Sometimes, I watch 80s horror flicks that are classics in my mind, and get totally bitch slapped when I discover just how easy I was to please back when I was a teen hungry for more and more slashers. As my “80s slasher vaults” series continues, I look at three favorites that are only saved by strong final acts.
HE KNOWS YOU’RE ALONE (1980)
Directed by Armand Mastroianni, who went on to direct The Supernaturals, Cameron’s Closet, and various episodes of TV shows Tales from the Darkside and Friday the 13th: The Series, and most remembered for the fish tank scene, He Knows You’re Alone opens strong, with a killer targeting a couple making out in the backseat of a car (the guy is horror stud Russell Todd of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Chopping Mall).
As good as the scene is, we are dragged away from it …because it’s just a movie being watched in a theater! Doubling the fun in the cinema, a suspenseful sequence with our first victim goes from the restroom right into the theater—all of which was pretty much re-imagined in Scream 2.
After that, the movie gets into weird chick flick territory. Our main girl is Caitlin O’Hearney (of Savage Weekend, and recently reinstated into horror with a role in Late Phases). Her fiancé (a hottie who was also in 80s slasher Girls Nite Out) is off to a weekend bachelor party. Once he’s gone, Caitlin questions her decision to marry him while going to ballet class, going for a wedding dress fitting, going for ice cream, going jogging, and going to an amusement park. YAWN.
So where’s the horror and suspense? Our main girl occasionally sees a man in black. Of course every time she looks again, he’s gone—like when he appears in the bushes outside her window (where have I seen that before?). On the plus side, the killer is pretty damn creepy – I’m pretty sure the constant focus on his eyes throughout the film is stolen directly from Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast.
Unfortunately, his backstory is weak as fuck. After the opening kill, scenes of the investigation (which include Paul Gleason of The Breakfast Club as a detective) are interspersed throughout the film but do nothing to explain why the killer becomes fixated on the main girl. He has a “jilted at the altar” backstory, but he doesn’t even know the main girl is about to get married when he first begins stalking her, and there’s no motivation behind him killing the people in her life, which he does every so often with simple knife slits and jabs.
Meanwhile, the main girl’s charming ex-boyfriend (the guy who played Al Pacino’s gay neighbor in Cruising) pops up every time the killer does. He’s trying to convince her that they’re meant to be together, and their adorable chemistry is so obnoxious we’d like to imagine he is actually a jealous psycho. We’d also like to think that her girlfriend suddenly hooking up with Tom Hanks (only months before he started doing drag in Bosom Buddies) means something sinister, especially since he talks about Psycho and sexual stalkers. But his scene could have been cut from the film and made no difference to the story. Since we see the stalker from the start, there are no red herring here.
So what’s good about He Knows You’re Alone?
The final chase scene is pretty much all you’ll remember. Our main girl sees a human head in her fish tank, runs to her car crying “The Keys! Where are my keys?” (where have I heard that before?), drives off, and discovers the killer is on top of her station wagon (where have I seen that before?).
She makes it to the morgue where her ex-boyfriend works, and the chase continues until the hokey “the bride killer is still out there” final frame.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME (1981)
Wonderfully scandalous because it featured little Mary Ingalls (aka: Melissa Sue Anderson) in a sleazy slasher, Happy Birthday to Me is adored for several kick ass kills and the awesome birthday party at the end.
Directed by J. Lee Thompson, who did the fantastic original Cape Fear as well as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the film runs a ridiculous hour and 50 minutes and feels like a bad 1970s made-for-TV thriller holding a great 80s slasher captive. I would totally shave about 30 minutes off to just get to the good parts. So much extra time is wasted with long scenes of motorcycle races, soccer matches, and other pointless filler that does nothing to enhance the whodunit structure.
Again we have an awesome opening. 80s horror queen Lesleh Donaldson (Funeral Home, Curtains, Deadly Eyes) gets the only chase scene in the damn film, and it rocks. Then we we meet Melissa Sue and her friends, a bunch of entitled pricks at a private school. Melissa Sue is still grieving the loss of her mother, and sees a therapist (veteran actor Glenn Ford of the classic film Blackboard Jungle). She often visits her mother’s grave, which appears to be right near her house like the grave of some dead pet.
Aside from an oddly out of place static electricity scene in a classroom, the daily activities of Melissa Sue and her friends are so fucking boring. The kill scenes, aside from being inventive, aren’t all that exciting either. Each victim knows the killer we never get to see, so there’s no fear as death approaches. One dude has his scarf tossed into the spokes of a spinning motorcycle tire.
You look really tired.
Another dude gets a weight plate dropped on his dick while bench pressing.
“No! Don’t slip it on that barbell!”
Another involuntarily deep throats a shish kebab….
As the body count slowly rises, the plot gets increasingly convoluted as Melissa Sue begins to think she’s going nuts and perhaps murdering all her missing friends. But at the last moment, the hour and forty minutes of yawns come to a screeching halt when we get a flashback of what happened to Melissa Sue’s mom (which gives us a good giggle), we arrive at the macabre birthday party of dead guests, and then one twist after another is heaped on so that we don’t even question how anyone could be so amazing at practical makeup effects that even their closest friends could be fooled.
It’s so worth sitting through the end credits for the creepy birthday theme song.
EYES OF A STRANGER (1981)
Even though it’s directed Ken Wiederhorn (Return of the Living Dead II, Shock Waves) with special effects by Tom Savini, this one feels more like a made-for-TV thriller than Happy Birthday to Me, especially considering the star is Lauren Tewes, our beloved cruise director Julie of The Love Boat.
Lauren plays a news reporter who becomes convinced that the weird guy in the apartment building across from hers is a serial rapist/killer she reports about nightly. So she begins spying on him, following him, sneaking into his apartment, and eventually, harassing him with anonymous “I know what you did” calls. Don’t you miss the days when that stuff was so easy to do?
Anyway, the killer makes obscene phone calls, visits strip clubs, stalks women on the street, and kills with pretty average techniques for the time period. The big moment in the kill department is when he decapitates a guy and leaves his head in a fish tank. Nope, not kidding.
So what’s so special about the final act that saves Eyes of a Stranger? Jennifer Jason Leigh. A year before her breakout role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she appeared here as Lauren’s deaf and blind sister. Once the killer figures out Lauren is on to him, he targets Jennifer. In a chilling scene that works simply because Jennifer is phenomenal (you’ll really think she is virtually shut out from any sensory perception), the killer totally fucks with her while she’s trying to prepare a meal in her kitchen—pulling dishes big shocker here is that the final fight isn’t even between our star and the killer.