A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One of those films that just got past me, I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until picking up the original VHS online recently.  I went with the VHS as this original pre-cert version is apparently the only uncut UK release.  I had seen the second sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (which I remember liking) on its original cinema release but that remained my only exposure to the series.  Nowadays of course the first film is considered a horror classic, Freddie Krueger is an icon (though he’s just “Fred” Krueger in the titles here) and writer/director Wes Craven is considered one of the masters of the genre.  Let’s say I had high expectations.

Sadly, if this ever really did seem like a great movie, the years haven’t been kind.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments and in places it shows signs of real horror movie class but even at its strongest it goes back and forth between creepy and inept.  The concept is a great one, a variation on the usual “teens in danger” slasher flick.  A group of kids from the same neighbourhood start having nightmares in which they’re being stalked by the same monster, a freakshow-faced hat-wearing razor-clawed psychopath.  Turns out their dreams are haunted by the demonic ghost of a dead serial killer.  That villain too – the aforementioned Freddie Krueger , as played by Robert Englund – is an undeniably great movie monster but here just too often comes across as a bloke in a lame Halloween costume.

Talking of Halloween, there’s obviously a John Carpenter influence here, which can only be a good thing.  It’s most apparent in Charles Bernstein’s synth soundtrack, which although not in Carpenter’s league at least helps establish an atmosphere (end title song Nightmare by 213, however, sounds like a bad demo that can only have been included by accident).

The biggest downside is the acting which, including that of a young Johnny Depp, is ropey throughout despite the best efforts of Englund and Hollywood stalwart John Saxon.  The writing doesn’t help, with Craven’s awful dialogue leading to some truly cringe-worthy mother/daughter interactions.  There’s also an odd moment with a talking digital watch which is worth looking out for (as if Craven had thought “There’s bound to be talking watches by the time this is released.  I mean, come on, they’ve got calculators on them now.  Calculators!“).

Of course, the film looks good and there are great scenes.  In particular the two iconic bedroom “kills” – one Exorcist-like sequence has a character being thrown about the ceiling, another ends with a bed erupting in a fountain of blood.  By the final act though, it’s all definitely falling apart.  A montage which is supposed to take place over just twenty minutes sees the heroine expertly carrying out about a day’s worth of DIY (part of a sequence which has gained in unintentional humour by having become the apparent inspiration for much of Home Alone) and the actual denouement is just silly.

As a piece of pop culture history, A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely worth checking out.  You might, like me, want to see what all the fuss was about – just go in with your expectations suitably tempered.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street: original pre-cert ex-rental VHS, picked up online for £8.00 in decent playable condition.

 

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Vamp (1986)

College fraternity pledges Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) go on a road trip to book a stripper for their frat house.  Together with “friend for a week” Duncan (Gedde Watanabe out of Gung Ho) they have a run in with Billy Drago in a white fright wig before happening on a dodgy looking strip club with cockroaches for bar snacks, a creepy manager, a psycho bouncer and a cute waitress/stripper (Dedee Pfieffer).  Oh, and loads of vampires, led by Grace Jones’ Katrina.

Richard Wenk’s Vamp is a minor horror-comedy cult classic which I’d somehow managed to miss over the years.  It’s good cheesy fun – funny in places, creepy in others, its neon lit nighttime street settings combining with the synth heavy soundtrack for a gothic, even goth, atmosphere.  There’s a great, bird-flipping death scene in there and one of the best creepy child-vampires you’re likely to see. The cast is good with Dedee Pfieffer particularly engaging while Grace Jones’ vampire turn is a memorable one, her Katrina pitched somewhere between Nosferatau and Metropolis.

What’s most remarkable about the film though is its very clear influence on later movies.  Drago’s street gang is an obvious template for Keifer Sutherland’s vampire gang in The Lost Boys and as a monster-movie riff on the teen college comedies of the day, it’s no great stretch to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes Vamp a debt.  As to a strip club run by vampires?  From Dusk Till Dawn, surely – right down to meeting the queen vamp during a dance sequence (we first encounter Katrina using her powers to mesmerise the audience during a mental ’80s performance art piece).  More surprisingly perhaps, I think it’s fair to say that Watanabe’s Duncan is surely a loose template for both Zach Galifianakis’ and Ken Jeong’s characters from the Hangover movies.

Vamp finds itself at the better end of the horror comedy scene of the ’80s and ’90s.  It does however leave certain questions unanswered – why would a group of vampires keep open oil drums and naked flames next to their coffins?  And, just how difficult was it to hire a stripper in 1986?

Vamp

Original UK big box ex-rental, £10 online.

Stone Cold (1991)

In the most ’80s movie ever to come out of the ’90s, massively mulleted undercover cop Joe Huff infiltrates a biker gang while wearing as few shirts as possible. He has a huge leather goth coat, which is odd, he favours some frankly disturbing thong underwear, which is strange, and has a pet lizard called Fido, which is unusual.  Every ’80s/’90s action movie cliche puts in an appearance here, including a bare knuckle pit fight, covert meetings in pole dancing clubs, the hanging-on-to-the-bonnet-of-a-moving-car bit, everybody shooting everyone else and blowing shit up.  Shit really does blow up a lot in Stone Cold – in fact it must surely be one of the last great “vehicles bursting into flames for no apparent reason” flicks – a lost art today.

This was one of several “star-making” action movies released by the major studios in the early ’90s, presumably off the back of the similar launch of Steven Seagal’s film career after he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the fringes of Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1988 . Seagal’s Nico [Above the Law], co-written by the star and virtually an expanded showreel right down to a semi-autobiographical intro, went on to be a minor hit in the US and led to a run of box office successes.  For a while after that, these tailor-made star turns must have seemed like no-brainers though they never panned out quite so successfully.  The likes of martial artist Jeff Speakman and jobbing actor/writer Thomas Ian Griffith had their own “Next Big Thing” projects (they’re on the Tapes for My VCR shelf – watch this space!) but first up was American Football player Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth. 

The Boz.  Glaswegian readers can stop sniggering in their own time.  No hurry.

Here, as Huff – undercover as John Stone – the fledgling star is pitted against a quality cast of bad’ns.  William Forsythe does that character he does (i.e., Richie in the same year’s Out for Justice) and a surprisingly ripped Lance Henriksen puts in a great scenery-chewing turn as biker gang leader Chains, at one point recalling his father’s dying words as “Don’t, son!  That gun’s loaded!”  Although not in retrospect destined to be the next great action star (it would be five years before he made another film), Bosworth himself is not too bad in a straight ahead action role, while, hot off the back of a couple of B-gems, Action Jackson and Dark Angel, director Craig R. Baxley puts his background in stuntwork to good use.

Stone Cold is full of would-be iconography, most notably a long steadicam shot after the film’s ‘copters-and-machine-guns climax, following Bosworth walking away from the obligatory mayhem, bloody and of course shirtless, as the credits roll.  Oh, sorry, spoiler alert: he doesn’t die.  Earlier scenes borrow liberally from the biggest action stars of the day, the opening set piece in a supermarket lifting simultaneously from Stallone’s Cobra and Seagal’s Hard To Kill, the pit fight lifting from Van Damme’s AWOL and Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.  Even the box art is a Terminator knock off.  The plot lacks logic and, as mentioned, is cliche-ridden.  However there is a knowing quality here which, while hardly postmodern deconstruction, is enough to keep you onboard through a breathless pantomime of brawling, motorbike chases and lots of explosions.

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

UK big box ex-rental in good order from Amazon for about £8. This is the “generic cop thriller” side of the reversable box art (boo!).

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

Other side of the reversable box art: it’s a Terminator movie (yay!).

Night of the Comet (1984)

For this post, I had been going to put together a proper “Halloween special” with a double-bill of appropriate titles I’d missed on their first go-round.  Unfortunately, the other film, 1988’s Leviathan, turned out to suck really quite a lot, so I’ll give writing about it a miss. Ah well. Happy Halloween anyway …

Deep in the heart of the 1980s, cinema employee Reggie, out of The Last Starfighter, and her younger sister Sam, out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, unknowingly survive a Doomsday event only to find themselves in a largely deserted city, what with much of the population having turned to dust.  During trips to the mall, the local radio station and so on, they encounter zombies, psychotic stockroom workers, shady scientists, that guy out of Star Trek Voyager and Juliette Lewis’ dad.

Written and directed by Thom Eberhardt, Night of the Comet certainly serves as an ’80s time capsule – but it’s also a very cool little movie in its own right.  The properly ’80s cast of Catherine Mary Stewart (as well as … Starfighter she was in Weekend at Bernie’s), Kelli Maroney (not only Fast Times … but also Chopping Mall) and Robert Beltran (okay, Voyager was mid-’90s but he was in Lone Wolf McQuade) is engaging and the film is visually arresting.  The post apocalyptic vibe is driven home with lense filters, the sky having turned red in the aftermath of a comet’s passing, while the effective use of empty streets recalls The Omega Man and dozens of zombie flicks to follow.  There’s some social satire in there and a few proper horror moments with everything working on a “cheesy ’80s schlock” level – the mainstream pop soundtrack certainly helps – and as a Joe Dantesque send up of ’50s and ’60s B-movies.  The villainy is top notch with the stockboys from the mall all tooled up and nihilistic-like (“I’m not crazy – I just don’t give a fuck!”) and Geoffrey Lewis providing a scenery chewing turn as the sinister head of a lab where survivors are kept as sources of clean blood.  For, you know, evil research.

I’m glad to have found this one.  I was only vaguely aware of it prior to this viewing – I had, presumably, seen the box in video stores back in the day but had never read up on it. Night of the Comet is well worth checking out – zombies,Doomsday/post apocalyptic sci-fi, ’80s teen comedy and smart pastiche – somehow it manages to convincingly tick all of those boxes.

Night of the Comet

Original pre-cert small box release, online purchase, about eight quid all-in.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Fatal Games (1984)

An insane javelin-thrower is picking off the elite of the promising young athletes at an elite school for young, promising athletes by, insanely, throwing javelins at them.  You know the drill: Look!  A psycho-killer!  Quick love, pop your top off!

In the hands of one-time-only director Michael Elliot, slasher movie Fatal Games is so ineptly executed you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a largely unfunny spoof of the genre.  The usual tropes are all in place but are somehow rendered even sillier than the norm.  For instance, there are lots of shower scenes to facilite copious scream queen nudity – genre legend Linnea Quigley is in there somewhere in an early role – but the equivalent scenes for the male characters (“scream kings”?) has them showering with their underpants on, begging the question: was this somehow easier than shooting from the waist up or do American males actually keep their pants on in shared showering situations?

Now, Tapes For My VCR is usually all about what I’ve been calling “celebratory criticism”.  The featured videos are certainly not all classics but I hope to find something there of value.  Also, I generally don’t do that “so bad it’s good” thing – that level of sneering is just not for me.  So then, why review Fatal Games?  It has virtually nothing to recommend it.  In fact, it’s an utter bag of complete arse.  Admittedly, much of the javelin-based carnage and the unmasking of the killer do hit some heights of mildly enjoyable absurdity – and at one point the gold standard is set for unintentionally funny fictional newpaper headlines – but it’s not enough to save it.

The one thing that really made this stand out as worth writing about is something unique to the tape format and therefore apropos for a VHS-centric blog.  With impeccable timing, during the “dramatic” unmasking of the killer, there is a sudden burst of vintage ’90s UK telly – I think it was Bugs starring Jesse Birdsall.  Just a few seconds’ worth before cutting back to what I’ll loosely term the “action”.  A quick check afterwards shows that, unusually, the cassette has an intact recording tab.  Oops.  Some weary soul presumably hit the record button by accident while resuming playback, armed with a fresh cup of tea and the resolve to watch the film to its bitter end as the rental was two quid.  I considered sending it back (it was a recent eBay purchase) but really, that telly clip was one of the highlights, so what the hell.

Nice to think that a dreadful film could be rendered marginally more entertaining today by a remote control fumble from thirty years ago.  Only on tape … you won’t get any of that with your BluStreamingDVDRays.

Fatal Games

Ex-rental, online purchase for about a fiver all-in.

Aftermath (1982)

A couple of astronauts return to Earth only to find they’ve missed the apocalypse.  Wandering the ruins of L.A., they encounter mutant-zombie things, a kindly museum curator, hot hippie chicks, a wee boy, radioactive storms and a crazed gang of murderous rapists.  Along the way, they somehow knock up a handy laser cannon out of spare parts.

Seemingly a vanity project by Steve Barkett (star, writer, director, producer, film editor), Aftermath is also a family affair, with several additional Barketts credited.  A low budget indie production, it’s nothing if not ambitious.  Shot when affordable digital technology was still decades off, here the film stock, impressive designs and use of glass/matte-painting add up to a visually more pleasing confection than the kind of thing regularly offered up today by the likes of the SyFy channel for the DTV/VOD markets.

Another plus point is the enthusiastic stunt work, firmly rooted in the school of “why walk when you can do a forward roll?”.  In this age of gym-bred bodybuilding protagonists, Barkett himself is perhaps a little unimposing, more like Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation than any other of today’s pop culture he-men.  He nonetheless proves capable in action scenes and appears to be doing most of his own stunts, leaving pretty much no element of any set or location unclimbed or un-jumped over by the end titles.  In one scene he is skipping between buildings at a fair old height just because, well, why not?  There’s a hint of the spirit of the silent movie era about it all, with stars risking life and limb for The Shot. 

Aftermath (also known, misleadingly, as Zombie Aftermath) draws liberally from the post-apocalyptic, dystopian sci-fi movies of the ’70s.  As it was reportedly shot in 1978, Aftermath actually predates the release of Mad Max but there are certainly echoes of Planet of the Apes, Logan’s RunThe Omega Man, A Boy and His Dog and Damnation Alley.  In the end, the vibe is actually more like an extended and unusually violent episode of The Twilight Zone.  That helps to lift the whole project, along with an orchestral score that sounds like it could have come straight from an old Flash Gordon serial and some canny B-movie casting.  Roger Corman veteran Dick Miller lends his voice as a broadcaster, while legendary science fiction superfan, B-actor and originator of the term “sci-fi” Forrest J. Ackerman is onboard as the museum curator.  Perennial TV heavy-of-the-week Sid Haig, who would go on to B-movie immortality as Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects, makes a great OTT villain.

This is exactly the kind of movie I want to stumble across.  I’d never heard of it when I saw a copy of the original UK VHS on eBay.  It was the box art that initially drew me in, spread out across the insert like a gatefold album, highlighting the film’s matte painting design.  Sure, the film itself displays many of the flaws you’d expect from a low-budget sci-fi/horror release – stilted dialogue, acting performances that vary wildly in quality, awkward pacing, sound issues, unintended humour.  All present and correct.  It’s got something, though. 

What I appreciate most about low budget independent filmmaking is the way that creative solutions are needed to realise creative ideas, something largely absent from a franchise-focussed modern mainstream industry built around tent-pole releases, where exploding spaceships and collapsing skyscrapers are an expensively rubber-stamped keystroke away. The enthusiasm, commitment and sheer determination that must have been involved in Aftermath‘s production shine through.  I used the term “vanity project” earlier, but I suspect “passion project” would be closer to the mark.

tapesformyvcr - Aftermath

Original UK big box ex-rental, about £9 online.

The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (1974)

Sonny Chiba is a sort of karate-assassin-enforcer-type who is also a master of ridiculous disguises, calling to mind vintage Mission Impossible. He’s caught up in a plot involving the formula for synthetic heroin, a crooked D.A. who is also a mystical martial arts master, a mobster’s saucy sister and a villainous Mexican who has the enormous sombrero to prove it as well as, apparently, laser powers.

Suffering a bit from 4:3 cropping in this 1983 VTC pre-cert release, The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge, as directed by Shigehiro Ozawa, has that ’70s urban thriller aesthetic – there’s a funky soundtrack and crash zooms abound.  Indeed, during the first conversation between Chiba’s character and the D.A., virtually each and every line is on a crash zoom, mirrored at the start of their final fight scene.  There’s some unintentionally funny dubbing, of course (“Stinker!”) and some positively weird jump-cut editing during a climactic foot chase.  The fights are rough and ready but effective, as you might expect where Chiba is involved – one of the most qualified onscreen martial artists of all time, I believe.  Oh, and he is very cool.  Take his first on-camera moment.  Initally seen only in the form of another actor entirely, due to the aforementioned Martin-Landau-in-Mission-Impossible skill set, Chiba removes his ‘other actor mask’ before introducing himself: “… some people call me The Street Fighter.”  Smiles to camera, freeze frame, zoom in with dramatic horn cue for title card.  Brilliant.

The third and final entry in Ozawa’s Street Fighter series, The Streetfighter’s Last Revenge (or The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge/Streetfighter’s Last Revenge/Street Fighters Last Revenge, depending on where you look) is not a fan favourite. The preceding films are insanely, infamously violent, straight up blood-and-guts martial arts thrillers, so for many the “budget Bond” affectations on display here are several camp flourishes too many.  It’s no classic but I liked it enough to find myself tempted to track down a Street Fighter DVD box set, all widescreen and subtitled and that.

tapesformyvcr.wordpress.com - Street Fighter's Last Revenge

Pre-cert VTC ex rental, about £8 online.