[Horror History] Death, Rebirth, Redeath (The 1990’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 9 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 as well

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Absolutely, and horror films are no exception to this rule. In the 1990’s, the grotesque masks, buckets of blood, and half-naked co-eds that had defined the genre during the preceding decade wore thin. The overindulgence of the Age of Excess was leading to a cultural tummy ache, and it nearly killed horror altogether. As in the 1940’s, repetition and over-sequelization meant that the original monsters introduced in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were now relics of their former selves. Once terrifying, they now elicited laughs either through ham-fisted wisecracking or their relentless returning from the dead to stab and slash again and again. Moving through the same old plot points ad nauseum, Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, Chucky, and all the rest had become as dry as a mummified corpse. It was time for horror to slink back into the shadows from whence it was born to uncover something new.

As in all of the previous decades, horror in the 1990’s drew on real contemporary fears to create compelling fiction. The first Gulf War and the recession of 1990 set the cultural tone at the opening of the decade. The negative consequences of regulation and unchecked capitalism were beginning to show their effects. Though a small elite profited from the “greed is good” mantra of the 80’s, many were left worse off, and it would take some time before people realized just how badly. Major news events like the L.A. riots in 1992, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were reported globally on the emerging 24/7 news cycle, making the apparent doom of a cracked society inescapable to the everyday person. With the L.A. riots, conflict was brought right to Hollywood’s front yard, causing shockwaves through the entire movie business. Even though the Cold War was finally over, people were still being fed plenty of reasons to fear, and increasingly, harm the Other: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disease, addiction, political ideology.

The decade also saw its horror movies reflecting fears about the approaching end of the millennium. Would there be truth to ancient, cryptic prophecies foretelling the end times? Would the year 2000 trigger a deadly sequence of global catastrophes resulting in the Apocalypse? Followers of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate died en masse for their beliefs in 1993 and 1997, respectively. The intense coverage of both events centered around the simple but daunting question: were they right? Did they achieve early salvation? Were the rest of, left behind, damned for years of pain and suffering? As the world fretted about the future, many horror filmmakers looked to the past for answers, reinterpreting old narratives through a postmodern lens. A simpler, more authentic entertainment took the place of the comic excess of the 80’s. “Raw” and “real” were the monikers of the day, but that didn’t always allow room for fun. Horror films of the 90’s lean towards brown palettes and muted, earthy tones. New sorts of monsters were thus needed to match this somber mood.

Or at least, new versions of the old ones

At the beginning of the decade, Tim Burton was the most high profile filmmaker in the genre business, but his one true pure horror film of the 90’s didn’t come out until they were almost over, 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. All of his films still tended to deal with freakish outsiders, however, and were certainly heavy on dark, Expressionist imagery and atmosphere, whether it was the fairy tale-like Edward Scissorhands (1990) or the gothic dreamscape Batman Returns (1992) or even his very sincere biopic Ed Wood (1994). But it didn’t pay to do true horror, anyway. Franchises were floundering left and right, as demonstrated by The Exorcist III (1990), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Bride of Re-Animator (1991), Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992), and constant returns to Elm Street, Crystal Lake, and Haddonfield. All these series petered out in the 90’s, later to be revived, remade, or re-envisioned in the new century.

And yet, it was in the early days of the decade that horror made one of its strongest, most stylish impacts of all time in the form of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), adapted from the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris. The book is a sequel to Red Dragon, which Michael Mann had filmed as Manhunter (1986) without anyone really noticing, but Silence feels much like a standalone. It became the first horror movie not only to win Best Picture, but to sweep all of the Big Five categories at the Academy Awards. The topic of serial killing was not new to horror–characters like Dracula and Mr. Hyde are technically serial murderers, and Jack the Ripper was mimicked heavily in 1940’s efforts like The Lodger (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). And that’s not even mentioning Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and the copious black-gloved slashers of Dario Argento’s gialli films. Through the 80’s, however, as the term “serial killer” became more widespread, more films began to tackle the subject in a clinical, realistic manner, notably John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which wasn’t widely seen until the 90’s. Silence was the first film to co-opt the serial killer as found in police procedurals with the inside-the-mind-of-a-madman drama and produce a horror film. In the process, Demme proved that the horror movie could be a matter of treatment as much as subject.

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who combines elements of both Dracula and Renfield, became the boogeyman of the 90’s. A cultured cannibal psychiatrist, words away from any real life serial killer, he is witty, sensitive, charismatic, and very, very dangerous. Hopkins reprised the role in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), from Harris’s sequel novel, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002), a remake of Manhunter done in imitation of Demme’s style. As the cycle progressed, Lecter became less an uncontrollable psychotic and more a refined vigilante, dining on “the free-range rude.” There were, inevitably, imitations with increasingly bizarre genius murderers and neurotic profilers, from the aptly named Copycat (1995) to Kiss the Girls (1997) to The Bone Collector (1999). David Fincher’s Seven (1995) came from the Silence tradition, but it held water on its own strengths. The killer’s gimmick–grisly deaths themed to the Seven Deadly Sins–would have been right on point for Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes mode, but the film’s distinctive noir, rainy, twisted intensity helped it stand out, and has been copied copiously. Equally mimicked is the five-minute credit sequence of Seven, directed by Kyle Cooper–a montage of diary entries, classical paintings, crime scene photos, and other strange artifacts cleverly edited together that has been imitated in everything from Buffy to Mindhunter.

You’ve definitely seen this style more than seven times

Hopkins moved from Lecter to Van Helsing for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), one of the most significant gothic revivals. The film promoted itself on its faithfulness to Stoker’s text right in the title, but reworked the story in ways that its author would have found ridiculous. With the slogan “Love Never Dies” hanging over the film, our beloved Count (Gary Oldman) seeks not to bring a vampire plague down upon Victorian Britain, but to reunite with the reincarnation of his lost love (Winona Ryder). Though it didn’t quite blow anyone out of the water, the film opened the way for a number of big budget gothic horror romances: Anne’s Rice long-in-development Interview with the Vampire finally made it to the big screen in 1994, with Neil Jordan directing a pouty Brad Pitt and a hissy Tom Cruise as the louche vampires Louis and Lestat; Kenneth Branagh tried to wrestle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) into a tale of passion rather than rejection, with Robert De Niro giving an especially disappointing performance as the Monster; Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994) saw Jack Nicholson as a meek publisher who becomes an alpha male werewolf in pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer; and Stephen Frears ended the cycle with the much maligned Jekyll and Hyde variant Mary Reilly (1996), adapted from Valerie Martin’s novel where Stevenson’s story is seen from the point of view of a maid (Julia Roberts) in the household of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich). As is often the case, the most reviled of the cycle is also the most interesting–Frears takes Stevenson and Martin seriously rather than paying lip service in an effort to churn out a gothic date movie.

Auteurs committed to the genre were struggling. George Romero and Dario Argento collaborated on a Poe project, Two Evil Eyes (1990) before Romero made a decent Stephen King adaptation with The Dark Half (1992) and went silent for over a decade. Argento made a string of disappointments mostly starring his daughter Asia. Larry Cohen directed a Hitchcockian thriller, The Ambulance (1990) then reverted to peddling spec scripts, one of which became Phone Booth (2002). Sam Raimi did well with Darkman (1990), a superhero monster movie, and Army of Darkness (1992), the third Evil Dead movie. He then tried his hand at a Western (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), a sports movie (For the Love of the Game, 1999), and a thriller (A Simple Plan, 1998). David Cronenberg dabbled in literary adaption with Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993). Clive Barker let the Hellraiser franchise slip away from him and followed it up with the very interesting if botched Nightbreed (1990) and the makeshift Lord of Illusions (1995). He did maintain a strong presence in the genre as the original author of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), which became a minor franchise of its own and a turning point for Black horror. John Carpenter had steady work with In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), and Vampires (1998). Though they are on the weaker side of Carpenter’s resume, all of them are better than Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Night Terrors (1993), and The Mangler (1995). Brian De Palma had found his way into mainstream affairs like Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1995), but he still found time for one underrated, very personal horror feature, Raising Cain (1992).

David Lynch, meanwhile, had an iffy decade commercially, but continued to maintain a reputation of being at the cutting edge of…well, everything. Twin Peaks (1990-92), an ambitious TV series Lynch co-created with Mark Frost, began as a mix of small town melodrama, quirky comedy, murder mystery, and psycho-horror, morphed into quasi-Lovecraftian terror thanks to its nightmare-inducing boogeyman “BOB” and the constant bleeding of the supernatural into the lives of a peculiar, isolated community. Twin Peaks drew on Stephen King, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Thomas Harris, and was itself a massive inspiration for The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018), Lars von Trier’s Danish haunted hospital TV soap The Kingdom (1994-97), and a surprising number of mainstream horror films. Lynch’s big screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), wasn’t as beloved by fans at the time, but is arguably the scariest movie of the decade. Lynch went on to do Lost Highway (1997), another mixed genre affair with some truly terrifying material, then pivoted to The Straight Story (1999), which showed he could tell a softer kind of tale. All of Lynch’s films have proven more rewarding with multiple viewings. Mulholland Drive (2001) is another touchstone, a film that countless horror films of the new century look to for ideas in casting, stone, and subject matter.

And all the lesbian undertones

Wes Craven borrowed a Twin Peaks couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) for his monstrous landlords in The People Under the Stairs (1991), an underrated social cartoon that mixed Scooby-Doo chases with a horrific rumination on class and race in contemporary America. He then moved on to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992), a meta-meditation on the Elm Street films which takes place in “our world” and is an ingenious, postmodern think piece that still remembers to be quite scary. And yet, neither of this reflective pieces worked with audiences at the time. They much preferred Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle that was severely lacking soul. After this, Craven signed with Dimension, Miramax’s genre outfit, to direct a script called Scary Movie, written by horror enthusiast Kevin Williamson. During production, it was retitled Scream (1996) and the resulting film clicked in a way Craven’s other 90’s films–and really, anyone else’s 90’s films–hadn’t. Scream revived not only Craven’s career but the slasher sub-genre as a whole. It was postmodern, yes, but far more approachable than New Nightmare, and it has a feel for the callous hipness of 90’s American teens that gives it an uneasy undercurrent. Craven spent the rest of the decade on for Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), making sure that Williamson’s clever concepts and smart dialogue paired well with perfectly calibrated stalk-and-scare sequences. The Scream trilogy displays Craven’s penchant for timing and his knack for turning potentially hackneyed scenes of people menaced by masked killers into textbook exercises in shock and shiver.

Williamson went on to script I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), which kept the slasher renaissance alive and earned its own disappointing sequels. He also wrote The Faculty (1998), a high school take on the body snatching sub-genre, then directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). The runaway success of Scream encouraged both new gimmick, meta slashers like Urban Legends (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000) and also helped old properties get better funding. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), which Williamson contributed to, achieved a much higher profile than the sequels between Halloween II (1981) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), aided of course by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise. Williamson’s writing style was catchy and smart, similar to his contemporary Joss Whedon, who had written the run-of-the-mill teen horror comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Whedon was still able to somehow relaunch the story as a long-running, successful TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar–a victim in both Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Buffy (1997-2003) spun off a vampire detective series, Angel (1999-2004), and encouraged a slew of similar shows like Charmed (1998-2006) and Smallville (2001-2011). Many of the stars and supporting actors from these shows soon found themselves in quickie, teen-themed horror that all sought to capitalize on the success of Scream.

The Faculty was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who handled another script from a 90’s hot name in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a road movie/vampire story from Quentin Tarantino, originally planned to be an entry in the Tales From the Crypt film series, as was Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996). The 90’s saw an influx of video-store-clerk horror filmmakers, many who imitated Tarantino’s style and wanted to honor the exploitation films they had grown up with. Jackson, who had come on the scene with Bad Taste (1987), honored the splatter style with Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), a zombie comedy with a sweat streak and a willingness to go for the extreme which seems odd in light of Jackson’s later Tolkien-powered enthronement as an Oscar winning A-lister. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro went from Cronos (1993), an unusual Spanish-language vampire film, to Mimic (1997), a New York-set giant insect picture. As with Sam Raimi, these directors waffled between big budget studio fare and down and dirty projects, but solidified their reputations as being handle hundred million dollar spectacles with an eye on box office records and/or Academy gold.

Don’t you make that face at me, Quents

The countdown to the millennium brought with it thoughts of the end of all things and, eventually, religion. The potential apocalypse included a revival of the alien invasion/disaster genre thanks to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day (1996) and Tim Burton’s retro Mars Attacks! (1996). Michael Tolkin had produced a quieter, creepier effort several years earlier with The Rapture (1992), which at once depicts and criticizes the fundamentalist Christian vision of the End Times. Later, the direct-to-video market became swarmed with character actors like Mr. T, Caspar Van Dien, and Gary Busey doing battle against the Antichrist in films like Apocalypse (1998), The Omega Code (1999), and Left Behind (2000). The tone of these Protestant films isn’t all that different from the run their Exorcist-style Catholic counterparts from the same era: Stigmata (1999), End of Days (1999), Bless the Child (2000), and Lost Souls (2000). The Devil was back in business, but audiences were by and large attracted to more tangible menaces. A more sustained, unusual kind of apocalypse was keyed to a prescient finale in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), a canny rethink of Jekyll and Hyde for changing times that reflects on masculinity, identity, and unrestrained impulses.

In the closing days of the century, three horror films became global, cultural phenomena. From Japan, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) was the breakout entry in a run of Asian ghost stories that had quietly begun with the Korean haunted school effort Whispering Corridors (1998). Drawing from classical Eastern ghost stories of melancholy, lank-haired, girl specters, Ringu brought a fresh angle to urban legends with its cursed videotape that brings doom within a week to anyone who watches it. A box office hit, Ringu took a minute to connect internationally but became hugely influential, spawning several sequels and an effective American version in 2002. Meanwhile, another ghost story took the States by storm. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) was a subtle, affecting, genuinely scary peek beyond the veil. Along with Fight Club, The Sixth Sense made an instant cliché out of its twist ending. Shyamalan made films on the same pattern in the new century with varying degrees of success, but none resonated with filmgoers the way The Sixth Sense did. The third hit of the millennium’s finale year was even more unexpected: Edward Myrick and Daniel Sanchez’s micro-budgeted, ingeniously marketed The Blair Witch Project (1999), a mockumentary with a keen sense of the unappealing way people actually behave in dire situations. The film’s atmosphere oozes dread, accomplishing a great deal of terror while showing next to nothing. The Blair Witch Project launched the found footage sub-genre into a nigh unstoppable beast in the new millennium, a symbol of the shifting nature of the horror film and a harbinger of the innovation and change that was to come.

Potentially the single scariest frame in all of horror

Next up, found footage and J-horror help usher the genre into a new era, while teen slashers and new gothics mingle with emerging creatives

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Bodies–Declothed, Deformed, Dead (The 1980’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 8 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 as well

Horror movies of the 1980’s exist at the glorious, opportune nexus when special effects finally caught up with the gory, fantastical imaginations of moviemakers and genre fans. Technical advances in the field of animatronics, along with liquid and foam latex, meant that the human frame could be distorted in an entirely new dimension onscreen. These steps forward ended up coinciding with the materialistic ethos of the decade, known as the Age of Excess. Having it all was important–but to be appear to be having it all was paramount. Tangible tokens of material success equated to a verification of one’s value in society. The more bigger, shinier, faster things you had, the more important you were.

In the same way, horror movies of the 1980’s were all about getting up close and personal and showing off with splashy, in-your-face special effects that previous practitioners of the art could only dream about. What had once lurked in the shadows of the horror movies of yesteryear was now dragged out into the garish light of day. Once exposed to that light, the monsters of the day proved be as familiar as ever: ghosts and supernatural entities, slimy things, and werecreatures of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, what once was quaint now became bastardized. For instance, the cuddly aliens seen in Star Wars (1977) and E.T. (1982) were counterbalanced by the grotesque extraterrestrials of Aliens (1986) and The Thing (1982). Werewolves also made a strong showing with The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) leading the way and the latter becoming the impetus for the creation of a new Academy Awards category–Best Makeup. This time around, the wolves appeared to represent a fear of being stalked, hunted, and watched under the aegis of the intelligence-heavy and seemingly never-ending Cold War.

Zombie films made their comeback as well, bridging the gap between the slick satire on shopping malls in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the gory chaos fest of Brain Dead (1990). Horror was the box office’s best friend in the 80’s, in part because there were a number of big-budget family-oriented pictures that purposefully restrained themselves to earn a PG or PG-13 rating. Poltergeist (1982) began the trend, but it really kicked into high gear with Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Ghostbusters (1984), which were massive hits that fared well with kids, parents, and childless genre fans alike. As in the 1950’s, horror saw itself tilted towards a 15-24 audience, primarily male. The increasing grossness and gore factor of 80’s horror movies made seeing the latest fright flick a sort of rite of passage for teens wanting to prove their toughness as much as they wanted to gawk at youthful, nubile bodies. Sex and nudity were casual in 80’s horror, and since almost all horror films at the time were directed by men for a male audience, the male gaze is both palpable and obvious, a source of much critique and parody in the years since. But it wasn’t all about the body in lustful life; 80’s horror was equally obsessed with the body in death, and often, the body in transition between life and death, whether it be stabbed, splattered, hacked, chopped, or somehow misshapen, deformed, or warped in whatever Cronenbergian nightmare was showing.

Above: the aforementioned Cronenbergian nightmare

The other major noticeable change in horror during the 80’s was that it was noticeably dumber than the preceding decade. This is not to say that the intelligent, innovative creators weren’t making smart films, but that audiences were changing, and the genre was forced to change with it. For instance, most horror moviegoers of 1985 preferred Dan O’Bannon’s aggressive, comical, relatively one note Return of the Living Dead to George Romero’s more thoughtful and disturbing Day of the Dead. The shift was evident in the popular success of the decade’s first mega horror hit, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Cunningham, who produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and received Craven’s editing assistance on Friday, modeled his film on Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), mixing in campfire tales of murdered counselors and body-count plotting popularized by Alien (1979) for good measure. Another ingredient of the film’s success was certainly the gory effects work of one Tom Savini, who arrived at Crystal Lake fresh from the Monroeville Mall where he had worked on Dawn of the Dead (1978). If anyone became a star off of Friday the 13th, it was Savini. Horror-themed publications furthered the trend by dedicating pages and pages to special effects make-up, focusing less on writing and direction. By the end of the decade, the genre would be bled dry of meaningful content but overflowing with effects.

The 80’s also saw the slow coming together of a loosely organized community of horror fans who enjoyed swapping titles, initiating watch parties, and arguing about the way their favorite movies were going. They read the growing library of books that dissected the genre as well as the industry magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique. They flocked to horror-film festivals like Shock Around the Clock, Dead by Dawn, and Black Sunday where they traded their merchandise and promoted their own fanzines like Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. There was a deep sense of camaraderies at these events and among the community as it was a fandom born of adversity, especially in the United Kingdom where horror movies came under concerted attack. The so-called “video nasties” tabloid scandal in the wake of the introduction of the widespread video player–which itself greatly affected the production and consumption of horror films–led to a massive increase in censorship. Anyone eager to watch The Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Ferox (1980), or The Evil Dead (1981) would find themselves hard-pressed to get a copy. Some people were even sent to jail for owning or selling horror films, or had their video collections seized by the police. In the grand scheme of things, this was was a minor oppression, certainly, but it was undoubtedly a symptom of the way things were going. Horror comics had suffered similar attacks in the 1950’s, being blamed for real-life violence, and were essentially wiped out by the industry. Horror films carried on through the barrage, but their response was to become more lightweight, not necessarily in toning down the gore or violence but in becoming more disposable, less personal work.

The runaway success of Friday the 13th led to horror becoming packed with psychopaths murdering teenagers. Well over a hundred different slashers were produced by the end of the 80’s, including the inevitable Friday and Halloween sequels, which solidified the conventions of the sub-genre as formulaic. In 1980 alone, you had Bloody Birthday, The Boogeyman, The Burning, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House, Dressed to Kill, Fade to Black, Happy Birthday to Me, He Knows You’re Alone, Home Sweet Home, Just Before Dawn, Madman, Maniac, Motel Hell, Night School, New Year’s Evil, Phobia, Prom Night, Silent Scream, and Christmas Evil. Even within this one year, the slasher sub-categories were forming: psychos on campus (high school or college), psychos in the woods, holiday-themed psychos, psychos in attics, comedy cannibal psychos, supernatural psychos, psychos with gimmicks, masked but identified psychos, classy psychos, whodunit psychos, and depraved psychos. Despite this range of approaches, the upshot was that at last horror movie production achieved the levels of conveyor-belt, cookie-cutter sameness hitherto achieved only by the B-Westerns of the 1930’s and 40’s. If anything, traces of originality were stamped out as the cycle continued. Any new wrinkles added were likely to be novelty weapons such as the miner’s pick in in My Bloody Valentine (1981) or gimmicks like Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982).

It’s coming right at you!! Ahhhh!!

Auteur-driven horror wasn’t completely absent, however. Efforts like John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), George Romero’s Creepshow (1982), Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) stood out among the largely interchangeable slashers. But these filmmakers saw their careers see-saw throughout the decade. All of them would, at some point, “play it safe” with a Stephen King adaptation or two and find themselves torn between independence and major studio work. Often, their important films proved less popular at the box office than the paint-by-numbers competition, which may have led to the periods of creative downturn many of them experienced. Carpenter and Cronenberg directed now-beloved remakes of ’50’s properties, The Thing and The Fly (1986), respectively. Tobe Hooper made one freak psycho movie, The Funhouse (1981), and was the credited director of smash hit Poltergeist, though producer Steven Spielberg was widely seen to be the film’s true auteur. Hooper then fell in with Cannon Films to make the botched, messy Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and a pair of big budget sci-fi flops before sliding back into TV pilots and direct-to-video schlock. Carpenter never fell quite so far, but after dissatisfaction with studio politicking (The Thing was no the success it deserved to be) he chose smaller scale projects that produced modest and likable results for the rest of the decade (Prince of Darkness, 1987, and They Live, 1988). After The Fly, Cronenberg made a niche for himself and delivered Dead Ringers (1989), one of his most disturbing films, then became interested in adaptations of unusual literary source material. Cohen was prolific in the 80’s, being among the first filmmakers to realize the potential of direct-to-video as the realm of the new B-movie. He made both gems (Special Effects, 1986) and stinkers (Wicked Stepmother, 1989) while Romero, criminally, struggled to get anything made.

Although Wes Craven began the decade on somewhat shaky ground with the demonic slasher film Deadly Blessing (1981) and the comic book monster mash Swamp Thing (1982), he lost his footing entirely with The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985). Objectively, Craven fared the best from the crop of horror directors that first emerged in the 70’s, though he was not without his own major low points (looking at you, Deadly Friend [1986] and Cursed [2004]). But when he went high, he truly soared. He twice revived the played-out slasher film formula with franchise-founding, genuine revisionary break-out hits. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), like Scream (1996) would do a decade later, arrived when folks were tired of rote sequels. The film welded an original idea (a ghost psycho stalking his victims in their dreams) with an American small town milieu out of Stephen King (interestingly, alone of his generation, Craven never made a King film) to depict American ills writ large. In contrast to the vapid teenagers of most slashers, the Elm Street kids are smart and catch on early, while their parents and other authority figures are drunken, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. Sequels to Elm Street were inevitable, and diminishing returns quickly set in, but Robert Englund’s Freddy, a shadowy and perverse specter in the first film, joined the ranks of the new iconic faces of horror alongside Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees–the new Universal monsters of the 80’s.

Those original creatures did manage to stay in the game, however, thanks to a fortuitous collision of interests and aptitudes. Directors like Joe Dante (The Howling, 1980), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, 1981), Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, 1984), Tom Holland (Fright Night, 1986), and Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, 1987) hooked up with special effects make-up artists Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Christopher Tucker, Steve Johnson, and Stan Winston. New technologies in makeup could be used for more than just gore, and in the early 80’s the screens were awash with shapeshifters, werewolves, cat people, and other morphing, tentacle-sprouting beasts like the Thing and the mind-mutants from Videodrome. The best of these efforts were more than just effects showcases and made their transformations scary as well as amazing. Vampire variants also continued, keyed to passing trends and mostly stressing Anne Rice’s vision of vampirism as a lifestyle choice rather than a plague or a curse. Pop singers like David Bowie and Grace Jones tended to show up in these sorts of films, resulting in the gloomy New Romantics of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), the teenager party animals of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1986), and the grungy Western drifters of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).

Here’s the thing, teenagers that DON’T look like this are horrifying

Meanwhile, new creatives were popping up in odd corners, often beginning their careers in the indies before becoming fast-tracked to Hollywood for see-saw careers. The main crop of this new class were Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, 1985), and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987). All of their debuts showed a black sense of humor, a commitment to physical shock, and a tendency to use sexual situations as a trigger for gross-out set-pieces (tree rape, cunnilingus delivered by a living severed head, skinless makeout sessions, etc.). They created dangerous, risky material, yet each one carried it off masterfully, though Raimi has admitted that the tree scene in The Evil Dead works less well than the film’s other assaults.

Barker, the most extreme of these filmmakers, shows the most delicacy, preferring odd physical juxtapositions rather than go-for-gore violence. Barker was matched in this skill perhaps only by Lucio Fulci, who managed to whip gore and gothic into shambling, suspenseful films like City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). These made for fascinating films, but their day in the sun was short lived. Other filmmakers attempted to replicate this style of transgressive gore-comedy and failed, though Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) is a valiant attempt. What really killed off this trend, however, were the films of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, an independent studio that churned out films that didn’t even try to be good on any level. Yet even these have their admirers and defenders, and The Toxic Avenger (1985) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) have become cult classics. Troma films burst with a juvenile, misogynist, homophobic smugness that begs the audience to feel only contempt for what they’re watching. But even the “quality” gore films had a limited audience. The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, and Hellraiser thrived at festivals and on video, but they lost big theater dollars to more family friendly films like Witchboard (1985), House (1986), The Gate (1986), and Child’s Play (1988).

The 80’s also saw the first wave of films directed specifically to bypass a theatrical release and be distributed solely on video. This was in part a workaround to the “video nasties” brouhaha in the U.K. and the ban on certain “extreme” horror films like Blood Feast (1963), The Last House on the Left (1977), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Now, any old horror film could get a direct-to-video release. In 1985-86, Christopher Lewis, son of 1940’s screen star Loretta Young, directed three films which seem to be the first horror movies intended from the outset of their production to never grace a theater screen. They were The Ripper, with a cameo by Tom Savini as Jack the Ripper, Blood Cult, and Blood Cult 2: Revenge. After that, the deluge continued, and it has continued uninterrupted into the new millennium, as digi-beta, filmlook video, Hi-Def, camcorders, iMovie, and every other smart device in the world have made it possible for anyone to make a movie. Troma, Empire/Full Moon, and Roger Corman’s various production companies pivoted to the DTV market while small groups of people across the Midwest got together in barns, filmed a quickie, then sold their amateur endeavor to real distributors. There have been, and continue to be, important and interesting DTV horror films, but the wealth of dreadful bores and shlock makes it harder for new Herk Harveys and George Romeros to get noticed alongside the slush pile. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) was one such film that suffered from this trend, not being widely seen until well into the 90’s.

King of the D-Listand that’s being generous

On the other end of the creative spectrum, the 80’s also saw the first true arthouse horror efforts in both America and Europe. These works, now regarded as resonant and memorable, struggled to gain traction at the time of their release. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986) flopped at the box office and wouldn’t be reconsidered as influential for some years. Pedro Almodovar’s Matador (1986) raised eyebrows when it opened with an obsessive masturbating to Mario Bava and Jesus Franco films. Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is a mix of Poe and Jacobean revenge tragedy whose undertones were underappreciated at the time. Perhaps the one exception was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a surreal, terrifying small town film which became an instant, much imitated classic. This didn’t much change the minds of the big studios, however. To them, profitable horror equated almost solely to Stephen King adaptations. Brian De Palma continued to work his own vein with blow Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), but increasingly moved out of self-penned psycho horror into crime projects scripted by other people.

Still, aboveground horror sometimes put a frog in America’s throat. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) is a stripped-down road movie about a teenage driver (C. Thomas Howell) and the inexplicable, mass-murdering psychopath he picks up (Rutger Hauer), a capitalization on the growing consciousness surrounding the violent crimes perpetuated against hitchhikers that seemed rampant in the 70’s and 80’s, twisting the tale to put the motorist in danger instead. Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather (1986), a meditation on “family values” came smack dab in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, with Terry O’Quinn as the decade’s most resonant psycho, a troubled middle class husband and father who snaps when his new families can’t live up to his impossible Norman Rockwell ideal. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) also flips the script with a reverse ghost story in which nice spooks employ a “bio-exorcist” (Michael Keaton) to drive nasty living folk out of their haunted house.

Other subversive and accessible efforts included Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1988), which suggests that suburbanites are scarier than outright gothic maniacs; Bob Balaban’s Parents (1988), which reveals that 50’s parentals who conform to the Cleaver clan vision of how family life should be are secretly cannibals; Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988), about a murder spree triggered by class divisions in high school; and Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), which alleges that rich people are not human. The late 80’s also saw a clutch of films about voodoo–most notably Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987) and John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987)–and the Devil–of which the best efforts were The Unholy (1987) and The Seventh Sign (1988)–suggesting that evil was “out there” and that it was “other.” Interestingly, the most commercially successful film with horror elements of the late 80’s was Adrian Lynn’s Fatal Attraction (1987), a conservative social drama with a healthy dose of paranoid misogyny that captured the fraying, desperate mood of society and portended the downward turn horror would take in the early 1990’s as the thriller came to prominence and the genre nearly ate itself alive before its meta-based revival unleashing a new wave of self-referential terror.

Sexy zombie Bill Pullman is my favorite Bill Pullman

In Part 9, we’ll further explore the ups and downs of horror as the millennium came to a close and the genre took a long hard look at itself

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

31 by 31 Challenge #12: BODY BAGS (1993)

@craiggors

When compiling a list of great horror anthologies, Body Bags is an oft yet criminally overlooked contender, which is mind boggling if you’ve ever seen it, or even if you just glance at the film’s roster. Directed by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper for Showtime, and featuring a veritable who’s who of early 90’s celebrities and horror icons–including cameos by Wes Craven, Sam Raimi, and Tom Arnold–the film was meant to be a creepy-story-of-the-week TV show to compete with HBO’s massively successful Tales From the Crypt (1989-1996). After filming only three episodes, however, the show was canceled, and the segments were compiled into Body Bags, leaving us all to pine for what might have been.

John Carpenter plays The Coroner, a wise-cracking cross between the Crypt Keeper and Beetlejuice, who welcomes the viewer to the county morgue and introduces each of the three tales while drinking formaldehyde and searching for the most grisly and mangled bodies he can find. Despite only popping up between segments, Carpenter absolutely steals the show as The Coroner, and framing the stories as explanations for how these bodies ended up in the morgue is clever and fresh. Carpenter’s clearly having a blast in the role, and his energy translates well, making it just an absolute blast to kick back and enjoy Body Bags.

Carpenter directs the first two segments, “The Gas Station,” and “Hair.” In the first–which is set in Haddonfield, Illinois–a young woman (Alex Datcher) working the late shift at an isolated gas station/mechanics is plagued by strange visitors and unnerved by news of an active serial killer in the area. David Naughton, Wes Craven, and Robert Carradine all drop by at one point or another and the whole thing makes for a wonderfully tight and tense mini-Halloween. “Hair” is equally fun though more goofy; a body horror morality play featuring Stacy Keach as a middle-aged man obsessed with making sure he doesn’t go bald and willing to go to great lengths to keep a full head of hair. David Warner and Sheena Easton round out the players in this icky yet charming little terror fable.

Then there’s the fantastically nutso performance of Mark Hamill in “Eye,” the third and final segment directed by Tobe Hooper. As a baseball player that loses an eye and has it replaced with the eye of a deceased serial killer, Hamill goes all in and brings a few moments of genuine dread to the otherwise campy piece. There’s a twisted sense of glee in watching Luke Skywalker descend into madness in such an unsettling fashion, and the ending is appropriately bloody for a serial killer story.

Carpenter has stated that he never thought of himself as a talented actor, and so ceased casting himself in roles. Watching Body Bags, it’s a shame to think of what might have been if he had at least stuck with this particular character, and if Showtime had more faith in their Crypt-copycat. As with many things in life, and in the horror genre, fans must wonder what-if, but at the very least we have this taste of what should have been, a solid entry in the body of work of not one but two horror legends. Now, bag that up and take it with you.

Body Bags

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror