Tag Archives: Slasher/Gore

Maniac (1980)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 5 out of 10

4-Word Review: He wants their hair.

A loner (Joe Spinell) terrorizes New York City by killing young women and scalping them. He then takes their hair, brings it home, and places it (actually he nails it) onto the heads of some mannequins that he has.

In a lot of ways this is the same old mechanical slasher flick as it has all the predictable characteristics of the others that dominated the early 80’s. The story is simple and strung along by long, drawn-out murder sequences. There is some suspense, but it is minimal since we know exactly what is going to happen. The victims are young, good looking women, who are clueless to the dangers that are lurking until it is too late. One segment in particular features a nurse getting off of work late at night, who mentions her fear of the killer and yet for some reason she still foolishly refuses a ride home from her friend and instead walks down a dark, lonely street and into, of course, eventual carnage.

There are also some rather glaring technical errors. One features a woman (the same one who refused a ride) running from the killer by going into an empty subway. Although isolation is the whole factor here there is one shot, taken from inside a departing subway car that clearly shows a whole bunch of people standing just across from her on the other side of the tracks. There is also a segment where Spinell takes his girlfriend to his mother’s grave. When the car pulls up to the cemetery it is a nice, bright afternoon, but when they reach the actual grave it has become pitch black with a strange unexplained fog that has rolled in. Lastly there is the ending. This is a man that has terrorized a whole city and yet only two policemen in an unmarked squad car come to his residence and when they do they don’t even bother to secure the site.

Despite the low-budget problems there are a few things that raise this slightly above the rest. One is the fact that it actually manages to get inside the killer’s head. You hear the inner conversations between his ‘good’ side and his ‘bad’ side. Of course this only touches the surface of a true schizoid personality, but it does offer a little more depth than most. It also helps create a good portrait of a tormented soul and you end up feeling more sadness than fear for the man. The film also consistently has a dark, grainy look, which helps accentuate the ugly theme. Having it take place in New York City gives it a little more distinction and atmosphere.

The special effects are good. The part where he blows a man’s head off, through a car windshield, looks very realistic and has become the film’s most famous scene. The surreal ending, where the mannequins all come to life and exact a sort of revenge, is also well-handled and imaginative. Makeup artist Tom Savini, who also appears as the character of ‘Disco Boy’, has had a lot of success, but the stuff here may be his best.

Director William Lustig shows some panache and Spinell, who also co-wrote the screenplay, gives a surprisingly strong performance, but their attempts at creating a better understanding of a crazed killer prove placid and simply done for shock value.

My Rating: 5 out of 10

Released: December 26, 1980

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Not Rated (Graphic Violence, Brief Nudity, Language, Adult Theme)

Director: William Lustig

Studio: Magnum Pictures

Available: DVD, Blu-ray (30th Anniversary Edition)

Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 3 out of 10

4-Word Review: This birthday isn’t happy.

            Virignia Wainwright (Melissa Sue Anderson) attends a private school where she is a part of a snotty clique whose members start getting killed off just before her 18th birthday. Due to a freak accident suffered years before she has blackouts causing suspicions that she may be the culprit. With the help of her psychiatrist Dr. David Faraday (Glenn Ford) they try to come up with some answers.

Despite being listed as a slasher film and having gained a loyal cult following I found the gore factor to be disappointing. The killings are quite brief and the camera quickly cuts away before much blood, or anything else is shown. The famous shish kebab murder that is captured on the film’s poster is poorly executed. Apparently there was more footage of the killings, but in order to get an R-rating director J. Lee Thompson was forced to cut a lot of it out. However, it would be nice to get a director’s cut version as I am sure today’s horror fans may feel cheated otherwise. The grossest sequence for me wasn’t the killings at all, but instead the scene where Virginia undergoes brain surgery and her skull is vividly cut open and one can see the brain pulsating and expanding inside. The deaths really didn’t seem all that creative and clever despite the film’s reputation and if anything my favorite death scene didn’t involve one of the killings but instead was the part where Virginia and her mother are riding in a car that goes off a bridge and then fills up with water, which is surprisingly intense.

I also had some major issues with the film’s opening murder that features a young girl getting strangled while inside her car. For one thing the killer’s hands didn’t seem to be all that tight around her neck and when the girl manages to escape there are no marks around her neck even though realistically there should be. Also, when she escapes she runs for only a few feet and then stops behind a nearby parked car and acts like she is now ‘safe’ even though most people would run several blocks and probably wouldn’t stop until they found someone else that could help, or the police. The victim also speaks, but if someone has been strangled as severely as she has her voice would have to be effected by it and she might not be able to say anything, or at least speak in a very raspy tone, which is not the case here.

For the most part I found the film to be boring and predictable. I never once got scared, or even all that intrigued. The movie is jammed with every cheesy 80’s horror movie cliché that you can think of. Normally film’s from this genre run no more than 90 minutes and sometimes even less. Going 110 minutes as this one does is much too long for a plot that is paper-thin.  However, the very macabre ending is excellent and almost makes up for it. The surprise twist isn’t bad either although a bit implausible.

Anderson, best known as Mary Ingals from the long running TV-show ‘Little House on the Prairie’, isn’t bad. A shot of her at the end where she is carrying a birthday cake and looks up and smiles is both chilling and sexy and quite possibly the film’s pinnacle. There is no nudity although director Thompson teases the viewer by having her undress to get into the shower, but the camera never gets past her bra and panties.

Hollywood icon Ford is wasted and his tired appearance is almost sad. His wardrobe features him wearing an open shirt showing his bare chest and it looks ridiculous for a man his age. There is another scene where the police dig up a skull on the school’s grounds and the Ford character asks to take a look at it and the police promptly hand it over to him, which I found to be equally ridiculous as that is a crucial piece of evidence that would only be handled by a forensic expert.

If anything Sharon Acker as Virginia’s alcoholic mother Estelle gives the best performance.  Her overwrought slightly hammy scene near the end gives the film some much needed energy.

There were a few other loopholes and inconsistencies that irritated me enough to be mentioned here. One is that years earlier Virginia had a birthday party and all her friend’s snubbed her and didn’t show up, so they could instead go to a party held by a girl who was more wealthy and popular, which made me wonder why then would Virginia want to remain friends with them like she did.  Another part involves a member of their clique named Alfred (Jack Blum) who the girls initially think is storing the severed head of one of their murdered friends. They later realize that this was simply a realistic looking plastic mold that he had made to resemble her, which makes them feel ‘relieved’ enough to continue to socialize with him. However, anyone who makes plastic molds of heads from someone they know that has just been killed seems just as creepy to me and enough to make most normal people concerned, which the characters here are not. There is also no explanation at the end for how the killer, whose identity I will not divulge, was able to come up with such an elaborate and realistic disguise. The gory effects are also not convincing and could have used Tom Savini’s help

Like I said I found the film’s ending to be pretty cool and enough for me to suggest this film to horror fans, but only if they are willing to stick around for it.

My Rating: 3 out of 10

Released: May 15, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 50Minutes

Rated R (Violence, Language, Adult Theme)

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Studio: Columbia

Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video

Re-Animator (1985)

re animator

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 7 out of 10

4-Word Review: The dead come back.

Daniel Cain (Bruce Abbott) is a student at a nearby medical college who decides to take in as a roommate a foreign student named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs). West seems a bit anti-social and very intense about his work. He sets up a lab in Cain’s basement where he does experiments to bring back the dead by injecting them with his specially formulated serum. He starts with animals, which makes it intriguing enough for Cain to get in on it, but when they start to move onto cadavers at the school’s medical lab things spiral out of control.

Compared to most low-budget horror films of the 80’s, and I have seen many, this thing is nicely compact and well-paced. There is none of that extraneous dialogue and needlessly slow, drawn out scenes before you can get to any type of action, or horror. It grabs your attention right away with a clever, whimsical opening sequence and a musical score that although does sound similar to the one used in Psycho is still quite effective.

The gory special effects are excellent even when compared by today’s standards. Normally I have no problem watching these things no matter how high the gore factor is, but the scene where the instructor peels the skin off the head of one his cadavers during a class lecture and then cuts through the bone of the skull and takes out his brain had me feeling a bit queasy. The best part comes when Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale) gets his head chopped off at the end of a shovel, which is again well-done, and then has both his body and head injected with the serum. The scenes involving the headless body walking around while carrying this talking head are creepy, hilarious, and highly effective. It is realistically enough looking during a couple of sequences that it had me sitting there wondering how they pulled it off. My only quibble in this area would be the part where West reincarnates a cat that comes back to life and turns homicidal.  It is very clear that this ‘killer cat’ is nothing more than a stuffed animal as its fur looks fake and the body is unrealistically thin.

The film is directed by first-timer Stuart Gordon whose only claim to fame before this was when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin in 1969 and he brought in an audience into an auditorium to watch a play he had written and then locked the doors so they couldn’t get out. He intentionally made the play as boring and annoying as possible just to see how long it would take them to rise from their seats and clamor to be let out. Although this was enough to get him expelled I still admire the guy’s panache. That same type of snarky humor is evident here and woven in, in a way that nicely balances the horror. My favorite scene here, and one that I remember most distinctly from when I first saw it back in the 80’s, is when Dan meets his girlfriend Megan (Barbara Crampton) in the school’s hallway. He starts to kiss her passionately and she feels embarrassed and tells him ‘no, no, no’ and then it quickly cuts to show them in bed where she is saying ‘yes, yes, yes’.

Another thing that differentiates this from other low-budget horror films is the fact that the lead characters are not as bland as usual. I liked the way Dan has a moral quandary and teams up with West on some of his experiments. Both Dan and Megan are better fleshed out as characters and believable. Crampton also looks gorgeous and has a good nude sequence at the end.

Kudos must also go to Robert Sampson an actor who has worked steadily since the 1950’s, but has never become a household name. He plays Dean Halsey father of Meagan and his part takes off after he is accidently killed and brought back to life with Herbert’s serum where he turns into a mumbling, crazed lunatic. This isn’t as easy to pull off as you may think and his catatonic stares are fabulous.

David Gale deserves mention as well playing the evil doctor. His pale skin and sullen face make him look like he is dead from the very beginning and he has the perfect look for a horror film. He clearly relishes his role and hams it up nicely. He started to garner a large cult following after his performance here and offers to play similar roles in other horror films began to pour in when he unexpectedly died in 1991.

The only performance I really didn’t like was that of Jeffrey Combs. I know he has pretty much become the face of the Re-Animator franchise, but this guy seemed hammy without ever being amusing, or funny with it. I didn’t like the square, metal rim glasses that he wore as they were much too typical.  An eccentric character should wear eccentric looking glasses and attire to help accentuate his off-beat personality. I also didn’t dig his accent that seemed to waver between Bavarian, German, Russian, and some weird variant in between.

If you are looking for something different this Halloween then I suggest checking this one out. It has just the right amount of ingredients to be both entertaining and scary at the same time and it can still easily hold-up with today’s jaded viewers.

My Rating 7 out of 10

Released: October 18, 1985

Runtime: 1Hour 26Minutes

Rated R

Director: Stuart Gordon

Studio: Empire Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray