While Bill Olsenís Code Red label has been busy grabbing headlines for a decade with both its eccentric release slate and its founderís own eccentric behavior, brother William Olsen has been quietly steering Scorpion Releasing to tremendous success. Scorpionís slate doesnít tend to dig into the deep, weird corners as its counterpart, but the outfit has nonetheless uncovered some terrific gems. Forgotten slashers, obscure Cushing-Lee collaborations, an early Oliver Stone effort, bizarre westerns, and even teen comedies have been granted a second life on both DVD and Blu-ray. Hereís a sampling of Scorpionís eclectic horror offerings from the past few years, a platter that features embryonic slashers, devilish supernatural thrillers, and nature-run-amok nonsense.
A Candle for the Devil (1973)
In a typical exploitation bait-and-switch, thereís no Satan to be found in A Candle for the Devil (aka It Happened at Nightmare Inn). There is, however, plenty of puritanical slashing, as a pair of fundamentalist sisters runs a European inn and canít help but judge their hedonistic guests. When an attempt to boot one scantily-clad girl from the inn goes horribly, fatally awry, it awakens a bloodlust within them that suddenly finds them hacking up anyone that doesnít meet their strict moral standards. Whatís worse, they dispose of the bodies in their oven and wine vats, thus thoroughly polluting the food served to the other patrons, making this film a clear, direct antecedent to the slasher mayhem soon to come in more ways than one.
But itís not quite nonstop mayhem itself thanks to an abundance of subplots involving both the two sisters and a tenant who starts to (slowly) catch on to all of the mysterious disappearances surrounding the inn. One of the sisters is carrying on an affair with one of her employees, while the other is still reeling from having been ditched at the altar years ago, so thereís certainly more character development for the psychos than youíll typically find in later slashers. What is familiar is that puritanical strand that has run throughout the slasher genreóitís no coincidence that certain clichťs regarding purity and virginity have become embedded because so many of these proto-efforts made that the explicit text. Thereís no reading into the moralizing of A Candle for the Devil: the victims here are all supposed hussies who wear skimpy clothes or have children out of wedlock.
This particular film is also explicitly interested in undercutting and unravelling that moralizing, as it exposes the psychotic sistersí obvious hypocrisy. It does so in wicked fashion, too, as the climax takes an almost darkly comedic turn once the sisters make a horrifying discovery about one of their victims and completely lose their shit. Unfortunately, a clipped ending (well, itís more like a non-ending) leaves a bit to be desired: Iím not sure Iíve ever seen a movie that basically quits like this one does, as the credits begin rolling before the movieís even over. Still, thereís some scummy greatness to be found here, and itís couched in that eerie Eurohorror vibe as a bonus. Scorpionís release restores the film to its original glory to boot, rescuing it from years of languishing in public domain hell.
Yet another film that took the 70s eco-horror wave, Dogs is ďJaws with paws,Ē as it twists manís best friend into a pack of savage beasts that terrorize a small college town. Only the presence of a secretive nearby government project offers the vaguest hint of an explanation for the madness. Otherwise, these are just a bunch of asshole dogs and only the combined powers of stuffy 70s college professors can stop them. And if you think the dogs are assholes, wait until you get a load of Harlan Thompson (David McCallum), the resident curmudgeon whose contempt for everyone and everything surrounding him is obvious. He trudges through each scene as if he were hungover, with bloodshot eyes and booze on his breath, shit-talking his colleagues at every turn for good measure.
But even heís no match for these animals, who were once just perfectly domesticated pets before turning on their owners. In the filmís commitment to staging as much carnage as possible, these dogs wreck everything, starting with a poor farmerís sheep and then the farmer himself. From there, no one is safe: old ladies, a hapless bicyclist, even a group of kindergartners putting on a dog show. These dogs donít discriminateótheyíll fuck anyone up, especially a bunch of dopey college students just looking to party. Dogs is quite ruthless in this pursuit too, as it leaves an entire trail of mangled flesh in its wake before ascending to a vaguely apocalyptic resolution that hints at something even more widespread and sinister involving other animals. Itís a shame we never got Cats, a follow-up seemingly teased before the credits roll here.
The Silent Scream (1979)
Perched right in that nebulous zone between Halloween and the American slasher boom following Friday the 13th, The Silent Scream feels like one of those embryonic works: it has slashing on its mind, but itís far more preoccupied with establishing atmosphere and mystery. More an Old Dark House riff than an 80s body count offering, itís about a group of college students desperately seeking housing before the semester begins. They find refuge at the Engels house, a secluded ocean-side Victorian mansion that looks exactly like the kind of place you should avoid: matriarch Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo) is somewhat cagey, and her son Mason (Brad Rearden) is a reclusive oddball whoís seemingly been tasked with patrolling the place, specifically making sure that certain parts of the house remain off-limits. The Engels house is almost certainly hoarding some terrible secret; even worse, it could be related to a string of murders that begins leaving the new tenants hacked up.
Set towards the end of summer, The Silent Scream has an appropriately somber autumnal vibe that haunts the entire film, shading it in an odd sense of melancholy. Where most of the following decadeís slasher films would be splattery romps, this one weaves a sordid (if not familiar) tale through a handful of terrific turns from De Carlo, Rearden, and Rebecca Balding, whoís very much cut from the Laurie Strode final girl mold. The first half of Silent Scream is wonderfully compelling, marked by these naturalistic performances, restrained violence, and a sparse eerie score, all of which string along the intriguing mystery. Just when you think it canít possibly deliver on this promise, it wheels out horror goddess Barbara Steele for a hellacious climax. Without speaking a coherent word, Steele commands the rest of the film with a wild-eyed turn thatís as heartbreaking as it is unnerving. The Silent Scream might not be the most original film from this movement, but it is one of the more striking in its commitment to update the gothic chillers Steele headlined years before. A true gem.
The Incubus (1981)
The slasher movement takes a supernatural turn with The Incubus, a sick little riff featuring a haggard John Cassavetes doing battle with another demonic entity, albeit one far removed from Rosemaryís Baby. Youíll find nothing of the tactful psychological terror of Polanskiís film here, as director John Hough goes right for the gut with queasy, visceral violence. Cassavetes is Sam Cordell, a small-town doctor tasked with solving a medical mystery surrounding an outbreak of rapes and murders that leave the victimsí bodies absolutely ravaged, almost impossibly so. As the corpses continue to mount, Cordell becomes increasingly exasperated in a turn of events that forces Cassavetes to utter various lines about ruptured uteruses and semen volume. Thereís a stretch in the middle of The Incubus where the mystery deepens through expository nonsense but Cassavetes singlehandedly keeps it afloat with this unhinged performance.
Eventually, the details and backstory come into focus, making it clear that Cassavetes and company are dealing with an honest-to-god incubus thatís somehow manifesting itself through a teenagerís nightmares. Even worse, it just happens to the boy his daughter is currently smitten with, thus putting her squarely in danger. Things take even weirder turns (towards straight up Satanism and witchcraft territory, even) as the mystery unravels, with each revelation being accompanied by more savagery to satisfy the gore quotient. Roaming POV shots spying on scantily-clad women are punctuated with messy splatter, not unlike any number of the eraís slasher films. Quite unlike many of those films, however, The Incubus is a genuinely scummy dispatch with a wickedly perverse ending. Not to be missed, if only because itís the only film where you can watch John Cassavetes marvel at semen during multiple scenes.
Whatís the deal with horror movies featuring little kids named Cathy? While Lurkers doesnít reach the delirious heights of Cathyís Curse (few films do, to be fair), itís still a loopy, feverish little effort with plenty of gonzo moments itself. Consider this: it opens with young Cathy being terrorized by her own psychotic mother before a pair of girls attempts to strangle her with a jump rope right there on the street, in front of their apartment building. During her near-death experience, Cathy has visions of spectral figures her mother refers to as ďlurkers,Ē a group of ghouls she hangs over her daughterís head like a guillotine. If Cathy steps out of line, her mother insists sheíll also become one of the lurkers, making it quite obvious that this woman is insane.
That suspicion is confirmed when the film picks up years later, with Cathy now an adult haunted by that traumatic childhood, which climaxed with her mother murdering her father. Both she and her brother narrowly escaped the same fate and have tried to move on. Heís become a priest, but sheís still visited by nightmares and visions of the lurkers despite growing up to be quite successful and recently engaged. Some red flags alert the audience to a disturbing undercurrent lurking beneath this, however, as her fiancť Bob seems to be engaged in some shady, illicit business. When you see him dangling his photographer skills in front of a pretty woman and promising her modelling success, you just assume heís a cheating scumbag.
Little do you know that Lurkers holds way more secrets than this. For about an hour, itís easy to assume this is an aimless, sleepy little psychological thriller about a woman being pushed to the edge of madness by both trauma and genetics. Has she inherited her motherís insanity, or is she simply haunted in a metaphorical sense? The answer is much more interesting than these two obvious possibilities, as Lurkers takes a fucking awesome turn during a weird, hallucinatory climax thatís equal parts Carnival of Souls and Rosemaryís Baby. Elevating itself from an unassuming snooze to a legitimately spooky tour-de-force, Lurkers becomes a fugue of sledgehammer violence, Satanic rituals, and damned souls. This oneís a true surprise, if only because it doesnít seem like anything special before unleashing this on an unsuspecting viewer. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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