TOP 10: Trash Classics

Genre fans are frequently asked ’Why horror?’ and more often than not the answer is simply ‘Because I like it’. Likewise I’m regularly asked ’Why trash?’ and – yes – the straightforward reply is just that. But sometimes I give the spiel.

Today is one of those days:

I watched horror films from an illegally young age and, growing up during the VHS boom of the 80s and early 90s, I was spoiled for choice. I’d spend hours gazing at the floor-to-ceiling display of creatures and killers, and although I didn’t know it at the time a common rule of thumb was ‘the better the cover, the worse the movie’. The artwork was the distributors’ one chance to snag our attention and guarantee their tape got rented and so, as a kid, I was naturally drawn to the most intriguing design. Thus a trash devotee was born.

Here’s my current – yet ever changing – Top 10 Trash Recommendations…

10: Street Trash (1987)

 A New York City liquor store owner stumbles across some ‘vintage’ bottles of booze in the cellar of his off-licence. With an eye for business he sells the sauce to the local homeless community for cheap. However, consuming 60 year old liquor comes with its consequences….. you melt!

The most icky and tangible B-Movie sub-genre is ‘Melt Movies’. Although they had been appearing with excellence since the 70s (The Devil’s Rain; The Incredible Melting Man), the effect was demonstrated to perfection by Rob Bottin in 1982s The Thing. This paved the way for a flood of fantastically gooey and colourful movies, and whilst films like Society and The Blob (1988) also excel in portraying viscous visuals Street Trash does it with an added bucket of neon gunge. There’s a strong social commentary swimming around in the narrative, but the ‘toilet meltdown’ sequence is what leaves residue.

9: Death Spa (1989)

When a high-tech gymnasium begins malfunctioning and killing customers, the club’s owner begins to wonder if the spirit of his scorned late wife is to blame. Obviously.

With the exercise and wellbeing craze at an all-time high in the late 80s, those who had worn out their Jane Fonda VHS headed to one of the overpriced health spas popping up in every town. Death Spa utilises this madness in a preposterous and thoroughly entertaining way: with shower heads spraying acid and diving boards unscrewing themselves, there’s a literal ghost in the machine whose vengeance knows no bounds. In some European territories the film was released as ‘Witch Bitch’, bearing no relevance to the content whatsoever. But hey, it rhymes!

8: Waxwork (1988)

When a group of disposable teens accept an offer to visit a waxwork museum in their sleepy, suburban town, they quickly discover that the exhibits’ barriers are there for a reason: each one contains a gateway to its own ‘real life’ dimension. What once was wax, now attacks.

Schlocky, stupid and full to the brim of superbly designed monsters by Bob Keen, Waxwork just works. The script was written in three days and yes, you can tell. But this is a horror fan’s dream; a house full of classic movie monsters that come to life and kill teenagers. While it lacks the style and substance of Fred Dekker’s The Monster Squad it more than makes up for it with excessive action, amusing acting and tenuous logic. Perfect for a Sunday Trash-athon.

7: Spookies (1986)

A group of teens plan to party in what they believe to be an abandoned mansion in the woods (?!). Little do they know that it is in fact inhabited by a Warlock who has been sacrificing people in order to keep his bride alive for over seventy years.

You thought Waxwork had a vast array of creatures? Spookies doubles down and beats the house with its plethora of random, sometimes unidentifiable creatures. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’re watching two films at once, because you basically are: originally filmed as the feature ‘Twisted Souls’, legal issues caused production to halt before completion. A year later, it was picked up with a new writer and director who shot additional footage with a new cast. Lucky for us, they mostly added more monsters. Some favourites to look out for? The Snake Demons, Muck Men, Cave Witch and the Electric Octopus.

6: Alligator (1980)

A friend of a friend of a friend flushed a baby alligator down the toilet and now it’s huge and lives in the Chicago sewer system. I SWEAR.

Back in the 1930s there were reported sightings of alligators thriving in the New York sewer system: a contemporary legend that (as legends do) grew more elaborate over the years and even made its way across the pond to every school playground in the UK. Utilising this globe spanning folklore, John Sayles wrote this satirical horror that marvellously nails its ambiguous tone. Sure, the gator effects are clunky. Sure, the dialogue is atrocious. But it does exactly what it says on the tin. With some wonderfully tense sequences and enough gator attacks to satisfy the Creature Feature fiends, Alligator is a ‘Trashterpiece’ of 80s horror. They even turned it into a board game, so it can’t be THAT bad….. can it?

5: Maniac Cop (1988)

When a series of brutal murders are committed on the streets of New York City by someone dressed as an NYPD officer, people don’t know who to trust. With government cover-ups and police framings, it’s a race against time to find and expose the real killer’s identity.

Written by the undisputed king of B-Movies Larry Cohen, Maniac Cop boasts his trademark atmosphere: drab yet shimmery; resolute yet playful. With a cast including horror heavyweights Bruce Campbell and Tom Atkins it takes the slasher tropes that oversaturated 80s genre cinema and blends them with a (nearly) good script and some very committed performances, putting it at the earnest-end of the trash spectrum with thrilling results.

4: Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

When an alien species chooses Earth as their place of harvest, they begin gathering humans and storing them for future sustenance. But these aren’t your typical ‘little green men’: these are your big red, blue, yellow, pink AND green men. These aliens may resemble party clowns, but their custard pies are acid-laced; their shadow puppets, deadly; and their hunger… insatiable.

After creating and designing Critters for New Line Cinema, the three Chiodo brothers got the opportunity to write, design, produce and direct their own bonkers brainchild. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is one of the most riotously original B-Movies to come out of the 80s, the brothers making good use of their exceptional design skills to create some of the most memorable creatures of the last century. Each ‘Klown’ has its own distinguishing features and set of tricks, and when you have the audience rooting for the bad guys…. you’ve created icons. A testament that practical effects beat CGI, this film will have you buzzing, squirming and shrieking in both shock and delight.

3: The Stuff (1985)

When a sweet and creamy substance is discovered oozing out of the ground, it’s gathered up and sold to the masses as a new form of dessert called ‘The Stuff’. However when the now declining ice cream companies investigate they discover it’s a parasitic organism that turns the consumer into a zombie-like creature before eating them from the inside out, leaving them a hollowed sack.

The aforementioned Larry Cohen gives us an exemplary lesson in balance with The Stuff: its mix of consumerism satire, gloopy and outrageous practical effects and witty dialogue making it a must-see. Inspired by corporate greed and the constant stories of recalled, contaminated food products in the 80s, Cohen manages to get his point across without uncomfortably force-feeding you his political agenda. While The Stuff itself looks highly effective on screen, it was made of blended fish bones and, as you can imagine, made filming an unpleasant environment for all involved.

2: Night of the Demons (1988)

A group of teens have the splendid idea to throw a party in an abandoned funeral parlour. On top of that, they decide to perform a séance. What could go wrong? They (of course) awaken the dormant demon in the crematorium, who possesses each of them in turn and somewhat spoils the party.

There’s nothing original or inspired about Night of the Demons, it’s just an absolute hoot. “Angela” is now regarded a horror icon and titan of movie maniacs whilst Steve Johnson’s makeup effects are so memorable you’ll have a hard time picturing anything else when asked to envisage a demon. This film delivers scares and sequences of bizarre imagery that manage to get under your skin whilst thrilling your socks off, and once the action gets going it’s non-stop 80s schlock at its best. The 1994 sequel is cut from the same bloodied cloth makes a great double bill.

1: Basket Case (1982)

Frank Henenlotter’s feature length debut needs no introduction: whether you’ve seen the film or not you can surely picture the cover art, the misshapen hand and face peeking out of a wicker basket being an unmissable image to anyone who stepped into a VHS store between ’82 and ’85.

The inspiration came to Henenlotter from a simple image: a guy walking through New York with a closed wicker basket. Then came the decision as to what should be in the basket….. his brother! Then, the story: formerly conjoined twins seeking revenge on the doctors who crudely separated them. Basket Case is unlike any film you’ve ever seen or ever will see again, its grimy, snuff-like aesthetic seeping into your skin and consuming you. The screams of Bilail (the bro in the basket) as he lashes out will ring in your ears for decades.

Production was a stop/start affair. Henenlotter would shoot what he could with the money he had and then show the footage to a potential investor. Once another chunk of money was acquired, he’d use that and begin the process again. Determination and gall is what saw this film to completion, and the result? The Number 1 Trashterpiece ever made.

Honourable mentions:

  • Bad Taste (1987) Peter Jackson’s brazen and stomach churning feature length debut.
  • Dolly Dearest (1991) The mean spirited Child’s Play rip off that will give you the willies.
  • Creepozoids (1987) ‘Scream Queen’ Linnea Quigley battles a shoddy looking bio-experiment in this 70 minute mess.
  • The Video Dead (1987) Cashing in on the success of the Poltergeist and Living Dead franchises, this cheap knock-off is entertaining for all the wrong reasons.

Stevie Webb

As well as writing for Moving Pictures Film Club, Stevie also hosts ‘Brain Rot – An 80s Horror Podcast’.

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