Horror disc round-up: Ghoulies, The Burning, Frogs vs Slugs

Fancy some horror? We've been taking a look at the discs of Ghoulies, The Burning, Psychomania and more...

“Have you ever heard a frog scream?”, the tag-line to George McCowan’s 1972 ecological horror Frogs (out now on Arrow Blu-ray) should have read. Indeed, for any of you readers that have ever been rudely awoken at 2am by the sound of a traumatised frog being gifted to you by your pet cat/furry psychopath, an amphibian cry of terror is probably the second worst sound there is (behind, of course, Kaiser Chiefs).

Not that frogs themselves are inherently evil, though viewing this classic dose of seventies green-themed nastiness might convince you otherwise. Slugs are OK, too, though we’ll get on to them later on in this month’s vague ‘Small Creatures With Slimy Exteriors And Cruel Intentions’ special.

Sam Elliott, Jeff Lebowski’s moustachioed cowboy mentor, stars as a pre-‘tache brooding young wildlife photographer (aren’t we all, these days?), who is troubled by a rich family’s ongoing pollution of the rich swamp lands of the southern states, only to end up stuck on an island with said old money family by a Partridge-style boating mishap. Poor bleeder.

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As is always the case with these situations (you may remember a similar problem in one of the latter episodes of London’s Burning), the dodgy chemicals being stored on this equally dodgy family’s land (the bottles even say ‘poison’ on them!) has seeped in to the local flora, mutating the local fauna (ie frogs) to buggery.

So, we basically have your standard race of malevolent hypnotoads using their unnatural powers of mind control, like Fagin or Enoch Powell before them, to egg on their animal, bird and insect mates to ever-worse atrocities. The resultant colourful gore and Trumpian plutocrat downfall (Dial M For Murder’s Ray Milland) is simultaneously brilliant, ridiculous and terrible: therefore, a must-see.

Now, think of the above and the scenes wherein bad-tempered slugs get all stroppy, possibly adapted into a Shawn Hutson-penned spin-off, a bit like the Minions film. What you’re thinking of is the cleverly named Slugs, based on Hutson’s Garth Marenghi-ish book of the same name.

Juan Piquer Simon’s (chainsaw slasher flick Pieces) 1988 nature-gone-violent also-ran, out on Blu-ray, sees The Warriors star Michael Garfield as an heroic public health inspector (in my book, all public health inspectors are heroes) who finds that toxic waste-afflicted slugs are swanning around the sewers and getting into people’s water supply with Cronenbergian ease. Cue some efficiently eye-popping gore and a somewhat over-serious tone as slimy little bastards get all up in your grill.

Notable for a wonderful close up of a fanged slug taking a good old chomp out of someone’s finger that will tickle this writer until his dying breath, with honourable mention to the line “You don’t have the authority to declare happy birthday”, Slugs is sadly leapfrogged by its admittedly small pond of rivals in the ‘killer creatures regularly got at by cats’ stakes.

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In an ideal world, you would now be reading of a Hammer Horror-produced adaptation of Guy N. Smith’s classic Night Of The Crabs series (that would truly be something, all you fans of eco horror must surely agree), but instead we get just another tenuous link to frogs that deserves a more skilled pun-smith’s words. You know, something like “just when you thought this theme had croaked it”. Something like that.

Instead, we get Hammer/Fu Manchu director Don Sharp’s cult 1973 biker/satanic frog worshipper crossover (the very best of that ever-popular genre, no less) Psychomania, coming to Blu-ray and DVD.

Nicky Henson, familiar face from bawdy seventies comedies through to the likes of Casualty and The Bill, as well as apparently sensitive singer Keaton Henson’s old dad, plays the aristocratic leader of a troublesome bikey gang who, unsatisfied with freewheeling around various henges (would this make him a henge-hog? Yes, is the answer) and pouting cockily, toys with the world of the undead.

Sharp’s film, also known as The Death Wheelers, sees much cheapo stunt work and bizarre cult worship of tree-climbing frogs that surely must have inspired The League Of Gentlemen’s Harvey Toadface, though remains overall sadly forgettable despite such surrealism. Still, a great psyche score from John Cameron really evokes the feeling of vintage wigged-out weirdness, whilst the long-faced elegance of George Sanders adds a touch of class to proceedings.

Even classier, October also sees a much more enjoyable serving of satanic rituals, grisly death and, well, industrial portions of cheese, as Charles Band’s Gremlins-cash-in-but-not-really-at-all-similar Ghoulies, out the following year (1985), makes a very welcome Bluray appearance alongside its far superior sequel.

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Originally slated to be directed by Empire Pictures man Band, with effects by legend in his field Stan Winston, the end result was to feature Rockula’s Luca Bercovici directing instead, and Cellar Dweller’s John Carl Buechler on effects duty in place of Winston. Sadly it shows, though the first Ghoulies film has its moments.

David Lynch favourite Jack Nance plays a character who is, essentially, a good guy (all baby-sacrificing satanic cults have one) who goes against his cloaked, presumably big Sunn O))) fan friends and saves a child who’ll grow up to do something special, assuming the pressure of expectation doesn’t make him go all Macaulay Culkin.

Years later and it turns out the big thing the kid, now a man (Peter Liapis), was due to do was battle amusingly-designed tiny demons he had inadvertently summoned in one of his own rituals (still not as bad as The Pizza Underground). This makes for some genuinely nasty scenes of violent bumping off, cool eighties puppetry and less cool eighties music, but the whole shebang is just too serious for such a silly film.

Luckily, this isn’t really a problem for Ghoulies 2, where the new team of Albert Band (Charles’ father), directing Dennis Paoli’s screenplay, suddenly realises that the titular critters (that would be a good box set to re-release soon by the way, please, filmy business types) are the darkly comic stars of the show and act accordingly.

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This means a gleeful return for the bat, the cat, the rat and the baby, as a travelling fun fair (where Phil Fondocaro of Willow and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie fame and Killer Klowns From Outer Space’s Royal Dano work) gets terrorised by stop motion cackling hellspawn. This also means critter ghoulie high-fives, ghoulies brandishing flick-knives, ghoulies moshing to hair metal and ghoulies riding the dodgems. You may ask yourself whether there is anything better than the above list of things. There is not, unless you perhaps count Gremlins 2: The New Batch’s genial chat show host gremlin.

Scarier than a dozen ghoulies, critters, gremlins and ‘kippers, though, is Grace Jones. That statement probably stands up without the lashings of undead make-up and bloodthirsty slayings the fearsome pop star and Bond girl gets her teeth into in now-big budget, formerly cult/no budget screenwriter Richard Wenk’s 1986 curio, Vamp.

To be fair, Vamp isn’t particularly scary. Or particularly funny (for a comedy horror at least). Or that good in general, really, though there is a certain amount of oddball charm that sustains Wenk’s tale of three college freshmen who definitely go to the wrong strip joint for a night out.

Weaving a bollocks plot about ancient Egyptians, vampires and strippers, there is the odd chuckle on the way (Billy Drago as an ineffectual albino gang member; Seinfeld star Sandy Baron – Morty Seinfeld’s rival – as a seedy bar owner), alongside some decent cinematography from, erm, Twilight’s Elliott Davis coating a glossy sheen over the production. Jones is suitably otherworldly in this fun(ish) precursor(ish) to From Dusk Till Dawn.

And now we reach the traditional section of the blog where we talk about people being set on fire, this month featuring the genuinely chilling She Who Must Burn and a quaint tale of small town values, the inexplicably controversial The Burning.

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From veteran South African director Larry Kent, She Who Must Burn, out on DVD, offers a brutal take on the very real phenomenon of pro-life activists targeting an abortion clinic nurse (Sarah Smyth) who refuses to give up working in her bible belt town.

Employing that age old plot device from, ooh, at least 99% of horror movies, the religious fanatic, Kent’s film’s antagonist is one Jeremiah (Shane Twerdun), a man who urges his followers to exact bloody revenge on those who defy their god’s will, and the title kind of suggests where things might head.

Creepy and made creepier by some decent tension-building direction from Kent and strong performances from the mentalist Twerdun and gradually falling Smyth, She Who Must Burn, though, isn’t quite the thoughtful, if horrific, study of a complicated issue that is earlier hinted at (the ‘She’ of the title refers to general misogyny rather than just this victim). Let down by simplistic redneck caricatures where more complex actual characters – rather than plain old crazies – would have been far scarier, this leaves the sense of thwarted potential.

I am possibly wrong, though it seems realistic characterisation and intelligent debate wasn’t the first thing on the Weinstein brothers’ minds, either, when they wrote the script for their first ever Miramax film, 1981’s The Burning, getting a much-anticipated Bluray release this month.

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Telling the well-known folk tale of Cropsey, the campsite janitor who exacts deadly vengeance on those teenage campers who left him badly burnt in a prank gone wrong, The Burning’s history as an early eighties video nasty belies its superior quality to similar slasher films of that ilk.

Maintaining the unlikely Seinfeld link of earlier with the first film appearance of George Costanza himself (Jason Alexander on charismatic form), not to mention Oscar winners Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter in early roles and a pleasantly synthy score from Yes’ Rick Wakeman, the wealth of talent involved doesn’t exactly shine (this was a Friday The 13th cash-in, after all), though it kind of glitters, like a kitchen knife dropped in a lake by a masked lunatic, mid-frenzy.

Some decent sequences aside (the canoe scene particularly effective), by modern standards The Burning is a relatively tame horror though is executed (carefully chosen word there) well enough to convince anyone that a pair of garden shears are indeed a perfectly valid murder weapon.