Bright Lights Film Journal

“Rated R for Retro” Scream Factory Loves the 80s

From top: Lifeforce, Night of the Comet 

For those of us who were teenagers in the 80s, there are two classes of cinema heritage: Breakfast Club and Valley Girl mark the popular kids, Repo Man and Conan the burn-outs and nerds. The former haven’t grown up to buy very many DVDs. Instead they raise kids, mow the lawn, and make a difference in their local community. But for the kids who never went to the dance, who stayed home with their buddies and played Dungeons and Dragons in the basement, there has always been and maybe always will be much DVD collecting. I’m in the latter camp, of course. Maybe you are too! I’m also a film snob, of course, a big fan of prestige DVD labels like Criterion, who encourage a connoisseurship and international independent savvy, but Shout Factory eschews all pretension and globalism. Their new Scream! offshoot has recognized the 80s teen burn-out nerd contingent as a true demographic, ready to shell out for blu-rays that recognize the importance of these great trashy American (and occasionally British) 80s horror and sci fi films that kept us buzzed all through the best decade ever for schlock science fiction.

What made the 80s so great you ask, instantly shivering at the thought of terrible permed hair and pastel pink sports jackets with padded shoulders and sherbert green blouses? It was great because the truly independent film was still alive: independent small town theaters and drive-ins still lured us kids and teens in like evil aunts’ ovens. Thanks to the success of Halloween, Conan, Alien, and The Terminator, the horror, fantasy and science fiction market surged all decade long; talented up and comers and hacks alike seized their chance to sneak art and wit into their imitations of the big hits . We’d see these films on rainy Sundays, sometimes alone, at $2.50 matinees, and in our loneliness they were like cool older brothers: sometimes sleazy, sometimes abusive, as older brothers will be, but at any rate provided  90 minutes free of feeling trapped in suburbia. 

And best of all, there was no CGI.

Did CGI help kill the beauty of low budget sci fi/horror cinema? Of course! In a lot of the contemporary cheap horrors, Sharktopus vs. Sharkzilla, etc. it kind of looks like a cartoon video game spilled into ‘real’ life, making true absorption in the narrative impossible. CGI kills the imagination and yet removes us from reality at the same time, all for clarity of detail–the last thing you really want in a good bad sci fi picture is too much detail! The visceral jolt to the body when, for example, a real truck is hit and flips over, is much more massive without the CGI, especially in a lower budget film, for whom such crashes make up a sizable portion of the budget.  We don’t get that kind of thing in, say, Terminator Salvation. There is never the sense that something was there and then not there, i.e. truly exploded, in CGI. With CGI we just admire the craftsmanship, the brief capturing of light on the scales of the piranhaconda as it snakes forward, or lack thereof (these monsters tend to attack on overcast afternoons, saving animators a lot of time). But our imaginations have no gaps to fill in.

That’s the key to fear! Our unconscious is just dying to project its evil demon devourer all up on some dark shape in the shadows, or even onto a crappy monster suit if used right, or just a claw or dripping fang peering around a corner, and that’s how scariness works. What made the shark in Jaws scary was not being able to see him for more than a second as he pops up (and this was before home video or internet so we couldn’t just watch loops of the scariest moments at home); for Michael Myers it was the not seeing his face–the terrifying blankness of the white mask– the not hearing his voice; the Geiger alien was never seen head to tail and constantly changed size and tactics. All three of these films scared us in ways no kid can ever be scared again, except in the rare movie that understands this vibe, such as Paranormal Activity. Imagination did most of the work in the last movie that truly scared me, The Blair Witch Project. But CGI blocks out all projection thanks to its abundance of detail; ultimately, it’s like being afraid of a hard drive.

Eve of Destruction

Does that make me a Luddite? Clearly I’m not alone or Scream wouldn’t be able to shower these discs with love and hope to pay the rent. It’s like trying to go back to vinyl again, laboring to get your dusty turntables out from under the bed because suddenly you’ve gone all Rosebud/Gatstby into-the-past swimming. But the amniotic warmth, that sense of 3-D space time analogue presence in horror, that’s gold in any era. There’s a million things that no amount of cleverness and $$ on the part of the CGI teams of the world will ever muster, and that’s the million and one details film absorbs that animators don’t see, the special way gravity seems to pull the world down around itself, the minute by minute interaction of actors with other actors. And Shout’s blu-rays ingeniously preserve the grain of the original 35mm film, restoring the colors and crispness but never taking the ‘movie’ feel away.

Dark Angel

In short, the classic science fiction age of my generation – the 80s – lives on and in some ways looks better now than it did then. For this was the last stretch of time when junk still made it to the theaters, and then was granted long stays of execution on cable and VHS. Films like Halloween, The Terminator, and Alien all began in this way, as low budget drive-in fright flicks; in each example, the director used the chance to make a helluva calling card, and those of us expecting routine claptrap were quite surprised. The Terminator for example was billed as (and looked to us like) yet another riff on the indestructible automaton killer motif from Halloween, only given a high tech (but lowbrow looking) Italian disco-meets Hong Kong filter (my friend and I winced at the preview for it while seeing Christine and C.H.U.D. at the drive-in – we thought it looked doomed to suck). If not for how great it was, that would have been its fate.

But it’s blockbuster status opened the gateway to think outside the slasher film box. Filmmakers went for broke in service of the writer’s wild imagination rather than just borrowing Romero’s (zombies) like everyone does today. There was some actual thought, and wit and vision, snuck in perhaps when no one was looking. Real aliens and monsters abounded, and talented newcomer actors starred, allowing for more money for good writing and weird effects, instead of spending half the budget on one big name actor, so all he can afford to do is stand hallways listening to a faint scraping sound for 90 minutes before some ridiculous ‘twist’ finale.

 

As someone who hated slasher films (most of them sight unseen) I’m glad Scream Factory has been helping me to come to terms with my problems. I got Halloween II (1981) for some reason, and aside from being not scary, badly blocked and rife with ugly stereotypes — fat cop security guard, Italian douchebag — it has its moments. It’s a personal historical document for me, as I’ve written in Mr. Sandman (Slight Return), and I’m now eyeing Terror Train (1980) mainly for its cool cover. And I like that Scream isn’t afraid to just stick in random sequels – Phantasm II, the Psycho sequels, even if they don’t have rights to the originals.

But what really makes them a unified field are the awesome new hand-painted covers, which touch on a comic book exuberance but never go over the edge, and if you’re a purist, the Scream Factory people tell us, you can just flip the art over and on the insert is the original movie poster.  Finally, 80s stay at home nerd and burn-out contingent, your cinema is being honored. Now you are driving the whole damn bus… crash away!