When Lucio Fulci concluded The Beyond with the words “And you will face the sea of darkness, and all therein that may be explored“, he might as well have been referring to the banner year of 1981.
Whatever your genre poison, 1981 delivered it in spades. Werewolves ruled the box office with films that not only redefined special effects artistry but remain stellar examples of modern lycanthropic horror – even today. Elsewhere, Satan’s son reared his ugly head for a final conflict while David Cronenberg explored factions of warring psychics with Scanners. Sam Raimi’s Candarian demons were unleashed in a Tennessee cabin while seemingly endless droves of slashers stalked theaters across the country. Wes Craven doled out one hell of a Deadly Blessing while The Boogens broke free from a Colorado silver mine, endearing themselves to a whole band of cult aficionados who’ve remained loyal to a film that, thirty years later, has yet to receive its due. Italians fulfilled the fantasies of horror’s most hedonistic fans by combining pornography and mediocre thrills into one overly bushy package while subsequently chronicling the most jaw-dropping zombie invasion imaginable. Yes, 1981 opened the floodgates to that proverbial sea of darkness, and horror fans explored it with fervor.
Perhaps nothing that year matched the insanity of Lucio Fulci’s masterpiece, The Beyond. From its paper-thin narrative to the incredibly striking visuals, very few filmmakers have successfully combined surreal qualities with an orgy of eye-popping gore. Stateside fans had to make do with the severely truncated Seven Doors of Death cut (released two years later) until Quentin Tarantino released the real deal in 1998, but that doesn’t mean The Beyond didn’t stake a claim in the hearts and minds of genre fans the world over. How couldn’t it? In its opening minutes an “ungodly warlock” isn’t merely crucified in wincing detail, but his head is dissolved in quicklime at the hands of a vengeful mob. A wonderful way to set the stage for the ensuing chaos consisting of eye-gouging, throat-ripping, and brain splattering – all of it perfectly executed (yes, even those spiders have their charms).
The Beyond isn’t completely about excess, however. It’s tough to remember the little nuances after a young girl’s head is exploded from a point blank gunshot, but Fulci generates enough atmosphere to create an esoteric genre experience. Our protagonists don’t seem to realize that the forces of the afterlife have converged upon this cursed New Orleans hotel (not until it’s too late), and it seems as though the film is intended to take place in the real world. But something’s “off” almost instantly – from the bizarre character dialogue (undoubtedly a result of spotty dubbing) and backgrounds (DO NOT ENTRY) to the most sparsely populated version of New Orleans ever put to film. Things may happen without rhyme or reason (the morgue scene glass spill in particular), bestowing an otherworldly feeling upon the story that results in a surrealist quality. One that’s almost impossible to top.
It’s the way everything comes together that makes The Beyond a unique entry in EuroHorror. David Warbeck is one of the classiest horror heroes we’ve ever had (even though it takes him a little while to figure out the whole headshot thing), and he has some genuine chemistry with Catriona MacColl. Fulci’s direction was never more assured, Germano Natali’s FX are unforgettable and Fabio Frizzi’s score takes things to the next level (the swell of his music over those final, unforgettable images is one of the main reasons the film resonates). Horror fans had to wait years to get their hands on the uncut version (the US “version” was severely hacked and featured a completely different score), but its cult reputation was instantaneous in horror circles. There was almost nothing like The Beyond when it first came out, and very few films have successfully contrasted the unreal with the disgusting as perfectly as Fulci.
Lucio wasn’t the only madman pushing the limits of extreme cinematic violence, as any fan of Joseph Zito’s The Prowler can attest. Featuring make-up FX by none other than Tom Savini (here’s the reason he didn’t partake in Friday the 13th Part 2‘s gore – a duty that went to Carl Fullerton), there’s no other contender for 1981’s most gruesome slasher. Make no mistake; The Prowler is a well-made horror film in nearly all respects, offering likable lead characters, a unique World War II prologue and some suspenseful setpieces along the way, but it’s a film that has come to be known entirely for those brilliant FX. There’s a general consensus that Day of the Dead remains Savini’s greatest showcase, but it’s difficult to argue against The Prowler. A film so convincing that Zito was once taken to task by a theater usher who became convinced that the people in the film had actually been butchered.
Maybe that’s being a bit too naïve, but regardless, it stands as an accurate testament to the convincing blood ‘n guts showcased. Couple that with the leering, unflinching style in which Zito captures the mayhem, and you’re left with a slasher that simply feels nastier than all the rest. From an amazingly brutal shower pitchforking to an extended swimming pool throat slashing and the climactic shotgun/exploding head bit, this one refuses to relegate itself to vanilla jump scares and the occasional blood splatter.
Instead our titular prowler proves one mean madman, butchering his victims with the utmost brutality. Under Zito’s direction we endure every miserable twitch and spasm of these people as their lives give way to death, creating a far more disturbing experience than films of this sort typically provide.
And while Savini should be praised for every drop of movie magic displayed, it’s important not to undermine the craft of Joseph Zito, who has always been a talented filmmaker. Lots of lesser slashers have been content to allow make-up and gore to do all the heavy lifting (and with FX a lot less impressive than Savini’s), but Zito instead crafts some exemplary suspense bits along the way.
Sure, there’s the painfully dull traipse through Lawrence Tierney’s home occurring at the midway point, but there’s nothing else hindering the film beyond that unfortunate setback. To make up for it, there are terrific moments like when a young girl comes into her room minutes after her roommate has been killed. We know the murderer is still in the bathroom, and Zito relishes the anticipation of the scene.
Thirty years after its release, it remains a staple of the subgenre and one of the 1981’s best. With its odd atmosphere, a traumatized GI turned murderer and the “marquee value” presence of veteran actors Farley Granger and the aforementioned Tierney, it’s hard to find a better slasher movie than this bona fide classic. Exactly the kind of film one hopes to find when exploring the depths of the video fringe.
Some slashers desperately copied the formulas of proven box office champions like Halloween and Friday the 13th, and others seemed determined to find a different take on an increasingly weary formula. Enter director Jeff Lieberman (Blue Sunshine), whose Deliverence-esque thriller crossed paths with a backwoods psycho. His Just Before Dawn remains one of the strongest examples of the atmospheric slasher with its gritty edge and authentic scares. There aren’t many “nature psychos” that will get the heart pumping as much as this.
It’s a simple story as they often are: Five twenty-somethings out for a weekend excursion in the wilderness of the Oregon Mountains so one of them can check out a piece of inherited land. Along the way they ignore the warnings of a forest ranger (George Kennedy), encounter a bizarre hick family and stumble across a hulking lunatic who takes offense to anyone entering his domain. Nothing truly special here as far as story goes, but Lieberman ranks among the most underrated genre filmmakers, always managing success. Be it psychotropic drugs (Blue Sunshine), angry worms (Squirm) or killer VHS tapes (Remote Control), Lieberman makes it work. It’s a shame that his filmography isn’t larger, but this film is no exception to his resume of impressive horror.
He makes excellent use of the outdoor settings, using the natural scenery much to his advantage. The Silver Lake National Park in Oregon brings a unique feel to the proceedings with waterfalls, rock structures and ravines all creating a tranquil naturalistic setting, not unlike ones we’ve all visited. Cinematography by Dean and Joel King gives Just Before Dawn lots of extra mileage, and Lieberman understands what scares an audience – exploiting it to full advantage. He also keeps the musical cues to a minimum during the more intense moments, leaving the innocuous nature sounds to adapt a somewhat insidious tone.
Just Before Dawn doesn’t skimp in the exploitation department either. Jamie Rose has a fairly extended skinny dip (one of the film’s most memorable bits – watch out behind you!), and our heroine, Deborah Benson, navigates the treacherous terrain in one of the shortest pair of shorts to ever grace the screen. Benson is a lovely sight (sorely underrated in the grand scheme of “final girls”) and is very well cast here. Her part grows more demanding as the film continues, giving our maniac a run for his money, culminating in the greatest cinematic fisting of all time.
The guys are pretty good, too … Later De Palma favorite Gregg Henry (Body Double) stars as Warren, the typical outdoorsman who grows weaker as the situation worsens. Chris Lemmon (Jack’s son) and Ralph Seymour round of the rest of the campers while Mike Kellin (Sleepaway Camp) joins Kennedy as the drunkard and the voice of reason, respectively.
If there’s anything that doesn’t work here, it’s the liberties the writers take with keeping the characters on the mountain. For example, once our campers reach their destination (after being warned by both the forest ranger and the drunkard – so upset he swears a demon is after him), their motor home is broken into and their food stolen. This doesn’t bother our characters one bit. At another point one of the women sends her boyfriend into the woods to find her make-up that she believes has been stolen away by raccoons! The filmmakers might’ve assumed audiences wouldn’t care about such trivialities, but such absurd behavior makes it hard to be scared for the characters. If the rest of the film weren’t so sure handed, however, this would probably be more of a detriment than it really is.
1981 truly was the slasher “Golden Age”, with dozens of them stalking into theaters within that twelve-month span. Just Before Dawn has garnered a strong but quiet following of enthusiasts over the years for its slightly different take on the material. Creepy, violent and unexpected, this is a near perfect example of slasher filmmaking.
Tight jeans and a drab olive jacket may not be the most memorable slasher regalia, but it’s the garb that Final Exam‘s anonymous murderer dons as he stalks the students of Lanier College. His killing spree isn’t the bloodiest, or the most suspenseful, but Jimmy Huston’s campus horror flick remains a perfectly agreeable – if slight – entry in the overwhelming ’81 slasher canon.
But if the killer is sort of blasé, his victims are not. These folks are ridiculously over-the-top, which makes Final Exam sort of work in spite of itself. We’ve got a character named Wildman, the type of guy who delights in bullying students as much as he savors a good sweat at the gym. He’s not the brightest person, however, and so his buddies have devised a way in which he can cheat his way to an acceptable grade. Their plan? To stage a faux terrorist shooting right on the school campus (oh, the wonderfully un-PC times of the 1980s). When a van loaded with ski-masked gunmen fire assault rifles into a barrage of students, it’s all so our campus oaf can pass a test. Perhaps there might’ve been other ways to distract the teacher’s assistant, but these guys decide to go big.
And one cannot discuss this sucker without making special mention of Joel Rice’s Raddish – one of the most bizarre, yet memorable supporting characters to ever grace the subgenre. From an unhealthy mass murderer obsession to his inability to interpret advances from members of the opposite sex, there’s a hypochondriac-esque charm to this guy – as if Woody Allen were transported into a slasher film and the entirety of his nebbish rantings pertained to the violent collapse of society.
Final Exam doesn’t necessarily hold up as well as the other films covered in this article. It’s a bit slow and clunky with most of the killings occurring far too late in the proceedings to muster up the necessary tension. But it’s a film not without charms. And, most importantly, who the hell is this killer? We never find out. And that makes it kind of awesome.
If the Italians kicked off this retrospective, it’s only fitting to hop back across the Atlantic for the concluding film. Only this time we’ll touch down in Spain with a look as Jess Franco’s attempt to cash in on slasher mania with the truly astounding Bloody Moon. It’s a sleazy and stylish horror film, unfolding like a traditional slasher with a few giallo elements mixed into the narrative for good measure. But what we have here is a film that crams so much into a crisp, 81-minute running time that it’s nearly impossible to absorb everything in one viewing.
Bloody Moon features an escaped mental patient, brother/sister incest, a retarded red herring gardener and an entire boarding school consisting of nubile young female students. It’s a film in which a killer dons a Mickey Mouse mask (somehow skirting the wrath of Disney), an old woman is burned to death in her bed, naked young girls are stalked at every turn, a knife is forced through a breast and a little boy witnesses a woman sliced to death by an industrial logging saw. In short, it’s endlessly entertaining. Not spectacularly scary, no, but when something offers this much fun, it’s hard to complain about trivialities.
It’s also a nice looking film. Franco is always a hit and miss type of filmmaker (as anyone who has endured Oasis of the Zombies can attest), but Bloody Moon may well be his greatest achievement. The International Youth School of Languages Boarding House (that’s the name!) makes for the most absurd translation since someone created a DO NOT ENTRY sign on the set of The Beyond, and the dialogue throughout the film is even better.
Writer Rayo Casablanca(?) offers a script that manages to keep the viewer unsure of what’s really happening, and the tone is always light enough to keep things fun. This may not be the classiest film ever made, but who wants that when you can watch a film where a guy nonchalantly shrugs off a woman’s murder, telling the traumatized witness to dream of him instead?
There’s really no shortage of great or enjoyable films from 1981. Fulci took us beyond the seven doors of hell with insane cinematic carnage while a whole bunch of psycho slashers ran amok. From World War II veterans to redneck killers, nondescript assassins to scheming criminals, it’s hard to believe thirty years have passed since these films were unleashed upon unsuspecting genre fans. In that time some have obtained classic status (The Beyond, The Prowler), others have been forgotten (Just Before Dawn, Final Exam) and others lie in wait for a new generation of adoring fans to discover them (Bloody Moon).
And this is only scratching the surface.
Our esteemed colleagues at Bloody-Disgusting, Shock Till You Drop, Badass Digest, FEARnet, and Arrow in the Head are knee-deep in this endeavor with us. Hit their links below to reminisce on The Howling, The Evil Dead, Dead & Buried, Halloween II, Scanners and so many more. If nothing else, 1981 was truly an amazing year for horror fans. In some ways its output helped shaped each and every one of us into the raving and drooling horror fanatics we are today. And while no one can begin to properly return the favor, this is our little way of remembering and saying thank you.
Life wouldn’t be the same without this stuff.
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