Friday, October 09, 2020

Nightstream ’20: Shock Value How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror

Everyone associates the USC film school with George Lucas--and that's probably just fine with the admissions officer. The film program played a pivotal role facilitating late 20th Century sf cinema, thanks to THX 1138, which led to Star Wars. However, USC alumni were also instrumental in the development of contemporary horror, particularly John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon (who wrote Alien and directed the cult classic Return of the Living Dead). Inspired by Jason Zinoman’s book, Dino Everett assembled five short student films helmed by O’Bannon, Carpenter, and their USC colleagues (as well as some tantalizing audio fragments from a lost Carpenter film) in the program Shock Value: How Dan O’Bannon and Some USC Outsiders Helped Invent Modern Horror, which screens on-demand as part of the online genre festival, Nightstream.

Shock Value starts with O’Bannon, but some might not consider Blood Bath exactly horror per se, even though it definitely has its grisly parts. The crimson-tinged tale of suicide motivated by boredom and accidentally executed through negligence is mostly memorable for O’Bannon’s muttering voice-over dialog. It is easy to see why his classmates would have loved it, but it feels like a one-off joke in retrospect.

However, it is followed by one
Shock Value’s major revelations. Charles Adair’s The Demon is most definitely a horror film, but viewers could argue which subgenre. Helen Stone has just moved to an isolated farm house with her husband John, who seems to be gas-lighting her. Yet, there really seems to be an ominous “Demon” watching her. Whether he is a psycho or a zombie or whatever hardly matters.

Maurishka’s performance as the terrified Stone is truly haunting, something like a somewhat more resilient Barbara from
Night of the Living Dead. Despite the minimal budget, The Demon is further distinguished by its stylishly surreal look. Frankly, the way Adair masterly instills a sense of evil foreboding suggest he might just be a terribly overlooked horror auteur.

Good Morning Dan is an unusually eccentric dystopian film, in which the title character is forced by Big Brother to reminisce over some incredibly awkward moments from his life feels very much like a product of its trippy time. However, the music composed by Ben Model (in 1968) and Frank Meyer (in 2006) is distinctively funky.

Expectations might be high for John Carpenter’s
Captain Voyeur (from 1969), but it is really more of a quick and twisted gag film. Yet, there are scenes of skulking through alleys and around houses, from the titular perv-perp’s POV, that foreshadows his classic Halloween. (We can only guess what Lady Madonna could have been, but the religious themes hinted at in the surviving audio extracts make us what to revisit Prince of Darkness.)

Shock Value’s second great revelation is considered a direct and formative influence on Carpenter’s breakout slasher. By now, the story of Terence Winkless & Alec Lorimore’s Judson’s Release (produced in 1971) sounds quite familiar. A psycho fresh out of an institution (played by O’Bannon) fixates on Julie, a teenager babysitting alone. Nevertheless, this is a tense film that looks terrifyingly realistic. While it is widely thought to have influenced Halloween, it also predates When a Stranger Calls, both the short film and feature, which “shares” a key twist with Winkless & Lorimore’s film—you know, where the calls are coming from.

Indeed, it is a baffling cosmic injustice that
Judson’s Release is not constantly revived for midnight screenings and Halloween programs. O’Bannon is creepy as heck as the greasy “Breather.” Mary Burkin should be considered a classic “final girl” for her work as Julie and Stephanie Smith is memorably grounded and unglamorously down-to-earth as the supervising telephone operator.

The Demon and Judson’s Release could be two of the most historically significant and scariest horror shorts that ever screened. They are a little rough, because they were student films, but that makes them feel real, which makes them profoundly unsettling. Every horror fan should see them. It is also fascinating to watch early work from O’Bannon and Carpenter, the genre masters. Very highly recommended, Shock Value screens on-demand through next Wednesday (10/14), as part of Nightstream.