ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Mike Justice is the only illegitimate offspring born of a short-lived union between a frustrated English horror movie star and an American film festival groupie. His legacy, therefore, is to obsessively pursue a litany of ill-defined ambitions in the industry (editor, director, actor) while also falling hard and fast for anything with an accent and/or mutton chops. Fortunately, he’s pretty good at distilling his various fizzles, faux pas, and let-downs into uproariously absurd, snarky tales filled with wit, wisdom, and (sometimes) redemption.
Mike is also one of my favorite people and his top ten lists on Facebook deserve to be preserved as much as this digital website can preserve his words. I am so happy that he has allowed them to be reprinted here. You can follow Mike on Facebook.
10. See China and Die AKA Momma the Detective (1981): An NBC movie written and directed by Larry It’s Alive Cohen starring Esther Rolle as a headstrong amateur detective sleuthing around to find out who’s killing off wealthy Manhattan art collectors. Originally conceived as a pilot for a proposed Murder She Wrote-style series where Momma the Detective would solve a new mystery each week. Unfortunately, it wasn’t picked up. Reviews were unkind, saying that Rolle and her son (played by Ken Holliday) were bright spots but “surrounded by an inept and tacky group of white stock characters.” Sounds great to me. Anyway, Paul Dooley plays a country singer, Laurence Luckinbill gets stabbed, and Rolle is chased around by a killer in a Chinese dragon mask. Available on YouTube.
9. The Great Alligator (1979): Jungle movies and Jaws ripoffs were big—so Sergio Martino (Torso, Screamers) combined them into this terrifying tale of a vengeful South Asian god who’s so furious that greedy Europeans have built a shitty swinger resort on sacred land that he turns himself into a giant plastic alligator and starts eating tourists. Oh, and the local native population takes the alligator’s side and starts killing tourists, too. Claudio Cassinelli and Barbara Bach are the heroes, Mel Ferrer is the mercenary land developer who wants to hush everything up so drunk Germans will continue wife swapping at his no-tell hotel. American distribs gave this a hard pass, so it was sold directly to network TV where it remained a staple of late-night and Saturday afternoon-programming for decades. The monster effects suck, but it boasts a great bongo-heavy Italio-disco score by Stelvio Cipriani.
8. House of Psychotic Women (1973): I miss when you could switch on the TV and catch dubbed European crap like this playing on a rainy Saturday afternoon. It isn’t really as provocative as the title would infer—it’s more of a romantic whodunit than anything else. A burly ex-con shacks up in a crumbling mansion along the Spanish-French border with three neurotic sisters—a disabled brunette, a nympho redhead, and an ugly duckling with a clunky prosthetic hand who’s bitter because she’s forced to chop chicken all day without makeup. Oh, and there’s also a hot nurse with Connie Francis eyelashes who tends to the brunette. Unfortunately, no sooner does he arrive than a black-gloved giallo slasher starts killing random blond-haired, blue-eyed women and gouging out their eyeballs. Is it the handyman? One of the sisters? The nurse? Some periphery character like the shady town doctor, or the sharp-tongued waitress played by Pilar Bardem (Javier Bardem’s late mother)? In my day, you had to tune into USA Network’s Saturday Nightmares or Commander USA’s Groovie Movies to find out.
7. Kingdom of the Spiders (1977): When I was a kid, no summer was complete without a network primetime showing of this movie. Looking back, it’s like the 1970’s was all about wild animals that wanted to kill and/or eat you for revenge against man’s environmental ineptitude. This one has tarantulas gang up on an Arizona tourist town just in time for the county fair because they’re pissed off about pesticides. It’s sort of like Jaws meets a loose remake of The Birds — but with spiders instead of birds, and William Shatner in the Tippi Hedren role. Reportedly, 10% of the film’s budget was allotted for tarantulas. I’ve never liked spiders, and I don’t get people who do. I think it’s a form of Stockholm Syndrome; folks who cry about not killing spiders are always the same ones who’d say something like, “Yeah, my parents abused me, but I was a brat and probably deserved it.”
6. Trick or Treats (1982): Who wouldn’t love a Halloween-themed slasher movie about a homicidal maniac stalking a terrified babysitter? It’s a fool-proof concept, but it turns out Gary Graver — the writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor of the this $55,000 movie — may have been the fool to ruin it. If you’re a jerk who can’t appreciate Number 6 on my Top 10 Favorite Horror Movies from Childhood list, that is. Think of everything that made Halloween an instant classic. Now, forget all that, and settle for this comedic anti-classic about a 30 year-old aspiring actress/babysitter stuck in a dark house with a mean brat (played by the director’s son) who terrorizes her all night while an escaped lunatic who looks like Meat Loaf in drag keeps threatening to stab her. Then toss in blink-and-you’ll-miss-‘em cameos from Carrie Snogress, David Carradine, and Paul Bartel, tons of “hilarious” practical jokes, and a cheap library score—and you’ve got this unlikely (and reluctant) childhood favorite of mine (due in no small part to it playing continuously on the USA Network for years). It’s not a great film, or even a good one—but the seasonal atmosphere is on-point, and it features actress Catherine E. Coulson (who later found fame as “The Log Lady” on Twin Peaks) as a horny asylum nurse. Plus any movie featuring a socially awkward kid picking on adults is going to get my vote for life.
5. The Midnight Hour (1985): Number Five on my Top 10 Favorite Horror Movies from Childhood list is also one of my most beloved All Hallow’s Eve-themed monster-mashes, an ABC TV movie that premiered on November 1st, 1985. Much like Hocus Pocus — another seasonal cult favorite that it shares DNA with — this comedy/horror/musical mash-up of teenagers, witches, magic, and monsters initially happened decidedly NOT during Halloween season. The plot is simple: a group of “playful teenagers” (played by decidedly non-teenagers Sheri Belafonte, LeVar Burton, Peter DeLuise, Michelle Pheiffer’s sister, and the kid from Burnt Offerings) living in a small Massachusetts town that looks suspiciously like the backlot where they shot Elvira, Mistress of the Dark head to a smoky cemetery to jokingly invoke a centuries-old curse that supposedly raises the dead. Then they all naively head to a rockin’ Halloween party, not realizing that they have, in fact, created an army of werewolves, vampires, zombies, and a cute 1950’s cheerleader who’s inexplicably well-preserved and serves as a love interest for the kid from Burnt Offerings — all of whom crash the party. Romance, mayhem, and vampire attacks ensue—all while offscreen DJ Wolfman Jack plays an endless and surprisingly diverse stream of diegetic hits. Take Hocus Pocus, Grease, Fame, American Graffiti, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, MTV, Back to the Future and the 1980’s as a whole, throw them in a blender, divide that by TV movie production values, and you’ve got this amazing piece of cinematic history.
4. Mausoleum (1983): I don’t think I’ve ever loved any man, woman, child, family member, or cat as much as I love Mausoleum. I can’t imagine a world without it. Mausoleum is a terrifying 80’s horror classic about a rich housewife named Susan with very large breasts who wakes up one day to find herself possessed by a centuries-old demon intent on making her break dishes, shoplift cheap art, seduce and destroy gardeners and delivery men, and generally act like a real bitch. Former evangelist preacher-turned-actor Marjoe Gortner is her dimwitted bimbo husband who gets eaten by her boobs. No, really. LaWanda Page (Aunt Esther from Sanford and Son) is the smartest person in the movie (she takes one look at the demon, packs a suitcase, and bails). Telekinesis, monster transformations, dry ice smoke, and levitation murders abound. It’s rumored this movie was produced by the Mafia. If that’s the case, I’ll die for ’em, gimme a chair, man, I’ll fry for ’em, and if I gotta take the stand, I’mma LIE for ’em! Mausoleum is my ride or die.
3. The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976): When I was a kid, I wanted to be Rynn Jacobs, protagonist of this movie. She lives in a handsome two-story house with hardwood floors and a fireplace on the outskirts of some cozy Canadian village with lots of bookstores and crab restaurants. The local cops are chill, there’s a cute neighborhood nerd who does magic tricks for her to hang out with, and her hobbies are gathering firewood and studying Hebrew. Most importantly, her parents are never around—and whenever any nosy Karens or creepy molesters invade her solitude because they’re annoyed that they can’t control her, she just kills them and stashes them in the basement. Shit, I’m a 46 year-old man and I STILL want to grow up to be Rynn Jacobs.
2. Asylum (1972): What’s better than one scary movie? How about four scary flicks in one. AKA House of Crazies, the all-star British anthology from the director of The Vampire Lovers and Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde. Robert Powell interviews a bunch of nut-bags in a madhouse to deduce which one is a former shrink who went insane, and their flashbacks—adapted from short stories penned by Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho)—form the basis of the plot. In one, Barbara Parkins is a femme fatale who talks her married boyfriend into chopping up his ball-busting wife, only to get chased around by the body parts. In another, Peter Cushing is a mysterious “believer of Astrology” who asks some old Jewish tailor to make a magic suit that can bring back the dead. Then there’s Charlotte Rampling and Britt Ekland as murderous BFFs, and Herbert Lom as a maniacal doctor who creates killer dolls. It’s got my favorite wraparound of any omnibus horror of the period, with a real sting in its tail that’ll put you off therapy for at least a week.
1. Halloween (1978): My Number One Favorite Horror Movie from Childhood is the one, the only, the original Halloween. Did you think it would be anything else? John Carpenter’s lean, mean, lethally efficient suburban paranoia thriller about a real-life boogeyman stalking and killing teenagers in small-town Illinois had more menace, suspense, and sheer popcorn excitement than the best campfire tales and urban legends. Its innovative combo of nihilistic 1970’s crime thriller-meets-guileless John Hughes-esque characters made an impact unmatched by any of its 12 (and counting) sequels, remakes, reboots, and re-quels. Some are good, some are not, but honestly, I say just nuke ‘em all from orbit and stick with the original.