Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Critic's Crypt: On a Century of Horror Cinema, Part II

Welcome back to this special Critic’s Crypt retrospective, where I explore almost a hundred years of horror cinema over a marathon month of screenings. In Part I, we covered the classical 1930s, the subversive 1950s, and the revolutionary 1970s. Now, for Part II, we pick up the trail of horror history with the loud and lurid 1980s.

– Justin Cummings

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Day of the Dead (1985)
Re-Animator (1985)
Transylvania 6-5000 (1985)
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Hellraiser (1987)
Night of the Demons (1988)

Jason Lively and Steve Marshall in Night of the Creeps (1986).

“Excessive” doesn’t begin to describe the profusion and self-indulgence of horror in the 1980s, which resulted in some terrifically fun and memorable films, and also some truly insufferable ones. Highlights from my exploration of this decade include An American Werewolf in London, Day of the Dead, Night of the Creeps, Hellraiser, and of course Re-Animator (whose praises I’ve already sung in its own Critic’s Crypt article), which all represented the excess of their time in different and equally enjoyable ways. John Landis’s American Werewolf is a delightful confluence of comedy and horror which plays on the natural modern logic and skepticism of its protagonist (David Naughton) to create both plentiful laughs and some very disturbing monster sequences (enhanced greatly by Rick Baker’s much-lauded practical effects). Its wry self-awareness works because of Landis’s deft hand at comedic filmmaking, and the execution of such a clever script and such likable characters make the film’s horror – including its tragic ending – resonate that much more deeply.

Fred Dekker’s Night of the Creeps, steeped in nostalgia for the bygone B-movie scene of the 1950s, similarly juxtaposes the modern sensibilities of its youthful heroes with the kind of horror they’ve grown to think of as outdated nonsense. While not as confidently made as American Werewolf, it’s nonetheless an earnest and genuinely entertaining expression of how far horror had come since the time of the films that inspired it. (For example, 50s B-movies might have depicted alien slugs that infest human hosts, but they sure didn’t show those slugs bursting out of people’s heads like bloody piñata candies, or give their protagonists lawnmowers with which to rip apart their hapless infected peers, Peter Jackson-style.) George Romero’s Day of the Dead is a straightforward evolution of its 70s predecessor, feeding off the paranoia that many American civilians had developed towards their own military, and making use of gore guru Tom Savini to push the special effects envelope even further than Dawn of the Dead already had. Day’s excess is expressed not just in the shock and terror of its gore, but in the darkness and cruelty of its theme and tone.

Hellraiser’s overload of practical gore effects and gruesome story content need hardly be emphasized, since there isn’t much more to the film than that; it’s as pure an expression of 80s exuberance as I can imagine. Its hyper-sexualized narrative is balanced against its grisly portrayals of a supernatural cabal of S&M demons called the Cenobites (the most recognizable of which, Pinhead, was simply credited as “Lead Cenobite” in this first picture), whose torturous lust for pain and pleasure are a broken-mirror version of the carnal urges that drive Julia (Clare Higgins) to kill innocent people in her quest to resurrect her illicit lover. But in the delights of these films that might be the result of horror cinema's “going too far,” there’s a careful balance that not every film pulled off. The goofy, outsized slapstick of Transylvania 6-5000, while gamely delivered by its cast (including a pre-The Fly Jeff Goldblum, as well as Geena Davis, Ed Begley Jr., Michael Richards, and Carol Kane), is incompetently staged by director Rudy De Luca, who deflates his comedy set pieces by framing them in flat, artless wide shots, resulting in a failure to develop the ideas in the brilliant horror comedies like Young Frankenstein (1974) that inspired it. Night of the Demons is a failure too, not just in its commitment to faithfully depicting the most repugnant social mores of its time (with plenty of gendered ickiness and class-based unpleasantness), but also in its complete lack of restraint. It’s not enough that it’s an unfocused mess of a movie; it also can’t resist a push for “edginess” by throwing as much nudity and violence at the screen as it can. (This might sound appealing, but trust me, it’s boring as hell.) The line between enjoyable and exhausting excess is extremely fine, but all you have to do is compare Night of the Demons to Re-Animator to understand exactly where it sits.


Army of Darkness (1992)
Ghostwatch (1992)

Bruce Campbell in Army of Darkness (1992).

Horror had to find new ways to innovate in order to keep audiences engaged beyond the blowout of the 1980s. Films like Sam Raimi’s Army of Darkness still remained as a last bastion of excess, staying relevant purely through sheer force of creative and entertaining filmmaking, but they would not enjoy the same mass attention they had ten years earlier. While derided by some for its abandonment of the genuinely creepy material that powered its Evil Dead predecessors in favour of a primarily comedic tone, Army of Darkness is nonetheless fondly remembered for its gonzo approach to B-movie weirdness, smashing together disparate elements like medieval fantasy, classical horror and contemporary humour in ways that are still so enjoyable they continue to inspire filmmakers today.

But the emergence of a new kind of counterculture that grew alongside the rapid rise of technology in the 1990s also gave way to a new kind of horror: the horror of the real world. Like the infamous War of the Worlds radio play by Orson Welles, Ghostwatch fooled a generation into thinking that its supernatural threat was very real, causing many to nurse a new and unwelcome doubt about whether their normal sources of information could be trusted. Staged as a high-budget documentary piece, Ghostwatch was an elaborately staged hoax by the BBC that aired on Halloween 1992, depicting the investigation into complaints by a single mother and her children (living in low-income housing in a London suburb) that they were being menaced by a poltergeist named “Pipes.” BBC stalwart Michael Parkinson hosted the proceedings, supported by on-site reporter Sarah Greene (whose work on children’s TV programming made her trustworthiness a given), paranormal expert Lin Pascoe (unknown actress Gillian Bevan), and a bank of telephone operators who actually invited calls from the public to get their take on the evening’s findings. It’s hardly a surprise that the BBC hasn’t ever aired Ghostwatch again, since its reception was met with extreme backlash and controversy; many were fooled by the broadcast’s convincing special effects and production design, and lashed out in their shame at the network that had duped them. The psychological effects on the public are still being investigated today, thanks to some serious side-effects of the broadcast (including an unfortunate suicide that was apparently triggered by the terror that the special brought on). Today, in hindsight, Ghostwatch remains a fascinating (and convincingly creepy) piece of social history, whose meta-narrative would go on to inspire landmark cinematic experiences like The Blair Witch Project later in the decade. Their success was more palpable outside the cinema than in it.

Murder Party (2007)
It Follows (2014)
The Void (2016)

Daniel Fathers in The Void (2016).

Modern horror is as diverse as it’s ever been, thanks to the proliferation of the internet and the unprecedented access it provides to platforms and audiences that were previously unreachable. Much of big-budget tentpole horror remains as derivative and artless as always, so the true spirit of horror cinema lives on in the indie scene, where creativity and nostalgia clash as the present constantly tries to one-up the past. Before the success of his later films like Blue Ruin and Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier was gathering his film-minded friends to make micro-budget romps like Murder Party, whose black-comedy script and made-in-a-weekend production values belie Saulnier’s sharp eye for sustained tension and clever character work. Any director will tell you that a reduced budget is no barrier to smart, creative filmmaking – especially in a world where everyone has a high-quality camera in their pocket –and this is clearly a philosophy that Saulnier takes to heart, revealing itself in the small details (the deceit of an art patron, the unrequited love of a side character, the sudden introduction of new factors in the film’s tense situation, and the eventual payoff of all these elements) that separate Murder Party from other, disposable indie chaff.

But Murder Party is its own project, a film that isn’t driven by nostalgic influence, and the same can’t be said for David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows – even though it’s a more technically proficient and more convincingly scary horror film. It Follows exists in a strange purgatory between past and present, divorced from depictions of modern technology and social interaction and yet relentlessly modern in its filmmaking style. Its DNA courses with the genetic material of its forebears, referencing the thrumming music of Carpenter, the perverse eye of Argento, and the social ennui of Romero, but it manages to transcend these influences and assert its own identity through the effortless intensity of its craft. The Void is, unfortunately, not as adroit, tipping the scales from worthwhile original work to fawning recreation of its influences (primarily Carpenter’s The Thing and a generalized mass-market version of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft). It contains none of the subtlety, élan, or narrative purpose of the works it so eagerly compares itself to, and while its cast delivers strong work (particularly Aaron Poole, Ellen Wong, and the inimitable Kenneth Welsh), The Void can’t use its goopy gore or its occasionally striking imagery to make its story stick. Consider it among the other sacrificial lambs whose torn carcasses litter the altar of modern indie horror, never achieving the worthiness of the ancient works whose favour they hope to earn.


In my attempt to expand my cinematic vocabulary, I’ve greatly enjoyed my studies in the dialect of horror. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone and exploring older and more diverse films has brought me to places of fascinating insight and surprising personal terror. I’m ever eager to continue this journey, and delve even deeper into the darkness. But, that said, twenty-one films in one month is quite a lot. You’ll excuse me if I go cleanse the palate with something a bit lighter.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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