When Scary Just Isn't Scary Anymore
By Daniel Kraus

This month sees the DVD release of three films that exemplify the somewhat upsetting progression of the horror film in the 1980s: John Carpenter's Christine (1982), Tom Holland's Fright Night (1985) and Richard Donner's The Goonies (1985).

The 1980s have a reputation of being a wasteland for horror cinema. This is not surprising, considering that some of the most visible films of the decade were, in fact, dreadful. This includes most of the sequels to the films Friday the 13th, Halloween and The Amityville Horror (I’m exempting A Nightmare on Elm Street for partially personal reasons; let's not get into it).

But this reputation points less to the quality of the films (let's not forget The Shining, Hellraiser and The Evil Dead) and more to the on-going debate over horror films––a debate that, for various reasons (some admittedly legit), spilled over from obscure cinema journals into mainstream publications in the ‘80s. Suddenly, it was sort of "in" to be discussing Michael Myers and Jason Vorhees (again, I leave Freddy out of this; seriously, let's drop it), and the thrusts of these "discussions" were pretty clear: "Horror films are violent and bad, and teens love them exactly because of these reasons." In the UK, movies of this sort were even given a name by politicians––"video nasties"––a name that pretty much said it all when it came to any chance of getting sympathetic treatment by said politicians.

In truth, there were probably as many good horror films in the ‘80s as there were in the ‘70s–– there were just more bad films to sift through to find them. You have to remember that this was the decade when VCRs became affordable and the demand for videocassettes was greater than the supply. Many movies were rushed into production and aimed, for the first time ever, for a direct-to-video release. This was the heyday of cheap, bad horror films with flashy box art. An inordinate amount of these nicely packaged clunkers cluttered the video house aisles and were rented with reckless abandon by 12-year-old kids––kids who suddenly had access to any R-rated film they wanted. (The understandable elation of this situation probably accounts for movies like Slumber Party Massacre getting rented way too often.)

This mounting pile of video crap—and the changing demographic to a much younger audience—led to a significant change in horror films. In short, they were becoming comedies.

Even if such films as April Fool’s Day and The Stuff ("Eat it before it eats you!") didn't inspire mad gales of laughter, they did find it commercially advantageous to create a "fun" atmosphere for young audiences and therefore began to model themselves after comedies, which were, for obvious reasons, "crowd pleasers."

Carpenter's Christine is a great example of a serious film being made within a maelstrom of increasingly uninventive dreck. It is the Stephen King tale of a high school loser, Arnie, who buys a used 1958 Plymouth Fury. As he fixes "her" up, he also transforms from a nervous nerd to a suave, threatening asshole. (To give you a visual: he begins dressing in black, slicking his hair back and inexplicably dating the new hot girl in school. He also starts drinking beer, which always made me wonder if Christine was some brilliant allegory about drunk driving in which the car kills people and the driver literally has no memory of it.)

No matter how smashed up Christine gets while killing the hooligans who tormented Arnie, she magically repairs herself in sequences that make stunning use of reverse photography. Finally, Arnie's girlfriend and best pal set out to "save" Arnie by destroying Christine once and for all.

Christine moves with classic Carpenter efficiency. There are very few characters or subplots. Story elements are simplistic and operatic. The good guys and bad guys practically wear color-coded smocks. Yet, it works because Carpenter dishes up his cliches earnestly, without a trace of irony.

Irony, of course, is exactly what was changing the face of horror. Fright Night almost perfectly represents the battle between serious horror and ironic horror. A high school teen (it goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that the age range of these characters is not accidental––recall that these are movies being rented for slumber parties and make-out sessions) named Charlie finds out that his new next-door neighbor is a vampire. Charlie employs his favorite ex-movie star, Peter Vincent––who now hosts a dismal late-nite horror showcase called "Fright Night––as an expert vampire killer.

There is no question of whether the neighbors are actually vampires. The element of suspense is wholly replaced by dazzle. The ‘80s, true to their billing, were about more––not only were more movies being made, but one-upsmanship also manifested itself in quantitative terms (namely more murders, more effects, more layers of irony).

Fright Night slyly verbalized the unease felt by some filmmakers making this transition, via the character of Peter Vincent, who was adamantly loyal to old-school horror (even his name is an homage; Peter Cushing, Vincent Price). "All your generation wants are demented murderers running around in ski masks," he gripes to Charlie.

What Peter Vincent is complaining about is, essentially, the film Fright Night, as well as the current opinion that a straight horror film would no longer work, due to the level of media sophistication that audiences had reached. So they employed irony, as if to say, "Hey, we know this is stupid, too." The idea was that if we all agreed up front that this horror stuff was ridiculous, we would all feel more comfortable enjoying it.

Fright Night proved that it was right about audiences' sophistication. It was a big hit, despite the almost off-putting number of irony layers (we are to make fun of a movie that is poking fun at itself, as well as other movies; also, we are to make fun of the relative simplicity of old horror films). As Peter Vincent enters the vampire's domain, chanting nervously, "I am Peter Vincent, the great vampire killer," we both know that he is and isn't, and our ability to juggle these at the same time makes us feel smart. (Again, to clarify: he isn’t Peter Vincent because Vincent is a fictional character; yet he is Peter Vincent because we are voluntarily entering into a viewer-pact that disbelieves the fiction [Fright Night], yet consents to believe the fiction's fiction [ironic fictional elements within the plot].)

It's interesting to view Fright Night as a paradigm of the battle for horror cinema circa 1985. Unfortunately, if we do, we have to concede that "serious" horror loses, due to a pretty un-ironic but off-the-charts gory final act.

Which brings us, finally, to The Goonies, a would-be horror film turned noisy kids' picture. Despite having more creepy elements than most horror films could ever dream of, The Goonies played everything for laughs (rather, "laffs"), and its child actors gave a sarcastic running commentary along the way so that we didn't even have to. This attention-deficit tale of a bunch of kids trying to find buried treasure is a pretty darn good movie, although I urge you to recognize its bittersweet elements the next time you catch it re-running on TV. The Goonies perfected a new genre, but practically buried an old one.

Read more Cinema Time Capsules by Daniel Kraus: Shaft (1971).

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