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Bruce Markusen Looks Back at Six Horror Films from (1980)



Bruce Markusen Looks Back at Six Horror Films from 1980

When we think of great years in horror film history, the first one that comes to mind is 1931, when Dracula and Frankenstein made their debuts, as did the Fredric March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Another phenomenal year for horror occurred in 1968, when Rosemary’s Baby and Night of The Living Dead both premiered. And fans of more recent horror will certainly make an argument for 1999, the year of The Sixth Sense, Stir of Echoes, and the fast-action Brendan Fraser version of The Mummy.

Another year that deserves some attention, even if it’s not quite up to the standard of 1931, ’68, or ‘99, is 1980. A selection of six films from that year have left an impact on me, either at the time or in the decades that have followed. (I’ll have to apologize to fans of Friday the 13th, an important movie to be sure, but one that has never struck a chord with me personally.)

Horror fans would probably not call any of these six films absolute classics, but there is still quality to be found here, all very good to excellent movies that provide a mix of horror, comedy, and shock value.

Let’s divide our 1980 selections into three groups: black comedies, cult favorites, and near classics, with two in each category.

Black Comedies:

Motel Hell (1980)

The poster for Motel Hell features one of the greatest tag lines in horror history: “It takes all kind of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters.” Indeed it does.

The tag line hints at the comic aspects of Motel Hell, while also giving us an indication of the storyline, which centers on two sinister characters. Farmer Vincent is played by onetime leading man Rory Calhoun, whose career had fallen off significantly by 1980, while his evil sister Ida is portrayed by veteran actress Nancy Parson. The brother and sister run the “Motel Hello,” where they seize their unsuspecting guests, bind them and sew their mouths shut, and then literally plant them into the ground so that they can “ferment.” Once that is done, the victims are murdered and served up as Farmer Vincent’s delicious smoked meats.

Much of the story is delivered tongue-in-cheek, making it far less serious than most of the other cannibal-themed films. While Motel Hell is hardly a great film (it’s certainly no Silence of the Lambs) it is entertaining, especially when viewed with an acknowledgement of the comedy. The acting is over the top, particularly the climactic fight scene in which Vincent and a local police officer face off with dueling chainsaws! To make matters even more extreme, Calhoun’s Vincent does the chainsaw scene while parading around with a pig’s head! All these years later, I still find the scene hysterically funny.

Motel Hell is a twisted film, and one that is not exactly high art, but it is fun and entertaining. And at the very least, that’s what any good horror movie should have as one of its priorities. Just don’t take any of Motel Hell all that seriously.

Motel Hell (1980) Chainsaw Scene

Fade to Black (1980)

Of the six films featured here, this is the least known, and one that has not held up as well as some of the others. But when I first saw it on television, about a year after its release, it certainly registered with me. I found myself sharing a bond with the lead character, but thankfully without thoughts of violence or revenge.

Dennis Christopher, who was all of 24 during the filming, plays young Eric Binford, who is knowledgeable about films to the point of obsession. Bullied and harassed, Binford has no real friends, but spends most of his time watching old reel-to-reel films. He then develops a romantic interest in a young blonde who looks almost exactly like Marilyn Monroe. When she fails to meet him for a promised date, he becomes so angry that he begins to dress up like some of his favorite film characters, including Dracula, The Mummy, and even Norman Bates, and then makes his way to the streets. While in full costume, he commits a series of nighttime murders.

On the surface, Fade to Black seems like a serious film because of Binford’s obsessive nature and his delusions that he has actually become each of the characters he portrays. But there is also plenty of dark humor, in part because Binford looks and acts so preposterously while playing his various film parts. Character actor Tim Thomerson also contributes to the comedy as a concerned psychiatrist, though some of his lines are so ridiculous as to fall into silliness.

Due to the failed comedy and its low budget, Fade to Black is not a great film, but it is creative in its storyline and shows a respect for horror history with all of the allusions to the classic monsters played by Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Anthony Perkins. It’s also a film that makes you feel sympathetic for its lead, until he reaches a point where such feelings are no longer quite possible.

Fade to Black (1980)

Cult Favorites:

Dressed to Kill (1980)

This was one of the first movies that I remember watching on HBO. It was also one of the most controversial to be seen in those early days of cable television, given its sexual content and violence. In fact, the MPAA initially rated the movie as X, but director Brian Palma argued against what he considered an unfair and inaccurate rating; ultimately, his arguments proved persuasive, as the MPAA agreed to change the rating to R.

A combination of horror, thriller, and mystery, Dressed to Kill stars Michael Caine as a New York City psychiatrist and Angie Dickinson as one of his patients, in this case a sexually frustrated housewife. Dickinson’s character is then murdered by a mysterious blonde woman, who realizes that the killing has been witnessed by a prostitute, played by Nancy Allen. But who exactly is this blonde woman? That is the film’s primary mystery, one that will be revealed with a surprising twist.

Upon its release, Dressed to Kill received criticism for its alleged misogyny (against the Dickinson character), with some critics shaming DePalma for being exploitative and sensational in his approach. Over time, some of those criticism have dissipated, perhaps because the film no longer seems as shocking in comparison to movies that have come out over the 40 subsequent years.

Whether it’s popular to say or not, I’ve long been a fan of DePalma, who also directed 1976’s Carrie. Like many of his films, Dressed to Kill is shot beautifully with an artistic style, and not just in the scenes that feature conflict and death. For example, an early scene shows Dickinson flirting with a mysterious man in a museum, not with words, but simply with body language. In fact, there is not a trace of dialogue during the nine-minute sequence.

Dressed to Kill has a Hitchcockian feel to it. With its artistic and creative presentation, along with its pervading sense of mystery and a willingness to delve into controversial territory, the film remains a personal favorite.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

The Fog (1980)

This old-fashioned horror film received only mixed reviews upon its release, but respect for it has grown, in part because of the popularity of Jamie Lee Curtis, who heads up a deep and talented cast of otherwise older actors. Hal Holbrook, John Houseman, Tom Atkins, and Adrienne Barbeau all lend substantial support, along with Curtis’ real-life mother, Janet Leigh, who will forever be known as the first victim in 1960s Psycho.

Directed by John Carpenter, The Fog does not lack for creativity. The story is set in the California coastal town of Antonio Bay, which is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. (It is also the centennial of a strange shipwreck that becomes an integral part of the story.) One of the town’s residents, played by Atkins, picks up a hitchhiker, portrayed by Curtis. While driving, their windshield shatters, the first indication that something is wrong. In the meantime, a small trawling boat is enveloped in fog, resulting in the disappearance of three local fishermen. Atkins and Curtis find the bodies of one of the fishermen, whose corpse suddenly resuscitates while lying on a hospital gurney. Additional fog then invades various parts of the town, killing anything that stands in its way.

For some horror fans, the idea of a killer fog is less than frightening. There’s some truth to that argument, but I appreciate atmosphere and mood more than pure fright, and that’s where The Fog delivers. The coastal scenery and the thick, fast-moving fog contribute to the creepy atmosphere of the movie, most of which is filmed at night. The film’s photography, handled by Dean Cundey, is beautifully done and helps create some of the more memorable horror imagery of the era. There’s an artistic quality to The Fog that has helped turn some of those early negative reviews into a renewed sense of appreciation for an old-school horror film that is heavy on suggestion and suspense.

The Fog (1980) Jamie Lee Curtis

Near Classics:

The Changeling (1980)

One of the most underrated horror films in history, The Changeling stars the highly accomplished George C. Scott as a composer and pianist who has lost his wife and daughter in a horrifying car accident. He decides to move and start his life over in a secluded mansion, which has old world charm—but also an old world ghost. Scott is quickly befriended by his real estate agent, played by his real-life wife, Trish Van Devere.

Once Scott settles into his new life, it doesn’t take long for odd occurrences to start taking place, including the appearance of a mysterious rubber ball that bounces down a long stairway and lands in the house’s front hall. The ball is the first clue that the house is haunted and is hiding a history of death and changed identities. Another indication arrives when Scott agrees to take part in a séance, and after viewing a tape of the event, sees proof of a paranormal presence.

Scott and Van Devere are both excellent, with the kind of chemistry that we should come to expect from a real-life couple. The special effects are limited but well done, while the mansion provides a perfect backdrop for the presence of a ghost. There is also a sense of mystery that is sustained until the surprising conclusion.

The Changeling is an example of how old-fashioned horror can be made at a high level without blood and gore, instead relying on good scripting, a gradual building of tension, and fine individual performances. While not as well-known as some of the more publicized films of the 1980s, The Changeling is one of my favorite horror films of all time, and one for which appreciation seems to be growing.

The Changeling (1980) Fire

The Shining (1980)

It’s hard to believe in retrospect, but The Shining was panned by many critics at the time of its release, including Stephen King, who authored the book that became the basis for the movie. Even today, it’s a film that so many fans seem to either love or hate, but the number of supporters has grown substantially over time, perhaps because of Jack Nicholson’s status as one of the better actors of the late 20th century.

Nicholson’s performance is certainly powerful, epitomizing the portrayal of a man who becomes crazed during a desolate and frigid winter. Nicholson plays the lead, a man named Jack Torrance, who has agreed to become the wintertime caretaker of an enormous resort hotel that is completely empty, except for the presence of Torrance, his wife and daughter. Torrance is a schoolteacher who has decided to become a writer, but the solitude of the Overlook Hotel does not make his writing chores any easier. Instead, Torrance becomes betrayed by mental illness, his thoughts taken over by feelings of isolation, claustrophobia, and of course, ghosts.

Another strength of the movie is The Overlook, which is a beautiful, high-end summer resort, but also isolated, cold, and cavernous. The hotel’s presence is so strong that it becomes a character in and of itself. In fact, The Overlook becomes the film’s primary villain, one that overpowers Torrance and threatens to murder his family as well.

Some critics have called out Nicholson’s performance for being over-the-top, and they may be right, but his portrayal is also frightening and disturbing. Those characteristics bleed into the storyline of the film, making it a particularly memorable and lasting experience for first-time viewers. As a young viewer myself in the 1980s, I was certainly scared the first time I saw The Shining, and that’s not something I can say about many horror films.

Forty years later, The Shining still has something to offer for fans who enjoy Nicholson and a creepy setting. Similar praise, based on good acting, atmosphere, and creative storytelling, can be directed at the other five films featured here, all part of a memorable year of movie-going in 1980.

The Shining (1980) Jack Nicholson