Thursday 7 December 2023

Burial Ground - The Nights of Terror (1981)


Director: Andrea Bianchi

Screenplay: Piero Regnoli

Cast: Karin Well as Janet; Gianluigi Chirizzi as Mark; Simone Mattioli as James; Antonella Antinori as Leslie; Roberto Caporali as George; Pietro Barzocchini [Peter Bark] as Michael; Claudio Zucchet as Nicholas; Anna Valente as Kathryn; Benito Barbieri as  the Professor; Mariangela Giordano as Evelyn

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)


Mother, this cloth smells of death.

Ye old awesome horror synth opens Burial Ground, an infamous Andrea Bianchi zombie film the wave that came out of Italy after Zombi 2 (1979), which also opens with a man trying to say to the undead he is their friend only to get eaten. The group who come to his mansion of the damned, to meet him, are to find themselves in the midst of this undead horde, including infamously a mother played by Mariangela Giordano and her child son, played by an adult named Pietro Barzocchini under the name Peter Bark, a very miniscule height male actor with the choice of playing him as said child, making viewers squirm since this film's first release. And yes, it was always weird, as his namesake, Bark's character was named Michael, really weird when he wanders into the bedroom his mother is in during an intimate relationship with his father and becomes jealous by their act.

There is not a lot complicated to Burial Ground in general. Set to a really idiosyncratic score by Elsio Mancuso and Berto Pisano, including a lot of lounge jazz that you would never find in zombie films from the 2010s, the basic premise is that they are in the home of Professor Harry, the man already eaten by the first ten minutes, who was studying rituals to summon the dead, and they have to survive. Michael's weird relationship with his mother being with her husband notwithstanding, it is a cheesy zombie film, and honestly, in tone there is no difference to this to a forties or fifties b-movie, of screaming damsels in distress and men helpless to zombies trying to choke them, only with gore and director Bianchi infamously bringing really transgressive content to his work. It is to the point the score at times suggests a UFO will appear any minute to explain why the zombies came out the ground.

The zombies themselves emphasis this film's legacy, how they can be both creepy but ridiculous, the morbidness of their decay in representing death contrasted by their potato sack cloth clothes, or how that, sanely, you could outrun these shambling undead with ease and get off the premises quickly. Instead, the cast are doomed by fear of the uncanny, moving decay or inexplicably start gurning transfixed and trying to fire at one until some figures out later headshots only work. Admittedly, getting a foot caught in an animal trap as at one point is something that could credibly get you eaten, but there is also both a humour and virtue even to this infamous film how the zombies make up in sluggishness with being clever and being able to use tools. Here, you may be decaying but your knife throwing reflexes are as strong as when you were alive.

Burial Ground is a film which, even next to the other zombie films from Italy, looks like it is chasing the others in trend, your mileage drastically changing depending on your taste in camp and feeling icky, something clear as it tries to top the splinter to the eye scene from Zombi 2 with a head through a broken window. There is still a style to all this to appreciate - I like the music as talked of, and this is still a production from a time where you could film at a real mansion with its aesthetic decor helping so much in the production value - but this is as schlocky as you can get. I love this film, but you have to work around this, to be able to appreciate its absurdity as much some cool ideas for the genre, zombies who figure out teamwork and battering rams. This is also with the film finding itself contrasted by its luridness, which became the more infamous aspect for decades, the more explicitly incestuous slant that comes between Michael and his mother becoming more graphic, in a way a) explains the casting of an adult, and b) is really screwed up. The tone is cemented when the film ends on a quote from the "Profecy of the Black Spider", which does not exist, and yes, is not properly spelt as typed there, adding the cherry to this gory guilty pleasure.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)


Director: Dwight H. Little

Screenplay: Alan B. McElroy

Cast: Donald Pleasence (as Dr. Sam Loomis); Danielle Harris (as Jamie Lloyd); Ellie Cornell (as Rachel Carruthers); George P. Wilbur (as Michael Myers); Beau Starr (as Sheriff Ben Meeker)

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)


After Part III Season of the Witch (1982), it took six years before Halloween returned to the silver screen, Michael Myers firmly back in its centre having been in a coma since the second film. At least, and with spoilers difficult to hide with sequels from previous entries, this addressed the issue that the creators were attempting to kill him off with a giant explosion, so this continuation makes sure that, even if rewriting a dramatic ending, it had an effect. Here the results least lead to him in a coma, badly burnt up, for all the years that past within this world, awoke from his slumber in a mental institute when word of him having a niece is uttered in ear shot. Honestly, the biggest issue with The Return of Michael Myers is entirely that it feels contractual to exist when, for the start of the divisive Thorn Cult trilogy, this could have been more playful.

The decision to write Laurie Strode off screen, as Jamie Lee Curtis was long past slasher films in her mainstream career, and switching to an adopted girl played by a young Danielle Harris is actually a smart move to have gone with. I may find the decision to make Strode related to Myers annoying, but if one is forced to continue the series, having the bogeyman plague other members of the family is far more practical, and meaningful, in mind that for the Friday the 13th movies, they got around issues like this by setting up new random groups of teens and young adults. In the casting of Jamie Lloyd, you have a sympathetic figure if anything. Eleven months off from the death of her parents and adopted, the idea of a figure still reeling from this trauma, and having nightmares connected to Myers, an uncle she has never seen, is an interesting premise for any production to run with. Particularly when you get to Part 5 as well, Harris as a child actor in the film is incredibly charismatic and likable, making the fact her two films in the franchise are about Myers threatening and trying to kill a young girl more disturbing.

If we need to have a sequel, the shame of this film petering out is that this just starts with promise as a quietly set up but engaging follow up, only to start becoming more sluggish as it goes along. It is still a basic premise, with the worst step sister in Rachel, played by Ellie Cornell, even having her own subplot about the romantic triangle between her and the daughter of the new sheriff of Haddonfield. Even with the return of Donald Pleasure, turning his Dr. Loomis into an Ahab character slowly losing his mind, there is a build up from the literal scars from the last film, to an amusing tangent with a drunk mad preacher talking about chasing damnation in his beat up car, and the end naturally driving anyone in his position to start howling like a mad man. With Harris an anchor for viewer sympathy greatly needed, we had nothing amiss with this story. Despite losing Dean Cundey as cinematographer, this does also manage to have its own autumn aesthetic which works in its favour. The Blu-Ray era has been an incredible godsend for cinema like this; once a luddite who had no interest in the technology, my sudden change to the medium over DVD has nothing to do with picture resolution but because it has lead to films being restored or at least, with this one getting better visual quality for them. The orange hued yet cold autumn colours of Haddonfield adds to the creepiness of the premise, of scarecrows in the fields, Jack O' Lanterns everywhere and a small local town plague by memories of the bogeyman before he even returns. The slow, glacial nature of the film, even next to the first two in the series, adds an atmosphere that can stand up to the prequels in having its own personality.

The problems are entirely because, after Season of the Witch bombed, The Return of Michael Myers is a very safe direction to have gone with the franchise. Beyond its supernatural twist ending, which leads to the precipice of the franchise's obsession with adding occult details, it is a generic slasher by its ending at a time when the genre, with so many existing, started getting into far more idiosyncratic ones, for good and for the absurd, whilst this is insanely dry. It is strange, once ago I would have lionised this when I really was not as found of slashers, happy when this was drawing things out and not falling into terrible late eighties perms or z-list glam metal songs. I love those glam metal songs now, regardless of what tier of quality they are in, like the eighties perms, still find slashers can get generic but appreciating their goofiness as much as one succeeds in one or more areas, and find this one eventually starts with a personality, being a solid and mood drenched horror film, only to get insanely perfunctory by the time Michael Myers is terrorising people. Considering he begins just being a force off-screen that can decimate an entire building of a few bystanders, as this starts with, less human and a literal force, we could have gone with more of the sense of dread even if we played out the slasher clichés. By the time he is out in the open, the more lurid slashers can gloat that they at least have more personality.  

Aspects are up to question in logic - the most egregious at one time being the subplot of the locals becoming an armed mob, with an unresolved event when they shot an innocent bystander by mistake - have now actually gained personality. It just goes to show that, lavishing praise on this film once ago, things change as you get older and appreciate the horror sub-genre you once had an ambivalent view of, affecting the films you were more positive on. You could blame this entirely on the screenwriter of Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever (2002), and the future director of Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home (1996), but honestly the issue feels more like no one wanted to make a radical turn in the series, merely replicate what came before despite the fact, with hindsight, the original Halloween is really unconventional in how precise and moody it was. Being beholden to how this starts the controversial Thorn trilogy, there is also the issue even with its virtues that, at least alongside Part 5, you have to wait to see if these films work together as one piece or expose even more problems. It is the obvious thing as well that will factor in for The Return of Michael Myers, and honestly, in the strange world of the horror franchise sequels, it feels less a concern wanting to rank them from best to worst, but more riding this peculiar rollercoaster and see what stood out, this one unfortunately now feel like the straight line in this trajectory.

Friday 1 December 2023

Games of the Abstract: Shinobi III - Return of the Ninja Master (1993)


Developer: Sega

Publisher: Sega

One Player

Sega Mega Drive / Genesis


Credit where it is due, with Shinobi III growing in worth over me in multiple plays, I admired it already in mind to its history. The story goes that, allowing videogame magazines to preview Shinobi III, Sega found the reviews lukewarm for their expectations, so they took back the game and made it better, trying again and with success1. Whilst the game does have its difficult spikes, like a final level which involves negotiating around electrical currents, Shinobi III does feel like Sega flexing with the Mega Drive, more so as it feels artistically positive, in a way that seems alien to the industry as a business, to deliberately halt a realize to improve a title than merely release it.

One comparison worth suggesting in how, like Treasure, the legendary developer of Gunstar Heroes (1993) from this era alongside later cult hits, there was an emphasis on making this game “cinematic” in style, with set pieces and events like boss battles being as much events to play through. This proves a virtue in this follow up in the Shinobi series, following Joe Musashi in his quest to end a returning Neo Zeed, the evil organization defeated in the previous game, as the game is steeped in this idea of memorable set pieces which are there more for cinematic spectacle in sprite form, especially in the earlier levels. You have a ninja surfing at one point, one of two scrolling scenes alongside riding a horse, which pretty much shows how of the period of the nineteen nineties this was in feeling like a cartoon in tone, but alongside the regular game play of Musashi going through levels, jumping hazards, slashing villains or throwing shruiken at them, there is an emphasis on set pieces with this particular game which is also matched by its high production quality as a game.

Whilst the game is consistent and throwing new challenges, like a repeating maze in a traditional Japanese manor with platforming puzzles, it does feel like Sega put the best moments earlier on, but the consistency of the game helps it. Undeniably, the game looks sumptuous, the richness of the game’s graphical style knowing that, whilst released in 1988, the Mega Drive/Genesis had such help in developers learning and improving with the technology over time. Knowing the circumstances as well, that Sega pulled the game, and remade the sequel in little time to make a better game, it is a huge compliment how the quality is still there, also applying to the score by Hirofumi Murasaki, Morihiko Akiyama and Masayuki Nagao. Arguably the high point is Level Three of the seven, very early on, when you are thrown into the main villains’ bio lab of horrifying mutant creations. It is a curious logic where, in the regular game play of Musashi going through levels, jumping hazards, slashing villains or throwing shuriken at them, Level One is in the woodlands, like a traditional chambara/ninja tale, Level Two has Musashi taking the battle to the villains at a military base, against their soldiers and robots, only to get into full scale body horror for Level Three. Expect blob critters exploding from glass tubs, a subterranean flesh pit with giant termites and arguably that which should be the game’s most memorable moment, a horrifying flesh monster as a boss, looking like a skinned man and the size of a building.

Gameplay wise, Shinobi 3 is as much an obstacle course as it is hack n slash, the enemies usually one hit to kill and more a hazard to negotiate alongside the platforming, which becomes more significant later on where you are literally negotiating obstacle courses, be they elevators lined with crawl spaces and mechanized defenses, or double jumping falling rocks to stay upward in a freefall. The double jump, important to this series, is a potentially contentious mechanic as, due to the precise nature of it, only achievable on top of the normal jump, it could lose of a lot of lives due to a lot of mistiming. Of great interest too, following on from the previous games, is Joe Musashi‘s access to a variety of magical abilities. One of the more idiosyncratic is literally sacrificing a life, by hara-kiri, for all your health bar back and damage to your enemy, which may seem an extreme idea to include, but turned out to be a fantastic exploit for the final boss, a perfect robotic simulacra of Musashi, especially if you can accumulate lives, as unlike the others it can be done more than once if you wish to take the risk.

Leaving the arcades, and reaching the 16 bit systems with a series of Mega Drive games, this series would continue with Shinobi X (1995), a maligned but still good Sega Saturn follow up with digitized actors that I wish was more readily available; its aesthetic is contentious, but if you can accept it, it takes the gameplay of this game and adds far more, including a wider set of combat moves, which added so much more to an already solid production. Outside of the handheld consoles, this would be the last of the 2D games in this franchise, one which like many of this era emphasized short and challenging platforming and mowing through enemies, part of the Mega Drive flexing its prowess before the 32 bit console generation would take over. Shinobi III is absolutely a game worth viewing as, whilst history made the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog more valued intellectual properties for Sega financially, this shows the quality of Sega at their best in the home console side, including the knowledge as beginning this review they went as far as pay additional expenses to improve a game from the ground up they could have just released in their original form. In premise and style, it would have been a cheesy sci-fi action film, but the best kind that, within the context of video games, is a joy in terms of pure style. There is an inherent pleasure for those of any game skill if they can work with this game’s specific challenges in its aesthetic pleasures, be it barraging through supernatural samurai to fighting a mecha Godzilla monster as a boss, and whilst games thankfully exist recreating this in the modern day, these are the type I see the trademarks of a “Mega Drive” game in terms of stereotypes in a positive way.



1) Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master/Development, from Sega Retro.

Thursday 30 November 2023

Babysitter Massacre (2013)

Director: Henrique Couto

Screenplay: Henrique Couto

Cast: Erin R. Ryan as Angela; Marylee Osborne as Bianca; Joni Durian as Lucky; Tara Clark as Arlene; Odette Despairr as Linda; Serendipity Lynch as Sandy; Geoff Burkman as Mr. Walker; Stephanie Coffey as Allison; Chandra McCracken as Tina

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)


Into the modern day, and slashers have soldiered on with the trends around then, Henrique Couto's Babysitter Massacre showing how the genre can be influenced by the trends around it. In this case, however, this is also a case for me of two different tones, like oil and water, which do not mix well for me. It is a film which is trying to juggle two different horror films, where one poster offers something grim and unremorseful, but contrasts it by what is playful and unapologetic right off the gate, brazen female nudity with a babysitter bathing with the exploitation from the get-go. The jarringly switch of tone but also horror subgenre that comes immediately afterwards fed into my reticence.

It is meant to be a slasher, but do not expect chase scenes, instead riding the capsizing wave of the time of "torture porn", that questionable genre term for when, in the 2000s, horror films emphasised the fear of prolonged agonising pain on victims unable to help themselves. Despite films like Eli Roth's Hostel (2005) cementing the term, what kept it alive arguably was the Saw franchise becoming a permanent part of horror canon from that decade onwards, revelling in edgy, mean spirited but serious scenes of gruel. This has the uncomfortable introduction of this, of the titillation leading to this actress, entirely nude, playing out being tortured, which is thankfully subdued due to the fact the scenes and effects are very minimalistic, in this case pulled finger nails and a simple neck cutting effect. Some will still even find that distasteful, but alongside the fact that I am not going to take a moral stance, as that would come off as a hypocrite for even watching the film, it emphasises the inherent issue in schism this film cannot escape from for me.

The premise, in which former babysitters and friends still haunted by the lost of a friend in their teen years, is contrasted by the seriousness of that premise, in which the killer with a white mask without facial features returns, and one of the characters, a loner, is both overcoming survivor's guilt and is ostracised unfairly by almost everyone of her friends for that person being taken, something is admirable in the attempt. This is however also a film which is both presenting this, set at Halloween too, with what is tonally closer to The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) in tone with significantly more lurid titillation. It is here where I wish Henrique Couto, who has mostly worked in more lighter hearted far, even westerns and a Christmas film named A Bulldog for Christmas (2013), had made two different films. Whilst there are moments in the script where the term "bitch" and jokes are made where you hear a male voice attempt to write women, you actually get some likable interactions in the characters too, both when being serious, the main female lead bonding with her mother, or goofy, like arguing with a former boyfriend who is still a pizza delivery guy since the age of seventeen.

It is gleefully lurid, including the most contrived way to get the leads into lingerie, to feed a female friend's fantasy, and referencing Sorority House Massacre II (1990), that clearly knew how dumb the contrivance was. There is a ridiculous amount of nudity for the sake of it, but there is paradoxically a virtue to this in how, even if it is salacious, this is a cast of actresses for those scenes who are women you would encounter in a bar or on the street, a body positivity with likable characters where, rather than eighties teased hair and casting people for specific looks, the only thing that feels manufactured is how fashion has changed since the early 2010s and now looks of a time period. The best example of this is the most ridiculous and memorable scene, of a nude woman seductively pours Halloween candy onto her body on her bed to tempt the killer, where the actress is a larger figured woman who a sexist would criticise for her appearance, but here in a scene more appropriate for a Slumber Party Massacre parody stands out for this, where she is beautiful in the scene and appropriately game, sexy and brave for it even if, as the cliché goes, the killer has to kill.

The unfortunate thing is that this film wants to lean on a serious plot, the clichés of slashers for once for me something I wish had actually been here. As mentioned, "torture porn" is a distasteful word I am not fond of as a horror subgenre term, and it feels so out of place when mixed with these scenes, like a po-faced Herschell Gordon Lewis film without his sense of fun. If this was a serious film without the jokes, even if uncomfortable, the film would make sense with its structure, with its ending a bleak one, [Spoiler] the killer the father who killed his own daughter, and everyone including the female lead he is fixated on barring one character dying [Spoilers End]. Instead, with its finale, the swipes into comedy, and the abrupt use of an Ouija board that actually works, become more jarring. In Eastern horror cinema, there is more ability to switch between tones like this because it clearly comes from countries like Japan and South Korea where this is more flexible and commonplace in their cinema, and you find films in the West that can pull this off, becoming incredible works as a result; the tonal shifts here, regardless of the nationality of the film, really undercut this, neither fish nor fowl as a result despite things to admire for me.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Moonchild (1994)


Director: Todd Sheets

Screenplay: Todd Sheets

Cast: Auggi Alvarez as Jacob Stryker; Kathleen McSweeney as Athena; Julie King as Rocky; Dave Miller as Talon; Kyrie King as Weasel; Stefan Hilt as Cabal; Cathy Metz as Dr. Andronymous; Carol Barta as Medusa; Jody Rovick as Captain Simpson

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)


There's no debate about your fate. You're tomorrow's lunch!

An aerial shot from a helicopter over a cityscape, followed by a man climbing a barbwire fence to a Slayer-like thrash metal song in the score, sets up the ambition to be found here, especially if you have seen older Todd Sheets films before this, where he has jumped in scale from the films he made from before, drastically, in his shot-on-miniscule budget works even within the pre-opening credits here. There is a moving pick-up van stunt, jumping in to the back of one and someone then being thrown out, and a car chase with pyrotechnics and three vehicles involved. It is not as elaborate as a Hollywood production, but in context as a micro-budget film from the early nineties, this is a bold and challenging set piece to have pulled off, and only a clear superimposition of a car in front of a moving train shows the strain of a micro budget, something you would need a significant production to pull off and now may be done in blockbusters by green screen.

Aesthetically Moonchild feels like a digitized Mortal Kombat rip-off like Way of the Warrior (1994) for the 3DO Multiplayer System, which is an apt comparison as Naughty Dog's video game, long before they made The Last of Us franchise and released the same year as this film, was homemade without a true green screen and costumes including part of a Burger King packaging; here though with Moonchild, with its mix of ninja and samurai costumes out of context, and a post-apocalypse premise where the lead Jacob Stryker (Auggi Alvarez) had his DNA spliced with lycanthropy abilities, you do not have to just appreciate it as a historical piece of ambition, as whilst Way of the Warrior is as stiff as a board to actually attempt to play in modern eyes. Moonchild is from a director who once made Sorority Babes in the Dance-A-Thon of Death (1991), a film to enjoy if you accept it is a film where nothing happens, and over the three years afterwards gained so much from making films over the short time which passed in terms of pacing and keeping the audience entertained. The premise feels like one you would have gotten in a Sega Mega Drive/Genesis game, and Bleeding Skull tantalised with their review describing Moonchild as "an adaptation of an unreleased Sega Saturn game combined with backyard wrestling"1, so there was a lot coming into this even without my interest in Todd Sheets as a filmmaker.

Truthfully, Moonchild is too ambitious, a plot that would require the budget of at least an Italian post apocalypse film to try to pull off, with way too many characters and plot points to juggle, but I cannot help but admire Moonchild as a gold standard for a micro-budget film to gun for this level of ambitiousness. It is a film which was made with fun from the crew but making sure to keep the viewer intrigued, where there are the little details like when a minor henchman produces a saw from their mutant stomach and Sheets has an actual motorized saw blade as a prop. Following a plot of Stryker, who was part of the evil dictatorship's project of creating a werewolf army, rescuing his son with a band of helpers including a female underground leader named Athena (Kathleen McSweeney) and her kid sister, this tries its hardest at every single moment, trying to keep at a pace even when the dialogue can linger on exposition, as Stryker learning he has a bomb implanted in his small intestine has only a 72 hour time limit after escape to get this goal finished. They have martial arts scenes even if there are few of the cast trained, and the werewolf effects, bladder transformation effects indebted to Rick Baker, are applaudable in how they were pulled off. It is certainly distinct for a micro-budget film, where it is one of the few post-apocalypse tales where the underground rebels have a nice cafe to plan within, and the Medusa figure among the villains' gallery is an older woman who, far from out-of-place and stealing the film, such as when she is threatening actual children in the cast with a finger spike in the brain for information.

Probably the only real surprise is that, barring one scene where a hand comes out of someone's mouth and rips a man's eye out, this has none of Todd Sheet's trademark gore from the time and later career, the one oddity in the film in production. This was homemade in the best way aside from this, with pyrotechnics when androids are defeated, alarmingly close to cast at times, and it only stands out because it has been something Sheets embraced as a trademark, especially as there is content here where that would have made sense to include, such as how Chicago is full of mutants and other androids who practice cannibalism, and the abrupt lead villain with "666" branded on his belly. What cannot be denied is the jump in craft however, as you see Todd Sheets leap, ocean sized in distance, in technical improvements and the beats in making entertaining genre films he would watch himself, full vim and vigor shown. So much so, you will not be disappointed you only once see a full werewolf transformation including a wolf man suit on furry steroids.


1) Bleeding Skull 50: The Best Shot-On-Video Films, written by Joseph A. Ziemba and Annie Choi, and published on January 2nd 2022.

Sunday 26 November 2023

Halloween III - Season of the Witch (1982)


Director: Tommy Lee Wallace

Screenplay: Tommy Lee Wallace

Cast: Tom Atkins as Daniel Challis); Stacey Nelkin as Ellie Grimbridge); Dan O'Herlihy as Conal Cochran); Michael Currie (as Rafferty); Ralph Strait (as Buddy Kupfer)

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)

After Halloween II (1981) was meant to close the story of Michael Myers – someone who could only die, like Jason Voorhees has, from production hell and copyright issues than by a final girl’s hands - John Carpenter and the late Debra Hill decided to turn the franchise into something doomed from the start as an idea, but one I glad existed in a single attempt. They decided to turn the franchise into a series of episodic films based around the Halloween season with different stories and, ironically, this is what American Horror Story as a TV series would be doing with such success decades later, making each series not even themed around a holiday like Halloween, but entire series based on one setting and premise with their own narratives. That series immediately started this plan from the second series onwards however, not after two films like the ill-fated Season of the Witch did. Season of the Witch, whilst it has given a boost in name recognition, should not have been part of the Halloween franchise if you were a producer of this project - it has had last laugh in its critical reappraisal within the last decade, but being part of the franchise was immediately a hindrance, as audiences were not surprisingly confused why Myers was not in it, and the jarring context of it being a Halloween film when it is completely alien in tone and ideas. Whilst it has Carpenter's guiding hands over it, directed and with the screenplay credited to Tommy Lee Wallace with the tough task to adapt this, the film becomes one of the weirder turns for a horror franchise sequel to ever had. It is one of the best in production quality - Carpenter's score here with Alan Howarth is arguably one of his best, and Dean Cundey's incredible cinematography painted onto the scenes adds more to the proceedings in atmosphere, but its connection to the franchise is just the in-joke of the original Halloween (1978) playing on TV in scenes. That would have made it a galling experience, in the midst of the slasher boom as well, when most would presume that this was even in the same genre.

Barring this, I adore Season of the Witch as a grim, unsettling take on Halloween as a seasonal holiday both in its symbology and as someone who adores the holiday like many do. The premise is simple and works as a strange and compelling short story chiller - after a patient is murdered in his hospital of work, Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) is pulled into a conspiracy with the victim’s daughter Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin) that involves a novelty and toy manufacture’s series of Halloween masks and the sinister intentions behind them. As someone who loves even the tacky decorations and sweets of the season - the plastic skeletons, the novelty foods and biscuits etc - Season of the Witch leads to a nasty point, based on a single extended monologue explaining the truly horrifying intentions behind a set of masks being sold, referencing the history of the likes of Samhain but perversely turned into an evil act of ritual sacrifice that is seen as right to do for the sake of humanity. Even if the satire about consumerism is broad, it eventually leads to one having to think carefully about what Halloween means, at a time in the year said to be when the border between the living and the dead is at its thinnest, and how its macabre imagery is so codified against this nasty reality check shown in the film.

A large factor to why this works is the subconscious influence of legendary British screenwriter Nigel Kneale. Kneale, famous for the Quatermass franchise, and famous British television horror and sci-fi stories, was brought in for the original story of Season of the Witch. This however lead to a disappointing fallout to take place, Kneale objecting incredibly to the level of violence that the film had2, and Tommy Lee Wallace to adding a lot of his own touches to the final work2. This is not surprising considering the final work is surprisingly brutal in this area, with someone even pulling another's head clean off with their bare hands with a giant blood squirt at one point, a level of violence rarely found in any of the non-Rob Zombie versions for the whole franchise, and if anything could make this film divisive for certain viewers, it is that some of the more eccentric touches I have grown to love and helped its legacy, alongside likely being the kind which made it an odd sell in the day, were not from  Kneale.

Despite taking his name off the final script, his fingerprints are still visible from his original work. Having now seen a lot of his work, the world of Silver Shamrock, a novelty mask and toy factory who have their own tiny rural town, evokes the sinister rural town of Quatermass II (1955 for the TV mini-series, 1957 for the Hammer feature film version) and how its nebulous nature, everyone within part of a conspiracy, are visible to any stranger who keeps their eyes open about their surroundings. Kneale is also someone who is able to deal with occult and supernatural ideas with far greater nuance even if he was to rationalise them through science and sci-fi concepts like aliens, to the point that, even if left a mere fragment now in the final film, the far better use of Samhain and pagan references in Season of the Witch over any of the other Halloween films is likely influenced by his ability to rationalise even the strangest of ideas with real weight, even if rewritten in the hands of another going for a more pulpy premise. A sense of the ludicrous has to be appreciated with the final work, but for me this thankfully became in a positive, such as involving a piece of Stonehenge being stolen, which automatically evokes Spinal Tap nowadays whenever I think “Stonehenge” in any context, or how Daniel and Ellie, even without the significant age difference, in little time manage to end up romantically linked as abruptly as you can because they could not get an additional room in a motel.

The other significant factor, which is a trope very common in British horror storytelling, is the importance of objects having magical properties, not merely being connected to an evil other but in them as cursed and maleficent, objects which can be used as part of something else but, as much constructions with their own histories and character to them. (I.e. a certain whistle found on a beach in a famous MR James short story; for an American example with a wider scope the Necronomicon in HP Lovecraft's fiction and how merely reading the book is inherently a dangerous act for the reader from its history). The three masks in the centre of the film - a witch, a skull, a Jack O'Lantern - are objects that are revealed as eventual catalysts to a horrifying mass outbreak of death, with many children who will immediately die as a result of those whose parents bought them, their constant appearance throughout the film invoking a greater sense of character and threat from their apparent innocuous nature. Even the Silver Shamrock theme on television,  which has become an ear worm for many viewers of the film, has a mantra like nature close to a magical incantation in how catchy it is (and especially with how a television sweepstake for the company will be the spark for the tragedy to start in connection with the masks directly). That this all involves Stonehenge will baffle some, as mentioned, but another factor to my love of the film that has grown on this viewing is that Season of the Witch is also a strange, strange sequel for any franchise to have regardless of it having any connection to the first two films or not from all these factors.

It is also a strange film just by itself, a baffling little oddity to throw at a mainstream horror audience. I like the weird in cinema but I also find upon revisiting this film that weird horror films are actually a lot of effecting and creepy for me, their irrational content leading a sense of unpredictability and greater threat. The clockwork robot minions of the main evil figure, Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), could come off as silly, but they add to the creepiness of the final work, particularly playing into the fear one can have for nameless thugs, played by actors without masks but with their identical haircuts and suits have a menace particularly in how brutal their methods of killing people are. And of course the final scene is one of the best for any horror film to end on, the sting in the tale that cements its qualities. In the middle of a franchise of slasher movies, its position now is a curiosity in terms of how the project was allowed to exist in the first place, a curveball that you would rarely find in most franchises from then on. This has added to my love for the film, now that it should have been an entirely different project for Carpenter and Hill that merely existed amongst their regular collaborators. We should have just skipped forwards to Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) in the late eighties but we thankfully got this; it belies other sequels in the history of horror franchises for how idiosyncratic it was, and alongside its virtues, its grown just from that context’s aura.


1) Nigel Kneale and ‘Halloween III’, written by Andy Murray and published for We Are Cult on October 31st 2019.

Thursday 23 November 2023

The Last House on Dead End Street (1973)


Director: Roger Watkins

Screenplay: Roger Watkins

Cast: Roger Watkins as Terrence "Terry" Hawkins, Ken Fisher as Ken Hardy, Bill Schlageter as Bill Drexel, Kathy Curtin as Kathy Hughes, Pat Canestro as Patricia Kuhn, Steve Sweet as Steve Randall, Edward E. Pixley as Jim Palmer, Nancy Vrooman as Nancy Palmer, Suzie Neumeyer as Suzie Knowles, Paul M. Jensen as the Blind Man and Ken Rouse as The Whipper

A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies)/An Abstract Film Candidate


This makes you look just like a vampire... that's what we are...

One year in prison for drug possession, and Terry (played by the director Roger Watkins) is sick of it all, deciding a course to making ritualistic snuff movies as a response, this beginning one of those true one-offs in that Roger Watkins' film came, seemingly vanished, and returned in its battered form as a strange piece of cinema history heard of in speculation and infamy for years. The story of Last House on Dead End Street began for me with an actual official release, not a bootleg, with the 2006 Tartan Film DVD release in the United Kingdom, part of their failed "Grindhouse" label series. Barring some Jess Franco double bills and obscurities like Bloody Malory (2002), it was not a success and was near the end of their existence when they closed their doors in 2008. Considering they, since the VHS era, were important in cult and art cinema, including their sub label "Tartan Asian Extreme" being a huge part of the push for the likes of South Korean cinema in the 2000s, the Grindhouse label was a fascinating idea, but LHoDES was an idiosyncratic choice even back then. Not helping was its messy preservation as a film heard of and not seen despite the whispers about it, even having to use video footage to include the entirety of one of its goriest scenes, at a time before cult physical media releases emphasised preservation even of films which just survived being lost. Even in terms the decades after, Vinegar Syndrome included it as an extra to one of Watkins' adult erotic films Corruption (1983) as an extra on the Blu Ray, requiring one to search for it as an Easter egg, but they merely had plans for a proper restoration for its own release.

The irony is how, under eighty minutes, not a lot actually transpires in terms of elaborate plot but so much is clear in the little character interactions, with what is witnessed being incredibly striking. It has to be factored in that, in the lore of its production, Roger Watkins with this his first film made a much longer production, called The Cuckoo Clocks of Hell, originally from 1973 and based loosely on the Charles Manson cult1. A maelstrom of issues came as time passed - including a lawsuit from one of the film's actresses, battles with producers and distributors, and the film being out its creator-writer-lead-editor's hands2 - and as the film I know it as, as for everyone else, was released officially in a truncated form in 1977 with a title clearly sold on the back of The Last House on the Left (1972) and its notoriety.

What plot is still here can be summed up as thus: Terry's work crosses paths with Mr and Mrs. Palmer, Mr. Palmer a struggling pornographer who cannot get his work sold, as his distributor does not what sensual "art" but something more extreme. Thinking Terry's work is faked despite the truth, they cross paths in selling the latter's work and becoming the next stars when Terry feels he has been ripped off.  Shot in a verité form, it also evokes the adult films which Roger Watkins reacts in film, in mind as well that the plot of this develops meaning knowing his career would enter adult cinema too.  Before his career went to making films in the format of adult cinema, something feels pertinent to how, in the context of this world onscreen, there are conversations about stag sex films not selling anymore and everyone becoming desensitised to extreme content, loaded in meaning here. There is the tone of the films talked of and seen film with film, including a sex scene which feels like porn without any explicit shots and barely any nudity baring the prominent close up shots of buttocks, but this subject matter emphasises the sense of ennui on the material, where shot after the end of the sixties and when the wave crashed miserably, this feels like the ideals of love have horrifyingly died and decayed. One scene, one of the most notorious we will get to, involving Mrs. Palmer participating in an extreme ritual for her sexual gratification is contrasted against her husband, at complete ill ease, alone in a room grimacing as he hears her at the party in the next room. It turns out to be one of the moments, surviving in this truncated form, that manages to hold power as a quiet moment, the sense of a man struggling in a career which is devolving in more and more immortal sleaze against his will as the films are no longer selling.

This is a rare moment in what becomes a discomforting production in content and tone, where its battered existing versions add to its disconcerting mood. Large portions of the production are the actors voicing over the footage, LHoDES nihilistic and weird whilst contrasting its series of ritualistic murders to the sense of alienation felt by the cast, from Terry falling into his most violent fantasies to one of his female followers coming from a dull, unhappy marriage with a man that will lead her to willingly join this cult in senseless murder. The cameraman is initially angry Terry has returned into his life and, after the horror he is shown having recording a blind man being strangled, he will eventually become a willing participant to the atrocities. Within the ritual recordings themselves, Terry has his crew and he wear masks, from transparent ones for the women which distort the face to one Terry and others share which is a full plaster piece from ancient Greek theatre. There is also emphasised repeated dialogue especially in the murder sequences that, post-dubbed, add more to inherently disturbing moments. Already the film is unsettling before it gets to the finale, an entire prolonged string of murders involving mock surgery and deer hooves which made the film's legacy.

Where this gets more strange and infamous are the scenes which are bizarre even next to other horror films. One is a scene you would never be able to get away with now, that aforementioned ritual at their party where Mrs. Palmer "performs" for the guests and for her kinks, involves putting on black face makeup and being whipped in front of her guests, a scene where there is no way around this and it cannot be comprehended. It exists now as a scene which you cannot defend but is so weird that, after rightly criticising it, it feels bizarre even next to the rest of the film, as if it just appeared in the film reels without warning, and inexplicable once the discomfort is experienced. The other involves deer hooves, a sexual subversion scene where a man is forced to go down on a woman with a severed deer hoof in place of anatomy in her jeans, which is not problematic but is so out there, with loaded sexual debasement and scumminess, it will not take the power away from the scene even talking of it. This is not even factoring in that, without these scenes, this is still a discomforting film to witness. The scene which involved a VHS copy to preserve its full gore in the UK DVD, a surgery without anaesthesia, is what you expect in terms of post-Herschell Gordon Lewis in terms of gore and real animal organs being used, but alongside even a scene of a blind man being strangled off-screen, the entire tone to LHoDES is disconcerting from the use of voice over for dialogue to the lo-fi production shot in New York among rundown buildings and improvised props. It feels legitimately grimy and evil in tone though I know this is fake.

The question remains whether this is actually a good film or not. It feels truncated, barely any characters and barely a plot barring the themes talked of earlier, suggesting how this was clearly a longer film cut to shreds. A piece at the end tidies the plot up, [Spoilers] a voice over explaining everyone was arrested [Spoilers End], felt in this misanthropic work almost like a contrived Hail Mary to not relish the nihilism, or at least pretend to not. Even the title, whilst evocative, does hide in the shadow of another notorious work, and it leaves one with a film in The Last House on Dead Street which lingers in the mind but with its own form scarred and likely compromised by the power it may have possessed. It is a compelling piece which retains power, but you could, if not able to appreciate its virtue, easily dismiss it as a terrible film, something poignant in my first knowledge of the film, and that Tartan Film DVD, came from a British DVD review magazine which trashed this as a one star review including in its presentation for the surviving form. The legend, and what actually is onscreen, is truly unique, so it deserves its place in the history of cult film, but alongside the moments you can accuse as tasteless, it is nasty experience even if that was Roger Watkins' intentions and to be considered to view requires caution.

Abstract Spectrum: Disturbing/Eerie

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low


1) He knows audiences want violence, written by John Dalmas for The Journal News and published on April 18th 1973, page 10.  Retrieved 7th October 2019.

2) This Is Where It All Ends: Roger Watkins’ ‘The Last House On Dead End Street’ (1977), written by Brett Wright for Split Tooth Media and published on October 29th 2020.