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The Revenant Review

Horror Film History, Analysis, and Reviews

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1986

Movie Review – Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)

Movie Review – Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986)

1986’s Class of Nuke ‘Em High, directed by Richard W. Haines and Lloyd Kaufman (as Samuel Weil), is yet another Troma Entertainment release – the first in-house production after 1984’s The Toxic Avenger – that has since become a cult classic. While Nuke ‘Em shares many trash and exploitation qualities with Toxic, it is in many ways a more polished, mainstream film. The absurdist antics revolve around a fairly typical teen sex-comedy as the virginal couple of Chrissy and Warren begin to flirt with drug use and sex – with dire consequences. Though the dangers of nuclear waste and corrupt corporatism play a part (tropes present in Toxic and which would at least in part come to define Troma), the film is more about teen experimentation and telling very timely jokes about the punk scene, which by this time had largely lost its edge. Ironically, however, in a post-Columbine era, the scenes of school violence perhaps make Nuke ‘Em a more subversive film than it was at the time of its release.

Nuke ‘Em is replete with charmingly bad jokes, plot-lines that often go nowhere, and a surprising amount of impressive body horror effects. Editing, too, is impressive, particularly in the end sequence where a spectacular looking monster is killing off invading punks. The creature was not completely formed and clever camera angles and rapid editing cuts make the thing feel far more whole and threatening than it otherwise would. For all the trappings of trash movies that Troma indulges in, Nuke ‘Em reveals that some fairly talented and calculating filmmakers were actually at the helm.

Personally, I prefer the ridiculous extremes of Toxic and how it continually defies viewer expectations. Nuke ‘Em feels more mainstream, albeit barely, as it follows more comfortable plot lines and uses its exploitation aspects more sparingly, yet for this reason it’s perhaps the best choice to introduce new viewers to Troma. For some fans, this is Troma’s best movie in terms of filmmaking, though it manages to keep its humor and visual style very much in the wheelhouse of other Troma offerings.

Grade: C

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Movie Review – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

Movie Review – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)

The horror genre is no stranger to controversy, and one of the most controversial films of the 1980s is 1986’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The film began when director John McNaughton was hired to helm a horror film for a meager budget. At first unsure of what to make, McNaughton came upon a 20/20 episode about the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas who was convicted of eleven murders and claimed (mostly unsubstantially) to have killed hundreds more. Taking inspiration from Lucas’s life and his outlandish claims, and his friendship with fellow killer Otis Toole, McNaughton crafted a loose adaptation that was disturbing in its realism. It was filmed on 16mm film in less than a month for only $110,000, and yet it shocked audiences upon its general release four years later, with its realistic portrayal of murder, and garnered an “X” from the MPAA, further cementing its base reputation.

Michael Rooker was a janitor when he was cast as Henry in his first film role. His performance sells the apathy and impulse of the killer. Other performances are memorable, if not completely strong, though Tracy Arnold, who plays Becky, Otis’s sister, is quite natural.

Henry’s Chicago seems devoid of law and order. It is a gritty concrete corpse that the characters occupy like insects, feasting on the weak like nature’s cruel creations. Henry kills on a whim but still functions in society, never standing out enough to draw suspicion. In one brilliant but disturbing sequence, the audience sees the murder of a family via a home video made by Henry and Otis like an early but effective found-footage snuff film. The two men sit lazily watching it from the couch. When it’s done, Otis rewinds it. When Henry asks what he’s doing, Otis says he wants to see it again, but this time he uses the slow motion feature.

Henry 1986 still

There’s plenty here to make the audience uncomfortable, but the filmmaking is actually quite good and, in a way, compelling. Unlike most 1980s slashers, there’s no flair to these killings. Murder is quick and cathartic, and the fragility of life is fully displayed. Despite the increase in killings, Henry never seems close to being caught, and one can’t help but wonder how many murders go unsolved each year, and whether or not the stranger one sits beside at the bar has killed innocents without hesitation and is willing to do so again.

In a 2013 study in the Journal of Forensic Sciences two Belgian psychiatrists looked at the depictions of serial killers in film and found that most are entirely unrealistic, with a few notable exceptions. One of those was Henry, which they thought effectively fit the profile of common serial killers. They wrote: “Another realistic interesting example is Henry (inspired from Henry Lee Lucas)… in this film, the main, interesting theme is the chaos and instability in the life of the psychopath, Henry’s lack of insight, a powerful lack of empathy, emotional poverty, and a well-illustrated failure to plan ahead.”

Perhaps Henry disturbs so much because it offers a depraved truth devoid of the Hollywood tropes that so often soften the subject matter. It is visceral in its presentation and is a movie that, despite one’s wishes to the contrary, will stick with the viewer long after seeing it.

Grade: B

DADDY DREADFUL – The Worst Witch (1986)

This review is part of the Daddy Dreadful review series.

Daddy Dreadful Review – The Worst Witch (1986)

I can’t help but to have a bit of anxiety when revisiting the influential films of my childhood even as I am excited to watch them with my son and see them anew through his eyes. Ultimately, it may be disheartening to have my fond memories tainted by the viewing of a film that clearly hasn’t aged well. Of course, nostalgia can carry us a long way, and I have to assume that is largely the case with the enduring popularity of 1986’s The Worst Witch. My wife watched this movie every Halloween season on a well-worn VHS recorded from television throughout her childhood. As we sat down to watch it with my son (age three) – my first viewing and his – she texted her two brothers a screen shot and they too felt compelled to find a copy and watch it that same night.

The Worst Witch is based on the Jill Murphy’s children’s book of the same name. It stars Fairuza Balk in her second of three films involving witches in her career, the first being 1985’s Return to Oz and the next 1996’s The Craft. Also starring are Diana Rigg, Charlotte Rae, and Tim Curry. The film was a collaboration between HBO and UK television, and the production quality is clearly minimal. The editing is shoddy and the story, especially the climax, is weak. There are three songs of varying quality: the first is cute and probably the best, the second catchy for kids but Charlotte Rae certainly wasn’t going to win any vocalist awards for it, and third one, performed by a confused-looking Tim Curry before a green screen, is an acid-trip of 1980’s kitsch. Rock Horror this ain’t. In addition to the worst witch, the film may also showcase the worst lyrics:

Your dentist could turn into a queen,
Has anybody seen my tambourine?

Of course, none of this mattered to my son. He loved Aggie’s song and sang it for days. I thought he’d be bored with the fairly slow pace of the movie but he asked to watch it again and again as the month of October went along. It’s a harmless film with nothing objectionable. I have to admit that there is a minor charm to all, and seeing the similarities that J.K Rowling would employ in the Harry Potter series can on its own occupy the focus of one’s viewing. As a bat lover my eyes widened when one girl briefly walked in with a live megabat hanging from her hand, and I wish we could have seen more of that. My wife recognizes the film’s shortcomings but, knowing it word for word, doesn’t adore it any less. Who am I to shit in their punch bowl?

Recommended Age: 3+
Final Thought: Soft recommendation. If you’re nostalgic for it, indulge to your heart’s content. No judgement here. For the kids it’s probably best for the preschool crowd before they graduate to Hogwarts. If you’ve never seen it before and want to, you might want a hard drink handy.

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