My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

Like Vikings setting sail on a murky, mist-shrouded sea, we wade into the fog of 1983, the first year in over a decade without a consensus horror classic. No Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no Alien, no Evil Dead to be found.

It’s tantalizing, in a way, the mysterious path before us.

From the darkness ahead, choices emerge: gory, micro-budget space monster epics from New Jersey … trippy alien invasion flicks from England … weird Nazi monster somethings in a fortress … beloved pets turning on their owners … beloved appliances turning on their owners. Perhaps we’ll come up short if we go looking for another Halloween or The Exorcist, but the allure of discovering personal favorites and unearthing hidden gems is powerful nonetheless.

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

  1. The Deadly Spawn

 

There’s no point making a Top 10 list if you’re going to pander to your audience. Integrity is my calling card. One of them, at least. My other calling card is making melodramatic and hokey declarations about calling cards.

But anyway, after I compiled a comprehensive list of titles to choose from and analyze, I was left with an incontrovertible truth: I adore the crap out of The Deadly Spawn. I’ve made no secret of my love for the aesthetic of low-budget horror flicks. If the filmmakers are talented, imaginative, and passionate, I don’t care if the budget is $10; I’ll probably like the movie.

This fun and gory flick is imbued with an authentic rainy-day atmosphere and a variety of unexpected moments and nasty kills. It also stars a rare non-annoying kid actor (Charles George Hildebrandt), whose character is a misunderstood horror fan, something many of us can relate to.

 

  1. Xtro

 

While we’re on the subject of low-budget, imaginative films, it’s hard to top Xtro.

It’s no surprise, following the success of Alien, that we’d see a bunch of R-rated alien-invasion knock-offs in its wake. But while many transferred the action to terra firma for budgetary reasons, only one featured a monster with its head (and dick) on backwards; a giant, murderous toy soldier; and a dwarf clown with a glowing razorblade yo-yo. All swirling around a poignant family drama in which a mother’s loyalties are torn between the man she once loved and… aw fuck it. Just watch it. It’s as slimy as it is trippy.

 

  1. Videodrome

 

These segues are writing themselves today.

If you think Xtro is trippy, get a load of David Cronenberg’s most perverse, hallucinogenic body-horror tale yet. In the film, TV producer James Woods starts watching a late-night broadcast called Videodrome and soon grows a vagina on his abdomen, in which he stores a bio-mechanical gun. That’s not even the hallucinogenic part.

 

  1. Psycho II

 

If there’s one movie you’d never make a sequel to, it would be Psycho. Why? Because Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is so cinematically perfect that a sequel would be an insult to the art of film itself.

Well, they made a sequel anyway, and you know what? It’s pretty good. Of course, unlike its predecessor, Psycho II is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is a solid horror mystery with cool twists, however, and body count movies rarely feature such multidimensional characters. The ending is a trip too. At worst, this one falls into the category of pleasant surprise.

 

  1. Dead Zone

 

Dang. Two David Cronenberg movies in one year? 1983 does reward the genre fan who digs deep enough.

This film, based the Stephen King novel, is certainly the more “Hollywood” of the Canadian director’s two productions. You get bigger stars and a more mainstream storytelling approach than you do with Videodrome, the latter of which any reasonable fan must admit has limited appeal due to its difficult narrative and perverse imagery. That said, Cronenberg successfully avoids studio glitz with The Dead Zone and keeps the narrative focused on a compelling human drama.

It’s too bad Christopher Walken and Cronenberg never teamed up again. They seem made for each other artistically. Imagine how much better Scanners would have been with Walken in the lead.

 

  1. Mausoleum

 

Here’s another of those low-budget horror flicks that could only have been made in the early 1980s, when the genre was flourishing as never before and kids like me craved cheap, nasty, over-the-top terror. For various reasons that may or may not have something to do with a mausoleum, buxom beauty Bobbie Bresee is transformed into a reptilian demon with killer tits. That should be detail enough for you to agree that Mausoleum is high art.

 

  1. Latidos De Panico

 

Sounds the trumpets; the great Paul Naschy is making his long-awaited return to this blog series. The Spanish horror star had done some solid flicks through the late 1970s and early 80s, but a simultaneous run of well-known genre classics banished him to the listicle dungeon. Well, he’s back.

I’ve said this before, but I don’t know of any actor/filmmaker whose movies better capture the mood of a lurid horror comic book cover. In Latidos De Panico (AKA Panic Beats), Naschy plays a ghostly knight who chases his victims down atop a phantom horse and bludgeons them to death with a military flail. His first victim, pre-credits, is a butt-naked young woman making a not-too-enthusiastic attempt to escape as he emerges after her from a glowing fog bank. Right off the cover of Weird Tales or some such grisly rag, if you ask me.

 

  1. The Hunger

 

David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve play a sexy vampire couple who become immersed in a world that combines 1970s lesbian-vampire erotica with 1980s rock-video cinematography. I don’t know if The Hunger is that substantial of a film, but it’s pretty to look at and stylish to a fault. Captivating when you’re in the mood for a horror that’s elegant and melodramatic. Willem Dafoe completists should take note of his role here as Thug # 2.

 

  1. American Nightmare

 

I debated with myself whether this is a horror film, since it lacks supernatural elements, monsters, aliens, a body count, or a masked killer. The tone is so utterly bleak, however, that it becomes horrifying. The presentation is essentially “a day in the life” of a guy spiraling so far into hopelessness he’s compelled to annihilate not just himself but everything that represents his existence. Features one of the darkest endings you’ll ever see.

 

  1. Christine

 

Since we’re keeping it real today: I don’t love this film. In a stronger year it wouldn’t make my Top 10 list, and I don’t think it measures up to John Carpenter’s previous horror efforts in terms of scares, FX, or memorable moments. That said, it’s well directed and sports gorgeous cinematography. Overall an entertaining watch but a lesser effort from a guy who has delivered some major genre classics.

 

Honorable mention

Today’s honorable mention section is devoted to movies that a lot of people like but which I don’t. As I told you, I shan’t pander by pretending I like things I don’t like. I’ve got to maintain my integrity.

 

Sleepaway Camp

 

To be honest, I don’t get the appeal. The movie is fun in the way average slasher flicks are fun, and Angela is a cool character. Otherwise, the acting’s weak, it’s not scary, there are way too many dudes in half-shirts (“not that there’s anything wrong with it”), and the movie is liberally padded with meaningless scenes of kids hanging out in the mess hall or playing softball. Is it the fucked-up ending that makes it great? Am I missing meaningful subtext? Feel free to elucidate the film’s merits in the comments.

Regardless of my personal view, it’s quite popular, so I would be remiss if I didn’t give it an honorable mention.

 

Twilight Zone – The Movie

 

This film is a slick, watchable production. However, it could have been a great one if they’d picked better stories and gone with a darker tone. John Landis phoned in a bland comic-book-justice bit, and Steven Spielberg went with a treacly remake of an episode that was already overly sentimental. George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment was well done but too easy a choice. Joe Dante’s entry was the most imaginative, if unsatisfying in resolution.

Hollywood rarely gets this kind of effort right. Imagine a directing team of John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg, all near the peak of their artistry at the time, tackling this project instead.

 

The Keep

You got tanks, Nazis, stone fortresses, good actors, a talented director, and a golem-like demon. The imagery is cool, but, for me, the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. At the same time, I would totally understand if this were someone’s top film of 1983. It’s unique, and that’s worth something.

 

House of Long Shadows

 

Oh lordy. A film with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine should have been great, but it falls flat, not unlike earlier attempts at all-star horror like Madhouse and Scream and Scream Again. Star power is seldom enough to make a movie good on its own.

 

Microwave Massacre

 

I’m only including this one because I made reference to it in the intro. I could just as easily have mentioned Cujo or Curtains, both of which are okay and have a bit of a fan following. Neither of them boasts Jackie Vernon, the voice of Frosty the Snowman, however.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1973

With the success of independent, low-budget horrors like Blacula and Count Yorga, Vampire, along with stylish, sexy imports such as Bird with Crystal Plumage doing solid business in the States, it was inevitable Hollywood would want in on the action. Naturally, they mucked it up royally with some expensive shit show nobody went to see. What was it called again?

Okay, so that’s not exactly what happened. What happened is Hollywood made one of the greatest horror films of all time. Go figure.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1973

  1. The Exorcist

I don’t really need to explain this choice, do I?

 

  1. Torso

 

While Dario Argento’s reputation as Italy’s top horror director of the 1970s is well deserved, I argue that Sergio Martino’s output up through 1973 was just as strong if not stronger. His artistic eye was less splashy but perhaps more nuanced. With Torso, however, Martino eschewed the subtleties and went all in with nudity, violence, and gore. What does it say about me that I ranked this film higher than his others?

 

  1. Horror Rises from the Tomb

 

Paul Naschy films are an acquired taste; you either love them or can’t even watch them. If you’re not sure where you stand on the issue, give this one a shot (and be sure to see the unedited version). It’s a bit of a kitchen-sink horror story, with intermittently headless warlocks, zombies, murderers, ghosts, and whatever else seemed appropriately lurid at the moment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of an old horror comic cover.

 

  1. The Wicker Man

 

Hearing a description of this film’s premise might lead the uninitiated to think, “So what?”:

 

A police inspector visits a small island community to investigate a child’s disappearance and runs into opposition from the locals, who seem to be keeping a secret.

 

Yet it’s much more than that. Riveting, sometimes eerie, and unlike any other movie, The Wicker Man does what many of the best psychological horrors do, which is to make you start doubting what you were sure of just moments earlier.

 

  1. The Crazies

 

After George A. Romero’s unsuccessful foray into other genres post Night of the Living Dead, he returned to his bread and butter with The Crazies, a story about a bio-weapon that causes those exposed to become murderous lunatics. Happily for us, Romero’s anti-authoritarian streak was stronger than ever, which resulted in an intense, nihilistic film that offers many layers of meaning. Bleak movies are the ones that stick with you the longest, aren’t they?

 

  1. The Creeping Flesh

 

Much has been written about rival British movie studios Hammer and Amicus, both of which specialized in horror and churned out a high number of both gothic and contemporary fright films. So why are Tigon flicks the ones that keep showing up on my lists?

 

The Creeping Flesh concerns the discovery of a monstrous skeleton by a scientist (Peter Cushing), which his cruel brother (Christopher Lee) wants to steal. Unfortunately for all parties, the skeleton is way less dead than it looks. Despite the familiar cast and direction of Hammer and Amicus regular Freddie Francis, Tigon’s film conjures a uniquely grim and atmospheric vibe and feels more focused than contemporaneous releases from the more well-known production houses mentioned above.

 

  1. Hunchback of the Morgue

 

Yes, I’ve got another Paul Naschy film on my list, and there are more coming. The early 1970s were a prolific time for the Spanish horror star, and many of his top films were released in ’73. The title for this one says everything you need to know about the story. It’s quite gory and lurid, as Naschy-philes have come to expect. The creepy atmosphere is the clincher.

 

  1. The Legend of Hell House

 

Serving as a partial blueprint for later films like Poltergeist and The Conjuring, this movie features a team of paranormal investigators looking into a supposed haunting. Director John Hough was no stranger to horror, having helmed the sexy vampire thriller Twins of Evil two years earlier. But it is charismatic star Roddy McDowall and renowned screenwriter Richard Matheson (Burn, Witch, Burn and The Devil Rides Out) who push this flick into the upper echelon of genre films released that year.

 

  1. The Hanging Woman

 

This Spanish-Italian co-production features all the usual trappings of early 1970s euro-horror: heavy gothic atmosphere, beautiful women, and a story that unfolds at a rather stately pace (i.e., some will find it boring). It’s got plenty of zombie mayhem and a fair amount of gore, however, plus a small role from Paul Naschy, who plays yet another hunchback. Released under at least six titles, the film came into my world in the VHS era as “Return of the Zombies.” Been a fan ever since.

 

  1. Count Dracula’s Great Love

 

On Paul Naschy day, it was either going to be this vampire flick or his werewolf movie (Curse of the Devil) closing out 1973, but I couldn’t justify both. As it stands, 40% of the titles on this list involve Naschy. I need to retain at least a shred of credibility here.

 

Naschy, a one-man horror industry, may not have been a brilliant actor, but he was “all in” every time and might have had more passion than anyone else in the film business. Count Dracula’s Great Love, like most of his movies, follows the same formula of gothic imagery + graphic violence + boobs. Somehow it never seems cynical coming from him.

_______

Honorable Mention

 

Theater of Blood

 

Vincent Price delivers one of his most memorable, over-the-top performances yet as a spurned actor with vengeance on his mind. The film doesn’t quite grab me the way it does other fans, but I included it here because I didn’t want you to think I’m too clueless.

 

Sisters

A disturbed young woman (Margot Kidder) may or may not have a murderous twin sister everyone thought was dead.

 

The trailer for this early Brian De Palma effort suggests a dark and perhaps even profound psychological thriller. In reality it’s rather fluffier than that and turns downright silly in the third act. Still, smart moviegoers can usually spot a burgeoning talent, and De Palma obviously delivered big time a few years later with Carrie and Dressed to Kill.

 

Flesh for Frankenstein

Viewed today, it’s hard to understand why “Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein” carried such notoriety. The film is so blatantly comedic and Udo Kier’s delivery so over-the-top that you have to laugh at the alleged shocks. That said, any movie featuring the line, “To know death, Otto, you have to fuck life in the gall bladder,” deserves some sort of recognition.

4-minute Blu-ray review: Count Dracula’s Great Love

count-draculas-great-love10

Title: Count Dracula’s Great Love

Starring: Paul Naschy & Haydee Politoff

Directed by: Javier Aquirre

Specs: 1973 / Spain / 83 minutes / 1.85:1

Blu-ray release: Vinegar Syndrome, September 27, 2016

The film

Count Dracula’s Great Love is basically a Waldemar Daninsky film with Dracula instead of the Wolf Man, using a familiar Paul Naschy set up: A bevy of beautiful, aristocratic-looking women traveling on a remote country road are forced to seek shelter when their stagecoach is disabled and their horses run off in a panic. In this film, however, it’s not the wealthy recluse Waldemar Daninsky/Wolf Man who offers the hospitality of his gothic estate but rather the wealthy recluse Dr. Wendell Marlow/Dracula offering the hospitality of a former sanitarium that only looks like a gothic estate.

If you’ve seen Hammer’s Dracula, Prince of Darkness, you know what happens next. And, if you know anything about the history of Spanish art, you’ll be aware it’s not known for its restraint. Which is good for fans of exploitation horror cinema, because Count Dracula’s Great Love offers plenty of lurid elements to keep us entertained through most of its 83-minute running time.

Strengths

Plenty of sex and violence, fluid camera work, a gothic setting, and a story that goes in unexpected directions during the final act.

Weaknesses

The same problem with nearly all early 70s Spanish horror films … pacing. A film should accelerate as it draws to a climax. This movie moves forward like your uncle drives; he’ll get there safely but probably could have passed on the right a few times to speed things up. Also, excessive sequences of women wandering around darkened hallways in nightgowns while carrying candelabras. That may be considered a strength, of course, depending on your fetish.

count-draculas-great-love9

Video

If you’ve seen previous iterations of Count Dracula’s Great Love on VHS or DVD, you will be stunned by the rich, warm colors and vivid contrast offered by this Blu-ray. Yeah, it’s grainy like a 70s exploitation flick should be, but that’s part of the appeal. There are a few minor warbles and print scratches within the first couple of minutes, but those quickly clear up. Here and there a few shots look fuzzier than others, likely attributable to the print, not the transfer. Overall, the video quality is quite pleasing and by far the best any of us have experienced with this movie.

count-draculas-great-love17

Audio

I’ve made it known in prior reviews that I have hearing loss and, therefore, am not the guy to discuss the fine points of sound mixing. This Blu-ray is mono anyway. The music and voices were all very present and punchy sounding, and the signal strength seems quite hot, because I had to keep the volume on 3 to avoid waking the neighbors at 1 a.m.

count-draculas-great-love2

Overall

Vinegar Syndrome did a bang-up job putting together a good-quality release with little to no fanfare. Let’s hope they issue more Paul Naschy titles in the future.

Final thought

Paul Naschy is the Tom Cruise of low budget Spanish exploitation horror. His acting ability and the quality of his films may be debatable, but the guy earnestly tried to deliver the goods every time and ensure his fans walked away satisfied.