Unearthing more VHS-inspired movies for the retro crowd
Welcome back to Thematic Rewind, where once again VHS Revival takes a long hard look at a fistful of movies from the post-VHS era. Whilst these movies may not have been released during the 80s and 90s, they were certainly influenced in some way by that period, and feature as a reminder that though the top loader has been consigned to the dustbin of history, the movies played on them continue to resonate.
The Bad Batch (2016)
Dir: Ana Lily Amirpour
As sun-soaked dystopian cannibal movies go, The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour’s eccentric Netflix effort, is an interesting folly. A slightly uneven blend of the macabre, the mad and the mysterious, the film never really manages to fully cohere, despite an interesting premise and a uniquely blended approach to 80s B-movie genre tropes.
Suke Waterhouse’s Arlen is an outcast. At the start of the film she is tattooed with a Bad Batch number and set loose to roam the Californian wilderness as the latest member of a segregated society of misfits, criminals and undesirables (Escape from New York anyone?), who have been filtered out of an American society intent on self-purification.
In an opening sequence sans dialogue, probably the most interesting section of the film, Arlen is released into the desert, taken prisoner, drugged by an individual with questionable dietary habits and promptly butchered, with both a leg and an arm removed to provide sustenance for her kidnapper. Somehow, Arlen manages to escape to a desert town called Comfort with the help of a mute transient pushing a trolley, (an almost unrecognisable Jim Carrey) where the locals eat noodles as opposed to each other.
She gets herself a prosthetic leg, recovers from her horrific injuries and then, while out wandering one day, encounters a cannibal injured whilst scrounging in a rubbish dump and promptly shoots her in the head in an act of revenge. Adopting the cannibal’s child (kind of), Arlen returns to Comfort and gets high at a desert rave during the course of which she encounters Jason Momoa as incoherent Havanan cannibal Miami Man, on a mission to recover the missing child, who was originally in his care before Arlen took her under her wing.
The Bad Batch is an odd movie. By turns horrific, hallucinogenic, and ludicrously over-indulgent, it takes a heck of a time to get where it’s going. An air of ambivalence hangs over proceedings like a pall. The story wanders aimlessly, without purpose, for long periods, sort of like the film’s characters, who are trapped in a sun-bleached purgatory where you can either eat takeaway and get high or eat each other and scavenge in toxic waste dumps.
The film is a visually and aurally intoxicating enigma, part cannibal horror, part 80s-inflected dystopian pontification, part redemption western, part coming of age movie. It is packed full of wonderous uncertainty, cool tunes, and incidental oddball performances. Keanu Reeves, as a kind of desert guru cult leader called The Dream, is the standout, though Jim Carrey, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi and Diego Luna all contribute enormously to the weirdness.
Satanic Panic (2019)
Dir: Chelsea Stardust
Featuring a limited plot, some creatively orchestrated horror set pieces, idiotic central characters and a smattering of nudity, Chelsea Stardust’s enjoyably silly DIY comedy horror flick Satanic Panic pays homage to the straight-to-video gore flicks of the 80s with unabashed glee.
Hayley Griffiths’ Samantha is a pizza delivery girl. She flits about her suburban American locale delivering pizzas to weirdos. On the last visit of the night she attends a rather swanky mansion to deliver pizza just outside the demographic of her employer. When her scooter doesn’t start, she goes back to the house to ask for a tip, only to stumble into a Satanic dinner party where the coven, it turns out, are in need of a sacrificial virgin to summon up a hell demon. On realising Sam is a virgin they take her hostage, which proves the least of her problems given subsequent events.
A fun final girl performance reminiscent of any number of 80s low-budget slashers from Hayley Griffith as hip pizza delivery ‘person’ Samantha helps chivvy the film along. Rebecca Romijn, meanwhile, as an ultra-conservative mom with a penchant for eating raw meat and offing hapless blokes, is value for money. Ruby Modine, daughter of Matthew Modine as Judi, the coven leader’s estranged daughter, gets to spout some quality lines along with copious amounts of blood and a bucketload of worms. Stand By Me‘s Jerry O’ Connell, meanwhile, Romijn’s real life hubby, appears in a random cameo as a would-be rapist but is gone so fast you quickly forget he starred in the movie.
Satanic Panic features enough humorous dialogue, quirky satire and knowing narrative beats to help winch it clear of the horror slush pile. A satanic coven that essentially behaves like a demented suburban book club, killer sadomasochistic babysitters, flying mutated vital organs, and haunted bed sheets, are just some of the craziness on offer. Not all of it works, but enough hits the mark to make watching the movie, especially for fans of straight-to-video, don’t-bother-with-a-theatrical-release, trash 80s horror, worthwhile. A lacklustre final act, however, that is neither as funny nor as inventive as the rest of the film, is disappointing.
Uncut Gems (2019)
Dir: The Safdie Brothers
The Safdie Brothers followed their impressive, Robert Pattinson fronted crime movie Good Time from 2017 with yet another foray into New York’s criminal underworld with diamond district thriller Uncut Gems. Adam Sandler plays Howard Ratner, a New York City bling jeweller and chronic gambler who owes money and is feeling the pinch as the sharks begin to circle and bad debts are called in. In order to pay his debts and get out from under his own appalling bad luck, Howard orchestrates a risky bet in a bid to survive the thugs out to end him. The question is, will he come out on top or will it all end badly?
The pleasure is derived, for the most part, in observing Howard as the wheels come off and go bouncing down the street. In a film this tense, if the viewer makes it to the final credits without quitting and opting for something less nerve jangling, they’ve done well. The brothers Safdie have gone on record as being admirers of the works of 70s filmmaking legend John Cassavetes, and whilst 1976’s The Killing of a Chinese Bookie can be cited as a key influence on Uncut Gems, the film’s ostentatious visual aesthetic, scoring and central performance firmly roots it in the 1980s, rather than the 70s, the 80s being a decade notorious for its corporate and consumerist excesses.
When you consider that the Safdie brothers are also William Friedkin fanboys, it makes sense that many critics have drawn comparisons with The Exorcist when acknowledging the film’s key influences. Specifically, the Africa set opening in which the film’s opal is discovered, mirrors that of the Iraq-set opening of The Exorcist, during which an amulet is discovered that sets the rest of the film in motion. That said, the film that Uncut Gems most resembles, certainly in terms of its stylistic and pacing tendencies, is Friedkin’s oft overlooked, flamboyant 80s classic, To Live and Die in LA, which shares a lot of the film’s intensive immediacy and unrelenting forward motion.
A fabulous roaming synth score from Oneohtrix Point Never ups the atmosphere considerably, and serves as a dreamy call-back to the synth drenched scores of 1980s thrillers. Adam Sandler’s performance, meanwhile, as Howard Ratner, bears a striking similarity to that of Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. In The King of Comedy, primary protagonist Rupert Pupkin’s self-deception and extrovert personality mask his inner turmoil and broiling desperation, just as they do Howard Ratner’s in Uncut Gems, a film in which Adam Sandler’s performance proves absolutely pivotal to the film’s success.
Once again Sandler proves he is more than capable of putting on an excellent show when the material calls for it in what can best be described as a tense, chaotic, visually dazzling, shouty, extremely claustrophobic and excellently constructed heart pounder of a film.
Dir: Alexandre Aja
Alexandre Aja’s best movie in some time, Crawl is a smartly constructed dad and estranged daughter flick, only in this case, instead of playing out against the melancholic suburban backdrop of a DTV melodrama, the estranged pair find themselves reconnecting during a devastating hurricane whilst trapped in the crawlspace beneath an old house with the flood water rising, and a bunch of killer gators on the loose.
Sami Raimi produced this lean, satisfying foray into the subgenre realm of the killer reptile, which had its heyday in the 80s and 90s. The film proved a big hit with genre fans on its release in 2019, which is unsurprising when you consider what a gory, well-constructed, B-movie, jaw-clencher the film is. Crawl wrings every ounce of tension out of its claustrophobic sets and thin premise. The film also proves it is entirely possible to deliver an emotionally honest and satisfying drama about a depressed dad and his defeatist daughter rekindling their relationship in the context of disaster.
Kaya Scodelario shows great resilience as swim star Haley alongside Barry Pepper as her self-pitying pater familias, Dave. However, the real stars of the show are the reptiles. Opting for CG gators over practically rendered creatures to convincingly depict the speed of the film’s antagonists, Aja and his team conjure up some seriously menacing monsters for Hayley and Dave to outwit in a film that provokes maximum anxiety in the viewer for pretty much the entire duration of its slender, terror-filled runtime.
Book of Monsters (2018)
Dir: Stewart Sparke
Stewart Sparke’s 2018 micro-budgeted yarn is everything you’d expect from a Brit comedy horror besotted with the 1980s.
Demon creatures in fancy dress gate crash a teenage misfit’s 18th birthday party and start eating, maiming and dismembering partygoers. Once the initial shock of seeing a few heads and limbs getting pulled off has settled, Sophie (Lyndsey Craine), the aforementioned 18-year-old teen misfit, and a few of her leftover pals, mount a comeback.
Cue lots of bizarre splatter and screaming, some wonky sound effects and performances, a slew of chaotic edits, and a bunch of cobbled together monster outfits, such as a killer demon disconcertingly kitted out in a black plague mask from the 17th century. Like a lot of straight-to-video horror from the early to mid-80s, Book of Monsters makes the best of its limited resources, featuring some fun practical effects to go with the non-existent plot and ludicrously crappy dialogue.
Whilst occasionally amusing, Book of Monsters doesn’t come close to being as innovative, funny or flat-out bonkers as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, and probably has more in common with C-list shite-tastic horror fare such as the Ghoulies flicks when you get right down to it. Still, it does feature a chainsaw, female leads, an ancient demonic text, a sexy demon woman dressed like a Jessica Rabbit cosplayer, and a possessed garden gnome being beaten to death by a male stripper wielding a battery-operated sex toy.
Though it’s safe to say it won’t feature high on anyone’s best of list anytime soon, if you like your horror films cheap, short, messy, and derivative, you could do a lot worse than taking it for a spin.