Saturday, May 19, 2018

Book Review: Horror Films of the 1980s by John Kenneth Muir

John Kenneth Muir’s exhaustive history of 1980s horror is fascinating trip through the decade that gave us slashers, retro obsessive cinema, and horrifying allegories. Muir views the genre as a response to the social and political climates that shaped them, and horror at its best sheds a light on reality. The real life horrors of the 1980s were manifold: nuclear warfare, the AIDS epidemic and the subsequent sexual panic, out of control consumption, and the oldest fear of all: the monsters within all of us.
Muir often returns to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” mantra as the defining characteristic of the 1980s. President Reagan made grand promises and waxed eloquently on the majesty of the American experiment, while at the same decimated the working class through tax cuts and Union busting, presided over the selling of arms for hostages, and talked a tad too freely about nuclear holocaust being God’s Will. Wes Craven’s unforgettable creation Freddy Kruger (played with gusto by Robert Englund) attacked teenagers in their dreams, just as Reagan infiltrated the subconscious of America with bright visions of city’s on the hill. The decade’s aversion to reality manifested itself in a shabby pop culture of MTV stars and fake moralistic/successful people on television (Bill Cosby being a prime example). But horror movies at their best shined a light through the facade of a schizoid culture.
The ironic element is how tame the 1980s look now in comparison to today. I was born in 1979 so those years were my childhood. Memories of He-Man guys, Diff’rent Strokes, The Muppet Show, Return of the Jedi, Hulk-a-Mania, Late Night With David Letterman, foment waves of nostalgia. Hell, even thoughts of Reagan taking the podium conjure images of continuity and dare I say statesmanship. Elitists wrote screeds against the new gilded age culture that grew trashier with each year, yet at the same time there’s self-assurance to the decade that resonates. 
Video stores and video arcades were meccas of pop culture bliss outs, a far different experience from doing an Amazon Prime search. One of the decades best genre films from 1984 Night of the Comet celebrated consumerism and apocalyptic culture with a subtle irony, honesty, and a distinct irreverence that leapfrogged over the rest. Nightmares are always around the corner, but why not try to have a good time anyway?
Reading over the 300+ reviews, there's sense of diminishing returns as the decade unfolds. The early years were riding the wave of the explosive 1970s. The horror genre reached an apogee during the early years of the decade, an indicator of a changing culture. Slashers became the most popular subgenre, one where the tropes became a kabuki play. May autuers emerged, the trend setters of the 1970s like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper continued to raise the standards of the genre. New comers Sam Raimi, Tom Holland, and James Cameron expanded the possibilities of horror. One hit wonders are legion.
Muir applies the closest analysis to even to the most oppressive of clunkers, usually finding some element to praise. Even for the mediocre movies, and most of these are average, John gives you a reason to check them out. Some of these films are widely available and are regularly aired on cable television or are available to stream. But many of them are not. There are many hidden diamonds in this book that deserve a wider audience: Obscurities such as Alone in the Dark, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff, The Entity, and many others. 
Horror fans will have much to savor with these volumes. For those looking for an iconoclastic look at the 1980s without the tired genre of Reagan hagiography, Horror Films of the 1980s will illuminate how movies are not only entertaining and an invaluable source of escapism, but an educational journey into the subconscious

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