Horror Favourites – Stephen Thrower

Continuing its mission to unearth the very best in weird and wonderful horror obscura from the golden age of US independent genre moviemaking, Arrow Video is proud to present the long-awaited second volume in its American Horror Project series co-curated by author Stephen Thrower (Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents) who we luckily got to talk to recently.

Starting off with a little-seen 1970 offering from underrated cult auteur John Hayes (Grave of the Vampire, Garden of the Dead), Dream No Evil is a haunting, moving tale of a young woman’s desperate quest to be reunited with her long-lost father – only to find herself drawn into a fantasyland of homicidal madness. Meanwhile, 1976’s Dark August stars Academy Award-winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire) in a story of a man pursued by a terrifying and deadly curse in the wake of a hit-and-run accident. Lastly, 1977’s Harry Novak-produced The Child is a gloriously delirious slice of horror mayhem in which a young girl raises an army of the dead against the people she holds responsible for her mother’s death.

With all three films having been newly remastered from the best surviving film elements and appearing here for the first time ever on Blu-ray, alongside a wealth of supplementary material, American Horror Project Volume Two offers up yet another fascinating and blood-chilling foray into the deepest, darkest corners of stars-and-stripes terror.

Below American Horror Project series co-curator Stephen Thrower takes us through some of his favourite horror films:

“I’m relieved to see that previous contributors have opted to list several titles, as it saves me from the agony of choosing just one! Here are three movies that I love for very different reasons…

Headless Eyes: Are you tired of stalk-and-slash movies? Why not try The Headless Eyes, the first and so far only ‘stalk-and-scoop’ horror film. An inept New York burglar has his eye gouged out by an irate home-owner, whose implement of vengeance is a teaspoon lying on her bedside table. The thief, with his eye drooling down his face, crawls from an upstairs window and flees down the fire escape. Afterwards we see the burglar working out his resentment by plundering the eyes of various unwilling donors to make avant-garde objets-d’art, which he sells in his scuzzy little gallery, somewhere in the bowels of Manhattan. His speciality? Human eyes in cubes of Perspex. Eat your heart out, Damien Hirst…

It’s worth seeing this film for the opening sequence alone: as the thief makes his escape we hear a loop of his shrieking voice – “My eye! … MY EYE! … My eye!” – which goes on and on as he slowly climbs down the fire escape of a dingy apartment block and skulks off into the night. It’s a great beginning, and it leads into a film just as crazed. Once you’re over the initial hilarity, The Headless Eyes becomes a bleak and sorry tale with perhaps a smattering of arty ambition (the production company, Laviniaque Films, is named after Virgil’s The Aeneid, after all). It’s not a straightforward slasher film (the killer is onscreen from the start) and it’s not exactly a gore film (the graphic violence is limited to some red smears and a few fake eyes), it’s almost a mirror of the destitution it depicts, and feels like a piece of celluloid ‘outsider art’. I’m willing to bet that The Headless Eyes was made without a finished script: it’s almost plotless, as if the narrative has been scooped out along with the protagonist’s orb. Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating trip through the slums of exploitation, far away from the gentrified avenues of mainstream horror. The essence of the film is a sort of shabby, gutter-level weirdness: the cinematic equivalent of a scary old bag lady.

The Gore Gore Girls: Someone is killing the strippers who work at a Chicago bump’n’grind joint. Nancy Weston, a pretty young reporter, pays sophisticated private investigator Abraham Gentry $25,000 to track down the killer and pass the exclusive to her newspaper… Herschell Gordon Lewis, the man who invented the gore film with Blood Feast in 1963, made so many amazing films that it’s hard to choose a favourite, but I’m going to go for this one. From its jittery jazz theme to its chaotic conclusion, The Gore Gore Girls is a blast: it has an amusing script, insanely catchy rock’n’roll instrumentals, burlesque atmosphere, and mutilation galore. The Wizard of Gore is the weirdest of his films, Two Thousand Maniacs has the best premise, and Blood Feast is both groundbreaking and hilarious, but I love The Gore Gore Girls because it ramps up Lewis’s goofy humour and then confounds expectation with a couple of genuinely likeable performances. Frank Kress plays Abraham Gentry as a comically snooty poseur à la Jason King, and Amy Farrell makes Nancy appealingly scatty and sarcastic. Their bickering relationship (She: “If you’re done being clever…” He: “Never!”) provides the backbone of the film, and while Gentry’s attitude towards Nancy initially suggests a sort of supercilious homosexual with no time for women, there’s a gradual thaw between them that may be the only believable trace of affection Lewis ever attempted.

The violence is pure Grand Guignol slapstick, but be careful: the nastiness can get you ostracized if you slip the film on at the wrong party. During the killing of stripper ‘Candy Kane’ the murderer gets so carried away mutilating the victim’s face that the result looks like spilled ratatouille; in fact the assailant actually has to reinsert a popped eyeball into the pulverized visage to remind us what we’re looking at! The infamous nipple-slicing scene (white milk from one nipple, chocolate from the other) suggests the gross imaginings of a ghoulish child, as does the pulverising of a girl’s buttocks with a meat tenderizing mallet (with salt and pepper added to the resulting mess). Two face-frying scenes compound the impression: one girl has her head shoved into a deep-fat fryer, and another has her features frazzled with a hot iron. It’s as if two ten-year-old boys are competing with each other to imagine the grossest possible scene for a horror film. The violence in Lewis’s films is so clearly intended to rile and provoke that it’s best considered aside from issues of political correctness. By foaming about bad taste one is simply falling for Lewis’s shtick: if you’re the sort of person who’s offended by screen violence, he has created these extraordinarily graphic provocations just for you, serving them to the screen with a sardonic smirk. He’s like a chef who puts extra chillies in your meal just to see the look on your face…

Martin: For me the most beautiful of American horror films is Martin (1977), about a troubled teenage boy who believes he’s a ninety-four year-old vampire. Director George Romero is best known for his zombie films, but I think Martin is his masterpiece. It has emotional maturity, technical virtuosity, and a storyline that blends wit, horror and sadness into something unique. It’s also a fiercely compassionate work: we spend the entire running time in the company of a killer, but Romero contemplates him with such honest sympathy (and John Amplas plays him so perfectly) that we’re compelled to feel for the boy, lost in delusion as he is. You end up viewing him sorrowfully, as you would a much-loved brother or close friend somehow sucked into madness. In an elegant manoeuvre that’s both an homage to Gothic horror and a critique, we’re shown the stark (colour) reality of Martin’s actions alongside the romantic (black-and-white) fantasy playing in his head. Romero and his dp Michael Gornick ensure that what could have seemed like abstruse formal experimentation has a clear raison d’être. Martin also has a powerful sense of location and environment; it’s an affectionate but unsentimental portrait of a broken industrial town. A huge part of the appeal is the evocation of a decaying urban landscape bereft of hope for the future. Romero transforms the imagery of the Gothic tradition: instead of pale women suffering in the rotting halls of aristocracy, we get misunderstood modern youth losing their minds amid collapsing infrastructure and post-industrial decline.

The film can be read either as a naturalistic story with fantasy sequences, or a supernatural tale with flashbacks, but it’s the realist interpretation that really sings. None of the traditional protections against vampires have the slightest effect: Martin chews a bulb of garlic, kisses a crucifix, and lounges bored through an attempted exorcism. He’s adrift without a sense of meaning, without special powers, an absurdity in a Godless world. Martin’s ability to talk frankly about his crimes to a radio phone-in host (who ironically regards his ‘confessions’ as a stunt) is one of Romero’s best ploys, showcasing his habitual theme of miscommunication and his ironic approach to technology. The unctuous radio host is another sort of vampire, sucking at the troubles of his listeners to provide amusement for his show. The radio sequences juxtapose pitch black humour with a terrible sadness, exploring themes of media manipulation, loneliness, and the need for confession.

Martin’s human interactions are more complex than any other screen vampire’s. He’s an aggressor to his victims; a stranger to the citizens of Braddock; a daemonic evil to his religious elderly cousin; a surrogate brother and confidante to Christina (played by Romero’s wife Christine Forrest); a toyboy and cat surrogate for a lonely older woman, Mrs. Santini; a hit property to the radio host; and a fantasy identification figure to the phone-in listeners. But all of these positions are complicated or distorted: Martin the aggressor is a victim of his violent drives; Martin the stranger is the delivery boy from the store down the street; Martin the daemon is a rational teacher to the superstitious patriarch. And each role is ironic: Martin the ‘older brother’ is left behind as his enterprising ‘sister’ leaves town; Martin the hot young lover cannot save Mrs. Santini from depression and suicide; and neither the radio host nor the clamouring public understand that ‘The Count’ is for real, not a joke… All things considered, I would cite Martin as one of the most complex films in the horror genre, and one of best films of the 1970s.”

American Horror Project Volume Two out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

avatar

Alex Humphrey

Alex studied film at the University of Kent and went on to work for Universal Pictures in their Post Room gaining an inside look at the movie industry from the very bottom. Constantly writing reviews in everything from local magazines to Hip Hop sites Alex honed his critical skills even spending a brief period as a restaurant critic. Read more

Related post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.