Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#70-61)

I'm battling a cold but determined to stay on course to finish this list by Halloween - as I'm a bit drowsy and unfocused, feel free to let me know in the comments if you catch any typos or unfinished thoughts. As for the next ten, they do a great job of representing the eclectic nature of the genre, with gory popcorn movies sitting next to art films and subtler fare. Writing about #68, in particular, made me realize how overdue I am to revisit it.

70. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

The Beyond is my favorite Fulci, as the movie's supernatural premise allows for some wildly surreal images that go beyond (heh) Fulci's usual knack for gross-out. There's plenty of that of course, with man-eating spiders, bodies dissolved by acid and so forth. But the movie's thin plot, concerning a woman who inherits a New Orleans hotel built on one of the seven gates of hell, allows for some very striking images of the afterlife and its residents. It's incoherent, but coherence wasn't a priority for Fulci - inspired by the surrealists, he wanted to shock and provoke a visceral response from his audience, and he definitely succeeded, particularly in a child-shooting scene that trumps Assault on Precinct 13 in its brutality.

69. The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 director and co-writer Chuck Russell and Frank Darabont re-teamed for this remake of the Steve McQueen starring original. While I have a lot of affection for the earlier film, this is a case of a remake besting the original. Russell and Darabont's screenplay finds the right balance between a comic tone and, once the blob starts consuming its victims, some genuinely repulsive and creepy death scenes. The Blob takes its seemingly ridiculous monster and finds a number of inventive ways to make the pink goop seem threatening. The special effects are top-notch for their time, but it's Russell and Darabont's obvious appreciation for the previous movie and monster movies in general that make it a treat for horror buffs. Bonus points for Eraserhead's Jack Nance in a bit part.

68. Lady in White (Frank LaLoggia, 1988)

Another childhood favorite, set in upstate New York in the early '60s, about a boy named Frankie (Lukas Haas) who, after being accidentally locked in a school closet on Halloween, is almost killed by a mysterious attacker before having a vision of a murder that took place in the same spot ten years earlier. The movie has a great deal of fun alternating between the mystery of the unsolved murder and Frankie being visited by spooky but harmless ghosts who want his help. The internet informs me that the titular ghost is based on an urban legend from Rochester, NY, where writer/director Frank LaLoggia grew up. The movie was shot on location near Rochester, and it captures that Northeastern late autumn vibe perfectly. The identity of the killer is predictable, but other than that, Lady in White a subtle, effective ghost story in the vein of The Haunting and The Innocents.

67. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)

I had a professor in college that was big on the intentional fallacy, the pitfall of basing one's interpretation of a text on knowledge of its makers or the creative process that aren't found in the text itself. A movie like A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 reveals the limitations of adhering to this approach too strictly. I used to think this first sequel to A Nightmare on Elm Street was enjoyable in a so-bad-it's-good way, largely because of the homoerotic barely-subtext that I assumed was accidental (I wrote about it several years ago here). That changed for me when I attended the Monster Mania convention in Cherry Hill, NJ three years ago, featuring a Q&A with the film's stars Mark Patton and Kim Meyers. Patton quit acting shortly after A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2, and this was his first appearance at a con, and he was disarmingly frank, making it clear that he was more than happy to discuss the aspect of A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 that was one everyone's minds. According to him, the gay subtext of the movie was completely intentional, at least in his performance, and he had obvious pride in being the rare male scream queen and in the e-mails he'd received from gay men who told him how much the movie and his performance meant to them when they were teens. It was fascinating hearing about Patton's experiences as a gay man in Hollywood in the '80s, about the homophobia and hypocrisy that drove him away from the industry, and about how he'd wanted to forget about the movie for a long time because of the many homophobic internet reviews of the movie from horror geeks, a primarily young, male group (though our ranks seem to be growing more diverse, thankfully). Knowing all this, and knowing that A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2 was made by people who knew exactly what they were doing (except for, according to the documentary Never Sleep Again, director Jack Sholder) has made the film a whole new experience to me - what used to seem campy now seems worthy of celebration, a mainstream horror movie with a gay protagonist that is about the fear of coming out. If Mark hadn't told his story, I'd still think it was a guilty pleasure, so whether it succeeds on its own terms is debatable. It still tries to make an exploding parakeet scary, after all. In any case, I love it completely unironically. Also, it has the best Freddy makeup design in the series. Also, this.

66. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (Joseph Zito, 1984)

The best of the Friday the 13th sequels, which are, for the most part, variations on the original's stalk-and-slash format. This one is the best because director Joseph Zito actually has a sense of how to use light and shadow, framing and editing to build suspense, tools that had been mostly forgotten since the first film. It also works thanks to two characters and performances. The "final girl" is Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman), a young horror buff who makes his own monster masks and low-tech effects - he's a surrogate not only for makeup artist Tom Savini, who returned for what was supposed to be the last in the series, but for any young horror geeks in the audience. And then, of course, there's Crispin Glover, who takes the role of an undersexed "dead fuck" and makes something special out of it with his already-offbeat line deliveries and character choices (this will never not crack me up). And though the subtitle was proven to be bullshit in less than a year, Savini's work on Jason's would-be sendoff is suitably grisly.

65. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

A teacher once told me that The Changeling was the scariest movie ever made. The first time I saw it, I was a little disappointed that I didn't love it as much as my teacher or the movie's general reputation would suggest. I was mostly disappointed by the mystery aspect of the plot, which never really grabbed me (though it was a likely influence on The Sixth Sense). Freed of those high expectations, though, The Changeling is an effective little thriller. Starring George C. Scott as a composer who moves into an old house following the death of his wife and daughter, only to discover that something else is residing in the house, the film has some great scares built entirely on the power of suggestion. Put another way, I didn't know it was possible to make a red rubber ball this frightening.

64. The Hitcher (Robert Harmon, 1986)

It's all about Rutger Hauer. The Hitcher has other strong elements - Robert Harmon's economical direction, the stark cinematography, C. Thomas Howell's believably terrified performance, and the gruesome setpiece involving two semis. But even if the rest of the movie didn't work, the demented twinkle in Hauer's eye as the hitcher describes to his captive what a knife can do to the human eye would be enough to make the movie terrifying and memorable. I'm not usually crazy about these schematic thriller screenplays where the arbitrariness of the killer's motives is meant to be inherently scary. But Hauer is good enough that I buy it with The Hitcher, and the film is one of those cases that proves that, as fun as monsters and special effects can be, one strong performance is enough to make for a terrifying experience.

63. Lifeforce (Tobe Hooper, 1985)

I first saw Lifeforce during one of my late-night insomniac stretches as a young kid, channel surfing and discovering fascinatingly inappropriate movies. Though Lifeforce's reputation has improved, especially after Scream Factory's recent Blu-ray release, when I was growing up it was one of those films that I'd pretend to enjoy as a guilty pleasure before I realized that it is okay and defensible to just love this stuff for what it is. It's a big-budget movie about naked space vampires, and it's every bit as ridiculous, entertaining and ridiculously entertaining as it sounds. This was the first of Tobe Hooper's three-film deal with Cannon, and the failure of this and his entertaining remake of Invaders From Mars pretty much killed his career as an A-list director. It's a shame, because watching Lifeforce, flawed though it is, one can find all of the character, personality and batshit inventiveness that its too often sorely missing from blockbusters today.

62. Paperhouse (Bernard Rose, 1988)

Before he directed the outstanding Candyman, Bernard Rose made this quirky, unsettling psychological thriller that sticks in the imagination. Its hallucinatory images tempt the overused term "fever dream," but here it's actually apt, as the protagonist is a young girl named Anna (Charlotte Burke), who is bedridden by glandular fever. Sketching a house on a piece of paper, she finds that she's able to visit the house in her dreams. When she draws a face staring out the window, she returns to meet a boy (Elliot Spiers) living in the room. As Anna inadvertently creates monsters and has to save the boy, the movie becomes a fascinating exploration of childhood anxieties, particularly for anyone who is prone to revisiting the same imagined places in their dreams. I watched Paperhouse many times back when Bravo would air it a lot (this is when Bravo was actually awesome), but it has never gotten an R1 DVD release and is mostly forgotten today. Hopefully Scream Factory or another label will get around to it sooner rather than later, as it's a fascinating, unique film that is ripe for rediscovery.

61. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982)

I used to dislike Halloween III for the same reason a lot of people do - it's a Halloween sequel in name only, ditching Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in favor of a Twilight Zone-esque tale about an evil toymaker and his plan to kill thousands of kids on Halloween night. The turning point was when I realized that I actually preferred watching it to most of the sequels that followed, that a bonkers movie involving Stonehenge, evil masks and killer robots is always preferable to a flat, formulaic photocopy of a classic film. Plus, the movie stars genre great Tom Atkins, who gets the most awesomely abrupt seduction scene in film history and makes it completely believable. I marvel at how, in the 1980s, a middle-aged, not particularly attractive, boozing, doofy guy could be a hero and sleep with the young lead actress (Stacey Nelkin), even as I have to admit to myself that there is something strangely attractive about the guy. Probably best not to dig too deep there. In any case, I really fell in love with the film when I saw a good 35mm print of it a few years ago. The movie was shot by Dean Cundey, who was also the DP on the previous two, and it has a great, sickly color palette that plays off Halloween iconography - it looks like poison candy corn. Halloween III may not be a great movie, and I can't fault anyone who still finds the idea of a non-sequel perverse, but it's more interesting and entertaining than any of the others in the series until Rob Zombie's remake and its sequel (but that's an argument for another day).

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