The heyday of video store was a great time for kids like me who—at that time, at least—weren’t overly worried about plot and production values and just wanted to see cool, interesting monsters on the screen. Most of the movies we’ll be looking at went straight to video. Even those that went to theaters had a very short run. They weren’t successful, had dismal box office returns and instead were discovered by audiences on tape.
These flawed features have a charm to them, even those that border on unwatchable. Maybe it’s something you had to latch onto as a youth to be able to endure as an adult. But either way, there’s a sense of charm to the video era monster movies. One that’s sort of lost now that films have moved away from gratuitous practical FX. Even straight-to-video doesn’t really exist anymore. Ironically, straight-to-video is only something that can really be pulled off by a major studio. Titles like Curse and Cult of Chucky can go direct to DVD/BD with no problems because companies like Universal are funding the release.
Make no mistake, these are relics from a bygone era. But it was an enjoyable one while it lasted, even when—or in some cases, especially when—the movies themselves were bad.
Ironically, Shrieker might have been more known for its tie-in action figure, which really goes to show how great Full Moon’s marketing was considering their limited budget. Shrieker cost less than most of their very, very cheap early movies. The monster didn’t even have a full costume. He’s only ever shown from the waist up because that’s all they could afford to build. Still, it’s an underused creature with a unique design that sticks out. Not a great flick, not even a good one. However, there’s something enjoyable about it.
Even more than Shrieker, Grim borders on being almost unwatchable. The monster, which was a cave troll in this case, looks really neat. But he doesn’t cause a whole lot of bloodshed. Still, it’s neat to see him crawl through the caves and wait for his totally oblivious victims to fall into his lap.
One of the most entertaining of the Howling sequels—not that it’s hard to earn that distinction, mind you—The Freaks is a no-budget effects extravaganza. The werewolf doesn’t look as cool as the other, more wolf-like creatures from the movies before it, but that’s okay. This one is more Wolf Man-esque and the vampire makeup is great. That’s right, that’s what this one spends its time building toward, a vampire/werewolf showdown. Given the foamy costumes and makeup it’s a little more like a Godzilla feature than the species war depicted years later in Underworld but both have their place and this one is in many ways just as much fun.
If you like Jurassic Park, why not take a look at this Roger Corman feature that landed two months after the biggest dinosaur hit of all time? Whereas that one had state of the art CGI mixed with groundbreaking practical FX, this has big lumpy latex costumes. But they’re very cool, even if they appeal much more to the practical horror crowd. And make no mistake, while they are about dinosaurs, the Carnosaur films are horror first and foremost.
Pumpkinhead II doesn’t have the heart, direction or raw emotion of the first, which was legitimately a great horror movie. But what it does have is KNB. Particularly, it has KNB at an early point in their respective careers when they were still desperate to prove themselves as effects artists. The creature doesn’t look as good as the original, but it doesn’t look bad. It’s very recognizable as Pumpkinhead and the slightly younger design works. Add onto that some great gore FX and you have a low budget sequel that’s still pretty entertaining, even if it can’t touch its predecessor.
One of the last Empire productions (it was ultimately distributed by Vestron) Cellar Dweller was the first script Don Mancini ever sold in Hollywood. You may remember Mancini as the man who would eventually write every film in the Child’s Play series. It was directed by John Carl Buechler, who also directed Troll and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. He also worked on the design of the monster. Add in a small role by Jeffrey Combs and you have a feature that has earned its place amongst the greats of the video horror market. It’s tame, slow, and virtually bloodless, but there are some quirky characters and a really neat monster to keep people entertained.
Unlike some of the other entries on this list, I have no problem defending Waxwork as a legitimately good movie. I could do that all day. David Warner is great, Zach Galligan and Deborah Foreman are surprisingly powerful leads, and more importantly Bob Keen’s amazing FX work is all over the place. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, mummies, man-eating plants and sadomasochistic French aristocrats, this one has it all. It had a very short run in theaters, but became a sleeper hit on video. That’s where I discovered it and it quickly became one of my favorites. It’s campy, sure, but it really embraces that and makes it work.