It’s that time of year again…time to watch some classics and/or guilty pleasures to get us in the mood for Halloween night. Here are some of my favorite picks:
1. Night of the Living Dead (1990). Special effects maestro Tom Savini took the directorial reins and George Romero provided the screenplay for this thoughtful remake of the 1968 classic that preserves the plot while providing some new twists, most of which work quite well. Casting is good — Tony Todd, before he was Candyman and the creepy mortician from the Final Destination films, plays Ben, and Patricia Tallman is Barbara. Tom Towles, the twisted sidekick from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, is Harry.
Tallman’s Barbara is not helpless and semi-comatose like Judith O’Dea’s original. Instead, she’s more like Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from Alien — tough and in control, though even she gets crazy as events intensify. Towles adds a welcome edge of sleaze to the character of Harry Cooper. The zombie makeup is impressive, but since it’s rated R, it’s not as gory as the original Dawn and Day. Still, it provides a consistent level of suspense because Romero does a good job of shattering our expectations along the way.
2. Piranha (1978). I thought Alexandra Aja’s 2010 remake was okay, but here’s a classic case of spinning gold out of an incredibly low budget. Joe Dante directed (and John Sayles wrote the screenplay) the original for an estimated $600,000, and he really made the most of his limited resources.
Without the digital effects team (or 3D) that Aja had at his disposal, he still does a mighty good job with limited resources. Sure, you can tell that the carnivorous school swimming by is just a bunch of fish painted on a glass plate, but that only adds to the low-budget fun.
The screenplay is a perfect blend of classic horror and knowing camp, Pino Donaggio’s lush score is wonderful, and it’s got a cast to die for. Corman legend Dick Miller (A Bucket of Blood) is the sleazy resort owner who refuses to cancel the grand opening. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is the scientist who created the mutant fish. Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul) is a camp counselor.
And Barbara Steele — Barbara Steele! — is the government official who assures us that there’s nothing left to fear (yeah, right). The makeup is provided by a young Rob Bottin (The Thing), and it’s great. Who can forget the scene in which they pull Keenan Wynn out of the water and see that the flesh of his legs have been eaten away to the bone? Piranha is truly B-movie heaven.
3. Sleepaway Camp (1983). Some films are born for cult movie status, and this nasty little slasher — whether intentionally or accidentally — easily earns that crown. Back in 1983, taking a cue from the popularity of the Friday the 13th series, writer/director Robert Hiltzik decided to up the ante by making the plot even sleazier and the gore even nastier than the Paramount films.
As most every slasher aficionado knows by now, it’s the story of a strange little girl named Angela (Felissa Rose) who is tormented by the other kids at summer camp and is defended by her cousin, Ricky (Jonathan Tiersten) and would-be boyfriend Paul (Christopher Collet). As all this drama is going on, counselors and campers are being offed in various gruesome ways, including death by boiling water.
There are many factors that make the film so off-kilter. All the kids at camp are really cruel and foul-mouthed, and they wear hilariously tight and small 1980s clothing. If you thought Nancy Allen’s shorts in Carrie looked like they were cutting off her circulation, you’ll be blown away by the genital-highlighting gear worn by this gang.
And since the movie was made in upstate New York, they all have the “N’Yawk” accent and the attitude. Desiree Gould, who plays Angela’s Aunt Martha, delivers a jaw-droppingly bad performance, which actually works in the film’s favor. There are also kinky flashbacks that show how Angela became an orphan and started living with her aunt and cousin. And the shock ending is really a shock ending!
None of the sequels are as good as the original, although the second one, starring Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela as Angela, now all grown up but still insane, is fun. In 2000, Hiltzik’s film was rediscovered by a whole new audience on DVD and the director, Rose and Gould all became cult stars and started making more movies and convention appearances.
4. Tenebrae (1982). Remember when it was exciting to anticipate the release of the next Argento film? Well, Tenebrae should bring back happy memories, because it’s easily his finest giallo. Comprehensible, perfectly plotted and packed with suspense and splatter, it’s excellent Halloween viewing.
Tony Franciosa stars as Peter Neal, an American author of mystery thrillers, who is in Rome promoting his newest novel, “Tenebrae.” He receives a letter from a crazed fan who says his books have inspired him to go on a killing spree, and sure enough, the bodies start piling up.
Daria Nicolodi (Argento’s former squeeze) co-stars as Neal’s devoted assistant, who pitches in to help him find out whodunnit, and John Saxon (A Nightmare on Elm Street) is his agent.
The stars of the film, though, are the cinematography and set pieces. Argento’s Suspiria cinematographer, Luciano Tovoli, provides some great stuff here, especially when his craning camera prowls all around the outside of an apartment building of a soon-to-be victim, elongating the suspense to the point of unbearability. And Argento enjoys ratcheting up the suspense. Just as our nerves have been stretched to the breaking point watching a young women try to escape the killer, he throws in a vicious attack dog that also starts to pursue her!
The gore is great. A victim’s arm is hacked off with an axe, and her dismembered stump decorates the walls with crimson for what seems like forever before the killer finishes her off. And the film does a really great job with the mystery. Dropping hints all along the way, Argento keeps the killer’s identity a secret until the truly mind-blowing climax. There’s also a well-earned pop-up scare that will have you clinging to the ceiling.
I first saw Tenebrae on VHS in heavily-edited form as the ridiculously-titled Unsane, and it was still good! But the easily available, completely uncut DVDs and Blu-Rays are the way to go. And it’s got a great score by members of Goblin that you can dance to!