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Good Creature Features (1980-85): Decade of Excess

Disco died, punk exploded and then disappeared – the early ‘80s saw, among other things, a sea-change in popular culture. Things became flashier, shoulder pad-ier, and everything got bigger. ~ Hope Madden

Hungry Like the Wolf

The first half of the 1980s saw a surprising uptick in creature features. Family fare (‘Gremlins’) to mutant water beasties (‘Piranha’), winged behemoths (‘Q’), rabid dogs (‘Cujo’) and no fewer than four werewolf movies! That’s right – ‘The Company of Wolves,’ ‘The Howling,’ ‘Wolfen’ and the greatest of all werewolf flicks, ‘An American Werewolf in London.’

Howling Creature Feature Recommendations

‘An American Werewolf in London’ (John Landis, 1981)

This film is among the best horror comedies for a number of reasons: a darkly funny script, sharp writing that propels the action, Oscar-winning effects, a cool looking wolf. But is there one scene that encapsulates it all?

A pasty, purse-lipped Brit businessman leaves the train in an otherwise empty, harshly lit subway station. He pumps a small vending machine with change and comes out with mints. A tiny smirk of satisfaction crosses his face as he begins to unwrap the item, but the look turns to a grimace of unpleasant surprise. Echoing through the empty, rounded corridor comes a far off growl.

Stern voice: “I can assure you that this is not the least bit amusing. I shall report this.”

There now, some hooligans have ruined his happy mint moment.

The camera follows him up an escalator, around a turn, into a rounded tunnel-like corridor uninterrupted for a long stretch by doors or windows. It’s a claustrophobic nightmare.

The camera takes the beast’s eye view, rounding a nearby corner, eyeing the Englishman. We see the terror as he backs away.

“Good lord.”

That awful howling again.

And then David wakes up naked in the zoo.

‘The Thing’ (John Carpenter, 1982)

John Carpenter’s remake of the 1951 SciFi flick ‘The Thing from Another World’ is both reverent and barrier-breaking, losing a bit of the original Cold War dread, but concocting a thoroughly spectacular tale of icy isolation, contamination and mutation.

A beard-tastic cast portrays the team of scientists on expedition in the Arctic who take in a dog. The dog is not a dog, though. Not really. And soon, in a cut-off wasteland with barely enough interior room to hold all the facial hair, folks are getting jumpy because there’s no knowing who’s not really himself anymore.

This is an amped up body snatcher movie benefitting from some of Carpenter’s most cinema-fluent and crafty direction: wide shots when we need to see the vastness of the unruly wilds; tight shots to remind us of the close quarters with parasitic death inside.

The film was an inexplicable bomb with audiences and critics alike when it opened, but it’s gone on to become a must see.

Seriously, it’s a must-see.

‘Basket Case’ (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)

This film is fed by a particularly twin-linked anxiety. Can anyone really be the love of one twin’s life, and if so, where does that leave the other twin?

When super-wholesome teenage Duane moves into a cheap and dangerous New York flophouse, it’s easy to become anxious. But that’s not laundry in his basket.

Belial is in the basket – Duane’s deformed, angry, bloodthirsty, jealous twin brother – but not just a twin, a formerly conjoined twin. What he really is, of course, is Duane’s id; his Hyde, his Hulk, his Danny DeVito. And together the brothers tear a bloody, vengeful rip in the fabric of family life.

The idea of separating conjoined twins is irresistible to dark fantasy. Rock bottom production values and ridiculous FX combine with the absurdist concept and poor acting to result in an awful and yet irresistible splatter comedy.

‘Possession’ (Andrzej Zulawski , 1981)

Speaking of sex and monsters – wait, were we? – have you seen ‘Possession’? WTF is going on there?

Andrzej Zulawski – writer/director/Czech – created this wild ride with doppelgangers, private investigators, ominous government agencies, and curious sexual appetites. It strikes me as David Cronenberg meets David Lynch, which is a pairing I can get behind.

Mark (Sam Neill) and Anna’s (a fearless Isabelle Adjani) relationship boasts an intentional artificiality that makes it hard to root for either of them as their marriage deteriorates. Anna, it seems, is in love with someone else. Is it the sexually open – really, really open – Heinrich? Is it a bloody, mollusk-like monster? Is Mark boning Anna’s mean friend with a cast on her leg? Does Bob’s kindergarten teacher bear an unreasonable resemblance to Anna? Is anyone caring properly for Bob?

These questions and more go basically unanswered in a deviant, summary-defying, fantastical bit of filmmaking that mocks the idiocy, even insanity of obsession and boasts a handful of weirdly excellent performances. And sex with a mollusk-like monster.

‘The Evil Dead’ (Sam Raimi, 1981)

Revolutionizing cabin-in-the-woods horror, splatter horror, horror comedies and independent filmmaking in one bloody swoop, ‘The Evil Dead’ is Sam Raimi’s masterpiece.

It’s a Three Stooges episode with deadites, blood and body fluids by the gallon. But that doesn’t mean it’s anything less than awesome.

Ash (unibrowed Bruce Campbell, genius) takes his best girl Linda, their two besties and Ash’s bitchy sister Cheryl out to a Tennessee cabin for spring break. But the cabin’s former inhabitant read the Necronomicon aloud – indeed, he taped himself doing it. Ash plays the tape, a tree rapes Cheryl and all hell breaks loose.

Goretastic, juvenile, viscous, hilarious, raucous, wrong-headed and brilliant, The Evil Dead started something big. And messy.


Big Time

By the close of the decade, creature features became huge box office draws with some of the biggest names in Hollywood in front of or behind the camera. Arnold takes on aliens, Ripley and her Aliens return, Cronenberg remakes The Fly – thank God! The decade of big just kept getting bigger.

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