Cult Love

Gaping ghouls and Baywatch beauties: 15 lesser-known horror flicks

Welcome to Cult Love. This will be a semi-regular column devoted to appreciating movies that haven’t found wide audiences but are still appreciated by a devoted few. Some are truly terrible and some are really quite good, but they all have something in them that intrigues, shocks, titillates, amuses or surprises. You just need to know where to look. This week, celebrate Halloween without the predictable parade of pimp and ho costumes and get spooked without dropping your comforter. With the exception of The Hunger, all these gems are available on DVD at local stores or easily traceable online.

1. They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1963)

Starring Bill Freed as Adolf Hitler.

Hitler didn’t really die in the bunker: in a bid for eternal life, he was decapitated and his head put in a jar, Futurama-style. The first half of the movie follows mod secret agents trying to track down the killers of a brilliant Professor, but when they die, a second professor takes center stage, facilitated by the Professor’s hunky son-in-law. Sound disconnected? That’s because the two plots were shot at different times, and possibly planned for different movies. Highlights include a shot of Hitler’s head melting slowly—hypnotizing grotesquerie at its very best.

2. Dementia 13 (1963)

Starring William Campbell

From schlock überproducer Rodger Corman and first-time writer-director Francis Ford Coppola, comes this intriguingly novel look at the familiar axe-murderer-haunts-a-family-because-of-secrets-that-won’t-stay-buried genre. Startling heart attack aside, the opening scene is strangely lovely and serves to sets up the heroine’s very real moral conflict. Although the blonde-haired beauties are visually interchangeable—courtesy of their cookie-cutter cheerleader good looks and the graininess of the black and white photography—their characterizations are nuanced. Although he was hired to create a formulaic thriller, Coppola establishes surprisingly interesting and vivid characters.

3. Suspiria (1977)

Starring Udo Kier

I know what you’re thinking: not another flick about an American ballerina who goes to an international dancing school only to discover it is a witches coven! But turn those frowns upside down boys and girls, because this is a slasher flick from none other than Dario Argento, a.k.a. The Man who Gives Wes Craven and John Carpenter nightmares. The defining element of Argento’s films is a crazily inventive visual palette. The colors are so beautiful that the grizzly dismemberment attains a certain gloriousness. After seeing a movie like this, run-of-the mill horror seems far too crude.

4. Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Starring Tim Robbins

Jacob Singer (Robbins) endures constant nightmares about a crucial fight in Vietnam when his unit was fiercely attacked by a Vietnamese unit. Or was it? His confusion is magnified by the demons who keep appearing, cameo appearances that culminate in the apparent rape of his girlfriend. And amazingly enough, it just goes downhill from there. Although the ending is hinted at throughout, its flimsy spirituality distracts from the film’s strength: relentless urban horror that makes the Book of Job look like fun.

5. The Wicker Man (1973)

Starring Christopher Lee

Sargent Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) has come to Summerisle from the Scottish mainland in order to find a young girl who has been reported missing by a mysterious note. As he investigates, the strongly Christian Howie is shocked to discover the island’s strange pagan rituals. There are several powerful moments, including some nude frolicking by Britt Ekland in an attempt to entrap the virtuous Howie, a naked school prayer session and any of a clutch of scenes involving the hypnotizing Lord Summerisle in the role of Lee’s career.

6. Carnival of Souls (1962)

Starring Candace Hilligoss

A woman and her friends drive off the road during an out of control drag race. Soon, however, the woman climbs out of the pond none the worse for wear and is forced to deal with a lurking ghostly figure. It transcends both its B-grade premise and director Herk “This is my only fictional movie” Harvey’s resume, which included classics like What About Alcoholism?, Health: Your Posture and The Procrastinator. Although some teachers might call procrastination a deadly action, it hardly seems suitable preparation for this intriguing thriller.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)

Starring Austin Stoker

This movie is horror at its most basic: a cop, two criminals and two women holding down a police precinct in the middle of a city against an invading gang with unlimited members that want to kill all of them. This is one of John Carpenter’s first movies. It is a western in the sense it is an extended standoff. However, its real roots are as an urban horror story echoing the fears of many city dwellers as the ’70s progressed: the city is just as much of a trap as the country and can be infinitely more dangerous.

8. Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

Starring Grant Cramer

In this camp classic, a giant circus tent touches down from the sky in a small town. Mike Tobacco (Cramer) and Debbie Stone (Suzanne Snyder) immediately investigate, discovering the Klowns’ nefarious plot to turn the townspeople into giant balls of cotton candy. Their only hope is local boy Dave Hansen (John Allen Nelson). The highlight, however, is the clowns’ killing spree: you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a clown midget punch off a biker’s head, or a shadow puppet tyrannosaurus rex eat a crowd of children.

9. Dressed to Kill (1980)

Starring Michael Caine

For the psychiatry students out there, this Brian de Palma (he of Carrie fame) slasher flick has an important lesson: never deny a mentally unhinged would-be transsexual the permission to receive a sex-change operation, or else he might start stalking and killing your patients. Luckily, there is a hooker with a heart of gold (Nancy Allen), who saves the day by helping the first victim’s child track down the killer. The dramatic apotheosis comes with the bizarre conclusion, which out psychos Psycho and shows off the best killer’s costume since Leatherface.

10. Shock Corridor (1963)

Starring Peter Breck

In a bid to win the Pulitzer Prize by solving a murder in an insane asylum, successful and ambitious journalist Johnny Barrett (Breck) gets himself committed by having his stripper girlfriend claim to be his sexually harassed sister, leading to her classic line, “I will not be the Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare.” Soon, Barrett interviews the three residents who witnessed the murder, starting with Stuart, a former defector to the North Koreans who thinks he is Confederate General Jeb Stuart. Trent, the first black student in a southern university, has decided that he is a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Finally, Barrett gets to Boden, a scientist who has reverted to the mentality of a six year old child. Director Sam Fuller uses these archetypes to create a nuanced examination of early ’60s American culture.

11. Peeping Tom (1960)

Starring Carl Boehm

Most horror films are escapist larks: they scare you, but are removed enough to be fun. This uncomfortable thriller, however, doesn’t let audiences off the hook. Mark Lewis (Boehm) is a psychopath, who thrives on killing women with a knife attached to a camera tripod so he can film their expressions as they die. Although Psycho is similarly themed—psychotic killer motivated by childhood humiliations—the killings are viewed through the killer’s camera, making the audience (or at least me) feel like the pleasure of watching horror movies isn’t so far from Lewis’ psychosis. Upsetingly, the killer becomes more and more sympathetic. By the end, you kinda want to cuddle him.

12. The Hunger (1983)

Starring David Bowie

Whoever had the brilliant idea of casting David Bowie as a vampire should be commended; there has always been something slightly otherworldly about the man. He is Miriam’s (Catherine Deneuve) lover and dying because she is finished with him. Desperately searching for a way to survive, he contacts a beautiful doctor (Susan Sarandon), but she is too late. In a plot twist that could only have been dreamt up by a man, Sarandon is seduced by Deneuve—leading to one of the hottest sex scenes in recent movie history. This subtle and haunting film is an odd major directorial debut for Tony Scott of Top Gun and Spy Game fame, whose later films epitomized the antithesis of understatement.

13. Ganja and Hess (1972)

Starring Duane Jones

While researching an African tribe in his travels as an anthropologist, Dr. Hess Green (Jones) is ritually stabbed by one of the members. The attack gives Green an insatiable appetite for macaroni and cheese—no, not really, but it would make about as much sense as anything else in this inventive yet terrible vampire drama. The Doctor, however, is a vampire sans typical vampire character quirks: he goes to church, sleeps during the night and goes out during the day. Ganja, the wife of one of his previous victims, soon falls in love with Green, even after she finds her husband’s body in a meat locker. There is some greatness here, however, including the Doctor’s ridiculous trip to a Harlem blood bank and Ganja’s eccentric childhood memories.

14. Candyman 3: Day of the Dead (1999)

Starring Donna D’Errico and Tony Todd

As horror devotees know, reciting “Candyman” five times to a mirror leads to the appearance of demonic killer The Candyman (Todd). In this absurd final installment of the series, The Candyman kills all the associates of distant relative Caroline McKeever (D’Errico), framing her in the hope that she will join him as a legendary killing machine. This is a perfect flick for watching with friends while imbibing massive amounts of alcohol. Think 93 minutes of mocking terrible dialogue, marveling at Baywatch Babe D’Errico’s beautiful body, or mastering her less impressive acting prowess through humorous imitation.

15. Blood for Dracula (1974)

Starring Udo Kier

Andy Warhol’s mammoth media mogul ambitions led to a brief stint as a movie producer. True to its ’70s era setting, Dracula (Kier) is having trouble finding virgin blood, because everybody’s enjoying free love. He decides to move to Italy, because with their hardcore Catholicism, Italians must keep themselves virgins until marriage. He’s also promised five nubile young Italian beauties by their pimptastic mother. The mother and Dracula, however, hadn’t counted on the chiseled good looks of Mario Balato (Joe Dallesandro), the family’s servant, quickly turning the movie into a race between Dracula and Ballato to bed the remaining virgins. The movie isn’t scary as much as fun: Kier the sickly vampire is pathetic when pitted against Dallesandro’s voracious virility.