Jonny and Billy recently did an excellent THE LAST KNOCK podcast about my favorite decade for horror: the 80s. And let me tell you, it got me juiced. I know, I know. You’re thinking: big hair, ALF, Kajagoogoo, Prince movies. Fine. Laugh all you want. But the 80s were more than a punch line. In the midst of all that ridiculousness and excess, there was a lot of serious creative work going on. In fact, I’d argue that in terms of horror, the 80s was the most fecund and inventive decade of the 20th century.
A lot of this was a reaping of what was sown in the 70s. Many of the authors and directors that would dominate the 80s cut their teeth in the previous decade. Punk may have been dead, but its spirit haunted the 80s. In addition, the adventurous and experimental spirit that matured in the 70s crossed into a decade that took the nihilistic excesses of its predecessor in new, more optimistic (though perhaps also, paradoxically, more cynical) directions. All the boundaries exploded in the 70s by films like THE EXORCIST, ALIEN, THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, HALLOWEEN and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE were gone forever.
Practical special effects also came into their own, perfected and pioneered by the likes of Rick Baker, Tom Savini, and Stan Winston among many, many others, and filmmakers subsequently became less restrained about showing gore and creature effects. Less was no longer more. More was more! The greater the shock value, the better.
Culturally, here in the U.S, we had to contend with the dawn of Reagan conservatism, the death throes of the Cold War, AIDS, soulless materialism, the rise of corporate power, Baby Boomer nostalgia, yuppies, and Tipper Gore (and that’s just the proverbial tip of the iceberg). There was a lot of anxiety for horror auteurs to drill into. And drill they did.
The result was that, for a time, horror could have its cake and eat it, too. The genre was given mainstream cache by the monstrous success of authors like Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, etc… Filmmakers like John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and Wes Craven crafted films that simultaneously didn’t insult the audience’s intelligence and were blockbuster successes—unimaginable in today’s box office environment.
But there was also a lot squirming under the surface, too: a thriving independent subculture ready to take advantage of the audience’s appetite for terror and the burgeoning VHS rental market. Straight-to-video became both a way to make money from cheap, exploitive films and also a way for inventive filmmakers to circumvent the chokehold of the studio film distribution system. Many films found an audience almost exclusively through word-of-mouth and VHS rental.
In short, it was glorious. Of course, by decade’s end cynicism, greed, and irony usurped a lot of the earnest energy the decade had in abundance in its early years. The economy sucked. The fun was gone. And the genre was too self-aware, but lacked the verve and wit to deconstruct and make fun of itself the way Wes Craven would in the 1990s with SCREAM. Everybody yearned for what had been. Nobody was thinking about what would be.
In any case, Jonny and Billy did a great job of highlighting some of the best films of the decade. Here are some additional worthwhiles and their horror cohort (by year) from the decade that brought us DONKEY KONG and Boy George.
EFFECTS (1980): A director may or may not be creating a snuff film depicting his cast and crew being murdered. It’s not perfect, but I think it captures the anxiety people felt upon seeing new special effects that were so good they shocked even the most jaded audiences. You knew it wasn’t real. But boy it looked real. The film is inventive and its conceit is novel. It’s cohort for that year includes: FRIDAY THE 13th, THE SHINING, CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD, ALLIGATOR, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE CHANGELING, MANIAC!, ALTERED STATES, and THE FOG.
THE HAND (1981): Oliver Stone and Michael Caine team up to create a really great bad movie. Goes to show you can come back from anything. Horror cohort: POSSESSION, MY BLOODY VALENTINE, THE HOWLING, EVIL DEAD, THE BEYOND, and AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON.
ALONE IN THE DARK (1982): Donald Pleasance, Martin Landau, and Jack Palance star in this underrated thriller about a bunch of homicidal lunatics who escape from the asylum and wreak havoc as homicidal lunatics are wont to do. Palance’s character is great and the ending of the film is fucking perfect. Horror cohort: THE THING, CREEPSHOW, POLTERGEIST, HALLOWEEN III, Q: THE WINGED SERPENT, BASKET CASE, and TENEBRAE.
HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983): Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine—the four horseman of the cinematic apocalypse!—are all together for the first and only time in this film. (BTW: I’m writing this on the day Christopher Lee died, an event I was convinced would never happen. R.I.P.) Horror cohort: THE HUNGER, THE KEEP, VIDEODROME, CUJO, XTRO, CHRISTINE, & SLEEPAWAY CAMP.
RAZORBACK (1984): An Australian horror featuring a giant warthog. Don’t laugh. The premise seems ridiculous, but the film is surprisingly effective. Horror Cohort: NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, NIGHT OF THE COMET, C.H.U.D., CHILDREN OF THE CORN, THE COMPANY OF WOLVES, and GREMLINS.
THE BRIDE (1985): This is the sort of over-the-top, unintentionally funny film that only the hubris of Really Serious People with Artistic Vision and A Budget can make. What a glorious disaster. Jennifer Beales “won” a Razzie for a performance that pretty much killed her career for a while. Sting at least had a day job he could scurry back to. Horror Cohort: FRIGHT NIGHT, DAY OF THE DEAD, LIFEFORCE, PHENOMENA, RE-ANIMATOR, and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.
APRIL FOOL’S DAY (1986): What a year this was! This low key slasher might be the most underrated of the bunch, but it’s still pretty well-known among horror aficionados. 1986 was loaded. Take a look for yourself: ALIENS, THE FLY, FROM BEYOND, IN A GLASS CAGE, THE HITCHER, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, CRITTERS, HOUSE, LITTLE SHOP OF HORROS, VAMP, and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS.
THE HIDDEN (1987): Kyle Maclachlan hunts down a parasitic alien that takes over dead bodies and makes them experience digestive distress. I’m not really doing it justice. It’s a nice B-movie sci-fi horror and MacLachlan is better than the material…in a good way. Horror Cohort: HELLRAISER, DOLLS, ANGEL HEART, BAD TASTE, EVIL DEAD II, LOST BOYS, NEAR DARK, THE GATE, and RETURN TO HORROR HIGH.
THE NEST (1988) and SLUGS (1988): Both movies are ridiculous and cheerfully revolting, basking in prolonged kills and lots of disgusting effects. They’re crawling with campy pleasures and you’ll find plenty to laugh at (much of it unintentional), but you’ll do it while peeking through your fingers; some of the sequences have held up surprisingly well. Horror cohort: NIGHT OF THE DEMONS, PIN, THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW, KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE, CHILD’S PLAY, MANIAC COP, PUMPKINHEAD, THE BLOB, THEY LIVE, and PHANTASM II.
INTRUDERS (1989) and PARENTS (1989): Clips from both movies are used in Skinny Puppy’s x-rated version of their video for “Worlock”. INTRUDERS is by no means a great movie nor is it a particularly original one. But the kills! The kills are inventive and squirm-inducing. Conversely, PARENTS is a horror/comedy directed by Bob Balaban (!) and starring pre-crazy Randy Quaid about a boy who suspects that what his parents are serving for dinner is Soylent Green before it becomes Soylent Green, if you know what I mean. He takes it upon himself to find out, literally, how the sausage gets made. Horror cohort: PET SEMATARY, SOCIETY, THINGS, THE DEATH KING, THE EXORCIST III, WARLOCK, and TETSUO: THE IRON MAN.
All right, enough for now. I’ve got a novel to finish and the next installment of THE ELEMENTS OF (HORROR) STYLE to write. Got something to add? Leave it in the comments or tweet me at @RSBRZOSKA. Cheers!
(Photo from Twin Lens Film.)