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James Gunn's 1996 film, "Slither".
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Fearful giggling. Nervous tittering. Uneasy guffaws. It’s how some people deal with viewing the abject terror that is gruing and gushing before their popped eyes when they watch a horror flick. Maybe the child-like chortles help to keep that truly terrifying fantasy world at bay, a sly cynicism of sorts that reminds the viewer repeatedly that “It’s only a movie! It’s only a movie!”

Only sometimes it’s not “just” a movie. Sometimes the movie becomes real life, or, even worse, is based on real life. Sometimes that bump in the night really is a bump in the night. And it's not just your imagination but it’s with a startled tee-hee that we play off the shadows moving across the wall like they were only figments of our imagination, special effect bending with the light, ignoring the real silhouette hiding and waiting.

Terror stalked the San Francisco streets of the early 70s as the enigmatic Zodiac Killer unleashed a reign of murder that, to this day, is still unsolved. Yes, he was just that good. As people speculated to the identity of the madman, it was local pizza restaurateur Tom Hanson who put his pepperoni where his mouth was by directing and producing the 1971 low-budget exploitationer The Zodiac Killer (American Genre Film Archives) in the hopes that the madman himself would be busted while buying a ticket to see a fictionalized account of his own crimes.

Obviously it didn’t work, but at least we did get out of it a deliciously unsubtle masterwork of Z-grade trash cinema, a tabloid tale committed to scratchy film, detailing police taking down a fake Zodiac while the real deal goes about his bloody business, a Satanic postman who doesn’t take kindly to young people mocking his nocturnal missions of murder. Far more entertaining than David Fincher’s rambling exploration of the same case—and in about half the time—the sheer terribleness of The Zodiac Killer is probably what makes it so terrifically effective, like a disturbing fever dream straight from the monster’s mind.

Tom Hanson's 1971 film, The Zodiac Killer. (American Genre Film Archives)

Safer back in the world of fiction, maybe, Italian director Aristide Massaccesi—better known to American gorehounds as Joe D’Amato—made well over 200 wonderfully graphic films in his long career, from classics like the gut-munching Antropophagus to the absolutely carnal Porno Holocaust, with somewhere in-between is the laughably depraved Buio Omega a.k.a. Beyond the Darkness (Severin Films) hitting the screen, a film so sleazy it should come with a coupon for a free Silkwood-style shower just to wash off all the icky feelings you’re left with once the end credits roll.

Down in the dumps after the death of his wife, creepy taxidermist Frank decides that he’s not ready to part with her yet so, like anyone who can’t get over the loss of their soulmate, turns her into a living dead doll, leading to a small time hobby in serial mutilation, with various perversions from erotic lactation to barely implied necrophilia cut and printed, all to the tune of an exceedingly groovy prog score from Goblin, which might not be worth the price of admission but is physically included as a decent enough bonus feature.

Goblin typically scores the diabolically devious films of giallo master Dario Argento, but for his 1996 thriller The Stendhal Syndrome (Blue Underground) he utilized the music of Ennio Morricone to beautifully chilling effect as we follow detective Anna (daughter Asia Argento) through the streets of Italy as she tries to track down an art-enthused serial killer, all the while falling prey to the titular psychological disorder wherein being in the presence of powerful works of art can cause one to hallucinate, lose chunks of memory and even have a mental breakdown. It’s real. Look it up.

As usual, Asia is a mesmerizing screen gem and, under her father’s hand, proceeds with a shockingly brave performance even if the film itself—one of the first to utilize CGI—is at times clumsier than it needs to be. Still, as a deep dark thriller than mingles Hitchcockian sexual psychosis with a dirty back issue of ArtForum, sadly,  Stendhal was one of the truly great last gasps from an absolute master of horror, who, now, is just barely coasting on his name, the fumes of which are slowly drying up with each mediocre release.

For a howlingly mediocre time, even my own personal nostalgia brutally failed me when it came to watching the 1985 Michael J. Fox horror-comedy Teen Wolf (Shout! Factory) for the first time in 20 years. Ultimately nonsensical, the then-current teen movie tropes were turned on its furry ear by the big idea addition of the demonic curse of lycanthropy clawed on top of it and somehow accepted by moviegoers still poppin’ rods over the mania of Back to the Future about a month earlier, as well as those Pepsi commercials that cemented Fox as the face of the 80s, at least for a little while. But it’s no Secret of My Success.

I mean, let’s be real: in the middle of a basketball game, this kid turns into a freaking werewolf. I don’t care if you’re a direct descendant of Van Helsing himself, that’s some scary stuff. Yet, after a moment of disbelief, the Teen Wolf shoots a basket and not only has everyone lost all sense of pure living horror that a Wolfman is in their midst, but he becomes BMOC, beds the hottest chick in school and surfs on top of a van before learning to believe in himself.

One horror comedy that gets it right, however, is James Gunn’s brilliantly fun paean to 80s creature features, the slippery and slimy space slug flick Slither (Shout! Factory). Even though Gunn is now best-known for his blockbuster Guardian of the Galaxy films, he got his start pumping out scripts for not only some of Troma’s best-received works but genre fare like Dawn of the Dead and the Scooby-Doo pics. He truly unleashed a beast with this 2006 Fangoria cover-ready monsterpiece, widely regarded as one of the best fright flicks of the aughts and cementing his rep.

When an asteroid crashes in the tiny town of Wheelsy, killer slugs invade and take possession of the good townsfolks brains, turning them into hive-minded zombies with only one goal: satiating an undying need to both feed and breed. Elizabeth Banks and Nathan Fillion lead a triumphantly fun B-movie cast in a movie filled with ooey-gooey A-plus practical effects that are most definitely long-missed in the age of CGI.

When it comes to Slither, the scares are real, the laughs are genuine. And, even best, at least science hasn’t proven killer alien slugs (yet), so let that set in with a chuckle and grin. Sorry, Zodiac!

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Louis Fowler

Güicho. Gadfly. Chicano. Choctaw. Cristero. Freelancer. Leftist. Activist. Vilified. PKD....

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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