The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) movie poster

director Penelope Spheeris
viewed: 10/04/2015

On Friday, I noticed that Fandor had added a number of great movies to their selection, things I was keen to see, like Things (1989) and Penelope Spheeris’s entire Decline of Western Civilization series of films.  Fandor, I’m digging it!

Of the three films, the only one I had ever seen was the first, The Decline of Western Civilization.  I may have seen parts of the second film, but I definitely have still not yet seen the third one though I remember when it first came out and I’ve been waiting for it to become available for years.  It was only earlier this year that Spheeris had the trilogy released on a DVD box set.  So you can know that I’ll be watching the latter two toot sweet.

While I’ve never seen the other films, I’ve actually seen this one multiple times, most recently having a version dubbed on VHS.  I’ve also watched the X and Fear segments many times on YouTube.  So, though it’s been over a decade since I last watched it in full, I am quite familiar with it, as I am with the later X documentary X: The Unheard Music (1986) (which is also available on Fandor, by the way.)

I first saw Decline back in the mid-1980’s and at the time probably liked the Black Flag, Circle Jerks, and Fear segments the most.  I was into hardcore punk and the only thing that I really didn’t like was that the movie was old (probably 4 or 5 years old at the time).  I was into bands that were happening in the “now” of then, and by then, X was a much more commercial prospect.  I liked their music okay, but got much more into it as I got older.

For more than 25 years, X has been my favorite band, so I’ve watched this and appreciated it for seeing them in their prime, both onstage and off.  Watching Darby Crash crash everything, knowing that he was dead within a year or so of this movie’s filming, had different points of interest and curiosity.  I’ve gotten into The Germs over the years, but he’s such a hot mess, it’s hard not seeing the end coming sooner.

Overall, the film is an amazing glimpse into the culture and scene of Los Angeles punk at its red-hot best in the late 1970’s.  You only wonder why this band or that band wasn’t included, so many great ones aren’t there.  And a couple lesser bands made the cut.  The Fear sequence has some rather appalling homophobic humor in it, which is too bad because the way they are baiting their audience is otherwise pretty hilarious.

I watched the film with my 11 year old daughter and just turned 14 year old son.  My son is getting into music and I thought he would be interested.  I wanted to show my daughter X.  She hears me talk about them being my favorite band and asks questions.

What did the kids think of the movie?  I don’t know.  It’s 35 years old, and as much as it captures some greatness, it also captures some inanity, some from the young kids Spheeris interviews, some from the bands in their own interviews, some just from the bands in general.

Still, it’s a remarkable artifact.

The Gate (1987)

The Gate (1987) movie poster

director Tibor Takács
viewed: 10/03/2015

Oddly, all I think I could have told you about The Gate before this last weekend was that I remembered seeing it and remembered liking it.  Little sometimes stop-motion/sometimes live-action demons?  Okay…  Maybe I remembered that.  Nothing else, just positive vibes.

After recently watching Tibor Takács’s later film, I, Madman (1988) and enjoying it, it seemed like a prime time to re-visit this one, especially since many others I know and admire also liked it.  And being a PG-13 1980’s classic, it seemed like a good one to use to kick off our Halloween season with the kids.

It begins with a strange dream sequence in which a young boy (none other than a very young Stephen Dorff!) dreams of a big tree falling over in his backyard (along with a bunch of other freaky stuff.)  Turns out the resultant hole is a gateway to another dimension, which between him and his best buddy Terry (a terrific Louis Tripp), they accidentally help open up (while digging for geodes in the hole.)

What’s really one of the great things about The Gate is that it’s a film about kids that actually uses real kids to star in.  It’s an almost lost art these days, populating films about teenagers with twentysomethings.  Dorff is good, but Tripp is just like a kid you would have known growing up, nerdy, a little angry, and into a devil-worshiping metal band that died together in a plane crash.  And then there is Dorff’s older sister, Al (Christa Denton — also great), looking after her little brother while trying to navigate the world of teendom, boys, and giving up model rockets and kid stuff.  The dynamic is beautifully toned and gives the action a grounding in sincerity.

Which is good because the story is nutty.  A bunch of little demons start breaking through, leading eventually to a resurrected corpse of a handyman, and a gigantic stop-motion demon from the pit.

While it’s not a masterpiece, it is a remarkable and fun late Eighties dollop of PG-13 adventure, sparkling throughout with unusual elements and nods at those hot topics of the day, like demonic metal bands and playing LP’s backwards to understand how to dispel said demons.

The kids both enjoyed it pretty well.  I think they thought it would be scarier.  I didn’t bother telling them that this was PG-13 and that probably nobody would end up dying.  Not even the family dog.

Things (1989)

Things (1989) DVD coverdirector Andrew Jordan


Things (1989) started percolating on my horizons in a number of different contexts. Independently produced horror has a wonderful tradition, and Things pays tribute to films such as George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (1981), other almost DIY productions that became cinema legends. Released as part of the great “direct to video” deluge of the late 1980’s-early 1990’s, made obscure by its independent nature, I’d not heard of it until seeing it culled in lists on the subject. But also, it finds its way to me via another list that has tantalized and entertained, Wikipedia’s List of “Films considered the worst”.

It’s obscurity and unavailability was suddenly evaporated by Fandor, who just added it to their wonderful cult film section along with a couple other formerly “video only” flicks. Hooray and kudos to Fandor, you made my day!

Nothing could really prepare one for Things. It transcends the “so bad it’s good” level of badness and moves into a realm of outsider art and surrealism in its mixture of naivité and outre weirdness. It’s so far out that it’s utterly and completely brilliant.

It’s not unlike watching a film by Mark Borchardt and Mike Schank, the subjects of Chris Smith’s hilarious documentary of would-be filmmakers, American Movie (1999). Only this is a decade earlier and in this case: Canadian (not that Wisconsin is all that far away in both physical space and cultural mores.)

Frankly, I don’t feel that I could take this all in in a single viewing. It’s so amazing and “out there”. I have a hard time assigning a “star ranking” to the film because it’s either 1 star or maybe it’s 5 stars. Maybe it’s both. I need to watch this again.

Cannibal Terror (1981)

Cannibal Terror (1981) movie poster

director Alain Deruelle
viewed: 10/02/2015

This has got to be the Ed Wood of cannibal movies.  And by that, I mean the absolute worst cannibal film ever made.

Its badness can only be described as either epic or sublime or both.  How this movie hasn’t shown up on more lists of “worst movies ever made” I don’t know.  I haven’t seen every cannibal film ever made but I’m willing to bet this is in the running for the worst.  Though, it seems that the film shares some sequences and elements with Jess Franco’s Mondo Cannibale (1980) and so perhaps that film offers some promise of insane hilarity.

Tremendously bad, tremendously, wonderfully bad.

The cannibals look like they were recruited from the local Guitar Center or local dive bar and offered weed for their performances.  Painted with make-up from a drug store at Halloween, dancing at times like they’re desperately waiting for the bathroom, and showing less motivation than their macaw co-stars, they reflect verity on every other depiction of cannibals in every other film on the subject.

Mind = blown.

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

Cannibal Ferox (1981) movie poster

director Umberto Lenzi
viewed: 09/30/2015

Though director Umberto Lenzi made the film that started the cannibal exploitation movie genre with The Man from Deep River (1972)  and Eaten Alive! (1980) (neither of which have I seen), his notorious “video nasty”, 1981’s Cannibal Ferox (a.k.a. Make Them Die Slowly!) seems very much a poor man’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980).  Cannibal Ferox is often cited right next to Cannibal Holocaust as the most outrageous and noteworthy of the genre, and maybe rightly so, but it lacks a lot in comparison.

Unlike Cannibal Holocaust, there is no “film within a film”, no “faux found footage”, but there is a team of researchers from New York City who venture into the unknown jungles of South America in search of truths about cannibalism for university investigation.  In Ferox, though, this is a small group, two women and a man, who stumble upon another pair of Americans who’ve just encountered cannibals and are trying to make a hasty escape.  It turns out that one of the men is a real sadist, who finds in one of the women a willing accomplice.  And that while there is cannibalism, the real monsters are the “civilized” ones who come to the jungle seeking heinous paganism.

Like Holocaust, there are images of real violence to native animals including a large river turtle (who is actually dispatched quickly with a machete) and more disturbingly a strange rodent-like creature who is tied to a stake and then screamingly crushed by a massive snake.  The latter moment is pretty hard to watch, even for someone relatively inured to things.  As in Holocaust, these scenes of real violence accentuate the faked violence against humans, contrasting the real with the pretend.  It’s less effective here, however.

I’d always been curious about Ferox, and as I’ve been knocking off a few “video nasties” as I have been since watching the documentary on the subject, it seemed worth queuing up.  I may work my way through a few more of these, the only way to develop real perspective on the genre.

Slugs (1988)

Slugs (1988) movie poster

director Juan Piquer Simón
viewed: 09/29/2015

Since I write about every feature film that I see and I’ve written about over 2,000 movies, I guess it’s fair to say that it’s not often that I don’t know what to say about a film.

Slugs is a cult favorite of many.  It’s killer slugs.  It’s fully in the “so bad it’s great” type of bad horror film.  It’s gory, bizarre, with lots of really bad acting.

What can I say?  It’s great.

Frogs (1972)

Frogs (1972) movie poster

director George McCowan
viewed: 09/29/2015

“It’s the day that Nature strikes back!”  Indeed.

Frogs is a notorious example of a “natural horror film” or environmental revenge horror.  The notoriety is for taking a very unscary, unlethal animal and promising true terror, notoriety for hilarious lameness.

Sure, frogs aren’t inherently scary.  But the funny thing about Frogs is what it does have going for it.  The cast includes the terrific Ray Milland, here older and in a wheelchair, still the best actor on the screen.  It features a young and hunky Sam Elliott, and solid B-list actresses Joan Van Ark and Judy Pace.  The parts of the film that work are the parts that are usually missing from horror films, the rather solid establishing of the rich Southern family on their plantation-like island home.  Where the film fails is in its death scenes and overall general concept.

The frogs aren’t even really the main monsters.  There is death by lizard, by snake, by alligator, by snapping turtle, even by Spanish moss.  Why frogs get top billing?  Are they the commanders in chief of nature?

A memory was triggered about another horror film with a frog in its center, 1953’s The Maze, which I caught several times as a child, with recurring disappointment.  Somehow, still, I have to think that the monster in The Maze was a little more satisfying than the critters in Frogs.  But it’s also interesting that despite failing at the part of a horror film that usually redeems a bad horror film, Frogs has a few qualities lifting from abject lameness.

The Cannibal Man (1972)

The Cannibal Man (1972) movie poster

director Eloy de la Iglesia
viewed: 09/27/2015

It’s interesting to consider that the movies that got dubbed as “video nasties” by the British Director of Public Prosecutions were in some part selected because of the video cover art and not necessarily the content within.  I’ve been perusing a few of the films that I hadn’t seen before since watching a documentary on the topic, Video Nasties: Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (2010), and it’s been an eye-opening sludge through the virtual video stores of the early 1980’s, brimmed with dubious films from as much as a decade earlier.

Eloy de la Iglesia’s The Cannibal Man is a curious case of a film.  For one, there is no cannibalism in it. Its Spanish title, La Semana del asesino, “The Week of the Killer”, is closer to accurate.  While assuredly bloody with both some gruesome effects and scenes from a real-life abattoir, it’s much more psychological of a horror film, almost a male version of Repulsion (1965), or maybe more specifically a closeted gay man’s version of Repulsion.

Marcos (Vicente Parra) lives like a squatter in the poorer slum of his city, works blandly in a slaughterhouse, and seems a semi-normal nice guy.  But one night, on a date with the young woman from a wealthy family, he accidentally kills a cab driver in a dispute, and then his life moves off the rails.  There is a class issue in dispute, but even more significantly, he meets a young man with whom he develops a strong homoerotic relationship with.  Now, he’s forced to cover his crimes with more bloodshed, while repressing himself in ways both clear and unclear.

It’s been suggested that this film had a political agenda, a critique of life under the Franco regime.  I can’t personally contextualize it that far, but the homoerotic relationship is quite plainly spelled out.  It’s interesting how at the end, it is this relationship that compels Marcos to turn himself in rather than to kill his would-be lover or commit to him.  Actually, I’d have to say that there might be a variety of ways to interpret these aspects of the ending, though I don’t know what else to pull from it at this point.

Less of a shocker and more of a complex moral and emotional film, quite surprising in its way.  Not exactly what one thinks of when one thinks of “video nasties” whether or not someone got a meat cleaver to the face or not or buckets of cow blood stream freely throughout.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) movie poster

director Philip Kaufman
viewed: 09/27/2015

It’s tempting to think that every generation gets its own Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Though it’s really this version of the film that even brought that into being, the first re-make of the original adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1955 novel “The Body Snatchers”.  The 1956 film by Don Siegel, echoed explicitly here in Philip Kaufman’s re-make, loaded with Red Scare paranoia of one kind or another was certainly a thing of the 1950’s.  But what is the working metaphor here, in the late 1970’s?

Whatever the subtext, Kaufman’s film is a terrific horror tale, developing the scares and paranoias through a subtly building freak-out where the regular people are getting replaced with vegetable doppelgangers, lacking emotion, but able to accusingly point and howl menacingly as all get out.

The film stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams, features a cruel pop-psychiatrist Leonard Nimoy, a young Jeff Goldblum and an always evocative Veronica Cartwright.  And, perhaps notable as well, a damp and gray late 1970’s San Francisco, whose muted exteriors are not the stuff of postcards but of mundane nightmares.  Vividly captured as well.

Kevin McCarthy, star of the 1956 film and Don Siegel, director of that classic, both appear in brief cameos, McCarthy’s as an almost continuum of where the older film left him in 1956 suddenly still freaking out on cars threatening the doom of “They’re coming!  They’re coming!” like that was all he’d been doing for 22 years.  Siegel interestingly has joined the dark side as a cabbie with ulterior motives.

So it’s not Communism, nor is it the fear of the Red-baiting Commie haters. It’s a gelatinous space seed blown on solar winds, not seemingly tied to one ideology or another.

The effects are more gruesome, in full color, though not necessarily the key to making this film compelling.  The most striking image of the film (perhaps besides the howling, pointing people) is the human-faced dog, a thing of nightmares.  This freaky image seems to have been handled in the most simplistic of ways.  It seems a mask of a human face on an actual dog, and the kicker, the creepiest moment, when the dog’s tongue runs out of the mouth and licks its face, it was probably just a dog…licking the mask.  Still, so effectively edited in, it’s a standout shocker to this day.

Kaufman’s Invasion is rich and eerie work.  Subtext or no.

Killer Nun (1978)


Killer Nun (1978) movie poster

director Giulio Berruti
viewed: 09/26/2015

Killer Nun is another of those “video nasties” as they were dubbed in the UK back in the reactionary 1980’s.  While it’s got a middle-aged Anita Ekberg as a mentally-disturbed, heroin-shooting nun, having sex, both hetero and lesbian, and eventual murders, thus living up to its Killer Nun title, I kind of prefer one of its alternates, “Deadly Habits”, but I’m always one for a pun even in “nunsploitation”.

Yeah, it’s got sex and drugs and violence and nuns.  Maybe if you’re Catholic or were raised Catholic, the whole nun thing has a bit more teeth.  But really, this Italian exploitation flick is a jumble of hot topic nonsense.

Actually, I think it hurts my brain to try to pry more out of it regarding this film.