The Lair of the White Worm (1988) horror comedy… mostly comedy adventure

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Amanda Donohoe as Lady Sylvia Marsh

Imagine, if you will, Doctor Who fighting a snake person with the power of bagpipes. This movie is not trying to be a horror film, it’s an old-school adventure story and if you take it on that level, it’s super fun. It’s based on an original Bram Stoker short story, and the film itself is an homage to swashbuckling serials from the 1930s, with larger than life characters, big accents, and beautiful women in danger. Pure camp. Elevating it, there are some great trippy dream sequences where you go “Oh yeah, he directed Altered States (1980)”. So, altogether, it’s massively entertaining.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot because it’s very simple. There is an ancient town where a local lord once killed a great dragon, the white worm of the title. Now, in the 1980s, there is still one acolyte of the serpent, facing off with the lord’s descendant, James D’Ampton (a smarmy Hugh Grant), and a plucky archaeologist, Angus Flint (a very Scottish Peter Capaldi). Amanda Donohoe dominates as Lady Sylvia Marsh, chewing all the scenery while the other female characters, Eve and Mary Trent (Catherine Oxenberg and Sammi Davis), do a fine job but don’t contribute much (and that’s okay in this genre).

It’s currently on Tubi, but leaving soon, so catch it if you can.

Basket Case (1982) puppet rating: 8.5/10

Do you like puppets? Gross puppets? Consider watching Basket Case (1982). It’s the madcap tale of a young man, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck), and his parasitic twin, Belial (puppet in basket). Separated without consent, the two team up to take revenge on the doctors that tore them apart, Dr. Lifflander (Bill Freeman), Dr. Needleman (Lloyd Pace), and Dr. Kutter (Diana Browne)… who is now a veterinarian. Along the way he meets the sympathetic medical receptionist Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), who falls head over heels for him for no reason apparent to the viewer. All of this takes place in a sleazy, early 1980s New York which is always a good time (think Muppets take Manhattan but icky).

It Came From the '80s] Belial is a Total 'Basket Case' - Bloody Disgusting
Belial, or “BeLyle”, as Tubi subtitled it

There’s even a bit of a weird Canadian trivia for those keeping score: the first evil doctor who is killed, Dr. Lifflander, is played by a writer of Canadian historical fiction, Bill Freeman.

Now. The puppet. Sometimes he’s stop motion. Sometimes he’s a real person’s face in a prosthetic. Sometimes he’s rubber gloves, like it’s filmed from his perspective. But most of the time, he is a hand puppet in a basket. I would argue that the fact he is all of those things is what takes this movie from garbage to glory for most of its run time. The gore effects? Surprisingly competent.

But then… I started getting a bad feeling when he tries to feel up Duane’s raunchy neighbour, Casey (Beverly Bonner). And, finally, there’s no two ways about it, he kills and rapes and Sharon. It’s so very tragic because I really did love that puppet. The film ends when Belial strangles Duane before they both plummet to their deaths. And because the world is a terrible place there are sequels. Sequels which I don’t think I’ll watch.

What is Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988)?

What is this movie? Is it post-apocalyptic? Yes. Is it a sex comedy? Yes. Seriously… with nudity? Yes. Does it star a Canadian wrestler? Yes. Are there frog monsters? Yes… with varying degrees of “special” in the effects.

It is a bizarre fever dream. It’s the future. A hilariously deadpan intro explains that nuclear war has decimated the earth’s population and left many infertile. The army is now replaced by the female-led, pink-blazoned MedTech, who seek out fertile men and women to repopulate the country. Our female lead from MedTech, Spangle (Sandahl Bergman, no relation to Ingmar), is on a mission to get fertile Sam Hellman (Roddy Piper, looking like a glazed ham) out of jail for a possible rape to rescue and impregnate some fertile women held captive by frog monsters, because… nuclear mutations? Were they people who became frogs or frogs who became people, who knows. Is Hellman a rapist? Charges withdrawn. There are gunfights, there is a frog saloon, there is a crusty uranium prospector, there are scantily clad women and a love story. It’s hilarious and truly strange. There’s even a weirdly feminist element to the plot, as the MedTech women are fighting war-mongering with… sex?

Reviews for this film sit around 50% on IMDB, with most reviews sitting around the middle, and this honestly surprised me because I thought people would definitely have strong feelings on such a mad creation. Putting it on a horror/genre streaming service like Shudder even seemed like an odd fit, but the film defies categorisation. I loved it. It was all over the map in the best possible way, I genuinely never knew what was coming next and I did not care. There are explosives strapped to a guy’s junk controlled by earrings. There is a frog stripper. There is a frog king with three penises. But, above all, it is competently shot. The camera work and lighting looks good. Some of the frog effects are great, except the background toadies (see what I did there?). There was love put into it. You should see it if you can.

 

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

The Slumber Party Massacre (1982) is overall, pretty good. Or maybe I was biased after watching Sleepaway Camp II and III (which have many more problems than just transphobia). The plot is basically that high school girls are having a sleepover and there is an escaped, insane killer on the loose. Obviously, these two worlds must meet. Rather than a traditional knife-wielding slasher, this killer favours a drill (which he still somehow uses to slash people). The effects are pretty shaky, but about what to expect for the era. I liked the drill as a killing gimmick, but it wasn’t used in very inventive ways. It’s a bit weird for the genre that the killer is revealed in full daylight early in the film. No build-up, just “hey look at that guy with a big drill”. There’s another red herring guy introduced… except we know it’s not him, as we’ve already seen the killer. Similarly, one girl, Trish, is introduced as the lead, but we follow another girl parallel to the main story, Valerie, who winds up as more of a protagonist. Weird stuff, structure-wise.

It’s interesting to see a horror film written and directed by women, and there are little moments that stand out for portraying the relationships of women in a more nuanced way than expected; like Valerie and her sister, Courtney, who bicker realistically. I noticed that (other than one big meathead) the male protagonists were thin, weedy-looking dudes; smaller and less athletic than the heroines, seen playing basketball in the beginning.  Legend has it, the script was originally written as a parody, only to be picked up and produced as another generic slasher. The final showdown even sees our lead girl, Valerie, castrate the killer’s phallic drill! It would have been intriguing to see a full parody, but I guess you can’t have everything. Maybe someone will reboot the franchise?

The female leads all give fairly natural performances and portray friendship in an interesting way for the era. Okay, yeah… there are some nice, gratuitous boob shots, but at least they spoke like actual people and didn’t fall into the very generic bad girl/bob

good girl/dumb girl categories. As in Carrie, there is a sympathetic woman gym coach… wonder what might happen to her.

Also, and it’s probably because of the jean jacket and grey hair, but I just couldn’t get over how much the killer looked like Bob from Twin Peaks. If anything, that added to the creepiness. Altogether, though, this film was pretty watchable and definitely better than some of my recent choices. I’m looking at you, Angela Baker… but that’s a tale for another time.

Colonialism, Cannibal Holocaust (1980), and Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is a legend in shocking schlock. When describing it on Red Letter Media, the summary was that no one should see it. So, naturally, when I got a subscription to Shudder… I had to see it.

The frame narrative is that an new expedition has been sent to rescue a failed expedition, recovering their film canisters. It’s kind of cool as uncut footage from the first expedition is watched by the second, as it is cut for a TV special. The effects for human corpses are not terribly convincing, with animal organs and meat draped on plastic skeletons. Then there is the ritual abuse of women, designed to titillate the audience with female nudity but only in the context of violence, which is uncomfortable to watch but not unexpected. The portrayal of indigenous tribes is about what you’d expect: tree people (Yanumamo) are painted white, the swamp people (Shamitari) black, both are cannibals and rapists. The other tribe we meet, the “Yacumo” are wordless and impressed by simple technology, like flick knives and lighters. But the film pretends to turn expectations on its head as the first expedition is shown abusing the seemingly simple Yacumo, justifying it by saying its the rule of the jungle, “the daily struggle of the strong overcoming the weak”, as the protagonist puts it.

I get it, the white people are monsters, but the portrayal replicates historic abuses with a new generation and the indigenous tribes are made to respond by inflicting the same violence received (sort of a revenge motif). Making indigenous people chow down on raw meat and simulate rape is degrading abuse by any measure. But what is, oddly, really shocking is the abuse of animals. Early on, there is a leering sequence where a small rodent is stabbed, screaming on knife for several minutes, another where they hack at a turtle for what feels like an eternity. It’s genuinely awful, as you know it’s not fake and their lives are taken slowly, and clumsily to maximise screen time. After watching such horrific animal abuse, I was already okay with the idea the expedition would all die before knowing how they treated humans. I guess the justification for seeing this is man’s inhumanity to man etc. but others have done it in a more clever, less exploitative way. It’s crazy to see how many other films this director made. So, why do people defend the right to see it? Because the revenge angle makes all the preceding violence okay? Because it’s an early example of found footage film? I honestly can’t agree.

Fitzcarraldo (1982), is at the other end of the spectrum, with lovely natives ready to work for white men. It is the story of a wild-eyed eccentric, Fitzcarraldo (real-life horror show Klaus Kinski), who is charmingly obsessed with opera and decides to drag a boat over a mountain to expand a rubber empire. To do so, he conscripts a tribe identified as the Jívaro. In this story, the supposedly dangerous cannibalistic tribe is instead curious and childlike. They make a pact to help Fitzcarraldo for no apparent reason, even though they are consistently physically abused and some die. It is a hard watch because, in the end, the film just repeats the pattern of abuse that indigenous people suffered under in colonial times by forcing tribal members to repeat the same kind of hard labour in 1980. But at least there’s an opera-loving pig who sits on a red upholstered chair, I guess. It is interesting to consider the film in the larger context of Werner Herzog’s work, as he moved exclusively into documentaries after this earlier narrative work, filming indigenous groups more on their own terms and telling their stories with less interference.

At the end of the day, both films are about exploitation and replicate colonial structures of power over indigenous groups, and this can’t be ignored when talking about them.

Horror Ideology: They Live (1988) and Society (1989)

No one can doubt that 80s nostalgia is on the rise these days, especially this year; in new ways like Stranger Things 3 and Glow, or in re-vamps like Child’s Play and period pieces like It. The weird thing about it to me is the extent to which the era is glorified, unselfconsciously and without criticism. This was an era that spawned legitimate fears, like the repression of the AIDS crisis and art censorship in the USA under Reagan and the fear of fascism in the recession-era Thatcher regime in the UK. Instead, we get loving imagery of malls and carefully-curated costumes (with oh so many scrunchies). Much like the recent zombie craze, these feel increasingly like empty exercises in visual fetishism.

If we return back to the era itself, we can see savage social criticism in horror movies and now, when we reduce things down to heavy-handed 80s visuals for laughs, we lose the sense of the times. Heck, even Chopping Mall (1986) has more of a critique. As it happens, my favourite local theatre was showing Society (1989), presented by Rue Morgue, which I had never seen and had a lot of buzz as an openly anti-capitalist piece. I first became interested when it was mentioned in passing on Red Letter Media, which basically said to go see it without any preparation.

Many squishy noises ensue.

Of course, having to convince my partner to go, I needed supporting evidence (if you want to follow RLM’s advice, however, I see no problem with that). Noted critic Mark Kermode provided this, describing it as “A cult favourite amongst the horror cognoscenti, Yuzna’s directorial debut boasted eye popping rubbery mutations courtesy of an eccentric Japanese FX whizz who went by the somewhat self-explanatory name of ‘Screaming Mad George'” (p. 92, The Good The Bad and The Multiplex). Society is, essentially an FX masterpiece which still holds up to modern scrutiny. The social commentary is obvious, the subtext Freudian, and the acting horrible. Upper classes are bad, sexy, and gross. Right out of the gate, we know that the grotesquerie of the film is real. It’s disappointing, really, because if this idea were developed slowly as a mental breakdown in the protagonist it might have been an interesting film. Nope. Instead, we see a quivering mass of copulating flesh in the opening credits. Also, it’s framed up as a comedy, with flat comedy music cues, odd editing, and bizarre performances. As a result, this is a disgusting, sometimes unintentionally funny, film that encapsulates a society ill at ease with sexuality and a culture of excess. Still, it has some memorable imagery.

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A piece of subtle symbolism in this film.

Along the same lines, we have They Live (1988), a middle-period John Carpenter film, before the 90s seemed to burn him out creatively. This film is arguably lesser-known, as compared to more-beloved blockbuster/cult features like Escape From New York (1981) or The Thing (1982). I was first exposed to this film in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012), in the form of over-explained clips. It is a testament to the film’s own charms that I sought it out to watch in full. Carpenter take a basic, paranoid we-are-secretly-being-invaded-by-aliens plot, and jazzes it up with the idea that they are intentionally poisoning our culture, and the dominant 80s culture is really theirs. There is, of course, a valiant underclass fighting them in secret. Through the rather obvious gimmick of special sunglasses, the hero sees the truth. We see gross skull monsters in high 80s fashion, selling out the Earth to invaders bent on destruction. Again, the social commentary is very much on-the-nose, but the protagonist remains iconic.

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In closing, I want you to think about how 80s nostalgia can be harmful. It de-fangs a complicated era that prized ostentatious wealth and suppressed anyone who disagreed with those in power. It was an era of fear, when the nuclear threat remained palpable and increasing censorship was repressing sexuality and dissenting voices. Both of these films imagine an external threat, and draw on the horror of inhuman bodies living off of our culture like parasites to examine the increasing divisions of class. In all of its silly 80s trappings, what does Stranger Things have to say about 80s culture OR about our culture today? I would argue that it speaks to a culture artistically bankrupt, desperate to mine the resources another time period and capitalize on nostalgia. When not making direct remakes, our most popular media is still all about an imaginary past which is reduced to visual cues and easy to laugh at. Scrunchies for everybody; we’re doomed.

Deadly malls: Dawn of the Dead (1978), Chopping Mall (1986), Elves (1989)

The shopping mall is an obvious and long-standing embodiment of commercialism, subject to critique. As such, it’s hardly surprising that the mall is also a popular site for horror films. Although… this may also come down to its appeal as a cheap nighttime location to shoot a film. I have recently watched a few flicks set in malls, but each has its own reason to be set there.

Dawn of the Dead (1978), more happy shoppers

First up, Dawn of the Dead (1978): This horror classic sets zombies up as the ideal consumer; to paraphrase: they don’t know why they have come here, they just know that this is where they want to be. A clear indictment of mall-culture, this film mixes horror with humour. This movie stands up quite well.

Chopping Mall (1986), glossy 80s tech

Second, Chopping Mall (1986): This B-grade horror follows all of the clichés of the 80s horror pastiche. Starting with a bizarre opening montage exploring the mall in all of its glory, including a beauty pageant, this film doesn’t really seem to have anything to say. The mall is a place for young people to work and play. Cute killer robots stalk attractive young people. Only the virgins shall survive! This movie is bland and uninspired.

Elves (1989), the war on Christmas

Finally, Elves (1989): This tasteless monstrosity of a movie clearly uses the mall as nothing more than a cheap setting for a grotesque plot involving Nazis, incest, and one elf (no other elves in sight) as well as a homeless mall Santa. Imagining that there is some relevance to Christmas and the mall setting is giving this film too much credit; the mall is just an empty vacuum for characters to be lined up and killed, Christmastime a gimmick that never really makes sense. The tone of this movie is all over the map, but taken altogether it’s just unpleasant to watch. It was a real dud that I had hoped would go well with our gingerbread house making.

This selection of films, by chance, also seems to reflect shifting attitudes towards the mall itself. It has gone back and forth from a dangerous opiate to the people, as seen in early films like Dawn of the Dead (1978) and later films like They Live (1988), to nothing more than a regular blight on the landscape of modern life; another empty space. With e-commerce and boutique shopping now the norm, the mall languishes as a monument to another era, populated by discount shopping and bad food.

As we have largely moved on from the mall as a culture, these films become less relatable to audiences, but they remain an interesting time-capsule for our fears.

Hallowe’en Viewing Suggestions

Okay, so Hallowe’en is on its way. Maybe you’re planning a party, maybe you’re thinking about what horror movies you should watch leading up to the big day in general.

Sure, you could watch 3 flicks from the same property like Evil Dead, or Halloween, George A. Romero’s zombies… but horror movies spawn a lot of sequels of varying quality (I’m talking to you, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977)).

Instead, I’ve created a list of possible movie-combos based on themes. I hope you like them, and maybe they will give you some new ideas.

1. FUNNY (but not for kids)

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Night of the Demons

These are some (sometimes unintentional) comedy-horrors that make for good popcorn-eating, drinking-game-playing, party movies, but still have moments that might creep people out.

Night of the Demons (1988) The weird kid decides to have a Hallowe’en party at the local haunted house. Things get really scary. Lipstick, ladies?

The Evil Dead (1981), Evil Dead II (1987) Evil deadites possess the living (and the woods themselves) in an isolated cabin. These are the films that made Sam Raimi’s career and his eccentric camera work, paired with Bruce Campbell’s off-the-wall performance make these a mainstay of Hallowe’en programming everywhere.

The Return of the Living Dead (1985) An homage to the George A. Romero films, this is a new take on his zombies that pits a bunch of no-good-punks against government-produced zombies.

Re-Animator (1985) A sort-of H.P. Lovecraft story, with the best mad scientist I’ve seen on film.

Dead Alive AKA Braindead (1992) Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings) was clearly inspired by Raimi. He made a low-budget horror film with some great props and crazed ideas. You may never look at a lawnmower the same way again.

There are many more self-aware horror-comedies now. I will list some, but they wink at the audience pretty broadly: Lake Placid (1999), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Slither (2006), Drag me to Hell (2009), Zombieland (2009), What We Do in the Shadows (2014), Get Out (2017).

 

2. BODY HORROR

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Dead Ringers

This is the opposite end of the spectrum from above, while there are some funny elements, there are genuine gross-out points here. I have given almost no information so you can get the full experience.

Dead Ringers (1988) Jeremy Irons is twin gynecologists.

Scanners (1981) One of the most iconic explosions, ever.

The Thing (1982) Kurt Russel is part of a team in an Antarctic scientific outpost and they are under attack.

The Fly (1986) Jeff Goldblum is a scientist working on teleportation.

From Beyond (1986) Barbara Crampton is a psychologist trying to understand one patient’s madness.

 

3. REALLY CREEPY

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Martin

Martin (1978) This movie is ambivalent about whether Martin is or is not a vampire. It makes for an interesting watch.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) A classic for a reason, this movie is all about paranoia.

28 Days Later (2002) Kind of a big deal when it came out, this movie brought us the “fast zombie” and really got into living through the zombie apocalypse.

It Follows (2014) Gets by more on creep-factor than content, per se, but really stuck with me.

It Comes at Night (2017) More upsetting emotionally than anything else. Not a creature feature.

 

4. EVIL, MAGICAL GIRLS

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Phenomena

As I’ve discussed in other posts, this is really its own category of horror films. Girls are often used as the site of societal fears.

Phenomena (1985) An often-overlooked Argento film, in which a girl has an unusual bond with insects.

The Exorcist (1973) An obvious choice, but it still holds up pretty well, blurring the lines between psychopathy and evil.

Carrie (1976) Another obvious choice, but it remains a chilling portrait of teenage cruelty.

Let the Right One In (2008) A new take on young vampires.

The Witch (2015) A new take on the psychology of witchcraft.

Hereditary (2018) Although my husband maintains that this was “a dark comedy”, I found it really got under my skin. It works both as a metaphor and a literal story, so it’s pretty neat.

 

5. STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE

Image result for Mandy 2018 filmMandy (2018) This movie is all about looks, and I’m fine with that; it’s visual storytelling.

White Zombie (1932) I would be remiss not to include a Lugosi film, and this one is more interesting to look at than some of his other ventures, while not noteworthy for its plot.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) If you can get over Keanu’s attempt at a British accent… well, you can’t, but this movie is sexy and super cool to look at.

Sleepy Hollow (1999) A re-telling of the horror classic with sets to die for (ah, puns).

Crimson Peak (2015) A Gothic-with-a-capital-G film all about ambiance and colour.

 

6. THE OBVIOUS CHOICES

These are all classics for a reason. You can’t mess with Psycho (1960), The Omen (1976), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Halloween (1978), The Shining (1980), An American Werewolf in London (1982), Silence of the Lambs (1991), or Candyman (1992) but even I get burnt-out on the classics after a while.

 

7. JUST SKIP IT

These are some of the supposed classics and game-changers that left me unmoved or felt too much “of an era” to remain relevant: Suspiria (1977), Poltergeist (1982), The Hunger (1983), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Hellraiser (1987), Tremors (1990), Scream (1996), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Saw (2004), The Descent (2005), Paranormal Activity (2007), Sinister (2012), The Conjuring (2013), Antibirth (2016), Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016), It (2017), A Quiet Place (2018).

 

8. HONOURABLE MENTIONS

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Pet Sematary

These don’t quite fit the categories that I defined, but are worth watching in general:

Pet Sematary (1989) Great film, sequel not wanted.

The Others (2001) Ghosts!

Shadow of the Vampire (2000) A fictitious look at filming on the set of Nosferatu (1922)

Mama (2013) Sort of creepy kids and ghosts.

The Babadook (2014) Worth the hype.

Bone Tomahawk (2015) Sort of a Western, but also horror.

The Ritual (2017) A creature feature, but cooler than it sounds.

Annihilation (2018) Although the ending left me a bit dissatisfied, this sci-fi horror is inventive visually.

 

9. KID STUFF

Young Frankenstein (1974) I mean… I saw it as a kid despite adult situations.

Ghostbusters (1984)

Gremlins (1984)

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Beetlejuice (1988) I mean… I saw it as a kid despite adult situations.

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Corpse Bride (2005)

Coraline (2009)

Paranorman (2012)

Krampus (2015)

 

Any viewing suggestions that I missed? Please post a comment.