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The Straight-to-Video Horror Masterpieces of the 1980s

First published by Grolsch Filmworks

 

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The whole concept of direct-to-video did not really exist until the 1980s. Before then, if you wanted to watch a movie, you either paid to see it in a cinema, or waited an eon for it to show on TV. Then suddenly everybody, or at least everybody’s friend, had a VHS or (heheh) Betamax player, commercial films became available for sale or rent in tape form, and a whole new channel of movie distribution was opened up, bringing the film of your choice right into your living room. It was the perfect medium for horror, which could now be watched, paused, and rewound over and over, in a Reaganite precursor to this generation’s .gifs.

Not all films were released direct to video. Titles with a modicum of quality, respectability or tastefulness would typically still have their first run within the more conventional confines of a theatre, before eventually finding their way onto the video store’s shelves. Those titles, however, deemed outré, extreme or offensive by the arbiters of mainstream decency, uncommercial (or just plain crap) by the distributors, or unpassable by the censors, would typically bypass cinemas altogether – and as the least respectable genre this side of porn, horror in particular would often be relegated exclusively to video release.

In Britain, of course, the 80s were also the decade of the Department of Public Prosecution’s list of 72 prosecutable titles (1983-85) and the Video Recordings Act (1984) – meaning that many films released direct to video (and uncut) in the format’s pioneering ‘Wild West’ days suddenly found themselves thereafter subject to censorship or even labelled ‘video nasties’ and banned outright. It is important to recognise here that DTV need not be regarded as a mark of shame – on the contrary, it can betoken just the sort of outlaw outrageousness that fright fans crave. So here’s a selection of 80s horror movies, released for different reasons direct to video, that merit repeat viewings, regardless of any subsequent tracking issues or tape wear over the money shots.

 

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Already in the very early 80s, the slasher – arguably the defining horror subgenre of the decade – was settling into an all-too-familiar groove, and with franchise-forming sequels like Friday the 13th Part 2 (1982) and Halloween II (1981), so-called ‘calendar killers’ were starting to follow a by-numbers formula of masked, muttering pattern murder. Which is what makes You Better Watch Out (aka Christmas Evil) – the first and only feature to be directed by Lewis Jackson – stand out from the crowd.

From the get-go we’re right there with Harry Standling when, as a little boy entranced by the magic and morality of the Yuletide season, he witnesses both ‘Santa’ getting frisky with his mum and his brother evincing a lack of faith – and something inside Harry breaks. Cut to 33 years later, and Harry is a middle-aged toy manufacturer who keeps secret records of the neighbourhood children’s behaviour, resents his work colleagues’ cynicism, and identifies a little too closely with Santa, until, come Christmas Eve, he sets out on a spree of reward and punishment that is part slasher-like psychodrama, part postmodern reworking of the Christmas story (complete with surreal final-reel miracle).

Though his face is sometimes obscured behind a fake Santa beard, Harry is all too human, simultaneously embodying old-fashioned, honest-to-goodness decency and its unhinged punitive flipside. Harry is played by Brandon Maggart with the kind of range and intensity more usually associated with De Niro’s Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver or Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito from Maniac (1980) – the latter another superior slasher never released theatrically – than with the blankly cartoonish Jasons, Michaels and Freddies who would come to dominate the mainstream slashers.

 

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Like Maniac, Ruggero Deodato’s The House on the Edge of the Park would be refused a theatrical certificate by the BBFC, and subsequently banned as a ‘video nasty’ – but for a brief window before then, this provocative chiller was freely available on videotape (and rereleased in the new millennium with various cuts).

When Alex (David Hess) and his dim pal Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo Radice), blue-collar car repairmen from New York City, sort-of crash a small house party of wealthy socialites, their bored, decadent hosts are intent on toying with these bits of rough for their own amusement, until Alex, already established as a thief, rapist and murderer, turns the tables on his would-be superiors in a long, dark night of abuse and torture. Except that, like the poker match that forms the film’s centrepiece, the games being played here are loaded from the start, making Deodato’s extremely unpleasant drama a combustible clash of class from which nobody – not even the very well-groomed – can emerge looking pretty.

If the casting of Hess as a thuggish sadist immediately evokes Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972), Deodato maintains that film’s social confrontation (not to mention its rapey aggression) while stripping away entirely its silly score and misplaced comedy. The results are unforgettably, unforgivably bleak and depraved.

 

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If Antonio Marghenti’s Cannibal Apocalypse had stuck closer to its original Italian title Apocalypse Domani (literally “Apocalypse Tomorrow”), it probably wouldn’t have attracted the immediate attention of the same horror market that was drawn to Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – and it also might not have been seized upon quite so fast by the Department of Public Prosecution as a ‘video nasty.’

Either way, its title is a clear play on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) – for while this might be a gory, sensationalist tale of infectious anthrophagy spread by veteran soldiers, it also, much like Bob Clark’s Deathdream (1974), uses these genre trappings to explore the lasting trauma of post-Vietnam America. The icing on the cake is that the scuzziest character (played by John Morghen, aka Giovanni Lombardo Radice) is named ‘Charlie Bukowski.’

 

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Ever since his parents were killed in a horrific (and spectacularly realised) car accident, Billy Lynch (Jimmy McNichol) has been living with his Aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell) – but now that he’s turned 17, is going steady with his girlfriend and is pursuing a scholarship for a college in another state, Cheryl’s not quite auntly feelings for her adolescent ward manifest themselves in madness and murder.

Meanwhile in his conviction that Billy is a Norman Bates-like Psycho, the town’s homophobic police detective (Bo Svenson) blinds himself to the real deviancy that has been haunting the town for years. Banned very shortly after its 1983 video release, this unlikely outing for William Asher (Bewitched, I Love Lucy) brings a repressive, poisonous dynamic into precisely the sort of domestic space that had featured more salubriously in his earlier TV sitcoms. In essence, Night Warning is a heated, occasionally stabby melodrama, memorable for its focus on community witchhunts (symbolised by Billy’s surname) and its cunning inversion of Hitchcock.

 

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By the time Sleepaway Camp came along, the 80s slasher had already hit its stride and we all knew the drill (or knife, or axe, or chainsaw). Yet Robert Hiltzik’s debut takes the usual co-eds, the usual tropes of adolescent longing, gruesome slayings, whodunnit dynamics and hidden psychohistories, and weaves from them a smart scenario that delivers every kind of camp.

Shy, virginal, and still traumatised after the rest of the family were killed in a freak boating accident, Angela (Felissa Rose) easily attracts taunts from the other boys and girls at Camp Arawak as she experiences a tentative first romance with nice-guy Paul (Christopher Collet) – but as her tormentors are killed one after the other by a person evidently known to his – or her – victims, Hiltzik is keeping in reserve a very well hidden surprise ending.

Sleepaway Camp always plays fair with its rightly influential twist, but even as the final sequence leaves first-time viewers reeling, those who rewind and rewatch the film can unzip all the hints and tells which Hiltzik has artfully concealed in the dialogue of his subversive screenplay.

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Much as the yuppie was a singularly Reagan-era phenomenon, America’s 80s cinema also liked to project an image of brash affluence and upwardly mobile success – which is part of what makes Jim Muro’s sole attempt at feature directing such a breath of freshly rancid air. A colourful celebration of New York low life, Street Trash is populated with some of the sleaziest, skankiest characters ever assembled in a single film, and while it generates endless laughs (of the coarsest, most tasteless variety) from these hobos’ booze-soaked antics, it also offers a platform for an underclass that the decade otherwise largely ignored.

The bottled beverage (called Viper) which causes its drinkers to liquesce or explode in a lysergic rainbow of ooze does not just allegorise the destructive toll that alcoholism was taking on America’s most neglected, but has also earned Street Trash its rightful place as the mother of all ‘melt movies’ – yet in fact these sequences of polychromatic dissolution are used as mere wallpaper to a succession of jaw-dropping excesses that include farting, vomiting, pissing, nightmare Vietnam flashbacks, gang rape, comedy castration, necrophilia and murder most foul. Always gross and grotesque, but beautifully shot (you can tell its director is also a cinematographer), it is a true one-off, writing its poetry of the street in lurid outrage and humour so very, very wrong – and even the yuppies cannot fully avoid being burnt by its trickle-down economics.

 

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Sometimes the ‘direct’ in direct-to-video can be misleading. This ero guro nightmare from director Ikeda Toshiharu did not get its UK home release until as late as 2002, but its reference points – chiefly Videodrome (1983), Basket Case (1982), Phenomena (1985) and at least the title of The Evil Dead (1981) – are all very much steeped in the 80s, as is its focus on elaborate slasher-style kills and on video cassettes themselves.

Nami (Ono Miyuki) is the anchorwoman for Late Late Night, a show that airs shocking videos sent in by its viewers – but when she receives a VHS apparently (and impossibly) depicting her own brutal torture, she heads off with a film crew of four to the derelict building complex where the eye-slicing brutality was shot. What follows is a monstrously stylised orgy of sex, violence and grotesque family dysfunction, insanely remixing past horror films to a Goblin-esque score, while prefiguring [REC] and the ‘torture porn’ that would dominate the Noughties. It’s also quite possibly the only film to feature key exposition being delivered mid-rape….

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With its simple concept (given away by the title), its flat-footed performances, and its dearth of actual jokes (one character even wonders aloud why the clowns are not funny), Killer Klowns From Outer Space would be regarded by few as a genuine triumph of cinema – but that does not disqualify it from being a ‘direct-to-video horror masterpiece’, chiefly for its monomaniacal commitment to a single idea.

For his first and only stint at directing a feature (unless, that is, he ever gets the mooted 3D sequel off the ground), Stephen Chiodo takes an alien invasion plot familiar from the 50s, and makes it all his own by rigorously and liberally painting it with every clown reference imaginable. Not only do his hungry extra-terrestrials look and act like circus entertainers, fly about in a luridly coloured tent, trap their victims in candy floss or balloons, and fire popcorn from their guns – but even before they arrive, the small town of Crescent Cove’s main attractions are a funfair, the ‘Big Top Burger’ bar, and an ice-cream van with a ‘Jojo the clown’ mascot on its roof. Madness and obsession are never far away from genuine genius, right?

 

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Jörg Buttgereit is perhaps best known for his feature debut Nekromantik (1987) and its 1991 sequel – but between these transgressive, censor-baiting shockers he made his finest film, the more experimental (and less censored) Der Todesking. It is divided into seven segments – one for each day of the week – all very different in story and style, but united by their focus on suicide or murder.

It might be regarded as a bleak precursor to the structured fatalism of The ABCs of Death (2012) – which duly borrowed for its production poster Der Todesking‘s final image of a young child seated at the reaper’s feet. Yet Buttgereit’s memento mori is itself indebted to Peter Greenaway’s formalist arthouse oddity A Zed & Two Noughts (1985), with which it shares a predilection for showing bodily decomposition in timelapse.

As such, it is a brooding, melancholic journey through our mortality, contending seriously – if also reflexively – with that strange sort of desire, familiar to all horror fans, surrounding death. Tuesday’s segment even shows a young man renting out a ‘nasty’ SS-exploitation VHS from his local video store, watching at home its scenes of depraved torture, fantasising a brutal murder of his own, and then hanging himself. This is direct-to-video bringing its confronting metacinematic message direct to the horror viewer.

Anton Bitel

2 comments on “The Straight-to-Video Horror Masterpieces of the 1980s

  1. Pingback: Felt (2014) – RantBit

  2. Pingback: Clown (2014) – RantBit

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