1) Without Warning (1980)
I discovered this movie a few years back, having seen it billed as the inspiration for Predator, and even starring Kevin Peter Hall (the Predator hisself) as the troublemaking alien. And damned if I didn’t end up liking it better than Predator in some ways, which is not a knock against Predator, either. What I love about Without Warning is the smaller scale everything’s done on, from a little mountain town instead of a jungle, to the mostly-useless teenagers and dumbass
locals instead of a bunch of military badasses, to the tighter, chillier feel of a low-budget horror film instead of a big-ass blockbuster. Lo-fi intimacy goes a long way for me.
Without Warning makes good use of what it does have, to the sparing use of the alien to letting the two actual stars in the cast (Martin Landau and Jack Palance) chew the hell out of as much
scenery as they logically can before the whole affair winds down. The alien design itself is fairly standard, and nothing we hadn’t already seen on countless sci-fi shows and movies in decades
past, so director Greydon Clark kept its onscreen appearances to a minimum, but used them effectively. The first time you actually see the predatory alien, it’s kind of jolting. Plus, the thing looks damned cool and pretty imposing in the moonlight.
Even if the rest of the movie didn’t work, it’d worth it for Martin Landau and Jack Palance’s performances, both of whom put in more effort than you’d think was necessary for a low-budget sci-fi horror film. Jack Palance screaming, “ALLLLLIIIIIIIEEEEENNNNN!” toward the end is simultaneously goofy as hell and total badass. Oh, it’s also got David Caruso in it, but in 1980, nobody gave a shit about David Caruso, so he ends up alien-bait pretty quick. Predator took all the stuff from Without Warning that worked, did it on a much grander scale, and it’s a hell of a movie…but I love the scrappy little monster that Without Warning is. So much so that not an October goes by that I don’t watch it and hoist a glass to Jack Palance’s final,
2) Night of the Seagulls (1976)
The final, and best put-together, installment of Italian director Amando de Ossorio’s criminally-overlooked series starring the Blind Dead! A doctor and his wife arrive in a strange little coastal
town, where the doctor is taking up his post as the village medic, and as often happened in the 70’s, eeeeeevil is afoot! This time it’s in the shambling form of the undead Knights Templar.
Those rascally Knights are taking away seven young maiden sacrifices over the course of seven nights, and naturally, the good doctor befriends one of the maidens and tries to save her from a
grisly fate of being bled to death, dismembered, and fed to crabs, all in the (un)name of some Lovecraftian aquarian master.
The Blind Dead series wasn’t known for its inventiveness of story. Hell no. But Amando de Ossorio was a master of creating atmosphere, and the Blind Dead series is loaded with slow, creepy foreboding like few others, and he somehow makes the blind, sluggish knights a credible threat, with their grasping skeletal hands, leathery, ape-like faces, and teeth ready to chomp down on anybody they get hold of. The Knights can even still swing their swords! I know, I know, it sounds kinda ridiculous–and it is, I grant you–but like the other Blind Dead films, Night of the Seagulls is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a reason British doom metal legends Cathedral wrote four songs about the Blind Dead, and it’s not because these were big-budget epics. Something about the Blind Dead movies just works.
I chose Night of the Seagulls because it’s the most polished and refined of the bunch, and is the least trashy of the series with the overall best story. It’s a good introduction to the Blind Dead series and an oft-overlooked gem that’s well worth checking out this Halloween. Trust me…blind and slow-moving or not, the Knights Templar are not to be screwed with.
3) Matango (1963)
A surprisingly bleak film from director Ishirō Honda (responsible for a little-known film called Godzilla) about a group of castaways stranded on a deserted island and slowly being mutated by the local mushrooms. Well, they’re low on food and gotta eat something, right? With 1960’s Japanese movies, particularly Toho and Honda, I’ve gotten used to brighter, more colorful adventures, but Matango is dark in both atmosphere and themes, with a sense of hopelessness
hanging over the proceedings from the get-go.
With Matango, Honda does everything with an even, measured hand, taking his time in building the story and applying the pressure to our castaways gradually, letting them be slowly crushed by their situation, one by one. After all, being stuck on a mysterious island with no viable source of food except for some bad-news mushrooms isn’t gonna make for happy times, and Honda’s approach is most definitely not Gilligan’s Island, but at the same time, it never gets so heavy-handed that it’s annoying. Honda just mostly lets people be people, watching them as they slowly lose their optimism and trappings of civilization until, finally, they just give in to the inevitable and literally lose their humanity.
The makeup effects are notable, too, as instead of going for something over-the-top (as you’d expect for a 60’s movie about mutating mushrooms), the makeup instead is reminiscent of radiation burns and growths, and is unsettling more than gruesome Not to mention realistic-looking enough that Matango caught some hell in Japan for depicting injuries too uncomfortably close to that of atom bomb survivors. Honda uses these moments sparingly, and to great effect.
The guy was good at what he did. Matango is more of a psychological horror story with bits of sci-fi mixed in than it is a
conventional monster movie, and is mostly quiet and brooding in its character, and would be a good one for a rainy night with all the lights off.
4) First Man Into Space (1959)
An oft-overlooked classic from the Space Age, this little independent, British-made (but taking place in America) film looks at what might happen if a human being were to venture beyond the safe confines of our world…and the terrible price they might pay for such hubris. This was two years before Yuri Gagarin actually became the first man into space, so at the time, this was plausible enough. Cosmic rays or some shit, right?
Well, whatever the reason, Lt. Dan Prescott flies a high-altitude rocket into the fringes of outer space, going against orders, because he’s all fired-up to be the first man into space…he’s a rebel who plays by his own rules! Then he flies through a cloud of an unknown substance. Then he nose-dives. Then he ejects. Plane crashes, Prescott’s nowhere to be found. Then a monster starts roaming the countryside, tearing up blood banks and drinking cow-blood! Vampire from space!
Naw, man. Space is filled with unknown horrors humanity didn’t know shit about in 1959, and Dan Prescott ran smack-dab into them, coming home a monster. And a pretty gruesome-looking son of a gun for a late 50’s indie movie, too. The final scenes are grim as hell, with an edge you didn’t often see from this era.
This is another one of those films where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and something about this particular little sci-fi horror film just really sucks me in, and I love it, even as I know damned well it’s no masterpiece. There’s something charmingly innocent about this bloody little Space Age tale of what could happen when humans reach space, and I never tire of it.
5) The Banana Splits Movie (2019)
So…old 60’s/70’s kids show turned into a horror movie, yeah? I was excited for this from the moment I saw the previews, and when I finally got to see it, I was not disappointed. Because this isn’t the kind of movie you go into with high expectations–you go in expecting something bloody and ridiculous, and that’s precisely what it is. The Banana Splits Movie has absolutely no illusions about itself and what it’s there for, and this is meant to be watched with a drink in hand as you hoot and holler your way through the carnage.
The story, which revolves around the robotic Banana Splits going on a rampage around the studio after being cancelled after 50 years because they weren’t current enough (or something), is light and serves its purpose without getting fancy. It does a pretty decent job of putting all the pieces in place so these lovable scamps from yesteryear can mangle the shit out of some studio staff and some lucky VIPs who got to stay after the final show to meet the Banana Splits. We all know the main attraction of this film was seeing the Splits go berserk, and the film gives us plenty of that, going for gruesome laughs as the cast is neatly whittled down by the butt-hurt
robots. We’ve seen this story before, sure, but never with the Banana Splits doing the killing.
The killings themselves are predictably gory and comical, and there’s something perversely satisfying about seeing these mostly-forgotten-but-still-beloved-in-some-quarters Saturday morning characters ripping the shit out of studio folk and overzealous fans. This is the kind of movie you would’ve half-assed wrote a script for with your friends while staying up way too late on a Friday night back in junior high. I wager that the Banana Splits Movie team still can’t believe they got away with this.
In this era of reboots and retreads, I applaud the Banana Splits Movie, as instead of trying to update an old formula for the modern era, it just says “fuck it, let’s go nuts.” And as one reviewer noted, it’s not like anybody else had a better idea.
I’m the product of a small-town Illinois upbringing that neatly coincided with the rise of cable, meaning my earliest media memories are a delightful deluge of old movies from the 50’s through the 70’s being played nonstop on TBS and USA. They had to fill the hours somehow, dammit! To this day, I’m left with a love of old movies great and horrible, and an appreciation of the absurdities of decades past colors almost everything I do, including my own writing, which mostly consists of semi-cartoonish, over-the-top, and profanity-laden tales of skull-smashing vampire action and adventure. I still reside in Canton with my lovely and infinitely-patient, where I go for long bike rides, obsess over Godzilla, still watch old movies, and get the dog all hyped up before bed.
Here’s a few of the things I’ve written…
Unholy War: The Gathering Storm
Unholy War: Rage & Redemption
Not Of This Earth (inspired by The First Man Into Space, no less.)