Monday, 21 October 2019

The Crusty Exterior Videotape Of Terror

The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

Another topic of conversation, of course, is the horror film and I thought (in the same vein as my Mixtape posts) it'd be interesting to see which movie it was that struck us so much, at an early age, to put us firmly on this horror loving path.  This, then, is the result (John plays a bit fast and loose with the rules) and I think it makes for an intriguing mixture.

Do you see an old favourite among the titles?  What set you on the horror path?

Don't Look Now (1973)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier
In the great, defining war of the previous generation, my Dad was on the wrong side. My Dad chose Betamax.

He was wrong about that, although it took him years to admit it. We couldn’t get Betamax from the shop where we lived, they only stocked VHS, so we had to drive out to a petrol-station that had a few tapes in the back. In my memory, Betamax already seemed obsolete, the tapes with their faded, sun-bleached covers already historical curios.

Because they didn’t have much choice, I think my Dad sometimes rented out films I wasn’t yet the right age for. One, in particular, I remembered for years. I didn’t remember the plot, or even the title, but I remembered the tone of it, the visual style, certain key images:

The colour red (I remembered that most of all).
A photo that seems to bleed, to seep colour into the reality around it.
A place I may or may not have recognised at that age as Venice.
A sex scene that, when you’re watching it with your parents, seems to last forever.
And a young girl, drowning. A girl dressed in red, drowning while a photo seems to seep blood into the reality around it…

It would be wrong to say I remembered the film completely, or even accurately, but I certainly remembered it vividly. Maybe not often, but periodically, I would recall that girl drowning, that sex scene, that photo blurring with blood, and a father screaming. Remember as if from a dream, uncertain as I was what the film was even called.

Years later, at university, I read a description of a film that was going to be shown that evening and I realised it must be the same one. Don’t Look Now it was called, and maybe I shouldn’t look, shouldn’t watch, because how could it compare? How could it be as good as the muddled and Chinese-whispered memories of it a decade on?

But I did watch it, and it did compare—it was magnificent. You all know the reasons why; it’s a brilliant piece of film making and after that second time of seeing it I already thought it might be my favourite film ever.

And now that I knew what it was called, I went and bought my own copy.

On VHS.

chosen by James Everington


The Beyond (1981)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti
I could always tell when a VHS movie was going to be a good one - tracking lines, caused by constant rewinding and reviewing, would appear at the top and bottom of the screen whenever decent gory or scary scenes were due.

My copy of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond was so thoroughly scanned by previous renters that tracking lines flickered throughout, and the tape was so stretched that the soundtrack warbled.

It was the early eighties, and massive top loader video players were so expensive that people hired them for the night with their movies. A huge machine perched before me on the coffee table, clicking and humming like a piece of equipment from a 1950s Russian power station.

The first VHS movie I ever watched was John Carpenter’s The Thing. To say I was blown away was an understatement. But it didn’t scare me.

The Beyond, however, certainly did.

It was a revelatory experience, and it kindled my enduring love of outré horror. I’d never seen an Italian horror movie before. The strange dubbing jarred. The actors weren’t all pearly toothed and well groomed like they were in Hollywood. That strained-by-use, warbling soundtrack added to the unease. There was something amateurish about the production, something forbidden, like a cheap porno. The pruriently rendered scenes of gore were almost fetishistic. Narratively, nothing made sense. Odd people were doing odd things in one long, unnerving fever dream - the opening flashback scenes of murder, the grody hand sticking out of the wall in the hotel cellar, the weird blind psychic, killer spiders climbing out of people’s mouths. What in hell’s going on? When will I recover?

The answer was I never would. I constantly re-watch. I just can’t get enough of this unsettling, nightmarish and truly great horror movie.

chosen by Steve Harris


The Beastmaster (1982)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman
Now at first glance you might be surprised to see The Beastmaster, the sword and sorcery epic, feature in a list of first films to scare the bejesus out of you. But this is a Don Coscarelli film, he of Phantasm and Bubba-Ho Tep horror fame and he litters the film with plenty of horror.

I watched The Beastmaster at some point in the mid-80s which would put me somewhere around 10 years old, maybe a little older or a little younger. My father used to take us to the local video store and we would pick out our Saturday evening viewing accompanied with a portion of fish and chips from the shop round the corner.

As a kid I remember there being a lot more plot to The Beastmaster  than there is when rewatching it as an adult. But that doesn’t matter, it is still a fantastically fun romp with Marc Singer’s oiled torso making up for a lack of acting skills, Tanya Roberts there to play the love interest and Rip Torn camping it up as the villain of the piece with prosthetic hawk-nose.

As far as the plot goes, there is a prophecy that one day Dar (Marc Singer) the as yet unborn son of King Zed will go on to kill the evil High Priest Maax (Rip Torn) who has a thing for killing young children in the name of his God but we’re not quite sure why. Along the way Dar is stolen from his mother’s womb, brought up by peasants and discovers he has the ability to psychically communicate with animals. Various escapades happen along the way, a band of heroes forms and we come to our climax.

So, where’s the horror, Phil? Apart from the child killing (thrown into an open fire) there are berserker style warriors imprisoned in the dungeons of Maax’s temple wearing some off-the-rack S&M gear all in black leather and covered in spikes including gimp style face mask. But that wasn’t what warped my impressionable young mind. No, it was the birdmen.

In one scene, Dar comes across a tree at night surrounded by large glowing orbs the size of a human hanging from the branches. A black altar in the shape of an eagle rests in front of the tree and a huge cooking pot bubbles away on an open fire. Overlooking the pot is a teenage boy suspended in a wooden cage. As Dar inspects the cooking pot, a human head floats to the surface but even this was not the terror for me.

Dar releases the boy only for him to run into the arms (wings?) of the birdmen, 7ft tall if not more, faces with eyes and no mouths, and all leathery and evil. Enveloping the boy within its leathery embrace, the boy struggles. As we watch, the boy hidden from view, we see white liquid spilling around the feet of the birdman only for it to open its grasp and let the defleshed bones of the boy collapse to the ground. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what scared the crap out of me in my dreams that evening long after the credits rolled.

chosen by Phil Sloman


Threads (1984)
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
Broadcast at 9.30pm on Sunday, 23 September 1984, Threads initially tells the story of Ruth and Jimmy as they prepare for their upcoming wedding. There’s tension in the air between the West and Russia, but not enough to stop people going about their daily lives.

Then without warning the Soviets fire two nuclear warheads over the town, unleashing Armageddon. Buildings are destroyed, people are roasted alive in the flames, their burning bodies tossed into the branches of charring trees, the heat so fierce it melts milk bottles on doorsteps. Those that survive struggle to find food, shelter, other survivors as nuclear winter arrives, the populace descending into primitivism, eating anything they can to survive, including each other. Civilisation is at an end, and the lucky ones died at the start. The End.

I sat there for about ten minutes afterwards in a state of shock, sweating, my hands shaking. Eventually ejecting the DVD, I put it back in its box. Then to my surprise I went online and shared this trauma. An hour later I was still shaking; at one point I couldn’t even bear to have the DVD in the room with me, the eyes of the bandaged and bloodied traffic warden on the cover following me around the room.

I don’t know what I was doing that night in 1984 but I certainly wasn’t watching Threads.  I’d have been in bed or getting ready to go. We didn’t watch horror in our house.  I got into all that later. But when I did… how can I put this without sounding like a heretic? I didn’t find it particularly scary. Exciting? Yes. Disturbing, imaginative, often unintentionally hilarious? Absolutely. But rarely scary.

So the scariest thing I saw as a child? Threads, without a doubt. Aged forty-six.

chosen by John Travis


Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor and Michael Grais (from a story by Spielberg who, some suggest, also mostly directed it)
As I hit my teens in the early 80s, video began to take hold in the UK.  Dedicated shops (my local was Five Star Video) sprang up on high streets across our fair nation, while corner shops, Our Price and garages gave up space to metal racks showcasing glossy covers (almost always painted, almost always vivid and almost always not representative of what they were advertising) for films we’d heard of but never been able to see at the cinema.

Tapes were far too costly to buy but renting was easy - you’d get a snazzy card (generally paper but sometimes plastic) and, after perusing the racks, you’d take your title to the shopkeeper and hand over your money.  Most of the time, you’d have your membership number entered in a ledger and told to bring the tape back the next day though if you tried to push your luck (I remember, as a thirteen-year-old, trying to rent Emmanuelle), you’d often get sent back to pick something else.

The players were also expensive and it would be years before the West household was graced with one (in fact, I bought my own and later gifted it to my parents when I upgraded my model) but luckily my friend Matt had a toploader Betamax.  Even better, he was as keen on horror as me.

He rang one sunny Saturday morning - somehow (according to my diary, we saw the film in 1983 when I was thirteen so it might have been a pirate copy) he’d got hold of Poltergeist and wondered if I wanted to watch it with him.  I jumped at the chance and went straight round to his house.

So there we sat, in the front room with the curtains shut against the sun, Matt, me and his brother.  We got glasses of orange juice, shared a pack of custard creams and he hit play on the remote control that was attached to the player by a wire.  Nervous excitement filled the air as the film started and after the set-up of the family, things took a turn - we were stunned at the man finding ‘something on his face’ in the mirror, the tension ramping up with the clown, the specters on the stairs, that bloody tree and the swimming pool with poor JoBeth Williams and her fellow swimmers.

Although we would go on to see much scarier films - a few summers later, we rented Dead & Buried and Evilspeak on the same afternoon and, one evening, someone got hold of The Exorcist - but Poltergeist was the first film to give me that proper frisson of terror, where I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching and where it was going to go.  It would be a feeling I’d constantly try to re-capture and that’s as true now as I write this (a more worldy fifty-year-old) as it was back in the 80s.

chosen by Mark West


This advert from Starburst magazine in 1984 shows the high prices (that Spider-Man film was two episodes of the Nicholas Hammond series from the 70s, cut together), while Octopussy is resolutely "rental only".

Wellington Street Video Library in Kettering, another of my 'haunts'.  This is from the late 80s (picture by Glyn Dobs) with the shop renting "VHS on one side, Betamax on the other"

The Crusty Exterior in May 2017, having celebrated Steve's 50th with an afternoon at Astley Book Farm, followed by a nice curry.
from left - James Everington, John Travis, Steve 'birthday boy' Harris, me, Phil Sloman and Steve Bacon

You can read about other Crusty Exterior adventures on this link

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