Valentine’s Double Bill Part 1 – My Bloody Valentine (1981)

1981-my-bloody-valentine-poster1

This year I have decided that instead of my usual Valentine’s Day tradition of sitting alone in a dark room I will change things up and sit alone in a dark room reviewing horror movies. And what movies are more appropriate for the occasion than My Bloody Valentine and its remake? Here’s the first: Part 2, the remake, will follow over the next couple of days is here!

Released in 1981, right at the peak of the slasher movie frenzy, My Bloody Valentine is set in the improbably named mining town of Valentine Bluffs, where everyone is eagerly preparing for the first Valentine’s Day dance the town has held in 20 years. The reason for this is that 20 years ago an accident trapped 5 men in the mine. Everyone was too busy celebrating Valentines Day to notice so the sole survivor, Harry Warden, survived by eating his colleagues and vowed revenge on those responsible along with anyone who celebrates Valentines Day in the town ever again. Surely now that Harry is behind bars they’re safe to finally put the past behind them? Of course not.

“Trick or Treat!!! Wait, no, that’s the other guy in a mask… Not Jason, the OTHER one…”

Apart from a surprisingly effective opening scene, this film doesn’t do very much to separate itself from the countless slasher movies made around this time, but it nonetheless makes decent use of the various tropes of the genre, and even seems commited to a certain simplicity that works to its advantage. We get the typical voyeuristic first-person sequences shot from the perspective of Harry Warden, disposable teens with little worries beyond who’s going to go & get the next beer, & a bartender whose rants about Harry returning fall on deaf ears until it’s too late. Everything has it’s place though and there’s a laid back feeling to the film that, contrary to the brutal murders that occur pretty frequently, makes it come across as quite good-natured and fun, in turn making it feel mean to pick apart the cliches that are present. Harry’s a pretty straight-forward villain, the brief flashback gives us a motive, but beyond that we know nothing about him, no supernatural powers are alluded to, and his weapon is simply a pick-axe, occasionally backed up by whatever he finds to hand around him in some disgustingly imaginative moments.

“See, you really ought to floss”

The version I watched is seemingly the only one available in the UK – the theatrical cut which is 9 minutes shorter than the fully uncut one, meaning there are never any tremendously gruesome images on screen for more than a split second. A quick youtube search provides a handy compilation of the scenes reinstated for the American “uncut” version (only 3 minutes are added, but the director has said that the remaining 6 were just exposition and added nothing to the movie, with the exception of one particularly violent “double drill” scene that is badly damaged). In this cut version, the movie never becomes brutal enough to entirely counteract the light tone of the surrounding storyline. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it makes for a more accessible, perhaps more innocent slasher than the likes of the infamous “video nasties”;  but after seeing the cut scenes showing off some pretty decent effects I personally wish the longer version was available in the UK (*cough* Arrow Video *cough*) as the majority of them are genuinely unpleasant which will work nicely against the otherwise light, verging on whimsical nature of Valentine Bluffs’ residents.

Is this not romantic? Maybe that’s where I went wrong last Valentines…

It’s not a surprise this movie wasn’t nominated for any Oscars, but the writing, acting and directing are perfectly adequate for a film of this type. The cast are all likeable, and genuinely seem to have some chemistry as though they are genuinely friends. An unexpected drop in momentum occurs partway during the third act when an irritating amount of time is taken up by one of the girls refusing to climb a ladder, walk in a straight line, or generally do any of the simple tasks that might save her from Harry, but once she’s disposed of the pace is regained long before the very interesting ending. This drop is probably only noticeable however because the rest of the movie is so much fun. It’s frequently quoted as being Quentin Tarantino’s favourite slasher movie; it may not be my single favourite, but it’s definitely one of the better one’s I’ve seen; a brilliant pick for an unconventional Valentine’s movie, but still a very good slasher at any time of year.

7/10

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Lifeforce (1985) – Review

Following the enormous success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist (with the enjoyable The Funhouse in between doing pretty well too), Tobe Hooper signed a three film deal with Cannon Films, the company famed for their flurry of crazy films through the 1980’s. Both parties had big ideas of adapting the subtly titled novel Space Vampires to shake their respective  images as horror director and exploitation film studio, and this $25 million blockbuster was released… To near indifference, as it received mixed reviews and made back less than half it’s budget at the Box Office. What may have been forgotten about slowly became a cult hit, with a high-concept blend of sci-fi & horror, eventually prompting the dependable Arrow Video to release a special edition Blu-Ray. Does it deserve to remain forgotten or is it an under-appreciated gem?

Blue lights… it’s definitely an 80’s film.

Opening with blockbuster intent, the powerful score accompanies some spectacular scenes of asteroids and a space shuttle, as the British/American crew of the Churchill investigate Halley’s Comet. There’s a brilliantly handled mixture of suspense, mystery and a strong visual flair to the whole section of the film that takes place in space, as the investigation unearths alien activity in the form of a famously nude Mathilda May. The camera floats around dreamily, really helping to sell the zero-gravity effect, plus showing off the set designs with their vast & desolate, yet visually striking presence. The effects in deep space shots have inevitably dated, but rather than looking objectively bad, there’s an almost cel-shaded, unique quality to many of them that I felt enhanced the otherworldly feel of this section of the film. Returning to earth rather abruptly we’re left to discover the fate of the Churchill’s crew at the same time as the search party. I try to avoid spoilers but let’s be realistic; if the novels’ titular “Space Vampires” sat playing Monopoly with the humans there wouldn’t be much of a film. Their intent is slowly revealed throughout the film, in a surprisingly clever Rashomon-effect manner, relying on characters’ revelations. Though according to they’re being honest or true or being deceived the “truth” can change. With a film that already merges different genres together, adding this element of mystery really creates a unique experience. True to the horror element however, the means by which the Vampires acquire their sustenance has some horrendous results, with some genuinely shocking moments and fantastically unpleasant practical effects.

SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH

With the basic synopsis being; Tobe Hooper directs Cannon Films’ movie where space vampires are brought back to earth from Halley’s Comet, only to break free and cause chaos around London; it would be easy to assume that this is on some level a campy film, or at least has moments of humor. However, it is rare any of the uptight British characters or the tough-talking Americans crack a smile, let alone the film having any moments of comic relief. It’s an entirely straight-faced, sombre affair that would have so easily misfired into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory if it wasn’t so masterfully pulled off. For the most part, the cast are excellent, with some unexpectedly esteemed faces including  (later Sir) Patrick Stewart. It’s a shame however, given everything that the first two acts work so hard to achieve, that the third veers into the territory of yet another _____ of the Dead clone. It may have been budgetary constraints, as I’m sure the near-apocalyptic sequences in London were intended to be more exciting and more unique than what we’re ultimately presented with, and the alternative would have been having the big events unseen which would be even worse. It manages to narrowly avoid descending into visual gags and the like, so while this is by far the weakest part of the film, it isn’t destroyed in these moments. Thankfully returning to point towards the end, the crescendo of the film is as unpredictable and exciting as much that precedes it.

“Glasgow’s miles better”? Looks just like Glasgow to me.

I often see debate surrounding Tobe Hooper’s quality as a director, with some passing off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s most terrifying and difficult to watch moments as happy accidents; the result of the poor technical aspects of the film rather than masterful direction; and perhaps the same people perpetuating the belief that Poltergeist was practically directed by Steven Spielberg. Whatever truth lies in these stories, Lifeforce for me certainly adds another impressive entry to his early catalogue. Rather than reinvent Cannon’s label as exploitation masters, Hooper has managed something perhaps even harder; to make the signature excess and gratuity seem classy.

9/10

Critters (1986) – Review

Critters was released in 1986, and was definitely not a cash-in on the success of Gremlins two years prior (incidentally one of my favourite films of all time). It was apparently written before the Joe Dante film was released and they claim to have actually reworked the script to make it less similar. Regardless, it’s not the first time, and far from the last time, that two films have stark similarities so I’m not going to try and draw comparisons between them. (But obviously it’s nowhere near as good as Gremlins.)

Eeeewww.

The sci-fi opening to this film immediately demonstrates the good intent of this film. It has a visibly low budget, but a great deal of care has gone into the sets and costumes of this sequence. It’s a simple set-up scene with the “Crites” escaping a meteor prison (?). The apparent chief, an obese blue… thing, instructs two bounty hunters to hunt them down. No explanation is given about any of this, and it’s perhaps for the best. On their way to Earth, they take on human form in a sequence with some awesome Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque effects. One of them takes their form from a transmission of fictional rock star Johnny Steele’s music video “Power of the Night”. This is seemingly an enormous hit in the film’s setting as it’s played repeatedly by different characters throughout the film, but oddly no one ever seems to recognise the alien who’s taken on his image, but I digress. This duo is given some of the best scenes of the film, as they wreak havoc across the town in their search for the Crites. Their deadpan destruction lends a genuine dark humour to the film that carries over in many later scenes.

“Take me to your leader”

We are also introduced to a family that lives in Kansas. Supposedly the main characters, they’re lifted directly from every family film that has ever been made; the troublemaking brother that irritates his older sister and their parents who are just there with little purpose beyond the Dad owning a shotgun and the Mum from E.T. screaming a lot. They’re likeable enough, but a little bit too long is spent setting up their paper-thin characters, and those of some other citizens of the town, with some incredibly awkwardly acted/directed dialogue and ensuring that the boy has plenty of dangerous toys and hobbies that would come in handy in the slim possibility that a group of alien beasts started terrorising them, or anything like that.

Etc.

It seems like quite a long time after the opening scene that the Crites feature again, and they’re only seen in brief glimpses for the first part which gives a good build-up to the attacks.Eventually it builds to a full face-off which is exciting and tense and funny when intended, especially a gag involving the Crites’ subtitles that I expect will be rehashed through the sequels. It does feel like this film was dialled back to attain a more family-friendly rating as the brief glimpses of somewhat nasty deaths coupled with the antics of the bounty hunters and wide pool of expendable secondary characters suggest much darker early drafts, but the result is an entertaining, funny sci-fi monster movie that’s a good introduction to this type of horror for younger viewers and a good, if almost entirely by-the-numbers example of 80’s horror, for better or worse depending on your view (in my opinion for the best).

7/10

Mac and Me (1988) – Review

Coming 6 years after E.T. the Extra Terrestrial , Mac and Me’s plot is instantly recognisable – an alien finds himself on earth, befriends a young boy with his own problems, people don’t believe the boy for a while as he’s trying to save the alien from the government officials intent on securing the creature. Further to this, a working title for E.T. was E.T. and MeFrom hereon it would be fair to say ‘okay, it’s not the most original concept, but perhaps it’s a nice enough film’. It isn’t. Produced on a reasonable budget of $16 million it bombed at the box office, received abysmal reviews, and has only since gained some vague popularity as the ‘so bad it’s good’ camps (including myself) have discovered it. The titular Mac (Mysterious Alien Creature) and his horrifically deformed family find themselves inexplicably sucked into a NASA probe and brought back to earth. They are separated meaning the allegedly cute but actually quite disturbing Mac finds himself in suburban California. This is where Eric and his Mother & Brother have just moved to, prompting ‘hilarious’ escapades. Eric is wheelchair-bound (the actor playing him has spina bifida), which in itself is worth applauding. The moments  this introduces vary from agreeable fun; such as him using the wheelchair to speed down a hill away from the bad guys; to somewhat questionable; after this chase he careers into oncoming traffic. Also a scene featuring Eric melodramatically wheeling through a meadow swiftly turns into the most inadvertently iconic scene of the movie – what made them think this scene was okay is beyond me.

OH GOD KILL IT

These adventures in suburbia are juxtaposed against increasingly disturbing scenes of Mac’s family trying to make it through the desert to find him. Growing weaker and thinner, they are seen collapsing while the father desperately tries to find some food for them. On their home planet they are seen drinking from underground liquid, but of course in the desert they find none. Mac however finds a substance that matches perfectly – Coca Cola. E.T. has the somewhat infamous Reese’s Pieces product placement, but it wasn’t a major plot point. I’d estimate that a Coca Cola logo is visible in the frame in at least half of the scenes, and the placement doesn’t end there. Skittles are frequently visible for no reason, until one scene where Mac is somehow able to eat them, bringing his earthly diet up to the standard of a 10-year-old’s dream. The simultaneously greatest and worst moment of the film however comes from what I think may be the most outrageous, blatant product placement of any film. An entire key scene is set in a MacDonald’s restaurant, even featuring Ronald MacDonald himself and a main character a member of staff. If this wasn’t enough, literally everyone in the restaurant is dancing with saccharin grins on their faces; it goes so far that it is like watching a 10 minute advert for MacDonalds. Actually, it is not ‘like’ watching one, it IS watching a 10 minute advert. I watched the trailer for the film afterwards and, well, just have a look for yourselves;

Otherwise, acting isn’t shockingly bad but certainly isn’t great and the effects would be reasonably good if it wasn’t for the horrible design of the aliens. The plot plods through in a pretty straight-forward, predictable manner until the final 10 minutes, which come with a couple of surprises, if only because it seems the writers themselves weren’t too sure what should happen. Ending on a foreboding and presumptuous promise of ‘We’ll be Back!’, the unanimously poor reception provided the mercy of there being no sequel. Unfortunately it doesn’t commit to being completely terrible, with a few positive points stopping it from troubling the greatest ‘bad movies’ like Plan 9 From Outer Space & Troll 2, but it has enough misguided scenes and uniquely shameless product placement to satisfy anyone who enjoys this specific genre.

2/10