Thursday, October 31, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#10-1)

Finally, we arrive at the top ten and the very best, in my humble opinion, of '80s horror. I have to admit to feeling a little relieved that this project is over. I feel like a kid on Halloween night, half-asleep in his Batman costume, surrounded by candy wrappers, his belly swollen and his breathing labored.

I'm actually eating a mini Butterfinger as I type this. When kids love Trick 'r Treating but don't particularly care for candy, dad wins.

10. Day of the Dead (George Romero, 1985)

Although Day of the Dead's reputation has improved a great deal since it was released to mixed-negative reviews and disappointing box office in 1985, it's still quite a divisive film - I've had two different friends describe their feelings about the movie in almost exactly the same language - "I try to like it but I just can't." And Romero's final entry in the original Dead trilogy (the director's own favorite) does seem to be daring you to like it in some ways - the EC-influenced color palette of Dawn of the Dead is replaced with the drab grays of the underground mine that is the movie's main location, the gore is more starkly realistic than either of the earlier films and, worst of all, there are very few likable characters. Much of the film's first half is devoted to the characters arguing with each other - the scientists who are struggling to find a solution and the soldiers, led by the brutish Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), who'd just as soon kill first and ask questions later. For a lot of viewers, this grows monotonous, and I can't blame them; I used to feel the same way, actually. But on repeat viewings, it becomes clearer that, though Romero's view of our ability to work together is hardly rose-tinted, there's more hope in the film than it seems. As with its predecessor, Day of the Dead has no faith in humanity's collective ability to live through catastrophe, but it does leave the door open for the individual to survive and make a new, perhaps better life. As with many cynics, at heart Romero is a die-hard humanist. Day of the Dead isn't the best of Romero's zombie films, but it might be the most thematically interesting. At the very least, it represent's Tom Savini's best work - three decades later, his remarkable, disgusting splatter effects still hold up.

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

After the many sequels of varying quality, the atrocious remake and the merchandising, it's easy to forget that the first film in this long-running franchise is actually excellent. It's certainly Wes Craven's best film, with the former humanities professor drawing heavily on his background in literature and psychology for a movie that is rich with Jungian archetypes and fairy tale logic. Made on a shoestring budget by a fledgling independent distributor called New Line Cinema, A Nightmare on Elm Street touched a nerve thanks to its darkly surreal imagery and the aspect of the plot that continued through much of the series and is a key to the film's resonance with its young audience - the idea of teens being threatened by a monster their parents deny exists but, in fact, those parents actually created is perfect for an audience that largely believes their parents are hypocrites who can't understand what they're going through. I saw Robert Englund participate in a Q&A at a local horror convention a few weeks ago, and he talked about how the success of a movie that had almost no marketing budget had everything to do with the punk, Goth and alternative kids who first discovered the movie and embraced it. Englund, of course, is an indispensable part of the movie's success - it's easy to forget, again, because of the campier approach New Line eventually took with the character, but his performance as Freddy is as strong an example of physical, whole-body acting as any of the great silent movie villains.

8. Evil Dead 2 (Sam Raimi, 1987)

Evil Dead 2 is one of those movies that even people who aren't usually into horror seem to dig; the movie's comic bits, presumably, override their squeamishness. And perhaps no movie better illustrates the very close relationship between comedy and horror than this one. While Army of Darkness is a straight-up comedy with talking skeletons, Evil Dead 2 is still fundamentally a horror movie, filled with chainsaws, decapitations and demons that spew black goo from their mouths and cackle at the torment they'll inflict on their victims. But the funny bits and the scary bits both work as well as they do for the same reasons - Stooges-influenced knack for staging physical comedy also motivates his direction of the gorier bits, and both the comedy and the horror come down to finding creative new ways to make Bruce Campbell suffer. And in scenes like the one where the cabin's mounted animal heads and furniture start laughing on their own and poor Ash joins in, we can see how Raimi's comic and macabre sensibilities are united by a basic sense of absurdity. As for Campbell, if Robert Englund's performance ranks with the great silent movie monsters, than Campbell is as committed as any of the silent era's physical comedians. And none of them had to wield a chainsaw and a shotgun while they were doing their schtick.

7. Aliens (James Cameron, 1979)

If Alien was, as its director Ridley Scott put it, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in space, then James Cameron's sequel is an ass-kicking crowd-pleaser in all the ways that the original isn't. By returning Ripley to LV-426 to finish off the outer gods she narrowly escaped in the earlier film, Aliens plays like a sci-fi version of Stallone's line "Do we get to win this time?" in Rambo: First Blood Part II, which Cameron co-wrote. That aside, Aliens is just as nerve-racking as its predecessor. In what might be my favorite review of his, Roger Ebert wrote, "I don't know how else to describe this: The movie made me feel bad. It filled me with feelings of unease and disquiet and anxiety. I walked outside and I didn't want to talk to anyone. I was drained. I'm not sure "Aliens" is what we mean by entertainment. Yet I have to be accurate about this movie: It is a superb example of filmmaking craft." Ebert's right - it's a brilliantly made film whose primary function is to terrify the audience to the point of exhaustion. But it also features one of the strongest female performances in any genre, a cast of very well-drawn supporting characters and performances, Stan Winston's amazing effects work and a filmmaker working at the top of his game. Is there any one of us who wouldn't trade three (or four, or five) Avatar sequels for one more Cameron-directed Alien? 

6. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

Like Evil Dead II, An American Werewolf in London is a hybrid of horror and comedy where each amplifies the effect of the other. But while Raimi's an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink showman, John Landis' approach to horror is as sharply crafted as his comedies. Landis has described the film's humor and horror as stemming from the idea of being a secular, skeptical person trapped in a supernatural scenario - I'm paraphrasing here, but it's about seeing the ghost of your best friend sitting across from you, and you know it's bullshit, but there he is. It's a very funny film in places, particularly the scenes involving Griffin Dunne as that dead, rapidly decaying best friend, but underneath it all is the fatalistic nature of the werewolf story, which can only end in a few ways, none of them happy. Besides that, it's an expertly made film, with a few sequences - the first wolf attack on the moors, the scene where David (David Naughton), in lycanthrope form, stalks a terrified man through an empty subway station - that could serve as textbook examples of how to build suspense, delaying a payoff until precisely the right moment. Rick Baker's work, particularly in the astonishing transformation sequence, has been endlessly praised and for good reason, but really, the entire movie is that brilliantly crafted. The final scene and cut to black, in particularly, is at once hilarious and devastating, one of the all-time great endings.

5. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)

A divisive film even among fans of Argento's previous movie, Suspiria. Inferno is meant as a sort of spiritual sequel to Suspiria, but where that movie's hallucinatory images paid off in bloody, vicious murder scenes, Inferno is quieter and more subtly menacing (save one scene, scored with Verdi's "Va, pensiero," that is as brutal as anything in the earlier film). It's also even more committed to abstract dream logic than Suspiria, drawing on the "three mothers" of De Quincey's Suspiria de Profundis to imagine that there are two other mothers, in addition to the one we met in Suspiria, that reside in other cities, spreading misery and darkness. There are scenes and shots that parallel and contrast with Suspiria in fascinating ways, as well as sequences, such as the one involving an underwater ballroom populated by the dead, that surpass the early film in visual impact and fright. It's Argento's most beautiful film, too, oddly romantic, and the influence of Mario Bava on the director has never been more apparent (Bava actually supervised the effects on Inferno, the last film he worked on). You'll notice I haven't talked much about characters or plot, and they honestly don't matter that much in Inferno - I can't argue with anyone who would prefer a coherent story. But for pure, sustained atmosphere, Inferno is one of the best cinematic nightmares ever.

4. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)

I'd like to share a personal story. Creepshow was one of the first movies I really fell in love with - I rented it repeatedly from the local video store, rewound certain moments - the first appearance of the crate monster, E.G. Marshall's grisly death by thousands of cockroaches - countless times, and recounted each of the movie's lovingly crafted E.C.-inspired vignettes in great detail to my classmates. I even owned a copy of the graphic novel tie-in with gorgeous illustrations by Berni Wrightson. One night, when I was nine or ten years old, I had a terrifying, incredibly realistic dream where I was being pursued by a zombie that looked very much like the one in the first story, "Father's Day," through the woods behind my house. The dream ended with me jumping into the pond, thinking I was safe, then looking down and seeing the maggot-infested animated corpse grasping for my feet. I told my mom about it, and she told her friend Brenda, a conservative Christian who was somewhat less of a fundamentalist than Margaret White. Brenda announced that she was an expert at dream interpretation and proceeded to decipher my dream, telling me it was Jesus' way of letting me know I needed to cast aside my interest in horror movies and books because they were driving me away from Jesus and my spiritual growth. Terrified at the prospect of God sendingpersonalized horror movies to my brain to express his disappointment in me, I gave away all of my horror novels, issues of Fangoria, videos and comic book (including the Creepshow book) to friends and the town library.

Two things I learned from this. First, if you have a kid with a growing interest in scary stories, be an awesome parent and show them Creepshow. Second, even Jesus thinks that Brenda sucks.

3. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

The first time I saw The Thing was on a grainy video, recorded from cable, that I borrowed from a friend (this was a while after I realized the whole "Jesus Creepshow dream" thing was baloney, and I was still quite bitter about it). Even on a muddy, pan-and-scan copy, The Thing was terrifying enough that I had to pause the movie several times and take a break. When I reached the movie's famously ambiguous ending, the copy abruptly stopped before the credits rolled, and I thought it must have cut off before the movie was over. When I saw it again on TV a while later, I was stunned - "That's it??" It took me a while to realize why the lack of closure is actually perfect for The Thing. This was before The Thing, which is second only to Halloween in Carpenter's filmography, was generally recognized as a horror classic, and it's been gratifying to see the movie gradually get the respect it deserves. Carpenter has made a lot of fascinating and very entertaining movies, but he was clearly never more invested in a movie than he was with The Thing, and it shows in every perfectly crafted frame.

2. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

I am not trying to be cute when I say that The Fly is one of the most moving cinematic love stories. I have to refer to Matt Zoller Seitz's recent piece on the film, which sums up my feelings about the film perfectly and with more eloquence than I'm capable of. He's right, it's a very sexy movie initially, and Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum have terrific chemistry - you can see Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife having a long and happy relationship, which makes Brundle's transformation all the more painful. It's a movie that illustrates how the entirety of someone's life can be forever altered by the simplest oversight, with tragic consequences. It's as good as any straight drama about a protagonist who has a terminal illness and the people who love them, but its genre allows Cronenberg to deal with the physical and emotional realities of dying with more bluntness and honesty than most mainstream movies would dare. I've put off seeing Amour, and I don't doubt it's as powerful as people have said, but I kind of feel like it's an experience I don't need, because I already have The Fly. Plus, I doubt Amour has a baboon being turned inside out or a woman giving birth to a giant larva.

1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Well, of course. But it feels kind of funny putting this on an '80s list, because Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece doesn't really feel representative of its decade. Or the decade before; even the garish '70s decor of the Overlook Hotel is slightly off, as it would be in a dream. Stanley Kubrick's movies have a tendency to feel out of time, and this was never more appropriate than in a film about a malevolent hotel that is, in a sense, unstuck in time. This out-of-time quality may have been why the movie, though commercially successful, was roundly rejected by horror fans in 1980 - there's an issue of Fangoria with the results of a poll of its readers that placed The Shining at the top of the "worst of 1980" list (Friday the 13th was voted best). So it's been amazing to watch it go from one of the first movies I truly loved, a movie that made me realize that movies are directed, but one that I could only find negative reviews of, to one that is constantly discussed and analyzed, that has inspired countless essays and art in other mediums and even a movie devoted entirely to some of the more offbeat theories about the film, one that consistently sits at or near the top of "Scariest movie ever" lists. Through it all, the movie has retained it's own unique, meticulously crafted, one-of-a-kind form of perfection. It reminds, more than any other movie, that while all art is in some sense a product of the time it was made, the greatest movies are truly timeless.

1 comment:

Hickey said...

This is a brilliant list. Kudos