Book Review: HORROR FILMS OF THE 1980S
Horror Films of the 1980s
John Kenneth Muir
McFarland Publishers, 2007
Also, order at: 800-253-2187
Horror film genre publication has historically been dominated by nostalgic, appreciative writings about the so-called "Golden Age," a malleable distinction that has grown and shrunk over the years. Likewise, academic writing about horror films has centered predominately on famous, readily available films, though assessed to very different ends . Muir's book looks to the hitherto overlooked realm of the 1980s. Though many of the 300+ films discussed have been considered elsewhere, particularly in books and articles on the "slasher" or "stalker" subgenre, the greatest strength of Horror Films of the 1980s
is its willingness to drudge the depths - indeed, Muir admits that part of the whole game is to find those undiscovered gems that simply have to exist in a decade of such frenzied output. In the final analysis, it is hard to say whether the films reviewed provide much ammunition for the film canons of tomorrow, but the whole act does something very valuable for film scholarship on the whole.Horror Films of the 1980s
is a companion piece to Muir's celebrated Horror Films of the 1970s
(McFarland, 2002), albeit with important improvements. The earlier tome suffered from overlong plot analyses, a number of unfortunately terse reviews, and a slightly less panoramic view of the decade. Horror Films of the 1980s
fleshes out the format by covering more films, with more space, and with a greater commitment to critical assessment.
Muir is at his best when he contextualizes films and their creators. Parts I and II are the most important of the book, as they provide a substantial narrative history of the genre and show how it interacted with various historical junctures. These 300+ horror films all wrestle, in some way, with the economic, cultural, and political shifts of the age of Reagan. Ronald Reagan looms like a grim pantocrator over the proceedings in much the same way that Nixon and his scandals did over zeitgeist of the 1970s. As Muir notes throughout, Reagan's Janus-like fluidity, militarism, and leadership of a nation on the brink color the films in question.
But the cultural history presented in the remaining 700 pages weaves a subtler tale for the patient. Muir's total presentation of the horror movies of the age is, on a deeper level, a phenomenology of the historical process of the horror films of the 1980s. Let me explain. For example, the book's relative lack of a democratically selected lineup of international titles first struck me as a problem...this many horror films, yet so few from the rest of the world (other than Italy)! Then it hit me...Muir watched, assessed, and presented the films in the historical milieu in which they'd most likely be encountered for an American viewer. In most cases, the film-as-discussed was the version (in the case of films with multiple edits) most readily available on video store shelves in the United States. The 1980s saw a monumental shift in the way that motion pictures were consumed. The 1970s were the last decade of a more ritualistically communal type of film-going. In fact, before the 1980s, seeing a film was a collective, public, and social experience. Yet the widespread dissemination of the VCR and laserdisc player in the 1980s meant that films found a new, lasting home in the home
. This is not to say that watching horror films of this era is meant to be a solitary activity - indeed, one only imagine that a film like Home Sweet Home
(1980) is possible to watch with a group of good-humored friends - but rather one based more on the space of the home. Further, the films presented are a good selection of readily available works that would have been circulating in most parts of the United States. Again, to clarify, Muir's book is as important for its structural organization - films as American viewers would have been able to access them in the 1980s - as it is for the holes it fills in genre scholarship.
The book is a behemoth, which is slightly problematic. Its design is appropriate for reference libraries, but renders solitary reading difficult. At around 830 pages, it could do with a more economical typeface, better formating, and a more sleek presentation overall. Unfortunately, as with any book of this length, there are errors (most lamentably, a misspelling of my own name on page xiv) and omissions. With so many titles reviewed, what immediately comes to mind are the movies that are missing. For starters, I would very much like to read what Muir thinks about Paperhouse
(1988) or Dream Demon
(also 1988).Horror Films of the 1980s
is a welcome, improved companion to Horror Films of the 1970s
. While the horror films in question are perhaps less immediately important to the genre writ large, they still serve as an invaluable window into an America in crisis.