It’s hard to believe it’s that time again. We’re back for another chapter in the ever-turning world of horror cinema where, like many-a-horror villain, it will never truly die. I trust you all enjoyed your summer. I hope you were all able to take advantage of the warmer weather and engage in some of the extracurricular activities the school has to offer. We have a lovely stalk and slash class with plenty of hands-on experience to be had as well as a ghost conjuring seminar that almost always raises someone’s spirits. And I mustn’t forget the monster arena. This is not for the faint of heart, mind you because well, monsters… in an arena… think about it. Regardless, there is plenty to keep you busy during your downtime.
But enough talk of that, the summer has passed us by and the autumn is here and soon, we will be consumed by all things pumpkin spiced, sweater wrapped and, if we’re lucky we will also be consumed by a sneering, seething, Sleipnir. Don’t know what that is? Look it up. What do I look like a teacher?
With that, I urge you to turn to the next chapter in your Horror 101 textbooks entitled Dude! Bitchin’ Finger Knives! and let’s dive into the neon-drenched world of horror cinema in the totally gnarly, totally radical, totally tubular 1980s.
Slashers, Sequels and The Myers Effect
While the 1970s had their fair share of slasher films, the release of John Carpenter’s seminal classic Halloween (1978) unlocked the flood gates of what would be known as the slasher craze of the early to mid-eighties. And the craze was kicked off by a film that blatantly began as a rip-off of Halloween. Director Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980) took what Carpenter established with his film and ran with it. He used all of the same allegories as Halloween including isolation of its characters, suspense, atmosphere, young and attractive unknown actors and then stood it on its head. Where Carpenter left Myer’s murder spree bloodless, Cunningham put all of Mrs. Voorhees’ antics on vibrant, visceral display for all to see.
The release of the film in May of 1980 was feverish. Audiences flocked to theaters to witness the ill-fated counselors of Camp Crystal Lake frolicking, screaming, and dying in the woods. After the word got out that a small indie horror film, shot for a fraction of any major Hollywood movie was packing theaters across the country, studios were climbing onto the slasher bandwagon in droves.
Prom Night (1980), Terror Train (1980), The Burning (1981), Happy Birthday to Me (1981), My Bloody Valentine (1981), The Funhouse (1981), Hell Night (1981) all followed the now famous formula followed by a plethora of others too numerous to list. Even the one that inspired the rest launched a franchise with Halloween II (1981) followed by the Myers-less Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989) rounding out the decade.
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Its imitator would follow suit kicking off another massive horror franchise with the release of seven more Friday the 13th films before the decade was out. Both franchises would go on the gross over $1 billion in box office receipts worldwide and both still have installments in development some thirty to forty years after the initial release of the original movies.
Spooks, Spectres, and Spielberg
Due to the success of seventies paranormal films such as The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) horror films were finally getting the respect they deserved from the rest of Tinseltown, but they were still a long way from complete acceptance despite their large box office returns. Thanks to The Exorcist’s Oscar wins, the doors to the A-list talent pool suddenly swung open and the 80s had some star-studded names attached to their various projects. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) starred Jack Nicholson, The Changeling (1980) boasted an emotional performance from George C. Scott. The Entity (1982) starred Barbara Hershey and the late Ron Silver, and the list goes on and on.
Not only did Poltergeist (1982) have a top-notch cast that included Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams but it also had a pretty stellar director/producer duo in Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg respectively. Despite silly controversy, Hooper was the director but the movie itself has Poltergeist has Spielberg written all over it and while he had intended to direct the film himself, a clause in his contract prevented him from directing other films while shooting E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Enter: Tobe Hooper. The film was originally conceived as a sequel to Spielberg’s 1977 sci/fi hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind entitled, Night Skies. Hooper, however, wasn’t jazzed about the sci/fi elements and suggested changing it to a good old-fashioned ghost story. The pair then turned out the first treatment for Poltergeist and one of the decades greatest horror movies was born.
One, Two, Freddy’s Coming For You…
While the Friday the 13th franchise had cornered the marked on slasher films, 1984 would introduce a new twist to the sub-genre. Say hello to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and his grotesque villain, Freddy Kreuger. While employing all of the typical slasher tropes, Craven had an ace up his sleeve in the form of supernatural villain that haunted and hunted the children of Elm Street in their dreams. Nightmares to be exact.
Taking the formula out of the confines of real life turned the whole concept on its ear. No longer was the plot restricted to the laws of realism. Stories were opened up to endless possibilities and the final product proves that in spades. Krueger stalking teens through a dirty old boiler room while they are actually fast asleep in their own beds is both a terrifying and fascinating concept. In fact, it worked so well that the character of Freddy Krueger became as big a pop culture icon as his contemporaries making A Nightmare on Elm Street yet another mega-franchise the decade had to offer.
The Wacky Dead
As the 1980s progressed, horror films began to compete against each other, vying for audiences and box office supremacy. A side effect of this was that films were getting bigger, bolder, more outlandish just so they could sit more butts in the theater seats. As these films became more grandiose, they started to mutate into these often ridiculous, flat out bat-crap crazy pictures that paid little attention to plot and more to special effects, violence, ultra-violence and nudity.
Movies like, Shocker (1989), Night of the Demons (1988), Sleepaway Camp (1983), Re-Animator (1985) all relied heavily on the above mentioned. That doesn’t mean they were bad movies, mind you. It merely means that by mid-decade there was an obvious shift of tone for most horror films. Those that bucked that trend tend to hold up a little better, in some opinions. The Fly (1986), The Thing (1982), Pumpkinhead (1988), Videodrome (1983), and Lady in White (1988) all stayed within the traditional horror movie vibe while other films chose their own path.
1981 brought audiences a film that was so out there that it spawned two equally insane sequels, a much more subdued remake, and a recent tv show. I’m talking about none other than The Evil Dead (1981). Combining a mixture of horror and slapstick comedy, Sam Rami’s classic featured demonic possession like no one had seen it before. With envelope-pushing special effects, sincere heart-pounding terror and the comedic timing Bruce Campbell and the rest of the cast, audiences had no choice but to sit up and take notice.
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987) brought the crazy up a notch despite virtually having Bruce Campbell’s Ash be the only living character in the whole movie. And Army of Darkness(1992), AKA Evil Dead 3, was Rami’s Lawrence of Arabia for the franchise with a story so epic in scope that there was a five-year gap between it and part 2.
To say the 1980s is jam-packed with horror films is the understatement of the… er… decade. So much so that its impossible to include all of them within the confines of this textbook. I mean, aside from all of the great (and not-so-great) films mentioned above, we have only scratched the surface of the offerings this decade held for us.
There’s still American Werewolf in London (1981), The Howling (1981), Creepshow (1982), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Child’s Play (1988), Night of the Creeps (1986), Fright Night (1985), Day of the Dead (1985), I could go on for days listing off all of the amazingly terrifying spectacles released between 1980 and 1989, but I’m afraid that we have come to the end of the class and our time together.
I advise you to look further into this ‘golden age’ of horror filmdom as there are countless treats and hidden gems to be discovered. You can learn about a lot of them by visiting our NOFS Twitter, Subreddit and Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook. It’s a veritable fountain of horror information! Until next time, first-year freaks, like, gag me with a spoon!