32 Years Later and Tremors is Still the Best Monster Movie Ever

Tremors, 1990

There isn’t a more perfect monster movie than 1990’s TREMORS. In the small, geographically isolated town of Perfection Valley, just outside of the Sierra Nevada mountains, people and animals start turning up dead – not just dead, but torn to pieces. While trying to change their unfulfilled lives by leaving town, best buds and all-around handymen, Val (Kevin Bacon) and Earl (Fred Ward), stumble upon a couple of murdered road workers just outside of Perfection and head back to warn their friends. Soon they, along with spunky seismology student, Rhonda (Finn Carter), discover that the recent string of deaths were caused by giant, worm-like creatures that travel underground. The trio try to seek help, only to realize the monsters have trapped them in Perfection.

Having to fend for themselves, Val, Earl, Rhonda, and a handful of residents arm themselves with guns, thanks to local married couple and hardcore survivalists, Burt (Michael Gross) and Heather (Reba McEntire). Rhonda eventually figures out the creatures can only move through the loose valley soil, attracted to their prey by vibrations and sound. As the animals – dubbed “graboids” – slowly tear the town to shreds, Earl gets the idea of using a nearby bulldozer to carry everyone safely to the mountains. But when the graboids wise up, it puts a damper on the humans’ plans just as they’re about to reach safety.

What sets Tremors apart from the glut of similarly-themed Weird Monster Movies is its pitch perfect script by S.S. Wilson, Brent Maddock, and director Ron Underwood. Seamlessly blending comedy and suspense, the film is impeccably designed to work on all levels, and in doing so creates a truly original and infectiously fun movie. The awesome cast undeniably heightens the story, as the actors make the characters their own, including Bacon, Ward, Carter, and especially Gross who steals all his scenes as the know-it-all but lovable Burt. Everyone works well together and has great chemistry, making many of the scenes more intense – these are characters you don’t want to get eaten! As with the best of genre movies, you want to be a part of this world, even if that means being chased by mutant, underground worms.

But what really makes Tremors stand head-and-shoulders above the rest is its endless energy; from beginning to end the film doesn’t have a dull or needless moment. Everything about it works, including the authentic excitement the viewer feels when the monsters break out from underground and set their bloodthirsty tentacles on unsuspecting would-be victims. Underwood keeps the monster attacks tight and thrilling with lightening-quick pacing and unpredictable moments.

A quartet of college friends seeking last minute fun on their sun-filled vacation get more than they bargained for in the 2008 survival shocker, THE RUINS. On their final days at a Mexican resort, two couples, Jeff (Jonathan Tucker) and Amy (Jena Malone), and Eric (Shawn Ashmore) and Stacy (Laura Ramsey), are invited by friendly German tourist, Mathias (Joe Anderson), to check out uncharted Mayan ruins. While Amy wants to be lazy in the hotel before their flight home the next day, pre-med student, Jeff, wants to soak in some local culture, so the four join Mathias on his adventure.

After trekking through thick jungle, the group arrives at a pyramid-like structure covered in weird, green vines. Thinking they’ve hit pay dirt, the friends are shocked when they’re surrounded by hostile locals who threaten them with violence, refusing to let them leave the ruins. Jeff and company are forced to the top of the pyramid while the locals keep guard at the bottom. It’s at the top of the mysterious structure that they find several desiccated bodies wrapped in the green vines, as well as an entryway inside the building. Very quickly, the desperate gang discovers the plants covering the structure are alive and thirsty for blood.

A rather silly premise works well here, thanks to tight direction from Carter Smith, and a suspenseful screenplay adapted by Scott Smith from his own novel. The characters seem real and their plight is handled well by the cast, including Tucker and Malone, both of whom are sympathetic and tough. Credit should be given to Smith for not shying away from the red stuff and delivering some truly cringeworthy moments of self-mutilation.

If you like boats, underwater monsters, and gore, then you’ll love 1998’s DEEP RISING. Sort of a hybrid of Die Hard and Aliens, the movie introduces us to a boatload of mercenaries being taken by hired driver, Finnegan (Treat Williams), to some remote islands in the South China Sea. Finnegan’s nosy mechanic, Joey (Kevin J. O’Connor), stumbles upon the mercenaries’ secret missiles in storage, and before you can say MacGuffin, Finnegan’s boat hits another vessel and stalls out. When they come across a luxury cruise ship just floating in the water, Finnegan and gang think they’ve lucked out, only to find the massive vessel devoid of power and completely empty of humans.

While searching the ship, they come across a handful of people, including the ship’s captain, Canton (Anthony Heald), and resourceful pickpocket, Trillian (Famke Janssen). Finnegan eventually discovers Canton is in cahoots with the mercenaries to destroy the ship as part of an insurance scam, but they’re too late as a vicious horde of tentacled sea monsters invade the boat.

Written and directed by Stephen Sommors (1999’s The Mummy), Deep Rising fires on almost all cylinders and delivers a slam-bang monster ride of a movie. While the action aspect is obviously not as enticing as the horror parts – many of the mercenaries are just cardboard cut-outs from other movies – the film does a good job at blending the two genres into a cohesive whole. While many of the CGI effects are dated, the movie does successfully merge both CG and practical FX in several scenes, including the gruesome death of one of the mercenaries, who’s vomited back up by one of the monsters, his face half-eaten away by the creature’s digestive acid.

The cast is good, especially Williams, Janssen, and O’Connor, who would go on to be Sommor’s right hand man and appear in many of the director’s films, including The Mummy, Van Helsing, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. Deep Rising may not be the most original movie ever, but it’s fast, funny, and fun. | Tremors: A+ Deep Rising: B+ The Ruins: B

Made-for-TV Monster Movies

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, 1973

by Frank Pittarese

The ‘70s were the golden age of made-for-TV horror. It was a decade that gave us The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, and Steven Spielberg’s adrenaline-filled Duel. It was also prime-time for monsters, as seen in these three creature features…

GARGOYLES is one of the most memorable monsterfests of the era. When Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) visit the deserts of New Mexico to research his book on demonology, the two inadvertently come into possession of a bizarre animal skull. From that moment on they’re hunted and attacked, as hordes of reptilian gargoyles relentlessly try to reclaim the skull. When one of the gargoyles is killed, the creatures abducts Diana and the monsters’ master plan of global domination is revealed.

Originally airing in November of 1972, this short-length TV classic features unforgettable make-up work by Stan Winston (for which he and his partners won an Emmy). Their designs for the gargoyles are beautifully crafted — especially the creatures’ leader, played to demonic perfection by the late Bernie Casey. These “gar-things,” as biker James Reeger (Scott Glenn) calls them are truly eerie as they creep around in slow motion, stalking their victims (in one shocking moment that haunted my childhood, a gargoyle appears at the foot of Dr. Boley’s bed).

The cast is great. Wilde takes the material very seriously, giving the whole affair some gravitas. Salt — best known for her appearance in Brian De Palma’s Sisters and as Eunice Tate on the sitcom Soap — is full of personality. As the (possibly lustful) focus of the gargoyle leader, she carries the weight of the movie with energy and charm. Grayson Hall, most famous for her run on the original Dark Shadows, gives a brief but delightfully hammy performance as an alcoholic motel manager. But the make-up is the real star here. The gargoyles are entirely believable and nightmarish, even 50 years later. Seek out and enjoy this unique little gem. Often airing on Svengoolie, Gargoyles can also be found streaming on Tubi and IMDB-TV.

For cheesy, Bigfoot-runs-amok thrills, look no further than 1977’s SNOWBEAST. Olympic champion Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) and his wife, Ellen (Yvette Mimieux), visit a ski resort in the Colorado Rockies just as the annual Snow Carnival is getting underway. But wouldn’t you know it? There’s a killer Bigfoot on the loose (which, not to split hairs, looks more like a Yeti), tearing people to shreds on the slopes. Despite the attacks, resort owner Carrie (Sylvia Sidney) is determined to keep Amity Beach open for the Fourth of July — whoops — I mean keep the resort open for the carnival. That is until the Snowbeast attacks the festival, creating a mob riot and slaughtering some poor woman in her car. The only solution is kill the furball, so Gar, Ellen, Carrie’s grandson Tony (Robert Logan) and the Sheriff head into the woods to bring it down.

This Jaws-by-way-of-Grizzly ripoff isn’t as tense or thrilling as it could have been. The script by Joseph Stefano (Psycho) is serviceable — and there are some tense moments, particular the carnival attack — but the pace is slowed down by long stretches where people…just…ski. They ski for fun, they ski because they’re searching, they ski because Snowbeast is coming. A mild love triangle between the three young leads provides enough characterization to hang your hat on, and Sidney is perky as the tough-as-nails grandma. The monster itself is kept off-camera for the bulk of the film, with the kills and chases shot POV-style. We do see his face a few times, and he sometimes sticks an arm through a window, but the “less is more” execution (probably dictated by the low budget and/or a cheap suit) sort of works here. It’s not the best killer Bigfoot movie out there, but it’s enjoyable. Notorious for appearing in every public domain horror boxed set known to mankind, Snowbeast can be found on Tubi, Amazon Prime, and IMDB-TV. (Not to be confused with 2011’s similar Snow Beast.)

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was a made-for-TV highlight of 1973. A young couple, Sally (Kim Darby) and Alex (Jim Hutton), move into a large house that Sally inherited from her late grandmother. But when persistently curious Sally unseals a bricked-up fireplace in a locked room, she accidentally frees a host of whispering, gremlin-like creatures. They only come out in the dark…and they want Sally’s soul.

Creepy and memorable — so memorable that Guillermo del Toro produced a big-screen remake in 2010 — this slow-burn really gets under your skin. We know something is up, but everyone, even Sally herself, begins to question her sanity as the raisin-headed little freaks stalk her unrelentingly. Handyman Harris (played by wonderful character actor William Demarest) seems to know the truth behind the house’s dark secrets, but the doubtful Alex won’t hear any crazy talk. The final act, in which Sally desperately tries to save herself from the creatures, are truly tense, and it all leads to a haunting ending. Smartly directed by John Newland (best known for the paranormal anthology series One Step Beyond), Don’t Be Afraid features fantastic creature make-up and vivid mood lighting whenever the little beasts appear. It’s not streaming at the moment, but it’s available on Blu-ray. Watch this version before viewing the less-effective remake.

Gargoyles: A
Snowbeast: B
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: B+

Why “Bog” is the Best Worst Movie You’ve Never Seen

1979’s BOG is the type of movie Ed Wood would have made in the ’50s: a cheerfully inept little monster flick that’s so bad it’s heartwarmingly charming.

While on a fishing excursion in the woods of rural Wisconsin, friends Chuck (Rojay North) and Allan (Glen Voros), and their extremely unhappy wives, Kim (Lou Hunt) and May (Carol Tanner), are attacked by an unseen creature that emerges from the lake. When Kim and May disappear and are later found completely drained of blood, the local police are baffled by the mysterious crime and call in scientists, Ginny Glenn (Gloria DeHaven) and John Warren (Leo Gordon), to help.

While Ginny and John look into microscopes and hypothesize ideas – and have an awesomely corny and adorable romance on the side – Chuck and Allan take matters into their own, gun-toting hands and go back to the lake to find what killed their wives. In doing so they run into Wallace Fry (Robert Fry), a fedora and overalls-wearing hillbilly (a precursor to Crazy Ralph, perhaps?) who takes Chuck and Allan to see an old hermit named Adrianna (also DeHaven).

Adrianna informs them an ancient fish-monster has been asleep for millennia at the bottom of the lake, and now it’s awakened from fishing dynamite and needs human blood to survive. Chuck and Allan tell the authorities, who seem to have a hard time finding the creature, despite the fact it makes more noise than King Kong on steroids. But, wait – there are also eggs found at the bottom of the lake by a couple of scuba divers, who’re eventually killed and the eggs brought back to Ginny’s lab (which suspiciously looks like a high school science classroom).

I first learned about Bog back in the early ’90s when I saw a VHS of it in the $1 bin at my local video store. I was immediately mesmerized by the colorful if awkward art, and upon watching it was swept up in its amazing awfulness. But like most good bad movies, Bog has a charm to spare. The actors, mostly professionals from way back when, give it their all, especially former MGM star DeHaven, who, considering the material she’s working with, is quite good as both Ginny and Adrianna – Adrianna’s old age make-up looks like it was done with a kit bought at a drug store Halloween sale.

As for the monster itself, well… If you took a large papier-maché fish head and attached it to a lizard costume, you’ll get the picture. But, as I mentioned earlier, the movie’s dime-store aesthetics are what make it so delightful, but so does the cast, with Ann B. Davis lookalike, Tanner, a hoot as cranky May.

Best line: “Do we have a Dracula running around out there?”

Back to the woods it is for the 2014 Bigfoot chiller, EXISTS. Directed by Blair Witch Project‘s Eduardo Sanchez, Exists follows a group of twenty-something friends as they venture into the forest to spend the weekend at a – drumroll, please! – cabin.

Brothers Matt (Samuel Davis) and Brian (Chris Osborn) invite several of their friends to their uncle’s house in the Texas country for the weekend. Upon arriving, Matt hits something with his car; later they hear what sounds like animalistic cries of pain in the woods. Thinking they hit a deer, the gang continue to the house, but stoner Brian, remembering stories his uncle told them as a kid, believes it could be Bigfoot. He quickly sets up GoPro cameras around the property, hoping to capture footage of the beast.

After a night of partying, Matt and friends start to believe Brian’s Bigfoot theory when the house is attacked by a large creature walking on two legs. The group makes a hasty exit the next morning, only to find Matt’s car trashed, with a tree trunk sticking out the windshield. They all decide to fortify the house and wait for the arrive of Matt’s and Brian’s uncle.

Unable to wait, Matt rides his bike to seek help, only to come face-to-face with the massive beast who, in the film’s best scene, pursues Matt in an intense, high-speed chase reminiscent of the water skier chase sequence from Jaws 2. With no help coming, it isn’t long until the helpless group realizes it’s a fight to the death between them and the monster.

In terms of found footage monster movies, Exists isn’t one of the best, but it’s most certainly not one of the worst. While it lacks the grueling horror of Blair Witch Project (and the nail-biting suspense of Willow Creek), Exists is more of a jump-scare funhouse movie and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than that. The film delivers several fun scenes and uses the monster wisely, but keeps it in the shadows and hidden behind the shrubbery in the woods. Sanchez keeps the pace moving fast, which helps with the absence of suspense and the annoyance of its dumb, one-dimensional characters. But, as FF flicks go, Exists is a decent entry in the canon and worth a look for fans.

Concluding this week’s “Creatures in the Woods” theme is the 1979 environmental monster romp, PROPHECY. When all the members of a search-and-rescue team are brutally murdered by a mysterious beast in the wilds of Maine, lumber mill director, Bethel Isely (Richard Dysart), blames a local tribe of Native Americans for the deaths of both the searchers and for a group of missing mill employees. Unsure of how to solve a land dispute between the mill and Native Americans, the Environmental Protection Agency sends Dr. Rob Verne (Robert Foxworth), along with his wife, Maggie (Talia Shire), to Maine to write up a report on the situation.

While researching the area, Rob discovers abnormal wildlife, including oversized salmon and violently aggressive raccoons, one of which attacks Rob and Maggie in their cabin. Later on, Rob is approached by John Hawks (Armand Assante), a Native American who informs Rob that the lumber mill is poisoning the surrounding environment with pollution.

Meanwhile, on a nearby camping excursion, a father and his two children are torn to pieces by a large, mutated, blood-and-pus-dripping bear, the same animal that killed the rescuers earlier. Isely accusing Hawks and his men of the new crimes, but when Rob and Maggie find a deformed and dying bear cub in a fishing net, Rob uses the cub as evidence of Hawk’s innocence. That is until Mama Bear comes looking for her child.

An unfairly criticized film, Prophecy is a solid creature feature with some terrific scenes, including the shocking death of a boy smashed against a rock while helplessly caught inside his sleeping bag. The screenplay (by The Omen‘s David Seltzer) gets too wrapped up in its pollution-as-monster metaphor, especially during the first hour, but director John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate) makes up for it with brisk direction, a good use of widescreen framing (soaking in the beautiful British Columbia landscapes used as the backdrop for Maine), and an exciting last 30 minutes. A tighter script and this could have been a cult classic. | Bog: AProphecy: B Exists: B

MONSTER MONTH: Here Wolf, There Wolf, Werewolf

The short but prolific werewolf cycle of the early ’80s gave us classics The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Coming in under the radar is the underappreciated 1985 gem, SILVER BULLET, a fast-paced and immensely enjoyable monster thriller adapted by Stephen King from his own novella. In the summer of 1976, several residents of the small town of Tarker’s Mill are viciously murdered. The locals think a serial killer is responsible, and the authorities shut down the town, even cancelling the popular Fourth of July fireworks celebration.

The town becomes restless as the body count grows and no suspect is brought forward, until wheelchair-bound Marty (Corey Haim) has a close encounter with a large, hairy beast with sharp teeth. Marty believes a werewolf is on the prowl and tries to convince his loving but dysfunctional uncle, Red (Gary Busey), and big sister, Jane (Megan Follows), that they must find the person who’s transforming into the creature and kill them.

While it might lack the visual richness of Howling and polished trickery of American Werewolf, Silver Bullet is a solid film filled with wonderful characters and suspenseful situations. Busey and Haim have great chemistry and feel like genuine family, while Follows has enough spunk and energy to have been the next Jamie Lee Curtis. Director Dan Attias keeps the film moving at a tight pace and builds it up to an exciting, but brief, climax.

When it comes to satisfying endings, 1981’s THE HOWLING sure does give you your money’s worth. After receiving threatening phone calls, TV news reporter, Karen (Dee Wallace), goes undercover to find out if her stalker is the person responsible for a series of brutal murders in the area. When she’s attacked by a man named Eddie Quist (Robert Picardo), who’s shot dead by police, famed psychiatrist, Dr. Waggner (Patrick Macnee), suggests Karen and her husband, Bill (Christopher Stone), spend a week at his woodsy retreat, The Colony. Once there, they meet the doctor’s colorful patients, including leather-clad “nymphomaniac,” Marsha (Elisabeth Brooks), whose got eyes for Bill and might be hiding a dangerous secret.

After several nights of strange noises, and following an animal attack on Bill, Karen discovers The Colony is actually a haven of werewolves, and home to Eddie, who’s still very much alive. Adapted from Gary Brandner’s book, screenwriters John Sayles and Terrence H. Winkless wisely injected the story with humor, and in doing so created a truly original werewolf flick. The film’s serious subject matter (attempted rape and PTSD) is nicely evened out with a jokey take on then-popular new age medicine and commune lifestyles. Wallace makes for a sympathetic heroine, but it’s Rob Bottin’s excellent make-up FX that is the real star; the werewolves are perhaps some of the scariest in horror history.

Oscar winner Rick Baker offered up his expertise for WOLF, but unlike An American Werewolf in London, the make-up FX in this 1994 film are merely background dressing. Jack Nicholson stars as mild mannered book editor, Will Randall, who’s bitten by a yellow-eyed wolf while driving through Vermont wilderness. A few days later, and after he’s demoted at work, Will undergoes a mysterious transformation which not only heightens his senses but changes his personality. After discovering his wife (Kate Nelligan) is sleeping with his coworker, Stewart (James Spader), who was offered Will’s position at work, Will forms his own publishing business and begins a romance with his former boss’s daughter, Laura (Michelle Pfeiffer).

It isn’t long until the animal comes completely out of Will as he’s chasing and snacking on deer. His aggressive nature also gets him his old job back, as well as revenge on Stewart, who may be hiding a secret of his own. When Will moves from killing animals to attacking humans, he tries to stop himself before he can’t return from his wolf persona at all.

Not a horror movie in the traditional sense, Wolf is more of a were-drama that’s concerned with character over fangs. Nicholson, with his brooding demeanor, is well cast as Will, as is Spader, who’s his usually slimy-but-charming self as Will’s nemesis. Pfeiffer has good chemistry with Nicholson, but Laura doesn’t have very much to do aside from being the love interest. There’s also a scene where Will seeks help from a worldly old scientist (Om Puri) that’s pure ham and feels unnecessary.

Although it looks great, Wolf is a disappointment. A good cast is wasted on rather lackluster writing and a sluggish pace, and Baker’s make-up effects (briefly seen during the final showdown) are not used to their full potential. Wolf is a drama without much drama, and a horror movie without much horror; it’s a werewolf movie for people who don’t watch werewolf movies. Look for David Schwimmer in a small role as a cop. | The Howling: ASilver Bullet: B+ Wolf: C

The New Scream Doesn’t Cut Deep

Warning: This post contains spoilers!

By Frank Pittarese

I went into the new Scream with low expectations, but wanting so badly to love it. It wasn’t the most necessary of sequels, but knowing that the original cast was returning was exciting. If nothing else, I was looking forward to checking in with their characters again. But since this was the fifth film in the series, the stakes needed to be high. This one needed to matter. We’ve already had four films with essentially the same plot, so if this “requel” didn’t level up, it would be a pointless. In my mind, that meant one of two things had to happen: Sidney Prescott had to die in a blaze of glory — or Sidney Prescott had to be the killer. But whichever way it went, it was time to close the door on Sidney’s too-long arc.

Scream 5 is, unfortunately, a half-baked regurgitation of what has come before. Self-referential? Check. Multiple killers? Check. Killers motivated by fame? Check. It’s fair to say that we want some familiar touchstones — the template for every Friday the 13th is practically the same and I never get sick of those. But with the Scream franchise — thanks to Wes Craven’s genre-defining launch — there’s an expectation of something better…a level of quality that should rise above a by-the-numbers, lazy, cash-grab

But that’s what we got. Oh, all our favorites are back — but every one of them is here strictly for fan service. The “old school” characters are hollow window-dressing in a story that disrespects every one of them. Apart from a phone call with Dewey, Sidney is sidelined for the first hour. Dewey and Gale have, for no justifiable reason, divorced between films — and to really drive a nail in the coffin, Dewey is killed off at the halfway point. He dies like a chump before ever reconciling with Gale. They barely even share screen time. Were you a Randy fan? Well, his teenage niece and nephew have been created for the sole purpose of name-dropping him multiple times. How about Billy? Well, one of the newbies is Billy’s daughter, retconned for the sole purpose of — what did I say? Fan service, and insulting fan service, to boot.

The mystery, such as it is, is rendered pointless when, in the final act, the main killer simply whips out a gun and starts shooting people. It’s like the screenwriters grew tired of their own laziness and gave up. Sidney and Gale, two strong women with a history of conflict, arrive on the scene and for a brief flash, I had hope. Maybe this was the point for Sidney and Gale to bond, work together, and save the day. But no, Gale is shot within seconds of meeting the killer. She survives, but the possibility of seeing something different or interesting play out evaporated at that moment.

The lead actress — playing our new Sidney, I suppose — is a bland, blank slate. Neve Campbell is the embodiment of the word “personality,” and gave us a character we could invest in for decades. This new girl, Sam, is just a CW character gone astray. She brings nothing to the table.

The one surprise is the second killer. Not that there IS a second killer, because that’s pretty apparent early on. It’s their identity that was a surprise. Somehow, they managed to structure the story and cast a performer who worked so well that I was honestly taken aback in a good way.

Word is, there’s another sequel coming. Nobody is asking for it, but we’re getting it. Perhaps they’ll redeem themselves, but given the mess Scream 5 left behind, I wouldn’t count on it. D+

Frank is a Brooklyn native, comic book editor, and horror fanatic. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram

MONSTER MONTH: Canadian Parasites and Virgins for Dracula

You’ll never see a more slender and fragile Dracula than you will in the 1974 cult classic, BLOOD FOR DRACULA. With an absence of the fresh blood of virgins he needs in order to survive, a sickly Count Dracula (a perfectly cast Udo Kier) is forced to leave his crumbling castle in 1920s Romania for the lush countryside of Italy. Once there, Dracula and his loyal human assistant, Anton (Arno Juerging), search for pure young women for the Count to dine on, and soon encounter a land baron (Italian director Vittorio De Sica) and his four lovely daughters.

Thinking he’s struck “whergin” gold, Dracula is repelled (literally) when he discovers several of the daughters have already been deflowered by the family’s handyman and all-around stud, Mario (Joe Dallasandro). Mario eventually catches on to Dracula’s antics and tries to save the remaining members of the family before they are bewitched by the Count.

Both an exploitation flick and a thoughtful art piece, Blood for Dracula was the unofficial end of the golden age of the Andy Warhol independent cinema era. Following Flesh for Frankenstein, Dracula is perhaps director Paul Morrissey at his filmmaking best, and although it lacks the visceral gruesomeness of Frankenstein, it’s beautifully shot and elegantly paced. Kier is both hammy and touching in his portrayal of the monster, and there’s no question Morrissey (and an uncredited Pat Hackett) intentionally added campy moments to the screenplay – Dracula needs the blood of virgins to live, yet demands a vegetarian diet from his host.

Dallasandro delivers a stiff but charming performance as the “hero,” while Juerging is so OTT he seems to be in danger of laughing every time he delivers a line. While Blood for Dracula might not be for everyone, I found it sleazy, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt. The blood-soaked ending is a sight to see.

The residents of a posh high-rise apartment building outside of Montreal are terrorized by an army of slug-like parasites in 1975’s SHIVERS. A well-known physician, Dr. Hobbes (Fred Doederlein), murders a young woman named Annabelle and then kills himself inside the Starliner Towers apartment complex. Resident medical doctor, Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), discovers that his colleague, Dr. Linsky (Joe Silver), along with Hobbes, had created a man-made parasite that could essentially replace human organs when needed – and Annabelle was their first experimental patient.

Roger finds out that Annabelle was sleeping around with several men in the building, including upstairs neighbor, Nick (Allan Kolman), who, along with several others, is infested with the parasite, turning him – and eventually the entire building – into mindless murderers and rapists.

One of, if not the first, “body horror” subgenre movies that director David Cronenberg invented, Shivers is a somewhat demented take on Night of the Living Dead. The film utilizes its low budget by creating a moody, almost claustrophobic environment. Nearly every scene takes place inside the building; the bright colors of the interiors offset the impending doom of the characters living within. Although Hampton makes for a rather lifeless protagonist, Lynn Lowry adds some energetic flavor as his love interest.

Released in 1988, WAXWORK was a favorite video rental of mine as a kid. It was different from Jason or Freddy; it featured all the old-timey monsters but was hipper than the classic movies. Rewatching the low-budget flick now brings back a lot of memories, and while the movie doesn’t seem as charming as it once did, it’s still very enjoyable.

While walking to class, high-maintenance China (Michelle Johnson) and mousy Sarah (Deborah Foreman) run into a mysterious man named Lincoln (David Warner), who invites them to a midnight showing at his new waxwork museum. Thinking it’ll be better than homework, the girls decide to go and invite their friends, including preppy rich boy, Mark (Zach Galligan), and nerdy Tony (Dana Ashbrook). When they arrive, they discover the museum is filled with wax exhibits of mostly horror movie-related scenes, including Dracula, the Mummy, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man.

Upon closer look, these scenes have an uncanny realism to them, and, as some of the characters unfortunately discover, serve as doorways into another world. When Tony steps past the velvet rope of one of the exhibits, he inadvertently enters a misty forest filled with werewolves. Meanwhile, China gets herself trapped in Dracula’s castle and must fight to the death against his army of undead brides in the film’s best (and bloodiest) sequence. When China and Tony fail to return to the real world, it’s up to Mark and Sarah to find out what’s going on and try to stop the supernatural powers of the place.

Sort of an adult variation on The Monster Squad, Waxwork is a spirited splatter flick that never takes itself seriously. It loves the monsters, the movies from which they came and, obviously, influenced a great deal of the scenes. Some chapters deserve a movie of their own – the Mummy segment is atmospheric and juicy – but some are a missed opportunity. The Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) is too jokey and uninvolving to muster up much excitement, although Campbell plays him smartly with a wink-wink vibe. It might be slight, but Waxwork is harmless ’80s bubblegum entertainment. | Blood for Dracula: B+ Shivers and Waxwork: B

MONSTER MONTH: Is Frankenhooker a ’90s Masterpiece?

Frankenhooker, 1990

After getting good notices for directing several Andy Warhol productions, including ’70s underground classic, Heat, filmmaker Paul Morrissey transitioned into horror by taking on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But 1973’s FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN is not your high school teacher’s idea of Frankenstein!

In a lavish country castle in the 1800s, Baron von Frankenstein (Udo Kier) spends most of his time in his secret laboratory stitching together dead body parts – and getting turned on by fondling internal organs – in order to create a master Serbian race that will “take over the world!” With the help of his simpleton assistant, Otto (Arno Juerging), Frankenstein successfully brings to life two of his “human” creations, including a male specimen whose head the Baron took from local aspiring monk, Sacha (Srdjan Zelenovic). When houseboy Nicholas (Joe Dallesandro) recognizes Sacha, he tries to put a stop to Frankenstein’s devious experiments, with dire consequences.

While some might call this a bastardized version of the Frankenstein story, others will delight in its campy excesses and outpouring of cheesy gore and sex. Much like Morrissey’s later Blood for Dracula, Flesh for Frankenstein (filmed in 3-D) is a mix of exploitation and genuine filmmaking: the film works as a tragic fairy tale while also dishing out explicit violence and sexuality. Credit should be given to Morrissey for making Nicholas the sex object over a more traditional woman; Dallesandro spends most of the film completely naked and is continually used by Frankenstein’s wife, Katrin (Monique van Vooren) – who’s also the Baron’s sister – to satisfy her robust sexual appetite. There’s also gay subtext with Sacha, who earlier in the film is smitten with the hunky Nicholas, but converts to religion when he realizes they can never be together.

Funniest line in the film: “Why did you wake me? You know I have insomnia!”

On the same campy, OTT level as Flesh for Frankenstein – and containing just as many, if not more, dismembered body parts – is 1990’s gut-busting classic, FRANKENHOOKER. Professional electrician, and amateur mad scientist, Jeffrey Franken (James Lorinz), goes to desperate measures to attempting bringing his fiancée, Elizabeth (Patty Mullen), back to life after she’s mangled by his homemade lawnmower. After Jeffrey steals pieces of her body, including her head, he decides to create the perfect body for Elizabeth by killing several Times Square prostitutes and using their bodies to make the ultimate woman.

It really shouldn’t, but Frankenhooker works on every level. Shot in the same vibrant manner as director Frank Henenlotter’s classic, Basket Case, Frankenhooker is pure, unadulterated, energetic filmmaking at its creative best. The cast is first-rate (including Mullen, whose comedic timing is pitch-perfect), the dialogue snappy (and often hilarious), and the action almost non-stop and genuinely exciting. The film never takes itself seriously and pumps out the gore-drenched comedy with charming verve.

Unfortunately, Frankenstein’s monster doesn’t get nearly enough screen time in the 1945 monster mash-up, HOUSE OF DRACULA. In the course of one night, famed Dr. Edlemann (Onslow Stevens) is visited by both Count Dracula (John Carradine) and Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.), a.k.a. the Wolf Man. Wanting to be cured of their vampirism and lycanthropy, respectfully, Dracula and Talbot take up temporary residency in Edlemann’s cliffside castle, where the doctor plans to give Dracula a blood transfusion. Meanwhile, the full moon approaches and Talbot, unable to wait for Edlemann’s cure, tries to throw himself off the cliff but survives and inadvertently discovers the body of Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) in a cave (where the creature died at the end of House of Frankenstein).

Dracula eventually falls for the doctor’s assistant, Miliza (Martha O’Driscoll), and bewitches her, an act Edlemann finds dangerous. During their last transfusion, Edlemann tries to destroy Dracula, only to get caught by the Count, who switches the procedure’s blood flow and transforms the doctor not only into a vampire, but a raving mad scientist.

Lacking the excitement of the earlier Frankenstein movies and the chilling atmosphere of the Lugosi Dracula, House of Dracula doesn’t utilize its famous monsters to their full potential. Instead of pitting the creatures against one another, the somewhat lifeless screenplay spends too much time trying to make them appear sympathetic, especially Talbot, who spends most of the film in a wheelchair with a bandage on his head. Carradine is a fine Lugosi replacement, but Frankenstein’s monster is completely wasted in a rushed climax that’s both confusing and frustrating. | Frankenhooker: AFlesh for Frankenstein: B+ House of Dracula: C

MONSTER MONTH: Giant Bugs and Horny Beasties

As the cold weather begins to dissipate and the flowers start to bloom, I’m digging up monster movies for the month of April. What I love about monster flicks is there’s a lot of them and with a wide variety of breeds: werewolves, vampires, mutants, subterranean beings, underwater creatures, and slew of others.

2006’s FEAST is a spirited, low budget splatter romp in the vein of From Dusk till Dawn, and like that 1996 classic, Feast features a group of larger-than-life personalities stuck inside a desert bar surrounded by creatures. Instead of vampires, predatory monsters of some kind quickly descend upon the bar, bringing a reign of gory terror and even releasing their young inside the building to cause further havoc.

Shot in a frenzied, fast-paced manner, Feast has a great cast – Henry Rollins, Krista Allen, Judah Friedlander, Clu Gulager – and some terrific moments, including several involving the baby monsters. It’s just a shame that when it ended I was expecting something…better. The harried camera work is fine, but director John Gulager (Clu’s son), doesn’t exactly have an eye for clarity; a lot of the action is lost on the viewer, who’s most likely trying to figure out what is going on. But, the strength of the movie’s vitality is its cast and they give it their all, especially Friedlander, who spends most of the runtime soaked in monster puke and maggots.

Coming off the lackluster reception of Memoirs of an Invisible Man, horror auteur John Carpenter returned to his chiller roots with 1995’s crackerjack IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, a visually rich horror-fantasy that would make H.P. Lovecraft proud. Sam Neil stars as P.I. John Trent, who’s hired by a big-time publishing company to locate their most precious asset, Sutter Cane, a Stephen King-like horror writer whose novels sell millions and, as of recently, have been having a negative effect on his legions of fans. Trent, along with Cane’s editor, Linda (Julie Carmen), find Cane (Jürgen Prochnow) hiding out in a Byzantine church in Hobb’s End, a dying town where time doesn’t seem to flow in any logical sense, and where the locals are slowly turning into otherworldly creatures.

Trent eventually realizes he’s entered into another dimension, one where Cane’s writing seemingly comes to gruesome life. This doesn’t bode well when Cane’s newest book is released and opens the supernatural floodgates to the entire reading world. Things get even worse when a film adaptation goes into production…

A splendidly energetic film from beginning to end, Madness is Carpenter in top form. Using his expertise with widescreen framing and knowledge of handling complex monsters, Carpenter doesn’t pretend Madness is The Thing by moving the creatures to the front of the line, but wisely places them in the background, where they cast a more effective shadow. Neil is wonderfully cast as the doubting Thomas, and Prochnow is his usually sinister self while Carmen gives good Julia Sugarbaker vibes. Easily Carpenter’s best film after Big Trouble in Little China.

The low-budget but highly inventive TICKS feels just as fresh and fun as it did when it was released in 1993. A weekend retreat into the woods for a group of troubled inner city youths goes haywire when they’re attacked by large ticks, mutated from a liquid concoction made by a hippie pot farmer (Clint Howard). It isn’t long until the teens and their harried camp counselors (Rosalind Allen and Peter Scolari) are up to their eyeballs in aggressive tick attacks while also dealing with a couple of dangerous backwoods rednecks (Michael Medeiros and Barry Lynch) and a forest fire!

A good cast (which also includes Seth Green, Alfonso Ribeiro, and Ami Dolenz) gives it their all, and writer Brent V. Friedman smartly injects the screenplay with both comedy and self-referential humor, poking fun at itself and the overall horror genre. The mechanical visual effects by K.N.B. EFX are terrific and rival those found in many bigger budgeted movies of the era. If you’re a fan of practical FX monster flicks then Ticks is for you.

In the Mouth of Madness and Ticks: B+ Feast: C+

REVIEWS: All-American Murder and The American Scream

ALL-AMERICAN MURDER (1991) d: Anson Williams. c: Christopher Walken, Charlie Schlatter, Joanna Cassidy, Josie Bissett, Richard Kind, Mitchell Anderson. The shocking, fiery murder of popular good girl, Tally (Bissett), ignites controversy in a small college town where all fingers point toward transfer student, Artie (Schlatter), who just happens to be a convicted arsonist. Artie pleads he’s being framed, but hard-boiled detective, Decker (Walken), isn’t convinced and gives Artie twenty-four hours to produce evidence of his innocence. Meanwhile, as more murders ensue, Artie discovers Tally may not have been as pure as she appeared. A disjoined slasher/mystery that doesn’t work as either, with an uneven screenplay (by Barry Sandler) drowning in silly, “crackerjack” dialogue that sounds more at home in a bad gangster movie from the ’40s. It’s hard to build much sympathy for Artie, who keeps placing himself in bad situations, and it doesn’t help that Schlatter plays the role as if he’s in a Michael J. Fox rom-com. Walken sleepwalks through his small part but undoubtably adds some professionalism to this otherwise low-rent melodrama. C

THE AMERICAN SCREAM (1988) d: Mitchell Linden. c: Matt Borlenghi, Ponz Maar, Kevin Kaye, Jennifer Darling, Riley Weston, Jeane Sapienza, Blackie Dammett. An awkward but totally unique and enjoyable horror satire of the T&A comedies of the 1980s – especially the National Lampoon films – about a dopey family spending vacation at Wilson Creek, a small country town that seems to be filled with weirdos, hedonists, and killers. While the teens are constantly bombarded by crazy shenanigans, the bubbly parents are too busy wrapped in their own stupidity to notice any wrongdoings, especially Dad (Matt Frewer lookalike Maar), who’s a cross between Homer Simpson and Clark Griswald. The kids eventually discover the town is strangely lacking young people and go undercover as adults to find out what’s happening. There isn’t much of a plot – if you go into this film looking for logic you’ll be disappointed – but the film is more about the fundamentally whacky characters and insidiously oddball touches, including a John Waters-esque scene where a couple accidentally kill their baby and barbecue it. If that’s not your cup of tea, then The American Scream is definitely not for you. B

Why April Fool’s Day is a Cut Above the Rest

Warning: This post contains spoilers!

By the mid-1980s, the so-called “golden age of the slasher” was essentially coming to an end. Jason Voorhees was dead and buried. Michael Myers had been replaced by a mask-making witch. And college dorms had become home to slapstick comedy and not revenge-fueled, knife-wielding maniacs. In the spring of 1986, Paramount – then home to the Friday the 13th series – released April Fool’s Day, a quirky whodunit horror-comedy that not only embraced the slasher but gleefully poked fun at it. It was what the subgenre at the time needed.

The film opens with a group of Vassar College friends heading to their mutual friend’s private island for the weekend. In traditional horror movie format, we’re introduced to each of the characters and their personalities. Chaz (Clayton Rohner) is the local hipster of the group and all-around perv, although he only has eyes for bombshell, Nikki (Deborah Goodrich), who isn’t afraid to explore her wild side in bed. Rob (Ken Olandt) and Kit (Amy Steel) are the all-American preppy, nice couple, although Rob’s happy-go-lucky demeanor slips when Kit discovers he didn’t get into med school. Best buds, Skip (Griffin O’Neal) and Arch (Thomas F. Wilson), love to play practical jokes on their friends, while newbies Nan (Leah Pinsent) and Harvey (Jay Baker) try their best to assimilate into the tight-knit gang; Nan’s bookwormish manner and Harvey’s desperation to be one of the rich kids don’t exactly sit well with the others.

And then there’s Muffy (Deborah Foreman), the Spring Break hostess whose island paradise is complete with sunshine, boats, and a giant country estate we later learn she will inherit. The weekend getaway doesn’t get off to a good start when one of Skip’s pranks goes awry and results in a ferryman getting his face crushed between the ferry and dock. Once on the island things get progressively worse when Skip disappears, leading to a manhunt in the nearby woods that results in Arch getting bumped off by a mystery assailant. It isn’t long until the bodies start to pile up and all fingers point to the disfigured ferryman seeking revenge.

While stuck on the island waiting for the police to arrive, Kit and Rob become amateur sleuths and eventually find out Muffy has a twin sister, Buffy, who was committed to an institution years earlier and has escaped. Is Buffy the one responsible for the murders? Or, is it all some elaborate April Fool’s prank?

Who done it? Turns out there is no killer. It was all a ruse created by Muffy: a big April Fool’s prank that also functioned as a test run for Muffy’s business idea to turn her family’s island estate into a murder mystery getaway. How’s that for a twist?

What makes the movie work so well is its ability to function as both a funny slasher and a mystery thriller. The screenplay (by Danilo Bach) has fun not only with its characters but with its audience by putting you in the same situation. It wants you to figure out the clues and unravel what’s going on. Even the final double-twist is the film saying to viewers, “We’re having fun, and we hope you are!” But the scenario wouldn’t have worked nearly as well had the cast not been as good as it is here. Steel and Olandt make a terrific detective couple, while Wilson and O’Neal genuinely seem like old friends. The entire cast meshes very well together and all of the characters are likable in their own way; as with the characters from Friday the 13th Part 2 or Halloween, you want to be a part of their inner circle.

Unfairly ignored during its initial release, April Fool’s Day has since gained a cult following, thanks largely to its frequent play on late-night TV throughout the late ’80s. Pushed aside by hardcore horror fans for its lack of gore and mask-wearing killer, the movie – recently re-released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory – is now seen as a work of originality and stands high above the assortment of familiar slashers and low-grade sequels that drowned the era.