The Flesh Eaters (1964) Jack Curtis, known predominantly for his voice work in the Speed Racer cartoon, directed this independent sci-fi/horror hybrid that’s a cut above the usual drive-in fare of the era. An alcoholic starlet and her personal assistant (played by Rita Morley and Barbara Wilkin) secure the services of charter pilot Grant Murdoch (Byron Sanders) and his seaplane. Due to inclement weather, they’re forced to land short of their Rhode Island destination, and end up on a secluded beach. The only other inhabitant is marine biologist Peter Bartell (Martin Kosleck), who turns out to be a Nazi scientist conducting a series of covert experiments. Bartell’s creation, tiny glowing life forms that seek out and devour skin, soon gets out of control. The Flesh Eaters is a simply told but effective fright flick with some surprisingly gory makeup effects for the time. Added together, this makes the film essential viewing.
Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD.
The Funhouse (1981) What can I say? I’m a sucker for dark carnival films. True to its title, much of Tobe Hooper’s horror flick takes place in the titular carnival funhouse, where four unsuspecting teens are trapped with a hideous creature. The Funhouse was a troubled production that didn’t get a lot of love from critics, and doesn’t garner the same level of affection that some of Hooper’s other efforts received. It takes a while to get going, and character development is weak (probably the product of haphazard editing), but it makes up for its deficiencies with a pervasive menacing atmosphere and some excellent, creepy cinematography. The Rick Baker-designed mutant fits in nicely with some of the sideshow oddities that we witness earlier in the film (and foreshadow its appearance). It’s all fairly predictable as we watch the teens, who unwisely decide to spend the night in the funhouse, and proceed to get picked off one by one. There are a few decent scares along the way, however, and some eccentric performances by the sideshow people (including Kevin Conway in three separate roles). With a little more work, The Funhouse could have been great, but instead, it’s merely adequate. While this isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, this film could serve as an acceptable addition, if not a headliner, for an all-night Halloween horror marathon.
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Mulberry Street (2006) Not to be confused with the Dr. Seuss story And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, director/co-writer Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street is a tall tale in its own right. The meager $60,000 budget probably wouldn’t have covered the catering fees for a typical big-budget Hollywood production, but Mickle managed to present a moderately compelling story about an epidemic on the streets of New York City. Most of the story takes place in a tenement house, where its residents contract a disease from mutant rats. It’s surprising that the horror elements are the least effective aspect of this film. Confusing and disorienting attack scenes, presented in quick cuts, attempt to hide the ridiculous premise that residents bitten by mutant rats are transforming into hybrid human/rat creatures. Mulberry Street’s biggest strength is in the human drama, which normally gets the short end of the stick in most modern horror flicks. In one affecting scene, a female soldier with a scarred face (Kim Blair) hides her face from another woman sitting across from her on a commuter train. Although Mickle did a much better job of blending drama and horror with his follow-up, Stake Land, his earlier film might be worth a look if you lower your expectations.
Rating: ***. Available on DVD
Night of the Lepus (1972) The 1970s was a decade typified by nature-run-amok environmental horror films, when everything that could walk, crawl, fly or swim was out to kill us. Night of the Lepus presented one of the unlikeliest of culprits – giant killer bunnies. As silly as this appeared, the film’s biggest problem is that it takes itself so seriously. Despite the acting talents of Janet Leigh, Rory Calhoun and DeForest Kelley, it’s difficult to tell the cardboard characters apart from one another. Since the people and supersized rodents never occupy the same frame, we have no sense of scale. Instead, we’re treated to multiple scenes with reaction shots of terrified humans, interspersed with shots of rabbits hopping around. It’s too dull to work as an unintentional comedy, and even with a running time of 88 minutes, it’s a tad overlong. Maybe the best thing that can be said about the movie is that it was ahead of its time. Night of the Lepus seems to envisage the Syfy channel’s endless lineup of preposterous mutant animal invasion flicks by several decades. If that was the case, the filmmakers were downright prescient.
Rating: **. Available on DVD.
Pumpkinhead (1988) It’s been nearly 25 years since I first watched Stan Winston’s directorial debut. After giving this another look, my opinion hasn’t changed. No one can deny the late Mr. Winston’s genius for stunning creature effects, or his ability to bring our collective nightmares to life. His myriad contributions to horror, fantasy and science fiction films provided me countless hours of enjoyment. I do, however, question his abilities as a director and storyteller with this tepid horror flick – a movie built around effects, rather than the other way around.
Lance Henriksen stars as Ed Harley, a grief-stricken father, who wants retribution after his son is killed by a careless dirt bike rider. Enlisting the aid of a local witch, he helps summon a demonic revenge creature, known only as Pumpkinhead, and the dirt biker and his pals are picked off one by one. Once the creature’s rampage begins, the film could have been over in less than five minutes. Instead, we’re treated to a series of pointless, drawn-out sequences, as the monster vanishes and re-appears for no apparent reason. Pumpkinhead disappoints on many levels. Truth be told, the monster is not his best creature effects work. Its enlarged head and skeletal body seem derivative of the xenomorph and alien queen from Alien and Aliens (no surprise, considering his contributions to the latter film). The film is a bit of a cult classic in some circles, but it seems like a case of misplaced affection, which overlooks Winston’s other, superior contributions to genre cinema.
Rating: **. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) This feeble wannabe slasher film from writer/director Robert Hiltzik plays like an unholy mash-up of Meatballs and Friday the 13th. The setting is a dismal summer camp in upstate New York that bears more resemblance to a gulag than a place of recreation. The film meanders from one scene to another in a plotless haze, where nerds get hassled by jocks and people die. The closest thing to a central storyline follows a brooding mute girl named Angela (Felissa Rose), who’s courted by one of the “good” kids. There’s some unintentional humor, due in part to the atrocious acting, but there’s nothing compelling enough to warrant sitting through a bunch of tedium to arrive at a mildly clever twist ending.
Rating: **. Available on DVD.
Bio-Zombie (1998) This Hong Kong horror comedy about zombies created through biological warfare is a slapdash effort that’s neither scary nor funny. Most of the male leads are unlikeable, and the female characters are dim or passive. While I have nothing against movies that break the rules, Bio-Zombie doesn’t bother to stay consistent. Sometimes the zombies attack humans, and sometimes they attack one another. The makeup effects are bottom of the barrel, with wounds that appear stuck on, and heads and limbs that break off too easily. The action takes place in a semi-deserted mall that seems to have only four stores, although the climax features throngs of zombies trudging through the mall’s parking garage. A complete waste of time.
Rating: * ½. Available on DVD.