Cinema Gothic: The 1980s

The 1980s were dominated by low-budget bloodbaths, but a handful of stylish, A-rate productions went against the tide and still stand today as amazing cinematic contributions to the genre.

The Changeling (1980)

Director: Peter Medak. Screenplay: William Gray and Diana Maddox. Based on a story by Russell Hunter. Starring: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh. Country: Canada.

Canada only contributes one film to this series, but that contribution is one of my favorites. The Changeling introduces pretty much nothing new to the genre of haunted house films. What it does is make a film within the subgenre that truly works. The cinematography, setting, and music are atmospheric. The performances by the lead actors are compelling. Plus, there are many downright creepy, and sometimes scary, moments, particularly involving one very old wheelchair. If I were to exhibit one haunted house story that hits the right marks, this might be the one.

The Shining (1980)

Director: Stanley Kubrick. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson. Based on the novel by Stephen King. Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers. Studio: Warner Brothers. Country: USA.

If The Changeling was a great example of a by-the-book ghost story film, The Shining was anything but that. Kubrick takes King’s amazing but conventional story of a haunted hotel and makes it a visually stunning, emotionally operatic psychological thriller. The roles of Nicholson as a domineering husband and father and Shelley Duvall as his weak, frightened wife are overplayed to the point of absurdity, but this climaxes in a hyper-charged, truly memorable climax. The most compelling performance may be that of Scatman Crothers as the chef who talks to the young boy Danny (played by Danny Lloyd) about their shared gift of “the shining” (extrasensory perception). Whatever believability the story lacks is trumped by Kubrick’s one-of-a-kind visual style. The traveling shot of Danny on a three-wheeler, of two ghost girls at the end of a hallway, or of blood flooding the corridors of the hotel stick with the viewer long after the film is over. Then, of course, there is the memorable shot of Jack, hatcheting his way through a bathroom door and peaking in with his now infamous, “Here’s Johnny!”

A TV miniseries, adapted by Stephen King directly from his original novel, aired in 1997 and is worth viewing as well. Though stylistically falling short of the Kubrick adaptation, the miniseries boasts, at the very least, a faithful representation of the novel’s story on film, and the performances, by and large, are more down-to-earth and believable.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis. Screenplay: John Landis. Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine. Studio: Polygram/Universal. Country: United Kingdom/USA.

Besides boasting some of the best special effects of its time (the transformation sequence won an Oscar for FX makeup artist Rick Baker), An American Werewolf in London boasts a fun story and witty dialog that make the film a true delight. One of the few films to successfully mix comedy into terror, the film never has a dull moment. Landis both wrote and directed the picture, keeping it lively and horrifying at the same time. For horror movie buffs like myself, there are numerous nods to the old Universal Wolf Man films. The cast play their scenes well and are obviously having the time of their lives doing it. This may be as close to a perfect werewolf movie as we ever get. As it stands, it is at least a great guide to making a horror movie infused with a lot of fun.

Poltergeist (1982)

Director: Tobe Hooper. Screenplay: Steven Spielburg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor. Starring: Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, James Karen, Zelda Rubinstein. Studio: SLM/MGM. Country: USA.

A subdivision is built on top of a Native American burial ground. Paranormal activity ensues. Typical story, right? However, in the hands of co-writer/producer Steven Spielburg, you can rest assured that nothing is business as usual. While featuring a compelling family story and some eerie moments early on, perhaps the film’s biggest contribution to the genre is its visual style, marked with some of the most impressive special effects seen thus far in film. With reliable performances, featuring a particularly fun performance by Zelda Rubinstein as a psychic medium, Poltergeist founds its place as a slickly-made, compelling big-budget studio horror picture in an era where most horror had gone in another direction.

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Director: Jack Clayton. Screenplay: Ray Bradbury, based on his novel. Starring: Jonathan Pryce, Jason Robards, Vidal Peterson, Shawn Carson, Diane Ladd. Studio: Disney. Country: USA.

Yes, you read that right: this was made by Walt Disney Studios. No joke. In the early 1980s, Disney was trying to expand its audience and venture into new territory, and Something Wicked This Way Comes is a gem from that particular era. If Disney was going to venture into horror, you can bet they were going to do it with their usual gusto. The screenplay is by one of the most acclaimed writers of the 20th Century, Ray Bradbury, and the director is Jack Clayton, who directed the highly acclaimed The Innocents 20 years earlier. The film also boasts an impressively evocative score by James Horner. Combine these elements with great character actors like Jonathan Pryce, Jason Robards, and Diane Ladd, and you have a production set up to be memorable, and it is. The story concerns a mysterious carnival that arrives in a small rural town. Personally speaking, carnivals are creepy affairs in and of themselves, but this one has something seemingly sinister under the surface, revealed as strange things begin occurring to the residents of the town. It is ultimately up to two boys, Will and Jim (Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson), and Will’s aging father (Jason Robards) to overcome the grip the carnival and its master Mr. Dark (Jonathan Pryce) has on the town. There is some impressive dialog in this film, and a particular focus on the debilitating power of regret and desire. A little-known work nowadays, this one deserves to be recognized and appreciated as a rare but masterful work in its genre from one of the least likely studios to make it.

(Cover image: a still from Poltergeist)