Heather Drain has been writing about fringe film and culture for almost ten years. She currently writes for Dangerous Minds, as well as her own site, Mondo Heather.
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One of the biggest appeals of horror to me when I was a little girl and my brain was very much still in its primordial state was the playground it provided. Horror is the type of genre that its name alone has the power to repulse or entice someone. Only adult film has a similar kind of sonic gravitas. The playground aspect ties in with the concept of having a type of film where one can safely explore the shadowy and occasionally grimy nooks and crannies of our own human nature. Of course, I don't think I would have verbalized it quite like that back then, but at its core, that has always been the appeal of horror to me. Then and now.
Putting together a list of my favorite underrated horror films has been fun and surprisingly easy. Some of these titles are wildly different but all have an odd quality and a reluctance to give in to simple conclusions. So much of life is in between black and white and when a film flirts with this, even when delving into the darkening shades of gray, it is instantly compelling. Good versus evil is a fight that can become very muddy the minute you acknowledge that there are few easy answers in this life. In a way, all of these titles do just that.
Now, without further ado, the list.
“Janie” (1970, Directed by Jack Bravman/Michael Findlay) First of all, I practically worship at the altar of Michael Findlay. His work, including titles like “The Ultimate Degenerate” and the classic “Flesh” trilogy, stands out to this day as wholly unique. The lurid chills and thrills of exposed skin, sex kicks and strange violence mixed with literary references, creative angles and stunning photography, often courtesy of his then-wife Roberta, are all hallmarks of a Michael Findlay production.
Out of his work, one of the more obscure titles is 1970's “Janie.” Now, while IMDB has Jack Bravman listed as the director, the film positively reeks of a Findlay title. Psycho-sexual nightmare? Check. Strangely poetic voice over? Check. Roberta and Michael both popping up in the cast? Double check. So for all intents and purposes, “Janie” is a Michael Findlay film unless hard evidence comes out.
The titular Janie (Mary Jane Carpenter) is a pretty, blonde high school girl with black widow tendencies. As she descends into a rabbit hole of perverse, blood-stained sexuality, haunting narration comes in and out, confronting the damaged psychology of our anti-heroine. All of this leads to the highly disturbing reveal of why Janie became the way she is. It's perfect that this film takes place in the Fall, since there is a compelling pall over all of the proceedings. It's beautiful and yet, completely no fun, essentially making it my kind of movie. It's currently in gray market limbo, but is available in fractured form on Something Weird Video's release of Findlay's “Take Me Naked/A Thousand Pleasures.” It's also been released by Alpha Blue Archives.
“Feast of Flesh” (1967, Directed by Emilio Vieyra) Speaking of Something Weird Video, “Feast of Flesh” came into my life when I picked up their double feature of that and the bonkers Mexican gore fest, “Night of the Bloody Apes.” While “Bloody Apes” is a prisma-color comic book from Hell, “Feast of Flesh” struck me with its gorgeous black & white cinematography, lensed by Anibal Gonzalez Paz. It's like a horror film becoming a classic jazz album cover. But it's not just eye candy, since the plot, involving a string of unsolved murders and a mysterious figure in a grotesque mask luring young lovelies to his beach side estate via a type of hypnotic trance, is unique. Melancholy sweetly stains almost every frame. It's definitely a marked contrast to Vieyra's saucier effort, “The Curious Dr. Humpp.”
“The Black Room” (1983, Directed By Elly Kenner & Norman Thaddeus Vane) “The Black Room” is not only one of the most underrated horror films, I would say that it is one of the most underrated films from the 1980's. While I know the phrase “smart film” is a cliché, it is one that can be applied here. It centers around a married couple, seemingly normal, but the husband ends up renting a room in a secluded mansion in the hills. The landlords in question are the mysterious and darkly beautiful Jason (Stephen Knight) and Bridget (Cassandra Gava), a brother and sister pair in need of a tenant after the last one died. The husband begins picking up an assortment of one-night stands and taking them back to the black room that he is renting. Unbeknownst to him, each woman ends up being murdered after he leaves. Turns out that Jason is in need of blood and their rental set-up is advantageous, to say the least. But things become even more strange when the wife becomes suspicious of her husband's daytime activities and begins to investigate.
“The Black Room” is an excellent twist on the vampire subgenre and is begging for a proper DVD/Blu Ray release. It received a VHS release back in the 80's but has remained woefully out of print ever since. The cast is good, especially Gava as the protective sister. Eagle eye viewers will notice the cover artwork of Jefferson Starship's “Spitfire” album popping up in one of the scenes.
“Crawlspace” (1986, Directed by David Schmoeller) The 1980's were the equivalent of Costco or Sam's Club when it came to slasher films. The horror section of your local mom & pop video store was, dollar to donuts, brimming with all sorts of “killer on the loose” titles. The quality of these films ranged from the brilliant to the good-lord-the-movie-gods-must-hate-me, but one title that I think got lost in the shuffle was David Schmoeller's excellent thriller, “Crawlspace.”
“Crawlspace” revolves around Karl Gunther (Klaus Kinski), a landlord of a small apartment building that houses nothing but pretty and single ladies. That is about as cliched as it is going to get, since Gunther happens to be the son of a Nazi and plays Russian Roulette everyday, with his eyes closing in defeat every time he “loses,” uttering the phrase “so be it.” On top of that, he keeps a woman, Martha (Sally Brown), in a cage and tongue-less. He talks to Martha and keeps her around, not for any lurid kicks, but for company. Despite the presence of a local Nazi hunter, it is the arrival of Lori (Talia Balsam) that tips the house of cards over.
“Crawlspace” is stylish, creative and features an especially brilliant performance by Klaus Kinski. While I know “subtlety” is a word not often used with Kinski, the man was a great actor who could operate on multiple cylinders. He really infuses a sad, haunted quality with Gunther, putting you in the uncomfortable spot of sympathizing with him. On top of that, Schmoeller's direction is taut, never truly letting up. Thankfully, “Crawlspace” did receive a DVD release and is about to get one on Blu Ray, thanks to the fine folks at Shout Factory.
“The Psychopath” (1973, Directed by Larry G. Brown) Also known as “Eye for an Eye,” “The Psychopath” is as captivating as it is demented. Starring Tom Basham, who was also in the terrific and strangely downbeat gay biker film “The Pink Angels,” he plays Mr. Rabbey, a children's TV show host. Rabbey is a fellow that really loves his job and in many ways, is still very much a child himself. The man may not be playing with a full deck, but his heart is in the right place. This moral gray-space is put to the ultimate test when, after witnessing a kid getting mistreated, he goes on a killing spree, taking out anyone who is abusive and mean to children. But to quote The Cramps, how far can too far go?
“The Psychopath” is a good film. It's not really a masterpiece, but it is well made. However, what really cinches it is Tom Basham's performance. Holy Hades, the man was on fire in this! His performance as this overgrown and lion-hearted yet totally homicidal man-child is not easily forgotten, even if this movie sadly has been by any digital distributors. The time is nigh for its rediscovery.