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.
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.