Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Top 100: '80s Horror! (Introduction/#100-91)

The best month of the year is finally here! I have to admit that I'd been toying with a few more ambitious ideas for my annual October writing project, and I'm sure I'll revisit them in the future. But I had to admit to myself that, as I'm working through the first draft of a screenplay and will be contributing some Halloween-themed writing elsewhere (more on that soon enough), attempting to post here every day would soon prove to be more of a chore than it should be. I'm not complaining, as not having time to write because I have a lot to write is a great problem to have, but as I've really come to enjoy writing here every year as a way of getting into the spirit of my favorite holiday, I've come up with a different project. It was suggested by this piece by Richard Harland Smith, an attempt to define the generation gap between horror fans who came of age in the '60s and '70s and those whose formative years were post-Halloween (or post-Buffy). It's a fair, well-written and thought-provoking piece, and I've found my thoughts returning to this paragraph since I first read it:

"It seems to me that people who were born ten years after I was, who were impressionable young children in the early to mid 80s, and for whom movies like HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13TH, POLTERGEIST, PSYCHO 2, and FRIGHT NIGHT represent the first generation of horror fans to have it all handed to them. When I was a kid, horror films were made by studio contractees, by hacks, journeymen, and lifers — they banged out the work as best they could without a real passion for the idiom; ten years later and horror movies were being made by horror fans who grew up wanting to make horror movies: John Landis, Joe Dante, Sam Raimi, Don Coscarelli, Tom Holland, Tobe Hooper. Horror movies in the 80s stopped being so personal and specific to character and became all about the filmmaker, stopped drawing from our shared fund of mythical and folkloric archetypes and started referring to the genre itself in an attempt to be “ultimate.” To be spectacular. To go big. There may be no better illustration of this tendency than the elevators cannoning blood in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, a movie I’ve never loved, though many of my friends (and some more than others) could not live without it. But there’s also a comfort factor. 80s horror movies were saying, in effect, it’s okay that you like what you like — which is a lovely sentiment, really — but the empowerment factor, the narcissism, became too much for me. When horror movies started saying “Know what I’m talkin’ about?” as if to say “We’re on the same page here, right?” I looked the other way."

Richard, if you're reading this, I thank you for obviously trying to avoid a "You damn millenials get of my lawn!" tone, and there's only the slightest trace of it here. And, as I consider the '70s to be a high point for horror movies as much as the decade was for American filmmaking in general, I envy you for growing up in the best possible decade to be a young horror fan. But you lose me when you claim, I think, that the shift to horror movies largely being directed by lifelong fans of the genre is somehow responsible for characters being less important than the filmmakers. While it's true that horror movies largely became more self-referential in the '80s, to say that they "stopped drawing from our shared fund of mythical and folkloric archetypes" just doesn't make any sense to me, especially when your main example, The Shining - while, yes, perhaps the ultimate auteur-driven movie  - is immersed in the archetypes of myths and fairy tales.

Look, I'm a child of the '80s, and my love for horror and, consequently, film grew out of the dusty VHS boxes lining video store shelves and late night broadcasts from WLVI's "Creature Features" and TV-38's "Movie Watch" (with Dana Hersey!) in the same way that triple bills and "Shock Theatre" shaped Richard's imagination. The idea that horror fans older than I could be so turned off by movies that helped make me who I am is an interesting one; but then, will I be writing someday about the divide between myself and younger horror fans who cite pretty good recent horror movies like Insidious and Sinister as hallmarks of the genre? I suppose these things are inevitable. In any case, I've made a list of my 100 favorite horror movies from the decade. Not all of them are great movies - actually, the first ten I'll be writing about today probably help Richard's case more than they help mine - but they all made me who I am in some way. I'll probably just be writing a little bit to accompany each movie on the list, but hopefully I'll be able to give you an idea or two to fill out your own Halloween viewing schedule.

Also, please note that a few of these are genre hybrids that very much stretch the definition of a horror movie. I originally had a more specific criteria for what could be included on the list, but when only a few movies were left off as a result, I decided to leave them on - what the heck, it's Halloween!

100. Maximum Overdrive (Stephen King, 1986)This is a pretty bad movie, and I proudly display its original one-sheet on the wall of my office. Stephen King's sole directorial effort is an adaptation of "Trucks," which is not one of his more memorable short stories to begin with. King has openly admitted that he was coked up throughout its production and, once he realized he wasn't capable of making a good movie, decided to make the most vulgar, ridiculously entertaining big-budget B-movie he could. This is no guilty pleasure - it's a joy to watch from beginning to end, with arcade games electrocuting Giancarlo Esposito, profane ATMs and child-crushing steamrollers, all scored by AC/DC (the song they wrote for the opening credits, "Who Made Who," is probably my favorite of theirs). I've never tried cocaine, but knowing it can result in the creation of a film like Maximum Overdrive makes it a little bit tempting.

99. Sleepaway Camp (Robert Hitlzik, 1983)I'll admit that I'm including Sleepaway Camp because my first (and only, actually) boyfriend, who I'm still friendly with, loves this movie, and I know that, if he's reading, he'd be very disappointed in me if it was excluded. For much of the film, it's a pretty routine variation on Friday the 13th; however, when it reaches its famous final reveal about the, um, identity of the killer, it's genuinely unsettling in a "Wait, was that - ?" way. I won't spoil it here, but if you've never seen the movie, it's definitely worth checking out for that inexpicable, unsettling final twist.

98. Cat's Eye (Lewis Teague, 1985)

Another Stephen King adaptation, this one an anthology movie with three stories connected by a very resourceful stray kitty. The first, starring James Woods as a guy who hires a mysterious company run by Alan King to help him quit smoking, only to discover their methods are very unconventional, is darkly funny; the second, in which Robert Hays is forced by a cuckolded husband (Kenneth MacMillan) to walk around the entirety of a ledge on the top floor of MacMillan's skyscraper, is just so-so. But the third story, which King wrote for the film, is terrific. The titular feline, who is adopted by a young girl (Drew Barrymore), soon learns that there's a tiny, murderous troll living in the walls of the girl's house who is attempting to steal her breath. The last fifteen minutes of Cat's Eye are a protracted battle between the cat and the troll - a little person in a costume designed by Carlo Rambaldi - and it's every bit as awesome as it sounds. I watched Cat's Eye countless times as a kid, though I haven't seen it in several years; I assume it's mild fare for any adults watching it today, but if you have a child who's interested in spooky stuff, Cat's Eye is a fun introduction.

97. Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982)

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, a giant winged lizard, makes a nest atop the Chrysler building, occasionally swooping down to dine on New Yorkers. Meanwhile, a pair of detectives (David Carradine and Richard Roundtree) attempt to solve a series of ritualistic murders that, they eventually learn, are being committed by Quetzalcoatl's followers. It's a fantastic premise for a monster movie, and while Q is sometimes hampered by its charmingly low-tech special effects, it works thanks to a cast that, somehow, manages to keep a straight face as things grow increasingly ridiculous (Michael Moriarty, as a thief that discovers Q's nest, is particularly good). I'm not a huge fan of B-movie auteur Larry Cohen, but there's no denying the awesomeness of that premise, and for the most part, Q delivers. Newly available on a Scream Factory Blu-ray, Q is ripe for rediscovery.

96. House (Steve Miner, 1986)

A horror writer (William Katt), traumatized by his experiences in Vietnam and the disappearance of his son, moves into a big, eerie old house left to him by his aunt. Before long, the house itself appears to be coming to life, and he's attacked by horrible ghouls that may or may not be hallucinations. While the script for House is nothing special, the movie sticks in the memory thanks to an array of impressively ugly phantoms achieved via practical effects, and the movie is another great introduction to the genre for young viewers - its spooky moments are leavened with agreeably goofy comic bits. And where else are you going to see Richard Moll (Bull from Night Court) as a zombie?

95. Poltergeist II: The Other Side (Brian Gibson, 1986)

From a story point of view, a sequel to Poltergeist is completely unnecessary, and the often-meandering Poltergeist II never succeeds at convincing us otherwise. But it's a pretty good and sometimes very creepy movie on its own terms, featuring outstanding practical and optical effects (including one memorable creature, dubbed the "Vomit Monster" by the crew, that was designed by H.R. Giger), as well solid performances from the original cast and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's Will Sampson as a car-stealing shaman. But it's Julian Beck's performance as the sinister Reverend Kane, the ghost of a cult leader who has come to steal back Carol Anne, that anyone who has seen Poltergeist II surely remembers. Beck, one of the founders of the avant-garde Living Theatre, was dying of stomach cancer when the film was shot, and he utilized his shrunken, skeletal appearance to terrifying effect. The movie's okay, but Beck's performance is one of the all-time greats of the genre.

94. The Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988)

My friend Jason Alley recently wrote about the strange, vaguely kinky one-sheet for The Lair of the White Worm that, when he was a kid, made the movie seem too uncomfortably adult to consider checking out, which made me recall that I had the same reaction to the poster when I saw it hanging in a local video store. The movie, a loose adaptation of a Bram Stoker novel, is never quite as perverse as the poster promises, but it benefits from Ken Russell's trademark over-the-top hallucinatory images; this was probably the last Russell film that works, actually. And while I haven't seen the movie in several years, I'll never quite get this goddamn song out of my head. 

93. Killer Klowns from Outer Space (Stephen Chiodo, 1988)I have to admit that this beloved cult classic has never been as much of a favorite for me as it is for many of my peers. Perhaps if I was afraid of clowns, it'd mean more to me; as it is, I've always found clowns merely annoying. That said, it'd feel wrong to exclude it here, and it does have an undeniable charm, mostly thanks to the awesome creature design and special effects by the Chiodo brothers, who'd previously worked on Critters and the Large Marge scene in Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, among others. Killer Klowns from Outer Space was their magnum opus, and you can feel the obvious love and care that went into every cotton candy attack and balloon trap. Plus, the theme song rocks (I'm discovering that awesome soundtracks are going to be a recurring theme with this list).

92. Twilight Zone: The Movie (John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and George Miller, 1983)

One of the rare cases where general critical consensus of a film is 100% on the money. John Landis' first segment is so-so, and impossible to watch without thinking about the on-set tragedy. The second, Steven Spielberg's "Kick the Can," about a magical Negro (Scatman Crothers) who returns the residents of a retirement home to their youth, is the worst thing Spielberg has ever made, painfully syrupy even for a lifelong Spielberg fan like me who can defend most of his other films against charges of sentimentality. But Joe Dante's "It's a Good Life," based on one of the best of the original series' episodes, is among the director's best work - about a boy with the power to alter reality with his mind, it's like watching Dante's Looney Tunes-influenced imagination brought to nightmarishly surreal life thanks to Rob Bottin's excellent practical effects. And the last, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," is a great ride thanks to the rollercoaster camerawork and editing that George Miller perfected on the Mad Max trilogy; with Miller's terrific direction and a great, hysterical John Lithgow performance, it's a mini-classic. It's an uneven movie, but the high points (including the funny, spooky wraparound scenes with Dan Aykroyd and Albert Brooks) are completely worth it.

91. Pumpkinhead (Stan Winston, 1988)

Stan Winston's directorial debut features Lance Henriksen, a swamp witch and a seven-foot-tall vengeance demon. What more do you need? 


Chris said...

Cool idea! Some of my favorite horror films are from the 80s. I'll be following along and reading these posts. Especially curious what's in your top 20.

So The Shining (1980), it's somewhere on your 80s list, right? Even though you write you didn't love it as much as other people did.

Andrew Bemis said...

Oh, it was Richard Harland Smith who didn't care for The Shining (I can see how the quote could be confusing). It's actually my favorite movie.