Stephen Thrower wrote the definitive book on independent exploitation cinema, “Nightmare USA,” which details the heydays of the genre from 1970-85 and is recommended reading for anyone that loves or respects that era and spirit of film making.
Thrower recently took some time out from his busy schedule to discuss the horror and independent movie scene with Review Fix’s Cult Movie Editor Anthony Benedetto, which focuses on the second volume of “Nightmare USA,” the genre’s influence on mainstream cinema as well as some important and interesting horror films including “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” and “The Child.”
Review Fix: “Nightmare USA” details the independent exploitation cinema from 1970-1985. What horror films after 1985 do you feel are important to mention?
Thrower: It’s difficult, because the independent scene as it was in the 1960s and 1970s has disappeared – that sort of regional film production is much less common. The biggest true independent, being such a groundbreaking movie, would be “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” “The Blair Witch Project” deserves credit too. Nowadays, films like Frank Henenlotter’s “Bad Biology” are very much in the spirit of the independent horror films I love. If I were to list a few interesting post-1985 horror films regardless of their “exploitation” credentials, I’d say: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987),” “Bad Lieutenant (1992),” “Funny Games (1997),” “Irreversible (2002),” “The Machinist (2004),” “The Ordeal (2004),” “Wolf Creek (2004),” “The Descent (2005),” “Inland Empire (2006),” “Martyrs. (2008)”
Review Fix: Do you think modern audiences would enjoy the well-made “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death”, which does not deliver any chills until the last 10 minutes?
Thrower: For me it delivers chills all the way through, but they’re subtle ones and it’s mainly an exercise in mood and emotional dislocation. By the time the “zombie” locals attack, I think the film has already done much of its work. There are a few subtle ghost-themed horrors around these days, but they tend to need some kind of high concept payoff, like “The Others” or “The Sixth Sense.” It would be hard to get a film like “Jessica” released today, but audiences looking for something out of the ordinary, and who enjoy the 1970s brand of horror, should definitely seek it out.
Review Fix: What interviews can readers expect in volume two of “Nightmare USA?”
Thrower: Already written, I have chapters on the following: “Tourist Trap” (David Schmoeller (writer/director); “The Children of Ravensback” (Max Kalmanowicz, director); “Honeymoon Horror” (Harry Preston, co-writer/director); “The House That Cried Murder” (John Grissmer, writer); “Night of the Demon” (Jim Ball, producer); “Unhinged” (Don Gronquist, co-writer/director); “Lemora” (Richard Blackburn (writer/director). And features on the late Robert Burns (“Texas Chain Saw Massacre” designer, and director of “Mongrel”); the late Harry Kerwin (“God’s Bloody Acre”, “Getting Even”, and “Barracuda”); Simon Nuchtern (director of “Silent Madness”, co-director of “Snuff”); and Worth Keeter (Wolfman, Rottweiler). Plus, lots more as I get stuck in to new material.
Review Fix: “The Child” mixes several genres to become one interesting little film. Why do you think it works in that picture?
Thrower: What I love about “The Child” is that it normality gets discarded very early on and the whole movie feels like a garbled dream. It doesn’t waste time trying to be plausible: there’s dry ice wafting around the forest and tilted camera angles right from the start. The director, Robert Voskanian, made the movie without previous experience. He was an Armenian immigrant who enrolled at film school then just went out there and did things his way. He now works in the nightclub business and this was his one and only stab at filmmaking. I love that it’s so oddball and illogical. Just about the only practical model they had when they made it was “Night of the Living Dead,” but by adding the psi-power theme and the “evil child” theme, they deviated so far off that template! I love “evil child” films anyway. I always identify with the kids. “The Child” is quintessential 70s exploitation to me. When I started writing “Nightmare USA,” it was very high on my list of “must-cover” titles.
Review Fix: How did you become involved with re-scoring the music for the 1977 film, “Death Bed: The Bed That Eats?” What is your musical background?
Thrower: While I was corresponding with George Barry, the director of “Death Bed,” we discussed music a lot and I sent George a selection of CDs I’d produced. When I put him in touch with Cult Epics, who released the film on DVD, he asked me to provide the new title music, as the score had never been completed back in 1977. George was very keen on a track from Luminous Darkness, an album I recorded with my group, Cyclobe, so I re-recorded it with some new details to give the piece more of a psychedelic feel.
Review Fix: What fueled your passion for this genre?
Thrower: I’ve been drawn to horror since childhood; straight away, as soon as I could read sufficiently, I was delving into weird fiction. I read Poe and Lovecraft when I was 10; I gobbled my way through masses of short stories and “macabre tales” in my teens and as soon as I could get into cinemas showing “X” certificate films (the UK version of “R” in the 1970s), I did so. The first horror films I saw that made a real impact on me were David Cronenberg’s early films – “Shivers,” “Rabid” and “The Brood” – and Lucio Fulci’s early-1980s films such as “City of the living Dead” and “The Beyond.” Then, when video came along, I relished the opportunity to see films that I’d read about but which had not been released in UK cinemas – such as the Herschell Gordon Lewis and Andy Milligan films, or “Last House on the Left,” “Cannibal Holocaust,” “Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS,” et cetera.
Review Fix: Do you feel the Independent horror scene had an influence on the slasher franchise movies? “Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th” and “Sleepaway Camp,” to be specific.
Thrower: Oh definitely; it’s well-documented. Quite a few of the slasher franchise people had roots in the independent scene anyway – Sean Cunningham and Wes Craven being the obvious examples. What’s less commented upon is the way the “major studio slashers” had a negative influence on the exploitation independents. As long as films like “Scream Bloody Murder” or “The Ghastly Ones” were playing on 42nd Street or at the drive-ins, mainstream critics barely noticed them. But when “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th” cleaned up at the box-office, all the majors decided they wanted a bit of the action and released their own versions – “Terror Eyes (Paramount), “Happy Birthday to Me” (Columbia); “When A Stranger Calls” (Columbia); “He Knows You’re Alone” (MGM), for instance. I like those movies, but they’re far more polite and tasteful than they should be. The rawness was diluted. Even then, they attracted lots of bad press from uptight killjoys in mainstream film criticism. Their increased commercial presence, newspaper adverts and TV spots and press screenings, meant that mainstream critics – Siskel and Ebert, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris – were going to see slasher films. And they hated them. Even the bland, comparatively bloodless ones, they hated. They took a holier-than-thou, why-must-we-tolerate-this-filth attitude; they wrote scathing, hostile, morally alarmist reviews and that embarrassed the majors, who subsequently watered down the format even more. Meanwhile, thanks to all of this studio dabbling in the slasher genre, audiences were getting used to horror films looking glossy and expensive. They began to expect production values that the true exploitation independents couldn’t afford. So the majors really screwed up the game, by getting involved in a genre that really ought to have stayed slightly underground, or at least not quite mainstream. A TV critic would never have bothered to comment on a Herschell Gordon Lewis film; but they sure as hell wanted to pontificate about “Silent Night, Deadly Night,” because they could see the poster campaign uptown on the way to work. Horror had escaped the blue-collar picture-houses and the sleazepits and that’s why the genre ended up being neutered in the mid-to-late 1980s.
Stay Tuned for Review Fix for part two as Thrower discusses his difference in opinions on Fulci and the current trend of bad horror movies being produced today in Hollywood.