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 1979

You’re kidding, right? Three of my all-time favorites were released within a 12-month span, yet only one can claim the top spot. Why you doin’ me like this, year?

My Top Horror Films of 1979

  1. Alien

 

Alien is as close to a perfect horror film as you’re going to find. Like HR Giger’s titular creature, the film is “unclouded.” Indeed, the movie is the monster: simple, relentless, single-minded.

Performed by an A-list cast and shot and assembled by a young Ridley Scott operating at the top of his game, Alien is at once eerie, harrowing, and beautiful. When those elements are blended as expertly as they are here, you got yourself a masterpiece of modern horror.

 

  1. Zombie

 

Lucio Fulci, a genre-hopping Italian director, had up to this point in his career crafted two top-notch gialli, helmed a number of westerns and comedies, and done well with crime dramas and gangster films. Then, in 1979, he filmed the Italian sequel to Dawn of the Dead (called Zombi 2 in his home country), the spectacular success of which ushered in a new wave of spaghetti splatter that played a major part in defining the genre for the next decade.

Zombie isn’t merely a bloody film; it’s a gut-slinging, throat-tearing, eyeball skewering masterpiece. If you’ve seen photos of real rotting corpses, you know this film got the undead look down. But the reason people love it is not simply the gore; it’s the pall of doom, the decay, and overbearing dread, propelled forward by a terrific score and a tropical setting that’s unexpectedly eerie.

And of course, the shark scene.

 

  1. Phantasm

 

Good lord. What kind of year is it for horror when a film as unusual, creative, and visually arresting as Phantasm falls to number three on a top-10 list?

Perhaps it’s not as seamless as Alien or relentlessly grim as Zombie. The acting is spotty in places. However, director Don Coscarelli did conceive and deliver an authentically dreamlike film packed with unforgettable moments.

Angus Scrimm‘s Tall Man stands among horror’s greatest icons, and the silver ball scene is unique in all of cinema (until Phantasm 2 that is).

 

  1. Salem’s lot

 

After the disappointment of Eaten Alive, Tobe Hooper needed to make a strong showing to avoid being labeled a one-hit wonder. Brian de Palma did more than all right by directing Carrie, based on the debut novel of superstar author Stephen King. Maybe Hooper could take a stab at King’s second book, ‘Salem’s Lot.

Filmed as a two-part television miniseries, Salem’s Lot did more than assuage fears about Hooper’s talent. It proved he could make a scary-as-hell vampire movie. I was a kid back then, and all anyone my age talked about for weeks was this terrifying TV movie.

Viewed today, it’s a bit slow in spots, and in hindsight, David Soul might not be the most dynamic actor to play the hero. But the scares still work like new, and Reggie Nalder’s Nosferatu-eque Barlow is unforgettably horrifying.

 

  1. The Brood

 

Horror auteur David Cronenberg followed up his bouncy shocker Rabid with a more, well, brooding psychological film. This time, Cronenberg subverts his own exploration of body horror in ways that are hard to describe.

This was an era in which “extra sensory perception” and psychic power dominated the pop culture landscape, as manifested in cinema by Carrie and her knock-offs such as Patrick and The Fury. It takes a visionary like Cronenberg to do something this original with the concept as late as 1979.

Mainstream critics recoiled upon seeing The Brood, calling it repulsive and accusing Cronenberg of being afraid of women (?). They shoved it away in disgust like a severely deformed, murderous child. I view this as a positive in favor of the film.

 

  1. The Amityville Horror

 

Haunted house movies were hardly new in 1979. Rather, in a post-modern age where horror was laden with social commentary about religion, STDs, war, and cynicism toward governmental authority, the haunted house sub-genre must have seemed quaint. But this haunted house tale was based on an up-to-date, best-selling TRUE STORY!

Sometimes, you get people’s butts into theater seats by tapping into something trendy and relatable. In this case, it was three things: the late-70s fad for anything paranormal/psychic, the obvious similarity to the types of stories Stephen King was writing, and the mobility of young professionals in America (who were buying up big, old houses like the one in this story).

I don’t love this film as much as a lot of other horror fans do; its trashy, gory sequel is closer to my grindhouse heart. However, The Amityville Horror truly is one of the most influential horror films of the past 40 years and doesn’t get enough recognition for that.

 

  1. Beyond the Darkness

 

Confession: I write derisively about Joe D’Amato as if he’s terrible, yet here’s the second of his films to show up in this blog series. I own a few of his films on DVD or Blu-ray, and I await the release of others. Basically, I’m a liar!

Some of his films are terrible, honestly. But Beyond the Darkness AKA Buio Omega AKA Buried Alive may be D’Amato’s darkest and most unsettling film, and it does not elicit chuckles like some of his sloppier efforts do.

 

  1. Dracula

 

Does this film mark the beginning of the hot-vampire trend that continues to this day? Did the sparkle in Frank Langella’s eye become, decades later, the sparkle of Edward Cullen’s entire being? Should we hate this movie?

No, we shouldn’t! As I recall, this Hollywood-ized, A-list Dracula movie was not viewed all that favorably by fans upon its release. Too romantic, not edgy or modern enough. In hindsight, though, it actually stands out from the other films of the era for exactly those reasons. It’s a big-budget period film with some great looks and a strong cast. Not a masterpiece, but pretty good.

 

  1. Nosferatu the Vampire

 

And here’s the anti-Dracula. Same story, more or less, but instead of the lush, romantic presentation of Dracula, we get lots of gloom, doom, shadows, and overcast skies. It’s cheaper looking and somewhat flatly directed by Werner Herzog; an intentional artistic approach, but one that deadens the pace. It’s a good film, but not so easy to view if you’re not already in the mood.

Or maybe this says everything you need to know about the difference between these two vampire movies: Dracula is played by Frank Langella. Nosferatu is played by Klaus Kinski. Two guys not typically competing for the same roles.

 

  1. The Prophesy

 

I had a choice between the artsy favorite The Driller Killer, with its commentary on urban alienation, and a dumb-ass eco-horror film about a mutant bear.

I went with the bear.

 

Honorable mention

 

The Killer Nun

 

This is the cosmopolitan, sophisticated entry into the nunsploitation genre. I’m partial to the histrionic Mexican variety. We all have our preferences.

 

When a Stranger Calls

A fairly well regarded horror film that aims for suspense rather than visceral thrills and largely succeeds. The major drawback is that the first half hour is better than anything that follows.

 

The Driller Killer

By now, the scandal has broken all over the internet: I chose the mutant bear drive-in flick over this film, which is artistically superior on all counts. I’m just not that crazy about it.