After some delay, here's the continuation of my list of 31 films for Halloween. It was far harder to come up with a list of films from the 1980s than I thought it would be. I'm not sure if it's just things slipping my mind, or if there just aren't as many good obscure films from that era to write about, not that all these films are super obscure, probably most of you have seen or at least heard of most or all of these, but even so...so what? Some of these are fun, some a little more difficult, but you could do a lot worse on a chilly Halloween evening. Enjoy, spooky cinephiles...
11. The Pit (1981)- Mostly, I’m trying to limit this list to movies that I think are genuinely good, but this one is wrong in all the right ways. Bizarre and fairly nonsensical from beginning to end, “The Pit” is consistently perverse as well as being hilariously bad in nearly every way. I pretty much love every frame of this vexing antimasterpiece, which I first saw as a kid, without knowing what it was, on the local (actually, it was from Baltimore, and I grew up in DC, but we could get the Baltimore station in my parents' bedroom, where I spent many a Saturday afternoon with the weekly double feature of a kung-fu film and a horror picture) UHF station's weekly horror theatre, and its' weirdness stuck with me for over a decade, until I came across a VHS copy (then out-of-print, now it's readily available on DVD). The director, Lew Lehman, also co-wrote “Phobia,” John Huston’s worst movie.
12. The Howling (1981)- An obvious choice, I know, and really you could put in this spot any film by Joe Dante, John Carpenter, George Romero or David Cronenberg made in the early 1980s (or any movie by Romero or Carpenter made in the 80s period), but I just love Dante and writer John Sayles’ mix of humor and horror, genuinely likeable characters, social commentary, clever film references that don’t overwhelm the story and the amazing b-movie character actors (Dick Miller, Patrick MacNee, Kevin McCarthy, John Carradine, Slim Pickens, Kenneth Tobey ) and genre figures (Roger Corman, Forrest Ackerman and even Bill Warren) who appear throughout. “The Howling” has good laughs and suspense, gore and sex, but also a ton of charm.
13. Fade to Black (1980)- Dennis Christopher, as a movie obsessed social misfit turned psychotic killer, is the main reason to watch this film, directed by Vernon Zimmerman. His performance is compelling, but also kind of infuriating and disturbing to watch, because he starts off as a likeable outcast and becomes increasingly unsympathetic as he crimes grow direr. He really inhabits the role and brings humanity to it. It helps that the film around him is slick, stylish and reasonably smart (though the subplot with Tim Thomerson as a wacky cop is unnecessarily goofy).
14. City of the Living Dead (1980)- I’m a fan of all of Lucio Fulci’s off-kilter, dreamy and somewhat listless ultragory Italian zombie films from the later 1970s and early 1980s (Zombie, the Beyond, House by the Cemetery and this one), but “City of the Living Dead” stands out for really projecting a powerful sense of dread throughout. Fulci sets the horror against a dirty, dusty, windswept, despair-ridden town, and the tone is just perfect for the kind of droning, churning, gory horror that follows.
15. Happy Birthday to Me (1981)- One of the stranger slasher films to emerge in the wake of the successes of “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th,” “Happy Birthday to Me” benefits from the solid direction of Hollywood vet J. Lee Thompson, the filmmaker behind the original “Cape Fear” and “Guns of Navarone,” as well as a couple of the “Planet of the Apes” movies and about a dozen or so of Charles Bronson’s better-ish films. In terms of story, this one is all over the place, but the film itself works because of a grotty, lurid atmosphere, some impressive and excessive set pieces, and a mind-bending, identity-shifting, completely-out-of-left-field ending that’s pretty satisfying.
16. Paperhouse (1988)- Horror need not be violent to be effective, as is evident from this British film by “Candyman” director Bernard Rose. A lonely young girl retreats into an imaginary world, based on her own drawings. There she meets a young handicapped boy and the two go from playfulness to torment at the hands of an increasingly threatening paternal figure. Rose relies of powerful visuals and atmosphere to create a sense of fear and horror, with only very brief glimpses of violence and no exploitation elements. “Paperhouse” is definitely an overlooked gem.
17. Cruising (1980)- Just in the past year or so, William Friedkin’s “Cruising” has received somewhat of a critical re-evaluation, but when it first came out, this film was protested by gay rights activists, dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences. It hard to imagine who the target audience was, since despite its’ gay themes, the movies paints an unpleasant portrait of gay life that would no doubt turn off gay audiences, but it features far too explicitly gay material to really appeal to straight mainstream audiences. Despite, or perhaps because, “Cruising” is so thoroughly unpleasant, it’s also incredibly effective. The style is stark and detached, the characters generally enigmatic and fairly unlikable, the violence bloody and horrifying. This is one of several underrated horror films and thrillers made by Friedkin in the 1980s, another favorite of mine being “Rampage,” a barely released serial killer film and courtroom drama done in a similarly minimal, obtuse style.
18. Near Dark (1987)- Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire film combines a punk ethos with dreamy atmosphere to maximum effect. A great cast, including Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein and Bill Paxton (all from “Aliens”) alongside Joshua Miller of “River’s Edge,” Adrian Pasdar, Tim Thomerson and Jenny Wright (whom I’ve been nursing a crush on for nearly 20 years now), propels a film that is fun but also deceptively deep, dealing with issues of family and history. The barroom massacre, set to the Cramps’ version of “Fever,” is a mini-masterpiece of tension and horror unto itself.
19. White of the Eye (1987)- “Demon Seed” director Donald Cammell’s little-seen film starts off as something of a slasher flick, then turns increasingly psychedelic and apocalyptic towards the end. The war-painted, heavily armed and dynamite strapped David Keith is a sight to behold. There’s something genuinely nihilistic about “White of the Eye,” which examines both the failure of 1960s hippie counterculture and the consumerist, money-driven 1980s. Cammell co-directed “Performance” in 1969 and would eventually commit suicide. This film, sadly, is not on DVD.
10. Night of the Creeps (1986)- A horror film for people who love horror films, Fred Dekker’s precursor “the Monster Squad” has pretty much everything- humor and style, memorable dialogue, Dick Miller, goofy aliens, gore, titties and a slew of film references that amuse rather than overwhelm. That the characters are likeable makes their travails all the more involving, and when one of them dies, it’s a genuinely emotional moment. Plus, I defy you not to love genre icon Tom Atkins as a hardboiled, tough as nails cop who utters the immortal line, ”The good news is, your dates are here. The bad news is, they’re dead.” It’s a shame that this isn’t on DVD, and also that Dekker only made a couple more films (though he’s still around).
Part 3 arrives on Halloween (the night HE came home)...
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