6. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
“The most anti-Reagan film ever to come out of Hollywood.” – Chicago Tribune Film Critic Lewis Beale
John Carpenter, one of the unsung auteurs of cinema, sent this scathing hate letter to 1980’s Reagan America with his sci-fi horror film “They Live.” While its been stated that the best social-political horror films keep their themes in the subtext, using story as allegory to amplify the horror subliminally, there are always exceptions. Carpenter took the complete opposite approach here, but for a very good reason. Since the film is about the subliminal messaging of an Alien race as they try to take over the world (disguised as Republicans), Carpenter decided to throw subtlety out the window. Instead he punches, kicks, throws, smashes and bludgeons his message home. And who better to do that than a professional wrestler?
WWF Wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a man called John Nada, a man with a name, but as the name denotes, nothing else. Homeless in downtown L.A. amidst the glistening skyscrapers of the rich, he comes across a box of sunglasses that when put on, reveal the world as it truly is. All of our media – billboards, television shows and magazines reveal their true messages: Obey, Conform, Be Subservient. He peers at a dollar bill that with the glasses on reads simply: This Is Your God. Nada finds out it’s no easy task to change the perspective of an entire world when he tries to get just one person, best friend Keith David, to put on the glasses and see the light. He refuses, leading to a six-minute fight-wrestling extravaganza in an L.A. alley between the two.
Filled with disgust for 80’s Reagan America, “They Live” is also a love letter to anyone who’s had the notion that 1% of the world’s population is running the show and the rest are all dazed sheep being herded by the 1%’s incredibly well funded and incessant message stream: Obey, Conform, Be Subservient. “They Live” is equal parts creepy, suspenseful, paranoid, scary and more than any film on this list, completely hilarious. While admittedly, “They Live” may be outclassed by the other films listed here in terms of subtlety and sheer horror, it may never be out-muscled in terms of its sheer social-political audacity and pounds per square inch punch.
7. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
From Carpenter’s overt message to the subversion of the suburbs comes Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist.” Much has been written and rumored regarding the true “author” of 1982’s “Poltergeist.” Produced, co-written and with a story by Steven Spielberg, but directed by Tobe Hooper, it certainly has all the earmarks of a Spielberg production crashing into the rough hewn horror of Tobe Hooper’s darkness on the edge of town feel. Coming off of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and the underrated “The Funhouse” Hooper’s imprint in the film’s sub textual energy provides the razor sharp talons that rip its way through (albeit, just the right amount) to reveal a much darker message about eighties conformism then was customary for a Steven Spielberg production.
The Freeling family lives in what are known as Sub-divisions, that is, suburbs where every house looks exactly the same and so do most of the families. The head of the household Steve Freeling, (played with down to earth charm by Craig T. Nelson), even works for the real estate developers selling these identical houses to new families of similar social economic status. “They all look the same!” complains one of his potential buyers.
Then things get weirder. The “TV people” start talking to the Young Carol Anne after the programming for the day shuts down. When her pet bird dies, her mother Diane (the lovable JoBeth Williams) goes to immediately flush it down the toilet, but Carol Anne catches her. At this moment the camera zeroes in on the shadow of the dead bird on the toilet seat. Why? Because Tobe Hooper is giving us a fore-“shadow” effect that the dead and children have something in common – a vibrant love and respect for life, that the adults seem to be flushing down the proverbial toilet with their conformity.
By the film’s end it is revealed that the Developer, as Steve screams, “only moved the head stones!” from the cemeteries he had built Cuesta Verde houses upon (Cuesta Verde means “Green Slope” a reference to the sloping slide into the hell of eighties greed.) As nice and as singularly independent as the identity of the Freeling family is, Steve and Diane have sold their souls in this eighties era of conformity. They have in essence, become the living dead, and has taken the dead stealing their youngest daughter away to have them snap out of their stupor, save her, and leave Cuesta Verde’s slope of green to truly become alive again.
8. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
From the opening shots of Colorado canyons through the rooms, hallways and ballrooms of the empty Overlook Hotel, Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” slow burns into our unconscious viewing a horror much different than the one Stephen King had in mind in the source material the film was based upon.
Rather than a film about the ghosts in the head of an alcoholic writer being amplified amidst the past tragedies at The Overlook, Kubrick infuses his version with the horrors of a battle scarred and bloodied land where the grand hotel serves as an allegory for the American Class wars that danced upon these Native American graves.
Take for instance the opening sequence where working class teacher/writer Jack Torrance (a Grand-Guignol performance by Jack Nicholson) interviews for a job as the Winter-caretaker with The Overlook’s placid, smiling owner Stuart Nelson (perfectly cast television actor Barry Nelson), his office strewn with Native American decor. As Nelson tells Jack the blood soaked background of the Hotel – that it’s built upon a Native American burial ground, that a past Caretaker mutilated his own family here – an unsmiling, silent assistant looks on, eyes shifting back and forth as if to ask constantly “is he with us or against us.” Jack is poor, humbled and needs the money, so he’ll ignore all other concerns. Kubrick, the ex-patriot, is saying: “Take the money and don’t look back, this is the American way.”
As the winter goes on, Jack, a man on the brink to begin with, meets ghosts from the hotel’s history who convince him the only way he can join The Ruling Class of The Hotel’s Golden Ballroom and escape his scruffy working class life, wife and child, is if he slaughters them. Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s screenplay infuses the surface horror with the horror of a country built upon slaughter, this hotel upon blood. And so the ghosts of America are asking Jack, paralleling his first interview: Don’t you wish to join the ranks of the Conquerors rather than remain a member of the conquered?
Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” like “Poltergeist” is on the one hand another expertly executed haunted house movie, and yet its intensity of terror is built upon our nation’s collective unconscious guilt at the horror our happiness and prosperity is built upon. No wonder Stephen King is so upset about this film, for this was not the intention of his book, but it makes for one hell of a potent cinematic concoction.
9. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)
Joe Dante could teach a master class in how social-political undercurrents, even comedy, can aid in the intensity of a horror film’s ability to scare the shit out of you. With his 1981 “The Howling,” Joe Dante, with award winning proletariat filmmaker John Sayles (“Matewan,” “Return of the Secaucus Seven”) on board as co-screenwriter with Terence H. Winkless, recast the werewolf movie as a sly social satire of the self-actualization movements of the 1970’s and early 80’s, where unleashing one’s inner-beast is brought to its most literal conclusion.
Television anchor Karen White (the excellent Dee Wallace), after a disturbing encounter with serial killer Eddie Quist is told by her psychiatrist, Dr. Waggner (the patriarchal Patrick Macnee) to attend his group therapy sessions at his mountain retreat. There we meet the drop out and tune in folks who are either learning to release their pain from past traumas, or harness it to become the pure beast that lives within us all. In other words, they’re a coven of Werewolves.
“The Howling” may be the crowning achievement of the horror film as social-political allegory in that it is so dynamically balanced; its gears of thriller, horror and comedy perfectly interlocking to create one mean machine of terror. Composer Pino Donaggio’s pipe organ themes draw from the era of silent horror, adding a touch of the sardonic to the grisly proceedings. You can almost hear Dante nudging his audience just the right amount as if to say: “Come on, this a werewolf movie, why are you so scared?”
But Dante knows full well “why.” He has steeped his horror thriller with elements lifted from the reality of Southern California cults of the time and their promise of fulfillment only to leave followers empty of spirit and wallet. For instance, the Eddie Quist character (an unrecognizable Robert Picardo) a serial killer/cult leader clearly based on Charles Manson, adds an extra air of authentic malevolence to the proceedings, as well as his followers, played by a virtual who’s who of Hollywood character actors, from John Carradine to Slim Pickens. And then there’s that Werewolf transformation effect by Rick Baker and Rob Bottin – still mind blowing to this day!
Dante and Sayles end “The Howling” with a literal bang of a silver bullet loaded rifle followed by a Coda of sublime, horrific comic brilliance as the closing credits scroll over an extreme close-up of raw hamburger meat oozing its juices on the grill, leaving us to contemplate that the beast within us all may indeed be closer to the surface than we like to admit.
10. The Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Phillip Kaufman, 1978)
Another film that uses the self-empowerment movement of the 1970’s ME generation as its insidious engine beneath the horror is Phillip Kaufman’s 1978 “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Itself a remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic featuring strange plant like creatures from outer space replacing the bodies of a small California town while they sleep with non-feeling duplicates, the original seethed with McCarthyism paranoia beneath its straight forward sci-fi approach. Kaufman one ups the original by using as his social-political target San Francisco’s progressive scene, filled with EST based psychiatrists with best selling books, opinionated organic market owners and new age couples who run mud spas.
In essence, he is telling us that conformism is not limited to conservative policies (as perhaps John Carpenter’s “They Live” would have us believe) but wears many masks and is in essence, not ideologically based. In this world where all are seeking to maintain placid calmness in their lives, who is a Pod Person and who has maintained their individual identity has become very difficult to detect indeed. He and screenwriter W.D. Richter (basing his work upon Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers) wish to call bullshit bullshit, whether you wear a tie around your neck or flowers in your hair.
Michael Chapman’s eerie photography fills the frame with botanical tones of browns, yellows and greens amidst the stagnant, fog filled skies of San Francisco, and Kaufman’s direction and approach has an air of post-Watergate fatalism about it, as if the distant, dying planet he begins the film on mirrors our own, our humanity already muted and waiting for these pods to show us the one true way to escape our tumultuous times and emotions… by having no emotion at all.