My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

Like Vikings setting sail on a murky, mist-shrouded sea, we wade into the fog of 1983, the first year in over a decade without a consensus horror classic. No Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no Alien, no Evil Dead to be found.

It’s tantalizing, in a way, the mysterious path before us.

From the darkness ahead, choices emerge: gory, micro-budget space monster epics from New Jersey … trippy alien invasion flicks from England … weird Nazi monster somethings in a fortress … beloved pets turning on their owners … beloved appliances turning on their owners. Perhaps we’ll come up short if we go looking for another Halloween or The Exorcist, but the allure of discovering personal favorites and unearthing hidden gems is powerful nonetheless.

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

  1. The Deadly Spawn

 

There’s no point making a Top 10 list if you’re going to pander to your audience. Integrity is my calling card. One of them, at least. My other calling card is making melodramatic and hokey declarations about calling cards.

But anyway, after I compiled a comprehensive list of titles to choose from and analyze, I was left with an incontrovertible truth: I adore the crap out of The Deadly Spawn. I’ve made no secret of my love for the aesthetic of low-budget horror flicks. If the filmmakers are talented, imaginative, and passionate, I don’t care if the budget is $10; I’ll probably like the movie.

This fun and gory flick is imbued with an authentic rainy-day atmosphere and a variety of unexpected moments and nasty kills. It also stars a rare non-annoying kid actor (Charles George Hildebrandt), whose character is a misunderstood horror fan, something many of us can relate to.

 

  1. Xtro

 

While we’re on the subject of low-budget, imaginative films, it’s hard to top Xtro.

It’s no surprise, following the success of Alien, that we’d see a bunch of R-rated alien-invasion knock-offs in its wake. But while many transferred the action to terra firma for budgetary reasons, only one featured a monster with its head (and dick) on backwards; a giant, murderous toy soldier; and a dwarf clown with a glowing razorblade yo-yo. All swirling around a poignant family drama in which a mother’s loyalties are torn between the man she once loved and… aw fuck it. Just watch it. It’s as slimy as it is trippy.

 

  1. Videodrome

 

These segues are writing themselves today.

If you think Xtro is trippy, get a load of David Cronenberg’s most perverse, hallucinogenic body-horror tale yet. In the film, TV producer James Woods starts watching a late-night broadcast called Videodrome and soon grows a vagina on his abdomen, in which he stores a bio-mechanical gun. That’s not even the hallucinogenic part.

 

  1. Psycho II

 

If there’s one movie you’d never make a sequel to, it would be Psycho. Why? Because Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is so cinematically perfect that a sequel would be an insult to the art of film itself.

Well, they made a sequel anyway, and you know what? It’s pretty good. Of course, unlike its predecessor, Psycho II is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is a solid horror mystery with cool twists, however, and body count movies rarely feature such multidimensional characters. The ending is a trip too. At worst, this one falls into the category of pleasant surprise.

 

  1. Dead Zone

 

Dang. Two David Cronenberg movies in one year? 1983 does reward the genre fan who digs deep enough.

This film, based the Stephen King novel, is certainly the more “Hollywood” of the Canadian director’s two productions. You get bigger stars and a more mainstream storytelling approach than you do with Videodrome, the latter of which any reasonable fan must admit has limited appeal due to its difficult narrative and perverse imagery. That said, Cronenberg successfully avoids studio glitz with The Dead Zone and keeps the narrative focused on a compelling human drama.

It’s too bad Christopher Walken and Cronenberg never teamed up again. They seem made for each other artistically. Imagine how much better Scanners would have been with Walken in the lead.

 

  1. Mausoleum

 

Here’s another of those low-budget horror flicks that could only have been made in the early 1980s, when the genre was flourishing as never before and kids like me craved cheap, nasty, over-the-top terror. For various reasons that may or may not have something to do with a mausoleum, buxom beauty Bobbie Bresee is transformed into a reptilian demon with killer tits. That should be detail enough for you to agree that Mausoleum is high art.

 

  1. Latidos De Panico

 

Sounds the trumpets; the great Paul Naschy is making his long-awaited return to this blog series. The Spanish horror star had done some solid flicks through the late 1970s and early 80s, but a simultaneous run of well-known genre classics banished him to the listicle dungeon. Well, he’s back.

I’ve said this before, but I don’t know of any actor/filmmaker whose movies better capture the mood of a lurid horror comic book cover. In Latidos De Panico (AKA Panic Beats), Naschy plays a ghostly knight who chases his victims down atop a phantom horse and bludgeons them to death with a military flail. His first victim, pre-credits, is a butt-naked young woman making a not-too-enthusiastic attempt to escape as he emerges after her from a glowing fog bank. Right off the cover of Weird Tales or some such grisly rag, if you ask me.

 

  1. The Hunger

 

David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve play a sexy vampire couple who become immersed in a world that combines 1970s lesbian-vampire erotica with 1980s rock-video cinematography. I don’t know if The Hunger is that substantial of a film, but it’s pretty to look at and stylish to a fault. Captivating when you’re in the mood for a horror that’s elegant and melodramatic. Willem Dafoe completists should take note of his role here as Thug # 2.

 

  1. American Nightmare

 

I debated with myself whether this is a horror film, since it lacks supernatural elements, monsters, aliens, a body count, or a masked killer. The tone is so utterly bleak, however, that it becomes horrifying. The presentation is essentially “a day in the life” of a guy spiraling so far into hopelessness he’s compelled to annihilate not just himself but everything that represents his existence. Features one of the darkest endings you’ll ever see.

 

  1. Christine

 

Since we’re keeping it real today: I don’t love this film. In a stronger year it wouldn’t make my Top 10 list, and I don’t think it measures up to John Carpenter’s previous horror efforts in terms of scares, FX, or memorable moments. That said, it’s well directed and sports gorgeous cinematography. Overall an entertaining watch but a lesser effort from a guy who has delivered some major genre classics.

 

Honorable mention

Today’s honorable mention section is devoted to movies that a lot of people like but which I don’t. As I told you, I shan’t pander by pretending I like things I don’t like. I’ve got to maintain my integrity.

 

Sleepaway Camp

 

To be honest, I don’t get the appeal. The movie is fun in the way average slasher flicks are fun, and Angela is a cool character. Otherwise, the acting’s weak, it’s not scary, there are way too many dudes in half-shirts (“not that there’s anything wrong with it”), and the movie is liberally padded with meaningless scenes of kids hanging out in the mess hall or playing softball. Is it the fucked-up ending that makes it great? Am I missing meaningful subtext? Feel free to elucidate the film’s merits in the comments.

Regardless of my personal view, it’s quite popular, so I would be remiss if I didn’t give it an honorable mention.

 

Twilight Zone – The Movie

 

This film is a slick, watchable production. However, it could have been a great one if they’d picked better stories and gone with a darker tone. John Landis phoned in a bland comic-book-justice bit, and Steven Spielberg went with a treacly remake of an episode that was already overly sentimental. George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment was well done but too easy a choice. Joe Dante’s entry was the most imaginative, if unsatisfying in resolution.

Hollywood rarely gets this kind of effort right. Imagine a directing team of John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg, all near the peak of their artistry at the time, tackling this project instead.

 

The Keep

You got tanks, Nazis, stone fortresses, good actors, a talented director, and a golem-like demon. The imagery is cool, but, for me, the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. At the same time, I would totally understand if this were someone’s top film of 1983. It’s unique, and that’s worth something.

 

House of Long Shadows

 

Oh lordy. A film with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine should have been great, but it falls flat, not unlike earlier attempts at all-star horror like Madhouse and Scream and Scream Again. Star power is seldom enough to make a movie good on its own.

 

Microwave Massacre

 

I’m only including this one because I made reference to it in the intro. I could just as easily have mentioned Cujo or Curtains, both of which are okay and have a bit of a fan following. Neither of them boasts Jackie Vernon, the voice of Frosty the Snowman, however.

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Reviewing classic “Famous Monsters of Filmland” covers, part one: Issues 1 through 5

 

Horror and science fiction are visual genres, and artwork, fonts, and illustrations are critical in connecting fans to the content they desire. For many of us, a great horror poster or movie still is at once a nostalgia trip and a reminder of why we love the genre. I’d bet that most serious genre fans share the same childhood experience of having stared at and been inspired by a particular image, which could be anything from Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera to Doug Bradley as Pinhead to the doll from Annabelle.

For me, as a lifelong horror and monster movie fanatic, it’s the covers of classic Famous Monsters of Filmland issues that hold the most magic. Though the content between the covers hasn’t held up that well over the years, I still get a rush from a good Basil Gogos or Ken Kelly painting gracing the front of a given issue.

Now I’m going to put my college minor in Art History to use and review the great and not so great cover art of the original Famous Monsters run from 1958 to 1983, starting with issues 1 to 5.


 

Famous Monsters of Filmland #1

fm1Can we start with what is surely one of the most iconic mastheads ever? It is simply brilliant in lettering and layout and is the equivalent of hitting a grand slam the first time at bat. For a magazine that, honestly, was produced on the cheap, this nameplate is spectacular.

However, the venerable magazine’s debut cover art does nothing to indicate Famous Monsters of Filmland would be anything more than a one-off to be quickly forgotten. It’s not a painting or even a movie still. It’s a dude in a mask next to a model. The sidebar lettering isn’t very inviting either. It’s a drab font and unspecific about the content inside.

On the plus side, the layout is uncluttered and the red pops behind the white logo. The right-triangle geometry of the composition is passable (the Frankenstein’s monster forming the vertical side and the hypotenuse laying across the model’s head) and activates the image ever so slightly.

Overall: 3/10


 

Famous Monsters of Filmland #2

fm2

Hrmm. The orange and black color scheme lends a Halloween vibe (I’m assuming orange and black were associated with Halloween in 1958). Again, the lack of clutter is generally a good thing, but this cover borders on bland. It’s another guy in a suit wearing a cheap rubber mask, perhaps signaling to shoppers they are about to pick up a Halloween supply catalog rather than a film magazine.

While we’re on a geometry kick, the figure is pyramidal, which is a form used popularly in the Italian Renaissance (the Mona Lisa being a classic example). It has the psychological effect of suggesting calmness and stability to the viewer. Which is great if you are painting Jesus but not if you are trying to scare people. Would you go see a monster movie that promised a safe, gentle, reassuring viewing experience?

The heavy black background at the top squashes the image a bit as well, though it probably does help the cover to be more noticeable from a distance.

Overall: 2/10


 

Famous Monsters of Filmland #3

fm3Now we’re getting somewhere. While the layout may be simplistic, we see our first painted cover. I don’t have this issue on hand to identify the artist, but it’s a nicely gruesome rendition of Lon Chaney as The Phantom, extrapolating from the black-and-white film the discolorations of his damaged flesh and even mimicking the harsh lighting. A setting for the figure would have taken the artwork to a higher level.

This time the sidebar plugs are offset by a torn-paper graphic, which abstractly echoes the haggard appearance of the phantom. This effect would probably work better of they were closer to the sickly yellow seen in the phantom’s face, though.

A return to the red background helps the whole thing pop off rather vividly.

Overall: 5/10

 


 

Famous Monsters of Filmland #4

fm4Thus begins the legend of great Famous Monsters’ cover art. Can we start with the unusual color palette? Yellow, orchid purple, green, and black? Somehow it works.

The painting by Albert Nuetzell (about whom there is scant information available online) depicts what I assume to be a Martian from George Pal‘s 1953 film version of H.G. Wells‘ War of the Worlds, rendered in a painterly style that imbues the character with pathos and places it in an appropriately vague and shadowy setting. Kudos to the graphic artist who pulled from Nuetzell’s palette for the lettering, though that yellow box at the bottom is too big and blocky, thus making it a distraction. The yellow is otherwise an excellent choice for the masthead, which pops out from the somber background.

Overall 8/10

 


 

Famous Monsters of Filmland #5

fm5Nuetzell returns for issue 5 with a painting of Bela Lugosi‘s test make-up for Island of Lost Souls, a pretty unusual choice for a magazine cover. I do appreciate his painterly brushstrokes and fanciful color palette, but the figure seems more like an eccentric artist than a horror character. The black masthead goes unnoticed, further obscuring the fact that this is supposed to be a magazine about horror and science fiction movies.

The vaguely hourglass composition and the head tilt juice the image a little bit, but not enough to make the cover particularly memorable. A painted cover is still classier and more substantive than a photo of a guy in a rubber mask, but this artwork, layout, and subject matter, while skillfully rendered, misses the target.

Overall 3.5/10