Sunday, October 18, 2015

Cult Classics Revisited: TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984)

(US - 1984)

Directed by Andrew J. Kuehn. Written by Margery Doppelt. Cast: Donald Pleasence, Nancy Allen. (R, 83 mins)

Can you imagine moviegoers lining up today to see what essentially amounts to a feature-length version of one of those Bravo 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS-type TV specials? It's hard to believe there was a time that they would, but that's exactly what happened when Universal released TERROR IN THE AISLES in theaters on October 26, 1984, the same day as James Cameron's THE TERMINATOR and Brian De Palma's BODY DOUBLE. When the weekend was over, THE TERMINATOR landed in first place and BODY DOUBLE in third. That TERROR IN THE AISLES was the second most popular movie in America that pre-Halloween weekend only serves as a reminder of how huge horror was with moviegoers of the time. Horror's always been a popular genre, but it was exploding in the early '80s, with countless slasher films, splatter movies, and the innovative makeup effects work of guys like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, and Tom Savini. The effects guys were often the superstars of the genre: Savini already had a prominent role as the head of the biker gang in DAWN OF THE DEAD, but was so well-known to fans and had such a gregarious personality that he parlayed his special effects fame into the popular VHS rental SCREAM GREATS, which looked at Savini and his techniques and his career highlights, and a second career as a character actor, starring in one of the earliest straight-to-video titles, 1985's THE RIPPER, and, years later, appearing as biker Sex Machine in Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996).

Compilations of this sort were nothing new: in the early 1960s, Robert Youngson assembled several compilations of silent film clips, like 1960's WHEN COMEDY WAS KING and 1961's DAYS OF THRILLS AND LAUGHTER), and 1974's THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT! and its 1976 sequel THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT, PART 2 celebrated the legacy of MGM musicals (and it's tag line "Boy, do we need it now!" seemed to assure aging moviegoers that there wouldn't be any of the violence, sex, or F-bombs that were becoming commonplace by the early '70s). Horror was a prime genre for the reverential clip-show treatment: every video store in America probably stocked Wizard Video's FILMGORE, Continental Video's TERROR ON TAPE, and Universal's John Landis-assembled COMING SOON. And Paramount tried releasing one of these genre clip comps in theaters exactly two years earlier, when IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD opened on Halloween weekend in 1982. A collection of scenes from vintage exploitation and campy sci-fi movies, with snarky commentary by hosts Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Cheech & Chong, and Gilda Radner, IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD flopped but in retrospect, served as somewhat of a dry run for MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000. TERROR IN THE AISLES approaches its highlights with a more reverent attitude, with hosts Donald Pleasence (HALLOWEEN) and Nancy Allen (DRESSED TO KILL) addressing the viewer while watching a horror movie with an enthusiastic, sell-out crowd. That Pleasence and Allen are never seen together is a strong indication that they weren't there at the same time and probably shot their segments in a single day, tops. Director Andrew J. Kuehn and writer Margery Doppelt have Pleasence and Allen wax rhapsodic on the nature and appeal of horror films, why they're so popular, and what the genre tropes (promiscuous woman = victim) are really saying, but there's nothing particularly deep in the analysis and it comes across as armchair psychology much of the time. The clips are mostly from the then-modern era, with popular hits like ALIEN, THE SHINING, SCANNERS, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2, HALLOWEEN II, POLTERGEIST, John Carpenter's THE THING, and VIDEODROME, and "oldies" like PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE EXORCIST, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, JAWS, and the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, plus thrillers like MARATHON MAN, MS. 45 and VICE SQUAD among many, many others, mixed with archival footage of Alfred Hitchcock explaining the nature of suspense and terror.

Andrew J. Kuehn, the father of the modern movie trailer
Kuehn (1937-2004) was well-known in the movie industry as the head of Kaleidoscope Films, a marketing outfit that served as the big studios' go-to trailer supplier going back to 1968. While independents like Roger Corman would have their trailers assembled in-house, the studios went to Kuehn, whose team would write the narration and create the trailers. It was one of Kuehn's staffers who came up with JAWS 2's immortal and much-referenced "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water," still regarded as one of the greatest tag lines of all time. Kuehn would also be commissioned to direct behind-the-scenes "making of" documentaries that would air on TV (like INSIDE "THE SWARM," LIGHTS, CAMERA, ANNIE! and JOURNEY TO KRULL) prior to a huge movie being released (many of these archival documentaries have been preserved as extras on eventual DVD and Blu-ray releases), and 15 years after TERROR IN THE AISLES, he directed the documentary GET BRUCE!, about famed comedy writer Bruce Vilanch. Kuehn's trailer-assembling expertise works in TERROR IN THE AISLES' favor in the often clever ways structurally similar shots from many different films are cut together (there's a door-slamming montage early on where he establishes a visual and sonic rhythm that's very well-done). Kuehn obviously put some thought into the way some of the clips should be shown, and for a while, TERROR IN THE AISLES is a pretty fun snapshot of where horror was in 1984 and what it was like to see a horror movie in that pre-pager, pre-cell phone, pre-texting era when devoted fans were so into the story that it would frequently become a communal experience the likes of which you very rarely see anymore. But Kuehn really starts to stumble and TERROR IN THE AISLES loses its way after about a hour. For starters, he and Doppelt have Pleasence and Allen referring to "terror films," which is a term nobody used. It almost seems as if they didn't want to limit themselves to horror movies, but even "terror films" is a stretch when trying to justify the inclusion of clips from TO CATCH A THIEF and KLUTE, and when Kuehn is editing Zoe Tamerlis from MS. 45 into a climactic scene from KLUTE with Jane Fonda and Charles Cioffi, you can't help but think he's wandered way off on a tangent that's probably just there to pad the running time. Kuehn had no way of knowing how beloved Italian horror of that time would become, but even then, it had enough interest to warrant stronger representation than a couple of one-to-two second shots from Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA very late in the proceedings. Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE gained some notoriety when it was released in the US in the summer of 1980. Wouldn't the zombie vs. shark scene or the Olga Karlatos splinter-in-the-eye make more sense to show than a dialogue scene from KLUTE?

TERROR IN THE AISLES stayed in the top five at the box office for a couple of weeks and grossed over $10 million--small change today but keep in mind, it opened better than BODY DOUBLE and were it not for THE TERMINATOR, it would've been the most popular movie in America. It's one that's held in sentimental regard by children of the '80s, some of whom likely used it as a checklist of things they needed to see, and has become regular Halloween viewing for fans of a certain age. After its VHS release and some cable airings in the '80s, TERROR IN THE AISLES fell into obscurity and was a much sought-after title until 2011, when it was included as a bonus feature on Universal's 30th anniversary Blu-ray release of HALLOWEEN II. Just a year later, HALLOWEEN II was re-released on Blu-ray again, this time by Shout! Factory, but minus TERROR IN THE AISLES. AISLES then received its own DVD release through Universal's made-to-order "Vault Series," which was long thought impossible given the number of rights issues and clearances involving the clips, obstacles that caused Paramount to cancel IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD's planned DVD release in 2006. Clip shows like 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS are always entertaining, but with TV specials of that sort and the ability of pretty much anyone to create their own horror scene compilation and put it on YouTube, the idea of something like TERROR IN THE AISLES not only being given a wide release in theaters but playing to packed houses seems quaintly absurd. Even though it veers way off point in its final third, it still stands as a decent, though by no means comprehensive, representation of early '80s horror.

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