We’re back to the decade countdown, this week looking at the best horror had to offer in the Eighties. This is the decade that spawned more horror franchises and iconic villains than any other – Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Evil Dead and Hellraiser to begin with. Somewhere in a haze of Aquanet that era also churned out more bad horror than any decade should, but here we will focus on the five best from the Duran Duran Decade.
5. An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Director John Landis blends horror, humor, and a little romance with cutting edge (at the time) special effects to tell the tale of a handsome American tourist David (David Naughton) doomed to turn into a Pepper – I mean a werewolf – at the next full moon.
Two college kids (Naughton and Griffin Dunne), riding in the back of a pickup full of sheep, backpacking across the moors, talk about girls and look for a place to duck out of the rain.
Aah, a pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – that’ll do!
The scene in the pub is awesome, as is the scene that follows, where the boys are stalked across the foggy moors. Creepy foreboding leading to real terror, this first act grabs you and the stage is set for a sly and scary escapade. The wolf looks cool, the sound design is fantastically horrifying, and Landis’s brightly subversive humor has never had a better showcase.
4. Poltergeist (1982)
This aggressive take on the haunted house tale wraps director Tobe Hooper’s potent horrors inside producer Steven Spielberg’s brightly lit suburbia. In both of Spielberg’s ’82 films, the charade of suburban peace is disrupted by a supernatural presence. In E.T., though, there’s less face tearing.
Part of Poltergeist’s success emerged from pairing universal childhood fears – clowns, thunderstorms, that creepy tree – with the adult terror of helplessness in the face of your own child’s peril. JoBeth Williams’s performance of vulnerable optimism gives the film a heartbeat, and the unreasonably adorable Heather O’Rourke creeps us out while tugging our heartstrings.
Splashy effects, excellent casting, Spielberg’s heart and Hooper’s gut combine to create a flick that holds up. Solid performances and the pacing of a blockbuster provide the film a respectable thrill, but Hooper’s disturbing imagination guarantees some lingering jitters.
3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Director John McNaughton’s unforgivingly realistic picture of American serial killer Henry Lee Lucas offers a uniquely unemotional telling – no swelling strings to warn us danger is afoot and no hero to speak of to balance the ugliness. We follow him through his humdrum days of stalking and then dispatching his prey, until he finds his own unwholesome kind of family in the form of buddy Otis and his sister Becky. What’s diabolically fascinating is the workaday, white trash camaraderie of the psychopath relationship in this film, and the grey areas where one crazy killer feels the other has crossed some line of decency.
McNaughton confuses viewers because the characters you identify with are evil, and even when you think you might be seeing this to understand the origins of the ugliness, he pulls the rug out from under you again by creating an untrustworthy narrative voice. His film is so nonjudgmental, so flatly unemotional, that it’s honestly hard to watch. It’s brilliant nonetheless.
2. The Thing (1981)
John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick The Thing from Another World is both reverent and barrier-breaking, limiting the original’s Cold War paranoia, and concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.
This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside. In an isolated wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy. The story remains taut beginning to end, and there’s rarely any telling just who is and who is not infected by the last reel. You’re as baffled and confined as the scientists. It’s horror movie magic.
1. The Shining (1980)
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding that the film never shakes.
Let’s not forget Jack. Nicholson outdoes himself. His veiled contempt early on blossoms into homicidal mania, and there’s something so wonderful about watching Nicholson slowly lose his mind. Between writer’s block, isolation, ghosts, alcohol withdrawal, midlife crisis, and “a momentary loss of muscular coordination,” the playfully sadistic creature lurking inside this husband and father emerges.
What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.