Welcome back, dear readers! Sorry about the delay as this writer’s heading off to cover SXSW for the next couple of days. But so far we’ve had quite the journey as we’ve looked back at the first 15 films in our countdown of the 25 milestones that shaped the world of independent horror.
Today we start in 1983 and kick things off with a true shocker!
1983- Horror Audiences Take a Shocking Trip to Sleepaway Camp:
Right after he graduated film school, writer/director Robert Hiltzik set out to make an unusual horror movie based on the success of the slasher films that had been hitting multiplexes over the previous several years. Hiltzik decided he was ready to leave his impression on the horror genre and independently raised $350,000 for Sleepaway Camp, a slasher flick inspired by his own experiences at summer camp as a kid (in fact, he actually shot the film at the very camp he frequented growing up). But rather than make Sleepaway Camp about a killer that stalks the campers, he turned the genre on its head a bit and made one of the kids the actual killer.
Hiltzik kicked things up another notch by creating one of the most startling and shocking endings to a horror film in the 80s (and any other decade for that matter) when it was revealed that one of the main characters wasn’t exactly the girl everyone thought she was (on the off chance that someone who reads this hasn’t seen the film, I wouldn’t dare ruin it for you), and Sleepaway Camp’s climax created a fervor with audiences, making it a “must see” experience.
In its opening weekend in November 1983, Sleepaway Camp earned $460,000 in its limited theatrical release and actually earned more in box office receipts in New York than the #1 movie in the US that weekend – Amityville 3-D.
After Sleepaway Camp’s release, filmmaker Hiltzik stepped away from filmmaking until 2004, when he returned to the director’s chair for 2004’s Return to Sleepaway Camp, which ignored the storylines established in the original sequels and picked up right where his original left off. Twenty-eight years later Sleepaway Camp still remains one of the most twisted and shocking films of all time (at least before M. Night Shyamalan began serving up twist endings on a regular basis).
1984- Troma Entertainment Takes a Chance with The Toxic Avenger:
Before Lloyd Kaufman became the revered genius of independent horror filmmaking, Troma Entertainment was focused more on the sexy side of cinema with cult classics like Cry Uncle! and Squeeze Play! during the 1970s.
It wasn’t until 1984 when everything changed for Troma. Back in 1975 Kaufman found his inspiration for making a “health club horror flick” while he was working on Rocky as a pre-production supervisor and set off to birth his own zany brand of horror, and a new lovable icon of horror was born in Toxie, the “first superhero from New Jersey.”
Celebrating the B-Movies spirit and embracing the campier side of the horror genre, The Toxic Avenger didn’t initially catch on with audiences. Undaunted, Kaufman arranged for the film to play as a midnight movie engagement at the world-famous Bleecker Street Cinemas in New York until sometime in late 1985. From there, The Toxic Avenger’s cult status grew through the film’s release on VHS (I remember the first time I saw it, the copy I watched was a third generation duplication of a video store VHS that a friend’s dad got one weekend), and since its release The Toxic Avenger has spawned several sequels, a stage production, and an animated series and literally launched Troma in a completely new direction in filmmaking.
Not only did The Toxic Avenger become the film that “built the house of Troma”, but it also enabled Kaufman to become one of the most revered independent filmmakers and producers working in the industry; and because of his willingness to work with up-and-coming talent, horror fans have been introduced to a slew of talent from the Troma Camp including James Gunn, “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, Joe Lynch and Trent Haaga.
1984- New Line Cinema Risks it All for A Nightmare on Elm Street:
The story to get A Nightmare on Elm Street going has been well documented over time (especially in last year’s franchise documentary Never Sleep Again) so I don’t know how much of this is just retreading familiar waters, but undoubtedly A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of the defining moments in independent horror.
Before Freddy Krueger was haunting doomed teenager’s dreams, New Line Cinema was mainly known as a distribution house. That is, until New Line head honcho Robert Shaye took a chance on writer/director Wes Craven, who had put together the script for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Seeing the opportunity to create an inventive horror film on a modest budget, Shaye greenlit A Nightmare on Elm Street, which was a huge gamble for the independent distribution house – in fact, Shaye literally gambled not only the future of New Line on Nightmare but his own financial security as well.
The gamble paid off when A Nightmare on Elm Street opened in theaters in 1984, as the film made back its production budget of $1.8 million in the first week alone and eventually went on to earn $25.5 million in US box office receipts.
A Nightmare on Elm Street not only enjoyed a successful run of sequels, a television series hosted by horror’s favorite dreamstalker and a crossover film with other horror icon Jason Voorhees, but the film also launched New Line Cinema as a legitimate production house in Hollywood that produced the blockbuster Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as modern classics like Critters, The Hidden and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
And chances are, if you’re reading this site, you’re familiar with Craven’s illustrious career that followed, which includes films like The Serpent and the Rainbow, The People Under the Stairs, Shocker, and the original Scream trilogy as well as Part Four, which bows in April.
1985- Jeffrey Combs Becomes a Re-Animator:
If you were any kind of fan of Chicago theater, Stuart Gordon is revered in that community as one of the most shocking and innovative production creators of the 70s and early 80s. However, if you are a horror fan (which I’m guessing is most likely true if you’re reading this), then Gordon is the guy who introduced a new generation of audiences to the work of H.P. Lovecraft with his cinematic adaptation of the author’s story Herbert West – Reanimator.
Originally dreamed up by Gordon as a stage production and then later adapted into a proposed television series, the writer/director finally set his sights on making Re-Animator into a feature length film after meeting producer Brian Yuzna, who convinced him that the story was better suited for the big screen due to the amount of special effects work involved. In fact, when it came time to secure distribution for Re-Animator, producer Yuzna struck a deal with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures in return for post-production services.
When Re-Animator was released in October 1985, it became an instantaneous cult classic. The film opened to generally favorable reviews in its limited wide release and took in over $500,000 in its first weekend, going on to gross over $2 million, which was well over the film’s production budget.
Since Gordon’s first Re-Animator film, there have been several sequels that have followed, and the success of the Lovecraftian adaptation launched Gordon’s career as well as the film’s star, Jeffrey Combs. Gordon recently adapted Re-Animator for the stage in the form of a musical that is currently running in Los Angeles.
1987- Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste:
It’s almost hard to believe that 14 years before Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson was establishing himself as one of the genre’s most crazed directors with the release of his zany cult sci-fi flick Bad Taste.
Jackson initially set out to make Bad Taste as a short film, but as he changed his mind quickly, he worked hard to raise an initial $25,000 (NZ) independently in order to keep moving forward on production. Jackson mainly shot Bad Taste on weekends over the course of four years. Making an absurdly gory horror film at the budget level Jackson was originally dealing with was a struggle in itself so eventually the New Zealand Film Commission invested around $235,000 (NZ) into Bad Taste to ensure its completion and handled the film’s distribution in Jackson’s home country.
Bad Taste enjoyed moderate success in New Zealand, mostly due to the absurd amounts of gore and the film’s over-the-top story centered around aliens who come to Earth to harvest people for their food. The film was immediately picked up for international distribution to 12 different countries during the prestigious Cannes Film Festival that year.
Since Bad Taste’s release, Jackson has gone on to make some of the most revered cult classics (including Meet the Feebles, Braindead and The Frighteners) as well as some of the most poignant mainstream films (Heavenly Creatures, Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong). He’s also been nominated for several Academy Awards since Bad Taste and even won an Oscar for his directing work for The Return of the King, demonstrating that in 2003 Oscar voters finally had some good taste for a change.
We’ll see you fiends soon for our final five milestones!
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