10/19/2018 – 1980s: The Lost Boys (1987)
Directed by Joel Schumacher
As the 1970s came to a close, the film industry as a whole was about to suffer a death in the family. The beloved New Hollywood movement which had brought filmmaking to new levels of creative success would come to an end with a string of high-profile failures from unfettered directors. As a whole, the 1980s were a down period for film compared to the previous one, but horror escaped that trend. In fact, the genre went through a bit of a golden era in the period. Part of that would be due to the peaking of the technology of practical effects, partly it was the rush of popularity and the boom brought on by the beginning of the VHS era, and partly it’s that the unique over-the-top ’80s aesthetic has made it perhaps the best era for picking up any bad film since the 1950s if not better.
It’s perhaps fitting that the first classic film of the ’80s was a Stephen King adaptation. Though he got his works first started getting adapted in the ’70s, they truly become ubiquitous starting this decade. They’d make it to film, TV, comics, and even notoriously the stage in the case of Carrie). Fifteen feature length films and one short (The Lawnmower Man: A Suburban Nightmare) were made from (or partially from) his work, (I’ve seen all but three and that short) and they are all at the very least decent. Well with one exception.
The one clear highlight (discounting the two great, non-horror titles in Stand by Me and The Running Man) is also one he hated, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It breaks one of my cardinal rules for a great horror film as it pushes two and a half hours, but Kubrick is talented enough to make it work. The disparate interpretations it has led to may entice some, but it’s the long tracking shots, Jack Nicholson’s descent and depiction of madness, and the iconic imagery that are what matter most to me. King would next write the anthology film Creepshow for George Romero in 1982, adapting a couple of his own stories, writing some originals, as well as trying his hand at acting in one segment. It was a solid tribute to the DC and EC comics (such as Tales from the Crypt) and five year later he would try again with Creepshow 2, a film hated aside from its second segment.
John Carpenter would take a turn with Christine, David Cronenberg with The Dead Zone, and Lewis Teague (Alligator) with Cujo all in 1983,but none of them are among my favorites. I can hardly call the creepy child film Children of the Corn “good”, but it is entertaining and quotable while Firestarter starring Drew Barrymore is certainly a film that exists. Another mediocre anthology in Cat’s Eye, the werewolf flick Silver Bullet, and the cocaine assisted mess of a debut directorial effort in Maximum Overdrive followed in quick succession. Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary would wind up being the last and the second best of King adaptations in the decade.
Before we get to anymore classics, it’s probably best to cover the most famous subgenre of the era, the slasher film. We already covered the genres start in the past two decades, but after the release of Halloween, it would become a go to for cheap horror films. I’ve talked enough about that series enough this year, but another film which pulled heavily from it and dumbed it down significantly would become the blueprint for even more of the copycats. Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th would move the killing to a summer camp and over the seven(!) sequels released that decade, would introduce a second slasher icon in Jason Voorhees. The focus of the series would always be on the kills and little else with only one of the entries Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, being worth watching.
Those two franchises weren’t the only two games in town however. The other big series would come in the form of Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. Introducing Freddy Krueger, a murder killed by vigilante justice come back to kill again in dreams, I’ve always held that it has the best premise of any slasher and Freddy Krueger (as played by Robert Englund) is the best villain of them. The film since the series largely coasted on that starting with the very good first. After a rushed and lousy sequel that broke many of the series’ rules, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors rebounded creatively in 1987. It also moved the series more towards comedy which The Dream Master and The Dream Child embraced more each time. Child’s Play would be the other standout title, with the possessed killer doll Chucky working far better it should.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg in both films and series. OG proto-slashers would get sequels both fine (Psycho II), bad (Psycho III), and weird (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2). Every conceivable holiday would get their own slasher with the worthwhile ones being My Bloody Valentine, Bloody Birthday, and April Fool’s Day (though Silent Night, Deadly Night is worth noting for the moral panic it touched off for depicting a person dressed as Santa Claus killing. Among the other films to check out are Madman, the bizarre exploitation film Pieces, Alone in the Dark, Sleepaway Camp and its first more comedic sequel which have a special place in my heart, and the action-oriented Maniac Cop featuring Bruce Campbell.
Speaking of, Bruce Campbell would achieve his breakout role in Sam Rami’s Evil Dead films as Ashley Williams. The first one (released in 1981) is a low budget horror classic that incorporated elements of black comedy and with its inventive camerawork and gonzo energy, it’s earned its cult reputation. The bigger budget sequel which was released six years later leaned heavier into the slapstick and comedic elements (while maintaining the horror) and started to make Campbell into the quotable icon he is now.
Those practical effects, which the Evil Dead films made great use of, found their true calling in body horror. John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing from Another World, now simply called The Thing, featured some fantastic effects and makeup but excelled even more with generating a sense of paranoia between the characters and has one of the greatest film endings ever made. David Cronenberg’s Videodrome is personal favorite from the decade with its techno-satirical tone and hallucinogenic imagery as James Woods descends further into madness (a role he’s been method acting ever since). Cronenberg is something of a patron saint of the genre with the gruesome effect filled remake of The Fly (which got a crappy sequel) and plastic surgery based Dead Ringers. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator used its effects to up the blood and gore in its Lovecraft adaptation, something he repeated in the lesser if still very good From Beyond. Clive Barker’s Hellraiser used its effects to tell a story of pain and pleasure with its sequel (Hellbound: Hellraiser II) being a weird if decidedly less effort.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer debuted at film festivals in 1986 and while it didn’t get a theatrical release until 1990, owing to the X rating it received for its raw violence and other content, I’m counting it here and Michael Rooker is stunning in his breakout role. John Carpenter’s sci-horror title They Live on the other hand gained its reputation for its satirical bite and for a lengthy fight scene in the middle. Of Carpenter’s other two horror films that decade The Fog and Prince of Darkness, I much prefer the former which offers plenty on its atmosphere alone but despite my disappointment in the latter, it does have a sizable cult following.
It was a prime time for odd movies. How else do you explain the great line blurring films of The Ninth Configuration or Altered States, the telepathic/telekinetic Cronenberg film Scanners (though aren’t they all out there?), the giant winged Aztec god in New York City of Q, the superhero spoofing The Toxic Avenger, a comedic musical remake about a killer plant from outer space in Little Shop of Horrors, the killer mall security robots of Chopping Mall, the talking brain symbiote from Brain Damage (it’s basically Venom but good), and Killer Klowns from Outer Space which speaks for itself?
That’s not to say there still were traditional horror to be had. The werewolf film had two of their best representatives in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London and at the very least the best effects for the subgenre. Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper delivered a haunted house film whose bones can be felt in so many modern-day ones with Poltergeist (it also got two sequels but those can be forgotten about). Twilight Zone: The Movie remade the classic anthology series for the big screen and the end result was uneven (and murderous) but worth seeing for the final two segments (from Dante and Mad Max‘s George Miller). The Monster Squad brought all the Universal monsters again to the present day while doing what Abbott and Costello had done years ago by playing it for a laugh.
There were also a quartet of zombie films that succeeded in different ways. The perpetually underrated and witty Night of the Comet would later go on to influence Buffy. Day of the Dead continued George Romero’s series by moving the action to an underground bunker, thematically advancing the progress of the outbreak and making the tone darker. It’s not as good as its masterful predecessors, but it succeeds in its own right. The Return of the Living Dead served as a sort of spinoff to Night of the Living Dead, however, it would co more comedic and bloodier as well as move to a different style of zombie (including the infamous moan of “braaaaiiiinnns”). Night of the Creeps made the zombies a result of alien slugs and was more a classic style B-movie.
The last couple films that didn’t really fit anywhere are Joe Dante’s horror-comedy Gremlins which helped lead to the creation of the PG-13 rating, the sci-fi action-horror The Hidden, The Stepfather featuring a great performance out of Terry O’Quinn as the murderous title character hiding with a new family, and the fun remake of The Blob. On TV (and with apologies for not mentioning Kolchak: The Night Stalker last time), the primary horror television came from anthology shows. Influenced by the success of the Twilight Zone movie and Creepshow, they included Tales from the Darkside, a reboot of The Twilight Zone, Amazing Stories (at least some of the stories were), Friday the 13th: The Series, Freddy’s Nightmares, and Tales from the Crypt (which mostly ran in the ’90s) as well as Hammer House of Horror which predated them all.
We’ll travel first to Italy where Cannibal Holocaust invented the found footage and popularized the prolific genre of Italian cannibal films which were often controversial (such as Cannibal Ferox). Cannibal Holocaust earned its controversy over the depictions of violence and concerns that it may be an actual snuff film, all the animals killed in the making of it, and the depictions of cannibals but I’ve discussed that plenty in the past. Dario Argento also continued his career into the decade, turning out Inferno, Tenebre, Phenomena, and Opera, as well as writing the two Demons films and The Church (the one I’ve seen out of all his ’80s efforts and one I don’t care for) for Lamberto Bava.
Elsewhere in Europe, the French-German Possession is worth seeing if only for Isabelle Adjani’s performance, the Dutch killer elevator movie The Lift is a good, fun watch, the Austrian Angst is an underseen but fantastic and frequently brutal film, the French killer dog film Baxter is fascinating, and the West German Nekromantik should probably be noted for its controversial content which you can guess from the title. The so bad it’s good Indonesian title Mystics in Bali and the bizarre Japanese body horror title Tetsuo, the Iron Man are the primary Asian titles to pick out. Alejandro Jodorowsky’s acclaimed Santa Sangre which I did not get the appeal of still deserves the recognition here.
While The Lost Boys feels like a title I should have seen before, I’ll admit that I just had no desire to see it. As much as I said that horror escaped the downslide of the ’80s, it just looked too ’80s and it did not have the best reputation for aging. Still, I could think of no more perfect film that I hadn’t seen to represent this decade as a whole, a statement I’ll stick by now having seen.
Set in the fictional beach town of Santa Carla, California (the murder capital of the US, complete with its own boardwalk), two brothers (Corey Haim as Sam and Jason Patric as Michael) move with their mother (Dianne Wiest) after she gets a divorce to stay with her dad who has no TV and has quite the collection of dead animals. There are lots of missing child posters and a large alternative community from the opening credits. Sam is supremely dorky and into comics and the even dorkier comics people (including Corey Feldman) tell Sam that there’s vampires in this town and that he’s to call them if he ever needs help, trying to get him to read comics about it.
Michael on the other hand, devotes his attention to being creepily into a woman (Jami Gertz) who is part of a gang lead by Kiefer Sutherland as David (also including Bill S. Preston, Esq.!). Michael is taken back to the vampires’ lair (consensually) in a place sunken into a rift and seduced into drinks blood from a bottle offered to him. This turns out to be ill advised and he starts to turn into a vampire and thirst for blood.
The vampires in this visually have faces that seem to have influenced those of Buffy with their ridges and sharp teeth. These vampires however all apparently have superpowers, fly about randomly, have super strength (except when it is inconvenient). I get that the title is a Peter Pan reference, but it never stops looking terrible when they rip the roofs off cars and suck people into the air like they are a tornado. The camera flies about crazily all movie and there’s lots of quick cuts for an ’80s movie. I thought I watched older movies to avoid this stuff. When Schumacher isn’t sending the camera hurtling through space, he’s using countless melodramatic crossfades that had aged extremely terribly.
The acting is pretty awful all around (the mullets and long flowing hair are incredibly distracting), but the two Coreys get the most of my attention. Haim spends much of the film yelling while Feldman growls in an odd guttural tone. I’m pretty sure Barnard Hughes as the grandfather is supposed to be the wacky comic relief, but I find his schtick tiring. Michael as a half-vampire makes the one in The Velvet Vampire look intelligent in her ability to avoid sun. The soundtrack is filled with bad hair metal and other terrible music from the era, music chosen that is often way too on point for the scene.
I won’t say the film is all bad though. Nanook the dog is great and deserves all of the treats. Also, the bathtub kill was awesome and gory and came out of nowhere in terms of quality. Kiefer isn’t a does a solid enough job as the baddie replaying his Stand by Me character. The film does improve somewhat towards the end once it moves away from being a ridiculous horror comedy to being a less ridiculous horror movie, but by that point it was far too little too late. It embodies all the worst excesses of the era and pulls little from what worked.
Bonus Episode #30 – A – 1980s: Society (1989)
Directed by Brian Yuzna
Finished in 1989 and receiving a successful European premiere then, Society did not receive a US release until 1992. For our sake, we’re counting it here. I went into this one with some preconceived notions about what kind of film it was going to turn into (ones that the film’s own opening credits play into), and that is not the ideal way of viewing this film.
Bill is a bemulleted high schooler who has nightmares and is constantly afraid, hallucinating things such as worms in the food he bites into, the food appearing as creepy crawlies, or something shifting under the skin of a person’s back. He’s a popular athlete, with a girlfriend, and even running for student body president in a race he’s sure to win. Yet he feels alienated from his family since he doesn’t think he looks like them and that they don’t approve of him or his friends. To be fair to him, unlike his other insecurities, that one is obvious from the start.
He seems to get some confirmation that something is off though in the form of David Blanchard, his sister’s ex who keeps harassing her and sneaking into her room. He even bugs the sister to reveal that her “coming out party” involves something far more than just a simple society get together. Blanchard’s attempts to convince Bill take a while to stick but they start to drive him even more paranoid with all the talk about the secrets regarding the society around there, all while he is tempted by another woman who is apparently bad news.
The movie is Far from subtle with its message as it has to go out of its way to state each bit of subtext as a one liner (subtext is for cowards). It’s a film that can’t wait to get to the end and its unique selling point and it left to fill time until it gets there. There’s a good idea for a movie here in the basic story especially if it had embrace the ’70s era paranoia thrillers or the high school age issues. The film does none of that and when its satire fails for being too underwritten and overexplained at the same time, that leaves only the big finale which isn’t big enough to save it.
Next up: Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation