In the world of the modern horror movie, audiences get bored quickly with standard slice-and-dice killings and filmmakers are constantly trying to think of new ways to dispatch their characters. There seems to have always been a competition to come up with the most creative and inspired deaths, from the early slashers like Friday the 13th and Happy Birthday to Me to the modern Final Destination and Saw series of films. Imaginative murders combined with ingenious special effects have helped filmmakers recycle the same plot over and over again, yet still turn out interesting and entertaining movies. In 1978, a British film called Terror introduced audiences to several new ways to die on celluloid, and horror movies have been trying to keep up the pace ever since.
Terror starts right off with a witch hunt, a woman being captured and burned at the stake, cursing revenge on her accusers the entire time. This is quickly revealed to be a film within the film, a movie made by James Garrick (John Nolan from Batman Begins), a film producer, who tells the roomful of people to whom he’s just shown the film that it depicts the true events of his family history. After the film, a party guest named Gary (Michael Craze, who played Ben Jackson in “Doctor Who”) hypnotizes James’ cousin Ann (British television beauty Carolyn Courage), who promptly takes a sword off of the wall and tries to kill James. She is stopped and taken home, having no memory of the incident. Of course, the party guests start dying in gruesome, mysterious ways over the next few days, prompting James and Ann to think that their ancestor’s curse has come alive to wreak vengeance on them and their friends.
Cult director Norman J. Warren (Inseminoid, Alien Prey) made Terror hot on the heels of his masterpiece Satan’s Slave from a script written by the same writer, David McGillivray (Schizo, Cover Up). Warren takes a page out of Italian director Dario Argento’s textbook, making a modern classic, a ghostly gore-filled schlockfest. The film is dark, but Warren makes great use of bright, primary colors to give the movie a less gothic, and therefore more modern, feel. Terror also contains a lot of tension- breaking humor, with false scares and ridiculous situations. There’s even a scene where the characters mistake dripping, bright red paint for blood, which, of course, is soon replaced by real blood in an obvious bit of foreshadowing. Even with the chuckles, Terror is far from a comedy. With great makeup effects by Robin Grantham (An American Werewolf in London, Xtro) and a spooky synthesizer score by Ivor Slaney (Alien Prey, Terror Street), Terror aims to shock and scare.
Although Terror is a simple supernatural thriller with a relatively small body count, the film doesn’t lack in carnage, bloodshed or gore. Each kill scene is so ludicrously choreographed, it seems like the victim dies several times before they are actually done in. For example, in one of the best scenes, one of James’ filmmaking partners, a fellow named Phillip (James Aubrey from Lord of the Flies and The Hunger) gets caught in a film storage room. Suddenly, shelves and room fixtures start flying around the room, pummeling him in the process. Then, film rolls begin jumping out of their canisters and attacking him, an image that is reminiscent of the growing braces scene from Poltergeist 2. But wait! That’s not what kills Phillip…he escapes by backing out of the room and falling down a case of stairs. At the bottom, he crashes through a window and, still alive but dazed, stares up at the broken glass above him. Finally, Phillip is put out of his misery, predictably beheaded by falling shards of glass in the shattered pane. It’s a scene that could have come straight out of any one of the Final Destination movies, but it predates the series by more than 20 years.
Another curiosity about Terror is a bit part by Peter Mayhew, better known as Chewbacca from the Star Wars films. Fresh off the first performance of his career-defining character, Mayhew plays a mechanic who provides a red herring scare about halfway through the movie – don’t blink, his part is easy to miss.
Slasher films, and even supernatural horror films, were nothing new in 1978. Audiences had already been scared by bloody murder movies like Psycho and angry spirit movies like The Haunting. When Terror came along, it upped the ante and made sure that the golden age slasher films had to be much more creative with their killing.