10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark (Part 2)

Here we go! Thanks for checking out the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. I consider these films to be the foundation of a life-long obsession with horror movies. Clearly, these movies will show my age and experience. Quite frankly, that is exactly what they are supposed to do. If you want to know where Malevolent Dark is coming from, these are the films that developed that world view. Remember, these movies are in no particular order. In fact, I selected the order randomly by rolling a Dungeons and Dragons 1d10.

Part 1 of the 10 Essential Films to Know Malevolent Dark can be found here.

Amityville Horror - The infamous house at 108 Ocean Avenue
The infamous house at 108 Ocean Avenue

The Amityville Horror (1979) – Get Out!!!

The Amityville Horror has a tendency to polarize horror fans. Critics either love it or hate it. Retrospectives of the film love to call it dated and questionably authentic. To be honest, everyone has an opinion, and all opinions can be valid. However, opinions depend on context. I can’t remember exactly when I first saw this film, but I was really young. As far as haunted house films go, this was my post-graduate research after House on Haunted Hill (1959). For an impressionable youth, The Amityville Horror delivered all of the goods.

Back before The Blair Witch Project (1999), this was the closest thing we had to found footage. The movies come packaged with the claim that the events of this film are true. To a child, those claims were indiscernible from reality. From my point of view, this film was as real as the television I watched it on, and that made for a terrifying affair. The simple thought of young man murdering his family in cold blood while they slept horrified me. I came from a loving home. How could I relate to an evil of that magnitude?

The Amityville Horror offers enough scares, and many of the scares were directed at children. First there was Jody, the invisible pig that tormented the Lutz’s youngest daughter. As silly as it sounds today, the red eyes peering from the window frightened me. The children’s babysitter gets locked in the closet as she beats her fists to a bloody pulp trying to escape. One of their sons gets his hand smashed by a windows sash, and nobody in the house has the strength to free it. I could only empathize as George Lutz sped away from the home without the family dog, Harry.

The Amityville Horror traumatized a young mind. Say what you will, but I am a proud apologist for The Amityville HorrorThis film scared me as much any up until that point. Malevolent Dark considers it to be a foundational work.

Dawn of the Dead (1978) - Ken Foree as Peter
Ken Foree would become a staple of great horror movies for decades

Dawn of the Dead (1978) – When Hell Is Full, The Dead Will Walk

Choosing an entry from George Romero created quite a dilemma. Would it be prudent to choose the obvious classic that started it all, Night of the Living Dead (1968)?  Not this time, I went with the one that I have watched at least 50 times, 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. In retrospect, as much as I love Night of the Living Dead, this was the right choice all along.

My first indicator that this would one day end up on this list occurred when one night I went to stay at a friends house. We were all amped up for this zombie movie that his older brother rented, but before we could watch it, his mom pulled the plug. “This is the most disgusting piece of garbage I have ever seen!”

I don’t know about disgusting, but Romero’s sequel contains some incredibly bodacious special effects by the master Tom Savini. But it contains much more than that. Dawn of the Dead paint a bleak picture. Decades before The Walking Dead, Romero described what the depth that the world would sink to when a crisis of unimaginable magnitude came upon it. What’s more, he packaged obscure social commentary that would suggest that the zombies were dead long before their heart stopped beating. Romero described a world of walking dead in terms of crass commercialism.

Romero also captured some incredible performances. Roger’s (Scott Reiniger) and Peter’s (Ken Foree) Tango and Cash act went far beyond their individual character. Futhermore, Ken Foree would find a permanent place in horror by reappearing in films by Stuart Gordon and Rob Zombie. Gaylen Ross would also show up in 1982’s slasher Madman. Nevermind the fact that Tom Savini exercises his acting chops as one of the marauding rogues.

The final icing on the cake comes in the form of an incredible soundtrack from frequent Argento collaborators Goblin.

The original Dawn of the Dead stands as a classic horror film. It is one of the best zombie films ever made.

Suspiria (1977) - Argento's use of color is simply brilliant
Dario Argento transforms the most brutal of violence into sensual art

Suspiria (1977) – Dario Argento’s Witchery

To put it quite plainly, Dario Argento’s masterstroke, Suspiria (1977) created a rift in my narrow focus world of horror. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I already had a few Italian horror films under my belt. Lucio Fulci’s Zombie comes to mind. However, no movie that I had seen brought together the mix of color, sound, music and beautifully fantastic gore like Suspiria did. It would trigger the beginning of a journey into international horror cinema that continues to this day.

Suspiria elevated the horror genre into an art form. Right from the beginning as Suzy Bannion receives a cold gust of wind, the soundtrack forebodes and builds tension. It then burns the eyes with brilliant hues of neon pink and electric blue. Just as the audience stumble in awe of the spectacle, Argento bludgeons the senses with extreme violence and gore. Yet, none of this is window dressing. The entire film is built on a foundation of old world evil, and secret covens of ancient witches.

Suspira also introduced me to the magic of Claudio Simonetti and the band that Argento would frequently collaborate with, Goblin. Never before had I experienced an soundtrack so interwoven and aware of the horror occurring around it. Quickly I stitched their relationship together with the Dawn of the Dead soundtrack.

Dario Argento’s film would also serve as my entry point to the rest of the “The Three Mothers” trilogy. More importantly, it set me off to stumble across Argento’s wonderful giallo films. Suspiria is a film that is absolutely required to know Malevolent Dark.

Burnt Offerings (1976) - Oliver Reed sites, frozen in catatonia, as his son drowns before him
Oliver Reed sites, frozen in catatonia, as his son drowns before him

Burnt Offerings (1976) – Oliver Reed, Need I Say More?

Burnt Offerings (1976) is another film that came to me by way of the Saturday Night Shocker on KPLR. Its also another film that I went into with zero knowledge of the movie, the trailer or anything else. What I found in Burnt Offerings (1976) was a very smart haunted house film that terrified me. This house did not torment its residents with slamming doors and rustling chandeliers. Instead it infected the minds and souls of its residents as it rejuvenates itself through the pain and suffering of its tenants.

To put it simply: Oliver Reed, Karen Black, Burgess Meredith, Bette Davis. What a cast! I had already been introduced to Karen Black through her work in Trilogy of Terror (1975). Then there was the great Oliver Reed, immediately recognizable from his work in Curse of the Werewolf (1961). He would also star prominently in The Brood (1976) and The Devils (1971)This guy was a literal powerhouse with his stage presence and he struggles to not steal every scene he is in.

This film stuck with me for years after first watching it. For one, Burnt Offerings has a scene where Oliver Reed watches  his son drowning while the swimming pool pulls him down. He’s unable to move and can only watch as his son continues to go under. Something about this scene kicked me in the gut. I mentioned this previously, I had no frame of reference for a father that would let his child be hurt. The idea was so foreign and terrifying for me.

Finally, the film ends very poorly for the family. They would not escape with their dog like in Amityville horror. They die and the house consumers their souls. I found the ending to be very guttural and impactful.

Burnt Offerings a great little haunted house movie that challenges some traditional spook-house clichés.

House of 1000 Corpses - More fantastic camera work
Rob Zombie showing skill behind the camera in his debut

House of 1000 Corpses (2003) – A Modern Classic By Rob Zombie

Those paying attention to details may notice that this one is not like the others. Almost exclusively, every selection on this list was filmed prior to 1990. Likewise, many of these foundational films came from my childhood. However, Rob Zombie did something in 2003 that was unexpected. He quite literally saved the horror genre for me, and his film House of 1000 Corpses might be the single biggest reason that I am writing today.

Back in the late 90’s horror films had largely lost their mojo for me. It’s not that there weren’t any good movies. There were good movies, but they all had the shimmering feel of over produced Hollywood films. Jump scares and CGI had replaced the craft of the horror film. Rob Zombie showed me that there was still gas in the horror movie tank. What’s more, Rob Zombie showed me that I was not alone in my love for good old days of horror.

Rob Zombie brought familiar faces to the table like Karen Black and Sid Haig. He showed his love for the local horror show on Saturday night. He introduced new horror icons like Captain Spaulding to the world. Zombie told a fantastically wacky story that nearly falls off the rails with its boldness. Finally he added a stylistic flair that would make Dario Argento proud without also making him feel ripped off.

House of 1000 Corpses revitalized the horror genre and gave hope to old-school horror fans looking for a way forward.

Thank you for reading the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark

Hopefully you enjoyed our little trip through memory lane. Obviously, throughout the years hundreds of quality horror films have gone through my fingers. Of those hundreds there are many that I love. In fact, there a few other films that could have made this list if I were just picking favorites. This was about picking the ones that made a real and lasting impact. These are the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.

10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark (Part 1)

As I have often alluded to, I am a child of the 70s. Likewise, my horror journey lead me through many films that would now be considered old-school classics. Others might even feel that some of these movies are cheesy, or that they don’t “hold up”. I can assure you that when viewed through a child’s eyes, these films were ALL mind blowing. I want to take a moment to lay out the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. These are the films that lead to a lifetime of horror fandom.

These films will be split across two posts and will be placed in no particular order. I simply couldn’t bear choose between my favorite children and rank them. To derive the order of the films I numbered one through ten on a sheet of paper. Their placement in this list will be decided by 1d10.

10 Essential Horror Films - The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - Brilliant Work by Daniel Pearl
Brilliant Work by Daniel Pearl

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) – The Ultimate in Horror

Many consider, and Malevolent Dark would agree, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) to be the king of kings in horror. Never before had a movie descended headlong into the depths of insanity and cannibalistic depravity. Directed by Tobe Hooper, this film may be the best example of wrenching massive critical success from the jaws of a non-existent budget. My first glance of this film came in a brief snippet in the 1984 horror film documentary Terror in the Aisles (1984). Upon seeing that clip, I could think of nothing else but the brutish monstrosity of a man exploding through the front door of a old farmhouse.

After a few months of begging my parents at the local B.A.C. Video Store, they let me rent this masterpiece on Betamax. It changed me forever.

The film took me on a journey into pure and terrifying psychological horror. Tobe Hooper left me completely shaken. The closing scenes were so harrowing that I could only let out a gasp of relief as a broken and bloody Sally Hardesty laughed manically as she narrowly escaped. How bad was it? It is literally the first movie that gave me anxiety as I contemplated watching it a second time the following day. Fortunately I rose to the challenge, and was able to really take the film the second time.

With The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper created a masterpiece of horror. It demonstrates a style of terror film-making that is both brutal and barbaric, but technically brilliant and beautiful.

House on Haunted Hill (1959) - Annabelle meets her doom
Annabelle meets her doom

House on Haunted Hill (1959) – Where it all Began

I have said before at Malevolent Dark, House on Haunted Hill (1959) was the first film that made me love horror. Up until that point, I had witnessed my share of monster movies. King Kong and Godzilla, or better yet, King Kong vs. Godzilla had occupied much of my time. I had great introductions into horror’s great characters: Dracula, Frankenstein, The MummyThese introduction came via two great horror studios, Universal and Hammer Productions. My point is, by that point in my young life (age 5), I already possessed a pretty strong horror resume.

Something about House on Haunted Hill changed things. This film, directed by William Castle, offered a completely different style of horror. House on Haunted Hill is a story of infidelity and dishonesty. It is a film about greed and revenge. At the end of the film, its not entirely clear that Haunted Hill is in fact Haunted, but actually a victim of the horrible people that insist on filling its halls. House on Haunted Hill is a film about the evil that men and women do.

For black and white film in the late 50’s, the inclusion of fully severed heads blew my mind. Castle also pulled off one of the most wicked jump scares to hit the screen. The marital dynamics between Carol Ohmart and Vincent Price (my hero as a young boy) were clearly profound even for a child. Finally inclusion of fantastic modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House provided incredible contrast to the battered cliché of gothic architecture and squeaky wrought iron fences.

House on Haunted Hill is the films that launched a lifelong fascination with horror cinema, and ultimately provides the foundation for Malevolent Dark.

Re-Animator (1985) - Bloody and Guts Fun
Dr. Herbert West must put down one of his creations as he perfects his formula

Re-Animator (1985) – Love and Gore from Miskatonic University

I have mentioned it before, and eventually we will do a complete article on the topic. 1985 was a banner year for horror. everything seemed to be clicking. Fangoria magazine had hit its stride with it 50th issue. Special effects as an artform had reached its pinnacle. The artist behind it (Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Dick Smith) became a bigger draw for the studio than the directors. Great films just kept coming and coming in 1985. One of my most anticipated films was Re-Animator.

Directed by Stuart Gordon and based on the great work of H.P. Lovecraft, this film seemed to have everything that a 10 year old boy could want in a film. Speaking specifically of Fangoria issue #50, it featured a wonderful pictorial and article titled “Literary Zombies” written by David Everitt. The article had me bubbling with anticipation. I simply could not wait for its arrival at my local video store. When that fateful day arrived, I could not be more pleased with what I found.

Stuart Gordon’s film bubbled with originality. The over the top performance of Jeffery Combs as the modern day Frankenstein, Dr. Herbert West, oozed black humor and self-aggrandizing narcissism. Some of Gordon’s film soared so high that under normal circumstances it could be considered ridiculous. However, the horrific events and substantial gore consistently keeps the film rooted to the ground. I mean, how else could one get away with a re-animated severed head performing cunnilingus on a scream queen Barbara Crampton?

While 1985 was filled with fantastic horror contributions, Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator holds a special place in the deep dark recesses of Malevolent Dark. And, Dr. Herbert West’s crimes against nature would undeniably secure a sacred spot as one of the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.

Phantasm (1979) - The silver sphere claims a victim
The silver sphere claims another victim

Phantasm (1979) – Blood and Chrome

This likely won’t be the last time I reference the Saturday Night Shocker. Back in Saint Louis on KPLR channel 11 on Saturday night, the local kids would get treated to a select horror movie at 10PM. Back before our family gained the prestige to own a VCR, this provided my only tether to the world of horror. One of those late night gems was Phantasm (1979), directed by Don Coscarelli. Whoa, what a mind-blowing experieince.

Fortunately for myself, I had never heard of this film prior to it making the Saturday Night Shocker playlist. Coming into this film with literally no understanding and no foreshadowing from trailers that reveal too much. Right from the start Phantasm reached out and held me in it clutches. When the flying sphere of death makes it first appearance, I could only stare at the screen with awe.

But, there is so much more to this film. The obvious bits came in the form squashed re-animated from the recent dead. The The Tall Man played by Agnus Scrimm offered a iconic bad guy. Pan-dimensional portals and a science fiction mystery that refuses to give up the ‘what’ or the ‘why’ leaves the filmgoer befuddled. Underlying all of that fantastic story-telling was a story of profound sadness.

After losing his parents in an un explained tragedy, lead character Mike Pearson loses his only caregiver, his brother Jody. As a youth, the uneasy feeling of loneliness pervades the rest of the film. Yet, he manages to create this loving bond with his brother’s best friend, Reggie. After all of this emotional development and posturing of hope the shocking end kicks you in gut and leaves you with sinking feeling of despair.

Phantasm still stands as one of the most original horror movies of all time and is essential viewing for all horror fans in the eyes of Malevolent Dark.

Children Shouldn't Play With Dead Things (1972) - Winns (1781-1851)
Winns (1781-1851), coming back from the dead

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) – Ewww, it’s gross

If it weren’t for the practice of jamming trailers at the beginning of video-tapes, this one might have escaped my grasp. The  trailer seemed very strange and off-kilter. It introduces the crazy circumstances of a group of theater students have a jolly good time with rotting corpses that they had unearthed. Was it a comedy? Was it horror? I couldn’t tell for sure, but I had to see it.

What I found in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972), was a fascinating combination of both comedy and horror. Directed by Bob Clark and written by Alan Ormsby, this film proves highly effective and strikingly stylish. In all honesty, it really doesn’t go deep into uncharted territory. By this time, George Romero had already created all of the farmhouse claustrophobia anyone could handle. But Bob Clark’s film does something better. It enshrouds itself in a thick fog of dread and tension.

Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things deftly moves from childish antics and lame black comedy to suffocating dread in the confines of a cottage collapsing with the living dead. Due to the prolific careers of its producers, this little-known film would lead me to classics such as Black Christmas (1974), Deathdream (1974), Deranged (1974). Yeah, it appears 1974 was a good year for horror as well!

The foreboding tension of this film somehow overcomes its many flaws and obvious financial limitations. Still, it left an indelible mark, and left me feeling uneasy as the final sequence rolled. Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things easily secured a place on The 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark.

But Wait, There’s More!

Thank you for reading Part 1 of the 10 Essential Horror Films to Know Malevolent Dark. Stay tuned for Part 2.

The Descent (2005) – Suffocating, Claustrophobic, Powerful

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

It has been quite some time since the first time I watched The Descent (2005) directed by British director Neil Marshall. Neil’s previous work includes the popular underground hit Dog Soldiers (2002). It pleasantly surprised me the first time, so this retrospective will be interesting to see if it holds up after all of the years. We’ll get into this later, but there certain facts about me that make this movie more terrifying than a lot of things that I can watch. At the time of its release, The Descent felt like a bit of a fresh breeze compared to the standard fair that was popular at the time.

The Descent (2005) - Neil Marshall's film begins with a horrible tragedy
Neil Marshall begins his film with the horrific death of Sarah’s husband and daughter

Remembering the Horror of 2005

At leas form me it felt like horror in 2005 was struggling. There were some bright points like Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects (2005). Depending on tastes, Eli Roth launched his torture porn franchise, Hostel. On the other side of the coin was a tired jump-scare haunted house formula be layered on-top of an Amityville Horror (2005) retread. George Romero’s highly anticipated return to the Land of the Dead stumbled face first. These are among the few notable entries that barely rise above an ocean of straight DVD films and forgettable low-budget films.

To be honest, I was a bit disconnected at the time, so if 2005 was your year, let us know in the comments.

The Descent (2005) - 6 women stare into the abyss, and it stares back
Six women stare into the abyss, and the abyss stares back

The World Above

The film starts with a bang, or rather a traumatic crash. After wrapping up a weekend white water rafting trip with her girlfriends, a woman named Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) gets into a deadly car accident. Her daughter and husband are killed both instantly and horribly. As the events unfold, a bit of foreshadowing a occurs that also suggests that Sarah’s relationship with her husband might not have been what she believed. A close eye also reveals an underlying subtext between Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Sarah. Neil Marshall provides a jarring and emotional kick-start that also provides a foundation for later events.

The Descent (2005) - The cave designs by Simon Bowles is both sprawling, and constricting at the same time
Set designer Simon Bowles created a cave system that feels both sprawling and constricting at the same time

Rappelling Into the Abyss

One year later after the tragedy, Sarah is not emotionally ok. She decides to reunite with friends, Juno, Sam, Rebecca, Holly and Beth, to go cave exploring. Her friends hope that resuming their adventures together will help Sarah on her path to recovering after the tragedy. The terror begins almost immediately. Within moments one of the amateur explorers gets stuck in a suffocating passage, and the film is already deeply entrenched in uncomfortable territory. Being stuck in a cave is one of my greatest fears. We haven’t even gotten to the good bits, and my anxiety level are through the roof.

Then the inevitable happens, the tunnel collapses and women are cut off from the world. As they discuss their predicament, they quickly find out that Juno took them to an unexplored cave system rather than where they had planned. This cave system is not frequented by rangers, and their prospects for rescue approach zero. With their only known egress closed off, they must find another way out. Remarkably, these adventure hardened women do not give in to panic and trudge forward into the dark abyss of the cave.

The Descent (2005) - The first glimpse of the Crawlers is terrifying
The first up-close glimpse of the Crawlers is positively terrifying

They Are Not Alone

As if their situation is not dire enough the women soon discover that they are not actually the first to enter this cave. They find very old gear from previous adventures. They then discover ancient cave painting that suggest that there is another entrance. After a brief glimmer of hope, the audience gets is first indication that something else lives in this cave, and it’s probably not friendly. Soon after, the troop find out for themselves when they come across a lair filled with the bones of dead animals… and humans.

The first good look at a cave “Crawler” is terrifying. Blinded by centuries in total darkness and pale translucent skin from never having seen the sun, the cave is filled with monsters that hunt only by sound. Food delivery doesn’t come around very often, and they are ravenous. These creatures attack with speed and cunning and, their prey are hopelessly trapped in their dark, damp world.

The Descent (2005) - Juno (Natalie Mendoza) basking in the green light of their glowsticks
Juno (Natalie Mendoza) basks in the cool green lights of their glowsticks

Neil Marshall’s Horrific Tapestry

Neil Marshall and his production crew do so many things well with The Descent. It  all starts with the decision to have an all female cast. And let’s be clear, these are not the standard off-shelf horror girls. These are capable and determined women with the tools for survival. Neil Marshall seems intent on sending the message that a strong male figure would not improve this situation. On the flip-side, he delivers this message with care. What we see in his cast are the women that we know in real life. These are not a bunch of Ellen Ripley’s, just strong women tenuously in control of their destiny.

Marshall does a fantastic job slowly ratcheting up the peril. It all starts with the tunnel collapse, which by itself is terrifying. The thought of being trapped in a cave with no escape makes my claustrophobic skin crawl. Shortly after, Holly suffers a broken leg, piling on the challenges already facing the women. When the Crawlers are finally introduced, the girls are already in a deep morass of trouble. Neil Marshall then doubles down when Juno accidentally kills one of her own friends. Marshal then finally splits the adventures, adding one last dimension of despair. The audience tetters on the literal edges of the their seats.

The Descent (2005) - The Crawlers under a different light
Prosthetic Designer Paul Hyatt’s Crawlers in a different light

Neil Marshall and his cinematographer, Sam McCurdy, do a wonderful job of using multiple perspectives to make the plain of the cave interesting. Some shots are made with frantic bustling of the camera, but it’s not overdone. Some scenes are lit with the yellow glow of a head lamp, while others bask in the cool green hue of florescent glow sticks or the orange flicker of flares and torches. Still others are shot through consumer grade night-vision on a hand-held camcorder. Too much of any of these techniques would be disorienting and unpleasant to watch. By breaking it up, they make the confines of the cave beautifully terrifying.

This all comes packaged with an ending that is as satisfying as it is shocking. For the viewers information, we watched the U.S. ending, not the extended U.K. ending. Call me old fashioned, but I liked the U.S. ending better.

The Descent (2005) - Sarah takes a chum bath in the lair of the Crawlers
Sarah takes a chum bath in the lair of the Crawlers

The Descent – A Really Freaking Good Horror Flick

Needless to say at this point, I love this The Descent. Neil Marshall gives the audience a simple and easy to digest monster movie with artful direction and artistic vision. While it relies on jump scares, he layers on smothering claustrophobia and fear of the dark. I will stop just short of calling it masterpiece, as it lacks some of the intellectual punch that films of that caliber often have. However, in 2005 it was just what the languishing horror community needed. I recommend this one paired with a dark room, blanket and someone to hold on to.


Just Before Dawn (1981) – Don’t Believe the Hype

Overall: 2 out of 5 stars

Just Before Dawn (1981) is an American slasher directed by Jeff Lieberman. For those that remember Jeff, he also directed the bane of all slithering existence, Squirm (1976). In Just Before Dawn, Jeff takes on the burgeoning slasher phenomenon that was sweeping theaters. We typically don’t do reaction posts here at Malevolent Dark because we appreciate the opinions of our horror peers, even when we disagree. The only reason I am making an exception today is because I really can’t get with opinion of Todd Martin in his 2013 review of Just Before Dawn (1981). In the article, he makes the rather bold statement:

it is one of the most underrated slasher flicks of all time.

This film seems to get some kind of retrospective love that we really can’t understand. Anyway, much love to Todd Martin and HorrorNews.net for doing what they do.

Just Before Dawn (1981) - Weird, an RV full of college students are on their way to hillbilly slasherville
A gaggle of college students take an RV to hillbilly slasherville

Another Film About the Dangers of Camping

The story begins rather quickly with an assault on a couple of hunters in an old abandoned church. Right from the start, Jeff Lieberman makes a serious departure from standard slashers of the day. Within moments, the audience get a decent look at the killers face as he peers through a hole in the roof. By this time, the masked slasher had become a staple of the genre. Interestingly, that very same year, a film called Final Exam (1981) made a similar move by introducing an unmasked killer.

From here the film travels very familiar ground. An RV full of attractive college students bumbles through the woods on its way to a unmarked campground in the mountains. On the way, they meet the great George Kennedy (Cool Hand Luke (1967) playing the local conservation officer, Roy McLean. As the story goes, one of the travelers named Warren just came into possession of some land, and he wants to claim the territory with his friends.

Just Before Dawn (1981) - The Great George Kenndy is the law on this mountian
The great George Kennedy is the law on this mountain

Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (Spoilers)

In an otherwise derivative plot-line, Lieberman at brings to the table a killer, or rather a pair of killers that really don’t have a comparison. Lieberman introduces a pair of twin, in-bred, backwoods, hillbilly killers that refuse to share any characteristics with the likes of Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers. Twins have been used in many films as a plot-twist, but Lieberman reveals this rather brazenly and also very early in the film.

The killers make no attempt to hide their identity. They giggle and chuckle as they torment their victims. In one scene, one of the killers merrily slaps one of the girls with the flat side of his machete as she tries to flee. We later find out that the twins are the product of an inbred mountain family. Frankly, a comparison to Deliverance might be more appropriate than any comparison to slashers films.

Just Before Dawn (1981) - Much of the action centers around the beautiful Silver Falls in Oregon
Much of the action centers around the beautiful Silver Falls in Oregon

“One of the Most Underrated Slasher Flicks of All Time”

So yeah, Lieberman’s film breaks some parts of the slasher mold in some places. However, in other areas it languishes. The acting could not be less compelling. When Warren (Gregg Henry) and Constance (Deborah Benson) find their friend Jonathan (Chris Lemmon) floating down the river dead, they show no more emotion than if they just spilled their beer. Later, Warren deadpans his pleas for help to Roy McLean. None of the characters comes off as especially likable or dynamic, and that makes them expendable. This includes the female lead, Constance.

The backdrop of the film is fantastic. The films setting, and actual filming location was in the Pacific Northwest. The countryside of Oregon is fantastically beautiful. The camera manages to capture this beauty in the same way an tourist does. The images are beautiful, but they don’t necessarily capture the sprawling expanse of the mountain.

Cinematographers Joel King and Dean King, faithfully capture the lackluster performances of the cast and decently frame their shots, but we did not find the photography to be an especially strong aspect to Just Before Dawn. Many scenes are feel flat, and constrained for space, despite the sprawling expanse of the shooting location. Had it not been for the locations natural beauty it might have been really mundane and uninspired.

Just Before Dawn (1981) - This silhouette would be iconic enough to make the VHS cover
One of the hillbilly twins overlooks the destruction he is about to create

A Couple of Tricks Up Jeff’s Sleeve

One aspect of Jeff Lieberman’s work that stands out is the preservation of atmosphere. Much like the techniques used by Bob Clark and team in Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972)the non-stop drone of crickets, frogs and birds immerse the viewer and replace the depth that the cinematography fails to capture. While it seems a small addition, it actually goes a long way to keep this film from sliding into a narcoleptic abyss.

In another interesting anecdote, it was was also 1981 when the aforementioned Final Exam was released. That film featured not only the unmasked killer, but the final girl goes off the rails by maniacally slashing the killer to pieces in a acute brush with insanity. Not to be outdone, Constance takes this to the wicked extreme. She literally reaches into the mouth and down the throat of the killer, up to the elbow no less. She either suffocates him or pulls his gizzard out. Lieberman definitely goes big in his finale, but it fails to make up for lost time.

Just Before Dawn (1981) - Ranger McLean puts a couple of rifle rounds into one of the twins
Ranger McLean puts a couple of rifle rounds into one of the twins

Hindsight – Both 20/20 and Sometimes With Rose Colored Glasses

We started this entry challenging the claim that Just Before Dawn is “one of the most underrated slasher flicks of all time.” It seemed like a fun way to get the conversation going on this one. To date, this film had escaped our awareness, so it’s always nice to learn about new material. That being said, something continues to push film to the periphery. Based on our viewing, we understand why. This film is not underrated. Just Before Dawn is painfully an average film, and Malevolent Dark does not consider to be some unheralded classic.

Still, Jeff Liberman does create a film with several unique qualities when compared to other entries in the slasher genre. Horror fans looking for deep cuts or students of 80s horror may find something worth seeing in the film.

Psycho 3 (1986) – Anthony Perkins’ Debut Behind The Camera

Overall: [2.5]

A simple Internet search of the most impactful horror/suspense films of all time will quickly reveal Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece Psycho. To this day, Psycho still holds some of the most recognizable iconography in all of horror. It’s the film that made the shower the most terrifying place in the home. Then against all odds, Richard Franklin took the franchise head-on when he directed Psycho 2 (1983). While panned at the time, many regard it to be one of the great unheralded sequels. Psycho 3 aims to continue that legacy.

Three years later Norman Bates himself, or rather, actor Anthony Perkins, would take another run at Psycho franchise with Psycho 3 (1986). Not only does he act the part, but he takes the helm as director. Would Anthony Perkins be as good behind the camera as in front?

Psycho 3 - Duane, played by Jeff Fahey, is a freak

Picking Up Where We Left Off

Those that remember the shocking ending to the previous film, Norman Bates just found out that the desiccating corpse that he called his mother was not in fact his real mother. A woman named Emma Spool dropped the revelation as she explained that she was not only the murderer but she was also Norman’s real mother. Norman appears to be taking the news rather well until he flattens her head with a shovel. Norman promptly stuffs her with sawdust, preserves her corpse and puts her dead body back in command of his life.

This all makes for an interesting start to the film because its the first film that lets the audience know Norman’s exact state of mind to start the story.

Psycho 3- Anthony Perkins performs admirably in his directorial debut
Anthony Perkins lacks the prowess of his predecessors behind the camera, but he does have skills

New Characters

It wouldn’t be a Psycho movie without a steady supply of traveling outsiders to make their way to the Bates Motel. This time, a suicidal nun named Maureen Coyle (Diana Scarwid). She questions her vows and her own morality as flees from a deadly accident at the convent. On her travels, she runs into the sleazy Duane Duke (Jeff Fayhey). He doesn’t waste a moment before trying to take advantage of her. Both characters wander in the Norman’s world at the hotel. It doesn’t take long before the killing begins.

Psycho 3 - A familiar silhouette wields a butcher knife
A familiar silhouette makes its rounds with a gleaming butcher’s knife

Anthony Perkins – Director

Very rarely does an actor become so inextricably merged with a role more than Anthony Perkins’ bond to Norman Bates. No one in their right mind could question his reprisal of the role. What did come as a surprise was his directorial debut. Clearly both a talented man and a student of film, Perkins honestly does a really good job. He lacks the visual flare of Alfred Hitchcock, and Richard Franklin’s perfection in imitating art. However, he competently commands the camera and manages the navigate the story. Psycho III suffers much more from deficit of ideas and a lackluster script than Perkin’s direction.

Cinematographer Bruce Surtees provides enough technical backbone to get the job done. Although, he and Perkin’s insistence on recreating Hitchcock style shots feel a bit forced and somewhat derivative.

If Perkins’ approach had any flaws, they are found in the straight forward execution through a predictable plot. By showing his hand with respect to Norman’s unstable state of mind, it follows quickly that he commits the murders. Writer, Charles Edward Pogue attempts to create a love story between Maureen and Norman, but the relationship never really shows a spark. The awkward incompatibilities pile faster than Pogue can clear them leaving their love story to languish. It never really feels authentic and fails to build sufficient emotional capital with the audience.

Psycho 3 (1986) - Anthony Perkins manages to stuff a Hitchcock-esq shot into the the final frames
Anthony Perkins manages to jam a familiar Hitchcock visual into the late frames

Should It Have Been Made?

It could be said that this film should have never been made, but Richard Franklin made that a very difficult proposition. After the fantastic, yet topsy-turvy, ending to Psycho 2, the world had to see what happens next. Unfortunately, as it turns out, there wasn’t a whole lot to say. We pretty much knew that Norman would fall under the spell of his newly found mother, Emma Spool. We knew the murders were going to start again. For those that hate loose ends, this one at least tries to tie them up neatly.

Additionally, the film tries to unwind the story that names Emma Spool as Norman’s mother. I found that the rushed explanation by a fleeing reporter to be kind of an awkward, “oh by the way”. They might as well just ended the film a block of text explaining what happened. Despite those missteps, Psycho 3 ultimately leads to a finale that COULD have closed the series once and for all. Unfortunately, this would not be the last in the Psycho franchise.

Psycho 3 (1986) - We all go a little bit mad sometimes
We all go a little bit mad sometimes

Putting It All In Context

After watching the film, it becomes pretty clear that Psycho 3 is the lesser film of the first three in the series. It suffers from a pedestrian plot, and fails to capitalize on early character investments. In our opinion, the entire Maureen Coyle storyline sputters about half-way through the film, and by the time that she meets her fate, nobody cares. She certainly pales in comparison to Meg Tilly’s formidable role in Psycho 2. Anthony Perkins does an admirable job reprising the role of Norman Bates, but something sees just a little bit less authentic about the performance.

However, Psycho 3 does do a few things well. The character of Duane adds a lot of spice the to film and he forces the audience to unravel whether or not he’s a harmless jack-ass, or something more sinister. Also, we get a heaping helping of Norman Bates wielding a butcher’s knife and an old wig. As mentioned before, the entire affair gets a professional cinematic treatment and enjoys periodic instances of great cinematography.

At the end of the day, Psycho 3 is probably required viewing for anyone that loves the franchise. As long as expectations are tempered, it should be just good enough.

Happy Birthday To Me (1981) – Brutally Incoherent

Overall: 2 out of 5 stars

Sometimes I think the Malevolent Dark randomization engine is evolving into a sentient intelligence. After watching Canadian horror film My Bloody Valentine (1981), the rando-horror machine spit out its sister film Happy Birthday to Me (1981). John Dunning and André Link produced both films. Supposedly, Happy Birthday to Me (1981) intended to be the more ambitious of the two. We would agree with that assessment, but would add that the films ambition proves to be its most glaring fault.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - Melissa Sue Anderson as Ginny
Melissa Sue Anderson leaves the carefree prairie for Canadian slasher cinema

Quick Synopsis

The film stars Melissa Sue Anderson, most notably of Little House on the Prairie fame, as the lead character, Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright. as her birthday approaches, a rash of disappearances begin at her school. As more and more incidents occur, it becomes clear that not only are they happening at her school, but are happing directly to her inner circle of friends. With this simple premise, the director, J. Lee Thompson, begins to interleave a deeper plot about an accident that occurred to Ginny, and the traumatic amnesia that it caused.

Intentionally, the writers and director immediately begin to lob red herrings at the audience with the intent of misleading them. The film spend many of the early frames suggesting that one or another of Ginny’s friends are responsible for the crimes. Slowly, Ginny’s memories begin to come back to her revealing more and more about her accident and the familial problems that lead to it. Like a one hour and fifty minute long episode of Scooby-Doo, the film eventually converges on a final reveal that unmasks the identity of the killer and the extenuating cicumstances that lead to the crimes.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - A bit of giallo flavor
Happy Birthday to Me isn’t a giallo, but that glove and straight razor sure look the part

A Sprinkle of Giallo

We would be hard pressed to explicitly call Happy Birthday to Me a giallo film; however, we would be remiss if we didn’t point out some influences. Probably most obvious would be the faceless killer wearing black leather gloves. Much like in Italian giallo, the black leather gloves and androgynous dress obfuscates the identity of the killer and all distinguishing characteristics. The very first murder could have been pulled directly from a variety of giallo classics, and the graphic slashing of the throat with a straight razor is as Italian as a bottle of Chianti.

Additionally the pains that the production team goes to misdirect the audience certainly has precedent in the giallo catalog. Lucio Fulci’s Don’t torture a Duckling (1972) comes to mind. We could even throw a thinly veiled reference to Argento’s Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971). The killer remains faceless to the audience, but the characters in the film recognize the killer. In fact, they often let go a sigh of relief upon seeing them. This too offers a callback to Don’t Torture a Ducking as all of the children of Accendura know the killer to be a trusted member of the community.

About half-way through the film, the film throws tosses these similarities out of the window as it finds itself back into a corner. About halfway through, the killer is given a face and a name as the plot careens into unstable territory.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - Ginny gets some brain surgery
One of the better special effects scenes involves Ginny’s brain surgery

Crushed by the Weight of it Plot

Quite simply, the film take on too much than it can tie up into a neat bundle. Overall, the quality of the film suffers for it. For starters, in order to bolster the supply of ninja smoke bombs, the film spends an inordinate amount of time developing characters as a long treacherous path to establishing motive. This results in weird scenes like the theft of a pair of panties by Etienne and a Alfred’s weird prosthetic make-up hobby. The writers then throw a couple of love triangles in for good measure, resulting in a film with a lumpy and amorphous character.

For the spent resources on developing victims, the film still has to develop the massive backstory of the main character. First, there is an amnestic condition triggered by severe brain trauma. However to slowly inject her latent memories back into the film. This stunt required a groundbreaking technology that revolutionized medicine and Ginny was the first brain injury recipient. Only after this massive plot development could the writers begin to reveal the nature of her accident and its relevance to the rest of the film.

Thompson and the writers perform all of these acrobatic for the sole purpose of setting up a crackerjack finale reveal that they hope will leave the audience dumbfounded. Granted, we did not see this coming. However, surprise or no surprise, the ending leaves the audience questioning the value proposition. Truthfully, the film could have gotten to the very same place without carrying all of that bloat around its neck. At one hour and fifty minutes long, this film has about 25 minutes of bloat that could have been trimmed.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - The infamous shish-kebab scene
One of the victims gets a shish-kebab to the medulla oblongata

It’s a Party!

To be honest, the whole thing proves unfortunate as the film actually has some pretty cool moments worth mentioning. For starters, keeping with the tradition set by My Bloody Valentine the film brings a couple interesting interesting kills to the table. The death stab via shish-kebab skewer through the medulla oblongata looks pretty cool. In another, muscle head Greg squirms in fear as the faceless killer keep adding weight to his barbell just before he drops it, crushing his neck. Etienne get his by having his face rearranged by a motocross tire.

Also, one of the cooler special effects scenes come part and parcel of the amnesia plotline. The scene involves Ginny’s brain swelling through a tiny surgical window in her skull and doctors scramble to save her.

We really liked the visual and emotional impact of Ginny’s father happening upon the victims, neatly posed around a dinner table. It all makes sense, or so it seems, when Ginny walks into the room with a birthday cake full of candles while singing happy Birthday to herself.

Happy Birthday to Me (1981) - It's Ginny's party and everyone is invited
It’s Ginny’s party and everyone is invited

Canadian Bacon or Just Baloney

As it might be gleaned from the previous paragraphs, Happy Birthday to Me fails on so many levels. Melissa Sue Anderson handles the role of Ginny extremely well, and we felt that her presence in the film showed real promise. But, no performance would have saved this film from the massive intellectual debt that it starts accumulating from the first frames. Plan on being completely lost for about 80 minutes before enough pieces are in play to understand what is happening. Still, the writers do manage to wrap it all up leaving enough in the tank for one last kick in the pants for Ginny.

Ultimately the film felt as cumbersome as its plot, and the final resolution failed to make up for lost time. As far as 80’s who do it slashers are concerned, we would stick to flicks like April Fools Day (1986), and Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).

Eaten Alive! (1980) – Ridiculous, Even by Umberto Lenzi Standards

Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars

While the term Mondo Cannibal Master might be a bit overzealous for a man like Umberto Lenzi, he is nothing if not prolific to the sub-genre. Having written and directed several of these films, his name might be the most recognizable. In this film, we tackle Eaten Alive! (1980). Much less infamous than his “Banned in 31 Countries” Cannibal Ferox (1980), this films holds a bit of charm that Cannibal Ferox doesn’t. And while Eaten Alive! is the lesser film technically, it might be more enjoyable to watch.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - The film begins with blow-darts coated in cobra venom
The film beings with blow-darts soaked in cobra venom. The gloves prevent his tropical fingers from getting chilly.

The Return of the Man

It wouldn’t be Italian Cannibal Mondo without Robert Kerman. With a resume including at least two other cannibal films and a healthy dose of pornography. nothing says exploitation like the name Robert Kerman in lights. Truth be told, of all of his roles in all of the cannibal films that we have seen, his role in this one makes the best use of his ability to cast arrogant narcissism at will. While not a particularly skillful actor, he manages to create some fun chemistry with the films main attraction Janet Agren, who plays the leading lady named Sheila.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - Robert Kerman basically plays Robert Kerman
Robert Kerman plays Mark Butler, character based on on Robert Kerman

The Best Cannibals are in New Guinea

Flipping the script for once, the cannibals that Umberto Lenzi employs in his script hail from the far East in New Guinea. Its a welcome change as it alters the look of the cannibals themselves. The only thing better than cannibals is inclusion. Welcome to the party, New Guinea. The film recycles some standard Mondo tropes with a few notable adjustments.

The story begins with an assassin running around New York targeting what appear to be random individuals. The police find a compelling piece of film footage after the assassin is killed during a pursuit. The film reveals strange rituals involving men hanging from steel hooks. It also reveals a local woman named Diana Morris (Paola Senatore) participating in the ritual. The police call her estranged sister, Sheila (Janet Agren) in for questioning. Wanting to find her sister, she hires morally ambiguous Mark Butler (Robert Kerman) to escort her on her search.

This is where this story gets very interesting. Diana fled to the jungles of New Guinea to join a cult run by a man named Jonas Melvin. Jonas and his modus operandi pretty much follow the teachings of the real Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple. Having occurred just two years prior, the Jonestown Massacre undoubtedly influence Lenzi and his screenplay. Jonas Melvin (Ivan Rassimov) looks like a well kept Richard Ramirez, which adds a bit of an edge to his on-screen presence. Predictably, Jonas proves to be as evil as the cannibals hiding in the jungle.

Sheila and Mark find Diana brainwashed and in the clutches of Jonas.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - Janet Agren as Shelia
We must say, Janet Agren looks out of place hiking the jungles of New Guinea

Scarce on Cannibals, Flush on Violence

Not completely devoid of cannibals, it has its flesh eating moments, but in truth they contribute much less to the overall film than one would think by the title. Jonas on the other hand owns a monopoly on violence and violent acts. He sexually abuses his followers and forces the female members to go through collective rape rituals. In another scene, he rapes Sheila with a ceramic phallus covered in snake blood. As with many cults, it begins with influence, but ends with violent enforcement of the will of God.

However, when Diana and fellow villager Mowara attempt to flee the confines of the compound, the real cannibalism begins. Of the violent act committed by the cannibals, the most egregious involve sexual mutilation. Umberto Lenzi continues his fascination with male castration. As Diana and Morawa fall victim to the cannibals, they begin their feast with the soft tissue of the breasts. Interestingly, the cannibal mutilation scenes go on for quite some time as they slowly rend the women’s bodies one piece at as time.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - Cult leader as Jim Jones-like cult leader Jonas
Jonas mixes the perfect amount of Jim Jones and Richard Ramirez

Par for the Course

After viewing several Italian cannibal films, they all share some common characteristics. Lenzi’s film is no exception to the rule. For starters, Umberto Lenzi injects a plethora of stock footage involving the senseless slaughter of animals and monkeys being devoured by snakes. Second, Lenzi makes fair use of animal innards as a replacement for latex and practical effects. We are no experts, but it feels like this film may make more use of latex than in other films. We suspect that is what some of the natives are gnawing on in some scenes.

Umberto Lenzi’s film retains the expected grainy patina standard in exploitation films. Musically, Lenzi’s film falls flat. It begins with a period correct disco anthem, but that’s about it. We did notice that Lenzi does recycle some of the foreboding jungle music for his subsequent release of Cannibal Ferox. Hilariously out of place, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” blares periodically in Jonas’s cult compound.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - Not so special effects
If you can’t afford latex, just bury them up to their neck and wrap a strip-steak around it

Mark and Sheila

No stranger to Italian cannibal exploitation films, Robert Kerman excels in his role as the seedy escort, Mark Butler. He makes no bones about the fact that he is only in it for the $80,000 that Sheila promised him for his services. The first 3 times he repeats that, our eyes are rolling. By the 15th time it becomes comical. Sheila, play hard to get with Mark for the duration of the film. In dire straits they agree to a ridiculous suicide pact just before being saved be helicopter… so cheesy, but so good.

Together these unlikely anti-heroes share one of the most awkward and offensive dialogs in all of cinematic history:

Mark: Tell me, what’s a rich girl like you doing in a shit place like Alabama?

Sheila: Oh, watching poor n****** break their asses in our father’s cotton mill.

Mark: Sweet. What else?

Sheila: Well, listening to rock. You like rock?

Mark: No, I like whiskey.

Eaten Alive! (1980) - Who wants a drumstick?
Who wants a drumstick? I found this at the Halloween store.

Oddly Charming

To shoot it as straight as possible, Eaten Alive! is not a good film. Yet, we did find that it had a cheesy 70’s exploitation charm about it. The plotline goes hard into completely bizarre territory, but remains interesting nonetheless. We still have a problem with watching living animals being butchered alive, and would prefer that they found other filler. You’re either down with Italian cannibal films, or you need to find another genre. Apparently wanton disregard of animal safety is part of the package.

Minimally, we can say with absolute confidence that Eaten Alive! greatly transcends the pile of garbage that defines Cannibal Terror (1980). As far as implausible Italian gore-fests are concerned, this one offers about as much as one could wish for. I doubt this one will make its way to late night American television, but it certainly belongs there.

August Underground (2001) – Sickest Film Ever Made In The US? (Explicit)

Overall: 1.5 out of 5 stars

In 2001, A few friends from Pennsylvania decided to band together to show a side of Horror that most wouldn’t want to know or see. Fred Vogel and Toetag Pictures came into the independent Horror scene showing veracity and pure depravity with their debut picture, August Underground (2001)… Now this isn’t just any low budget film with shoddy effects or a lack of credibility. This is a visceral punch to the gut, full of some of the worst things you can imagine.

Before I get further in to detail, let me say I do not personally condone any acts that take place during these films. I am just an aficionado of obscure and extreme films. These just happen to be some of the most extreme that you can view.

Sickening from the First Frame

The film begins straight away with a woman tied to a chair gagged, covered in blood, and being harassed by two men. One is Peter Mountain, played by Fred Vogel himself, and the other, his friend is never really shown. This scene goes on for a bit and she is verbally abused and teased with food and beverage that she is refused. This abruptly ends and the movie cuts to the killers driving down what seems to be farm roads having everyday discussions about picking up a girl.

Cut to night and we are still on the back roads. After a few minutes the killers spot the fore mentioned female walking home alone. They stop and offer a ride and she accepts, not knowing their plans. Being a smooth talker, Peter Mountain (Fred Vogel) coerces her to flash her breasts and to pleasure herself. He then pulls of the road beside a farm and has her perform sexual acts on him before bludgeoning her.

Quickly, the film shifts back to the house with their captive female and any remaining uncertainty about the direction that this film is going evaporates. Our unseen cameraman starts to poke and prods the victim and asks Peter if there are more gloves and…

August Underground (2001) - Director and actor Fred Vogel's evil smile brings make his film feel like real footage
Director and actor Fred Vogel’s evil smile makes August Underground feel like real video footage

Doody Alert (Explicit)

In the interests of serving the whole horror community, Malevolent Dark feels a compelling need to cover some of the most extreme horror available. Unfortunately, this sometimes means that we run across things so repulsive that they literally turn our horror hardened stomachs. It feels necessary to provide the proper alerts and to appropriately denote that information so that readers are appropriately forewarned. You may expand the following text at your discretion.

August Underground (2001) - Our killer struggles to keep his composure while dismembering one of his victims
Our killer struggles to maintain his composure while disposing of one of his victims

What We are Trying to Say is…

The important thing to call out here is not the graphic detail, but rather the depraved nature of how August Underground approaches business. To make a clear statement that this film is a no-holds-barred torture porn fest that refuses to pull any punches. This is territory that very few films dare to go, and for good reason. In most cases this serves only to alienate much of the horror viewing population. Yet, there are those among us that want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, and August Underground dives to those subterranean depths.

An Exercise in Torture Porn

During all of this Peter is in the next room gagging and stating how bad a guy stinks. We soon find him hunched over a bath tub in only an apron and underwear, cutting up a body. This is a disgusting bathroom covered in blood and even the toilet is filled with blood. Peter then starts vomiting due to the intense smells of the body and the camera man heads back to our bound victim. Peter then comes out with the hand of the dismembered body. We soon find out it is the female’s boyfriend and she is forced to eat his toe.

As if any of this were not enough, one of the men decides to take a sexual favor from the woman, and considering the events heretofore, this may result in the most disgusting affronts to our fragile sensibilities and now shattered sanity.

To say it simply, Fred Vogel’s film makes the torture sequences in standard Cinéma Vérité films like Martyrs (2008) look like child’s play.

August Underground (2001) - Even the store are not safe from these maniacs
Even innocent shoppers are not safe from the maniacs

Never Lost Footage

One of the more unsettling things that sets this movie apart from others is method in which it was produced. This film is shot from the perspective of a man filming the exploits of he and his friend as they embark on a murderous rampage. In that sense, it shares a stark similarity to the hand-held films of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris just prior to their crimes. Knowing full well how the subsequent events played out in real-life, the cinematography evokes an unintentional emotional response. Certainly this technique also offered significant budgetary advantages for a fledgling filmmaker.

Furthermore, the actors performances are all too real. By this, I certainly don’t mean that they are Oscar worthy. Instead, the performances have an eerie awkwardness that lends to its authenticity. It crosses into that cringeworthy territory that we all may have caught ourselves in after being filmed impromptu at a party or event. Further adding to the credibility is the fact that the footage includes scenes not directly connected to murder or heinous acts. It’s as if the cameraman simply captures footage of their young lives, and despicable murder is just one of those things.

A Campaign of Violence

Throughout the rest of the film, the pair continue their reign of terror. In their wake, they leave a trial of broken bodies. They assault and murder an old women after convincing her to let them carry her groceries.

In a convenience store, the pair eat food without paying and the manager confronts them. They are forced out but Peter returns a few minutes later. He pretends to apologize and pay while also purchasing a magazine, which he then hits the manager with and runs. You would think that would be all but they come back being fully sadistic. Peter runs in and stabs the manager in his side and leaves him there to bleed out. It’s right here where we get a weird sense of sadistic realism.

They notice two people hiding in the back of the store. Rather than ending their lives, they instead just humiliate them. They basically just keep them both on the ground while verbally abusing them. It is then Peter has the weird idea to make them sniff each other’s butt. It is so strange and messed up. Once the boyfriend has done the deed, they get her to do the same. It reinforces this theme that these are just a couple of young idiot punks that take things to sadistic extremes.

August Underground (2001) - This tattoo artist learns a new meaning to the phrase "Hammer Time"
This tattoo artist learns a new meaning to the phrase “Hammer Time”

Later we see vacation style footage of our two main characters going to the Roadside America tourist attraction. Then we get to the tattoo shop where Peter gets a leg tattoo. This interaction obviously doesn’t go well for the shop owners. Somehow Peter gets them down to a basement where he removes one brother’s leg and has the other tied to a chair. Eventually both are beaten to death with a hammer.

In a final act of depravity, these sick individuals employ two prostitutes. Their initial interactions seem normal, but we are certain that will not remain the case for long. After fornicating, one girl and the camera head to the basement to find Peter is bashing her friend’s head in with a hammer while having sex. The friend realizes what is happening and runs into the darkness. The two men are chasing her, the movie cuts out and all you hear is her scream.

August Underground Does What it Intends

August Underground does everything that it sets out to do, but the loftiness of that goal is very questionable.

At this point, it’s an understatement to say that this movie is severely messed up. I definitely don’t recommend this to the average horror movie enthusiast. However, for those those searching for a more extreme cinema, August Underground is the definition of extreme. There are parts of this movie that seem very real. Horror fans that have watched films from Marian Dora, you’ll be able to stomach this. Take heed my warning and brace yourself if you decide to watch any of Fred Vogel’s work.

The good news, or bad depending on your point of view, is that there are two more sickening installments of the August Underground to behold!

Deranged (1974) – Quirky, Fun and Overshadowed

Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars

A quick tour through horror cinema during the last half of the 20th century reveals that one of the most used real-life stories comes from the life and times of the real Ed Gein, The Plainfield Butcher. Everything from Psycho (1960) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) owes some credit this saga. Another lesser known film from 1974 called Deranged also owes credit to the story of Ed Gein. Being cinematically inferior to the barbaric Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deranged slipped through the proverbial cracks. However, its actually a really neat film in it own right, and a must for the discerning horror fan.

Directed by Alan Ormsby of Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things (1972) fame, Deranged tells the story of a man named Ezra Cobb. Using the most subtle of black humor, Ormsby creates an awkward caricature of a man that garners sympathy despite his heinous acts.

Deranged (1974) - Ezra Cobb (Roberts Blossom) watches his mother die horribly
The day his mother died, Ezra Cobbs sanity unraveled

There’s Something Wrong with Mother

Those familiar with the tale of Ed Gein understand that his unhealthy relationship with his mother provided an incubator for his mental illness. Ezra Cobb’s story follows a similar path. Portrayed by Roberts Blossom, Ezra cares for his bed ridden mother. She abhors women, and repeatedly implants misogynistic thoughts in Ezra’s head. The only woman good enough for Ezra is mother. When Ezra witnesses her die horribly on his watch, the burden is too much to bear. Soon after her passing, Ezra begins a strange relationship with the bodies of the dead and their decomposing flesh.

Deranged (1974) - Ezra cobb rescues mamma from the grave
Ezra Cobb rescues his mother from her grave

Another Bit About Ed

Though often imitated, only a few horror entries ever tried to really tell the story of Ed Gein. Most others offered only a single facet of the man cast in a new story. This makes it fascinating to compare and contrast the archetype through different films. For example, those that recognize Roberts Blossom, he’s a very slight man that projects a gentle aura. Accordingly, Ezra Cobb carries those traits into the role. It’s a far cry from the brutish behemoth of a man played by Gunnar Hansen in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The comparison is even more interesting when Blossom’s character is cast against Norman Bates cunning and articulate nature. Ezra Cobb is nothing of the sort. However, Blossom’s portrayal may be the most genuine of the three. Ed Gein by all accounts was described as a gentle man and unassuming man. the townspeople of Plainfield even trusted their children with him. Roberts Blossom portrays his character with the same affable and approachable innocence.

Deranged (1974) - Tom Simms reports on Ezra's crimes
Alan Ormsby employs an omnipresent narrator with investigative reporter Tom Simms

Investigative Reports

Alan Ormsby uses an interesting narrative device to drive the story. Investigative reporter Tom Simms, played by Leslie Carlson, introduces the tale and moves it along throughout out the course of the film. On the surface it feels a bit cliche, but this device really meshes with the time period, and the grainy 70’s feel of the film. Tom Simms provides many of the best lines in the film, and his introduction give a bit of competition to that of John Larroquette’s legendary opening to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Its a human horror story of ghastly proportions and profound reverberations.

But, because it is human, maybe we can learn something from it, something of ourselves, our own fears, and needs.

. . .

It is the story of Ezra Cobb, murderer, graverobber, necrophiliac perhaps.

Or, as you may remember him from those stories long ago… The Butcher of Woodside!

Deranged (1974) - Ezra hides out among the dead
Ezra hides behind rotting skin from one of his ghoulish escapades

Tip Toeing Through the Graveyard

Ezra’s makes his first ghoulish move by digging up his mother rotting corpse from the grave. Badly decomposed, Ezra must figure out how to fix her. At first he uses wax, fish skin, and anything that he can find to fix her. He quickly becomes a student of taxidermy. Learning how to scope out the obituaries, he then graduates to the robbing the graves of the recently deceased members of Woodside. Soon, he would set his depraved sights higher. He would ultimately murder his victims to ensure the freshest of raw materials.

Her names was Mary Ransum, she was 34 years old, and if truth were told… a little over the hill

One of the standout sequences in the film involves the death of Mary Ransum, played by Micki Moore. Ezra takes a shine to her at the local tavern. He already had blood on his hands at this point, but he wanted more from Mary than just another victim. One night, Ezra slashers Mary’s tire and waits patiently for her to close the tavern. Seemingly harmless, he offers her a hand. He tricks her into going home with him. This remainder of this scene really punctuates the insanity of Ezra Cobb.

Deranged (1974) - Ezra peers from behind rotting flesh
Ezra peer through rotting flesh and worm eaten clothes

As Mary slowly beings to realize that she is in trouble, she stumbles on Ezra’s shrine of death. The results of the Ezra’s sick fascination decay at they are arranged in a tea party for the dead. As Mary scans the room, something seems amiss. One of the bodies stirs slightly as it slowly turns the crank on an old organ grinder. Peering behind the tattered and decaying skin of a corpse are the eyes of Ezra Cobb wearing the clothes and skin of dead women. For a film that makes a point of not taking itself too seriously, Alan Ormsby effectively creates a horrific display of madness.

Having been released a full 7 months earlier, it is striking that Alan Ormsby foreshadows the coming dinner events in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Ezra binds Mary to a chair at a table surrounded by the dead as Ezra plays Master of Ceremonies. Ezra intends to take Mary for a wife, in life and death and whatever that means, until she tricks him into untying her. She buys mere moments by hurling corpses at Ezra, but unfortunately she fails to escape. Mary Ransum joins the dinner party of the dead.

Deranged (1974) - Ezra has Mary Ransum over for dinner
Mary Ransum sits at Ezra’s rotting dinner party

Punching Above Its Weight

Make no mistake, Deranged is a low budget film at a mere $200,000 in production costs. Yet, Alan Ormsby and Producer Tom Karr manage a consistent feeling of steady competence for the duration of the film. The supporting actors, while not superb, provide enough help to Roberts Blossom to hold the film together. From a special effects perspective, Deranged offers nothing to behold. In fact, many of the special effects are rather campy and primitive. However, the charm of the film isn’t extreme gore; but rather the menacing insanity of the man next-door.

Ormsby’s sprinkle of dark humor makes any transgressions forgivable in the end.

Deranged shouldn’t get a totally free pass on its budget. By our estimates it actually enjoyed a higher budget that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Undoubtedly, the later is the much stronger of the two. To say another way, Alan Ormsby is no Tobe Hooper, but he is still hopelessly entangled in some of my favorite late 70s horror films.

Deranged (1974) - Ezra Cobb hangs his latest trophy
Ezra hangs his trophy in the shed like a slaughtered deer

If you can only watch one film…

If you can only watch one film cast in the mold of the Ed Gein murders, Deranged would not be our first choice. Fortunately that’s ridiculous constraint. We can watch whatever we want, and we SHOULD watch Deranged. Often overshadowed by the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it’s a fun little film that does what it sets out to do. It actually does rather respectable job telling the real story of the Butcher of Plainfield.

10 Stunning Women That Built Hammer Horror

I had long intended to write an article on the topic on the 10 Stunning Women That Built Hammer Horror Productions. These women propelled Hammer Productions to the forefront of the British horror game. Unfortunately, news of the recent passing of Veronica Carlson just gave me an unwelcome motivation to make good on that intention. It is not an understatement to say that these women played a huge role in the success of Hammer Productions. Hammer Productions rose to its pinnacle during a transitional period in the world. The Hammer empire was built at the exact same moment that attitudes about women and their role in society were evolving.

This article will honor the women that built Hammer Horror Productions. While I have my favorites, we intentionally did not rank these women and they are listed in no particular order and this list is by no means all-inclusive.

Dracula has Risen From the Grave (1968) - Veronica Carlson, a shining example of the 10 Stunning Women That Built Hammer Horror
RIP Veronica Carlson, you are one of the women that built Hammer Horror

Veronica Carlson

Fantastically beautiful and stealing the audiences glance at every chance, Veronica Carlson starred in two really good Hammer horror films. In Dracula has Risen from the Grave (1968), she plays the standard role of a fiancée pulled away by the evil of Dracula. In Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969), Veronica is subject to an extremely uncomfortable rape scene at the hands of Victor von Frankenstein. She also starred in The Horror of Frankenstein (1970). Veronica was a class act and a torch bearer for the Hammer brand. Veronica Carlson died on February 27, 2022 at the age of 77. Thank you for all the memories!

Dracula 1972 A.D. - Stephanie Beacham like a little sunshine daydream
Stephanie Beacham sitting like a sunshine daydream in the land of Satanic blood-drinking ghouls

Stephanie Beacham

The film Dracula 1972 A.D. (1972), features two absolutely fantastic Hammer girls, but this section is only about one. Dracula 1972 A.D. crosses the divide between The Summer of Love and the soon to be cocaine fueled 70’s. Likewise, it needed a lady that presence and high-fashion sensibilities of the day to pull off the modern day Jessica Van Helsing. Stephanie Beacham jumps off the screen in this role. As her journey through the film took her through the gaudy trappings of 70’s Satanism and old school gothic jive of Christopher Lee’s Dracula, Stephanie Beacham stands out like a fembot in an Austin Powers movie.

For the record, Dracula 1972 A.D. is underrated, so says Malevolent Dark.

Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) - Linda Hayden, disheveled and as wonderful as ever)
Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970) – Linda Hayden disheveled and as wonderful as ever

Linda Hayden

Many of the Ladies of Hammer Productions were famous for being damsels in distress, or at least one of the good guys. Linda Hayden is no exception in her role as Alice Harcourt in Taste the Blood of Dracula. However, she may be most famous for her non-Hammer role in the film Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) as the leader of a satanic coven, Angel Blake. She also starred across Vincent Price in the non-Hammer film Madhouse (1974). The point being, this girl has serious horror bona-fides. Linda Hayden is stunningly beautiful and carries a strong stage presence and piercing eyes.

Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) - Valerie Leon as the female lead Margaret Fuchs, and the resurrected Queen Tera
Valerie Leon plays the lead role of Margaret Fuchs, as well as the resurrected Queen Tera

Valerie Leon

Valerie Leon is another Hammer horror one-timer. She went on to also appear in multiple James Bond. I guess when you think of it, being a Hammer girl shares a lot with being a Bond girls with the exception of the former being more sadistically deviant. When you watch Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, it’s pretty clear as to what the big deal is about Valerie. In a standard mummy trope, she plays dual roles. Her modern fashion sensibilities makes her portrayal of female lead Margaret Fuchs both stunning and sophisticated. But, her olive skin and intoxicating eyes combine to resurrect  the exotic Queen Tera.

The Vampire Lovers (1970) - Ingrid Pitt as one of the bloodsucking Karnsteins
Ingrid Pitt as one of the Karnsteins

Ingrid Pitt

In the 70s, Hammer productions diversified their vampire portfolio from the tired tales of Count Dracula. They would embark on a set of films referred to as the Karnstein Trilogy. These films are especially famous for pushing the limits of vampire sexuality to include overt themes of lesbianism. Ingrid Pitt played multiple roles as Karnstein’s in the first film in the series titled, The Vampire Lovers (1970).

Ingrid would go on to star in the Hammer production, Countess Dracula (1971) detailing the alleged crimes of the real Countess Bathory. She would also star in other non-Hammer favorites such as The House That Dripped Blood (1971) and The Wicker Msn (1973). Ingrid Pitt died on November 23, 2010 at the age of 73. She was an remarkable ambassador for Hammer and the horror genre.

Twins of Evil (1971) - The fabulous Collinson girls in Twins of Evil
The fabulous Collinson girls may be the most recognizable women that built Hammer Horror

Madeleine and Mary Collinson

Speaking of Karnstein’s, the next Hammer girls combine to create one of the most hyper-sexualized vampire pairs in the history of cinema. I am of course talking about the Collinson twins, Madeleine and Mary. The pair play the roles of Frieda and Maria Gelhorn. Once again, Hammer horror pushes the upper limits of sexuality and horror with groundbreaking depictions of lesbianism in the film. Notably, the Collinsons would also go on to be the first identical twins to serve as Playmates of the month for Playboy Magazine.

Madeleine Collinson passed away on August 14th, 2014 at the age of 62. Her sister Mary died on November 23, 2021 at age 69.

The Satanic Rights of Dracula (1973) - Joanna Lumley as Jessica Van Helsing, Hammer girl
Joanna Lumley as Jessic Van Helsing, Hammer girl

Joanna Lumley

The great and wonderful Joanna Lumely also had her brush with Hammer productions. Joanna is most well known for her career in the British sitcom, Absolutely Fabulous and later starring in The Wolf of Wall Street as Aunt Emma. For Hammer, she starred in the often maligned, but mostly underrated The Satanic Rites of Dracula as Jessica Van Helsing. While she never played the role of a Bond girl, she did get up in the crazy intersections of the CIA, MI6 and an international conspiracy to raise Count Dracula in a bid for world domination. While she would eventually go on to other things, Joanna will always be known in horror circles as a woman that built Hammer Productions.

Hammer Horror - The incredible Caroline Munroe
The incredible Caroline Munroe in Captain Kronos

Caroline Munroe

Next up is one of the most prolific horror girls to ever come from Hammer. She only starred in two Hammer productions. In her first, she starred alongside of Stephanie Beacham in Dracula 1972 A.D. (1972). She brought a bit of mynx to Stephanie’s playful kitten. She would later star in one of my all-time favorite Hammer films, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter (1974)She also starred alongside Vincent Price in The Abominable Dr. Phibes and continued to appear in horror films well into the 80’s and beyond.

With her dark brown eyes, dark skin and long brown hair, she brought a welcomed new look Hammer’s traditional blond bombshell disposition.

Kiss of the Vampire (1963) - Jennifer Daniel as Marianne Harcourt
Jennifer Daniels plays Marianne Harcourt in Kiss of the Vampire

Jennifer Daniel

In other list of Hammer girls, Jennifer Daniel often gets overlooked as one of the women that built Hammer horror, but she is absolutely wonderful in her few Hammer roles. She starred as Marianne Harcourt in the underrated Kiss of the Vampire (1963) where her sophistication and natural presence steals every scene she graces. She also starred in Terrance Fisher’s fantastic film, The Reptile (1966), as Valerie Spaldling. If you have not seen The Reptile, it has one of the iconic Hammer monsters of all time.

Jennifer Daniel passed away on August 16, 2017 at the age of 81.

Recognizing the 10 Stunning Women That Built Hammer Horror

It would be easy to dismiss these girls body of work as pretty pinup faces. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The women that built Hammer Horror were at the forefront of changing attitudes with respect to the role of women in society. Some of these women were heroes. Some redefined sexual roles. Others became movie monsters and villains. The bottom line is that Hammer Productions recognized the changing tide, and these women redefined what it means to be a horror girl. The women that built Hammer horror changed the horror game forever.

In closing, these women defined decades of early horror viewing. Sadly it is a sign of the times to see so many of these wonderful women deceased, but we celebrate their accomplishments and contributions to both the genre and cinema.