7. Retribution (Guy Magar, 1987)
Tagline: It’s time for fear. It’s time for terror. It’s time for retribution. The time is now!
This underrated masterwork encapsulates everything that was great about eighties horror. It unashamedly synthesises the work and style of several prominent directors, including Brian De Palma and John Carpenter. A manic-depressive painter George (Dennis Lipscomb) throws himself off the roof of his hotel in a failed suicide attempt. At exactly the same time across town a gangster is brutally murdered.
When George wakes up in hospital, he finds that he has somehow been possessed by the vengeful criminal’s soul. The gangster is somehow able to astral project out of George’s dreams and takes revenge on those who murdered him. George thinks he’s just being plagued by nightmares, but when he reads about the murders in the newspaper, he begins to suffer a mental breakdown.
The film takes place in a surreal neon dayglo nightmare world of the eighties. The film is particularly memorable for its lighting: all greens, pinks, violets, along with solid alien-abduction style beams blasting through window blinds. The reliance on neon is unprecedented: in one scene, George and his hooker girlfriend actually visit The Museum of Neon Art. Lipscomb gives a great performance in the central role, he’s both sympathetic and menacing, in his dual personality performance.
Most importantly, he’s able to play it straight among all the absurdity going on around him. The film has several imaginative set piece murder scenes that seem to operate on a strange dream logic, similar to that of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” films of the same era. The film is an amalgamation of many different eighties horror trends that somehow seem to work together and make it unique.
6. Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984)
Tagline: They came. They shopped. They saved the world!
Admittedly this one is more of a comedy than a horror, but since it features almost everybody on the planet turning to dust, and those who don’t, becoming flesh eating zombies or homicidal maniacs. The entire world is waiting with baited breath to see a comet pass by the earth. Unfortunately, everyone who sees the comet gets turned to dust, and those who only catch a glimpse of it get turned into zombie like creatures.
The only two survivors in Los Angles appear to be two teenage sisters, Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Samantha (Kelli Maroney), who both, for varying reasons, spent the night locked away in steel rooms. Reggie and Samantha are both typical big-haired gum-chewing Valley Girl’s, who don’t react to the end of the world with horror, but with the amusement of children having the whole house to themselves for the first time.
Shopping trips to abandon malls and chic boutiques ensue. They also have the good sense to pop by a gun shop and arm themselves with Uzi’s, which come in use when they have to fend off zombies, a gang of deranged shop boys, and some mad scientists. The film effortlessly creates a light and humorous tone out of probably the worst situation its two main characters could find themselves.
The film epitomises the eighties, legwarmers, BMX bikes, neon lights, videogames and Cindy Lauper are all accounted for, and the fact that the heroines are so chuffed they can shop till they drop, even thou everyone they know is dead, sums up the decade pretty well. There are a few mild scares and the film does a good job of painting Los Angles as a harrowing and menacing wasteland. This film is the most fun you could possibly have in post-apocalyptic landscape.
5. From Beyond (Stuart Gordon, 1986)
Tagline: Humans are such easy prey.
Based on the work of legendary horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Crawford (Jeffrey Combs), is an assistant to the brilliant Dr. Pretorius (Ted Sorel), who has invented a machine called The Resonator. The machine stimulates the pineal gland in the brain, allowing those around it to see entities from another dimension.
Unfortunately, those entities are extremely evil and seem to enjoy killing humans. Dr. Pretorius gets sucked into this other dimension. Crawford survives, but he’s institutionalised when he describes events to the police. A psychiatrist (Barbara Crampton) and a detective (Ken Foree) return to Dr. Pretorius’s house with Crawford and insist he show them The Resonator in action.
The film is a psychedelic trip into insanity, featuring another dimension that is truly beyond belief. The film is memorable for its jaw-dropping practical creature effects and its use of colour, pink being the predominate colour of the other dimension. The film captures the dark surreal nightmarish quality of Lovecaft’s work, probably better than any other cinematic effort.
A dark perversity is also at work, as The Resonator also calls forth the participants’ darkest sexual desires, resulting in some truly bizarre scenes. The film relishes every demented scenario it creates, and goes completely over the top into surreal mayhem with all of them. Despite all the insane chaos the film has a strong emotional core thanks to some strong performances by its cast.
4. Brain Damage (Frank Henenlotter, 1988)
Tagline: It’s a headache from hell!
Brian is a slightly depressed twenty-something, who shares an apartment with his brother in New York. One night he’s attacked by a bizarre talking slug like creature, who goes by the name of Elmer. It attaches itself to Brian’s spine and injects him with a highly addictive psychedelic drug to keep him under control. Elmer lives off brains, human brains being his favourite.
Now under Elmer’s control, Brian hunts the streets for human victims, so Elmer can munch on their grey matter. Brian’s life goes down the toilet, he becomes a recluse and moves into a fleabag hotel. He tries to go cold turkey but the addictive power of Elmer’s drug in just too strong to resist.
The film is blatantly an allegory for drug addiction. The surreal nightmarish tone works surprisingly well as a parallel to the hallucinations and horrors of real drug addiction. Although any film that features a talking slug, that looks more like a turd, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
The film is able to overcome its limited budget with invention and satirical wit. There are several darkly humours death scenes and many gruesomely bizarre moments where you can’t actually believe what you’re seeing. The film doesn’t just rely on shock tactics though, genuine pathos is wrung from Brian’s torment at becoming an accomplice to murder and the agony of his withdrawals are truly felt.
3. Anguish (Bigas Luna, 1987)
Tagline: The eyes of the city are mine.
The film begins with a health warning alerting the audience to subliminal messages and the possibility of falling under hypnosis. This is nonsense of course, but it gives you an idea of the type of film you are about to watch. “Anguish” is one of the most original examples of a film within a film. John (Michael Lerner) is a hospital orderly that lives at home with his overbearing and controlling mother (Zelda Rubinstein).
John’s eyesight is deteriorating towards blindness and his mother believes if he murders people, and cuts out their eyeballs, his sight will improve. John’s mother hypnotises him and then sends him out and a murderous eyeball gathering expedition.
About twenty minutes into the film we discover that the movie we thought we were watching is actually a horror movie named “The Mommy” that an audience in a cinema are watching. The film then splits its focus between “The Mommy” and two teenage girls sitting in the audience of the theatre. The film-within-a-film gimmick isn’t new but few films have ever committed to it so fully or taken it as seriously.
Although there is still a clear definition between the two realities, they are weaved together in such a vivid and disorientating way, that at times you are not sure which reality you are in, as events in the theatre begin to mimic those of the film on screen. There are also extended scenes of the process of hypnosis that are supposed to make you feel that you might be under its effects too.
This underrated gem deserves a lot more recognition for its originality and its bravery for committing to an idea and pushing it right to the limit.
2. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
Tagline: They got up on the wrong side of the grave.
One of the few B horror movies to cross over into mainstream popularity. The film is considered by many to be one of the best and most original horror films of all time. Made on a shoestring budget by an inexperienced crew, director Sam Raimi’s talent for mixing horror with dark macabre humour shone through.
A group of five college students head out to a remote cabin in the woods. The cabin appears to have been used by an archaeologist before them, and he seems to have left all his belongings behind, including “The Book of the Dead”. This book brings forth demonic spirits that possess some of the students, turning them into bloodthirsty supernatural zombies.
The film is made with a brutal kinetic energy, the camera bounces around the cabin and seems to find a unique angle for every horrid action. It also upped the ante on movie gore, gleefully throwing in gallons of blood, spewing goo and dismembered body parts. The film has an uncanny ability to suggest the presence of unimaginable evil with limited special effects.
Sections of the film are horrifically intense and others are deadpan silly, this unique mixture makes the film a true original. Bruce Campbell gives a star physical performance, contorting his body and twisting his face with impeccable comic timing. The film put Raimi on the map as a talent to watch and led to a big-budget remake/sequel “Evil Dead 2” (1987), which was less intense, but had improved production values and more slapstick gore.
The original film was hugely influential and set the tone for the rest of the decade, as countless horror movies tried to imitate its winning mixture of excessive gore and slapstick comedy.
1.Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)
Tagline: Herbert West has a very good head on his shoulders… and another one in a dish on his desk.
The mad scientist of the fifties B horror is given an eighties makeover. This time he’s creation is a neon green liquid that brings the dead back to life. The film infuses outrageous gore with a macabre dry wit. It also reintroduced a new generation to the brilliantly ghoulish work of H.P. Lovecraft. A straight-laced medical student Dan (Bruce Abbott) rents out his spare room to a new student, insane genius Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs).
The relationship starts to deteriorate when West kills Dan’s cat. He then brings it back to life with a serum he has created, turning it into crazed feline zombie. Dan is so impressed with West’s serum, he helps sneak him into the hospital morgue where they try it on deceased humans with disastrous results.
The film does a fantastic job of balancing blood and gore with laughter. Gordon gets the tone just right, the script is witty, but it never descends too far into camp over-the-top hysterics, with Dan as the voice of reason providing a much needed counterbalance to West’s insanity. Underneath all the mayhem, a darkly surreal Lovecraftian tone is achieved, where the cosmic horror of the unknown is never far away.
The film works around the constraints of its low-budget with inventiveness and originality. The special effects still stand up today, but most of them are too outrageous to be taken seriously. The characters are also well crafted and there are several memorable performances. However, Combs steals the show as the barking mad Herbert West. The film is stuffed with memorable scenes and classic lines. A true work of a mad genius.
Author Bio: Dean Hesom is a screenwriter based in London, England. He has a passion for horror, film noir and exploitation cinema. He studied Film and Video Production at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design. He also works in live interactive television production.