Terror Tuesday: Six Sites Remember The Class of 1981

Brian looks back at the great slasher films of 1981, including THE PIT, DEAD & BURIED, MY BLOODY VALENTINE and DON’T GO NEAR THE PARK!

Terror Tuesday: Six Sites Remember The Class of 1981

So enjoy this and all of the other articles linked below, and then yell at us all for whatever movie we missed (sorry, Student Bodies/Wolfen fans).  And thanks again to Shock’s Ryan Turek who was the brainchild of this endeavor, as well as the representatives from Bloody Disgusting, Dread Central, Fearnet, and Arrow In The Head - truly honored to be a part of the group.

THE PIT

Nearly every single aspect of The Pit can be considered as “a bit odd”.  It’s a Canadian production but it was filmed in the US. The novelization came out a year before the movie. The “hero” (read: murderous child) disappears for most of the third act.  The heroine has little trouble with the fact that young Jamie watches her sleep with an unbuttoned top, and later washes his back in the tub for 3-4 minutes while he alludes to his mother molesting him.  His teddy bear can move on its own.  It opens on a close up shot of a clown cake.  And in my opinion, the alpha and omega of “WHAT?” when it comes to this movie, the director’s wife wouldn’t allow him to film any of the nude scenes in the film… except for the one featuring his own daughter.

But the truly odd thing is that it’s the rare killer kid movie that barely even tries to be scary.  Jamie goes on a murder spree late in the second act that’s accompanied by cheerful, heroic music, and the movie goes out of its way to make you hate the folks he tosses in the eponymous pit.  In Bloody Birthday or other similar flicks from the era (and beyond), you’re not supposed to be rooting for the kiddie killer(s), but here, Jamie actually seems like the most likable person in the movie.  And that’s why it’s a shame when he disappears for most of the third act (explaining why would be too spoiler-y), only to resurface for a truly demented ending, featuring the greatest freeze-frame in cinematic history.

Needless to say, if you haven’t seen this demented and odd flick, now is the time to correct that.  It seems to be fairly obscure (though still in print); I was unable to even determine if it had a real theatrical release in the US - IMDb provides a release date of October 23, 1981 but doesn’t have a gross or screen count (BoxOfficeMojo doesn’t list it at all).  Luckily, unlike other obscure titles from the era, the DVD from Anchor Bay provides a nice anamorphic transfer (on a double feature disc with the woeful Hellgate), and while it has recently gone out of print, it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find a copy and discover this gem.

MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Of all the post Halloween/Friday the 13th slashers that were never granted a sequel, My Bloody Valentine has been my favorite, since I first saw it back in 1994 or so.  Its MPAA mangling has been the stuff of legend over the years, and it makes for a terrific example of how silly those folks can be, but it sadly overshadows the fact that with or without blood, it’s actually a terrific slasher.  There’s a tone to some of the writeups on the film that “without the gore the movie is pointless”, and that is simply not true.  The actors may be a bit old (they’re referred to and often act like college age kids, but they all look in their 30s), but they have created some of the more memorable and likable characters to come out of the early 80s slasher boom.  Hollis, Patty, Sylvia, Howard… totally delightful, charming folks that you will actually miss when they are dispatched.  Or at least not be rooting for their demise.

More importantly, compared to most of the other slashers of 1981 (including the followups to Friday and Halloween), there is an emphasis on suspense and atmosphere over a body count that I’ve always appreciated.  In particular, they don’t try to isolate everyone to kill them off without alerting the others; the core group knows they are in danger for a while, as they try to escape from the mine.  At least two characters are killed in plain sight of a few others, something you never see in the Friday sequels.

Plus, spoilers ahead for a 30 year old movie you should have seen already, it’s a stealth whodunit!  You are told throughout the movie that the killer is Harry Warden, a presumably escaped mental patient not unlike Michael Myers who caused the obligatory town tragedy years before, only to discover in the third act that Warden died in the hospital a couple years ago.  So WHO IS THE KILLER?  Needless to say, the first time I saw the movie I found it to be a great surprise, and unlike Friday the 13th, it doesn’t “cheat” with the revelation; it’s one of our characters, not someone who we never knew existed until two minutes before they out themselves as the murderer.

AND THE THEME SONG!  Anyone who follows my writing knows how much I enjoy a good theme song for a horror movie (i.e. Shocker, Killer Klowns, Pet Semetary), and MBV‘s track is no exception.  It’s a melancholy tune that sounds sort of like an Irish ballad, written by the film’s composer (Paul Zaza, who also composed Prom Night and its sequels) and sung by John McDermott.  In fact, while I was a big fan of the 2009 3D remake, I had to dock it a grade for not including the theme (director Patrick Lussier told me that Paramount was asking for too much money to license it).

On the subject of the remake, whether you liked it or not, any fan of the original has to appreciate its existence, because it was the very thing that finally got us what we wanted - the gore footage!  Seeing an obvious way to make some dough, Lionsgate commissioned a new special edition of the film (the original DVD from Paramount being typically barebones), with the option to watch it with the censored bits edited back into the film (amazing how this long-lost footage suddenly re-appeared a few months before the remake hit theaters).  The quality wasn’t quite perfect, as it was taken from a workprint, but after almost thirty years, it was a total joy to finally see this legendary splatter, most of which remains quite impressive even today.

GRADUATION DAY

Much like My Bloody Valentine, Graduation Day is a whodunit slasher, but that’s not a surprise – indeed, part of the fun is trying to figure out which of the red herrings is the killer.  It’s actually a decent enough mystery, with plenty of suspects running about, including the great Christopher George (Pieces, Grizzly).  George always plays a sort of snarling asshole, but he’s never been THIS much of a hardass; as the very tough track coach, he more or less causes the death of one of his runners, which is what sets the plot off as the killer seeks to eliminate everyone on the team.

It also contains my favorite line in any slasher movie, ever.  The movie’s sometimes awkward structure allows for two different heroes, one a detective doing his job, the other is the sister of the girl who died at the beginning (and thus a very flimsy suspect, as the murders start when she comes back to town).  They are separate for most of the movie, but around the end of the second act they bump into each other while pursuing a suspect.  The sister starts saying stuff like “Come on, we gotta go after him!” or whatever, and the poor cop just yells “Who ARE you?  What’s your stake in all this?”  So many movies just have characters meeting for the first time and seemingly knowing all of the backstory that they weren’t present for, so I love that this movie, unintentionally or not, makes a joke out of it.

Most of the kills are nothing special, and the motive is obvious from the start which renders some scenes rather pointless (the killer isn’t going to take out the music teacher, don’t spend 5 minutes on him wandering around by himself), but it’s got a strange charm, and a wonderfully silly final chase.  In it, the killer is subdued because he adheres to the slasher “rule” about propping up all of the bodies for your Final Girl to find.  It also features the debut performance of one Vanna White, and in a bit of sleazy trivia, Linnea Quigley briefly appears as a random character who is actually supposed to be playing one of the girls on the track team, replacing an actress who was fired for refusing to do nudity.  But it was important to the story, dammit!

DON’T GO NEAR THE PARK

I put off watching this one for a while because I thought it was a Last House ripoff of some sort, and that sort of thing just never finds itself on the top of my Must See list.  So imagine my delight when I finally sat down to see it and discovered that Don’t Go Near The Park was a truly nutty, almost cripplingly random movie.  In just 82 scant minutes, the movie offers cavemen, zombies, laser beams, attempted rape, magic amulets, stalking scenes, the history of LA’s Griffith Park, mysterious flowers, and what may be the most gratuitous and random Linnea Quigley (her again!) nude scene in cinematic history.

All of this is preceded by an opening text crawl, which itself is preceded by a shorter, almost disclaimer-like text card that sort of introduces the aforementioned crawl.  Then the movie begins 12,000 years ago (!), followed by “16 years ago” (!!!).  I mean, the movie is essentially about a girl named Bondi (played by the preternaturally cute Tamara Taylor), but the movie takes about a half hour to actually get to her, because writer/director Lawrence D. Foldes felt compelled to explain not only how she was born but her parents as well.  It’d be like if they made a Venom movie but started off with a solid 25 minutes of how Peter Parker became Spider-Man (with some stuff about Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s courtship for good measure).

But it’s all part of the crazy charm, which the movie delivers in spades.  From the laughably cheap gore FX to the out of nowhere plot turns, the movie never really seems to pick a plot or even a sub-genre; if you were to leave the room and come back 10 minutes later, you would probably suspect it was a different film entirely.  The closest thing it has to a plot concerns two ancient beings who need to devour people (usually hot girls) in order to retain their youthful image, but they spent so much time on all that other stuff that it’s easy to forget about their story whenever Foldes remembers to cut back to them.  And thus, it’s not the best movie on this list (if anything it’s the weakest of my five, at least), but it IS the most insanely fun, making even The Pit look kind of normal in comparison.

DEAD & BURIED

When people ask what are the best movies I’ve “found” in the process of doing Horror Movie A Day, Dead & Buried is often cited.  I had heard the title a few times prior to finally seeing it a few years back, and then kicked myself for not seeing it sooner.  Director Gary Sherman may catch a lot of flack for helming rubbish like Poltergeist III, but this and some of his other films (Death Line aka Raw Meat especially) prove that he is an under appreciated talent in the horror genre.

What makes the film work is that it has a little bit of everything and yet feels like a wholly unique film.  It’s a part pod person, part zombie, and part mad scientist flick; it’s atmospheric and gloomy like an old Hammer film, with more fog than The Fog, but some of the kill scenes play out like the American slasher films of the period.  It’s even got a little bit of humor, but not as much as originally intended (it was intended to be a dark comedy but producers demanded that they emphasize the horror).  It’s even got a great twist ending that comes right before the end credits roll and you realize that it doesn’t really make sense!

It’s also a terrific “Hey look who it is!” offering.  The great Barry Corbin appears as one of the townsfolk, as does Robert Englund.  Michael Bay regular (and only actor besides Kiefer to appear in all seasons of 24) Glenn Morshower, sporting a full head of hair, pops up as a coroner’s assistant, and the beautiful Lisa Blount (best known for Prince of Darkness) is one of the primary villains.  B-movie regular Michael Pataki is in there somewhere too but I didn’t spot him.  Sadly it’s also one of the final films of Oscar winner Jack Albertson (Grandpa Joe!), who was battling cancer during production but still plays his delightfully offbeat coroner character with gusto.

Add in some great Stan Winston effects and some truly creepy scare scenes (the family in the house is a particular highlight) and you have a top notch chiller that lends itself to repeat viewings (which is a good thing as the special edition DVD boasts a whopping three commentary tracks).  If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t make my mistake - see it at once!


Again, the six sites couldn’t cover all of the flicks from 1981, but let’s face it - some of them have been written about to death over the past 30 years.  Ideally, there will be one or two flicks on this list (and the others) that you haven’t seen yet, or maybe take another look at one you saw a while back and had forgotten about.  Overall, I think these articles paint a pretty good picture of the incredibly diverse and prolific output of 1981, and I’m happy to help celebrate them for their 30th birthdays.  And now we begin a year long argument over who gets to do The Thing for next year’s article.

Check out the other sites!

Arrow In The Head
Bloody Disgusting
Dread Central
Fearnet
ShockTillYouDrop

 

Brian Collins's photo About the Author: Brian, aka BC, has been watching horror movies since the age of 6, and twenty years later decided to put it to good use, both as a writer for Bloody-Disgusting as well as launching his own site, Horror Movie A Day, which Roger Ebert once read and misunderstood the points that were being made.
t K