This is my second short look at a specific decade in the history of horror films. With the 1980’s we have my decade. This was the time when I first started to rent any kind of creepy, spooky and horrible VHS video tape horror movies, usually a couple every weekend when I was well, yes just a bit too young to really be seeing these kind of things.
But you know, I must have seen practically nearly all of the horror movies available (officially) in the late 80’s, some a good number of times. So what did we get in this decade which brought a new fresh take on scares and fear film?
Of course probably the biggest and most obvious film and soon series to make a huge impact was A Nightmare on Elmstreet. Director Wes Craven who died recently had already given us a small few very original and creative fear films such as The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, but …Elmstreet was the movie which elevated him to horror filmmaking legend status. We had a new classic monster named Freddy Krugger to join the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Dracula. With the new bogeyman, soon he was joined by Jason in Friday the 13th and Michael Myers continued to slash and kill in their many sequels.
Italian horror continued to disturb with Cannibal Holocaust (banned soon after home video came along) and City of the living dead. The always flamboyant and inventive director Ken Russell gave us the unsettling head-trip Altered States. City of the living dead director Umberto Lenzi also gave us the nasty Eaten Alive! which soon disappeared onto the video nasty list.
The decade began with 1980 a very good year providing classics like The Fog from John Carpenter, the very first Friday the 13th (arguably the most chilling in the series) Italian master Dario Argento continued on his great run with his Suspiria sequel Inferno-again very surreal and hallucinatory as well as terrifying.
The decade gave birth to a good few dozen or more very infamous and extreme horror movies, which were in just a couple of years banned from the UK due to Mary Whitehouse and the film censorship laws. This did not stop keen fans tracking many or all of these movies down and a strong underground video tape trading circuit existed right until the early 2000’s when censorship rules were greatly relaxed.
Continuing on from the seventies, there were so many from different parts of the globe, many increasingly gore-filled and extreme in their scenes of killings and death due to advances in practical special effects and small but numerous international film studios and distributors. It was soon noticed that cheap horror films, like kung Fu movies made good money and fast.
The auteur filmmakers would still come out with impressive slightly arthouse but classic films like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, which was great in many ways but did not actually please author Stephen King.
1981-All time genre classic An American Werewolf in London from John Landis. What a movie. Oh man, I think I actually recorded from tv and just watched it many, many times after that. Such a great film. The balance of comedy and terrifying horror was nailed just right. Added to the video nasty list we had from Italy The Beyond, The Burning and Cannibal Ferox. I’ve only seen the first of those, which is a good if confused movie.
A very young Sam Raimi gave us the soon cult surprise hit Evil Dead. Made on a low budget but actually extremely inventive visually and in direction and sound, this was a film which influenced many kinds of filmmakers for the next couple of decades. Joe Dante put out The Howling, which is often ignored or forgotten but I think it is fairly influential on werewolf movies even if the many sequels were mostly increasingly terrible.
In 1982 Creepshow was an interesting and unusual anthology film directed by George A Romero (Night of the living Dead, Martin) and with help from Stephen King. John Carpenter moved on into sci-fi horror with an update version of black and white B movie The Thing. At the time, this had special effects that were absolutely gruesome but also like nothing seen before, technically amazing. It also had an extremely suspenseful and dramatic screenplay.
1983 spat out stylish but possibly too simplistic lusty vampire film The Hunger from Tony Scott. All 80’s visuals and not enough of a story? David Cronenberg put out one of his genuine challenging and radical films in Videodrome. Dated to some extend today but still disturbing due to themes of sex, violence, voyeurism, and Freudian nightmarish imagery.
Into the mid-1980’s we saw The Company of Wolves from Neil Jordan which brought well known faery tales into a much darker vision. The first Children of the Corn film I personally did like and thought that while it was not one of the more visually over the top gore-filled bloody films, it had a strong feel of foreboding terror. Friday the 13th:The Final Chapter of course really was not at all. Gremlins was a fantastic mix up of creepy comic book horror with genuine emotional and warm moments. But 1984 gave us A Nightmare on Elmstreet and horror movies were changed for many years to come.
1985-We had Demons from Lamberto Bava (son of legendary Italian horror and B-movie director Mario) with the excessive but very creative monster and gore effects, aided by Dario Argento as producer. George Romero continued with zombies in Day of the Dead, the effects increasingly realistic thanks to FX legend Tom Savini. Troma films came along with their low-to-no budget films such as Class of Nuke Em High. Trashy, corny madness but like almost nothing else you would see. Cronenberg was back in ’86 with his own remake version of The Fly. This was a very significant and startling film. Of course coming from Cronenberg it was terrifying but intellectually challenging and stimulating while making want to puke a few times before the credits rolled. Henry: Portrait of a serial killer was banned in the UK quickly and with good reason really but it did stand out as a very different horror movie, as the film follows Henry almost from his point of view and has a number of challenging and unflinching scenes which question how we watch and why we watch horror films.
I have a number of possibly guilty pleasure from the 80’s horror movies and one of them is Maximum Overdrive, directed by horror author Stephen King. The plot is fairly bonkers nutty but it has a good mix of comedy and quick moving thrills and pulp horror.
A notable series personally was also the Poltergeist movies. The very young lead actress died tragically after the third film but these films each had a good strong script and repeatedly very good groundbreaking visual effects for the time.
1987 offered us Angel Heart from great Brit director Alan Parker- detective noir thriller with voodoo occult chills and Robert DeNiro as the devil, perfect. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson put out his very first home made film Bad Taste, showing again like Sam Raimi with Evil Dead that literally anybody could made an original horror flick in their backyard if they had the desire and creativity. One of my own favourites Hellraiser came along from the amazingly talented playwright/author/artist/filmmaker Clive Barker of Liverpool UK. Influenced in ways by Hammer horror and Roger Corman’s Poe films, Hellraiser again really pushed special practical effects much further while featuring a number of very believable and captivating performances. The Lost Boys really took off in a big way, with the beautiful young male biker vampires and gothic rock soundtrack. Near Dark gave a fresh twist on how we might see vampires in modern times.
1988 brought to screens a memorable remake of The Blob, this time much more graphic with bloody horror and hysteria. We had the first Child’s Play movie and nasty foul-mouthed killer doll Chucky crawling up beside Freddy and Jason for attention. The Hellraiser sequel Hellbound was surprising as it actually moved on and progressed with the characters and opened up the world and themes of the original film even if it was badly edited toward the end of the film resulting in some confusion of plot. Ken Russell returned with another at times trippy and bizarre adaptation of Lair of the white worm, but we could always rely on him for that kind of thing. A second Phantasm movie attempted to compete with the increasingly OTT style of the Elmstreet and Friday the 13th sequels and it was entertaining for what it was. Wes Craven gave us a very underrated and unusual film called The Serpent and the Rainbow, which focused on Haiti voodoo zombies.
With the end of the decade we had Robert Englund (Freddy Krugger himself) directorial debut 976-Evil, which was unusual and a little camp but fun. The Church from Italy, looked fantastic but featured a fairly random plot toward the end mostly serving the many visual set pieces. The first Puppet Master film was actually very different and featured some really impressive effects work with the nasty little killer puppets. From Japan we had the massively insane and terrifying in a very different way Tetsuo:Iron Man film. This was a nightmare mash-up of David Lynch, Cronenberg , cyberpunk and science fiction.
So a number of the big popular horror series including A Nightmare on Elmstreet, Friday the 13th, Halloween continued on through the decade in varying levels of quality while their iconic killers and monsters became mainstream pop culture characters somewhat diminishing their original terrifying impact on the big screen. We can see thought that there were in-between the many cheap and disposable video nasty titles from around the world a good number of films which did push the limits of visual effects, horror storytelling and the style of horror through the 80’s.
James E. Parsons is a SF/Horror author. His first two SF books, Orbital Kin and Minerva Century are available from all good bookshops and sites now including Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, WHSmith. His first horror novel due to be published in 2017.