The final year of exploitation cinema’s greatest decade begins with Alien, the film that made the careers of director Ridley Scott and star Sigourney Weaver. Ian Holm stands out in a top-notch ensemble, which includes the late John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, and Veronica Cartwright. Seven years later, James Cameron took a very different route with the belated, high octane sequel, which, unlike its predecessor, was an immediate hit. Apart from the performances of Weaver and Bill Paxton, however, Cameron’s sequel doesn’t stand up, lacking the tension, freshness, and sense of wonder of Scott’s original, which took its time earning its cult status.
Likewise, The Brood cemented David Cronenberg’s reputation as a startlingly original and provocative filmmaker. Status quo critics, such as Roger Ebert, were mightily offended. Thank God.
Staying consistent, Ebert missed the boat again with Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm. It spawned a lot of imitations, including Coscarelli’s inferior sequels, which have curiously imitated the imitators.
Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu The Vampyre is a homage to F.W. Murnaru’s original. Although some will undoubtedly scream blasphemy, Herzog’s effort, starring Klaus Kinski in the role made famous by Max Schreck, is the equal of the 1922 classic.
Dracula (directed by John Balham) was an unnecessary big budget remake with a feathered-hair Count (Frank Langella). Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance co-starred.
With the success of Carrie, it was inevitable that Stephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, would be adapted too. Surprisingly, it was made into a mini-series. Even more surprisingly, it’s directed by Tobe Hooper, although like Poltergeist, it feels more like the work of its producers. David Soul, riding high on his “Starsky and Hutch” popularity, stars, but James Mason, as usual, steals the show.
Cleopatra Wong (Marrie Lee) showed up in 1979 for a couple of ass-whuppin features: first in Bobby A. Suarez’ The Devil’s Three (AKA Mean Business). As usual with Suarez, oddity is in his DNA. In order to save the day, Cleopatra has to dine with the devil (Johnny Wilson), who’s not literally the devil—he’s just a gang lord who goes by that name. Along the way she picks up a flaming bunny in drag (Chito Guerrero) and a four hundred pound psychic (Florence Carvajel) as sidekicks. It’s low budget, badly dubbed, G-rated (well, perhaps PG-rated) lunacy at its most inspired. It probably played at every drive-in theater in the country, for which it was tailor-made.
The Return of the Bionic Boy features a returning Wong, teaming up with the Bionic Boy (Johnson Yap) who is not only bionic, but also an eight-year-old Tae Kwon Do master. Suarez and company jump on the bionic bandwagon, pitting our heroes against Nazis, laser thingamajigs, the campiest gay villain in all of cinema history, and a fire-breathing pseudo-Godzilla as the cherry on top of the icing on top of the cake. Being expired cheese, this comes with a manager’s special discount, including a fee pack of antacids for afterwards. Enjoy.
Amityville Horror (directed by Stuart Rosenberg) was a phenomenon, mainly due to the authors claiming it to be a true story. It’s pure schlock, and features a knows no shame ham performance from Rod Steiger.
Apart from George Romero’s work, Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (AKA Zombi 2) is probably the most influential of the much abused living dead genre. It was enshrined in practically every video store in the 1980s. Although clearly imitative, the carnage makes Romero’s zombies look tidy. There are nods aplenty to Nosferatu, Psycho, and Creature from the Black Lagoon, with a topless diver encountering a second-rate Italian Jaws, who proves no match for the undead. It’s also capped with a depraved finale. The cast, which includes Tisa Farrow (Mia’s little sister) is uniformly wretched, and Fulci is no Romero.
The Bitch (directed by Gerry O’Hara) is the wretched disco sequel to the previous year’s The Stud, which, amazingly, looks comparatively like a good film. As before, Jackie Collins wrote a script to pimp out her sister Joan.
Nicholas Meyer made his directorial debut with the inventive Time After Time. Jack the Ripper uses H.G. Welles’ time machine to plop himself into 1979. Welles ( Malcolm McDowell) follows to stop him, and falls in love with Mary Steenburgen along the way. It’s not hard to see why. She steals the film. Meyers had previously written the equally original Seven-Per-cent Solution (1976) and later helmed the only good Star Trek films.
Killer Nun (directed by Giulio Berruti) stars cult staples Anita Edberg and Joe Dallesandro, is allegedly based on the true story of a drug addicted, sadistic, habit-wearing Norman Bates, and has an unwarranted reputation as a standout in the nunsploitation genre. Having survived a brain tumor, Sister Gertrude, now a couple of cans shy of a six-pack, dons her civies, vows revenge on all men for the priest who wronged her, and… none of it amount to much. Of course, there’s lesbianism to appease the genre perverts, but it’s understated Eurotrash that commits the mortal sexploitation sin of being a tease—despite having Playboy bunny Paola Morra.
Images in a Convent goes the opposite route, which is not surprising from Joe D’Amato. It teeters between softcore erotica and actual pornography. Chock full of lesbianism, rape, and S&M, it claims to be the most explicit nunsploitation movie ever made, and backs that up.
D’ Amato’s second 1979 release is the better known Beyond the Darkness, which is possibly this filmmaker’s nastiest work. It’s a gruesome exercise in misogyny, necromancy, and cannibalism with eye-gouging, fingernails pulled out, death by acid, and slow dismemberment. Bouncing-off-the-wall performances and a memorable score somewhat aid the endurance test. Understandably, it proved too much for most audiences.
Another shower-required film is the trash smorgasbord Giallo in Venice (directed by Mario Landi), which earns bragging rights by featuring vaginal stabbing, cuckold orgies, death by gasoline, and a nerve-wracking to-the-bone leg amputation, all choreographed to grindhouse sax playing. It’s still banned in a lot of countries, and it validates the notion that freedom of speech is not always a good thing.
Exploitation actor Ross Hagen turned director with The Glove, a drive-in revenge yarn starring cult favs John Saxon and Rosie Greer. There’s not much plot, and the criminally underrated Joanna Cassidy is wasted, but the exploitation action sequences are refreshingly amoral.
The Driller Killer is one of the earliest films from exploitation maverick Abel Ferrara, who had previously experimented in soft core porn. Its not Ferrara’s best work, but his nihilistic primitivism and punk rage are already in full flower with an “I gotta be me” driller with a martyr complex. Like most of this director’s work, he turns limitations into advantages, invites exploration of this official entry of the infamous video nasties list.