My ’80s adolescence was filled with movies about zombies, aliens, exploding heads and axe murderers. And that’s just in Night of the Creeps, an amusing exercise in excess that flopped during its summer of ’86 release. Director Fred Dekker’s kitchen sink approach to comic horror is one of my favorite movies of the ’80s and no, it’s not because I love movies that begin with “Night of The” (Hunter, Living Dead, Comet, Lepus—OK maybe not Lepus). Night of the Creeps is the “I Love the ’80s” of moviemaking. It has every element and cliché ever put into a film made in the greatest decade of my lifetime. Its enthusiastic, go-for-broke gusto is like a guy having a one night stand with the hottest woman he’s ever met. Fred Dekker is that guy, and his screenplay is that smokin’ hot babe. Because Creeps throws in every move the director knows, as if he may never get the chance to do this again. Let’s tick off the veritable cornucopia of ’80s movie characteristics.
Summer Of 86 (#1–10 of 25)
Penetrate the dream, and you’ll understand the nightmare. Early in Michael Mann’s Manhunter, retired F.B.I. profiler Will Graham (William Petersen) suggests as much during a tense visit to the maximum-security prison cell of infamous flesh-eater, Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). The two men share a traumatic cat-and-mouse history, and Graham enters this antiseptic lion’s den to regain a “scent” for Lecktor’s special brand of madness so he can catch a ruthless killer. But Lecktor’s mind games cut too deep, gutting Graham’s still-healing psyche one carefully modulated word at a time. Even the pressing timeline of a terrifying serial murder case isn’t enough to keep Graham from sprinting out of the fortified mental hospital into the fresh open air, his heavy breathing amplified by classic Mann-style synthesizer tones. Insanity like this is infectious, and Graham knows it.
Released theatrically on August 15, 1986, Manhunter signifies two important beginnings: the cinematic introduction of America’s favorite cannibal, some five years before Jonathan Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, and the flowering of director Michael Mann’s ice-cold specialist auteurism, a stylistic approach he initiated with 1981’s Thief and has perfected in the decades since. Because Manhunter examines Lecktor’s mania within the closed off boundaries of Mann’s tight professional universe, the character’s impact lies in the subtle tweaks of Brian Cox’s marvelously evil performance, a smoldering combination of thinly veiled smiles and slicked back charm that is wonderfully opposed to Anthony Hopkins’s lip-smacking showboat turn. In Cox’s hands, Lecktor treats serial killing as a calling, respecting the nuance and detail of his work just as Will and his F.B.I. colleagues do with their own investigation. A few brief but crucial scenes show how Lecktor manipulates the entire narrative of Manhunter by subverting Will’s trust in institutional procedure. Rules and regulations can’t contain Lecktor’s flair for the evilly dramatic, controlling each character’s fate like a demented cat pawing at its helpless prey. Only Mann’s blue-moon color schemes and sporadically dynamic slow-motion shots evoke a world apart from Lecktor’s maniacal omniscience.
I was never quite as taken as everyone else was when I first saw The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. After just coming off of two post-punk films which married comedy to violence in unpredictable ways (Something Wild and Married to the Mob) Lambs seemed like a dank, watered-down, miscalculated step into typical thriller territory for director Jonathan Demme. Worse, its Oscar wins seemed to temporarily derail Demme’s career for a while, as he pursued projects more for their awards-worthiness than for any personal interest in the material. Admittedly, Anthony Hopkins’ performance as serial killer Hannibal Lecter was electrifying. But the fact that this cannibal killer was imprisoned in what looked like a dungeon struck me as both phony and a little too on-the-nose in its attempt to force Jodie Foster’s heroine to descend into Hades every time she needed more help with her case. So deliberately unusual was Hopkins’ glassy-eyed intensity and odd vocal inflection, it was years before I connected his character to Brian Cox’s Hannibal Lecktor (sic) in Manhunter, a film I had caught in theaters just five years earlier.
During the summer of 1986, my friends and I all thought Stand By Me was the greatest movie ever made, and we were sure it had been made for us, because though the characters in the film were a year or two older than we were, and though the story was set during our parents’ teenage years, we could all see ourselves in one of the four main characters. No film had ever seemed more real to me, more true, more beautiful. I was ten years old.
I know I saw Stand By Me in the theater, but I don’t remember with whom. Probably a couple of friends and at least one of our parents, because it was rated R and we were years away from being able to go to R movies on our own. How did we ever convince a parent to take us to a movie in which kids swear, smoke, and talk about sex? I have no recollection, but I expect it had something to do with the music.
The summer of ’86 for me was the summer of Stand By Me’s songs. Before seeing the movie, I scrounged up some money, or wore my parents down with whining, and got the soundtrack on LP. I remember my father’s delight with the album. He took a big cardboard box of 45 rpm records out of the closet and showed me the original singles of some of the songs on the album, singles he had bought at a record store when he was the age of Gordie and Chris and Teddy and Vern. I think I wanted the soundtrack because I had seen the music video on MTV, and I had certainly seen the trailer, which was ubiquitous on every channel. The title song was inescapable that summer, and though the brief scene with Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell lipsynching “Lollipop” is not in the trailer, I’m sure it was used in promotional materials. That song and Buddy Holly’s “Everyday,” also used prominently in the film, were two my father was especially nostalgic for.
Five years ago, I wrote a piece for House Next Door entitled “Boys Do Cry.” Its subject was movies at which men could cry with impunity. Keep in mind this was before John Boehner figured out that manipulative crocodile tears would do for him what they’ve done for women since Eve; society still frowned upon male bawling, especially about movies. Since I expected to be the only person “man enough” to admit shedding tears at celluloid, I chided our male readers, writing “if you’re a real man, you’ll chime in with your own choices.” My goal was to mock and deconstruct stupid macho bullshit codes by confronting one of them directly. I was warned the experiment could backfire, but just like a man, I didn’t listen. You can read the comments section under “Boys Do Cry” for the results of my pig-headedness. I mention it here because the last film in that piece’s list was Stand by Me.
Based on The Body, a novella from the same Stephen King work that would later yield The Shawshank Redemption and Apt Pupil (Different Seasons), Stand by Me was the second King adaptation appearing in the summer of 1986. Another story from a different collection became King’s directorial debut, Maximum Overdrive. King described Overdrive as “a moron movie,” which made 16-year-old Odie moronic because I kinda liked it. While some of the directorial choices are intriguing, Maximum Overdrive feels made by someone with a head full of raw steak.
I spent the better part of my pre-pubescent years collecting action figures and their respective war machines. After lining these miniature soldiers up in precise battalions, I’d orchestrate fantastical battles between the forces of G.I. Joe, M.A.S.K. (Mobile Air Strike Kommand), and He-Man. Malicious destruction of these toys was never my focus; it was the art of movement, sound, and slow motion that fascinated me to no end. Looking back, it seems like my 5-year-old self was trying to contemplate the power of the visceral image long before my rampant cinephilia blossomed in the early 1990s, an instinctual clue I never really recognized until now.
First developed by Japanese toy manufacturer Takara and made famous in the U.S. by Hasbro, the shape-shifting Transformers characters were common heroes in my vintage reenactments. Each character/machine had a distinct look and purpose, which allowed for endless scenarios during the heat of the battle. In fact, my love for Optimus Prime, Megatron, Bumblebee, and the rest of the multi-dimensional brood went beyond collecting just the figurines; there were definitely Transformers bed-sheets involved. So when Transformers: The Movie was released on August 8, 1986, it became my inaugural event film. The memories of this theatrical experience itself are brief—only striking flashes of color and light—but my hazy recollection made me even more curious about how Transformers: The Movie would play to my adult self made cynical by Michael Bay’s manic and brutish handling of the same material some 25 years later.
As far as frightful childhood figures went, to me the Boogeyman had nothing on Jason Voorhees. Partly due to the demonic hockey masks that seemed to forever loom in my local theater’s advertisement billboards and to my older cousin’s gleefully exaggerated description of their levels of gore—but mostly, I now realize, to the fact that my parents would not allow me to watch them—the Friday the 13th movies came to exude a distinctive whiff of forbidden fruit, of mind-rattling shocks. The idea of an extreme horror movie (or, rather, the outlaw sensations it embodied) was irresistible to my restless, nine-year-old self, so in 1986 I sneaked into an afternoon screening of Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI, my first scary movie, and waited for the game-changing frissons. And waited. And waited. The nudge-nudge James Bond spoof that kicks off the opening credits (a shuffling Jason hurls a machete at the lens and drenches the screen crimson) turned out to be all too fitting: I was like an Ian Fleming aficionado who had came for Casino Royale and instead gotten, well, Casino Royale.
Some folks regard Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI as a precursor to the self-aware Scream films. It’s a tired entry in a tired series…and I love it. The characters in Scream know from horror conventions, and if knowledge doesn’t necessarily prevent their inevitable ends, it at least forces the victims, the killers, and the filmmakers to get creative. Jason Lives, on the other hand, gets boring. Dutifully, hilariously, self-sabotagingly boring. It’s a film that pays tribute to its own pointlessness by refusing to excite. Beyond knowing that they are in a horror film, its characters know that they are in a bad horror film, and they act accordingly. The film simultaneously comments on how silly this all is, while never bothering to actually turn itself into something good. Self-aware humor doesn’t save Jason Lives, but I don’t really think it’s supposed to, and as such, it goes down the meta rabbit hole in a unique way.
Of course, the plot barely exists. Tommy Jarvis, who killed Jason as a child in The Final Chapter, digs up and accidentally revives Jason’s corpse. Jason then kills people. By reading two books about the occult, Tommy figures out that he needs to kill Jason again in the place where he originally died. He kills him. The sheriff’s daughter helps.
The trailer for Maximum Overdrive begins with a voice: “Hi, my name is Stephen King.” A bearded man steps out of shadows. Behind him, we see a giant Green Goblin head. “I’ve written several motion pictures,” King says, “but I want to tell you about a movie called Maximum Overdrive, which is the first one I’ve directed.” We then get our first shot from the film itself: Giancarlo Esposito, bathed in orange-red light, staring down at the camera and saying, “Wowwwww….”
Alas, there is very little wowwww in Maximum Overdrive, but it is not as bad as its reputation. Watching it now, you are more likely to find the movie dull than truly terrible. Its kitsch is not delirious, its actors try hard with bland characters, it had a large enough budget for adequate special effects. It is not, in other words, the 1986 equivalent of Plan 9 From Outer Space or Blood Feast.
The year before Maximum Overdrive hit theatres, Stephen King appeared in an American Express commercial. His face had certainly been well known to fans before (he acted in Creepshow in 1982), and he was already suffering some of the pains of celebrity, with his house in Maine frequently besieged by people seeking autographs and souvenirs, but the amusing commercial increased his visibility exponentially. The opening, in which King descends a gothic staircase with a candle in hand, now seems like a bad wish: “Do you know me? It’s frightening how many novels of suspense I’ve written. But still, when I’m not recognized, it just kills me.” (His 1987 novel Misery would offer a very different opinion about being recognized.)
In Scream 2, the question of whether a sequel can be better than the original film becomes a running gag, with participants intermittently suggesting examples. For Wes Craven, it’s just another of the many self-referential gestures in his Scream films and elsewhere. But for film lovers, it’s a game worth playing. Enthusiasts differ on whether The Empire Strikes Back really is better than Star Wars (now A New Hope), or should be disqualified as the middle part of a trilogy; and whether Superman II outshines Superman: The Movie. Probably the one sequel that no one denies is superior to its original is The Road Warrior. But in the Summer of ’86, James Cameron’s Aliens outdid Ridley Scott’s Alien in every way imaginable.
A sequel has to be both the same film and different, and this is a challenge for anyone undertaking to direct a follow-up. How to make the film your own, turn it into something that stands up in its own right, while still repeating enough of the successes of the original to justify its coattail riding at the box office? Cameron had announced himself with The Terminator a couple of years earlier, and now faced the challenge of reinventing one of the most popular and successful fantasy-genre films of all time. The 1979 film had married science fiction with horror in a way unseen since the ’50s, reviving the monster genre, which had, for the most part, died out in the wake of Psycho’s ushering in of an era of more personal, intimate, human horror.