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Good Creature Features (1985-90): Weird Science
Image source: eljacaguero

Good Creature Features (1985-90): Weird Science

Creature features flourished at the end of the Eighties, especially in low-budget horror. Sam Raimi returned with a bloodier, funnier ‘Evil Dead 2’ and Peter Jackson made his inauspicious directorial debut with human-hungry aliens in ‘Bad Taste.’ Brian Yuzna and Larry Cohen analogized Eighties consumerism with ‘Society’ and ‘The Stuff,’ respectively. ~ Hope Madden

Good, Bad, Ugly – All Are Welcome

Not every creature feature ending the shoulder pad era was good, but some were so bad they were good. ‘Pumpkinhead’ remains a cult favorite (and a real tearjerker), and the B-movie extravaganza ‘Night of the Creeps’ never ceases to entertain.

Others left a mark – even a legacy.

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Kinky Creature Features

‘Re-Animator’ (Stuard Gordon, 1985)

‘Re-Animator’ reinvigorated the Frankenstein storyline in a decade glutted with vampire films. Based, as so many fantasy/horror films are, on the work of H. P. Lovecraft, ‘Re-Animator’ boasts a good mix of comedy and horror, some highly subversive ideas, and one really outstanding villain.

Jeffrey Combs, with his intense gaze and pout, his ability to mix comic timing with epic self-righteousness without turning to caricature, carries the film beginning to end. His Dr. Herbert West has developed a day-glo serum that reanimates dead tissue, but a minor foul up with his experimentations – some might call it murder – sees him taking his studies to the New England medical school Miskatonic University. There he rents a room and basement laboratory from handsome med student Dan Caine (Bruce Abbott).

They’re not just evil scientists. They’re also really bad doctors.

‘Re-Animator’ is fresh, funny and shocking, and though most performances are flat at best, those that are strong more than make up for it. First-time director Gordon’s effort is superb. He glories in the macabre fun of his scenes, pushing envelopes and dumping gallons of blood and gore. He balances anxiety with comedy, mines scenes for all they have to give, and takes you places you haven’t been.

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‘The Fly’ (David Cronenbrg, 1986)

From one mad scientist to the next. After half dozen or so successful indies, the great David Cronenberg made a triumphant return to the laboratory of mad science in his most popular film to date.

Cronenberg updates Vincent Price’s 1958 camp classic, zeroing in on the minefield of science in the hands of a well-intentioned but somewhat thoughtless genius.

It’s not just Cronenberg’s disturbed genius for images and ideas that makes ‘The Fly’ fly; it’s the performance he draws from Jeff Goldblum.

Goldblum is an absolute gift to this film, so endearing in his pre-Brundlefly nerdiness. He’s the picture’s heartbeat, and it’s more than the fact that we like his character so much. The actor also performs heroically under all those prosthetics.

He and Geena Davis make the perfect pair, with their matching height and mullets, and their onscreen chemistry does give the film a level of human drama traditionally lacking from the Cronenberg canon. Atop that, there’s the transformation scene in the bathroom – the fingernails, the pustules – all classic Cronenberg grotesquerie, and still difficult to watch.

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‘Aliens’ (James Cameron, 1986)

Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.

Back in 1979, Ridley Scott changed SciFi and horror entirely with his monster movie in space, ‘Alien.’ James Cameron took what was one of the greatest horror films of all time and pivoted, turning its sequel into one of the greatest action flicks of all time.

‘Aliens’ takes that Eighties staple – the rag-tag military unit – and drops it into a space colony that’s gone offline. Maternal instinct, better FX, brighter sets and way more monsters help Cameron up the ante. He and Sigourney Weaver as Ripley – cinema’s greatest badass – create among the most iconic films of the decade.

That room full of incubating bodies? Ripley walking around in that loader? The queen?! Cameron took all the elements Scott had left him with and did what everybody did in the Eighties – made them bigger, bolder and bawdier. For once, it really worked.

Game over, man.

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‘Predator’ (John McTiernan, 1987)

One year after ‘Aliens,’ another colossal action flick with an extraterrestrial antagonist changed the course of the genre. Interestingly, the two franchises would one day – unfortunately – meet. But back in 1987, both the ‘Alien’ and ‘Predator’ series were unblemished.

Among the best of all the Eighties Schwarzenegger muscle-bursters, ‘Predator’ was a fun, exciting game changer.

Schwarzenegger is a commando. Not ‘Commando’ – that’s another movie. Here he and his rag tag group of military clichés drop into a Central American jungle. Things go South, loyalties are tested, Arnold shouts things like, “Get to the chopper!” and “He was skinned alive!”

All of which could have amounted to just another Arnold movie, but ‘Predator’ was something else entirely. Director John McTiernan (‘Die Hard’) knows how to build tension and draw charismatic performances. More importantly, he was working from a fascinating SciFi screenplay and building a team that understood FX.

A giant hunter among hunters, an extraterrestrial looking for game. It was a novel concept in ’87 and an outstanding way to challenge the Alpha male struggle that fueled every action flick of the decade.

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‘Hellraiser’ (Clive Barker, 1987)

“The box…you opened it. We came.”

Clive Barker’s feature directing debut worked not only as a grisly splatterfest, but also as a welcome shift from the Eighties rash of teen slashers. Barker was exploring more adult, decidedly kinkier fare, and ‘Hellraiser’ is steeped in themes of S&M and the relationship between pleasure and pain.

Hedonist Frank Cotton solves an ancient puzzle box, which summons the fearsome Cenobites – and how cool were they?! They tear Frank apart and leave his remains rotting in the floorboards. Years later, Frank’s brother Larry moves into that house with his teenage daughter Kirsty and his new wife Julia (who, oh yeah, also happens to be Frank’s ex-lover).

A gash on Larry’s leg spills blood on the floor, which awakens the remains of Frank, who then requires more blood to complete his escape from the underworld. Julia, both repulsed and aroused by her old flame’s half-alive form, agrees to make sure more blood is soon spilled.

Meanwhile, young Kirsty accidentally opens the puzzle box, and when the Cenobites come for her, she offers a deal: let me go, and I’ll lead you to Uncle Frank.

‘Hellraiser’ rose above some weak production elements to stand out, and hail the arrival of Clive Barker as an important new name in horror.

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Pre-prehistory

In the 1990s, Steven Spielberg and CGI would eternally alter the creature feature with one little dinosaur epic. Sam Raimi would take the deadites medieval, we’d see more Predators, more Aliens – and their hyper-campy cross breed, ‘Starship Troopers.’ Everything else in the Nineties got grungy, but creature features got commercial.

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