By Bob Freville
1. The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds (1965)
Earlier this year, maverick filmmaker and unabashed cinephile Nicolas Winding Refn launched his own free streaming website, byNWR.com. The site functions as a platform for serious film fans to discover obscure films of all genres, most notably old exploitation films that have been lost to time.
Winding Refn kicked the series off with 1965’s long lost horror gem The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds, a sweat-drenched slice of surreal Southern noir that was written and directed by prolific character actor Bert Williams (Fort Apache, 10 to Midnight, The Usual Suspects).
Cuckoo Birds is very clearly the work of a first-time director; it is a crude and uneven oddity, but it’s one that recalls the work that legendary character actor Charles Laughton did on his own directorial debut, the infamously foreboding Robert Mitchum vehicle The Night of the Hunter. And like Night of the Hunter, The Nest of the Cuckoo Birds is a flick that uses shadow and warped perspective to instill a sense of unease and dread.
Full of demented hilljacks, violent moonshiners and mysterious maniacs, Cuckoo Birds is the perfect compliment to seasonal mainstays like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Watch it here.
2. Eaten Alive (1976)
Tobe Hooper and TCM screenwriter Kim Henkel reteamed for this swamptacular Louisiana slasher that pitted scream queen Marilyn Burns against a perverted, batshit innkeeper (Neville Brand) and a very hungry crocodile.
At the time, the film was almost unanimously panned for its poor sound quality and weak plot. In retrospect, however, the flick’s often cock-eyed but unforgettably insane results make it more than worthy of being revisited.
If Texas Chain Saw Massacre was an almost avant-garde and atmospheric swan song to Vietnam (and all the baggage that came in its aftermath) then Eaten Alive can be viewed as Henkel and Hooper’s acid-tinged prediction of Eighties excess, one that functioned as a metaphor for consumer consumption a full two years before Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. It also serves as a bloody and sleazy allegory about man versus woman that beat William Lustig’s Maniac to the punch by almost five years.
Come for the symbolism and Argento-esque lighting, stay for Robert Englund’s pre-Freddy Krueger performance as Buck whose idea of romance is declaring, “Name’s Buck…and I’m rarin’ to fuck!” No, Quentin Tarantino doesn’t have his own ideas, but we still love him and his pussy wagon.
3. Crimewave (1985)
Before they put themselves on the map with the brilliant neo-noir Blood Simple, the Coen Brothers were commissioned by pal Sam Raimi to write this positively bugfuck screwball comedy about two hideous contract killers who end up going on a murder spree after bungling a hit.
The film flopped at the box office, taking in a measly $5,100, but thanks to cable television some of us were able to peep this off-the-wall picture and discover the birth of the Raimi-Coen aesthetic (crazy camerawork, bizarre POVs, pitch black humor, et al.). This one pairs nicely with Raimi’s Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.
4. Murder Party (2007)
Before he wrote and directed the breathtaking punk rockers in trouble picture Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier took the monies he made from shooting corporate videos and teamed with boyhood friend Macon Blair to make this send-up of Hostel-style torture and art community pretension.
Saulnier and his cast/crew pooled their collective resources and produced a movie that feels charmingly homemade and, yet, deftly executed. The plot revolves around a nebbish loser named Christopher who lets his house cat boss him around. Christopher’s life changes forever when he accepts a mysterious invitation to a Halloween party and comes to find that the party is actually a trap set by homicidal art students who intend to make him their latest exhibit.
Although it made a splash at the Slamdance Film Festival, Murder Party didn’t get much mainstream recognition after being acquired by indie distributor Magnet Releasing. The company quietly put the horror-comedy out on DVD where it mostly faded into obscurity.
Luckily for those who are looking for a Halloween-centric movie with colorful characters, inventive gore and some impressive set pieces, this Brooklyn-made beast is now available to stream on Netflix.
5. 31 (2016)
A lot of you are gonna shit on me for putting this much-derided crowdsourced Rob Zombie slasher on this list, but before you pelt me with virtual dung, do yourself a favor and take a less critical view of this one.
While 31 is far from Zombie’s best work (many would argue that his best work was behind him after The Devil’s Rejects), it does feature many of the hallmarks of his best work, whether it’s his knack for filthy dialogue, his fetishization of Seventies fashion or his ear for choosing awesome soundtrack cuts. And did I mention Doomhead?
Horror has been in a bit of a drought when it comes to iconic villains. In fact, I would argue that Zombie’s Firefly Family may be the only truly iconic killers to emerge from modern horror with the possible exception of the Elite Hunting Club’s patrons.
31 remedies this problem by presenting us with Richard Brake’s electric performance as Doomhead, a murder-for-hire man who enjoys his work way more than he should. Doomhead’s opening monologue is worth the price of admission all by its lonesome.
All things considered, 31 is kind of the perfect movie for Halloween as it not only features some of the sickest clowns this side of Spawn (1997) but also boasts a killer location, a killer Rocky Horror homage (be careful what you put in your mouth because let’s just say you are what you eat) and a murderous temptress who looks more like Harley Quinn than Margot Robbie ever could.
Watch it on YouTube with a bowl of candy and a tub of popcorn. You know what they say, kemosabe, in Hell, everybody loves popcorn.
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