Can any self-respecting child of the 1980s recall the horror movie that opened on Halloween weekend of 1984?
No, it wasn’t “A Nightmare on Elm St.” or “Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter” (the year’s top horror movie hits). It was a clip-heavy, one-of-a-kind oddity called “Terror in the Aisles.”
Released decades before clickbait and YouTube videos would categorically explore genre movie-related issues, “Terror in the Aisles” claimed to offer a maximum experience in fright by offering some of the scariest moments in cinema history, assorted by theme or monster-type.
It proved to be a failed experiment. Simply showing scary scenes with, in most cases, zero context doesn’t work (more on that later).
Yet as a time capsule of ’80s horror, when slasher movies were running dry, Fred Krueger was right around the corner and genre flops “The Thing” and “The Fury” had yet to find proper appreciation, it’s a valuable recap for horror hounds.
Or, more to the point, subscribers to Horror Hound and Fangoria.
After a few minutes, scenes from “When a Stranger Calls,” “Halloween,” “The Exorcist,” “The Birds,” “Psycho,” “The Seduction, “The Omen,” “Friday the 13th part 2,” Night of the Living Dead” “The Eyes of Laura Mars,” “The Shining,” “The Brood” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” flash over the screen. They all tie together in a montage of antagonists trying to enter the house plays over openings credits.
As the opening credits fade, “Terror in the Aisles” takes us into what appears to be one of those sleazy Times Square theaters, the kind where your sneakers stick to the floor.
Our narrators (both visible onscreen and, in some cases, only heard) are Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen, both with tongue in cheek but neither cracking a smile. The scripted narration isn’t especially deep, but it keeps us engaged, particularly through the game delivery of our hosts.
As both offer observations both obvious and semi-sharp, the clips play out and are delivered in unspecified categories-
We get the it’s-only-a-cat fake-outs from “Friday the 13th, Part 2” and “Alien” and a nice contrast in special effects by seeing the transformation scene from Lon Chaney’s “The Wolfman” giving way to “An American Werewolf in London.”
A section on Hitchcock is as good as any serious, full-length examination of his work (though using a scene from “Halloween” to illustrate his example of suspense seems off, even if John Carpenter’s film owes much to Hitchcock).
Sections on “The Villains” shows clips from “Strangers on a Train,” “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” “The Silent Partner,” “The Fury,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Shining” “Vice Squad” and “Marathon Man.” Even when the assemblage of clips seems random, they’re still exhilarating when they come so quickly and unveil so many iconic moments.
Emphasis is placed on “Nighthawks,” “Vice Squad” and “Midnight Express,” a forward-thinking touch of how not all horror films fit under the conventions of the genre.
The film loses some of its focus, and fun, when emphasis is put on the sleaze of the likes of “Lipstick.” Allen’s observation on how women are mostly the ones victimized in these movies is made loud and clear before we see clips of rape and beatings.
It wins us over by two final great montages, one set to a goofy song about monsters, another a riveting, quick collage of climaxes.
There’s a stunning moment that suggests forward-thinking and a queasy nod to the fears of post-screening violence (notably the recent paranoia that “Joker” could inflict in-theater violence); Following telekinesis-themed segments from “Carrie,” “Scanners” and “The Fury,” Pleasance notes, “We all carry around a certain amount of resentment and rage, because we can’t let it out. In the movies, we can.”
Scary scenes shown out of context don’t have the effect they’d normally possess. A few clips of “Jaws” and “Jaws 2,” for example, inadvertently address this.
Sure, the skill in which these scenes were staged is visible, but who are these people? Who is Roy Scheider? That initial beach attack in “Jaws” is more stomach churning because Sherriff Brody’s worst fears are being realized. Taken apart from that, the moment is still powerful but considerably less so without the full context.
A remarkable quality of “Terror in the Aisles” is that it involved financial cooperation and considerable clearances to assemble. It features clips of movies from 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers, MGM, Universal, Paramount Pictures and dozens of indies.
Rival studios working together wasn’t miraculous at the time. Today, with studios buying entire rival studios to gain franchises or long-running franchises changing hands every 10 years (the “Terminator” series) the moment feels unique.
“Terror in the Aisles” wound up grossing $10 million, which is sensational for a film mostly composed of pieces from different movies. It opened at number two on its opening weekend, second only to director James Cameron’s “The Terminator.”
Most film critics mocked it, though it has a small cult following. Yet, it also remains in relative obscurity: a minor DVD release led to it being available as an extra on an out-of-print “Halloween II” Blu-ray.
Viewed as either a historical remnant of film history, ’80s kitsch or fodder to play in the background of a Halloween party, it offers an additive kick. For those just getting into classic horror films, this will prove frustrating and too-spoiler-heavy.
For die hard horror fans, particularly of ’80s genre films, this is lots of fun.
By beginning with Carol Kane’s fearful phone call in “When a Stranger Calls” and concluding with Leatherface slamming the door, “Terror in the Aisles” knows its audience. This pseudo documentary amusingly explores the elements that congeal to create their most vivid nightmares.