The ’80s – Geek Edition: Part Five by Jerry Whitworth
When you talk about Horror in the 1980s, you largely talk about Stephen King. Despite having his work published at the age of twelve in the 1950s, it wouldn’t be until the 1970s that the author began publishing the novels he is so greatly admired and acknowledged for today. His first published novel Carrie (1974) tells of a bullied high school girl who develops telekinetic abilities and uses it to exact revenge on those that scorned her. This work would be adapted to film to much acclaim in 1976 by director Brian De Palma and feature Sissy Spacek (as the eponymous character) and John Travolta (the novel was adapted for film a third time which will premier in theaters shortly). However, the work that arguably saw King’s star shine and made him a household name was his third published novel The Shining. Premiering in 1977, the book tells the story of a writer who agrees to watch a vast hotel in the middle of the wilderness during its off season in the winter with his wife and five year old son (where the boy has various psychic abilities like seeing the future and able to communicate with others like him). A malevolent force in the hotel awakes a darkness in the man, driving him mad and pushing him to murder his family. The book would reach significantly greater heights in 1980 when director Stanley Kubrick adapted the story into a feature film. Starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall, the movie is regarded today as one of the greatest Horror films ever made (and one of the greatest films ever made period). King would hardly rest on his laurels.
Before the 1970s were over, Stephen King cranked out five more titles (a book of short stories produced material for six feature films including Children of the Corn in 1984, two novels became the basis of separate television series, and The Dead Zone became a feature film in 1983 with Christopher Walken and Martin Sheen). In the 1980s, King published twenty two novels. And of course, these novels became the basis of films like Firestarter, Cujo, Silver Bullet (Cycle of the Werewolf), Christine, The Mist, and Misery and television mini-series It and The Tommyknockers. Wishing to expand his writing without the skew of his name on the cover, King adopted a pseudonym in Richard Bachman. Likely the most notable work to come from this reinvention was the science fiction adventure story The Running Man in 1982 which became the basis of a feature film of the same name in 1987 featuring action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. The writer would also see his non-Horror novella The Body adapted into the film Stand By Me directed by Rob Reiner and starring Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, Richard Dreyfuss, River Phoenix, Jerry O’Connell, John Cusack, and Wil Wheaton. 1982 non-Horror novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption would be the inspiration for the film The Shawshank Redemption (likewise with his work Apt Pupil). King would cut out the middleman in Hollywood with his work Creepshow, an anthology horror movie written by the author in the vein of EC and DC Horror comics directed by the legendary George A. Romero. The film was a surprise hit spawning two sequels. Perhaps King’s greatest contribution in the 1980s was the first two books in his popular The Dark Tower series (currently at eight books, the latest published in 2012, with the series being developed currently for film and television).
Likely the Horror sub-genre most remembered of the 1980s was the slasher genre. While many films have been cited as slasher films in the decades leading up to the 1980s (including Alfred Hitchcock’s famous Psycho), the one that changed everything was John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. Featuring the homicidal, seemingly force of nature, Michael Myers in his trademark blue coveralls and white mask cutting down anyone getting in the way (or in the general vicinity) of his murdering any living member of his family. The movie amassed a veritable fortune for the relatively low budget it was made on. The popularity of the film would spawn an astounding seven sequels and a 2007 reboot with its own sequel. Slasher films would quickly become the toast of the hour with Friday the 13th hitting theaters in 1980. In this film, counselors at Camp Crystal Lake let a young deformed boy named Jason Voorhees die prompting his mother to lose her mind and secretly begin killing people at the location. Another smash hit, the franchise was reinvented to focus on the dead son Jason who returned as a nigh-unstoppable undead monster that later took to wearing a trademark hockey goalie’s mask. The franchise would spawn twelve films, one a crossover with another slasher and a reboot as well as a television series. Director Wes Craven would enter his hat into the slasher arena in 1984 to great acclaim.
Producing several Horror movies in the 1970s (including The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes), Wes Craven would see his most famous creation in Freddy Krueger premier in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. A child killer executed in a great fire set by the angry parents of the children who died, Krueger returned as some dream demon who could enter the dreams of the children that got away and kill them (dying in their sleep meant dying in the real world). The film was followed by six sequels, a crossover film with Jason Voorhees, and a reboot (as well as a television series). To capitalize on the success of the slasher genre, 1974’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre was resurrected with a sequel in 1986 which was followed by five more films including a reboot with its own prequel (most recently in 2013, Texas Chainsaw 3D was a sequel of the original film). In this franchise, an inbred family of serial killers and cannibals seek out unsuspecting victims, most notable in the family is the member called Leatherface who wears the dried out face of another human upon his own. 1988 would supply another popular slasher in Child’s Play‘s Chucky. Serial killer and voodoo practitioner Charles Lee Ray, or Chucky, is killed in a toy store and implanted his spirit into that of a doll. After sold and given to a little boy named Andy, Chucky returns to life and tries to exact revenge on those that led to his demise. The film would be a success and spawn five sequels (most recently in 2013). Another popular staple of 1980s horror was poltergeists, or ghosts able to physically affect the world by moving objects or harming people.
The Amityville Horror in 1979 was a film based on a book of the same name claiming to tell of a family’s struggle living in a haunted house. Starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, the Lutz family moved into a new home in Amityville, New York reportedly where a mass murder took place a year prior and, unbeknownst to them at the time, which was built on an Indian burial ground (which would become a popular trope in Horror stories). After the priest who blessed the home met with a series of disastrous experiences, the family is exposed to escalating supernatural phenomenon after phenomenon until finally they’re forced to abandon the home (so far as leaving their belongings) and move to another state. The film was a surprise success where despite a modest budget and independent studio drew millions of dollars at box office. The ensuing franchise would produce ten more films including a remake in 2005 (the latest installment, The Amityville Asylum, premiered in 2013). In 1982, another poltergeist film would arrive with a rather appropriate name.
Considered one of the scariest films ever made, Poltergeist (co-written and produced by Steven Spielberg) premiered in theaters in 1982 and became one of the highest grossing films of the year and was considered one of the best films of the year. The story tells of a little girl named Carol Anne Freeling who attracts the spirits trapped in her family’s home (learning later the house was constructed atop a cemetery thereby desecrating the graves beneath). However, to make matters worse, a demon is also attracted to Carol Anne leading the family and others that agreed to help them trying to save her from becoming its prisoner. One of the most memorable scenes in American cinema comes from the film when Carol Anne is watching a television broadcasting static when an apparition exits it and generates an earthquake leading the little girl to say, “They’re here.” The film’s popularity spawned two sequels, a television series, and is currently being rebooted. Almost as memorable as the film is a believed curse it carried (so far as being featured on E! True Hollywood Story). Some believe the use of real skeletons in the film (which were cheaper than plastic ones) may have brought on a curse where four cast members in the span of six years died from various conditions.
A significantly more tame version of the poltergeist craze would come in Disney’s television film Mr. Boogedy. Aired in 1986 as part of The Disney Sunday Movie series, the film tells the story of the Davis family moving into a new home only to discover it’s haunted by three ghosts, one of whom is the malevolent Mr. Boogedy (the Boogeyman) who sold his soul for a magic cloak of great power (which generated the curse imprisoning the three ghosts). The family must band together to defeat Boogedy in order to free the spirits from their house. The film seemingly did well, becoming for a time a frequent rebroadcast during the Halloween season and a sequel the following year in Bride of Boogedy. The practice of Halloween specials did not come about in the ’80s but certainly was a fixture of the time. Some notable entries included It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), The Fat Albert Halloween Special (1977), Halloween Is Grinch Night (1977), Witch’s Night Out (1978), Casper’s Halloween Special (1979), The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t (1979), Raggedy Ann and Andy in The Pumpkin Who Couldn’t Smile (1979), The Trouble with Miss Switch (1980), Disney’s Halloween Treat (1982), Pac-Man Halloween Special (1982), Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985), The Worst Witch (1986), and the Tom & Jerry Halloween Special (1987). In a very real way, the practice of annually airing Halloween specials has died out (many networks choosing to instead air a few movies with either a Halloween or Horror theme to celebrate). But, there has been a small resurgence of the concept thanks to studios like DreamWorks and Pixar with productions like Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space (2009), Scared Shrekless (2010), and Toy Story of Terror (2013). While there has been Halloween specials to emerge over the years, there was another television fixture to fill a similar void throughout the year in so-called horror hosts. Arguably the most well known would emerge in the 1980s in Elvira.
While the likes of Vampira and Svengoolie (and, in my native Philadelphia, there was Dr. Shock) predated Elvira, arguably none achieved the fame of the latter. Actress Cassandra Peterson was hired to host a new television series following the death of Larry Vincent (who portrayed Seymour the Sinister of the Fright Night series) in Movie Macabre which broadcast B-Horror movies in the Los Angeles area. Elvira’s goth appearance and valley girl behavior (not to mention ample cleavage) proved to be a hit with the audience and her notoriety began growing out of the L.A. region. Soon, Elvira grew into a profitable brand including merchandise and modeling evolving into hosting on VHS cassettes as part of the ThrillerVideo series, 1986’s Elvira’s Halloween Special, and reaching her zenith with the 1988 feature film Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. Despite the movie doing poorly, it would become a cult classic and eventually see a sequel in 2001’s Elvira’s Haunted Hills. Elvira has persisted through the years so far as the brand re-emerging in The Search for the Next Elvira in 2007 as a Fox Reality series trying to find a new female horror host.
In 1981, the werwolf genre would receive a shot in the arm with the film The Howling. Based on a novel by the same name, the film details a married couple going to a resort populated by werewolves and the wife’s struggle to survive (as her husband succumbed to the community). Having done fairly well at box office, the movie was followed by seven sequels (the most recent in 2011). Later that same year, An American Werewolf in London would arrive in theaters with a greater budget than The Howling with significantly greater gains. In this film by John Landis, two American backpackers are attacked by a werewolf while in England leading to one becoming a werewolf and the other a zombie-like creature. The film would see a sequel in An American Werewolf in Paris and is in the process of being rebooted. A somewhat lesser known werewolf film to arrive this same year was Wolfen (based on the novel of the same name) about shapeshifting Native Americans. The decade wouldn’t be done with the werewolf, using the concept this time in a comedy in 1985’s Teen Wolf starring Michael J. Fox. In it, an average teenager discovers his family is actually a pack of werewolves and in the midst of going through puberty learns of his pedigree. A blockbuster hit, the film spawned a sequel starring Jason Bateman, an animated series, and a television series on MTV starting in 2011 and still on the air today. The 1986 comedic film Haunted Honeymoon starring Gene Wilder, Dom DeLuise, and Gilda Radner would also tease a werewolf angle only to reveal the killer to only be pretending to be a werewolf (Wilder had previously mashed up a monster motif with comedy in the film Young Frankenstein).
The Evil Dead would premier in 1981 jumpstarting the careers of writer/director Sam Raimi and actor Bruce Campbell. Set in a cabin in the woods where college students have gone on vacation, the group discovers Naturon Demonto (or Necronomicon Ex-Mortis), a Sumerian grimoire roughly translated as the Book of the Dead. Playing a recording also found in the cabin of someone reading the book’s incantations awakens the evil in the tome, unleashing demons that possess the wilderness and, one by one, the students. In the end, only Ash Williams survives and becomes the protagonist of the emerging franchise from the film. The movie is notable for its ability to create the type of film it was on such a small budget and employ new camera techniques (several of which became a calling card of Raimi’s projects). The film would be a success considering the thousands it cost to make bloomed into millions at box office. Further, it developed a cult-like following spawning three more films (the latest in 2013 as a remake) and a large variety of merchandise with development across various media platforms (comic books, video games, and even a musical still on tour today).
In 1983, the sub-genre of Horror in zombies would get a shot in the arm from an unlikely source. The zombie genre would become a staple of American Horror cinema beginning in 1968 with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Largely the mold by which future zombie films would be designed, Michael Jackson’s music video Thriller was no exception. During the ’70s, Jackson was a young performer who appeared with his brothers to form the Jackson 5. By the end of the decade, he branched out on his own but it wouldn’t be until his album Thriller that he joined the likes of Elvis Presley and the Beatles in super stardom. The single which the album was named after was adapted into a music video directed by John Landis and narrated by Horror legend Vincent Price. A thirteen minute short film, the video starts with a scene featuring Jackson as a werewolf (which we discussed was big in 1981, two years earlier) before prominently paying homage to Romero’s work (with the exception of a zombified Jackson dancing with zombies). Many consider Thriller to be the greatest music video of all time and the song has become a staple in Halloween celebrations. While the zombie genre lingered since Romero’s first foray into the field, the success of Thriller helped to bring it back to prominence. A notable franchise to emerge was C.H.U.D.
Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller, or C.H.U.D., is a 1984 film wherein the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) accidentally mutated people into zombie-like beings referred to as C.H.U.D.s via unethical storage of toxic waste and has tried to cover up the incident. The film would produce a sequel in the more comically aimed C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. In 1985, George A. Romero would return to his Dead series with a third film entitled Day of the Dead. A sequel to Dawn of the Dead (1978), the film takes place after zombies have ravaged the world and a group of scientists try to find a cure while they’re protected by a small band of soldiers. While a cure can’t seem to be found, one doctor manages to train a zombie he dubbed Bub to begin behaving more like a human. Tensions between the scientists and soldiers, however, becomes the project’s undoing. Despite doing poorly at box office, the film was a huge success in the home video market and would spawn a sequel in Day of the Dead 2: Contagium, a 2008 remake, and another remake currently being developed. A new zombie franchise would also emerge in 1985 based on the work of H. P. Lovecraft.
Based on “Herbert West—Reanimator” by H. P. Lovecraft, Re-Animator directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Jeffrey Combs features scientist Herbert West in his bid to defeat death. Developing a reagent that animates the dead, West makes an enemy in Dr. Carl Hill whom he kills and re-animates only for Hill to steal the reagent in hopes of claiming it as his own discovery (along the way, Hill discovering he can mentally control those reanimated by the chemical). Against a small army of zombies under Hill’s thrall, West, his assistant Dan Cain, and Dan’s girlfriend Megan must defeat Hill and regain the reagent. The film would prove to be a modest hit, developing a cult following, and spawning two sequels, comic book adaptations, and a musical in 2011. The series would also rocket the career of Combs, becoming a frequent actor in Horror and Science Fiction roles (especially Star Trek). In terms of television, Horror would begin to emerge on the small screen in a big way in 1983.
Mentioning already George A. Romero collaborating with Stephen King on Creepshow, Romero would lend his skills to television in the series Tales from the Darkside. Developed in a similar vein to Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt following Romero’s success with Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside was an anthology series that often employed famous Horror authors where either they wrote episodes for the show or their stories were adapted for the series (Stephen King a notable contributor). The show would run for four seasons and was followed by a feature film (prominently featuring the work of Stephen King, it has informally been referred to by fans as Creepshow 3 despite a third Creepshow without the involvement of Romero or King already in existence). Within a few months of Tales coming to television, HBO would introduce the significantly more adult themed The Hitchhiker to its line-up. The premium cable channel’s first drama series, The Hitchhiker was an anthology series that told stories with morality plays (often with deadly results). The series lasted six seasons, its final seasons moving to the USA Network. HBO would return to the Horror drama series well producing the wildly popular Tales from the Crypt starting in 1989. Arguably one of HBO’s most successful original series, the success of Tales paved the way for original drama series on premium channels. Each episode very much a short film, the series adapted from various EC Comics titles (including from its namesake). The impact of the series was huge, spawning feature films, an animated series, a spin-off series, a children’s game show, toyline, and much more.
Ghostbusters (no relation to the 1975 Filmation television series starring Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch of F Troop fame) was conceived by comedian Dan Aykroyd in part from his fascination with the paranormal and as a vehicle for his fellow Saturday Night Live (SNL) alum. However, his original script called for significant special effects (which meant an extraordinary amount of money) and so partnering with fellow comedian Harold Ramis with advice from director Ivan Reitman, the story was grounded in modern day New York. Further, many of the parts in the film were developed for Aykroyd’s friends from SNL only for several of them, like John Candy and Eddie Murphy, unable to commit to the film (John Belushi, who was intended to be the film’s star, passed away during the development process). So, the part intended for Belushi went instead to another SNL alum in Bill Murray as Rick Moranis was brought on to play the part intended for Candy and Ernie Hudson was brought on to portray the fourth Ghostbuster. In the story, three parapsychologists formerly of Columbia University must combat the threat of ghosts in New York City caused by the coming of the ancient god Gozer trying to enter our world. The film would become a massive blockbuster spawning a sequel, media across various platforms (including several animated series, toylines, video games, and comic books), and a <a href=””>third film</a> that has been in development since the ’90s (with a major push for the third film in recent history). The film would inspire many similar projects, including Filmation resurrecting their Ghost Busters brand, the martial arts film Ninja III: The Domination, and the animated film Daffy Duck’s Quackbusters. Identified as a cultural phenomenon, the film is viewed as one of the greatest comedic films of all time (as well as one of the greatest films in general). Another well known film happened to be released the same weekend as Ghostbusters.
While Horror has often been associated with Halloween, not all films have subscribed to this idea. In fact, there are a large number of movies that incorporate Christmas into their stories. One such film from 1984 is Gremlins. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, Gremlins tells the story of a small town laid siege by an army of little monsters who multiple when coming into contact with water. The situation arose when a traveling salesman/inventor purchased a mythical mogwai from an antique store in Chinatown as a Christmas gift for his son. Named Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel), the mogwai would come into contact with water (thus multiplying) and the other mogwai ate after midnight (which prompts the metamorphosis from little, fluffy creatures into larger reptilian monsters with fangs and claws called Gremlins). The film proved to be a hit with audiences as Gizmo became a merchandising phenomenon (from stuffed animals to his image appearing on a voluminous variety of products). The popularity of Gremlins prompted a sequel and a bevy of imitators like Critters, Ghoulies, Troll, Hobgoblins, Munchies, and, to an extent, Puppet Master (with a little Child’s Play mixed in). In 1985, the vampire genre would come back in a big way.
Like with zombie films, vampire films never really went away. However, Fright Night (not to be confused with the aforementioned TV series) helped transition the genre into the modern age. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hammer Films was at the forefront of Horror with their Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee driven films especially in the vampire genre. In Fright Night, character Peter Vincent (named in honor of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, portrayed by Roddy McDowall) plays an amalgamation of Cushing and a horror host (perhaps Seymour the Sinister of Fright Night) called upon to help a young man who has a vampire move next door to him. In a style reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Rear Window, Charley Brewster witnesses new neighbor Jerry Dandridge move next door and suspects him to be a murderous vampire (unlike the Hitchcock film, though, Jerry quickly and arrogantly confirms his suspicion). The film would be a surprise hit at box office and be followed with a sequel (the film was recently remade and this remake was followed with a sequel). Fright Night would herald a new generation of vampire films. One such film was an early role for comedian Jim Carrey in Once Bitten (premiering within months of Fright Night‘s release). 1987 would offer the world another classic modern day vampire film in The Lost Boys.
In 1976, Anne Rice would help redefine the vampire genre with her novel Interview with the Vampire. The start of her series The Vampire Chronicles, the set of novels were expanded in the ’80s with The Vampire Lestat (1985) and The Queen of the Damned (1988), several books from the series later adapted for film. While I have no idea how much of an influence these books had on vampire films of the 1980s, The Lost Boys had qualities reminiscent of Rice’s work with its themes of sexuality and losing inhibitions. A nod to Peter Pan (the Lost Boys being his young friends who never grow up and fly thanks to magic), The Lost Boys (directed by Joel Schumacher and executive produced by Richard Donner) is a story of a pack of vampires (lead by David, played by Kiefer Sutherland) turned as teenagers who live a relatively carefree, daredevil lifestyle occasionally adding another to their number they feel compliments the group. One such recruit was Michael Emerson, a recent addition to California after moving from Arizona with his family. However, Michael didn’t take to being forcefully added to the group and fought back. With help from his brother Sam (Corey Haim) and the Frog Brothers (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander), they combat the pack and protect their family from the monsters. A blockbuster, the film produced two sequels and inspired films like My Best Friend Is a Vampire. Children combating the forces of darkness would be the theme for a cult classic in 1987.
Director Fred Dekker, who previously directed the zombie film Night of the Creeps, teamed the various characters known collectively as the Universal Monsters leaving a group of children to combat them in his film The Monster Squad (not to be confused with the 1970s TV series of the same name). Dracula, uniting Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and Gill-man (from Creature from the Black Lagoon), seeks to destroy an amulet that maintains the balance in the world that prevents the monsters from conquering the planet. The Monster Squad, a group of children monster fans, learn of the plot and seek to save the world. While a flop, the film spawned a cult-like following that two decades later inspired a successful campaign to see the film released on DVD. The same year Monster Squad hit theaters, two other notable Horror films made their way to theaters. The first brought actor Jack Nicholson back to Horror in The Witches of Eastwick.
Based on the novel of the same name by John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick featured Jack Nicholson as the Devil (using the guise of Daryl Van Horne) trying to impregnate three single women (played by Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon) who have the potential to be powerful witches. During the courting process, Daryl begins to unlock the hidden potential in the women. While becoming smitten with Daryl, the women nonetheless come to realize the deadly power their suitor holds. Hoping to break things off with him, Daryl finds a way to get what he wanted regardless. Needing to be rid of him, the women use what they learned from Daryl to attack him in hopes of being free. The film proved to be a blockbuster and won various awards (Jack Nicholson especially). 1987 would also provide the world Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.
Based on his novella The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser revolves around the Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that, when solved, summons an extradimensional race of beings known as the Cenobites (led by the iconic Pinhead). Obsessed with the exploration of sexual pleasure through extreme sadomasochism visa vi mutilation, they abduct whoever solves the puzzle box to their dimension of pain. One of their victims, Frank Cotton, happens to survive his encounter with the Cenobites becoming some undead creature that needs to feed on the living to survive. When Frank’s niece becomes embroiled in Frank’s affairs, she pits him against Pinhead and his Cenobites for survival. Hellraiser would prove to be a big hit spawning a multimedia franchise that included eight film sequels (the latest in 2011). After seeing the first film, Stephen King was quoted as saying Clive Barker represented the future of Horror.
In Part Six of “The ’80s – Geek Edition,” we’ll examine Animation of the 1980s.