Capsule Review Collection

80’s Horror: Treasures & Trash

by Byron Bixler & Eli Hayes
From the April 2015 Issue

Basket Case posterBasket Case (Henenlotter, 1982)
A hideous growth vaguely resembling a partial human being is separated from a boy at a young age only to be reunited and carried about in a large wicker basket, occasionally released to exact its revenge on those who dared to split it up from its brother in Basket Case. While held up as a low-budget classic in certain hardcore horror circles, schlockmeister Frank Henenlotter’s film is a grungy, sloppily executed creature feature of sorts. Bizarre character interactions, painful performances and inept editing make for something that is not easily watchable and at times calls to mind the detached artistic reality of such midnight mainstays as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The cheap effects are fun to watch, but everything surrounding them represents 80’s horror at its worst.
– Byron Bixler

Rawhead Rex posterRawhead Rex (Pavlou, 1986)
Despite Rawhead Rex being one of the most hilariously fun horror films of the 1980s, it is still by no means a good film. The script is poor, the acting is dreadful, the production value is cheap and the monster itself looks like a confused, rabies-infected Uruk-hai (from The Lord of the Rings). All of that being said, it’s still an easy movie to have a great time watching if you’re in search of a tremendously dated, shoestring budget creature feature without much to offer except laughs and decapitations – sometimes simultaneously. In all seriousness, though, this Clive Barker-written gem of trash cinema is certainly worth a watch, but not for being a quality film. Come for the evil priests and stay for the electric ray battles.
– Eli Hayes

Changeling poster
The Changeling (Medak, 1980)
Following the trend set by The Exorcist and The Omen of putting prestigious, aging actors in solemn supernatural pictures, The Changeling stars George C. Scott in the role of a grieving widower who takes up residence in a creaking old mansion haunted by a restless spirit. Despite ungracefully swerving into investigative thriller territory midway through, Peter Medak’s film works best as a slow-burn character piece accented by ghostly intrigue. A single character placed in a cavernous, empty house sets up an interesting dynamic and a number of unsettling, richly atmospheric sequences are mined from the scenario. It may not reach the heights that its opening hour promises, but The Changeling is a memorably dark chiller nevertheless.
– Bixler

Alligator posterAlligator (Teague, 1980)
It’s hard to believe that John Sayles, the same man responsible for writing and directing dark and mysterious dramas like Lone Star and Matewan, also brought into being creature features such as the classic B-movie Piranha and the highly overlooked Alligator. You got to love a horror film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and this is practically a horror comedy with its goofy characters and minimal attempts to ground its action in reality. However, it pulls off ceaseless entertainment, simultaneously making fun of its own genre with ease. The special effects are killer (pun intended) and the thought-provoking social commentary woven into the narrative is just the icing on the cake. This is definitely one monster movie that’s worth checking out.
– Hayes

Jason Lives posterFriday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (McLoughlin, 1986)
A piece on 1980’s horror wouldn’t be complete without a mention of Friday the 13th. Repeatedly bludgeoned by critics, the series performed consistently well at the box office, likely due to the cheap thrills and reliably unchanging structure it offered. While the majority of the films are safely below average, Part VI is the only one that really works. Gleefully self-aware, Jason Lives recognizes and embraces the silliness of its premise with broad characterizations and clever scene juxtapositions. The humor is great, but crucial to any slasher’s success is the creativity and variation of its kills and the film delivers on both fronts. Five movies came and went before Jason Voorhees finally found his feet and while Part VI isn’t a towering achievement by any means, it’s a fun entry in an otherwise underachieving sub-genre. – Bixler

Nightmare posterA Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (Russell, 1987)
Though I’m also a fan of Wes Craven’s deliciously self-referential New Nightmare, I’d have to give the award for best Elm Street sequel to Chuck Russell’s visually stunning Dream Warriors. It almost plays out more like a fantasy film than a horror film, which is appropriate, considering the film’s concentration on the dreamscape as the primary setting. The notorious child-killing demon, Freddy Krueger, shows up here in a number of different forms, from a massive wormlike creature to a homicidal television set (yes, you read that correctly). Recent Academy Award winner Patricia Arquette plays the protagonist and it might be fun to seek out Dream Warriors just to get a peek at her early roles. Otherwise, there’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s intricate production design and creative utilization of practical effects including puppetry, claymation and stop motion animation.
– Hayes

Galaxy posterGalaxy of Terror (Clark, 1981)
Produced by Roger Corman and notable for the involvement of a young James Cameron as production designer (Yes, that James Cameron), Galaxy of Terror is little more than a low-budget Alien rip-off. It’s terribly blatant in its manner of lifting material from Ridley Scott’s film. From the familiar premise of a spaceship crew discovering mayhem and monsters on a faraway planet and dropping off one by one in “And Then There Were None” style, to the vessel’s interior design and the identical use of POV shots running through the ship, the film has a severe lack of originality. A new aesthetic approach has the ability to reinvigorate old material, but no such freshness is found. The sets are poorly lit, the dialogue is laughable in select moments and even though the ending takes the film to a slightly more interesting place, the effect is too little, too late. – Bixler

Mystics posterMystics in Bali (Djalil, 1981)
As dated and goofy of an experience as it might be to watch nowadays, Mystics in Bali is considered responsible for the emergence of the Indonesian horror genre. It’s the story of a young American woman’s descent into darkness after she agrees to join a Leák cult with hopes of learning about their methods of operation. However, the film takes an even more bizarre turn when the witch responsible for her teachings turns her into a “Penanggalan,” an evil vampire that takes the shape of a human being during the day but detaches its head and internal organs at night to fly around and feed on the local townspeople. Some of the imagery presented in the film is downright horrifying, and I have to give credit to the visual effects artists responsible for the fascinating transformation scenes. Still, I can’t help but think the project could have been more of a success had they delayed production to hire a more competent cast and raise additional funds to produce the film on a slightly larger budget.
– Hayes

Stuff posterThe Stuff (Cohen, 1985)
“The Stuff” of the title is a gelatinous mass of yogurt-like liquid found leaking out of the earth at the beginning of the film, soon to be boxed up and sold to the masses as a delicious, sweet treat. There’s a catch, though: This tasty delight has a kind of mind-control ability and eventually hollows out those who consume it, turning them into aggressive, product-pushing shells of their former selves. A dime-a-dozen b-movie premise of The Blob meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers unexpectedly becomes a critique of consumerism and real world food items that people form a dependence on despite health risks. However, the attempt at critique alone does not make for a great film, as jabs are thinly veiled and the writing lacks the necessary satirical wit. It’s a mess of rough tonal shifts, acting that ranges from sleepily unengaged to loudly over-affected and flawed, poorly explained story logic. Unless you’re looking for unintentional laughs, The Stuff can easily be left on the shelf. – Bixler

Guinea Pig1Guinea Pig 3: He Never Dies (Kusumi, 1986)
I’ve decided to select this installment in the Japanese Ginî Piggu (Guinea Pig) series because I feel that almost any of the other half dozen installments would be too extreme and visually appalling to discuss appropriately. Since none of the installments are very good anyway, I can’t say that I’m particularly proud of having watched them. Nonetheless, no discussion of 80s trash cinema is complete without at least a slight mention of the Guinea Pig films, so I feel obligated to represent the series here. He Never Dies tells the story of a young office worker, recently dumped by his girlfriend and unsatisfied with his job, who one day attempts to kill himself only to discover that no matter how much he mutilates his body, he cannot die. The kicker is that, unlike the previous two Guinea Pig films, this one is executed as a dark comedy. Unfortunately, the shift in tone doesn’t do much for the quality of the series because many of the jokes don’t land. As a result, He Never Dies, like the previous two installations, comes across as a cheap excuse for senseless, plot-less violence and will only appeal to the most die hard gore-hounds.
– Hayes

Creepshow posterCreepshow (Romero, 1982)
A comic book come to life. George A. Romero playfully emulates the visual style of 1950’s horror comics with a quintet of Stephen King-penned stories in this colorful anthology. The material is sensationally expressed in a way that fittingly pays homage to its influences and the effects evoke a quality of pulpy illustration. Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshall and Ed Harris lead an unusually solid cast for such a film and lend greater credibility to a project already noteworthy for its impressive writer/director pairing. As with most anthologies, every segment is not a home run, but the film is a success, in part, due to the strength of the paranoid “They’re Creeping Up on You,” the compact creature feature, “The Crate” and the self-consciously over-the-top opener, “Father’s Day.”
– Bixler

Boxer posterThe Boxer’s Omen (Kuei, 1983)
Have you ever wanted to see a horror film that crossed Southeast Asian boxing, supernatural forces of Buddhism and ancient black magic? Probably not, but if that sounds like it could make for a captivating experience, then this little known treasure of the Hong Kong avant-garde might be for you. There are certain portions of The Boxer’s Omen that seem to exist merely to propel the narrative forward and these sequences don’t interest me quite as much as the action sequences do. However, when the magic duels finally arrive – and there are magic duels aplenty – they are unrelenting in their utilization of vibrant colors and constant sensory overload. But fair warning: if you’re going to take the dive, be on the lookout for bat skeletons, sea creatures emerging from individuals’ mouths, a human corpse stuffed inside of an alligator corpse and a healthy dose of spider sorcery.
– Hayes

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