Friday, September 2, 2011

Psychobabble’s 150 Essential Horror Movies Part 7: The 1980s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through more than 90 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 150 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

101. The Shining (1980- dir. Stanley Kubrick)

Made the year before its release, The Shining is more in step with ‘70s horror than that of the decade in which it was released. Brooding and psychological, the film does not prognosticate the monster movies that would make a big, special-effects-aided comeback in the ‘80s. Stephen King took issue with this adaptation of his novel, belly-aching that Stanley Kubrick ignored the book’s focus on a family made horrific by alcoholism. That theme isn’t missing from Kubrick’s film, it just isn’t belabored. Jack Torrance’s injuring of his son Danny while drunk is the focus of wife Wendy’s awkward conversation with a wary pediatrician. His complete breakdown is preceded by a hallucinatory drinking binge. His ambling gate and inarticulate grunting while hunting Danny evoke an angry lush. Although the film is unambiguously supernatural, Kubrick wisely allowed the true nature of Torrance’s deterioration to remain open to interpretation. Has the caretaker of the sprawling Overlook Hotel become a brute killer because of drink? Or is he possessed by a previous caretaker notorious for slaughtering his own family years earlier? Is it the building, itself, possessing him? Is cabin fever the cause? Or an equally non-supernatural lack of love for his wife and son? Like Leatherface or Michael Myers, the Jack Torrance of Kubrick’s film cannot be diagnosed neatly, making him less predictable, more frightening. The author may have had a more legitimate complaint against the casting of Jack Nicholson in the lead role. The actor was known for playing volatile men, and his presence telegraphs the trouble to follow long before he and the family even arrive at the Overlook Hotel. Yet Nicholson is so iconic as Torrance that his performance transcends criticism in the same way Lugosi’s Dracula does. His raving monster is matched by Shelley Duvall’s exhausting performance as Wendy. Duvall’s believably terrified reactions bring the film to a boil. Those frantic performances contrast Kubrick’s clinical pacing and simmering fright scenes beautifully. The Shining is dynamizing when Shelley is panting and Jack is shouting his pop culture-informed threats (“Heeeere’s Johnny!”... maybe the mayhem is all T.V.'s fault!), but the most disturbing moments are Danny’s slow crawl toward scrawling the not-so-cryptic “Redrum” across the wallpaper, recurring images of a bloody tide flooding from elevator doors, and the apparition of dead-eyed, doppelgänger sisters who intend to play with Danny “forever and ever and ever.”

102. An American Werewolf in London (1981- dir. John Landis)

‘80s horror really got underway with An American Werewolf in London. Through the decade, the genre essentially split into two streams: low-budget slasher pictures inspired by Halloween and mega-budget, special effects laden blockbusters born from Jaws. An American Werewolf in London falls into the latter camp. With its brightly lit, on-screen transformations masterminded by Rick Baker of Star Wars fame, Werewolf was a spectacular specimen of how far movie magic had come. Although some of the effects have dated (the Nazi-zombies are guys in rubber masks; the wolf that terrorizes Piccadilly Circus looks like the prop-on-wheels it is), the film has not, largely because there isn’t anything else like it. An American Werewolf in London simmered in John Landis’s imagination for ten years before he realized it as a truly bizarre stew of comedy, romance, surrealism, tragedy, and horror. The film works sincerely on each of those levels, Landis masterfully orchestrating its various ambitions without ever straying off course. David Kessler and Jack Goodman are American college kids backpacking through England who meet their fates after wandering from a road leading them through the misty moors. A werewolf slaughters Jack, leaving his soul in grisly limbo. David receives a transformative bite. Jack begins appearing to his friend in scenes that are horrifying because of his increasingly rotten body and funny because of the incongruity between his friendliness and his monstrous appearance. Jack’s visits are also sad because he implores David to kill himself for the sake of the people he killed in his animal state. Like The Wolf Man, which it references often, An American Werewolf in London hooks viewers with monsters and special effects, but affects them deeper with its lovable, tragic hero committing horrendous acts against his will. David Naughton is astounding as Kessler: full of puppy-dog energy after his lycanthropic infection, charmingly seductive when wooing a pretty nurse, pitiable when suffering his agonizing transformations, hilarious when fleeing the zoo in which he awoke in the nude, gut-wrenching when saying farewell to his little sister on a pay phone. Equally winning and tragic, Griffin Dunne as Jack and Jenny Agutter as Nurse Alex deliver two more of horror’s finest performances. Landis pulls off one of cinema’s greatest directorial feats, supplying relentless imagination and fierce energy. And when he’s done, he ends it all with shocking abruptness. Why say anything more when there’s nothing more to say?

103. Poltergeist (1982- dir. Tobe Hooper)

Seven years after Jaws and one after injecting some terrifying sequences into Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg returned to pure horror with Poltergeist. The film displays many of his signatures: a conservative American family confronted with the incomprehensible and awe-inspiring, children in trouble, soft glowing lights, and splashy special effects. There is much debate regarding who really directed the picture. Although Tobe Hooper received the credit and insisted he helmed the project, an on-set reporter stirred rumors that producer Spielberg was really in charge. The film certainly has more in common with Close Encounters of the Third Kind than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and its assaultive qualities are more in line with those of Spielberg. A man graphically tearing off his own face recalls the melting Nazis in Raiders. Hooper’s horror tended to be less graphic, if no less visceral. Regardless of who is the picture’s true author, Poltergeist is a fine, frightening haunted house movie that gets as much mileage out of its torn faces and killer clowns as it does its subtler terror: the disappearance of a child, just out of reach, yet impossible to retrieve (the “Little Girl Lost” episode of “The Twilight Zone” was a clear influence). Taken as a whole, Poltergeist is a bit of a mess. There’s some questionable acting (Craig T. Nelson is no Richard Dreyfuss). The graphically violent scenes and disturbing ghost rape of Jobeth Williams’s Diane Freeling seem as though they belong in another movie. This was intense stuff for something sold as a relatively family-friendly PG spook picture. Fortunately, the numerous memorable sequences— spooky moving chairs, a kid-devouring tree, the arrival of Zelda Rubenstein’s soft-spoken medium, the little girl’s disappearance through a television set, and yes, the killer clown and the Buñuel-esque face ripper—are great enough to excuse their sum.

104. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982- dir. John Carpenter)

Halloween accomplished its disturbing work with nothing more than a refurbished William Shatner mask and a kitchen knife. Just a few years later, John Carpenter had enough clout to not only slip his name into his latest feature’s title but to gain access to all the special effects money could buy. With its multi-million dollar budget, John Carpenter’s The Thing couldn’t look more different from Halloween even if its origins are rather humble. Whereas Christian Nyby’s (most say Howard Hawks’s) 1951 film The Thing from Another World relied on atmosphere, B-movie make up, and the viewers’ imaginations to supply the chills, Carpenter’s remake is a showcase for state-of-the art morphing effects almost on a par with those of An American Werewolf in London. Carpenter’s film is not nearly as complex as Landis’s, but it does roll out a great cast of characters worthy of our care. Unlike Halloween, we are not rooting for the monster to take down anyone. Leading a grungy gallery of character actors (Wilfred Brimley, Keith David, T.K. Carter, Richard Masur, David Clennon, etc.) is Kurt Russell as one of the few members of an Arctic research crew who manages to keep his head amidst infiltration by an alien menace that can take on the form of any living thing (an element missing from Nyby's film but present in  --> Who Goes There?, the John W. Campbell, Jr., story that inspired both films). The same cannot be said of Charles Hallahans’s Vance Norris—or at least his alien doppelgänger, which is decapitated, leaving the cranium loose to sprout spider legs and crawl away in one of the film’s most dazzling sequences. Despite such flash, The Thing does share Halloween’s suspense and paranoid tension, which is even more intense this time around. It also shares that film’s nihilism; as in Halloween, the boogeyman survives John Carpenter’s The Thing but with far more dire consequences for the human race.

105. Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983- dir. Jack Clayton)

Disney shifted focus from animated kiddie flicks to live-action genre films aimed at an older audience as the ‘70s rolled into the new decade. Critics and audiences sometimes did not know what to make of Disney’s dark stabs at science fiction (1979’s The Black Hole) and fantasy (1981’s Dragonslayer). Still, the studio persisted, adapting Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1983. Once again, the grim, occasionally violent film wasn’t a box office hit, but its artistic achievements transcended financial matters. Losing Bradbury’s trademark purple, metaphor-heavy narration, the story breathes on screen in an evocative, autumnal environment. The film would be praise worthy if only for Stephen H. Burum’s painterly cinematography, but it also features extraordinary performances from Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark, a demonic carny capable of fulfilling any wish (at a steep price, of course), and Jason Robards as the father of a boy whose best friend is seduced by Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. The kids (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson) are good in their roles, too, as are Royal Dano as a sweet-natured lightning-rod salesman and a cast-against-type Pam Grier as the creepy, fortunetelling Dust Witch. Jack Clayton, whose adult horror credits include producing The Queen of Spades and directing The Innocents, performs an admirable balancing act between delivering surprisingly mature chills and keeping the film fairly kid friendly. The director loses his footing during the cloying finale; otherwise, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a beautifully executed picture, and a perfect gateway for young people interested in sampling the macabre.

106. Gremlins (1984- dir. Joe Dante)

While Something Wicked This Way Comes introduced the few kids who saw it to the elegance of horror, Joe Dante’s blockbusting Gremlins exposed more to the genre’s more gruesome elements. The film finds absent-minded professor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) presenting a teddy bear-esque Mogwai to his son Billy (Zach Galligan) as a Christmas gift. The creature, which Billy names Gizmo, is cutesy, but that changes when his young owner violates all three caveats to caring for it: keep him out of sunlight, because sunlight will kill him (like Dracula!), never get him wet, and never, ever, ever feed him after midnight. The results are an army of razor-toothed, reptilian killers with perverse senses of humor. Among films aggressively marketed towards kids, Gremlins is unprecedented in its nastiness. A mean old lady vaults to her death through a closed window. A dog almost perishes after the critters string him up in Christmas lights. The evil gremlins are revoltingly dispatched in blenders and microwave ovens. Billy’s girlfriend (Phoebe Cates) tells a truly awful tale about how her father died after getting stuck in a chimney while playing Santa. Dante offsets the horror with outrageous humor pulled straight from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Cinematographer John Hora fashions a suburban winter wonderland that conjures the spicy flavor of a Tales from the Crypt comic illustrated by Norman Rockwell. Chris Columbus’s screenplay is clever, fearless, and even complex. Cates’s Kate Beringer is introduced as a bland girl-next-door, but she reveals a real feisty attitude and a genuine dark side. The Chinese shopkeeper who sells the mogwai (Keye Luke) is presented as a creepy— and possibly nefarious— “foreigner,” yet he proves to be the conscience of the film with some harsh but all-too-true parting words about his adopted country. Billy’s mom (Frances Lee McCain) initially comes off as a June Cleaver stereotype, but when she realizes that the gremlins have taken over her home, she bumps them off as swiftly and inventively as Rambo. And then there are the title critters, articulate little testaments to the power of three-dimensional monster props. Watching them run rampant through Little Town U.S.A., impersonating Christmas carolers and film noir anti-heroes, and shooting each other with pistols is a blast. So is the rest of the picture, which went on to spawn an even zanier sequel sure to appeal to fans of the original.

107. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984- dir. Wes Craven)

Now regarded as one of horror’s great masters, Wes Craven’s evolution was actually pretty gradual. His often-applauded debut feature, The Last House on the Left (1972), is an incompetent and repellant remake of Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. The Hills Have Eyes (1977) is still sleazy but more sure-handed. Swamp Thing (1982) proved that Craven could play with cheesy special effects effectively and create a fairly well-developed monster. He didn’t really deserve his master’s degree until A Nightmare on Elm Street, the film that made his name. Craven spruced up the sickening suspense of Hills with the imagination of Swamp Thing to make that rare slasher movie with an actual sense of fun. Unlike Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees, Freddy Krueger is a monster with a face and personality, dropping Crypt-Keeper style one-liners as he invades the dreams of the usual bumper crop of horny teens. The whole slaughter-of-promiscuous-teens thing is as tiresome here as it is in every other slasher movie, but at least the kids are allowed to go out with style. The dream conceit allows a bevy of possibilities, whether its Tina (Amanda Wyss) being dragged along her bedroom ceiling, Glen (a baby-faced Johnny Depp) getting sucked into his bed and vomited out as a gory geyser, or our hero Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) being pulled to the depths of her bathtub. The idea that one could die from doing something as commonplace—and necessary—as sleeping is terrifying. Through it all, Robert Englund looks like he’s having a hell of a time as repugnant wisenheimer Freddy. Craven keeps the pace lively and the action deadly, while also giving us the best bit of monster-movie doggerel (“One, two, Freddie’s coming for you…”) since the “Even a man who is pure in heart…” rhyme from The Wolf Man.

108. Cat’s Eye (1985- dir. Lewis Teague)

Stephen King’s novels always got a lot of attention from Hollywood producers. Creepshow provided the first opportunity to adapt some of his shorter works, but the better realized portmanteau is Cat’s Eye. The film benefits from King’s own adaptations of two of his very best truncated tales (both culled from the Night Shift collection). “Quitters, Inc.” is a black, black comedy in which James Woods takes extreme measures to stop smoking. Alan King is at his sleazy best as the gangster-like mastermind behind the title clinic, which uses threats of mutilation, rape, and electrocution to help clients kick their nasty habits. It’s a delightfully mean-spirited piece with Woods convincingly conveying the visceral anguish of the tobacco withdrawal that impels him to put himself and his loved ones in mortal danger. The second episode, “The Ledge”, is almost as good, finding crime lord Kenneth McMillan forcing cuckolding-Robert Hays onto the ledge outside his penthouse for a nightmare walk around a skyscraper. Simpler than “Quitters, Inc.”, this is the film’s most nerve-wracking sequence, particularly if you suffer from acrophobia. McMillan gives a performance worthy of a “Batman” villain. The final episode is the film’s sole original piece, and “The General” is a charmingly grim fairytale about a house cat’s duel with a troll for the soul of Drew Barrymore. Cat’s Eye is dated in some respects. Alan Silvestri’s synth score is pure ‘80s cheese. The troll costume is great, but the special effects used to shrink him into scenes with Barrymore are weak. The wraparound in which Barrymore’s apparition goads the cat through each sequence is goofy. But as far as portmanteau’s go, Cat’s Eye is the most consistent, all three episodes being witty, well acted, and likely to satisfy your yen for mid-‘80s nostalgia. Plus, you’ll never hear “96 Tears” the same way again. 

109. Day of the Dead (1985- dir. George Romero)

George Romero rounds out Horror's best series since Universal's Frankenstein cycle with Day of the Dead. Neither as scary as Night of the Living Dead nor as entertaining as Dawn of the Dead, Day makes the social commentary stowed in the earlier films its reason for being. A quartet of zombie apocalypse survivors ends up in a compound where scientists bent on curing the zombies and military men bent on annihilating them are butting heads. Because Romero's tone is a lot less satirical than it was in his previous film, his message's ham-fistedness is not as easy to swallow. The soldiers are so crude, stupid, and psychotic that Day of the Dead plays out like Military Corruption for Dummies. Romero's portrayal of science is more nuanced. Played by the likable Richard Liberty, mad Doctor “Frankenstein” Logan causes his zombie charges to suffer in a sincere effort to better them. A scene highlighting his crazed disregard for their physical wellbeing is juxtaposed with a genuinely sweet one in which he tries to humanize his prize pupil, Bub, by playing Beethoven for the zombie and teaching him to work a cassette player. Romero understands that science can be an agent of great evil and great good. The revelation that the zombies have the ability to learn allows the director to take a greater interest in his monsters, which had been little more than roving killing machines in the first two movies. In the tradition of the golden age of monster movies, Howard Sherman's Bub is a lot more sympathetic than most of the human characters bickering around him. With budding makeup star Greg Nicotero lending Tom Savini a hand, the zombies are more convincing than the blue-faced creeps of old too. The gore effects are top of the line all the way as guts unravel from a zombie's ribcage, a guy gets impromptu arm surgery, and several dudes are literally torn to pieces. It's a bit of a looong build to the inevitable zombie fiesta, but the ambiguous, oddly hopeful ending is satisfying. Two decades later, George Romero would revive his living dead for a new round of films. While Romero’s politics would remain sharp through his 21st century zombiethons, the filmmaking was less satisfying. Non-completists would do just fine to stop with Day of the Dead

110. The Return of the Living Dead (1985- dir. Dan O’Bannon)

After one fruitful collaboration writing Night of the Living Dead together, George Romero and John Russo ended their partnership. Even though Romero continued directing sequels, Russo had dibs on the “Living Dead” brand name. He put it to use in his 1977 novel The Return of the Living Dead. By the time Alien-scribe Dan O’Bannon got his talons on the property in the mid-‘80s, he’d ditched much of Russo’s story and serious sensibility. That was fortunate for O’Bannon’s film and the midnight cult it attracted, because The Return of the Living Dead is a riot. In his directorial debut, O’Bannon picks up on the comedic slant of Dawn of the Dead and rockets it into sheer absurdity, zooming in on a gang of goofy punks exposed to zombifying toxins. Revved up on slapstick humor, one liners (“Send... more... paramedics”), and a groovy gothy soundtrack (The Cramps! The Damned! T.S.O.L!), The Return of the Living Dead delivers some incredible special effects, the most impressive being skeletal Allan Trautman as the Tarman. The film is also notable for introducing brain eating into zombie lore and committing to its moments of horror fully despite the overall comedic attitude. As such, The Return of the Living Dead falls very much in line with films such as Dawn of the Dead and An American Werewolf in London before it and upcoming ones like Evil Dead 2 and...

111. Re-Animator (1985- dir. Stuart Gordon)

Who knows what hardcore fans of H.P. Lovecraft’s purple, humorless tales thought of Re-Animator? Stuart Gordon clearly loves Lovecraft, hence his multiple adaptations of the writer’s work, but his approach is utterly irreverent. Gordon’s version of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West—Reanimator” throbs with goofy gross outs and gratuitous T&A. The wacked out performances of Jeffrey Combs as a collegiate Frankenstein, David Gale as an old-school professor turned headless monster, and Barbara Crampton as the resident scream queen suggest Gordon kept his cast on a strict diet of nitrous oxide. He barbeques another sacred cow by using a discofied remake of Bernard Herrmann’s venerated Psycho score throughout his movie. Re-Animator would be beakers of fun if just for its runaway bad taste and campy, crazy humor (a cat that behaves like the bunny in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; murderous prehensile organs; an…errr…overly amorous severed head). Gordon also displays genuine technical talent with his energetic camerawork and ingenious use of z-grade special effects. Re-Animator discovers a sweet spot where zany yet straight-faced comedy and horrific horror collide head on. Lovecraft must have been fruging in his grave.

112. The Fly (1986- dir. David Cronenberg)

Like John Carpenter’s The Thing, The Fly remodeled a ‘50s sci-fi classic with fresh and grisly special effects. David Cronenberg’s remake also trumped Kurt Neumann’s original by deepening characters and broadening metaphors. Jeff Goldblum takes a quirky turn as Seth Brundle, an eccentric (not-yet-mad) scientist who invents a teleportation machine because conventional travel makes him carsick. Though his invention is a success, the results are tragically ironic as he mistakenly teleports himself with the title insect, making himself sicker than any taxi ride ever could. The original film’s Andre Delambre transformed instantaneously. Brundle becomes a fly slowly, absorbing the creature at the molecular level instead of swapping body parts. This allows Cronenberg to explore his obsession with the gradual corruption of human flesh. The director uses Brundle’s deterioration as a metaphor for the invasiveness of technology (a computer mishap causes the doctor to merge with the fly), drugs (his slide from ego-maniacal superhuman vigor to sniveling mass reflects the arch of the coke addict), and even junk food. Strongest of all are the correlations Cronenberg draws between Brundle’s condition and the AIDs epidemic. Brundle passes his “disease” along to the woman he loves when he impregnates her with a mini-creepy crawler. As Veronica Quaife, Geena Davis shares genuine chemistry with Goldblum (with whom she was in a real-life relationship at the time). As Dr. Delambre, David Hedison doesn’t have much of a personality, but Goldblum is witty, odd, and extremely likable as Brundle. All of this makes the disintegration of his body and his relationship with Quaife acutely heartbreaking. The Fly received a lot of attention because of its gross-outs—as Seth’s body starts revolting against him, it becomes revolting—but it’s the tragic love story that hits hardest.

113. The Stepfather (1987- dir. Joseph Ruben)

After the tumultuous, traumatic ‘60s and ‘70s, America spent the ‘80s burying its collective head in the sand with a resolve not seen since the ‘50s. Leading the way was President Ronald Reagan, who tended to deal with social problems (AIDS, poverty, rampant homelessness, the environmental crisis) by pretending they didn’t exist. This sad trend was often reflected in the decade’s horror films, many of which depicted the kinds of suburban nuclear families Reagan idealized paying the price for their own obliviousness. Gremlins and Poltergeist were tales of supernatural home invasion starring characters who put themselves in danger by pretending there is nothing to fear (works such as Parents and “Twin Peaks” continued this theme during George Bush’s “family values” reign). Perhaps no movie placed the barely concealed ills of Reagan’s America in sharper focus than The Stepfather. Inspired by the actual case of murderer John List, Donald Westlake started his script during the Nixon years, but it remained equally relevant when produced during Reagan’s ‘80s. Terry O’Quinn is the title character, an itinerant real estate agent who promises clients “the American dream.” He searches for it himself desperately by infiltrating families he hopes will live up to Reagan’s ideal. When they inevitably fail to meet his expectations, he eliminates his wife and kids with bloody prejudice and moves on. The Stepfather meets his match in teenaged Stephanie Maine (Jill Schoelen), who flouts “final girl” conventions by being a troublemaker with a healthy interest in sex. When he fails to change her ways—and realizes she knows he’s up to no good—Stephanie and her mom are in danger of meeting the same fates as his former families. There is a satirical undercurrent to The Stepfather, as the monster speaks in square clichés (“Father knows best!”) and giggles along to reruns of “Mr. Ed”. When he catches Stephanie kissing her boyfriend on the front porch, he accuses the boy of rape in an alarmist parody of conservative attitudes about teen sexuality. However, this a serious and uncommonly smart slasher film with a keen political viewpoint and excellent performances from Schoelen and the terrifying O’Quinn.

114. Evil Dead 2 (1987- dir. Sam Raimi)

Sam Raimi’s debut feature was one of the most impressive sleeper successes of ‘80s horror. Made for something in the range of $375,000, Evil Dead went on to earn millions throughout the world as word spread of its inventiveness and energy. When Raimi’s second picture, the noir comedy Crimewave, flopped, the director agreed to make a sequel to his first film in an attempt to get his career back on track. Evil Dead 2 accomplished that task, while also improving on its predecessor vastly. In fact, the sequel is not really a sequel at all but a remake with sleeker special effects (though still charmingly chintzy in spots) and greater emphasis on Three-Stooges-style slapstick. The occasional silliness of Evil Dead may have had more to do with budget constraints than a conscious decision to reach for comedy. Evil Dead 2 makes humor as high a priority as horror, and the results may be the funniest monster movie ever made. Bruce Campbell, who stars as reluctant hero Ash Williams, deserves much of the credit. Everything the man does in this movie is laugh-out-loud funny. The first half-hour is a veritable one-man show in which the square-jawed one battles his girlfriend’s disembodied head, shares a laugh with some furniture that may have been borrowed from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, lunges at himself through a mirror, nearly drowns himself in a mud puddle, performs a variety of acrobatic stunts, and battles his own disembodied hand. Once the other characters arrive at Ash’s possessed cabin in the woods, the wafer-thin plot doesn’t quite develop much more, but there’s a lot of fun interaction between the petrified cast and a sequence that can only be described as “groovy.” Raimi’s camerawork is as invigorating as Campbell’s performance. Only Robert Wise’s The Haunting rivals it for vertigo-inducing swoops, sweeps, and swivels. Nothing rivals it for sheer velocity. If you are incapable of having fun while watching Evil Dead 2, you may have been born without a fun gene.

115. Near Dark (1987- dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

More elastic than its reputation for rote slashers and lumbering monsters might indicate, horror has often blended well with other genres. Thus far we’ve seen horror-sci-fi (The Quatermass Xperiment; Alien), horror-fantasy (King Kong; Viy), horror-comedies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein; Young Frankenstein), avant garde-horror (The Fall of the House of Usher; Eraserhead), horror-period dramas (The Hunchback of Notre Dame; The Queen of Spades), horror-social interest films (The Stepford Wives; Dawn of the Dead), horror-war movies (Gojira; Day of the Dead), horror musicals (The Wicker Man), horror-religious pictures (The Phantom Carriage; The Exorcist), and horror-children’s movies (Something Wicked This Way Comes; Gremlins). Rarer is the use of western clichés in the horror film. “The Twilight Zone” had melded the genres a few times in episodes such as “The Grave” and “Mr. Garrity and the Graves”. There were D-grade offerings like Curse of the Undead and Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter. However, this genre-melt did not win a truly worthy feature until 1987’s Near Dark. The problem with combining the western with horror is that both have such distinct stylistic criteria that combining them can result in unintentional silliness: a cowboy with vampire fangs. Kathryn Bigelow gets around such issues by moving her tale from frontier times to the present day ‘80s (complete with awful synth-laden pop songs). So cowboy hats, horses, a band of rugged outlaws, and a climactic showdown blend more naturally with the fangs, gore, and deaths-by-sun we expect from vampire flicks. The film follows Mae’s (Jenny Wright) initiation of Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) into her band of roving vampires. Caleb’s reluctance to kill causes tension in the gang, something they could do without as a police posse closes in on them, leading to the inevitable desert showdown that peaks the film. Bigelow further spices the plot with an affecting romance between Caleb and Mae, and one of cinema’s most unlikely bloodsuckers, the ruthless tot Homer (Joshua John Miller), who intends to turn Caleb’s little sister Sarah (Marcie Leeds) into his vampire playmate. Bill Paxton gives one of his most memorable performances as the totally unhinged Severan, and Bigelow exercises her expertise with violent action. 

116. Beetlejuice (1988- dir. Tim Burton)

Tim Burton’s debut feature, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, was boffo, but it only gave the director a few opportunities to work the dark sensibility that made his breakthrough short, “Frankenweenie”, so striking. Burton was able to dally in the macabre to his black heart’s content in his next picture. Beetlejuice is an ace melding of the darkness of Frankenweenie and the freewheeling, plot-be-damned comedy of Pee Wee. Screenwriters Michael McDowell and Warren Skaaren pull the neat trick of making their heroes recently deceased young marrieds whose newly purchased home is invaded by a ghastly nuclear family. So sweet Barbara and Adam employ a sleazy, fast-talking “bio-exorcist” named Betelgeuse to ditch those awful Deetzes. As the title spook, Michael Keaton doesn’t so much steal this show as he hijacks it with dynamite strapped to his chest. His performance is a breathless, live-action, Loony-Tune romp, which can get slightly exhausting after 90 minutes. But Burton gives Betelgeuse the “what for” when he condemns him to a bureaucratic waiting room in the afterlife where a dead witch doctor shrinks his head to a squeaky little nub. That waiting room, where we get to see a colorful array of newly deads, is a spectacular nexus of the crazy visuals that are the main stars of Beetlejuice. Drawing on classic cartoons (particularly those of Max Fleisher, Tex Avery, and Fritz Freleng), Salvador Dali, and his own trademark stripey, swirly design scheme, Burton builds a detailed environment spewing imagination. The actors have to scramble to keep up with everything the director hurls at them, but they are admirably up to the task. Keaton, Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as the ghostly couple, Winona Ryder as the goth girl they befriend, Catherine O’Hara and Jeffrey Jones as her wacko parents, and Glenn Shadix as their interior designer are terrific. The film runs out of steam toward the end, but that is to be expected of one that strives to maintain such a frantic pace.

117. The Lair of the White Worm (1988- dir. Ken Russell)

For those who find Beetlejuice too restrained there’s The Lair of the White Worm. Ken Russell’s penchant for visual overload mucked up many of his movies. He makes it work somehow in this adaptation of a Bram Stoker novel that isn’t Dracula. His uncharacteristic mastery of his material is all the more impressive considering what an abhorrent mess Stoker’s rambling, senseless, grotesquely racist book is. Whereas Russell’s flights of fancy took on a sickly quality in earlier works such as Tommy and Gothic, they zing in The Lair of the White Worm, with its candied palate and hilariously over-the-top sexual metaphors. The film earns its berserk strokes largely because it has such a wonderful lead in Amanda Donohoe. She plays Lady Sylvia Marsh, a vampiric snake-priestess who worships a giant night crawler and just has to dance whenever she hears a wind instrument. Russell’s empathy is clearly with the absurdly sexy, anti-Christianity, anti-priggishness, and very funny Marsh and not with the dull prudes who would thwart her plot to feed virginal Catherine Oxenberg to her wormy master. She can barely contain her glee when vomiting venom on a crucifix or baring fangs at her numerous victims. The Lair of the White Worm has never been well-received by critics or audiences, who had a hard time cottoning to its unhinged tone and sacrilegious visuals (a typical sequence finds a giant worm gnawing crucified Christ as Roman soldiers violate nuns on the ground below). Those who allow themselves to be swayed by the naysayers have no idea what they’re missing. This movie is ridiculous fun and just plain ridiculous.

118. Child’s Play (1988- dir. Tom Holland)

By the end of the ‘80s, the already limited slasher genre had sufficiently painted itself into a corner. Uncountable numbers of teens had been macheted to death at various summer camps. Halloweens, Christmases, Prom nights, Birthdays, and Mother’s Days had been ruined by knife-wielding nutters. Even the genre’s savior, Freddy Kreuger, had pretty much run out of ideas. So, what next for the slasher genre? Jam a stick of dynamite up its bum and light the fuse, that’s what. Tom Holland reveals—no, revels in—the silliness of slasher conventions with Child’s Play. Our killer has now been reduced to a child’s doll, but this is no dead-eyed horror like “The Twilight Zone’s” Talky Tina. Chucky is too full of personality and nasty, Kreuger-esque humor to be scary… even if those My Buddy and mechanical Teddy Ruxpin dolls that inspired him were pretty unsettling. Chucky comes into being by appropriately asinine circumstances: Detective Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon) hunts serial killer Charles Lee Ray (the great Brad Dourif) to a toy store where the gunshot murderer pulls a little voodoo hooey and transfers his soul into a Good Guy doll. An obnoxious kid (Alex Vincent) gets the Charles Lee-infused doll for his birthday; mayhem ensues. And in that mayhem lies the walloping fun of Child’s Play, as we see the doll go kill-crazy, framing the 6-year old for his crimes. No wonder the kid takes to slapping Chucky around during cinema’s most hilarious police interrogation scene. Chucky’s attacks veer from the mundane (bonking a babysitter on the head with a hammer and tripping her out the window) to the astonishingly resourceful (cutting the brakes of the detective’s car and strangling him with the clipped brake cables!). Holland also gets in some good jabs at our consumerist culture and the toy companies that prey on kids by convincing them they simply will not be complete without the latest lump of plastic and stuffing. Holland makes a good point, but if you’re watching Child’s Play for economic criticism, you’re missing the point.

119. Parents (1989- dir. Bob Balaban)

Seven days after “family values” candidate George Bush was sworn in as president, Parents quietly opened in the United States. Like The Stepfather, Bob Balaban’s film is a satire that draws scares from suburban conformity, the nuclear family, and ‘50s conservatism, but he takes a more emphatically comedic route. At least he does in the film’s first two acts. Parents begins in 1954 with little Michael Laemle (Bryan Madorsky), his mom (Mary Beth Hurt), and his dad (Randy Quaid) cruising in their over-sized Oldsmobile to a new pre-fab home in the suburbs. Soon Michael is having visions that his bed is an ocean of blood and suspecting his folks of ghoulish late-night activities. As the boy’s suspicions crystallize, the parodic air dissipates and Parents becomes more of a conventional horror film. Up to that point it is a rather brilliant fusion of period piece (take note of the family’s last name and recall the return of Universal’s classic monster movies to late-night T.V. in the ‘50s), surrealism (with explicit nods to Kubrick’s The Shining and Lynch’s Blue Velvet), and live-action comic book. The film also motors on a frightening concept: the creeping realization that ones parents are actually monsters. Balaban uses this concept as a metaphor for the sexual secrets parents withhold from their kids and the culture of gluttonous consumerism and consumption born in the ‘50s. In the shadow of Reagan and Bush’s efforts to crank back the clock to that era’s “values,” Parents works as a cautionary tale in the spirit of the E.C. comics that also influenced its visuals and characterizations. The few viewers who checked out the film upon its original release may have walked away from it feeling pessimistic about the coming decade. Indeed, the ‘90s would get off to a rocky start, but better days were ahead for America… if not for the decade’s horror cinema.

Creep on to the ’90s…

Flee back to the ‘70s...
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