1.) Alice, Sweet Alice
A low budget horror mystery that vibrates with unusual power. Each frame is like a macabre, dreamlike painting set against moody and spine-chilling sound design. An emotionally violent atmosphere pervades everything. The 1976 chiller is truly the definition of an independent film infused by the spirit of its creator, Alfred Sole, who performed miracles with only $340, 000. Alice, Sweet Alice is a singular vision, so ferociously unique. Growing up, I had no idea that anyone even heard of this savage film. It was originally called Communion. For me it was an inside family experience. Alfred is my cousin. The Paterson, NJ locations are from my childhood when I’d visit my grandmothers. My father provided the communion dresses and veils from a Bridal Store he owned. My relatives played lots of extras. I can watch the film and say, “Oh look, there’s Aunt Matilda!” There was a splashy premiere in Paterson that I heard all about in hushed tones but was too young to attend. It was 1977 and I was only 7 years-old. Growing up, there were so many Communion promos around the house. My father kept them in his Den closet and I’d go and take a peek. With my heart pounding, I’d gaze at the image of the white veiled little Catholic girl brandishing a spectral crucifix/dagger. And that blood-curdling Frank Lauria book cover featuring the bizarre masked china-doll killer with blood dripping from her knife and the tag line…Pray For Her. Actually Communion was one of the first books I ever read. I followed that paperback with The Sentinel. Another book and movie I was mesmerized by its nightmarish artwork. I was 9 in 1979 when I finally watched Alice, Sweet Alice on VHS. It was an intoxicating experience. Alice, Sweet Alice, the remake is in development. Alfred is passing the torch…or dagger to me.
I was born October 29th. So growing up, all my birthdays were Halloween costume parties. In 1978, on my 9th birthday, my mother took a bunch of my birthday party friends to see Halloween in theatres. We were little kids and scared out of our minds! Even though I was 9 I was already a horror aficionado because mother took me to see everything. So this movie was a revelation. I struck gold here. The glowing jack-lantern pumpkin in the opening titles…supremely unsettling synth soundscapes…I was instantly transported to horror heaven. Serotonin released in my brain. Wall to wall John Carpenter sound design with that deep bass and staccato glacial synth. There’s nothing better. To this day, my own music is influenced by Carpenter’s Halloween…The Fog…Christine…Prince of Darkness…Those soundtracks lit up my imagination. During the 1978 screening of Halloween I was on the edge of my seat. Every sensation, heightened. I realized more than ever how much I loved being scared. Here I was led through an eerie, stylized funhouse. A maze in darkness. I appreciated when Michael Myers stepped out of the blackness. In other scenes, there was a lot of light, color and design. Beautiful color. The cinematography by Dean Cundey, magnificent. Halloween has a black heart. Sure Jamie Lee Curtis is sweet and warm, sure the crew had fun and joked while shooting it, but this is a cold, cruel terror trip. Right from the flickering pumpkin to the last frame, evil winks and triumphs. It’s all woven together in a way that’s never been rivaled. John Carpenter, definitely an influence in my own filmmaking, was the ultimate visual sadist here. It had to be done…to squeeze out a landmark horror classic! Bravo. The ending…There has never been a scarier climax – ever. I can see how some of the younger generation do not understand what all the hype is about. You really had to see it in theatres at a young age around the time of its release. There was nothing like it. Not even close. So compact and scary, so lyrical and atmospheric. Everyone was talking about it. Halloween. It was like a bomb went off. There was silence and screams in theatres when the film was over. And people were truly scared driving home. When was the last time that happened? Halloween is the Holy Grail of horror shockers. I’m staring at my framed poster right now.
3.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978
The seed is planted. Terror grows…The tagline and commercial for Invasion of the Body Snatchers pushed such a button in my 8-year-old psyche. I was electrified in 1978. Every time the commercial would appear I’d run to the TV and turn the volume up. In school, I’d fantasize about the commercial and visualize what the movie might be like. I’d write: The Seed is Planted…Terror Grows…on my notebook and…Invasion of the Body Snatchers…in its exact font. This was right around the time of Jaws 2, another movie I was obsessed with…the poster…commercials…trading cards. When I finally saw Invasion of the Body Snatchers in theatres it left me breathless. I asked my parents to take me to it over and over. The shot of the saliva-like space organism spreading its gooey tendrils on a leaf is unforgettable. The fascinating film contained performances from some of my favorite actors: Brooke Adams, Donald Sutherland, Veronica Cartwright and Jeff Goldblum. The music by Denny Zeitlin is witchcraft. The best sound design I’ve ever heard because it’s so indecipherable and enigmatic. It doesn’t play by the rules. These days most soundtracks sound exactly the same, and it’s maddening. With Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the sound design and music illustrate outer space and the unknown. Paranoia. The pulsating synths really create tension and freeze the blood.
4.) The Evil Dead
I was around 11 or 12 and watched The Evil Dead in theatres. And then it came out on VHS. The commercials on TV were well done and very scary. The Evil Dead seemed to be a horror event – with its quote from Stephen King – and it delivered in spades. I had a cut out shot over my bed, from Twilight Zone Magazine, of Ellen Sandweiss bleeding and possessed and rising from the cellar. I found her the be the most horrifying demon I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve seen my share of demons in horror movies and in my dreams. When she became possessed in the film, it felt like the real deal, I sat in the theatres with my jaw dropped. It all felt so…authentic. Everything that was happening on screen was very weird and compelling. Not the drama or dialogue, of course, though Ellen and Bruce were standout, it was the overall atmosphere. H.P. Lovecraft. And the way the subjective camera moved through the woods, violently careening, gliding, racing. It’s heart-stopping. To me it seemed like Sam Raimi understood my nightmares. This film, like The Exorcist is at the top of the heap for frightening possession madness. .
5.) Tourist Trap
Mannequins and dolls have always scared me. I saw Tourist Trap on TV when I was 10 and taped it and watched every day when I’d come home from school. For so many years it was a ritual, kind of a strange addiction. I had the stereo hooked up to a VCR player and it was like a theatre with the creepy and lush Pino Donaggio score echoing. Many times I’d watch Damien Omen 2, Magic, The Fury, Prophecy, Nightwing, It Lives Again, Alien, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, Death Ship, The Legacy, The Amityville Horror, Rosemary’s Baby, Pit and the Pendulum, The Dunwich Horror, The Shining, Audrey Rose, The Changeling, Phantasm, Legend of Hell House, Burnt Offerings, Carrie…Carrie should really be on this list. So should Don’t Look Now and The Brood. With Tourist Trap, I realized it was low budget and marveled at its motor. I watched it more than any other film and that says something. I,just loved it. Top notch low budget genre filmmaking in my opinion. There are many sequences in this film that rank among my all-time favorites. It’s so chock full of moments. When I’d watch Tourist Trap I’d fantasize that I directed it. I’d get euphoric and inside the skin of the director and imagine that it was my picture and that I was screening it for an electrified audience. It fueled me. Very inspiring. I knew I wanted to be a director and a magician and to me this film, its scare sequences looked like magic. Replicating a real paranormal event. I’ve always been interested in astrology…nightmares…telekinesis…The occult…I’m just now learning to read Tarot Cards. Tourist Trap waved its wand and conjured what looked like genuine supernatural mayhem. Growing up, it was exactly the kind of film experience I craved.