Five Low-Budget Horror and Sci-fi Gems Deep from the Bloody Heart of Texas
Bloodsuckers from Outer Space: In Texas, family and friendliness are values shared by everyone, even the undead.
Texas has spawned dozens of low-budget horror and sci-fi films since the 1960s. Unfortunately most of them suck, although not in the ways most normal, well adjusted filmgoers would think. B-movie fans are some of the most forgiving audiences in the world and will gladly let glaring deficiencies in budget and plot slide provided the film delivers the entertainment goods, intentionally or otherwise. For the true trash connoisseur the only unpardonable sin is to be boring, and many of these regional nightmares have rightfully been condemned to languish in the hell of obscurity. It's a just sentence for tricking a generation of kids into renting them with their lurid box art and empty promises of entertainment. For every Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Robocop on the shelves of the local video store there were a half dozen horror movies that make Andy Warhol's cinematic oeuvre look positively frenetic in comparison.
Often released only on VHS, many of these films stand on the brink of oblivion thanks to the digital slow death of the mom-and-pop video store. In many instances this is no great loss to the world of cinema. Despite this high garbage-to-gold ratio the occasional forgotten gem still turns up in thrift stores and garage sales waiting to be picked like a psychedelic mushroom in a pile of longhorn manure.
In honor of the 2014 Texas Frightmare Weekend May 2-4 at the Hyatt Regency DFW (2334 North International Parkway) we bring you the best of homegrown horror and sci-fi from the '80s and '90s, the golden age of the VCR so often neglected by regional film historians. Although our standards and judgment may have been severely warped by prolonged exposure to Texas crude, the following films have been deemed worthy of rescue from the eternal cut-out bin, of interest to the discerning cinematic bottom-feeder or anyone curious to see what Dallas or Houston looked like before suburban sprawl fully set in.
The Lamp (1987) aka The Outing Directed by Tom Daley
Three white trash dirtbags break into an old lady's house in search of a fortune in cash allegedly located on the property. Instead they discover an ancient lamp hidden in a wall and inadvertently unleash an evil genie after brutally dispatching their elderly victim with an ax. As one might imagine this ends badly for everyone involved. The titular lamp eventually turns up at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and falls into the hands of our teen protagonist Alex, the daughter of curator Dr. Wallace who says things like "It's this museum that gets you those Guess jeans you have all the time!" Alex is soon possessed by the bloodthirsty djinn and arranges for her friends and the local bullies to spend the night locked in the museum. In the basement. During a rainstorm. Mayhem ensues.
Ignore the fact this movie somehow managed to have not one, but two of the least frightening titles of all time. Director Tom Daley's The Lamp is an entertaining slice of '80s cheese that actually delivers once it gets rolling. It's definitely the best killer genie movie ever filmed in Houston. Anyone can die at any time and by the end of the film just about everyone has. A toast to script writer Warren Chaney for figuring out how to work a shower scene into a movie that takes place in a museum.
For years The Lamp was only available on VHS but has turned up on a budget DVD set in the last few years as The Outing.
R.O.T.O.R. (1988) Directed by Cullen Blaine
Authoritarian police Captain J.B. Coldyron (pronounced "Cold Iron") and Dr. C.R. Steele are driven to create the law enforcement cyborg R.O.T.O.R. to save the residents of Dallas from themselves. After the unit is prematurely activated by a janitor's switchblade comb, R.O.T.O.R. (Robotic Officer Tactical Operations Research) escapes from the research facility and promptly shoots a yuppie douchebag in the face for speeding. The remainder of the running time is consumed by scenes of the justice-crazed robot chasing the yuppie's fiancé around Lake Dallas while Coldyron takes his sweet time coming to the rescue. Eventually R.O.T.O.R.'s creators get around to deactivating it and everyone dies. The End.
Director Cullen Blaine gave the late Italian rip-off master Bruno Mattei a run for his money with this no-budget Robocop/Terminator hybrid. Legions of kids were duped into renting it by awesome sci-fi cover art the film couldn't possibly begin to deliver on. Everything about R.O.T.O.R. is sublimely bad, and its charm lies in its decision to soldier on despite being deficient in every possible way. Viewers should just relax and go with it as any attempt to apply logic to the plot or gloriously idiosyncratic dialog may result in hemorrhaging. Witness the elusive point at which parody is rendered impossible.
Yet another film dredged from VHS obscurity and released in a budget DVD set, R.O.T.O.R. would make a great follow up to Frightmare Weekend's Terminator cast reunion on Saturday, May 3.
Bloodsuckers From Outer Space (1984) Directed by Glen Coburn
A mysterious cosmic wind turns the residents of a small Texas town into blue vampires for some reason. An aspiring photographer attempts to escape from these monsters with the aid of his new girlfriend and her tank of nitrous oxide. There are some suspiciously unkempt scientists who aren't much help. Eventually the military is called in and, in what was surely a nod to Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, everybody in Hamilton County perishes in a nuclear holocaust.
Parody is often a middle ground for independent filmmakers unable to execute straight horror or comedy successfully. Bloodsuckers From Outer Space isn't going to win any awards, but it's fun and contains sporadic moments of (mostly) intentional greatness. There are far worse ways to kill a six-pack and an hour and 19 minutes. At the very least the new wave theme song is pretty choice and there are remarkably few fart jokes for a spoof whose plot centers on killer wind.
Bloodsuckers... premiered at Joe Bob Briggs' Third Annual Drive-In Movie Festival and Custom Car Rally at the Inwood Theater in Dallas in October 1984 and slowly developed a cult following in the intervening years. Thanks to better than usual distribution it was ubiquitous in video stores throughout the '80s and '90s. The film experienced a minor revival in the late 2000s with a DVD release and a screening at the 2008 Texas Frightmare Weekend and is readily available in a number of different formats.
The Abomination (1986) Directed by Bret McCormick
Cody's chain-smoking mother coughs up what she believes to be a tumor while watching a crooked evangelist on TV. Seemingly unfazed by ejecting a bloody gob of meat from her lungs, she casually tosses it into the trash and retires to bed. Later that night the tumor, which might actually be a Lovecraftian monster from space (?), escapes from the garbage and crawls into Cody's mouth while he's sleeping. In short order he begins hacking up monsters of his own and is forced to brutally kill off the residents of Poolville in order to feed his growing brood. Or is it all a hallucination in Cody's deranged mind?
Fueled by a surfeit of free Shiner beer and the desire to make a buck off the lucrative '80s splatter market, this 8-mm wonder was filmed back to back with Matt Devlen's Ozone! Attack of the Redneck Mutants outside Fort Worth for a whopping $10,000. The homemade monsters are great and the whole vibe is overwhelmingly weird in a way that can only result from attempting to exceed the limits of a nonexistent budget and script. Keep an eye out for some of the most regrettable instances of product placement ever, wherein Shiner is featured as the beer of choice for rural drunken driving and then prominently displayed in a trash can next to a pulsating tumor monster. That said, this one's for hardcore trash aficionados only.
If it contained a few art school haircuts and a no wave soundtrack, The Abomination could easily be mistaken for a lost Cinema of Transgression film. Take that as you will. After repeated viewings an attempt was made at syncing Sonic Youth's Bad Moon Rising LP to the movie a la Dark Side of the Rainbow with mixed results. Try it at home with impressionable film students and praise the juxtaposition of cheap gore with endless shots of livestock and driving for their ability to evoke the ennui of rural living.
The Abomination is currently unavailable as a legit DVD. Fortunately it turns up on YouTube pretty frequently for those of you who want to ride without dropping $100 on the rare VHS tape.
Scary Movie (1991) Directed by Daniel Erickson
John Hawkes (Deadwood, Winter's Bone, etc) stars as Warren, a young man who desperately needs his meds adjusted. Warren sweats and screams and has recurring nightmares about being chased by a man in a grim reaper costume. Unaware of his tenuous grip on reality, Warren's friend drags him to a haunted house on Halloween night. As they wait in line Warren's mental condition deteriorates until he becomes convinced that an escaped lunatic is hiding inside among the staged tableaux of horror.
Predating the Wayans Brothers' franchise by a decade, Austin auteur Daniel Erickson's Scary Movie is hands down the best film on this list. In fact it's a clever, surprisingly successful attempt at psychological horror on a minimal budget. Hawkes is great as the profoundly disturbed Warren, and the acting is above par all around. Watch for the cameo from Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster) about halfway in. Local color is provided via songs by The Butthole Surfers and Roky Erickson and there's a Shiner beer product placement that probably didn't get anyone fired (see The Abomination). Well worth your time if you can get your hands on a copy.
As of this writing there is no DVD release and the VHS appears to be incredibly scarce, but someone associated with the production has posted it on YouTube in its entirety.
Bonus Short: Bar-B-Que Movie (1988) Directed by Alex Winter
A family vacationing in Texas runs afoul of a group of backwoods lunatics (notorious Austin punks The Butthole Surfers) who dose the parents with psychedelics and serve them their son for dinner.
Only released on VHS as a segment for the one-off Impact Video Magazine, director Alex Winter's (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure) Bar-B-Que Movie is a deranged Super 8 homage to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre featuring Scary Movie star John Hawkes as the head of the vacationing family. It's also a pretty accurate recreation of the Surfers' legendary live show for those of you who were too young to catch them in their prime before the drugs stopped working. "Y'all want some scorpion tea?"
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.