Christine VS 80’s Round 4: Horror Edition

I didn’t grow up watching horror movies, and until recently never thought I was missing out on anything. Horror is the only genre that seems acceptable to completely opt out of — people don’t say they never watch action films, or never watch period dramas, but I have plenty of friends who categorically refuse to go to scary movies. Horror is different because it aims to induce a visceral reaction in the viewer in addition to presenting a narrative. Because of this, many commercial horror films seem content to be effectively horrifying but narratively lazy, like a poorly designed roller coaster that’s still going to go fast and jerk you around. This tendency has always made it difficult for me to parse through what’s good in bad in the genre.

Although I would love to roast some of the more absurd specimens of 80’s horror, I think I should first look at some good examples to give myself a baseline. To cover two of horror’s major subcategories, slasher and supernatural, I’m going to start with Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

By 1982, college English professor turned writer/director Wes Craven already had a handful of horror film under his belt, most notably The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and less notably Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. While taking a break from directing, he met Bob Shaye, founder of the now uber-succesful but then struggling New Line Cinemas. Shaye scraped together enough funding for a low-budget production while Craven penned the script for Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nightmare’s premise was groundbreaking for a slasher because it blurred the lines between reality and imagination. Four teenagers all have similar nightmares involving a grinning burn victim in a red and green sweater with knives for fingers, later revealed to be dead-ish child murderer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). When one of them is actually killed by Freddy from within their dream, survivors Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (a very young Johnny Depp) attempt to figure out how to get rid of their attacker (mostly Nancy does this), while avoiding death by staying awake (Glen is less successful at this).

If all horror movies in some way mirror real-life traumas, Nightmare is focused on losing reliance on one’s parents in late adolescence. Nancy’s mom is a drunk and her dad is distracted and condescending, overprotective but simultaneously unable to protect her from the real danger of Freddy. While she’s still very emotionally attached to her parents, she has to let go of her trust in them to face the danger herself.

The vanquishing of Freddy by means of Nancy’s smarts and bravery is undercut by a goofy tacked-on dream sequence in which the kids are trapped in a Freddy-colored car (apparently an imposition from Shaye, who had some misguided directorial ambitions).


The car is Freddy I guess? 

Nightmare is an old-school monster movie as much as it’s a slasher — Freddy Kreuger’s simple and instantly recognizable design calls back to iconic creature feature villains of the thirties and forties. Of course you can’t just make one monster movie: Nightmare spawned eight sequels and remakes starring Freddy. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) was the only one written and directed by Craven himself — a meta-narrative in which the fictional Freddy invades the real world. The 2010 reboot Nightmare on Elm Street apparently put the nail in the franchise’s coffin, attempting to make Freddy dark and gritty by exploring the peodophilic implications of the character’s backstory. Fun!

Watchability: 3/5. The lack of budget shows, and Nancy is the only fully fleshed-out character.

Scariness: 3/5 for me. Freddy’s persona is so pre-engrained that I wasn’t terribly surprised by anything he did.

Stranger Things Callbacks: A tough high schooler named Nancy, hands stretching through walls, booby-trapping a house before summoning an inter-dimensional monster, parents who just don’t get it.

Poltergeist (1982)

I’ve always thought of Poltergeist as that Speilberg movie I’ve never seen, but it was officially directed by Tobe Hooper, a horror guy known for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Accounts of the film’s directorial authorship vary, with many cast members claiming that Spielberg was calling most of the shots on set. I’ve never seen anything else by Hooper, but visually, Poltergeist feels like Speilberg’s work.

True to Speilbergian form, Poltergeist focuses on suburban family, featuring Craig T. Robinson and JoBeth Williams as mom (Diane) and dad (Steve) to two little kids and a teenager. They’ve just moved into a new planned community where Steve is a real estate developer. Because the title of the film is Poltergeist, we can reasonably guess that their new house contains a poltergeist. It does.

Compared to Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist is a more fully-formed movie underneath its horror premise — Speilberg’s aim was clearly to elevate the genre with believable character work. To this end, the film has a lengthy build up, focusing heavily on defining the family relationships before anything strange happens — including a scene where the parents casually smoke weed in their bedroom, feet away from their sleeping children.

The initial ghost activity, which includes rearranging chairs and sliding stuff across the floor, is kind of benign and charming, but things get real when the little girl is sucked into the television. From there Steve and Diane have to figure out how to communicate with their daughter and extract her from the limbo-like state she’s trapped in.


The creepiest thing about this movie is Tagina, a tiny clairvoyant lady hired to help retrieve the child and expel the ghosts from the house. While the dialog in Poltergeist is generally great, she gives us this hilariously dubious exchange at the edge of the ghost-portal:

Tagina: I’m going in after her!

Diane: She won’t come to you! Let me go!

Tagina: You’ve never done this before!

Diane: Neither have you!

Tagina: ….You’re right, you go.

I expected to see only standard ghost stuff, but Poltergeist treats us to a full gamut of awesome practical horror effects, including a kid being consumed by a possessed tree, a guy ripping his face apart, and an entire house imploding. The ending is definitive, avoiding the horror trope of obviously telegraphing a sequel in the final seconds (not that they didn’t make a sequel).

Watchability: 4/5, easily the best supernatural horror film I’ve seen (granted I have not seen many).

Scariness: 3.5/5. Lots of unexpected scares.

Stranger Things Callbacks: Mom trying to communicate with child trapped in other dimension, using a rope as a tether while entering said other dimension, coming back from said other dimension covered in stringy goo.

Christine VS 80’s: Round 3

1984 was a pretty big year for movies. Ghostbusters, The Terminator, Sixteen Candles, Temple of Doom, Footloose, The Karate Kid, Friday the 13th, and my beloved Beverly Hills Cop were all released that year. Since Stranger Things 2 is going to be set in the fall of ’84, I figured I had better brush up. Let’s get into two flicks that I’ve never seen before, Dune and Gremlins. 


I recently completed a master’s degree, which was difficult, but not as difficult as completing the audio book for Dune, Frank Herbert’s ~classic sci-fi novel~. Dune is the story of a young asshole named Paul aka Muad’dib who becomes even more of an asshole due to drug use and power. It’s basically Game of Thrones in space, which is not nearly as much fun as it even sounds.

David Lynch is a director whom I was aware of but had no real knowledge of. I figured I would try out his version of Dune, mostly because I was curious to see how anyone would approach adapting the book. I do not recommend Dune as an introduction to Lynch’s work, but if you’re up for it, it’s… something.

The road that Dune took to production is a lot to unpack, but the short version is that it was originally optioned to be adapted by OG cult director and noted crazy person Alejandro Jodorowsky, who planned on casting Salvatore Dali, Orson Welles, and Mick Jagger in key roles, as well as his own twleve-year-old son as the lead. Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who would later contribute to Alien) was set to handle production design, and the soundtrack was to be composed by Pink Floyd and Magma. If this sounds kind of insane to you, you’re not alone. The studios balked at Jodorowsky’s overly ambitious adaptation (it would have been over twelve hours long) and instead hired David Lynch.

Because Dune is such a long and dense story, there’s an almost impossible amount of exposition that needs to be conveyed in order for the film to work. Lynch attempts to accomplish this in two ways. The film begins with a straight-up five minute explanatory monologue by the Princess Irulan, who in the book serves as type of narrator through excerpts of her written historical works that begin each chapter. She briefs us on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), the houses of Antreides and Harkonnen, and the Spice, the all important drug that makes space travel possible. In addition to the crash course, we hear the characters’ inner thoughts through voice-over to convey extra information. It’s not just the protagonists, it’s everyone, down to minor characters. This works in the novel because it’s a novel and that is how novels work. On screen, it kind of seems like everyone is just talking with their mouths closed for no reason.

Lynch adds his own weird touches of questionable narrative purpose, perhaps most notably the inclusion of a gigantic wrinkled worm thing floating in a tank. It’s supposed to be a Third Stage Guild navigator, which is something that isn’t in the first novel. Because this was not gross enough on its own, Lynch also includes many extended shots of the weird worm thing’s mouth flapping open and shut. Other fun touches include cat milking (not kidding) and the Baron Harkonnen drinking blood straight out of his servant’s chest.


The stoic director pictured with his weird worm thing. 

Some good points: Lynch smartly cast uber-likeable Kyle MacLachlan as Paul, who does a good job of making me not hate him. Patrick Stewart is a welcome familiar face as Paul’s right hand man. Beyond that I am mostly grossed out and confused by this movie.

There is one important element of this film that cannot escape my mention: the puppies. The opening sequence includes a horde of bulldogs, and characters tote around pugs in many key scenes. The image of Patrick Stewart charging into battle with a giant laser gun in one arm and a pug under the other is forever burned into my brain. I am neither kidding nor exaggerating.


Watchability: 2/5

80’s Ness: 4/5

The Takeaway: PUGS NOT (Spice) DRUGS




When I was a child, someone foolishly gave me a Furby, 1998’s hottest and most horrifying toy trend. My overactive six-year-old imagination had me fully convinced that the thing was going to murder me in my sleep. My parents mercifully removed the object from our home, but my fear endured.

Because I am to this day repelled by anything remotely resembling a Furby, I have been putting off watching 1984’s Gremlins. But I have done it for the sake of this series, and I think my courage should be commended. Produced by Steven Spielberg and written by future Harry Potter director Chris Columbus, it’s an 80’s touchstone that I would be amiss not to tackle.

Turns out the fluffy Furby-esque thing that I was afraid of is actually not a Gremlin, but a Mogwai. Small-town aspiring inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) steals one from an extremely sketchy Chinatown shop as a present for his son Billy (Zach Galligan). No one questions the existence of this creature. No one is impressed or even surprised that it can speak primitive English and reproduce by a form of water-induced mitosis. The Mogwai itself (named Gizmo) is actually rather cute, but I’m not holding my breath because much like Titanic, I know from the title that this situation is going to go south very quickly. Sure enough, although Randall was given clear instructions on the safe care and feeding of the Mogwai, all of the rules are promptly broken, creating an army of scaly and mischievous Gremlins from a single Mogwai. They are still less scary than Furbys.

The Gremlins of course wreak havoc on the town, ultimately taking over a movie theater where they enjoy a screening of Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. I was kind of jealous of the Gremlins in this scene. I would love to watch a classic Disney movie on the big screen with all my buddies and unlimited snacks.


The funnest party ever. 

Director Joe Dante added lots of classic movie references to Gremlins which are cleverly chosen and fun to spot. The setting in the small town of Kingston Falls is a nod to Bedford Falls from Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, which Billy’s mom is watching in the kitchen. Billy watches Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another film featuring monsters who incubate in cocoons. You can see posters for Road Warrior and the classic giant ant horror flick Them! in Billy’s room, and the town’s theater marquee features “Watch the Skies”, the original title for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Due to an abundance of monster gore and some really dark discussions between the teenaged characters, Gremlins is one of the films along with Temple of Doom that prompted the creation of the PG-13 rating that year at Spielberg’s suggestion.

Columbus’ original script for Gremlins was apparently was even darker and grosser than the version that got made, since he was just creating a writing sample that he didn’t expect to go to production. Spielberg was so impressed with its originality that he bought it despite knowing that it would have to be toned down drastically to be family-friendly enough to sell as a kid’s movie. Even so, it’s pretty obvious that the spirit of the original spec script comes through in the final product. It’s a work of pure imagination, motivated by a deep love of cinema.

Stray Observations:

  • Quentin Tarantino straight-up lifted the ending of Inglorious Basterds from this movie, right?
  • Turns out I wasn’t the only one who noticed the Furby/Mogwai resemblence: Instead of suing, Warner Bros. struck a deal with Hasbro to produce a Gizmo Furby. It’s a huge improvement over the standard Furby. I would probably be ok with being in the same room as it.

Watchability: 4/5

80’s Ness: 5/5

The Takeaway: Gremlins just wanna have fun.

Christine vs. 80’s: Round 2

After several abortive attempts at a second entry in this ~series~, I am back with two more 80’s flicks. Both are considered to be cult classics, both lived up to their reputations, and both are available to rent on iTunes. Again, I’ll be rating them in terms of how much I enjoyed watching them and in terms of their general 80’s-ness.



It’s a lady. It’s a hawk. It’s LadyHawke, the 1985 medieval comedy starring Matthew Broderick that you’ve never heard of. Full disclosure: I hate Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I think it’s an insufferable ode to nihilism and entitlement. Despite this deep flaw in my character, I still love some adorable ‘lil young Broderick, especially in War Games, so I was excited to jump into Ladyhawke.

Our young protagonist, Gaston (Broderick), is a small-time thief and recent dungeon escapee who runs into a mysterious black-clad knight named Navarre who carries around a hawk. Turns out the hawk is actually the lady Isabeau (Michelle Pfeiffer). Here’s the deal: Navarre and Isabeau were in love, but a jealous, evil bishop cursed them. Isabeau becomes a hawk during the day, and Navarre turns into a wolf at night, preventing the pair from being together in human form. What’s even more of a bummer is that they don’t retain their human minds when they animorph, nor do they remember any of it, which totally defeats the purpose of turning into an animal. They have to go find the bishop to break the curse and end up enlisting the help of Gaston.

The tone isn’t as strictly comedic as, say, The Princess Bride, which is probably the first movie you think of when you think medieval comedy. There are times when you almost think you’re watching a semi-serious period piece, but then the heavily synth-laden soundtrack kicks in. It makes no sense, but it’s kind of amazing.

As I expected, Broderick is his absurdly charming self, and gets all the best one-liners. I was not expecting this movie to have such pervasive religious themes and references: Gaston is in constant dialog with God, bargaining, promising, and explaining. The main antagonist is a disloyal bishop who has aligned himself with Satan. The seal of confession is a major plot point. There’s a Lent joke. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a comedy that engages with Catholicism so sincerely. Both the drama and humor rely on religion, but it’s never the butt of the joke, nor is it portrayed as inherently bad, despite the rotten clergyman.

Watchability: 4/5
80’s-ness: 3/5 for the soundtrack alone

The takeaway: “The truth is, sir, I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but He never mentioned you.”


Mad Max 2: Road Warrior

Like everyone who saw it, I was completely mesmerized by Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller’s revisitation of his earlier action trilogy starring Mel Gibson. I have been meaning to check out the original movies, but the first Mad Max was released in 1979, so obviously I had to skip ahead to Mad Max 2: Road Warrior for the sake of this very important journalistic endeavour. This didn’t end up being a problem, since Road Warrior starts out with a nice recap of prior events, setting up how Max came to be a lone wolf in the parched Australian post-apocalypse.

Narrative-wise, Road Warrior is a textbook old-school western. A group of settlers must find a way to defend themselves from the cadre of bad guys who are about to to ransack their home. Max is the hardened mercenary who reconnects with his humanity by selflessly lending his services to the community. Just sub out the climactic gun fight for a car chase laced with explosions and gore.

The pacing is slower and the effects are obviously less sophisticated, but Road Warrior is more similar to Fury Road than I expected, in terms of both visuals and tone. The manipulation of frame rates to create jerky, surreal motion is already present. There’s plenty of weird, colorful characters, including a boomerang-toting feral child. Although the dialog-to-action ratio is higher, Max is very much the same steady and reticent hero. One big difference is the hair. Shampoo is apparently much more readily available in the 2015 version of the world.

Watchability: 4/5

80’s-ness: 2/5

The takeaway: Not all boomerangs can be caught. Also, why don’t I have my own mini helicopter?

Christine VS 80’s: Round 1

Like most of us, my new hobby is watching Stranger Things repeatedly until my eyes bleed. Among other things, the show has made me realize that the 1980’s is somewhat of a blind spot in my pop cultural education. Sure, I know the hits, but I want to delve deeper into the weird corners, both good and bad. Luckily, Netflix has no shortage of fodder for my investigation. I shall be rating these in terms of watchability and 80’s-ness for your movie night decision-making benefit.


The Burbs, 1989

Young Tom Hanks is a high-strung suburb-dweller spending his vacation from work snooping on his neighbors in what is essentially a goofy, late 80’s version of Rear Window. Hanks, Bruce Dern, and Rick Ducommun attempt to prove that their creepy neighbors are in a murder-cult while Carrie Fisher rolls her eyes. A teenaged Corey Feldman sits on his porch and comments on the action like a vaguely punk greek chorus.

This is the earliest Tom Hanks movie I’ve seen, and I’m really digging this era of his work. Highlights include Tom Hanks writhing furiously on the ground having been stung by a swarm of bees, Tom Hanks slowly chewing and swallowing a slimy sardine, and Tom Hanks sneezing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. If you are interested in seeing Tom Hanks do any of these things, this film is for you.

Watchability: 3/5     80’s-ness Rating: 4/5

The takeaway: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean everyone isn’t out to get you.


Harry and the Hendersons, 1987

Like many #millenials, my first introduction to Harry and the Hendersons came in the form of the 30 Rock episode Goodbye, My Friend. Jack Donaghy views the film with the TGS writers and takes its message to heart, declaring to Liz Lemon: “That film has layers”.

Does it actually have layers? Kind of, just not terribly entertaining ones. Canonical 80’s Movie Dad John Lithgow plays George Henderson, a trigger-happy rifle enthusiast who has dragged his family on a camping trip, only to hit a large, ape-like creature with their station wagon multiple times on the way back. Presuming its death, the Hendersons tote the beast back to their suburban home, hoping to gain some cash off of the discovery. The animal is in fact very much alive. The rest of the plot is essentially E.T.

In a way, this movie is quite prescient. I think that at the time it was supposed to be about environmentalism, but small town Americans frantically buying guns to defend themselves from a strange, foreign, presumably dangerous something feels very 2016.

Stray observations:

Not to be pedantic, but since Harry was willing to eat a fish sandwich and not a cheeseburger he’s actually a pescatarian, not a vegetarian.

Watch out for a Ronald Reagan cameo during the obligatory 80’s weird-creature-is-fascinated-by-television sequence.
Watchability: 2/5     80’s-ness: 3/5

The takeaway: I know what America needs to solve its gun problem: Bigfoot.