Horror movies have been around since the creation of film.
They often lurked in the darkness of genre, occasionally becoming mainstream or cult classics, but mostly went unrecognized when compared to action, drama, or comedy. A horror movie can contain all three of those things in addition to the death, screams, and scares. There are thousands of horror movies out in the world, but I’d be crazy to try and watch them all in one month. Instead, I’ve made selections out of pre-determined film ‘eras’ to create a rudimentary guide in watching horror movies.
The heyday of horror movies lasted from the early 1970s to the mid-90s. Most people can easily name five films that came out of this period and then many more. While there are smaller trends within this larger time period, the overall impact of the heyday on horror cannot be understated. This period created many of our modern tropes, introduced dozens of actors who would later rise to greater fame, and birthed multiple antagonists whose names we still recognize today. It also created the modern idea of the horror franchise as several films spawned multiple sequels. In recent years, many of the heyday films have been remade with varying success.
These are the films with busty babes who make poor decisions, trip over nothing, and die in terrible ways. They’re full of innocent virgins, dumb jocks, token minorities, and loose ladies who are there to die after satisfying the sex quotient. The villains will die, only to rise seconds later and kill again. The violence, gore, and revulsion reached new levels. They filled theaters with an abundance of horror movies and made the genre bigger than late night specials. Obviously, there are thousands of these films, but I’ve selected ten this year to represent the heyday further.
- Don’t Look Now (1973). The successful elements to a horror movie in the 60s or 70s often involved a few key ingredients: based on Daphne du Maurier’s writing, starring Donald Sutherland, and involving an “exotic” locale. This time around we’re mostly in Venice as John (Sutherland) and his wife Laura (played by Julie Christie) grieve the sudden loss of their daughter and try to move on. However, Laura hears that her daughter might still be around and is trying to warn them about impending doom, and all bets are off on the usual grieving process. One of the highlights of the film are the ways in which the camera captures Venice and the cityscape; it is a place frozen in time and, yet, decaying. Sutherland and Christie do great work as the couple, alternatively close and distance at times, and there’s a poignant sex scene between the two that’s juxtaposed against them getting ready for the night and it’s wonderful. The director, Nicolas Roeg, captures a mostly monotone palate but there are these highlights of red throughout the film and it foreshadows and creates such an interesting tension any time the color is on the screen. The ending is perhaps one of the more memorable twists in horror for its abruptness and the ways in which it complicates the earlier narrative, and while I think there could have perhaps been cleaner ways of execution it still stands on its own. Overall, Don’t Look Now is a film that should be looked at, now.
- Shivers (1975). My emotions and critical mind cycled through a lot of modes during David Cronenburg’s early feature. For a lot of reasons. Since the film deals with an apartment complex becoming sex-crazed maniacs via parasite my squickometer was already a bit high (Slither was a challenge for me, remember?). However, beneath the thick coating of shock value, gratuitous boobs, and gross slug creatures I eventually found insight that made the horror sophisticated (in typical Cronenburg fashion) and darker. After all, when society loses its morals—whether through pursuing scientific inquiry or backpedaling to basic instincts—they have no place in the world of madness, and that’s horrifying. Cronenburg doesn’t shy away from this as a whole slew of sexual taboos and philias are thrown up on the screen at some point or another. There’s also a nuanced argument that could be made about the way the film navigates “consent” when dealing with parasites that essentially take free will away—while the movie doesn’t answer it in any particular way, it adds another level of sexual violence and horror. It kind of compares to my perennial favorite Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but doesn’t work quite as well for me. The body horror elements are particularly well done and a sequence midway through the film will have audiences’ stomachs churning. The opening is also stylistic as it starts with a sales pitch about the apartment building before moving into a young couple being shown around juxtaposed against a young girl being murdered and dissected. In many ways this shows how, behind every door, we never really know what’s going on—whether that’s violence, sex, or more. Shivers delivers on its title in many ways; while it may not be for everyone, it certainly gets under your skin.
- Death Ship (1980). I’m going to say it—we need more boat-related horror films that don’t totally revolve around sea creatures (unless they’re krakens). And this one, while maybe not totally satisfying, definitely fills that void in some way. After their cruise ship collides with a mysterious ship and sinks, the survivors take refuge on an abandoned boat they find in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. They may not, however, be as alone as they believe and it may not provide the safety they imagined. Tonally, this film reminded me in some ways of an early afternoon made-for-TV movie, but a lot of its content is anything but. While nothing is overly graphic in the sense of gore, there is full frontal nudity, a great sense of endangerment throughout, and the content itself is what makes much of the action horrifying. None of the characters really go beyond their type-casting and none of the acting is above or below average. However, I enjoyed what the film had to say about the role of captaincy, and more than a few of the scenes were truly terrifying and almost brought something new to the screen. One of my complaints—and this isn’t really a spoiler—is how long it takes the characters to figure out it’s a Nazi ship; like, sorry not sorry, but anyone who sees a boat with German language directions and says it’s about forty years old should be able to logic that out pretty damn quick—not to mention Hitler propaganda. Additionally, that aspect of the plot, while scary for historical horrors’ sake, doesn’t overly make sense, but this isn’t really a film that cares for logic. This is one of those little cult finds that I’m really glad I watched, not because it blew my mind or is obviously a classic of the genre, but because I enjoyed the film and was entertained by it. Climb aboard and see what Death Ship is all about.
- Sleepaway Camp (1983). I knew the twist ending long before I saw Robert Hiltzik’s summertime sadness slasher; even so I was enthralled by its characters, the scares, and a touch of nostalgia. Angela and her cousin Ricky are sent to Camp Arawak for the summer; a week after arriving, mysterious murders start happening. Felissa Rose carries this film as Angela, moving from shy and standoffish one moment to eerie and off-putting the next. You’re never quite sure what to make of her, but the moments of genuine happiness that leak through are wonderful. The various other characters do good work to build the realism of the summer camp (including some of the most semi-competent counselors I’ve seen in a horror film) to the point where I was taken back to my few weeks spent at my own sleepaway camps (no murders happened). The exception might be Angela’s aunt who is like a bizarre version of suburban camp that would almost work if anyone else was on her level of zany. The various murders and deaths are inventive and terrorizing—ranging from your usual stabbing to the most brutal bee scene I’ve watched since Candyman to a death that will make me look at hair curlers differently. There are multiple critical layers to the film which I won’t discuss much because a) it would be spoiling too much and b) others, like Harmony M. Colango have done a great job already. Just know that even knowing the twist ahead of time I was still surprised, moved, and horrified (probably in a different way than originally intended). Overall, Sleepaway Camp was better than I expected, a cult classic in many of the ways that matter, and I can’t wait to go back.
- Slaughter High (1986). No subgenre was perhaps more popular in the Heyday Period than the slasher. Something about a group of young people getting killed in various ways by a mysterious figure spoke to the America of the time. This film is a bit unique in that it’s not quite a “high school” horror film but is instead about the consequences of youthful mistakes and pranks years in the future. A group of popular kids prank dweeb Marty on April Fool’s Day; this ends up going horribly wrong but they’re never blamed. Ten years later, they’re summoned back to the school for a reunion and, one by one, they’re picked off. Is it Marty out for revenge, or something more? I’ll be honest and say the plot is the weakest point of the film. There’s not much mystery behind the killings and, as an audience and due to the beginning prank, it’s far easier to side with the killer than the victims. Ten years have passed and most of them aren’t any more sympathetic than when they were your usual jerk teenagers—a little growth would have been welcome. That said, the ways they die are a lot of fun and, while the effects aren’t mind-blowing, the production did nice work with what they had and made some memorable moments. Simon Scudamore is both a relatable victim and villain (not quite an anti-hero) as Marty. The latter plot twists are, at first, confusing and then a bit annoying but, in the end, redeem the film of its predictability a little. This is another one of those films filled with dumb characters making a lot of dumb decisions but it also had a few nice touches along the way. Slaughter High is entertaining enough to be added to any April Fool’s horror movie marathon.
- The Lost Boys (1987). One of the best aspects about this film is how quintessentially eighties it is without becoming a mess of remember-when’s and back-in-the-days. We’ve got big hair, rebellion against the middle-class conformity, an amazing soundtrack, and some memorable leads that would go on (or already were) household names. When Sam and Michael move to Santa Carla with their newly divorced mother, they don’t expect to encounter creatures of the night on the boardwalk. But, as usual, when you fall in with the wrong crowd things go awry and you end up sleeping all day and partying all night. The heart of the film is the brotherhood between Sam and Michael, even as they’re unsure of each other when things get dark. Corey Haim and Jason Patrik do a great job as the main brothers, and even though less of the film focuses on Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander as the Frog brothers it’s a nice introduction to the pair that would lead later films in the franchise. The vampires aren’t necessarily anything revolutionary when it comes to their abilities or portrayals, but it was innovative for its time to update these immortal creatures into the current era rather than making them caped counts. The film has one of the most iconic vocal themes of any horror film, “Cry Little Sister”, which not only captures the essence of vampiric sexiness but also the forbidden acts that come with living forever. We also have one of the best horror puppers in Nanook the wonder husky, protector of family values. I would say that while the climax is built to nicely it doesn’t necessarily last as long as it should for a final confrontation. If you love vampires, the eighties, and want something of a good vintage to sink your teeth into then give this a watch.
- Vampire’s Kiss (1989). This is the movie that launched a dozen memes; this is the blueprint for so much of Nic Cage’s acting style. And, in so many ways, it’s hard to determine what, exactly, this movie is for a good bit of its runtime (especially if you go in blind). Peter Loew is a literary agent by day, ladies’ man by night who, in the midst of a downward spiral and after an encounter with the mysterious Rachel, starts believing he’s transforming into a vampire. There’s also a subplot about a missing contract and Peter tormenting a secretary, Alma, into finding it. The film is advertised as a black comedy and, at first, it doesn’t quite seem that way—especially not of the same tones that play in the twenty-first century. However, by about the halfway point the film kicks into high absurdity and the bizarre comedy does begin. I’m halfway convinced that they put Nic Cage in a suit and plastic fangs and just filmed him interacting naturally with people for several scenes (which is partially true). The writing is often odd but serves to highlight the increasing craziness of Peter against everyone else. Additionally, the themes of toxic relationships, toxic masculinity, and unsafe working conditions (particularly for women) work on a few different levels. I won’t say it’s the funniest horror comedy I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly one that I’ll remember by virtue of Cage’s performance alone; even without the script, he brings his now infamous levels of energy and physicality to the role to make it his own. As far as the vampire subgenre goes, I like what it adds in terms of wish fulfillment, especially as a fan girl myself, because we’ve all put plastic fangs in our mouths at some point and acted like the sun would kills us too. Overall, Vampire’s Kiss is not overly funny or scary, but the campy performance by its lead and a decent enough narrative make it worth checking out at least once.
- Death Becomes Her (1992). I first encountered this black comedy on VHS, buried in the depths of my grandmother’s house; why she had it I’ll never know. I spent more than a few late nights laughing in the living room at the jokes and awed at the special effects. Years later, not much has changed. The film triangulates Madeline (Meryl Streep), an actress on the downhill slope of her career and beauty; Helen (Goldie Hawn), the friend whose husband she stole that might have less than pure intentions; and Ernest (Bruce Willis), the bumbling husband whose career as a plastic surgeon to the stars has faded to doing makeup on the dead. What brings the three of them together is a potion for immortality and vitality, petty grudges and jealousy, and more than a dash of that Hollywood glamour. A lot of this movie is camp in the best sense of the word, and no one is necessarily likeable but is at the same time (in the same way as reality TV). The special effects—which would go on to pave the way for Jurassic Park a year later—hold up pretty well and still fascinate in the way bodies can twist and contort in unintentional and hilarious ways. The cast bring some of their best to the screen, and it’s fun to see actors who can often be serious or dramatic go for funny. On a higher level of critical thought, I appreciate what the film has to say about immortality vs mortality, beauty culture and youth, and the Hollywood machine; for those reasons, I am interested in what an updated remake would bring to the table. As far as the original goes though, you can’t go wrong with a bit of spray paint, a shovel, and a killer body.
- In the Mouth of Madness (1994). Sam Neill really went from Jurassic Park and The Piano to this surreal and horrific semi-original take on what is obviously a Lovecraft mythos. Made during John Carpenter’s experimental phase, the easiest way to describe the plot of this film is that an insurance investigator tries to find the author of the titular book, only to discover that everything being written may also be coming true in horrific fashion. Now, this is a movie that wants to unravel in its own time and its own way; I do feel like I have to watch it a few more times (or several) to really get a grasp of the movie’s reality. That is both a strength and a weakness. The way it’s woven together is really interesting but too complicated for the casual moviegoer. Some of the special effects are pretty cool as well as some of the set pieces. Neill is really the standout here and pretty much carries the film, but the others do their best even if a lot of them seem made-for-TV quality at times. While the film as a whole is entertaining, the ending is one of the stronger aspects as it ties things together in that way I mentioned earlier—making certain viewers thirst for a re-watch and others scratch their heads. For anyone with slightly more than a casual knowledge of H.P. Lovecraft or the Cthulhu mythos, you’ll probably pick up on all kinds of hints and nods. While this is an original offshoot and not an adaptation, it very much feels, at times, too inspired and not original enough. The additional plot about a writer’s work coming to life has also been done before and since; however, within the horror genre, this provides unique opportunities and I do like what they do with it here. While In the Mouth of Madness is not close to a perfect film, there’s enough potential here and enough that’s done just right that makes it worth going a little mad over.
Any of these films has sequels, franchises, remakes, and fans galore. They’re hits of the heyday, and there are thousands of more to watch besides these. Still, at least one of these films is a must-watch each October in order to feel the true spirit of Halloween—unadulterated terror, relentless violence, and pure horror (sometimes with a touch of humor).
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