Trilogy of (T)errors

The horror genre is perhaps the only artistic craft that promotes and celebrates the unrestrained display of human imagination. As a consequence, our beloved cinematic category barely respects logic, physical/natural laws, or any type of social and cultural taboos. If anything, horror is about transgressing boundaries and norms. However, the problem with motion picture macabre that tries to be too edgy is that it risks becoming very silly.

Consider how one of the early drafts of the script for Ridley Scott’s Alien had a bleak ending in which the monster crushes Ripley’s skull, and then, imitating her voice, it calls to Earth for help. This is quite a problematic turnover of events, not only because the heroine dies, but because the monster is suddenly able to show complex, human-like thinking and reasoning. Personally, I find it difficult to believe that Alien would have been such a beloved and enduring classic if the filmmakers had chosen this harebrained finale. After all, it is the primal brutality, unmatched survival instincts, and insect-like life cycle of this eye-less being from another world that made the film so unusual and scary.

Therefore, it seems clear that a single awkward plot development can sometimes decide the complete success or failure of a horror flick. Unfortunately, several high quality fright films with interesting and unusual storylines have failed to see the moment they delved into cinematic absurdity. Three such examples are Halloween III (1982), The Keep (1983), and Lifeforce (1985). These movies are often maligned, bashed, and hated by horror fans, and remain ignored by academics and scholars of the genre. However, at the risk of my credibility as PopMatter‘s horror expert, I will argue that these films are three of the most interesting efforts of the ’80s, and should actually be considered as “slightly imperfect” masterpieces.

In spite of the fiery demise of the evil Michael Myers at the end of Halloween II (1981), series creator John Carpenter was already contemplating future sequels. Instead of resurrecting the fiendish “Shape” once and again, Carpenter conceived of a series of horror films taking place during the Halloween season, with no narrative connection to the first two entries in the franchise. The first attempt was Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, a rather cruel and wacky movie directed by Tommy Lee Wallace (and produced by Carpenter himself).

In Halloween III, Dan O’Herlihy gives a sinister performance as the evil Irish entrepreneur Conal Cochrane, the owner of a factory that produces bestselling Halloween masks. Disgusted by the way the holiday has been transformed into a silly celebration where children get candy, Cochrane devices a master plan to go back to the old ways, when children were brutally sacrificed to pagan Gods. On Halloween night a signal transmitted across several TV channels will make the masks he produces shoot a lethal beam into the user’s skull, transforming brain matter into poisonous snakes and creepy insects. To guarantee maximum impact, an advertising campaign, repeated ad nauseam, prompts children to wear their mask on front of the TV at the “magic hour”.

This bizarre plot was the brainchild of Nigel Kneale, the beloved British sci-fi author who created the intrepid Dr Quatermass of the classic TV miniseries and films The Quatermass Xperiment (1953, 1955), Quatermass II (1955, 1957), and Quatermass and the Pit (1958, 1967). However, because of disagreements between the writer and the filmmakers, Kneale retracted his name from the final credits (according to Carpenter, Kneale’s original screenplay was too bitter in its anti-Irish spirit, while Kneale was said to be repulsed by the movie’s graphic violence and gore).

Because most fans of the franchise were expecting another by-the-rules slasher flick with the unstoppable Michael Myers at the forefront, Halloween III failed miserably at the box office and quickly became the subject of rather unjustified criticisms. But truth be told,Halloween III is a decent horror film with an unusually macabre story, outstanding cinematography (by Dean Cundey), one of the best scores ever composed by Carpenter, and some truly gory special effects.

Even more compelling was the degree of violence that Cochrane envisions on young children across the nation. It is perhaps without precedent in the history of the horror genre, which characteristically punishes only a handful of promiscuous teenagers or some irresponsible adults. Equally appealing is its Lovecraftian touch: the electronic device inside the masks uses some cryptic “ancient technology” generated by the monoliths of Stonehenge. Also fascinating is the way Halloween III criticizes public advertisement targeted to children. And finally, the presentation of TV as an invasive medium able to distort the human body feels straight out of Canadian director David Cronenberg’s mind.

Personally, I find this flick so good that I often wonder what would have happened if it had been released under a different title, with a name that did not raise any type of audience expectations. Unfortunately, Halloween III has its silly moment toward the end of the film, when it is revealed that Cochrane’s thugs are robots. Making evident the complexities of the horror genre, it is perplexing that within the fictional context of the movie, most people find the idea of microchips using Stonehenge dust to mutate human brains into a menagerie of crawlers more believable than the idea of autonomous machines replicating human functions.

Released the year after Halloween III, The Keep is based on the outstanding bestseller of the same name written by prolific horror author F. Paul Wilson. The first of a series of six novels collectively known as “The Adversary Cycle”, The Keep takes place during the height of World War II and the German occupation of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. Here, a group of Nazi soldiers are deployed to an ancient fortress located in a mountainous pass. However, the German commander observes that the creepy fortress appears not to be made as a defensive structure to keep invaders out, but as a means of keeping ‘something’ in.

Directed with flair by Michael Mann, The Keep juxtaposes the malevolence of Nazi Germany against the unspeakable horrors of an unearthly being. Moved by pure greed, two soldiers accidentally free a powerful creature from his prison inside the Keep. Molasar, an ethereal entity that regenerates itself by consuming human life, is an ancient demigod that rightfully belongs to Lovecraft lore (the terrifying Necronomicon even makes an appearance in the book).

But what makes Molasar so unique is his unusual vampiric nature, as he does not feed on blood, but on human fear and evilness. And these feelings are magnified when soldiers, sadistic SS officers, and a decrepit Jewish professor are all brought together inside the walls of the fortress. The SS savagely executes peasants in the nearby village, while the professor conspires with Molasar to completely exterminate the Nazi regime. Thus, The Keep questions the notions of absolute good vs. absolute evil, and makes one ponder about the value of using one form of wickedness to fight another.

Among its many other assets, The Keep features a disturbing atmosphere, creepy production design, beautiful cinematography, a truly outstanding score by Tangerine Dream (probably their best soundtrack to date), grotesque special effects, and compelling characters portrayed by Scott Glenn, Jurgen Prochnow, Gabriel Byrne and Ian McKellen.

Still, horror fans often despise the movie, and even F. Paul Wilson has gone on record stating how much he hates the flick. I would argue that one problem might be that The Keep is too good looking to be a horror film, and the dazzling images of nearly poetic beauty tend to distract from the most macabre elements of the film. But perhaps the biggest problem with The Keep is its extravagant finale that combines elements from Star Wars and Michael Jackson music videos, showcasing a battle between the forces of good and evil using lasers and other fancy light tricks. Unfortunately, in comparison to the creepy opening moments of the film, this ending looks ridiculous.

At the time The Keep was released in theaters, Michael Mann was a few years away from becoming the respected director he is today, so very few were disappointed. But when Tobe Hooper, the director of the groundbreaking The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), announced Space Vampires as his next project, many fans eagerly awaited for what promised to be a landmark in the genre.

The source for this film was the celebrated Colin Wilson novel of the same name, a dense Gothic horror story rich in convoluted philosophy and existential subtexts. Thus, it is rather ironic that the producers of the film decided to change the title to Lifeforce. Believe it or not, they considered Space Vampires to be a very cheesy name, and then went on to replace most of the intellectualism of the book with scenes of horror, carnage, and destruction.

Nevertheless, Lifeforce presents a rather unusual apocalyptic tale of epic proportions. As the film begins, a crew of intrepid astronauts discovers two naked men and one naked girl inside a weird alien ship hidden in the tail of Halley’s comet. These three humanoids are terrifying vampires that feed on the “ifeforce”that resides inside every living creature. When these creatures are brought to Earth, all hell breaks loose.

To the credit of Hooper, he stretched his budget and put everything on screen except the kitchen sink. We have vampires, zombies, spaceships, otherworldly creatures, psychos, blobs, a devastated London under the control of NATO, bizarre transmutations of the human flesh, and a naked girl wreaking havoc inside a government building. It almost looks as if Lifeforce is the result of placing a few George Romero’s zombie flicks, a couple of Cronenberg’s movies, and fair amounts of the Doctor Who, Quatermass and the Alien series inside a high speed blender.

Still, Lifeforce remains original and satisfying in its audacity and desire to convey so much in a two hour film. Lifeforce easily has enough intriguing ideas and action set pieces to fill a six hour miniseries. But truth be told, the dense storyline of Lifeforce not only was its major asset, but also its greatest liability. It is clear that Hooper ended up stretching himself too thin. Making things worse, the producers slashed nearly 15 minutes of its running time when it opened in American theaters (but thankfully, the original director’s cut is available on DVD). The result was a rather incomprehensible film that failed to engage audiences. It became a major failure at the box office.

Even though Lifeforce does not shine, thanks to its convoluted script, it does have some witty dialogue that is destined to become classic within the genre. Consider the following exchange between Colonel Caine (Peter Firth), a British commando trying to stop the alien menace, and Doctor Fallada (Frank Finlay), a scientist fascinated with death:

Caine: You mean life after death?
Fallada: Yes.
Caine: Is there?
Fallada: What?
Caine: Life after death?
Fallada: Do you really want to know?
Caine: No.
Fallada: Well, to answer your question, yes….

And similarly to Halloween III and The Keep, Lifeforce has several other worthy attributes: a rousing score by the legendary Henry Mancini, solid direction by Hooper, bizarre production designs, gory special effects, exciting action sequences, and decent acting by Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May and Patrick Stewart.

Therefore, even though Halloween III, The Keep and Lifeforce have moments that drive them into the realm of absurdity, they have many quality assets that raise them above most horror films of the period. Most significantly, they attempted to present original ideas within an artistically stagnant period of the genre. The early ’80s was an era in which horror had been reduced to formulaic slasher flicks. Thus, instead of bashing Halloween III, The Keep, and Lifeforce for their silliness, one should admire them for trying to be radically different, venturing into new uncharted lands of cinematic terror. As such, they represent the limits, and the liabilities, of the horror film.