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Best Slasher Films 70s and 80s Best Slasher Films 70s and 80s

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Games of Terror: The Best Slasher Films (1970 – 1990)

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10. Maniac (1980)

Did you know that Michael Sembello’s 1983 hit song “Maniac” from Flashdance was originally written as the title track to William Lustig’s low budget New York grunge slasher flick, Maniac? A precursor to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Lustig’s grimy snapshot of early ‘80s Manhattan is an unapologetically twisted study of a pathological murdering maniac. Maniac comes across as a slasher version of Taxi Driver, a film that star Joe Spinell also appeared in. Spinell is committed to his role and does a fabulous job in delivering a series of long and rambling monologues to himself about his childhood abuse. This harrowing, stomach-churning journey into his psyche pissed off many critics upon release, but one cannot deny the emotional impact this film has. Perhaps the most memorable scene features leading horror make-up expert Tom Savini, playing a guy whose head is completely blown off.

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9. Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is just one of the many entries from the classic heyday of slasher films released in the early 80’s and recycles much of the same formula of Friday the 13th. The plot is fairly simple and follows a bunch of teens at a summer camp who are slaughtered one by one in what amounts to a whodunnit complete with Freudian trauma and gender-role confusion. There are about 11 murders in the movie, but writer/director Robert Hiltzik chooses to suggest the worst ones through shadow or by obscuring part of the action. For the gorehounds, there are a few definite gross-out jobs makeup-wise, but overall Sleepaway Camp has significantly less gore than most of the movies featured on this list. That said, it is one of the most entertaining slasher films from the 80’s and boy is it ever a memorable one due to its unexpected twist ending, which burns in your memory long after the credits roll.

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8. When A Stranger Calls (1979)

When a Stranger Calls originally started out as The Sitter, a short film made by director Fred Walton, but because of the massive success of John Carpenter’s Halloween, it was expanded to form the basis of a feature. The slow-burn approach is book-ended by some truly excellent classic horror movie moments – the opening alone serves as the entire basis for Wes Craven’s Scream —and Walton does an incredible job of mounting the tension almost entirely using sound. Everything from the constant phone ringing to the killer’s creepy voice to the powerhouse score keeps viewers at the edge of their seat. Charles Durning gives a more than capable performance – virtually stealing the show when he breaks down, completely nude, in front of his reflection in the washroom mirror. Highly recommended!

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7. Frightmare/ Cover Up (1974)

From genre director Pete Walker (The Flesh, Blood Show, House Of Whipcord, and The Confessional) comes Frightmare, one of my personal favorite British horror films ever made. Apart from border-lining the slasher genre, Frightmaredisplays an overwhelming distrust of psychiatry and related professions and examines the idea of nature vs. nurture. There’s an artistry to Peter Walker’s work — his fluid studied camera movements and intentionally abrupt edits, project the gore and provides a disarming atmosphere. The entire cast delivers superb performances, but this is Sheila Keith’s show. Her Dorothy is the epitome of the passive-aggressive mother, alternating between smart and feeble-minded, attentive and disoriented and so on. But don’t be easily fooled, as she eventually makes it very clear that she is always two steps ahead of everyone else. Frightmare is a marvel, a genuinely shocking film that features a fabulous ending.

My Bloody Valentine

6. My Bloody Valentine (1981)

My Bloody Valentine was made at the height of the slasher/holiday trend and is noteworthy as one of the most distinctly Canadian horror films ever made. Produced by Happy Birthday To Me gurus John Dunning and André Link, and directed by George Mihalka, My Bloody Valentine is one of the best in the slasher genre for several reasons: Mihalka’s direction is first-rate; the score by Paul Zaza is effectively creepy; the small town location and mining mill makes for a refreshingly unique setting; the film features a decent body count (though not much blood); and finally, the killer has bragging rights on wearing the best costume of all slasher villains (the unstoppable miner’s identity is hidden by a gas mask and he has a construction helmet complete with its own headlight). My Bloody Valentine is competently made, well shot, expertly paced and features a great cast along with some creative ways to kill them off one by one.

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5. Just Before Dawn (1981)

From the director of Squirm and Blue Sunshine, Just Before Dawn doesn’t do anything new in terms of backwoods horror slashers, but fuck is it ever good. Beautifully shot and competently acted, it features great locations, a brooding atmosphere, and great dialogue. It’s also deeply unsettling, and the twist ending is surprisingly effective. Just Before Dawn also carefully plays with gender roles and queer stereotypes. It featured early performances from actors Chris Lemmon (Jack Lemmon’s son) and Gregg Henry (Slither), as well as early work from music composer Brad Fiedel, who wrote and performed the film’s eerie score. Lieberman cites the 1972 film Deliverance as the main influence and calls Just Before Dawn his personal favourite of his works.

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4. Alice Sweet Alice / Communion (1976)

Originally titled Communion, Alice Sweet Alice, despite its considerable cult following, has slipped into relative obscurity. Released in 1976, it was given glowing reviews by critics and won the top prize at the Chicago International Film Festival. The film was made not long after The Exorcist and it capitalized on that film’s themes of Catholicism and evil children. Alice features some of the more disquieting set pieces in any movie appearing on this list and also features the big-screen debut of Brooke Shields at age 11. The most memorable aspect of Alice comes from the tour-de-force performance given by the killer, one of the absolute best in the pantheon of movie murderers.

A Nightmare On Elm Street

3. A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

In both concept and execution, the first Nightmare on Elm Street has a great deal more to offer than most slasher films. Wes Craven intended Nightmare to be an exploration of surreal horror as opposed to just another stalk-and-slash genres movie. Elm Street was New Line’s first genuine mainstream cinematic venture (after Alone In The Dark) and made the company a huge pile of money. The film was shot in 30 days at a cost of roughly $1.8 million, but it made back its figure and then some on opening weekend. Robert Englund based the physicality of Freddy on Klaus Kinski’s performance in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), making Freddy one of the most recognizable modern horror villains. Nightmare was both the feature debut and breakthrough for actor Johnny Depp, but the film acted more as a launch pad for its director, who although turning out two great pictures prior became a household name. Craven masterfully disguises dreams as reality and vice versa, and the idea that injuries sustained in dreams also exist outside helps to further blur the already murky distinction between the two.

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2. Black Christmas (1974)

We never did find out who Billy was. Maybe it’s for the best since they never made any sequels to Bob Clark’s seminal slasher film, a film which predates Carpenter’s Halloween by four years. Whereas Texas Chainsaw Massacre, released the same year, blends backwoods horror with the slasher formula, Black Christmas is widely considered the first proper slasher film and is noted as one of the earliest films to present some of the subgenre’s defining characteristics: a mysterious stalker, a set of adolescent or young-adult victims, a secluded location with little or no adult supervision, point-of-view camera shots representing the “killer’s perspective,” and depictions of violence and murder. Like Carpenter, Clark avoids graphic bloodshed, focusing instead on suggestion and careful mise-en-scene and editing. Clark leads us through a labyrinth of red herrings and skillful handling of such plot devices as obscene phone calls from within the house. More importantly, unlike many of the slashers that followed, Black Christmas cannot be accused of misogyny; the violence against the female protagonists isn’t the picture’s raison d’etre. If there was ever a character from a slasher film to be chosen for a thesis on feminist work, it would have to be the film’s final girl, Jessica.

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1. Halloween (1978)

This seminal horror flick actually gets better with age and holds up as an effective thriller that stands head and shoulders above the hundreds of imitators to come. Halloween was produced on a budget of $325,000 and grossed over $100 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable independent films ever made, and thus it had one hell of an influence on the entire film industry. You have to admire how Carpenter avoids explicit onscreen violence, yet amplifies the suspense almost entirely through visual means. Carpenter’s widescreen frame, expert hand-held camerawork, and terrifying foreground and background compositions, along with the simple but moody piano melodies, is what makes Halloween a resounding success. As a horror film and as a historical milestone that single-handedly shaped the future of an entire genre — not to mention introduced the world to Michael Myers — Halloween is nothing short of brilliant.

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Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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‘The Gentlemen’ is Familiar, Grungy Territory for Guy Ritchie

The director of ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ returns to his roots to craft a flashy, intricate web of crime, held back by old-fashioned sensibilities.

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The Gentlemen

Suave and grungy, Guy Ritchie’s popularity rose very quickly with the one-two punch of his seedy, gangster films, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Since then, he did a couple more gangster films, but after 2008’s RocknRolla, everything audiences have seen from the director may have been a Guy Ritchie film in style and execution, but not in setting or plot. Twelve years later, and the director has come back to the British gangster movie with The Gentlemen. While not wholly successful in its execution, there’s an undeniable charm to the return to form that’s aided by a strong ensemble and razor-sharp dialogue.

Most painful to endure in The Gentlemen is how its story is framed, which is through the eyes of a sleazy, racist private investigator named Fletcher (played devilishly by Hugh Grant, who comes the closest he’s come to his Phoenix Buchanan character in Paddington 2). Arriving at Raymond’s (Charlie Hunnam) house unannounced, he attempts to hustle him out of 20 million pounds by recounting a story that implicates Raymond in a very intricately wound net of corruption and criminal activity. At the heart of it is a strife between Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) and Dry Eye (Henry Golding), as Mickey attempts to get out of the marijuana business by selling his company to Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong), a businessman who is ready to buy the company and let Mickey take an early retirement. Nothing goes as planned, of course, and Fletcher plans to unravel the entire criminal enterprise by providing his intel to the Daily Print tabloid, which is helmed by Big Dave (Eddie Marsan), assuming Raymond doesn’t pay to keep Fletcher silent.

The Gentlemen

Complicated at first, Ritchie has always done a decent job simplifying the complex narrative with a single narrator explaining things along the way. The Gentlemen is not complicated, though it is intricately woven. The mistake Ritchie makes is putting the entire story in the hands of a racist who makes other characters in the story spew racist remarks as he takes liberties with the story he’s telling Raymond (and the audience). It’s the kind of character who, put to the background of a movie like this, would be a reminder that Ritchie still has difficulty writing his characters without being a major blemish on the film. Instead, Fletcher serves as the audience’s only frame-of-reference for the majority of the story, as Raymond nods and allows him to continue his ramblings unless they become a bit too sensationalist. Other characters end up seeming racist because the story is told from Fletcher’s perspective, making it almost unbearable to get through The Gentlemen’s extensive, dialogue-heavy scenes.

There are a lot of other facets of identity that Ritchie confronts in his screenplay, whether it’s Fletcher’s constant advances on Raymond (the sexual innuendo never ends), Matthew’s effeminate gangster, or the way people make fun of others’ ethnic names. The problem is that almost none of these remarks are new for him, and almost all are handled with the gracefulness of a bull in a china shop. It’s hard not to come out wondering if Ritchie is aware he’s being offensive, but he often struggles to show any self-awareness. When his characters do acknowledge problematic things people say, it’s a punch-line that makes light of actual concerning dialogue.

The Gentlemen

Yet, despite the racism and homophobia, The Gentlemen is a slick gangster movie that has plenty of laughs and wit. All of it is brought to life by the stellar cast that revel in the opportunity to bring Ritchie’s trademark dialogue to the screen. Colin Farrell in particular comes in with some of the best comedic timing in recent memory. Grant, despite his dialogue being often infuriating, dives head-first into the material and comes out of it appropriately sleazy. His character’s obsession with film — including a reference to Coppola’s The Conversation that feels fitting given the dialogue-heavy screenplay — goes even further than one would have expected with the film. It even opens with a screenplay written by Fletcher that he is overly excited to share. McConaughey plays it cool, calm, and very McConaughey as his character tries to keep everything under control. The same can be said about Hunnam’s performance, though he gets a little more screen time and a lot more opportunities to be the witty protagonist. Other notable actors include a baffling Jeremy Strong, whose performance feels so out of place, an eccentric and wild Eddie Marsan and Henry Golding, and Michelle Dockery acting like the coolest person in the boy’s club.

Bolstered by trademark smash cuts, doodling on the screen, and other flashy editing techniques, The Gentlemen goes down like a nice scotch — a little burn, but familiar and smooth. Seeing this cast work together in one of Guy Ritchie’s well-concocted webs of crime is a delight. It ultimately falls into place nicely with Ritchie’s prior films. Even the ending hearkens back to 2000’s Snatch with the way everything comes together in the messiest fashion possible. The line between dumb luck and carefully-executed plan is so finely walked that, like with his other films, it feels justifiably placed among characters that are often blindsided. It’s just a shame that The Gentlemen feels more like a time capsule than a fresh, innovative film.

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Sundance 2020: ‘Vitalina Varela’ Is a Love Letter to Faces

Pedro Costa’s fascinating metafictional work tells one woman’s story of loss and abandonment, but her face is the true star.

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Vitalina Varela

I become an obsessive note scribbler when I review a film. I try to write down everything that pops into my head, whether it’s a profound insight or, more commonly, a banal observation. At the end of Pedro Costa’s Vitalina Varela, I had written only two words: “Her face!” (with double underlines). Costa’s slow yet engrossing metafictional work is filled with sumptuous textures and overwhelming emotions, but the film’s star, Vitalina Varela, is its most fascinating component. She has a face that cries out to be painted, one that makes her emotions seem almost Olympian, and Costa is perhaps the only filmmaker who could do her justice.

The Portuguese filmmaker has almost exclusively relied on non-professional actors over the past decade-and-a-half, and Vitalina Varela is no different. His lead actress previously appeared in a small role in 2014’s Horse Money after he discovered her while scouting locations. After hearing or story of loss and abandonment, Costa created a film based around her experiences. Vitalina Varela features his signature style and expressionistic visuals, but it might as well be a documentary for how closely it follows the contours of her life. The real-life Vitalina was a Cape Verdean native whose husband left over 25 years before the events of the film for Portugal in hopes of making a better life for them. But their life back home calls that motive into question. The two built a stunning 10-bedroom home for themselves back home, which was a luxury compared to the decrepit shack that he lived in in the shantytown Fontainhas, just outside of Lisbon. Vitalina was meant to join him, but the money for a plane ticket never materialized for over 25 years, and when she finally makes the journey to Portugal it’s three days after he has died under mysterious circumstances, and she’s too late to even make the funeral. As she talks to her husband’s neighbors she learns unsavory details about his life abroad, yet she’s determined to stay in this new country.

Vitalina Varela

Costa film’s Vitalina’s acclimation to Fontainhas in achingly slow scenes which will test the patience of many viewers. But those who get on his wavelength (and have a coffee beforehand) will be absorbed in his painterly compositions. He and his cinematographer Leonardo Simões photograph the slum interiors (none of which seem to have electrical lighting) in bursts of faux sunlight and moonlight almost exclusively, giving the events a ghostly character. It’s only in the last few scenes that we see Vitalina outside in the daylight, and the camera is allowed to expand beyond the claustrophobic confines of her building. The stunning lighting also directs our attention squarely on her face, which shimmers with loss and regret. Like Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), she has a face that conveys everything we would ever need to know of her story. Luckily, Costa understands that and lets it do the talking.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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Sundance 2020: ‘Shirley’ Is Another Triumph for Josephine Decker

Josephine Decker’s film dramatizes a turbulent period in Shirley Jackson’s creative life to startling effect.

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Shirley

Something is amiss from the opening moments of Josephine Decker’s newest feature, Shirley. A young couple, Fred and Rose Nemser (Logan Lerner and Odessa Young) are taking a train to Bennington College, where he’ll be teaching. Rose reads a recent issue of The New Yorker featuring Shirley Jackson’s now-classic short story “The Lottery,” dating the scene to 1948 or ’49. The story, about a (spoiler alert) woman who is stoned to death as part of a community ritual, doesn’t arouse the expected response in Rose. Rather than being horrified, she’s excited, even turned on by the tale, and she initiates a quick tryst with Fred out of sight of the other passengers. Like Rose, Decker seems thrilled by the most sordid and disturbing interpersonal relations — and by the film’s end, much of the audience will be too.

Though the film opens with Rose and Fred, Shirley is most concerned with the eponymous Jackson (Elisabeth Moss). Despite being a critically and commercially successful writer, she’s not considered much more than a faculty wife to her husband Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg), a professor at Bennington and a respected literary critic. The Nemsers are set to move in with Jackson and Hyman for a short period until they’re able to find a place of their own in town. Stanley will mentor Fred, who will deliver some of his lectures in hopes of getting his own course load and, eventually, tenure. But from the start, Shirley has an unhealthy fascination with the couple, especially Rose. As she begins to plot out what will be her second published novel, Hangsaman, she begins to spy on the young woman, intruding on the most intimate moments of her life. At the same time, she absorbs herself in news articles about Paula Jean Weldon, a Bennington student who disappeared in 1946, and her interests begin to coalesce in a clear nod to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).

Shirley

Decker’s disorienting style, which animated much of Madeline’s Madeline, makes occasional appearances, but she’s more restrained in how she films her characters. In her earlier films, which she wrote by herself, her eye-catching and disorienting style was a way of making up for long sections with little dialogue, but that’s not necessary with Sarah Gubbins’ more traditional screenplay. Gubbins sensitively portrays Shirley’s life as an underappreciated artist and delves into the ways her work tears away at her personal life and her mental health. Her husband’s dalliances with his students and other faculty wives don’t help.

Moss and Stuhlbarg’s repartee and bouts of sadistic marital games will surely draw comparisons to the couple in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but they have a more tender relationship than those famous bickerers. Stanley is condescending and even tyrannical at times when it comes to their personal lives, but he’s Shirley’s biggest champion and a believer in her literary greatness. Stuhlbarg makes it clear that the character has great affection for his wife, even if he chooses to have sex with anyone but her. Moss delivers another in a series of great performances that seem to be in dialog with her work for Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018). Decker, Gubbins, and Moss all work together to create a portrait of an artist’s creative process, and we see how Shirley absorbs Rose and Paula Jean’s lives to inspire her fiction. So often, movies about artists merely gloss over the act of creation to focus on the most dramatic elements of their personal lives, which makes the art seem as if it miraculously came into being. In Shirley, we see the heartbreak and conflict required to create great art, or at least required to create Shirley Jackson’s art. Decker may have calmed down her frenetic style this time around, but it was only in service of her most compelling story to date.

The Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 23 – Feb. 2, 2020. Visit the official website for more information.

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