Monday, October 21, 2013

Hidden Gems: 20 Great Overlooked Films of the 80s


The unloved. The ignored. The misunderstood. The barely released. The unclassifiable. The obscure. This countdown is all about genuinely good 80s movies that fall under the horror umbrella that no one seems to be watching. If you ask many fans to name a hidden gem of the genre, you'll usually get a response akin to Basket Case or Re-Animator. While these films may not be well-known to your Average Joe, they are well-known, very well-known in fact, to dedicated horror fans around the globe. With this list, I wanted to go to a depth of obscurity and neglect bordering on criminal and shine a spotlight on some very deserving efforts that have received little to no attention at all. I hope readers can find something that appeals to them from this list and seek out and take a chance on some of these well-done, unique and / or ambitious films. Since there are numerous factors that play into what people watch and numerous reasons certain films have been all but forgotten, I figured it best to begin this with a rundown of the "why's." Why are certain films completely ignored by genre fans? Why have so many good, interesting films been allowed to just slip between the cracks; especially those that have promising starts in film festivals and such?

Reason 1: Long-Delayed Availability. Any film that's not a well-publicized wide release from a major studio has had to build its reputation and develop a fan base over time. It's pretty much always been this way and it often takes awhile for some films to get their due... if they ever do. Certain directors whose films have been widely available on a home viewing format here in America since the 80s (Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci are good examples) have had plenty of time to cultivate fan followings. Other filmmakers haven't been so lucky and, comparatively, their films have only been available for a fraction of the time. In other words, they still need time to catch up. As far as fandom is concerned, it's often as much an issue of distribution as it is film quality. Now with the playing field somewhat leveled with nearly everything under the sun available to view online, it will be quite interesting to see what transpires over time. What previously hard-to-find films will be re-discovered and gain a following? And what films will continue to sit in the shadows? Since the internet is still pretty much in its infancy, these questions are still waiting to be answered.

Reason 2: Limited Audience Appeal. Pretty simple: some films aren't easily digestible to the masses, never will be and thus will forever stay on the fringes. That's the price one pays for looking outside the box and trying to be different.

Reason 3: Poor Distribution. Needless to say, Paramount, Universal and other heavy hitters have the money to get their films out to the masses, or,  at the very least, make the general public aware of their existence. Unless these studios take an indie like The Blair Witch Project (1999) or Paranormal Activity (2007) under their wing, smaller films released by smaller distributors have a much more difficult time finding an audience. The same rule applies to home video distribution, with the majors dominating all facets and the minors fighting among themselves to fill in the small cracks the majors aren't filling. While Redbox is little more than a portable Blockbuster "New Release" section and does nothing to help the plight of neglected gems, Netflix has been something of a recent godsend; offering up a good mix of current low-budget independent films as well as older ones. Some of the films listed below filled video shelves in the 80s (though some on obscure labels) but never made their way onto DVD. Others never merited a VHS or DVD release here in America at all.

Reason 4: Language Barrier. Many people refuse to watch a foreign-language film with subtitles, which automatically limits said film's potential audience. It is what it is. Ones that were English-dubbed during the 80s and 90s reached a wider audience during the video store days and continue to do so.

Reason 5: No Marquee Value. Some directors are a brand name unto themselves and their attachment to any film in any regard will automatically rope in an audience. But for every John Carpenter or Wes Craven there are thousands of others whose name means nothing to the world at large. There's only so much room at the top, right? While Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), Carpenter (Halloween) and others like George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) each had to earn their footing in the genre with at least two or three key films, nowadays becoming a "name" in the genre has little to do with talent and more to do with image and branding. Robert Cummings didn't exactly earn his popularity as a genre filmmaker the old-fashioned way: he already had a dedicated built-in fan base from his music career ready, willing and eager to gobble up more "product" by "Rob Zombie," in whatever form it arrives. The enthusiastic Eli Roth, who initially tried to latch on to David Lynch for dear life before riding Quentin Tarantino's coattails into the sunset, smartly started appearing as a talking head horror expert in every genre-themed documentary and TV special of the 2000s to get his name and image out there. In both men's cases, their biggest hit to date has been something of a cheat. Would Zombie's noisy, obnoxious slasher remake have been a financial success without the automatic audience the Halloween brand name brought along with it? Would Roth's Hostel have been successful if it didn't have Tarantino's name plastered all over it to the point where audiences thought that he was actually the director? In both cases, it's highly doubtful.

This branding has even sadly bled over into film journalism with the recent Lianne MacDougall scandal, which did little but make the horror and cult film communities look like a bunch of suckers. As if cobbling together others' work and passing it off as her own wasn't bad enough already, Lianne rapidly rose to the forefront of genre criticism by showing absolutely no distinctive style (unless schizo, choppy and unfocused count as a style) and offering no fresh insight whatsoever about a bunch of movies she probably didn't even bother taking the time to watch. So why were people interested in the first place? Again, it all boiled down to branding and image. 

MacDougall adopted the laughable pen name "Lianne Spiderbaby" to prove she knew all about cult films and people were instantly wowed that a fresh-faced blonde was writing about horror and cult films instead of the expected 300-pound guy living in his mom's basement or some morbid, multi-pierced, tattooed, raven-haired Goth chick. And look, she's dating (geesh, here's that name again...) Quentin Tarantino, to boot! All these factors - and not her writing abilities or lack thereof - ended up getting her paid gigs for Fangoria, Video Watchdog (VW's Tim Lucas even [embarrassingly] jumped to this woman's defense and accused others of being jealous of her looks and "golden, bicoastal life"!) Famous Monsters and other top magazines, her own web series, movie roles and even a major label book deal (which got 86'd after it was proven what a fraud she was). Meanwhile, no one's putting female writers like MaryAnn Johanson at FlickFilosopher, one of "Spiderbaby's" big "inspirations," on a pedestal for her work, despite the superior quality of it. The whole incident was equal parts pathetic and enlightening; pathetic because someone of her dubious talent was able to get as far as she did in the first place simply because of a silly, gimmicky "name" and a certain look; enlightening because fans eventually bound together to reject and ostracize this woman (hopefully for good).

It's not completely bleak these days, though. James Wan has been one of the few recent genre figures to rise to prominence who appears to have earned his success from the bottom up and on his own merits without any obvious shortcuts. After creating the hugely popular Saw franchise, he re-branded himself as a master of modern ghost films with such hit releases as Insidious (2010) and the recent The Conjuring (2013). Whether one likes Wan's films of not, he continues to impress by making sincere (albeit highly derivative) films on modest budgets with high audience appeal that end up becoming extremely profitable.

A director's name can be enough to rope people in, but even it doesn't have the "name" pull of actors. Cutting Class (1989) and Critters 3 (1991) aren't easy to find because they're good films; they're easy to find because one stars Brad Pitt and the other stars Leonardo DiCaprio. Sometimes a low-budget filmmaker can luck out that their film contains a future star; which pretty much ensures it never goes out of circulation.

Reason 6: Poor Marketing. Since marketing plays such a key role in selling a film, ones that are difficult to pigeonhole and classify often get lost in the shuffle and are unable to find the kind of audience who will appreciation them. Many distributors simply aren't interested in films that can't be slapped with just one label to be sold as a specific type of film to a specific target audience. Others who do take a chance and release them often have no clue how to market these hard-to-classify titles and take an obvious and sometimes misleading route. This tactic understandably pisses off some people, but many of the "victims" don't help matters by taking their frustrations out where they do not belong; badmouthing the movie for not meeting their expectations instead of the distributor who set up false ones. One good example is the clever holiday horror Christmas Evil (1980), a low-key, black-humored, psychological character study, which spent years being blasted by the people who expected it to be a gory Santa slasher flick along the lines of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984). Though expectations do play a big part in one's perception of a movie, we must also try to keep in mind that filmmakers usually have no control over how their films are packaged and marketed to the general public. A film is what it is, not necessarily what we're expecting it to be and, just because we don't get what we're expecting does not necessarily make the movie bad. Besides, the unexpected really should be part of the fun anyway, right?

Reason 7: Little to No Word of Mouth. Everyone has a voice, so it's important to use it. That's especially true for us horror fans. Since mainstream critics are usually so wishy-washy about the genre and established genre critics are so shady and biased (and are usually chummy with the people whose films they give undeserved glowing reviews to), we mostly have to rely on one another for recommendations. Personally, I'd put more trust in what a dedicated, non-affiliated genre fan has to say than what comes from a website like Ain't It Cool News or Bloody Disgusting. Furthermore, some films (established classics, big studio releases...) don't really need any more attention than they've already gotten, though reaffirmation that the greats shouldn't be forgotten never goes out of style as far as I'm concerned. For everything else, it's important to share and spread the word about movies you love that you think are under-seen, undervalued or have gotten a raw deal. If you see a lesser-known film and enjoy it, make sure your horror buddies know about it. If you have a blog or website, write about them. If the praises of obscure films are sung long enough and loudly enough by enough fans, an audience will eventually find its way.

Reason 8: Little to No Critical Response. Like it or not, what critics say does matter as a whole, even if it doesn't matter to you personally. Via newspapers, magazines, books and the internet, a positive and appealing write-up from a cinephile does spark interest, while a negative one may deter others (or even appeal to some freaks out there). Worst of all is when critics don't even bother watching a film; creating no buzz for it whatsoever. Even a scathing review holds more positive value than no review at all. Websites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes now provide a valuable resource to film fans since they average out ratings from a variety of different sources, though none of the films I'll be highlighting below have enough critic reviews to merit a score on them.



The Internet Movie Database is hands down the #1 movie site on the web, which is why I'm using it as a compass to develop this list. I'm instituting a one-film-per-director rule to ensure variety, and the films must meet three other criteria (1) It has to be a horror film or partial horror film (2) made between 1980 and 1990 (I plan on doing later lists for the 60s and 70s) and (3) each must have less than 500 user votes (for a reference point, the recent remakes of Friday the 13th, Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street have between 55 and 70 thousand votes apiece). I'm also including the current user rating from the site. Said ratings are generally pretty useless since the site is overrun by overzealous people capable of swaying whatever rating they want with their countless sock puppet accounts (which explains why the Top 250 list over the years has deteriorated into a 15-year-old boy's wet dream DVD collection instead of a list of movies adult film enthusiasts with any knowledge about the medium would be selecting). However, ratings for more obscure films like the ones listed below do have a little more value since these films have less of a chance falling victim to ballot stuffing and trollish behavior. Why? Well, to be perfectly blunt, no one really seems to care much about them. Personally, I hope that changes.

So without further ado, let the countdown begin...


20. The Black Room (1983)
Directed by: Elly Kenner and Norman Thaddeus Vane [USA]
IMDb Stats: 4.8 / 10 (165 votes)

A very interesting - though not entirely successful - low-budget independent American horror film; this got swept under the rug during the early days of home video but it's well worth a look for fans of the bizarre and lurid. Mysterious siblings (Stephen Knight and Cassandra Gava) seduce swingers to their Beverly Hills mansion, lead them into the dimly-lit title room and kill them. It turns out they both suffer from a rare genetic disorder and need fresh blood to survive; a blood these atypical vampires acquire by hooking victims up to a machine with clear tubes to drain them dry. Thrown into the mix are a bored married man (Jim Stathis), who rents a room off the deadly duo following the murder of its previous tenant, and his sweet, little-too-trustworthy wife (Clara Perryman), who starts snooping around the home when she suspects he's being unfaithful. This seldom-discussed film is bloody, surprisingly well acted, oddly engrossing and darkly sensual, with a hypnotically seedy feel to it that's only enhanced by the low budget production values. The ending's more than a little hard to swallow, though. Despite decent VHS distribution through Vestron in the early 80s (though in a somewhat bland display box), extensive coverage in Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA book in 2007, appearances by familiar character actor Christopher McDonald (The Faculty, Requiem for a Dream) and popular B-movie horror queen Linnea Quigley and its current status as an easily-obtained public domain title, literally nothing has helped to make this film's stock rise.

19. Il nido de ragno (The Spider Labyrinth) (1988)
Directed by: Gianfranco Giagni [Italy]
IMDb Stats: 6.3 / 10 (219 votes)

A Dallas college professor (Roland Wybenga) who's been having a recurring nightmare about being trapped in a room with a spider goes to Budapest on a work assignment. There, he becomes involved with a mysterious and sexy female contact, a missing and possibly mentally ill colleague, the man's wife, a shady hotel proprietress (Stéphane Audran), an oddball (William Berger) who lives in the sewers and keeps giving him veiling warnings and others. Some, or possibly even all, of them are involved in a weird religious cult who worship spiders. To be precise, they worship a mutant baby who gives birth to spiders that crawl under the skin and possess victims. Also working for the baby-mutant-messiah-thingy is some kind of hissing witch who quickly dispatches of whoever threatens to expose the cult. Director Giancarlo Giagni was clearly a fan of Italian genre masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento because the former's Kill, Baby... Kill! (1966) and the latter's Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980) are given direct visual nods here, as are Hitchcock and Polanski. But hey, if you're going to fill your film with nods and allusions, you need to know who's worth nodding and alluding to, and this director does. Though Spider Labyrinth, at times, feels like it doesn't have much of an identity of its own, all that changes toward the end during a truly memorable and wonderfully bizarre climax employing some cool stop motion animation effects. Sadly, this never stood a chance of picking up a U.S. fan following because it's never been released here. I'm not aware of any legit U.S. VHS release and for years the best one could hope for was watching a bootleg copy (most derived from the Japanese VHS release). A better quality DVD surfaced in 2009 in Europe.

18. Dead Girls (1990)
Directed by: Dennis Devine and Steve Jarvis [USA]
IMDb Stats: 5.2 / 10 (69 votes)

Made at the tail end of the first wave of 80s slashers, this tops most of what came before it and does so with zero star power and only a fraction of the budget. It also belongs to the now long-defunct category of "heavy metal horror," a small subgenre that mixed 80s 'hair band' music and fashions with either a slasher or Satanism horror plot, and rises to the top of that pack, as well. Gina (Diana Karanikas), lead singer of the all-female-except-for-a-male-drummer rock band called The Dead Girls, has ESP abilities and foresees the future. Her sister Brooke ("Life's a dog! A total bummer!") manages to survive a group suicide pact, prompting Gina and the band take a vacation so Brooke can recuperate and they can avoid bad publicity. Along with their tour manager and a nurse, Gina and company retreat to a secluded lakeside cabin where a black-gloved psycho in a trench coat and skull-face mask starts to kill everyone off in ways recalling the band's songs. Since the locals in the small town blame the band's morbid lyrics for the suicide deaths, the list of suspects is basically endless. Made on a super low budget, this is more fun, imaginative and entertaining than any number of bigger-budgeted slashers I could name. Most of the acting is terrible (though some of the actors are still appealing) and the screenplay is surprisingly well-written and contains several major plot twists to throw you off your game. Some may think the ending goes a bit overboard, but no one's ever going to say it's predictable. Dead Girls was poorly distributed on VHS by obscure label Raedon; a company who weren't known for their quality releases. To make matters worse, they put this in a cheap-looking and unappealing box that I remember passing by dozens of times during my video store days until I got desperate. It hasn't found its way onto DVD yet.


17. Blood Salvage (1990)
Directed by: Tucker Johnston [USA]
IMDb Stats: 4.5 / 10 (187 votes)

Jake Pruitt (Danny Nelson) is a psychotic, hypocritical, bible-quoting tow truck driver with a slight lisp who causes auto accidents, kidnaps the injured parties and then sells their organs to black market dealer Mr. Stone (Ray Walston). Tubes, machines and moaning, half-dead people fill up his filthy barn, which is actually a secret laboratory (!) where victims are kept on life support until all of their organs can be removed. He also has two irritating, retarded grown sons and a flesh eating pet crocodile who gladly gobbles up unneeded spare parts. Lori Birdsong co-stars as April Evans, a bitter, bitchy, paralyzed teen girl in a wheelchair who Jake kidnaps (after killing her family) and wants to "help" by giving injections of spinal fluid directly into her back. This enjoyable medium-budget feature from Georgia is derivative of Motel Hell and several Tobe Hooper features. Though it doesn't quite reinvent the wheel as far as backwoods hillbilly horror is concerned it does know when to grab that wheel and give it a good spin. There's plenty of gore and some rather tasteless moments (incest, anyone?), offset by the completely ridiculous plot, but the film is so tongue-in-cheek it hardly even matters. The unknown Nelson gives a very memorable performance in the lead; a sort-of ah-shucks, overalls-wearing Robin Hood wannabe with a Southern drawl, and weaves just the right amount of camp into each of his lines. With all it had going for it, Salvage seemed poised to become a cult classic back in the early 90s. There was a good trailer, relatively wide VHS distribution (from the company Magnum) and a memorable marketing campaign (boxer Evander Holyfield backed the film, appears in a cameo and even did some memorable PR for it). Since then? Absolutely nothing. These days you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who's seen it, let alone remembers it, and there's no DVD to introduce this to a new generation of fans.


16. El aullido del diablo (Howl of the Devil) (1987)
Directed by: Paul Naschy [Spain]
IMDb Stats: 6.0 / 10 (67 votes)

This sincere and extremely entertaining later-day culmination of everything that came before it is a sort-of Gothic Sunset Boulevard for Spanish horror legend Paul Naschy, who stars as the Doriani brothers. Hector's a bitter sadist and possible serial killer living in a crumbling mansion and Alex is his dead-from-a-suicide former movie star identical twin brother Alex (who's now a ghost). In addition to those two roles (the former even gets to role play as Rasputin, Marquis de Sade and Fu Manchu!), Naschy also portrays Mr. Hyde, The Frankenstein Monster, The Phantom of the Opera, Quasimodo, a rotting zombie, Satan and even his most-famous horror character; the werewolf Waldemar Daninsky; many of whom appear to Alex's lonely young son Adrian (played by Naschy's real-life son Sergio Molina). There's an imaginative, busy story line that miraculously never becomes confusing, plenty of sex and gore, a great 80s synthesizer score and strong supporting roles for horror regulars Caroline Munro and Howard Vernon. Unfortunately, the production was riddled with problems. Plans to shoot it in English were abandoned mid-way through, and post-production (the producer passed away soon after it was completed) proved even more of a nightmare. As a result, plans to release this theatrically were scrapped and the film only showed up a few times on Spanish television. It's a sad epitaph for this fine film, which not only boasts Naschy (who also directed, co-wrote and co-produced this highly personal film) in more roles than most genre legends play during their entire career, but is actually way better than many of Naschy's earlier films that have received deluxe DVD treatments here in recent years. Oh well, maybe one day... A bootleg version currently making the rounds online is in terrible shape.


15. Deadline (1984 [filmed in 1980])
Directed by: Mario Azzopardi [Canada]
IMDb Stats: 5.4 /10 (132 votes)

Horror novelist and screenwriter Steven Lessey (Stephen Young) became rich and famous when his first novel "The Executioners" was turned into a controversial film. It was followed up by more of the same - successful book to film adaptations - including "Anatomy of a Horror," which features a scene where a demon sheep uses supernatural powers to dismember a man with a piece of farm machinery. All of Steven's movies seem to do well at the box office and he's built up a "name" in the industry. Unfortunately, he's put his family on the back burner all the while, which causes deep-seeded resentment from both his unfaithful, drug-addicted wife and lonely children. Family and work pressure cause Steven to start cracking, and the film cleverly integrates scenes from Steven's completed films, with ideas he's contemplating using on his newest script and what's going on in his real life. As the film progresses and his sanity starts to slip, his ideas become more and more absurd and desperate. Well-made, acted and boasting on-target black humor, amusing digs at the film industry and an inventive story structure, Deadline is one of the most interesting non-Cronenberg Canuck horrors from the decade. It's not a pleasant film at all; downbeat, dreary and filled with unlikable characters. It is, however, intelligent, balanced and thought-provoking. One of its more interesting attributes is that it calls into question the effects horror films may have on children. After viewing one of their dad's movies, the two sons decide to play a game with his daughter, which results in her accidentally being hung (naturally speeding along the writer's decline). Though this may seem to suggest horror films have a detrimental effect on the minds of young children, it should be pointed out that the tragedy is only allowed to occur because of the absence of both parents in the home. Thus, it's just as much a message for parents to stop being so self-absorbed and be more involved in what their children are doing and seeing. The film counterbalances that by also defending horror films and calling into question the general public's misconceptions about them. Distribution here in America was limited to one VHS release on the Paragon label back in the mid-80s.


14. Mr. Wrong (Dark of the Night) (1985)
Directed by: Gaylene Preston [New Zealand]
IMDb Stats: 5.1 / 10 (126 votes)

Frumpy redhead Meg (Heather Bolton) is a single 'Plain Jane' who purchases a used Jaguar while visiting her mother and, on her way back home, encounters both a strange hitchhiker (David Letch) and the ghost of the car's former owner, a young woman who was brutally murdered inside that very vehicle. Initially scared of the ghostly car (she hears gasps for air coming from the backseat, the lights flicker on and off for no explainable reason, etc.) it eventually helps her fend off the hitchhiker when he shows up looking for her. Director, co-scripter and co-producer Gaylene Preston keeps the film entertaining from start to finish and there's a unique feminist stamp on this atypical ghost story (with social commentary) that gives it a special edge over similar films. Slow-going and certainly not for all tastes, this adaptation of a story by Elizabeth Jane Howard (originally titled Mr. Wrong before getting a more nondescript U.S. title) has effectively eerie moments and plenty of suspense, as well as some thoughtful dialogue, and it's all well-anchored by a winning performance from Bolton, who's a refreshingly non-Hollywood type of leading lady and won several film festival awards for this performance (as well as one from the New Zealand Film and TV Awards). For my money, it's a much better killer / haunted car movie than The Car (1977), Charles Band's Crash! (1977) or even John Carpenter's popular Christine (1983). In fact, one critic quoted on the box points out that it's "What Stephen King's 'Christine' should have been." Indeed. Regrettably, this has fallen into obscurity since its 1985 VHS release from Live. Mostly positive notices - including a seal of approval from the Village Voice and a 3 Star write-up in Leonard Maltin's widely-read home movie guide - did nothing to remedy the situation.

13. Deranged (1987)
Directed by: Chuck Vincent [USA]
IMDb Stats: 5.5 / 10 (126 votes)

When porn filmmakers try to go legit, the results are frequently disastrous. Not so in this case. Made by late X flick director Chuck Vincent and starring mostly adult performers, this attempts to update Roman Polanski's disturbing classic Repulsion (1965) and is quite successful at it thanks to very good performances and highly imaginative direction. Veronica Hart (billed under her real name Jane Hamilton) stars as Joyce, a pregnant, mentally unstable woman living in a small New York City apartment with her husband (Jerry Butler). He goes away on a business trip, her mom (Jill Cumer) and sister (Jennifer Delora) keep criticizing her and the local deliveryman (Gary Goldman) lusts after her. Her first night alone, she's attacked by a man dressed in black who beats her until she miscarries her baby. She kills him with a pair of scissors, hides the body, pretends nothing happened and then really loses it over the course of the next week. Unable to differentiate between reality and fantasy, lots of smoothly directed scenes show us flashbacks mixed with the present - often in the same shot! - as people from Joyce's past linger in and out of shots to give insight into her fragile mental state, and people in the present stop in for a visit at the worst time possible. Often resembling a stage play and shot primarily in a cramped, claustrophobic apartment, this is serious, grim and disturbing stuff, and no "fun" at all to watch. But that's OK; not all films are meant to be. What this really excels at is presentation and staging; as well as providing an excellent showcase for Hamilton's talents (she's excellent in this challenging role). Toward the end, after numerous deaths and character revelations, and with her mother's nagging voice still in her head, Joyce simply says, "I guess I just don't fit in;" which by that point in the film has a beautifully simple power to it. An ambiguous final shot is somewhat frustrating. Deranged was issued on VHS by Republic in the late 80s and that's the last we've heard of it. The fact numerous genre critics; Gore Gazette's Rick Sullivan, Psychotronic's Michael Stanley and others, turned their noses up at it upon release didn't help matters much. Vincent's solid late 80s psycho-thriller Bad Blood (IMDb stats: 5.2/10 from 64 votes) has received pretty much the same unfortunate fate as this one despite being entertaining, well-crafted and very competently acted and directed.


12. Confessions of a Serial Killer (1985)
Directed by: Mark Blair [USA]
IMDb Stats: 5.7 / 10 (322 votes)

Although it didn't get a VHS release until 1992, Confessions is an effective and well done low-budget serial killer film. Unfortunately, many people probably passed it by because the horrible packaging (courtesy of Roger Corman's Concorde / New Horizons label) made it look like a cheap rip-off of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which it is certainly not. Star Robert A. Burns had already appeared in the killer dog movie Mongrel and done brilliant production design / art director for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Re-Animator and other horror hits. He makes his lead acting debut here as Daniel Ray Hawkins, white trash serial killer, who narrates this (uncredited) look at real-life mass murderer Henry Lee Lucas from behind bars. It's not quite as good as the brilliant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), of course, but it does predate that film by a year and might be a more accurate depiction of the actual murder spree. Flashbacks trace the development of this psychotic mind from childhood (with a hooker mother who flaunts her tricks in front of the kids and a crippled, depressed father driven to suicide), to his first murder of a prostitute as a teenager, to older Hawkins traveling around rural Texas constantly on the lookout for new victims. He eventually joins up with fat, slobbering, psycho-pervert Moon Lewton (Dennis Hill) and his equally unhinged sister Molly (Sidney Brammer), who becomes Hawkins common-law wife. The trio try to settle down and live a more straight life, getting jobs at the home of an often-absent doctor (Ollie Handley) and his spoiled blonde teen daughter (Dee Dee Norton), which will eventually lead to their downfall. The violence is often brutal and disturbing, the performances are rough-edged and effective, there are some moments of black (or sick) humor and a semi-documentary approach that imbues this with an effectively quiet everyday realism. It's absolutely worth a look if you like these kind of films.


11. Sounds of Silence (1989)
Directed by: Peter Borg [Sweden, United States]
IMDb Stats: 6.0/10 (50 votes)

American photographer Peter Mitchell (Peter Nelson), who's still got some growing up to do, is surprised to learn that an unheard of distant relative all the way in Sweden has died and left him an inheritance. He, along with his successful mystery novelist girlfriend Sarah (Kristen Jensen) and her deaf young son Dennis (Dennis Castillo), travel abroad and temporarily move into their newly acquired mansion while Peter decides whether he wants to keep it or sell it. Locals shun Peter when they find out who he's related to, some sinister people filter in and out and almost immediately Dennis starts suffering from nightmarish visions of a ghostly young boy dressed in rags at an abandoned building formerly used as an orphanage. Slow and virtually gore-free, this is a well-made and well-plotted film that works just fine for what it was intended to be; an old-fashioned ghost story. It's atmospheric, the cold Autumnal scenery provides a nice backdrop to the action, there are some effectively spooky moments spread throughout and the cinematography (including some wonderfully eerie shots of the camera floating through the haunted orphanage hallways) is often excellent. The cast is pretty good, too, with solid lead actors and nice supporting performances from the mostly Swedish supporting cast. The only real name in the cast is special guest star Troy Donahue, who appears in just two brief scenes. Director / writer Borg also made the even more obscure Scorched Heat (1987) and apparently came to America at one point only to serve as an assistant director on the schlocky Camp Fear (1991) before falling off the map. There was an American video release years back on the Promark label, though to my knowledge this has never been released onto DVD. It seriously deserves a reevaluation - and a second chance - if you ask me.


10. Naked Obsession (1990)
Directed by: Dan Golden [USA]
IMDb Stats: 4.8/10 (159 votes)

Sounds like one of those generic, interchangeable erotic thrillers you could stumble across flipping through the channels at 3am, right? Yep. Sure does. But titles can be - and often are - deceiving. This is actually something of a gem, made in the early days of direct-to-cable and video erotica when these movies, first and foremost, had to cut it as actual movies, with at least a semblance of a plot, actors with talent and / or some artistry. This one has all of that, as well as a sharp, funny and sometimes insightful screenplay. Though there's plenty of nudity, strip acts and some kinky sex thrown in for good measure, what this is really about is a man in the midst of a mid-life crisis who feels like he's living a lie and is ready for a reevaluation of what's truly important to him. Behind the pretty wife, the nice house in the respectable neighborhood and the cushy job with plenty of room for advancement lies a man who feels unfulfilled and bored by it all. City councilman Franklyn Carlyle (William Katt) is that man. He's on the fast track to becoming the city's mayor if he can clean up a rough area of town. Things change when he crosses paths with a bizarre bum (Rick Dean) and becomes romantically involved with stripper Maria Ford and then things spiral out of control. This delivers plenty of the "naked" the title promises but it's also well-made, imaginative, surprising and unpredictable, with a fine central performance from Katt. The big revelation here though is Dean as the wise, enigmatic vagrant who describes how all cities need a balance between the dark and the light to cater to an individual's unique taste and tries to convince Franklyn that he's better off learning to embrace his repressed dark side: "There's nothing wrong with the dark, you spend half your life in it. The problem is most people have their eyes closed." Produced by Roger Corman and released by Corman's Concorde / New Horizons label onto VHS, this enjoyed a healthy cable run in the early 90s but has since stalled and been forgotten. A DVD release would be most welcome (though I believe Corman sold his stable of films to Disney so that's not likely to happen).


09. Le démon dans l'île (Demon of the Island) (1983)
Directed by: Francis Leroi [France]
IMDb Stats: 5.6 / 10 (127 votes)

Doctor Gabrielle Martin (Anny Duperey) arrives on a small, picturesque island to start a new job and thinks the small community and isolation will do her some good (she just recently lost her husband and young son in a car accident). It doesn't take her long to discover the physician she was supposed to replace - the mysterious Dr. Paul Henry Marshall (Jean-Claude Brialy) - is still there and still seeing patients. He even seems to be beating her to all of her house calls. When she questions why she's even been called there, she's told that nobody in the village trusts Dr. Marshall. If that isn't weird enough, common household items seem to be mutilating (or killing) people in freak accidents, while somehow also infecting them with a strange disease. Gabrielle, who initially wants to leave the island, is drawn in to the mystery and decides to start investigating on her own. Upon realizing all of the items which malfunctioned were purchased from the same supermarket, she decides to camp out there for the evening to discover just what's going on. And the results may surprise you. They did me! Expectations were low going in (director Francis Leroi's resume is filled to the brim with boring Emmanuelle soft-core films), but this turned out to be an entertaining, well-made film which manages to generate a good deal of intrigue and suspense before the finale and has several genuinely creepy moments. One of the key scenes here, taking place after the household-appliances-gone-berserk theme has been well-established, focuses in on a family of three doing everyday things (a father takes apart the TV and works on it, the young daughter shaves carrots, uses a dicer and a juicer and the mother uses a can opener, a gas stove and an oven) as we just sit back and wait for something horrible to happen. Seldom seen outside of its home country and never officially released in America; the version I watched was a fairly good-quality TV print, which had custom made English fansubs and is floating around in cyberspace. Promisingly, the film has had a steady boost in votes since I posted my original review not long ago so I guess more people are finally watching this.


08. Vlci bouda (Wolf's Hole; Wolf's Lair) (1987)
Directed by: Vera Chytilová [Czechoslovakia]
IMDb Stats: 6.5 / 10 (172 votes)

Vlci bouda seems to be a continuation of Czech New Wave director Chytilová's earlier social / political themes, only this time in the guise of the more commercially viable science fiction and horror genres. The criticisms are still here if you want to crack the ice and look beneath the surface, but this is not a blatant message movie and can also simply be enjoyed as an ambiguous and often effectively eerie genre picture. Ten highly varied teenagers; five male, five female, have been invited to a special month-long skiing and outdoor survival workshop to be held atop a mountain at the isolated, snow-bound Wolf's Hole lodge. After taking a lift up the mountain, the organizer of the trip, a strange, bearded, older man who insists on being called just Daddy (Miroslav Machácek), realizes that an eleventh guest has somehow managed to sneak into their little group. And thus the seed of doubt is planted in the young, impressionable minds right at the outset to ensure things eventually spiral out of control. Dingo (Tomás Palatý) and Babeta (Stepánka Cervenková), Daddy's equally odd assistants, make up a trio of being who look human but are actually alien and this workshop is an experiment to learn more about human behavior. With a flexible and intriguing premise open to interpretation in place, this also turns out be a rather original and effective study in human nature. How apt the teenagers are to turn on and ostracize one another at the drop of a hat is at the forefront of its theme; though once the aliens reveal themselves, the kids interestingly decide to stick together despite their differences. They are even given the option of selecting just one member of the group to be killed so all the rest can live, but almost no one goes along with it. Chytilová chose to end her film on an optimistic, hopeful note. The sense of isolation is pulled off extremely well thanks to great shooting locations and most of the cast - consisting almost entirely of amateurs (many of whom never acted again after this) - give effective performances. There are no special effects aside from reverse shots of melting ice reforming, though thanks to the weird facial expressions and behavior of the actors playing the aliens and a bizarre soundtrack, this film doesn't need them. Though a fixture on Czech TV for many years, it has never been officially released here in America. A version with English fansubs is now available.


07. Vec vidjeno (Deja vu; Reflections) (1987)
Directed by: Goran Markovic [Yugoslavia]
IMDb Stats: 7.2 / 10 (412 votes)

Awkward, repressed, middle-aged piano teacher Mihailo (Mustafa Nadarevic) is just one of many men enamored with attractive, outgoing, flirtatious modeling teacher Olgica (Anica Dobrs). To Mihailo's surprise, the sexy young woman aggressively starts a sexual relationship with him with absolutely no provocation. Unfortunately, Mihailo soon learns that there's little attractive about Olgica beyond the surface. She's cold, cruel, materialistic and seems to use whatever man comes her way that can be easily manipulated. Embittered by the fact she has to share living space with an alcoholic father and a brother with an eye condition no one can afford to have treated, Olgica seems to view men as little more than disposable tools she can use to improve her own life. But she's chosen the wrong guy to mess with this time... Along with Angst (1983) [also under-seen itself with just a few thousand IMDb votes] and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), this is one of the 80s most effective attempts at looking at a psychopathic killer through more insightful eyes. You won't find loads of on-screen gore here, nor will you find reactionary scares or visual shocks in the expected slasher-killer frequency. This is a deliberately-paced portrait of a deranged mind that builds slowly as a character-driven drama before suddenly erupting into violence when it nears its disturbing conclusion. Another point of interest, aside from revelatory performances from several actors I'd never even heard of before, is a plot that manages to give viewers glimpses inside the political and social climate of Belgrade in both the pre and post WWII-era and the impoverished, though more liberated, early 70s. Perhaps nothing new thematically, the specific social climate, outstanding acting, attention paid to character, spot-on period detail, eerily moving classical score, arresting cinematography (there are several unbroken POV tracking shots that fans of elaborate camerawork will certainly enjoy) and a story framework smoothly covering a 60 year time span, make for a very compelling psycho-drama. Despite winning five major awards in its home country (and being the only Serbian film in Phil Hardy's Overlook Film Encyclopedia), this never even made a ripple here in the States. There's no official VHS or DVD, though an English-fansubbed copy is currently floating around out there.


06. Gu (Bewitched) (1981)
Directed by: Chih-Hung Kuei [Hong Kong]
IMDb Stats: 7.1 / 10 (82 votes)

After a young girl is found dead in Hong Kong, Police Inspector Bobby Wong King-Sun (Melvin Wong) pieces the clues together and arrests Stephen Lam Wai (Ai Fei) for the murder of his 6-year-old daughter. Stephen is convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, but first he'd like to explain himself to the inspector. He admits to killing his little girl, but claims a spell had been cast upon him. A lengthy flashback reveals just what may have happened. While on a business trip in Thailand a month or so earlier, Stephen decided to sample the hospitality of the lady folk in the area; wooing, taking the virginity of and then abandoning the pretty Bon (Lily Chan). But just because they're now separated by some distance doesn't mean she can't still get her revenge. At the behest of the scorned young woman, an evil sorcerer named Magusu (Hussin Bin Abu Hassan) went about bewitching Stephen, and he's about to do the same routine on the inspector investigating... Of all of the unfairly neglected genre directors I've discovered working on this blog, Chih-Hung Kuei has to rank near the top. His name is seldom uttered, even by dedicated fans. He never makes "Best of..." director's list. Hell, I don't think a single one of his genre films (of which there's around 15 for Shaw Brothers; making him fairly prolific for his time) has over 500 votes on IMDb. That means other deserving titles such as Hex Versus Witchcraft (1980), Corpse Mania (1981) and The Boxer's Omen (1983) have to be left off to ensure more coverage even though each is very worthy of a spot here. I've selected this one not only because it's one of his best, but also because it has even fewer votes than most of his others (by contrast Boxer's Omen currently has 432 votes). I'll try not to ruin any of the many surprises, just to say there's never a dull moment, from a visual standpoint it's excellent (with great photography, lighting and art direction) and there are enough imaginative, repellent special effects to put most other gore-fests to shame. The "Worm Spell" is particularly disgusting and "The Lemon Spell" requires not only fruit but also the glands from a snake and guts from a chicken (yes, a few real animals really get killed so there's your warning). What perhaps makes this even more interesting is that director Kuei researched black magic in both Thailand and Hong Kong and the screenplay is based upon his findings.


05. 3615 code Père Noël (Dial Code Santa Claus; Game Over) (1989)
Directed by: René Manzor [France]
IMDb Stats: 5.6 / 10 (281 votes)

You know from the opening shot of a garbage truck running over a snow globe that this isn't going to be your average, everyday Christmas movie. In many regards, young Thomas ("Alain Musy" / Alain Lalanne) is just like any other kid. He loves computers, video games, his dog, Rambo and fantasy role-playing games. He also still believes in Santa Claus, but he's at that age where children start questioning the logic behind it and start hearing from their friends and classmates that Santa doesn't exist and parents actually buy you presents. Thomas is unlike other kids in that he's a wunderkind; a genius and a whiz at all things electronic. That comes in handy when a creepy, vengeful vagrant (Patrick Floersheim) lays siege of his home. It's not at all surprising that this was never released in America. Here we got Home Alone (1990), a family-friendly hit which perhaps took some inspiration from this film. Home was able to skate by with a PG rating because it took the broad slapstick approach and made light of all its violence. Despite sharing an almost identical premise, 3615 code Père Noël couldn't be more different. It's quite funny at times, but it's also more serious-minded and much darker in tone. The director usually chooses not to play up the violence in this film for laughs. When a dog is killed and people are attacked, it's not funny, it's disturbing. The kid isn't a one-liner spouting brat either, he's a real kid who's scared of the predator inside his home and must build up the courage to fight back. And the intruder isn't a bumbling buffoon who wandered in from some cartoon, he's a psychotic, extremely creepy murderer and child-molester. Both Home Alone and this film have a coming-of-age message and touch on the theme of lost innocence, but the message here is far more potent because it is illustrated throughout; not just thrown out there at the end like some afterthought in its American cousin. Though there's action, gimmicks, laughs, visual style, substance and heart, the reason it's here is that it also manages to be suspenseful, creepy and even quite scary at times. Floersheim is quite possibly the scariest Saint Nick you'll ever see. And the rest of the cast is equally impressive, particularly the young star. There's also fantastic camerawork and some amazing art direction. The only thing that doesn't quite work is the use of slow-motion during some of the action / horror sequences, but that's just a minor gripe about an otherwise very impressive film.


04. Sommarens tolv månader (The Twelve Months of Summer) (1988)
Directed by: Richard Hobert [Sweden]
IMDb Stats: 7.6 / 10 (98 votes)

It's wintertime in Sweden and there's a foot or more of snow on the ground. But somewhere hidden among the snow-covered trees and a thick blanket of fog that completely surrounds it is a small area of ground with complete summer-like conditions; sunshine, bugs, green vegetation, rainbows and a warm temperature. It's something a group of government scientists have been working on, or "climate improvement" as they phrase it; an attempt create 'perfect' summertime weather year round. But by tampering with mother nature, a mysterious and dangerous 'psychic power' has been unleashed that penetrates and manipulates the senses of those exposed to it long enough, leading to hallucinations, suicidal thoughts and the inability to differentiate between reality and imagination. Thankfully, the force has been contained within the test area for the time being, but the scientists are starting to become worried. They immediately evacuate all of their personnel, but decide they need to do more research into this phenomena before they decide their next actions. What better thing to do than lure six lowly construction workers there under fall pretenses? This smart, thought-provoking has a fascinating, original and well-thought-out premise (with plenty of social commentary), good acting and dialogue and well-defined characters. The film also manages to be quite eerie at times, without ever resorting to cheap shock tactics. The test area, which is lined with hundreds of enigmatically numbered signs that constantly make one question just what those numbers stand for (and also give the test site a prophetic, almost cemetery-like feel), is a great example of successful cost-effective art direction to generate mood. The film also ends on an effective, subtly apocalyptic tone. It's a damn shame we live in an age where a movie as good as this one isn't even available on VHS or DVD, yet millions can be conned into spending 20 bucks to add something as pathetic as M. Night Shyamalan's somewhat-similarly-themed big budget turkey The Happening to their home movie libraries. Sadly, Sommarens tolv månader has not been publicly shown outside of infrequent Swedish TV airings. There are rumors of a copyright dispute between the filmmakers and the TV network who broadcast it being the reason why it's been held up for so long. As of now, you'll have to settle for poor quality bootlegs (which someone at least took the time to subtitle) to see it.


03. Dance of the Damned (1988)
Directed by: Katt Shea [USA]
IMDb Stats: 5.9 / 10 (205 votes)

While not for all tastes, I found this offbeat and serious-minded low-budget Roger Corman production to be a breath of fresh air in the overcrowded vampire genre. And all it really is is a night long conversation between a self-destructive, suicidal stripper and a brooding, world weary vampire. Go figure. In the wee hours of the night, a nameless vampire (Cyril O'Reilly) approaches dancer Jodi (Starr Andreeff) while she's locking up after a long night at work. He offers her a thousand dollars to accompany him home; no strings and no sex attached. He says he needs a friend, and thinks she needs one, too. All he wants to do is talk. Reluctantly Jodi agrees, goes home with him and quickly learns her new friend is actually a vampire. Correctly sensing Jodi had given up and will probably take her own life eventually anyway, the vampire demands she explain to him what the sunlight feels like and at 6am, he'll end her pain. It certainly doesn't sound too exciting, and it probably won't be to some people, but I found this fascinating and very well done. If you're looking for gore, action and special effects, you'll find very little of that here. Instead, you get a low-key, existential character study almost similar to a stage play. In other words, there are few location changes but lots of dialogue exchanges. The script by director Katt Shea and Andy Ruben has some great insight into the outcast condition, good character development and even some wonderfully poetic passages. Clever parallels are drawn between two different lost souls; one of whom is forced to live in the night and the other so wounded she's compelled to. Both leads turn in good performances and do their roles justice, and this manages to be thought-provoking, sometimes witty and even surprisingly moving. While a million blockbuster type movies involving vampires come and go and entertain while they're around, this one has actually resonated with me more over the years. It's a great film to revisit on dark, quiet, contemplative nights and it's a shame not many people know anything about it. A VHS release from Virgin Vision in the 80s was all she wrote for this sorely underappreciated sleeper. To add insult to injury, a lesser "remake" (To Sleep with a Vampire) was filmed a few years later and merited a DVD release while this has languished in obscurity.


02. Qu mo jing cha (Magic Cop) (1990)
Directed by: Wei Tung [Hong Kong]
IMDb Stats: 6.9 / 10 (230 votes)

Primarily known as Magic Cop (the title of the print I viewed), this was also released as the fifth entry in the popular Mr. Vampire horror-comedy series even though it has no real connection to the other films. The common link is the casting of actor Ching-Ying Lam as our hero. Lam became famous in his homeland for playing the wise, level-headed, straight-faced unibrow-sporting Taoist priest in the first three Mr. Vampire entries and has a somewhat similar role here as an adversary of evil who uses both his martial arts skills and his knowledge of ancient magic to take on the undead (in this case a sorceress / witch and zombie henchmen). The differences? For starters, the film is set in modern day Hong Kong instead of having a period / feudal setting. Second, though Lam's character is knowledgeable in all things magic, he's not a priest; he's a cop. Third, both the tone and the humor are much different. As opposed to the goofy slapstick and bumbling idiot characters prevalent throughout the other four Mr. Vampire titles, this leans more toward witty dialogue and putting its relatively normal characters into crazy situations to get its laughs. Finally - and why this film doesn't really fit into the Mr. Vampire series at all - is that it doesn't even contain any vampires. The whole thing actually plays out like a buddy / cop thriller, somewhat similar to stuff like 48 Hrs. and Lethal Weapon, but with supernatural and horror elements added to the mix. The biggest and best surprise of all, is that this is an grandly entertaining and imaginative little comic thriller superior to all of the Mr. Vampire sequels. In fact, I think it's every bit as good as the original in that series (which is pretty damn good itself). You really can't ask for much better as far as action-horror-comedies are concerned. The earlier character building scenes have a certain charm to them thanks to a charismatic cast, it's often very funny and the last 30 minutes of action, horror and special effects are excellent. The script was written by Kan-Cheung Tsang, who also wrote The God of Cookery (1996), Shaolin Soccer (2001) and Kung Gu Hustle (2004); all of which were big hits in Asia and had crossover success in America. Director Tung, better known as an actor, stuntman and fight choreographer, only directed a few other movies. Shame. Also a shame this is so under-viewed by American audiences.


01. Litan (1983)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Mocky [France]
IMDb Stats: 6.3 / 10 (114 votes)

Litan is the name of a small French village, and it's unlike any other village you'll see in any other film. Usually drenched in a haze of thick fog, the village is in the midst of a region-specific holiday called "Litan's Day;" a festival celebrating and honoring the dead similar to Mexico's "Dia de los muertos." The streets are decorated with banners, streamers and paper lanterns, an orchestra decked out in silver masks and red jackets continue to play the same dreary tune and children run around laughing and throwing firecrackers. The streets are littered with people decked out in costume and masks; either skeletal or corpse-like to bring to mind the deceased... and there's something seriously off with the majority of them. Most are emotionless, some are downright zombie-like, some walk around with eyes bulging out and wide smiles for no good reason and others start speaking in strange dialects or suffer from amnesia. And many suddenly start becoming violent; quite casually violent. Not everyone has been inflicted by whatever it is that's going on in Litan, but it seems to be spreading rapidly and overtaking the entire village... Of all the films on this countdown, this is the one I wanted to champion most of all because its lack of notoriety and acclaim is downright baffling. Such a wonderfully-made movie it can be enjoyed on a multitude of fronts; for its substance, for its originality, for its aesthetics, or a combination of all three, Litan offers audiences a bizarre surprise around every corner, strong lead performances, vivid and striking production design and costumes, and a profound and timeless message about how we as living, breathing, existing humans allow death to intrude upon, control and cripple us. The film finds that delicate balance between art and entertainment; abstraction and sensible, meaningful storytelling, and it does so in an intelligent, thought-provoking and welcoming way. It's invitingly, accessibly surreal. The perplexing aspects engage and intrigue instead of frustrate and alienate. The images have meaning, the dialogue enhances that meaning and the film has both focus and a perspective; a point that's well-delivered but not blatantly, obviously so. Never officially released in the U.S., this won awards at several European film festivals upon release, before vanishing from view. Like so many other excellent foreign-language films it's still waiting to receive its due.


Questions? Comments? Criticisms? Corrections? Recommendations? Something you think I may have overlooked? Leave 'em below. Thanks for taking the time to read!
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