HAPPY BIRTHDAY JAMIE LEE CURTIS!
MonsterZero NJ’s Movie Madhouse wishes a very happy and healthy birthday to the greatest Scream Queen of them all, Jamie Lee Curtis!
(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 1982. No 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!
The Oritani Theater: 300 Main St. Hackensack N.J Photo from the Mitchell Dvoskin collection
Terror Train is another of the more fondly remembered of the 80s slashers, but mostly because it stars horror queen Jaime Lee Curtis who was having a banner horror year in 1980 with The Fog, Prom Night and this Canadian fright flick. Though despite it’s novel setting, I actually think this is one of the duller of the major horrors of the early 80s and was never a really big fan of it. A recent revisit hasn’t changed my mind.
The film opens with a fraternity/sorority New Years Eve party for a bunch of pre-med students and like most slashers, involves a prank gone horribly wrong. Pretty Alana (Jaime Lee Curtis) lures shy and dorky Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) up to her room where unknown to both of them, a medical cadaver waits for him in her bed. Kenny has a breakdown as the horrified Alana looks on and the poor student is shipped off to a mental hospital. Three years later Alana is still heartbroken over her role in the incident, but her boyfriend Mo (Timothy Webber) and jerk frat leader Doc (Hart Bochner), who were involved in the original prank, have organized another NYE masquerade party on an old train that will travel through a remote mountain area as they ring in the new year. As we see one partier already dead by the side of the tracks as the train leaves, we know not everyone will be alive by the journey’s end. Who…like it’s hard to figure out…is on the train with murder on their mind?
Terror Train is directed by Roger Spottiswoode who went on to direct the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies almost 2 decades later and we wish he would have given this film some of the energy and excitement of his 007 flick. While I understand that a lot of horror films at this time had a more moderate, slow boil pace…which is fine with me as I came of age at this time and these were the horror flicks I was weened on as a teenager…but Terror Train seems especially slow moving and lethargic even by those standards. The film never really makes good use of the confined and remote setting of the moving train, nor does much with the plot device of the killer utilizing his victim’s costumes to move around unnoticed. After all, we see them die, so we know right away who it is when their costume reappears, so it’s not all that suspenseful or clever. Most of the kills happen off camera and while there is certainly some blood, it is rather routine and nothing we haven’t seen in any number of horror flicks. There is also very little suspense as we really never get to know any of the costumed victims very well and have little emotional investment in their wellbeing and they are just that, victims. Also, aside from Spottiswoode’s failure to make this 90 minute flick feel less then at least two hours, the film stops dead for scenes of a mysterious and creepy magician (real-life illusionist David Copperfield) doing his act. I understand it’s part of the plot as the magician is a suspect, but it’s obvious the filmmakers are trying to get the most out of their celebrity guest star. The film does pick up a bit in the last act as Curtis finally becomes the target and is hunted through the train, fighting back against her assailant, but when we get to the reveal/finale, it is really no surprise as we are given few suspects and one character is obviously not who they appear to be when we see them. This plot element also defies logic as the killer already got onto the train wearing a victim’s costume, so why then take up another identity that put’s them in plain sight? Going from costume to costume should have worked just fine on a train full of drunk college kids.
The cast really doesn’t help matters either or the director just failed to inspire them. Curtis doesn’t show the pep and fire she had in Halloween Or The Fog. She’s performing on a paycheck level and only perks up when she has to for the climactic scenes when she is being chased. Otherwise she doesn’t really seem like she wants to be there and as this was her third horror role in one year, she was probably getting tired of the typecasting at this point and it shows. Veteran actor Ben Johnson is solid as the conductor who realizes something is very wrong on his train and breathes a little life into his part. As for the rest, everyone is pretty bland and none of the character’s rise above the college student/victims that they are. At least non-actor Copperfield is basically playing himself and created all the illusions for the film and seems to be a trooper in his part as a creepy suspect…which also makes no sense as they start to believe he’s ‘Kenny’ and they should know what Kenny looks like, he was a fellow student till they drove him nuts.
There is some 80s nostalgia added to the flick now and I am very sentimental about this era because, it was when I was finally old enough to go see this flicks and saw so many on a big screen, where movies like this should be seen. It still doesn’t really save this film for me as it is just very slow moving and un-involving and considering the premise, should have been so much more than an incredibly average at best slasher flick. I still feel, though, that if someone is looking to familiarize themselves with the horror films of this great era for horror movies, that this is still one they should watch, but I am not a fan and it is not one of the films from this time that I hold dear.