Monday, October 21, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#60-51)

I realized I haven't really placed the movies I'm writing about in the context of the decade they were made during. I was reminded, when assembling this section of the list, about the time I was reading a book about 1980s films (if I remember correctly, it was titled The Films of the 1980s), and there was a passing reference to The Lost Boys as a metaphor for the AIDS epidemic. I was nine or ten years old at the time, and it might have been the first time I was introduced to the idea that movies are shaped by the time they were made. Thinking about it now, it's possible that the AIDS epidemic might have been one of the things in the backs of the filmmakers' minds when they made the movie, but I find it doubtful that a contemporary viewer would make that connection. Reading a movie in the context of the zeitgeist that produced it can be as useful as it is a pitfall. The movies listed below are very much products of their decade, and the idea of a correlation between more conservative moments in American history and particularly prolific times for the horror genre seems to hold a lot of water. But it was also a decade that heavily favored escapism, so the question of whether any one of these movies is in opposition to or harmony with its time is a slippery one.

I'm not sure what exactly what I'm getting at - I'm still getting over that cold - but if you've been wondering why my approach to this list is less analytical than celebratory, I guess I'm just in more of a celebrating mood.

60. Angel Heart (Alan Parker, 1987)

It's amusing that this movie was so controversial when it was released because of the blood-drenched sex scene between Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet that originally earned the movie an X rating. Now it seems more overheated than erotic - the VMAs are more provocative. Otherwise, though, Angel Heart is a very effective, twisty thriller. While the identity of Robert De Niro's character is predictable from the start (Louis Cyphre? Really??), I've always assumed that this is intentional, a joke that we're in on far before Rourke's detective puts two and two together. And the way that detective Angel's (again, really?) search for a missing singer unfolds does have some quite disturbing surprises. When a movie relies as heavily on plot twists as Angel Heart does, the key to whether or not it's worth revisiting is how interesting the accumulation of details that foreshadow the conclusion are in their own right. In this sense, Angel Heart is probably more fun the second time around. Director Alan Parker's smokey, heavy-handed style suits this movie perfectly; when he directs respectable material, the result can be deadly, but he's a perfect fit for pulpier material (or Pink Floyd). The marriage of noir and horror tropes makes for a fun but surprisingly unsettling ride - the final shots, intercut with the end credits, give me a chill just thinking about them. Also, I love that Bonet's participation apparently made Bill Cosby furious.

59. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983)

The first time I saw The Hunger, I thought it was just about the dumbest movie I'd ever seen. Seeing it again a few years later was one of the most dramatic examples I can remember of what a difference the correct aspect ratio can make. On DVD, with Tony Scott's widescreen compositions intact, I realized how much of the story is told purely through the images rather than the very thin screenplay. Having seen most of Scott's movies now, I understand how often this was the case, and while his best movies generally did have strong scripts (True Romance being his best by far), it's clear that he was as gifted a visual storyteller as his brother - while Sir Ridley's highs are higher, Tony's movies are more consistently entertaining. This is not to say that I suddenly realized The Hunger is an unsung masterpiece - there are sections that remain completely ridiculous. But if you can accept that going into the film, then its doomy Goth atmosphere casts quite a spell. As a rapidly aging vampire being rejected by the lover who made him what he is, David Bowie's performance plays on his iconography and alien persona almost as effectively as The Man Who Fell to Earth. And while the famed sex scene between Catherine Deneuve (as Bowie's lover) and Susan Sarandon (as Deneuve's new potential mate) is, like Angel Heart, a bit tame when compared to the buzz around it when it was released, the two actresses have great chemistry that helps give The Hunger the lurid, sexually charged atmosphere that Scott is reaching for. A few moments of sudden violence and some excellent makeup effects by Dick Smith aside, The Hunger is less driven by conventional scares than by existential anxieties - aging, being left behind, being forgotten. At times, it's like Let the Right One In with more jump cuts, Bauhaus and diffused light.

58. Halloween II (Rick Rosenthal, 1981)

While I can't ignore the fact that sidelining Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance for much of the movie was a huge mistake, I still have a lot of love for Halloween II. The summer after second grade, I rented it every week; at the time, my mom would take me along to her part-time job cleaning houses, and I have vague, funny memories of her explaining to older ladies that I had her permission to watch it on their TVs. Seen as an adult, I'm more conscious of the movie's problems - a cast of mostly uninteresting supporting characters and, especially, a plot twist that came to define the rest of the series but retroactively took away from the purity of the original film's premise. John Carpenter has admitted that the twist was the result of writer's block, a late-night drinking binge and having recently seen The Empire Strikes Back, and it shows. But for whatever problems it has, very few slasher movies were made with this level of style and craft, and cinematographer Dean Cundey deserves a lot of credit for making the film feel of a piece with its predecessor. It's a pleasure to seeing the distinctive style of the original film expanded to the scope of a studio production. And the last 20 minutes are still perfect; no matter how many times I see it, I still tense up a little at the same moment (an elevator door that takes an uncomfortably long time to close) every time.

57. A Chinese Ghost Story (Siu-Tung Ching, 1987)

A confession: I saw A Chinese Ghost Story once, about 20 years ago, and my memories of it are very sketchy. As I imagine must be the case with any cinephile who grew up in a small town with one or two video stores nearby in the pre-streaming days, there are a handful of movies that I once saw and enjoyed a great deal but, due to their unavailability, mostly forgot about them. I was reminded of it when looking at lists of 1980s movies to assemble this one, and immediately remembered a few of the things I loved about it - the eerily beautiful look of the tragic female ghost, dynamic cinematography that rivals the early work of Sam Raimi or the Coens, terrific fight scenes and a giant tree demon with a huge tongue. The reviews I've read of the film suggest my memories are accurate, but also that there's a whole lot about the movie that I don't remember. So I don't have a lot to say about A Chinese Ghost Story right now, but I still wanted to include it because, if my memories are indeed correct, it's definitely worth checking out - I intend to track down a copy of it to revisit very soon.

56. Friday the 13th (Sean S. Cunningham, 1980)
I never really got why Friday the 13th was such a big hit until I saw a 35mm midnight screening several years ago. As much as director Sean S. Cunningham shamelessly steals from Halloween (and, indirectly, Mario Bava), it works. The movie's famous for its gore (which is pretty tame now), but a lot of the credit should go to cinematographer Barry Abrams, who creates a spooky atmosphere; the daytime scenes all feel grimly overcast, and while I'm sure the night scenes are underlit largely because of the movie's low budget, Abrams did wonders with what he had to work with. For a movie that was decried as a travesty when it was released, Friday the 13th's scares now seem almost classical, even austere. There's plenty of blood and gore, but also moments, like the one where a female camp counselor descibes a dream where the sky started raining blood, that subtly - okay, relatively subtly - play on our knowledge of the characters' impending doom. And while Betsy Palmer's performance as Mrs. Voorhees can fairly be described as campy, camp can be unnerving in its own way. As over the top as the Friday the 13th series quickly went, the original has the appeal of a really good small town haunted house - freaky in its own homemade way, with an underlying fear that you can't quite trust the people who put it together.

55. Psycho II (Richard Franklin, 1983)

A sequel to Psycho seems like such an inherently awful idea, but Psycho II is both a fun homage to Hitchcock's original and a surprisingly effective story in its own right. The sequel picks up with Norman Bates as he's released from an institution due to "budget cuts" (curse you, Reaganomics!). Norman returns to his childhood home, is helped by a sympathetic case worker (Robert Loggia), and even makes a special lady friend (Meg Tilly) that doesn't seem to trigger any homicidal impulses. But before long, he starts finding notes from Mother - is Norman's sanity unravelling, or are others purposefully messing with his head, or both? The screenplay by Tom Holland, who would go on to direct Fright Night and Child's Play, is smart enough to understand that Norman is an essentially sympathetic character; after all, the true villain of the original Psycho is already long dead before the movie begins. Perkins' performance is an underrated part of the original film's success, and it's a pleasure to see him return to and expand on the character (the Perkins-directed Psycho III isn't as strong, but it's often enjoyably kooky). And director Richard Franklin, whose previous film was the fun, Hitchcockian outback thriller Road Games, does a great job of alluding to Hitchcock's visual style without making a carbon copy. There are even moments that have the blunt, arbitrary shock value of the shower scene, which Franklin is confident enough to open his movie with.

54. The Serpent and the Rainbow (Wes Craven, 1988)

Wade Davis's book The Serpent and the Rainbow is a riveting account of the author and ethnobotanist's time spent in Haiti researching real-life zombies - people poisoned with a potent combination of tetrodotoxin hallucinogens and buried alive, so that they appear to be and believe they are undead. Davis has written that he sold the movie rights with the belief that the film would be a straightforward adaptation directed by Peter Weir, and was upset that the final product was a horror movie directed by Wes Craven instead. Davis' disappointment is completely understandable - the movie has as much relationship to his book as Outbreak does to The Hot Zone - but Craven's movie isn't straight exploitation either. Despite his knack for shock value, Craven is a much more intelligent filmmaker than he usually gets credit for, and the film uses the political climate of Haiti during the fall of the "Baby Dog" Duvalier regime as its backdrop, with the a captain of the Tonton Macoute, played by Zakes Mokae, as its villain. The film was actually shot in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, giving it a strong sense of verisimilitude even as it turns into a straight horror movie. As Davis' fictionalized counterpart (Bill Pullman), sent by a pharmaceutical company to discover the zombie drug's formula, is captured, tortured and, eventually, given the drug and buried alive, The Serpent and the Rainbow is a very scary (and welcome) return to the pre-Romero zombie genre. It may not be as subtle as Jacques Tourneur's I Walked With a Zombie, but it contains Craven's most effective dream/hallucination sequences outside of the first A Nightmare on Elm Street, a scene that is almost unbearable for anyone with claustrophobia, and another that is equally hard to watch for anyone who has a penis.

53. Santa Sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1989)

One of the most laziest cliches in film criticism is to describe a movie as another movie "on acid." Instead, we'll say that Santa Sangre is Psycho on two tabs of mescaline and a Guatemalan insanity pepper after a trip to mass. While the movie, about the son of a circus performer (Jodorowsky's son Axel) who escapes and is compelled to murder by his armless mother, isn't scary in the sense of being built around suspense or fright sequences, it is scary in the sense that it's a recklessly imaginative descent into the darker recesses of Jodorowsky's subconscious. Produced and co-written by Claudio Argento, it's as bloody and driven by dream logic as any of his brother Dario's films, with shocking scenes side-by-side with moments, such as a funeral for an elephant, that have a strange sort of beauty. Like David Lynch or Luis Bunuel, Jodorowsky has a gift for making us see things we consider horrifying or repulsive in a differnet context, forcing us to question our own assumptions. He's also a more id-driven director than either, with an unapologetically puerile preoccupation with sex and all manners of perversity. Santa Sangre does for horror what El Topo did with the western, turning it upside down and altering our understanding of the genre.

52. Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)

Argento's last very good movie was also the last films in one of the greatest streaks, starting with 1975's Deep Red, that any filmmaker has ever had. It's about an opera singer named Betty (Cristina Marsillach) who, just as she's given her big break in a production of Verdi's Macbeth, is stalked and terrorized by a sadistic killer who forces her to watch has he kills his prey. The way the mystery plot folds is occasionally clunky, but thorny psychosexual subtext more than makes up for it; as we learn why the killer has chosen Betty, there's a question of whether she's complicit in, or perhaps even turned on by, the elaborate and deadly game-playing, complicated further by a final scene that is goofy if taken at face value but has other, thornier, implications. The movie also features the most technically astounding moments in Argento's career, including the famous bullet-through-the-keyhole scene and a dizzying bird's-eye view of the opera house. I do hope that Argento has at least one more great movie in him, but Mother of Tears, Giallo and the trailer for Dracula 3-D aren't very encouraging. Either way, we'll always have his amazing '70s and '80s output, and Opera is a high point among them.

51. The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987)

I love that this movie was shot by Michael Chapman, who was also the cinematographer on Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and other '70s classics. It's a great-looking movie, which isn't surprising coming from Joel Schumacher, but this movie is the one time Schumacher's slick visual style resulted in a movie that works from beginning to end. I love how the scope of the cinematography, the bombastic soundtrack and the lush production design combine to great a heightened, overheated atmosphere; that the story is actually quite silly only makes me love it more. It's like a kid's projection of everything that's scary and attractive about being a teenager turned into an R-rated but basically kid-friendly horror movie. And it's aided a great deal by Edward Herrmann and, especially, Diane Wiest, who give the movie surprising credibility. But really, it's all about Grandpa (Barnard Hughes). Every moment that Grandpa is onscreen is solid gold. When my best friend got a DVD player for Christmas, the first DVD he bought with his own money was The Lost Boys, because he wanted to hear the triumphant, "La Cucaracha"-scored final scene in crystal clear surround sound. If they're going to keep cranking out shitty Lost Boys sequels, they should really make a prequel about Grandpa. Also, a spinoff movie about the shirtless saxophone guy.

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