Part 4 of our series on the most influential horror films of the last 50 years!
The end of the Seventies created the slasher movie. The mixture of low-budget filmmaking with its teenage cinema-going audience proved a winning combination. Special effects were also coming into their own, courtesy of groundbreaking science-fiction movies like “Star Wars”, and SFX and Special Make-up pioneers like Rick Baker and Savini. The Eighties would see an explosion (sometimes literally) in gore and transformation special effects. This in turn would spark off a reactionary backlash… the “Video Nasty”.
Friday the 13th 1980
Starring a young Kevin Bacon, this textbook slasher is actually quite effective. Hot on the heels of John Carpenter’s “Halloween”, Jason is Michael Myers on steroids. The film is pretty much a carbon copy of the earlier movie, except for more gore, a scary summer camp setting, and did we say more gore? A huge success, the film spawned a vast quantity of sequels. These are unusual in that the main bogeyman, Jason, becomes not only superhuman, but a parody of himself, until at last we finally get “Jason in Space”. Even today, Jason refuses to die, getting a recent unnecessary “reboot” in 2009. Director Sean S Cunningham had worked on Wes Craven’s notorious nasty shocker “Last House on the Left”, and like Wes Craven’s monsters, Jason would soon become a postmodern joke. But the first instalment tries, for the most part, to pay it straight.
The Shining 1980
Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of Stephen King’s masterful haunted house story is a rare thing – a horror movie and a work of art. Jack Nicholson descends into madness with a little help from the ghosts of the deserted Overlook Hotel, turning on his wife Shelley Duvall ( I challenge you to find a better screamer) and his psychic young son. The hotel becomes part of the horror, its patterned carpets and maze-like structure twisting the mind out of true. Nicholson’s performance is Oscar-worthy. Kubrick’s direction flawless. Even the opening scene with its alien viewpoint becomes unsettling. Copied countless times, this is a true classic.
American Werewolf in London 1981
John Landis, better known perhaps for comedies such as “The Blues Brothers” and “Coming to America” left an indelible impression on the horror genre with this tale of an American boy who gets bitten by a werewolf on the Yorkshire Moors. From then on, things get truly hairy. Landis plays with horror and comedy. The result is a very unsettling picture. But the star of this film is the magnificent werewolf transformation scene designed by Rick Baker. Excruciating in its agony and detail, we really believe we are seeing a man transform into a creature of the night. The uneven tone caught many critics by surprise, but this one stands the test of time, and has been copied by virtually every werewolf movie since.
The Howling 1981
It would be remiss not to mention “The Howling” as well. There is some controversy over which movie was in the works first. Landis maintains he had the idea for “American Werewolf” before production started on “The Howling. Both are werewolf movies, both feature excellent transformation scenes. Both have comedic elements. But “The Howling” for the most part is a serious story, as evidenced by the opening scene in which reporter Dee Wallace (the mom in “E.T.”) finds her interviewee in a seedy sex video store, only to be driven half insane when she sees him transform before her eyes. The scene is one of the most intense I’ve ever watched. Great acting fro the likes of Patrick McNee and John Carradine flesh out the cast, but again the real star is the special effects. Baker again had a hand in these, before leaving the production to work on “American Werewolf”.
The Thing 1982
Baker’s successor on “The Howling” was Rob Bottin. Bottin came into his own as designer of the many gut-wrenching and terrifying effects used in this John Carpenter masterpiece. The story is a simple one – scientists in a remote Antarctic base discover an unfriendly alien life form that assimilates and takes over all other life forms, including man. The great cast makes the whole thing believable, while Carpenter is on top form, dishing out the scares. But by now the “Video Nasty” craze was in full swing, especially in the UK, where various consumer groups battled to get such films banned. That, and negative comparison to the “feel good” alien blockbuster “E.T.” released that year, prevented “The Thing” from being a box office success. Thirty years later, it has cult status.
A Nightmare on Elm Street 1984
Another Wes Craven creation, scarred undead child-murderer Freddy Kruger would go on to become one of the most recognizable monsters in horror. “Nightmare” is a genuinely frightening picture, with some very effective scares. It spawned an army of sequels and reboots of varying quality. But it too would suffer from the postmodern disease of become a self-parody,until finally we get “Jason vs Freddy”, a film that doesn’t even try to suspend disbelief.
The Fly 1986
David Cronenberg had made several pictures after “Shivers”, notable the excellent “Scanners”. But he hit the big time with this remake of a Vincent Price shocker about a scientists who experiments with teleportation only to swap heads with a fly. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success — a horribly disfigured Jeff Goldblum gradually transforming into a homicidal half-man/half-fly. But stalwart acting from Goldblum and Gena Davis, combined with a highly intelligent script, turned audiences on everywhere and the Fly became a bona fide hit. The tagline “Be Afraid. Be very afraid” has become a part of popular culture. One of the high points of horror in the 80s.
Evil Dead II 1987
Sam Raimi had burst onto movie screens with the 1981 classic “The Evil Dead”. Raimi’s penchant for weird camera angles and cartoony special effects was an underground hit, attracting the attention of the anti-Video Nasty brigade due to one very unpleasant scene. In “Evil Dead II” he took this one step further, creating his own unique blend of comedy and slapstick, and making a star out of straight man Bruce Campbell. As horror lightened in tone after the mid-Eighties, Raimi’s style fitted the mood of the times perfectly. The film is a basic remake of the first movie, but ends on a hysterically crazed note. The violence is cartoon, the plot insane. Fanbooys loved it, and have been lapping it up ever since.
The Lost Boys 1987
All this seems to be part of a pattern. The serious, horrifying movies of the Seventies were transforming, as studios targeted their prime audience, and began churning out products that college kids out on a date could enjoy. Cynical marketing? Probably. This was the Eighties, after all. Whatever the reason, two movies came out in 1987 that reinvented the vampire genre. One was “Near Dark”, the other was “The Lost Boys”. This is where vampire chic has its roots. Kiefer Sutherland heads a posse of Eighties vampires, compete with rock star looks and clad in the latest fashions. They are everything vampires are (attractive, immortal, evil etc.) but updated. The movie is a very slick production, with some favourite child actors, some great comedy scenes, and a top-notch Eighties soft-rock soundtrack. “Lost Boys” was an instant hit. Since then, almost every “cool” vampire movie or TV show owes a debt to this movie, from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “Twilight”.
Near Dark 1987
The other movie that redefined the vampire genre was the little-seen “Near Dark”. But whereas “The Lost Boys” drew in audiences, this film took 25 years to become a cult classic. A tour-de-force of filmmaking by Oscar–wining director Kathryn Bigelow, it includes a dream cast, many of whom had appeared together in Bigelow’s then-husband James Cameron’s “Aliens”. “Near Dark” features grubby, streetwise vampires prowling the American MidWest. This is no Gothic romance, nor is it high fashion. Lane Henriksen’s performance is chilling and compelling, Bill Paxton is at his rebellious finest, and sadly underused actress Jenny Wright at her most beguiling. These vampires are down and dirty. In many ways this movie is the opposite of “The Lost Boys”.
At the end of the Eighties, a Liverpudlian horror author with a dodgy transatlantic accent came to prominence. He was also a film director. Clive Barker brought a new vision to horror. His was horror filled with spectacle, almost operatic. The plot revolves around a puzzle box that, when opened, summons a trio of leather-clad sado-masochistic demons. Like Cronenberg, Barker likes to explore the forbidden or taboo. In “Hellraiser” he gave the world the iconic and somewhat literally-named monster Pinhead. And lo, a franchise was born! The movie is unsettling and takes itself very seriously. Barker would follow this up with a variety of cult classics, such as “Nightbreed” and “Lord of Illusions” – all of which were overlooked by mainstream audiences despite their originality and quality.
The Eighties created some wonderful horror movies, and saw the rise of the horror-comedy as a way to reinvigorate the genre. The wild and wacky craze of the Video Nasties gave way to more mainstream hits. Horror became homogenized. Maverick directors like Cronenberg became accepted by the movie-going public, and by the end of the Eighties, horror movies were no longer a Video Nasty to be burned or kept on the top shelf of your local video store but instead became big business, and somewhat tamer as a result. Sequels multiplied faster than zombies. It was the coming of a time of exploitation, not of stereotypes this time, but of wallets.
Horror in the 1990s. In which the genre reaches a dead end (say it ain’t so!), we all see dead people, vampires get all mushy and camera angles become shakier! See you there!