Catching Up With: Scream Factory Vol. 2 (Slashers)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2017-06-06 15:50

Cult fans have had several reasons to heap praise upon Scream Factory during the past five years, whether it’s for giving long-time favorites their due with lavish Collector’s Editions or digging up gems and finally making them readily available for the first time since the VHS-era. If I’m being honest, I’m almost always more interested in the latter, especially when it involves slashers. It comes as no surprise that Scream Factory has an enormous well from which to draw from with this genre: after all, dozens were produced on a yearly basis throughout the 80s, and this is not to mention those curious precursors. Scream has done right by the entire sub-genre as far as I’m concerned: genuine classics have been reissued with definitive editions, while others have finally been rescued from VHS-era obscurity. Here are some choice cuts from Scream Factory—and here’s hoping dozens more await in the future.

The House that Screamed (1969)

One of the more overlooked stopgaps on the road to full-blown slasher-hood, this Spanish production feels like an extension of Mario Bava’s work within the now burgeoning genre. Specifically, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador echoes Bava’s penchant with fusing the gothic with the grisly, even if The House that Screamed isn’t the goriest slasher thanks to a relatively paltry body count. But what it lacks in blood, it more than makes up for with that distinct Eurohorror vibe (with Waldo de los Rios’s haunting score doing much of the legwork). It might not be overtly supernatural, but everything about it feels somewhat like a waking dream, as if we’re walking through a nightmarish haze alongside Teresa Garan (Cristina Galbo), the new girl at Senora Forneau’s (Lilli Palmer) strict boarding school.

That sort of setting should set off alarms for slasher historians, as The House that Screamed is certainly among the first films that gathered a bunch of vulnerable girls under one roof for the express purpose of killing many of them off. Serrador’s film would be a crucial evolutionary step for the genre on this basis alone, but it’s even more so because The House that Screamed is quite good. While it doesn’t walk in a straight slash-and-stalk line that would define the genre years later, it blends gruesome murders with a wildly demented plot that finds Teresa uncovering hidden secrets and depravities lurking within the walls of the school. One has to wonder if Argento didn’t at least have this one rattling around in his brain when hatching Suspiria, as the tonal similarities are strikingly familiar.

Like that film, The House that Screamed is guided by a screwy, conspiratorial illogic. Something awful lurks in the shadows in addition to the heinous treatment most of the girls receive at the hands of Madame Foreneau’s sanctioned hazing. That sort of whackadoo kitchen sink approach (there&襊s also a subplot involving Forenau’s sheltered son, who’s forbidden from having any contact with the girls) makes it a fairly close ancestor to the strain of completely unhinged slashers and gialli yet to come. Ironically, though, it finds a wicked resolution in one of the genre’s earlier forebearers, marking The House that Screamed as both embryonic and derivative all at once.

Black Christmas (1974)

To speak of Bob Clark’s immortal classic in terms of its place in the slasher canon is almost a disservice. For years, its reputation as an embryonic form of Halloween reduced it to a bit of trivia, almost as if it were simply the mere rough draft that John Carpenter completed a few years later. This conception couldn’t be further from the truth: not only is Black Christmas a masterpiece in its own right, but it’s also very much its own thing. Sure, you could look at the skeleton of the plot—a maniac stalks unsuspecting young women around a holiday—and Clark’s prowling POV shots as elements also found in Halloween, but these are surface-level affectations at best. In truth, the films couldn’t be more different stylistically: where Carpenter’s sleek, elegant film is wrapped in the warm blanket of holiday Americana, Clark’s Black Christmas is raw, distant, and icy.

Besides, if it begs a comparison with any of its contemporaries, it’d be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Upon re-watching Black Christmas recently, it struck me that it, too, is a masterclass of naturalist horror. Like Hooper, Clark masterfully deploys a suffocating sound design and suggested violence to unnerve his audience. So much of the horror of Black Christmas goes unseen, including the maniacal Billy himself for most of the film. But you sure do hear him: his vulgar, shrieking phone calls pierce through the film, upending the sleepy, wintry desolation of a mostly abandoned college town. Likewise, Carl Zittrer’s minimalist score jangles and rumbles subtly throughout, heightening the mounting, creeping tension before Clark leaves viewers with an eerie, still silence during a final shot that sees the camera slowly pull away from the ghastly undiscovered crime scene in the sorority house attic.

All that remains is this scene of violence and the winter wind, which howls in indifference at the horrors that have unfolded. When absorbing these final moments, it’s extremely difficult to deny Black Christmas its rightful place right alongside Halloween. Given my reverence for that film and its director, that is obviously no light statement.

The Island (1980)

I suppose it’s tough to make an entire list dedicated to slashers without at least one film that fails to live up to its incredible cover art. This, of course, is one of the less-fondly remembered rituals of the video store era, and I imagine The Island befuddled many patrons expecting a routine slasher movie based off a cover that seems to promise a knife-wielding maniac butchering unsuspecting island tourists. For about fifteen minutes or so, it complies well enough with some grisly slashing by a mysterious group terrorizing some boaters. Once we learn that this is the latest in a spree of mysterious slayings in the region, The Island settles into more of a mystery and adventure film as journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) rolls down to Florida to investigate with his son Justin in tow. After chartering a plane to one of the islands off the coast, Maynard uncovers the unbelievable story behind the killings: somehow, a group of French pilots has inhabited the island for over 300 years, and they don’t take kindly to strangers.

However, because they’re worried about their clan’s continued existence, they keep Maynard and his son around. They need the elder Maynard to impregnate an island widow, while Justin is brainwashed to believe he’s the pirate leader’s (David Warner!) son. A long stretch that finds Maynard subjected to various torments and thwarted escape attempts threatens to turn The Island into a bit of a snooze—I feel like you could trim at least a couple of these sequences without losing much besides minutes off the bloated runtime. At nearly two hours long, The Island occasionally drags on without any kind of the bloodshed you may have expected from it. Instead, it’s more of an adventure or survival movie, complete with a big, action-laden climax that sees Michael Caine mounting a giant machine gun. Despite my reservations, I cannot in good conscience dismiss any film that can boast that and an Ennio Morricone score.

A stark departure for both screenwriter Peter Benchley and director Michael Ritchie, The Island might not really be much of a slasher (though Caine’s final confrontation with Warner brings it back closer to that orbit), but it is a wild little curiosity. It’s certainly not something you could imagine being made today: a sleazy, big-budget action-horror movie hybrid about killer pirates is not exactly the sort of thing a studio like Universal would prioritize. It was a bit easier to swallow back in 1980, with Zanuck/Brown Productions coming off of the success with Jaws looking to score their next big hit. Obviously, that didn’t happen, and The Island was consigned to Universal’s DVD-on-demand Vault Series until Scream Factory graced it with a Blu-ray release as one of the imprint’s earliest titles. If nothing else, it’s not Michael Caine’s most embarrassing moment starring on the high seas under Universal’s watch.

Terror Train (1980)

By the time Terror Train rolled into theaters towards the tail end of 1980, the slasher film as we’ve come to know it was beginning to come into focus. While it was in production before Friday the 13th was even released, it was clear where this particular genre was headed, and Roger Spottiswoode’s effort was one of the more crucial stops along the way. Many of the familiar elements we’d come to associate with slashers is on display here: an isolated location, a holiday setting, Jamie Lee Curtis, plenty of dopey kids, a prank gone awry, and plenty of bloodshed as a result.

However, because it was produced in that nebulous time before the formula settled in, Terror Train is notable for its own unique charms. Perhaps most noteworthy (and damning, depending on your persuasion) is that it doesn’t rely exclusively on indulging on-screen violence—only a handful of the kills are seen, with the rest happening away from the camera. As such, Terror Train doesn’t exactly fill up the gore quotient like its immediate descendants would; it is, however, more suspenseful and icily atmospheric than those films. Maybe it’s the similar setting, but this one gives off the same off-killer vibes of Horror Express: there’s just something inherently spooking about a train hurtling through the wintry darkness.

Granted, that’s just about the only thing Terror Train has in common with that genuine classic. Not that it’s nearly the worst 80s slasher by any means—it’s just that doesn’t have many memorable characters (though Curtis definitely isn’t just playing another virginal riff on Laurie Strode here), and it’s a tad predictable since the opening haywire prank provides the only suspect that makes any sense. Naturally, that doesn’t stop the film from trotting out red herrings, including David Copperfield himself as a magician performing aboard the train. I’ve long said that many slashers require one distinctive element to make it stand out, so Terror Train is definitely “the one where David Copperfield tries to sex Jamie Lee Curtis.”

Of course, Terror Train has just a little bit more than that going for it to make it recommendable. The costume ball premise (do people actually do this at New Year’s?) allows the killer to take on roving disguises since he swipes his most recent victims’ getup. Even if it’s not utilized to its maximum potential, it’s a cool wrinkle that yields one of the film’s more memorable images when the killer dons a Groucho Marx mask. To top it all off, the killer also has one of the more memorable (read: wildly over the top) deaths in one of these things, so Terror Train might not be the best slasher, but it is easily one of the better ones.

Death Valley (1982)

One of the more reputable major studio attempts at crafting a slasher, Death Valley arrives with a veneer of prestige and maturity that many of its contemporaries didn’t bother with. Not only is it a Universal production, but it has some actual, credible star power to its name (Paul Le Mat! Catherine Hicks! Stephen McHattie! Wilford Brimley! Edward Herrmann!), even if some of the stars here would become more famous later on (Peter Billingsley would become immediately more renowned one year later with the release of A Christmas Story). Here, though, Billingsley is Billy, a precocious New York kid whose world has recently been rocked by his parents’ divorce. After a cloying conversation with his dad (Herrmann), he’s shipped off with his mother (Hicks) to Arizona, where she’s reunited with an old hometown flame (Le Mat). Billy can’t help but wander off when the trio visits Death Valley (as one is wont to do on a family vacation, I guess?), and he unwittingly stumbles upon a crime scene and swipes a necklace that could easily identify the killer.

Obviously, Death Valley is a long way from the more traditional slashers of this era, so much so that I’m sure the more zealous fans of the subgenre would balk at its inclusion here (it wouldn’t be totally unwarranted). In lieu of goofy coeds and wall-to-wall violence, Death Valley is more of a suspense film with a side of familial melodrama. After providing some obligatory on-screen titillation and throat-slashings, Dick Richards settles into a cat-and-mouse routine that’s clever enough, if not oddly paced. It turns out that the crime that’s uncovered here is the latest in a rash of slayings that’s befuddled the local sheriff (Brimley), and Billy’s stolen necklace is a crucial piece of evidence that allows him to almost immediately solve the case. This leads to one of many tense showdowns, as the sheriff confronts his suspect (McHattie), who coyly dances around the subject before revealing his guilt (and another twist I won’t spoil, even though the movie totally does and ruins a decent surprise ending as a result).

Anyway, all of this happens about halfway through the movie (and Billy begins to suspect McHattie even earlier when he notices his character wearing a similar necklace at a restaurant), so a good chunk of Death Valley is dedicated to this poor tyke being terrorized. No location is safe, from an old west tourist trap to his own hotel room, where he’s eventually stalked thanks an incompetent, aggravating babysitter that leaves him unattended. It’s all effective enough—you can’t help but be taken in by Billingsley’s sweet, charming performance, and Le Mat and Hicks are earnest as hell. McHattie is also a sleazily unnerving psycho whose place in the slasher canon would be in higher regard if he had a few more scenes to really lean into it. Throw in the wonderfully creepy location setting and a wild ending, and Death Valley emerges as a memorable if not odd slasher. Of course, in a genre where formula became the norm, I’ll certainly take these oddball outings as a nice reprieve.
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Horror Reviews
2018-08-18 01:14
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