Horror in the ‘80s—More than Michael, Freddy, and Jason
For those who look back over the years at the Horror films of the 1980s, without the advantage of having lived through that decade as a Horror fan, it may seem like the genre was nothing other than the three great Slasher franchises—Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street—without any relief or variation. In the words of Peter Normanton, in the introduction to his book, The Mammoth Book of Slasher Movies [Running Press Books, 2012],
“There never was a decade quite like the eighties. Whether it was food, drink, fashion, music or film, these years can only be described as unique. And we took it all in, thriving on an excess of cheese (the cheesier the better), no more so than in the insanity of the slasher and splatter cinema that suddenly became so popular.”
In fact, however, the 1980s were a decade rich in horror, of a wide variety. There were stylish thrillers, such as Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. The decade gave us supernatural horror like The Shining, Ghost Story, Hellraiser, and Poltergeist, as well as Sci-Fi Horrors such as Lifeforce, The Fly, and Re-Animator. We even had some of the best Horror Comedy ever during the ‘80s, with movies like The ‘Burbs, Ghostbusters, and The Monster Squad. And of course we had the Slashers—far more than simply the big three. We celebrated Graduation Day, Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and April Fool’s Day. To those lucky enough to experience it first hand, the 1980s were a Silver Age of Horror.
The 1980s began much as the 1970s ended, with horror, as a genre, enjoying renewed popularity. This renewal of interest owed much to the twin phenomena of cable television and home video, both of which needed content to market to consumers, and thus provided money-making opportunities for films that were less-than-successful at the box-office. These secondary revenue streams soon became so lucrative that many low-budget productions chose to forego theatrical release entirely, opting instead for the Made-for-Cable or Direct-to-Video route.
The burgeoning Cable-TV industry meant increased venues for the airing of movies, as well as 24-hour schedules badly in need of programming. Television changed, in the 1980s, from three to five channels which signed off the air after midnight, to twenty, thirty, even forty channels broadcasting around the clock. While this increased demand for content affected all genres of film, it was the traditionally lower-budgeted films, such as Horror and Exploitation, which really benefited. Cheap to produce and cheap to distribute, these movies, aired uncut and without commercials, became staple fare for the new Premium Cable networks, such as Home Box Office (HBO) and Cinemax.
At the same time, the growth of Home Video meant that consumers could now watch any movie they chose, in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. This gave a second life to movies that were classics, a second chance to recent movies that had underperformed at the box office, and an audience for those weird and wonderful films too unique to have mass appeal. Combined, the revolutionary changes to home entertainment created enormous opportunities for horror filmmakers. It also signaled the death knell of the Drive-In Theater, but that’s a tale for another time … and place.
Horror was still big on the Big Screen, however. The ‘80s were the decade of Carpenter, King, and Craven. It was the decade that saw John Carpenter’s rise as one of Horror’s most preeminent directors—beginning with 1980’s The Fog, he had a string of genre successes that spanned the ‘80s. Escape from New York, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, and Prince of Darkness all helped build Carpenter’s reputation as a director who could keep genre fans coming back for more. 1984’s Starman, starring Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, although earning a meager $28 million on a budget of $24 million, was very well-received by critics, even garnering an Oscar-nomination for Bridges. Only 1982’s The Thing, shot on a budget of $15 million, failed to impress either critics or audiences, being roundly panned by the former, and largely ignored by the latter. It wasn’t until much later that it earned the recognition it so well-deserved as one of the greatest Science-Fiction / Horror films of the 1980s.
Likewise, another director from the ‘70s was reinvigorating the Horror genre, by blending Slasher films with more traditional Supernatural themes. Though both the Halloween and Friday the 13th franchises had hinted at the paranormal aspects of their main antagonists, Wes Craven made the nature of his killer the key feature of the character. Freddy Krueger was unquestionably supernatural, the demonic spirit of a murdered child-killer, living on in the nightmares of children, preying on their fears.
A Nightmare on Elm Street, released in 1984, was a game-changing success, earning $25 million at the box office on an investment of just under $2 million. It quickly became the template for a generation of horror films, films which attempted to take supernatural or mythological characters, such as leprechauns and genies, and transform them into bloodthirsty, maniacal killers bent on punishing any human who crosses their path. Craven would again revolutionize Horror more than a decade later, by deconstructing the Slasher film genre with 1996’s Scream.
The biggest name in Horror in the 1980s however was undoubtedly Stephen King. Since the runaway success of his first novel, Carrie, had been adapted into an Oscar-nominated box office hit in 1976, King’s literary works had regularly been transmuted into cinematic gold, as easily as if they had been touched by an alchemist’s stone. From 1980 through 1989, no fewer than sixteen feature adaptations of King’s stories hit the big screen, with more adapted for TV and short films. The decade began with The Shining, based on the best-selling novel of the same name, and directed by Stanley Kubrick. Though critics weren’t kind to the movie in its initial run (it was the only one of Kubrick’s last nine films to fail to earn an Academy Award nomination), audiences gradually warmed to the film, making it a profitable one. It ended with 1989’s Pet Sematary, an unqualified box office success, if not a critical one.
Whatever the type of Horror film it might have been, if Horror in the ‘80s had an overarching theme, it was that blood and body counts ruled the box office. They were, of course, the currency of the Slasher genre, but they translated equally well across the spectrum of horror. From The Shining, to Hellraiser, and from Dead Alive to Return of the Living Dead, gore, literal buckets of it, flowed across the screens. It was the ‘80s, the decade of excess, and that excess was carried over to the movie screen. And for those who were fortunate enough to experience it first hand, it was Horror’s Silver Age.
Creature Feature © D. Dyszel 2019
Dick Dyszel - Voice Actor