Wednesday, August 8, 2012
Gore Score:The 13 Greatest Horror Films Of The 1980s
The 1970s was a truly revolutionary period for the cinema, as the rise of the MPAA gave way to greater excesses of violence and sex. The horror film was one of the chief genres to benefit and the quieter and safer days of the Gothic horror classics were left lurching behind as the genre gave way to the slasher and gore film. This quickly became the predominant form of horror throughout the 70s, the advancement in special effects and on realism, meant that the newer breed of terror was going to be that much meaner.
Films like The Exorcist(1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre(1974), Alien(1979), Halloween(1978) and Dawn of the Dead(1978) pushed the limits and made the 1980s possible.
To be honest, the 80s was not exactly a golden age of terror. Few filmmakers had learned the lessons set by previous artists and chose to imitate and soon the genre become a commodity aimed primarily at teenagers. This was evident for decades, but most of the philosophical and intellectually based terrors of the 70s were mined for all the gore and exploitation elements and made that much poorer. Franchises were created out of characters, hardly strong enough to warrant them including Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, Halloween and Child's Play. A Nightmare on Elm Street would create the most popular boogeyman of the decade with Freddy Krueger, but it was often the presence of actor Robert Englund that lent these films what meager distinction they had.
The slasher film was like a blot on the genre, making the films increasingly predictable and brainless, though some gory offerings were still to be found with brains and creativity. Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead(1983) set new outrageous standards for cinematic gore with gleeful excess and a sense of humor. Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator(1985), likewise, offered audiences a gore-drenched, but pleasing amount of wit and creativity.
By far the greatest purveyor of grue in the decade belonged to David Cronenberg, who was able to meld his films with a level of complexity, seemingly lost on other filmmakers of the period. Films like Scanners(1981), Videodrome(1983), The Dead Zone(1984) and the remake of The Fly(1986), which saw the peak of the director's art, his exploration into "body horror," which he had begun in the mid-70s.
Several classic films were remade during the decade including the already mentioned, The Fly, but also John Carpenter's riveting remake of The Thing(1982), Paul Schrader's sexually driven, Cat People(1982) and the exciting, The Blob(1988).
These films were punctuated by impressive and sophisticated special effects, notably The Thing, with it's awesome transformation work by Rob Bottin. If anything can be said about movie horror in the 80s, this was the golden age of special effects. Rick Baker's groundbreaking work on An American Werewolf in London(1981) astounded critics and audiences so, that the film created a category for "Best Makeup" in the Oscars and several genre films would benefit, including Aliens(1986) and The Fly.
However, while the effects and makeup were generally more impressive than ever before, the vast majority of genre work lacked a soul and as a result, by the close of the decade, the genre was in severe trouble, being reduced to endless sequels and mindless teen versions of classic characters.
For many, the 80s is a nostalgic period, ironically, almost innocent, in comparison to the childish levels of sadism and torture seen in today's hack thrillers. The practical effects of the past have aged the films well, even those less deserving. While there were many notable offerings throughout the decade, there were only a select few that could truly be called classic. In some ways, that made compiling this list easier than before, though it still left a few guilty omissions. I actually cheated a bit on the list, tying two entries, but only because I could find no other way to satisfy my results. Again, this is not meant to reign as a definitive look at the 80s horror, but hopefully serve as a guideline to a selection of some of the more intelligent and creative offerings of the decade, and dare I say, classic examples of terror in the cinema.
1. The Fly(1986)
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz
Few remakes have successfully updated a classic as well as David Cronenberg's seminal 1986 version of the 1958 film. The original The Fly, is one of the best-loved films of the 1950s sci-fi/horror genre. However, the film also featured illogical science and a mixed emotional center, as well as campy moments(though I found the "spider scene" particularly grotesque.) It was at best, a minor classic of the horror film, even if it did unveil one of the most iconic monsters to emerge from the 1950s.
Cronenberg's version updated the story to deal with modern genetics and splicing, along with an emphasis on contemporary relationships, while working in a moving metaphor for disease and aging. Instead of the head-switch of the original film, the remake deals with how scientist, Seth Brundle(Jeff Goldblum) becomes a fly hybrid on a molecular genetic level, slowing devolving and changing as the film reaches it's gut-wrenching and tragic conclusion.
The basic premise, of a scientist who has developed a machine to transmit matter through space, is still evident, but the emotions are more prevalent than before, with the two lead actors, Goldblum and Davis as the unfortunate lovers, really forming the heart of the story and making this the most emotionally compelling of the decade's efforts. Goldblum delivers the most memorable horror performance of the decade as Brundle, offering levels of pathos and humor that rank him with the great screen gargoyles of the past. His "insect politics" speech is the height of Cronenberg's art and may be one of the finest soliloquies ever uttered in a horror film. Davis nearly equals him as Veronica, the reporter who entered his life and stays with him through his horrific ordeal. Her nightmare visit to a gynecologist(played by Cronenberg) is one of the most unsettling moments of any horror film, and this film has many, courtesy of Cris Walas' Oscar winning makeup effects that culminate in the ultimate transformation sequence at the conclusion.
The end of this film, with "Brundlefly," which the character dubs himself, lifts a barrel of a shotgun to his head for a final moment of pity is one of the most emotional moments in any horror film.
While incredibly violent and grotesque, The Fly is an undeniably brilliant film and one that was able to move past the confines of the genre and become embraced as one of the classics of 1980s cinema and perhaps, the finest horror remake yet attempted.
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Carrie Henn
The ultimate horror-action film, Aliens manages to be even more exciting than it's predecessor, offering a pace rivaled only by the same director's The Terminator(1984). This ultra intense film, focuses on the sole survivor from the first film, Ripley(played by Sigourney Weaver, who was Oscar nominated for this part) who is to act as an adviser for a marine squad that is to enter the same planet from the previous picture and eliminate the aliens, who have preyed on a team of colonists. Things go awry and it never lets up as the aliens play a cat and mouse game with the remaining humans, attempting to survive and get off the alien-infested planet.
Weaver sets a standard for action heroines, bringing the right amount of believability and toughness to make for the genre's most appealing action heroine, proving her mettle against that decade's many action stars. She was rightfully nominated and probably should have won, considering the depth she gave her performance, a rarity in such a film.
She's supported by a great cast, though, including Lance Henricksen as a a friendlier android than Ian Holm's in the original film and Michael Biehn as the soft-spoken Hicks, who eventually leads the remaining marines. Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein are also very memorable as fellow marines, Paxton delivering some of the most quotable lines of 80s cinema.
Cameron proves his worth as an action director par excellence, containing a breathless pace, despite the over two hour running time! The action sequences are many, but there's still enough characterization and a human element to make this work beyond mere escapism. And despite the action, this is still a wonderfully scary film, especially the nail-biter of an ending and the gruesome alien designs, including an alien queen that has to be one of the great contemporary horror creations.
It's a tough call to say if this is superior to the original, but it's expertly made and if it's not better, it's certainly in the same league, standing as one of the best sequels ever made.
3. The Shining(1980)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd
Much has been written about this film over the years, and it remains a largely divided and complicated film. Kubrick directs the picture in an abstract way, utilizing a mixture of subtlety, in it's use of sound and ominous camera angles and graphic violent images that are likely to confuse more than they terrify. The film works best as it plays on the growing mania of Nicholson as he becomes consumed by the environment and the supposed spirits of the motel.
It's not the best adaption of a Stephen King novel, not even close to the novel, but it's probably the most popular, chiefly for the key fright scenes and the two lead performances, for Duvall as Nicholson's wife is greatly underrated in this picture and really brings the film together on a more emotional level.
Flaws and all, this is still an essential, brimming with effective set pieces and a very suspenseful and frightening conclusion that will remain long in the memory.
4. A Nightmare On Elm Street(1984)
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon
Wes Craven unleashes the most iconic and popular horror character of the decade with this first entry in the immensely lucrative, Nightmare on Elm Street series, which became as the years wore on, a upscale Friday the 13th with better effects and scripts.
This first film is a highly effective and frightening film playing off the unexplored realms of dreams and of a killer who invades and kills children in there sleep. Craven handles the film with surprisingly sensitivity and restraint, being able to get into the teen psyche better than virtually anyone else of the period and gets a lot of mileage out of his largely unknown cast. Despite, what he would become later, Robert Englund's performance as Freddy Krueger is legitimately scary and intense, his sense of humor proving more disturbing and less comical than in later series entries. It's one of the great horror characters and Englund becomes a horror immortal with his performance as the demonic child murderer who preys on the children of Elm Street.
Many infamous scenes emerge from this picture, including a few notably grotesque deaths that include a young Johnny Depp's demise through his bed, which Freddy has thoughtfully transformed into a blender. The first death in the film was so extreme that the film was threatened with an "X" rating for it's gore and intensity.
The 80s was full of slasher films and most were of no real merit, but this initial entry should not be included among them as it is a stylish and creepy film with more atmosphere and horror than it's leagues of sequels and imitations would make one believe.
5. The Thing(1982)
Director: John Carpenter
Cast: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David
John Carpenter's remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks masterpiece, is nearly as good, wisely returning to the short story that the original was based upon, for inspiration. Carpenter utilizes the most sophisticated effects of the 80s to create one of the most frightening of movie monsters, a creature that can take the shape and form of anything on earth and beyond, becoming many nameless monstrosities in the process. The horrifying effects by Rob Bottin, are peerless and represent the zenith of cinematic accomplishment within the realm of terror, highlighted by a particularly grotesque(yet humorous) scene involving the survival of a head, which detaches itself from it's body and tries to escape!
However, what lingers the most are the atmosphere and dread that Carpenter creates, working on the aspect of isolation, as the men at an American Antarctica research base, fight to survive both the Thing and the harsh, bleak elements of an arctic winter. This is not a character piece like the original was, and it suffers slightly for that, but it may be that Carpenter's point was to depict these men as already cut off and paranoid and use the monster as a way to bring out tension and terror among the already edgy minds of the occupants of the base.
The film is certainly well-acted, led by Carpenter regular, Kurt Russell as the nominal hero and possessing one of the best casts of any 80s horror film, including Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart, Keith David and Donald Moffat. The Thing was a huge failure at the time of it's release, as it was released(stupidly) the same summer as E.T. In years to follow, it has since become a genre classic and is heralded as one of the best remakes ever made.
6. The Evil Dead(1983)/Evil Dead 2: Dead By Dawn(1987)
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Sarah Berry
While the sequel is superior, both Evil Dead films are important genre offerings that pushed the envelope for onscreen gore and dark humor. The first film was a legitimate "Midnight Movie" finding it's audiences through drive-ins and VHS in the early 80s. It's not a great film, with virtually no social agenda to speak of and is indifferently acted, but the enthusiasm inherent is what has made it last. Raimi's camera never seems to stop moving and becomes a character itself(literally) as demons infest a cabin with a group of young people, who quickly become fodder for slaughter and gore. Few films have shed as much blood as this one, but the excess is so great that it becomes comical, especially during a scene in a basement that fills up with the red stuff. The ending is one of the most grueling, over the top conclusions of any horror film ever made with a mixture of stop motion and other practical effects to achieve a particularly sickening effect.
Bruce Campbell isn't much in the first film, but he became a star nonetheless and something of a folk hero for B cinema, which was forever cemented in the sequel, Evil Dead 2, which is actually something of a remake of the first film.
In this one, Ash(Campbell's character) returns to the cabin(or the previous events are recreated without the other characters, save his girlfriend) and he has to battle the demons again, which have been unleashed from the Necronomicon(a great nod to H.P. Lovecraft) and even has his own hand infected, which he lops off and replaces with a chainsaw! This is even more outrageous than the first film and twice as funny, with ridiculous amounts of gore and violence and a rapid-fire pace that, much like the demons in the film, just never lets up. This was followed by a third film, the hugely popular, Army of Darkness(1993), one of the most oft-quoted films of the modern era.
All three are essentials in any horror fan's monster library, with the second being the best of the lot, though the first still packs enough primal power and energy to make it run circles around today's poor excuses for "horror" films. "Groovy."
Director: Stuart Gordon
Cast: Jeffery Combs, Bruce Abbott, David Gale
The best H.P. Lovecraft adaption made, yet this bears virtually no resemblance to his actual work! The film borrows pieces from his novella, Herbert West-Re-animator, and the setting is at Lovecraft's Miskatonic University, but the similarity ends there, as this is much too grotesque and depraved to appeal to the gentlemanly Lovecraft.
Jeffery Combs is unforgettable as Herbert West, a manic med student who has a formula for instilling life into the dead, which he previously tested, unsuccessfully, on a professor in Switzerland in the beginning. His formula does indeed resurrect the dead, but it also has a nasty habit of making them violence-prone and insane, for it appears the dead hate the living! West gets his roommate, Dan Cain(Bruce Abbott) involved and eventually they end up resurrecting the Dean of the college(Robert Sampson) and the decapitated head of the amoral, Dr. Hill(David Gale, in a wicked performance) who ends up stealing the serum and Dan's girlfriend, Meg(Barbara Crampton) which, in the most infamous scene of the 80s horror film, sexually molests.
The film is a completely over the top wild ride, punctuated by twisted, irreverent humor and a sense of fun, despite the gore and splatter on display. This was a huge success on video and led to a few sequels as well, though none approached the demented depths of this first film. Combs' mad scientist is one for the ages, bringing to mind, memories of Peter Cushing, in his ice cold determination to resurrect the dead. Peppered with a zany script("Who's going to believe a talking head? Get a job in a sideshow!") and a wonderful cast, this is one of the great mad science films.
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, Heather O' Rourke
A roller coaster ride of a ghost picture, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist combines the thrills and chills of a good haunted house movie with the awe and wonder that producer Steven Spielberg, made his stock and trade. The combination makes for a wonderful piece of escapism as a family is besieged by angry spirits who kidnap a child(Heather O' Rourke) and hold her on "the other side." Many scares ensure, including some particularly graphic moments for a PG film, like a man peeling his face off(!) and an incredibly tense and shocking conclusion, part Lovecraft and Dante. Clown phobics often cite this film among the ones that terrified them most for a very creepy clown toy that just happens to find a life of it's own and much of the imagery is(wisely) cribbed from childhood anxieties and fears, many of which still continue to give adult viewers the shivers and upset younger audiences, for which this is a perfect gateway picture into horror.
Part of what makes it work is the human element present. Hooper makes the family believable and identifiable early on, making the later demonic goings on, that much more powerful and terrifying and it's this element that is often missing from current spook shows like Paranormal Activity(2009), which pales in comparison to the timeless scares offered here. Plus, few horror films could hope to measure up to the amount of fun present with this exciting and thrilling picture.
9. The Howling(1980)/An American Werewolf In London(1981)
Director(S): Joe Dante/John Landis
Cast: Dee Wallace, Christopher Stone, Patrick Macnee/David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne
I personally prefer The Howling, but critical opinion has been divided over these two titles since the get-go, and I felt compelled to tie the two pictures as I believe both are based on equal merit. Both films were revolutionary in establishing new techniques for special makeup effects, An American Werewolf in London winning the award for 1981 for it's incredible transformation sequence. Rick Baker and Rob Bottin's pioneering work is still wondrous to behold and dances circles around the poorly executed CGI of today's motion pictures. Of course, both films are more than just effects pictures and that's why they have survived.
The Howling is more successful with it's humor, Dante poking fun and paying homage to many past werewolf films, including naming his characters after directors of werewolf films. He also establishes a mood and intensity that has been rarely been rivaled, especially towards the conclusion. Dee Wallace is a sympathetic lead and proves that she should be remembered for more than just, "E.T.'s mom," as she visits a commune for werewolves and is stalked by a lecherous and cunning werewolf played wonderfully by Rob Picardo, complete with sick humor. Elisabeth Brooks is probably the cinema's sexiest werewolf, playing a seductress that lures Wallace's husband to the dark side, transforming into wolves while making love, one of the most memorable moments of the 80s horror film.
An American Werewolf In London also pokes fun at older horror films, especially in it's opening, which is a jab at the Universal horror films, as David Naughton and Griffin Dunne fall prey to a werewolf on the moors. Naughton survives and is told by Dunne's ghost that he will become a werewolf. This unique turn, combined with bizarre nightmare sequences(including a riotous attack by Nazi Werewolves!) makes this a very different experience.
The humor is often too broad, but Dunne is perfect as the increasingly decomposing friend and his easy-going humor, even in death, make the character fun and memorable. Naughton is also fine as the distraught and tragic werewolf, though he is not served well by one of the most abrupt and weakest endings in a horror film. Still, Landis directs this well, including a nail-biting chase through a metro station and the beginning on the moors, ranking among the most suspenseful in any horror film.
Both are hugely popular and deserving of genre immortality, especially for the impact and influence they had. If anything was learned from these two films, the 1980s was kindest to the lycanthrope.
10. The Changeling(1980)
Director: Peter Medak
Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas
Chilling and highly underrated horror film, evokes the classics better than any other film offered that decade. It's story tells of a pianist(George C. Scott) who had lost his daughter and wife in a tragic accident and now takes residence in an old mansion, where spirits seem to haunt. This leads to a revelation that acts as one of the most horrifying and terrible in any horror film, offering screen veteran, Melvyn Douglas, a poignant part as a man horribly linked to tragedy and terror.
The Changeling is one of the scariest movies a viewer is likely to find, complete with the most memorable seance scene, this side of The Uninvited(1944) and an explosive ending of apocalyptic proportions. It's a rarity of the decade, as this is actually a sensitive, thinking man's horror film designed for adults in mind and treated as such, complete with a mature cast, led by Scott in one of his best and under-analyzed roles as the beleaguered occupant of the haunted house, determined to solve the mystery of why a spirit continues to walk the earth and torment him. It's a sad and dark little movie, but with more payoff than dozens of other horror films, made in like fashion, but with less heart and emotion. One of the great ghost movies.
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: James Woods, Deborah Harry, Sonja Smits
Bizarre and grotesque film that has to be the definition of "acquired taste" is also one of the most brilliant and disturbing genre films made. Cronenberg focuses his story around our collective addiction of sex and violence, as represented by a TV Executive played by James Woods, who gets turned on to a program called "Videodrome" that specializes in sex and violence and is basically a snuff show. Prolonged exposure to this show begins to change Woods, who grows something resembling a cassette deck in his stomach and ends up with a gun molding to his hand, as it's eventually revealed that the program was meant to eliminate the sick from society, but ultimately fashions him into a pseudo-assassin.
Woods is brilliant here and this may be his best performance as a man consumed by his own immorality and eventually driven to another world, which in typical Cronenberg fashion, takes him towards a rather fatalistic route, with his infamous last words, "Long live the new flesh."
Cronenberg's commentary on society is still relevant here and could easily be applied to the internet and reality television, just the same, remaining one of the most important films of the decade for it's philosophical and ultimately, nihilistic message. This was not a big hit and it's amazing that this was actually backed by a major studio, but it has since received the acclaim it deserves, even ending up as part of the Criterion Collection on DVD. This remains one of Cronenberg's most memorable journeys into the fears of the flesh.
12. Near Dark(1987)
Director Kathryn Bigelow
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Lance Henricksen, Jenny Wright
Clever update of the vampire story, transplants it to the American southwest for a sort-of modern day western take on the bloodsucker. Adrian Pasdar plays a naive farm boy who falls for a pretty young girl(Jenny Wright) who turns out to be a vampire and turns him, but cannot bring herself to kill him. So, he becomes a vampire and has to travel with a group that calls themselves, "the family" and threaten that if he does not kill, he will be destroyed himself.
The vampires depicted are not the suave, sophisticated types of yore, but rather, grimy vagrants, the outlaw version of the undead. Lance Henricksen is phenomenal as the leader of the pack, bringing his usual quiet menace and he's matched by Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton, all three reuniting from Aliens(1986).
Director Bigelow, handles the directorial chores, much like her ex-husband, James Cameron, by focusing on quick violent action and a rapid-fire pace that does not let up, leading to a terrific climax and final chase through the desert.
This film was not a huge success and was virtually unknown for years, overshadowed by bigger films like Fright Night(1985) and The Lost Boys(1987), but this was the better of the three and the most creative, and even, the more influential, it's story of innocent love and punk vampires stilling being a part of vampire lore today.
13. The Dead Zone(1984)
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Martin Sheen
For my money, this is the best Stephen King adaption, as it was able to capture the right amount of emotion and character to help lift this above the label of a horror film. The Dead Zone is a very different film for Cronenberg, as it is less concerned with special effects and gore, than it is with a poignancy and tragedy. Christopher Walken was never better as Johnny Smith, a young man who suffers a near-fatal car crash and ends up in a coma, where he has gained mysterious powers that allow him to see in the future. One of his visions involves a man(Martin Sheen) who is running for President and holds the key to mankind's destruction.
The film is a powerful drama, the horror being of loneliness and of knowing too much and being powerless to do anything about it. The Dead Zone is a story about fate and how we may still have the ability to change the future, and in that way, it's optimistic, yet throughout, this is a bleak and depressing film. Walken's character loses everything, including his fiance(Brooke Adams) and their love scene together, ranks among the most poignant in a horror film.
This is a strangely undervalued film, for reasons unknown. It's a well-written and insightful picture and yet again, displays Cronenberg's talents for approaching difficult subject matter and being able to present it in an intelligent and open way. It's no surprise that this is his third film on the list.
The 1980s was a wild ride for the horror film. It saw some of the goriest and most depraved films ever made, but fewer classics than previous decades. This was not necessarily an easy list to do, as none were, but it was relatively simpler when one looks at the other nominees. The only guilty omission here is probably, Fright Night(1985), which may have been the funnest horror film of the decade and a wonderful homage to Dracula and Hammer horror films. That one is a classic of the decade and is certainly an essential, but what else is?
I suppose, Return of the Living Dead(1985) could have been worthy, with it's dark comic script and manic zombie creations, which helped make it the best zombie film of the decade. George Romero's Day of the Dead(1985) was interesting, but too uneven to be qualified as a genre classic. The same can be said for the various slasher films, most of which are below any form of consideration. Of the franchise titles, Hellraiser(1987) was a minor classic, but not wholly successful, lacking a strong emotional center, while the Friday the 13th and Halloween sequels would never even be considered.
It's no surprise that the genre began to fall apart by the decade's close, as the films got sillier and more juvenile, turning the once great genre into a parody of itself. The 90s would be no less harsh, but the arrival of a sophisticated cannibal and the return of the world's most famous vampire, would certainly help bring respect back to the fledgling horror film and a revival would soon be at hand.