Horror Films I Have Known and Loved: 3 Movie Recommendations

As the summer of 2013 winds down, and the September air turns to an autumn chill, it’s nice to sit in your favorite chair with a tasty beverage and….take in a classic slasher film.

Yeah, I know, maybe that’s not everyone’s idea of a good time. But, just in case you’re anything like me, here’s a few recommendations for late-night horror viewing that I think you just might enjoy.

Released under several titles, including “Dead of Night” and “The Night Andy Came Home,” 1972’s DeathDream was one of the first films to deal with the reality of the mental health issues veterans had after coming back from Vietnam. Taking its cue from the short story “The Monkey’s Paw,” and a “be careful what you wish for” type of vibe, the filmmakers hid the message in the tale of a family’s “dead” son returning from war not quite the same as deathdreamhe was when he left. You see, while Andy was once happy and fun-loving, he is now very quiet, doesn’t care much to be around his old friends, and needs human blood to keep from decaying. So, ya know, kinda like post-traumatic stress disorder, only more vampiric and zombified!

I like the performances in this movie.  Richard Backus, who plays Andy Brooks, was notable mostly for his acting and writing for soap operas. But the presence he shows here is chilling. Watch him stare silently at his family from his rocking chair and try not to get the creeps! The parents, too, are outstanding. Played by Academy Award nominees Lynn Carlin and John Marley, they anchor the film well as they react to their son’s increasingly bizarre behavior which threatens to fracture the family.

Featuring the debut of horror make-up and special effects icon Tom Savini, the writing of Alan Ormsby, as well as the direction of Bob Clark, who would later go on to make classic comedies like “Porky’s” and “A Christmas Story,” I absolutely recommend DeathDream to anyone looking for a bit of social commentary with their horror flick.

Do you remember Joe Spinell? If you don’t recall the name, you probably remember his work. He played Will Cicci in The Godfather parts 1 and 2, was the personnel officer Robert De Niro goes to see about a cab job at the beginning of Taxi Driver and, perhaps most notably, the loan shark Gazzo that Rocky Balboa knows and/or works for in the early Rocky movies. He remained a working actor until his untimely death at the age of 52 in 1989.

But in the prime of his career, in 1980, Spinell created a character named Frank Zito that would live on after him. maniac-spinellZito, a highly psychotic man traumatized by childhood abuse at the hands of the mother he loved, stalks and kills women on the streets of New York City, taking their scalps as trophies. While one could argue this type of film is beneath the obvious talent of Spinell, it is hard to deny that the world he created in this film is without artistic merit. Aside from the ongoing inner dialogue of a madman, there are several disturbing scenes.  One in particular will curdle your blood as the Frank Zito character explains to an intended victim how he has no intention of killing her, but instead wants only to “keep her.”

Maniac remains influential enough that even the hobbits want in! Elijah Wood currently stars as Frank Zito in a recent remake that has earned some positive reviews. But there is seldom anything quite like the original. And if you can handle the psychologically distressing kill scenes, not to mention the horrors Zito keeps in his apartment, I think you’ll enjoy this film. While it would be easy enough to label this a horror movie, Joe Spinell himself didn’t think of it that way.

“The horrible thing is that people like this really exist,” he said. Perhaps that’s the scariest thing of all.

Not so much a traditional horror film as much as it is a taut thriller, Targets does star a legend of the horror genre, the one and only Boris Karloff.  Karloff, in some ways, plays himself in this movie. As Byron Orlok, he is an aging star of the screen disillusioned with the film industry and his place in it. He announces his sudden retirement, much to the shock of studio executives, and plans to walk away from this part of his life forever.
Meanwhile, across town, Bobby Thompson has killed his wife and mother, hoarded a variety of guns, and goes on a shooting spree, picking people off at random. Shades of Charles Whitman, the Texas Tower Sniper, are clear, though modern audiences will draw parallels to the Beltway Snipers of recent history as well.

Agreeing to make one last public performance at the screening of his final film, the lives of Orlok and Thompson intersect, and the results of the confrontation will change both of them forever.

Perhaps it may surprise you, but for an actor (Karloff) who gave some of the monumental performances in horror film history, and having portraying characters as diverse as Frankenstein’s Monster, Detective Wong, and even voicing How The Grinch Stole Christmas, this, to me, is right up there with his finest work. Marking the feature debut of director Peter Bogdanovich, Targets is an appropriate swan-song for Karloff, who filmed it shortly before his death in 1969, and a must-see if you appreciate a good thrill.

Happy viewing, everyone!

Have you seen any of these movies and want to share your thoughts? Or, perhaps you have a few recommendations of your own? Have at it in the comments below.