The Haunted House of Jeff Szpirglas: Looking Back at Terror In The Aisles

They say you never forget your first.

(You know I’m talking about horror movies, right?)

For me, it was catching a portion of Jaws 2 under the babysitter’s watch, effectively traumatizing me for the next several years. But if we’re talking about the real gateway film, the one that opened up a path to a lifelong passion for the macabre and the terrifying, that prize goes to 1984’s Terror In The Aisles, first screened in that sweet spot around the onset of puberty, when my taste for Star Wars soundtracks suddenly took a left turn for Alice Cooper records.

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Traditionally, Aisles hasn’t fared well among critics, and perhaps with good reason. Aisles is a compilation movie composed from bits of other horror films up to around 1984, when it was released. Many of these come directly from the Universal films that dominated the genre for years, but are primarily the 70s and early 80s (and which probably explains why there is a disproportionate amount of footage from the Universal thriller Nighthawks, starring Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer, and which is not remotely a horror film). Essentially a series of spoilers, Aisles was designed to distill the most shocking sequences of horror films for maximum scares. But disassociated from their respective texts, this greatest hits compilation lacks a coherent lift. Its pleasures are primarily piecemeal, particularly if you’re a genre fan who likes to see your favorite sequences intercut in interesting ways. Who wouldn’t want clips from Alligator, Frogs, and Saturday the 14th cut together in a music video called “They’re Not Very Nice?” (Chances are, anyone who’s tuned out from this article by now.) Largely forgotten, even its blu-ray release was simply a tacked-on bonus feature at the end of Halloween II.

But Aisles did something instrumental for my 12 year-old self. By delivering so many shock sequences out-of context, it helped me to deconstruct pretty much the entire gamut of American horror films before I began to experience them in their entirety. By the time I encountered, say, Marathon Man, Rosemary’s Baby, or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I’d already internalized the best sequences. Instead of being scared, these movies felt like a homecoming of sorts. It was through network television that I discovered the remainders of these movies. But the irony is that network censors often sliced and diced the very sequences that Aisles showcased, such as Alien’s chest-burster, or half of Linda Blair’s rants from The Exorcist.

The internet now provides instantaneous access to basically every movie at your fingertips, either in tiny clips or full feature via Netflix, YouTube, or its ilk. This means that you won’t see the likes of Terror In The Aisles Part 2 any time soon. Still, as I watched Aisles for the umpteenth time, the movie has a few things going for it:

1. Donald Pleasance is THE MAN.
He’s the narrator and star of the linking footage set in a movie theatre. Co-host Nancy Allen doesn’t seem to know what to do with her material, looking like she’s reading her lines off cue cards. But here Pleasance shows why he’s a genre legend with an iconic voice ranking with the likes of Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, and Christopher Lee. Pleasance could read a phone book and make it sound compelling.

When I had to deliver my grade 7 oral communication speech, it was essentially a summary of the movie’s key points, delivered in my best approximation of Pleasance, sans British accent.

2. John Beal’s score rocks the house.
This holds up remarkably well, forming the glue that joins these random clips together. For years afterwards, I missed hearing Beal’s pulsing Halloween-esque score with the actual movies that Aisles references. Case in point: Beal’s underscore for the werewolf transformation from An American Werewolf In London actually manages to outdo the satirical use of “Blue Moon” that John Landis chose to underscore the sequence with.

(Fun fact: my second cousin Joel Rosenbaum provided additional music and orchestrations.)

3. The clips are extremely well edited.
If Aisles excels at anything, it’s proving how prototypical many of these films are, given the number of sequences from horror films in which victims lock themselves into houses while deranged killers/monsters/birds stalk outside and try to break in. The opening credit sequence, for instance, establishes a surprisingly consistent cinematic space, which is astounding given that it’s taken from diverse as Halloween, The Exorcist, Psycho, The Birds, and Night of the Living Dead.

4. The moviegoers in the bridging sequences are hilarious.
As a 12 year-old, I figured that the extras who scream, laugh, and react to the various movie clips were a pretty authentic cross-section of adulthood. But they’re a pretty grubby bunch of 18-35 year-olds who are so stereotypical of the 1980s that you want to cheer them on as they freak out at the movie. Best of all is the dude with serious five o’clock shadow and a biker’s jacket who comes into the darkened movie theatre wearing sunglasses. Rock on.

Now, I’m not saying that you owe it to yourself to track Aisles down online or via the Halloween II disc and give it another chance. But there are unique pleasures that come with Terror In the Aisles that make it worthy of perusal. And possibly 900 words on Biff Bam Pop.

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