As Halloween day fast approaches, so does the end of my 2020 retrospective on 80s/80s adjacent horror movies. Coming up now is two cult slasher movies, and three very distinct titles which all begin with “the” in the name.
The Entity (1983)
In 1974, a woman named Doris Bither claimed she was physically and sexually assaulted by an invisible presence. Up until her death in 1999 from pulmonary arrest, she insisted that she was continually molested though less intensely as time wore on.
The Entity at the end claims that the fictional trials of Barbara Hershey’s Carla Moran were based on the actual supernatural trials of Bither. At least it led to a creative and very uncomfortable type of horror viewing.
Living in the L.A. suburbs is a single mother getting back in the dating game, with a man named Jerry who looks 20 years her elder. No judgement from me on age gap relationships so long as it’s legal.
He has a teen or college age son, Billy, that seemed so old that I mistook her for being Carla’s brother or even boyfriend. Two precocious little daughters round out her family.
With music that seems like an updated and more industrial take on the Psycho strings, Carla is suddenly without any warning assaulted and raped by the titular entity. It’s horrible to say the least. Because of it’s entirely invisible nature, no one believes her and eventually she seeks psychiatric help from Dr. Sniederman.
Sniederman, of course, is a man of pure science and reason, who up until the very end where there is no room for honest doubt anymore on his part, thinks Carla’s woes are purely in her head.
As the film goes on and it becomes apparent that the entity is unambiguously a real thing and continually preying on her and anyone else that get in it’s way, it can get frustrating, likely on purpose, to see Sniederman never believing Carla until the pretty bombastic third act climax.
Carla finds more substantive results in a pair of dismissed parapsychologists who upon writing this I discovered are actually a real practice. I imagine the recently departed skeptic and debunker James Randi had some fun with them. The parapsychologists’ success with Carla, especially in the realm of trust, frustrates Sniederman to no ends.
Of course, Sniederman’s stubbornness reinforces a sense of reality to the proceedings. That something genuinely supernatural or the vindication of a pseudoscience is occurring by reflecting how a psychiatrist would actually respond, so long as they weren’t a quack or gullible.
Martin Scorsese once described the Entity as one of the scariest films he’d ever seen. I found it more disturbing than outright scary though I can believe someone certainly being freaked out by the concept.
The danger of rape and/or sexual assault is more commonly a female fear and for good reason. That doesn’t mean I and any other male is exempt from that same peril. Sometimes, the perpetrator in that instance can indeed be female.
What makes the Entity matter more than just a case of examining supernatural rapists is that it can and will be applicable to mundane rapists.
The idea of Carla being disbelieved or played down is pointed most at the supernatural angle, not that there was no rape. At the same time, it can strike a chord in people who have suffered from this crime and those they talk to either not taking it seriously or believing at all.
In recent years, there has been a call, in no small part from the METOO movement, to hold cases of sexual molestation and those that report it in a more objective, willing-to-listen light. In spite of the meteoric fall of those like Harvey Weinstein, it’s still not perfect or good enough.
Now you have to consider the Entity’s meaningful stance in 1983, where it’s not hard to imagine a lot more shit being gotten away with.
Then was the timeframe where now condemned celebrities like Britain’s Jimmy Saville and Bill Cosby were getting away with it. Even if the paranormal stuff is fake, how someone responds and retaliates to this real-life horror and the reception they in turn receive isn’t.
The Hunger (1983)
The first movie directed by the man who brought you Top Gun, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout and a whole lot of OK-at-best action cinema…is a gloomy, gothic vampire movie with considerable LGBT subject matter. And it has David Bowie gradually transforming appearance-wise into Emperor Palpatine, especially the way he looks in Revenge of the Sith.
Adapted from the 1981 novel, The Hunger is a movie that makes vampires suck in a new way. Namely it takes one of the more attractive at-face-value components of vampirism: eternal life, and makes it in time, a miserable, miserable fate.
The Blaylocks are a well to do couple living in Manhattan, who like classical music, the nighttime club scene and oh yes, sucking people’s blood. The movie actually showcases how they get rid of the evidence by having an incinerator in their penthouse. Miriam is played by French actress Catherine Deneuve and John by David Bowie.
In spite of Bowie’s substantial presence in promotional material (probably because it’s David freaking Bowie), he is effectively out of the picture well before the one hour mark. The reason is because he is seemingly aging at a rapid pace in spite of being you know, a vampire.
He first got together with Miriam in the late 18th century and thought he was in for eternal love and other discreet vampire shenanigans. Turns out, within 200 years or so, you start to deteriorate until eventually you don’t die, you just wish you could.
You become the frailest, palest, most unalive thing outside of actually being dead. Your lover then places you in a coffin in the attic, along with all the other lovers. John joins a long list of beloveds that Miriam has had since ancient Egypt. She gets around.
Once Bowie leaves the picture, at least until the insane finale, Miriam immediately becomes drawn to a new paramour, Dr. Sarah Roberts, played by Susan Sarandon. If you thought that Thelma and Louise was the first Sarandon flick to have lesbian undertones, you are sorely mistaken.
It’s not even undertones, Deneuve’s Miriam seduces Sarandon’s Sarah and there is a pretty explicit scene between the two of them that becomes much less titillating at the end once one bites the other’s arm. I have slowly but surely gotten over vaccine shots, but my fear of sharp things piercing my flesh and especially drawing blood works well here in changing the mood from sensual to startling.
In spite of the perfectly grey, murky atmosphere and thought provoking ambiguity of Miriam’s motivation (lust, love or just plain loneliness?), how the movie communicates its story, down to the basic sequence of events can be a trial.
The Avant Garde manner in which Tony Scott directs the movie is not something you would ever imagine the Top Gun maker executing a film like. The ambient use of sound, both in score and even in dialogue can make it hard to place what information is being communicated and sometimes what it even means.
I’m certainly not against interpretation and the dream-like vagueness does add something to a vampire movie, granted, but I would be lying if I didn’t understand the plot better once I read the Wikipedia summary.
The ending is especially confusing. Initially it makes sense on some level what is happening and why it’s happening. There’s even some welcome poetic justice thrown at Miriam. But then an epilogue of sorts confuses what happen immediately beforehand and all of that is aided along by the artsy direction.
Despite my gripes, it certainly counts as a watch and does deliver an unorthodox interpretation of the vampire mythos that will do anything but make you roll your eyes like the sparkling “variety” from Twilight. Hell, sunlight, however foggy and grey, has no effect whatsoever on these vampires. Probably has to do with this kind hailing from sunny Egypt.
Alas, no Bowie singing and dancing like Labyrinth. For those hoping for that here, look elsewhere.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) (Nearly forty years old SPOILERS)
Friday the 13th, the beginning of possibly the archetypal slasher series, began with a twist, actually two. One, the presumed male killer of the first film was actually female, a mentally disturbed mother seeking revenge. Then, the possible reveal that that mother’s son was still alive. Nine sequels, give or take, would confirm the second.
Sleepaway Camp is the other slasher film that is perhaps known more for it’s twist and final moments than anything else, even though the whole movie is a structurally very sound and very dark slasher movie.
It’s pretty apparent early on who the killer is: little Angela Baker. She is the sole survivor of a messed up boating accident six years prior which gets her brother and father killed while swimming. She is adopted by an extremely eccentric woman and together with her adopted cousin Ricky are off to summer camp.
No, that camp is not called Sleepaway Camp. It’s Camp Arawak and I do not know why that’s the case not that it matters really. Angela, seemingly due to PTSD from losing her original family is a severely shy teenager who doesn’t speak until half-way through her time at the camp as she slowly starts to open up.
In spite of constant support from her foul-mouthed but loving cousin and the likely earnest affection from fellow camp member Paul, she is horribly harassed and bullied by most of the Camp’s denizens, often to the point of exceedingly cruelty.
Cracking down on bullying or taking it seriously as a detrimental series of behavior wasn’t exactly in vogue in the 1980s. This goes a long way in understanding why the bullying against Angela seems so stark to modern viewers like myself and why the response by camp counselors and management seems so lax.
Of course, this constant belittlement along with issues inferred and as of yet unknown to the viewer cause Angela to become an off-screen slasher. Due to the height of the first person camera and the shape of the killer’s hands and arms, it’s obvious who’s doing it. But that is not the twist. It couldn’t be a twist if it was revealing what you already pieced together easily.
Brace yourself in case you have not heard about the ending.
So, it’s revealed at the end that once the surviving kid at the beginning was adopted by that same eccentric woman, it wasn’t a girl named Angela. It was a boy named Peter.
Crazy Aunt Martha decided that the traumatized Peter should be a girl instead. After all, she already had a nephew she loved, why not a niece?
So, a combination of witnessing familial tragedy, being forced as a young kid into a gender that was not his own and on top of all that the mostly awful treatment at Camp Arawak, cultivated a vengeful killer.
Yeah, as genuinely shocking as the ending reveal is, especially with that haunting face actress Felissa Rose makes, the subject matter of this plot element is probably a lot harder to swallow today than back in 1983.
Namely, I imagine this film could be interpreted as being on some level, transphobic. Now, to be fair, the film is stating that a kid against his will was forced to conform to being a girl when internally he felt was a boy. From one point of view, this film is showcasing the psychological damage, however exaggerated, of what happens when one is conditioned, by an authority figure in this case, to be untrue to themselves.
On the other hand, and while it is not the only factor in Peter/Angela’s homicide, it could make it seem that a result of gender dysphoria is calculated murder of others. Oftentimes, transgender individuals harm themselves rather than others, mostly from being forced to be what they’re not or being hated upon.
Tragically, in a more realistic scenario, Peter/Angela would probably just commit suicide before the events of the film even occur. Then again, understanding of transgender people in the 80s’ was woefully poor so some forgiveness can be had at people just not knowing back then. This film might have not also been an intentional punch down at trans people anyway.
In spite of the film’s conclusion often overshadowing everything else, not unlike how a certain, more similar than not moment from The Crying Game framed people’s recognition of that movie, there is still more to this movie than just the ending.
For one, it is a well shot, mostly well acted piece of 80s time capsule entertainment, that can also speak to the frustration, turmoil and resentment anyone can possibly have from experiencing, you know, summer camp. Obviously I don’t think positive experiences in summer camp are impossible.
I went on some camping trips in and out of summer while in the cub scouts back when I lived in Georgia. I dare say those occasions along with an awesome trip to a naval museum in Charleston, SC are my fondest memories from a time in my childhood I’m happy to leave behind otherwise. And not because I was bullied, but because it was mostly boring, tedious and often interrupted other things I wanted to do at the time.
But still, Sleepaway Camp, in spite of the gnarly killings in store, also acts I imagine as a look back to how summer camp was like back in the day. A lot of coming of age moments, bad and good, are showcased and it creates an interesting dichotomy to the darker moments in store.
All things considered and in spite of its problematic story elements, there is a reason why Sleepaway Camp is one of the more discussed and remembered slasher movies of the genre’s heyday period. And thankfully, it all does not stem from the horrific final shots.
Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)
Pamela Springsteen, indeed related to a guy you may have heard called Bruce, is Peter “Angela” Baker all grown up and seemingly reformed.
She has had a mountain-load of psychiatric help, was given a sex change to have her transition to her forced upon gender identity and now, she is a cheerful camp counselor at Rolling Hills camp somewhere I think in upstate New York.
Of course, most people at the camp are, somehow, not aware that this Angela is the same Angela that killed several people at Camp Arawak years ago. While Angela can be strict when it comes to enforcing camp rules, she seems like an otherwise well-adjusted person. Of course, she’s not.
Sleepaway Camp II is a solid slasher movie which is more than happy to up the sex, up the drugs and up the kills while framing it as a black comedy that brings welcome self-deprecating attention to the genre.
In spite of being a black comedy that pokes fun at itself, it is arguably darker, sadder and in many ways more messed up than the first movie. That is quite an accomplishment.
Angela and her motivations to renew her killing ways are predicated on commentary and criticism of the slasher genre: namely who often gets killed and why.
Most of the time, the killer kills people who sleep out of wedlock, imbibe in alcohol, drugs and behavior that to put myself in an aristocratic manner, is simply not done. No, good sir, that is most unorthodox. Grumble, grumble, grumble.
Often, the killer’s motivations are not even about that, it’s more subtext and at times unintentional on the creator’s part. John Carpenter and Debra Hill, the makers of the original 1978 Halloween didn’t intend the draconian message that if you imbibe in a taboo thing, you must die by a horrible killer’s hands.
Nevertheless, the concerning convention stuck in spite of killers like Michael and Jason being indifferent to the habits of their targets. Not Angela, though.
No, Angela wants to be the best, most efficient camp counselor ever. A teetotaling absolutist that will not suffer for long anyone acting out in any way with regards to sex, drugs and all that stuff that is near-inevitable to happen one way or another if you’re a teen, especially an 80s’ teen.
Angela’s killings are her own twisted way of keeping the camp ship-shape and are in truth a “justification” to allow her to continue in her bloodlust. Her targets, while fallible human beings, are not nearly as horrible in character as the first movie’s. It makes Angela’s eerily chipper demeanor while “rehabilitating” her fellow campers genuinely unnerving and her target’s fates tragic.
At the same time, it does make this movie much harder to defend on the subject of how it depicts trans people. Again, the reasons for Angela’s murderous madness go beyond her gender/sex confusion, but now that she has had an actual sex change might make this movie appear meaner to an often persecuted demographic than the first.
With all this in mind, Sleepaway Camp II is often seen as the only worthwhile follow-up in the series though some defend the third one and no one defends the fourth which is a shameless, shameless stock footage movie with barely any new film in it.
Sleepaway Camp II is a darkly comic yet great sequel bolstered by that same 80s’ charm and Pamela Springsteen’s outstandingly unhinged performance.
However, for a number of reasons, watch this one with a number of considerations regarding your own taste and understanding of other people and their own different, misunderstood life experiences.
The Beyond (1981)
Lucio Fulci became known to those outside of Europe for his collaboration with the creator of the modern zombie, George Romero. For the Italian release of zombie pioneer Dawn of the Dead, Fulci handled the localization for his country and dubbed it Zombi. He made his own sort-of sequel to Dawn of the Dead that has no relation to Romero’s Living Dead series: Zombi 2.
Zombi 2 is nowadays considered one of the grossest films in the subgenre while otherwise being an alright film for what it is. Fulci late in his career delved into horror and it has made him something of a big name in Italian horror. For many, his masterpiece is The Beyond.
Taking place in a location that was scary enough on its own for a number of reasons: Louisiana, it depicts a former New York model named Liza who has come into possession of a hotel in the middle of the Bayou. Of course, something is terribly off with the place.
Back in 1927, an eccentric artist named Schweick was killed by a lynch mob due to accusations of being into the occult as a warlock. They’re so right, as upon his death, he curses the hotel to bring horror and doom upon anyone who enters it, as it happens to be one of seven gateways to HELL. Is anyone surprised that one of those gateways is in Louisiana? Explains the gators, snakes and why New Orleans native Gambit of the X-Men is so devilishly clever.
So, of course a lot of tell-tale signs that Liza and everyone else should get the hell out( pun intended) occur. A window man falls off the scaffolding upon seeing something spooky and becomes crazed with mutterings of plot foreshadowing.
A plumber has a freak “accident” in the flooded basement and his autopsy at the local hospital causes further strife for his wife and daughter and that my friends is a monumental understatement.
Liza and the hunky Dr. McCabe start investigating and the more they do that the more they seal their fate. The Beyond is a great case of showcasing what I call “inescapable horror”. Mostly relegated to the paranormal/supernatural subgenre, this is a horror story where there is either almost no chance or no chance whatsoever of the main characters overcoming the danger.
No matter how many obstacles Liza and McCabe seem to overcome, the nature of the horror is too powerful and always finds a way to undo any seeming progress they’ve made. For the literary savvy, one big hint is found with the book of Eibon. Eibon was written by Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote it as a companion piece to H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon and is part of the Cthulhu mythos. Though not impossible, you are almost certainly not in for a happy ending in a Lovecraftian story.
The manner of the film, with intentional plot inconsistencies, several characters’ backgrounds and arcs like the mysterious blind woman Emily and a general disarray in plot cohesion is purposeful in making the audience themselves seem trapped like the characters.
Rather than carelessness or laziness, Fulci’s haphazard construction of the plot is meant to ensnare you in the nightmare that slowly reveals itself overtime. It is left ambiguous whether or not Liza or anyone else ever had a chance of escape and where the borders of hell begin and end. By the end, it’s pretty apparent that once the town Liza and McCabe live becomes “abandoned” they are in too deep. Even Silent Hill showed more pity to its visitors, albeit conditionally.
I’m leaving the creepier and more horrific details of the film unspoiled both because it adds to giving you a sense of fresh horror upon watching it for yourself and because there is some prime grade messed up scenes to be had. I’ll say it plainly: if you’re an arachnophobe, skip this one.
I’ll end this section by giving you the amazingly macabre yet catchy main theme of the movie which conveys both a resigned sense of doom yet awe. It’s a danse macabre for a peculiar Italian director’s vision.
For the final portion of my 2020 Halloween Horrorthon, I experience several nightmares for the first time with Mr. Kreuger and another gross masterpiece from David Cronenberg.