ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jesse Berberich is a media critic and regular contributor to online publications and the retro zine, Drive-In Asylum. He is also the co-curator and host of Disreputable Cinema, a cult genre film screening series at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NYC. For Halloween this year, Disreputable Cinema will host RetroActive — five cult classics from the 1980s drenched in blood and nostalgia from 10/26 to the finale on Halloween night.
1. Maniac: A film that drips and oozes with grit and sleaze is the film for me, and none is as sleazy as Bill Lustig’s notorious 1980 classic. It’s a viewing experience like none other with a relentlessly bleak atmosphere, stunning Savini effects, and a standout performance from Joe Spinell. It’s the kind of film that’ll make you think twice about riding the subway or walking home alone. Also, this was the debut film in Disreputable Cinema, followed by a stellar Q&A with Bill Lustig, and I’ll always have fond memories of sitting in the back of the Museum of the Moving Image’s theater, watching on proudly as a packed house screamed in bloody terror at the gory mayhem.
2. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker: Speaking of sleazy…wow. Sleazy is when a young high school teen is caught in the middle of a screwy aunt with incestual intentions played by Susan Tyrell and a deeply homophobic detective played by Bo Svenson who bullies and uses the bad “F” word, all while bodies pile up around him. It’s creepy, icky in all the right ways, and a captivating film with a straightforward style that just arrests you and never lets go.
3. Sleepaway Camp: Excuse the pun, but it doesn’t get campier than this. Makes me glad I never went to summer camp as a kid! I love how outlandish and charmingly quirky this film is. It’s endlessly re-watchable for these reasons. The dialogue is sharp with a wicked sense of humor, and the production has a trashy mystique to it that absorbs you like a proper low budget video store gem, which, indeed, it was. I remember hanging out in my local video store (oddly called West Coast Video since it was located in Queens, NYC) when I was still in middle school and just being mesmerized by this one’s box art.
4. Hello Mary Lou, Prom Night II:I have such an affinity for high school horror because I think the genre is at its purest when it appeals directly to teenagers, traditionally its largest audience, and engages in their fears about growing up and their burgeoning sexuality. For my money, this is the most perfect example of that subgenre because the titular supernatural slasher is the ultimate expression of teenage desires to act out and “be bad,” but also the fear of what that change could actually do. And, oh how I LOVE Mary Lou. She’s witty, sultry, and rebellious — one of my favorite horror villains of the 80s.
5. Pieces: This is one NASTY gore-fest! It’s relentless from the start. The mystery of the psycho-sexual slasher in this film may be investigated by possibly the most hopelessly incompetent police force in film history, but like any good b-movie shlock, that’s actually part of the appeal, as are, of course, the kill scenes. The violence is perpetrated by a proper giallo villain in all black and composed without logic but with a dreamlike artistic separation from reality.
6. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge: The second entry in this franchise is less gory than the first and nowhere near as wide in scope as the other sequels, but I love it for that. It’s a self-contained, tense picture that subverts and plays around with tropes of the slasher genre at a time it was beginning its decline. There’s something quite creepy about the idea of a slasher not simply killing his victims, but imposing his will and controlling their bodies and minds. It goes back to the appeal of horror for teenagers, and how they are terrified of their own changing bodies.
7. Friday the 13th: the Final Chapter: I’m a big Jason fan, and I find the good in all the films, even the ones hated by most, but I think this one is truly the best. It may not have the tension of the original, but Jason is more imposing and menacing than previously seen, the kill scenes are thrilling and uninhibited, thanks to the returning Tom Savini, and the cast is full of likable, or delightfully dislikeable, characters that serve their purpose in lining up for the slaughter. Also, find me a better dance scene in a horror movie!
8. Drive-In Massacre: One of the finest early slashers. It’s grimy and has a taut, almost documentarian tone thanks to its low budget. It also sleazes up the great American tradition that is the drive-in theater. In fact, having a slasher stalk the grounds of a drive-in is quite ingenious when you think about it, because it represents a loss of safety in a place of social fun that quite effectively mirrors the constant loss of safety and innocence in American society.
9. Terror Firmer: Some may dispute this inclusion on my list, but there’s no denying that this trashy Troma classic has the right atmosphere and all the tropes of a traditional slasher flick. We’ve got a mystery, a workable location, colorful characters, and one hell of a messed up villain. Sounds like a slasher to me. The effects are cheesy, low budget fun and underneath the madness, one will find a rebellious attitude that demands us to resist the mainstream and always fight for what we think is art. It’s the most punk rock and sincerest slasher flick of all time.
10. Halloween: No list of slasher favorites would be complete without the one that set the standard and inspired a whole generation of filmmakers. Every film above owes its creation to the tale of the night Michael Myers came home. This film remains unmatched in its innovation, spine-chilling scares, and enduring legacy. It’s always a pleasure to return to this classic in the month of October because there’s nothing like watching the best film during the year’s best holiday season.