These are dark times for Tinseltown, but also an excellent opportunity for movie buffs to rewatch old favorites and discover new ones. To help maintain my sanity during this difficult time, I’ve been doing a lot of the latter.
I love horror and slasher (especially from the Golden Age, 1978-1984) films; they are such a treasure. In this list, I profile ten films that I feel are underrated, compelling in their own way, and worth re-examining. Without further adieu, and in no particular order:
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
Dr. Daniel “Dan” Challis (Tom Atkins) and Ellie Grimbridge (Stacey Nelkin), the daughter of a murder victim, travel to the small town of Santa Mira, California to uncover a plot by Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), who runs Silver Shamrock Novelties.
Cochran is planning to use the mystic powers of the Stonehenge rocks to murder the millions of children who wear the Silver Shamrock mask and watch the Silver Shamrock commercial, which is set to be broadcast on Halloween night and has a triggering device contained within.
Halloween III grossed $14.4 million against a $2.5 million budget, the worst-performing film in the Halloween series at the time. John Carpenter and Debra Hill, the creators of Halloween, believed that the series had the potential to be an anthology series of films that centered around the night of Halloween. Each sequel would contain its own characters, setting, and storyline. The film’s director, Tommy Lee Wallace, said there were a number of ideas for Halloween-themed films (which could have potentially created their own sequels).
Halloween III: Season of the Witch was to be the first. Critics castigated it for not featuring Michael Myers, who filmmakers brought back in Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers due to the negative reaction and low box office numbers. Halloween is one of my favorite films of all time, so I understand the frustration many must have felt upon first viewing Halloween III.
However, if you put Michael Myers aside from consideration, this is a really awesome stand-alone horror film. I love slashers to death, but the combo of science fiction and horror feels so fresh and compelling here. The story is original and has a lot to offer.
As the coastal town of Antonio Bay, California is about to celebrate its centennial, paranormal occurrences begin to take place at midnight. A priest, Father Malone (Hal Holbrook), stumbles upon his grandfather’s diary; it reveals that the six founders of Antonio Bay deliberately sunk a ship called the Elizabeth Dane so it’s owner wouldn’t establish a leprosy colony nearby.
They subsequently used gold from the ship to found the town. Meanwhile, a glowing fog begins to envelop the town and people start dying. Could the victims of that horrible incident be back to serve up some revenge?
The Fog is a timeless old-fashioned ghost story, one that bears repeat viewing. The cast, which, in addition to Curtis and Holbrook, includes Adrianne Barbeau, Tom Atkins, Janet Leigh, Charles Cyphers, and John Houseman; they are stellar on all counts.
John Carpenter provides his usual masterful direction. In addition, the music he composed for the film — pulsating with dread and mystery — added considerable atmosphere. Chillingly spooky from the opening to the climatic ending, The Fog is simply the best.
10 to Midnight
Warren Stacy (Gene Davis) is an office equipment repairman who often flirts with women, but in an overly creepy manner. This causes frequent rejections, which ultimately leads to Warren murdering them. Warren skillfully avoids prosecution by having sound alibis and committing his crimes while naked except for a pair of latex gloves to hide fingerprints, which leads to very little evidence.
Los Angeles police detectives Leo Kessler (Charles Bronson) and Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens) investigate the murders and try their best to nail Warren once and for all. Laurie Kessler (Lisa Eilbacher), Leo’s daughter, is acquainted with some of the victims and soon becomes Warren’s next target. Enter Charles Bronson, perhaps the greatest badass vigilante star of all time, and you can imagine what happens next.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, 10 to Midnight was a Cannon Films production. If you haven’t checked their movies out, I strongly suggest you give them a try — so many masterpieces, especially during Cannon’s 80s heyday. Okay, back to 10 to Midnight.
The film has multiple genres and sub-genres: Crime (crime drama, crime thriller], horror [slasher], thriller, vigilante. Put these together and what resulted is a unique, memorable story interlaced with strong performances.
Gene Davis really stood out in the role of Warren Stacey. He was creepy and deranged to the max; couldn’t have asked for better casting. Charles Bronson turned in his usual performance, rather wooden yet endearing. Also, the film’s soundtrack — composed by Robert O. Ragland — was absolutely incredible.
New Year’s Evil
New Year’s Eve is getting underway in the City of Angels and punk rock star Diane “Blaze” Sullivan (Roz Kelly) is holding a live televised countdown celebration in a Hollywood hotel. All is going according to plan until Blaze receives a phone call from a hilariously bizarre-sounding stranger who gleefully tells her his name is Evil.
He further announces that when the clock strikes midnight in each time zone, a “Naughty Girl” will be “punished” (murdered), then finishes by saying Blaze will be the final Naughty Girl to be punished. The killer follows through, with a string of gruesome murders subsequently occurring across Los Angeles.
New Year’s Evil is another gem from Cannon Films. While some critics have derided the plot for being too paint-by-numbers, I found the concept more interesting than the typical Friday the 13th-esquire slasher where characters are in an isolated location being picked off one at a time. Having the killer travel all over the city to stalk and ultimately murder gives the show a hint of realism; this leads to some glorious location shots of late 70s/early 80s L.A.
The punk rock/new wave music was also a very welcome addition; the title track, “New Year’s Evil” was performed live by Seattle rock band Shadow and has a nice metal feel to it. The cast is fairly unknown aside from Grant Cramer (of Hardbodies and Killer Klowns from Outer Space fame), who, in his first feature film role, excellently plays Blaze’s neglected adult son, Derek.
The film is entirely set in a supermarket that’s about to go out of business. Workers are asked to stay late to begin marking down everything in preparation for the closure and someone on the crew apparently isn’t happy about the situation.
Jennifer (Elizabeth Cox), a cashier, is already stressed out because her ex-boyfriend, Craig (Danny Byrnes), has been released from prison for manslaughter and is harassing her. After one of the store managers, Bill (Sam Raimi), kicks Craig out, he threatens to return. As the soon-to-be unemployed workers settle for their shifts, an unseen individual is brutally murdering them one by one.
When I first watched Intruder, I knew very little about it and wound up being pleasantly surprised. One of the last great slasher films of the ‘80s, Intruder is extremely well-made.
There isn’t anything terribly original about the story, but the filmmakers seriously make up for it with funky camera work, a foreboding atmosphere, and brutal kills — the gore is amazing! Considering Intruder was filmed on a measly $130,000, the production values are nothing short of incredible.