THE PAWNBROKER (1964)
The buildup: Pawn shop owner Sol Nazerman (Oscar nominee Rod Steiger) is the only member of his family to have survived incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, and 25 years after his wife’s death he struggles with flashbacks from the horrifying experience and alienates everyone around him. He struggles to not give over to total cynicism while training a young, impressionable apprentice.
The breakdown: This early effort from director Sidney Lumet (Network, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead) was shot in black and white and offers a powerful, bleak portrayal of a man whose life has been so irrevocably damaged that the confines of his gated shop are as imprisoning as the death camp he escaped. Interestingly, the film features a lively jazz score from Quincy Jones (you’ll hear the future Austin Powers theme) and was the first American film to feature bare breasts onscreen.
THE WHIP AND THE BODY (1963)
The buildup: After returning to the wealthy family that spurned him and to attend his brother’s wedding, a cold, arrogant aristocrat (Christopher Lee) is killed in the same way that the family maid thinks he allegedly murdered her daughter. But his ghost returns to haunt his sibling’s fiancée (Daliah Lavi), with whom he had a sadomasochistic affair, his ghostly thrashing sounds awakening her at night. Can his savage spirit be quelled?
The breakdown: Director Mario Bava (Black Sabbath, Black Sunday) invoked his gothic magic while delivering a colorfully lurid portrayal of an unrequited love/hate relationship that was more than a little racy for its time. The restoration looks and sounds great. It’s a shame that Lee’s voice was dubbed by another actor, but his imposing presence still helps drive the film.
The buildup: Sometimes you have to fight fire with fire, which is what a group of six Brooklyn-based exorcists do. Prepared to die when fighting demons, they have to keep their sin level up so that, if need be, inviting a demon in and then committing suicide will guarantee that they go to Hell together.
The breakdown: Writer-director J.T. Petty (The Burrowers) was inspired by the concept that cinematic exorcists usually invite an offending demon to enter them and free their victim. So why not a whole pack of them? Despite its low budget and odd mix of horror with lowbrow humor, Hellbenders is a cheeky concept that works best when the screen is commandeered by Clancy Brown (the Kurgan from Highlander), who plays the crotchety leader of this supernatural wild bunch.
ENEMIES CLOSER (2013)
The buildup: A former Navy SEAL turned park ranger (Tom Everett Scott) seeking solitude on a quiet island has his world turned upside down one night when a former military buddy’s brother (Orlando Jones) seeks to kill him over his sibling’s death. But they must begrudgingly unite when a pack of drug dealers (led by the irrepressible Jean-Claude Van Damme) want the ranger to retrieve a submerged shipment and then presumably kill both men.
The breakdown: Van Damme may not have the same dashing visage of yore, but he’s still in great shape, and as proven here and in The Expendables 2, makes a formidable villain. Enemies Closer is a generally by-the-numbers military thriller with a slight twist, but veteran director Peter Hyams (Outland, End Of Days) works it well, particularly one scene where Scott and Van Damme fight and fall through trees.
The buildup: After a famous stage actor (Liv Ullmann) has a breakdown and stops speaking, she is moved to a beach house and cared for by a young nurse (Bibi Anderson) who begins confiding her deepest, darkest secrets to her. This leads to both catharsis and ratcheting tension as the mute thespian remains silent and one begins to wonder who is the more disturbed of the two.
The breakdown: Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film shows the power of an intimate story devoid of needless special effects or cinematic eye candy. Sven Nykvist’s gorgeous black and white cinematography enhances this psychological character study that twists and turns inside of the nurse’s mind as she battles her personal demons while soothing those of another woman. Criterion’s fantastic packaging includes vintage TV interviews and a 60-page book filled with stills and extensive liner notes.
FUNERAL IN BERLIN (1966)
The buildup: Harry Palmer (Michael Caine), working off a prison sentence for black market activities by serving as a British secret agent, is sent to Berlin to see if the defection offer of a Russian colonel based on the Communist side is legit or an espionage tactic. Things get complicated when Palmer gets entangled with a beautiful Israeli agent (Eva Renzi) who has a secret agenda of her own.
The breakdown: The second of three Len Deighton books turned into Harry Palmer films in the ’60s, Funeral In Berlin is a top-notch espionage thriller that thrives on Caine’s hard-edged portrayal of Palmer, a man not easily intimidated nor to be trifled with. The Warner Archive Collection DVD release is bare bones, but it looks great.
A TALE OF TWO TENNEYS
The buildup: After her ex-boyfriend teaches her about a Ouija board at a party, Linda Brewster (Tawny Kitaen) ends up communicating with a seemingly friendly ghost that turns vicious and possessive. Her jealous boyfriend and her ex must unite in order to save her soul.
The breakdown: An old school ghost tale with an ’80s twist, writer-director Kevin S. Tenney’s Witchboard is actually a fun little supernatural romp with decent character development and a sense of humor, particularly the joke-cracking psychic (Kathleen Wilhoite) who embraces her wackiness. Scream Factory’s extensive bonus features delve deep into the film’s production, which will elate long-time fans. A sequel followed in 1993.
NIGHT OF THE DEMONS (1988)
The buildup: A group of teens gather to party hearty at Hull House, an old funeral home said to contain evil spirits and where the Hull family was murdered. Through a séance they invoke demons from the crematorium that begin to kill and possess their bodies one by one. Scream queen Linnea Quigley will make you squirm as she hides a lipstick container inside her boob.
The breakdown: Director Kevin S. Tenney followed up Witchboard with a film that focused less on character and more on atmosphere, sex, and gore. What makes Night Of The Demons stand out from the ’80s slasher pack is David Lewis’ inventive cinematography, some good scares, and a decent soundtrack. The film inspired two ’90s sequels and a 2009 remake. Scream Factory delivers awesome extras to satiate fans rabid to learn more about this cult film.
ZOMBIE HIGH (1987)
This ridiculous tale of a prep school that secretly sucks out the life essence of its students is not exactly the apex of ’80s horror, and it has the worst closing theme song ever (the awful rap track “Kiss My Butt,” not to mention the Prince rip-off “Let’s Go Crazy”). But cult movie fans and ’80s diehards will probably get a hoot from watching a young Virginia Madsen (pre-Candyman), Sherilyn Fenn (pre-Twin Peaks), and Paul Feig (creator of Freaks And Geeks) in action. No, the ladies do not get nude, but they look gorgeous.