This year's 12 Hours of Terror horror-movie marathon Saturday at The Belcourt, sponsored (and partially selected) by the Scene, is not just a chance to see seven great horror films. It's also the opportunity to experience firsthand the horror trope of being trapped in a confined space with others while terrors surround you. Who will survive until the end? Who will show up unexpectedly once the ordeal has begun? And who will be the first to have the popcorn and drink specials turn upon them?
There's only one way to find out the answers to these questions and more. Fortunately, the lineup for this year's fest is one that will motivate any horror fan worth his Shock Cinema subscription to hang tough until the last credits roll.
The Burning (1981) would be interesting just as an example of one of the better slasher films that ripped their way into theaters and drive-ins in the wake of 1978's original Halloween. But a look at the credits reveals it as an all-purpose Trivial Pursuit answer for early 1980s horror. Produced by Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein and co-written by Dimension's Bob Weinstein (from a story concoted by Harvey and future Paramount chief Brad Grey) it was one of Miramax's first releases and features the screen debuts of Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens and Holly Hunter, along with full-court-press gore effects by Tom Savini. It's a tale of third-degree burns and throat-ripping garden shears that sets the gross-out bar high for the rest of the program.
Next up is Messiah of Evil (1973), part of the wave of interesting low-budget horrorshows spawned by the Cinderella success of Night of the Living Dead and the Satan-could-be-your-neighbor ethos of Rosemary's Baby. Written and directed by the married team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, whose credits include American Graffiti, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck (a nightmare of a different variety), Messiah of Evil falls into a group of fascinating polyester-era horror films, like Let's Scare Jessica to Death, that defy easy categorization. But it delivers plenty of shocks, plot twists and an always welcome appearance by everyone's favorite portrayer of weaselly lowlifes, Elisha Cook Jr.
It's hard now to imagine the impact that the one-two lupine punch of Joe Dante's The Howling and John Landis' An American Werewolf in London had in 1981. At a time when the horror pictures filling theaters were mostly teenage body-count fests or Alien rip-offs, here were two dramatic reimaginings of an iconic monster from Universal's golden age. Landis' slantwise retelling of the tragedy of the Wolf Man still connects with viewers in a way that rivals Lon Chaney Jr.'s indelible turn as the doomed lycanthrope. Today it too looks like a classic, capped by groundbreaking and totally non-CGI effects from Rick Baker.
Italian director Mario Bava's 1971 Bay of Blood (better known as Twitch of the Death Nerve, one of its many aliases) starts off as a seemingly conventional giallo crime thriller with the requisite mysterious killer, black leather gloves and violent deaths, but soon breaks loose from that conventional formula to produce the granddaddy of all slasher films. The body count escalates as the cast is dispatched with spears, axes and strangulation, leading to one of the most flabbergasting twist endings in horror-film history. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan!
Brian Yuzna's directorial debut Society (1989) is the day's ultimate gross-out test, with an ending that should challenge the most iron-clad stomach. A sick, sick satire about a kid who discovers the gruesome secret underlying his wealthy enclave's perpetual privilege, the film is loaded with the gonzo black humor and go-for-broke depravity that marked Yuzna's producing collaboration with Stuart Gordon on Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). Not to be missed, especially in the uncut print that The Belcourt has corralled.
All recovered from the end of Society? Brace yourself for Lamberto Bava's gorefest of demonic contagion, Demons (1985). The son of Bay of Blood director Mario, Lamberto Bava lives up to his family name in an action-packed killfest produced by horror auteur Dario Argento, in which patrons trapped in an old movie theater fight off highly infectious and hungry demons. Any resemblance to reality will be purely coincidental ... we hope.
Finally, rounding out the day is a new entry in the roll call of cinematic horrors, director Joseph Kahn's Detention, making its Nashville premiere. Self-financed by Kahn and starring Hunger Games teen idol Josh Hutcherson, Detention made its debut to rave reviews at the 2011 SXSW. Just trying to read its dense and convoluted plot synopsis on Wikipedia is enough to induce Manhattan Project-scale headaches, as its story involves teen angst, time travel, taxidermy, bear fellatio, a masked slasher with an awesome roller-derby name (Cinderhella) and a cement-mixer load of metafiction. It sounds like a movie that can only be experienced, not adequately described.
Tickets are $18 or $14 for Belcourt members, available online at belcourt.org or at the box office.