Friday, October 11, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#80-71)

We're a fifth of the way through the list, and while we haven't hit the canonical titles yet, we're past the movies I have to qualify with "I loved them as a kid" or "This is more awesome than great." The movies listed below are good, solid entertainment for Halloween or any time.

80. Critters (Stephen Herek, 1986) 

Critters is one of those rare cases where a movie made to exploit the success of a recent hit (Gremlins in this case) is actually pretty great in its own right. The key may be that Critters, like Gremlins director Joe Dante's Jaws riff Piranha, has a sense of humor that is tongue-in-cheek without ever quite veering into self-parody. Critters doesn't share Piranha's satirical bent, but it does have moments like this that demonstrate the filmmakers are in on the joke without tipping their hat too much. But the stars of the Critters are the Chiodo brothers, who designed the creature effects and succeed in making the Crites - a renegade alien species that escapes captivity, crashes on Earth and proceeds to eat everything in sight - hilarious and strangely endearing. Supporting performances from great characters actors M. Emmett Walsh, Dee Wallace and Terrence Mann (Javert in the original Broadway production of Les Miserables, appearing here as an intergalactic bounty hunter) also help make Critters better than it needed to be. The sequels are mostly disposable, but Critters 2 does feature a scene where the Crites form a giant, rolling Criteball that instantly devours people and livestock it rolls over. I'm looking forward to Mark Cousins discussing the scene's influence once The Story of Film reaches the 1980s.

79. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

This sci-fi/action hybrid about a body-jumping alien earns its place on this list thanks to the alien's uniquely horrific method of travel, a dying host passes the slimy creature mouth-to-mouth to its new host. It's a memorably queasy images that has influenced countless genre movies since (Jason Goes to Hell was particularly shameless in borrowing from The Hidden). Jack Sholder's tense, economical direction and Kyle MacLachlan's performance as a peculiar FBI agent (his work here feels like a dry run for Agent Cooper) also help make The Hidden an unassuming but surprisingly rewarding low-budget classic.

78. Something Wicked This Way Comes (Jack Clayton, 1983)

The most effective of Disney's late-'70s/early-'80s attempts at attracting older audiences, this adaptation of Ray Bradbury's novel (one of my favorite books) creeped me out something fierce as a kid. When I rewatched it as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it mostly holds up. Jack Clayton also directed The Innocents, and this movie shares some of that outstanding film's ability to subtly get under our skin. The story of two boys, Will and Jim, who discover that the travelling carnival in town has a very dark secret, Something Wicked This Way Comes is the rare Disney movie featuring kids in peril that makes us feel as if something bad might actually happen to the kids. As the Mephistophelian carnival barker Mr. Dark, Jonathan Pryce is an impressively menacing presence even though we hardly see him do anything horrible - he can be chilling just by entering a scene. Jason Robards, as Will's dad, is credible and moving as a guy who envies his son's youthful adventures enough to believe him when other parents wouldn't. The film has a chilly, autumnal atmosphere that makes it perfect viewing for this time of year, especially if you're looking for one that will spook the whole family.

77. Phenomena (Dario Argento, 1985)

This one has a loopy plot even for Argento, with Jennifer Connelly playing a girl who can communicate with insects investigating a series of murders at her Swiss boarding school with the help of an entomologist played by Donald Pleasance. The movie features some of Argento's greatest surreal images and inventive death scenes, and a haunting soundtrack. It veers from hypnotic to kind of a mess, sometimes in the same scene, foreshadowing the director's sad decline. But it also has a monkey wielding a razor, and that always forgives a lot.

76. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)

Stephen King's novel is one of his best, and certainly his most frightening; King was famously reluctant to publish the book at first, thinking it to be too mean-spirited. The plot hinges on the death of protagonist Louis Creed's three-year-old son and his attempt to bring the boy back to life, which turns into a particularly disturbing variation on The Monkey's Paw. The movie isn't quite as strong as the book - some of the performances are stilted, and while Mary Lambert does a pretty good job of translating King's screenplay to the screen, I can't help wondering what original director George A. Romero's version would have been like. But it's a strong enough story that it still works, and two performances in particular - Fred Gwynne as a neighbor who tries to warn Louis to no avail and Miko Hughes as his undead tot - are pretty terrific. And for anyone who's seen the movie, the memory of Louise's wife's sister Zelda is bound to be particularly squirm-inducing. Bonus points for the awesome Ramones song that plays over the end credits.

75. Motel Hell (Kevin Connor, 1980)
Motel Hell is like a stepping stone between the stark gallows humor of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the more overt dark comedy of its first sequel. Starring Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons as Farmer Vincent and his wife Ida, who kidnap travelers to "farm" and slaughter them before selling them at his roadside stand (the motto: "It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent's Fritters"), Motel Hell has an endearingly cornball sense of gallows humor. But the image of Farmer Vincent's captives buried up to their necks, their vocal cords cut, is grim enough to color our reaction to the sillier bits. Motel Hell's grimy and unsettling enough that the jokes only make the experience feel more menacing. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, it's an alternately gross and hilarious parable about the plight of the small businessman.

74. Silver Bullet (Daniel Attias, 1985)

I must defer to an excerpt from Roger Ebert's review, one of my favorites:

"I know that a case can be made for how bad "Silver Bullet" is. I agree. It's bad. But it's not routinely bad. It is bad in its own awesomely tasteless and bubble-brained way--so bad, I think every laugh was put in lovingly, by hand. Most horror movies are exercises in unrelieved vulgarity, occasionally interrupted by perfunctory murders. This movie, to borrow an immortal comment by Mel Brooks, 'rises below vulgarity.' If you are sick up to here of horror movies in general and Steven King in particular, this is the movie for you. If you have impeccable taste and high artistic standards, why have you read this far in the first place?"

To this I'll just add my affection for Silver Bullet's narrative framing device, an homage to To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course it is.

73. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)

Coscarelli's sequel picks up exactly where the original Phantasm ended, and I love how, over the course of this and the next two sequels, he builds the original's collection of surreal, Dune-influenced imagery into an elaborate mythology for the Tall Man and his minions. It's also a great showcase for a series of wildly imaginative practical effects that grow more and more disgusting, from the Tall Man growing like a tumor out of a character's back to the famous silver ball tearing a character apart from the inside. Coscarelli has the imagination of a twelve-year-old who sits in class scribbling gory scenes for an imagined sequel to his favorite scary movie, only Coscarelli literally made those movies, and I love him for it.

72. Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985)
The most memorable thing about Mr. Vampire is the way that the titular vampire and his transformed victims literally hop like bunnies because, apparently, the ground hurts their feet. The sight is as agreeably goofy as it sounds, and this Chinese vampire movie is memorable for this and its other unique twists on the vampire mythos (vampires can be harmed by sticky rise, and they cannot see anyone who holds their breath). Mr. Vampire is three movies - a slapstick comedy, a straightforward supernatural fantasy and a martial arts movie - in one, and all three are pretty terrific.

71. Maniac (William Lustig, 1980)

One of the best horror movies I'm in no hurry to see a second time, Maniac follows sweaty loner Frank Zito (Joe Spinnell) as he prowls NYC for female victims, looking for scalps to dress his collection of mannequins. The sight of Spinnell (who appeared in The Godfather, Rocky and other '70s classics) talking to his bloody mannequins and his dead mother in his tiny, squalid apartment is as off-putting as it sounds, and that's not even taking the movie's disturbing violence (with splatter effects courtesy of Tom Savini) into account. But Maniac did earn my grudging respect the one time I watched it - while it's about a character who hates women, it's not a misogynistic film. The movie's violence is purposefully depressing and bleak, and there's no attempt to turn Zito into a charismatic slasher - he's thoroughly pathetic and frighteningly human, and Lustig and Spinnell both know it. Spinnell deserves a lot of credit for his commitment to such a completely repulsive character, even using his paunchy physique and, er, unconventional looks to great effect. We'll call a performance "brave" because an actor goes without makeup or gains 30 pounds, but it takes real guts to portray a character that is intended to alienate the audience. And Lustig uses the movie's old, dirty NYC locations to great effect, particularly in an extended chase scene through a subway stop. The remake, featuring Elijah Wood, has gotten good reviews, and I'll check it out eventually, but it's hard to imagine why a remake of Maniac was deemed at all necessary. The original is a singular experience, and I mean that as a high compliment, though perhaps a backhanded one.

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