By 1986, creature FX were in and gory, slasher-style kills were out. The MPAA had been coming down hard on body-count films anyway, so movie producers adapted and gave audiences what they wanted— and what the censors were willing to tolerate.
Only a few consensus classics were released that year, but the horror scene still generated its most prolific 12-month span of output since 1981. Among the 30 or so new films to hit theaters and VCRs were several now considered minor cult favorites: Maximum Overdrive, Critters, Neon Maniacs, Vamp, and Terrorvision. Each is characterized by stylized villains or other exaggerated production-design elements while at the same time eschewing the grisly, ultra-realistic murder scenes that had defined the genre in the early part of the decade.
But, as you know by now if you’ve been reading this blog series, I tend to go for harder-edged horror content, which is why I mentioned those films above instead of including them on the list below. Speaking of which …
My Top 10 Horror Films of 1986
- The Fly
David Cronenberg’s horror masterpiece is many things: An art-house film that manages to be a commercial crowd pleaser, a culmination of the director’s decade-long exploration of body horror, and arguably the best remake in any genre.
A lot of horror films are superficial entertainment made with varying degrees of artistic skill; Cronenberg’s movie about a man who slowly transforms into an insect offers multiple reads in the manner of a literary work. A cancer metaphor. An aging metaphor. A mid-life crisis metaphor. A story about regret and the ripple effects of bad choices. It’s beautifully hopeless in the tradition of The Bride of Frankenstein, another pretty good flick.
- Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Michael Rooker is so chilling in this film, one might think the producers hired an actual serial killer for the lead. The scene in which Henry and Otis watch, with bored detachment, a camcorder tape of themselves raping and murdering an entire family ranks among the most disturbing things I’ve seen in a movie, and not a drop of blood is shown.
Relentlessly grim from the opening frame to the last, Henry is one of those films that stays with you long after you’ve watched it. A true horror film.
The original Alien is a near-perfect horror movie that would be impossible to replicate, so the studio wisely decided to go in a different direction with the sequel, opting for action/horror spectacle.
Fresh off the success of Piranha 2: The Spawning The Terminator, hotshot young director James Cameron grabbed the reins of the franchise and delivered a fun, FX-heavy adventure that gave audiences a thrill ride. The acting in Cameron films tends to be a little over-the-top for my taste, but there are plenty of great dialog moments and memorable characters to be enjoyed here, from Lance Henriksen’s quirky android Bishop to Paul Reiser’s smarmy corporate douchebag Burke.
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
Man, people hated this movie when it came out. I was iffy on it myself, but it has grown on me considerably in the intervening years. Audiences were expecting another grueling, documentary style horror masterpiece and instead got a colorful, splattery black comedy more in line with the violent parody Mother’s Day.
Upon repeated viewings, one starts to see the same type of genre satire that Sam Raimi later earned praise for with Evil Dead 2. Poor Tobe Hooper. He’ll never get the credit and recognition he deserves.
- From Beyond
Following the success of Re-Animator, the producer-director team of Brian Yuzna and Stuart Gordon returned with another HP Lovecraft-inspired horror tale, this time about a device that opens a gateway to an alternate dimension populated by all kinds of nasty critters.
From Beyond doesn’t quite reach the heights of Re-Animator, but it’s an imaginative film in its own right and touches on some of the body-horror themes previously explored so effectively by David Cronenberg.
- Demons 2
Director Lamberto Bava wasn’t able to recapture lightning in a bottle like he did with the original Demons film, but the sequel is still a fun, frenetic romp that gives the audience what it expects.
Set in an apartment tower rather than a theater, Demons 2 tells the story of a demonic possession infestation that spreads from floor to floor like a fire. The film is more intentionally campy than its predecessor and borrows ideas from earlier, better films like Videodrome, but as sequels go, you could do a lot worse.
- Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI
The birth of zombie Jason. After the horror genre shifted toward a more comedic, fantastical direction with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Return of the Living Dead, the producers of the Friday franchise couldn’t respond with yet another dark, gory stalk-and-slash picture. So they turned to writer-director Tom McLoughlin, who played up the campiness, turned the kill scenes to slapstick, and peppered the film with corny one-liners, to which audiences responded well.
I confess that I don’t like this film nearly as much as many other fans. I find the tone of the humor silly. Nevertheless, it’s a vast improvement over the previous entry in the series and is well put together. CJ Graham portrays a killer Jason as well.
- The Seventh Curse
There’s nothing like Hong Kong horror. Anything can happen at any moment, and the filmmakers do not seem beholden to western storytelling conventions.
The Seventh Curse is a bizarre pastiche of Brides of Blood, Alien, Romancing the Stone, and probably five other films that have no business appearing in the same sentence. You know when a character starts tossing toddlers into a pit to be crushed by clashing stone slabs, you’re not watching a Hollywood studio film. Look for a small role from Chow Yun Fat before he became the world’s biggest action star.
- The Hitcher
In The Hitcher, which feels like a gritty 1970s flick time machined into an age of creature FX spectacle, we get cult fav Rutger Hauer at the top of his game playing a psychopathic killer fixated on a man who happened to give him a ride as he was hitch-hiking.
On paper, it doesn’t sound like much, but the simple story plays out in a taut, relentless, and suspenseful manner. It’s the kind of film that proves you don’t need a lot of money to make an effective chiller.
- Night of the Creeps
Sometimes a silly, fun crowd-pleaser is just what you’re looking for. Night of the Creeps, while far from a masterpiece, offers plenty of action, gory zombie and alien FX, and a great performance from the always-welcome Tom Atkins. You can laugh at it, you can laugh with it. It’s a good time either way.
This fan favorite about robot security guards gone rogue is fun and action-packed. The humor isn’t to my taste (a trend across the entire year, I’ve noticed), which puts me off the film ultimately, but it’s here out of recognition for its popularity.
Some of the Native American magic-power stuff is a bit cringy in 2017, but otherwise I give the producers credit for adding new villains and trying to avoid a cynical rehash of the first film. It’s kind of disjointed in spots, but once you get down here in the honorable mention zone, you’re not finding all-time classics. I could have chosen Deadly Friend, which is also disjointed, or April Fool’s Day, which is rendered nonsensical by the big twist. C’est la vie.
I’m putting this film here so all you weirdos who claim Manhunter is better than Silence of the Lambs can enjoy a moment of glory. It’s not better, by the way. Not even close.