Alice Sweet Alice (TubiTV, Amazon Prime)
Alfred Sole’s Alice Sweet Alice (1976) should have catapulted its maker into the annals of horror, but the movie suffered from terrible luck. It was a flop when it was first released as Communion, and then actress Brooke Shields, who, at age 12 is in the movie for about 20 minutes, became a huge star for her blue-jeans ads. So the distributors changed the title and raised Shields’ name above the title, trying this gambit more than once; needless to say, viewers were nonplussed. But Sole’s film, viewed in its restored director’s cut, is an incredible piece of work, a brilliantly sustained, canny use of color, sound, mood, and tension.
There’s a mysterious killer in a yellow raincoat and a creepy, translucent mask, a little girl blamed for the killings, and a rash of very strange, off-kilter characters. Though Shields’ role is small, her angelic presence is important, given that she’s the kindest character in the story. (She’s the soul of the movie.) Enthusiastic critics and filmmakers at the time proclaimed Sole the next Hitchcock or Polanski, but he only made two more films after this.
Suspiria (TubiTV, Hoopla)
Dario Argento is probably the most famous of all the Italian horror directors, and Suspiria (1977) is arguably his masterpiece. (A new 4K restored print is currently making the rounds in theaters.) Picking up where Mario Bava left off, Argento bathes his widescreen film in extremely bold, shocking colors, making everything seem like a vivid, pinwheel, lollipop nightmare. Jessica Harper plays the new girl, Suzy Bannion, at a prestigious German dance academy. Things don’t seem quite right, especially when maggots begin raining down from the ceiling. But that’s only the beginning.
The great Joan Bennett plays the director of the school (it was her last film), and Alida Valli (The Third Man) plays one of the teachers, while cult character actor Udo Kier is on hand as a psychologist. The band Goblin provided the astoundingly unsettling score, often considered to be one of the best horror soundtracks of all time. This was the first of a trilogy for Argento, including Inferno (1980) and Mother of Tears (2007). It’s available on TubiTV, free with ads, or from Hoopla, which is free but requires a library card.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Hulu)
Even though this was a remake of a much-loved 1956 film, Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is still considered a classic of its time, and one of the director’s best films. It’s also one of the very best films to be shot entirely in San Francisco. The movie is seen as a kind of farewell to the “peace-and-love” generation, and all of the characters, as they try to avoid being turned into alien “pod people,” are slightly disreputable. Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams are health inspectors who find rat droppings in restaurant kitchens. Jeff Goldblum is a paranoid writer, and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) runs a mud-bath health spa. None other than Leonard Nimoy plays a quack psychologist who tries to tell everyone that they’re imagining things.
Kaufman’s city is made of cold, inhuman plastic and metal, juxtaposed with the hideous living green of the pods. Screenwriter W.D. “Rick” Richter brilliantly explains the logic of the pod transformations without revealing the film’s underlying agendas. Look for Don Siegel and Kevin McCarthy, director and actor from the 1956 version, in cameos, as well as Robert Duvall as a priest.
An American Werewolf in London (Amazon Prime, Hulu)
John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) was by far the most popular of three major werewolf movies released in 1981, the others being Joe Dante’s equally great The Howling (1981) and Michael Wadleigh’s Wolfen. It features then-state-of-the-art makeup and latex effects in a harrowing transformation sequence, so potent that Michael Jackson asked Landis to direct his Thriller video. But at the same time, Landis—who, of course, had also made National Lampoon’s Animal House and The Blues Brothers—employs tongue-in-cheek humor to keep the tone a little lighter than usual.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne are the Americans, attacked on the moors at night; Dunne is killed but returns as a helpful ghost, and new werewolf Naughton finds things are complicated when he falls in love with a pretty English nurse (Jenny Agutter). Rick Baker won an Oscar for his makeup work. Remember to look for Landis’s trademark use of “See You Next Wednesday,” hidden in all his films.
The Beyond (Vudu)
After Mario Bava and Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci is the third Italian horror master, and likely the goriest of the three. His movie The Beyond (1981) received a theatrical re-release in 1998 when Quentin Tarantino singled it out for his Rolling Thunder distribution wing, and it still packs a great, gory, nightmarish punch. It captures a strong sense of the unreal, helped in large part by the crazy score by Fabio Frizzi.
The story concerns an old New Orleans hotel. Liza (Catriona MacColl) inherits it and decides to fix it up, but weird things keep happening, and people keep dying. Without giving away too much, it turns out that the hotel sits atop one of the doors to hell itself! There are gouged eyeballs and zombies, but also mysterious rooms and secret books; Fulci combines a kind of arty, creepy tone with his shocking, bloody, garish gore effects. Look for the director in two cameos; walking by, reflected in a large mirror, and in a library talking about labor issues and lunch breaks.
David Cronenberg is a singular voice in horror movies, even though he hates being called a “horror director.” His films are always rooted in some kind of physical, bodily experience, something to do with how the human makeup reacts with its environment, or with a particular stimulus. Though The Brood (1979) was a grindhouse/drive-in classic and Videodrome (1983) is now a critic’s darling, Scanners (1981) came in between and seems slightly underrated. (Although everyone does remember it for its astounding exploding-head sequence.)
A man, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), discovers he is a scanner. He is captured by men in suits, given a drug to quiet the voices in his head, and is recruited to stop an evil scanner (Michael Ironside) from forming a scanner army and taking over the world. As always, Cronenberg’s approach is curious and scientific, with clean, simple framing and use of man-made spaces; this low-budget film still looks great.
Basket Case (Shudder)
Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) has to be one of the greatest and most astounding movies to ever show in the 42nd Street/grindhouse circuit. Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) wanders around New York City, carrying a wicker basket. (Everyone asks “what’s in the basket?”) He checks into a cheap Times Square hotel, and it is revealed. Inside is his mutated, separated Siamese twin brother, a small, lumpy, but horrible monster named Belial. Everything is fine between the brothers until Duane meets a pretty nurse, and Belial gets jealous.
Starting with its brilliant title, everything about this low-budget movie just screams sheer pugnaciousness, as if no one was giving up until this hideous vision could be realized. Shot on 16mm, it’s grimy and cheap and might have had the power to offend if it weren’t so much wicked fun. Apparently, the critic Rex Reed called it “the sickest movie ever made,” a quote that was used in the movie’s promotion.
Day of the Dead (Vudu Free, with ads; Shudder)
Along with Tobe Hooper, we also lost the great George A. Romero this year. He was, of course, the father of the modern zombie film, but he was also a great talent; even his non-zombie films are worth seeking out. Here, however, is his third official “Dead” film, Day of the Dead (1985), which was viciously underrated in its day.
It takes place largely in a heavily armored underground military bunker, where trained soldiers uneasily share space with civilians and scientists. There is much arguing. Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) experiments on a zombie called “Bub” (Sherman Howard), attempting to get him to recognize repeated behavior patterns. Romero always has a little something to say about the world in his zombie films, and this time the failings of the humans lead to a full-scale zombie invasion. John Harrison’s synthesizer score is a thing of true beauty and dread.
The Return of the Living Dead (TubiTV, Vudu w/ads)
George A. Romero’s official zombie movie Day of the Dead and this zom-comedy were both released in the summer of 1985, and this one grossed almost three times as much at the box office. Directed by Dan O’Bannon (a co-writer on Alien), The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is nonetheless a very funny and spunky/spiky entertainment. It begins at a medical supply warehouse, where a veteran employee, Frank (James Karen), shows the new kid, Freddy (Thom Mathews), some barrels of government waste, the stuff that apparently caused earlier zombie invasions. Of course, they accidentally open one, and it all begins again.
Linnea Quigley plays one of a gang of punks hanging around a graveyard, a red-haired girl punk called “Trash” who does a memorable dance. The film contains many hilarious lines (“send more cops”) unforgettable images (the zombie half-dog), and a soundtrack full of Halloween-friendly 1980s punk rock songs by the Cramps, Roky Erickson (of The 13th Floor Elevators), the Damned, and T.S.O.L. John A. Russo, co-writer of the original Night of the Living Dead, contributed to the story. It’s free to stream on Vudu and TubiTV, with ads.
From Beyond (Hoopla, Vudu w/ ads)
Former experimental theater director Stuart Gordon made his feature filmmaking debut in 1985 with the cult classic Re-Animator, based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, and then took on another Lovecraft tale for his follow-up, From Beyond (1986). It proved that he was no fluke, and also that he could be the premiere adaptor of Lovecraft to film.
Dr. Crawford Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) works for a scientist (Ted Sorel) who has invented a machine allowing humans to see past our reality. When that scientist is killed during an experiment, Tillinghast is blamed. He desperately tries to convince a doctor (Barbara Crampton) and a detective (Ken Foree) that he is innocent by bringing them back to the lab and showing them the machine. The images of all sorts of strange creatures materializing in the air is memorably creepy and haunting. Yet Gordon always manages a striking combination of wonder and humor, perhaps laughing just a little bit at the awesome, terrifying unnamable of the universe. The movie is available free on Vudu with ads, or through Hoopla, which is free with a library card.
Evil Dead II (Shudder)
In the 1980s, Sam Raimi was one of the horror filmmakers who changed the way the game was played. His The Evil Dead (1983) was a frenetic, terrifying gore-fest unlike anything that anyone had seen at that time, and then his sequel—essentially a remake with a slightly bigger budget—upped the ante. Evil Dead II (1987) is absolutely insane, with moments that could either have viewers giggling or diving under the covers.
It’s essentially a “cabin in the woods” movie, with several friends, led by Ash (Bruce Campbell) looking for a good time and instead accidentally playing a recording, a reading from the Necronomicon, that unleashes an unspeakable evil. Raimi’s direction is unbelievably swift and smooth, never even stopping to build anything as ridiculous as suspense. It’s almost like a short cartoon, and yet it’s never overwhelming. And Campbell’s deadpan delivery, matched with the seemingly rubber quality of his facial expressions, made him a star. There was another sequel, Army of Darkness (1993), followed, of course, by the current TV series Ash vs Evil Dead.
Hellraiser (Netflix, Hoopla, Hulu, Shudder)
Clive Barker is another pioneer who changed horror in the 1980s. His short-story collections the Books of Blood left horror fans gobsmacked. It wasn’t long before he turned to movies, writing and directing this adaptation of his own 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart. His film Hellraiser (1987) proved that he was as imaginative and spellbinding behind the camera as he was on the page.
There is a puzzle box, and if you solve it, you unleash monsters called the Cenobites. One of these is “Pinhead,” the movie’s most iconic character. A man (Sean Chapman) who has been captured by the Cenobites finds that when his family members accidentally spill blood on the floor of his home, he is restored to life. But he needs more blood to be brought back to normal. Unfortunately, at the same time, his niece (Ashley Laurence) has herself found the puzzle box. Barker’s effort is serious, more inspired by Argento, Bava, and Fulci than by the more humorous or slasher-related efforts of the day, and it’s a powerful debut. But after only two other features (Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions), Barker became disillusioned with the movie business and went back to writing.