Horror’s Greatest Year: Blockbuster Edition
By Brian Keiper
From time to time for Manor Vellum I have returned to the deep well that is the year 1984, attempting to prove one bold statement: 1984 is horror’s greatest year.
So far, I have explored “The Death and Resurrection of the Slasher” with Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter and the new life breathed into the subgenre with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Next, I took a look at a pair of “Vicious Christmas” classics with the lasting impacts of Gremlins and Silent Night, Deadly Night. Now, I’d like to dive into three films that did something rare for horror up to that point: they brought terror to the masses. These are horror films in disguise, movies that rarely come into the conversations of the genre but are completely shot with the trappings and tropes of monsters, fear, suspense, ghosts, and gore.
You Call Him Dr. Jones
Though his name is only occasionally associated with the genre, no filmmaker did more to bring horror into the mainstream in the early ’80s than Steven Spielberg. This all started in the previous decade with the release and historic success of Jaws (1975), the first film to break the one hundred-million-dollar mark at the box office and to officially take the title of “blockbuster.” It was also, no matter how much critics and mainstream audiences continue to deny it, a horror film. Soon, Spielberg was the wunderkind of the New Hollywood and seemed to be able to do no wrong. In 1981, he, along with producers and frequent collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, created Amblin Entertainment (named after his early short film). Several horror films with the “Spielberg touch” were produced under this umbrella. The most notable were Poltergeist (1982) directed by Tobe Hooper, the anthology film The Twilight Zone (1983), and the vicious monster movie in the guise of a family holiday romp Gremlins in 1984.
The only hiccup along the way was 1941 (1979), his first major flop, after which he joined forces with his friend George Lucas to create the landmark adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), starring Harrison Ford as swashbuckling archeologist Indiana Jones. Spielberg also made a handshake agreement with Lucas on a beach in Hawaii that, if the first film were successful, he would agree to make two more. Raiders was a huge hit, and it was clear that the public wanted more. They got more than they bargained for with the dark and mean Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Raiders had its fair share of horror elements including venomous snakes, skeletons, and melting faces, but Temple of Doom latched onto these and doubled down. Lucas had always wanted the second Indiana Jones film to be darker than Raiders, as The Empire Strikes Back (1980) had been in the original Star Wars trilogy, but personal and professional struggles led to an even bleaker film than expected. Lucas was going through a divorce from his long-time wife Marcia Lucas at the time and later admitted that it likely affected the development of the story and the script. Spielberg, likewise, was in an “off-again” portion of his continuing relationship with Amy Irving. On the professional side, Lucas was exhausted from his experiences on the Star Wars films, having put much of his own finances on the line in the process. Though the films had been huge successes, they took a massive toll on his personal well-being. He abandoned plans to create an expanded universe at the time, including prequel and sequel trilogies, because of it. It would be another fifteen years before he returned to the galaxy far, far away.
Spielberg’s professional struggles require more speculation as he rarely discusses them. Just before the filming of Temple of Doom was to begin in Sri Lanka, the deadliest on-set accident in modern history occurred. Spielberg and Frank Marshall were producers on Twilight Zone: The Movie, and though neither were on set at the time, a helicopter crash took the life of actor Vic Morrow and two young children during the filming of the segment directed by John Landis. It became clear that corners had been cut and violations in hiring, safety, and shooting practices had occurred. The production was fined for these violations, and John Landis was taken to court on involuntary manslaughter charges for which he was found not guilty five years later. The fact that Spielberg and Marshall left the country in the wake of this accident made it at least appear that they were attempting to escape responsibility. Whether or not this is the case, there is no doubt that the sensitive Spielberg felt the weight of this situation. By his own admission, he often threw himself into his work to avoid dealing with emotional stress.
Whatever the circumstances surrounding its making, Lucas later commented, “I think we went darker than any of us really wanted to go. But you’re in the middle of it, and you’re doing things, and it’s a matter of what you do every moment. And you don’t realize what has happened till you put it all together and you see it as one piece.” The film is ultimately about a murderous religious cult involved in human sacrifice, blood-drinking, mind control, and child enslavement — dark stuff for the darlings of family cinema who had brought us Ewoks and E.T.
Many of the set pieces of Temple of Doom are astounding. In the horror realm, the infamous dinner scene, with its slithering eels, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains, is both disgusting and hilarious. The discovery of the hidden temple includes hordes of swarming insects and a collapsing ceiling complete with metal spikes and skulls. The human sacrifice sequence involves villain Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) reaching his hand into a man’s chest and pulling out his still-beating heart. Through black magic, the man remains alive, and his heart continues to beat as he is lowered into a blazing fire before both body and heart burst into flames. Indy (Harrison Ford) is forced to drink blood and falls under the spell of the Kali cult. The film climaxes with Ram and his Thugee followers ripped apart by alligators. If all that isn’t horror, what is?
In addition to these memorable elements, the film also contains some of the best action sequences in the series including a fall from an airplane on a rubber raft into a raging river, whip and sword work unparalleled even in the original, and the iconic mine car chase. Several of these sequences were taken from elements intended for Raiders, but there was simply not enough space for them in a single film. The final result makes for an exciting if a bit uneven film. Spielberg has called it his least favorite of the Indiana Jones films simply because he was uncomfortable with how dark it went. That said, he also credits the film with the greatest thing in his life — introducing him to Cate Capshaw, the love of his life, whom he would marry in 1991.
Temple of Doom opened to many negative critical reviews, mostly for the dark tone of the film, but huge box office. Though it did not make quite as much as Raiders, that was typically expected for sequels. It was still most certainly a blockbuster, raking in nearly $180 million in domestic box office receipts. Temple of Doom had long been considered the weakest of the original three entries in the series but has been undergoing quite a bit of reconsideration in recent years. Today, many even name it the best in the series. It is given a great deal of credit for its iconic elements, and the darker tone has aged well for the more cynical audiences of the twenty-first century.
Who Ya Gonna Call?
The biggest hit of the summer of ’84 began as an incredibly ambitious script titled “Ghost Smashers” written by Dan Aykroyd and intended as a vehicle for himself and John Belushi, who would have played Venkman. This original version, set in the future (2012 in the script), involved inter-dimensional transport, time travel, and rival franchises of ghost hunters — some good, some bad. A few elements that survived to the final version include Zuul and Gozer, the names Stantz, Venkman, and Shandor (briefly mentioned in the jail cell scene in the film), an ecto-mobile, and an appearance by the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Little else resembled what the final film became.
After John Belushi’s untimely death in March of 1982, Aykroyd knew the script would no longer work. Eventually, he took it to Harold Ramis who, along with director Ivan Reitman, helped reshape it into a “going into business” movie set in present-day New York City. The script and film continued to be reshaped during filming and the editing process. The fact that the film exists, and is as good as it is, is somewhat miraculous based on the constantly evolving nature of the project. But somehow through the process, magic happened, and a classic of gateway horror was born.
It’s safe to say that Ghostbusters is more comedy than horror, but for me and many kids of my generation, it was the horror and the technology that we latched onto. The film begins as a ghost hunting story but becomes an expansive Lovecraftian horror movie. Yes, it is filled with humor, but it is also filled with memorable and terrifying images from beginning to end. Few films balance horror and humor quite as well as Ghostbusters; it did expertly without sacrificing either and moves with unprecedented fluidity from one to the other.
Even from the first moments, a sense of dread is built as books float and card catalog drawers open before unleashing a barrage of paper into the air around an unsuspecting librarian. When true believers Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Ramis), along with their skeptical colleague Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), encounter the ghost in the library basement, the ghost transitions from a harmless-looking elderly woman into a wide-mouthed, fang-toothed horror with arms outstretched and hair blowing in a mysterious wind. Soon we are introduced to Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) and the horned, lizard-like terror dog in her refrigerator. Other frightening images include a ghost bursting from the subway and chasing a crowd of people, a rotting skeleton driving a taxi, and monstrous hands bursting from Dana’s armchair and restraining her as she is carted off into the waiting jaws of a terror dog. Even the appearance of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man is simultaneously frightening and hilarious.
What Ghostbusters did above all, though, was appeal to the whole family. It was the very definition of family entertainment: scary but not too scary, funny enough for teenagers and adults but not the kind of raunchy humor found in films like Animal House (1978), Caddyshack (1980), or Porky’s (1981). For adults, there was enough “real-world” in it to have verisimilitude and enough fantasy to be fun. For kids, it played like a superhero origin story right out of the comic books. It opened on the same day as the far meaner family horror film, Gremlins. But where Gremlins found angry parents and crying children along with its success, Ghostbusters found almost universal appeal.
Come With Me If You Want to Live
Though technically not a blockbuster since it did not break the one hundred-million-dollar mark, The Terminator certainly feels like one, especially considering what the franchise would become. One thing the film certainly is, though, is horror, even if critics and mainstream audiences refuse to acknowledge it. Besides the fact it is hidden under the disguise of a sci-fi/action film, The Terminator is a slasher film through and through. The two biggest pieces of evidence to support this are its unrelenting villain and the hero’s journey of its final girl.
Though Harlan Ellison threatened to file a lawsuit against director/co-writer James Cameron and the producers of the film for ripping off his teleplay for The Outer Limits episode “Soldier,” he really didn’t have much of a case (don’t @ me Ellison fans, I love him too), despite the settlement he was awarded. John Carpenter and Debra Hill, however, could have made a case that the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is an awful lot like Michael Myers. The idea of an individual choosing a name from the phonebook and tracking down and killing everyone with that name along with anyone that gets in his way is terrifying. It feels as random and arbitrary as the killings in Haddonfield (at least in the original film) or Crystal Lake. As with Michael and Jason, or the shark in Jaws for that matter, the Terminator is more like a force of nature than anything. Emotionless, persistent, and practically unstoppable.
As with many horror icons of the slasher era, the T-800 undergoes a great deal of damage in the pursuit of its mission. At one point, he performs some self-surgery that involves using an X-acto knife on his arm and his eye. In the process, we see the rods in his arm and the red glowing eye of his robotic endoskeleton. The technology is science fiction, but the imagery is horror. Later, he is in a motorcycle accident that removes more of the living tissue that covers his true nature. Eventually, this is all burned away and the machine that lies beneath is fully revealed. Very much like the best-known slashers, he continues to get up and resume the pursuit until finally crushed in an industrial press.
Much as the Terminator is a stalker/killer in the mold of slashers of the era, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) has a lot in common with Laurie Strode (Halloween), Nancy Thompson (A Nightmare on Elm Street), and Ellen Ripley (Alien). She comes across as less experienced in life than her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) much like Laurie Strode in the original Halloween (1978). When she encounters Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) who saves her from an attack by the T-800, her life gets turned upside down. Like Nancy, she learns to defend herself and ultimately needs to face her attacker alone. In the end, her character has evolved to become much like Ripley, which is carried over both into Cameron’s own take on that character in Aliens (1986) and in the actual Sarah Connor character in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991).
Sarah’s arc follows the mythic hero’s journey in several ways. She is “called to adventure” by Reese’s famous line “come with me if you want to live.” He becomes her mentor who prepares her for battle with the villain. He is her Chiron or Philoctetes in mythology, or in more colloquial terms, her Obi-Wan or Dumbledore. As with most mythic stories, the mentor dies, and the hero is forced to face the villain alone. She is badly injured (think Luke Skywalker losing his hand) and even goes to the underworld in a way by crawling through the press. Ultimately, she comes out the other side with greater strength than she ever knew she possessed, ready for the possibly dark future that is to come. Though the “storm is coming,” she knows it and is determined to do everything she can to stop it.
The Terminator would ultimately spawn one of the most successful sequels in film history, though Terminator 2 and the other sequels fall more squarely into the sci-fi/action realm than the original. The original film is dark, has a scrappy handmade feel, and has moments of true terror. As an added bonus, it features horror icons Lance Henriksen and Dick Miller in small but memorable roles along with a very early appearance from Bill Paxton. It is an important influence on science fiction, of course, but also pushed horror into areas of greater speculation and creativity. It also can’t be denied as an important moment in low-budget filmmaking, proving that limits of budget need not limit imagination.
These three films (along with Gremlins) illustrate one thing for sure: by the mid-’80s, horror was as mainstream and financially viable as any film genre. Ghostbusters was the second biggest hit of the year (following only by Beverly Hills Cop) and became a cultural phenomenon. The impact of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins brought about the first new rating in decades, the controversial PG-13 rating, but also proved that family entertainment could be made of tougher stuff than often thought. The influence of these films can be seen years later in Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Lord of the Rings series, which are filled with dark and sometimes disturbing horror imagery but made for family audiences. In fact, Spielberg would only continue to bring horror to the masses in various guises, particularly Jurassic Park (1993), and infused much more with science fiction in War of the Worlds (2005). He also produced or executive produced a number of films steeped in horror ideas and imagery including The Goonies (1985), Arachnophobia (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Monster House (2006), and Super 8 (2011).
The horrors of 1984 are extremely varied. Some have become legendary. Some are cult gems. Some are typical. Some are innovative and imaginative. But taken as a whole, 1984 paints an incredible picture of a year in which horror pumped in America’s heart and spread to its limbs. Whatever the reasons for this, we can be thankful for the legacy of that year. Whether or not my assertion is objectively correct, we may never know, but I continue to marvel at the treasures produced in this one 365-day period. And I will continue to call it “horror’s greatest year” until another comes along.