Looking back at the best Halloween releases of the 1980s.
“It takes all kinds of critters … to make Farmer Vincent’s fritters.”
Indeed. October 24th would see the release of sleazoid classic Motel Hell, which would take on the seemingly impossible task of lampooning Tobe Hooper‘s grungy horror classic The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and would achieve as much with atypical aplomb. Director Kevin Connor’s first masterstroke was to cast 50s Western genre star Rory Calhoun as the titular hotel’s cannibal-endorsing owner/manager, resulting in the kind of juxtapose that sets the movie’s inimitable tone. His second was to cast Porky’s alumni Nancy Parsons as his partner in crime.
Motel Hell tells the story of a wholesome backwoods couple who farm human bodies to serve up to their unsuspecting guests. They do this by kidnapping folk and burying them up to their necks while unconscious, fattening them up until they’re good and ripe and ready to be processed into good, old-fashioned produce.
The movie is suitably disgusting, giving us a pair of rabid protagonists who, like Leatherface and his amoral entourage, are motivated by unabashed savagery, but it’s their earnest bravado that proves the movie’s comic touch, resulting in one of the most effective horror comedies of our time.
With the horror market well and truly booming, October 23rd would give us the rather disquieting pleasure of low-budget Canadian horror The Pit. Originally titled Teddy and written as a study on the inner-workings of an autistic boy, the exploitative aspirations of producers saw that concept nixed in favour of a micro monster movie with a rather hefty dose of perversion. It also features some of the lamest practical effects you are ever likely to see. If you’re afraid of sock puppets, I suggest you stay clear of this one.
Peewee protagonist Jaime is a bullied kid who has an unhealthy relationship with his teddy bear (it ‘tells’ him to do horrible things), and an immoral obsession with babysitter, Sandy, whose panties he seems a little overly fond of. While out playing in the woods, Jaime stumbles upon a pit full of monsters, who instead of fleeing like any normal child decides to form an even unhealthier relationship with as he sets about feeding them with the meat of his juvenile tormentors.
Part of the Canuxploitation wave of the late 70s/early 80s—a genre made famous by the early works of David Cronenberg—the movie was shot almost entirely at Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, and unsurprisingly represents Lew Lehman’s solitary credit as a director. Still, for fans of the unwholesomely absurd, The Pit is definitely one worth checking out, if only out of sheer morbid curiosity.
The following week would see the release of the long-awaited Halloween II. A continuation of the original narrative, the movie sees remorseless killing machine Micheal Myers stalk the corridors of Haddonfield’s hospital in search of scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, her character Laurie Strode now promoted to Myers sister in an attempt to shake things up.
The release of John Carpenter‘s original Halloween would see an explosion of Friday the 13th clones saturate the home video market, movies which eschewed the art of filmmaking for a plethora of ‘who can top this?’ bloodbaths. Feeling the pressure of an evolving market, Carpenter, here demoting himself from director to writer/producer/composer (yes, he’s quite the talent), would choose to up the gore with the aim of satisfying slasher freaks across America, producing a sequel that comes as close to repeating the look and feel of the first as much as was humanly possible.
Of course, Carpenter never wanted a sequel to the movie that launched his career, labelling Halloween II “an abomination,” and “a horrible movie”, but in the pantheon of slasher chicanery it is still one of the finest the sub-genre has to offer, a movie that is often inspired but mostly unnecessary, and one that cheapens the mystique of the Myers character against the film’s best intentions.
Unsurprisingly, Halloween II did huge numbers at the box office, grossing approximately ten times its $2,500,000. Still, unhappy with himself for having cheapened his most famous creation, Carpenter would kill off both Myers and thespian nemesis Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence), returning the following year with another idea entirely.
That movie was franchise oddity, Halloween III: Season of the Witch. With Michael Myers out of the picture—temporarily, at least—the idea, devised by Carpenter and long-time collaborator Debra Hill, was to release a new film with a new concept and cast of characters every year, which would appease the commercial demands of Universal while allowing Myers to bow out with the dignity he deserved.
Ultimately, the idea of an annual marquee tale would fail to see the light of day, and the Halloween franchise would be damned to commercial purgatory for another half-decade—ample time for people to forget the fact that Myers had been put out of his misery along with Dr. Loomis (the latter was actually left unconscious as we would find out in 1988). By that time, Jason Voorhees had an incredible six instalments under his belt, and audiences and producers were clamouring for the return of the inimitable ‘Shape’, a desire that led to arguably the most perplexing franchise in slasher history.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch is a delightful low-key affair that wouldn’t look out of place as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Starring Tom Atkins as the pulpy, hard-boiled protagonist he would become synonymous with, it is a tale of killer androids and Halloween masks designed to wipe children off the planet. The dastardly heel behind this absurd plot is crazed toy manufacturer Conal Cochran, whose repetitive mind-warping ditty sees kids flock to television screens in their droves, acting as a trigger that transforms the heads of tykes across America into steaming piles of snakes.
The movie is completely out there, but even without the presence of Myers (and perhaps because of that reason) it is arguably the finest sequel of them all. Add to this a wonderful dystopian score by Carpenter and long-time collaborator, Alan Howarth, and you’re onto a real winner. It’s just a shame they had to stop there. Although Season of the Witch would gross a cool $14,400,000, it would represent a significant drop from Halloween II the year prior, an outcome that would all but seal its fate.
Heavily edited for distribution and crudely banished to the hysterical realms of ‘video nasty‘ ignominy, Andrzej Zulawski’s warped masterpiece is part body horror, part psychological meltdown, as a romantic relationship inexplicably falls apart against the backdrop of Cold War Germany.
Retreating to an apartment under suspicion of infidelity, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) then begins a maternal relationship with a polymorphous creature as the film evolves from psychodrama to Cronenbergian nightmare, taking as much from Roman Polanski’s Repulsion as it does from The Brood. Claustrophobic, wildly sobering and rich with symbolism, Possession is much more than the censors would have you believe, and has since established a cult, art house following.
The film is perhaps most famous for a subway scene in which Adjani thrashes and screams her way into the throes of madness, the actress even claiming that it took her several years to recover from what is arguably her career-high performance, one that would land her the Best Actress gong at the 1981 Cannes Film Festival. Also starring British actor Sam Neill, the movie was unreleased in the US until October 14 1983 after being cut by an incredible 43 minutes.
On the subject of David Cronenberg, October 21 would mark the release of the notoriously atypical director’s first venture into the mainstream with Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone, a movie that would once again fail to connect with the movie-going public, a fact that was no doubt influenced by the director’s divisive vision. Regarding the project, Cronenberg would tell Global TV Toronto:
“With The Dead Zone it was a bit of a trauma because I didn’t write that screenplay, although once again I was involved in it. There were five screenplays that existed at the time and when I came to the project I read them all and wouldn’t have directed any of them; I threw them out, even though technically every one of them could have been called The Dead Zone.”
The movie stars Christopher Walken as Johnny Smith, a man who awakens from a years-long coma to find his fiancee married to another man. He has also developed a rather unique ability to see into a person’s future by merely touching them, a ‘gift’ that proves as troublesome as it is advantageous, and when he comes into contact with a corrupt senator and presidential candidate who will one destroy mankind, his fate is sealed.
As peculiar as the premise is, the movie would prove far more conventional than the director’s earlier productions as Hollywood attempted to tame his inimitable talent and turn it into mainstream gold. Plagued by an overabundance of sub-narratives, the movie’s drab palettes are distinctly Cronenberg, and first-rate performances from the likes of Martin Sheen make this a flawed experiment well worth seeking out.
On October 26th 1984 a star was born. Former Mr Universe and future Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger would land his big break two years earlier in Fantasy/Adventure film Conan the Barbarian, but it was James Cameron‘s sci-fi sleeper The Terminator that would set him on the road to becoming Hollywood’s most recognisable superstar.
The story of a relentless cyborg assassin sent back in time to terminate the unborn leader of a future human resistance, the movie isn’t strictly a horror, but with it stalk-and-slash premise and perpetual menace it more than qualifies for a place on any Halloween list, giving us one of cinema’s most terrifying creations.
The movie would also catapult director Cameron into the Hollywood stratosphere, and was enough of a success, both financially and commercially, to land him the mega-money follow-up to Ridley Scott‘s space bound classic Alien, resulting in one of the most revered sequels ever committed to celluloid.
The Terminator would forge one of the most enduring franchises of the late 20th century and beyond, quite a feat for a low-key movie with a budget of $6,400,000. Arnie’s breakthrough picture would gross an incredible $78,300,000 worldwide, making him one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors almost overnight.
October the 11th would see the release of Silver Bullet, a werewolf flick adapted from the Stephen King novella, Cycle of the Werewolf. The tale of a bloodthirsty werewolf who plagues a small town, the movie would star the late Corey Haim as the paraplegic sister of protagonist and narrator Jane Coslaw (Megan Follows), who with the help of their uncle Red (Gary Busey) set about ridding the community of its murderous scourge by means of a custom bullet melted down from a silver cross.
Made in the teen horror mode of the mid-1980s, Silver Bullet lacks the acerbic bite of Fright Night or the cult appeal of The Lost Boys, and comes across as something of a parody of the old full moon fable. Still, as dowdy as the movie sometimes is, its characters are relatable enough, and a young Haim puts in an admirable audition for his most famous role as Frog Brothers sidekick, Sam.
Busey felt such a kinship with the Red character that he was allowed to ad lib where necessary, and the future voice of the Gingerdead Man clearly relishes in the role, slipping into the movie’s hokey tone like a snugly-knitted jumper. Unable to compete with the practical effects heights of fellow werewolf outings The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, Silver Bullet was a marginal success at the box office, and would prove another in a long line of King adaptations to fall by the commercial wayside.
Cult director Stuart Gordon would leave his mark on the horror lexicon on October 18 with the release of madcap sci-fi horror Re-Animator. Produced by Society‘s Brian Yunza, the film is loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator, and would immortalise cult actor Jeffrey Combs, casting him as a medical student with a rather unhealthy obsession: reanimating corpses with a revolutionary reagent along with medical partner in crime Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott).
As with all fiendish and absurdly immoral medical ventures, things soon go awry as their maniacal professor, fuelled by an infatuation with Cain’s fiancee, looks to claim the miracle breakthrough as his own, leading to all kinds of zombified shenanigans and the most distressing example of onscreen coitus in the history of cinema.
Originally devised as a stage production—one can only imagine—a TV script then evolved into a low-budget silver screen production that would go on to forge two sequels: the aptly titled Bride of Re-Animator (1989) and 2003’s Beyond Re-Animator, and was even praised by such critical luminaries as Roger Ebert, Combs’ performance even drawing comparisons to Anthony Perkins in Psycho. Lord, have mercy!
Wes Craven‘s Deadly Friend would open in US theatres on October 10. The story of a robotics whizzkid who brings his girlfriend back to life using a microchip, the movie began as a serious sci-fi drama, before a test screening left audiences clambering for blood and guts.
Part of the problem was expectation. Fans knew Craven for game-changing slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street, a fact that led Warner Bros. to tamper with the screenplay, demanding a series of senseless Krueger-esque dream sequences which were senselessly squeezed into the final cut, turning an interesting concept into a muddled farce.
Kristy Swanson would debut as back from the dead beau, Samantha, and in spite of the movie’s haphazard conception it has since garnered quite the cult following thanks to its hokey tone and a kitsch, banana-coloured robot named BB. Unaware of Warner’s interference, critics would blame Craven for the silliness, accusing him of being a one-trick pony who was unwilling to step out of the shadow of his most famous creation, when in actuality he had purposely tried to distance himself from the horror genre for fear of being pigeonholed.
So upset with the theatrical cut was Craven and writer Bruce Joel Rubin that the two of them disowned what was their first lesson in the difficulties of working with a major production company. Luckily, it had no bearing on the rest of their careers, the latter claiming the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for supernatural romantic drama Ghost (1990).
October the 24th would give birth to another genre oddity in Charles Martin Smith’s rock-based supernatural horror Trick or Treat. The story of a bullied teen who attempts to stop his recently deceased rock idol from making a satanic comeback from beyond the grave, the movie is a thinly-veiled variation on Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (boy was that movie’s influence still being felt in 1986) and even employed practical effects artist Kevin Yagher, who had worked on Freddy’s Revenge a year prior and would one day go on the direct Pinhead abomination Hellraiser: Bloodline, a movie that would ultimately be accredited to infamous bad movie pseudonym, Alan Smithee.
Also known as Ragman and Death at 33 RPM, the movie would feature cameos from such rock luminaries as Kiss frontman Gene Simmons and ‘Prince of Darkness’ and future reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne, the latter going against type as a televangelist denouncing the evils of heavy metal music. The movie was a transparent nod to the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s, which saw millions of citizens protest the content of rock albums after branding them an evil influence on the youth of America.
The movie has since developed a rather large cult following amongst heavy metal fans, and as a slice of 80s hokum is actually pretty charming.
John Carpenter would return to the big screen on October 23 with the second instalment of what has become known as the ‘Apocalypse Trilogy’. The movie contains themes that loosely relate to The Thing (1982) and the vastly underappreciated In the Mouth of Madness (1995), and as he would tell The Wall Street Journal in a 2014 interview, the legendary director considers the movies as belonging to a set.
“All three of those movies are, in one way or another, about the end of things,” he would explain, “about the end of everything, the world we know, but in different ways. Each of those things is kind of an apocalyptic kind of movie, but a very different take on it.”
Starring Carpenter mainstay Donald Pleasence, the movies tells the story of a priest and a physics professor who stumble upon a mysterious cylinder in an abandoned church, one that threatens the existence of mankind thanks to a Catholic conspiracy whose waters run deep. Playing with concepts of godlessness and Jesus Christ as an alien life form, the movie explores the idea of ‘pure evil’, and though somewhat convoluted and littered with plot holes, many view The Prince of Darkness as one of Carpenter’s most audacious and rewarding projects.
Jack Sholder―a director infamous for helming the vastly underwhelming Krueger sequel Freddy’s Revenge―would more than make up for his creative misfire with 1987‘s sci-fi oddity The Hidden. Released in theatres on October 30, The Hidden is the story of an alien parasite that is passed around from victim to victim, turning everyday citizens into violent criminals beset on running roughshod over the city.
The movie stars Twin Peaks‘ Kyle MacLachlan, here playing a satirical variation of the straight-laced, queerly irregular FBI agent he would one day become synonymous with, although this time his unorthodox ways make a little more sense thanks to one of the most outrageous and refreshing twists of the time. Helping him on his way is dubious LA cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri), who gradually warms to his oddly cold companion, resulting in a rewarding variation on the overplayed buddy cop formula.
The Hidden has all the ingredients of an 80s classic, with high-speed car chases, practical effects horror, and the kind of excessive violence that belies it darkly comic touch. A wonderful, left-field movie that gets nowhere near the credit it deserves.
After an unexpected six-year hiatus, Michael Myers would finally return to the silver screen on October 1 with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. A by-the-numbers slasher closer to the Friday the 13th series than Carpenter’s original creation, the movie would introduce franchise mainstay Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), a Myers relative who would replace Jamie Lee Curtis as the movie’s heroine, Laurie Strode having been written out of the series via an off-screen car accident.
The original idea was to centre the story on an now teenage Tommy and Lindsey, the unfortunate tykes whose seemingly misguided fears of the boogeyman came true one ill-fated night back in 1978. Ultimately, the idea was nixed by producers in favour of a crowd-pleasing Voorhees clone, and would set-up Michael’s preteen niece as his murderous successor, a plan that was also passed over for Halloween 5 a year later.
Halloween 4 would do average numbers following a limited theatrical release, taking the series down an increasingly low-key and highly convoluted path that would rob the once cherished ‘Shape’ of his inimitable identity.
October 14 would mark practical effects maestro Stan Winston’s first foray into the realms of directing. Pumpkinhead stars Lance Henriksen as a salt of the earth father who seeks the vicarious fury of a long-dormant monster in order to wreak vengeance on some out of town teenagers who accidentally kill his infant son. Beginning like a made-for-TV Stephen King yarn, the movies quickly descends into slasher mediocrity in perhaps the most bloodless offering the genre has to offer.
Strangely, this had nothing to do with the censorship extremities of the late 1980s, as Pumpkinhead was passed completely uncut, and the movie is basically a platform for Winston’s creature design, which holds up pretty well compared with some of the bargain-basement offerings of the period (Sleepwalkers anyone?).
The kitsch qualities of Pumpkinhead would prove highly popular as the years rolled by, and the movie would even have a pop record named after it, but in spite of some decent visuals, as an exercise in horror it would prove unusually tepid, and in the film’s eponymous creation Winston gives us a monster that looks great, but has no real presence or lasting memory beyond its aesthetics.
What better series to see out Halloween in the 1980s than, well…the Halloween series. After a half decade banished to the forgotten realms commercial purgatory, the series would see two instalments in as many years, Fox relinquishing the rights to Galaxy International after one sub-par effort that failed to bring in the dough.
Eschewing its predecessor’s set-up of Jamie taking the slasher reins with a eyebrow-raising dream explanation, Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers would mark the beginning of the franchise’s most convoluted period under the direction of Dominique Othenin-Girard, whose intentions to “retain the structure of the original Halloween…not mixing the genres like the script they had given me,” would only be half realised.
Othenin-Girard wanted none of the Voorhees-style chaos of the prior instalment, and though he would make an admirable attempt at sticking to the Carpenter template in a technical sense, the mindless slaughter wasn’t far behind, and the introduction of the infamous ‘Man in Black’, who would be elaborated on in film’s absurd follow-up, would make a mockery out of the franchise and its characters in ways that nobody could ever have envisaged.
The movie would double its meagre $3,000,000 outlay during its opening weekend with a US gross of $11,642,254. Decent numbers for a movie with such small financial ambitions, but the Halloween series was now officially low-key.
Wes Craven would return to the festive fold with stalk-and-slash Elm Street variation Shocker on October 27. The innovative director’s final movie of the decade, Shocker is everything that is good and bad about Craven, and as is usually the case the positives and negatives come together to make something rather unique and halfway rewarding.
Rather graphic for a horror movie of the period, Shocker is the story of Horace Pinker, a deranged serial killer sent to the chair who somehow manages to rise from the dead, taking the form of an electric current that can possess the souls of anyone and everyone, resulting in a hodgepodge of violence and humour that gallops along like an untamed stallion.
Shocker suffers from an overabundance of ideas, with a final act that grows incredibly convoluted and more than a little hokey, but the movie is never boring, which is more than you can say for most horror flicks released at the turn of the ’90s. Craven was a director who was never afraid to take risks—the kind you rarely see in modern mainstream cinema. Sometimes they would pay off and sometimes they wouldn’t, and this one falls somewhere in the middle. 7 years later Craven would take yet another risk by holding a mirror up to a generation of slasher fans weaned on a sickly diet of blood and guts.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Cedric Smarts: Editor-in-Chief and Art Director
Science fiction author, horror enthusiast, scourge of plutocracy, shortlisted for the H. G. Wells Award, creator of vhsrevival.com
Likes: 80s poster art, Vangelis, classical liberalism, dystopian allegories, dissident political activism, Noam Chomsky, George Orwell, George Saunders, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut