FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Oct 23, 2020

FAVE 20: G.G. Graham


G.G. Graham is horror's sultana of sleaze, grande dame of grindhouse, and empress of exploitation! Whether she's writing for Drive-In Asylum (I love Drive-In Asylum by the way), The Horror Hothouse, Wicked Horror, her own site Midnight Movie Monster, or any of the countless other places you can find her byline, she most often delves deep into the genre's depraved depths, the places I, your humble blogmistress, dare not tread. I love that even after my 77 years as a horror fan, there are corners of the genre I've yet to explore and so many films I've never heard of out there waiting to eat my face. This list features plenty of lesser-known gems and you'll get gobs more ghoulish goodies at G.G.'s gtwitter.

I don't know what's with all the alliteration today, sorry. Maybe I'm subconsciously trying to manifest a gig writing headlines for The New York Post?



THE BEYOND (1981, Lucio Fulci)


While often unfairly made the Jan to Argento's ever-so-stylish Marcia, The Beyond's slightly daft, dime store surrealism proves Fulci could navigate a visual set piece with a puckish, gleefully gory abandon. The actual narrative borders on nonsensical, but The Beyond zips along through eyeball trauma and acid attacks on undead zombies in a frenetic manner that is rarely linear, but never boring.

It's a gothic nightmare that has no problem leaving us blindly standing alone in the road, lost in the depths of despair while one of horror cinema's best scores pounds in the background. Hell may be an endless void, but they really do have the much better band.


NAIL GUN MASSACRE (1985, Bill Leslie & Terry Lofton)


If this movie were an intentional slasher parody, it would have been brilliant. As it stands, it's just brilliantly inept. Line readings are sub-dinner theater level, dead extras forget to hold their breath and the killer cracks punny one liners that would make a third rate Borscht Belt comedian cry. Massacres are perpetuated with the titular nail gun at a brisk pace, damn the plot threads left to dangle in the Texas breeze. 

This direct to video dreck is the best possible example of passion project regional filmmaking, where the sheer love of the movies overrides tiny budgets, better sense and a lack of any discernible talent. Do you remember when you could go outside without worrying about the mosquitos...or the killers? I do. It was in the sad days before I had discovered the goofy joy that is Nail Gun Massacre, surviving proof that every movie that gets made is a tiny miracle. Even the awful ones.


SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE (2000, E. Elias Merhige)


The mid to late 90s boom of meta horror started out as a breath of fresh air, but soon devolved into a dull, interminable game of "Are You Smarter Than A Slasher?" Released at the tail end of that trend cycle, Shadow Of The Vampire instead wraps its meta-narrative around the filming of 1922's silent classic Nosferatu. Rather than a joking poke at genre tropes, the film revises history to offer a terrifying explanation of what may have made the silent classic so damn scary. 

Simultaneously, we also get a gorgeously shot contemplation on creativity, and how far someone can be willing to go to realize an artistic vision. With a stacked cast of some of the finest actors of their generation and a visual aesthetic that incorporates some of the best techniques of the silent era into a modern movie, Shadow Of The Vampire is an arthouse meditation on all of the ways making great art can (quite literally) suck the life out of you.


I DRINK YOUR BLOOD (1970, David E. Durston)


One of the first films rated X primarily for violence, David Durston's exploitation classic is a first-rate example of the wild world of grindhouse era, fly by night filmmaking. A faux-Manson Family of Satan-worshipping grifters terrorizes a tiny town in a spectacularly bloody fashion. Watching the last few townsfolk battle the frothing undead, we learn some valuable lessons about both rabies and LSD along the way. 

Rabid hippie zombies! Scooby-Doo-style chase music! Meat pies as carriers of vengeance and disease! Geysers of red paint gore! Satan as an acidhead! If this fast paced, hippie hangover freak out doesn't have it, you don't want it.


HELLRAISER (1987, Clive Barker)


In all of the franchises that dominated the 80s horror box office, Clive Barker's Hellraiser was a welcome dose of Euro weirdness that gave gooey practical effects a highly stylized S&M groove that has been rarely matched before or since. 

Frank Cotton was perhaps cinema's slickest sleaze, willing to take his search for sensation straight to the gates of Hell. The character type wouldn't be out of place in the cheaper environs of 70s exploitation, but the journey his hedonism instigates owes as much to giallo oddities and your local leather bar as it does any of the horror trends of the time. A pile of in name only rights-fueled sequels and the passage of time have done little to diminish how singularly strange Hellraiser still is. "We have such sights to show you..." indeed.


DEAD & BURIED (1981, Gary Sherman)


Potter's Bluff is one of the greatest of horror's many small towns with a secret. Shrouded in seaside fog and as subtly unsettling as holes to a trypophobic, when the idyll becomes something far more grisly, it's almost a relief. As the body count rises, it’s very clear Sheriff Gillis isn't crazy and neither are we.

While the entire film is a masterpiece of mood and atmosphere, Jack Albertson gives us one final, magnificent turn as eccentric mortician William Dobbs. For the generation who likely best remembers him as the kindly (if incredibly lazy) Grandpa Joe in Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, it’s an utter disservice to Albertson's incredibly prolific career not to see him swing from dodderingly sweet to utterly sinister here. Genre has always been the place where character actors can swing for the fences in meatier roles, and that is exactly what happens in Dead & Buried.


MESSIAH OF EVIL (1973, Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz)


Speaking of seaside shockers, Messiah Of Evil is a moody chiller that transcends its myriad of production problems to become something far more unsettling than it otherwise might have been. A young woman goes searching for her father in a coastal California town, and runs afoul of a cult of ghouls that sit at an odd juncture between vampires and zombies, obsessed with moonlit bonfires and the consumption of raw flesh.

Rather than jump shocks and manic chases, Messiah Of Evil settles into a nightmarish, disjointed surreality. Alternating between dourly drab and luridly vivid colors, a bevy of disaffected beauties find themselves wandering some of the best slow burn horror set pieces I've seen at this price point. Messiah Of Evil might just be a lost masterwork of arty low budget horror. It might just be proof of the infinite monkey theorem. Either way, it’s still pretty great.


FREAKS (1932, Tod Browning)


Outcasts and the creation of chosen families is a thematic throughline that genre cinema loves to come back to, but few films are more effective than Freaks at illustrating how tightly wound the ties that bind can be. Tod Browning's otherwise promising directorial career was ground to a standstill with this verbose melodrama and its cast of sideshow and circus performers. The open display of so called "oddities" and a sympathetic portrayal of their lives was considered obscene at the time.

What makes Freaks a masterpiece isn't necessarily its corker of a twist ending, or its bucking of public opinion of the era. When the titular cast of "freaks" takes their revenge on a gold-digging trapeze artist who has harmed one of their own, the climatic rain soaked chase is one of the tightest, tensest sequences in cinema history. What becomes of the victims afterwards is almost beside the point. The terror lies in knowing just how far the avenging angels are willing to go.


SHATTER DEAD (1994, Scooter McCrae)


In the massive glut of SOV content, Scooter McCrae's Shatter Dead deserves a reappraisal and rediscovery for its impressively empty post-apocalyptic world (made more so by the fact that the cleared streets were accomplished without the luxury of permits), and a conceptual ambition more in line with foreign art films than video store trash.

God abandons humanity, and death ceases to exist. The dead just keep on living, minus the ability to heal and the luxury of blood circulation. A woman named Susan is just trying to make it home to her boyfriend, and encounters all of the factions of this strange new world. Manic revivalist preachers thinking undeath is a gift of immortality, terrorists mutilating the comparatively unblemished dead, and hopelessly mangled zombies begging for change on the street all take a turn in delaying her long trip home.

Once your eyes adjust to the microbudget visual limitations, Shatter Dead is an oddly transfixing mix of philosophical musings and exploitation style shocks that will definitely stick with those willing to ride along with its contemplative take on the nature of living, and the natural place of death to add poignancy to life.


AN EYE FOR AN EYE (aka THE PSYCHOPATH, 1973, Larry G. Brown)


The Psychopath is a prime slice of grindhouse golden age weirdness that hasn’t seen home video release since the heyday of VHS. Tom Basham puts in a disquieting performance as Mr. Rabbey, a stunted manchild who also hosts an inexplicably popular local children’s television program. When some of his favorite fans and park playtime pals are abused by their parents, Mr. Rabbey takes the law into his own hands, assuming they aren’t otherwise occupied by his selection of creepy ass puppets.

This isn’t the most ambitious or bloody of exploitation era fare, but what it lacks in gore, it makes up for in a particular strain of only possible in the 70s, psychosexual weirdness. Mr Rabbey is a grown man that goes from eating chocolate cake with his substitute mom/producer to killing people with household objects as if both were part of the same game of make believe.

Long before the first murder even happens, it’s disturbing that people would let this fractured, fey wreck of a man anywhere near a playground. What makes it worse is that Mr. Rabbey is then encouraged to inflict his excessively punitive puppet shows on both the local children’s hospital and a cheering television audience. Never has a pouty squeak and the shadow of a bowl cut lurking at a window been so squirm inducing. I pity the fool that declines to become one of Mr. Rabbey’s rangers. Best watch out for that lawnmower.


CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962, Herk Harvey)


Carnival Of Souls separates itself from the herd of low budget indie films in that it takes the opposite approach than most of the B cinema of its era. Rather than tossing its characters into a flashy parade of blood, beasts and bad taste, it surrounds its supernatural trappings with the distinctly ordinary patterns of small town life. Mary Henry is just trying to get settled in a new job, and a new city, not succeeding particularly well at either one.

The ghostly elements sneak in with a whisper, rather than a bang, and we have every reason to question Mary's sanity as her obsession with an old carnival pavilion becomes more consuming, her visions of a stalking man more frequent. We'd all be more likely to blame stress or loneliness before we started looking toward the otherworldly.

In that specific sense, Carnival Of Souls tracks the same haunting territory as some of the best episodes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. It's terrible to feel as if you don't belong, but utterly horrifying to discover the hidden reasons your hunch is exactly right.


THE STUFF (1985, Larry Cohen)


Of all of the riffs on 50s creature features like The Blob and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, Larry Cohen's The Stuff livens up his monster kid nostalgia with razor sharp satire of 80s consumerism and a host of lived-in, delightfully quirky performances.

It's an utterly ridiculous idea that a groundswell of something that looks uncannily like soft serve ice cream could so easily take over the world. The brilliance of The Stuff is that it makes this off the wall tale far more plausible than it has any right to be, tongue firmly planted in cheek. The atomic age B movies didn't get the details wrong, necessarily. The Stuff posits that the US military and hosts of small town sheriffs were lucky in that their impending invasions weren't accompanied by a catchy jingle and a slick PR firm to market the invaders as a low calorie dessert.

Much like Michael Moriarty's star turn as corporate spy/savior David "Mo" Rutherford, The Stuff is a fast paced, funny spoof that isn't nearly as dumb as it first appears. Too much really is never enough, when it comes to Larry Cohen, New York City's finest indie film eccentric, at his most accessible.


GANJA & HESS (1973, Bill Gunn)


Originally funded as an attempt to cash in on the success of Blacula, writer/director Bill Gunn instead used the loose framework of a vampire narrative to deliver a richly layered thematic kaleidoscope of the effects of addiction, assimilation, and religion on Black experience in America. The visuals are framed oddly, sometimes obscured, and Sam Waymon’s gorgeous musical history lesson of a score is often just as key to conveying plot elements as the spoken dialog. Ganja & Hess has far more in common with the arthouse explorations of the 70s “New Hollywood” period than exploitation flicks.

Duane Jones (Night Of The Living Dead) and Marlene Clark star as the titular couple infected with an ancient African blood disease. While both actors were woefully underutilized in the bulk of their filmography, their performances here shine even amongst the dense layers of visual and sonic quilting that flesh out the film’s aesthetic. The director’s cut was unavailable for decades due to the producers’ unhappiness with the final result, but has since been restored to Gunn’s original vision by MOMA and Kino Lorber. A fiercely intelligent fever dream and a masterpiece of Black horror cinema, it rightfully belongs on any genre lover’s watchlist.


HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986, John McNaughton)


A hyper-realistic low budget film loosely based on the life of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer is a horror film in the most literal possible sense. There is no catharsis here, no comforting explanation of the how and the why of its protagonists’ ruthlessly efficient violence. Director John McNaughton and co-writer Richard Fire have very little interest in diagnosis or explanation, just a grey, grimy tour through a few days in the lives of men incapable of human empathy.

Henry and Otis don’t kill out of any misguided sense of justice or cause, and if there is some tragic backstory, the film doesn’t make us privy to it. In a genre littered with tragic monsters, anti-heroes and sympathy for the devil, it is a deeply harrowing experience to see characters kill primarily just because they can. They drift from city to city, picking off the weak and the forgotten with impunity, without any real remorse or calculation. Boredom and a vague dissatisfaction is more than enough to add another victim to the body count, nonchalant as a trip to the corner store.

Often shown alongside the more violent strains of exploitation film, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer’s power comes from its utter disinterest in making any moral judgments with which to exploit its subject matter. Cold and clinical as an industrial film, its only aim is to quietly document the daily routine of a pair of men for whom the depths of human depravity have become horrifyingly mundane.


CANNIBAL FEROX (aka LET THEM DIE SLOWLY, 1981, Umberto Lenzi)


All roads in the journey to the center of the bad taste world of extreme exploitation and horror cinema eventually make at least one stop amongst the 80’s Italian cannibal trendlet. The cannibal films take the exoticizing, cynical snicker of the Mondo subgenre to its logical, fully fictional extreme. Hiding behind a thin veneer of ethnography and supposed larger points about the nature of civilization, the cannibal flicks had a perfect cover of plausible deniability for a plethora of blood, boobs, and completely unnecessary animal cruelty.

Cannibal Ferox doesn’t particularly deviate from the basic template, but it is the only entry that combines its crueler excesses with extremely overblown line readings and scenery chewing performances that almost feel imported from another, less self-serious film. Giovanni Radice’s tooth-gnashing cokehead abandon as Mike and Zora Kerova’s utterly dippy Pat are far campier than they have a right to be thanks to their paired commitment to exaggerated overacting. There’s also the steady thump of an amusingly mismatched funk disco score. By the time you add in the dub’s melodramatic pauses in a line about a recently consumed set of genitals, Cannibal Ferox proves it is indeed brutally violent, but also occasionally brutally funny.


SCREAM BLOODY MURDER (1972, Marc B. Ray)


This manic 70s gem is one of the treasures lying buried in the trash heap of those 50 movie public domain DVD box sets. Matthew is a strange young man with a hook for a hand and the mother of all Oedipus complexes. He was sent away after murdering his dad with a tractor and mangling his own hand in the process. Years in a mental institution have done nothing to cure any of his issues, other than allowing his long-suffering mother to forget who he is.

Jealous at anyone who dares to be happy, soon Matthew is on a hitchhiking spree of murder, mayhem, and visions of men defiling dear old Mommy whenever he sees a happy couple. Home invasions, kidnapped prostitutes, and a hysterical speech about his captive’s lack of gratitude zip by in a tight 88 minute runtime that leads to one of the most delightfully left field endings this everything but the kitchen sink approach to filmmaking could possibly conjure up. Scream Bloody Murder isn’t the most polished of turds, but it amazingly never really manages to stink. Goofy, gory, and unapologetically cheap, its madcap energy is infectious fun.

M (1931, Fritz Lang)


Fritz Lang is better known to modern audiences for his sci fi masterpiece Metropolis, but while 1931’s M is less flashily stylized, it is both importantly directional (as one of the earliest extant examples of a police procedural) and quietly terrifying. A serial killer of children is on the prowl in Berlin, and when the police have no success locating the murderer, even the criminal underground joins the manhunt.

For an early sound film, there is masterful use of long stretches of silence to enhance the import of key dialog, a whistled tune and shadowy silhouettes marking the primarily off-screen murders. A young Peter Lorre was typecast for the majority of his career after his masterful turn as the murderous Hans Beckert, a monster with the most inhuman of impulses hiding behind a nondescript baby face.

The tension and fear of the city are palpable, from mobs questioning strangers on the street to the full blown kangaroo court that dominates the film’s final act. Made in the shadow of the rise of real-life Nazism, M’s deeper thematic questions of the appropriate punishments for inhuman crime and the fear fueled mob mentality lying just beneath the surface of our civilized trappings were certainly prescient of the real world events to come.

M was one of the first films to make plain the most terrifying of truths: The world is full of monsters. They don’t announce themselves in coffins or spaceships or laboratory experiments gone wrong. The darkest desires hide in ordinary seeming people, that on the surface, look just like us.


BABA YAGA (1973, Corrado Farina)


Baba Yaga is a loose adaptation of a story arc from Guido Crepax’s Valentina, a long-running Italian series of erotic comics. What plot there is involves a battle of wills between Valentina, a mod and modern fashion photographer, and the titular ancient witch, who is enthralled with Valentina after a chance late night run-in. 

However, Baba Yaga soon abandons the linear narrative for a pop art surrealism that owes more to the graphic novel source material and stylized European Gothics than it does any straightforward horror cinema traditions. Fascist visions and high fashion parties mix with an action/reaction Sapphic S&M struggle between the ancient and the modern models of fierce female autonomy. This sleek, sensual nightmare is made for late nights and altered states, a literal comic book come to life. Consider it the cool blue, cool jazz older cousin to the (equally queer coded) blood red of fellow high style arthouse Eurosleaze classic Daughters Of Darkness.


NOSFERATU (1922, F. W. Murnau)


One of the first stone cold, blood curdling classics of early silent horror cinema, Nosferatu’s genius lies not in its highly questionable, slightly clunky adaptation of the Bram Stoker novel, but in the visual vocabulary of creeping dread that it essentially invented. Lacking the technology or the inclination for the visceral and gratuitous, Nosferatu’s terror lies in the light exposing the outlines of the shadows and the things that lurk there. Max Schreck’s masterful performance as Count Orlok has none of the suavity of the later cinematic adaptations, but is something closer to death, at home in desiccation and decay. What thrall he wields is not a seduction, but the predatory instincts of a carrion creature, the not quite dead sapping the lifeblood from the living.

Nosferatu was also perhaps the original “cult” film, with the majority of the prints destroyed due to a legal injunction against the unauthorized adaptation of the source novel. The few remaining prints were copied and distributed in secret, and allowed the film to survive into the modern era. Almost a hundred years on, its silent, lurking menace is still all the reason in the world to be afraid of the dark.


BASKET CASE (1982, Frank Henenlotter)


As a born and bred New Yorker, I have an eternal soft spot for films in which New York itself may as well be a billed character. Frank Henenlotter is another of my hometown’s indie eccentrics, and Basket Case is a seven layer dip love letter to grit, grime, and the Deuce, with all of the trash cinema delights it once had to offer.

Duane and his basket-bound, misshapen brother are the rubber appliance, stop motion stuff B movie dreams are made of. Had Henenlotter stopped right there, he would have made a sleazy delight of a creature feature. However, he tossed all notions of taste to the wind and served up healthy doses of violence, nudity, and oddly sympathetic stunted sibling drama to take what would have been an amusing grindhouse novelty into exploitation classic territory.

None of this should work, but Basket Case is unafraid to lean into its essential silliness with a wink, a nudge, and a seemingly infinite number of rubber Belials wearing a variety of expressions for all close up occasions. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a movie about a murderous claw-wielding wad of what looks like flesh-colored ABC gum, and it is fantastic.

7 comments:

goblin said...

I couldn't help but think of Dead & Buried when I watched Messiah of Evil for the first time yesterday, so seeing both movies listed here back to back is kind of funny to me. The film almost seemed like a blueprint for the more polished Dead & Buried.

Nicholas Kaufmann said...

Wow, I was starting to think I was the only person who'd ever seen Shatter Dead!

CashBailey said...

HENRY is one of those rare movies that I acknowledge as a masterpiece but never want to watch again.

John Klima said...

@Nicholas I was, too! A friend and I rented it and every now and then we talk about it to make sure that it really happened.

Astroboymn said...

I love this list also. I have to see The Psychopath & Shatter Dead now.

G.G. Graham-Midnight Movie Monster said...

First off, thank you to Stacie for having me and all of you who read this!

@Goblin 100% intentional, as I often triple feature Carnival Of Souls/Messiah Of Evil/Dead & Buried for a three decade store of creepy small towns.

For anyone who wants to watch/rewatch Shatter Dead, the 2004 Sub Rosa DVD can be found at bargain prices on Ebay. Also check out Scooter McCrae's Saint Frankenstein short...it's also very cool, stars Miss Tina Krause and can be found here:

https://vimeo.com/350200089

@Astroboym

A VHS rip of The Psychopath is right here (tagged with the wrong year, but it's the right film). Even in potato quality its still a blast:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yy2ga8FMarY

Astroboymn said...

@GG: thanks, I found The Psychopath and it's now in my To Watch queue - also found Scream Bloody Scream streaming on That Nameless Site That's an Evil Monopoly.

Again, fab list you go there. My top 20 def has Carnival and Messiah on it, so happy to see them on those of others.