It Came From the Eighties – A Random Horror Listicle

It Came From the Eighties – A Random Horror Listicle

REPOST: 5 October 2023. I like to repost this one, every year in the lonesome October.

Ah, Horror.  The “lesser genre”.

Eternally demeaned, abused, and snubbed by the elders of the film industry.

Yet almost all of the major filmmakers started out in it.  The only genre that has produced more mainstream directors is no-shit porn and I am not kidding about that.

Rather than do some best-of-all-time horror movies list  I will just concentrate on the 1980s.

The Eighties represent a unique period in the genre.  You can’t mistake those films for anything else. For one thing, there was money on the table.  That hasn’t always been the case although at the very start it was.

The 1930s was genesis for the genre and they were expensive movies for their day.  The much-maligned Studio System actually had quite a few things going for it.  It was often very daring and innovative, much more so than today.  It was capable of putting a lot of resources behind something new and seriously drive it forward.  The Universal Monsters of the Depression-era did exactly that. 

Universal’s images of Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolfman, were all suddenly and indelibly pressed into the fabric of American culture. For better than eighty years, no one ever had to guess who these guys were, you knew just by looking at their pictures.

But by the end of the 1940s, there were enough real-life monsters out there that interest in fake ones died out in America. And the Big Three of horror were reduced to comedy relief in an Abbot and Costello movie.

However, the genre was kept alive in postwar Britain; Dead of Night, Quatermass, (anything written by Nigel Kneale come to that), plus a few others.

This led to the next boom in the field.  The Hammer Films revival in the fifties.  The blood was in gorgeous technicolor and the English came up with an innovation that had been missing in the Universal run of monster movies.

Hammer introduces that famous couple
Left and Right 

Sex was a big part of Hammer Horror and it dragged women to the theaters like a magnet. Flesh and Blood has a lot more attraction going for it than just blood.

Eventually, Hammer films drifted into self-parody in the late sixties and open embarrassment in the early Seventies. So, the genre died yet again.

The mid-1970s saw a minor revival of American studio-driven horror. The Howling.  The Hunger.  Rosemary’s Baby and so on.  They forgot all about sex, everything was always hopeless for the protagonists and the ending was always bleak.  The characters were unlikable and doomed from the start. The production value was there but these films took themselves way too seriously.

1980s horror films did not.

They were their own thing.  Pretty much a genre unto themselves.  It wasn’t just big hair, headbands, and tight jeans.   There were laughs as well as scares. The big thing is that there was a Gen-X flavor to them.  The heroes may have been faced with an utterly hopeless situation but they always took whatever they could find and fought back.

The quality was good but not great.  The budgets were low but not basement dwelling.  The makeup and special effects innovations of the 1970s were cheap enough by then to be within the reach of most producers. And sex appeal was invited back to the party. Occasionally.

Now I am going to confuse a lot of you with this next statement but I don’t regard every horror movie made in the eighties as an Eighties Horror Movie.

John Carpenter’s The Thing while produced in 1982 carries the hopeless ennui of a 1970’s horror film as does his Prince of Darkness. Yet, Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China is damn near the quintessential Eighties Horror Film except for the fact that it is never scary in the least.

It’s a fine line, I know. It’s tricky.

And now on with my completely arbitrary click-bait listicle.

First up.

The Gate 1987

An underrated and nearly forgotten film, yet it is genuinely good.  The reason it succeeds is that it is respectfully aimed at its core audience, boys that were aged 8-13.  It isn’t condescending to them.  It comes up with the kind of fears that boys that age have: 

The Thing Under the Bed.  

The Thing Under the Stairs.  

Your Older Sister’s Bitchy Friends.

The Plot is that Glen is alone in the house.  His sixteen-year-old sister Alex (who is no longer to be called “Al” has been left “in charge.”  He and his big sister were clearly closer at one time. She probably fetched diapers when he came home from the hospital and held his hands when he learned to walk. But now she is at an age where she is actively pushing him away.

The methodology of fear in this film is the betrayal of the familiar.  It’s, ‘Mom eating snakes on the kitchen floor.’  Glen is entering adolescent manhood. He isn’t quite ready to be separated from his parents yet, although that is coming soon.  Alex distancing herself from him is leaving him very lonely.

The tree that held their childhood treehouse falls over and the hole it leaves behind leads somewhere…else. Which is a fantastic metaphor.

Glen and his metalhead, nerd, and best friend Terry accidentally begin the ritual that will open the Gate and unleash the forces of Hell on Earth. 

Small creatures start appearing in the empty house but bigger ones are starting to follow these pathfinders. Alex at first doesn’t believe them but is forced to accept that these demons are real. And that she and her baby brother are in danger.

Terry figures out what has happened and discovers the secret of reversing it. The Closing Ritual is on a metal album that can only be heard if it’s played backward, which is a nice eighties touch that inverts one of the standard tropes of the Metal-Demonology panic from that time.

The Gate has stood up well to the passing of time. It is still a good Goosebumps-level horror flick that is way scarier than anything R.L. Stine ever came up with

Vamp (1987)

Vamps is very much dumb fun.  It worked in its day as horror and is still worth a laugh today.  The theme of this one is, “How do Vampires get away with feeding in the modern world?”  Now, this has been explored so much by now that it has gone from great idea to cliche but it was still a pretty new concept when Vamps was released in 1987.

It starred Chris Makepeace, Robert Rusler and Deedee Pfeiffer.  These actors are all still working and have decent enough resumes but in 1987 it looked like they were all about to break out and make the jump to the big time.  It never happened for any of them and I’m afraid this film is probably why.  

The reason it failed at the box office was the inexplicable choice of Grace Jones as the lead Stripper/Vampire Queen Katrina.  Honestly, I don’t know what the hell they were thinking.  Even in her prime she just wasn’t hot.  Her English was so weak that they didn’t let her have any lines. All the signs of a director having to shoot around an incompetent actress are present. Her “performance-artist-stripper” routine in this film was weird and off-putting.   It wasn’t even in the same ballpark as Salma Hayek’s famous snake dance ten years later.  

It just didn’t work as sexy and it needed to in order to carry this film. That one scene was critical. The bottom line was you just didn’t want to bang Grace Jones.  The general insistence at the time, that Jones was actually sexually desirable when she obviously wasn’t was one of the first hints of reality-denying SJWism entering the world.

(*Future Herald here: I was told at a convention that Jones was a last-second replacement. Originally the vampire stripper queen was to be played by Brigitte Nielsen. Stallone flipped when he found out about the nudity and she dropped out. I can’t confirm this but it does scan. They got divorced about the time this hit the theaters*)

Back to the movie.  This flick almost feels like a John Hughes horror film.  It’s that Eighties.

The plot: two frat pledges go on a mission to collect some strippers for their fraternity.  They don’t have much money so they look for a down-at-the-heels titty bar in the bad end of town and find the wrong strip club.  The vampire strippers drain their low-rent clientele on skid row because no one would ever miss them. And now our heroes have discovered their secret and must be eliminated. The super cool guy Alpha is killed and turned, leaving his Bravo Male best friend as the protagonist. That was innovative and clever. The Bravo wasn’t completely lost but his Alpha best friend had been a protector and then that protector is forced to join the other side, leaving him more vulnerable and shifting the power dynamic firmly against him just as the Second Act gets underway.

If they remade this film today the Bravo would be a Gamma and the Alpha his bully.

Basically, Vamps is Dusk ’til Dawn, although I don’t know if Tarantino ever gave it a thimble of credit.

This movie was Eighties Horror in full swing.  I still recommend it.

Fright Night (1985) & Fright Night II (1987)

We are now into much better-known territory.  At least for the first one.

The Plot: horror movie geek Charlie, thinks that a real-life vampire has moved in next door to him.  Everyone thinks he’s nuts, including the has-been Hammer-Horror actor turned Monster-Chiller-Horror-Theater UHF TV host, Peter Vincent (the perfect name by the way).  Peter Vincent is hired by Charlie to hunt the Vampire Next Door.  

Peter thinks it will be much easier just to prove that Jerry Dandrige is not a vampire at all but then to his horror, he manages to accidentally prove the opposite.  Things escalate from there. 

The effects were good for their day and the tone was a balanced mix of scares and laughs. It had some memorable scenes.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a lot to Fright Night.

This is one of the films that pretty much everyone mentions when you talk about 1980s horror.  At $24 million it didn’t have a monster box-office return but it was good enough to spawn a sequel.

Fright Night 2 was virtually unreleased and went straight to video, which is a pity because this second picture is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than the first film. 

The problem is that most sequels aren’t really sequels at all.  Properly speaking a sequel needs to be the next part of the story in sequence. Act I is followed by Act II and Act II by Act III. Star Wars the OG Trilogy is the perfect example of this.   However, if the entire story was told in the first movie then the only thing you can do for the sequel is to create a beat-for-beat remake of the first movie. Classic example, Ghostbusters 2.

Despite the fact that the story of Fright Night was finished in the first movie, the makers of Fright Night 2 didn’t make a beat-for-beat remake but instead inverted the plot of the first film while building on that story’s premise, creating a Second Act.

The plot: after two years of therapy Charlie Brewster is now convinced that the whole thing had been in his head.  He is now the skeptic that has to be convinced and Peter Vincent is the believer who is trying to convince him that the Thing Under The Bed is real.  The girlfriend is frankly quite a bit hotter and is much more engaging as a character than the first one. (Traci Lin, or Traci Lind, or Tracy Lind-Tavi; changing her name for each movie didn’t help her career any.)  The setting is more interesting as well since Charlie is now in college and relationships are more grown up.  The plot is more intricate and better constructed.

They also inverted the Dracula mythos as well.  The vampire is now a woman and her husband/slaves(?) are men (or at least two men and an insect-powered flesh golem (Brian Thompson, who also should have had a better career than he did). Charlie is now filling the role of Mina Harker, the victim who is slowly being turned into a vampire. Regine the Vampire Queen was Jerry Dandrige’s sister and she means to extract prolonged revenge on Charlie after she turns him into a vampire.

On the whole, it’s simply a better film than the original and it’s a shame the studio shelved it.  Although I don’t get the part about vampires and bowling.

Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Honestly, I only included this one because I have to.  Return of the Living Dead was very much an homage to Night of the Living Dead.  As such it comes with some tonal baggage (which the film was true to, I have to give it that.) It knew what it wanted to be and it succeeded at it. However, it doesn’t really feel like an eighties horror movie. Although it is remembered as one because of all the Punk stuff.

Punk started in the mid-seventies but by 1985 it had begun morphing into grunge. So Punkers were becoming dated. There were a few still around but there was no real energy behind it by then.

RotLD did add one other significant thing to the zombie genre, “BRAAAAAAINNSSS“.  Zombies wanted to eat pretty much everything before then.  Still a decent enough movie, and it does come with some good gags.  The screaming manager still makes me laugh.  The zombie gross-out effects still work and as I said it significantly added to the myth of the genre.  The thing that bothers me is the fatalism, you knew from the start they were all going to die.

This was ultimately a film made by Boomers to display their contempt for Gen X. 

I enjoy it but I don’t like it.

Evil Dead 2 (1987)

When you mention the film Evil Dead, this is the one people start automatically thinking of.

Evil Dead 2 is essentially a remake (although NOT beat for beat) of Evil Dead (1981).

The cabin they had shot the first one in had mysteriously burned down, (because it was a rickety old cabin and a fire hazard, to begin with), so they built a new one on a field-expedient sound stage in a  gym in North Carolina.  I think this significantly added to the atmosphere of the entire project.

By now you will have noticed that I included no slasher movies in my list at all and I’m not going to.  The victims in those films always ran, screamed, tripped, and fell, then followed that up with begging for their lives.  I loathed them on general principle.

Ash always fought back.  No matter how completely hopeless the situation, Ash took whatever he could find and fought back.  For that matter so did most everyone around him.  Now everyone around him died but there was a will to win.  Also if you didn’t fight you were likely to be raped by a tree so go ahead and fight, it was really the path of least resistance.

There are a lot of things that make this an Eighties movie.  The big hair look had arrived.  The vacu-form MSU tee shirt on the doomed girlfriend. The music score.  The necklace from Corey’s Jewel Box (which gets you big laughs in Michigan when people find out about it.) And the ’73 Olds Delta 88.  In 1981 when the first movie was made it was just a crappy old car, by the time this movie came out, it was almost but never quite going to be a classic automobile.  Making it perfect for Ash. And then there was the ultimate Eighties line, “Groovy!”  No one on Earth had uttered that word since before the Love Boat set sail. I almost literally fell on the floor laughing when I first heard it, it was that funny. But only in 1987.

The first movie was a drive-in classic but had no humor at all.  This second one did.  Although less humor than most people seem to remember it having.  It’s just that the humor was so campy and unexpected when it arrived.

Maybe that is the real appeal of the Eighties Horror movie.  Campy without Sucky.  And Evil Dead 2 was certainly that.

The Lost Boys (1987)

You’ve been waiting for this one, haven’t you?

Alright, then.

Nothing screams Like OmaGawd, Totally Tubular Eighties horror like the Lost Boys.  Unlike Return of the Living Dead, this one was actually in touch with the zeitgeist of Generation X.  It had a feel for what the Punk scene was quickly evolving into. It had characters instead of caricatures. Well. Maybe that is pushing the hyperbole a bit but the bottom line was these guys felt like Gen Xers and not like some shadow puppets created by Boomers to let Boomers sneer at or lecture us.  There was a trust of the Greatest Generation present as well as a distrust of the Worst Generation, (which was revealed when it turned out Max was actually the Head Vampire.

It had its low points to be sure.  The Coreys were both in it for a start but so were Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, and Jaime Gertz.  The cast was very strong in this movie.

The mythology it created was on the silly side.  You can be a half-vampire and be recovered if you kill the head vampire before you feed for the first time.  A trope that is now in common use today but rare enough for the time to get a pass.

And while it was almost more comedy than horror, the scares were there.  “…the critical consensus was, ‘Flawed but eminently watchable.'”

I don’t usually agree with “critical consensus” on general principle but I do with this one.

Tremors (1990)

Now before you jump in my shit for the year of its release think about two things.  One, it was released in January of 1990 which is where the studios dump the stuff that was supposed to be a summer release but they decided wouldn’t make enough money.  Which means that Tremors was supposed to be in the summer of 1989.  So that wasn’t its fault, damn it.

And two, have you ever thought of Tremors as being something other than an Eighties Movie?  Of course, you haven’t, it’s got Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward in it.

I suppose there is some question as to whether or not it is actually a horror movie and I get that.  But the answer to that one is, yes.  Although it was more in the tradition of the Beast of Yucca Flats school of sci-fi horror.

Tremors couldn’t be made today without screwing it up totally.  It was the kind of film that took its time in building the menace of the “Graboids”.  It starts slowly, with suggestions of the monsters that lurk beneath the sand, and works its way up from there.  the first death was due to natural circumstances, given that’s natural to be dead when you choose to die of exposure rather than be eaten by a monster.  Although that wasn’t known at the time it’s a great start.

Val and Earl make for a great mix as an odd couple of best friends.  The population of Perfection is a good little micro-society of 1980s America.

I think what I loved about this film the most is that no one ever quit.  They kept trying no matter what.  My favorite scene is probably yours if you are a regular at this Blog.

That was it for Eighties Horror movies. They were fun while they lasted.

Okay, I’m done here.

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