Plenty of movie posters and VHS box art caught my eye as a kid, but none more so than the films I watched this week. I remember most of these posters from the video rental stores we frequented between 1980 and 1987 and though they made a huge impression on me as a child, I had still never seen most of these movies–until now.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir. Tobe Hooper
Chopping Mall (1986) dir. Jim Wynorski
Cross of Iron (1977) dir. Sam Peckinpah
The Osterman Weekend (1983) dir. Sam Peckinpah
Breeders (1986) dir. Tim Kincaid
Demons (1985) dir. Lamberto Bava
I just finished reading Alison Macor’s thoroughly researched account of the making of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in her book Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids and I decided it would be a good film to kick off the week. The video store we went to in the early 1980’s had a giant poster for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and it was the kind of image and title that I wanted to walk quickly past whenever I saw it. I was terrified of what that movie must have entailed, and I was from Texas so it seemed extra close to home. I was introduced to the movie through the references to it in Mark Harmon’s Summer School, then later I saw the TCM sequel with Dennis Hopper, but I have somehow managed to avoid facing my childhood fear of the original film until now.
It’s definitely a horror classic for a reason. I was expecting the sequel and the many toys, t-shirts, and pop culture references to Texas Chain Saw to dull it a little bit but nothing could be further from the truth. The movie is still tense and macabre and full of real horror. I don’t quite understand why it spawned a cottage industry because nothing about watching it was fun, but I do recognize its power a disturbing piece of art.
The box art for Sam Peckinpah’s only war movie, Cross of Iron, always caught my eye. Though it was clearly a WWII war picture, it also hinted at being a horror film, which in some ways every good war movie is. Cross of Iron was disorienting because the protagonists are a company of German soldiers. Though some of them make reference early in the film that they aren’t fighting for the Nazi cause, it was still uncomfortable to root for Germans. I’m not a war film afficianado by any means, but these German soldiers were unlike any I’ve seen in any other film. The cinematic Nazi is usually clean cut, angular, well-groomed and stiff–always snapping into some rigid conformity with the Nazi regime. The company in Cross of Iron is a collection of ragged, war-weary men who have given up civility, shaving, and in some cases bathing because they are mired in dirt and blood every day. They came across very much like any ragtag group of US soldiers might in a similar film, but through the occasional placement of a bright red Nazi flag, the film reminded me that they were in fact fighting on the wrong side of history. I would have expected this film to be more controversial but it appears to be just slightly-remembered. The battle scenes are long and well-shot but the film’s most significant achievement is the way it humanizes men who in most other movies would simply be seen as monsters.
The box art for Breeders shows a giant penis-shaped alien abducting girls with slimy tentacles. This was both repulsive and utterly irresistible to me during my childhood trips to the video store. The VHS cover held the promise of women having their clothes torn off, but at what cost? Were they really going to be raped and force-bred by a tentacle beast? Well, yes, they were. The film’s central monster is in fact the mutant offspring of such a breeding attempt–a rubbery creature that looks like it has a toothy vagina for a face. It’s vile. The movie is z-grade cheese and clearly a product of the 1980s and there’s really not much about it to like unless you are a fan of the ending. The climax involves all of the abducted women sitting naked in an alien sperm hot tub, writhing and smearing monster goo on each other. Yes, that really happens. That Breeders was written and directed by a guy who has enjoyed a lengthy career directing gay porn casts that climactic scene in a whole new light for me. I wouldn’t mind unseeing it.
I would not have imagined that two of the films this week would come from the same director, but 1983’s The Osterman Weekend is the second entry from Sam Peckinpah. I also would not have imagined that this film would open with a John Hurt sex tape, but it does! Hurt plays a CIA agent whose wife is murdered in the film’s first scene and who sets out to bring down the men responsible. He sets up a game of double-crosses that could probably use a map and score sheet if an expository character wasn’t compelled to explain most of it late in the film. The poster for The Osterman Weekend stared at me right when I walked in the door of our old video rental shop and it instilled a certain fear of being shot by a woman with a compound bow if I ever found myself wandering in the woods. The woman and the bow do play into the story but not in the way I was thinking. The Osterman Weekend has the look of a 1980’s cop show with a little more swearing and a lot more nudity. It wants to be a clever treatise on the way that television manipulates the truth but that message gets a little lost in all of the cloak and dagger bits.
Demons is the one film on this week’s playlist that I wasn’t introduced to through an image at a video store. Instead, I remember very clearly being terrified of the poster that hung at the theater where we went to see such movies as Top Gun and Star Trek IV. At the age of 11 I had built Demons up in my mind as the scariest, most terrifying and horrific film ever made and I don’t know for sure where that notion came from. I remember seeing those glowing eyes on the poster and thinking that the movie should not even be allowed to be shown in theaters. As I walked past the theater where it was playing on my way to see something more family-friendly, I remember the door opening and I caught a glimpse of the scene where the glowing-eye demons emerge from fog in the theater and I was ready to run the other way. Suffice it to say that 25 years later, the film doesn’t seem all that scary. It’s full of great gore including teeth and fingernail gags, a scalping, eye gouging, smashed fingers, and lots of pussy boils that burst into green goo–but it’s not ever scary. It’s hard to make an Italian production shot in Berlin and then dubbed badly into English scary, I think. At least now I know.
I learned a lot from Chopping Mall. For one thing, you don’t really need lethally-armed robot sentries to protect a shopping mall. Also, it’s probably a bad idea in general for a mall to have stores that sell machine guns and road flares, but in the case of a robot emergency, those stores can be useful. Lastly, there’s not really any chopping in Chopping Mall, but that’s OK because there is plenty of other action. This film must have been made on a pitch that included not much more than the title and the idea that some horny young people are holed up in the mall one night when–“STOP, I’ve heard enough, that’s an instant green light!” The poster is deceptive too, especially the one that trades the vaguely robotic hand holding the shopping bag for the severed cyborg monster hand. The film makers were obviously having fun and they dropped in references to Rambo, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Sam Peckinpah amongst others. I’ve now conquered my fear of the Chopping Mall box art and I hate to say it but the regular old Shopping Mall is more of a horror these days.
I really wanted to include Jackie Chan’s The Big Brawl and the Burt Reynolds/Dolly Parton film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas in this week’s viewing, but I couldn’t easily track either of those down. Oddly, both of those films share the same distinction. I misread and misunderstood the title of The Big Brawl to be “The Big Bra” which always left me wondering why my buddies were allowed to see it. I also misread the poster for “Whorehouse” as “Warehouse” and wondered why my parents were so insistent that I could not see that one! They went to see it because it was a Texas movie and it had some Texas Aggies in it but despite my pleading, they would never take me to see the film about a Warehouse. In both cases, I don’t think that I’m really missing out.