Today’s Halloween Horrors contributor is Matt Cohen, a student in the Cinema Studies graduate degree program at NYU. However, this does not mean that he is new to film analysis and review, as he has a wide array of reviews currently available on Letterboxd (https://letterboxd.com/AlteredCakes/).
For his Halloween Horrors debut, Matt takes the less-chosen route of looking at 2 films for his piece, 1989’s Bride of the Re-Animator and Black Past. While I’d assume that most of our readers are familiar with Bride, the follow-up to the 1985 cult classic Re-Animator (this writer’s favorite horror film), they may not be familiar with the second title being covered, Black Past. At least, I know I wasn’t. I’ve since remedied that, but I really get a thrill out of knowing that I’m still as much a student of horror as everyone else.
Matt’s topic is one that is sure to resonate with older fans, the ones who long for a return to more practical effects in film. Here, Matt explains 1989’s role as a transition year of gore and splatter effects, marking a move from the bigger Hollywood films to the small independent filmmakers. If you enjoy this piece, look for an article from Matt on the spectatorship of gore films later this year in the pages of the Film Matters magazine.
The glory years of horror films driven by wild special effects and gratuitous gore seemed to come to a close by the final year of the 1980s, but a new movement in underground splatter would carry on 1989’s legacy well into the 90s. As the potential for the widespread use of computer-generated effects was looming its ugly head, 1989 provided a final climax of blood-washed insanity for a decade loaded with wondrous experimentation in the field of practical effects. These preceding years provided invaluable opportunities for the advancement of the relationship between horror’s special effects artists and the ravenous fans that consumed their grotesque work. Namely, the successful home-video market allowed spectators to relive individual kills and monstrous moments from their favorite films, and the boom in horror fanzines brought the special effects artists ever closer to their admirers by way of tutorials and in-depth interviews. No single film acts as a more appropriate capstone to these tremendous times of terror than Brian Yuzna’s Bride of Re-animator.
Though I name Brian Yuzna as the mastermind behind this film, and he deserves as much credit as he can get, one must look to the slew of special effects wizards behind Bride of Re-animator to understand why it is so representative of the greatest decade in horror. The names should sound familiar to any gorehound or monster-head, as their names regularly graced the pages of Fangoria and have left legacies ever since: John Carl Buechler, Robert Kurtzman, Howard Berger, Greg Nicotero, Screaming Mad George. These are just some of the legends whose art made 80s horror so great; passed over by headlines and awards, but beloved by horror fans. Unlike the character-driven original film, Bride’s plot is limited to an incredibly simple reworking of classic Frankensteinian tropes, allowing more room for the effects-heavy scenes to shine. In other words, the plethora of plot elements that Yuzna throws at the spectator rarely stick (sorry, Francesca), but the monsters and mayhem always impress. It all feels like an elaborate haunted house ride; each sequence acts as an isolated showcase for that effects artists’ signature. The scene that exemplifies this most completely has Tony Doublin’s movie magic, and features the now-iconic eyeball-finger monster. We see Dr. West lazily construct the adorable abomination, solely to have it play comic relief during a visit from investigator Leslie Chapham. Doublin’s work here is astounding, as his hilarious puppet and exquisite collaboration with stop motion animator Dave Allen make the scene as memorable as can be. The finger creature is smushed by the end of the scene, tying together into a nice standalone package that should be seen as an individual unit of special effects that make up the larger work. John Carl Buechler of Magical Media and the KNB Effects team are also granted ample opportunity to flex their mastery of the craft; Buechler leaves an aura of absurdity on his gags involving Dr. Hill’s severed head and its metamorphosis into a flying monstrosity, and Kurtzman, Berger, and Nicotero’s complete bodysuit and heart-ripping emotional explosion of the Bride herself is to die for.
Personally, the practical creatures that leave the most impact are Screaming Mad George’s failed experiment abominations that burst forth from the catacombs during the film’s climactic final moments. Experimentation is the key word here, as director Yuzna knew he could rely on George to pull off some wildly creative and nightmarish ghoulishness. The level of trust required to hand over the design of an enormously complicated scene to a single effects artist was no doubt developed on the set of Society (Yuzna, 1989). Produced around the same time and boasting even more mind-blowing creature creativity than their later collaboration, Society’s existence alongside Bride of Re-animator speak to the impressive body of work special effects artistry was able to produce in 1989. However, scheduling overflow during Bride’s shoot forced effects scenes shot later in the production to be shortened or cut, preventing perhaps an even greater film from becoming fully realized. Advanced but complex and expensive effects technology and demand for more and more expansive horror shoots may have been unfortunate consequences of the peaking effects industry, leading to the fall of large-budget makeup-heavy films and the rise of cheaper CGI practices throughout mainstream filmmaking of the 90s.
However, thousands of miles away in the humble Bavarian town of Fürstenfeldbruck, a 20-year old dental technician was making movies that would mark 1989 not as a swansong for SFX-driven horror, but a transition from the Hollywood mainstream to the video store underground. Olaf Ittenbach’s Black Past takes inspiration from the gore-heavy films of the 1980s and crafts a new style for the upcoming decade by cheapening the production to a do-it-yourself scale. Rather than photograph on low-budget film stock like his German compatriot Jörg Buttgereit, Ittenbach opted to shoot his reworking of an Evil Dead-like gorefest directly on VHS. This not only streamlined the production process, but also contributed to the already established, yet growing, community of tape traders and gorehounds throughout Europe and beyond. By adopting Buttgereit’s psychological depravity from Nekromantik (1987) and choosing a more refined effects style than the contemporary Violent Shit (Andreas Schnaas, 1989), Black Past stands out as an individual horror vision that would cement Ittenbach as a king of the underground. Surely, his technical experience promoted his effects abilities, further setting him apart from other young shot-on-video filmmakers from the period. Ittenbach completed the gore work on his own, crafting a style that seamlessly and frighteningly blends medical precision and realism with the surreal other-worldliness promoted by the distorted VHS format. For gore fans, he became a bit of a celebrity in the years following Black Past’s release, with The Burning Moon and Premutos: Der gefallene Engel becoming instant classics in the canon of 90s underground horror madness. Black Past is a little rough around the edges, but it is precisely this backyard charm that gives it its power. This film, like Ittenbach’s work in general, is an absolute spark, carving out a piece of horror history through innovative frugality and unrivaled creativity.
Whether enabled by the large budgets of established producers or the ingenuity that comes along with the DIY mentality, the horror of 1989 will never be replicated. The year was a crossroads for nearly all aspects of film production, especially for horror: mediums were shifting, studio’s plans foresaw a new type of terror, and the children of Tom Savini and Herschell Gordon Lewis were taking over from the preceding generation with latex in hand. These two films are just part of the incontrovertible legacy that 1989 left behind.