Monday, July 14, 2014

Census Bloodbath: 1980 Post Mortem

UPDATE 4/21/2022: I have since viewed an additional 6 films from 1980 that escaped my initial round of research. The body count numbers have been updated to reflect this. 

Wow, you guys. I am so excited that my first year of Census Bloodbath is finished. It's been a very long and very strange journey through a heckton of crap and now I get to do my favorite things in the world. Compiling information and sharing recommendations and LISTS. I love lists.

So far in this feature I have reviewed 45 slasher movies, 25 of which came from the first year of their Golden Age, 1980. As far as I can tell, I have seen every single slasher film released in 1980 bar none. Now inevitably in cinematic history (especially in horror) some ultra obscure little B flick will come bobbing up out of the swamp water to disappoint the completist in me, but as of today, July 11th 2014, this is every slasher film that I have been made aware of after hours of exhaustive research into the genre.

I'm just gonna go ahead and say I've seen all of them. Yay me.

Now I'm gonna stop yapping like an idiot and dive straight into the meat of things.

1980: Post Mortem

1980 was the year the slasher film began in earnest. After the massive success of 1978's Halloween, the subgenre was finally starting to coalesce into a coherent structural form. Because everything was still new and exciting, the formula and the rules hadn't been totally established at this point so legions of disparate filmmakers weren't yet ripping off each other, all coming to the genre through their own means, usually through the entry point of ripping off Halloween (He Knows You're Alone, Friday the 13th, Prom Night) or Psycho (Silent Scream, Funeral Home), some springing forth as a natural progression of the grindhouse movement (Don't Answer the Phone, Don't Go in the House).

Although there are several sterling examples of the genre to come out of 1980, the film that really made a splash was Sean S. Cunningham's Friday the 13th, which brought Italian style gore to the American screen in a visceral way. Gore maestro Tom Savini would do much to pave the way for horror in the 80's (and in fact had already began on that path with 1978's Dawn of the Dead) but his watermark year was certainly this one - in which he turned stomachs again and again, first as Friday barreled through theaters, then toward the end of the year with the ugly and visceral Maniac.

During this year the genre was still gaining traction and getting on its feet, so the gory offerings were much less plentiful than they would soon prove to be, but horror as we know it exists because of Savini's terrific work, bringing to life the traumas he experienced firsthand as a war photographer in Vietnam.

Because of the experimentation with the genre before its ideas were set in stone, many of these films break from form, although obviously they weren't aware of it at the time. Often the merciless killers were played by actual actors instead of anonymous stuntmen, bringing a human face to what would soon become an immensely industrial genre. Not only did most killers not hide behind a mask, many of them were utterly human, reveling in their own ugliness and sin. This was in large part thanks to the last gasps of the dying grindhouse movement, but the face of 1980 slashers was a grunting, sweaty one that tends to stick in the mind just as fast as the masks of the later periods.

Another interesting break from formula is that many of the victims in these films were adults! The shift to teen victim pools would be swift and merciless, but for the time being, the stories being told were mature and at least attempting to rise above average horror fare. They were rarely entirely successful, but that's incidental. The slasher of 1980 was a strange beast, lurching toward an identity. But during this period of turmoil some very very interesting gems can be found. And a lot of crap. But let's start with the good, shall we?

The Five Best Slashers of 1980

#5 He Knows You're Alone

He Knows You're Alone is one of my favorite new discoveries of this project. It's got no gore to speak of, and it's a not-particularly-scary riff on Halloween, but the story is engaging, the gender politics are surprisingly generous, and the characters are more fleshed out than your typical slasher Meat. It's not quite one for the record books, but it is immensely charming. Also hey, Tom Hanks is in it!

Read my review here.

#4 Anthropophagus

Although the pacing is a bit clunky, Anthropophagus is the magnum opus of Italian exploitation director Joe D'Amato. It's one of the more brutally nasty Video Nasties and several of the kill scenes are so shocking and explicit, they stick in the memory far more than other slasher films. This one is harder to recommend because of some of its content, but it's a reliably atmospheric and affecting horror film.

Read my review here.

#3 Maniac

Combining traits from several genres into one ugly, appealing disarray, Maniac is blunt and forceful. Although the griminess of the film is a holdout from the grindhouse genre, which wouldn't survive beyond several months after this film, Maniac is a memorably twisted slasher with some great gore effects by our man Savini.

Read my review here.

#2 Terror Train

Terror Train is largely bloodless and the film doesn't really deliver on the campiness inherent in the title, preferring to play it straight, but throw in a blockbuster performance by scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis, a David Copperfield magic show, a killer that has more costume changes than a Lady Gaga concert, and a sly twist that hits you in the face like a wet fish and you have yourself one of the best slashers of the whole dang year.

Read my review here.

#1 Friday the 13th

As much love as I have for it, Friday the 13th absolutely isn't the best film in the world. It's shockingly terrible in terms of production values and acting, but it hit home with Savini's masterpiece gore in a way that no artistic slasher was able to do, igniting the powder keg that would be this genre. Considering I'm sufficiently devoted to these films that I'm attempting a project like this, it makes sense why Friday would be my number one.

Read my review here.

The Five Worst Slashers of 1980

#5 Funeral Home

One to miss. Although it gets a slight boost by dint of being a Canadian production (it is the general consensus that Canadian slasher films have got it going on), this dull slasher picks off its small cast in disinteresting ways and has such low stakes that the finale ends with a tea party.

Read my review here.

#4 Christmas Evil

It's dreadfully dull, but at least it's festive. One of my more regretful decisions in life was to show this film at a holiday party I was hosting. No wonder nobody ever came to the ones I held after that. Another film that squanders a camp premise (a killer Santa) by playing it straight. Playing it straight isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it takes a lot more talent to pull that kind of thing off, something which the filmmakers must have left at home on the kitchen counter.

Read my review here.

#3 Don't Answer the Phone

This is the first film I watched for this project and it's a testament to my perseverance that I didn't just stop there. Tawdry and nasty, this is a pristine example of mean-spirited exploitation, shifting bluntly between crude exploitation of female flesh and repetitive and cruel rape scenes. Anyone who considers this a "fun" movie should be put on a watch list.

Read my review here.

#2 Silent Scream

Sinfully boring and poorly lit, Silent Scream is a one two punch of not caring what happens onscreen and not actually being able to see it. Its most dreadful sin is dragging genre veteran Barbara Steele down into the muck with it. Rebecca Balding is a decent Final Girl, but the film is too parsimonious with its kills to make up for the plot, which is spread woefully thin.

Read my review here.

#1 To All a Goodnight

1980 was a mixed-bag year for holiday horror. It had the highest concentration of holiday-themed films of any year in this retrospective, but of the three Christmas films, two New Year's films and one Mother's Day film, only two (Maniac and Terror Train, both of which have less to do with the holiday than just being solid flicks) rise above the muck. And our absolute worst film of the year is this rancid Christmas goober, which despite a massive body count never once features a scene engaging on any level other than "I exist."

Read my review here.

1980 Body Count: 239 (9 slit throats, 8 decapitations) - an average of 7.03 bodies per film

Highest Body Count: 15 (tied between To All a Good Night and Night of the Demon)

Lowest Body Count: 2 (Moodu Pani)

Five Best Kills

#5 Auto-Cannibalism (Anthropophagus)

One of two scenes that earned Anthropophagus its "Video Nasty" status, the part where he begins to devour himself is at once bone-chilling and thematically relevant. I kind of adore this movie, it's just so bonkers.

#4 Scissors in the Throat (The Boogeyman)

This death was certainly one of the most creative in the more-or-less lackluster The Boogeyman. A woman is propelled by an unseen force to jam scissors into her neck in a scene way more satisfying and terrifying than The Happening ever managed to be.

Read my review here.

#3 The Exploding Van (Prom Night)

Prom Night was a supremely average slasher film, but this death just comes out of nowhere and is executed in such a hilariously over-the-top manner. I can't help but giggle every time this scene comes onscreen. It's like some bizarre action movie was spliced onto a typical stalk-and-kill routine.

Read my review here.

#2 Arrow Through the Neck (Friday the 13th)

One of the most well-choreographed sequences in the film, I'd suggest you skip ahead if you haven't seen it. Just let this one present itself to you with a minimum of foreknowledge. Let me just say that it is a prime example of misdirection and one of the best gore effects in a film chock full of them.

#1 Dick Torn Off (Night of the Demon)

Another film that earned its "Video Nasty" status if I've ever seen one. It's too explicit for me to show here, but let me just say Bigfoot ripping this biker's penis off does not disappoint.

Read my review here.

Best Decapitation: He Knows You're Alone

This year saw some great decapitations with the Machete Heard 'Round the World in Friday the 13th and Jamie Lee's friend's head rolling down the catwalk in Prom Night, but my personal favorite is He Knows You're Alone, in which the killer shows a little bit of flair.

Three Best Final Girls

#3 Alice Hardy (Friday the 13th)

She's not the most inspiring female heroine, especially considering some really terrible decision-making she performs in the third act, but Alice paved the way for so many more capable Final Girls that she is worth a mention here. Also Adrienne King is a sweetheart.

#2 Amy Jensen (He Knows You're Alone)

One of the most fully-developed female characters of the year, Amy has goals, dreams, and motivations that drive a full character arc, a rare feat for a subgenre typically filled with paper-thin stereotypes and screenwriters more focused on upping the gore ante than telling a terrific story.

#1 Alana Maxwell (Terror Train)

Jamie Lee Curtis will always be the reigning Scream Queen for bringing a gravity and Everyteen believability to a wide variety of roles in the horror genre. Her final sequence in Terror Train is one of the best such scenes committed to celluloid.

Three Worst Final Girls

#3 Dr. Lindsay Gale (Don't Answer the Phone)

All Dr. Gale does throughout the course of the movie is spout incorrect psychiatry (usually more damaging to the patient than helpful - at one point she expounds upon the virtues of drugs to an addict) and get captured. Her survival is only incidental, never at any point procured by herself. Useless.

#2 Terry (Motel Hell)

Terry is the type of girl to just stick around an old motel because her boyfriend died and she's suddenly without a rudder. It's a complete mystery what forces compel her to make decisions and she has no internal drive or motivation, except to bang whatever dude is in closest proximity, in this case the 70-year-old Farmer Vincent.

Read my review here.

#1 Marilyn O'Connor (Fade to Black)

She's beautiful and she does a grand Marilyn Monroe impression. But Marilyn O'Connor willingly shows up at a sketchy modeling job, asks a transparently creepy man to give her a ride, and happily takes a pill proffered to her by the aforementioned transparently creepy man. Girl, you've got to wise up if you want to keep living (and stay alive) in LA.

Read my review here.

Four Best Killers

#4 Bigfoot (Night of the Demon)

It's certainly not the best movie, but come on! What a creative killer! This isn't a genre known for its creative thrust so any murderous being outside of the norm is a plus in my book.

#3 Mrs. Voorhees (Friday the 13th)

Mrs. Voorhees is a delightfully unexpected presence at the end of a mystery that never quite succeeds in being a mystery. Her sudden appearance in the final reel is mystifying, but Betsy Palmer sells the role with hammy delight, chomping the scenery into dust with her dazzling pearly whites.

#2 Kenny Hampson (Terror Train)

At no point is the identity of Terror Train's murderer in question, but his tendency to switch costumes every scene keeps the audience on their toes and ramps up the tension about a thousand notches. And his final reveal is one for the ages.

#1 The Mirror (The Boogeyman)

Again I must give kudos to a deliciously creative premise in a lackluster film. In The Boogeyman, the murderer is a mirror possessed with the spirit of a man who died in its sight. The presence of the mirror later causes anyone around it to murder themselves or die under deliriously strange circumstances.

Four Worst Killers

#4 Richard Sullivan (New Year's Evil)

Richard Sullivan's motive (to kill one person every hour at midnight in different time zones) is unique and compelling, but his execution and performance are lacking. His final scene is interestingly banal, but he simply can't carry a movie on his own.

Read my review here.

#3 Ike & Addley (Mother's Day)

This Troma film was supposedly a comedy, but this backwoods duo put way too much emphasis on brutal rape to keep the tone light in any way. A total wash of a film that puts a bitter taste in one's mouth.

Read my review here.

#2 Kirk "The Strangler" Smith (Don't Answer the Phone)

An utterly disappointing killer to match with an utterly disappointing Final Girl. His MO is always exactly the same and always brutal in an infinitely disgusting way rather than any level capable of reaching an audience and provoking any reaction other than mild disgust.

#1 Victoria Engels (Silent Scream)

Of the five people that die in her film, the killer only manages to claim two of them. If you want to enter the big leagues, you've got to work for it, my darling.

Handsomest Lad: Richie (Fade to Black)

I'm probably only enthralled by Mickey Rourke in Fade to Black thanks to his startling resemblance to one Louis Tomlinson, but I likes what I likes and there is too much late 70's hair in these films to provide another standout.

Handsomest Lass: Jennifer Fast (The Unseen)

The only Final Girl to have also been a Bond girl, Barbara Bach is ethereally beautiful and a terrific choice.

Read my review here.

Best Location: The Greek Island (Anthropophagus)

Setting this moody slasher on an abandoned Greek island allows the film an extra edge of tension thanks to its claustrophobic whitewashed corridors.

Best Title: Terror Train

Come on, who wouldn't want to see a movie called Terror Train? Unfortunately, the answer seems to be "a lot of people." But I urge you to check it out.

Three Best Costumes

#3 Pig Head (Motel Hell)

It lands a lower spot thanks to its immense impracticality and the fact that it's only used in one scene of the film, but the image is still striking today as one of the more memorable slasher improvisations.

#2 Santa Claus (Christmas Evil)

Although Christmas Evil was a tedious slog, the idea of a killer Santa still stings, and the increasing disheveledness of his outfit as the night wears on is one of the more chilling elements the film has to offer.

#1 Murder Clown (Terror on Tour)

Simultaneously hilarious and a mean bit unsettling, the costumes are the only memorable part of the slack Terror on Tour.

Read my review here.

Best Poster: Maniac

There are a lot of terrific horror posters in the 80's (because of the glut of slasher films, promotional materials really had to bring their A-game), but this poster is a perfect depiction of the brutal nastiness of the film while at the same time being a striking and unforgettable image.

Best Song: "Prom Night (Everything Is Alrite)" (Prom Night)

I love myself some cheesy 80's synthpop and this original song by Paul Zaza is so shrilly, gratingly cheesy that it elevates the film above being a tepid genre piece to being a solid hunk of cheese.

Best Score: Friday the 13th

Although it's a well-worn riff on the horror score tropes invented by Bernard Hermann and John Williams in Psycho and Jaws, composer Harry Manfredini provided one of the single most stunning musical cues of all time - the dissonant CH-CH-CH HA-HA-HA sound that would come to represent our boy Jason for decades to come.

Elite Champion Dialogue: "You castrated me. And that is not nice." (New Year's Evil)
Word Count: 3052


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    1. What? This project is actually influencing people? This is a dream come true. Also please check it out. It's insane.