Video Nasty!

February 24th, 2009

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Some things are better left in the imagination. Everyone knows that.

So picture the scene. I’m…12? 13? I’m stood in one of the two shops in the village I grew up in that stocks videos for rental.  I guess an American might call it a ‘mom and pop store’ (Well, Steven King certainly would). No Blockbusters this, rather a back room of a shop that housed a pretty random and shonky collection of videos. This was the 80′s, son. In my village, when Beetlejuice came out, there was a waiting list to rent that bad boy. And there was one copy of everything. Top titles could fit on two shelves if you were lucky. Whoopi Goldberg comedies were heavy hitters. (I can already hear children weeping…”but how did you cope?”).

But forget that. I wasn’t interested in those films. My eyeline was raised to the promised land. A lurid selection of forbidden gems that taunted me with their availability.

Mecca. Fucking Xanadu.

See that’s my abiding memory of the video age – fucking atrocious movies, packaged in the most gloriously enticing way. Horror, sci-fi, martial arts…these were the important genres of the day. Sequels, threequels – who the fuck is Fellini? I don’t think it ever occurred to me that most of these films had never been within spanking distance of a cinema. They were all equally amazing in my eyes.

I literally couldn’t wait until I was old enough to see these things. I could barely  even conceive precisely how adult a movie like Fright Night 2 or April Fools Day would be. Would I even be able to cope when I finally got around to seeing them. I knew that I could never convince my Mum to let me see these films (although I now realise that through my Dad, I had watched far better and genuinely disturbing movies like John Capenter’s nihilistic siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, or Leone’s amoral Good, the Bad and the Ugly). I had a friend at school, Dan Gold, whose parents didn’t seem to give a fuck about what he watched and he would spend long boring Chemistry lessons filling my head with the gory highlights of Predator or Nightmare on Elm Street. They sounded beyond amazing.

So with this already fertile preconception, I would gaze longingly at these movies with their lurid,  sensational covers and wait for the day when they unveiled their splendid horrors to me.

Let me take you on a small tour of my mis-spent life…

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Nightmare on Elm Street. I think of all the uber-baddies to come out of the glut of 80′s slasher films, Freddy is easily the most unsettling. While there’s definitely something worrying about a lumbering backwoods maniac like Jason,  Freddy is something else. He’s like something from a Hoffmann fairytale, with his battered fedora, razor fingers and severe punishments for wayward children (something I’m sure ‘Professor’ Craven was well aware of – there’s even a shot in the first film during Tina’s dream sequence where he looks very like Shock Headed Peter)

I think the very idea of someone hunting you through your dreams is deeply terrifying and it certainly scared the fuck out of me when I was little. I was scared of Freddy way before I ever got around to seeing the actual films. Blame Dan Gold and his endless extrapolations of Kruger’s macabre acts. Seriously, I actually had terrifying dreams featuring Freddy that only added to my deeply held conviction that he was a real and viable threat (bearing in mind that I also felt that quicksand, dodgy rope bridges and piranhas were also very definite threats to my existence…). He became, in the truest sense, a boogeyman. A sadistic pizza-faced nightmare-bastard who leered at  me from the Video covers and haunted my dreams.

When I finally got around to seeing the original Nightmare on Elm Street it actually pretty much lived up to the promise of my imagination. The first two thirds are original, compelling  and pretty damn scary. Tina’s death is a particularly harrowing sequence, and Craven maintains a fine blurring of the lines between dream and reality throughout. It turns into a ludicrous knockabout farce at the end, and the final scene is one of the all time clunkers of cinema history, but the film can claim a rightful place in the pantheon of great horror films.

But I wasn’t just interested in that one as I stood in that video shop all those moons ago. Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream  Master (1988) had just come out.

Now when I finally got around to seeing this particular  gem I realised it was pretty much a cinematic turd. And not very scary at all. By and large, the ‘Elm St’ sequels got progressively shitter, and while they retained a gloopy imaginative quality and were rarely dull, they certainly paled in comparison to the first. The Dream Master does have one decent sequence, wherein a bunch of teenage victims get stuck in a time-loop trying to escape Ol’ Freddy that accurately captures the panic of a nightmare, but it’s pretty mediocre in general. The cover though is a thing of beauty and hints at a film of unimaginable psychedelic horror. And that tagline ‘Terror beyond your wildest dreams’. I believed that shit when I was 12, and it promised some pretty awful things. But Dream Master, like so many horror sequels, is actually a humdrum retread of previous entries wherein the only pieces of interest are the increasingly elaborate death sequences. All topped off by Freddy’s cheesy quips. By this point he’d become a pop cultural icon, and very much the star of the show. The leering, gravel voiced child-killer had become a loveable rogue. Even his scarred face looked less frightening, and his whole schtick became pantomime in the extreme. By the time Craven tried to haul the franchise back out of it’s downward spiral, with  the well-intentioned  but horrendously pompous post-modern ‘New Nightmare’, it was too late. Freddy would never again occupy that twilight area of my psyche in the same potent way.

Some damn fine posters though. Sort of Jean Michelle Jarre horror. I love that photo-realist airbrush quality, mixed with the blood red lettering. Parts 3, 4 and 5 have a nice thematic consistency, and sum up the quasi-fantasy/horror nature of the franchise. Part 2 is the anomaly – the film itself changed the basic concept of Freddy so that he became some form of possessing spirit, thus fully missing the allure and originality of the character. It was shit, and featured some prurient and distasteful homophobia. The poster likewise looks like it comes from a totally seperate franchise. Oh and the ripped kid in the poster looks nothing like the spud in the movie.  Number 6 is pretty cheap looking and kind of unimaginative, kind of like the film itself. Although Freddy did die “in 3-D!”, so it wasn’t a total bust…

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I don’t think any video had such a powerful allure for me as Dolls (1987). That cover used to scare the living shizzle out of me. I have a vivid childhood memory of visiting the house of my parents’ friend, who had an entire room dedicated to Victorian porcelain dolls. Happily wandering about the house, and bored of the adult chat downstairs, I suddenly found myself  in this room with it’s awful collection of glassy skinned, impassive, staring monsters. Hackles duly raised, I bolted out of the room into the comforting babble of the grown-ups. Fucking dolls.

So when I saw this particular video cover, underwear was most definitely soiled.

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I couldn’t imagine a more unpleasant film to sit through. I was repelled and intrigued in equal measure: this had the makings of a truly horrific film, and that simple but effective cover image summed up everything nasty about the concept. Nasty. Little. Living. Dolls. The back cover had the regulation three screen shots in place to tease prospective viewers. (The standard was – picture of a gore moment, picture of sexy ladeez, picture of notional ‘big name’ star. Usually Roddy McDowell or David Warner) One image was of a victim,  face soaked in blood staring in abject terror at a doll wielding a fucking hammer. I used to stare at that particular video endlessly, wondering if I would ever actually be brave enough to watch it. Dolls seemed to come from an area of film that was totally unfamiliar to me, one of limitless terror and infinite cruelty. Whilst I wasn’t sure exactly why people watched films like these, I knew I wanted to be one of them.

It remained a sort of poisoned grail for me for a long time. Years later, when I finally got around to seeing it (thanks to the ginger, alcoholic, misanthropic horror aficionado that used to run my then-local video shop) I was pleased to learn it was  a Stuart Gordon film. Gordon is the director of a number of hugely enjoyable splatter movies like the seminal Re-animator, From Beyond and Dagon, who also made an excellent adaptation  of Lovecraft’s Dreams in The Witch House and the intriguing Mamet-scripted Edmond.

Dolls however might be his most bizarre concoction, with an extremely broad, almost fairy tale tone. It’s actually a very enjoyable film in it’s own demented way, with imaginative set pieces and some great stop motion effects. You don’t see enough stop motion in films today, so it’s always a treat to see a good example of it. It is also pretty unpleasant (some punk kids buy the farm in a gruesome manner, after disrespecting the dolls and the twinkly old couple who make them – fucking punk kids! When will they learn?), although not anywhere as much as I expected.  The whole thing is essentially like a warped kids film, and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed it’s eccentric charm, I can’t deny feeling a little deflated that it wasn’t the terror magnum opus I envisaged.

Fucking dolls.

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More than any other, the cover to Maniac Cop 2 (1990) sums up everything I wanted from a video. Firstly I love the cross-genre pollination of the film. Horror/crime/action? You got it. Guaranteed violence there. Secondly I love the image – a massive, hideously deformed monster cop, straddling the NY skyline. Most importantly it’s got that blue  electricity, which seemed to be a quintessential component of an enjoyable film at the time. Thirdly that fucking title. Who could fail to love a film called MANIAC COP…2. Not only is he a maniac cop, but he’s back again! It’s so ridiculously blunt and descriptive, yet so melodramatic. Fucking brilliant. That tagline deserves a mention too. “You have the right to remain silent…FOREVER!” Tagline writing is an unheralded artform. You get it right and that’s some haiku shit right there.

I mean, obviously it’s a piece of shit. But it’s a very enjoyable piece of shit. It has the decency to amp everything up after the lacklustre first film, and there’s enough eye-gouging and explosions to satisfy the average geek’s moronic blood lust. the presence of B-movie auteur Larry Cohen on script duties raises it from the gutter, and his lightness of touch ensures the movie remains watchable despite William Lustig’s leaden direction. It’s  silly, violent and trashy in all the right ways. And it’s brief enough to never outstay it’s welcome.

But it’s definitely a piece of shit. And it definitely isn’t scary.

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Ahhh. Jason.
Freddy was imaginative, Michael was original, and Leatherface fucked his sister. But Jason…was an icon. That hockey mask is instantly recognisable, and sums up 80′s horror in a second. Friday 13th was a cheap rip-off, a cash in and a cynically calculated exploitation movie only a couple of notches above a porn movie in it’s execution. It was also a Zeitgeist shagging landmark that managed to set the tone for successful horror movies for the next ten years. Jason was familiar to every pre-pubescent kid in my peer group, and his endless, brutal, but strangely creative grudge match against the fuck-happy counsellors of Camp Crystal Lake was firmly embedded in the pop cultural landscape of my early teens.

The first couple aren’t so bad really, in a dirgey, trashy way. The first is a classic of sorts, or at least an archetype. Number two has a grungy nastiness to it, and three has the debut of the hockey mask. Friday 13th 4, The Final Chapter (1984) – fucking ha ha – is…oh I can’t bloody remember. It’s a totally merit free spam-in-a-cabin flick, with Corey Feldman in a bald wig. It’s violent, cruel and unimaginative, and scare free. The best that can be said for it is that it’s better than number 5, which I can’t remember at all. Number 6 has a dose of ill-judged slapstick humour, a bizarre lightning-based resurrection a la Frankenstein, and is dumber than an inbred’s counting competition. Number 8 has a fantastic subtitle – ‘Jason Takes Manhattan’ – and is notable only for being fellow Mindless One, Bobsy’s, favourite entry in the sequence.

(True fact – Bobsy and me once spent a day smoking weed and watching two Friday 13th movies (Number 5 and Jason Goes to Hell) back to back. By the end of it we wanted to beat ourselves up with boredom. Proof, as if any was needed, that stoners shouldn’t be allowed to control their own lives).

But fuck that. Here’s the 12 year old gazing in wonder at this beauty:

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By fuck that cover grabbed me. Something in the Argento-esque hue of the blood really turns my stomach still. That simple, lurid image says absolutely everything you need to know about the movie within. The colour scheme is nice too – it’s all black, white and red, the triangle of simple morality and carnal violence already implanted in your brain before you’ve got anywhere near the play button. It’s exactly the kind of film your Mum and Dad wouldn’t want you to watch, so naturally it was top of my list. The old testament brutalism and prurient nature of slasher films literally seeps off the cover. It’s not a painting, like the Elm Street covers, but a photo which really adds to the snuff-movie vibe of theses movies. It’s cheap, nasty and reprehensible. Bring it on.

My brain fizzed at the  violent, terrifying promise of films like this. Part of me wanted to ignore them, to pretend they didn’t exist. Yet once I knew they were out there I couldn’t rest until I’d seen them, for better or worse. Whoopi Goldberg wasn’t gonna cut the mustard anymore.

But you know – faced that dragon, turned out it was a fucking newt. These weren’t nightmare-a-thons. They were camp, silly, often boring, and rarely ever as gore-soaked as my fertile imagination had convinced me they would be. There are some gems in the turds, or at least some peanuts. Some of the above are worth a watch (Dolls in particular merits further investigation), but essentially the best of them is wrapped around the outside. Life really is too short to have an intimate knowledge of Jason’s death techniques or the relative merits of Phantasm IV compared to III (answer – number 3, if only for Don Coscarelli’s hopelessly misguided attempts to ‘Evil dead’ up his weird fucking movies). I can still glean a certain amount of aesthetic enjoyment from 80′s trash horror movies, and they’re often breeding grounds for ace prosthetic work and twisted special effects (you don’t get to see much Screaming Mad George in a Kate Winslet movie, more’s the pity). But trust me. Look don’t touch. It’s safer that way…

*Incidentally – the poster at the top of this post is for Return to Horror High (1987), a pretty enjoyable spoof of Slasher movie conventions waaaay ahead of Scream and all that bollocks. It might just be my favourite video cover of all time too…

27 Responses to “Video Nasty!”

  1. bobsy Says:

    Jason X is pretty cool too. Haven’t seen the new one yet (Jason at the movies? No thanks! When I watch that shit, I’ll turn it of myself.)

    I think the cover to Craven’s Shocker is worth a mention here – blue lightning all over the bloody place, and a lovin’ it villain getting fried, and inadvertantly providing Frank Miller his best idea.

  2. adam aaron Says:

    I have to say the thing that scares me more is the mildew smell of the card board that permeates the video store. Those covers were scary as hell. It is a shame how much so much of the glorious trash I watched as a child fails to hold up the wonderful memories.

    That said, David Lynch’s version of DUNE, a film that I could not finish as a child because it freaked me out to the nth degree, still holds up and gets better and better (unlike Legend, Krull, or Star Wars which seem trite and cheesy).

    Also, Creepshow continues to delight. “Where’s my cake?”, eh? And the first Hellraiser is an aesthetic delight.

    As a matter of fact, the last good movie I rented before moving to netflix and discovering European cinema, was Romero’s film “Bruiser.” While not the best film, it is a horror film with thematic substance.

  3. Chewbacca Says:

    I seem to remember that in Maniac Cop 2, the hero ran around wearing a bum-bag, for godsakes.

    I guess they never took off as cool kit the way the film-makers thought it would.

    “Our hero’s goin to be cutting edge. He’ll be wearing a bum-bag, like everyone will be in the ‘edgy’ nineties!”

  4. Justin Says:

    I read this blog regularly and don’t believe I have ever commented (don’t hold me to that). But I must say, this honest but romantic look at VHS horror warmed my heart. My own love affair with video rental (Jem Photo & Video ran a deal by which you could rent three movies for three dollars for three days, provided they were not new releases) must have taken place upwards of ten years after yours, but involved many of the same movies.

    “Ahhh. Jason” indeed! I watched endless Friday the 13th movies as a kid. As an adult viewer, there is nothing compelling at all about the movies; the direction, the writing, the acting, even the *character* of Jason. But the *image* of Jason? Somehow HOCKEY MASK + AMBIGUOUSLY UNDEAD KILLER captures the imagination of every 12-year-old boy, and those video boxes were a big part of it. I used to pore over the boxes at the local grocery store (it seems weird, in retrospect, that they rented out videos next to the greeting cards) trying to decide which one to rent next, and it didn’t matter if I watched them out of order. Jason succeeds as a purely *visual* phenomenon, and who was that genius working on the third movie who came up with the hockey mask idea?

  5. Zom Says:

    Freddy scared the fucking shit out of me too.

    I persuaded Nanny Sandy to let me watch Nightmare on Elm Street when I was about 9-years-old, and, frankly, short of drug experiences I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my entire life. The raw terror stayed with me for years. As you rightly point out, Freddie was a viable threat, along with quicksand and alien abduction.

    There’s more than one post in these posters!

  6. lord nuneaton savage Says:

    Yep, yep, yep. However it was the cover of ‘Demons’ that scared the living fuck out of me and the covers of the ‘Exterminator’ films (one through to, i dunno, 27?) that put me in a state of high excitememnt. Vietnam vet taking revenge on the streets with a welding mask and flamethrower? Yes the fuck please.

  7. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Oh shit yeah! The Exterminator 2 was definitely on the list. I think a follow up post would be about films i wanted to see but still haven’t. Then i could track the bastards down and watch them…

    Ruminate, mumble, plan…

  8. Andy G Says:

    Brilliant read, cheers.

    Very evocative of eighties teenage years, those chunky VHS/Betamax boxes, the musky smell of videotape, widely evocative lurid cover sleeves, to be pored over before a film for all the family was reluctantly chosen. How could the reality possibly complete? better left in the store indeed.

    Kudos for watching all the Jason films, don’t think there’s enough drugs in the world to make that palatable. In many ways it was, as you say, the suggestive power of Jason & Freddy in particular and all these horror flicks generally that really struck home, far more than the films themselves ever did. I had a Freddy fanatic sat next to me in art class at school, always doodling intricate scenes of violence with running commentary based on the various nasties his parents were obviously unconcerned he was watching. When I finally got round to watching one of the films (No 3 I think, Dream Warriors?) it couldn’t have possibly live up to his narrative. And Jason at source is even more disappointing, but both became real bogeymen for that generation, embodiments of the spectre of Aids perhaps? Certainly the fear of adulthood, of drugs and sex and hair, mortality haunting our endless childhood summers.

    Halloween is the only one of its ilk that stands up as a film today, as scary now as it was then, Michael appearing like a ghost among the billowing sheets of laundry. Brrrr. And all those gore fests whose covers we know intimately but we never saw are as scary as that classic in our heads.

    Dolls sounds very interesting, I’ll have to pick it up. Stop motion animation really can chill the blood, can’t it. Jan Svankmeyer is the master of it and I lap his stuff up, so Dolls sound right up my street.

    The poster for Craven’s shocker was issued free in some DC comics when it came out, including Milligan & Bacchalo’s Shade The Changing man #1, which I thought was a nice synchronicity.

    Krull? It’s a classic! Stiff dull leads, interesting supporting cast, lush scenery and a totally creepy living evil castle.

    I’ve been thinking of David Lynch’s Dune recently, as in Final Crisis is Grant Morrison’s Dune, but that’s a bit “off topic”.

  9. amypoodle Says:

    Krull is amazing. I want that frisbee.

    Weirdly enough it wasn’t until 1987, when I was 11 or 12, that a gore-fest fucked me up, but Hellraiser really scared the bejesus out of me. Freddy scared me, but not as much as cenobites.

  10. Zom Says:

    They definitely weren’t funny

    Watched Star Wars* again recently. Divorce it from all that self important SAGA nonsense that followed, and what you’re left with is wonderfully enthusiastic, silly funtimes.

    *I refuse to call it A New Hope

  11. adam aaron Says:

    Speaking of childhood fantasy films, does anyone have any love for “Willow?” I honestly have not seen it (or “The Dark Crystal”) since I was in my single digits. Do these hold up?

    While Final Crisis isn’t morrison’s best work, I don’t think the comparison is apt. Lynch disowned Dune, but I still love it. Morrison is proud of Final Crisis, and I like it a lot (even if you consider it his worst work). Plus creative disaster and financial disaster aren’t comparable.

    p.s.
    “Final Crisis” doesn’t just have a channel swapping style, it is more like watching three or more youtube feeds on at once.

  12. Fortress Keeper Says:

    One of my favorite VHS horror titles was “Happy Birthday To Me,” which starred Melissa Sue Anderson and promised “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see” and showed a guy getting skewered by a Shish Kebab.

    Movie didn’t live up to the hype, of course.

    And the Jason movies weren’t that great, but hey Part Three was in 3-D and actually featured a great effect with a spear-gun!

    Yes, I saw it in the theater …

  13. Andy G Says:

    Dark Crystal was Jim Henson and therefore remains genius, if a bit PIGS IN SPACE. Willow was and always will be rubbish.

    The Dune analogy isn’t a snug fit, granted. I was thinking more of storytelling approach, jumping through events and sailing close to the wind with clarity, the detailed set up and the truncated ending, twisted visual sensibilites, audience expectations of what a sci-fi bockbuster “Should” be like.

    I think Dune’s a great film, regardless of Lynch’s opinion of it, and I’m fairly fond of Final Crisis too.

  14. Bizunth Says:

    This article encapsulates my own feelings about VHS horror films brilliantly. I was also afraid of Freddy way before I saw any of the films. And I’d stare at the horror section in exactly the same way. The films that got me most were Squirm, about flesh-eating worms, particularly the photo of them coming out of the shower-head, and Scanners. ‘Their thoughts can kill’ the tag-line said. And I became convinced that thinking could kill me. So I tried to stop.
    Of course, I watched an episode of Toksvig that made me terrified of spontaneous combustion so maybe I wasn’t the sharpest crayon in the box.

  15. The Satrap Says:

    Excellent article,the whole “it’s certainly rubbish, but is it iconic, do we glimpse some potential there” vibe is captured perfectly.

  16. The Satrap Says:

    Sorry for the lazy “this post was great” comment. More ponderous forms of trolling will resume shortly.

  17. Zom Says:

    Very good!

    Bizunth, spontaneous human combustion also counted amongst my “viable threats”

  18. Bizunth Says:

    I guess it says something that the video covers were far more terrifying than anything I’ve ever watched. When I saw Shaun of the Dead I appreciated the moments at the beginning where Shaun glimpsed horror but never quite registered it, and thought there’d be profit in that, an entire film where the main story is pleasant and mundane but horrifying, baffling things are constantly glimpsed in the background, in windows etc. I suppose Lynch is the closest to that.

  19. Thrilltone Says:

    Dolls! No! That cover scared me shitless when I’d go to the cornershop with my dad, inevitably to rent something involving Ewoks, or make some futile attempts to get my dad to rent me Robocop.

    Most of these sorts of covers did, along with the Iron Maiden posters on my cousin’s walls. I never really saw too many of these sorts of films, though the few I did see (notably Child’s Play and Critters), would leave me utterly terrified, for a very long time.

    I have memories of seeing one film late one night, that had some sort of undead cowboy rising from someone’s dinner, in an old house, and that gave me the worst nightmares. No idea what film it was, though.

    I was scared of everything as a kid, even Ghostbusters and Gremlins, and the Golden Child (mainly films beginning with ‘G’?). Though a recent rewatch confirms that I was correct to be scared of Gremlins.

    I don’t know if it is just because I grew up with films like that, but the special effects had a tangible, feasibly real quality to them that CGI monsters are lacking. I can’t really think of any mnodern special effects horror that chills me as much as the monster from The Thing, for example, or even goddamn Chucky, that little bastard.

    That Return to Horror High poster is AMAZING, that’s for sure. I have a real thing for skulls with eyeballs, in fact a disgustingly large amount of the art I make features at least one.

  20. Zom Says:

    Ghostbusters has some proper scary bits, for sure. The whole fridge thing is straight out of a video nasty

  21. Thrilltone Says:

    Ghostbusters made me even more scared of fridges than Ringu made me of turned-off tellys (quite scared). I wonder what appliance I’ll fear next?

  22. Zom Says:

    Lol

  23. Bizunth Says:

    I was more afraid of the grabbing hands bursting from the chair.
    In fact there was a wall full of grabbing arms in a Capital Radio ad, of all things, and that terrified me too. What the hell was up with the Eighties?

  24. Zom Says:

    I consider the arms to part of the whole fridge experience. I was watching Ghostbusters just the other day and was amazed at just how creepy those arms and hands are

  25. Ryan K Lindsay Says:

    Quality fucking post!
    I grew up in the 80′s and on cheesy 80′s horror flicks. Dolls was a seminal moment for me, as were such unknowns as Madman, The Curse 2: The Bite and Re-Animator.
    Most of these flicks were just pure mozzarella, but they made for a great Friday night in with the brothers and friends. I saw all the staples, all Friday the 13th’s, all Halloweens, everything, but the one that still stands out as a movie, as cinema, has to be The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Pure gold dust, it is!
    Thanks for a great post, a wonderful addition to this great blog!

  26. adam aaron Says:

    god! I forgot how brilliant the Golden Child was; it still holds up (IMHO).

    Also, while not technically horror, has anyone seen Dollman? It is a terrible film, but I recall a floating head and Robo-cop style super-gun, paper-clip sized.

    The Full-Moon films were on the borderline of some weird deviant shit, while never becoming the farce of Troma films (which I can’t bloody stand). I don’t know how they would hold up now but, the Bloodstone series sticks in my mind, if only for the second one’s depressing ending.

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