Hidden Horror Gems of the 1980’s: Part 2

The following is a continuation of Dan Santelli’s “Hidden Horror Gems” article from last week. You can view the first part by clicking here.

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Lifeforce (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1985)

A sci-fi/horror homage to Nigel Kneale’s much-beloved Quatermass series, Tobe Hooper’s trash opus, produced by Cannon’s Golan-Globus and co-written by Alien’s Dan O’Bannon, throws everything, including the kitchen sink, at the wall in hopes that something will stick. Lifeforce opens with a bravura sequence wherein astronauts, led by Captain Carlsen (Steve Railsback), discover a ship populated by bat-like creatures and three nude comatose aliens, including a pneumatic beauty (Mathilda May) the male crew-members obsess over. Of course, they can’t help but bring the specimens back to Earth for research. Bad choice! Once the action moves to Earth, disaster ensues as the female alien (credited as “Space Girl”) rises from her coma and begins sucking the “lifeforce” out of mortals, eventually inciting panic across London.

Much like Cronenberg with Rabid, Hooper utilizes the idea of a transmissible disease bringing about the downfall of man as a springboard for a cavalcade of chaos. Lifeforce is more than a little muddled, however, in terms of where it stands on “sex” (most of the interactions between humans and the Space Girl bear an overt sexual connotation if they’re not outright sexual). The script hints at a feminist re-interpretation of Stoker’s Dracula, envisioning a scenario in which Earth’s patriarchal institutions are paralyzed by fear of liberated female sexual desire. Hooper’s execution seemingly transmutes this facet, morphing the movie into an apocalyptic sex/death parable. Insanity! If you think this is more than a mouthful, the narrative trajectory further complicates itself as it plods along.

Lifeforce is far from perfect: it rambles amid certain tangents and several of the supporting performances are sub-par at best. Some will inevitably balk at its ill-behaved nature, disorganization, and objectification of Mathilda May – the latter helps jettison the script’s borderline feminist aspirations. Yet, the movie is brimming with myriad, if under-digested, metaphysical nuances and is so ruthlessly paced, suffering only when characters spout expository dialogue to cover information that was purportedly never shot. The upshot is an ambitious film that works as both as a gonzo entertainment (packed with dazzling post-Ghostbusters effects and oft-ornate production design), as well as rather stimulating sci-fi – even though the central idea is one step away from being literal. Its visual sheen and analog effects smack of the 1980s (and, perhaps, date the movie), but I can’t help but think this plays better now than it did upon release.

 

Possession

Possession (dir. Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)

Andrzej Zulawski must’ve taken a cue from David Cronenberg when he sought to work out his divorce frustrations with moviemaking. Most of the Polish auteur’s oeuvre seemingly emerges from a frenzied region of the subconscious, but, more than any of his other films, Possession feels as if it was constructed out of a need to externalize despondent memories and pain.

A simple synopsis doesn’t do it justice: Mark (Sam Neill), an international spy, returns from a mission to his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani), who insists they file for divorce. From there, the movie delves into a series of increasingly frantic ruminations on obsession, insecurity, faith, doppelgangers, and Lovecraftian horror. Neill’s mannered performance is well-calibrated – he’s terrifically weird and piles on the theatrics, yet never loses the human thread of seething jealousy – but nothing stands in the way of Isabelle Adjani’s incomparable manifestation of sheer, unrestrained emotional turmoil. Adjani is one of modern cinema’s great thespians, and her performance here is one of her crown jewels.

Dwelling further on Possession’s narrative trajectory might be ruinous – the experience of viewing it as a tabula rasa is unparalleled – but it’s worth noting that what starts as an odd spy thriller with Bergman-esque marital woes swiftly shifts into high gear, veering toward phantasmagoria. While not a traditional horror film – it’s more akin to something by Von Trier – it wrings the audience in a manner few horror films achieve. Zulawski’s mannerist visual approach, replete with dexterously choreographed camera-batics and theatrical blocking, only amplifies the movie’s outré demeanor. Some movies prod the audience; this one goes for the jugular.

 

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Angst (dir. Gerald Kargl, 1983)

Movies don’t get much stonier than this. Despite little exposure and, up until a recent Cult Epics DVD/Blu release, almost no exhibition in America, Angst has developed a cult following and ranks alongside Lang’s M, Mann’s Manhunter, and Hitchcock’s Psycho as one of cinema’s definitive serial killer jams. However, it exhibits little resemblance to these pictures apart from fundamentals; tonally, one of its few cinematic brethren would be Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. There’s little reason to delineate plot events, as Angst merely depicts a blow-by-blow account of a just-released psychopath (a bone-chillingly excellent Erwin Leder) acting on his impulsive urge to commit murder.

Apart from the Killer’s introductory case study, Angst adopts a strictly subjective POV. Oscar-winner Zbigniew Rybczyński’s innovative cinematography sports grayish tones and active camerawork including swooping cranes, deftly staged wide shots, and disorienting Snorricam* shots. Each technique positions the heartless (and borderline incompetent) psychopath at the center of a story universe where hope is nonexistent. There are hardly any digressions – if the camera favors another subject, it’s either from the Killer’s perspective or employed to milk dramatic irony/suspense – and the camera’s clinical, frosty gaze yields an overarching doomy aura. If the tone ever deviates from a consistent grimness, it’s for a few touches of pitch-black humor, most of which involve the Killer’s oft-clumsy methods of murder/menace and an adorable Dachshund who follows him around for much of back-half. Tangerine Dream’s Klaus Schulze supplies a brooding score, which lurches from pulsating cues to ambient drones, emphasizing the shifting polarities brewing in the Killer’s psyche.

It’s not difficult to deduce why Angst was buried for so long. It possesses genre conventions but doesn’t aim to deliver genre thrills and its clinical detachment and reprehensible protagonist offer nobody for the spectator to engage with or project their own self-image. The film occupies that gray area between art-house and exploitation; where expert craftsmanship and resistance toward easy answers elevate skuzzy premises from the bowels of disreputability. It’s a superior achievement – one of the great films of the 1980s – which, sadly, remains director Gerald Kargl’s sole foray into feature filmmaking. It’s unfortunate that there aren’t more Gerald Kargl movies, but to have a film of Angst‘s caliber in any oeuvre is impressive on its own.

*The Snorricam is a camera rig mounted to the actor’s body, providing a distinct visual perspective and, in some cases, a sense of character identification – the frame shifts in conjunction with the actor’s movement, while the actor’s positioning within the frame remains fixed.

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SOME ODDS & ENDS

The Changeling (dir. Peter Medak, 1980) – Haunted house thriller featuring the great George C. Scott as a mourning widower enveloped in a mystery surrounding the property he recently bought.

Pumpkinhead (dir. Stan Winston, 1988) – Much underrated monster/supernatural revenge film which features one of modern horror cinema’s most frightfully stunning monsters. Despite some literal-mindedness, the picture excels due to its mythical traits and atmosphere; the backwoods locale, abundance of fog, and amber/blue hues are all aesthetically pleasing.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (dir. Jack Clayton, 1983) – The reshoots which plagued this Disney-produced adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s book are apparent, but the final product, despite occasional lapses in pace, proves to be an entertaining, nostalgic reverie and a noble candidate for any child’s introduction to horror.

The Watcher in the Woods (dir. John Hough, 1980) – Disney horror film starring Bette Davis which is more chilling than you’d expect. Delightfully spooky alternative for those seeking family-friendly scares.

Author: Dan Santelli

Dan Santelli is a film writer/critic and cat-loving dirtbag, born in Ohio and raised in Philly. When not hiking or talking someone’s ear off about Pauline Kael, he can be found at Viva Video in Ardmore. You can follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.

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