Monday, October 28, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#40-31)

This part of the list includes the first appearances of two horror icons and a few other cult classics and favorites among horror fans, and it's arguably more challenging to write about the genre's heavy hitters then some of the more niche-y titles I've covered so far. I can remember first renting (and, in some cases, repeatedly renting) a few of these movies when I was very young, or making sure to catch them whenever they ran on TV; these were the building blocks of my love of horror, as I assume they were for many fellow horror fans. We've lived with these movies for most of our lives, and you don't need me to tell me why they're great. The temptation is to be like Chris Farley on the sketches on SNL where he interviews celebrities - "Remember that part in Child's Play when the mom realizes Chucky doesn't have any batteries, and she's trying to make him talk, so she tells him she's going to throw him in the fireplace if he doesn't say something, and he calls her a dirty slut? That was awesome." I'll try to do a bit better than that.

40. Night of the Creeps (Fred Dekker, 1986)

Until Night of the Creeps finally made its DVD debut a few years ago, it was one of those long out-of-print movies that horror fans would bond over their shared memories of. You'd ask someone if they remembered a movie with alien slugs and Tom Atkins saying "It's Miller time" as he blows one of the slugs away, and they'd generally remember and be happy to have been reminded. The Monster Squad, Fred Dekker's second movie, had a similar reputation, but as it was basically a kids movie (and it seemed to run all the time on cable back in the late '80s), it was a little less forgotten. With Night of the Creeps, if someone had an old VHS copy, it immediately became must-see viewing, one of those movies that even friends who don't usually go for horror would be quoting in casual conversation after watching it. Now that it's readily available, it's a relief to see the movie holds up - Slither famously owes a lot to Night of the Creeps, and Slither is very good, but it can't match the earlier movie's endearingly offbeat tone - it's strangely lighthearded for a movie about alien slugs that control the minds of their human hosts. It's enjoyably icky, less interested in grotesque body horror than in playing around with '50s B-movie staples (even throwing a variation on the urban legend about a killer on lover's lane, because why not). And Tom Atkins, who is, of course, great in so many genre movies (whether the movie is good or not), might do his best work here. As a cynical Phillip Marlowe-esque gumshoe seemingly transported in from another time to investigate the alien menace, Atkins is hilarious and, at points, even a little bit affecting. He makes me hope that, someday, I'll be man enough to answer the phone with "Thrill me" instead of "Hello."

39. Christine (John Carpenter, 1983)

John Carpenter is quick to dismiss Christine as one of his lesser movies in interviews; he made it after The Thing flopped, and he's been frank about the fact that he was less motivated by love for the material than the chance to direct a likely hit and rehabilitate his career. It's a shame he feels that way, because Christine certainly doesn't feel like a phoned-in movie. It takes a premise that could have been laughable onscreen - a supernatural car and the teenage boy who loves her - and makes it work, largely thanks to the lead performance by Keith Gordon, who does a great job of selling his character's transformation from a bullied nerd to a cocky, arrogant jerk who is completely under Christine's spell. The movie actually cuts out the most horror movie-friendly aspect of King's book, the rotting ghost of Christine's previous owner sitting in the back seat, but it translates King's fun satire on the teenage male fetishization of cool cars intact. Shot in gorgeous anamorphic widescreen, the movie contains some of Carpenter's most elegant visual compositions, having the red Plymouth Fury occupy the distant background of the frame like Michael Myers as she stalks her prey. And the scenes of a near-destroyed Christine healing herself, achieved largely with reverse photography, are some of the niftiest examples of pre-CGI effects trickery. Christine might not be a personal movie for Carpenter, but it's still distinctly and enjoyably his.

38. Child's Play (Tom Holland, 1988)

I've never been creeped out by dolls, so Child's Play never traumatized me the way it did for many people my age who saw it as kids. However, even a non-pediophobe like me can have a lot of fun with the first entry in the long-running series. It's fun to revisit now and remember that much of the first film plays on the ambiguity of whether the doll is possessed or young Andy is mentally ill and blaming the murder's he's committing on Chucky. There had been killer doll movies before, which makes it more impressive that Child's Play managed to become the definitive one, largely thanks to Brad Dourif's excellent vocal performance as Chucky.

It's also the first horror series I shared with my five-year-old son, who is extremely interested in so many of the scary movies on the shelves that he's not quite old enough to see yet (even if I really want to let him). I started with Child's Play 2, which is a little milder, then moved on to the first; even I was surprised that Tommy never got freaked out or had a nightmare about Chucky. For a while, he even carried our Chucky doll everywhere with him and slept with it at night. I put off the gorier Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky for a long time, then let him watch them with his eyes closed during the R-rated bits; he soon started ignoring me and enjoyed those parts too. He likes pretending to do the voodoo curse on his action figures, and his older sister is a big fan of Jennifer Tilly. Maybe I should be concerned, but what I actually feel is pride. Although Tom did tell me Curse of Chucky looks too scary, and he'll watch it when he's six.

37. Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)

One of Argento's best giallos is about a killer who patterns his murders after the work of a famous mystery author (Anthony Franciosca). The writer dismisses the idea, in an interview early in the film, that art can inspire real-life violence; Argento goes on to have a lot of fun exploring the possibility that it could, deliberately toying with his detractors (as with most of his films, Argento uses his hands as the gloved hands of the unseen killer). The movie contains some of the most technically astounding shots in Argento's filmography, particularly a complex tracking shot, several minutes long, that moves up, over and down the other side of an apartment building - it's Argento showing off and having a lot of fun doing it. Shot by frequent collaborator Luciano Tovoli, the entire movie avoids shadows and expressionistic lighting in favor of brilliantly lit sets and locations, the copious bloodletting shot in vivid detail (Tenebre was originally one of the UK's banned "video nasties," which lumped in crude exploitation with more artistically ambitious films). Barely theatrically released in the U.S. (heavily cut and retitled Unsane), it's gained a deserved cult following over the years; while most of Argento's movies value style and visceral effect over a coherent plot, Tenebre is actually a solid whodunit, with a twist that actually works. Plus, it has a typically terrific Goblin soundtrack.

36. The Company of Wolves (Neil Jordan, 1984)

One of the most unusual takes on the werewolf mythos, The Company of Wolves isn't for everyone - I actually know someone who considers it the worst movie he's ever seen. The film, one of Neil Jordan's first, doesn't satisfy the audience's expectations for what a werewolf movie should be, avoiding big scares or state-of-the-art transformation sequences. Instead, Jordan and co-writer Angela Carter (loosely adapting her short story of the same title) use the framing device of a present-day adolescent girl's (Sarah Patterson) dreams to explore fairy tale archetypes and their subtextual meanings, particularly the underlying fear and attraction of budding female sexuality that drives Little Red Riding Hood. The movie returns repeatedly to Charles Perrault's moral "Beware of charming strangers," with stories of women (and a man, in one case) seduced by men (played by Terence Stamp and Stephen Rea, among others) who ultimately reveal their monstrous true selves. The final story, about a female werewolf, finds sympathy for the beast, and the film ends with a sense of ambivalence towards its monsters. Featuring beautiful art direction and striking makeup effects, The Company of Wolves is an uncommonly cerebral horror movie, challenging but ultimately rewarding. Jordan would continue to explore fairy-tale logic in both his horror and other films, including Interview with the Vampire, In Dreams and Ondine, but never more successfully than in The Company of Wolves.

35. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

If the Clive Barker-helmed remake of Hellraiser becomes a reality and remains close to the plot of the original, I hope it takes more time to examine the relationship between brothers Larry and Frank. There's the slightest suggestion, here and there in the movie, that Larry is the masochist to Frank's sadist and is as screwed up as his brother in his own way. Whether it's because of the writing or Andrew Robinson's shaky performance as Larry (though he's a lot better as Frank), the idea of their family home as depraved from the start is a fascinatingly thorny one that, hopefully, will be explored in more depth.

Even if the plot does deviate from the original, I hope Barker hasn't forgotten that, as fearsome and incredible as the Cenobites are, it's the horrible things the human characters get off on doing to each other that makes the original Hellraiser so effective. Pinhead and his associates work best when, like the shark in Jaws, their appearances are so brief and striking that we're still thinking about them when they're offscreen. When I was a kid, as much as I loved horror movies, I could never bring myself to rent Hellraiser because the cover art (the same as the poster) was way too frightening to me. So I was surprised when I caught up with the movie as a teen and discovered that Pinhead is, arguably, not even the villain of the first film. Barker described Pinhead as the administrator of a hospital made up entirely of operating theaters, and that's exactly right - he's just doing his job, going where he's been called and giving people what they've asked for, and he's the rare horror movie monster that is willing to negotiate. This is why I lost interest after Part III, where Pinhead is cackling like Freddy as he murders a bunch of people - he's scariest when he's dispassionate, a representative for a terrible place that, nonetheless, only comes calling when someone makes an inquiry. That the real horror of Hellraiser is what it says about the darker aspects of human desire goes a long way to explain why, whatever flaws the movie might have as a result of Barker's first shot at directing or budgetary limitations (though I'm generally forgiving of those), it's still a very frightening film.

34. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O'Bannon, 1985)

I was glad that Jason Zinoman's Shock Value, a sort of Easy Riders Raging Bulls for the great horror directors of the '70s, devoted a lot of space to Dan O'Bannon, an often-forgotten but crucial figure in the narrative of those filmmakers. O'Bannon co-wrote and was involved in almost every aspect of the production of Dark Star, John Carpenter's first feature; a few years later, after writing for Heavy Metal and working on Jodorowsky's never-filmed adaptation of Dune, O'Bannon co-wrote Alien with Ron Shusett, coming up with the idea for the chestburster because of his struggles with Crohn's disease (he eventually passed away from the disease in 2009). O'Bannon only directed two movies, but the first was the classic horror-comedy The Return of the Living Dead. A riff on Night of the Living Dead, produced by that movie's co-writer, O'Bannons film starts with the idea that a few barrels the chemical that created that movie's walking dead have been sitting, forgotten in the basement of a medical supply center for two decades. The movie has a lot of fun with pretending Romero's film was a true story, but it's not a parody - instead, it's equal parts funny and scary, with inventive undead effects (particularly the rapidly rotting Tarman, who I wrote about last year), as many jabs as punk culture as Repo Man (which allows for a great soundtrack) and O'Bannon's deadpan, nihilistic sense of humor.

It was also the film that was single-handedly responsible for popularizing the idea that zombies prefer to eat brains - any time someone pretends to be a zombie and exclaims "Braaaains!", they're referencing The Return of the Living Dead whether they know it or not. I knew a guy who was seriously angry at this movie for spreading the misconception that zombies only eat brains, as though zombies were real and could be targets of misrepresentation. He was a very annoying person, so his irritation with The Return of the Living Dead makes me love the movie a little bit more.

33. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)

The other great 1985 horror-comedy is Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, a very loose adaptation of the H.P. Lovecraft story "Herbert West - Reanimator." It's also considerably darker than The Return of the Living Dead - I saw a 35mm screening earlier this year and was struck by how, as funny as it is, it's pretty grim stuff, as unflinching about the physical reality of mortality and decay as Fulci or Romero. Its humor comes from Herbert West's completely single-minded focusing on achieving his goal of reversing death, as well as his complete lack of social skills - as the movie grows more and more grotesque, Jeffrey Combs's deadpan determination grows increasingly hysterical. The movie also makes the most of its low-budget splatter effects, culminating in the infamous "giving head" scene that achieves a sort of twisted brilliance. We throw around the term "brave" liberally when discussing onscreen performances, but Barbara Crampton in Re-Animator truly earns it.

32. The Vanishing (George Sluzier, 1988)

I have to admit that I've always had a slight skepticism about The Vanishing's greatness, which has always struck me as a bit mechanistic. Perhaps this is unfair, but a lot of this has to do with its horrible remake, which Sluzier also directed, willingly changing the original's famously bleak ending at the studio's request - if he considers the most famous aspect of the original movie malleable, than how personal or profound an artistic statement was it in the first place? That said, there's no denying that The Vanishing is a brilliantly nerve-racking experience. About a man (Gene Bervoets) desperately searching for his girlfriend (Johanna ter Steege), who went missing when the two stopped at a gas station, The Vanishing is unusual in that it introduces us to her abductor (Bernard-Pierre Donnardieu) early in the film but waits much longer to reveal what happened to her. The most disturbing aspect of The Vanishing is that the kidnapper is completely unassuming, even banal, as are his motives. And whether the ending is overcalculated or not, it sure is a hell of a gut punch.

31. Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980)

Altered States is one of the movies on this list that stretches the definition of a horror movie - it doesn't play like one, except for the sequence where William Hurt transforms into a primitive man and runs amok. It's an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky's book, loosely based on Dr. John Lily's real-life experiments with hallucinogens and sensory deprivation in the hopes of experiencing a pre-human consciousness. It's heady stuff, and though Chayefsky wrote the script, he opted to use a pseudonym because of his displeasure with Ken Russell's direction. Russell's film is faithful to the screenplay (he was contractually obligated), but he had the actors race through the metaphysical dialogue at a breakneck pace, favoring the opportunity to pack the film with his trademark hallucinatory images. Filled with bodily horror (transformation effects courtesy of Dick Smith) and mind-boggling hallucination sequences (accompanied by still-amazing sound design) that seemingly depict heaven, hell, nothingness and everything in between, Altered States plays like a stoned remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If that doesn't qualify as horror, I don't know what does.

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