect film for 4 AM, when we’ve been up all night and are looking for something to keep us awake, just like C. Thomas Howell.
House was the first of the two promised “rare print” films, and another Canonical horror flick I had never seen. The cover of the VHS box haunted me with every childhood trip to Blockbuster- a depiction of a severed, gory green hand ringing a doorbell. Yikes! Nightmare city. If only the movie had been as good as that cover. A horror comedy from Steve Miner (Friday The 13th Part Two, Halloween H2O) about a struggling writer/vietnam vet who moves into the house where his aunt had just committed suicide, in order to find inspiration for his next novel. I found that the tonal dissonance of 80’s comedy, supernatural horror, and extended Vietnam flashbacks, threw the movie off in an irreconcilable way.
Rawhead Rex (1986)
This Irish fantasy horror flick has one good thing going for it, in its titular monster who wakes up to ravage the Gaelic countryside (and looks like it might have inspired the Uruk-Hai in Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings). Everything else is a slog, and I chose to let my eyes close and drift off during most of this one.
Child’s Play (1988)
The hint for this one was a blockbuster film that spawned several sequels. Knowing that it was towards the end of the decade made it fairly obvious that it was going to be Child’s Play, the first of the series starring everyone’s favorite red-headed, foul-mouthed murder doll. This was the only film of the festival I had seen before, back when I was a kid. I was able to put my finger on something that had bugged me about this way back when- it’s a very cruel movie. And I get that must sound like a strange critique of a horror film, but the film treats Brad Dourif’s Chucky, a crazed serial killer, as a bit of a protagonist. He’s the most compelling character in the series, so it’s inevitable. But it’s a bit unsettling how his hateful, misogynistic humor gets played for cheap laughs from the audience. Beyond that, I found it worked as a commentary on how American consumerism takes care of family insecurities to sell its products, and the power of childhood imagination and object permanence. But in the second half, the movie gives way to Chucky’s evil stand up routine.
After 22 hours of horror movies, it was time for the final film. I was hoping it would be something I knew, a great way to end the festival, as last year had ended on the perfect note of Army of Darkness. I felt disappointed when it ended on this film, which I had never heard of before. It seemed like a standard riff on Invasion of The Body Snatchers, but set in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. I was moderately enjoying it, but couldn’t really figure out why they chose this one to end on. I was figuring there must be some kind of a grand payoff coming. Boy was there, as the final twenty minutes depicts some of the most gruesome body horror ever caught onscreen, with truly jaw dropping special effects. I won’t spoil any more for you. I was pleased that the last film of the festival proved to be another unforgettable viewing experience.
Then it was time to go home. My second Horrorthon in the books. Until next year…