Going Deep Into The History Of Modern Horror
♦ Eli Roth has just created a new TV series about the History Of Horror for AMC and he is creating a list each week of the filmmakers who inspired the modern horror masters. Here’s the first list courtesy of AMC themselves…
Slasher films may have ruled over horror in the ’80s with the advent of Halloween, Friday the 13th and other iconic horror classics, but the shadowy knife-wielding villain has been a longstanding baddie in cinema. Check out Eli Roth’s recommendations from the Slasher collective — including films by Dario Argento, whose seminal contributions to the genre influenced other master directors like John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Brian De Palma and more.
Then, get the inside scoop from the people behind the most iconic Slasher films, including Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh Whannell, Rob Zombie, Quentin Tarantino and more, in the latest episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror.
Blood Feast (1963, dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis)
Writer-director Lewis, an entrepreneur in Florida, conceived of (arguably) the first slasher film to use gore as its main selling point. A socialite hires a creepy caterer to prepare an Egyptian feast for her daughter’s party. His work involves murdering young women, stealing their body parts, and sacrificing them to an Egyptian goddess. The movie was made on the cheap and its acting and pacing leave something to be desired, but its gore scenes are still impressive and stomach turning. Its portrait of early ’60s Miami is “dated” to some and “priceless” to others.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964, dir. Herschell Gordon Lewis)
Lewis’s follow up to Blood Feast is even more outrageous, and also more engaging. Four innocents on road trips end up the “guests of honor” at the Centennial Celebration in the beautiful Southern town of Pleasant Valley. The townspeople then gruesomely murder them as revenge for the violence enacted against the town during the Civil War. The murders in this film are still impressively created: one woman gets decapitated and barbecued, a man gets torn apart by four horses running in opposite directions, somebody gets rolled down a hill in a barrel full of nails, and in the grand finale a woman is crushed by a giant boulder. Because Lewis really wants to give the audience their money’s worth, he also performs several songs, including the infamous earworm “The South’s Gonna Rise Again!”
Blood and Black Lace (1964, dir. Mario Bava)
One of the first filmed gialli (lurid crime films based on Italian pulp novels with yellow covers). A group of beautiful models fall victim to a vicious killer after discovering a book containing their fashion house’s many dirty secrets. Blood and Black Lace is known for its pioneering use of brightly colored lighting, bravura camera movement, brutal violence, intricate plotting, and a clever twist ending. You can see its influence in films ranging from Suspiria to Scream.
The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970, dir. Dario Argento)
After an American writer visiting Italy witnesses a murder at an art gallery, the killer goes after him and his girlfriend. His quest to solve the murder leads him on a crazily winding path, and into some dazzlingly scary and occasionally witty set pieces. Argento’s directorial debut was a smash international hit. It introduced several of his obsessions: a wildly roving camera, sexualized violence by a black-gloved killer, and the ways in which memory plays tricks. Ennio Morricone’s score is both chilling and groovy, and a climactic stalking scene involving leading lady Suzy Kendall is terrifying. This film, and Argento’s work in general, influenced the works of filmmakers like John Carpenter, Brian De Palma and Quentin Tarantino as much as the more frequently cited Alfred Hitchcock.
Sisters (1971, dir. Brian de Palma)
Outspoken journalist Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt) witnesses a gory murder in a neighboring apartment. The police don’t believe her, especially when they meet Danielle, the sweet, timid lady who lives there (Margot Kidder). They don’t realize that Danielle shares the apartment with her unhinged twin sister, Dominique. Grace teams up with a private detective to get to the bottom of the case, which leads her to nightmarish places where she may get trapped forever. De Palma’s breakthrough thriller is one of his best, taking plot devices initially used by Hitchcock and injecting them with heightened perversity and groundbreaking cinematic style. (De Palma never quite surpassed his signature use of split-screen cinematography in this film). Though De Palma is often criticized for misogyny, Sisters has a distinctly feminist sensibility.
Deep Red (1975, dir. Dario Argento)
A pianist (David Hemmings) witnesses a psychic’s murder. As he tries to solve it, the murderer brutally kills everybody who might provide information, using weapons raging from a scalding bath (re-used in Halloween II) to an ominous killer doll (which may have inspired Jigsaw). Argento’s ever-roaming camera suggests the frequent hidden presence of the killer, and Goblin’s electronic score spurred an evolution in horror movie music. Unsurprisingly, John Carpenter cites this film as a major influence.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976, dir. Alfred Sole)
A young girl (Brooke Shields) is gruesomely murdered at her first communion, kicking off a series of murders by a knife-wielding short person in a yellow raincoat and a spooky clown mask. Is the murderer the girl’s troubled sister, or one of the many creeps who live in her family’s small New Jersey town? One of the most elegantly shot low budget independent films of the 1970s, Alice, Sweet Alice is known by some critics as an American spin on the Italian giallo subgenre. Like Lucio Fulci’s legendary Don’t Torture a Duckling, it is at once a scary slasher movie, a deconstruction of small town corruption, and an indictment of the Catholic Church.
Suspiria (1977, dir. Dario Argento)
When Suzy Banion arrives at a prestigious dance academy in Germany, a string of brutal murders begins. Is the killer a “madman,” as Suzy’s teachers say, or is something supernatural afoot? Suspiria uses garish, primary color-flooded sets and lighting, a mobile camera that stands in for an evil presence, and a surreal and freewheeling plot structure to capture the feeling of a nightmarish fairy tale. Goblin’s score is one of the scariest and most complex horror scores ever. In his video essay “Suzy in Nazi Germany” (on Synapse’s Blu Ray release of the film), Marcus Stiglegger argues that, by shooting his tale of murder and mayhem in German locations associated with the Nazi takeover, Argento comments on the ways in which WWII haunts the country.
When a Stranger Calls (1979, dir. Fred Walton)
The film that made a ringing telephone the fear of babysitters everywhere. Carol Kane settles in for a night of homework and sleeping kids when a spooky voice at the other end of the phone line asks, “Have you checked the children?” Increasingly scary revelations ensue, until the cops warn Carol that the calls are coming from inside the house! Strangely, the second half of the movie leaves our traumatized babysitter to focus on what happens to the caller years later after he escapes from a mental institution. Horror fans often criticize this choice, but those scenes are still beautifully shot, creepy, and refreshingly character driven. Most importantly, they build to a chilling climax, when the stalker and his former victim, now grown up, reunite.
Mother’s Day (1980, dir. Charles Kaufman)
Three women having a college reunion campout find themselves in the clutches of two maniacal men who impress their evil elderly mother by kidnapping, raping, torturing, and murdering women while she watches and cheers them on. Will any of the girls survive to turn the tables? Mother is possibly the nastiest senior citizen villain to ever hit the screen. The movie is sadistic, sick, and disturbing, but it really makes you care about its characters.
Dressed to Kill (1980, dir. Brian De Palma)
Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) visits her psychiatrist, complains about her boring sex life, has an illicit affair with a stranger she meets at a museum, and is brutally slashed to death in an elevator by a mysterious woman. Liz, a high priced call girl, witnesses the murder. Police suspect that she did it, and now the killer is after her. Dressed to Kill doesn’t rip off Psycho, it builds on it. De Palma plumbs depths of perversity that Hitchcock wasn’t allowed to touch, and adds a hefty dose of Argento-esque bravura style and urban chic. De Palma’s passion for cinematic style is as erotic as the film’s notoriously provocative sex scenes. Feminist and LGBTQ activists protested this movie for its “moralizing” depiction of female sexuality and its villainous gender non-conforming character (the film’s producers allegedly capitalized on this publicity by hiring actresses to beef up the protests). However, the film could also be viewed as an examination of how sexual repression in American society twists its citizens and promotes violence. A must see.
Prom Night (1980, dir. Paul Lynch)
A group of kids accidentally kill Robin Hammond during a game, and swear to keep it a secret. Six years later, it’s time for their prom, and somebody who knows what they did wants revenge. Jamie Lee Curtis got her first lucrative role as Kim, Robin’s older sister. This film, along with Terror Train and The Fog, formally established her as The Scream Queen. She lends unexpected soul to the film. The film’s first script was more of a psychological thriller (which explains the film’s unusually heavy character development), but producers decided to follow the commercial tides and turn it into a Halloween rip-off, which upset Curtis. Still, Eli Roth’s History of Horror commentator Amanda Reyes argues that the film has a fair amount of psychological depth, exploring the complexities of evolving friendship and the ways in which keeping devastating secrets can traumatize people and relationships. Props go to Eddie Benton as Wendy, one of the great slasher movie mean girls, who utters the film’s most famous line: “It’s not who you go with, honey. It’s who takes you home.”
Terror Train (1980, dir. Roger Spottiswoode)
College student Alana (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends play a nasty trick on the class nerd, leading him into a mental asylum. Three years later, they have a graduation costume party on a train. A killer boards, knocking off revelers and dressing up in the costumes of each of his or her victims. The “switching costume” gimmick works perfectly, and the film features beautiful cinematography by John Alcott (who also shot The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Barry Lyndon). As an added bonus, Terror Train serves up a magic show by David Copperfield! In the 1980s, slasher movies knew how to have fun.
The Burning (1981, dir. Tony Maylam)
A summer camp caretaker is horribly burnt in a prank gone wrong, and comes back to kill a new generation of campers. Known for great gore effects by Tom Savini and early appearances by Holly Hunter and Jason Alexander.
Hell Night (1981, dir. Tom DeSimone)
Four pledges (including Linda Blair) have to spend the night in Garth Manor as part of an initiation ceremony. The place has a dark history—a crazed father murdered all of his children because he was disgusted by their deformities, except for one, who was forced to watch. People say the Manor is haunted and that the remaining son still lurks in the shadows. The pledges are terrified by a combination of vicious pranks and real murders, so it’s hard to know where the real danger lies. Meanwhile, the house is filled with enough trapdoors, secret passages, and tunnels to keep a cat and mouse game going forever (and create some wonderful unexpected scares). The film, mostly lit by candlelight, looks terrific, and it has a few really nail-biting suspense sequences. In the great book Butcher Knives & Body Counts: Essays on the Formula, Frights, and Fun of the Slasher Film, critic Lance Vaughan argues that the film also offers an atypical commentary on class divisions in the ’80s. Linda Blair’s working class character survives not just because she has a strong will to live, but because her dad taught her to be resourceful and repair a car!
Nightmare aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (1981, dir. Romano Scavolini)
A man is terrorized by a recurring nightmare of a woman getting beheaded by axe. It turns out that he beheaded the woman, a dominatrix who he caught in the act with his father when he was a child. When he saw what he had done, he whacked his father, too. After years spent in a mental institution (Scavolini shot in a real facility, which adds a level of creepiness), he is “cured” and released. However, every time he gets aroused, he must kill again—the more brutally and repulsively, the better. This sleazy, dirty exploration of a New Yorker’s psychosis would make a great double feature with Maniac and Driller Killer (although, unlike those films, much of it was shot in Florida). When the film was originally released, advertisements claimed that Tom Savini did the impressive gore effects. He discounts the claims, although allegedly he did offer some advice to the actual effects team.
My Bloody Valentine (1981, dir. George Mihalka)
The small mining town of Valentine Bluffs hasn’t celebrated Valentine’s Day since a mining accident killed five men and left one, Harry Warden, insane. The town’s young people are determined to bring the day back, and are planning a party. Somebody wearing a miner’s mask and carrying a pick-axe isn’t happy, and begins a killing spree. In response to the outcry against the gore in Friday the 13th, studios began self-censoring their slasher movies, and My Bloody Valentine was an early victim. The version released by Paramount in 1981 was significantly less brutal and gory than the director’s cut, which received a DVD release in 2009. The same year saw the release of the fun, trashy remake My Bloody Valentine 3D, which has garnered a cult following.
The House on Sorority Row (1983, dir. Mark Rosman)
Diabolique in a sorority. What’s not to like? While planning a massive graduation party, a group of sorority sisters shoot their evil housemother in a prank gone wrong and leave her at the bottom of their gross, murky pool. They presume she’s dead. Is she? That night at the party, a partygoer turns on the pool lights and reveals that the body has vanished! Meanwhile, somebody brutally murders the sisters one by one. Writer-director Mark Rosman was mentored by Brian De Palma, and he brings a De Palma-esque knack for stylish camerawork, Hitchcockian suspense, and well-drawn characters. The sorority house provides a creepy setting, and the killer’s self-revelation is a doozy. Final girl Kathryn McNeil is great in one of the scariest slasher climaxes of the period.
The Slumber Party Massacre (1982, dir. Amy Holden Jones)
Lesbian feminist novelist Rita Mae Brown wrote a parody of slasher movies called Don’t Open the Door. When director Amy Holden Jones pitched it to Roger Corman as her directorial debut, he suggested that they do it as a straight up T&A slasher movie and retitle it The Slumber Party Massacre. In some ways, the film feels like a clichéd straight-up slasher, but some of the feminism and humor of Brown’s script remains: the killer’s overtly phallic drill, the group of women working together to take him down, and the great moment when the girls debate whether or not it’s ethical (or gross) to eat the pizza brought by a delivery boy who showed up dead.
Sleepaway Camp (1984, dir. Robert Hiltzik)
When shy Angela and cousin Ricky attend sleepaway camp, people start dying. This film is known for its creative, gory deaths (by boiling water, by bees, by water snake, by curling iron…), its over-the-top, big-haired mean girl Judy, and, most of all, a jaw-dropper of a twist ending.
Psycho II (1982, dir. Richard Franklin)
Twenty-two years after the events of Psycho, Norman (Anthony Perkins) exits his mental health facility a rehabilitated man. Lila Crane (Vera Miles) is livid. Could she have something to do with the calls from “Mother” that Norman starts receiving? Or is Norman crossing over to the dark side again? Written with much thought and passion by Tom Holland, photographed by Dean Cundey (the lensman of John Carpenter’s The Thing, Halloween, Jurassic Park and many other classics) and directed by the talented Hitchcock scholar Richard Franklin, Psycho II shocked everybody by being a smart and very worthy sequel. Quentin Tarantino says that he loves it more than the original! Followed by Psycho III (directed by Perkins!), which takes the film deeper into slasher territory; and Psycho IV (directed by Mick Garris), which flashes back to Norman’s life with mother, foreseeing the series Bates Motel.
April Fool’s Day (1986, dir. Fred Walton)
Muffy invites a group of college friends to her fancy lake house for an April Fool’s Day party. She, and the movie, have a lot of tricks up their sleeve. What initially seems like a standard ’80s slasher reveals the subgenre’s roots in the work of Agatha Christie. We learn that all of the guests have dirty little secrets, and Muffy begins acting strange. A fun, clever, well-directed slasher with a lovable sense of humor and a few controversial twists.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997, dir. Jim Gillespie)
After Scream became a sensation, writer Kevin Williamson put genre self-consciousness aside and made this old-fashioned slasher, which could have come out in 1980. The night of their high school graduation, a group of drunk teens run over a random person and leave him for dead, swearing each other to secrecy (because that always works). Exactly one year later, the friends reunite when they start getting letters saying…you guessed it. Soon, a hook-wielding guy in a rain slicker begins to off them one by one. It’s not a classic, but over the years it’s developed a nostalgic appeal.
High Tension (2003, dir. Alexandre Aja)
This no-holds-barred French slasher film became an international sensation, making a star of director Aja. Its unrelenting suspense and graphic, brutal violence make it seem more like a ’70s counterculture horror film than the ’80s-inspired flicks of the ’90s. Best friends Marie and Alexia visit Alexia’s parents for the weekend at their secluded farmhouse. Unbeknownst to them, they are followed by a vicious killer who puts them through a night of terror. The moment where Alexia hides in a closet and watches her mother get murdered is unforgettably upsetting. The film’s twist ending is controversial, but the film provides a hell of a scary ride.
Hellbent (2004, dir. Paul Etheredge)
Heralded as the first gay slasher film. A group of friends are stalked by a guy in a Sexy Satan costume at the West Hollywood Halloween parade. Writer-director Etheredge cleverly weaves together and sends up gay stereotypes and slasher movie clichés, while still keeping things scary. His challenging decision to shoot the film during the actual West Hollywood parade (inspired by the arthouse classic Black Orpheus) lends an inspired atmosphere.
The Devil’s Rejects (2005, dir. Rob Zombie)
After the events of House of 1,000 Corpses (2003), the Firefly clan’s house gets raided by police and they have to hit the road. Along the way, they commit some seriously brutal murders, all the while trying to keep their tight knit family together. The Devil’s Rejects really nails the ’70s grindhouse style, and it is as brutal in its way as Last House on the Left (1972) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). This movie cemented Captain Spaulding, Otis, and Baby (played inimitably by Sid Haig, Bill Mosely, and Sherri Moon Zombi) as horror icons.
Hatchet (2006, dir. Adam Green)
A group of tourists on a haunted boat ride through the Louisiana Bayou are told the story of Victor Crowley, a disfigured man who was murdered by his father. When their boat sinks and they find themselves stranded, they have unfortunate encounters with Mr. Crowley’s ghost. Friday the 13th‘s Kane Hodder got his second major franchise with Hatchet, a fan favorite.