Day of the Reaper (1984)

Shot for $1,000 in Florida on Super 8 — yes, so much SOV is another format, but go with this — Tim Ritter and Joe Preuth made a movie that is basically two teenagers playing Jason and The Shape in their sunburnt hometown and yet there are moments that transcend just dicking around with a camera.

For 70 minutes, a hooded killer (Todd Nolf) does what he does best: kill. Kill and kill and kill and kill, killing bikini girls, killing people in white cutoffs, killing as he menaces Jennifer (Cathy O’Hanlon), the only survivor of his killings from before when he killed now. He can’t stop. He won’t stop. Even death can’t stop him. Even his opposite number, his mind destroyed by the electric chair and the sinister therapy of Doctor Bloch (Patrick Foster) to become an unstoppable force of destruction can’t stop this. Nothing ever will.

Do you know how Ritter raised the money for this? He washed dishes. How many dishes did he have to wash, how many hours did he have to touch half-eaten food from strangers, to earn the money to fill the screen with bending video fuzz, scorching your ears with drone synth, messing with your sense of story by just having the death be the story?

This whole movie is made with ADR sound and a soundtrack that sounds like the synth parts that go whoosh on Van Halen albums when Eddie got sick of playing guitar once he lapped everyone else. What’s even more amazing that by the end, the lack of explanation comes up against exposition that gets so dense, like a pro wrestling fan bugging you with lore that even most of the grapplers haven’t considered. The Festival of the Sanguinary finds one violence-obsessed person every seven years to become a specter and therefore become undying and eventually, it will kill everyone on Earth unless you cut out its heart and eat it in time.

There are just as many people that love this that hate it. Perhaps you will only see the flaws, the lack of budget and the fact that this movie was made with no experience. Or, and I hope this with all my still beating cholesterol ridden heart, that you see past that and allow it to take you over, like when you eat way too strong of an edible and have that sinking feeling that any moment you are about to be overtaken by a high that you may not be able to ride out but then, where is it you wonder, so you take even more and you’re overtaken by tracking lines and sticky corn syrup and food coloring blood melting in the humid Florida sun.

Herschell Gordon Lewis once made a mess here too.

You can get this from SRS.

Screambook (1984)

Joseph Zaso did better than make a whole bunch of shot on video films in his childhood. He made all of them available on his YouTube channel.

Made when he was just 14 years old, you can see the skeletal hands of Creepshow all over this horror anthology, which even has handdrawn panel intros to every story and the first one, “Family Reunion” is completely “Father’s Day” except that instead of being made in Pittsburgh, it’s shot in a muddy backyard in New Jersey. That said, there’s even an attempt to put the Bava-esque colors into this scene and yeah, maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s pretty fun. Also: instead of Ed Harris and Viveca Lindfors, this is performed by a cast of teens with the big haired girls significantly further along into young adulthood than the boys.

The dead body back from the grave keeps saying, “Come to my renunion” and it makes me laugh every single time. There’s also a preponderance of people reading cue cards which is equally charming, as are the giggles that the maid keeps having as we approach the end of thee first story.

In “Tommy,” we’re introduced to, well, Tommy, a kid who gets locked inside a cardboard box for years and emerges as a monster. Props to Zaso for obviously shooting some of this segment in his high school.

“Secret of the Bottle” uses the pause bottom to give a great bit of exposition over footage as a scientist gets the gift of whiskey that transforms him into a monster. Also: prank calls and because kids are interchangeable with adults, it’s difficuly to determine the age of anyone within this story. This story is amazing because it has a Ben Cooper masked monster that looks kind of like the cover of Dr. Octagon’s first album who is slow motion moving toward a child victim who merely deadpans, “Oh, my God.” This segment has a total murderdrone of a car driving first person over piano music before  a jump cut to a girl getting yelled at by her mother.

It also has a visit from grandma right in the midst of it, which is the kind of casting I love in SOV. This  is followed by a young girl being beyond annoying as the old woman tries to read and oh man, the slow motion is astounding in moments as this moves outside and gets distorted and is distortion never not amazing?

“The Toy In the Window” has a drawing to SOV match cut, which is pretty wild, followed by a living room turned into a toy store with blankets and drapes, as well as Cyndi Lauper showing up on the soundtrack. I love that this segment has adults that were roped into this madness. This segment also has prank phone calls which is totally on-brand for the teenage years.

“Worms” has kids in a classroom listening to 38 Special’s “If I’d Been the One” and torturing their teacher with worms which are really just pasta. I mean, this dude gets put through worm upon worm. Then his stomach explodes and worms pour out of him, accompanied by tracking and static and I don’t think I’ve been this happy in probably months.

You have to enjoy a filmmaker who names his company Splatter FIlms and has ads for future projects throughout this movie. Zaso is still making movies and has grown from these humble beginnings, but I think it’s great that he’s shared them. I’m certain that like me, he was drawing and writing in every class and barely paying attention to boring high school classes that in no way help him today in what he does for a living.

You can watch this on YouTube.

Blonde Death (1984)

Teenage Mother may have been 9 months of trouble, but Tammy the teenage timebomb is eighteen years of bottled-up frustration about to explode.

Vern (Dave Shuey) and Clorette (Linda Miller) have moved Tammy (Sara Lee Wade, who was a set dresser from Friday the 13th: A New Beginning and Return of the Living Dead and worked in props on Lady In White and was also in Darkroom) from Mississippi to California and now that she’s off the farm, she’s never going back.

But despite the Baptist veneer, maybe Vern’s a little turned on when he spanks Tammy and how he used to let her wear mommy’s high heels and walk all over his face. Mother isn’t much better, giving forced enemas to her daughter as punishment, so is it any wonder that when tammy meets Link (Jack Catalano) she goes all Mallory Knox and the two of them are in and out of bed when they’re not killing everyone in their way and oh yeah, staying away from one-eyed obsessed girlfriends and prison boyfriends and dead bodies stinking up the joint, but these two make anything a party.

After all, Tammy says, “By the fourth day Burt was starting to stink pretty bad. But we even turned disposal of his body into a fun-packed afternoon.”

References to Richard Gere being a coprophagy fantasy object, a last girlfriend who stood up on the rollercoaster and lost her head and an audacious final beat that was filmed — with no permit, come on, this is a $2000 SOV blast to your brain — inside the Magic Kingdom.

The James Dillinger who made this was really James Robert Baker, who left a “stifling, Republican Southern Californian household” to explore speed, booze, art and his hidden homosexuality as his father sent a private detective on his tail. He ended up going to UCLA for film and made two movies, the one we’re talking about and Mouse Klub Konfidential, which tells the story of a Mouseketeer who becomes a gay bondage pornographer and came so close to celebrating Nazism that the 1976 San Francisco LGBT Film Festival was scandalized and may have caused Michael Medved to abandon his dream of film making and instead become a film critic or whatever the fuck he is.

After five years of writing scripts, he was already burned out on Hollywood and started writing novels like Adrenaline, in which two lovers on the run battle homophobia and the oppression of gays in a Republican-dominated America; Fuel-Injected Dreams, which is about Phil Spector; Boy Wonder, the oral history of Shark Trager, who was born in the back seat at a drive-in movie and became a filmmaker and Tim and Pete, in which the lead characters deal with the AIDS crisis by planning to kill Reagan. That book was so controversial that he was labeled “The Last Angry Gay Man” and he couldn’t find anyone to publish his later books.

Baker ended up killing himself with carbon monoxide in his car, just like two of the characters in this movie, which is a tragedy. After his demise, he became better known and Testosterone became a movie in 2003.

This gets compared to John Waters a lot but I think that’s because it’s the easiest comparison to make. People really talk like this, this kind of filthy explosion of violent noise and you can hear the need to be heard in every word. Now, you may have to strain to hear it, as the video quality is, well, shot on video in 1984 but you should lean in as close as you can.

You can download this from the Internet Archive.

Cinematic Void January Giallo 2023: Tightrope (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cinematic Void will be playing this movie on Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7:00 PM at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL in 35mm with CV’s Jim Branscome in person (tickets here). For more information, visit Cinematic Void.

Directed and written by Richard Tuggle (who also wrote Escape from Alcatraz), this film is described by Wikipedia as a “neo-noir psychological mystery slasher crime thriller film,” but come one.

This is a giallo.

New Orleans police detective Wes Block (Eastwood) is the kind of guy who will take in stray dogs and raise his daughters instead of his estranged wife but also has a drinking problem, skips taking his daughters to a Saints game because he’s obsessed with work and has no problem being seduced by a sex worker while investigating his next case in which ladies of the night are being killed by someone that leaves behind a ton of forensic evidence and also wears Kabuki-like masks.

Actually, Block has no problem sleeping with a lot of these women as he interviews them and of course, one of the women he does have sex with ends up dead in a hot tub. He’s also getting close to a rape counselor played by Beryl Thibodeaux (Geneviève Bujold, Coma).

Want more giallo evidence? The killer sends notes to Block via dolls which direct him to a dungeon where a dominatrix tells him that an unknown man has hired her to be whipped by him and then he’s to go to a gay bar and have sex with a man. Yeah, Clint went into some dark territory so unlike himself here.

Block also left behind a necktie, which is left at a crime scene, and even when he tries to take Beryl on a nice date with his family, the killer is hiding close by. The crime — and the alcoholism and the trauma and who knows what else — leave our hero unable to rise to the occasion and make love to his new girlfriend later that night. He soon has a dream where he’s dressed as the killer and murdering her.

That killer isn’t waiting to be caught. He breaks into Block’s home, kills his nanny and several dogs, then attempts to kidnap his daughter Amanda (Alison Eastwood). He also nearly kills the detective, who is saved at the last minute by one of his dogs. And he’s not done yet.

With a great performance by Dan Hedaya as Det. Joe Molinari and Eastwood pretty much taking over the film to direct it when Tuggle was too slow for him. He also had already gotten angry at the director for not wearing underwear in the muggy New Orleans heat and was angry when Tuggle’s tackle was sticking out of his shorts one day.

So yeah. It’s a giallo. The main character is conflicted by the world that he finds himself in, a hero who may not be one, in a red-tinted world filled with easy sex and even simpler death. Variety said that this movie “trades extensively on the theme of guilt transference from killer to presumed hero which for so long was the special domain of Sir Alfred Hitchcock,” or you know, Argento. Or Martino. Or Lenzi.

If you want any more evidence, the Italian poster for this movie is yellow.

KINO LORBER BLU RAY RELEASE: Missing In Action: Trilogy (1985, 1985, 1988)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ve featured these amazing Cannon movies before, but Kino Lorber has put out an incredible box set of blu ray discs featuring newly remastered in 4K and 2K versions of each film., as well as audio commentary for Missing in Action with director Joseph Zito, moderated by filmmaker Michael Felsher; an interview with Missing In Action screenwriter James Bruner; new commentary of Missing In Action 2 by director Lance Hool, moderated by historian/filmmaker Daniel Kremer; new commentary for Braddock: Missing In Action by action film historians Mike Leeder and Arne Venema; and trailers for all three movies. You can buy the box set from Kino Lorber or each film individually: Missing In ActionMissing In Action 2 and Braddock: Missing In Action.


Missing In Action (1984): Once upon a time, the story goes that James Cameron wrote a treatment for Rambo: First Blood Part II and everyone in Hollywood wanted to make it. The people that wanted to make it the most were our beloved friends at Cannon, who somehow rushed this out two months before Stallone’s character returned to rescue the POWs still left behind.

Cannon may have not been at the level of working with a star of Stallone’s calibre — and pricetag — as of yet, but they would be.

As for star Chuck Norris, he was approached to make the film by Lance Hool and the idea of making a movie that redeemed American soldiers in Vietnam spoke to him, as his brother Wieland died during the conflict. “Vietnam was a tragic mistake. If you don’t want to win the battle, don’t get involved,” said Norris.

Hool and Norris took the project to Cannon Films, who liked the project, and seeing as how they already had a similar script in development, they signed Norris to be in not one, but two movies. Except that the movie intended to be the first movie, the Hool-directed version, ended up being the prequel, released under the confusing title of Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

But man, talk about stacking the deck. The film that was the sequel that became the first movie — welcome to the world of Cannon — was directed by Joseph Zito, who mastered the slasher genre between The Prowler and Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter before making this as well as the perhaps even better — or wilder — Invasion U.S.A. and Red Scorpion.

This movie is everything Cannon in one film, outside of hiring someone like John Cassavetes to direct it or Norman Mailer to write it.

Colonel James Braddock (Norris) is a US military officer who spent seven long years in a North Vietnamese POW camp — if you want to see that, watch Missing in Action 2: The Beginning — a place that he somehow escaped a decade ago. Against the objections of Senator Maxwell Porter, he joins a government team that has come to meet Vietnamese officials in Ho Chi Minh City about the existence of still-living American POWs.

I love that Braddock has no time for the normal action hero cliches of romance. When he’s invited by Ann Fitzgerald (Lenore Kasdorf, Amityville Dollhouse) up to her room for a nightcap, she feigns mock indignation as he strips down, thinking that she’s about to get some of that sweet Chuck Norris karate directly below her belt. She turns and sees him dressed in full black commando gear, ready to climb out her window and start doing some work.

In order to get the dirt he needs on General Vinh (Ernie Ortega) and General Tran (James Hong, always a welcome actor in any movie), he must go into Thailand and recruit his old buddy Jack “Tuck” Tucker (M. Emmet Walsh), who has become the king of the black market. Then, Chuck does what Chuck does, including blowing up more of the Phillippines than ten other movies shot there and the famous moment when Chuck rises from the water holding a M60 machine gun and blowing gigantic holes in nearly everyone.

“One of the biggest thrills of my life came when I went to a theatre to see Missing in Action, and all the people stood up and applauded at the end. That’s when my character brings some POWs he’s just rescued to a conference in Saigon, where the politicians are saying there aren’t any more prisoners of war,” said Chuck. And you know, more than thirty years later, as I watch this movie on my couch, I shouted in pure joy out loud and I’m pretty much so left wing that I’ve become right and then left again.

Such is the magic that is Chuck Norris.

You can learn more about all of the Missing In Action movies in Austin Trunick’s The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon podcast about this movie here.

Missing In Action 2: The Beginning (1985): Only with Cannon can you have the sequel be the prequel when it was supposed to be the first movie. The Joseph Zito-made Missing In Action was considered to be the better of the two movies, so this one was turned into the second movie, but everything worked out pretty OK.

This was directed by Lance Hool, who sold the script to Chuck Norris, who was looking for a movie to pay tribute to his brother Wieland, who had died in Vietnam. They took the script to Cannon, who had a Vietnam POW movie in development, so that’s how we got two movies so quickly. Also, I’m amazed that Vietnam movies were impossible to make in Hollywood before Stallone and Norris changed everything.

Years before he freed US POWs in the first film, Colonel James Braddock (Chuck Norris was tortured in a North Vietnamese POW by Colonel Yin (Soon-Teck Oh, who was also in Good Guys Wear Black). He and his fellow soldiers have been forced to grow opium and if they want to be released, Braddock has to confess to war crimes. I mean, it’s Chuck Norris. Do you think he’s going to do that?

Yet that’s exactly what Captain David Nester (Steven Williams, X from The X-Files) believes should happen and he’s joined the side of the enemy as they subject the Americans to torture like guns being shoved in their faces and fired with no bullets. Then, after a fight that Braddock beats Nestor in, he gets a live rat dropped in a bag covering his face while they tell him that his wife thinks he’s dead and has remarried.

That’s also not a fake rat.

Then, to add even more pain, Braddock exchanges an admission of guilt to Yin’s charges of war crimes in order to get medicine for Franklin, a soldier with malaria. Yin overdoses the soldier with opium and burns him in front of Braddock, who escapes from the camp and — as you can imagine — murders every single other soldier, which includes pro wrestler Professor Toru Tanaka.

This came out three months after the first movie but still made $11 million at the box office.

For more info on all three Missing In Action movies, get Austin Trunick’s The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon episode about Missing In Action 2: The Beginning here.

Braddock: Missing In Action 3 (1988): Directed by Chuck’s brother Aaron and this time, Norris is Colonel James Braddock all over again, but we’ve discovered that his wife Lin Tan Cang (Miki Kim) isn’t dead, a fact that Reverend Polanski (Yehuda Efroni, Cannon utility fielder) imparts his way. And there’s another surprise. He has a 12-year-old son, Van Tan Cang (Roland Harrah III).

Don’t get used to having a wife Braddock.

Before you can say “Cannon pictures,” Vietnamese General Quoc (Aki Aleong) kills Lin and has his soldiers take Braddock and Van to be tortured.

The real co-star of this movie is Chuck’s Heckler & Koch G3 with grenade launcher and shooting bayonet. While Chuck used to base his movies on Reader’s Digest, this time he was looking to 20/20 for material.

This was supposed to be directed by Joe Zito, then Jack Smight, but after all the creative differences, it all worked out with Aaron. Chuck told reporters that “It’s probably the best movie I’ve ever done.”

Sadly, a Philipines Air Force helicopter used in this film crashed into Manila Bay, an accident that killed four soldiers and wounded five other people on the same day that the verdict from Twilight Zone: The Movie case was delivered in Los Angeles Superior Court.

This may not live up to the first two films, but it’s still pretty entertaining. Sadly, Cannon was in so much financial trouble that they couldn’t even afford to publicize it, which nearly caused Norris to sue the company.

For more info on all three Missing In Action movies, get Austin Trunick’s The Cannon Film Guide Volume 1: 1980-1984.

You can listen to The Cannon Canon episode about this film, click here.

KINO LORBER BLU RAY RELEASE: Ghost Warrior (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was first on the site on June 7, 2022 but is back as this film has been released on blu ray by Kino Lorber. It features a new interview with special makeup effects artist Robert Short and an audio commentary by action film historians Brandon Bentley and Mike Leeder, as well as a theatrical trailer. You can get it from Kino Lorber.

A samurai named Yoshimitsu (Hiroshi Fujioka, the original Kamen Rider) is overwhelmed in battle and falls into a frozen lake where he freezes over the decades before skiier find his body. Soon, Dr. Richard (John Calvin) forgoes the traditional autopsy and revives the swordsman with some blue lights and introduces him to a modern world he can’t come close to understanding even with the help of an Asian studies expert named Chris Welles (Janet Julian, Humongous). Then one night, a janitor breaks in and tries to steal the thawed Japanese swordsman’s katana and gets sliced in half, sending Yoshimitsu on the run (but not before listening to watching the WASP footage of them performing “Tormentor” from The Dungeonmaster).

He wanders Los Angeles, saves an old vet (Charles Lampkin) from a street gang and getting into no small manner of trouble. Unlike so many frozen out of time movies, things in no way go smoothly or end happily.

Also known as Swordkill, this shot in Richmond, Virginia film was one I’ve been trying to find for some time. It was co-produced by Arthur Band, who must have had a calming influence on Charles for this one (Richard did the music making this a Band family effort).

It was directed by J. Larry Carroll, who edited RoarDracula’s DogThe Texas Chainsaw MassacreMassacre at Central High and The Hills Have Eyes before writing Tourist Trap and tons of cartoons, as well as directing only this one movie, which was written by Tim Curnan, who also wrote the wonderful Forbidden World.

It’s 81 minutes long which is exactly how long this movie should be, never staying past its welcome and filled with exciting swordplay and no small amount of sadness.

DISMEMBERCEMBER: Tales of the Third Dimension in 3-D (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This was originally on the site on August 13, 2021.

First off, that title says the same thing twice. But hey, let’s forgive a movie that has a skeletal narrator who is supposed to sound like Rod Serling but has a voice-over actor who didn’t get the memo and decided to sound more like Howard Cosell. This movie has the temerity to use puppets not only in the opening, but for the bats and other creatures throughout, as well as one of the worst cat effects ever. This all makes make love this because it was shot on film and made in 1984. If it was a digital video streaming release from this year, I would have hated it. Such is the wonder of me.

This movie came out of the Earl Owensby Studios, a place where Ginger Alden made Lady Grey opposite David Allen Coe and the thinly-veiled Elvis bio Living Legend: The King of Rock and Roll complete with a soundtrack by Roy Orbison. The secret to Owensby’s success? Never spending more than a million dollars to make a film and never signing a distribution deal that would net them less than eight million. He also knew how to make money, because his purchase of the abandoned Cherokee Nuclear Power Plant ended up providing exactly the set that James Cameron was able to fill with water to make The Abyss.

Igor the skeleton is joined by some ravens — or vultures or crows, they’re puppets that aren’t well made — three of whom sound like the Three Stooges and two that are Laurel and Hardy to cover all the comedy bases as he introduces three tales of terror that all involve Dr. Tongue-level three-dimensional effects.

In Young Blood, a vampiric couple pushes an adoption agency to get a child — any child — and end up with a werewolf. If you’ve seen it all before, you have, as this story is “The Secret” from Haunt of Fear #24. Seriously, it’s the same exact story, but if you’re going to steal for your portmanteau, I guess steal from the best.

The Guardians is the tale of grave robbers who need money so bad that they’ll cut the ring off a dead woman’s finger (and take the finger as well). They get even greedier and descend into the catacombs under the graves where they meet their fate.

The whole reason you should watch this movie is the last segment, Visions of Sugar Plums. Two kids are dropped off at grandmother’s house for the holidays as their parents go away to Hawaii. However, grandma has run out of her medicine and ends up singing Christmas carols about puking all over the place and killing Santa with a brick before she brines the cat like a holiday ham — don’t worry, this effect was literally taking a live cat and putting some pineapples on him — and then grabbing a shotgun to kill the kids who defend themselves with knives as a deranged version of “Jingle Bells” plays. To top this all off, this segment was directed by Todd Durham*, who would create the Hotel Transylvania series of movies. He also made another 3D Owensby Studios film, Hyperspace (AKA Gremloids) which somehow stars Paula Poundstone and Chris Elliot.

Somehow, the titles for this movie show up nearly an hour into the movie. You have to love that kind of who cares filmmaking. I have no doubt that this movie will eventually come out from Vinegar Syndrome and people will lose their minds. Jump in now and drink in that third story.

*The other stories are directed by Worth Keeter, who would go on to make multiple episodes of Power Rangers, and Thom McIntyre, who wrote nearly all of the filmography of Owensby Studios.

You can watch this on YouTube.

DISMEMBERCEMBER: I Believe In Santa Claus (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is another movie that we watch every year in our house. It was originally on the site on December 25, 2018.

Simon isn’t going to have a good Christmas. He’s bullied by his fellow classmates and the janitor, who throws spackle at his face. Oh yeah — his parents have also been kidnapped in Africa and the French government isn’t going to negotiate with the people who did the deed. Yep, it’s enough to make you take your friend Élodie and sneak onto a flight to Rovaniemi, where of course Santa Claus lives in Lapland. If you’re ready to drink in all that you’ve read above, you are ready for the kind of Christmas film that caused my wife to say, “Well, it looks like you’ve finally found your movie to post on Christmas day.”

The kids find Santa the only way they know how: deliriously wandering through the snow until they pass out. Then, they meet the fairy that works with Santa, who looks a lot like the teacher who forgot them at the airport and never acknowledged that they were missing. Basically, as soon as they are safe, Élodie takes Santa’s puppy and goes to see a child eating ogre. It’s kind of like Adam and Eve by way of Adam and Eve vs. the Cannibals.

When the kids finally escape thanks to Santa and go to Christmas Mass, no one even realizes they were missing. Oh yeah — Santa was also in Africa trying to free Simon’s parents. Seriously. Also, this might be a French movie, but everything is shot with English words in the classrooms and in the songs.

This whole movie feels like a vehicle for Karen Cheryl, who plays both the schoolteacher and fairy. Her songs sound like a maniacal melange of 1980’s pop, kind of like “99 Luftballoons” played at Chipmunk speed. Ironically, the first edition of this film’s soundtrack was quickly taken out of stores because Cheryl didn’t ask for permission from her producer if she could appear in the film or sing on the soundtrack. Soon, the album was re-recorded with singer Tilda Rejwan.

This is probably the only Santa Claus movie I’ve ever seen where he’s almost eaten by an alligator. So I guess it has that going for it. It’s also the kind of mind-altering movie that people say, “I was watching this movie that I couldn’t deal with and didn’t finish, but it felt like the kind of thing you’d put on and make me watch.”

You can watch this on Tubi.

DISMEMBERCEMBER: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jennifer Upton is an American (non-werewolf) writer/editor in London. She currently works as a freelance ghostwriter of personal memoirs and writes for several blogs on topics as diverse as film history, punk rock, women’s issues, and international politics. For links to her work, please visit https://www.jennuptonwriter.com or send her a Tweet @Jennxldn

We’ve all read about the controversy surrounding the release of Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984.) We’ve all seen VHS news footage of angry moms protesting the film’s original release and re-release in 1985. 

Re-watching the film in 2022 – a world in which we are all free to watch hours of YouTube videos made by mental health professionals – re-frames the film as something quite different. Yes, it’s still an exploitation film filled with boobs, blood and violence. Yes, it’s set on a holiday just like Halloween (1978.) But, at its heart, the film is about the creation of a serial killer. 

A child named Billy who might have had a normal life had he only received the PTSD therapy he so desperately needed following the brutal murder of his parents on Christmas eve in 1971. Instead, the poor kid gets thrown into an orphanage. Worst of all, it’s a Catholic orphanage run by an old-school battle axe of a mother superior who believes that beating Billy’s trauma from his psyche and tying him to his bed is the correct course of action. 

Billy is in no way a bad kid. At 8, he’s polite and respectful. Billy is a kid who, no matter how hard he tries to do good, is perceived as “bad” by the hierarchical establishment who summarily dismiss the concerns of his one ally Sister Margaret. He commits his first murder at age 18 while trying to save his female co-worker from sexual assault. Rather than thanking him, she calls him crazy. That’s the moment Billy’s barely there last frayed mental thread snaps. To quote Hannibal Lecter’s musings, “Our Billy wasn’t born a criminal, Clarice. He was made one through years of systematic abuse.” The sacred is the profane.

Given what we know now about the Catholic Church, I’d say this movie was pretty darned accurate in its depiction of cruelty towards children. In fact, I’d argue the freeze frame of Billy’s terrified face at the end of the 1974 sequence is emblematic of thousands of kids who grew up under the sick and cruel tutelage of Catholicism. Writer/director Charles Sellier was (no surprise) raised Catholic and spent his career producing both secular and faith-based material while bouncing between Catholicism, Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity in his personal life. Knowing these facts, I couldn’t help but feel Sellier was exorcising a few personal demons in the making of this film. 

When Siskel and Ebert named and shamed Sellier on their show back in 1984, they literally doubled down on the “punishment” theme and brought it into the real world. Despite their reputations for being academic-minded film critics, they did so seemingly with no self-awareness, believing their virtuousness to be equal to or greater than the mother superior in the film. Viewed in this light, the film takes on an altogether more important function in the history of exploitation cinema. One whose conception arose from abuse and who mere existence triggered more of the same. It’s a perfect example of how even the sleaziest art can both reflect and influence life. Also, it’s got Linnea Quigley topless in short shorts in cold weather. Merry Christmas! 

DISMEMBERCEMBER: Night of the Comet (1984)

EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s 11 days before Christmas, so this movie counts. This was on the site on February 20, 2019.

When he was concepting the idea for this film, writer/director Thom Eberhardt (Sole Survivor) met several real-life teenage girls while filming a special for PBS. He asked them how they’d relate to the end of the world and they answered that they’d see it as an exciting adventure, with dating being the only downside. That real insight informs this film, taking what should be a depressing scenario and making it into a light-hearted romp.

The Earth is about to pass through the tail of a comet. The last time this event happened, the dinosaurs died. However, on this night, eleven days before Christmas, large crowds decide to party and greet the comet’s arrival.

Regina “Reggie” Belmont (Catherine Mary Stewart, The Last Starfighter) stays late at the movie theater where she works, determined to wipe out the initials DMK on the Tempest arcade game that she’s laid claim to. Oh yeah, she also has sex with her boyfriend in the theater’s steel-lined projection booth. Meanwhile, her sister Sam (Kelli Maroney, Chopping Mall) gets into a fight with her stepmother and sleeps in the family’s steel backyard shed.

Those steel structures save our heroines, as the rest of the world has become piles of red dust and clothing where humans once were. Larry goes outside and is killed by a zombie. The girls find each other, as well as another survivor named Hector (Robert Beltran, Raoul from Eating Raoul) who slept in his truck and lived.

13173970_1181088538590242_4235618198219844001_n

They decide to try and find the radio station that’s still broadcasting, only to learn that it’s prerecorded. Once there, Sam speaks into the microphone (she asks for requests from “all of you teenage mutant horror comet zombies,” which was the working title for the movie) and is noticed by a group of scientists. Hector goes to see if his family made it while the girls leave and decide to go to the mall for a shopping spree. After battling a gang of zombie boys, the scientists show up to save them.

Only Reggie is taken back to their base for testing while Audrey White (Mary Woronov!) stays behind to kill Sam with a lethal injection. However, she fakes killing her and instead murders the other scientist with her. It turns out that the researchers knew how the comet would destroy humans and prepared for it, but left on the ventilation in their base and were impacted by the dust. Now, they’re vampires living off the blood of humans. Audrey kills herself as Sam reunites with Hector and they go to save her sister.

The scientists are dealt with, Reggie falls for Hector and they save all the kids. Rain washes away the dust, leaving the world clean again and Sam is nearly run over by a sports car driven by Danny Mason Keener (DMK from the Tempest machine) who invites her for a ride.

If you only watch the surface of this movie or read the descriptions of it, you may think that the girls are vapid stereotypes. However, as the film progresses, they grow and become independent women who don’t wait for men to save them. Even Audrey, though twisted, chooses the girls to survive over the male-dominated scientists.

I love this movie. It’s not remembered as much as it should be. To get the best version of this film, Shout! Factory has you covered.

The artwork for this post comes from the incredible Pizza Party Printing, where you can always find some amazing shirts for so many of your favorite movies.