Friday, October 25, 2013
Top 10: '80s Horror! (#50-41)
We're halfway through the list with a week to go until Halloween, meaning I'm going to be racing to finish on time. It's funny how I started this as a less time-consuming project with the intention of writing a few sentences for each film. I guess once you get me started talking about, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 or The Lost Boys, it's hard for me to stop.
Anyway, on to the next ten:
50. Cujo (Lewis Teague, 1983)
Stephen King mentions Cujo as often as The Shawshank Redemption or Stand by Me when asked to name his favorite adaptations of his work. This seems odd at first, both because Cujo isn't a particular fan favorite and because this is coming from the guy who insists that Kubrick's The Shining sucks. But I can understand King's affection for Cujo, a brutally efficient and unpretentious adaptation of one of his darker books (though, in opting not to kill a major character, the movie's considerably less grim). If the rabid St. Bernard in the book could be read as either a metaphorical manifestation of familial angst or a literal reincarnation of The Dead Zone's Frank Dodd, in the movie he's as much a force of nature as the shark in Jaws. The filmmakers do a great job of making a wet dog fearsome, which can't have been easy in the pre-CGI days, as well as getting the maximum claustrophobic effect out of the Ford Pinto that Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her son Tad (Danny Pintauro) are trapped in for much of the film's second half. Wallace's believably terrified, desperate performance is a huge part of the film's effectiveness is well. Cujo is essentially a subtext-free scare delivery machine, but when it's done this well, sometimes that's more than enough.
49. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)
A childhood favorite for many of us that actually holds up. It's funny how, when I was a kid, The Monster Squad seemed like an epic-scale movie, only to discover as an adult that it's 80 minutes long, modestly budgeted and briskly paced. Such is the way a movie like this can play on a kid's imagination. It's basically The Goonies with monsters, but unlike The Goonies, it's enjoyable for people who didn't see it when they were five years old. It helps that the kids in The Monster Squad aren't constantly talking over each other, but I think a lot of it has to do with the offbeat details that director Fred Dekker and co-writer Shane Black sprinkle into the film. Dracula calls a four-year-old girl a "bitch," Frankenstein's monster becomes an E.T.-like friend to the kids (with Tom Noonan giving a typically committed performance), and there's an out-of-nowhere but weirdly fitting reference to the Holocaust. I also love how straightfaced and weirdly credible the movie's approach to the concept of kids fighting an all-star team of monsters is - when the main character assembles the others and basically says "Guys, here's the deal. Dracula's back, and we've got to stop him," you believe the kid. Stan Winston's creature effects and the gorgeous scope cinematography also help a great deal - Dekker and his crew never condescend to their subject, making a potential B-movie feel like an A-movie. If you've been reading my list so far, you probably don't need me to tell you why The Monster Squad is awesome; if you haven't seen it, it's ideal Halloween viewing, a great Valentine to any horror-loving kid (or kid at heart).
48. Possession (Andrzej Zulawski, 1981)
Possibly the most disturbing movie on this list, one that I wasn't actually sure if I liked or not for a long time after seeing it. Possession is about a man (Sam Neill) who learns that his wife (Isabelle Adjani) has abruptly fallen out of love with him and is abandoning him and their son. Trying to find out what happened, he first discovers that she had an affair with another man, then discovers her ongoing affair with a slimy, tentacled creature (designed by Carlo Rambaldi, who would next create the titular character in E.T.) who lives in a loft where she brings other men for the creature to feed on. Subtract the fact that this movie involves Isabelle Adjani having sex with an octopus monster, and it's still very unsettling, from the bleak Cold War-era Berlin locations to Adjani's frightening, full-tilt performance to the horrifying scene where her character experiences a sort of alien miscarriage in a subway station. Now add on top of that the fact that this movie features ISABELLE ADJANI HAVING SEX WITH AN OCTOPUS MONSTER. There's more involving doubles and identity shifts, and the movie gets more and more frighteningly absurd as it reaches its climax. Zulawski wrote the movie during a very painful divorce, and this movie does touch a nerve in how it uses genre tropes to depict the experience of realizing you do not really know the person you thought you knew best. It's abrasive and even alienating at points, but for the brave soul who sticks with it, it's a rewarding experience.
47. Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin, 1981)
I first saw Strange Behavior as the second half of a double bill, with Dawn of the Dead, at the Harvard Film Archive. I knew almost nothing about the movie, which turned out to be a great way to experience it. What starts as a slasher, with a masked killer knocking off kids in a small town, turns into bizarro sci-fi/horror involving secret experiments and mind control. It's a hybrid of '80s and older horror movie tropes, and it works wonderfully. First-time director Michael Loughlin and co-writer Bill Condon achieve a very unique tone - it's funny without ever veering completely into horror-comedy, made funnier because everyone involved keeps a straight face. That the movie was shot in New Zealand but with a mostly American cast gives it a surreal quality, like a dream of small town America, as does the typically hypnotic Tangerine Dream score. And how can I not love a movie that makes such great use of Lou Christie's "Lightning Strikes"?
46. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)
I read a book a few years ago, the name of which escapes me now, which was a collection of essays about horror movies by various prolific writers in the genre. One thing that stood out was that several different writers cited Jacques Tourneur's Cat People as a high point of the genre, discussing the bus scene and the swimming pool scene at length. Most of these writers slammed Paul Schrader's remake for showing what Tourneur and Val Lewton suggested, referring to the old adage that, in a horror movie, what you don't see is more frightening than what you do see. Putting aside the excellence of the original Cat People and the fact that the aformentioned adage is often true, this traditionalist bias has always irked me, as if there were one correct way to make a horror movie (or any kind of movie). It's true that Schrader's Cat People isn't much interested in the kind of subtle scares that made the original work, but what it loses in subtlety, it makes up for in pure batshit insanity. This is a movie where Nastassja Kinski periodically wanders through what appears to be a prog rock album cover depicting a world ruled by leopards, impeccably designed and accompanied by a Giorgio Moroder score. Kinski is a descendant of these leopards who, she discovers, must mate with her brother (Malcolm McDowell) in order to further the race. Kinski would rather sleep with a zoologist played by John Heard, but risks turning into a leopard and ripping him to pieces if she does. As this is directed by Paul Schrader, it's all caked in sex, sleaze, cocaine and Calvinist guilt, with lots of gratuitous nudity and an S&M-tinged ending that is both enjoyably kinky and extremely problematic in what it seems to be saying about post-women's movement gender roles. The whole movie's problematic, but in a good (or at least extremely entertaining) way; Tourneur's film remains a masterpiece, but Schrader's reminds us that there's a lot to be gained by showing everything. And, of course, it gave us this.
45. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (Tobe Hooper, 1986)
My best friend and I rented The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 the day after we'd both watched The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for the first time, and we both agreed that it was pretty terrible. I imagine (and the letters to the editor pages of late-1986 issues of Fangoria back this up) that it must have been alienating and disappointing to most fans of the original when it was released. Instead of the first film's unbearable tension and snuff film-like atmosphere is a dark comedy about the perils of the small businessman that trades horrifying implied violence for cartoonish amounts of gore. When I watched it again knowing what to expect, however, I got a huge kick out of it and realized why Hooper decided to go in that direction. There was no point in trying to replicate the intensity of the first film, as he was never going to match the shock of the new, so why not cast Dennis Hopper as a chainsaw-wielding Texas Ranger and Bill Mosely as Leatherface's brother, who has a partly exposed steel plate in his head and rants about opening a theme park called Namland? If that doesn't amuse you, stay far away from TCM2, because there's a lot more of that. It's also surprisingly smart and ahead of its time in its understanding of the sexual politics of slasher movies. There's a scene in this that is the likely origin of the line "Fuck me gently with a chainsaw" in Heathers, a scene that I laughed at in disbelief when I saw it but, upon revisiting it, realized the laughs were a lot more deliberate and pointed than I first realized. And I know this is a familiar refrain at this point, but the soundtrack kicks ass.
44. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)
1981 produced two great werewolf movies (possibly three - I barely remember seeing Wolfen, but it has its fans). We'll get to the other one eventually, but while The Howling is, for me, the less scary of the two, there's still plenty to love about it. Based on Gary Brandner's novel about a small town populated by werewolves, John Sayles' screenplay turns the town into a colony for devotees of a self-help guru who urges his patients to overcome repression; using lycanthropy as a substitute for Me Generation narcissism allows Sayles to score some satirical points, as does making the lead character a news anchor (Dee Wallace) traumatized while going undercover on a sensationalistic story. The Howling, like most of Dante's films, is peppered with affectionate references to classic horror, and some of the best gags are as indebted to Chuck Jones as they are to Hammer Studios. But it's also the one straight horror film of Dante's, and a quite frightening one, largely thanks to Rob Bottin's terrific makeup effects. And Wallace is as good here as in Cujo - it's fitting that she mostly appears in supporting roles in movies by the next generation of horror filmmakers these days, as she's one of the best actresses in the genre. The sequels are varying degrees of awful, but the original remains terrific.
43. The Stepfather (Joseph Ruben, 1987)
It's a hoot imagining John Locke as the murderous stepfather in Joseph Ruben's original, but even if you've never seen Lost, Terry O'Quinn is terrific here, switching from Ward Cleaver-esque geniality to homicidal rage and back again at the drop of a hat. The opening scene is masterpiece of subtly mounting dread, as we see O'Quinn calmly preparing for his day; as he goes about his house, we see details that suggest something horrible has happened until, finally the camera pans over to the bodies of the family he's murdered. This is the stepfather, who reappears as "Jerry Blake" and marries a widow with a teenage daughter, who, for reasons that remain unexplained, has changed his identity and remarried several times, attempting to create a picture-perfect family, then killing them all and starting over when reality intrudes on his ideal. He's the perfect '80s villain, a guy who will murder in the name of family values, and The Stepfather is a modest but very successful domestic horror movie. I chuckled when I remembered that it was actually my dad, who doesn't usually like horror movies, who insisted I needed to see this one when I was a kid, saying it was great. He also loves The Great Santini, insisted I watch it with him and cracked up during the scene where Robert Duvall throws a basketball at his son's head. I hope he was purposefully fucking with me, because that makes me love the old man more.
42. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)
The Funhouse is perhaps the most classically made of all the slashers, a movie about teens being picked off by a masked (and deformed, in this case) madmen that, at points, feels old-fashioned in the best way. There's the extended buildup, as the four teen characters smoke pot and wander around the attractions (including the terrific William Finley as a magician), that perfectly captures all the ways that travelling carnivals are at once fun and unnervingly shifty, creating a sense of both nostalgia and dread (it'd make a terrific double bill with Something Wicked This Way Comes). When the teens decide to hide in the funhouse for the night and are subsequently stalked by the killer, Hooper and his crew get as much atmosphere and production value out of the cardboard ghouls and garish lighting of their set as possible. While The Funhouse isn't as self-reflexive as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, it's very smart about the fundamental appeal of being frightened.
41. Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)
The saga of a young man that keeps his horribly deformed Siamese twin in a big basket as they set out to murder the doctors responsible for separating them is one of the most beloved low-budget horror movies of its era, and for good reason. It's a perfect mix of dark humor and over-the-top gore, the relationship between Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) and his brother Belial is strangely credible, and it's the rare horror movie that feels like a true original. But am I the only one who finds Belial kind of adorable? Maybe it's the combination of puppetry and stop motion effects that makes the little guy endearing, or maybe it's the sympathetic nature of his motives - the poor guy just wants to be closer to his brother. Either way, whenever I watch this scene, in addition to laughing until I'm out of breath, I just want to give Belial a hug.