January is traditionally known as a cinematic graveyard, so it’s only appropriate that our local cineplexes are kicking off 2013 with something as death-obsessed as Texas Chainsaw 3D, the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending saga of the cannibalistic lunatic Leatherface and his equally depraved family — and the most recent in a growing list of slasher flicks to make use of Hollywood’s on-again, off-again fascination with 3D technology. Of course, we couldn’t help thinking of some previous entries in the genre, and you know what that means — it’s time to Total Recall, 3D horror style!
1982’s Amityville II: The Possession was something of a critical dud, but it still managed to top the box office. The audience’s reward was 1983’s Amityville 3-D, which fast-forwarded past the previous installment’s prequel storyline and completely departed from the original film’s putatively fact-based mythology. This time out, the haunted house at the core of the franchise is purchased by a professional skeptic (Tony Roberts), who (barely) lives to regret his foolish insistence that there isn’t any supernatural funny business afoot on the premises. Also filled with regret: The critics who wrote up Amityville 3-D, including Janet Maslin of the New York Times. “The cast is good,” Maslin reluctantly admitted, “but the characters are idiots.”
A classically constructed “damsel in distress” creature feature with the bonus of 3D effects and a slight narrative twist (some of the poor woman’s would-be rescuers are just as repellent as the gilled-and-taloned antagonist), 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon thrilled the audiences of its day — and it remains a favorite for modern scribes like Slant Magazine’s Steve MacFarlane, who credited its director’s sure-handed style for its enduring success: “What distinguished Jack Arnold’s pictures from mutant spinoffs/knockoffs is even more imperative to sci-fi today than it was in 1954: wonderment.”
The first few installments in the Final Destination series earned a little extra critical love — and no small amount of box office success — thanks to their knack for dispatching their young victims with devilishly ornate, Rube Goldberg-worthy setups. But by the time 2009’s deceptively titled The Final Destination rolled around, not even the addition of 3D effects could rejuvenate the franchise’s fortunes with scribes who were getting tired of watching fresh-faced teens get the axe (and the scythe, and the shower curtain, and the exposed electrical wire, and…). Jake Wilson of the Age cast a dissenting critical opinion, however, arguing that “The characters are crash-test dummies, with dialogue to match. Yet Eric Bress’ script is mockingly self-aware, framing the film as the ultimate example of violence as entertainment.”
“They saved the best for last,” boasted the tagline for the sixth entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series — and even if this 1991 slasher did not ultimately live up to its poster’s wishful thinking, give the producers points for trying, as well as for trying to put the proverbial nail in the coffin with what was supposed to be the franchise’s final installment. Of course, Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was just a temporary conclusion for the Freddy Krueger saga, but with a somewhat more sprightly script and some inventive 3D effects, it would have provided a satisfying coda for critics like the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington, who sighed appreciatively, “So long, Freddy, it’s been good to know you.”
A number of horror franchises caught the 3D bug during its re-emergence in the 1980s, but none of them were still as commercially viable as the Friday the 13th movies, which was just hitting its stride when Part 3 slashed its way to the screen in the summer of 1982. The in-your-face effects didn’t help make the movie any more appealing to critics, who were just as dismissive as ever — as Eric D. Snider put it, “It’s in three dimensions, and all of them suck” — but the audiences kept coming, and while Part 3‘s storyline was every bit as formulaic as any other entry in the series, it did boast some of the more inventively filmed 3D effects of the era.
Never mind the Paris Hilton-assisted 2005 remake — for 3D fans as well as horror aficionados, it’s all about 1953’s House of Wax, starring Vincent Price as the demented, wheelchair-bound proprietor of a wax museum whose grand opening coincides with a rise in local graverobbings. Directed by André De Toth (who, ironically, had only one good eye), Wax was the most financially successful of the 3D horror films made during the 1950s, but audiences weren’t alone in loving it; it’s also earned the admiration of critics like the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr, who argued, “The effects are done with playfulness, zest, and some imagination (they range from a barker batting paddleballs in your face to a murderer leaping from the row in front of you), making this the most entertaining of the gimmick 3-Ds.”
Given the titular great white shark’s gruesome demise at the end of Jaws, a sequel seemed narratively unlikely — but box office grosses demanded more aquatic terror, so Jaws II surfaced in 1978. And even though no one from the original cast would agree to come back for more after that, Universal remained interested in more Jaws — to the extent that the studio even briefly entertained a spoof sequel titled Jaws 3, People 0. It sounds ridiculous, but it probably couldn’t have fared much worse than 1983’s Jaws 3-D, which starred Louis Gossett, Jr. as an unscrupulous water park manager whose focus on the bottom line prevents him from understanding that he and his guests are in danger of being swallowed up by — you guessed it — a giant shark. “Put in a baking tray, gas mark 7, and enjoy a turkey,” recommended Time Out’s Derek Adams.
Plenty of people dislike Valentine’s Day, but the pickaxe-wielding antagonist of 1981’s My Bloody Valentine took things to the next level — and his gorily irrational hatred of our annual celebration of love made the movie a natural fit for the cheapie horror reboot/remake craze of the aughts, leading to 2009’s enthusiastically brutal My Bloody Valentine 3D. The storyline was essentially the same — small mining town finds itself under attack from a crazed psychopath — but the improved visuals may have given the new-look Valentine a critical boost with scribes like Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times, who credited it with blending “cutting-edge technology and old-school prosthetics to produce something both familiar and alien: gore you can believe in.”
Wes Craven’s legacy as a horror movie maven is beyond compare, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been responsible for his share of clunkers — and 2010’s My Soul to Take, which found him emerging from a lengthy hiatus to write and direct his first horror film since 1994, is one of the most bitter critical and commercial disappointments of his career. Nonetheless, a few scribes found a dash of redemption in this 3D slasher, which follows the slightly convoluted saga of a killer whose multiple personalities are somehow transported into the souls of premature babies on the night of his murder; as Simon Abrams put it for Slant Magazine, “That Craven is earnestly trying to make an on-the-level, snark-free horror flick signals a welcome sea change in his career.”
Rather loosely adapted from George Romero’s 1968 classic, Night of the Living Dead 3D was made without official permission or participation from anyone involved with the original — and although it did add a third special-effects dimension, that wasn’t enough for filmgoers, who mostly ignored it, or for the critics who greeted this chapter in the ongoing zombie franchise with almost unanimous disdain. One exception was Luke Y. Thompson of the L.A. Weekly, who enthused, “As a 3-D zombie flick on the big screen, it offers something new and fun: Zombies, breasts and copious joint-passing coming right out of the screen.”
A career footnote for Demi Moore, who nabbed her role here just as she was starting out on General Hospital, as well as for slumming effects wizard Stan Winston, the little-seen Parasite helped kick off the early 1980s 3D revival with a breathtakingly silly sci-fi/horror hybrid about a dystopian future (set in 1992!) in which a scientist (Robert Glaudini) unwittingly cultivates a gross parasitic worm with a taste for the human stomach. While it’s become a minor cult favorite in certain circles — Film4 calls it “somewhat of a classic, admittedly for all the wrong reasons” — most critics had no use whatsoever for Parasite, with Time Out’s Geoff Andrew describing it by writing, “Uninspired actors intone a banal script, reduced by clumsy pacing to a minimum of suspense.”
1972’s Joe Dante-directed Piranha is one of the more critically respected entries in the creature feature genre, so when word got out that Alexandre Aja would be restarting the franchise — in 3D, no less — the reaction from many film fans was somewhat less than positive. Happily, 2010’s Piranha 3D turned out to be that rare exploitation flick whose cheerful embrace of cheese yielded surprisingly entertaining results, largely thanks to a wildly eclectic cast that included Christopher Lloyd, Ving Rhames, Jerry O’Connell, and (as Hollywood’s most unlikely sheriff since Suzanne Somers) Elisabeth Shue. Cheerfully shameless in its pursuit of over-the-top gore and gratuitous nudity, it earned thumbs up from critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, who enthused, “It’s hard to imagine how scenes of mass dismemberment set during a wet T-shirt contest could be staged any better.”
An annual Halloween tradition for the better part of a decade, the Saw series finally made the jump to 3D with its final (for now) installment, 2010’s Saw 3D. While it would probably be a stretch to say that many Saw fans really felt the franchise was crying out for an added dimension — or, that after six previous chapters, that the markedly grisly series truly needed to continue — the saga concluded with another 92 minutes of death and dismemberment that made the audience feel like it was truly part of the picture. (Hooray?) Perhaps looking forward to the sagging box office fortunes that seem to have put a stop to the series, Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir sighed, “I’m grateful that I (presumably) never have to see any more of these ever again.”