Thursday, October 29, 2009
You hear talk about The Golden Age of Science Fiction, The Golden Age of Comics, The Golden Age of Hollywood, The Golden Age of Radio. A time when a certain field is in a burst of creative energy. Not necessarily the roots of any particular genre, but a time when it burgeoned into a Renaissance period.
I've been thinking about the 1980's lately. Even more than usual, that is. A big part of it is because two of my very favorite genre films from the period finally made it to DVD. I'm talking, of course, of Night of the Creeps and The Stepfather. These two movies represent the finest American horror and suspense movies of the time for me.
Plus, a few new movies have taken me back to the 80's. Trick 'r Treat was highly anticipated and it was worth the wait for most of us. Perhaps it was no masterpiece, but it reminded me a lot of an 80's horror movie. And Zombieland also made me think of 80's horror comedies. It is precisely the type of movie that flourished 20-25 years ago.
The 1980's. Sure, I'm nostalgic about the decade. Maybe even romantic. It was a great time for movies and books, especially in the horror genre. And it was a great time in my own life. Everything was much simpler for me. No mortgage, no credit cards, hell no cars. I took the bus or walked and if people felt sorry for me, they shouldn't have. Maybe they ought to pity me now.
It wasn't just horror. I liked the styles of the 80's. And the music. Not that hair metal stuff. I liked New Wave. Synth bands and stylish pop groups. I'm talking about musical style, not attire. Also, things weren't as controlled by corporations as much as they are now. Family restaurants, independent theaters, used bookstores were much more plentiful. And there were drive-ins that still played exploitation fare. I'm lucky to have been able to experience the final gasps of the passion pits.
Good times. Good movies and good books are what I mostly remember.
I've heard the 80's referred to as The Decade of Fear in regard to movies and I can't argue that term. Horror was big and CGI hadn't reared its ugly head yet. Yeah, there was some primitive stuff like Tron, but in horror movies it was usually hands-on effects. Foam latex, puppetry, blood squibs, good old fashioned monster suits with detectable zippers on the backs.
Effects guys were heroes to horror film fans. They dressed and acted like rock stars and though their fans weren't as numerous as those of rock idols, fans worshiped them just as devotedly. Movies like the Elm Street series seemed to exist mainly to showcase the tricks the effects labs could come up with.
You're as sick of hearing about Michael Jackson as I am, but I don't think it's possible to overrate the influence that Thriller had on horror film and special makeup effects. It was the number one music video of all time and I guess it probably still is. Despite how you feel about MJ, John Landis and Rick Baker made history with Thriller and its influence is still being felt.
The franchises all started out strong, whether they began in the 80's or in the previous decade. Phantasm, Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre all had sequels and though most of them turned to shit by the time they fizzled out, they were mostly fun at the time and we, the horror fans, tend to look back upon them with affection.
Sequels and horror comedies. It was difficult to find an American horror film that wasn't one of these two things. Many diehard genre critics decried them, but they had no idea just how bad things would get in the ensuing decades to come. And you know I'm talking about the plague of remakes that we are still enduring. There were remakes in the 80's, yes, but they tended to be pretty damned good. The Thing and The Fly are genuine classics that rival the original films. Others were just fun times at the movies: The Blob, Night of the Living Dead, Cat People.
Books and movies. These are the two mediums that best convey horror and no one bridged the gap between the two as much as Stephen King did. His influence continues and always will be felt. Just the way the mark of Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft will forever be on all things horrific.
Despite some obvious turkeys, I always thought that Stephen King had extraordinary luck with film adaptations. Even the worst of them, like Children of the Corn and Firestarter, have aged fairly well. And the best from the 80's? Man, we're talking Stand By Me, The Dead Zone, Creepshow (and yes, its sequel), Pet Semetery, Silver Bullet. Heck, I even like silly ones like Maximum Overdrive and Cat's Eye. What can I say? My enthusiasm level in those days was so high that I came home from drive-ins thinking that Children of the Corn and Maximum Overdrive were good movies! It didn't hurt that I was ripped out of my mind when I saw 'em.
King's books all tended to be pretty damned good then too. I liked all of them. And I liked just about every horror book I read at the time. I read a lot of them too.
For the first half or so of the 80's decade, horror was mostly traditional. Some were breaking ground with hyperviolence in their fiction that would be more associated with later decades. Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, James Herbert. But most were writing horror about average people in small towns that found themselves in the grip of terror. I loved that formula and I still do.
People might think of the 80's as a time of cheesy, glitzy horror, but there were some genuine masterpieces published. Horror simply does not get better than T.E.D. Klein's The Ceremonies, George R.R. Martin's Fevre Dream, Peter Straub's Shadowland, John Farris' Son of the Endless Night, Robert McCammon's Swan Song, F. Paul Wilson's The Keep, T.M. Wright's The Playground, Chet Williamson's Dreamthorp, Thomas Tessier's Finishing Touches and Clive Barker's The Damnation Game.
Then there were the many other terrific writers that published outstanding books in the 80's. This is an incomplete list, but I was blown away by books by Thomas F. Monteleone, Alan Ryan, John Coyne, Rick Hautala, Dennis Etchison, Al Sarrantonio and Joseph Citro. I even thought Anne Rice was a good writer after reading her first couple of vampire books.
And then there was Charles L. Grant. I couldn't just put his name on a list with a bunch of other names. He deserves at the very least a paragraph of his own. The work that Grant did, as a novelist, a short story writer, an editor, was among the most important of any writer. Not only of the 80's, but of all time. The man gave literacy to horror and his books are all classics. His anthologies were literal definitions of quiet horror. Charles Grant favored character and atmosphere over blood and guts. Not that he minded adding some of the juicy stuff if his story demanded it. But most often it didn't. Nor did it need it. Grant's body of work may have fallen out of favor (not to mention publication), but