As FrightFest 2023 gets underway, we look back and recreate the first annual Shock Around the Clock film festival in 1987, the place where it all started.
It was 1st August 1987 and horror fans from all over the country congregated at London’s legendary Scala Cinema Club for what promised to provide all the depraved delights they could take in one 24-hour period…the first annual ‘Shock Around The Clock’ film festival. The event was a collaboration between two publications, City Limits & Shock Xpress, and organized by the editor of the latter, Stefan Jaworzyn, and Alan Jones, the film critic for Starburst magazine and correspondent for the iconic Cinefantastique. There were already several major film festivals celebrating horror and the fantastic in Europe. The Sitges Film Festival had been running in Spain since 1968 and the Avoriaz Film Festival in France since 1973, but there was nothing like them in the UK. The Scala was already a well-known venue for fans of horror, exploitation and cult movies, programming countless essential double bills, and had already presented a series of all-day/all-night film marathons dedicated to genre films, but ‘Shock Around The Clock’ was the first to present a line up of films new to UK audiences.
As the latest annual FrightFest is about to get underway in London, I thought it would be interesting to take a look back and recreate the entire lineup of films programmed at the first ‘Shock Around The Clock’, look again at the movies, see how the schedule panned out and how well the festival’s selection of titles stack up all these years later. All this was actually done on the 1st of this month, the 36th anniversary… inelegant I know, but what can you do?
So the doors have opened, fanzine editors are pushing their wares, and people are taking their seats… let’s begin.
The first film up… Larry Cohen’s A Return To Salem’s Lot, starring Michael Moriarty as an anthropologist who takes his difficult teenage son with him back to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot to renovate the house left to him by his dead aunt. Naturally, the place is crawling with vampires, but he discovers that what they want is to go mainstream, and they try to persuade him to write their Bible for them. He is initially tempted by the thought of what this could do for him, but when they start to lure his son into the world of the undead, he begins to have serious doubts about their intentions. The film is only a very loose sequel to Tobe Hooper’s original TV movie, and while Larry Cohen was a genre icon at the time, this is definitely the work of the Full Moon High Cohen rather than the bold auteur behind films like God Told Me To & Special Effects. Moriarty is good in the lead, there’s some offbeat humour and an early role for a young Tara Reid, but it’s veteran director Samuel Fuller who steals the film as a Nazi hunter (or is that killer) who is just as enthusiastic at dispatching vampires. The blend of comedy and horror was typical of many films from the period, not the greatest film but it’s an entertaining way to kick off the festival.
Next up, a surprise feature called Salvation! (aka. Salvation! Have You Said Your Prayers Today?) which was probably off people’s radars as much then as it is now. After getting fired, a working-class schlub and his wife concoct a scheme in which her daughter will seduce a popular TV evangelist in order to blackmail him into hiring the wife as his co-presenter. Director Beth B was part of the no-wave/punk scene in New York directing The Offenders, The Trap Door & Vortex with her husband Scott B before writing and directing this solo effort, and while the satire about televangelism and its growing influence in Reagan’s America may seem heavy handed, its portrayal of them as a bunch of self-serving hypocrites still has weight. Though Salvation! was released theatrically in the UK before coming out on VHS it is almost forgotten now, but looking back at it, the cast is striking. The film features early roles for Stephen McHattie and a then unknown Viggo Mortenson who would appear together again 18 years later in David Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence (Mortenson would make another pre-fame appearance at ‘Shock Around The Clock 4’ when Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III was screened) but here they are both essentially support for Exene Cervenka, the female vocalist in the LA punk band X in her only lead acting role. Dominique Davalos playing the daughter appeared as one of the Cherry Bombs in Howard The Duck the previous year. As of this writing, Salvation! has just 206 views on Letterboxd suggesting that the exposure afforded to the film by the festival seems to have been of little benefit, but this may all be about to change because, in a bizarre coincidence, Kino has just announced the release of a restored blu ray edition in the US. It’s definitely worthy of reappraisal.
Back to the billed lineup, we have American Gothic (aka Hide and Shriek). A young woman who has just been released from a psychiatric institution following the death of her baby heads off on a vacation with her friends only to get stranded on an island when their plane develops engine trouble. The only other inhabitants are a family of religious zealots and the clash of values soon spills over into murder. The director John Hough had some impressive horror credits behind him in going into this including Twins Of Evil, the underrated The Legend Of Hell House and Disney’s The Watcher In The Woods (a key piece of eighties kindertrauma). Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly mediocre film, but one with a surprisingly starry cast. Rod Steiger is entertainingly maniacal as the patriarch (he made this around the same time as The Kindred which was a lot more fun), Yvonne De Carlo (best known for playing Lily Munster in the classic TV show The Munsters) & Michael J. Pollard give adequate support, and Sarah Torgov does some pretty good staring in her role as the troubled final girl. It’s best described as a cut price The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but that comparison does it no favours. The poster design spoofing Grant Wood’s title painting is still the most memorable thing about this one and time has done nothing to improve things.
Into the fourth film on the schedule now and the festival kicked up several gears with the première of author Clive Barker’s directorial début Hellraiser. It’s a film that doesn’t really require a recap. The cenobites, the lament configuration, Pinhead… it was the birth of a franchise. In the context of Eighties horror cinema, this was something of a treat for audiences, and its blend of sex, gore and sadomasochism still holds up today. It’s also surprising in different ways, like how briefly Doug Bradley’s iconic character is in the film, how early in the film he is revealed, and that the character is actually unnamed, credited simply as lead Cenobite. You also forget how much the film is about Julia and her desires and how central Claire Higgins’s performance is to the film’s overall effect. It was the festival’s first classic, though audience reaction at the time was more muted than you might expect. This was probably down to the ‘shock of the new’ feeling the audience experienced. Nevertheless, Clive Barker was mobbed by fans afterwards.
The screening of Hellraiser was originally followed by a celebrity panel discussion, something I couldn’t recreate for obvious reasons, and there is also no Scala cat at my event, but in the interests of historical accuracy, I have re-staged the appearance of the latter.
After the era-defining shocks of Hellraiser, a lot was going to be asked of the next feature in the festival’s lineup to keep the high quality going, but Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather was just the film for the task. Ruben had made the popular sci-fi horror hybrid Dreamscape several years earlier, and The Stepfather appeared to be his take on the slasher movie, but while the film does flirt with the subgenre, it is considerably more nuanced and unsettling than the vast majority of the other psycho thrillers released in the Eighties. Terry O’Quinn gives a career-defining performance as the psychopath in search of the perfect family who pragmatically murders them when they fail to live up to his ideals. In his new family, everything seems idyllic and only his stepdaughter (cult scream queen Jill Schoelen in an early role) suspects that he isn’t all that he seems. Based on a screenplay by Donald E. Westlake (best known for writing the ‘Parker’ novels under the pseudonym Richard Stark) what was surprising about The Stepfather at the time was its restraint, the uneasy sense of dread giving way to startling bursts of violence. Even then, it’s the quiet moments like when O’Quinn utters the chilling phrase, “Who am I here?” that scare the most. O’Quinn was equally impressive as a different kind of psycho the following year in PIN, and would reprise his The Stepfather role in Jeff Burr’s 1989 sequel.
Moving into the all-night phase of the festival, we have Jim Muro’s Street Trash. I can only imagine what it was like to experience this screening back then. Set primarily in a junkyard, you could almost describe this as an exploitation remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den. It’s remarkably tasteless with jokes about rape, necrophilia and post-traumatic stress, it’s technically brilliant with spectacular and colourful splatter effects – the result of characters ingesting a sixty-year-old hooch – and features great Steadicam work courtesy of the director. Muro did the same thing for Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage the same year and would go on to become one of the most in-demand Steadicam operators in Hollywood. Credited as J. Michael Muro he worked on several James Cameron and Oliver Stone movies, L.A. Confidential, Michael Mann’s Heat, Dances With Wolves and the original Point Break to name a few. He was also the cinematographer on the underrated TV police series Southland, directing seven episodes himself, but Street Trash remains his only feature directing credit. I personally think it’s an exploitation classic, but there are dissenting voices. It apparently blew the roof off the Scala when it was over. And I didn’t even mention the torn off penis.
After that run of three strong features, the second surprise film turned out to be A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: The Dream Warriors. A group of teens in a psychiatric institution are being terrorised and killed in their sleep by a still vengeful Freddy, and only the new intern Nancy believes them, having sort of bested the dream demon in the first film. This third instalment in the franchise always struck me as a major accomplishment at the time and the audience reaction at the screening was very enthusiastic, but of the festival’s core quartet of classics, this is the one I found disappointing to revisit. The imaginative practical special effects are still impressive, the supporting cast are appealing and it was good to see Heather Langenkamp back as Nancy, but these elements aren’t enough to obscure just how thoughtlessly bad the ending is. Even more shocking is that the script is the work of Wes Craven, Frank Darabont and director Chuck Russell. Ironically it’s the much-maligned 1985 sequel A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge that has actually improved over time. Now more than ever, it’s Jennifer Rubin’s dream punk Taryn who steals the film in an all too brief role. Chuck Russell’s remake of The Blob the following year holds up much better than this.
It’s the early hours now and time for the eighth feature, Kevin Tenney’s Witchboard. After some playful fooling around with a Ouija board at a party, a demonic entity begins to target a young woman masquerading as the spirit of a young boy and killing anyone who gets in the way. Witchboard was never a great film, but it was always a pretty entertaining one, and a large part of why is down to Tawny Kitaen. She had previously appeared in Just Jaeckin’s comic book movie Gwendoline and opposite Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party but was best known at the time for appearing in several music videos for the band Whitesnake. It’s an appealing performance, and the film suffers when she isn’t on screen. Kathleen Wilhoite is also entertaining as the wacky medium who spectacularly fails to address Kitaen’s demonic problem.
The penultimate film… The Lamp (aka. The Outing). A group of teens decide to spend the night in a creepy museum unaware that a Genie has just been released from an ancient lamp, and he’s not the Robin Williams fun and hijinx type of Genie. Directed by Tom Daley, this is a prime example of the kind of generic teen horror the Eighties were awash with. The characters are dumb, the visual effects are hopeless and apart from the scene in which a mummified corpse rips out the throat of one of the teens, the practical gore effects are non-existent. It’s a bad film with no nostalgia value.
It’s early morning now and the inaugural ‘Shock Around The Clock’ draws to a close with another mystery film, a retrospective screening of Richard E. Cunha’s 1957 B-movie She Demons*. A group of shipwreck survivors end up stranded on an island inhabited by an array of foxy native women, but soon discover the island is also a refuge for a group of Nazis on the run after the war, headed by a scientist who is using the native women to perfect a surgery that will restore his wife’s beauty after an accident destroyed her face. The central idea sounds a lot like the plot of George Franju’s masterpiece Eyes Without A Face, but Cunha’s film actually pre-dates it by two years. Rudolph Anders’s devious Nazi doctor is obviously inspired by Josef Mengele, but the character is really just a bargain basement Doctor Moreau. The rest of the male cast is pretty bland, but Irish McCalla, best known for playing Sheena in the 1954 TV series Sheena, Queen Of The Jungle is a knock-out. After the Video Recordings Act got rid of those thirty or so contentious titles that were the focus of tabloid hysteria, the requirement that all videos be classified by the BBFC resulted in a whole raft of uncontentious older films like She Demons being removed from store shelves. It’s hard to believe now, but outside of rare TV screenings, this would be one of the only ways to see this film back in the Eighties. Now it’s on YouTube. The retrospective slot made a reappearance three years later and with much greater success, with a screening of Herk Harvey’s lost sixties classic Carnival Of Souls. Then again, it wasn’t screened at seven in the morning to a mostly comatose audience.
Despite its popularity, ‘Shock Around The Clock’ only ran for four years, but there were some memorable moments along the way. In its second year, the festival closed with a real genre nail bomb, Jorg Buttgeriet’s infamous Nekromantik, with stories swirling that the organisers had been driving around with the actual film print to avoid it being seized prior to the screening, a story that proved oddly prophetic when several years later, German authorities tried to seize and destroy all prints of Nekromantik 2. There was a wobble in 1989 when the planned screening of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre had to be pulled from the ‘Shock 3’ line, but it was also the first place people saw George A. Romero’s classic Monkey Shines, and Brian Yuzna’s unforgettable Society was the surprise feature. Maybe the greatest treat for horror fans was at ‘Shock 4’. The festival had moved to a new home that year at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road, and the lineup of films was also very strong, but it was also the year Dario Argento was the special guest, there to introduce a screening of Two Evil Eyes. I made it to the festival that year, and for the very young horror fan I was back then, it was a fantastic day. I was wrecked by the end of it.
And then it was over…
The festival went out on a high but was much missed. A decade later, Paul McEvoy who was enthusiastic about what ‘Shock Around The Clock’ did collaborated with Alan Jones on what would become the first annual FrightFest, initially at the Prince Charles Cinema but later expanding out to multiple venues. You’ve probably heard of it… you’re probably there.
* – Just prior to the screening of She Demons, the projectionist apparently screened the original hardcore trailer for Stephen Sayadian’s adult classic Café Flesh, a Scala favourite back then usually double-billed with Curt McDowell’s Thundercrack. Fortunately, the audience seemed too tired to care. The trailer itself seems lost to the ages.
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