Hidden Horror Gems of the 1980’s: Part 1

Nothing beats that feeling you get when you’ve uncovered something special, something unheard of. Nowadays, with all the exposure created by blogs devoted to each and every niche the cinema offers, it’s getting even more difficult for once “forgotten” films to stay under-the-radar.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be introducing you to a few of my favorite under-seen and/or undervalued horror films of the 1980s; a decade wherein the genre fell into the quagmire of rote slasher films, causing less generic/more off-beat titles to be pushed to the side (or re-cut) and disappear quickly from the public eye. Some of these will be known to the hardcore horror buffs, but, regardless, I believe they’re all worth praising…even if not all of them are objectively “good” films (I love ‘em though). I’m unsure as to whether any of them are readily available to stream as I lack a Netflix account, but I can assure you they’re all available for rental at Ardmore’s Viva Video.

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Cruising (dir. William Friedkin, 1980)

Decried as homophobic upon its release, this gritty street thriller/borderline slasher’s reputation has risen from malevolent garbage to reassessed cult classic in recent years. Al Pacino stars as a heterosexual rookie NYC cop embedded in the gay leather bars of the West Village in the hope of tracking a serial killer preying on gay men.

Macho auteur William Friedkin’s (The French Connection, The Exorcist) direction turns what could’ve been a forgettable thriller into a terrifically enigmatic examination of a cop in over his head with a culture he can’t fully comprehend for the sake of his future on the force. It’s very much a Friedkin jam: the homosocial camaraderie, morally dubious characters, obsession with process, and inherent fatalism yield a dynamic playbook as the narrative dances around slasher conventions. It also bears Friedkin’s trademark impassive style; his clinical approach, complemented by the stars’ elemental but nonetheless evocative performances, might make it hard for some to identify with any of the characters, but the mood and atmosphere guide one through the proceedings.

Is the movie homophobic? Are there issues of misrepresentation? “No” to the former, but “probably” to the latter (For example, one character explicitly states he’s writing a thesis on “the roots of the American Musical Theatre.” Utilizing this statement as a signifier for gayness, more or less, renders the character a stereotype.). Still, I fear my heterosexuality prevents me from offering a fully informed opinion on the issue, and one would need to draft a full essay to do it justice. That said, Friedkin’s film is nowhere near as pernicious as the malignant Windows released the same year.

Cruising doesn’t attempt to solve all of its mysteries – it’s less interested in whodunit as opposed to the investigation’s effect on Pacino’s psyche – but it leaves the viewer with enough clues to mull over and interpret the implications it teases us with. It all builds to a chilling climax rife with ambiguity, without ever feeling like a cop-out; had the movie conjured a more decisive ending, it would likely diminish the potency of the action and yield something more schematic. What Friedkin accomplishes here points toward similarly grim thrillers of the future. I’d be surprised if Fincher missed this prior to helming Se7en. Did I mention it has one of the greatest soundtracks of all-time?

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The Keep (dir. Michael Mann, 1983)

Of all the forgotten horror films from the 1980s, Michael Mann’s much-maligned cosmic chiller is possibly the saddest case. Here’s a modestly budgeted studio picture adapted from a popular source sporting tremendous production values, an all-star cast (including Ian McKellen, Jürgen Prochnow, Scott Glenn, and Gabriel Byrne!) and an up-and-coming director, which, following a purportedly treacherous shoot and post-production phase, ended up flopping at the box-office prompting the studio to practically bury it (A long OOP VHS remains The Keep’s sole legitimate home video release.). In 1941, on the eve of modern civilization’s darkest hour, a group of Nazi soldiers, led by an anti-Fascist captain, are assigned to guard an abandoned citadel in the Carpathian Alps. No sooner than they arrive and tamper with the fortress do they unleash an ancient evil in the form of a Golem. Eventually, the Nazis forcibly employ the services of an imprisoned Jewish professor in hopes of ridding the citadel of its nefarious host. What follows is, I think, a meditation on the origins of Evil, and the potential existence of an abstract Evil more diabolical than any corporeal Evil we can imagine.

The Keep is hardly a great movie (and it’s more interested in exploring the possibilities of magical realism and Bettelheim’s writings on fairy tales than milking scares), but it encompasses one of Tangerine Dream’s preeminent film scores and a bevy of great moments: a shot of clouds slicing through a full moon recalls Buñuel and Dali; two soldiers’ attempt to steal glowing silver crosses is complemented by a dreamy TD cue; the murderous Golem, visualized at one point as a mass of fog, drifting down a hall to Thomas Tallis; McKellen carrying a talisman from inside a mountain while vocoderized chants boom on the soundtrack.

Even at the beginning of his career, Mann’s visual prowess and tonal command appear mostly formed, and The Keep is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. Cinematographer Alex Thomson, whose work here looks like a dry-run for Legend, conjures an oneiric atmosphere. The titular citadel’s interiors are informed by copious amounts of fog and vibrant shades of nighttime violets and blues, and the high contrast night shooting suggests he lit for blacks, perhaps in an attempt to exaggerate the set’s dimensions. Thomson even experiments with the positioning of light sources, sometimes even pointing the lens directly at the key light – often a practical light, in this case.

The end result is, in equal measure, a visually/aurally opulent rush of cinema and an outright narrative disaster (Drastic re-editing might explain some of it: Mann’s original cut supposedly ran over three hours, whereas the theatrical cut runs 96 minutes.). Some of the events seem incidental, and the cutting is apparent when various main characters are ditched for lengthy periods of time — Prochnow, up until the 40 minute mark, is our protagonist, but is relegated to an off-screen presence for much of the back half. In some way, however, these ellipses only augment the dreamlike aura the movie exudes; even the abrupt, non-ending, which feels unfinished, climaxes in the manner of our most frustrating dreams — it ceases when things are starting to get good.

In the end, this often inscrutable but wholly fascinating oddity is an anomaly in the Mann canon, as he would swiftly retreat toward the crime genre. The Keep might be a mess, but its shoot-the-moon ambition and eerie resonance render it nothing less than a noble failure in desperate need of rediscovery.

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Scream For Help (dir. Michael Winner, 1984)

Quite possibly the most obscure of these titles, Scream For Help might not fit as snuggly as the others into the confines of “horror” but, dammit, I’ll plug this piece of sublime trash any chance I get. Seriously, this gleefully nasty mystery-cum-home invasion thriller is off its rocker from the word “go.” No one believes poor teenaged Christie Cromwell when she claims her stepfather is plotting to murder her mother. What else to do but invoke Nancy Drew-style sleuthing in her quest to expose the bastard (in compromising positions!) and rid him from her life.

Based on that synopsis, one might speculate this a girl-power heavy drama aimed at the tweens. Wrong! Why? Because unbridled bully boy Michael Winner (Death Wish, The Sentinel) is at the helm and steering straight toward the guardrail. Before the end credits roll, you’ll have been subjected to gratuitous female nudity, electrocuted baddies, vehicular manslaughter, and explosions. Winner doesn’t even spare the opportunity of staging a scene wherein Christie’s stepfather interrupts her first sexual experience (Oh yeah, it’s also a coming-of-age story!!!).

As a director, Winner isn’t renowned for his directorial prowess or deft handling of actors; he rarely exhibits an interest in (or understanding of) cinema’s visual possibilities, and much of the craftsmanship here is workmanlike, even televisual. Winner does, however, possess a knack for attitudinizing, and Scream For Help‘s audacious commitment to conflating Winner’s brash ethos with scenarist Tom Holland’s (Fright Night) teen-friendly material sometimes mitigates the movie’s technical shortcomings. That Winner finds some way, in spite of the unsavory detours he explores, to juxtapose Christie’s coming-of-age with teen detective melodrama and, later, Home Alone-style revenge – and have it succeed in a rough-and-ready manner – is an act worthy of applause.

Utterly indefensible, aggressively tasteless, and relentlessly entertaining, Scream For Help is a skuzzy diamond in the rough, recently championed by the wonderful folks at Scarecrow Video, and deserving of consideration for a spot in the “Great Trash Pantheon.” If a better Michael Winner film exists, I’ve yet to see it.

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Some Odds and Ends

Cat People (dir. Paul Schrader, 1982) – Paul Schrader’s perverse remake of the Val Lewton chiller is a Freudian sex panic about the animalistic side of humankind. Ace Giorgio Moroder score and stunning production design by Conformist-alum Ferdinando Scarfiotti!

The Lift (dir. Dick Maas, 1982) – Dutch film about a murderous elevator (!!!) knocking off several riders.

Next of Kin (dir. Tony Williams, 1982) – First-rate Ozploitation slow-burner wherein a young lady inherits a retirement home. Super creepy!

The Prowler (dir. Joseph Zito, 1982) – Terrific slasher about a WWII veteran going on a murderous rampage is elevated by terrific Tom Savini gore effects.

Sleepaway Camp (dir. Robert Hiltzik, 1982) – Wonderfully bonkers summer camp slasher with a wicked sense of humor, which grows increasingly cynical. There’s nothing quite like this in the annals of American Horror cinema. Utterly indescribable, completely unforgettable.

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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