Movies ‘Till Dawn: Reagan-Era Nightmares

12 a.m. – “Scarecrows” – Horror

product_images_modal_ScarecrowsBRCover72dpi(1988, Scream Factory) This supernatural thriller opens on an energetic note, with a gang of soldiers turned thieves, fresh from a big payroll heist, forced to land a stolen getaway plane (and its kidnapped pilot) into a remote rural area after one of their number bails out with the loot. The remainder’s search brings them to a desolate farmhouse, populated only by an array of scarecrows; that the latter come to life and terrorize the intruders is not so much of a surprise as how the exceedingly low budget doesn’t hamper director William Wesley from generating some genuinely suspenseful scenes, or special effect makeup designer Norm Cabrera (“The Walking Dead”) from crafting creatures which suggest a rural take on E.C. Comics’ ambulatory corpses. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray includes two commentary tracks – one with Wesley and producer Cami Winikoff, who seem quite floored that they pulled off the picture, and a second with co-writer Richard Jeffries, cinematographer Peter Deming (“The Cabin in the Woods”) and composer Terry Plumeri – as well as interviews with Cabrera, who made his professional debut on this film while still a teenager, and co-star Ted “The Wolfman” Vernon, a longtime veteran of the Florida cult movie scene. Original storyboards and a theatrical trailer round out the set.

1:30 a.m. – “Class of 1984” – Action/Thriller

product_images_modal_CO1984BRCover72dpi(1982, Shout Factory) Music teacher Perry King gets his idealistic notions about education shoved in his bearded face when he joins the staff of an inner city school under siege by New Wave hoods led by sociopathic rich kid Timothy Van Patten (now an Emmy-winning director for “The Sopranos,” among other series). Penned by director Mark L. Lester and Tom Holland (“Child’s Play”), “Class of 1984” plays at condemning wanton teenage violence (and the dangers of punk rock) while wallowing in sadism and misogyny – it’s the same bait-and-switch pulled by cynical youthquake pics for nearly a century, from “Tuff Turf” (1984) and “Wild in the Streets” (1969) to “Flaming Youth” (1923). Lester, who built a career out of unsubtle crowd-pleasers like “Commando,” adds a lacquer of gleeful, coal-black humor to the proceedings – how else to describe the scene in which burnt-out case Roddy McDowell, pushed to the breaking point after Van Patten’s gang slaughters his prized rabbits, administers a pop quiz at gunpoint? – which does much to defang the crude, hyperbolic tone. Canadian punk vets Teenage Head turn up to play a number, and that pudgy kid in the bowlcut hairdo is Michael J. Fox in his first screen appearance. Shout Factory’s Blu-ray includes lively commentary by Lester (ported over from the 2006 Anchor Bay DVD) and a career-spanning interview with King, who should probably get into the one-man show business, given the sheer amount of fascinating stories under his belt. Interviews with co-stars Lisa Langlois and Erin Noble, a making-of featurette (also from the AB disc), and the usual array of trailers, TV spots and production material, round out this set.

3 a.m. – “Wolfen” – Horror/Thriller

81jjML9j+FL._SL1500_(1981, Warner Archives Collection) The vicious murder of a wealthy industrialist with plans to develop highrise buildings in the poorer boroughs of New York City leads disheveled detective Albert Finney to suspect that the culprits might not be terrorists, but rather wolves with propriety designs on their old running grounds. “Woodstock” documentarian Michael Wadleigh’s adaptation of the Whitley Streiber novel stood out from the barrage of wolf-related horror films in the early ‘80s (“The Howling,” “American Werewolf in London”), thanks to a solid cast that includes Gregory Hines, Diana Venora, Edward James Olmos and the great Tom Noonan, remarkable Steadicam and visual effects work (later echoed in “Predator”) and an emphasis on suspense over special effects. The sober tone of the script, as well as touches of social commentary, also help to distinguish “Wolfen,” but also alienated the film from traditional horror audiences. That, combined with behind-the-scenes conflict between Wadleigh and the producers, who edited the picture without his input, doomed “Wolfen” at the box office, though frequent cable airings boosted its cult appeal in the ‘90s and beyond. WAC’s letterbox presentation does right by Gerry Fisher’s terrific nighttime photography of New York at the peak of its ruination in the decade, with the South Bronx resembling less of a metropolitan borough and more of a lunar landscape.

4:30 a.m. – “Jaws of Satan” – Horror

product_images_modal_EOTA-JOSBRCover72dpi(1981, Scream Factory) Endearingly inept mix of nature-gone-amok horror and supernatural shenanigans, with the Prince of Darkness in the form of a giant cobra that threatens the residents of a small town and its new dog track. Broadway vet Fritz Weaver (“Creepshow”) anchors the proceedings as a local priest with Druidic ancestors, while a very young Christina Applegate is briefly harassed by the devil snake. Though the film is hapless camp, the idea of Satan invading small town America was a very viable and not-at-all funny notion within a few years of its release, thanks to the “Satanic panic” lunacy; one wishes that an old pro like Weaver could have been on hand to clean up that mess, too. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray pairs “Jaws of Satan” with Bert I. Gordon’s jaw-dropping “Empire of the Ants” (1977), with Joan Collins battling rear-projected ants, and includes the original trailer.

6 a.m. – “Ghosthouse” – Horror

product_images_modal_GH-WBRCover72dpi(1988, Scream Factory) A ham radio enthusiast and his girlfriend overhear screams on a channel from an unknown broadcaster, and trace the signal to a remote house where grisly murders were committed. They decide to investigate, despite endless warnings from locals and irrefutable proof that the place is crawling with malevolent spirits, and are beset by the ghost of a little girl and her clown doll, exploding appliances, maggots, a mysterious dog and an unhinged gardener (Donald O’Brien, “Dr. Butcher, M.D.” himself), among other things. This Italian-made chiller by prolific genre director Umberto Lenzi (“City of the Walking Dead”) and producer Joe D’Amato ambles along, offering up a string of murder set pieces or spookshow images in the hopes that the pieces will gel into a coherent horror film. That never happens – largely because the rest of the scenes seem to involve people wandering aimlessly through the house and its grounds – so the picture becomes a curious exercise in waiting to see what won’t happen next. Former and current Massachusetts residents of a certain age may appreciate the Boston-area locations, including a glimpse of the long-defunct Channel club.

In Italy, “Ghosthouse” is part of the “La Casa” series, a septet of unrelated American and Italian horror films, including “Evil Dead II” and the Sean Cunningham-produced “House II” and “The Horror Show,” all of which were marketed and distributed as sequels to “La Casa” – the Italian title for Sam Raimi’s “The Evil Dead.” Scream Factory’s Blu-ray pairs “Ghosthouse” with its immediate “sequel” in the “La Casa” series, D’Amato’s absolutely berserk “Witchery,” with Linda Blair and David Hasselhoff (!). We’ll get to that one in an upcoming go-round.

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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