BAMcinématek’s “Some Kind of Horror Show” was as twisted, unpretentious, and viscerally exhilarating as the genre it celebrated. The series made room for Dario Argento, Todd Browning, Canadian slasher, comedy-horror, ‘60s exploitation, supernatural samurai, and post-Psycho psychos. Old trailers were played before screenings. John Landis spoke about Innocent Blood and Thriller with infectious enthusiasm; choreographer Mark Morris introduced Martin; film historian Elliot Stein talked about the Boulting Brothers after Twisted Nerve. It more than lived up to its promise to show “the lost, the forgotten, or just plain under-seen.” It’s rare to find a film series so uniformly entertaining.
For four weeks, select devotees of New York’s art-houses found a home where their commentary, seat fidgeting, and fast food takeout were welcomed as part of the interactive process of horror. “These walls weren’t meant to keep someone out,” cried Scott Glenn. His rapt member of the audience whispered, “They were meant to keep something in.”
The series covered a wide range in time and tone. If there was any recurring theme, it showed up in films about the connection between perverted puberty and monsters. For these killers—usually damaged by their mothers—sex becomes a physical threat against which they defend themselves by annihilating other bodies. These were pre-slasher, from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when Psycho‘s influence was more psychological than visual.
In Reflection of Fear 1973), Marguerite (Mary Ure) cloistered in a turn-of-the-century Victorian dream world by her mother, vies for her visiting dad’s (Robert Shaw) attention in hopes that she’ll get to live with him. Her plans are complicated by a series of murders that may or may not be committed by Marguerite or her eerie life-size doll, Aaron. One of cinematographer William Fraker’s few directorial efforts and shot by Laszlo Kovacs through a gauzy Hallmark filter, it anticipates Carrie in its depiction of girl caught in a perpetually adolescent nightmare.
Most of these killer kids tend to be loners. As the titular hero of 1977’s Martin (John Amplas) tells a talk radio host, “I don’t want to make friends, not even for the sexy stuff.” A serial killer and maybe a vampire (I suspect not), Aaron resists his deeply religious grandfather’s beliefs. If it weren’t for his psychotic tendencies, Aaron would appear a typically angst-ridden teen trying to express himself and connect with others. The boy displays a creepy tenderness towards his victims, first shooting them full of a narcotic before having sex with them while drinking their blood. “It’s not supposed to hurt you,” he counsels one nearly botched job. George Romero displays a similar empathy towards Martin. It’s a brilliant, profoundly unsettling film that, like Romero’s zombie movies, explores the specific and general pains of alienation.
Twisted Nerve (1968) features another lonely and conflicted boy named Martin (Hywel Bennett), who switches between playing a “slow” lost child he calls “Georgie” and a conniving murderer. His condition is explained by shaky science, something about genetics and his “Mongoloid” brother, and yet another smothering, overprotective mother. Living in a boarding house, a bastion of lost souls, he plans to marry the pretty young librarian (Hayley Mills) whose desperate mother owns the place. The script by Peeping Tom‘s Leo Marks maintains an unsettling remove the action, mirroring Martin’s perspective. (Film geek footnote: the whistled “Georgie’s Theme,” by Bernard Hermann, was used by Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill; the BAM series featured several incredible songs, from Hermann’s “Tangerine Dream” in The Keep, Donald Rubenstein’s scores for Martin, Lalo Schifrin drawing on Hermann for Eye of the Cat, and Duke Ellington on the short, Le Vampire.)
Somewhere between the Freudian gems and more pedestrian horror lies Eye of the Cat (1969), which proves that a producer can hire the screenwriter of Psycho (Joseph Stefano), the animal trainer from The Birds (Ray Berwick), Edith Head, and Lalo Schifrin, but without Hitchcock, you’re still going to fall far short of a classic. It’s still fun, combining ‘60s exploitation (groovy San Francisco, girl fights, Bond-ready actress Gayle Hunnicutt) with a campy delusional aunt (Eleanor Parker) and the bitter cat-wrangling nephew (Tim Henry), who acts as her caretaker.
Cats show up again in Kuroneko (a.k.a. Yabu no naka no kuroneko or Black Cat from the Grove, 1968), by Japanese horror maestro Kaneto Shindo. It combines a traditional Kwaidan, or vengeful ghost story, with some samurai action in the story of two murdered women (Nobuko Otowa and Kiwako Taichi) revived by some sort of demon-cat to kill all samurai warriors. When the women’s son/husband (Kichiemon Nakamura) is ordered to destroy them, the ensuing emotional drama—the wife makes a bargain in order to be temporarily reunited with her husband, the mother has to kill her son—fits in well with the action. The set pieces are clear and concise, particularly the initial murder of the women, conveyed through a long shot of the samurai exiting a farmhouse and walking off screen, and moments later a cloud of smoke belching out the windows and doors. The supernatural elements are visualized using simple but effect tricks: spot lighting, expressionist sets, and smoke machines.
For The Keep (1983), director Michael Mann seemingly ordered all smoke machines in existence and left them on for the entirety of the shoot. His second feature, it contains the synth-soaked soundtrack and excessive moodiness one might expect from the director who brought MTV video styling to narrative filmmaking, but I never would have guessed that he’d be interested in this intriguing update of the Golem story to World War II Romania. Ian McKellen plays a crippled concentration camp escapee recruited by an otherworldly giant to help him escape from the titular keep. The monster means to avenge the crimes of the Nazis. Released in 1983, it shares an arty horror vibe similar to Tony Scott’s The Hunger from that same year, a gloomy approach that would be dropped by both directors in their transitions to blockbusters.
Some directors don’t aspire to anything other than to be good showmen. John Landis’s films are crammed with references to his idols and powered by a desire to entertain above all else. His horror-mob comedy, Innocent Blood (1992), features cameos by Argento and Sam Raimi (Romero was sick on his cameo shooting day), Don Rickles melting, and a charming vampiress (Anne Parillaud), who bites Chazz Palminteri because, she says, “He annoyed me.”
In a post-screening talk, Landis called the film his “guilty pleasure,” acknowledging that he probably could have made it less ridiculous and scarier. He is as engaging a storyteller in person as with a camera. One example: in the early ‘90s, he said, he ran into Vincent Price at a Tower Records in L.A. Price, who had only been paid something like $30 for Thriller, asked Landis what he thought of the first Michael Jackson trial. Landis replied and then Price yelled, “Well I don’t know about the boys, but he sure fucked me!”
Such amusing vulgarities were par for “Some Kind of Horror Show” and most screenings ended with viewers smiling, shaking their heads, and saying, “That’s so messed up.”