Out: Body Horror
1980s, (which probably begin for horror in 1979 with Alien)
were the decade when special visual effects finally caught up with the
gory imaginings of horror fans and movie makers. Technical advances
in the field of animatronics, and liquid and foam latex meant that the
human frame could be distorted to an entirely new dimension, onscreen,
in realistic close up. This coincided with the materialistic ethos of
the 1980s, when having it all was important, but to be seen to be having
it all was paramount. People demanded tangible tokens of material success
- they wanted bigger, shinier, faster, with more knobs on - as verification
of their own value in society. In the same way, horror films during
this decade delivered the full colour close-up, look-no-strings-attached,
special effect in a way that previous practitioners of the art could
only dream about. Everything that had lurked in the shadows of horror
films in the 1950s could now be brought into the light of day. The monsters
were finally out of the closet.
they were exposed to the light, however, these monsters proved to be
the same as ever: ghosts (of supernatural origin), werebeings (of human
origin), and slimy things (origin unknown). The latter maintained a
strong presence; the cuddly aliens represented in Star Wars and
ET were counterbalanced by the grotesque extraterrestrials
of the Alien Trilogy and The Thing. Werewolves made a strong showing in
the early 1980s with the Howling series and An American
Werewolf in London - and perhaps, as in the 1940s, reflected a
fear of the 'wolves' stalking each other under the aegis of the Cold
War. Ghosts were not so numerous but still provided cause for terror,
whether they were traditional ones, such as those haunting The Overlook
Hotel in The Shining (1980), or of more ambiguous status: Freddy
Krueger is technically a ghost.
films of the early 1980s show a new energy and delight in the genre,
as special effects creators fell over each other to create sequences
that had never been attempted on film before. There were to be no more
monsters with zippers up the back. But did this mean that horror films
became more or less scary?Opinion is divided on the image/imagination
debate. Some films which show no monsters at all (eg Cat People,
and later, The Blair Witch Project) manage to terrify through
suggestion, providing triggers for the audience's imagination and letting
them scare themselves. Others take a quite literally visceral approach,
providing images of blood and gore which induce a physical reaction
of nausea and fear, challenging the audience to keep watching despite
their revulsion. Experiments on the effects of media violence have shown
that even fairly hardened viewers find it difficult to keep watching
a video of a surgical operation; something about the insides of our
own bodies induces genuine repulsion.
the cumulative effect of gory images is one of desensitization; pile
too many on top of each other and they lose their meaning, and their
power to shock. In keeping with the "excess is best" ethos
of the 1980s, it became common practice to pile great heaps of gory
images on top of each other, and the latex lunacy of horror movies by
the end of the decade is more comic than horrific, as animated body
parts hurtle from all directions across the screen. Brian
of Re-Animator, From Beyond (1986) and Society
(1990) are all classic "should-I-laugh-should-I vomit?" cases
in point. This so-called 'body horror' reflects a fascination with our
own insides. Horror films have always dealt with the taboos surrounding
Death, and in the 1980s they began to deal with evisceration, pulling
apart the human body and turning it inside out, with all the bloody,
slimy contents on display. As the tagline for Re-Animator (1985)
intoned,"Death Is Just The Beginning", and viewers of 1980s
horror films get shown many of the processes which occur after that.
movies in which disconnected or deformed body parts provide a threat
to the still-whole, still-living humans, zombie films made a real comeback,
from the slick satire on shopping mall frequenters, Dawn of The
Dead (1979), to the inspired gore-fest Brain Dead (1990)
successfully lurching across the screens in various stages of decomposition.Horror
appeared to be good box office business in the 1980s, so much so that
there are a couple of big-budget family-orientated entries to the genre.
Joe Dante began by directing low-budget horror fare such as The
Howling, and graduated to the major league with Gremlins
(1984) a film aimed squarely at the Christmas family market, but containing
some highly vicious little monsters and some very gory special effects.
Of course, kids loved it, as they also loved Ghostbusters (1984).
These movies were big hits ($148M and $291M at the box office respectively)
and, although their success meant that horror movies were looked upon
favourably by production companies, it began to affect the genre's credibility.
The main demographic for audiences of horror movies in the 1980s was
15-24 year old and male; an audience seeking thrills as a rite-of-passage,
seeking to prove that they have strong enough stomachs to sit through
whatever the film-makers may throw at them. Not for them the 'kids stuff'
of Ghostbusters or Gremlins, nor the 'philosophical
horror' of some of the great genre entries of the 1970s. Of course,
that which is designed to appeal to a 19 year old male may not appear
an attractive viewing proposition for anyone else. The 15-24 year old
market is consistently believed by movie studios to be attracted to
violence, action, shock (as opposed to suspense). sex and excess in
everything: the perfect 1980s audience.
the end of the decade, horror movies were considerably 'dumbed down'
to attract their target audience, with body counts through the ceiling,
and little attention being paid towards plot and credibility. Horror
movies were designed to appeal to aficionados of the genre and no one
else, stuffed full of in-jokes and unnecessary, OTT gore. It looked
as thought the genre might have gone into tailspin - sequel piled upon
sequel, endlessly recycled plots, lower and lower box-office receipts
hence lower and lower budgets, and a loss of respectability which meant
that respected writers, directors and actors shunned working within
the genre. But horror movies had been here before, at the end of the
1940s, and once again the genre successfully managed to reanimate itself.
Eschewing a luminous blue serum, horror went back to basics, and refocused
on that basic of all evils, 'man's inhumanity to man'.