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Dave Franklin - Lesser Known Horror

Lesser Known Horror – An excerpt from Dave Franklin’s Ice Dog Movie Guide

EDITORS NOTE: One of the great things about this site is its global reach. More than once I have awoken to find a little nugget of brilliance from far across the globe smouldering in my inbox. Recently it was author Dave Franklin from one of my European haunts The United Kingdom. He graciously send me over 4000 words from a chapter titled “Lesser Known Horror” in Volume 4 of his Ice Dog Movie Guide titled “Oh, My God! Ninja!”. In traditional British fashion, you will unlikely find a more direct to line to what you were thinking in your head, but were to afraid to say.

In a brief conversation with Dave, he is planning on releasing Volume 5 the Ice Dog series, “Bunch of Snake Freaks” this January, so keep a look out for that. You’ll struggle find a more comprehensive package of blunt opinions sprawling from everything to everything. Links to the entire series below:

Go Fuck an Iceberg! A Brit’s Take on Guns, Tits and Other Fun Movie Stuff (Book 1)

Smile, You Sonuvabitch! A Brit’s Take on Catfights, Serial Killers and Other Fun Movie Stuff (Book 2)

Rooney Eats It! A Brit’s Take on Pimps, Child Deaths and Other Fun Movie Stuff (Book 3)

Oh, My God! Ninja! A Brit’s Take on Arnie, Icky Sex and Other Fun Movie Stuff (Book 4)

Bunch of Snake Freaks! A Brit’s Take on Dead Pets, Sleazeballs and Other Fun Movie Stuff (Book 5)

Every single word from here on is from the mind of Dave Franklin. Enjoy!

Lesser Known Horror - Dave Franklin's Ice Dog Movie guide Series
Oh, My God! Ninja! – Volume 4 of Dave Franklin’s Ice Dog Movie guide Series

Lesser Known Horror – (Excerpt from Ice Dog Series Volume 4)

I love horror and it’s always bugged me that the genre doesn’t get the respect it deserves from those clueless wankers running the Oscars. When it’s at the top of its sicko game we end up with classics like Texas Chainsaw, The Omen and American Werewolf. However, such a revered pool of flicks doesn’t often get added to. I could be wrong, but the last top-notch horror to force itself on pop culture was probably The Sixth Sense. I’m afraid stuff like The Babadook, Get Out, Midsommar, It and Hush don’t do much for picky ol’ me. In fact, I’d argue horror standards have plummeted since the 90s. Mind you, there are still a fair few outings that may not have scratched a blood-stained talon across the mainstream eye but are certainly worth spending time alone in the dark with.

Messiah of Evil (1973)

Synopsis: A young woman travels to an isolated seaside town to search for her artistic father.

Directors: Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz

Cast: Marianna Hill, Michael Greer, Anitra Ford, Royal Dano, Joy Bang, Elisha Cook Jr.

‘It’s better that I wait alone for it to come.’

So writes dad in a final letter to his daughter Arletty (Hill) before communication ceases altogether.

But what is ‘it’?

Messiah of Evil never really explains, but it’s clearly something vampirish, plague-like and apocalyptic. A worried Arletty drives to the near-deserted beach town where an armed gas station attendant fires at the rustling bushes, the remaining few residents gather on the beaches to light fires, and a drunk babbles about a ‘blood moon’ and children eating raw meat. Everything is askew. No one says Have a nice day. They just stare or back away. “It was as if I’d come into a foreign town where I didn’t speak the language,” Arletty muses, unnerved in the same way as the automaton-surrounded Donald Sutherland five years later in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Arletty’s father is not home but she breaks in to wait, encircled by his giant, vaguely sinister murals. Soon she hooks up with a young man and his two ‘travelling companions’, three swingers that are similarly spooked by the town’s ambiance. Arletty continues trying to find her father, but no one wants to help. Instead people have started bleeding from the eyes…

Messiah has a dreamlike feel, utilising blurry images, tortured voiceovers, an excellent use of shadow and silhouette, and a sparse but eerie electronic score. It’s also mainly shot at night, enabling effective use of animal noises, mist, the keening wind and the rolling surf. It’s not all creepy atmosphere, though, as there are a couple of standout horror sequences in a supermarket and a cinema, scenes that merge mundane settings with murder and cannibalism. And watch out for the large, lazy-eyed, albino dude who likes eating beach rats to the stirring sounds of Wagner.

Ultimately, Messiah seems to have an anti-bohemian aspect in that the enemy is overwhelmingly dull, grey and conservatively dressed. Is it a commentary on the death of hippiedom and a rejection of youth culture? Perhaps it’s a dark celebration of control being reasserted. Part of Messiah’s charm is its pleasing ambiguity and the way that the answers to such questions in this ‘piss poor little town’ can never quite be grasped. This might be down to the contradictions, inconsistencies and gaps in the writing, but it’s still a groovy, off-kilter little watch that built on Night of the Living Dead and went on to surely influence other horror efforts, such as John Carpenter’s The Fog.

Kill List (2011)

Synopsis: A voodoo-tinged tale of deglamourised contract killers…? That’ll do.

Director: Ben Wheatley

Cast: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Emma Fryer, Struan Rodger

Among the better efforts of 21st century horror, Kill List is a solid seven out of ten British effort that would have rated higher but for its frantic final twenty minutes that end up explaining diddly-squat. Until then, it’s a well-acted, well-directed, sadistic treat.

Jay and Gal (Maskell and Smiley) are two ex-army buddies turned hit men trying to get over a traumatic mission in Eastern Europe. Jay hasn’t worked a day in eight months, leaving him financially embarrassed and susceptible to Gal’s offer of a ‘well-paying’ contract. List’s slow burn opening twenty-five minutes give precious little away, except evidence of Jay’s antagonistic but loving marriage and a girlfriend of Gal’s who clearly isn’t who she pretends to be. From here on it’s a case of mysterious meetings in which their newfound employer likes things to be sealed in blood, leading to a sordid series of increasingly violent encounters where the victims welcome death.

“Does he know who you are?” their second victim asks Jay of Gal. “He doesn’t, does he?” Such a question is typical of List’s elusive feel. It’s a flick that some viewers will happily puzzle over (along with spotting its folk horror influences) while others will throw up their hands at the lack of answers.

Anyhow, this is still an admirably nasty piece of work where a hammer is put to such vicious use that it outstrips both Casino and Old Boy. List doesn’t forget the black humour, either, best demonstrated by Jay’s icy-cold silencing of a group of guitar-strumming, orange juice-swigging Christians at a restaurant.

Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)

Synopsis: Religious horror that would make Jesus clap.

Director: Alfred Sole

Cast: Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Paula Sheppard, Niles McMaster, Brooke Shields

I’m fond of horror flicks built on religion, such as The Exorcist and Carrie, because a belief in God means a belief in the supernatural. From accepting all that heaven and hell baloney it’s easy to jump to the next set of mad beliefs. And when people believe nutty shit, it’s never long before mad behaviour ensues… In other words, slapping religion in a horror movie often lubricates plausibility.

Now Alice isn’t quite in the same league as the above mentioned classics but it has a mighty fine go. Indeed, this 1961-set flick is still likely to cause the hearts of many a Catholic to flutter given its focus on illegitimacy, divorce, familial breakdown, burgeoning sexuality, menstruation, guilt, anger with God, parental sin, divine punishment for supposed moral transgressions and insanity. It’s a complex, fascinating movie that immerses itself in Catholicism, no doubt because it was written and directed with notable skill by a former pornographer excommunicated by the Church (!)

Alice immediately delivers a genuine shock during the First Communion of nine-year-old Karen (Shields) when she’s strangled by a masked, white-gloved killer in a bright yellow raincoat. Most flicks (including horror) shy away from murdering kids but this one is happy to show a tot being offed on holy ground and her corpse set on fire! Suspicion immediately falls on the resentful older sister Alice (Sheppard), especially when she’s found with Karen’s veil in her pocket. This adolescent bully clearly has a lot of repressed hostility (not to mention daddy issues and a fondness for keeping cockroaches as pets) but is she really capable of doing away with little sis? A shrink is brought in to diagnose her, eventually telling the heartbroken mum and dad: “Parents so often don’t know their children as well as they presume.”

Clearly influenced by the visuals of Don’t Look Now, Alice plays things commendably straight with only the tiniest tickles of humour here and there. Everything is convincingly fleshed out and accompanied by an atmospheric score. Its stabbing attacks are depicted with great flair and so well directed that they seem to come out of nowhere. The main performances are good, especially the outstanding Sheppard (nineteen playing twelve). She excels at capturing a wilful bravado – just look at the insolent way she can stick a cake-smeared finger in her mouth – and it’s not hard to believe she’s capable of spite. The poor girl can’t get on with anyone. However, she’s also bewildered and scared, giving the flick an intriguing air of mystery. Mention must also go to the antagonistic relationship she has with her mother’s landlord. He’s a bald, grossly obese chap that lolls around his downstairs apartment in permanently stained underwear while camply chatting to his plethora of cats. Of Karen’s murder he says to Alice: “Too bad she was the one to end up in the box.”

The giallo-tinged, unpredictable Alice is worth repeated viewings, partly to try to work out its degree of anti-Catholicism. It does suggest that belief can provide a platform to make you crazy, but it’s nowhere near as rabidly OTT as the same year’s House of Mortal Sin. Alice also presents a warm, sympathetic portrait of a priest, even if he’s infecting the minds of children with nonsense. Whatever the case, its queasy reputation continues to grow.

Mansion of the Doomed (1976)

Synopsis: Aye, aye, mad scientist ahoy!

Director: Michael Pataki

Cast: Richard Basehart, Gloria Grahame, Trish Stewart, Lance Henriksen

Blue Oyster Cult’s Harvester of Eyes would have served as a much better title for the wonderfully icky Mansion of the Doomed. ‘Harvester of eyes, that’s me…’ frontman Eric Bloom sings in a typically cryptic, OTT and darkly humorous offering. ‘I need all the peepers I can find.’ And that in a nutshell is what this bleak horror flick is about – eyeball theft.

Like 1960’s superior Eyes Without a Face, Mansion focuses on a sympathetic monster in the form of guilt-ridden surgeon Leonard Chaney (Basehart) trying to restore his beautiful daughter’s health. Nancy (Stewart) has lost her sight in a car accident while he was driving, a tragic event he can’t accept. “I must find the answers logically, without passion, and I will,” he reassures himself.

He starts on this road to redemption fantasising about cameras encased within glass eyeballs before switching to a little canine tomfoolery, jiggling the eyes between a pair of dogs. Feeling confident after this bout of animal experimentation, he turns to his daughter’s loving fiancé, Dan (Henriksen), and asks him if he’d give up his vision for his stricken daughter. “Give up my eyes…?” Dan says while reeling from the effects of a spiked drink. “I can’t.” And as he collapses, there’s the tiniest hint of a smile as Dr. Chaney strolls toward him. “I think you can,” he concludes. Now while you might imagine it’d be difficult to find a suitable place to carry out such naughty surgery away from prying eyes, Chaney fortunately owns both a mansion and operating theatre.

All of this is established in a fast-moving opening quarter of an hour in an exploitation pic that mixes gore, an Oscar-winning actress, occasionally decent special effects by the legendary Stan Winston, believable dialogue that dabbles with dramatic irony, a tense score, a commendable lack of sentiment and a pervasive sense of queasiness. It’s also nicely edited. Look at the way an ecstatic Chaney starts crowing to his colleagues about his newfound faith in the possibility of pioneering ocular surgery at the moment his daughter’s newly transplanted eyeballs start to fail.

And what of our involuntary donor, Dan? We renew our acquaintance when we find him raging in a holding cell in Chaney’s basement. That’s right, Chaney hasn’t killed this hapless guinea pig and disposed of the body, but has decided to keep him behind bars. And given that human eyeball transplantation is a lot trickier to pull off than Chaney first thought, Dan is about to get company…

The brisk, well-paced Mansion has numerous strengths, the main one being how it taps into the way none of us are too brave when it comes to our eyeballs and the slightest threat to their functionality. Then there’s Basehart’s performance, the standout in a smoothly functioning cast. It really is his show as he strolls around puffing on a cigar while ruminating on his genius, doing his inventive best to track down suitable donors or coolly dealing with the cops. I like the way he never considers the agony of his victims, blinded (ahem) by his ego, the professional challenge he’s caught up in, and an overpowering love for his daughter. He’s a smug bastard lost in a world of disconnected reality, but never less than believable. Just listen to his response after his assistant urges him to dispose of his wailing, eyeless victims. “Kill them…?” he says with genuine surprise. “I intend to help these people.”

Motel Hell (1980)

Synopsis: “Plant ’em.”

Director: Kevin Connor

Cast: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod, Elaine Joyce

Like Texas Chainsaw and Prime Cut, the inventive, far out Motel Hell puts a queasy focus on the production of red meat. And I think you know what kind of red meat I’m talking about.

Farmer Vincent Smith (Calhoun) and his younger sister Ida (Parsons) run a rural motel next to their farm. Famed in the surrounding area for the quality of their smoked meats, it’s not long before we see their unusual animal husbandry techniques. This involves setting traps for passing motorists or crudely subduing guests. Oh, and keeping them buried alive up to their necks in a ‘secret garden’ until ready for the kill.

The campy, religion-fused Motel takes its time setting things up. You know something bad is going on, but the flick prefers to riff on an off centre vibe rather than paint the whole gore-spattered picture straightaway. The easygoing Vincent and the podgy, plain Ida (no doubt channelling Martha Beck from The Honeymoon Killers) make a good pair of rural nutters. Their amiable chemistry is understated (“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters!”), but still enables us to get a good sense of their event-filled history (“Sometimes I wonder about the karmic implications of these acts.”) Still, it’s not hard to tell they’re insane. For a start Vincent occasionally wears a pig’s head, although the most convincing evidence arrives when he balks at pre-marital sex with a gorgeous woman less than half his age.

Plausibility might wobble here and there due to some ropey writing while a couple of the supporting cast clearly got short-changed at acting school, but Motel is nicely directed, throws in welcome bouts of nudity, benefits from a diseased seam of black comedy and, best of all, keeps the viewer guessing. Yes, everything could do with a bit more oomph, but it’s still a good watch for horror aficionados that enjoy dungarees, tractors, meat hooks and duelling chainsaws mixed in with their slayings.

Burnt Offerings (1976)

Synopsis: A haunted house movie that’s a lot classier than all those awful Amityville ones.

Director: Dan Curtis

Cast: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Lee H. Montgomery, Eileen Heckart, Bette Davis

When it comes to spooky dwellings, Kubrick’s The Shining sits at the top of the pile. Burnt Offerings is a fair way below, but remains a solid example of nicely written, slow burn horror. And like the Overlook Hotel, Burnt’s house of fucked-up goings-on boasts bags of character.

The Rolf family are interested in becoming the caretaker tenants of an isolated, somewhat shabby property for the summer. The pair of weird old siblings renting it out assure them that the ‘house takes care of itself’, but there is one snag to the knockdown price in that the Rolfs will have to look after their room-bound, elderly mother. Despite Ben (Reed) having some reservations, the offer is too enticing to resist, especially as Marian (Black) has already fallen in love with the place. “Forward into the valley of death rode the six hundred,” Ben proclaims as he walks with his family into the enormous 19th century mansion.

As expected, things go to shit because (in the famed words of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House) the dwelling is ‘not sane… and whatever walked there, walked alone’. However, the eerie Burnt still manages some fresh twists. I particularly liked the scene where the burly Ben starts horsing around with his twelve-year-old son in the swimming pool and ends up almost drowning him, the unsettling drama playing out as Marian sits upstairs dreamily polishing framed photographs of previous occupants.

Performances are good throughout. Reed is restrained, the house-proud Black much more enigmatic while Hollywood veteran Davis puts in a bravely unflattering turn as a fading aunt. A camp, wheelchair-bound Burgess Meredith also has better luck here than a year later in Michael Winner’s similar-themed horror turkey The Sentinel. Yes, Burnt has inconsistencies and is at least fifteen minutes too long, but things are aided by a good score with everything building to a brief but memorably nutso climax. It’s also interesting to ponder the links between Burnt and The Shining. Kubrick was probably familiar with the former flick because they share a helluva lot in common, such as a vampirish house, the main character being a writer with a desire to hurt his family, and a final shot that simply had to have been lifted. Mind you, at least I understood The Shining’s title.

Death Line aka Raw Meat (1972)

Synopsis: Murder and cannibalism on the London Underground. Tickets, please!

Director: Gary Sherman

Cast: Donald Pleasence, Norman Rossington, David Ladd, Sharon Gurney, Hugh Armstrong

Built on an urban legend, Death Line is a straightforward, unpretentious horror flick that gets in and out in less than ninety minutes.

A bowler-hatted, well-to-do gent is on the prowl for sex in London, eventually ending up in a tube station offering a woman money. After a swift knee in the nuts curtails his amorous advances, he becomes aware that he’s not alone. Something not nice (in a scene that surely influenced American Werewolf) is after him… The authorities aren’t too interested in his disappearance, but once it’s realised the guy is an OBE the woodentops get to work.

This investigation is led by Inspector Calhoun (Pleasence), a tea-loving detective who’s alternatively sarcastic, droll and blunt. Just listen to him lifting the sheet on a fresh murder victim in the morgue. “I like to have a peek,” he says to a colleague. “It settles the cornflakes.”

It turns out that following a late nineteenth century cave-in a bunch of railway workers (including women) were trapped underground and abandoned. Eighty-odd years later this inbred lot are still popping up to sink their teeth into late-night passengers or impale a railway worker with a broken broom handle. It’s hardly an ideal lifestyle, though, given they’re in a state of terrible, sore-covered health while their language has atrophied to little more than an occasional bellow of ‘Mind the doors!’

Director Sherman makes efficient use of his location, prowling the Underground’s rabbit warren of tunnels with assurance. For the first twenty-five minutes he barely bothers with horror and Death Line plays more like a mystery until we find ourselves in a dank cavern filled with half-gnawed body parts accompanied by the lonely sound of dripping water. The nose-wiping Pleasence provides a wonderfully eccentric, piss-taking turn, even though he’s obviously energetic, sharp and dedicated. This is a very British movie with its polite Bobbies, cosy pubs, talk of ‘manors’ and ‘geezers’ and plentiful consumption of Rosie Lee. Death Line also offers convincing makeup and some effective jump-scares that should provide a satisfying appetizer for Texas Chainsaw fans.

Vampyres (1974)

Synopsis: Erotic horror…? Oh, all right, if you insist.

Director: Jose Ramon Larraz

Cast: Marianne Morris, Anulka Dziubinska, Murray Brown, Brian Deacon, Sally Faulkner

I’m not much of a vampire fan, barring Let the Right One In, Martin, Salem’s Lot and mildly interesting stuff like Daughters of Darkness and The Hunger. It seems to me an awful lot of time and effort has been put into the sub-genre for precious little reward. However, Vampyres is a decent watch, ending up as the sort of flick Hammer would probably have loved to make but lacked the balls (instead settling for much tamer efforts like The Vampire Lovers and Lust for a Vampire).

Vampyres starts with the sight of a night-time country house. An owl hoots nearby before we zoom up to the window to see a pair of beautiful, naked lesbians writhing on a bed. The only sound is a ticking clock. Someone is coming up the stairs, though. The bedroom door creaks a little as it’s pushed open but our nudey female friends are too engrossed in nipple sucking to notice. A handgun comes into view. Then they’re shot to death by a silent, unseen killer.

Explicit sex and graphic violence. Fan-bloody-tastic.

Later some campers see two black-caped women loitering by the roadside, looking suspiciously like the lezzers we just saw getting murdered. They park their caravan in the grounds of a rundown country estate, but the uptight, faintly repressed Harriet (Faulkner) is spooked and keeps seeing the mysterious women wandering through the woods. “They didn’t look normal,” she tells her sceptical boyfriend.

You can say that again, luv. They look sensational, partly because one is a former Playboy Playmate of the Month.

Filmed in London, Vampyres is a languidly paced but atmospheric and intriguing little horror movie that builds to a solid climax. Director Larraz avoids cliché (no crucifixes and plastic fangs here) while working well with shadow, silhouette and gloom. He also chucks in a swirling colony of bats, stone gargoyles, some decent gore, an effective score and the sort of ramshackle graveyard that belongs on a Black Sabbath cover. Nevertheless, not sure why everyone is such a terrible, sloppy kisser.

The Blob (1988)

Synopsis: Small-town America goes to gooey, carnivorous shit.

Director: Chuck Russell

Cast: Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch, Jeffrey DeMunn, Candy Clark

No doubt influenced by The Thing’s whip-like tentacles, Alien’s acid blood and the Johnny Depp-annihilating geyser of blood in Elm Street, The Blob might have tanked at the box office but it remains a rewatchable little gorefest.

During its opening twenty-five minutes we meet our main players through a series of smoothly written scenes. They include some horny football players, a tin can-collecting hobo, a reverend, a decent cop hesitantly asking out a homely waitress, a concerned mom and dad, a crabby, kid-hating older cop, and a motorcyclist not long out of juve hall with a terrible hairdo that looks like a less handsome version of Matt Dillon (hmm, a quick check reveals that’s because he’s the guy’s brother).

The blob arrives via a meteorite that crashes into the woods. Before long it’s creating merry havoc at the town’s hospital. There’s a particularly good sequence in which a cheerleader grabs her semi-engulfed boyfriend’s arm only for it to detach as his face melts. “I want the sonuvabitch who did this,” the decent cop later remarks at the scene of the crime, obviously having no idea what he’s up against.

Part of The Blob’s fun is guessing who will survive because it sure chucks in a few welcome surprises. In the original Steve McQueen vehicle, the villain was an alien entity but things are tweaked here so that it’s now the result of a military experiment. This development slickly blends into the script, along with a handful of inventive, particularly well-worked kills, good direction, confident performances and a bunch of sly humour. And, of course, any flick that sets a man of God on fire is all right by me.

And Soon the Darkness (1970)

Synopsis: There’s a killer on the road…

Director: Robert Fuest

Cast: Pamela Franklin, Michele Dotrice, Sandor Elès

Although it begins with a two-minute burst of upbeat music, a misstep almost as baffling as the ridiculous folk rock used throughout the awful Last House on the Left, Darkness quickly settles into a tense, creepy groove. Notable for every scene being filmed during daylight, it follows two pretty English nurses on a cycling holiday in rural France. Following an argument they separate, but such a tiff is nothing next to the discovery that a Dutch woman was sexually assaulted and murdered in the area not long ago…

Darkness is not graphic. We’re not in slasher territory, even if it does contain one jump out of your skin shock. Instead it’s a well-acted, smoothly directed outing with modest ambitions. Its main strength is the way it explores the fears of young women. In its best scene, a cyclist hangs her newly washed underwear on a bush and has a nap by the isolated roadside while it dries. Upon waking she finds a pair of white panties missing and her bike sabotaged. No words are spoken but the sexual threat is concisely and marvellously etched on her face.

Darkness keeps you guessing and works well all the way through to its poignant last shot. I like to think of it as a primer for that other cycling holiday suspenser, The Vanishing. At any rate, I imagine these days the average woman feels helluva lot safer carrying a phone.

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971)

Synopsis: A young woman recovering from a mental breakdown tries to start again in a rural town. The daft bint really shouldn’t have picked one with all kinds of supernatural shit going on.

Director: John Hancock

Cast: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Mariclare Costello

The title’s a misnomer and Jessica is often slow and stodgy, but this mood piece somehow rewards the patient viewer. Like Messiah of Evil, it shares a dreamlike feel, as well as an unspecified, all-consuming threat and a curious anti-hippie vibe.

Jessica, her husband and a friend move to a place outside New York City to do up a rundown farmhouse. Initially alarmed to find an attractive, red-haired young squatter lurking in one of the rooms, they end up inviting her to stay. We sense this is a mistake…

Lampert is well-cast as the titular Jessica with her vacant expression. She’s a nice person, but sure as hell doesn’t come across as the most robust or brightest, traits that prove unhelpful when trying to convince her hubby of the existence of bloodied corpses and other fucked-up goings-on. As things progress, a whispery voice keeps intruding in her head (“He’s mine now. You think he loves you?”), a form of hostility that’s intensified whenever she comes into contact with the locals. This lot are a bunch of yokels sporting weird scars and little bandages.

Psychologically fragile women often form the centrepiece of horror flicks (e.g. Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby) and although Jessica is nowhere near their equal, it’s still an oblique, low-key take on vampirism with an odd synthesiser score and some commendably eerie cinematography.

Black Christmas (1974)

Synopsis: Perhaps the most famous of these lesser known treats, this is an early festive slasher that’s a wee bit better than the likes of a rampaging Santa in Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Director: Bob Clark

Cast: Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, John Saxon, Marian Waldman

Despite the plentiful dark humour, Black Christmas is a dank, claustrophobic wallow in the company of an insane serial killer. He’s after the young women in a sorority house, warming up by firstly subjecting them to a series of obscene phone calls in which he makes a cacophony of demonic sounds that could have come straight from the possessed larynx of a certain Regan MacNeil. “Could that be one person?” asks one of his unnerved listeners before the imminent murderer gets a little more articulate. “Let me llliiiiccckkk it!” he growls down the phone. “Let me lick your pretty pinky cunt!”

Our sparky heroine Barb (Kidder) isn’t too bothered, sarcastically dismissing it as the work of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir before making the odd rape joke and getting sloshed. But then a sorority sister disappears and the tension starts ratcheting up…

Director Clark had quite the year in 1974, also putting out the decent Vietnam War horror pic, Deathdream. The influential and very well-directed Christmas is the better effort, having since been remade twice. There’s nothing cheesy here, the characters are refreshingly unannoying for such fare, and the score is minimal but effective. You also get some nice touches like a cat crawling up a cellophane-covered corpse dumped in a rocking chair and a stabbing murder carried out while an angelic-faced children’s choir sing a carol on the doorstep. Most of all, though, you’ll remember those deranged, Legion-like phone calls, an effective device that mixes heavy breathing, pig grunts, guttural sexual threats and pleas for help.

Rituals (1977)

Synopsis: And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

Director: Peter Carter

Cast: Hal Holbrook, Lawrence Dance, Robin Gammell, Ken James, Gary Reineke

I have no idea why people go camping. As a species we worked out centuries ago that it’s better to live in permanent structures and yet groups of campers all around the world regularly swap brick for canvas, a kitchen for a portable gas burner, and moonlight and a log fire for electricity, not to mention the chance to acquire a poison ivy-afflicted arse.

This nonsensical behaviour, weird yen for fresh air and unfathomable desire to tramp through the so-called great outdoors is why I’m partial to seeing hikers and their idiotic ilk get what’s coming to them. Deliverance, of course, stands head and shoulders above such tales of backwoods horror, but the atmospheric Rituals is worth your time. It has some technical problems, there’s a smattering of overacting and a final explanation that falls short, but it’s a good Plan B if you don’t fancy the sight of Ned Beatty’s baggy Y-fronts again.

Five bickering doctor mates head into the Ontarian wilderness. It’s easy to tell they’re Canadians rather than Yanks because none are armed. Led by Korean War veteran Harry (the always watchable Holbrook), it’s not long before they have to endure shit weather, wet clothes, aggressive insects and missing boots. Oh, and a homicidal maniac on the loose. “A lot of very careful hatred has gone into this thing,” one of the shell-shocked campers mutters not long after having pulled his mate’s shattered ankle out of the jaws of a submerged bear trap.

Indeed.

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