Horror Movies in the 1980s: Evil Dead, Child's Play, John Carpenter's The Thing, The Hitcher, Nightmare on Elm Street, Video Nasties.
1980s Horror Films — Inside Out: Body Horror
Horror movies of the 1980s (which probably begin in 1979 with Alien) exist at the glorious watershed when special visual effects finally caught up with the gory imaginings of horror fans and movie makers. Technical advances in the field of animatronics, and liquid and foam latex meant that the human frame could be distorted to an entirely new dimension, onscreen, in realistic close up. This coincided with the materialistic ethos of the 1980s, when having it all was important, but to be seen to be having it all was paramount. People demanded tangible tokens of material success - they wanted bigger, shinier, faster, with more knobs on - as verification of their own value in society. In the same way, horror films during this decade delivered the full colour close-up, look-no-strings-attached, special effect in a way that previous practitioners of the art could only dream about. Everything that had lurked in the shadows of horror films in the 1950s could now be brought into the light of day. The monsters were finally out of the closet.
Once they were exposed to the light, however, these monsters proved to be the same as ever: ghosts (of supernatural origin), werebeings (of human origin), and slimy things (origin unknown). The latter maintained a strong presence; the cuddly aliens represented in Star Wars and ET were counterbalanced by the grotesque extraterrestrials of the Alien Trilogy and The Thing. Werewolves made a strong showing in the early 1980s with the Howling series and An American Werewolf in London - and perhaps, as in the 1940s, reflected a fear of the 'wolves' stalking each other under the aegis of the Cold War. Ghosts were not so numerous but still provided cause for terror, whether they were traditional ones, such as those haunting The Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980), or of more ambiguous status: Freddy Krueger is technically a ghost.
The horror films of the early 1980s show a new energy and delight in the genre, as special effects creators fell over each other to create sequences that had never been attempted on film before. There were to be no more monsters with zippers up the back. But did this mean that horror films became more or less scary? Opinion is divided on the image/imagination debate. Some films which show no monsters at all (eg Cat People, and later, The Blair Witch Project) manage to terrify through suggestion, providing triggers for the audience's imagination and letting them scare themselves. Others take a quite literally visceral approach, providing images of blood and gore which induce a physical reaction of nausea and fear, challenging the audience to keep watching despite their revulsion. Experiments on the effects of media violence have shown that even fairly hardened viewers find it difficult to keep watching a video of a surgical operation; something about the insides of our own bodies induces genuine repulsion.
However, the cumulative effect of gory images is one of desensitization; pile too many on top of each other and they lose their meaning, and their power to shock. In keeping with the "excess is best" ethos of the 1980s, it became common practice to pile great heaps of gory images on top of each other, and the latex lunacy of horror movies by the end of the decade is more comic than horrific, as animated body parts hurtle from all directions across the screen. Brian Yuzna's Bride of Re-Animator, From Beyond (1986) and Society (1990) are all classic "should-I-laugh-should-I vomit?" cases in point. This so-called 'body horror' reflects a fascination with our own insides. Horror films have always dealt with the taboos surrounding Death, and in the 1980s they began to deal with evisceration, pulling apart the human body and turning it inside out, with all the bloody, slimy contents on display. As the tagline for Re-Animator (1985) intoned,"Death Is Just The Beginning", and viewers of 1980s horror films get shown many of the processes which occur after that.
Apart from movies in which disconnected or deformed body parts provide a threat to the still-whole, still-living humans, zombie films made a real comeback, from the slick satire on shopping mall frequenters, Dawn of The Dead (1979), to the inspired gore-fest Brain Dead (1990) successfully lurching across the screens in various stages of decomposition. Horror appeared to be good box office business in the 1980s, so much so that there are a couple of big-budget family-orientated entries to the genre. Joe Dante began by directing low-budget horror fare such as The Howling, and graduated to the major league with Gremlins (1984) a film aimed squarely at the Christmas family market, but containing some highly vicious little monsters and some very gory special effects. Of course, kids loved it, as they also loved Ghostbusters (1984). These movies were big hits ($148M and $291M at the box office respectively) and, although their success meant that horror movies were looked upon favourably by production companies, it began to affect the genre's credibility. The main demographic for audiences of horror movies in the 1980s was 15-24 year old and male; an audience seeking thrills as a rite-of-passage, seeking to prove that they have strong enough stomachs to sit through whatever the film-makers may throw at them. Not for them the 'kids stuff' of Ghostbusters or Gremlins, nor the 'philosophical horror' of some of the great genre entries of the 1970s. Of course, that which is designed to appeal to a 19 year old male may not appear an attractive viewing proposition for anyone else. The 15-24 year old market is consistently believed by movie studios to be attracted to violence, action, shock (as opposed to suspense). sex and excess in everything: the perfect 1980s audience.
The Shining (1980)
The Shining looks like no other horror movie, thanks to Kubrick's 360º vision, which resulted in an arduous and protracted production process. Kubrick and his production designer, Roy Walker, created the then-largest ever set at Elstree Studios, and spent over a year shooting on it. The Overlook was created as an amalgam of many different hotels - the red men's room where Jack talks to Grady was inspired by the Arizona Biltmore. The Colorado lounge was designed after the Ahwanee Hotel in the Yosemite Valley. In order to give The Overlook a specific identity, Kubrick used Native American designs in the carpets and stained glass windows. There are hints that the hotel is built over an ancient burial ground, and that this might be the source of the malevolent energy that pervades its walls...
"Man is the warmest place to hide"
After establishing a successful track record with Dark Star, Halloween and Big Trouble in Little China, Carpenter decided he wanted to remake a movie that had entranced him as a child, The Thing From Another World. This black-and-white RKO picture revolves around the (largely) unseen threat to an isolated group of scientists working on an ice station. When we finally get to see what has been menacing the men, it looks unfortunately like an overgrown carrot, and the sinister effect is somewhat undermined. Carpenter wanted no such disappointment with his version, and engaged Rob Bottin as special effects designer. Apart from working with Carpenter on The Fog, Bottin created the state-of-the-art special effects in The Howling, producing frightening and convincing man-to-wolf transformation scenes. From the very beginning (even before Carpenter hired him), he had a very clear concept of how the Thing should look and behave, and the result is some of the most grotesque images ever brought to the cinema screen.
SFX aside, The Thing also contains some fine, understated performances from an interesting selection of character actors. Kurt Russell has worked with Carpenter many times, but for the rest of the cast, Carpenter decided he wanted an 'uncomfortable' feel, and chose an array of unfamiliar faces. The Thing's storyline is conventional enough - monster threatens isolated community and picks off the inhabitants one-by-one - but never predictable, in that it is impossible to judge who will be next. There is deliberate ambiguity about who is taken over by the Thing when, and even repeat viewers of the film share the cast's edgy mistrust of each other.
The ending, as Mac (Kurt Russell) and Childs (Keith David) settle down to a slow suicide by hypothermia has provoked much discussion. One, both or neither of the men being a Thing are all valid possibilities, and the mysterious absence of frozen breath coming from Child's mouth simply fuels the debate. There is no triumphant resolution here, no final destruction of the Thing to prove that humans are the superior race. We are left with a real sense of unease, and cannot acquiesce to MacReady's suggestion that we "just wait here for a little while...see what happens." The credits roll and we never know what happens. Despite having 'what happens' thrust in our faces in full, grotesque detail earlier on in the movie, we are never allowed to see what happens at the end. Thus The Thing is that genuine scary movie, a parade of visual nightmares which keeps you jittery long after the last remnant of gore has faded from your retina.
- Film Monthly review
- When The Thing Became John Carpenter's The Thing - a producer's guide to the evolution and production
Direct-to-video horror films in the 1980s were produced on the same basis as the AIP titles of the 1950s; a grotesque title, a gory tagline and a gruesome cover were all that was needed to get a video store-browsing customer to pick up the box and say "this one looks good". Usually budgeted at between $250,000 and $2 million, and clocking in at an average of 80 minutes these movies represented more variations on the slasher theme, or constituted loose sequels to a title that had already been successful as a theatrical release. As the marketing was all about promising "killings", aimed at a niche audience, there was no need to employ stars (although you might find a couple of today's A-listers on their way up). The Drive In had finally come home, allowing teenagers to consume horror movies in a private space (the basement or the bedroom), without any adult interference, without any interference at all, if desired. The VCR made movie watching a solo activity for the first time in the medium's history since kinetoscopes faded from amusement arcades in the early 1920s.>
The result of legal action against the distributors of the "video nasties" (39 titles eventually made the list) was a law passed to regulate the sale and distribution of video in the UK (The 1984 Video Recordings Act). This was the first time a UK government had passed a new censorship mandate since 1737, and was seen as a triumph for the moral majority. Their victory was rather hollow as it only served to send the trade underground, especially as these titles were available in the USA, and any self-respecting teenager could tell you which of their local video stores provided under-the-counter "banned" videos. From our perspective, two decades on, it is difficult to see what all the fuss is about. A Box of The Banned set has just been released in the UK, containing I Spit On Your Grave, Driller Killer, Zombie Flesh Eaters, Nightmares in A Damaged Brain, Last House on the Left and The Evil Dead.
- BBFC (equivalent of the MPAA) give an account of the furore - the censors themselves speak
- Video Nasties - a clear account of the situation
- Video Nasties - full details in seven parts from EOFFTV
- Let There Be Blood - 2002 Guardian article on the pre-VRA bloodbath
- The Video Nasties Furore - detailed discussion
A new documentary, Video Nasties: Moral Panic Censorship and Videotape (2010) deals with the era in more detail.
There is no Final Girl in the Evil Dead movies, just Ash, the firm jawed hero, who manages to survive a slew of attacks by evil spirits, brought back to life by recitations from the Book of The Dead, and hellbent on turning him and his companions into green-faced, white-eyed demons. With a blood lust. And a wicked sense of humour.
Sam Raimi is now an A-list Hollywood director (Spiderman 1,2 and 3), but he cut his teeth with Within The Woods in 1978, a short made for less than $2000 which he used to get investors for his feature length project The Evil Dead (1981). After raising around $90,000 Raimi headed back into the woods, and began to put together the movie that Stephen King described as "ferociously original", and which quickly became a cult classic. The story is a simple one; five college students head off to a remote cabin in the woods, and start poking around things that don't belong to them, namely a reel-to-reel tape recorder left by the previous occupant, a professor investigating the spells contained in the ancient 'Book of The Dead'. This grisly tome, bound in human skin and inked in human blood, contains incantations which, when read aloud, awaken the evil spirits that lurk in the woods, and open the door to the possession by demons of any hapless humans who happen to be spending the night in a log cabin which isn't theirs.
Raimi uses standard B movie ingredients (isolated location, a time scale of dusk till dawn, a small number of characters who get picked off one by one) when cooking up the plot, and provides the one-time actors with a creaky script that they recite, rather than perform. However, the inspired use of POV camera, which hurtles along the forest floor (attached variously to a motorbike, a 2x4 plank and a dinghy) gives the movie its trademark sequences, and its subsequent iconic status. The kinetic camerawork evokes a squealing, demented demon, dragging hapless cinemagoers along for a murderous ride. While the sequences inside the cabin revel in shlocky gore, with plenty of dismemberment and spurting blood, it is the exterior action, with the camera careening between the treestumps, that sticks in the mind. Sean Cunningham, creator of the Friday the 13th movies, has likened watching a horror movie to being on a rollercoaster, and nowhere is that analogy more accurate. The Evil Dead is a ride, with the audience jerked between scares and laughter, and the frenetic pace is maintained until all the college kids are dead. The final shot sees a terrified Ash confronting the rampaging demon, with no weapon to hold it back. The ride stops and the credits roll, but there's no elimination of the threat. Not one of the trilogy has a happy ending.
The Evil Dead pays homage to other horror movies - there's a torn fragment of a The Hills Have Eyes poster in the cabin's cellar. Ash's judicious use of a power tool references The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as does the underlying misogyny, and the reduction of women into objects which need to be hacked up and destroyed. Ash is happy to destroy his sister and his girlfriend, once they are possessed, and doesn't ever consider the possibility of somehow exorcising the demons and getting the 'real' girls back. The eye-rolling, tongue lolling hags are swiftly and bloodily despatched, without hesitation, or any attempt to reason with them. One inference could be that the women are somehow showing their true colours, letting loose their inner demons rather than being possessed by an exterior force; they are certainly persistent, with the demon-Shelly battering away at the cellar trapdoor for the longest time. Only the sight of a cheap amulet, recently presented to Linda, his girlfriend, gives Ash the briefest cause for regret. The rape of Cheryl by possessed roots and branches is particularly violent, as she is dragged screeching through the woods and violated by a thrusting twig. She is the spare wheel in the group of five, the overly sensitive one without a man to keep her in line and prevent her from running outside (wearing just a bathrobe) in the first place. She is punished for transgressing, despite being the first one to realise what danger they are all in.
The Evil Dead is still a gripping excursion through the backwoods, innovative and effective. It has a nastiness at its core, however (perhaps best seen in the pen-stabbing-ankle scene), which gives it a chill factor to remember. Raimi makes the best of budgetary constraints; much of the movie was filmed on a second trip to the cabin, with only Campbell and a bunch of stand-ins filling the over-the-shoulder shots ( a technique they nicknamed "shemping"). Despite the creative use of limited resources, it does creak in places; the full moon that rises over the cabin does so in a different coloured sky, a square of navy a completely different hue to the rest of the screen. It was so successful overseas however, that Raimi got the backing to have another go. Evil Dead 2(1982) is neither a sequel or a remake of the original, but something of a cross between the two. With ten times his original budget, Raimi picks up any viewers who might not have seen the first movie with a flashback - only this time Ash is alone in the car with his girlfriend - explaining what Ash is doing at the cabin. After despatching the possessed Linda, our hero becomes temporaily inhabited by demons too, only to have them driven away by the first light of dawn. Muddy, bloodied, exhausted, Ash is left on his own to battle the fiends, in an increasingly hilarious spiral of humour and gore. Ash's hand becomes possessed, and tries to kill him, so he lops it off with a chainsaw. Shelly's headless torso pursues him out to the garden shed, where he has stuck her head in a vice, the better to slice it in two. Singly, these images might be shocking, but Raimi gleefully slams one into the other, spraying everything with multicoloured gore, knowing that laughter lies on the other side of repulsion. Ash is whirled through the woods, slammed with dishes, dragged up and down stairs, and the audience plays along with this torture which resembles nothing more than a depraved Buster Keaton movie. By the time the Professor's daughter appears, with her country hick friends, the audience knows that these characters are simply cannon fodder, and relish in their destruction. Evil Dead 2 is full of scares and shocks, but its underlying humour takes away the chill factor of its predecessor. You'll leap from your seat more, but you'll sleep better at night.
Army of Darkness (1993) picks up at exactly the point Evil Dead 2 leaves off, with Ash being whirled into a medieval past, and forced to confront a Harryhausen-inspired army of skeletons who are attempting to assault a castle. This can barely be classified as a horror film, being a comedy fantasy trip. The franchise has also inspired a range of succesful video games, a remake is in the pipeline, and there is constant talk of an Evil Dead 4 on messageboards across the globe. Actor/Producer Bruce Campbell has also become a major cult figure.
Bruce Campbell illuminates the genesis of all three movies in his fun autobiography, If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor.
- Deadites Online - informative fansite
- Evil Dead Screenplay
- Evil Dead Movies and the Decline of the American Horror Film - from StompTokyo
Wes Craven, the former college professor responsible for two of the darkest and most deranged movies of the 1970s (Last House on The Left and The Hills Have Eyes) unveiled a brash, commercial franchise in 1984: A Nightmare on Elm Street. The monster, a hideously scarred Freddy (named after a kid who bullied Wes Craven at school) Krueger represents a successful blend of humour and horror, a deranged killer who doesn't lurk silently behind a hockey mask but menaces in full view, spitting one-liners as he sharpens his trademark glove. In terms of Jungian archetypes he is the ultimate Shadow Trickster, the shape changer who relishes sick jokes. Freddy was a merchandising dream, an icon for a generation whose distinctive striped jersey, battered hat and scarred visage have sold many a t-shirt, board-game, coffee cup, lunch box and snow globe. Yes, snow globe - check out the New Line store.
A Nightmare On Elm Street has a relatively low body count for its time (four), but each of the killings is a mini-movie in itself, with a separate location, build-up and mode of despatch. Another notable thing about A Nightmare on Elm Street is how brightly lit most of it is, and how many of the scenarios take place in ordinary, uncontested spaces - a school hallway, a teenager's bedroom. There are no warnings as the narrative shifts from reality to nightmare, and there are seemingly no rules about where Freddy can strike (in English class, in the bathtub). Freddy himself springs from a dark place, a boiler-room full of rust and steam, and it is only when Nancy acknowledges this ("Okay, Krueger, you bastard. We play in your court.") and deliberately goes to seek him out that she has any chance of defeating him. Nancy makes a resourceful Final Girl as she pulls the monster out of her nightmare into the real world, where he becomes a slapstick figure, falling for her A-Team style booby traps, tumbling down the stairs, and flailing around with his arms on fire. But he still manages to kill her Mom.
The original A Nightmare on Elm Street had a budget of just $1.8M and some of its special effects, though convincing at the time, look shoddy today. It's the simplest touches which still have an impact, however - Freddy's ghostly face (in actuality a man and some spandex) leering out of the wall above a sleeping Nancy, the "eeeeeee" sound of the knives on metal objects, and the red-and-green striped hood coming down over the car at the end (apparently it came down too fast so the panicked look on the actors' faces is real). Subsequent entries in the franchise get more and more ridiculous, making too much use of dreamscapes, and showcasing Freddy as a kind of anti-James Bond, always ready with a bon-mot to accompany the snickersnack of his blades.
Another serial killer with a smart mouth and a not-so-snappy way of dressing appeared in 1988, launching another successful franchise. Child's Play(1988) introduced horror audiences to Chucky, who, as well as drawing on the long tradition of malevolent dolls on page and screen, provided an interesting nexus between the monster children of the 1970s and the serial killers of the 1990s. The self-aware irony pre-empted the tone of the post-modern Wes Craven movies of the1990s.
In human form, Charles Lee Ray (his name is a combination of notorious killers Charles Manson, James Earl Ray and Harvey Oswald) is just another weasel-faced small-time murderer who can't catch a break. Transformed into Chucky, he's a wisecracking invincible who never sleeps, whose bright, polymer-blue eyes make him seem innocent of any wrong-doing. Chucky can go places and do things (mainly kill people) that Charles Lee Ray could only dream of, and this is a key part of the doll's appeal throughout the franchise. Chucky is terrifying, his toddler clothing, foreshortened limbs and freckles juxtaposed against a deadly snarl. Yet he is also fascinating, a very human non-human, no longer subject to the laws of the living, but bound by plastic restrictions. We want to run from Chucky, but part of us wonders what it would be like to be him.
Despite his limited size and basic chemical composition, Chucky is actually a much more complex, intriguing character than Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. The five films in the franchise are testament to this complexity: Chucky runs the whole gamut from killer to clown without confusing his core branding. He's funny, scary, and angry. While his antics get increasingly comedic as the series wears on, Chucky is the same, a foul-mouthed, three feet high ex-con with cherubic cheeks. He has endeared himself to millions worldwide, and remains a popular Halloween costume when October rolls around. This is partly because the original writer, Mancini, has stayed on board throughout, even directing the fifth instalment himself. As well as the movies, Chucky has generated mountains of merchandise, fan fiction, and a series of graphic novels (courtesy of Devil's Due Publishing Hack/Slash series). With a reboot on the horizon, he looks to garner a whole new generation of fans.
Penned by then-UCLA student Don Mancini, Child's Play is essentially a straightforward slasher film with a unique twist. The serial-killer-as-doll concept allows the film-makers and audience to have fun with the genre conventions. There is nothing we haven't seen before in terms of the hunt for a brutal, inhuman murderer who must be stopped before he picks off the main characters, it's just we've never seen it done with a blue-eyed, red-haired, dungareed doll. Chucky was iconic and original enough to breathe fresh life into the paradigms, and he provided a solid template on which Universal could build a $145 million (and counting!) franchise.
One film that bucked the trend is The Hitcher (1986). Potentially just a mean little thriller about a young guy who is taunted by a homicidal hitch-hiker, Rutger Hauer's sinister screen presence and John Harmon's edgy direction turn this into one of the scariest films of the decade - without using an atom of latex. Hauer is the Hitcher of the title, picked up one rainy evening by young Jim Halsey (C Thomas Howell). Halsey knows at the time this is an unwise move ("My mother told me never to do this..."), but he's tired, driving someone else's car cross country from Chicago to San Diego, and he feels he could do with some company. Eight minutes into the movie, his passenger is explaining what happened to the last guy foolish enough to offer a stranger a lift ("I cut off his legs... and his arms... and his head"), and from then on in the tension is relentless.<
The Hitcher tells Jim that his name is John Ryder, but reveals little else. Part of the dark mastery of this film is the lack of information about the monster. He refuses to explain his murderous impulses ("You're a smart kid, you work it out"), and hacks at everything in his path, a seemingly unstoppable, unthinking killing animal reminiscent of The Birds or Jaws. He appears to have supernatural survival skills, living through an explosion, several car wrecks, and being hit full on by a police truck. Ryder is also a supernaturally perceptive predator, following Halsey with an unerring instinct, suddenly appearing inside his motel room at one point. Wherever Halsey tries to run, the Hitcher follows, with no more motive than malevolent amusement. The Hitcher is not content to torture or even kill Halsey, instead he wraps him up in a homicidal web, slaying those around Halsey so it looks like he is the culprit. Halsey spends much of the film covered in other characters' blood as Ryder is always one step ahead of the younger man, slipping a severed finger into Halsey's bowl of fries, unlocking his cell while he sleeps, and shooting down the police helicopter that's in hot pursuit. His only perceptible motive is the desire to turn Halsey into a killer like him, but Halsey won't shoot, right until the end, a brutal confrontation with this shadowy nemesis.
Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it, The Hitcher shows almost no onscreen gore, but is remembered for its extreme violence, especially the climactic scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh gets ripped in half. It's a truly nightmarish film, with its central character, who has not committed any crime, trapped in a nightmarish scenario that gets worse and worse and worse. Unlike many other horror movies with a human monster, The Hitcher delivers both shock and suspense, taking us on a terrifying journey across the empty California deserts in the company of a blue-eyed psychopath who is totally without scruples, totally without remorse. Extremely frightening, especially given the visual restraint shown by the film-makers.
What is the best horror film of the 1980s?
Towards the end of the decade, horror movies were considerably 'dumbed down' to attract their target audience, with body counts through the ceiling, and little attention being paid to plot and credibility. Horror movies were designed to appeal to aficionados of the genre and no one else, stuffed full of in-jokes and unnecessary, OTT gore. It looked as thought the genre might have gone into tailspin - sequel piled upon sequel, endlessly recycled plots, lower and lower box-office receipts hence lower and lower budgets, and a loss of respectability which meant that respected writers, directors and actors shunned working within the genre. But horror movies had been here before, at the end of the 1940s, and once again the genre successfully managed to reanimate itself. Eschewing a luminous blue serum, horror went back to basics, and refocused on that basic of all evils, 'man's inhumanity to man'.