Monday, June 27, 2011

Top 13: Horror Films of 1981

--list compiled by The Black Glove staff

In case you didn't know it, this issue marks the 2nd year of THE BLACK GLOVE's online version of the magazine. So our anniversary got me thinking about other significant tidemarks in my own Horrorhead life.
The single most important influence on my life as a horror fan is without a doubt the drive-ins which me and my family frequented every weekend during my childhood.

So, here I am 30 years later, thinking on this 2nd anniversary issue of The Black Glove, and about a summer all those years ago when I was seeing some of the movies which have informed me as a horror fan and writer.
30 years ago I was a little kid, still hitting the drive-in theaters every weekend, gobbling up new horror films EVERY SINGLE WEEKEND! No lie. Every weekend, there was a new horror film shining on that big white screen at any one of half a dozen drive-ins within fifteen miles of home.
My family's favorite drive-in was called THE REEF DRIVE-IN, owned by an elderly couple who knew what their neighbors in our little Southern town wanted to see: fast cars, explosions, guns and, yes, gore...lots and lots of gore.

There were other places which we frequented to get that weekly fix of 80s exploitation horror, places like THE FOX DRIVE-IN, THE PINES DRIVE-IN, THE FIVE POINTS DRIVE-IN and the last one standing until a few years ago, THE PLAYTIME DRIVE-IN. Sadly, I found out after the fact that some asshole Baptist group (something we have a lot of in the South) found a legal way to have the place finally shut down and they preceded to burn everything they could find in the building, including, from what I've been told, original 35 MM copies of old horror films from the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Lost, for good. Never to be seen again.

Some of the movies that played that year that didn't make this Top 13 list were DEADLY BLESSING by Wes Craven, John Carpenter's ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK ('s not horror, or else it would have topped my list of best of that year, folks), HALLOWEEN II (good, but by then, it had become nothing more than a typical slasher flick, thanks to big studio pressure to feed the lowest common denominator audience), INSEMINOID (a lost trash classic, in my opinion), and the New Zealand shot slasher, STRANGE BEHAVIOR. There were others, but I think you'll find the movies that did make our Top 13 Horror Films of 1981 are, without a doubt, the best of that year in the genre. Some of them might seem like silly films now, but I challenge you to watch them, and then compare them to the crappy PG-13 cookie cutter big studio and direct-to-video 'horror' which we have these days. I'm pretty sure you'll agree that even the ones which are less than great still work for those Horrorheads who grew up during those last great years of drive-in exploitation horror.

So enjoy the list (in alphabetical order), watch the videos, and remember a better time in the genre...

13. Wolfen

Shot in and around the NYC of old, when there seemed more ghettos than suburbs, by the man responsible for WOODSTOCK: THE MOVIE (1970), Michael Wadleigh, this is a movie about a pack of ancient killer wolves who hunt man for their food, feeding off of the forgotten and sick in the city's slums. The movie starred Albert Finney, Diane Venora, Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos, and used a, then, little known hi-tech process called "thermography" to convey the wolves' ability to smell fear and sickness in their prey. It didn't do all that well with critics, but it has a cult following now, in no small part due to the original novel's author Whitley Strieber. The film is pretty skimpy on the gore, with the exception of a couple of key scenes, which still have impact today.

12. Scanners

Directed by Canadian filmmaking genuis, David Cronenberg, this movie skirts the boundaries of science fiction in its depiction of a mutant strain of humanity which has the ability to "scan". And if you're wondering what that means, it's pretty much whatever Cronenberg wants it to mean for whatever kill scene he has in mind at the time. This movie starred Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan, and pushed the boundaries of the gore factor in a big studio release. There are exploding heads, leaking arteries and melting faces galore, but its the film strong centrel characters which drive the story. Even Ironside's insane, power hungry villian, Darryl Revok, evokes sympathy when its discovered that irresponsible drug research scientists and big business which are the villians behind the "scanners".

11. Roadgames

Shot in the vast backroad wastelands of Australia, by the late great genre director Richard Franklin, this film elevates itself above the simplistic slasher fare of its day by giving us something which more closely resembles Hitchcock than horror. It didn't hurt that Franklin also happened to be Hitchcock's friend and protégé. Starring Stacey Keach and the ever wonderful 70s and 80s horror "scream queen" herself, Jamie Lee Curtis, this movie is perfectly paced and builds suspense unlike any other film in 1981. Its filled with clever dialogue and extraordinary scenery, shot by a master of the camera. Franklin smoothly switches from huge panaromic vistas, to choking claustrophobia, all within one shot. It's a shame Franklin did not make more movies during his career. Consider this a 'lost classic' that deserves rediscovery by a new generation of Horrorheads.

10. My Bloody Valentine

Forget the totally forgettable 3-D remake from 2009, the one that counts is this original 1981 Canadian production that tells the story of mad slasher Harry Warden, who has a pickaxe and ain't afraid to use it. When the populace of Valetine Bluff decide to have a Valentine Day party, Warden dessimates anyone who dares after the long ago mining accident which killed several miners, but left crazy Harry Warden alive and quite insane. What sets this apart from other slashers of its time, other than the fact that it takes place in a mine and not in a forest, is that the victims are young adults, not teenagers, who are dealing with adult problems and a dead-end existence in a dying mining town. There's plenty of gore (some of which was censored in the original release, but later added back in for the 2009 DVD release) and some topnotch cinematography.

9. The Howling

A classic 80s film that helped push the werewolf into the number one monster of the early part of the decade (with the help of our #1 positioned film, as well), this is movie is the perfect blend of Joe Dante's trademark humor and horror, with some fairly witty genre nods and inside jokes, including cameos from genre masters Roger Corman and Forrest J. Ackerman, and riveting performances from Dee Wallace and Christopher Stone. The Rob Bottin makeup effects set the standard for the industry (again, with the #1 positioned film), giving us one of the greatest transformation scenes ever put on celluloid. If you don't own this film, it would be difficult for me to take you serious as a horror fan.

8. Hell Night

God, how I love this movie!
It's one of my favorites of the genre, starring that "little devil" herself, mini-Scream Queen Linda Blair, as one the victims of a trio of backwoods killers who inhabit a "haunted mansion" which is being used for some serious college fraternity hazing. The sex and gore are played down in favor of some great atmosphere and cinematography, which help to make this one a lost classic.

7. Happy Birthday To Me

Another Canadian shot slasher (must have been something in the water back then, I guess). Directed by the late great J. Lee Thompson (director of over 40 films, including such classics as The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Cape Fear (1962)) and starring some of the biggest names in film and television at the time, including Melissa Sue Anderson and Glenn Ford, two people you'd never have pictured in a slasher flick, right?
It includes some great inventive kill scenes- death by motorcycle wheel, shish kebab and fire poker- with a refreshing over the top sense to them, which helped set the bar for the rest of the slasher films to follow. The story has a great, unseen, double twist ending, which also helped to start another trend in the genre. Classic stuff.

6. The Funhouse

Directed by genre master Tobe Hooper, this is one of his overlooked horror greats, starring Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway and Cooper Huckabee. Four teenagers find themselves trapped in a dark ride with a mutant killer. Of course, they've been having some unmarried sex and been doing drugs, so they deserve what they get, right?
This has a good mix of gore and atmosphere and the use of the "haunted house" dark ride is inspired stuff. The backwoods dysfunctional family of killers is familiar territory for Hooper, only he had a hell of lot larger budget for this one than he did for "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974)...and it shows. The sets give the viewer a sense of the grimy carnival atmosphere and the near mute mutant killer illicits a sense of tragedy and sympathy--even if he is killing off the main characters.

5. Friday the 13th Part II

The first of many sequels to one of the greatest slasher films ever made--in fact some would say "Friday the 13th" (1980) is the definitive slasher film--this was directed by Steve Miner, who was responsible for the Part III, as well. This was the world's introduction to that famous killer Jason Voorhees, sans hockey mask (that doesn't come around until the next film). This has great gore, but also tries to build some suspense and atmosphere, something that seems to dwindle as the sequels keep coming in the following years, years when it becomes about nothing more than the 'body count'. Jason is a mostly unseen menace throughout most of the movie and when we do get to see him for the first time, he is horrifyingly horrible.

4. The Evil Dead

Directed by another of the genre's masters, Sam Raimi, who rarely directs in the genre any more, this is his first time out and it is a HUGE genre classic. The gore is the main attraction, here, and it is so over the top that it could have only been an independantly produced film--no big studio would have touched something so violent and bloody at that point. That would happen later. But this sort of crazy gore would rarely get the kind of respectful handling as it does in this movie. Starring another of the genre's most recognizable faces, Bruce Campbell, this movie made him a cult figure in the industry because of his cartoon like face and total devotion to the over the top narrative about demonic possession in a haunted forest, cut off from civilization by stop motion Lovecraftian monsters and buckets and buckets of BLOOD!
But don't get me wrong: the gore is wonderful, but the suspense and atmosphere are just as important to why this movie has remained one of the greatest horror films ever made.
Again, if you don't own this one, it's kind of hard to call yourself a horror fan.

3. Dead and Buried

You would be hard pressed to find anything as strange and frightening as this movie in all of horror filmdom. Directed by the great Gary Sherman (director of another awesome lost classic, "Death Line" aka "Raw Meat" (1972)), with a screenplay Dan O'Bannon, this tells the story of the odd citizens of Potter's Bluff, where people are dying and then turning up again, apparently alive and well...but they do have a tendacy to start killing others before turning up at the local morgue. Don't look for logical sense in this one and you'll thoroughly enjoy this mix of extremely disturbing gore and violence and strong mood and atmosphere (notice there's a trend in the movies that have made this list?). This is one of the oddest zombie movies ever made. Trust me. You will not see another film like this one. A definite lost classic. Editor/writer/reviewer Bill Breedlove and I utterly agree: this is a must own for serious horror fans.

2. The Burning

At first, this may appear to be just another slasher film, obviously imspired by the success of 1980's "Friday the 13th", but once you get into the film it becomes startlingly different in its use of ambient electronica soundtrack from Rick Wakeman, the use of a burned revenge fueled killer who uses garden shears (yikes!), and the use of a 'final boy' as opposed to the usual 'final girl', which had been setup in John Carpenter's "Halloween" (1978). There has a strangely homoerotic edge to it, something that would not appear again in the genre until "A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge " (1985), a weird male relationship between the male leads, Brian Matthews and Brian Backer, although it's a co-ed summer camp, filled with half naked teen girls. Of course Cropsey does his best to show equality in the slasher genre, by killing anything that moves, girl or boy.

1. An American Werewolf in London

Which brings us alphabetically to the number one film on our list.
This is 'the other werewolf film' of the 80s, which helped make the lycanthrope the go-to monster of the decade. Filled with director John Landis' dark humor, this has the other best transformation scene in horror history, this time by the great Rick Baker, who was Rob Bottin's mentor (see film #9 for more info), and some great suspenseful buildups to some great gore kill scenes. The added touch of masterful horror handling comes from the nightmare return of new werewolf killer David Naughton's victims, as they continue to decay as the film procedes to its amazing final confrontation between London bobbies and the fully transformed werewolf on a major street. This touches on both Henry Hull's and Lon Chaney's tragic turns as the hirsute monster in Universal Studio's "Werewolf of London" (1935) and "The Wolfman" (1941), making the monster sympathetic and an uncontrollably force which seeks to kill the thing it loves.

--Nickolas Cook