Category Archives: about horror

The Five Most Savage Episodes in Cult-TV History

As I wrote in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), I’m a committed proponent of the early-to-mid 1970s “Savage Cinema,” a span which gave the world such films as Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), The Last House on the Left (1972), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and later The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  I connect with these movies so deeply and thoroughly, I suspect, because the filmmakers took the so-called “New Freedom” of the epoch (in terms of screen standards) and then systematically disconnected the horror genre from its exotic roots.  The films I name-checked above don’t take place in Transylvanian castles, upon the misty moors, or in the pyramids of Egypt.  They don’t take occur on the Amazon River, in the Arctic, or in other foreign locales.  Instead, the savage horror films of the 1970s dramatically re-positioned horror as something that could happen in the here and now, in our time, in our place.  It was terror…brought home.

The Savage Cinema of the 1970s also showcased for audiences absolutely horrible human behavior.  Gone were the familiar but supernatural monsters like Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy or Frankenstein’s creation.  Instead, “mad” men — all mortals — were presented as brutal, violent, uncontrollable dangers in the efforts of Craven, Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman, among others.  It was an entirely new paradigm, and one that changed the trajectory of horror cinema. The Savage Cinema eschewed romance, tragedy and other artificial or theatrical qualities too.  It shattered existing Hollywood conventions and decorum.  In short, the Savage Cinema showcased the full ugliness of man at point-blank range, with not only cut-throat bluntness, but with a total understanding of how film grammar could be manipulated to impact audiences on an almost subconscious level.

As unlikely as it seems given that TV is widely “homogenized” to appeal to all people all the time, some genre TV programs have really gone all out — guns blazing — to create the barbarous, fierce atmosphere we might commonly associate with The Savage Cinema.   The following five episode titles represent my list for the most “savage episodes” in cult-TV history, although I readily admit that these selections are personal ones, and that people of good conscience can disagree, or provide alternate titles of comparable value.  

But the first time I watched each of the following programs, I was rocked back on my heels at the violence portrayed, and more than that, by the brutal vision of humanity showcased by the various programs.  These are the five titles guaranteed to trouble your peaceful slumber.
The programs are listed in ascending order, from #5 to #1.
5. The Evil Touch: “The Trial.”

Airing on local stations in 1973 and 1974, The Evil Touch was an Australian-made anthology of limited means, namely an extremely low-budget.  Accordingly, each week the series, hosted by Anthony Quayle, felt like a jewel-in-the-rough and a “discovered” horror movie.  Many episodes generate fear an a nearly primal level, but none more so than “The Trial,” first aired in New York City on February 3, 1974.  Written by Michael Fisher and directed by Mende Brown, the episode involved a nasty millionaire, Lon Zachary (Ray Walston) who had for twenty years scorned the friends — carnies — who took him in and had raised him from childhood.

Now, Lon intends to destroy the carnival fairgrounds (to make room for condominiums), but his carnie peers put him on trial for his misdeeds, and concoct a punishment that will bring Lon — formerly Elmo the Geek — back into the fold.  The group’s tattoo artist, you see, was once a brain surgeon…
I don’t want to reveal more than necessary here, especially because the series is not yet available on DVD, but the episode’s final moments generate a throat-tightening sense of panic as Ray Walston’s character realizes that there is no escape, and that he is bound for a grisly, life-altering fate.  A hard-hitting, just desserts story, “The Trial” is one savage humdinger of a half-hour.
4. Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: “The Other Way Out.”

This remarkably effective third season entry from Rod Serling’s second TV anthology is similar, in some fashion to “The Trial.”  Written and directed by Gene Kearney, this tale originally aired on November 19, 1972.  “The Other Way Out involves Bradley Meredith (Ross Martin), a man who believes he can get away scot-free with the murder of a go-go girl.   However, a blackmailer soon contacts Meredith and gives him instructions for a drop off of 10,000 dollars at an isolated location.  In a twist worthy of The Virgin Spring (the basis for Last House on the Left), Meredith ends up at the rural home of his blackmailer, a creepy, cold-blooded Burl Ives.

The Ives character goes on and on recounting to Meredith about how he’ll receive his comeuppance for murder from his grandson, “Sonny.”  These stories provoke such fear in Meredith that he attempts to escape the house and is attacked by murderous dogs.  He returns to the house, and learns from Ives that there is one “other way” out of the house.  Meredith believes he finds it too: a passageway behind a fireplace in the living room, and then a hatchway down deep into the Earth…
Frenetic and frantic, “The Other Way Out” culminates with a surprise revelation about “Sonny,” and then another twist about Meredith’s “other way out.”   Again, I don’t want to reveal the episode’s startling finale, but it’s bleak as hell, and a statement about man’s cruelty to his fellow man.  It all comes down to how you define a way “out,” I suppose. 
The element most recognizable from the Savage Cinema in “The Other Way Out” is the culture clash.  Here a slick businessman — a creature of the city — encounters a country, redneck family.  Meredith believes he can buy his way out of trouble, perhaps because money has always solved his problems in the past.  But the Burl Ives character is having none of it, and decides to hold Meredith accountable to HIS version of God’s law.
3. Torchwood: “Countrycide”

I reviewed this startling, grotesque 2006 episode of the British sci-fi series last week.   But in “Countrycide” by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard,  a top-secret British agency investigating aliens learns that all existentialist threats don’t come from the heavens above.  In fact, man himself is, perhaps, the ultimate “monster.”  This idea would become a common theme as the series wore on, especially in season three’s “Children of Earth.”  In “Countrycide,” however Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) and the other team members run afoul of vicious cannibals in the English countryside.  One team member realizes — after gazing into a refrigerator filled with body parts — that they are to be “food.”

Harrowing, bloody and gory as hell, “Countrycide” works as Savage Cinema in part because of its philosophically provocative ending, which finds Gwen interrogating the leader of the cannibals.  She demands answers.  Why has he done this?  Why has he treated people like this, as…food?  She needs answers, so she can preserve her view of the world and carry on as moral crusader.  But the cannibal’s answer to her interrogative was and remains chilling.  To hurt other human beings — to treat them as nothing but ingredients — makes the killer “happy.”  It’s a chilling response, and one that sends Gwen into a moral tailspin. 
This ties in to the reckoning seen quite often in Craven films: that man can be roused to bloody violence (Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes) but that after the veneer of civilization is  ripped off, it’s difficult to put the pieces back together.
2. Millennium: “The Fourth Horseman”

The episodes featured on this list thus far have involved vengeance/punishment (“The Trial” and “The Other Way Out”) and the sometimes inexplicable depths of human hatred and inhumanity (“Countrycide”).  Millennium’s (1996 – 1999) “The Fourth Horseman” is a somewhat different animal.   Written by Glen Morgan and James Wong and directed by Dwight Little, this second season episode of Millennium saw Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) contending with a new, man-made disease that was to be intentionally unleashed upon America.

That doesn’t sound like Savage Cinema in terms of premise, but certainly the presentation fits the bill.  In one of the most horrifying scenes I’ve ever witnessed on American broadcast television, an average, WASP-y American family is utterly and grotesquely destroyed before our eyes.  The occasion is middle-class family’s Sunday dinner (Mother’s Day, if memory serves.)  The family members don’t realize it, but they are actually eating chicken contaminated with the fatal disease.
After first showcasing trademark images of “Americana” (a backyard grill and the ubiquitous football game on the TV), the scene turns sour rather dramatically.  The mother grows ill first, and blood starts to pour from her neck.  Then, blood-filled lesions begin to form on the other family members, and they cough and bleed out — they literally sweat out blood — in a matter of seconds.  In one especially horrific shot, a family member reaches for the telephone to dial 911, but as a finger hits the dial blood explodes from the digit and splatters the device.
What should be sacrosanct — the safe, secure, American middle-class hearth — is instead corrupted and destroyed in “The Fourth Horseman.”  If that isn’t indicative of a savage, tradition-shattering modus operandi, I don’t know what is.  And once more, horror is brought home to us in a palpable, graphic way, and nobody is spared.  Not even the kids.
and finally…
1. The X-Files: “Home.”

This notorious X-Files episode, also written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, was directed by Kim Manners and aired only once in prime time  — on October 11, 1996 — before Fox banned it.   Here, Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny investigate the quiet town of Home, PA, where a dead baby has been unearthed in a baseball field near the Peacock home.

The Peacocks are no ordinary American family, however.  The three adults brothers are horribly deformed, and their crazy old mother — a quadruple amputee — lives under her bed on a little, make-shift scooter.  The boys pull her out occasionally, chew her food for her, and even — yikes — impregnate her to add numbers to the disfigured brood.
After the Peacocks murder Home’s Sheriff Andy Taylor and his wife with baseball bats, Mulder and Scully lay siege to the homestead, only to be faced with a vile interior lined with deadly booby traps…
Okay, I love “Home.”  I absolutely love it.  Along with “Bad Blood”  and “The Host,” I consider it one of the best episodes of the long-lived Chris Carter series.  In  terms of setting, the Peacock’s wrecked farmhouse recalls Leatherface’s house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and the savage family’s finely-honed survival instincts plays like something from The Hills Have Eyes (1977).  What makes the episode so remarkable, and the quality that lands the episode into the heralded savage cinematic territory of social critique (like Last House on the Left), however,  is the manner in which the story sets up the main conflict, a dueling views of “civilization.”  The police and “normal” people of Home live by one code, and the Peacocks — as we learn in bloody fashion — live by another code.    Yet the Peacocks clearly cherish family, right?  And they “stand their ground” when attacked by the government on their own land.  How different from us are they, really?  
One of the most terrifying sequences I’ve ever seen on television arrives in this episode of The X-Files.  The Taylors realize they have left their front door unlocked, and the Peacocks pull up to their house...for bloody vengeance.  Sheriff Taylor’s wife cowers under the bed as her husband is bludgeoned to death nearby, and then — boom — she is up for the same treatment next.  It’s a blood bath that plays on the universal fear of home invasion.
I’d wager that anybody who saw “Home” in 1996 — in prime time, no less — never forgot this particular episode, a grotesque exercise in sheer horror, and in my estimation the most savage episode in cult-TV history.  

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Today on Movie Geeks United: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Today on Movie Geeks United, we discuss Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), one of my all-time favorite horror films, and certainly one of the best movies the genre has yet produced.  
I hope you will listen in to the show; not just to hear me (!) but to listen to an interview with the film’s amazing cinematographer, Daniel Pearl.  The Movie Geeks team always does an amazing job and I know this will be no exception.
Regarding, the film, director Tobe Hooper never gets enough credit, as far as I’m concerned, for masterminded one of the most significant titles in film history; one that — like Psycho (1960) before it — literally re-writes the rules of screen decorum, and shatters all sense of convention.
Where Hitchcock artfully fractured the act of learning amongst three sets of protagonists in Psycho, Hooper takes the next, trailblazing step.  He subtracts the idea of learning all together from Chainsaw, to incredible and often harrowing effect. 
In broad strokes, this colorfully-titled 1974 film arises from the context of the “savage cinema,” which we associate with such titles as Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last House on the Left and Deliverance. In keeping with that sub-genre, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre doesn’t spare the sensibilities, or dodge dark issues concerning human nature.
The Texas Chainsaw Masssacre depicts a kind of uncaring, disordered cosmos in its powerful visuals and in the discordant musical cues that open the film.  For instance, the first clear composition of Chainsaw is of a rotting corpse propped up outside its grave, and this is an early visual indication that something is universally wrong. 
This ghoulish scarecrow symbolizes the idea that “death has risen” and order has been overturned.  This visual is later re-inforced by a shot of road kill in the path of the protagonists.  It’s an armadillo, dead on the road, and it rests upside down in the frame, a visual composition/symbol of death in the cinema since the beginning of the art form.
Over and over again, disorder reigns in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  A spider web flourishes inside a house, a human dwelling.  There’s talk of a watering hole…but it’s just dry earth.  The kids visit a gas station, but there’s no gas.  Again and again our expectation of order is confounded.  Insanity has supplanted sanity in the film, right down to its core, taboo–breaking genetic structure.
If Hitchcock denied the audience of a single identification point with the murder of Marion (Janet Leigh) in the shower, Hooper in Chainsaw denies us the idea of heroism (and therefore learning…) all together.  Each of three kids goes into that cannibal farmhouse in rural Texas and violently meets his or her death, without passing on any knowledge or learning whatsoever.  Forget about mounting a defense or beating the bad guys; Leatherface and his kin.  The movie offers no constructive second and third acts, at least not in a traditional narrative sense.
Yesterday I wrote that “learning” in a three-act screenplay structure follows a straight trajectory, up-and-up until — at the climax — we’ve learned all that we need to know to satisfactorily draw conclusions.  In Chainsaw, learning literally and metaphorically gets bonked on the head with a sledgehammer a third-of-the-way through…and then a steel door gets slammed on it. 
The film’s structure — essentially repetitious — blocks every attempt for us to learn more; for the protagonists to learn more about their terrifying plight.  This structure subverts our expectations and literally makes us feel endangered in theater.  The movie’s young cast — and by extension the audience — feel like it has no chance.  Madness reigns. 
Indeed, even at film’s end, order is not restored.  Leatherface just keeps on spinning.  The world around him may be out of gas, but he’s still sputtering, twirling and dancing in unending insanity and blood lust.
You can listen in on more of my observations about this classic horror film today on Movie Geeks United
And don’t forget to check out my 2003 monograph on Hooper: Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre.

Defending The Indefensible: Torture Porn and Horror Today

Well, first things first. I better be more careful what I wish for.

In recent reviews here on the blog, I have lamented the “safe,” mainstream nature of some 2010 Hollywood horror fare. I’ve even mentioned in some cases my first edict of the genre: Do the Psyche Harm.

Well, lo and behold, I’ve finally gotten around to screening Pascal Laugier’s controversial Martyrs (2008), a movie that — most definitively — does the psyche harm.

The continuing controversy over that film — re-counted in detail via the remarkably divided critical reaction — comes down to one thread, simply: Is the film art, in the self-same tradition as The Passion of Joan of Arc? Or is it merely an ultra-gory, gratuitous example of that currently despised-genre: so-called “torture porn?”

The debate itself — re-argued endlessly with the arrival of each new Saw or Hostel installment — is sort of hypocritical. Some of the same genre voices who have so vociferously defended and championed the once-hated slasher movie trend of the 1980s have been among the very first to jump on the bandwagon deriding so-called torture porn.

Yet in both cases, these horror films (whether slasher or torture porn) decisively reflect what’s happening in our culture, in the world itself. One can’t (or at least shouldn’t…) blame these contemporary movies for holding up a mirror to our contemporary beliefs, to current events, to modern mind-sets and fallacies. Sure, the torture porn films — just like the slasher films that came before them — abundantly feature their own brand of highs and lows. But to dismiss an entire sub-genre out of hand with an easy, negative label is to miss out on some very powerful, very worthwhile material.

You see, I’m old enough to remember when it was the the slasher film that was termed an “incitement to violence,” and directors of the form (including John Carpenter and Brian De Palma) were actually called “pornographers” by the likes of journalists such as Zina Klapper, writing in Ms. Magazine.

I’m old enough to remember when Janet Maslin in The New York Times (back in 1982…) wrote of slashers: “you leave the theater convinced that the world is an ugly, violent place in which aggression is frequent and routine.

I remember when Commonweal’s critic, Tom O’Brien said that Friday the 13thliteralizes the violence against women [that] feminist groups have identified as the core of pornography.”

I remember when a critic I deeply admire, Roger Ebert — who was insightful enough to recognize the social value of Last House on the Left — opined of slasher movies (and the F13 series specifically) that they portray a world in which “the primary function of the teenagers is to be hacked to death.”

He missed the point. The primary function of the teenager in the 1980s slasher film was to survive the gauntlet. To survive in a world in which the deck seemed stacked against him or her; in which Mother Nature herself — giving cover to Jason during his bloody attacks via thunderstorms and lightning strikes — seemed determined to snuff teenagers out. In the pervasive “apocalypse mentality” of the 1980s, when the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, James Watt said Judgement Day could well be at hand for this “last” generation, these movies — and the slasher form itself — had something vital to tell teenagers.

Be smart…be resourceful, and you will survive.

And yet today, these lessons of recent history seem forgotten. I see the “torture porn” genre harshly criticized, in the very tradition of these attacks on the slasher film, but without many substantive arguments as to what’s actually wrong, corrupt or immoral with the form. Is it because these movies openly concern cruelty? Extreme violence? Blood and guts?

If so, when did horror lovers become so…milquetoast? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre isn’t all about a simple tea party, you know.
I’ve written about this before, but good horror movies are all about pushing boundaries, about shattering taboos, about transgressing traditional senses of decorum, and that’s what films like Hostel, Saw, the Last House on the Left remake and Martyrs accomplish…in spades. The question becomes: are these transgressions based purely on puerile, sadistic impulses? Or do they carry with them a higher aesthetic purpose? Do these movies tell us something critical about “who we are” right now, at this juncture in history? Is there a purpose and morality to the violence featured on screen, or is it all just bread and circuses?
The simple answer, of course — exactly like the slasher film before it — is that the fair-minded individual and reviewer should take each example on its own merits, and judge on a case-by-case basis. One should not paint an entire classification of horror film with one easy brush-stroke.

But at its apex, the the “torture porn” format addresses several important aspects of today’s culture with cogent authority. First, it reflects the reality that the media already inundates us (on the 24-hours cable news networks) with ultra-violent images on a almost-daily basis. From government-authorized imagery of vanquished enemy corpses (Saddam’s Hussein’s sons) to battlefield imagery itself, we’ve witnessed a lot of real-life “horror” since 9/11. We’ve seen torture in the photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and also fictional torture performed routinely by American “heroes” like Jack Bauer on 24. And the New York Times won’t even use the word “torture” when it applies to the United States doing it. When we torture, it’s “coercive interrogation techniques.” Ex-President Bush has said he would (illegally) authorize water boarding all over again, too. To quote Bob Dole: “where’s the outrage?”

I’ll tell you where the outrage is: it’s in the moral barometer of the horror film. If we visit torture upon others for our own reasons, is it right for other nations to visit torture upon our people, on Americans? This is the subtextual context of the Hostel films: blow back.

Even if we truly boast noble motives for torture (preserving security, sponsoring democracy across the world) does that behavior make us heroes or monsters? Well, my friends, the self-same question applies to JigSaw (Tobin Bell), a horror movie icon who also has “pure” motives for the torture he inflicts upon others. He wants to “help” them. He wants to “free them” from their demons.

In the 2009 version of The Last House on the Left, Dr. Collingwood expresses not one recrimination about his murderous actions; and that’s also the official take of our government today. President Obama wants to “turn the page” on American moral abuses of the Bush Years thus leaving them unaddressed…and unpunished. That’s also the state in which we leave Dr. Collingwood in the film. Mari (like America) is safe and sound, but he (like our nation) hasn’t yet looked in the mirror and faced the consequences of his bloody actions. That needs to happen.

And the very best of the torture porn films deal with this admittedly gruesome subject matter in a trenchant, thoughtful manner. Martyrs seems to ask, what comes after torture? What arises inside a person after such brutality?
Until we deal decisively and responsibly with what’s been done in our names, for our “security,” this repressed evil will bubble up and return as symptoms…certainly in our entertainment, especially our dark entertainment. This has always been so, and I submit, will continue to be so as long as horror movies exist. The form mirrors our worst fears, our darkest psychological demons. Horror can comment on our times in a way that other genres can’t and don’t. Love them or hate them, torture porn films fit this definition to a tee. They live up to the historical legacy of the horror format.

I guess what I’m saying is really simple: don’t blame the messenger. Torture porn films may not be to your personal taste (they certainly aren’t universally to mine, either…), but at the very least they have a right to exist, and more-so, are actually serving a valuable social purpose within the pop culture, at least in this age. And if it is necessary to deride these films, get to specifics. What is it about the form that is corrupt, immoral or wrong? What about these films debauches you? If you are a critic, you owe it to your audience, to your readers, to explain the “why” behind the dislike of this sub-genre.


It’s always easy to bash and mock the movies that don’t fit our preconceived notions of what the genre could be (just look at the universal mocking and tongue-lashing that Twilight gets from genre writers, on a daily basis.) A lot of people don’t like torture porn, either and that’s absolutely fine. It’s not my preferred thing, as I’ve stated. But the form shows us where we are, and isn’t, actually, you know, porn. Or if it is, I guess the slasher films were pornography too….

And I guess I’m a porno blogger…

CULT TV FLASHBACK #89: She-Wolf of London: "The Juggler" (1990-1991)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the horror genre experienced a dramatic resurgence on television thanks to syndication (and the successful path blazed by the high-rated Star Trek: The Next Generation).

This TV era gave viewers Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1991), Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1990), Monsters (1988-1991), Dracula: The Series (1991), and also this relatively obscure one season effort, She-Wolf of London, created by genre icons Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris.

Forecasting the birth of UPN and the WB in the mid-1990s, She-Wolf of London was designed to be the flagship program of the Hollywood Premiere Network (by Universal Studios), but things didn’t work out so well. The hour-long horror series ran on WWOR Channel 9 in New York and KCOP in Los Angeles, but the series’ first true national exposure occurred with a prime-time rerun on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1992. By then, of course, She-Wolf was long canceled…

She-Wolf of London invoked the title of the 1946 (Universal) horror film starring June Lockhart, but adopted a totally new premise. The 1990s series involved a beautiful American graduate student in England, Randi Wallace (Kate Hodge), who was bitten by a werewolf and therefore became one herself. The “cursed” Randi sought help with her “condition” from a local professor of mythology, the erudite and initially skeptical Ian Matheson (Neil Dickson). Soon, however, Ian saw Randi’s transformation with his own eyes and realized he had to help.


Accordingly, Randi moved into the Matheson family’s London bed and breakfast with Ian’s “Mum” (Jean Challis), his nosy Aunt Edna (Dorothea Phillips), and a young American cousin, Julian (Scott Fults). Very soon, a (subdued) romance developed between Matheson and Randi. Aunt Edna always wondered what all that howling emanating from the basement was all about…

Each week on She-Wolf of London, Randi and Ian would investigate some mythological “creature of the week” in England. They looked into a bog man (“The Bogman of Leitchmour Heath,”), zombies (“Can’t Keep a Dead Man Down,”) a succubus (“She Devil”), a diabolical circus (“Big Top She Wolf”), even an insane asylum (“Moonlight Becomes You.”)


Created in the style of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), She-Wolf of London was an old-fashioned-style series built on the sturdy pillars of character repartee, atmospheric locations…and a cool monster of the week. A few years later, The X-Files would hone, evolve, and literally perfect this style of horror TV storytelling, but She-Wolf remains an interesting missing link in genre history, landing between Kolchak and X-Files.

At the time of broadcast, the series drew mostly positive reviews. Variety noted that “Hodge makes an intelligent character out of the cursed young student, and Dickson gives the professor humor, a shade of early James Mason, and an absurd air…Writers-creators Tom McLoughlin and Mick Garris have the good sense to play Randi’s predicament with a semi-straight face.” (October 15, 1990, page 79).

One particularly atmospheric She-Wolf of London story was entitled “The Juggler,” (by Jim Henshaw; directed by Gerry Mill) and first aired on October 30, 1990….right before Halloween. Here, an ancient Satanic cult sought revenge against a British reverend, Parfrey (John Carlin) after being evicted from the Church of All Saints on All Hallow’s eve. The wrathful cult leader thus summoned the (French) mythical creature called the “Bell Ringer” (or Juggler), a demon known to prey on the children of enemies. This Devil Clown thus went after Parfrey’s daughter, Liza (Claudia Bryan), in part because she had been given a gold ring which focused the Devil Clown’s evil attention upon her.

In the course of the episode, Ian and Randi investigated the Juggler, and young Julian — who had fallen for Liza — ended up in mortal danger, wearing the Juggler’s ring himself. At the same time, Randi continued to learn about her “wolf” powers, here developing a keen sense of smell, that — according to Ian — would “tell her everything” she needed to “know to hunt” down enemies. Naturally, before “The Juggler” is done, that new ability comes in handy in stopping the villain of the week.

Heavy on slow-motion photography, classic architecture (the crypts underneath the church…), Dickensian-style apparitions, and misty, gloom-laden night shooting, the story of “The Juggler,” — the so-called “Devil Clown,” — shows off the solid production values of She-Wolf of London, which were far superior to contemporary American-lensed efforts like Freddy’s Nightmares or Monsters. The pace of “The Juggler” is a bit slow and plodding by today’s standards, but like most She-Wolf episodes, it nonetheless boasts a palpable love for the classic movies of the genre, and develops in a manner that respectfully pays tribute to them.

After approximately a dozen episodes as She-Wolf of London, the entire series relocated to Los Angeles and became known for the last half-dozen shows as Love & Curses. This continuation featured an increased concentration on romance and humor over the serious horror. Today, both iterations of this syndicated one-season wonder remain unavailable on DVD, but some die-hard fans still remember She-Wolf of London with real devotion.

The Vault of Horror Presents: The Horror Canon

The amazing B-Sol at The Vault of Horror recently tasked the Horror Cyber-Elite — a veritable “Justice League” of horror bloggers — to assemble selections for a Horror Canon.

As B-Sol describes the mission:

“My plan was to create a list of absolutely indispensable horror films that every fan needs to have seen in order to consider themselves a proper horror geek. This is not to be confused with “The Greatest of All Time.” For example, Plan 9 from Outer Space would not be on my list of the greatest of all time, but I might very well consider it “must-see” viewing for any wannabe horror fanatic!”

“Think of it this way: If someone came to you and said, “I want to get into this whole horror thing, what movies do I need to see?” Which movies would you give them to watch?”

Check out the post in its entirety to see the Cyber-Horror Elite’s tally of 35 films for inclusion in the Horror Canon!

To my delight, eight of my ten recommendations/suggestions made the final catalogue. As always, you may quibble with a specific title, or wonder about a particular omission, but I love these lists because they get the debate started, evoke passion, and foster further blogging. For instance, given the success of recent first-person/P.O.V. horrors like REC (2007) and Cloverfield (2008), I would have liked to see The Blair Witch Project (1999) make the Horror Canon, perhaps in lieu of some 2008 – 2009 films that may — or may not — stand the test of time.

Regardless of the titles ultimately chosen, it was an honor to be included in the selection process for The Horror Canon, and one of these days, I plan to post in detail about the films in the canon and why, indeed, they remain so important to a deeper understanding of the genre…

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Prey (1984)

As I wrote in my compendium, Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007) I’ve always enjoyed the “mountain man” variation on the 1980s Slasher Paradigm as seen in such films as Just Before Dawn (1983), The Final Terror (1985) and even Wrong Turn (2003).

You know the type of genre movie I’m talking about: all the same Friday the 13th stock characters (bitch, jock, stoner, Final Girl, drunken Cassandra warning against trespass…) and all the same stock situations (the car won’t start, vice-precedes-slice-and-dice, the false scare, the cat jump, etc.).

One significant difference, however is that the villain is a hulking sometimes-disfigured “mountain man” rather than a masked, faceless killer.

These “mountain man” slasher variations are often set in extremely isolated, picturesque settings — meaning no rescue is possible — and tread heavily into the transgressive realm of the savage cinema (which includes the territory of rape and revenge, among other things…).

A modest but noteworthy entry in this mountain man/slasher sweepstakes is Edwin Scott Brown’s The Prey, a super-low budget film of the Reagan Era (though reportedly it was shot near the end of the 1970s..). It is not an elegant film and it is not a spectacular one…and yet — in many important ways — it accomplishes the primary mission of any good slasher: it terrifies. That terror is augmented by some good location shooting; shooting which tends to augment the leitmotif that the offending lead teens are not welcome in the domain of the wild forest. There, they must reckon with all sorts of predators…including the the wild mountain man. The mountain man is part of nature himself; nature’s avenger even.

In The Prey, six young and irresponsible adults from the city, Nancy (Debbie Thureson), Joel (Steve Bond), Bobbie (Lori Lethin), Skip (Robert Wald), Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus) hike into the thick woods at North Point, oblivious to the fact that a nice married couple was recently axe-murdered there while camping. Before long, the young adults are the prey of a monstrous assailant, a deformed gypsy (Carel Struycken). A heroic forest ranger (Jackson Bostwick) attempts to rescue the hikers, but the giant wild man is a savage foe…and looking for…a mate.

After an axe-decapitation (our first act coup-de-grace…) at the outset, The Prey next settles down into…stock nature footage. The audience gets long views of centipedes, frogs, spiders and more. There are long shots of impressive mountain ranges, babbling brooks, a spider’s web and a majestic hawk overhead, searching for prey.

Then — in direct opposition to the images of nature featured in this montage — the camera catches sight of an unwanted invader: a modern van pulling into woods. All too soon, the van ejects bellowing, loud-mouthed, obnoxious teenagers, kids who clearly don’t give a damn about the “natural” world around them. In fact, the film’s protagonists treat the land as if they own it, committing transgression after transgression. One teenager turns up the volume on her radio in the woods — literally replacing the call of the wild with rock-and-roll, and, well, you just know Mother Nature is pissed.

Many reviewers have concluded that the stock nature footage included The Prey is mainly just padding, a way to lengthen a film too short for feature release. Indeed this may be so, but in this particular instance, the nature footage also serves a point (even if unintended): it serves as an explicit reminder that the teens have tread into a domain where they are no longer in control, and furthermore that nature is a force to be reckoned with. The teens experience “push back” not just from the scarred mountain man, but from the combined forces of the nature itself, which seem to judge them as invaders.

This approach fits into one of my primary theories about slasher films in general: we enjoy them because — for the most part — we all live in safe, artificial communities protected by layers of law enforcement and bureaucracy. We have no real predators, and we are perched at the top of the food chain. I believe some part of us —perhaps a prehistoric part of us — desires a challenge; a test of our survival skill set. We suspect, perhaps subconsciously, that such a challenge might even emerge from the wild (that’s where they came from in the past, after all…). That’s why Jason lives in the woods and his approach is almost universally heralded by a crackling thunderstorm. He is, simply put, a Force of Nature.

In other words, we had to invent Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger as horror movie predators because our contemporary lives are so safe and, well, predictable. The slasher films — as ritualistic and repetitive as a (bloody) sporting event — provide us the opportunity to imagine ourselves matched up against these predators. I think it’s a healthy response, frankly (and I love the slasher format.)

Anyway, getting back to The Prey, there’s a point in the film in which Mark (the forest ranger) discovers a corpse. This gruesome find is inter-cut with — again — stock footage of vultures high up on a tree limb. The connection between the two shots is explicit: the dead body is no longer a “person” but has joined the food chain of the pitiless forest and shall be treated as such. Again, the “padding” serves a kind of unique purpose. It actually adds to the artistic value of the film.

The Prey’s focus on natural images reminds the viewer at all times that the mountain man — a nemesis who is comfortable in these surroundings — has the home team advantage in any face-to-face battle. Nature is his ally, because he lives in apparent harmony with it. For instance, at the teens’ campsite earlier in the film, nature seems to come to life and encroach on the young interlopers. Snakes slither towards camp, owls land nearby, and nature focuses on the unaware, the oblivious, just as the mountain man also approaches. Ultimately, it is an attack from several fronts, but all fronts have one commander: Mother Nature.

Perhaps the film could have down with fewer shots of “nature” and still made this point, but in this case, the inclusion of stock footage actually grants The Prey a kind of artistic perimeter to work within. The focus on the living forest also serves, after a fashion, as counterpoint to the Friday the 13th films, which, as they progressed, became increasingly lazy and couldn’t be bothered to provide such crucial horror elements as atmosphere or mood, let alone character. By contrasts, it’s clear in The Prey that this is not Jason’s “silent,” unoccupied Hollywood forest, but rather a living, breathing ecosystem teeming with life and vying agendas. That’s an important distinction in a movie that is very much a man vs. nature story.

The character named Nancy serves as the film’s Final Girl, the plucky lass who seems more insightful and aware than her offending friends. But what ultimately makes The Prey a rather daring variation on the slasher formula is the film’s sting in the tail/tale following the final chase. Nancy suffers a terrible fate; one that is explained only with sound effects. I won’t say any more about this coda, only that I had never seen (or heard…) this ending in a slasher film before, and that is told efficiently: a baby’s cries linger over further images of the immortal forest. Yes, it’s sort of sick, but also rather ingenious.

At times, The Prey reminded me strongly of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (though it is nowhere near that good). It’s one of those modest, mostly forgotten low-budget 1980s horror films (like 1980’s The Children) that is probably better than the film’s reputation suggests. Yes, there’s too much “wild kingdom” footage in The Prey, but somehow that seems entirely appropriate, given how the film uses it.

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Prey (1984)

As I wrote in my compendium, Horror Films of the 1980s (McFarland; 2007) I’ve always enjoyed the “mountain man” variation on the 1980s Slasher Paradigm as seen in such films as Just Before Dawn (1983), The Final Terror (1985) and even Wrong Turn (2003).

You know the type of genre movie I’m talking about: all the same Friday the 13th stock characters (bitch, jock, stoner, Final Girl, drunken Cassandra warning against trespass…) and all the same stock situations (the car won’t start, vice-precedes-slice-and-dice, the false scare, the cat jump, etc.).

One significant difference, however is that the villain is a hulking sometimes-disfigured “mountain man” rather than a masked, faceless killer.

These “mountain man” slasher variations are often set in extremely isolated, picturesque settings — meaning no rescue is possible — and tread heavily into the transgressive realm of the savage cinema (which includes the territory of rape and revenge, among other things…).

A modest but noteworthy entry in this mountain man/slasher sweepstakes is Edwin Scott Brown’s The Prey, a super-low budget film of the Reagan Era (though reportedly it was shot near the end of the 1970s..). It is not an elegant film and it is not a spectacular one…and yet — in many important ways — it accomplishes the primary mission of any good slasher: it terrifies. That terror is augmented by some good location shooting; shooting which tends to augment the leitmotif that the offending lead teens are not welcome in the domain of the wild forest. There, they must reckon with all sorts of predators…including the the wild mountain man. The mountain man is part of nature himself; nature’s avenger even.

In The Prey, six young and irresponsible adults from the city, Nancy (Debbie Thureson), Joel (Steve Bond), Bobbie (Lori Lethin), Skip (Robert Wald), Gail (Gayle Gannes) and Greg (Philip Wenckus) hike into the thick woods at North Point, oblivious to the fact that a nice married couple was recently axe-murdered there while camping. Before long, the young adults are the prey of a monstrous assailant, a deformed gypsy (Carel Struycken). A heroic forest ranger (Jackson Bostwick) attempts to rescue the hikers, but the giant wild man is a savage foe…and looking for…a mate.

After an axe-decapitation (our first act coup-de-grace…) at the outset, The Prey next settles down into…stock nature footage. The audience gets long views of centipedes, frogs, spiders and more. There are long shots of impressive mountain ranges, babbling brooks, a spider’s web and a majestic hawk overhead, searching for prey.

Then — in direct opposition to the images of nature featured in this montage — the camera catches sight of an unwanted invader: a modern van pulling into woods. All too soon, the van ejects bellowing, loud-mouthed, obnoxious teenagers, kids who clearly don’t give a damn about the “natural” world around them. In fact, the film’s protagonists treat the land as if they own it, committing transgression after transgression. One teenager turns up the volume on her radio in the woods — literally replacing the call of the wild with rock-and-roll, and, well, you just know Mother Nature is pissed.

Many reviewers have concluded that the stock nature footage included The Prey is mainly just padding, a way to lengthen a film too short for feature release. Indeed this may be so, but in this particular instance, the nature footage also serves a point (even if unintended): it serves as an explicit reminder that the teens have tread into a domain where they are no longer in control, and furthermore that nature is a force to be reckoned with. The teens experience “push back” not just from the scarred mountain man, but from the combined forces of the nature itself, which seem to judge them as invaders.

This approach fits into one of my primary theories about slasher films in general: we enjoy them because — for the most part — we all live in safe, artificial communities protected by layers of law enforcement and bureaucracy. We have no real predators, and we are perched at the top of the food chain. I believe some part of us —perhaps a prehistoric part of us — desires a challenge; a test of our survival skill set. We suspect, perhaps subconsciously, that such a challenge might even emerge from the wild (that’s where they came from in the past, after all…). That’s why Jason lives in the woods and his approach is almost universally heralded by a crackling thunderstorm. He is, simply put, a Force of Nature.

In other words, we had to invent Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger as horror movie predators because our contemporary lives are so safe and, well, predictable. The slasher films — as ritualistic and repetitive as a (bloody) sporting event — provide us the opportunity to imagine ourselves matched up against these predators. I think it’s a healthy response, frankly (and I love the slasher format.)

Anyway, getting back to The Prey, there’s a point in the film in which Mark (the forest ranger) discovers a corpse. This gruesome find is inter-cut with — again — stock footage of vultures high up on a tree limb. The connection between the two shots is explicit: the dead body is no longer a “person” but has joined the food chain of the pitiless forest and shall be treated as such. Again, the “padding” serves a kind of unique purpose. It actually adds to the artistic value of the film.

The Prey’s focus on natural images reminds the viewer at all times that the mountain man — a nemesis who is comfortable in these surroundings — has the home team advantage in any face-to-face battle. Nature is his ally, because he lives in apparent harmony with it. For instance, at the teens’ campsite earlier in the film, nature seems to come to life and encroach on the young interlopers. Snakes slither towards camp, owls land nearby, and nature focuses on the unaware, the oblivious, just as the mountain man also approaches. Ultimately, it is an attack from several fronts, but all fronts have one commander: Mother Nature.

Perhaps the film could have down with fewer shots of “nature” and still made this point, but in this case, the inclusion of stock footage actually grants The Prey a kind of artistic perimeter to work within. The focus on the living forest also serves, after a fashion, as counterpoint to the Friday the 13th films, which, as they progressed, became increasingly lazy and couldn’t be bothered to provide such crucial horror elements as atmosphere or mood, let alone character. By contrasts, it’s clear in The Prey that this is not Jason’s “silent,” unoccupied Hollywood forest, but rather a living, breathing ecosystem teeming with life and vying agendas. That’s an important distinction in a movie that is very much a man vs. nature story.

The character named Nancy serves as the film’s Final Girl, the plucky lass who seems more insightful and aware than her offending friends. But what ultimately makes The Prey a rather daring variation on the slasher formula is the film’s sting in the tail/tale following the final chase. Nancy suffers a terrible fate; one that is explained only with sound effects. I won’t say any more about this coda, only that I had never seen (or heard…) this ending in a slasher film before, and that is told efficiently: a baby’s cries linger over further images of the immortal forest. Yes, it’s sort of sick, but also rather ingenious.

At times, The Prey reminded me strongly of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (though it is nowhere near that good). It’s one of those modest, mostly forgotten low-budget 1980s horror films (like 1980’s The Children) that is probably better than the film’s reputation suggests. Yes, there’s too much “wild kingdom” footage in The Prey, but somehow that seems entirely appropriate, given how the film uses it.