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

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

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HALLOWEEN HOTTIES: BRIANA EVIGAN

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BRIANA EVIGAN

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This Halloween Hottie is an actress, singer and dancer as well as a heartbreaker!

This newest installment of Halloween Hotties features an unsung Scream Queen who isn’t immediately recognized for her horror genre work but, has certainly done enough for her to more than qualify… the lovely and multi-talented Briana Evigan! More renown for her appearances in the dance-fueled Step Up flicks, Ms. Evigan is the daughter of actor Greg Evigan and seems to be following in her famous father’s footsteps having already put together quite a prolific resume’ of film, music video and TV work. But, it is her forays into the horror genre that we are focusing on here and Briana has graced quite a few fright fests with her charms, talents and that sexy voice. And this is one feisty final girl we’d like to see return to the genre as soon as possible!

(Click on the highlighted links or on the movie posters to read a review of her horror film’s that I’ve covered here previously. )

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Briana had her first acting role alongside her hard working dad in the 1996 film Spectre aka House Of The Damned, at the young age of 10. This horror had a family moving into an ancestral estate not only to find it haunted but, with a dark past as well. Briana played the couple’s young daughter Aubrey.

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Much like Scream Queen legend Danielle Harris… A precocious 10 year-old, Briana begins her acting career in a horror flick!

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Years later in 2008, a full grown Briana would return to the horror genre in an episode of the TV horror series Fear Itself. Directed by Saw’s Darren Lynn Bousman, the episode, entitled New Years Day, told the spooky tale of Helen (Evigan) a young woman who wakes up on New Years Day with not only a hangover but, in the middle of a full blown zombie outbreak in progress. What a way to start the year!

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As Helen, a woman who has far more to worry about than a hangover.

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Briana followed up her first Step Up movie appearance with the 2009 horror sequel S. Darko. The film was a misguided attempt at sequelizing the cult classic, one-of-a-kind Donnie Darko, not a great flick but, at least Evigan got to shine in the important role of best friend to Samantha Darko, Corey… and as usual, the actress outshines the material.

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As best friend Corey to Daveigh Chase’s Samantha Darko in S. Darko.

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That same year Evigan got the lead part in the slasher remake Sorority Row which cast her as one member of a high profile sorority that is forced to keep a terrible secret when a prank goes awry. As with the 1983 film House On Sorority Row, which this film is a redo of, that secret will come back to haunt them in the form of a vicious and vengeful killer. Briana’s Cassidy proves to be one resourceful and feisty final girl, as well as, one of the more morally sound members of the group!

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Cassidy takes charge when a killer targets her sorority sisters.

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Cassidy is one sorority sister who isn’t going down without a fight!

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In 2010, Briana Evigan really got to show us her stuff when she played Kelly in Burning Bright. The story has a greedy stepfather locking Kelly and her autistic brother in a house with a hungry tiger in an effort to collect money on the insurance policies he took out on his stepchildren’s lives. Briana strongly carries the film on her petite shoulders and really impressed us as the resourceful yet, caring young woman who takes on the massive jungle predator to save herself and her little brother. A really underrated thriller which showed that Evigan is leading lady material and then some!
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Trapped in a house with a fierce, hungry predator…

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…but, who is hunting who?

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Also in 2010, Evigan re-teamed with director Bousman for his loose remake of the 1980 cult classic Mother’s Day (review of the original). Briana’a Annette becomes trapped with friends when a psychotic woman, and her equally crazed offspring, invade what is now their former home and make hostages of the current occupants during a party. A horrifying night of torment and violence ensues. Evigan also co-wrote and sang the end credits tune ‘Better Than Yesterday’. Talented young woman!

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Sexy party girl Annette.

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Annette ‘quietly’ ponders her nightmarish situation.

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In 2011 Briana found herself in peril again as the hostage of a psychotic Native American-obsessed nut in the oddball horror/thriller Rites Of Passage. Her role is not a big one but, her feisty attempt to escape her crazed captor is the best sequence in this sadly convoluted flick. No surprise there, that she’s a scene stealer too!

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Poor party girl Penelope catches a ride with the wrong guy!

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Making a daring escape that is clearly the most exciting scene in this otherwise forgettable flick.

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and finally… for now… Briana teamed with Darren Lynn Bousman once again in his twisted vaudevillian short film, The Devil’s Carnival. Here the talented vixen got to play dual roles and sing for us, as both Ms. Merrywood… a young woman whose embrace of the term ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ lands her in this hellish side show… and a devilish mirror of herself when ‘The Twin’ teases Merrywood in her own image. Her ‘Beautiful Stranger’ is the best musical number in the flick.
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As the greedy Ms. Merrywood…

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…and The Twin mocking the doomed woman in her own guise.

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Briana Evigan as her beautiful, playful (it’s so HOT when a pretty girl makes funny faces, isn’t it!) and multi-talented self who we can’t wait to see more of, whether it be in horror, or dancing her heart out in her latest, Step Up All In. She’s filming Devil’s Carnival 2 right now, so, it won’t be long before she’s enchanting us once more in our favorite genre!

PERSONAL NOTE: With some recent talk of the X-Files possibly being revived for TV, I personally think Briana Evigan would be a perfect addition to the cast as a new young agent recruited for the team. I think her buoyant personality and quiet strength would make a good fit and she can play tough as we’ve seen her take on Dolph Lundgren (Stash House) and a Bengal tiger, too. It’s a fanboy dream but, love to see it happen. Hey, as long as we get to see this charming young actress again, soon!

And don’t forget to check out our Halloween Hotties focusing on Melanie PapaliaKatrina BowdenAlexandra DaddarioKatie FeatherstonKatharine IsabelleAmber Heard and Danielle Harris! (just click on their names to go to their pages!)

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TOMB OF NOSTALGIA: MOTHER’S DAY (1980)

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MOTHER’S DAY (1980)

Mother’s Day actually bothered me when I first saw it in a theater in 1980. I guess that is the sign of a good horror, but it has kept it from being a favorite though, I admit it’s quite effective. The problem I have is that for me personally, it’s just a bit too sadistic and misogynistic for my tastes and the fact that it has a twisted sense of humor about it’s cruelty and acts of rape and brutality, doesn’t quite sit well with me. But I understand it is a bit of a cult classic at this point and recognize it’s place as such.

Mother’s Day is the story of three pretty friends, Abbey (Nancy Hendrickson), Trina (Tiana Pierce) and Jackie (Deborah Luce) who go camping in the woods and are kidnaped by redneck sons, Ike (Holdem McGuire) and Addley (Billy Ray McQuade) and their demented Mother (Rose Ross). The girls are held in their decrepit home as the boys commit vicious acts of beating, humiliation and rape on one of the three women as mom watches and cheers them on. To them rape and brutality is a game and this is the element that bothers me. The film is a little to giddy about these acts. Of course, the remaining two girls do eventually escape and let’s just say payback is a gory bitch.

Writer/director Charles Kaufman has created a sick and twisted little movie that presents some gory violence and brutal acts all with a demented sense of humor that doesn’t seem quite right. The cast all act out their parts well and I would like to think these acts were difficult for them to portray. The gore effects are effective enough and of course, there is that very effective shock ending. The film is one of the more unique horrors to come out of the 80s and I will not deny it’s place in how it is regarded by many, but my personal views on violence toward women conflicts with the disturbingly glib way the acts are portrayed on screen. Just because the women get cruel payback doesn’t make it any less unsettling that their torment is played almost for laughs. Maybe that was the point, but in that case it worked a little too well for my tastes.

A difficult film to review fairly as it is an effective little horror, but in my personal opinion, it crosses some lines that make me uncomfortable. Even some of today’s ‘torture porn’ flicks, of which I am not a fan, have the decency to not make a joke out of their cruelty.

A disturbing 3 maniac moms (Personal note: the rating is based on it’s effectiveness as a horror film. As my review stressed, this is not a film that personally appeals to me.)

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