I've found a fine and massive tome for the summer's reading (and accompanying viewing) in British author Stephen Thrower's NIGHTMARE USA, a mammoth look at the locally-made independent horror cinema that flourished on drive-in and inner-city screens in the 70s and early-80s. Much of it forgotten, maligned, or long-buried in obscurity, even with so much of it out on DVD and, best of all, Prime! He's already curated two volumes of the American Horror Project via Arrow, each with three films, commentaries and documentaries. The second volume has two great surreal gems (The Child, Dream No Evil) and one interesting Vermont-filmed witchcraft tale that has lovely scenery but is slow, vaguely irritating, and empty (not unlike Vermont itself), Dark August. The first volume is OOP but two of the three titles in it are on Prime! So that's pretty cool.
And so, I have collected, as is my wont, 11 cool films Thrower writes about. Several of them I never would have watched without Thrower's enthusiasm to inspire me. So I have included copious, random quotes from the fast-becoming-indispensable Nightmare USA.
Now, one place Thrower and I differ is in the taste for the hard stuff - the downbeat brutality of sexual assault and slasher films, the blunt force trauma of 'classics' like Last House on the Left and Maniac (neither of which I have yet seen, fearing the PTS). As I've often written, as a sensitive child of the 70s just seeing the TV spots and previews for a lot of these movies left me feeling deeply disturbed and unsafe for weeks. As an isolated teenager in the early-80s, I felt trapped and targeted by slashers. But I am fine with Thrower having fondness for them, as he writes of the slasher movies so infectiously, eschewing post-lib psychoanalysis in favor of a kind of practical-poetic prose coming from an infectious sense of portent. On the habit of having slasher films set at certain holidays and celebrations, for example, he writes of something I know I never thought of myself:
"There's the way in which teen audiences experience seasonal intervals: as each yearly celebration goes by, even the most carefree of fifteen year-olds grows aware of the passage of time. When you're a teenager, to be a year older than another is to occupy an entirely different social milieu. Teenagers thus have a very different temporal awareness. Three years is a long time: five years is tantamount to a generation gap. In general, it's only with yearly holidays that younger people are aware of the passage of time, and thus perhaps of their own mortality. Yearly rituals let the future as well as the past leak through..." (p. 26)
Genius! So what then, is the difference between us? I think England and its video nasty law is the key. He was protected (if that is the right word) by the government from the blunt force trauma I was exposed to. In the US, wherein the video store 'horror' section was a very traumatic place to visit, fraught with screaming underdressed females in various states of dismemberment. If you grew up without exposure to it (while kids in the 80s for example, formed around it, taking it all with a grain of salt). In England, banned films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Maniac, Driller Killer and The Toolbox Murders were the stuff of legend - viewable only on terrible VHS dupes smuggled in like hashish. As a result, the mystique we initially felt as kids, driving past the sleazy marquees in the pre-video era, the excitement of the forbidden easily beats the depression of suddenly all the forbidden being rubbed in your face, made horribly visible. I resonated strongly with the feminist backlash, and absorbed the indignity (see notes for more details).
But the 70s also was rife with fariy tale-style supernatural-based horror, the ones that look to dreams and surrealism, ala Susipiria, The Beyond. To me, that is all different. Even things like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I Drink Your Blood are different enough, as the violence is more across the board and less misogynist. A a kid I developed a deep fascination with secondhand descriptions from babysitters (who looked like Lynn Lowry in I drink your Blood or Suzanna Ling in Kiss of the Tarantula) and their cool dangerous boyfriends who could go to the drive-ins, and my own imagination of their dangerous, sexy lives, of which these movies were a part. Going to see an R-film the first time in the 70s was like a right of passage; after VCR and cable boom, the R-movie met nothing.. Gradually, the surge of gory horrible misogyny on display at video stores began to be quite warping and upsetting; it happened (to me, anyway) so slowly it took me awhile to notice, but eventually leaving me so soured on my own gender it took finally reading Carol Clover and Camille Paglia in the early 90s to lift me out of my guilty ashen miasma.
Time has mellowed it all somewhat, and so forth, the violence is contextualized, and ---in the all forgiving lens of nostalgia - made safe and fun. Kinda. Maybe.
Luckily, there are really two sides to Thrower's 70s horror lens. There's his love of the shady, un-PC blunt force trauma of things like Maniac, Sex Wish, Abducted and Victims and there's what I love and what I didn't even have the words to describe until he pointed it out in his praise of The Beyond (via his Fulci book) and The Child:
"Disorientation, not storytelling, is the key to the film's pleasures... this brand of straight-faced narrative absurdity is something I particularly like, maddening though it may be to students of dramatic arts. The Child's disconcerting oneiric shiver is intimately bound up in its lack of sense. " (p.351)
These oneiric shiver films include things like Lemora: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural, Lets Scare Jessica to Death, and Messiah of Evil, The Child, and Phantasm. And Thrower's admiration is infectious. I still avoid things like The Toolbox Murders, but that's where Thrower is a good guide for this journey. I can discern what's surreal and cool vs. traumatic (if Thrower thinks something is genuinely disturbing, I know to keep my distance). Luckily, at least a good half or more of the films Thrower mentions in Nightmare USA are sexual misogyny-free (unless the girl gets to be the killer) and available on Prime. Here are 11 I found there that I can either heartily, or perhaps cautiously, recommend! But there are many, many, many more.
*** / Amazon Image - A+
This used to be one ugly, loud full frame downer, but thanks to Thrower's appreciation I realized I had to see it again, via Prime's gorgeous print in HD anamorphic widescreen, wherein the reds and oranges of its color gel-emblazoned mise-en-scene glow like the magnificent Louisiana swampland back alley cousin of Suspiria and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Trying to recapture Chainsaw magic, Hooper tells the tale of 24 hours or so of a deranged hotel owner (played here by a terrific, muttering, shaggy wigged Neville Brand) who tends to feed disgruntled guests to his tourist attraction giant crocodile. Hooper creates elegant tension and a kind of surreal fairy tale ambience as Brand's entire two-story hotel is indoors on a set, with jungle swamps bathed in pink, red, and rose, the mist like some beguiling seductive dark Disney haunted house ride. The opening finds an terribly-wigged first-time prostitute (Roberta Collins) fleeing the coarse come-ons of future-Freddy Robert Englund and winding up booted from her brothel, seeking a room at Brand's pink-light-bathed Starlite, then unwisely tipping him off that she's one of 'those' gals. Marilyn Burns (the heroine from Texas) arrives the next day with her super insane, twisted-up husband (William Finley) and young daughter who unwisely lets her puppy get too close to the crocodile pen. The husband decides to shoot the crocodile and that's not smart. The child ends up spending the bulk of the movie hiding in the crawlspace under the hotel, trying to dodge Brand's scythe and the crocodile while hoping someone hears her screams above the cacophony of swamp noises; and her mom screams the night away up on the second floor. And more people arrive, including Mel Ferrer and his daughter Crystin (Hustler Squad) Sinclaire looking for daughter/sister Collins.
Apparently Hooper was never too happy about the final result of all this mayhem, but Thrower is fond, and his fondness is contagious, especially now that it's all remastered, widescreen and with those gorgeous red and pink Suspiria gels. It's like some sick interactive ride, from the lower crawlspace with crocodile and Night of the Hunter-style bogeyman chases), to the hotel exterior with cars coming and going and the croc ever-hungry, to the second floor with sex and bondage (in different rooms, and the sex being consensual, 'whew' - Brand doesn't molest Burns - he ties her up mainly to buy time). Add the rich mix of swamp noises --crickets, animal noises, splashes, and the yells for help fade imperceptibly into the mix so would-be rescuers (like sheriff Stu Whitman!) can't tell if they just imagined the sound of someone under the floorboards, wailing for help, or if the rocking noise in the other room is just a couple having wild sex or someone's desperate attempts to escape. The musical score, meanwhile, is all over the place in the best possible way (the book includes a great interview with composer Wayne Bell). Thrower notes:
"It's true that compared to its perfect sibling (Texas) it suffers from a limp and a stoop and a crooked gait, but in all its malformed glory it still commands respect for its unrelenting weirdness, its vicious hysteria, and Neville Brand's wonderful performance." (p. 441)
2. THE PREMONITION
(1976) Dir. Robert Allen Schnitzer
*** / Amazon Image - A
It's a gorgeous print of a fine, weird film that's filled with stunningly weird moments, including every moment the foxy Ellen Barber is onscreen. Acting crazy in a red dress and black choker with cameo portrait and long stunning black hair (above), we totally get why a weird looking clown like Jude (Richard Lynch) her buddy from the sanitarium, would be so smitten with her he'd let her obsession (to kidnap the child taken from her and given up for adoption when she was first committed to the sanitarium) become his, to the point of losing his own mind even further than he had previously. There's a lot to admire in this unique and marvelous film, but it's Barber's beauty and Lynch's insanity that stand out. If you're not a fan of Lynch's burn-ravaged face and eerily calming voice, what's wrong with you? Here he adds a great touch of moaning insanely when driven to violence-if you've ever lost consciousness in a rage-based white-out you can really relate. As Thrower notes:
"Twice during the film, Jude loses control and Lynch's performance makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. He summons a pressurized, resonant tone from deep in his chest, one that sounds viritually electronic ((think Tim Buckley circa Starsailor): it will haunt you long after the film is over. The cry ascends like a nuclear warning, from inhuman oscillation to frenzied shriek. Normally he'd be the villain, pure and simple. Instead, even he is shown with love; indeed, love is what motivates him. He adores Andrea so much that he donates his ever waking moment to her obsession. He only snaps when Andrea settles for less. Clutching a mere doll, she sinks into her own delusion and Jude, having staked all on their joint venture, is left high and dry: a psychotic who's bet his heart and lost. Richard Lynch is the sort of actor that David Lynch ought to seek out, and after seeing The Premonition I found it hard to watch him in less demanding roles (for instance Delta Fox or Deathsport): in their mundanity they seem disrespectful." (p.324)He also adds that "like Thom Eberhardt's Sole Survivor or Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil, it deserves a far greater genre profile. " That he goes to them, two lesser-known gems I personally love, as examples of undersung brilliance, it lets me know I'd like this film, and I did. To be sure, I love those two films more than this. It's marred by yet another squaresville husband (the adopted dad) who studies parapsychology with a smirk and almost lets his masculine logocentric pride keep him from trying all sorts of crazy shit in order to be reunited with his daughter, and there's no satisfaction of seeing him realize the truth and supporting his wife's supernatural instincts verbally (i.e. changing his tone) even after he realizes she's right. And there are scenes with way too much crying and hysterics from adopted mom Sharon Farrell (Schnitzer must have been too shy to cut her anguishes short, realizing she was giving him a powerhouse emotional display), so as a result all the best stuff happens in the first half when Lynch and Barber are closer to center stage and a great dark but compassionate mirror to the adopted parents in their little world bubble, but hey, overall it is a beautiful, unique film.
(1976) Dir. Matt Climber
**** / Amazon Image - A
I love this film and wrote about it, some would say 'at length' here. Thrower included it in the first volume of his curated American Horror Project (along with the previous film on this list), and Prime's copy reflects no doubt the hand of a qualified, loving restorer.
"(it) turns out to be one of the strangest and most perversely beautiful horror films of the seventies" Thrower notes. "The movie changes the metabolism of its genre; the scares are oblique, the overall tone languid... The Witch Who Came from the Sea is in another league; a genre masterpiece deserving of a much higher profile..." (p. 514-515)
Dir. Marc Lawrence
*** / Amazon Image - B+
"It's a personal favourite of mine, one of an initial handful of titles that inspired me to embark on this book (Nightmare USA). Alright, so there's a lack of action, but the absence of a forward-driving narrative is an essential part of the fun: Pigs doesn't fly; it floats. There's a muted, psychedelic feel to the film ---you feel kind of stoned watching it, a sensation that's cued up by Charles Bernstein's wonderful 60s theme song (...) and his often startling score, which employs lots of Jew's harp (a neglected psychedelic instrument in my opinion)." (Thrower- p. 489)
Me too, bro, and it was definitely great being able to que this up on Prime immediately after reading about it. It goes down easy, but I'm not sure director Lawrence is right as the pig farmer / diner owner. With his brooding gangster brow and acne-scarred face and New York sass, he's livened up everything Charlie Chan at the Wax Museum to Diamonds are Forever, always playing basically the same doomed thug. Here we have to buy him as a reticent graverobbing (?) pig farmer (who everyone knows is digging up corpses to feed to his pigs, which sounds exhausting) / diner owner / former circus persona, whose property lies at the tail end cul-de-sac of dusty desert nowhere. Watching this with the subtitles on, it takes forever for him to actually read his own visible lines so we have to guess if he forgot them or is just registering fear and evasiveness as he dodges sheriff Jesse Vint's patient probing into who he's been feeding them pigs. We'd love to see some tough guy moxy, but instead he grasps too much on the 'trying to hide something' shyness. Luckily, his (real life) daughter Toni Lawrence, shows up, with a mysterious past, and a need for a job and a place to stay. She is truly unhinged and they make a great pair. Sure, he makes a few mistakes in cleaning up her mess, like leaving a spare hand outside of the pen. Also, who keeps pigs right behind a diner? The smell alone would ensure no one comes near with any kind of appetite.
Anyway, with its sombre mix of grit, ennui and psychosis it must seem uniquely Nightmare USA grade-A prime, and that it's one of Thrower's favorites probably has to do with his being British, hence he's more keen on the kind of distinctly sweaty desert vibe it has. Maybe England is too small, old and settled to really have ass end of nowhere style cul-de-sacs like the town that holds Lawrence's pig ranch/diner. Maybe only Australia, with its vast empty outback, really understands that there's nothing romantic about it.
Me, there are a few things I don't like, for instance the cover art (which looks like some dreary Scholastic paperback) and the title. It's not sexy; I think of obese cannibalistic slobs eating people with all the finesse of a high school cafeteria wiseass in a badly-lit 80s slasher movie. BUT I have a soft spot for girl schizophrenic killers and Toni Lawrence's glee in killing and her delirious, relaxed almost post-coital relaxation afterwards, all bloody and calm, is pretty awesome. I like movies where female killers don't need to be violated before dicing up any stray idiot male, for any reason whatsoever, and who enjoy their work.
5. DEATH BED: THE BED THAT EATS
(1977) Dir. George Barry
**2/3 / Amazon Image - B+
My appreciation of this super strange film stems 100% from soaking up Thrower's loving appreciation before hitting the 'play' button. Thrower even mentions the director George Barry learning about his long-lost film (never released anywhere) turning up on videotape via the Scarlet Street message forums (my old alma mater)! I've tried to get through Death Bed in the past, but found it incoherent and overly winky. After reading Thrower's prose, I found the tools to love it for these things:
"Death Bed deals in transcendental mysteries (the impossible geometry of the bed, bigger on the inside than the outside; the occult means by which it is created and destroyed), but Barry summons his demons from a fantasy world disconnected from religious tradition, telling a story of demonic seduction that has nothing to do with the Church..."Throughout the film, poetic images allow the slender narrative to take a back seat (...) We see blood blossom from the eye-socket of a skull in the bed's fluid interior; roses blooming from the same skull, now magically buried in the soil outside; a shattered mirror fragmenting into a kaleidoscopic collage; and the pages of a book turning into mirrors that capture the flames of a fire. Such imagery suggests the Romantic tradition, as befits the Artist behind the glass, like a fey whisper caught halfway between English Gothic and the Scandinavian Symbolists..." (375)
Full of great lines, strange characters and a totally unique plot and place and a totally unique setting. There's a giant bed in a small one room building, with black walls covered with strange surrealist Victorian era inks, and a lit fireplace!) and great lines ("Flowers? you brought flowers to the country? I hate to disillusion you but they do grow wild up here." / "What have you been reading that we couldn't find you?") Weird voiceovers and a haunting elegant synth melody.
There's a kind of proto-emo kid art project 16mm glory to the film; as Thrower notes, it's a true original. It's not afraid to cut away to people in coffins, to move from one person's inner monologue to another, and full of strange one-sided conversations between a Goth-ish artist trapped behind one of his 'paintings' --actually a drawing!-- talking to the demon bed ("it's been such a long time since your last meal") and wishing he could get warn the unlucky visitors ("you gaze upon me as a painting on the wall, I gaze on you a serving upon some monster's silver platter.") but he mainly talks to the bed ('your insides are bleeding, why?) We see blood enter the urine-sea that is the bed interior; book of glossy mirror pages; nude doubling; fires inside books; some strange object that like a peyote bud sticking out of the severed mouth of a coppherhead; strange dreams, people sleeping in bed with their sandals still on. This bed movie has it all. A scene that takes comically forever of one of the near-digested victims climbing out of the bed, and dragging herself almost out of the room (her legs covered in blood) takes what seems like forever but then builds to a magnificent, almost Tarkovsky-esque payoff for our patience.
The best scene finds a young hippie pulling his hands out of the bed and seeing they are now skeleton hands. "It's amost like a surgical operation," he notes. As his phalanges and metacarpals fall off one by one, he comments "great." Alas, they don't move from the room of their own accord but just wait there. "til your appetite returns?" wonders the artist. No one freaks out or asks what the hell is going on, no matter how weird things get. They just burn their skeleton hands in the fire and wait for the demon to sleep so the artist can finally talk beyond his painting. "Young lady I will wake you halfway," he notes, sounding like Herbert Marshall. "Find the remnants of the fingers of your brother; take a strand of your friend's hair." When she cuts a magic circle around the bed, the floor bleeds!
Ever the modest soul, Thrower doesn't mention his outtasite weird music band Cyclobe composed new music for the film's DVD release (Barry was unhappy with the original composer; he had every right to change it before release since, after all, the film hasn't been officially released before coming to DVD. It was on bootleg tapes, never in theaters). "It's a movie where dreams and reality are interchangably bizarre," Thrower notes, "where humour, horror and surreal imagination are tucked so tightly together they've merged into a single, unique night-beast... There's nothing else like it, and if you love it there is nowhere else to turn: you have to go back to the bed." (384) Amen, I'm getting sleepy already. (The best time to see this? 4 AM.)
Props for using actual night, with pitch-black corners; "you got some over-active kind of imagination!" but then he throws the kid the keys to his gorgeous Plymouth Barracuda (?); the kid has a cool lunar wall bedroom mural of the type that were cool back then (I always wanted one, like the killer in Manhunter!)
The score by Fred Myrow and Malcolm Seagrave is very au currant with Carpenter's Halloween and Goblin's Suspiria, derivative in that super cool way Italians have of shamelessly stealing something but then riffing off it to make it their own at the same time. (All the sing-song music box melodies can be traced to Ennio Morricone, but he borrowed it from Komeda's on Rosemary Baby, etc.) Gotta love a kid who just straps up and goes out to investigate a funeral parlor in the dead of night, with a knife taped to his leg. And his cool older brother says things like, "No warning shots. Warning shots are bullshit," after handing him a shotgun. It's definitely a bad boy's life. "We gotta snag that tall, dude and we got to kick the shit out of him."
"Phantasm mixes genres with such smart but unselfconscious verve that it's only later you realize you've been watching a sci-fi horror film about grave robbers from another world. That's right, the same plot as Plan Nine from Outer Space. Could this be the film Edward D. Wood was seeing in his mind's eyes? Certainly nothing could be further from Wood's ineptitude than this assured and constantly inventive movie." (487)
7. SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES
(1971) Dir. Bruce Kessler
*** / Amazon Image - B
"Simon, King of the witches is an intelligent, warm and witty addition to the early 70s witchcraft subgenre, starring the ever-wonderful Andrew Prine... (the theme is not satanism and there's no dilly-dallying with the trappings of inverted Christianity)" (p. 503)
I remember this one as having a fairly big push, as I saw TV spots as well as coming attractions; I remember wondering why on earth we'd care about a male witch who seemed more like leader of some sewer-bred tribe of step dancing Seven Brothers gypsies. Turns out, it's pretty cool thanks to a typically laconic turn by the great Andrew Pine and a serious, non-goofy respect for actual magic ritual. This is the film to play for the white magician in your life, the Wiccans and the magically inclined or anyone with a Tarot deck. You got to love a movie wherein our cool laid back magus Ptinr does a big 'cosmic working' to get the DA arrested for planting evidence against him (as reprisal for dating his daughter!) and then sacrifices the narc who planted it. But then somewhere along the line somewhere, someone or some things messed up! He has to go rescue his druggy chick (the DA's daughter) by leaving the time/space continuum and venturing inside a cosmic mirror, zooming deeper and deeper into the finesse abyss to rescue her from a... what? .... an acid overdose freakout???
The Prime print is only in full screen and kind of on the soft side but hey, this still awesome and worth checking out. For the longest time it just wasn't available, so this is a godsend to patrons of the 70s occult and genuinely odd, very 70s films. (see also this older Occult Prime list, from 2016)
8. MESSIAH OF EVIL
(1973) Dir/writers - Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz
**** / Amazon Image - D+
I think sometimes the interviews and backstory of production--especially in fractured imperfect gems like Messiah of Evil and The Child--can sometimes detract from one's enjoyment. If you learn the director is unhappy with certain scenes, or if an actor you admire was a jerk on set, sometimes you can no longer have this innocent one-to-one admiration for the film's fairy tale sense of dislocation and mythopoetic eeriness; the kind of thing that may be a result of cutting corners or producer-insisted script changes for example, maybe it's better not knowing. My love for The Child is slightly dampened by the news of the shafting its makers received no returns via the "creative financing" of distributor Harry Novak led to them never making another film. But then again, the prose of Thrower makes up for it. (I wouldn't have even known about The Child if not for this book, and I certainly wouldn't have ponied up the dough for the American Horror Project vol. II on the off chance I liked it. But I knew from Thrower's writing it was for me, and within the first few minutes I not only knew he was right, I wanted to jump for joy, knowing here was the movie that could stand next to Messiah of Evil, Sole Survivor, and Lemorra: A Child's Tale of the Supernatural that I was looking for (and I also loved most of Dream No Evil, and thankfully Thrower warned me in advance about the terribly obvious voiceover that's like if a bad cinema studies teacher was narrating the movie to a continuing ed psych class.
Alas, the only thing great about seeing Messiah of Evil on Prime is--if you don't know whether you want to shell out the bucks for a decent transfer/copy of the OOP Code Red DVD or Bly-ray--you can watch this version to acquaint yourself with whether it's worth buying, like a fuzzy online pre-date. Thrower's interviews with Hyuck and Katz, long having gone onto the big time, don't really add to its luster, but Thrower's writing sure does:
"Hyuck captures a sense of unease that you sometimes get in our mechanized society when the fever of daily traffic is subdued by nightfall. If you've ever hitch-hiked and found yourself stuck for hours beside motorway slip roads near industrial estates, with their giant arc-lit loading bays, you'll have some idea of the picture I'm trying to draw --inhuman, hostile places, emerging after dark from behind the facade of banality. The lightning... brings that hard-edged frigidaire ambience in from the periphery and onto the city streets, turning unremarkable shopping areas into glittering consumerist cemeteries." (p. 238)
Note the way Thrower masterfully fills you in on some interesting experiences of his youth, but only in this unique context. How he could hitchhike after watching so many psycho movies, I confess I do not know.
9. BLOOD SABBATH
(1977) Dir. Brianne Murphy
*** / Aazon Image - C-
This mostly amusing pastoral witchcraft tale would fit perfectly at the late night end of a double feature with the Esperanto language Shatner-starring Incubus, and/or Corman's The Terror. Like them it's a mostly outdoors tale of evil women seducing a disillusioned soldier (Vietnam this time) turned lost and wandering pilgrim, trying to navigate his feeling of love for a woman whose either a witch or an animal daemonic spirit. This time, a seemingly benign old sage takes him 'in' (so to speak) after his heart is broke, but the sage has a weird relationship to the succubi / witch coven who so torment our solider: he provides them with a child sacrifice every year, donated by the simple peasant locals.
Interestingly, at a bar to celebrate the harvest (one of the few indoor scenes), a moth-eaten dipsomaniac priest lets slip the sage's habit of sacrificing a child every year; we don't get the expected freaking on the part of the solider at the news: we get a flashback to his unintentionally killing VC kids. Then he ends telling the priest he wants to lose his soul! Even better, the priest goes nutzoid and his voice shoots up an octave, rising to a tone of hysteria, which is awesome. Actually, the first two times he does it, this slow measured actorly build to an upper octave FREAK OUT - it's superb, and then he does it several more times. He seems drunk. Later that night, he drops by the coven, to bitch about the witches' sacrificial habit and do the slow upper register FREAK OUT a few more times. We learn that they had a 'no molestar' agreement with the priest; the head witch (Ilsa star Dyanne Thorne) offers him choice her women as a kind of Manson prostitute chaser. "You've kept your part of the bargain and I've kept mine!" But that's about to end. Our drunk priest wants no more sacrifices and the soldier wants to lose his soul. That's about the plot.
One would love to see this film in a decent print, a nice HD restoration instead of this murky VHS transfer because this is one groovy movie. When the soldier finally does lose his soul he goes nutzoid, trashing everything and shouting "Yylaa!!!!" before running off after his long-since-flown lover witch. His voice shoots up three octaves until he sounds like he just finished a set with his black metal band. But then he runs around with her (now wearing clothes!) in a field of all white flowers. His hair is still terrible but her wig is worse. She's got a great jawline and nose combination though, that evokes Claudia Jennings if she liked wearing giant platinum wigs and couldn't act.
Anyway its pretty cool how amoral it all is - the villagers are cool with the sacrifice (good harvests) and only the priest is a whining hypocrite, so to have our vet going from being all self-righteous and haunted to acting like a grinning Hyde-monster jackanapes. Then his witch girlfriend wigs out to see he's guzzled blood at the sacrifice - why wasn't she there? She's not grossed out long though, as he starts freaking with both the coven leader and the chief witch. Meanwhile just as he's lost her soul - Yylava.
Overall though what we really get is a lot outdoor dancing, a mix of what I can only guess are strippers asked to put some pagan into their numbers. It's not unlike what some hippie commune might make, with the sage as Manson and the priest as old man Spahn. When you wonder where else it could go the vet is chased around a field by a hippie van and run over (sorta). Maybe the folksy theme song heard in the beginning and end can explain: "The wise are not so very wise; they never seem quite sure / there seems to be conflicting views." So true.
Thrower notes of the star Geary, "he looks like he'd have trouble fighting off a persistent moth, let alone the Vietcong. Blood Sabbath draws much of its amusement from such miscalculations" before confessing "If you simply have to watch an early 70s witchcraft tale, this one is probably the most fun. (424)
10. KISS OF THE TARANTULA
(1976) Dir. Chris Munger
** / Amazon Image - A+
A kind of fusion of Spider Baby and Axe, this tale of a socially dysfunctional but very pretty girl who lives in a mortuary, loves spiders and her undertaker father (but hates her mother and her cop uncle) moves very slowly, as if edited by a sleepy metronome; as such it used to be a burden to sit through, but now on Prime it looks really great, all HD and beautifully, forlornly-lit. I like just enough about this film to recommend it for the hardcore arachnophile. There's a strange Philian Bishop score and a cliche'd roster of evil characters set up like nine pins. Luckily, the film has good sense to let Susan keep center stage and have everything fall neatly in place for her, i.e. though tarantula bites are no more deadly than bee stings (letting them loose over humans is more likely to lead to the poor things being squashed by flailing limbs) she can somehow not lose a single of her pets as they create spastic heart attacks and panic-induced accidents when released into closed quarters with her foes. These scenes go on and on like G-rated versions of the tarantula scene in The Beyond. Either way, if you're really zonked and really love Spider Baby but wish it was longer and not funny or great, maybe you'll get into it. There's a great climax where SPOILER we watch her very carefully lift (via straps and a crank) one comatose girl's body out of a coffin and then lift and lower her paralyzed lecherous cop uncle up and into the coffin, before covering him up with a wraps and then replacing the girl back in the coffin on top of him, closing the top to cover his muffled screams! It's almost Tarkovsky slow as he muffles his panicked cries of "Susan!" But will dad arrive home in time to spoil the show?
Making up for the slowness is star Susan Ling, one of those uniquely 70s babysitter type girls, like a prettier Joni Mitchell. Thrower is a fan of the film but wisely points out she's far too pretty to be a wallflower.and the idea she'd get even for the crushing of one of her pets by releasing them all into tight, confined spaces with thrashing adult-sized humans, makes no sense (at least the film doesn't try to kid you that the tarantula bite is lethal; the adults die of fear and panic-related accidents and heart failure)
Kiss of the Tarantula has a morbid setting (much of the action takes place around a marvelously Gothic funeral home, set in the wintry woods redolent of Fulci's House by the Cemetery); the-girl-and-her-spiders concept is so weirdly charming it can survive the glaring inconsistencies; and the death scenes, though slightly silly, are actually quite bizarre and memorable. (...) The naive electronic score by Phillian Bishop, who also did the score for Willard Hyuck's Messiah of Evil and Thomas Alderman's The Severed Arrm- ... is memorably cheesy and Moogalicious and there is one great sequence...."
I shan't spoil it, but the other big reason this movie is on this list is a very happy ending. In this day and age, that and the Moog alone are worth any slog.
(1973) Dir. Bill Gunn
***1/2 / Amazon Image - A-
It's kind of a shame Thrower didn't sling props at this rough and ready, shocking, moving, uniquely African American masterpiece; it's not only uniquely its decade, it provides perhaps the trippiest metaphysical soundtrack in the history of film, exploring the ever-mounting nature of addiction with a beautifully widening gyre of sonic feedback. If you only know Duane Jones from Night of the Living Dead, his majestic, fluent French-speaking Dr. Hess, living the high life, with a son in boarding school, and a suicidal vampire guest, will have you stoned in awe.
(praised in Thrower's book but not covered here):
Spawn of the Slithis (looks great in HD but the film itself seems awfully dull and homegrown). Amazon's copy of Scream Bloody Murder has terrible full frame video quality and looks too depressing to stick with (but hey, it's available for those who read Thrower's praise and then don't mind feeling angry and depressed after enduring a strange, unrewardingly tense film); Godmonster of Indian Flats seems a bit too hippie-dippy western sanctimonious, ala Billy Jack's mix of preachy environmentalism, tolerance, and wild west show didactics; and the monster sucks and comes too late and has a depressing backstory and the print looks muddy and slovenly; the downbeat GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE is covered here; MICROWAVE MASSACRE is too vulgar and for me (I hate movies with dopey fat guys cutting up and eating hottie girls, I'd rather it was the reverse); I also don't like MOVIE HOUSE MASSACRE and THE NESTING but they are both on Prime and looking great (obviously culled from groovy Blu-rays). I saw most of the homegrown monster-in-a-mineshaft movie The Strangeness but the Prime print is still far too murky and dark for a movie that's set 95% inside a dark mine, but it looks like it was shot in 16mm and is probably as good as it's gonna get. Much as I admire its chutzpah and great monster but I'll stick with The Boogens.
The book is huge and I'm sure there's more. Just say away from anything by Zebedy Colt - that's the takeaway. Good God.
The book is huge and I'm sure there's more. Just say away from anything by Zebedy Colt - that's the takeaway. Good God.
And PS - if you don't mind paying a few bucks, as of this post you can download FROZEN SCREAM for $2.99. Thrower waxes infectiously over its mind-boggling badness, and I agree. I downloaded it last weekend and have already seen it twice. If you're ant accidental Brechtianist, it's dee-lightful!