Friday, October 28, 2016

Census Bloodbath: 1981 Post Mortem

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1981: Post Mortem

That’s a wrap on 1981 slashers! Another Census Bloodbath year has come and gone, and it only took a decade or so for me to finish it. Things have been rough, you guys. But you know what that means? It’s time for another sweet, sweet post-mortem post, dissecting the best and worst that the year had to offer!

1981 is typically hailed as the Golden Year for slasher films, and it’s certainly true that the relatively high quality batch (everything is relative when you’re talking slashers) this year cemented in the format of what we’d be seeing at least until 1984, the end of the first wave of the slasher subgenre.

The fast-tracked Friday the 13th Part 2 opened the floodgates for dozens of quickie sequels, including Halloween II later that very year. And holiday horror was still going strong, adding Valentine’s Day, graduation day, and birthdays (in two separate entries) onto the Calendar of Dread. We even get our first parody of the genre, indicating that the formula was already well understood by audiences at the time.

And it looks like we’re finally seeing the last dregs of the seedy grindhouse genre get swept down the drain, with sparse, rapey entries like Eyes of a Stranger and Lady Stay Dead hammering the last nails into that sub-subgenres coffin.

The really weird thing about 1981 is that the MPAA was already starting to crack down on the excessive gore that came to define the slasher genre but was never particularly prevalent thanks to censors. Only The Burning, The Prowler, Absurd, and Halloween II feature a plethora of outré, bloody kills, wheras the rest of the genre was mostly content with typical bloodless knifings. The genre had yet to become desperate, so there wasn’t a ton of creativity required.

Although, in true Part 2 fashion, 1981 features a much higher body count than 1980. The body counts of individual films still haven’t risen to truly extravagant levels (the average is about 9 per film), but it’s a promising uptick for a bright, bloody future.

UPDATE 4/21/2022: I have since viewed an additional 8 films from 1981 that escaped my initial round of research. The body count numbers have been updated to reflect this. Had I seen it before I made this list, Wolf/Srigala most likely would have edged out The Demon as the #5 worst slasher of the year.

The Five Best Slashers of 1981

#5 Halloween II

It’s not as classy as the original Halloween, but when else has a trashy slashfest been given this type of budget, and ace cinematographer Dean Cundey to boot? The flick is riddled with flaws (C’mon, Jamie Lee, get out of bed! And get a wig that doesn’t look like you pulled bristles off a broom and glued them to your skull!), but it’s slick, sleazy, and gleefully gory. Plus it feature three distinct deaths by explosion. What more could a fella want?

Read my original review here.

#4 Happy Birthday to Me

The poster advertises “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see” and for once the movie delivers. This Canadian gem is as cornball as it gets, but its raucous, creative kills and Scooby Doo mystery elements make it one for the history books.

Read my original review here.

#3 Night School

Oh, Night School. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve rhapsodized about Night School, I’d be reimbursed for the dismayingly high price of the DVD. The new Census Bloodbath slasher that I’ve rewatched the most since checking it out (in fact, it’s the only one I’ve rewatched), Night School is a delightfully sleazy tale with a terrific faceless killer, engaging human characters, and a playful sense of humor that relies on the audience’s knowledge of the genre to subvert expectations time and time again. The only reason it’s not number one on this list is that it’s a wee bit too classy and focused on police procedural to earn standing as a bona fide slasher.

Read my original review here.

#2 Road Games

I knew that I couldn’t go wrong popping in a Jamie Lee Curtis horror movie, but I never could have expected what I got. The few kills are terribly chaste and Curtis retreats offscreen for 50% of the runtime, but instead of ruining the film, it opens it up to become perhaps the best Hitchcockian thriller of the 1980’s. Stacy Keach is dazzling as an affable man slowly losing his composure over the course of a long road trip, and the device of tucking the already overfamiliar serial killer plot inside a series of highway games is pure genius.

Read my original review here.

#1 My Bloody Valentine

I hate to lead with a standard, but My Bloody Valentine still has name value despite not being attached to a sprawling franchise for a reason. It has a playful killer in an iconic costume, an unparalleled sense of place, and (in the Unrated Cut) a heaping helping of some of the best, bloodiest kills on the market. Usually when a killer mostly dispatches teens with the same weapon, in this case a pickaxe, things can get a little monotonous. That surely ain’t so in MBV, which sparkles with relentless creativity. My heart belongs to the dearly departed of Valentine Bluffs.

Read my original review here.

The Five Worst Slashers of 1981

#5 The Demon

The reason The Demon sucks so hard is that there’s so much potential to be good. But an awesome Final Girl sequence and a genuinely sweet romance can’t overcome The Demon’s murky, tension-free killings and general incoherence.

Read my original review here.

#4 Don't Go in the Woods... Alone!

More proof that a fun title and poster generally reflect that more thought was put into the marketing than the film itself, as they desperately tried to figure out how to sell this cheap, overstuffed, but underwritten monstrosity.

Read my original review here.

#3 Absurd

Although it’s purportedly a sequel to 1980’s Anthropophagus, Absurd is that film’s complete antithesis: an incoherent, plodding Italian programmer that lives up to tis title.

Read my original review here.

#2  A Day of Judgment

Despite a concept that could have been fun with a better director, A Day of Judgment is a moralistic slog with too few deaths and too many ugly, hateful characters.

Read my original review here.

#1 The Outing

The Outing
is the cinematic equivalent of bleeding out just slow enough that your body keeps producing enough blood to keep you alive. It’s dull, excruciatingly painful, and all you wish for is to be put out of your misery. Then, when it’s all over, you get a profound sense of something having been physically taken from you. Something that you’ll never get back.

Read my original review here.

1981 Body Count: 329 1/2 (20 decapitations and 14 slit throats)

That's an average of 8.04 per movie!

Highest Body Count: Student Bodies (15 1/2), unless you don't count flies dying, in which case it's tied with Don't Go in the Woods... Alone! (15)

Lowest Body Count: Road Games (2)

Five Best Kills

#5 The Worm Turns (Evilspeak)

As a movie, Evilspeak doesn’t have a lot to offer, but as a three minute clip on YouTube, the bonkers final scene where Clint Howard goes full Lucifer and mows down a dozen people with an ancient sword and a ravenous herd of pigs, before Temple of Dooming a dude by ripping his still-beating heart right the hell out of his chest, it’s perfection. It’s an explosion of beautiful 80’s horror excess, the military school equivalent of Carrie’s prom rampage.

Read my original review here.

#4 Ben Tramer (Halloween II)

The fact that this sequel needlessly exterminates the boy Jamie Lee Curtis had a crush on in the original is so hilariously nasty that it would earn a slot on this list just for that. But they had to go ahead and run him down with a car that then explodes. In a slasher movie! What a beautiful, beautiful moment.

#3 Raft Massacre (The Burning)

The scene that cemented The Burning as one of Britain’s notorious Video Nasties, the ruthless, out-of-the-blue scene showcases Tom Savini’s tireless efforts toward decreasing the population of American summer camps.

Read my original review here.

#2 Fisting Fatality (Just Before Dawn)

I didn’t really enjoy the stultifying Just Before Dawn, but it earns the right to exist on the strength of its Final Girl’s ruthless execution of the hulking backwoods mutant killer by shoving her entire fist down his throat like she’s unclogging a drain.

Read my original review here.

#1 Lockjaw (The Prowler)

The single best death in the film that showcased gore maestro Tom Savini’s best work, this stabbing through the skull is a masterpiece of moving parts and attention to detail that is so remarkably grotesque that it’s almost not even fun to watch. Good work, my man. It’s superb enough to make me want to watch the film again despite the third act being dull as watching paint grow.

Read my original review here.

Best Decapitation: Eyes of a Stranger

It might be a total lift from He Knows You’re Alone, but I do love me a severed head in a fish tank. And hey! That’s our third Tom Savini kill! The guy’s a beast.

Read my original review here.

Three Best Final Girls

#3 Mary (The Demon) and Jenny Nolan (Lady Stay Dead)

I’ve paired these two because they both unfortunately provide a reason, in at least one scene, to watch two otherwise irredeemable slashers. Mary goes all Nancy Thompson with an incredible bathroom booby trap, and while Jenny melts into a useless puddle once a man shows up, she puts up a hell of a fight with a fireplace rod, a pot of boiling water, and a rake. Now that’s a recipe for slasher goodness!

Read my original review of Lady Stay Dead here.

#2 Marti Gaines (Hell Night)

This Final Girl selection is twofold. First, it’s Linda Blair in a slasher movie. Come on! Second, she’s the only Final Girl I’ve ever seen who actually fixes that classic horror movie broken-down car. Now there's an idea!

Read my original review here.

#1 Ginny (Friday the 13th Part 2)

A Final Girl who’s actually allowed to be smart the entire time, this Child Psychology major is also a badass, using everything at her disposal to stay alive, whether it be a chainsaw, a pitchfork, or just her wits and a dead woman’s sweater.

Read my original review here.

Three Worst Final Girls

#3 Pam MacDonald (The Prowler)

This has more to do with The Prowler’s terrible third act than the Final Girl herself, but Pam MacDonald seems almost actively opposed to achieving her goals, stumbling into precarious situations and not even having the guts to dispatch the killer herself.

#2 Hitch (Road Games)

OK, OK, I know it’s sacrilege to put Jamie Lee Curtis in this category. The character and the performance are both great, but Hitch is just a useless damsel in distress when the going gets tough, spending the entire third act locked in a trunk. She doesn’t even get a stab in edgewise!

#1 Courtney (Final Exam)

I know it’s finals week, as the title implies, but as her friends are picked off one by one, literally all Courtney does is sit in her dorm studying. It’s not exactly a dynamic character arc. She could at least have stabbed the killer with a pencil or something.

Read my original review here.

Four Best Killers

#4 The Kids (Bloody Birthday)

Killer kids can be tough to pull off, and I wouldn’t be caught dead saying Bloody Birthday is “scary,” but the three remorseless kids at the center of this killing spree are delightfully macabre, treating bloody murder like a playground game.

Read my original review here.

#3 The Scarecrow (Dark Night of the Scarecrow)

As a TV movie slasher, Dark Night of the Scarecrow is hobbled in the gore department, but it makes up for it with a spectacularly eerie, folkloric villain: the lurking scarecrow as a portent of imminent doom.

Read my original review here.

#2 Jason Voorhees (Friday the 13th Part 2)

You gotta pay respect to the classics, man! Even though he hasn’t yet donned his iconic hockey mask, Jason shines in his deadly first outing, even if he’s mostly just ripping off Twitch of the Death Nerve.

#1 The Prowler (The Prowler)

Everything about the murders in The Prowler is terrific enough to redeem the awful third act, including the killer. His faceless, militaristic visage provides an inscrutable and threatening menace that goes a long way. He’s like a toy soldier come to sadistic life.

Four Worst Killers

#4 A Day of Judgment

This killer is so personality-free, he doesn’t even have a name! Although his righteous slaying of sinners isn’t too far off from the average slasher villain, he’s mostly content to step back and let his victims kill each other in increasingly bloodless ways.

#3  The Breather (Student Bodies)

Although The Breather has a killer first scene (no pun intended, not that Student Bodies would mind), he quickly devolves into a brutally over-the-top running gag of phlegmatic whispering that’s far more irritating than amusing. He is where the films lets loose and pumps out its most sophomoric, idiotic gags.

Read my original review here.

#2 Final Exam

It’s OK for psycho killer not to have a backstory. But good god, at least give him a mask so he doesn’t just look like an angry gym teacher stalking around campus.

#1 The Outing

Does this one even count? The Outing doesn’t have a killer, only an offscreen presence that isn’t even revealed after they shoot it to death. Presumably it’s a ghost cowboy because the movie is hella weird in addition to being boring, but this whole shebang is utter garbage.

Handsomest Lad: Michael Biehn (The Fan)

I love me some vintage Michael Biehn, and he looks great even before his more, rugged, macho love interest role in James Cameron’s Terminator.

Read my original review here.

Handsomest Lass: Sharon Stone (Deadly Blessing)

I love that Sharon Stone has Wes Craven to thank for kick-starting her career. And she certainly looks luminous, even with a big fuzzy spider falling into her mouth.

Read my original review here.

Best Location: The Funhouse (The Funhouse)

It’s all in the title, man. Although Tobe Hooper’s 80’s output was questionable at best, in titles like The Funhouse and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, he proved that he has a way with spooky, over-the-top set design.

Read my original review here.

Best Title: The House Where Death Lives

I mean, come on. Nothing else even comes close to touching this one. Unfortunately, this surprisingly decent mystery slasher was saddled with the boring alternate title Delusion for most of its release, which I’m convinced is the reason it never found an audience.

Read my original review here.

Three Best Costumes

#3 Bald Mask (Strange Behavior)

Strange Behavior is a lot of things (surprisingly realistic small-town drama, a tightly scripted 50’s pastiche), but it’s certainly not a generic slasher. Hence we get this creepy-ass mask that would land any killer in the Top 4, but tragically it’s only used in one scene before it’s discarded for a new, even weirder idea.

Read my original review here.

#2 "No" Button (Student Bodies)

One of the best gags in the slasher parody, the escalating series of pro-chastity buttons the Final Girl wears are a highly amusing jab at the already well-worn trope that only virgins survive horror movies.

#1 Mistake (Home Sweet Home)

Mistake is the character’s name, but it’s also an apt description of his clothing choices. This Kiss wannabe might have been redeemed by a sweet moment with his little sister, but he deserves everything he got, just for his crimes against fashion.

Read my original review here.

Best Poster: Eyes of a Stranger

Normally, I’d say that a post-grindhouse rape-murder thriller like Eyes of a Stranger doesn’t deserve such a mysteriously classy poster, but I actually really dug the flick. The rape is offscreen and its two heroines kick ass, so I didn’t really mind it all. And this is such a gorgeous, lovely design that I swear, I wouldn’t mind hanging it in my apartment.

Best Song: "Everybody Wants to be a Winner" Graduation Day

No matter how hard an 80’s slasher tries to be scary, it’s almost always undone by its score, and the bracingly twee sporting anthem “Everybody Wants to be a Winner” is the crème de la crap mood-ruiner in a year with some very stiff competition.

Read my original review here.

Best Score: Bloody Moon

Did I pick this score because of its absurd, twanging Frankie Avalon guitar riffs that briefly convert random scenes of a German slasher film into a soapy teen beach tragedy? Hell yeah, I did.

Read my original review here.

Elite Champion Dialogue: “She won’t drink anything. She hates to go to the bathroom.” (Home Sweet Home)
Word Count: 2798

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