Boris Karloff – The Top 10 Films

For generations of horror fans, Boris Karloff is one of the most beloved figures in the genre. The combination of his gaunt appearance, menacing glare, and musically sinister voice made him an iconic movie villain, but it was his ability to find the soul of every character that rendered his performances  timeless.

Karloff elevated every movie he in which he appeared, from mundane B programmers to yesterday’s five honorable mentions. Today, we look at the ten films that, in my opinion, represent the best.

 

My Top 10 films of Boris Karloff

 

  1. The Ghoul (1933)

Karloff plays a professor of Egyptology who appears to have more than simply an intellectual curiosity for his subject, returning from the grave like a mummy to seek revenge on those who stole a jewel he believes is imbued with the power of the ancient gods.

If not marred by a terrible, banal ending, The Ghoul would be higher on this list. The film is among the most eerie and atmospheric of the era, and it benefits from a delightful cast (including Ernest Thesiger and Cedric Hardwicke), grim humor, and well-paced direction from T. Hayes Hunter.

 

  1. Targets (1968)

In one of his most nuanced performances, Karloff plays a fading horror star who finds his talents are now lost on a society where real-life horrors like the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and rapid cultural upheaval have made the gothic films on which he built his reputation seem quaint and anachronistic.

Targets is an astute, smartly self-aware film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who went on to earn acclaim for 1971’s The Last Picture Show.

 

  1. The Body Snatcher (1945)

Producer Val Lewton is legendary for his nourish psychological horrors of the 1940s. With future A-list director Robert Wise (The Day the Earth Stood Still) at the helm and a multi-dimensional performance from Karloff as the grave robber implied in the title, viewers are treated to a superior film.

Like most Lewton films, The Body Snatcher isn’t exactly action packed, but it boasts one of the eeriest climaxes in the classic age of horror cinema.

 

  1. The Old Dark House (1932)

Part comedy and part horror film, The Old Dark House is a grim delight from the pre-code era. The plot, concerning a group of stranded travelers who must shelter in a scary old mansion, is merely a set up for darkly humorous interplay between a smart cast that includes Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Melvyn Douglas, Charles Laughton, Lilian Bond, and Gloria Stuart. Not a whole lot happens, but James Whale’s stylish and atmospheric direction somehow ladles on the suspense anyway.

 

  1. The Black Cat (1934)

Once again, stranded travelers find themselves seeking refuge at a home inhabited by Boris Karloff. This home isn’t some gothic fairy-tale mansion, however, but a sleek, art-deco chamber of horrors. And Karloff isn’t a hairy brute this time but a war criminal with some rather disturbing hobbies. Among the visitors happens to be Bela Lugosi, who would love nothing more than to seek brutal revenge on the host for his wartime transgressions.

Owing to its subject matter, The Black Cat is one of the tonally darkest films of the classic era.

 

  1. Isle of the Dead (1945)

In another pairing of Karloff and producer Val Lewton, the actor plays a Greek general quarantined on an Island with a group of strangers as a plague ravages the land. However, not everyone agrees it’s a plague. Some of the locals believe a soul-stealing vampire called a “Vorvolaka” is on the prowl.

It’s a toss-up where to put most of these films on a Top-10 list, but of one thing I’m sure: Karloff’s descent from the voice of reason to a violent paranoiac is conveyed through one of his very best performances.

 

  1. The Mummy (1932)

Universal was really hitting ‘em out of the park in the early 1930s, weren’t they? The Mummy may be the most subtle, elegant film of the studio’s major horror classics, and Karloff’s presence is felt throughout its entirety, despite his relatively limited screen time.

Honestly, there’s almost no action, yet viewers are left feeling they’ve seen the unforgettable. It might have something to do with that awakening scene.

 

  1. Black Sabbath (1963)

Perhaps it’s strange to place a film that came so late in Karloff’s career, when he was relegated to doing mostly B movies, among the top three. But these are horror films we’re talking about, and Black Sabbath is without a doubt the scariest he ever made. Not since his portrayal of Poelzig in The Black Cat had Karloff been so malevolent in a role.

This film terrified me so badly when I was a kid that … well, nothing, I loved every minute.

 

  1. Frankenstein (1931)

It’s not often a star is born while going unbilled and acting without dialog under 10 pounds of make-up. It’s also not often that Boris Karloff, James Whale, and make-up FX genius Jack Pierce collaborate on one of the best horror films ever made.

Although the plot veers widely from that of the book on which the movie was based, Frankenstein captures the two most important aspects of Mary Shelley‘s literary classic: the tortured relationship between the monster and his maker, and the sheer horror of the tragic events that unfold. Naturally, by today’s standards the film the film isn’t actually frightening, but Whale’s groundbreaking direction, Pierce’s creature design, and Karloff’s impassioned performance are nevertheless the makings of timeless cinema.

 

  1. The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Trying to top an original cinematic masterpiece with a sequel is generally a hopeless endeavor. You’re working against everything that makes an original masterpiece what it is: something new that captivates and surprises audiences and ripples with influence and change across the entire film industry. You can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice.

Usually.

Usually you don’t have the boundless creativity of James Whale, Jack Pierce, and Boris Karloff to draw upon. usually you don’t add that one perfect element that wasn’t there before (Ernest Thesiger in the role he was born to play). You don’t dream up one of the most instantly iconic characters in movie history (The Bride). And no one says, “You know what we should do? We should do a sequel to a gruesome, bleak, pure horror movie, but make a dark fairy tale instead.”

The Bride of Frankenstein is arguably the greatest sequel in horror history and, therefore, takes its rightful place as Boris Karloff’s best film.

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My Top 10 Horror Films of 1987

The 1980s were an embarrassment of riches for horror fans. The second half of the decade saw a surge in new titles that began in 1985 and peaked in 1987, when a deep run of popular films hit screens big and small.

This list was tough to whittle down. Indeed, there are three fan favorites you won’t find below: The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and The Monster Squad. They’re all fine films, but this blog series features my personal favorites, not an attempt at consensus regarding which ones are “the best.” Such an endeavor is inevitably subjective anyway.

A few others I cut, but which could have cracked the top ten in a weaker year, include Street Trash, The Offspring, Blood Rage (filmed in 1983 but released in ‘87), and Dolls. But enough about movies I omitted. Which ones made the list?

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1987

 

  1. Hellraiser

 

Hellraiser isn’t the best acted or most polished production of 1987, but for sheer imagination, you can’t top it. Writer-director Clive Barker has shown time and again to be among the most outside-the-box (no pun intended) thinkers to ever work in the horror genre. The puzzle box, Pinhead and the cenobites, the S&M kinkiness, the merging of hell and earth … such a tableau of terror could not have been dreamed up by anyone else.

 

  1. Stage Fright

 

First he got his brain squished in City of the Living Dead. Then he sold real estate in A Blade in the Dark. After that, he gave away free tickets to the Metropol in Demons. Finally, Michele Soavi got a hold of a camera and directed his own movie.

The result was Stage Fright, one of the best slasher films of the decade, a stylish and gory romp that somehow managed to make this tired subgenre seem fresh and exciting again for 90 minutes.

 

  1. A Chinese Ghost Story

 

Hong Kong cinema is at times so imaginative that writers are at a loss for how to describe it, often resorting to comparisons between disparate western films to draw a vague sketch. So I’ll wave the white flag now and do the same: A Chinese Ghost Story is like Evil Dead II meets The Princess Bride.

Director Ching Siu-tung’s dark fairytale tells of a beautiful, life essence-devouring ghost betrothed to a tree demon, and the human tax collector so in love with her he enlists the help of a magical swordsman to stop the wedding. Whew. Tell me the last time Hollywood came up with an idea like that. This film is funny, eerie, tragic, action packed, and charming, often at the same time.

 

  1. Prince of Darkness

 

A surprisingly gloomy metaphysical horror movie, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness tells of an ancient container found in the basement of an urban church that may be holding the essence of evil itself. Spoiler alert: they open it.

This film sustains a somber, eerie atmosphere throughout its entire hour-and-forty-minute running time, and even the little bits of humor are tinged with unease. In my opinion, it’s the director’s most underrated work.

 

  1. Bad Taste

 

I’m going to boast: I called it. Way back in the day, a friend who ran a video store gave me a promo screener of this flick well before it hit the shelves, and I said after watching it, “This director, Peter Jackson, is a genius and is going to be super famous one day.”

The video store guy scoffed at my prediction, but I was right. Don’t tell him (Peter Jackson, that is) that I think Bad Taste is still his best movie. If the Lord of the Rings trilogy had featured vomit-drinking aliens, a pair of sneakers ruined by exploded brains, and a dive-bomb chainsaw assault, we might be having a different conversation right now.

 

  1. Angel Heart

 

This is Hollywood horror all the way: polished, expensive looking, and trying to hide from the fact that it’s a horror film. Except in this rare instance, it also happens to be pretty damn good.

Sure, Angel Heart is stylized to the point of being pretentious, but Mickey Roarke, Lisa Bonet, and Robert De Niro are all perfect casting choices, and the story is full of giallo-eque twists and intricacies that keep viewers hooked to the very last. Like Hellraiser, the film isn’t afraid to merge sex and death into one kinky mess.

 

  1. Evil Dead II

 

It seems as if each one of these lists requires me to make the same confession, and it usually comes around film number seven: I don’t like this one as much as I should.

Don’t misunderstand; Evil Dead II is still one of the top horror films of 1987. It’s zany and funny and full of cool creature FX and all that good stuff. I’m such a huge fan of the original, however, that I kind of wish Sam Raimi and company had taken a darker, less slapstick approach. That said, I totally get why they went for laughs at this point in the horror cycle, and I enjoy the film for what it is.

 

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

 

After an inconsistent outing with Freddy’s Revenge, New Line Cinema brought back some familiar faces from the original Elm Street movie to stabilize the franchise. The result is the best sequel of the entire series.

When it comes to 1980s body-count movies, you can usually count on one thing: The characters will be so annoying you can’t wait for them to die. Dream Warriors is the rare exception in that you root for these kids. This flick has a surprising amount of heart, as well as some rather inventive horror set pieces on a low budget.

 

  1. The Stepfather

 

Two words: Terry O’Quinn.

The decision to cast the at-the-time relative-unknown character actor in the titular role turned what would have been a taut little thriller into one of the most talked-about films of the year. Just as it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho, it’s hard to see The Stepfather being as effective without O’Quinn as the oft-disappointed family man Jerry Blake.

 

  1. Nekromantik

 

To most viewers, Nekromantik is either disgusting, offensive, repugnant trash, or it’s too primitive to be considered a legitimate feature film.  Shot on Super 8 by eccentric German filmmaker Jörg Buttgereit, this “corpse-fucking art” flick sports production values barely more polished than those of a home movie.

However, to a few of us, it’s one of those weirdly captivating films that continues to haunt long after the credits roll. I’ve encountered a number of folks who can comfortably sit through the most violent and notorious splatter movies ever made yet find Nekromantik too disturbing to watch. That’s impressive in a strange way.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Creepshow 2

 

Aside from the wraparound scenes and story-to-story transitions, the filmmakers ditched the comic-book visuals in this sequel to George A Romero’s 1982 classic, the result being that the cinematography is flat and uninteresting. Also, the lead story about the cigar-store Indian come to life is lame and eye-rolling in historical context (“These young Native Americans today just don’t appreciate the great things the white man has done for them!” Yikes).

But once you get past those flaws, the flesh-eating oil slick story is pretty cool (if kinda rapey in that one part), and the hitchhiker segment is lurid comic-book horror at its best. Instead of being great, Creepshow 2 is merely decent, which keeps it off the Top 10 list. It’s still a worthwhile flick in a strong year for the genre.

 

Opera

 

The giallo film was on its last legs in 1987. Not even the genre’s greatest auteur, Dario Argento, was able to conjure another classic in a genre that had reached its zenith in the early 1970s. In the end, we got a pretty good movie that seems cobbled together from bits of the director’s earlier works.

That said, while Opera has its flaws, the film still features plenty of Argento’s signature set-piece kills and flashy camera work.

 

Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II

 

Prom Night II isn’t any better than the films I left off the list altogether, such as Street Trash or The Offspring. There’s just something weird and unexpected about it (it feels more like a Freddy Krueger film than the sequel to a slasher movie). Ask me next week and I might change my mind, but for now, it gets an honorable mention.

To repeat: I have chosen to omit The Lost Boys, Near Dark, and The Monster Squad from my list. Yes, I have seen them; no I have not lost my mind. Please mail your complaints, along with a $20 processing fee, to:

 

Alex Vorkov Enterprises

1313 Mockingbird Lane

Hollyweird, Karloffornia 66666

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1986

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

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. Aliens

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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

 

Honorable mention

 

Chopping Mall

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.

 

Poltergeist 2

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.

 

Manhunter

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.

Weirdos.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1985

 

Just as modern man now gazes upon the ancient pyramids of Egypt in awe and wonder, so too shall future humans look upon the horror genre in 1985 and say, “Dang.”

It’s as if Michelangelo had sculpted the David, Van Gogh had painted Starry Night, Leonardo the Mona Lisa, Dali the Persistence of Memory, and Vermeer the Girl with a Pearl Earring all at the same time.

It’s as if … all right, enough with the friggin’ hyperbole. On to the list!

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1985

  1. Return of the Living Dead

 

When you crack open oyster after oyster and, at long last, you find the pearl.

Return of the Living Dead, from the opening second to the last, is about as entertaining a horror flick as you’ll ever see. It’s gory, funny, scary, creative, and filled with likable characters, amusing dialog, and killer tunes. This group of kids—punk-rockers, headbangers, nerds, preppies, and jocks—is so like the crew I hung with in my youth, it’s as if I were there in that graveyard with them. Directed with TLC by the underappreciated Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter of Alien and Total Recall.

 

  1. Demons

 

In compiling this list, I fought the temptation to have a multi-way tie for number one, because that would be a cop out. The truth is, though, I love Demons as much as I love Return of the Living Dead, and both would be on my all-time top horror movie list.

Demons is as stylishly European as Return is all-American. It’s got the flair, the artifice, the weird dubbing, the surreal lighting … all the qualities we Eurocult fanatics love about that scene going back Black Sabbath in 1963 (which was directed by Mario Bava, father of this film’s director, Lamberto Bava). If you’re not into horror, you won’t get the appeal. Then again, you probably wouldn’t be reading this blog, either.

 

  1. Day of the Dead

 

It has been written that George A. Romero planned a more epic conclusion to his “Dead Trilogy” but was forced to drastically revise the story because of budgetary constraints (some of the excised ideas ended up on screen years later in Land of the Dead).

Perhaps the small cast and intimate story of Day are disappointing to those looking for a big zombie blow-out. I, on the other hand, think the desolate finale couldn’t have been more perfect for this undead apocalypse trilogy. Every event in the film seems all the more profound and significant when we understand that these characters may be all that’s left of humankind.

 

  1. Re-Animator

 

“You can’t be serious!” say Re-Animator fans. “Number four?”

Please understand, my fellow horror aficionados; 1985 is, pound for pound, the genre’s deepest year. I consider Stuart Gordon’s zombie classic to be one of the greatest of all horror films, but it was released alongside three other films I also count among the greatest horror films.

Wherever it lands on a list, this movie is a balls-to-the-wall classic that captures everything we love about good 80s horror: Gore, sardonic humor, comic-book visuals, memorable performances, beautiful scream queens, and iconic moments.

 

  1. Fright Night

 

Psycho II screenwriter Tom Holland’s directorial feature debut is what you call a crowd pleaser. Fright Night offers a charming mix of horror, humor, and memorable characters brought to life by a strong cast delivering spot-on performances (similar to Re-Animator in that way). I had the good fortune of seeing this one in a fantastic old barn theater with red velvet curtains, an ornate stucco ceiling, and a gigantic screen, the kind of experience from which great memories are forged.

At that point in the decade, the movie people had caught on that audiences were looking for make-up FX spectacles, which is why you have a vampire film with werewolves, giant demon bats, and meltdown sequences. It all looks very ‘80s now, but that’s part of the appeal.

 

  1. Lifeforce

 

Seriously, if they had released this film as Space Vampires instead of giving it the drab title Lifeforce, it would be a cult favorite today. The little details matter.

Whether he chose the shitty title or not, Tobe Hooper delivered his most eye-candy laden picture yet in terms of visual spectacle, horror FX, and full-frontal nudity. It relies too heavily on the light show elements, which become somewhat tedious after a while, and some of the last-minute story turns suggest the writers didn’t know how to end it. Not a masterpiece, but surely underappreciated in the horror canon.

 

  1. House

I confess now that I did not like this film the first time I saw it. The tone seemed goofy relative to the horror that unfolded. Thanks to subsequent viewings in recent years, however, I’ve come to realize I didn’t get what they were going for, and now I do.

Director Steve Miner’s possessed-house flick is a comic-book fantasy in the vein of Marvel’s AARGH!, a weird comedy-horror hybrid that mixed slapstick with irreverence. It works.

 

  1. Creature

 

On the surface, Creature is the most blatant of all Alien knock-offs, from the derivative beast itself to the ship damaged after landing on a dark and windy planet. This film also borrows a major plot point from Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires in which dead astronauts come back to life under the control of a malevolent, invisible force to menace the living.

Hey, if you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Although the climax is underwhelming (and ripped off from the 1951 version of The Thing, in the event you’re keeping score), what precedes it is creepy, gory, and fun.

 

  1. Phenomena

 

Dario Argento threw the kitchen sink in with this one. Chimps, mutants, maggot pits, bugmasters (a beastmaster who controls bugs?), and gory murders. I find it a bit disjointed and cluttered with unfinished concepts, but a so-so Argento film is still better than most things the genre can offer.

 

  1. Mr. Vampire

 

This hyperkinetic Chinese kung-fu vampire comedy was one of those “you gotta see it to believe it” films back in the day, which led to its popularity on the bootleg VHS market. Thanks to YouTube and the proliferation of foreign films on DVD and Blu-ray, today’s viewers have become inured to the lunacy of Hong Kong horror movies. But in the mid-80s, Mr. Vampire’s blistering fight scenes and hilariously over-the-top choreography were jaw dropping. It’s still a good time.

 

Honorable Mention

 

The Mutilator

 

The stalk-and-slash film had become a well-worn concept by the middle of the decade, and The Mutilator is no better or worse than most of its predecessors, story-wise. However, the gore FX by make-up artist Mark Shostrom are  on par with Tom Savini’s great work on The Burning and The Prowler from earlier in the slasher cycle. Sometimes that’s what it takes to elevate a so-so flick into the realm of the stand out.

 

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

 

If the last act of this film had been as good as the first two, it wouldn’t be down here in the honorable mention section. Unfortunately, the filmmakers forgot to pack the creativity and style when they went off to shoot the final 25 minutes worth of footage. There’s a lot of good stuff here, but overall it’s a missed opportunity.

 

Silver Bullet

 

This is the portion of our show when we talk about films we don’t like but everyone else does.

I seem to be missing the gene required for liking horror movies built around child characters. There’s just something too cute and cuddly about the whole affair, so I will leave my fellow horror fans to take pleasure from Silver Bullet while I watch something else.

You know, I almost put Friday the 13th: A New Beginning here, being that I’m a fan of the franchise, but it’s just not a very good movie. I got you, Silver Bulleters.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1984

As a teenage horror fan in the 1980s, I felt as if I were living in an age of discovery. Only now, when compiling this list, do I realize 1984 was limited in its breadth of offerings compared to the years around it. Perhaps I had been too busy tracking down bootleg videos of Joe D’Amato and Paul Naschy films to notice.

In retrospect, A Nightmare on Elm Street cast such a long shadow across the genre that it disguised the dip in quantity and quality elsewhere. Still, as with 1983, there are a few gems and more than enough enjoyable B-efforts to cobble a list together.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1984

 

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

 

I’m going to be negative for a moment. In comparison to other Golden Age of Horror classics, A Nightmare on Elm Street hasn’t aged that well. There’s quite a bit of cringey acting and hokey dialog, and the ending is poorly conceived.

That said, the scares still work great, and Freddy Krueger is a truly inspired villain that takes the concept of “horror icon” way beyond the silent-killer-in-a-mask routine. The film is, in the end, a dark fairy tale masquerading as a slasher movie.

Among all the great horror directors of the time, Wes Craven may have been the most outside-the-box thinker. Flawed or not, Elm Street changed the genre more than any film since Halloween, and that’s no small achievement.

 

  1. Terminator

 

Terminator is a film that can be claimed by several genres, including action and science fiction. That it also works as horror is a testament to James Cameron’s dynamism as a filmmaker.

Despite the high concept, Terminator’s relatively low budget works in the film’s favor. It’s lean, mean, and harsh looking, which adds both to the intensity and the realism. That chewed-up looking Schwarzenegger-bot above is a nightmarish sight indeed.

 

  1. Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter

 

Though a big fan of the Friday the 13th franchise, I recognize the repetitiveness of the films and their low artistic merit. For some reason, though, I’ve always found them more unnerving than the other well-known horror series. As I’m wont to say, horror is supposed to be scary. The other factors become less important when a movie is successful in getting under your skin.

Admitting that we’re dealing with a low-brow concept here, I think The Final Chapter is the second best in the series (after the original). They got the formula down, added some human drama, upped the body count, and brought Tom Savini back to stage some great kills. Ted White made a more physically imposing Jason than anyone before as well. A great film, no. But it works well for what it is.

 

  1. Gremlins

 

I’ve never been into Hollywood glitz. I don’t like “cute” films and I have little interest in sanitized horror.

Once in a while, there’s an exception. Gremlins is just so creative and fun, and so full of homage to classic cinema, it’s hard not to like it. It doesn’t hurt to have Joe Dante at the helm, the talented filmmaker who had previously directed The Howling and Piranha.

 

  1. The Company of Wolves

 

This British werewolf flick is a delightful oddball with its a strange mix of childlike storytelling and extreme graphic violence, operating very much in the spirit of Grimm’s fairy tales. This is one instance in which a bigger budget might have helped, as the FX, while creative, are spotty in terms of execution. Overall, though, The Company of Wolves marches to the beat of its own drummer, an admirable quality in a film.

 

  1. C.H.U.D.

 

This has to be the most referenced and joked about film that hardly anyone has seen. It’s a throwback to 1970s-era eco-horror but with a 1980s twist in animatronic creature FX. C.H.U.D. drags at times and ultimately lacks payoff (where’s the big, gory, all-out monster attack?), which keeps it from being a real genre classic.

Contrary to popular belief, “C.H.U.D.” does not stand for “cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers.” You have to stick around for the last act to find out what it really means.

 

  1. Rats

 

When an idiotic post-apocalyptic flick about flesh-eating rats makes number seven on a Top 10 list, it’s either a weak year or your list maker is drunk. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Look, I know there are fans of Night of the Comet wondering why they don’t see that film anywhere on this page, while a $5 piece of trash from Bruno Mattei is front and center. The answer: I like Rats better. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

[I don’t get the appeal of Night of the Comet, to be honest. But shhhh, people get legit annoyed when you don’t like a film they like]

 

  1. Silent Night, Deadly Night

 

Though Christmas-themed horror films and killer Santas were nothing new in 1984, this slasher flick seemed to inspire a fair amount of outrage among the parental-warning-sticker crowd. I’m not sure how much of that was real and how much was staged for marketing purposes, but either way, it worked for the filmmakers.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is a surprisingly gloomy film and not one you’d call “fun” in the way that Friday the 13th Part 2 and Pieces are fun. It probably wouldn’t crack my Top 10 list in a stronger year, but it has its merits, including Linnea Quigley in a small but memorable role as one of the killer’s victims, this coming before her rise to scream-queen fame.

 

  1. The Toxic Avenger

Lest you think I’ve lost my mind, I’m fully aware The Toxic Avenger is not a good movie by any standard. At the time, though, before Troma’s garbage aesthetic became a known quantity, this film was hysterically terrible in ways no one had ever imagined a film could be.

It’s a nostalgia pick for one reason: I actually saw this movie in a theater and watched through tears of laughter as patron after patron marched out in disgust. I stayed until the end, and it was great.

 

  1. The Initiation

 

Sigh. This goofy slasher would not have gotten anywhere near my Top 10 lists from 1980-82. But here we are in 1984, when horror hit a lull, so we work with what we’ve got.

The Initiation has some good kills going for it, plus Clu Gulager and Vera Miles, two actors who can elevate a B-movie.  Daphne Zuniga fans ought to enjoy her extensive screen time as well. It’s a mostly dumb and not-at-all scary flick, but measured against the entirety of 1980s slashers, it’s not bad.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Children of the Corn

 

We all have subgenres we like and ones we don’t. For whatever reason, the Amish/Mennonite horror scene (Wes Craven’s The Deadly Blessing is another example) doesn’t appeal to me. I can see how others would dig the look and atmosphere of Children of the Corn. I just never got into it.

 

Terror in the Aisles

 

Hey, they tried! Terror in the Aisles, a documentary ostensibly celebrating the horror genre, helped pave the way for the likes of His Name Was Jason, Halloween: 25 years of Terror, and other recent, in-depth examinations of popular horror franchises.

However, Terror is little more than a string of random clips and seems targeted at people who know nothing about the genre. The running time is liberally padded with scenes from action movies and cop thrillers as well. The idea behind this production is good but the execution is forgettable.

 

Death Warmed Up

 

Up to this point in this blog series, I haven’t given much attention to the contributions of our filmmaking friends down under. To rectify that, either this one or Razorback was getting talked about today. However, since I’ve never seen Razorback (gasp!), the choice was already made.

The arrival of Death Warmed Up in North America was preceded by some buzz within the horror world, but I admit to having been underwhelmed when I saw it. I’ve watched it since and still don’t find it that great, but I could hardly shun the Australians for the likes of Firestarter or Monster Dog, could I?

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.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1982

After the barrage of bloody horror that splashed across theater screens in 1981, the volume of releases normalized to a more sustainable level the following year. It turned out there were only so many audience dollars to go around.

Though the quantity of titles was lower, 1982 offered good variety. Instead of slasher after slasher, we got aliens, mutants, new gialli, a demonic possession/haunted house flick, and the return of anthology horror, which had fallen out of favor midway through the 1970s after Amicus faded into oblivion. There was also a comic book superhero monster in Swamp Thing, a sexy, stylish Hollywood remake in Cat People, and a rare R-rated stop-motion monster movie in Q, the Winged Serpent. None of which appear on the list below.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1982

  1. The Thing

 

This is the easiest decision of this entire blog series. The Thing, the pinnacle of John Carpenter’s career, is as close to a perfect horror film as you’ll see. It seamlessly builds from eerie to unnerving to outright scary. It’s perfectly cast. The music score gets under your skin (like a shape-shifting alien), and Rob Bottin’s make-up FX work is both innovative and surreal. In short, this film deserves the near-universal adulation it gets from fans.

 

  1. Tenebrae

 

In the early 1970s, the giallo film was all the rage, with a new one hitting theater screens every other weekend. But by the beginning of 1982, the genre had seemingly seen its last razor-wielding, black-gloved killer.

Until Dario Argento said, “Not so fast,” and delivered this killer classic that plays like a “giallo’s greatest hits” film. I didn’t know what giallo was when I first saw Tenebrae way back when, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.

 

  1. Creepshow

 

In 1982, George A Romero returned to the horror genre for the first time in four years to deliver this homage to classic horror comics, using a script written by Stephen King. The individual stories lack the clever twists associated with those old comics, but the visuals are a feast: garish colors, striking transitions from artwork to live action, and now-classic make-up FX by Tom Savini, who was, by this point, almost as legendary to genre fans as his two collaborators mentioned above.

 

  1. Forbidden World

 

In my previous post, I praised New World Pictures’ Galaxy of Terror for being exceptionally creative and ambitious when the producers could have just as easily have crapped out some exploitation fare featuring a rubber monster chasing after topless models. Well, New World took the latter route with this follow up, and we ended up getting a delightfully entertaining piece of trash about an alien that reduces humans to blobs of bloody protein for easier consumption. Forbidden World is a real grindhouse treasure.

 

  1. Pieces

 

If the previous film on this list is a grindhouse treasure, Pieces is a grindhouse legend. The slasher/giallo hybrid features genre favs Christopher George, Jack Taylor, and Paul Smith, absurd dialog, a hilarious array of red herrings, gallons of splatter, a nonsensical ending, and the single worst moment of acting in the history of movies.

This flick is the kind of delirious cinematic mess that compels me to shout derisive comments at the screen, yet I can’t imagine life without it.

 

  1. Basket Case

 

You know how you can often recognize when a film was made, give or take a year, by the “look” of it? Early 80s horror looks different from late 80s horror, for example, and micro-budget American splatter flicks from the early 80s have an aesthetic you can spot instantly: hard lighting, a slight graininess, compressed audio, and fake blood of a deep crimson that filmmakers can’t seem to capture on camera anymore. And the subject matter tends to be in bad taste.

Cult director Frank Henenlotter‘s Basket Case is the quintessential flick in that idiom, the cinematic equivalent of a really good punk rock album on an indie record label. To “normals” raised on big-budget Hollywood spectacle and over-produced pop music, it’s the sort of artistic creation that would be labeled “garbage” in two seconds and is likely to offend on multiple levels. But if you’re the kind of person who gets it, you love it.

 

  1. The Beast Within

 

The Beast Within combines elements of 1950s sci-fi films about mutated humans and oversized bugs and repackages them as a gory, slimy horror film. The plot: a woman is raped by a giant beetle and gives birth to a son who, 17 years later … turns into a giant beetle. Lots of townsfolk meet bloody ends.

Perhaps inspired by the spectacular werewolf transformations depicted in American Werewolf in London and The Howling a year earlier, the producers hired then up-and-coming make-up FX artist Tom Burman to concoct a man-into-bug metamorphosis sequence that turned into perhaps the most over-the-top transformation scene ever filmed. No shot was too absurd to be included in the final cut, which may have been ridiculous at the time but garnered the film some long-term notoriety.

 

  1. Poltergeist

 

Some readers will scoff at Poltergeist sitting all the way down here at number 8. Of course, it’s a horror classic with many iconic moments. For my taste, though, it’s a little too Hollywood, a little too glitzy, and little too reliant on the light show. Few do spectacle better than Steven Spielberg, but I would like to have seen Tobe Hooper unleashed and free to go for an R rating.

 

  1. The New York Ripper

 

Shifting from Poltergeist to The New York Ripper could blow a listicle’s transmission, but for you I’ll take the risk.

Like his countryman Dario Argento, Italian splatter maestro Lucio Fulci returned to the giallo film in 1982 and delivered what is surely that genre’s most gruesome and violent production. Fulci was never about elegantly orchestrated camera moves and clever staging. He was about the visceral aspects of life and death, and there’s one kill in this film so disturbingly visceral it has led some genre fans to declare that Fulci went too far.  To me, if a film’s participants are consulting adults of sound mind, and no one is actually in danger, there is no “too far.” That doesn’t mean I think the scene is ho-hum. It’s kinda fucked up, actually.

 

  1. Amityville II: The Possession

 

By mainstream cinephile standards, this sequel does not compare to the original on any level. By my standards, it’s actually better. As stated in earlier posts in this series, I believe less money generally leads to better horror, because the real scary stuff doesn’t require A-list actors and Hollywood razzle dazzle.

 Amityville II: The Possession is creepier, gorier, more violent, and easily more disturbing than its predecessor. It’s a horror film, for fuck’s sake. Those are good qualities. And Burt Young goes to some dark places with his character.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Friday the 13th Part III

 

I believe there are two groups of Friday the 13th fans: The ones who favor the darker, grimmer early films and those who find the later, campier ones more entertaining. I belong to the former group. Horror is supposed to be scary, IMO.

That said, Part III is the weakest of the four “classic” films. It offers some good kills as well as my favorite pre-zombie Jason make-up.  However, the blurry 3D footage is annoying in 2D, and there are too few likable characters. I like it, but better films bumped it from my top 10.

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

 

That time John Carpenter said, “Let’s make a Halloween movie without Michael Myers.” A divisive decision to be sure. On the one hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd, and I can see why so many fans dismiss this entry. On the other hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd enough to be audacious and ironically cool. It probably doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch did manage to produce some iconic genre moments.

 

The Slayer

 

Perhaps this obscurity shouldn’t warrant “honorable mention” over Cat People, Swamp Thing, Slumber Party Massacre, Parasite, House Where Evil Dwells, and a number of other titles released that year, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it. The Slayer is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s legitimately creepy and desolate, and it digs more deeply into the human psyche than most low-budget horror flicks do.