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FEARNET : Six Sites Remember the Class of 1981

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Introduction by Gregory Burkart

For true horror fans like us, the early '80s were a golden age: for some, it was all about that first chance to catch an R-rated horror flick in the theater (even if it meant sneaking in); for others, it was the allure of a well-stocked horror section at the local mom & pop video shop. Even  fear fans who weren't around to see those films firsthand are now discovering the joy of '80s horror on DVD. Sites like FEARnet, Shock Till You Drop, Dread Central, Bloody Disgusting, Arrow In The Head and Horror Movie a Day are here to help fans of every generation find and share treasures from that amazing era... and that's why all of us decided to join forces and take a look back at our own favorite horror flicks from three decades ago.

Independent horror films had been heating up since the '70s, but '81 was the real spark that set off the '80s horror explosion. Since 30 years have passed, we all thought it would be cool of we all selected 30 titles from that year, with five writers from each of the six participating sites reminiscing about their own favorites. From studio heavies (An American Werewolf in London) to indie classics (Evil Dead), from 42nd Street sleaze (Prowler) to spaghetti splatter (The Beyond), '81 was overflowing with gory goodies, but together we managed to cover the entire spectrum, and now we can share our stories about the flicks we love the most. So set the way-back machine and join FEARnet's writing team on a voyage to glorious 1981...

THE FUNHOUSE
By Carl Lyon

My first exposure to The Funhouse wasn't the Tobe Hooper-helmed proto-slasher, but the novel by Dean Koontz (working under the nom de plume of Owen West) based off of the same Larry Block screenplay as the film.  The main push of the story is simple: a group of four teenagers decide to spend the night in a carnival funhouse where they witness a murder at the hands of a brutish carnie who, at the behest of his barker father, then sets his grim sights on them.  The novel, while still maintaining the same bullet points as its film counterpart, offered a back story rife with religious overtones, guilty alcoholism, teenage pregnancy, and a little Laurie Strode-style serendipity that tied the monster to the heroine.

The film, however, was pure Hooper, at times almost resembling a companion piece to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Similar themes were explored, especially the concept of the dysfunctional family and the monstrous man-child hiding behind a mask, although The Funhouse's brute wore a simple Karloff fright mask in lieu of one made of human hide.  Even the background characters, from the fire-and-brimstone bag lady to the omnipresent filthy hobo, seem like they would be right at home in Hooper's earlier film.

Where The Funhouse differed drastically from TCM, however, was in its bold color palette, which used all of the colors of the midway so vibrantly that it would give Bava a migraine.  In spite of the bright swathes of color, however, a grimy patina of corruption covered almost every surface: dummies never moved quite right and paint peeled freely from the walls, almost as if in reaction to the horrors that it had seen.  It's so memorable and distinctive that it becomes almost a character in itself.  Speaking of characters, a special nod goes to Kevin Conway (Oz) who played no less than three different barkers across the carnival, each with their own brand of smoldering menace.

All of these elements were brought together by an even more impressive supporting crew.  Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) designed the disturbingly deformed brute at the center of the story, and DC Comics superstar Neal Adams provided concept art.  Most notable was the score, a string- and brass-heavy frightener from John Beal (Happy Days) that blended with a hellish calliope march far too well for its own good.

The Funhouse may not get quite the recognition that other slashers that came out that year, but its slow-burn pacing by Hooper and its simple and effective screenplay by Block make it no less satisfying.  It's also worth checking out the companion book, simply to see just how wildly different a direction that Koontz took the story, with no less satisfying results.

BURIAL GROUND
By Eric Stanze

As a teenager in the era of the home video boom, I latched on to the same living dead flicks most other horror fans did - including Italian gore spectacle Burial Ground (1981 - but not released in the U.S. until 1986) directed by Andrea Bianchi (Strip Nude for Your Killer, Malabimba).

Discovering that murky Vestron VHS of Burial Ground was like finding hidden treasure.  So many zombie films fail to deliver, but this bad-ass mo-fo made the hunt for gore-soaked undead awesomeness entirely worthwhile.  Firstly, while many low-budget living dead films simply slapped green/blue/gray makeup (and maybe some oatmeal) on the actors playing zombies, Burial Ground presented more elaborate, chilling, and grotesque zombie makeups, courtesy of effects artist Gino De Rossi (Fulci's Zombie and City Of The Living Dead).  Rotting, deformed zombie faces crawling with maggots and worms - ah, yes, that's the stuff.

Burial Ground (aka The Nights Of Terror, aka Zombie 3) simply fires on all required cylinders.  In addition to cool looking zombies, the music is actually quite effective.  While a great screenplay is not generally a high priority in the zombie sub-genre, this script gets the job done nicely, and the characters each add their own layer of creepiness to the proceedings, especially Michael, the little boy.  But we'll get back to him in a bit.  Gruesome gore effects are a primary ingredient in successful zombie films, and here Burial Ground does not skimp.  The viewer is assaulted by throats torn open, exploding zombie heads, and entrails being ripped out and devoured.  The crimson displays of violence come fast and furious, keeping this lean and mean low-budget horror film from ever bogging down.

However, the most memorable and unsettling aspect of this movie is the character of Michael, a little boy who has, uh, a "unique" relationship with his mother.  As if the subplot of incest wasn't wince-inducing enough, the young boy is played by Peter Bark, a middle-aged dwarf wearing a toupee!  This is already an alarming bit of horror film lunacy, but wait, it gets - better?  Worse?  Young Michael is offered his mother's breast - so he savagely bites her nipple off in a lovingly-framed graphic close-up.  And with that you have a few feet of celluloid that will be remembered and celebrated for decades by appreciative horror film fans.  1981 was a good year.

FRIDAY THE 13th PART 2
By Scott Weinberg

My first experience with Steve Miner's Friday the 13th Part 2 was in the ancient year of 1983. The flick had just made the HBO circuit, and I was staying at an aunt's house in a rather creepy part of a creepy PA town called Chambersburg. This was my very first experience with any Friday flick, and it held me captive for all of its 88 minutes. Then my aunt went to bed and I was left alone, wide awake, on a creepy couch in creepy Chambersburg. I was freaked out, I was miserable, I was sincerely scared.

Two days later I tracked down the first Friday the 13th, and the rest is nerdy history.

Often dismissed as simple "body count crap," F13 Part 2 is, of course, a rather basic piece of horror cinema -- but I still think it's the creepiest flick in the whole damn series.Indeed, the sequel is so slavishly beholden to the formula laid down previously that it could almost be considered a remake instead of a sequel. (Are our sequels so much more sophisticated these days?) Fans will of course note that Part 2 is where Jason, The Killer, made his debut, cynics may point out that the cast offers nothing in the way of "breakout" stars (as the original had Keven Bacon, the sequel has ... Stu Charno. But it does have Jason.

To a more sophisticated viewer, sure, Friday the 13th Part 2 may be little more than a quick-turnaround blueprint sort of sequel, one peppered with basic dialogue and frankly stupid characters. But it also sets a quietly creepy stage (for a slasher flick), it offers young horror nuts some truly innovative and creative dispatches (the poor guy in the wheelchair still gives me chills), and it delivers a legitimately scary ending that doesn't make much sense, but sure looks cool on the screen. Perhaps it's faint praise, but Part 2 is generally considered one of the most enjoyable flicks in the series, it actually "fits" well (enough) with the first film, and it still holds up as a welcome piece of horror-flick nostalgia.

Plus if you watch Part 3 immediately after Part 2 (they were both directed by Steve Miner), the second flick somehow seems a whole lot more professional. (Seriously, I hate Part 3.) 1981 was positively flowing with cool horror flicks, both smart and silly, and Friday the 13th Part 2 still holds up as one of the most basically amusing. Plus it's gory.

HELL NIGHT
By Drew Daywalt

There are some horror films that you see when you're a kid that terrify you, scar you, and leave you with their mark for the rest of your life.

1981‘s Hell Night is not one of those films. 

But wait, though! 

That's not to say it isn't a good horror film, because it is. As far as B-movie slashers go, it's actually one of the most fun, and one of my favorites, because the emphasis isn't on the gore or the manner of the kills, but rather the dread and anticipation of searching for a monster you know is there, you know is waiting for you and that you know you're going to find, even though, in your heart, you don't want to find the damn thing.

Hell Night follows the story of 2 fraternity pledges and 2 sorrority pledges that must spend the night in haunted Graft Manor as part of their hazing to get into their respective Greek organizations. While the fraternity and sorority sisters have a lot of scare pranks planned for the trepidatious pledges, many of them are never executed because, lo and behold, the place's legendary deformed maniacs are real and not legend and end up killing most of the college kids.

Linda Blair (The Exorcist) takes her turn in this film as the virtuous and virginal final girl, and carries the film nicely, and the 2 actors who play the father-son team of mongoloid monsters are awesome (even though they were never credited in the film and their identity is still shrouded in mystery). Weird, right?

But the real reason this film has stuck with me is because it's a missing link. It's like the evolutionary half step between the Hammer Horror/International Pictures/Roger Corman/William Castle "Old Dark House" style of gothic spooky horror and the ultraviolent slasher film which was on the rise. If Mario Bava's 1971 proto-slasher Bay of Blood aka Twitch of the Death Nerve, was the first real slasher, then Hell Night, similarly, was the last old dark house style film of an era.

To illustrate this fusion, in Hell Night, you've got horny college kids (the new horror) with flickering candelabras wandering around a drafty old gothic mansion, complete with secret passages, hedge mazes, decrepit bedrooms and rock-walled dungeon passages underneath (the old horror). 

It's also like someone made a live action Scooby Doo movie where you get to see the monsters actualy catch and kill Freddy, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy.  The monsters are exactly the kind from Scooby Doo as well -- ragged suits, arms outstretched, groaning incomprehensibly and chasing the kids around a decaying mansion.

Is it scary. No. Not really. Is it fun? Yeah, bigtime. And its charm is in its strange place on the evolutionary tree of horror cinema. It's right at that branch that leads from the trunk of classical "gothic haunted house" to the modern "raving maniac slasher," and seriously, it's worth watching just for that.

PORNO HOLOCAUST
By Alison Nastasi

Someone I used to date first introduced me to sleazemeister Joe D'Amato's (aka Aristide Massacessi) Porno Holocaust. He shared my obsession for spaghetti cinema of all ilks, but it turned out that he really just wanted to watch a dirty movie with me. The experience was nothing like I expected – for better and worse – but one thing quickly became clear: D'Amato's smutastrophe is ambiguously grotesque. The lack of full-fledged horror elements will drive die-hard fright freaks batty, and the porn quotient isn't quite as hardcore as expected (though it still maintains that sometimes queasy realism today's airbrushed skin flicks lack). Nonetheless, beneath its vulgar veneer, a bizarre undercurrent permeates this seedy movie, ostensibly about a group of researchers who venture to a deserted island where an insatiable, radioactive creepazoid lurks.

If you're familiar with D'Amato's disreputable repertoire, you'd probably surmise that Porno Holocaust is one of several films he created to capitalize on the success of bigger features – in this case Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust. Actor George Eastman has even admitted that the film was created as a way to make some cash while on vacation. While the mercenary director was often looking to turn a buck and shock audiences, his peculiar humor and genuine talents surfaced in horror films like Buio Omega and Michele Soavi's Stagefright, which he co-produced.

The most terrifying thing about Porno Holocaust isn't its zombie-esque fiend – if you can call a towering, well-hung, dark-skinned man (dressed in rags, with what looks like spoiled romaine lettuce pasted on his face) a monster. The movie's title inspires visions of savage apocalyptic death mutants swelling with lust. Instead, we're treated to an awkward – and sometimes downright uncomfortable – racially tense jungle adventure embellished with shades of nuclear horror, sci-fi trash, taboo romance, and terrible acting. Oh. And sex, of course – the kind that frequently interrupts the threadbare plot in a somewhat charming way that only '70s and '80s filth can pull off. The funkified soundtrack (with eerie synth for the mouth-breathing zombie bits) is porno perfection.

Even though it'd be easy to dismiss Porno Holocaust as ignoble schlock, addled by tedious absurdities, there's something about D'Amato's handling of the exploitive material that's intriguing. Whether that's just mere Euro-centric nostalgia, or an over-amplification of the film's lurid subtext, Porno Holocaust is a compelling piece of sleazy celluloid history. Beneath the tawdry flesh and fucking, D'Amato's warped opus could be construed as a farcical mockery of Deodato's themes about monstrous humanity. Or not. Perhaps Porno Holocaust's greatest achievement, then, is that it forces the audience to question itself. Unfortunately, the question, more often than not, is, "Why the hell am I watching this piece of shit?"

Be sure to let us know in the comments what you think of our choices, and share your own '81 favorites with us. But remember, your journey doesn't end here: there are five other sites to go, each with five writers' film selections from the same year (no repetition either; we're all organized and stuff). Be sure to pay each and every one of them a visit, and tell 'em FEARnet sent you!

Shock Till You Drop

Dread Central

Bloody Disgusting

Arrow in The Head

Horror Movie a Day

 

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