Oct. 28, 2009 - Issue #732: Dan Mangan
In honour of the season, one of Vue's intrepid film buffs digs up some classic spook flicksThe 1980s were strange and deliriously productive years for horror. The boundaries of taste had already been pushed past their breaking point. The home video market exploded. The inevitable result was the transformation of carnage into camp. Horror always lent itself to humour, its premises so often silly in the cold light of day. Hysterical fear collapses easily into hysterical laughter. The dismal side of this was that audiences were frequently encouraged to take distance from rather than become absorbed by the stories, to stay on the surface. Don't shudder to consider the terror onscreen when you can smugly look down on the terrorized—the victims are so dumb!—and admire the special effects. But with the remake industry now gobbling up rights to '80s titles, reconsideration is facilitated through fresh releases of the originals on DVD.
The new comedy-horror equation was apparently still in its infancy when An American Werewolf in London (1981) debuted. Critics felt the film couldn't make up its mind. Yet John Landis' follow-up to The Blues Brothers ('80) feels lovingly invested in both werewolf mythology and the gravity of its protagonist's dilemma. The humour emerges naturally from the situation, even if the use of every popular song with "moon" in the title feels ham-fisted in its irony.
It's a story about friendship. Two horny young guys in puffy coats backpacking through Northern England stray too far from the road and onto the foggy moors. They fall victim to the local lycanthrope. One dies, one lives. The survivor's taken to London, taken home by a hot nurse and encounters some unnerving side effects once the full moon rises. The dead friend, lacerated flesh now growing putrid, pays regular visits. He's stuck wandering the Earth until the final trace of his werewolf-killer has been extinguished, so he asks his best pal to kill himself. There are captivating dream sequences. Griffin Dunne is terrific as the dead friend with deadpan humour. "Ever talked to a corpse?" he asks. "It's boring!" And the legendary transformation scene is hideous and completely fixating, a testament to the allure of tactile rubbery effects over blandly smooth CGI.
He always says grace, makes birdhouses in the basement and gets choked-up while giving a speech at a neighbourhood barbecue. He's also prepared to butcher his family if they can't realize his demented Republican fantasy of the perfectly wholesome household. Inspired by the real case of murderer John List and scripted by crime fiction maestro Donald Westlake, The Stepfather ('87) is a model of low-budget crispness. There's no fatuous attempts to explain Blake's psychosis, while the best subtextual elements—the parallels between Blake and his teenage stepdaughter, the vaguely unseemly romantic vibes emanating from the stepdaughter's psychiatrist—remain just present enough to read. There are references, especially to Hitchcock—the newspaper scene and central relationship recall Shadow of a Doubt ('42), while the clean-up scene, the shower, and the big knife echo Psycho ('60)—but these enrich rather than detract from the film's distinctive mood. The Stepfather made a cult star of Terry O'Quinn, whose performance is so committed, so nuanced, it's positively chilling.
Trick or Treat ('86), by contrast, probably wouldn't frighten a child, but it uses the genre to generate something so sensitive to teenage experience, so merrily immersed in a subculture, it hardly matters. A much-bullied high school head banger who goes by Ragman—played by Skippy from Family Ties—dabbles in the occult after his favoured metal god dies. The opening montage is a tour of Ragman's tormented adolescent mind, the bedroom lined with action figures, studded collars, a Priest calendar, candles and a poster of his beloved Sammi Curr gazing down at him. His identification is total.
"Do you even care who's running for student council?" a big-haired co-ed inquires, assuring that the gulf separating Ragman from his schoolmates is unbreachable. The question's posed just before Aryan jocks throw Ragman into a public pool, another scene of humiliation from which our hero stomps away, his sneakers squishing loudly with water, as he sputters, "Bunch of fucking assholes!" This attention to detail is characteristic of Trick or Treat. Its narrative's beyond ridiculous, and the last act, devoted to killing the ultra-queer, ballet-trained metal beast unleashed from Pandora's box—actually a record which offers revenge advice and conjures the dead if played backwards—gets a little tiring, but the writers and director Charles Martin Smith never let a moment go by without some sharp shard of wit intervening.
Unlike the aforementioned films there's no new, or even good DVD of Trick or Treat. The crappy pan-and-scan version I bought for 10 bucks sports no supplements, and the cover makes it seem like Gene Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne are the stars of the movie when the two together inhabit about three—brilliant!—minutes of screen-time total. I write this in the hope that this sorry state of affairs will change. V
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