The Friday Night Horror Movie: Special Effects (1984)

special effects movie poster

There is a question that, I suppose, needs to be asked here. What, exactly, is a horror movie? Sometimes that’s easy to define. Horror movies have ghosts or monsters in them. Vampires, blobs, werewolves and other creatures of the night fill the screen of many a horror film. But what about more pedestrian horror? Movies in which the villain is human.

Jason Vorhees is just a man in a hockey mask with a machete (at least in the early films, he later becomes superhuman and virtually unkillable). But there are lots of crime movies with higher body counts. No one would argue that the Friday the 13th movies are anything other than horror, but serial killer movies are often called thrillers.

Maybe that’s because there usually isn’t a police detective trying to solve the case of the Jason killings. But then there are a lot of Italian horror films, giallos especially, that plotwise are basically police procedurals.

Maybe horror movies are more gore-filled. But that doesn’t always track either because some cop flicks concentrate on the extreme violence of their killers. And plenty of horror films have very little gore or none at all.

I don’t have an answer here. It is a big debate that I won’t solve in these pages. I mention it because tonight’s Friday Night Horror movie could be considered more of a thriller than a horror, but it does carry the horror genre label on IMDB and that’s what I thought it was coming into it, so that’s what we’re gonna keep calling it.

Andrea Wilcox (Zoë Lund) left her husband Keefe (Brad Rijn) and small child in Texas to go to New York City and pursue an acting career. Though she’s willing to sleep with producers and directors and anybody who will give her a part she’s only able to find jobs doing nude modeling and the like.

When Keefe comes to get her back and bring her home she lies and says that her career is starting to take off. Why, she has a meeting that evening with Neville (Eric Bogosian) a famous movie director. She does in fact go to his house that evening and literally begs him to at least take a look at her.

He does look at her, then sleeps with her, and secretly films the encounter, and strangles her to death. He cleans her up, puts her inside Keef’s car, and dumps it at Coney Island.

The cops immediately suspect Keef and arrest him. Neville hires an expensive attorney and gets him free on bail. He then decides to make a movie about Keef and Andrea. He gets Keef to play himself and finds an amazing Andrea look-alike in a woman named Elaine (also played by Zoë Lund) to play Andrea.

Things get weird from there.

B-movie auteur Larry Cohen mixes Vertigo (1958) with Body Double (1984) and bits of Peeping Tom (1960) into a sleazy cauldron of awesome. He has Brian DePalma’s flair for taking Hitchcockian ideas and amping up the sex and violence, but very little of either director’s sense of style. Though he does create some really interesting sets, especially Neville’s giant apartment filled with mirrors and water.

The film really is more thriller than horror as Neville takes his movie ideas to extremes and is more than willing to kill again to maintain his cinematic goals.

Special Effects wasn’t at all what I was expecting when I put it on, but I found it to be quite enjoyable.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Pope’s Exorcist (2023)

the popes exorcist poster

I love going into a movie completely blind. Not knowing anything about a film before watching it can lead to beautiful surprises. It can also lead to utter befuddlement and disappointment.

The only thing I knew about The Pope’s Exorcist before watching it tonight was that it starred Russell Crowe. Well, I knew it was a horror movie, and I was pretty sure it was going to involve some exorcism, but that’s it.

Honestly, I kind of thought it was going to be about the Pope getting demon-possessed and Russel Crowe was going to save him. I didn’t really think about the details of how that might work – how the head of the Catholic Church could get possessed – but it sounded kind of cool. It still does.

But no, the title refers to the fact that Russel Crowe’s priest – Father Gabriele Amorth, who was a real person – was hired directly by the Pope and would, in fact, be his personal exorcist were he to be possessed. But that doesn’t happen here. Instead, a demon possesses a little boy (Peter DeSouza-Feighoney).

Though Amorth was a real person and he was the official exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, the actual story is completely made up. Although one could easily argue it was mostly stolen from The Exorcist (1973). The boy does all the things demon-possessed kids do in these types of movies. He curses, he blasphemes, he sexualizes his mother, turns crosses upside down, etc.

There is also a mom (Alex Essoe) and an older sister (Laurel Marsden) and a tragic backstory (the dad was killed in a car accident, the boy saw it happen). But all of that is very bland and the film doesn’t really care about any of it.

Russel Crow plays Amorth like a jokester who carries a lot of pain. His performance reminded me of his character in The Nice Guys (2016). He periodically, though not often enough, lays down these great little sly jokes. I wish they’d leaned into that aspect a lot more. I rally wish I’d watched The Nice Guys again, that movie is terrific. Mostly this film is a very serious slog.

They don’t do anything new with the possession angle, but do spend a lot of time having Amorth and his newfound buddy Priest Esquibel (Daniel Zovatto) dig up the church’s sins (the Spanish Inquisition and the child abuse scandals) and blaming them on the devil.

It all concludes in a big sloppy, CGI mess that is as incoherent as it is dumb.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Psycho III (1986)

psycho iii poster

In 1987 there was a made-for-TV movie called Bates Motel (it has nothing to do with the more recent TV series of the same name except for the location and existence inside the Psycho Cinematic Universe). I was 11 when it came out, which seems young to be watching a Psycho movie, but it aired on NBC so it must have been deemed safe to watch by my parents.

I don’t remember anything about it except that I loved it, and that it briefly made me obsessed with all things Psycho. I’d never seen the original Hitchcock film or any of its sequels, but I certainly knew about them as they were part of the cultural zeitgeist. Sometime later Psycho III came on some basic cable channel late on a Friday or Saturday night. I don’t think I started it from the beginning but found it while flipping channels and stayed.

I don’t remember anything about it either, and in fact, didn’t realize it was Psycho III until tonight while watching it. What I do remember is a scene in which a pretty young thing does a sexy dance in a motel room while a young Jeff Fahey watches on. He’s naked while sitting in a chair holding a lamp in each hand, wielding one like a sword, or rather like a giant, misshapen cock.

It was about that time when my mother, who must have been watching the film in her bedroom, called out that I should turn the channel. I guess I wasn’t deemed old enough to be watching that one.

I’m not entirely sure why I decided to watch Psycho III tonight, all these years later except that I recently was surprised by how good Psycho II is, and thought maybe this one might surprise me as well.

It isn’t exactly bad, but it is exactly what one might expect from the third sequel in a 1980s horror franchise. It is darker and sleazier than the previous films but unlike Psycho II it has no interest in really empathizing with Norman Bates (though Anthony Perkins’ performance is still quite sympathetic).

The plot picks up soon after the events of the last film. Norman is still running the Bates Motel, and the corpse of Emma Spool has been preserved and speaks to Norman as his mother. Fahey plays a skeezy drifter who takes a job at the hotel.

The film opens with a woman screaming “There is No God” and then it fades in to Maureen (Diana Scarwid), a nun shouting that line again” while staring up at an icon of the Virgin Mary. She then tries to kill herself by throwing herself off the top of a bell tower, in a scene that resembles a similar moment in Vertigo.

The film was directed by Anthony Perkins and he fills the screen with references to the original film and other Hitchcock movies.

Maureen is kicked out of the convent and finds herself staying at the Bates Motel. She and Norman hit it off while Fahey generally acts like a dick. There’s also a journalist who thinks Norman may still be killing people, or at least probably killed Emma Spool.

Meanwhile, Norman is still killing people. Mostly pretty girls who turn him on. Mother doesn’t like that, you know?

There is no depth to the film, it doesn’t attempt to make Norman’s killings a mystery. It is very much a 1980s horror film with some pretty good kills, some really great lighting, and quite a bit of sex and nudity. As such it is pretty good. As the second sequel to one of the all-time great horror films (and the regular sequel to a pretty darn good horror film in its own right), it is disappointing.

I can’t decide if I want to watch Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), but I definitely want to track down Bates Hotel now.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

a return to salmes lot poster

‘Salem’s Lot was one of the first Stephen King novels I ever read. It remains one of my favorites. Tobe Hooper made a pretty good TV mini-series out of it in 1979. Apparently, Larry Cohen had originally been slotted to adapt the book, but the executives hated his screenplay and gave Hooper the job instead.

Years later Warner Brothers approached Cohen to direct a low-budget horror film for them and he pitched the idea of a sequel. Interestingly, the sequel was intended as a theatrical film and in fact, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and saw a limited American release. But the reviews were terrible and the box office a dud and so it pretty quickly went straight to the VHS shelves.

Outside of a few gorey effects, a couple of naked breasts, and a lot of children swearing, the film feels very much like a made-for-TV movie. The budget was clearly small, the acting amateurish, and it is edited within an inch of its life.

It follows Joe Webber (Michael Moriarty), an anthropologist who is called away from studying a native tribe in the South American jungle to take care of his young, troubled son Jeremy (Ricky Addison). He takes him to a run-down house he’s inherited in the small New England town of Jerusalem’s Lot (or Salem’s Lot as it is sometimes called).

Pretty quickly he realizes the town’s inhabitants are either vampires or their human slaves. Actually, they pretty much straight-up tell them who they are because they want him to write a book about them. To convince him to do this they kidnap the boy and get a young vampire girl to sweet-talk him into becoming a vampire as well.

Joe figures this is a good time to hook up with his childhood sweetheart and do a little remodeling of his old homestead. Seriously, the film makes some really odd choices.

Soon enough a Van Helsing-like vampire hunter shows up (played by director Samuel Fuller in a rare acting role) and eventually our heroes get to some actual vampire slaying.

A Return to Salem’s Lot feels like it should have been a mini-series. There are a lot of ideas floating around in it, but few of them get explored. A lot of scenes feel like they were cut short, as if maybe a lot of footage was shot but due to time constraints they had to be cut. Or maybe they just didn’t have the budget to shoot everything in the script.

As it is it feels very disjointed, and unrealized. There are some interesting ideas. The original story is basically ‘what if Dracula showed up in a small American town’ and this one takes that concept and has the vampires take over the entire town. Yet here they are also a persecuted minority. They fled Europe with the Pilgrims for the safety of the new world. They are good Americans. They don’t even kill humans (well, most of the time) but breed cows for their blood needs – and it is quite a scene watching some elderly actors pretend to suck the blood out of cows lying in a pasture.

All of this creates some light satire of American consumer culture, but again it is pretty disjointed and cut to shreds.

Despite all of this I still rather enjoyed it. Cohen knows his way around a low-budget picture and he gives it enough oomph to make it not terrible. Fuller is having a blast playing the crotchety old hunter.

Not a great movie by any means, but a fun one to watch.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Stage Fright (1987)

stage fright poster

I did work study for the theater department for most of my years at college. I had an amazing time. For each show, we’d spend weeks in rehearsals working several hours every night and building the sets on the weekends. Then we’d put the show on for three weekends in a row. It was a small theater department so we often had folks from outside the school performing and working. It was much more like community theater than your typical university theater.

Everybody working a show from the actors to the director and the stagehands became a small family for a few months. And because it was a community theater often the same people would come back and work the next show, and the next. I made some great, lifelong friends at that theater.

Because of this, I love a movie about theater life. Stage Fright is a pretty terrific slasher film from director Michele Soavi that takes place almost entirely in a theater.

A small theater troupe is rehearsing a show about a serial killer who wears a big owl head while he attacks young women on the city street. It is set to open in just a few days, but the maniacal director Peter (David Brandon) doesn’t think it is ready. He locks all the doors, hides the key, and demands everybody stay all night to perfect the show.

Two actresses, Alicia (Barbara Capisti) and Betty (Ulrike Schwerk) find a way to sneak out because Alicia has sprang her ankle and needs medical attention. The closest doctor is at a psych hospital and naturally, a psycho-killer escapes while they are there and sneaks into their car.

You can guess what happens next. It takes a while for the bodies to start piling up. There is some enjoyable behind-the-scenes at the theater stuff. Some of it is on point, but some of it seems completely ludicrous. All of the cast is hungry, they need the job, they need the money, and they desire the fame. When the first girl dies the police are called and the press shows up. The director immediately tries to use it as a means of drumming up publicity.

But three days before opening night, he also fires one of his lead actresses, rewrites entire scenes, and makes big changes no director in his right mind would do that close to opening.

Not that any of this matters. This is a slasher film, not a theatrical documentary, but this nerd noticed.

Soavi has a great eye. In some ways the film is more Giallo than your typical slasher, which makes sense since he studied under Dario Argento. There is a great visual sense throughout the film, but especially in the last act. There is a scene in which the stage has been set in a most theatrically macabre way and then a fan clicks on and blows feathers all over and it is so strangely beautiful.

The killer wears that giant owl head for the entirety of the film and it is just terrifying. Once the kills do begin they come fast and furious. About halfway through I was mentally writing this review and I thought to myself that there wasn’t much gore for a slasher film. I was oh-so-wrong. Not long after that things get very bloody. The kills are good as the kids say.

The best slashers are typically no more than dumb fun. Stagefright is that, but it has more style, more of that special something that elevates far above most films in the genre. It comes highly recommended by me. Perhaps even more so if you’ve ever done any theater.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Evils of the Night (1985)

evils of the night poster

I’m fascinated by the careers of classic film stars late in their lives. Every now and again an aging star will land a wonderfully juicy film role, but mostly they found themselves in cheesy television shows as guest stars, or in low-budget horror films, slumming.

Julie Newmar, Neville Brand, Aldo Ray, John Carradine, and Tina Louise weren’t exactly the biggest stars of their day, but they made some good movies and starred in some enjoyable TV shows in their prime. They deserve better than this.

I watched Evils of the Night primarily based on that cast list and the basic plot description that involves vampire aliens kidnapping attractive young people for their blood.

I should have just gone to bed early.

I’m a fan of bad movies. I love the so-bad-its-good genre of cinema. This film doesn’t deserve to be called bad. It’s terrible.

The first twenty minutes find a bunch of sexy teens frolicking at a lake and sexing on the beach. Some dudes in ski masks (Neville Brand and Also Ray) snatch some of them and take them back to a hospital where Tina Louise, John Carradine, and Julie Newmar attempt to extract their blood, but not actually kill them.

It is never quite clear what they need the blood for, only that it has to come from healthy young people (but not too young) and that they can’t have any bruising (which is a problem for them because the guys is ski masks keep beating the kids up before they bring them in.) There is some business about the bosses screwing up by landing them in this small town where there aren’t enough healthy youngsters or intelligent minions to make their plan work. But nothing is really explained.

It is a weird mix of ’80s boner comedy and slasher horror with a bit of sci-fi alien story mixed in. But it feels completely thrown together with very little thought or effort put into it. For example during the numerous sex scenes, everybody keeps their shoes on and the guys never even unbutton their pants (the girls, including porn stars Crystal Breeze and Amber Lynn, naturally, get completely naked). The masked dudes wear masks to conceal their identities, but also overalls with their names on them. The spaceships come from clips stolen from the original Battlestar Galactica series (the poster includes a slightly modified Millenium Falcon).

One imagines they blew their entire budget on the stars and then just slapped something together fast and cheap hoping to recoup their money based on name recognition alone.

Please, do everyone a favor and don’t watch this film. It is bad enough that I had to.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Chopping Mall (1986)

chopping mall poster

“Well, if you are going to watch a movie from the ’80s it ought to have a mall in it.” My wife, when she learned what movie I was watching tonight.

Although malls were popular from the 1970s through the 1990s there is something so very 1980s about them. They were a staple of my life growing up. I almost never go to the mall these days (the nearest Apple store is located in one and I sometimes have to take my phone in for repairs there, but that’s about it). It seems most people don’t go to malls these days either. As they all seem to be closing down. But there was a time when malls were the place to be.

Mention to me KB Toys or Spencer’s Gifts or Orangejulius or a dozen other stores and my memories are flooded with nostalgic glee. I’m sure it does for many others as well. There is a reason why large chunks of Season Three of Stranger Things was set in a mall. Malls are the 1980s.

It makes perfect sense that they’d set a horror movie from the 1980s in a mall. I’m surprised they didn’t set more of them there.

The plot of Chopping Mall is pretty simple. The Park Plaza Mall has just installed a state of the art security system. Impenetrable steel shutters block all the entry doors after the mall closes and three high-tech robots roam the floors at night subduing any trespassers.

On the very first night this new security system is implemented a group of young, attractive mall workers decide to throw a party at the mall’s furniture store. After a bit of partially nude sexy times all hell breaks loose. A lightning strike short-circuits the robots and they go on a killing spree, killing everybody but a Final Girl and the dweeb.

That’s it. That’s the plot.

The movie is all kinds of dumb, but it is also kind of fun. You could call it dumb fun. In fact I just did.

In an early scene some smarmy executive types introduce us to the robots. They ensure everyone that they are perfectly safe and all they are armed with are some darts that will knock out any would-be robber. In reality the robots are equipped with much more – electrodes, plastic explosives, welding guns, and freakin’ laser beams.

Oddly enough they are not equipped with any sort of chopping equipment which would have been appropriate considering the name of the film. Victims are electrocuted, thrown over a ledge, strangled and one poor girl has her head exploded, but not a single person is in any way chopped to death.

The budget is decidedly low, the direction from Jim Wynorski is sloppy and the acting pretty shabby. The violence consists mostly of explosions (lots and lots of explosions, actually) but there is very little gore (save for one scene).

The robot lasers are capable of exploding a head, and blowing up doors. But sometimes they merely cause a slight wound to a leg, or crack a vase. At one point a robot shoots a mirror and apparently that repels the blast back and electrocutes the robot. I say apparently because it really isn’t clear that’s what happened, but there was a mirror in the scene and the robot was electrocuted so I pieces these things together and decided that’s what happened. It is that sort of film. You sometimes have to guess as to what is actually happening.

There are some nice cameos for fans of low budget movies from the ’80s. Dick Miller appears for a nice death scene, and Mary Waranov and Paul Bartel show up as a couple of wiseacres in the opening scene. Kelli Maroney is the Final Girl (sorry for the spoiler but it is pretty obvious from the very beginning she’ll be the one who survives.) I just watched her in Night of the Comet and now I’m declaring myself a fan.

So yea, Chopping Mall is a dumb movie. But it is a good dumb movie. Sometimes that’s all I need.

The Friday Night Horror Movie Death Spa (1988)

death spa poster

Not to spoil anything but the theme for April is going to be Totally Awesome ’80s. I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow, but for tonight I went ahead and jumped forward a day, bypassing the end of Westerns in March. I grew up in the 1980s and so there are a ton of movies from that decade that fill me with nostalgic glee. There were also a ton of great movies that weren’t meant for kids and many others I just never saw. Still haven’t in some cases. Anyway, like I said, we’ll get to all of that tomorrow.

But for tonight I wanted to watch something that just sounds like it epitomizes the 1980s. The decade of Reagan was a boon for low-budget, ultra-violent, super cheesy, nudity-filled horror movies. It was also the decade of Jane Fonda exercise videos, Jazzercise, and so much spandex. Death Spa has all of that, and more.

It is everything I wanted it to be. I mean, a movie set in a luxury spa where the equipment comes alive and murders people. How can you not want to watch that?

That actually sums up the plot pretty well. At a posh spa in Los Angeles (aptly named Starbody Health Spa – where for the opening credits the appropriate letters get blanked out revealing the movie’s title in lights) the state-of-the-art equipment keeps malfunctioning resulting in multiple injuries and deaths. Is somebody committing sabotage for personal gain? Is there a supernatural entity bent on vengeance? The answer to both is “yes.” And it’s awesome.

The deaths are gloriously bloody and silly (one guy gets eaten by frozen zombie fish, another is burned alive in a tanning bed, and there is a blender that just won’t quit). The bodies are tanned, hard, and ensconced in spandex.

As they say, the 1980s were a different time. I’m so looking forward to digging deep into that decade. If Death Spa is just the beginning, I can’t wait to see what’s next.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: Barbarian (2022)

barbarian movie

It is very rare that a movie surprises me. Rarer still is a horror movie that surprises. Barbarian surprised me at least twice and left me breathless on multiple occasions. We’re not talking jump scares – though there are plenty of those – or just general weirdness (though it is a deeply weird movie). Barbarian surprised me in ways that supplanted my expectations. In the best possible ways. That it doesn’t quite stick its ending, and that its Horror was a little too much for me, doesn’t change the fact that this is exactly the kind of horror movie I love to see.

It is also a movie that truly is best seen completely cold, so I will do my best to remain vague and spoiler free.

Tess (Georgina Campbell) travels to Detroit for a job interview. She books an Airbnb and arrives late at night in the pouring rain. The lockbox opens but is missing the key. The rental agency does not answer the phone. Just as she’s leaving, a man, Keith (Bill Skarsgård), opens the door. Turns out he also rented the place for the night.

Being in a strange city, in the middle of the night, during a rainstorm, finding herself stuck staying in a house with a complete stranger doesn’t exactly make Tess feel comfortable. The film has a lot of interesting things to say about the ways men and women must travel through the world in different ways to feel safe.

It also does a great job of building tension around this situation. We (and therefore Tess) are never quite sure whether or not Keith is a potential friend or a danger. In order to not spoil what comes next I’ll fast forward to a second story the movie tells.

But let’s just say this is a horror story.

AJ Gilbrade (Justin Long) is a working actor – not quite rich and famous yet, but he’s getting there. He’s introduced driving a convertible down an ocean-side highway singing along to Donovan’s “Riki Tiki Tavi.” A phone calls interrupts this happy moment and he’s informed that his costar on his upcoming television series has accused him of sexual misconduct.

Losing that job and basically becoming untouchable to everyone else, AJ realizes he needs to liquidate some things fast in order to have the money to live on while things get sorted. Queue him traveling to Detroit to sell one of his rental properties.

Guess which house is his?

The two stories intersect but again it goes in directions I was not expecting at all.

Justin Long is a likable actor and we naturally assume that his declarations of innocence over the misconduct allegations are true. The film teases out what actually happened in some really interesting ways, and makes some comparisons to…well, again I don’t want to spoil anything.

I’ll say no more about the plot. Writer/director Zach Cregger has created a most interesting story and found ways to interject something new into some pretty familiar-sounding horror tropes. As a director, he creates a good sense of space and an eerie sense of mood and creeping horror.

The jump scares mostly worked on me but they were the least interesting aspects of the film. Likewise, the actual horror parts of the film, by which I mean the more atypical scary parts of the movie (sorry, I do want to be vague and that makes it difficult to say what I mean just here) were a little too over the top for my tastes. But otherwise I completely fell for this film.

The Friday Night Horror Movie: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

the texas chainsaw massacre part 2

The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the best horror movies of the 1970s. It is gritty, dirty, and full of Texas sweat. Like a lot of films from that decade, it is documentarian in style, not realistic exactly but textile, you can feel it in your bones – the heat, the dirt, the blood.

In contrast, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is totally ’80s in every way. It is a neon, day glow, music video of a film that doesn’t take anything seriously except for its attempts to have serious fun with the material.

It stars Dennis Hopper as Lt. Boude “Lefty” Enright the uncle of two of the victims of the first film. The movie is set thirteen years after the original film and an opening scrawl informs us that the crazed chainsaw-wielding cannibals from the first film are still on the loose and on the move. We see them chase down a couple of frat boys driving recklessly on the highway and cut them up.

The boys were on the telephone with a local radio DJ, “Stretch” (Caroline Williams) when the attack occurs and she recorded the entire incident. She takes the recording to Lefty and the two of them go on the search for the killers.

Before long they are trapped inside an underground funhouse full of leftover amusement park junk, skeletons, skulls, and dismembered corpses.

Leatherface (Bill Johnson) falls in love with Stretch, while his family members chop up humans and turn the meat into chile to sell for the famous Oklahoma University vs Texas football game.

It is hard to explain just how over-the-top nutso this film really is. It is intentionally ridiculous, verging on camp. For the first twenty minutes or so I was really annoyed by it. I love the original film and this seemed like a terrible parody of it. Then I realized that was kind of the point and learned to sit back and enjoy myself.

More or less. It really is a bit too much. I can handle my gore pretty well, and I’m not opposed to using excess to create comedy. But eventually, it becomes boring. I was exhausted by the end.

At least Dennis Hopper seemed to be enjoying himself.