From Frights To Fun: The Evolution Of 80s Horror

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From Frights To Fun: The Evolution Of 80s Horror

(Remember, clicking the highlighted links brings you to my full reviews of the films referenced here!)

To me, the 80s is one of the best decades ever for horror flicks…with the 70s following right behind it. Sure, every decade since films started being made has it’s classics from 1922’s Nosfeatu to 2007’s Trick ‘r’ Treat, but in terms of sheer proliferation and the number of classics that came out of it, the 80s was an amazing time to be a horror movie fan and I am glad I was in my theater seat for it all the way. And as I have said before, it was a time where low-budget B horrors could still be seen in a theater, where they belong and a time I will always cherish. I will also admit there was a lot of garbage to sift through to get to the gold, but even those had their entertainment value, especially when you and your friends were sitting in your seats giving those lesser efforts the old MST3K treatment, years before that show even existed…and that classic show is also a product of the 80s, might I add. But the one thing I also find striking about 80s horror is a distinct tonal shift in the style of horror flicks as the decade wore on that can only be appreciated now as we look back in nostalgia. Darker and more somber slashers became flicks that were lighter in tone, more colorful and with far more of a sense of fun about themselves. Let’s take a look…

John Carpenter’s Halloween may not have been the first slasher, but it is the film whose success started the early 80s slasher trend as studios and indie filmmakers realized you could make a lot of money on a shoestring budget. The early 80s cinemas became filled with films that followed the slasher formula with the stories being set on or around a special event or time, such as the prom in Prom Night, or college hazing as in Hell Night, or a fateful day like Friday The 13th. And then, within that setting, having a group of young high school or college co-eds being stalked and cut down by a killer with a grudge, till one feisty young girl…or sometimes a couple…is left to fend off our killer. For the most part these films took themselves very seriously and had a somber mood and moderate pace with the violence level being anywhere from fairly tame, like in thrillers like Terror Train or over-the-top gory as in Willaim Lustig’s Maniac or Charles Kaufman’s Mother’s Day…though, let’s not forget that some of the gorier entries where a result of the success of George Romero’s ultra-violent Dawn Of The Dead which started it’s own trend of extremely violent horrors that predominately came out of Italy and was spearheaded by filmmakers like Lucio Fulci. There were some rare instances where a director had a more humorous approach like Joe Dante’s The Howling or An American Werewolf in London, but horror/comedy is nothing new and the early 80s horror films predominately followed a more serious direction at this point in time.

Monster movies like The Boogens or Without Warning or supernatural horrors like The Fog and  The Boogeyman also followed the slasher format with victims being isolated and killed off one by one, leaving a frightened heroine to fend for herself with the occasional surviving love interest to help her survive. And for the first two or three years of the decade, theaters where inundated with such horrors to the delight of screaming fans. And we got many a classic horror flick out of it. But like any trend, such as the 70s possession flick trend inspired by The Exorcist, these things run their course. But not only did 80s horror start to open up with more supernatural themed flicks like the A Nightmare On Elm Street films, that cleverly added an incorporeal villain and surreal elements to the slasher formula, but the films started to reflect the overall buoyant mood of the 80s with brighter cinematography, more humorous tones and even began to reference and acknowledge past films and filmmakers. The first ‘inside’ reference I can remember was Sam Raimi’s subtle shout-out to Wes Craven by having a The Hills Have Eyes poster displayed in the basement of the old cabin in 1981’s The Evil Dead…to which Craven responded by having Heather Langenkamp watching Evil Dead on TV in the first Elm St movie. In terms of the lighter tone, the first time I noticed it was back in 1982 with Friday The 13th Part 3. When I saw it at my beloved Oritani Theater, I was kind of taken back by it all. The film had a very colorful production design, had a lot more humor than the first two installments…including characters that seemed to be there just for comic relief…and seemed to almost be having fun with the fact that we’ve been through this twice before. Jason went from a creepy, deformed backwoodsman to a hulking comic-bookish monster complete with iconic hockey mask. The film’s trademark kills were a bit more elaborate and far-fetched, as if the filmmakers were getting a bit playful with Jason’s M.O. The tone shift seemed to be starting, but without knowing what was to come in following years, I was simply disappointed with the flick and had no idea the trend would continue.

And the shift did continue with the advent of Freddy Krueger who was creepy at first, but quickly became a wisecracking, demonic gremlin that pulled people into his dream world for elaborate and outrageously gimmick-laden fates. The movies were far more fun than scary, but these films at least were more creative and imaginative than the simple stalk and kill films that came before them, though I missed the intensity and the serious tone of films like The Prowler. Flicks also started to jokingly reference their inspirations, like 1986’s Night Of The Creeps which names every character after a horror film director of that era like “Chris Romero”, “Cynthia Cronenberg” and James Carpenter-Hooper”. We also got MTV inspired films like the music filled and music video styled Return Of The Living Dead, the classic The Lost Boys, as well as, the neon-lit Vamp. Those films were far more entertaining than they were frightening as The Lost Boys even has a touch of Spielberg in it’s over-all tone…reminding us of the stark example of what happened when Carpenter’s grim and gory extraterrestrial The Thing went up against Spielberg’s bug eyed visitor from E.T. in 1982No better an example of the start of audience change of taste in the 80s than was the beating Carpenter’s now classic sci-fi/horror got from critics and at the box office…though, I saw it at least three times in a theater!

The trend continued with even lighter and more humor-laced films as we headed toward the 90s with flicks such as Waxwork, Chopping Mall and Night Of The Demons which were loaded with as many laughs as they were scares and gore. The MTV generation was being fed films that were faster paced, brightly colored and took themselves far less seriously as the arrival of music video and the end of the Cold War had created an era that was a bit more overindulgent and the films of the day reflected this. Even somewhat more serious horror like 1988s Intruder and the 1985 classic The Re-Animator still openly had a good time with their premises and occasionally winked at the audience, which films now acknowledged were sitting there and were familiar with the type of flick they are seeing. Earlier 80s films rarely acknowledged that they were a movie and that there was a horror savvy audience watching, but the second half of the decade was filled with movies that referenced those earlier films and were quite aware of themselves and who their audience was. They played to that audience instead of simply telling their scary story. And at this point Freddy Krueger was turning girls into giant cockroaches and Jason was a zombie battling telekinetic teenagers. Even the old school boogiemen had traded in their scares for more outrageous and silly story lines with each installment, as almost every horror hit became a franchise. Michael Myers also returned in 1988 to now stalk his young niece…why not his second cousin too? Needless to say by the time 1990 rolled around, horror had become burnt out and silly until horror master Wes Craven would revive it as pop-culture-reference filled heavy nostalgia with a bite in Scream… but that is another story.

Another aspect of the shift that may not have been as noticeable to the average audience, but was very noticeable to film buffs was in how these films were now being made and how they looked. By 1985 the home video market was in full swing. I should know, I worked at a Palmer Video back then. Direct to VHS films were starting to appear due to the cost effectiveness of not having to produce film prints for theater showings. And a lot of the horror films of the later decade were being made with the home video market in mind. Even some of the ones that got theatrical releases lacked that theatrical look. Gone were the cinematic visuals and widescreen presentations. Flicks like Witchboard and Waxwork had the look and feel of a TV movie and were filmed in the more TV screen friendly 1:85 format. Only some of the big studio releases and films by veterans like Carpenter and Craven maintained that theatrical look in their visual styles and still looked like a movie made for theaters. A disappointment to those who find the film’s visuals as important as their story and content. And another example of how drastically movies changed from 1980 to 1990.

Whatever the course the horror films of the 80s took, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for these movies, good or bad. Whether it be the more serious chillers of the early years, or the reference heavy, lighter toned flicks that came later on, it was a decade when I came of age and was most influenced by movies and was still a time where a low budget flick like Galaxy Of Terror or Final Exam could see the inside of an audience filled theater. And not only was I proudly there to see it, but will never forget it. And now, decades later, many a night when my social calendar is empty, I can be found in a darkened living room, on the couch, with some of my favorite brews, reliving those days long gone, but never…ever…forgotten!

… and one of the reasons I now share my passion for those movies with all of you!

-MonsterZero NJ

oritani

The Oritani Theater: 300 Main St. Hackensack N.J Photo from the Mitchell Dvoskin collection

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: MANIAC (1980)

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MANIAC (1980)

Having recently watched and really enjoyed the 2013 remake of this 1980 cult classic, I thought I’d revisit the original and see how it holds up. I’ll be honest, I never really liked this slasher flick much and upon watching it again, my opinion hasn’t changed. Maniac is an ultra-gory slasher about the mentally disturbed Frank Zito (Joe Spinell who wrote the story and co-wrote the script.), a man who likes to slaughter and scalp young women and then dress up mannequins to resemble his victims, scalp and all. He was abused by his now dead prostitute mother and he has quite bi-polar feelings about women as a result. The deranged Frank is carving his way through NYC’s nightlife when he encounters beautiful fashion photographer, Anna (Caroline Munro). Frank falls for Anna, but can he keep his scalpel in his pants or will Anna join the mannequin of the month club?

As directed by William Lustig, Maniac is a sleazy horror that would fit perfectly in the Time Square grind houses it was made for. It seems more like an excuse to gorily dispatch young woman and their dates, if they aren’t alone, than an actual attempt  to make a good thriller. Spinell’s scenes of talking to his mannequins and crying about what he’s just done to the latest victim come across as more silly than scary or disturbing. Spinell, a New York native who passed away suddenly in 1989, made a career of playing sleazy street thugs and gangsters, but doesn’t have the range to really make these scenes work and they just induce giggles. Though, it does add a bit of a camp factor I must admit. The film itself is slow moving and there is no tension or suspense as the victims are basically just that, fodder for Frank’s arsenal of weapons. They are dispatched soon or immediately after we meet them and there is no emotional investment in them and their fates are obvious from the minute they appear. The film is really most famous for some of make-up FX master Tom Savini’s best gore effects, used in the victims’ deaths. The scalpings, stabbings and shootings all are quite realistic and disgusting and any effectiveness the film carries, is from his work. He even got to shoot himself as he plays a young victim’s date who has his head shotgunned to pieces by Zito. The catch is that Savini was also a stuntman and doubled for Spinell by jumping up on the car hood and shooting his own character in the face. Savini’s work here was considered quite shocking and got Maniac released unrated. His FX still hold up today, though the rest of the film really doesn’t.

My final gripe is that I don’t believe for one minute that Munro’s beautiful photographer would actually date a guy like Spinell’s Zito. Aside from the fact that he is just sleazy looking with his long greasy hair and pot marked face, more importantly, he just acts weird and the fact that he tracked her down to find her, should set her internal creep alarms off immediately. He basically stalks her and she agrees to go out with him after a strange conversation that should have any woman on her guard. Also, they don’t finally meet till the last act and their ‘relationship’ is never given time to develop to the point of believability. If it was given more time, maybe we could see Frank overcome the creep factor and win her over. Based on what little we do see, it doesn’t work. If they didn’t date, though, the movie wouldn’t go anywhere and technically, it doesn’t. Predictably, cuckoo Frank can’t help but emerge when taking Anna to visit his mother’s grave (which should have been another sign, Frankie is a tad off), which sends the movie to it’s gory and somewhat abrupt conclusion.

All in all, I recognize Maniac’s place as a cult classic 80s slasher, but Tom Savini’s masterful FX aside, I think it’s reputation far exceeds it’s actual merit.

2 and 1/2 mannequin heads

maniac 1980 rating

WARNING: TRAILER IS GRAPHIC!

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REVIEW: MANIAC (2013)

Maniac_(2012_film)

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MANIAC (2013)

Maniac is a remake of the classic 80s horror flick and if William Lustig’s gore-fest was a quintessential grind house slasher then Franck Khalfoun’s film is an art-house slasher as well as a remake… and a very effective and disturbing remake it is. Maniac, like the original, tells the story of Frank Zito (a brilliant Elijah Wood), a man who restores mannequins by day and stalks and gruesomely murders young women by night. The story is basically the same as the 80s film except this one is set in L.A. and the original was in New York. Frank has serious mother issues and when he murders his pretty victims it’s an extension of the hurt and anger he felt from watching his now dead hooker mom ply her trade when he was a child. Sexuality brings out entirely different urges in poor Frank and a lot of young ladies are suffering the consequences as Frank’s hook-ups end rather gruesomely. After his objects of desire are slaughtered, he dresses his mannequins up like his victims including their scalps so they, unlike his dead mother, will stay with him forever. But, Frank meets Anna (Nora Arnezender) and quickly falls for the pretty French photographer with an artistic interest in his mannequins but, can Frank overcome a deeply twisted mind and really be happy with her or will Anna soon become just another  piece in his horrid collection? Produced and co-written by Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, Piranha 3-D) Maniac is a film that is not only a beautifully shot art house style flick but, a very disturbing and gruesome horror. Khalfoun films most of the movie from Zito’s perspective so we generally only see him in reflections and mirrors. Only on a few occasions we see Wood’s serial killer from our perspective but, maybe it’s because in these moments Frank is watching his own gruesome actions as if a bystander in his own life, separating himself from his deeds. This effectively put’s us in his eyes and very uncomfortably in his head and it really gives this film it’s impact especially during the film’s intense and blood soaked last act. We stalk his victims along with him and this first person perspective makes us both an unwilling participant and a helpless witness to his demented acts. And this view point works so well because Woods gives a bold yet, disturbingly subtle performance in the role originated by Joe Spinell, who also wrote the original. Woods really paints the portrait of a truly deranged individual yet, gives us reason to believe that his Frank could actually be a kind and gentle man had he not been twisted by watching his mother’s depraved sexual acts as a child. Arnezeder’s Anna is sweet yet, a little eccentric as the artsy photographer, making her likable and obviously causing us to fear for her as we know the true nature of the man she sees as a gentle, timid soul. The rest of the cast are fine though the focus remains on Frank and Anna but, Khalfoun’s camera captures enough of the supporting characters personality so those that fall prey to Frank’s sharp bowie knife don’t come across like the mannequins that populate his shop/home and aren’t just body count. His camera also captures some beautiful images too and there’s a really nice nod to the original’s movie poster captured in the reflection of a car door… there’s also a playful jab at that film’s lead, Joe Spinell, too that will amuse fans of the original. The film is set in modern day yet has a delightfully 80s feel to it including it’s atmospheric electronic score by ‘Rob’. The gore effects by Greg Nicotero and KNB are extremely realistic and graphic and will make even the most jaded gorehound wince. And while not quite as gory as the 80s classic, I felt the gore here was more effective because, it is used a bit more sparingly and has more impact when it occurs. Maniac ranks among some of the best of the recent horror remakes, it has some flaws, such as some dialog was added by Wood in post production whose line readings seem to be a bit flat, but, it does improve upon the trashy, gory, fun original by making it a seriously disturbing ride in the shoes of a twisted mind. It’s chilling and shocking at times and and very unsettling even in it’s quieter moments. One of the best horrors I’ve seen this year and ironically, one of the others (Evil Dead) was also a remake.  So much for my complaining about all these horror remakes. A highly recommended horror.

A solid and disturbing 3 and 1/2 mannequin heads!

maniac rating

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