Crazy Forgotten 80s Halloween Horrors!

It's Halloween, kiddies, and what better day to discover some really out there, overlooked 80s horror flicks?  Especially Halloween-themed ones?  Well, I've got two for you today, plus five more related films to boot, thanks to this unusual DVD set called Crypt of Terror: Horror From South Of the Border Vol. 1, a 2007 release from BCI.  It's the kind of DVD set that has "3 DISC SET - 6 FILMS!" in huge letters emblazoned on the back of the case, and then when you open it up, you find four discs with seven films inside.  Yeah, this is a weird, gonzo little package, but it's pretty terrific; and just right for the holiday.
So yes, like the title and cartoonish sombrero on the skeleton monster suggest, these are Mexican horror films.  Movies from Mexico tended to get little to no exposure in English speaking markets, so most horror fans have probably never heard of any of these.  But don't let that put you off.  Because if you dig classic 80s atmosphere with big hair, cheesy soundtracks, blood and a variety of masked killers and monsters, this set's got the goods.  Sure, it's a knock-off bonanza, with rip-offs of everything from Nightmare On Elm Street to Poltergeist, but this isn't like ridiculous, Indian SpiderMan-level filmmaking.  These shot-on-film movies (mostly) display genuine, ambitious filmmaking with serious effort to create stylish, professional cinema that could compete the kind of horror favorites we were getting in our own Blockbuster Videos.
First up, starting from Side A of disc 1 to side B of disc 4, because yes these are flipper discs, is Vacation of Terror.  Some of these movies are darker and more serious, but the first couple are a bit lighter in tone.  Not horror comedy or anything too jokey, but more inviting you to enjoy a fun spooky ride rather than trying to scare or menace you.  Here, we have a pretty traditional haunted house flick.  In fact, it's biggest fault might just be that it's a little too by-the-numbers predictable, with a lot of gags we've seen before in other films.  Basically, a family inherits a house that they intend to use as a summer home, and whoops, they awaken the spirit of an old witch who was buried there many years ago.
It has a cool black & sepia prologue, a la The Beyond, and then the happy family move in and start to notice things are a little supernatural.  This isn't one of those super slow burns where you're an hour in and so far you've only seen a window close by itself.  There's a natural progression, but it isn't long before mysterious sounds and creeping mists lead way to direct attempts on the characters' lives.  The little girl gets possessed via her doll, and we start to get some serious Cathy's Curse vibes.  It's not totally over the top, but it doesn't waste our time trying to be overly subtle either.  We've got magical glowing medallions, people floating around in the air and driverless cars trying to run people down.  One of the leads, the older sister's boyfriend who comes to stay with the family, is Pedro Fernádez, a big pop and television star in his home country, who's definitely going for the teen idol vibe in these films.
I say "these films" because he's back in the next movie, Vacation of Terror 2.  For the first half of this one, I have to say I was enjoying it even more than Part 1.  Pedro is back but the original family is gone (I guess he ditched his girlfriend between films).  This time he falls for a cute young pop-star who happens to walk into his little shop.  He goes to see her perform her new single at a Halloween/ birthday party being held in a movie studio, when somehow another witch's ghost gets awakened.  This one really doesn't waste time getting into the action, there's a higher body-count, more creative special effects, people running around with guns, a catchy musical number (although the lyrics are either mistranslated or it's a very strange song), and this time the witch spends most of the film in physical form as a funky, hooded lizard monster.  Plus, this one's Halloween-themed with colorful decorations to throw you into the spirit of things.
By the second half, though, it started to get a little repetitive (monster attacks, heroes escape, monster attacks again, heroes escape again), and it started to run low on steam.  Overall, the original film probably wins out by virtue of being more grounded in a better story.  Plus, it's a little disappointing that no one goes on vacation during this entire movie.  haha  But there's definitely a good time to be had with this sequel.  The effects aren't exactly cutting edge in these films, but they're not no frills papier-mâché either.  These movies had real special effects teams that were clearly trying to compete with American films, and no, they didn't match the Hollywood greats, but they're as effective and entertaining as flicks like Demon Wind or Spookies.
And we get Pedro back one more time for the next film, Hell's Trap.  This is the weakest of the three films, objectively speaking; but I could also see it being many peoples' favorite of the Fernández trilogy, or even the whole set.  This one's more of a slasher as opposed to a supernatural affair, and yes, the killer's got a cool mask.  He's also got a crazy Freddy-like glove he breaks out for a couple kills.  But this isn't your typical teens unaware that they're getting picked off one by one scenario.  Here we've got two groups of teens who initially think they're hunting a bear before finding out there's a legendary madman stalking the woods.  But they figure it out fast, arm up and fight back.  Closer to The Final Terror than Friday the 13th, becoming even more of an action movie in the final act.
But just as an overall film, it is the weakest.  There's a really heavy-handed comic relief character, and all of the dialogue and plotting is kinda lame.  The other films were hokey at points, but work as your typical, catch it on cable TV horror flick.  For Hell's Trap, you're going to have a blast if you're the target audience looking for throwback slasher films, prepared not to overlook some flaws but embrace all the 80s slasher trappings.  Mainstream audiences will be turned off, although it moves at a good pace and the final act draws you in.  But overall, this is much more Code Red than Scream Factory, if you know what I mean.
But just as you start to feel like you've got a firm grasp on what the films in this set are like, everything changes.  Say goodbye to teen idol Pedro and welcome to the oeuvre of Rubén Galindo Jr.  He's written and directed all the rest of the films in this set, and he has decidedly different sensibilities.  Those first three films had kind of a upbeat, horror films are meant to be fun kind of energy.  Even Hell's Trap, which got a little nihilistic if you really stopped to think about it, still never took itself super seriously.  Galindo's films do.  He wants to scare you and impress you with his talents at the same time.  Cemetery of Terror is the first film you'll actually find yourself thinking, "oh, that's a good shot."  And they've brought in Hugo Stiglitz (Nightmare City, Night of 1,000 Cats) to play the lead!
This is our Halloween rip-off.  It's our second film set on Halloween night, with a group of teens and a younger group of trick or treating kids being menaced by a slightly supernatural masked killer.  The teens have stolen a body from the morgue and resurrected it as part of a Halloween gag (just go with it), but of course they unwittingly picked the most evil, unstoppable corpse possible.  And Stiglitz is unquestionably our Dr. Loomis, a slightly manic doctor who knows what's up and has come to town to try wake the local sheriff up and finally stop the monster.  Some nice kills, creeping around a cemetery and an old boarded up house at night, and even a magical book of the dead.  It's cooler than a lot of our native Halloween knock-offs, that's for sure.
Then Grave Robbers is pretty similar to Galindo's Cemetery.  Like Vacation of Terror, it starts with a cool backstory prologue, this time with a mad monk who's caught performing a Satanic sacrifice and buried alive.  Then some teens who like to rob graves for a living fall into his tomb and pull out the magical axe that was keeping him dead.  So you've got another evil, undead madman hulking around a cemetery offing everybody who crosses his path, and the local police, priest and teens need to work together to stop him before he manages to wipe out the whole town.  I think they're even using the same magical book of the dead prop from the last movie.
Our evil monk zombie guy wears a hood and lurks in the shadows with a big axe, executing some pretty nasty kills.  And there are a few supernatural twists added to the mix to keep things spicy.  Really, if you don't like this one, I think you just don't appreciate 80s horror flicks.  The special effects are cool, the killer is bad-ass, gore is flying, the score's effective and the pacing is pretty tight.  Okay, there's no great story at the heart of this thing; but it's one sweet set piece after another.  Trust me, dudes, this movie's awesome.
But Demon Rat, unfortunately, is the one film that doesn't fit in.  It's from the 90s, and more importantly, isn't any good.  I understand why it's here - it's another Rubén Galindo Jr film.  But where his other endeavors seemed to take their influence from the nightmarish works of Carpenter and Fulci, this time it's like he's aping a late 90's era Roger Corman production.  It's just a bad idea followed upon with bad execution that shows none of the artistry his previous two films did.  Yes, there is a demon rat in this film, but we only see it for about twenty seconds and it looks ridiculous.  It doesn't even really factor into the plot, which is really about a couple of goofily dressed clods standing around in a boxy apartment arguing about corporate ethics and the environment.  Oh, and it's set in the future, but looks like it was filmed in the past.  Like, the past even for the 80s.
We find a beautiful young teacher living in a post ecological disaster, where everybody has to wear gas masks whenever they're outside.  Every single scene in this film begins and ends with the characters checking a little pollution detector taped over their doors that let's them know when it's safe to take the masks off inside.  They get so much screen-time; it's crazy!  Anyway, meanwhile, her ex husband has taken over her father's corporation, which he makes secretly dump toxic waste in the local park.  It turns the local animals into oversized mutants, but the only one we encounter is the titular demon rat who takes up residence in the teacher's apartment and kills the exterminator.  But forget about that, because instead the story follows her new boyfriend who discovers what the company's up to, and the rest of the film is her boyfriend and ex-husband chasing each other around with handguns.  The plot is mind-numbingly dull, all anyone talks about is the pollution and the corporation, the cinematography is completely flat and uninspired, and the acting sucks.  Even Mystery Science Theater would have a hard time making fun out of this one, because so little ever happens on screen.
dubbed English version on top; subtitled version below.
Thankfully, things get right back on track for the final film.  Don't Panic is Rubén's Nightmare On Elm St. clone.  And if you're wondering how four flipper discs work out to seven films, it's because Crypt of Terror gives us two versions of Don't Panic, the English dub and original language version.  One runs about four minutes longer than the other, but I watched both all the way through, and the only reason one is longer is that one plays a tiny bit faster, like a PAL/ NTSC thing.  Content-wise, they're identical films.
dubbed English version on top; subtitled version below.
So yes, this film is definitely ripping off Nightmare On Elm St., right down to minor details, like the lead character's alcoholic mom who has a bottle in every scene, the father who won't believe, and the scene where they take our hero to a dream specialist and hook him up to a machine.  The only thing they leave out?  Oh, just the Freddy Krueger character.  Yeah, there's no crazed killer who can get you in your dreams.  But apart from that - exactly like Nightmare On Elm St.!  Well, there is a killer.  But the twist is, instead of him killing kids in their sleep, he kills them in the waking world, and our hero just happens to see through his eyes when he dreams.  So, a little Eyes of Laura Mars.  But he still has weird dreams right out of Nightmare, like the killer's face pushing out of the staticy television set or through a wall.  But while this film is another Galindo production, tonally, it feels much more like the lighter Pedro Fernádez entries, with this grown, curly blonde hair man running through the streets in his adorable dinosaur pajamas.  It's just some good, dumb fun.
dubbed English version on top; subtitled version below.
By now you've surely noticed that the two versions of Don't Panic have distinctly different looking transfers.  The English dub is darker, while the original language version is much brighter with heavily saturated colors.  Honestly, the ideal transfer would probably meet somewhere in the middle.  The one is too dark, but the colors are blown out in the other.  Also, as you can see in the last set of shots, both transfers are interlaced.  In fact, every film in this set is interlaced.  And, of course, they're all also fullscreen, though at least they look to be open matte.
Except maybe for Demon Rat.  That one doesn't have the egregious headroom and might be chopped on the sides.  Either way, it's a much worse looking transfer than the other films, which at least respect their filmic roots.  This one looks like it could be sourced from a video tape master.  But then, the director also seems to have added varying levels of a filter to every shot to make it look like there's "pollution" coursing through the scene.  So it's hard to tell exactly what flaw is to blame for what symptom.  Bottom line, though: it looks awful.

But on the plus side, every film in this set is presented in its original Spanish language with removable English subtitles, so we're not saddled with goofy dubbing spoiling the films.  Well, except for Don't Panic, where we get both options.  Don't Panic is also the only film in this set to have been previously released on DVD... by budget labels in the UK, and I believe those are both the dubbed version, meaning this is the first and only time it's been released on disc in its original language.
Grave Robbers - see?  They're all interlaced.
BCI released a couple of these titles in double-packs as well as this set.  There's a Crypt of Terror 2 with Cemetery of Terror and Grave Robbers, and a Crypt of Terror 5 with Don't Panic and Demon Rat.  They also threw Don't Panic (the dubbed version) into at least one of their budget 10 movie packs called Blood Chills.  If you're wondering, since those are 2 and 5, what are the other Crypt of Terror DVD releases?  Just some other random horror flicks they had the rights to, like Lord Shango and Land Of the Minotaur.  There was also a Crypt of Terror: Horror from South of the Border - Vol. 2 in 2008, but they just released generic dubbed versions of more common, public domain Mexican exploitation films from the 50s and 60s like The Wrestling Women Vs. The Aztec Mummy and Night Of the Bloody Apes, with sources that look more like the typical video transfers.
But Vol. 1 is a treasure.  It features all these films that aren't available anywhere else, all seemingly uncut, and most of which are a real kick.  There are zero extras of course, and fullscreen, interlaced standard definition transfers are hard to get excited for.  But these could've been a lot worse, especially since it's not like we have any other options.  Some of these flicks are so good, they should really be on blu-ray (Grave Robbers, I'm looking at you).  But they're not, so this set is it.  When it was new, this set was a budget release, too - the kind of thing you could score for just a couple of bucks.  Unfortunately, now it's long out of print and has to be found used for serious collector's prices.  But you can see why those in the know cling to their copies. 

1 comment:

  1. I've had Crypt vol 2 for a long time and think both movies on there are brilliant fun. Trouble is, you've piqued my interest in the others in this set so I've just tracked down a copy online. I bloody hate buying DVDs these days (Blu being my format of preference) but as you hint, I can't see these being upgraded any time soon. Anyway, kinda thanks (!) and looking forward to my copy hopefully winging its way from the States any week soon.

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