Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Top Ten for 1981

1981 could very well go down in horror history as the year of the mediocre slasher. Spurred by the surprise box office success of both Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), a seemingly never-ending spate of stalk-n-slash films primarily concerned with body counts and bloodletting were being produced during this time. Yep, U.S. audiences seemed to want nothing more than to see a bunch of ill-defined, anonymous, typically obnoxious young people die in various gruesome ways during the "Reagan Era." And they didn't want little things like plot, characterization, originality or anything else standing in their way. These films, which were primarily made in either America or Canada but with the occasional foreign contribution trying to cash in on the craze, were actually being made with such regularity that a new one seemed to crop up in theaters every single week. Many were box office hits; others came and went with little fanfare. Most had either an outdoor (Don't Go in the Woods, Just Before Dawn), campground (The Burning) or small town (My Bloody Valentine) setting, while others centered their action around either high school (Graduation Day) or college (Final Exam, Happy Birthday to Me, Hell NightThe Prowler) campuses; basically any place where young people may be congregating en mass.

Mass sequelization was also just in its infancy, as we saw early sequels to both Halloween (with John Carpenter and Debra Hill returning to write and produce) and Friday, with many more to come throughout the decade. There were so many of these coming out, someone actually decided to parody them all in the film Student Bodies. As popular as these movies were and continue to be with fans, nearly all of them are every bit as forgettable as they are predictable. The ones that usually fared best were those that tried to do something a little bit different. Ed Hunt's Bloody Birthday, for instance, added a Village of the Damned-style twist that featured three young children who were born during a solar eclipse doing all of the slashing and hacking.

Despite the sheer amount of formulaic slash-em-ups made in 1981, the film that clearly rose to the top of the Class of 1981 was Sam Raimi's very low-budget, regionally-shot (in Michigan) and trend-setting The Evil DeadDead (which wouldn't garner a wider theatrical release until 1983) not only made the slasher film seem unimaginative and minor league by comparison, but also upped the ante when it came to on-screen gore and boasted invigorating and influential camerawork that helped turn it into one of the great sleeper hits of the decade.

But Raimi's now-classic film wasn't the only film to make its mark this year, as two well-made, respectable and award-winning werewolf films also crept their way into theaters and genre fans' hearts. Those were Joe Dante's The Howling and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London. Both films (which have since gone on to become cult classics) feature strong comedy elements and some outstanding updated transformation scenes that pretty much buried the time-lapses dissolves of yesteryear for good. Another worthy but often overlooked film along the same lines was Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen; an interesting blend of cop / detective thriller and werewolf (sort of) horror, with strong Native American themes. Spanish actor / director's Paul Naschy's famous El Hombre Lobo werewolf series was also revived this same year with the release of The Night of the Werewolf (first issued as The Craving here in the U.S.) Unfortunately, that film was a huge box office flop and forced its director / star to go to Japan for funding on future projects.

Perhaps even more notable than the werewolf films was Abel Ferrara's excellent, taut, very gritty and sometimes quite arty urban thriller Ms. 45, which effectively blends rape-revenge with Repulsion-like psychological horror. In Hong Kong, the busy Shaw Brothers and director Chih-Hung Kuei gave us Bewitched, an unjustly neglected little gem that's every bit as imaginative, inventive and gore-soaked as Raimi's more famous film. For small screen audiences, Frank De Felitta made the very good TV chiller Dark Night of the Scarecrow, which involves a murdered retarded man coming back from the grave in scarecrow garb to get revenge on his attackers. Canadian director David Cronenberg's Scanners - a tale of super telepaths - was released to big box office receipts thanks to an intriguing story and a much-touted exploding head scene.

In Europe, they were still feeling the after-effects of monster hit Dawn of the Dead with at least a dozen inferior zombie films produced there in 1981 alone. Best of the lot was perhaps Lucio Fulci's gruesome and sometimes effectively surreal opus The Beyond, which peppered its "gates of hell" premise with such wondrous sights as a tarantula attack, gouged out eyeballs, gunshots to the face, head impalements and other gore sfx. Fulci also gave us House by the Cemetery, which again featured a zombie-like killer lurking in a haunted home's cellar. Some of these Euro / Italian zombie films, while not great (or even good) have gone on to become minor cult classics, such as Andrea Bianchi's Burial Ground and Jean Rollin's bad-movie favorite Zombie Lake.

Joe D'Amato's Monster Hunter, a follow-up to his 1980 hit The Grim Reaper, actually attempted to blend slasher and zombie films together and surprisingly just about pulled it off. Frank Agrama's Dawn of the Mummy (which was an American / Egyptian / Italian co-production) decided to merge a resurrected killer mummy with zombies. Certain exploitation staples of the 70s seemed to be dying out - Cannibal films, such as Umberto Lenzi's gruesome Cannibal ferox, nunsploitation films, such as Bruno Mattei's The Other Hell, and Jaws ripoffs, such as Enzo G. Castellari's The Last Shark, were still being released here and there, just not with the frequency we'd seen the previous decade.


Top 5
* * * * * * * * * *
1. The Evil Dead
USA / Sam Raimi / 1/2
* * * * * * * * * *
2. Ms. 45
USA / Abel Ferrara / 1/2
* * * * * * * * * *
3. Gu (Bewitched)
Hong Kong / Chih-Hung Kuei / 1/2
* * * * * * * * * *
4. The Howling
USA / Joe Dante / 1/2
* * * * * * * * * *
5. An American Werewolf in London
UKUSA / John Landis / 


Rounding Out the Top 10:

6. Scanners / Canada / David Cronenberg / 
7. Dark Night of the Scarecrow / USA [TV] / Frank De Felitta / 
8. Wolfen / USA / Michael Wadleigh / 
9. Suddenly in Dark Night (Gipeun bam gabjagi) / South Korea / Young Nam Ko / 
10. Nightdreams / USA [X] / Stephen Sayadian / 


Also seen:

Beyond, The (...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà) / Italy / Lucio Fulci / 1/2
Black Cat, The (Gatto nero) / Italy / Lucio Fulci / 
- Bloody Birthday (Creepers; Creeps) / USA / Ed Hunt / 1/2
- Bloody Moon (Die Säge des Todes) / Spain, West Germany / Jesus Franco / 
- Boogens, The / USA / James L. Conway / 
- Burial Ground (Le notti del terrore) / Italy / Andrea Bianchi / 
- Burning, The / USA / Tony Maylam / 1/2
- Cannibal ferox (Make Them Die Slowly) / Italy / Umberto Lenzi / 1/2
- Corpse Mania (Si yiu) / Hong Kong / Chih-Hung Kuei / 1/2
- Dawn of the Mummy / Egypt, Italy, USA / Frank Agrama / 
- Day Dream (Daydream; Hakujitsumu) / Japan [X] / Tetsuji Takechi / 1/2
- Day of Judgment, A (Stormbringer) / USA / C.D.H. Reynolds / 1/2
- Dead & Buried / USA / Gary Sherman / 
- Deadly Blessing / USA / Wes Craven / 1/2
- Delusion (The House Where Death Lives) / USAAlan Beattie / 
- Don't Go in the Woods (Don't Go in the Woods... Alone!) / USA / James Bryan / NO STARS!
- Evilspeak / USA / Eric Weston / 1/2
- Faces of Death II / USA [doc] / John Alan Schwartz / NO STARS!
- Final Exam / USA / Jimmy Huston / 
- Friday the 13th Part 2 / USA / Steve Miner / 
- Galaxy of Terror (Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror) / USA / Bruce D. Clark / 
- Ghost Story / USA / John Irvin / 1/2
- Graduation Day / USA / Herb Freed / 
- Halloween II / USA / Rick Rosenthal / 1/2
- Happy Birthday to Me / Canada / J. Lee Thompson / 1/2
- Hell Night / USA / Tom De Simone / 1/2
- House by the Cemetery, The (Quella villa accanto al cimitero) / Italy / Lucio Fulci / 1/2
- Imp, The (Xiong bang) / Hong Kong / Dennis Yu / 
- Inseminoid (Horror Planet) / UK / Norman J. Warren / 
- Jaws of Satan (King Cobra) / USA / Bob Claver / 1/2
Just Before Dawn / USA / Jeff Lieberman / 1/2
- Last Shark, The (Great White; L'ultimo squalo) / Italy / Enzo G. Castellari / 
- Life After Life (Zai sheng ren) / Hong Kong / Peter Yung / 
- Love Massacre (Ai sha) / Hong Kong / Patrick Tam /
- Mad Foxes, The (Los violadores) / Spain, Switzerland / Paul Grau / SBIG
- Madhouse (And When She Was Bad) / Italy, USA / Ovidio G. Assonitis / 
- Midnight Offerings / USA [TV] / Rod Holcomb / 1/2
- Monster Club, The / UK / Roy Ward Baker / 1/2
- Monster Hunter (Absurd; Rosso sangue) / Italy / Joe D'Amato / 1/2
- Murder Obsession (Fear; Follia omicida) / France, Italy / Riccardo Freda / 
- My Bloody Valentine / Canada / George Mihalka / 1/2
- Mystics in Bali (Leák) / Indonesia / H. Tjut Djalil / 
- Nesting, The (Massacre Mansion) / USA / Armand Weston / 1/2
- Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (Blood Splash; Nightmare) / USA / Romano Scavolini / 1/2
- Nightmare Man, The / UK [TV] / Douglas Camfield / 
- Night of Horror / USA / Tony Malanowski / NO STARS!
- Night of the Werewolf, The (El retorno del Hombre Lobo) / Spain / Paul Naschy / 1/2
- Other Hell, The (Guardian of Hell; L'altro inferno) / Italy / Bruno Mattei / 1/2
- Piranha Part Two: The Spawning / Italy, Netherlands, USA / Ovidio G. Assonitis and James Cameron / 1/2
- Pit, The (Teddy) / Canada / Lew Lehman / 
- Prowler, The (Rosemary's Killer) / USA / Joseph A. Zito / 1/2
- Sadomania (Hellhole Women) / Spain, West Germany / Jesus Franco / 1/2
- Scream (The Outing) / USA / Byron Quisenberry / NO STARS!
- Side Show / USA [TV] / William Conrad /1/2
- Student Bodies / USA / Mickey Rose / 
- Venom / UK / Piers Haggard / 
- Wicked Wife (Xie qi) / Taiwan / Kuang Hui / 1/2
- Zombie Lake (Le lac des morts vivants) / France, Spain / Jean Rollin / SBIG


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