Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#30-21)

I've been looking forward to writing about this section of the list since I started. Without purposefully assembling it this way, it's a great cross-section of supernatural and real-life horror, classics and more obscure titles (as well as a few that are well-known but deserve more discussion). If I were ever programming a 24-hour horror movie marathon, these ten movies would make a pretty solid lineup.

30. From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986)

Two of the lead actors and most of the crew of Re-Animator reunited the following year for another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, this one loosely based on his short story of the same name. The movie keeps the device of a scientist's assistant recounting his boss' experiments with a device that allows him to see into alternate dimensions. The assistant, Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs), sees creatures from another world eat his boss' (Ted Sorel) head off in the first scene. Suspected of murder, Crawford returns Dr. McMichaels (Barbara Crampton) and a detective named Bubba (Ken Foree) to show them the dimension-crossing machine. What follows is a terrific showcase for all sorts of weird otherworldly creatures and gory, slimy practical effects. There's also plenty of dark humor and a weird, kinky but strangely fitting subplot about how the machine's energy alters the characters' personalities, particularly Dr. McMichaels, who finds herself suddenly interested in the dead doctor's S&M gear - one wouldn't expect a movie that also features characters' heads being chewed off to be kind of sexy, but there it is. And if S&M isn't your thing, there's also a scene of Foree running and tackling Combs while wearing nothing but a Speedo. You're welcome, ladies.

29. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Perhaps the best movie ever made about the banality of evil, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was a difficult movie for me to get into the first time I watched it. It merely follows the title character, loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, for a while as he stops for a while in Chicago, kills some people, briefly has a partner in crime named Otis (Tom Towles), almost has a relationship with Otis' sister Becky (Tracy Arnold), then eventually moves on. There's no attempt to explain Henry, and the movie has no sense of closure - it's just one grim chapter in a long, repetitive story. Seeing it again on 35mm years later, the movie became almost unbearably frightening, largely because it withholds any attempt at explaining Henry - he's an unknowable monster, human but completely unrelatable. All three leads are excellent, the deliberately flat visual style works perfectly for the disturbing subject matter, and even though the film isn't particularly gory, one can see why it was given an X rating, as its look at the darkest aspects of human nature are strictly adults-only stuff (though Siskel and Ebert made a persuasive case for why the movie should be available for teens). Although the movie premiered in 1986, it didn't actually get a commercial release in the U.S. until 1990. I included it here, however, because it feels like one of the indispensable horror movies of the decade and completely, frighteningly of its time.

28. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (Tony Randel, 1988)

Made soon after the first film, Hellbound: Hellraiser II is the rare sequel that actually improves on the original. A lot of this has to do with the film's setting, a hospital psych ward where heroine Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) is sent after the events of the first film; when she tells the ward's director, Dr. Channard (Kenneth Cranham) about what happened, the doctor, who has long been fascinated with opening the doorway to Hell (and why not), resurrects Kirsty's now-skinless stepmom (Claire Higgins). I've scene the movie several times, and I still have to look away during the aforementioned scene - Hellbound was originally rated X, and the uncut version is still quite extreme 25 years later. Clive Barker, who produced but didn't direct the sequel, has said that the asylum setting was a vehicle for a grand guignol approach to the film, which is evident in the many scenes of gruesome, theatrical bloodletting. The film also expands the Cenobite mythos in fascinating ways, and the climax takes place in their world, which looks like '80s metal album cover art in the best possible way. The series took a quick nosedive after Hellraiser II, but the first two moves remain a satisfyingly cringe-inducing double feature.

27. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)

I watched Prince of Darkness this month for the first time in several years, and I had to admit to myself that the things about it that don't work - the two leads (especially Jameson Parker [especially Jameson Parker's moustache]) and a climax that feels too small for the apocalyptic setup of the first two-thirds - hurt the movie more than I remembered. Otherwise, Prince of Darkness is fantastic, ranking with John Carpenter's best work. The plot, about a team of grad students recruited by their professor to investigate a cannister of glowing green evil discovered in the basement of a church, is at once an homage to '60s British sci-fi (Carpenter used the pseudonym "Martin Quartermass" for his screenplay) and supernatural horror. I love the movie's blend of religious and metaphysical horror - it's pulpy but thought-provoking, and the sickly, bug-infested atmosphere Carpenter builds through most of the film is very unnerving. The movie was Carpenter's deliberate return to lower-budget filmmaking after Big Trouble in Little China flopped, and it makes up for what it loses in scale with Carpenter having the freedom to use genre conventions to explore some of his more esoteric interests. It's admittedly a bit uneven, but it's still a blast, perhaps the director's most underrated movie, with extra points for Alice Cooper as an evil bum and Donald Pleasance as an axe-wielding priest.

26. Manhunter (Michael Mann, 1986)

I resisted Michael Mann's adaptation of Manhunter for a long time because, come on, Francis Dolarhyde would never decorate his house that way. For the most part, though, Mann's slick, modernist style makes for an unexpected but fascinating approach to adapting Thomas Harris' novel (featuring Brian Cox's supporting turn as Hannibal Lecter [spelled "Lecktor" here], colder and less charismatic than Anthony Hopkins). Mann's methodical visual style and his obsessive focus on process is a match for his protagonist, FBI agent Will Graham (William Peterson), whose obsessive attention to detail and ability to get inside a serial killer's head make him the perfect person to catch the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan, whose terrific performance I wrote about two Halloweens ago), who is methodically killing off families in different parts of the country with no apparent connection. Many thrillers have been made that explore a link between the killer and his pursuer, but few are as compelling as Manhunter, possibly because it's less interested than the usual cliche of the detective being as messed up as the culprit as it is with the idea that both men are masters of their chosen trades (a theme Mann would explore again in Heat). And, since it's Mann, it's a technically astounding film, the cinematography, editing, art direction and, especially, sound design working in concert to create a stark, menacing atmosphere. And this is also a given for a Mann film, but yeah, the soundtrack is terrific.

25. Parents (Bob Balaban, 1989)

The most underrated movie on this list, Parents is a great pitch-black comedy about a boy (Bryan Madorsky) growing up in '50s suburbia who begins to suspect there's something odd about the meat his parents (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) serve with dinner every night. When he asks them what their dinner, which they always identify as "leftovers," was before it was left over, they chuckle and respond, "Leftovers to be!" Parents feels a lot like early Tim Burton, having a lot of fun with the kitschy period production design, and Quaid and Hurt play their roles like sinister versions of the Cleavers. But it's also surprisingly unnerving - it's basically a movie about the loss of innocence we all experience the first time we think about where the food on our plate comes from, and the unsettling experience of spying on your parents doing the things they do when they think you're not around. Balaban takes the same understated approach to directing that he does to acting, which works to wonderfully creepy effect. Parents has never gotten a proper R1 DVD release and barely airs on TV, so it's woefully underseen. I haven't actually seen it in over ten years, so the fact that I can recall specific images and lines of dialogue speaks well of the movie's impact.

24. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Videodrome remians incredibly popular, almost a touchstone movie, among dudes my age. And while it is indeed a great movie, I can't help wondering why it's this one, out of all the great movies Cronenberg has made, that has come to define him as a filmmaker. I suppose a lot of it has to do with the way that, by the nature of the subject matter and characters, the movie's ideas are explicitly delivered in the dialogue (though I do think people can confuse, say, Brian O'Blivion's thesis statements with Cronenberg's). For me, though, the film's ruminations on media, technology, sex and ideology are most interestingly expressed in the hallucinatory images. Perhaps I'm fundamentally shallow, because I'll listen to a whole monologue about the television of the mind's eye, but if you just show me James Woods having sex with a TV, I've got it. On the other hand, that I respond more strongly to the story told by the images than the words, when for most people it's the other way around, sort of proves the movie's point about the potency of ideas expressed through a perfectly provocative image. Videodrome is every bit as trippy as Altered States, but it's a little better than Altered States because, while that movie is filled with fascinating but ultimately incoherent ideas, the ideas Videodrome expresses through its images are as potent as the images themselves. As one of the characters in the movie says, it's dangerous because it has a philosophy.

23. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Chuck Russell, 1987)

My internal dialogue when putting the list ranking together:

"Andrew, you can't put Dream Warriors ahead of Videodrome."

"But I love Dream Warriors! Best characters in the entire Nightmare on Elm Street series, funny without getting too schticky, great dream sequences - 'Welcome to prime time, bitch!' - awesome pre-CGI effects - it has just about everything I love about the genre!"

"Andrew, Videodrome is smart. It's an objectively better movie. They'll know you're a dum dum, Andrew. Remember how they mocked you on Tom Sutpen's Facebook page? You're destroying your own credibility."

"But but but but THE WIZARD MASTER!"

"I've done all I can here."

"Woohoo! Dream Warriors 4eva! Dokken power!"

22. Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980)

My favorite moment in Dressed to Kill happens right after the famous elevator scene, as Nancy Allen's character Liz picks up a murder weapon and is mistaken by a freaked out cleaning lady for the killer. It's the moment when we realize the movie is going to focus on a completely different character and subject than we thought. It's a riff on a similar moment in Psycho, of course, as is most of Dressed to Kill - there's that great moment in Psycho, after the shower scene, when the camera reorients us with the newspaper concealing the money that we thought was so important a minute earlier. The moment in Dressed to Kill, though, one-ups Hitchcock - in the earlier movie it's a pause, but here, the momentum never stops. As Pino Donaggio's shrieking score kicks back in and the camera dollies up the hallway, I never feel to crack up and feel a strange sense of exhilaration at De Palma's audacity.

And while Psycho is the better movie, De Palma's post-murder second half is actually more interesting. At the very least, Allen's hooker/stock trader is more entertaining than Vera Miles, and if Allen's performance doesn't transcend the "tough but with a heart of gold" template, she's at least strong and empathetic (same goes for Allen in Blow Out, but more so). And the older I get, the more I find the oddly innocent (or is it?) teenage fantasy of Keith Gordon's junior detective looking after Allen strangely endearing. Dressed to Kill is one of De Palma's best movies, and maybe his funniest (I love the over-the-shoulder reaction shots of the woman in the restaurant listening to Allen explain a sex change operation to Gordon). Also, everything that's currently much discussed in gender-oriented culture studies about cisgenderism, rape culture, slut shaming, etc. is explored brilliantly and at length by De Palma; it's hip about these things in a way that puts most contemporary, serious-minded movies to shame.

21. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)

It says a lot about Poltergeist that, while I saw a lot of age-inappropriate stuff as a young kid, I was too freaked out to make it through this PG-rated Spielberg production until I was older. For a movie as Spielbergian as any that he (officially) directed, it has its share of dark and even sadistic moments that remind both of Spielberg's gifted mean streak and of the darker sensibility that Tobe Hooper brought to the movie. Any discussion of Poltergeist always comes back around to speculation over who's the movie's true auteur - I'll just say that, whether moments like the face-ripping scene were Hooper's idea, or if it's just that Hooper's directorial credit freed up Spielberg (who has a co-writing credit) to go for the gross-out, those moments still work like gangbusters. I like to think that both men brought out the best in each other, with Hooper bringing his merciless ability to scare to a bigger canvas (aided by a team of A-list technicians) and Spielberg indulging his alternate universe existence as an expert schlockmeister (I love it when he feels free to do this - see also Temple of Doom, the Amblin-produced Gremlins movies and the last 30 minutes of The Lost World). Whoever deserves authorial credit, Poltergeist is as great as any big-budget horror movie will ever be, with as much style, atmosphere and pure craftsmanship as every wannabe blockbuster should aspire to.

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