Monday, October 07, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (#90-81)

Before we get into the next ten, I wanted to share a top 50 list that Alex Jackson, whose writing on movies at Film Freak Central and his blog I Vidded It On the Screen largely inspired me to start this blog, assembled in response to this one. While I mentioned in my first post that I've expanded my definition of horror to include movies that blend genres, Alex's is truly expansive, including movies like Blood Simple, Blue Velvet and River's Edge. As I love all of those movies and they're all frightening in their way, it got me thinking about why I didn't think to expand my definition of horror to include those. I think it's partly because the way I define genre - and why I usually don't bother trying to categorize movies in that way - has more to do with how they make me feel than anything else. All of those movies are frightening, but either they're a more cerebral kind of fear or, in the case of Blue Velvet, the horror is put in a sensual context that (quite brilliantly) confuses my emotional response to it, making me feel less afraid than exhilarated. But Alex's list is a welcome reminder of how far horror can extend beyond ghosts and goblins, and I have to give Alex particular credit for including The 'burbs, a movie I love and nearly included but decided that, even for a horror-comedy, it was a bit too gentle to include. But its place on Alex's list makes me want to rewatch it through the lens of horror and see what I find.

Anyway, on to the next ten:

90. The Gate (Tibor Takacs, 1987)

The Gate was in heavy rotation on HBO just as I was old enough to be channel surfing and sitting through whole movies on my own. Though it's a PG-13, mostly kid-friendly movie, some of its more grotesque moments - young protagonist Glen (Stephen Dorff) discovering an eyeball in the palm of his hand, creepily cute pint-sized demons, a scene where demons disguise themselves as Glen's parents - showed up in my nightmares for years after. But I found a new appreciation for The Gate when I saw a screening of a 35mm print that was part of a horror festival organized and mostly attended by metalheads. It was clearly a childhood favorite of theirs, and the way the kids in the movie learn about the demonic curse in Glen's backyard through the lyrics of a metal album made me realize that the audience probably got into metal for much the same reason they (and I) loved horror movies - the preoccupation with dark subject matter was probably both cathartic and, in finding other people who liked the same stuff, gave them a sense of community in sharing and celebrating the things that frightened them. It made me wish I'd been a metalhead in high school - I'd have had a great time drinking beer in the woods, and I would have looked great in denim.

89. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (Dwight H. Little)

I hesistated to include Halloween 4 because it represents a retreat from the more adventurous direction John Carpenter and Debra Hill intended to take the series before Halloween III bombed. If you'd asked me when I was younger, I'd have said this was a better movie than its predecessor; I'm smarter now, and we'll get back to Halloween III soon enough. However, Halloween 4 is the last really effective movie in the series until the two Rob Zombie movies (I have a soft spot for H20, but it's not at all scary). Director Dwight H. Little learned the right lessons from Carpenter's original, and the movie captures a chilly autumnal tone better than any other film in the series. And I saw it at the right age that young Danielle Harris was both an ideal identification figure and an early crush. Hers is still one of the best performances by a child in a horror movie. I had the chance to meet her a few years back, but I heard myself saying "I had the biggest crush on you when you were nine" and decided it was best to skip it.

88. Fatal Attraction (Adrian Lyne, 1987)
If the producers of Fatal Attraction hadn't bowed to test screenings and switched the original, darker ending with a crowd-pleasing one, it would be one of the all-time great thrillers (indeed, director Adrian Lyne's next movie Jacob's Ladder, gets better every time I watch it). As it is, it's an exceptionally well-made movie that, even if I wasn't aware of the behind-the-scenes story, feels like it loses its nerve in its final minutes. Still, it did for infidelity what Jaws did for the ocean - even now, I'm sure that many men who feel even the slightest flicker of temptation when presented with an opportunity that seems easy to get away with remember Fatal Attraction somewhere in the backs of their minds and decide they'd better not.

87. Monkey Shines (George A. Romero, 1988)
My friend Rob worked with Helping Hands and knew Ella, the co-star of Monkey Shines; I always found it amusing that, as he explained, the organization worked closely with the filmmakers because they thought the movie would be great publicity. The great thing about Romero is that, no matter how absurd the premise, he takes the time to make the characters and their feelings credible; Monkey Shines is a quite effective drama about a man learning to live again after a devastating accident before one of the most one-of-a-kind, batshit horror movie premises ever takes over. If you see one movie about a man's psychic link with a genetically enhanced super-intelligent monkey whose romantic jealousy drives her to murder, see Monkey Shines.

86. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (Renny Harlin, 1988)
The documentary Never Sleep Again, an exhaustive account of the making of the Nightmare on Elm Street series, made me appreciate the fact that, no matter which movies in the series work or don't, they were always sincerely working their hardest to avoid formula and make every movie a unique crowd-pleaser for its teenage audience. The original New Line team could come up with something as laughably dumb as the "Power Glove" bit in Freddy's Dead, but they'd never make a movie as soulless and boring as the recent remake. So while A Nightmare on Elm Street 4, which was a huge hit in its day, has a few bits that don't work (I'm mostly thinking of the scene where an invisible Freddy does karate), it's a crowd-pleaser in the most honorable sense of the term. You can feel the filmmakers working overtime to make the most entertaining movie possible, and while the strain is sometimes obvious, I appreciate the effort.

And the key to the Nightmare series popularity is that they understood the teen audiences' anxieties far better than the Friday the 13th or (besides the first one) Halloween movies. The affluent suburban parents who are too much products of the Me Generation to acknowledge that their kids are in danger, or that they created the monster that they're now ignoring, are as much the villains of these films as Freddy. Combine that barely-subtext with Renny Harlin's effectively slick visual style and a soundtrack filled with weirdly evocative tunes by artists like Dramarama and Sinead O'Connor, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 is a better time capsule of middle-class teen life in the '80s than any of the John Hughes knockoffs. When I wrote about A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 years ago, I suggested that it felt like a predecessor to Donnie Darko, and I'll stand by that out-of-left-field comparison.

85. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (Tom McLoughlin, 1986)

I used to not be that crazy about the jokey sixth entry in the Friday the 13th series, and I still think that the American Express gag makes no sense. But I appreciated the movie more after seeing it in a double bill with The Final Chapter last year. Watched with an appreciative audience, the movie's sense of humor seems more like good-natured spook show humor than a case of the screenwriters and director condescending to the material and audience. It's also the best-looking Friday the 13th, and contains surprisingly pretty good performances and dialogue. Director Tom McLaughlin's previous film, One Dark Night, is one that a few of my friends would tell me deserves to be on this list, but I haven't seen it yet (sorry, guys!). So Jason Lives, which also gave the world this, will have to do instead.

84. City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)

Pure gross-out isn't usually my cup of tea, but I have to acknowledge that Lucio Fulci is pretty much the all time best at what he does. Which, in the case of City of the Living Dead, means lovingly shot closeups of an actress puking her guts out and a drill penetrating an actor's temple. Fulci never passed up the opportunity for a repulsive sight gag, but if gross-out was his only talent, I doubt he'd have as large a fan base. It's his ability to sustain a sickly, almost unbearably tense atmosphere even when there's no gore onscreen that makes his movies work; the disgusting moments are most important for the effect they have in these in-between scenes, as we know Fulci is capable of anything and can't trust even the most seemingly calm moments. In City of the Living Dead, a very loose plot - the gates of Hell have opened beneath the town of Dunwich, Massachusetts - is a clothesline for a potent collection of surreal, disturbing and, yes, often sickening images. If you're hung up on such bourgeois concerns as "story" and "logic," City of the Living Dead is likely to be frustrating (especially since Fulci, to be fair, never quite had Argento's knack for dream logic). But as a particularly queasy kind of nightmare, City of the Living Dead sticks in the imagination, particularly one of the all-time "WTF??" endings.

83. April Fool's Day (Fred Walton, 1986)

I revisited April Fool's Day a few months ago, and I'm glad I did. It's a very unique slasher that disarms the audience's expectations in a somewhat confounding way; on a second viewing, knowing where the movie is headed, it's easier to appreciate the qualities that set it apart from its peers. And it's also one of the best examples on one of the finest pleasures of the slasher genre, watching unlikable yuppie teens in polo shirts die. I wouldn't be surprised if April Fool's Day was an influence on Simon Barrett and Adam Wingard when they were thinking up You're Next, as the two films share a lot of DNA.

82. Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981)

Scanners was a surprise hit that was number one at the box office the weekend it opened. How can it not warm my heart to know that, in the dead of winter 1981, millions of Americans experienced Louis Del Grande's head exploding into a million red sticky bits together?

81. Dead and Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

Gary Sherman's career runs the gamut from the classic Red Meat to the terrible Poltergeist III (though that one still has some interesting ideas). Dead and Buried is closer to the former than the latter, a grisly little supernatural story that sticks in the imagination. The screenplay by Alien's Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett is set in a tiny coastal town where a group of residents commit a series of murders with no apparent motive; stranger still, the deceased start coming back to life. I'll admit that I saw the central twist of Dead and Buried coming long before the reveal, which took me out of the movie a bit the first time I saw it. But now, thinking back on the movie's gloomy gray atmosphere, inventively gruesome setpieces and terrific early effects work by Stan Winston, I find myself wanting to revisit Dead and Buried in the near future.


Chris said...

I've watched a couple of these.

City of the Living Dead (1980) has its moments,especially the scene when she wakes up in the coffin stayed with me.

Scanners is indeed famous for the head explosition. Impressed also by the creepy performance by Michael Ironside. It was scary to be thrown into the mind of the patient, listening to all those voices.

Bemis said...

Yeah, Ironside is great. Scanners has a few shaky performances, but he holds it together.