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Shock Till You Drop: Six Sites Remember the Class of 1981

30 films celebrated on their 30th anniversary



Cinematically-speaking, the ’70s is a hard decade to follow. Horror was ripe with promise then, slinging a renegade attitude and eliciting screams not just on the independent film front (Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Last House on the Left) but within the Hollywood machine as well (The Exorcist, The Omen). The ’80s? You could say it kept the party going with uneven results, still, 30 years ago, you could resolutely say we saw some classics grace the screen.

Yes, my friend, it’s hard to believe, but it is time to look back at that wild year of 1981. A reflection on thirty films, to be more specific. Even though a few left-overs from the ’70s were being sequelized, filmmakers and studios appeared to be throwing ideas at the wall to see what stuck. The year was a veritable collage of creative killers, cannibals, drooling freaks, zombies, ghosts, serpents, werewolves (and shape shifters) and other things that simply wanted to tear your throat out. Defining moments that would impact the ’80s – Reagan entering the White House (and subsequently taking the brunt of an assassination attempt), the launch of MTV, the rise of AIDS – all occurred in ’81, but these cultural events didn’t begin to impact the genre on a storytelling level, or stylistically, until later (for example, The Thing). To say ’81 adopted an anything goes attitude would be fairly accurate.

Perennial horror icons Freddy Krueger, Pinhead and Chucky had not yet been born. But the genre in ’81 did see Jason Voorhees go on his first killing spree. And no doubt about it, the slasher boom was certainly in full effect at this time, offering audiences some alternative flavor to go with the releases of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Chariots of Fire, Superman II, Body Heat and Clash of the Titans. It was also the year of the werewolf, giving FX legends Rick Baker and Rob Bottin the spotlight they deserved; moreover, it was breakthrough year for a now-famous Hollywood director who went on to give us the Spider-Man trilogy.

1981. Not a bad year to look back on. A hulking, significant twelve months in horror sweating with ambition, terror, sleaze and black comedy.

Arrow in the Head, Bloody-Disgusting, Dread Central, FearNET, Horror Movie A Day (contributing to Bad Ass Digest) and Shock Till You Drop are collaborating for the first time to look at horror in ’81. Each site has selected five titles to ruminate on.

Six sites. Five titles each. Thirty films covered. You’ll find links for each site’s coverage at the bottom of Shock’s selection.

Now, let’s boogey…in alphabetical order.

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (AUGUST 1981)

Much has been written about John Landis’ horror-comedy, whether it is anecdotal or critical. And if it’s the latter, it’s usually praise I’m in agreement with. So, allow me to muse on this classic in a free association fashion. When I think about American Werewolf:

Blue moon. Sheep. Naughton and Dunne. Debbie Klein. The Slaughtered Lamb. Doomed Mexican. “You made me miss.” Heathcliff doesn’t howl. Werewolf attack brilliance. Frank Oz. Agutter! Kermit the Frog ‘n a family massacre. Bumbling cop with common sense. “No!” Punk rock subway. Shower nibbles. Corpse talk. Dangling jaw meat. Werewolf transformation brilliance. Mickey Mouse. Goofy, and apparently crazy, Brits (“You’re crazy, Harry!”). Dirty bum snack. Businessman who’s not amused. Barely revealed subway werewolf. Hirsute cage partners. Balloons. Dr. Hirsch’s suspicions. “That’s enawf! That’s enawf!” Kessler attempted suicide and public freak out. See You Next Wednesday! Corpse advice. Big jugs and mistaken identity. Piccadilly Circus massacre. Severed head. Landis versus window. Alley love confession. Academy Award. The only American Werewolf film worth a damn.

THE BURNING (May 1981)

Friday the 13th may have cornered the market on summer camp-themed slaughters, but director Tony Maylam’s merciless tale of revenge, I always felt, had the upper hand by getting the New England summer camp vibe right (I spent many summers at an East Coast sleep away camp myself). And this slasher film’s strength is bolstered by the likeable frivolity of an ensemble cast of characters, played by an assortment of familiar faces: Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, Brian Backer and others.

Co-created by Harvey Weinstein and co-written by Bob Weinstein (brothers would go on to be major Hollywood players and form Miramax, Dimension Films and, later, The Weinstein Company), The Burning is an unabashed Friday the 13th knock-off running on a similar engine fueled by revenge. Here, a camp employee named Cropsy becomes the brunt of a practical joke that leaves him severely burned. In a pre-credits introduction, we’re positioned to be on Cropsy’s side when a hospital orderly screams at the sight of Cropsy’s disfigurement. Poor guy. Any empathy is quickly lost, however, when Cropsy is discharged and kills a hooker, the first taste of FX maestro Tom Savini’s gore gags.

Director Maylam then re-adjusts his film’s tone, settling into a breezy attitude, akin to a raunchy sex comedy, populated with sundry stereotypes, from the tough guy (Glazer) to the joker (Dave) to the handsome hero (Todd) and, of course, the assortment of cute girls coming to grips with their sexuality. You almost concede to the idea you’re watching another film entirely if Maylam didn’t keep reminding his audience of the massacre that was to come with familiar slasher motifs such as the killer’s POV (with a bit of Vaseline on the lens). When Cropsy begins to knock the kids off in a stunning canoe attack, you almost feel bad for the little buggers. Almost. Because Savini’s kills are decidedly nasty. The Burning is definitely a cut above the rest.

Co-writer Peter Lawrence would go on to script episodes of Thundercats. Maylam, meanwhile, directed a made-for-TV Dorian Gray project with Anthony Perkins and, later, worked with Rutger Hauer on the futuristic creature feature Split Second (1992).

THE EVIL DEAD (October 1981)

A larger release for Sam Raimi’s madcap tale of possession didn’t come until later; for the sake of this retrospective, however, we’ll recognize the film’s premiere which occurred in Detroit in ’81.

Again, another entry here that has already had so much said about it. On a revisit, I still find it to be a wicked (tree rape plus “thunk” sound effect = ouch) and effective slice of mayhem from a hungry, creative independent film troupe.

I’ll use this space to come clean. I actually saw Evil Dead II before I saw The Evil Dead, and when I saw the original, I didn’t care for it. I had still been riding the gleeful high its sequel gave me. The Evil Dead – originally meant to be called Book of the Dead – and its lean and mean approach eventually found its way into my heart. (Even though it wasn’t nearly as humorous as its successors.) Raimi’s vision is clever, unrestrained and demented. His voice untouched by spending years in the Hollywood trenches. Filled with the kind of venom you could only find in youth.

And look at how far The Evil Dead legacy has come. Two wild sequels. A series of comic books, toys, video games and other merchandise. The persistent fan demand for a fourth chapter. A possible remake. And, let’s not forget, the birth of Bruce Campbell’s cult stardom.

All of this created without the help of the Internet and Kickstarter campaigns.

THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (August 1981, Italy)

“You shouldn’t have come, Bob.”

A friend once gave me the best description of Lucio Fulci’s New England-set terror tale and it amounted to him acting like he was entering the eponymous house; a door creeks open, a thing lurches out, attacks him in a grisly fashion and the cycle repeats itself. He enters. Door creak. Thing. Death. Obviously, there’s more to The House By the Cemetery than that. But he was close. It is a tad repetitive. The film begins on the shot of a young bare-chested woman buttoning her blouse who proceeds to look for her lover in the “house by the cemetery” before, creeeeeeak, a door opens, her dead boyfriend is revealed and – wham! – a knife is jammed through her skull and out her mouth. An archetypal, bloody start for a Fulci offering. Arguably not one of his best.

Fulci deviates from the epic events that threaten everyone in City of the Living Dead, Zombie and The Beyond for a smaller story that undoubtedly carries all his usual, and unusual, stylistic trappings.

Here, a family relocates from New York City to a Massachusetts home (by a cemetery), much to the chagrin of a young boy who has been receiving warnings from a young girl not to go. The kicker: The girl is sending the boy her admonitions via some psychic link. The Shining, which was released a year earlier, plays a heavy influence on House By the Cemetery. Instead of Danny Torrance, we have the unfortunately-dubbed Giovanni Frezza playing Bob Boyle. The Shining nods only carry House‘s story so far, however, before Fulci deviates and focuses on hidden tombstones, a man named Dr. Freudstein and his secrets, suspicions cast on Bob’s father, furthermore, the babysitter Anne (Ania Pieroni), and a thing in the house’s basement which occasionally comes out to kill people in brutal and graphic ways.

There are touches of brilliance in this uneven mess, such as when Bob’s head is held to a door while his father, on the other side, uses an axe to break through unaware he might strike his son (a similar bit of tension Fulci lifted from City of the Living Dead), or, a POV shot from a victim striking her head step after step as she’s yanked down a flight of stairs. The House By the Cemetery, however, is not nutty enough to be memorable and is a rather unremarkable piece of work from Fulci.

VENOM (November 1981, Japan)

Why this was released in Japan first before reaching the U.S. in January of ’82, I’m not certain. What I do know is that I love this film and a lot of that love stems less from the scenario and more from the interaction between Nicol Williamson (Excalibur‘s Merlin) and Klaus Kinski.

If you’ve got this film confused with another called Venom released in 2005, let me clarify what the story is about. Before Snakes on a Plane, there was this film about a group of kidnappers that infiltrate a wealthy family’s home with the intent of holding a asthmatic young boy hostage. Thanks to a mix-up with the kid’s snake, a Black Mamba is accidentally set loose in the home. Between the authorities on the outside (Williamson) and a poisonous serpent inside, the kidnappers (Kinski and co.) are put in a tight spot.

Venom was going to be a directing vehicle for Tobe Hooper before Piers Haggard (The Quatermass Conclusion) came aboard. A killer cast followed, including Williamson, Kinski, Oliver Reed, Susan George and Sterling Hayden. Both an intense cop/criminal stand-off and nature-run-amok thriller, Venom has an increasing sense of claustrophobia and terrific moments of nerve-racking tension. Best of all, it plays it straight and never undermines the threat.

Now, head to these sites and continue reading our giant retrospective!

ARROW IN THE HEAD

BAD ASS DIGEST

BLOODY-DISGUSTING

DREAD CENTRAL

FEARNET

Source: Ryan Turek, Managing Editor