The horror years

When I was six years old my mother took myself, her best friend and a station wagon full of children to see Gremlins (1984) at a nearby drive-in theatre. We lay out on the roof, full bags of candy spread out before us. The other children were older than me. I wanted to be brave. And when it came time to drop my mother’s best friend and the other children back off at their home—which sat far back from the street—I remember being left alone in our dark car for what seemed like an eternity, staring at the void below my dangling feet, sure a gremlin’s face would slowly reveal itself. In short, Gremlins destroyed little six year old me. But it also began a lifelong fascination with horror films that was partially nurtured by a pre-cable, metro Detroit television staple: Channel twenty’s Thriller Double Feature.

Every Saturday afternoon I commandeered the television for four hours and was treated to the cream of the crop of the bottom of the barrel. I cared little for the quality of what I was watching. I had no context to draw from. I simply devoured one horror film after another.

up from the lake

Well, they weren't underwater the whole time.

There was Zombie Lake (1981), which had the best kind of zombies: Underwater Nazi Zombies!  It featured a subplot involving one of the Nazi Zombies trying to get back in touch with his daughter, which was. . . bewildering. There was Cellar Dweller (1988), wherein an artist is tormented by his own creations, and Night of the Creeps (1986), which featured space slug zombies, the second best kind.

Sometimes you’d get a half way decent flick, like Dolls (1987), directed by Stuart Gordon, which got heavy rotation on Thriller and featured a little girl who, longing for attention, made friends with some murderous dolls. Despite the corny acting and simplistic premise, Dolls made some great use of light and sound, featuring some classic lightening flashes and substituting SFX for the creepy pitter-patter of doll feet on a hard wood floor. My sister’s own doll collection solidified this one’s stay in my subconscious.

Cat's Eye

Aw, wasn't she cute? No! She was terrifying! Even in E.T.! Especially in E.T.!

Cat’s Eye (1985), which featured a script by Stephen King as well as the acting talents of James Woods and a young Drew Barrymore, was one of many anthology films that made regular appearances. Its first two stories were relatively forgettable, but Barrymore’s story—which was a play on the old myth that cats steal your breath while you sleep—was pretty fun. Both Creepshow (1982) and Creepshow 2 (1987) popped up periodically, also offering some writing from Stephen King, this time aided by the direction of George Romero.  I fondly recall Leslie Neilsen, buried up to his neck in sand as the tide rolls in, screaming, “I can hold my breath for a very long time!” They were pure camp, throwbacks to the EC horror comics that eventually inspired the British anthology film Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the television series of the same name.

Trilogy of Terror

I actually find this far less terrifying than Drew.

Trilogy of Terror (1975), written and directed by Dan Curtis, was originally a pilot for an anthology horror TV series.  Instead, it aired as a made-for-TV film and featured one of the most memorable stories (at least for me) of all of the Thriller anthologies. It starred Karen Black (who was actually the lead in all three tales) as a young woman who purchases a Zuni fetish doll as a gift. It comes with a scroll claiming that the doll contains the spirit of “He Who Kills” and the only thing keeping it at bay is a golden chain around the doll’s neck. Of course the chain falls off. What follows is a pretty creepy little cat and mouse game through Black’s apartment as the doll relentlessly slashes at her from off camera with only the sound of his feet and snarling voice to indicate his whereabouts.  The films final shot still haunts me, as Karen Black hunches down in her living room, now possessed by “He Who Kills,” carving at the floor with a knife, mouth filled with razor sharp teeth.

Those were the days.  And now I must save myself, because The Idler is absolutely NOT a nostalgia site, and recommend that you seek out these films via OnDemand, Netflix and your local video store (quick! While it still exists!) this Halloween. Grab a bag of candy and don’t be ashamed to pump up the original Thriller Double Feature commercial beforehand. 

5 Responses to “The horror years”
  1. Lindsey says:

    Those bad, campy movies really do give me the creeps sometimes!

    Kev, that Trilogy of Terror with Karen Black and the Zuni doll, isn’t that plot based off a short story? I feel certain I’ve read a story like that, and it ends with the little doll getting baked in the oven or something, only that just makes things worse. Has my memory gone completely sideways?

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      I believe you are correct. I’m relatively certain all three stories are based off of Richard Matheson stories. I’m also relatively certain that nearly every word that man wrote ended up on screen in one form or another!

  2. Kurt says:

    Shock Waves is one of my favorite pictures. The underwater nazi zombies still haunt me to this day. I love it!!! Zombie Lake is now on my list thanks to you! Thanks! :)

    • Kevin Mattison says:

      Shock Waves is a pretty fun flick. And while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend viewing Zombie Lake, I appreciate the comment ; )

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