October means Halloween is just around the corner, and here at Arrow in the Head, in honor of this ghoulish month of scares, every Friday leading up to Halloween, I’ll be posting mini-reviews of a few of my favorite horror flicks- some obscure, some not. Last week, we took a look at the Golden Age of horror, and some of the more transgressive works to emerge from that era. This week, we look at a classic horror archetype: the slasher.
No horror retrospective is complete without an examination of Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. Heck, it’s even getting its own “making of” film this year, with Fox Searchlight’s HITCHCOCK, starring Anthony Hopkins as the master of suspense. Back in 1960, watching Anthony Perkins as the cross-dressing Norman Bates, gruesomely murdering the curvaceous Janet Leigh in the shower to the strings of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score was heady stuff indeed. I’d wager that the first half of PSYCHO is one of the best slow-burns in screen history, with us following Leigh as a duplicitous secretary who embezzles money from her employer, and drives out to the middle of nowhere in an effort to get her head together. Anyone walking into a movie theater circa 1960 would assume she was our star, making her eventual demise all the more shocking.
Anthony Perkins is iconic as the seemingly kind and strangely sympathetic Norman Bates, whose split personality- that of his vicious mother, seems to emerge any time he’s turned on. In fact, he was so good that it all but destroyed his promising career as a leading man, as Hollywood hard a hard time accepting him as anything else. Eventually, he decided to roll with it, starring in 1983’s surprisingly good PSYCHO II, and sticking around to direct the third film, while cameoing in the fourth before his tragic AIDS-related death.
Come on- in a column called Halloween Horrors, you had to know that sooner or later I’d get around to reviewing John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN. A lot of the genre tropes that now strike us as predictable, including the indestructible killer, the horny kids getting killed, and the virginal female lead- all originate from Carpenter’s film. Made for a relatively paltry sum, HALLOWEEN really put Carpenter (not to mention Jamie Lee Curtis) on the map in a big way. It’s easy to see why audiences went for it in the way they did, with Carpenter’s sophisticated, even Hitchcokian approach being night and day to the works of several of the schlockmeisters that followed. As iconic as Michael Myers, with his painted Captain Kirk mask, and hulking physique were, I’d wager the true secret to the film’s success was Carpenter’s eerie electronic score. The instantly recognizable main theme almost immediately found its way deep into our pop culture. While not the first slasher film, it was the first to spawn a seemingly endless franchise, although only the decent second, and the often-overlooked third film, SEASON OF THE WITCH are really worth seeing.
ROAD GAMES (1981)
Following HALLOWEEN, Jamie Lee Curtis became sort of omnipresent in the teen slasher genre, having showed up in HALLOWEEN 2, TERROR TRAIN, and PROM NIGHT, and when the Australians decided to make their own slasher thriller, ROAD GAMES, they naturally made sure to include a role for her. That said- Curtis is not the lead. Rather, ROAD GAMES is a vehicle for Stacy Keach, several years before he became a star playing Mike Hammer on American TV. Here, he plays an expatriate American truck driver named Quid, who is hauling a load across the Australian outback, with only his pet dingo and the occasional hitchhiker to keep him company. Incredibly bored, he begins to imagine that the truck driver he’s been seeing on the road is actually a serial killer, knocking off young women across the outback.
Unfortunately for Quid, he’s right- and when a young hitchhiker he picks up, played by Curtis, ends up in the killer’s clutches, Quid takes off in pursuit, while the cops (and everyone else) think he’s actually the killer. I was turned on to ROAD GAMES through the recent Aussie-sploitation doc, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD, and in the few years since it’s become one of my favorite horror flicks. While not particularly scary (to me anyways) this Hitchcockian road odyssey is perfectly executed, with Keach’s Quid making for a superb lead character. He’s heroic, but also clumsy and all too human, perfectly summed up in a scene where he steals a motorcycle to chase after the killer. The music and the look on Keach’s face make you think a badass motorcycle chase is about to follow, but poor Quid has no idea how to ride one and the motorbike roars out right from under him. Also there’s a scene where Quid drives his truck through a boat. A BOAT! And it’s played for laughs! Classic. Directed by the late Richard Franklin, who also directed the aforementioned PSYCHO II (again- not bad at all), ROAD GAMES is terrific, although sadly I see that the Anchor Bay DVD is out of print. Second-hand copies are still available, and the film actually just played on TCM last week, so if you look hard enough, you can find it.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
Often dismissed by serious horror buffs due to the endless sequels that followed, Wes Craven’s original NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET is one of those movies that, if you haven’t seen it in a while, you’ll watch again and be stunned by how good it is. A lean, ultra-violent horror flick, Freddy Krueger, as played by a razor-gloved Robert Englund- instantly became an iconic horror villain, even if he did fall into self-parody almost immediately after the film got a sequel (although the first three aren’t bad).
Craven’s film really does stand up among some of the horror greats, including his own LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, and Tobe Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and the incredible kills, such as a young Johnny Depp being devoured by his bed- make this worth revisiting over and over. I also love Charles Bernstein’s score, with the iconic school-girl chant: “one, two- Freddy’s coming for you…” Do yourself a favor though- forget the execrable remake. There’s only one Freddy, and it ain’t Jackie Earle Haley.