8/07/2020

Of A Nightmare of a Toolbox Killer, Maniac, New York Ripper and Not Going in Houses or Answering Phones: The Era of the Nasty Slasher

Back in the 80's slasher movies got a bad rap from critics and those who liked who take a shit on the genre. But, for all the Jason, Michael, Freddy, and their knockoffs most of those films, where fairly dumb and even innocuous. Many, thanks to the MPAA were butchered or not truly interested in super graphic violence. In fact, as the decade went on, they got sillier and less mean spirited. But, early on there was a rash of very nasty and controversial films that pushed the genre into sleazy and possibly misogynistic territory. In fact, one could say that batch of movies that I am gonna talk about today are guilty of a lot of things empty headed critics said the more popular and mainstream stalk and slash flicks were guilty. That would be if it weren't for the fact that most, if not all, of these movies mentioned here were legitimately controversial, in their own right.
(Don't Answer the Phone)

The first of the movies to come out was The Toolbox Murders (1978). This infamous slasher movie is usually bought up by those looking to mention the sleaziest in the genre. The movie has some dude in a ski mask killing beautiful and frequently nude chicks using things that you would find, in well, a toolbox. Our sicko is punishing these girls, cause they are sinners, IE lesbian lovers, masturbating, etc. He also kidnaps pretty teen Laurie (Pamlyn Ferdin), who he keeps cause she is a "good girl" (below).

The aforementioned masturbating lady is played by the beautiful Kelly Nichols (below), who at the time was a porn star. Her scene is probably the nastiest and most infamous, getting taken out by a nailgun to the head. The movie is often blamed for misogyny, but I think it's a good little, early slasher. Stephen King, himself, is quite the fan of the movie. And, honestly, I get why. The acting is actually pretty decent, with Cameron Mitchell, in particular chewing up the scenery. The film is slow but also relentlessly sleazy. It's grown on me over time and viewings, and these days I quite like it. Years later, in 2004, horror master Tobe Hooper directed a "remake" of it. The movie purposely moved away from the inherit nastiness of the original, by making sure that not every victim was woman. And, that they weren't inherently sexualized. It also adds a supernatural element to the killer. It's a good movie, but I do prefer the original, in part cause of its dirtier feel.

In, 1979 we got Don't Go in the House which had some slightly better reviews. It is also attempts to make us sympathize, at least partly with the whack-o, Donald Kohler (Dan Grimaldi). Donald used to be abused and burned by his mom, who he keeps the corpse of Psycho-style! Anywho, he grows up with a thing for fire. He eventually brings pretty girls home and burns them alive with a flame thrower in a metal room (that he constructs, himself). Clearly, this is a heartwarming movie, well something warming, anyway.

The movie has a depressing and disturbing feel. It features some incredible acting from Grimaldi, and he does much to elevate the movie. The idea of child abuse making him into the monster he becomes, adds depth to the film. And, that combined with the tone and very horrific blowtorch action will get under your skin. Over in Britain, it was nasty enough to be on the actual Video Nasties list.

William Lustig's Maniac (1980) might be most controversial of this batch (which is saying A LOT!). Here we have another sick-o (Joe Spinell giving some great acting) with a mommy problem/ abuse issue. Like, the aforementioned DGITH, this movie is told through the killer's point of view, who we follow throughout the movie. But, this film is even more graphic than that one. Tom Savini's incredible and realistic make-up FX really help to push the movie, and its' limits. The ultra-graphic scalpings, stabbings, bloody climax, and a spectacular head explosion (which happens to Savini, himself), helped make sure the movie would never get an R-rating. The seemingly misogynistic tone angered and repelled many, who were quick to condemn the gory slasher. Shit, even the poster (left) pissed some off who claimed the killer has a boner. You look at the poster and decide for yourself.

Even, horror critics seemed to turn on the film. Gorehound and beloved legend Chas. Balun gave the film a low rating of one and half stars out of four in his classic book The Gore Score. He mentioned how the film was a "reprehensible snuff film made by former pornographers" and "a low point in a long, long season of low points". This coming from the man who sang or would sing the praises of Cannibal Holocaust (a great film regardless of what thinks of its content) and Nekromantik. My point isn't to come down on Balun, he was my hero. But, more to show just hated the movie was at some point. Savini himself, tried to distance himself from the movie and disavow it.

But, controversy breeds cash and the film was a huge hit. Over time. the seemingly younger audience that grew up, and the movie was reevaluated as a true classic. I would say this really began around the time that Elite Entertainment put out, its then ground breaking laserdisc release of it. Today, Maniac is rightfully seen as one of the best movies of its type. It's remake is great, so much better than I ever imagined it to be. While, mean and able to get under the skin, it isn't as sleazy feeling as the original, which, again, I do prefer.

Releases a month later in February of that year, Don't Answer the Phone, is the least gory of the batch. It adds an interesting cop procedural mix into the sleaze bracket, making it stand out from the other flicks. Two cops are trying to catch a brutal killer that rapes and strangles beautiful, young women. The tone, whenever the killer is onscreen, switches to disturbing. Nicholas Worth gives an amazing performance as the religious and disturbed Vietnam vet and killer. The fact that he rapes them on top of killing them adds a whole different level of uncomfortable content to the proceedings.

From 1981, we have Nightmare (AKA Nightmares of a Damaged Brain), which is also easily the weakest in the batch. Like Maniac and Don't Go in the House it takes place in New York City. It really captures the dirty feel of the city, especially when it comes to the red-light district. A dude who has been undergoing a mental treatment after having mutilated a family. Once he is out and about he goes from NYC to Florida. He racks up a bloody body count of, of course, beautiful women. The movie was advertised to have Savini's work, which ended up being not entirely true. Regardless, the gore is uber graphic, bloody, and down right nasty. Thrown in is lots of sexual content, including a trip to see a peep shows in Times Square. Yet, despite the dirty feel, babes, and splatter, it is a fucking goddamn bore and has no character development. The climax and twist at the end do help to wake you up.

The last of these, Lucio Fulci's The New York Ripper, is the most different. Then again, it is an Italian and a giallo, as opposed to an American slasher/ serial killer flick. The movie has a detective (Jack Hedley) trying to find and stop a serial killer who is brutally killing beautiful, young women in New York City. The killer quacks like a duck (yes, you read that right), on the phone and to his victims. The movie's ending explains why he does this, but it doesn't stop from feeling silly whenever you hear him do that (even when knowing the reason and in retrospect).

However, the overall brutality of the movie stops it from ever feeling funny. Women are frequently portrayed in sexual manners, though not all are. Regardless, all the women are gorgeous, but this being an Italian flick, is par for the course. Anyway, the deaths are graphic and exceptionally mean spirited. Broken bottles get shoved between a sex show performer's legs, a hooker who fucks our hero has her tit, eye, and more slashed by a razor (in what is probably the movie's nastiest moment), and other not very nice things happen. The flick is actually at odds with itself, because one does not know how to react to the gore and duck quacking combined. It's violence has made it unquestionably Fulic's most controversial film, with it being used as a prime example of his supposed misogyny.

Yet, behind all the nastiness and sillier moments, there is a solid and good movie hiding here. One with some of Fulci's most suspenseful moments, including a nail-biting chase of the beautiful, young blonde Faye (Almanta Keller) (below) through the subway, alley, and into the movie theater. There is a gorgeous three disc Blu-ray release by Blue Underground that makes the flick look better than it ever has.

So, then the ultimate question is are these movies truly misogynistic? It is a little hard to answer. On the one hand the violence against women, and the fact that they are often presented in a sexual manner, would definitely make one come to this conclusion. Which is to say from a simple look they  are. But, there is one thing that holds me from fully answering yes to this question. None of the killers are glamorized. Even in something like Don't Go in the House, where we might feel somewhat bad for the killer, it is clear that they are disturbed individuals. The movies go a long way in not making us cheer for the killer or think they are fun or cool, like Jason or Michael might come off as.
(Don't Go in the House)

As a matter of fact, Ripper was the end of this trend. Slashers became more and more fantastical, as Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chucky, and all their rip-offs would dominate from here on in. Later on, there were serial killer horror movies like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Rampage, The Silence of the Lambs, and Seven, but these movies are very different from the ones we just talked about, and, honestly, from each other.

These "nasty" slashers have a feeling of the real world, for the most part, which further adds to the power of these movies. And, keeps them from being a "fun time" to be had, even if some of them have legitimately enjoyable moments most of which don't come from the actual killing scenes. With the exception of the aforementioned Savini exploding head from Maniac which is fucking awesome! And speaking of Maniac, I did love it from my first viewing, even if I thought it was possibly guilty of misogyny. But, over time I have come to the conclusion that this is the easy way to see these movies. There is more to them. And, all, with the exception of Nightmare, are solid, if not excellent horror, that deserve to be seen and even studied by those who like their horror to be rough and ready.
(The Toolbox Murders)

I would love to hear your thoughts on these movies. Are these slasher movies misogynistic in your eyes? Or is there more to them? Do you wish that more of these flicks had been made instead of the more fantastic slashers that followed them? Let me know in the comments section below.
(Nightmare)

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