Horror Cinema in the Summer of 1986
Right now we find ourselves in the midst of an important movie-related thirty year anniversary: the summer of 1986. No, that period was not, as some are claiming, “the Best Summer Movie Season Ever,” but it was a seminal one for popular filmmaking--think TOP GUN, FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, THE KARATE KID PART II and BACK TO SCHOOL, all of which premiered during 1986’s summer season. And yes, quite a few essential horror movies made their bow in the summer of ‘86.
1986 was an interesting year for movies, one in which the jingoistic escapism that defined much of the decade, represented by the likes of THE DELTA FORCE, IRON EAGLE, COBRA and the aforementioned TOP GUN, coexisted with lightweight-to-the-point-of-insubstantiality comedies like CROCODILE DUNDEE, THE GOLDEN CHILD and THE MONEY PIT, just as a much darker sensibility was making itself felt. It’s hardly insignificant that two of the most fearsome movies of all time, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and IN A GLASS CAGE, both sport a 1986 copyright date, as do COMBAT SHOCK, SID AND NANCY, BLUE VELVET and RIVER'S EDGE, none of which can be said to be lightweight or insubstantial. And we mustn’t forget RUTHLESS PEOPLE, which back in ‘86 was about as dark as comedies got, or Jonathan Demme’s vastly underrated SOMETHING WILD, which united the year’s light and heavyweight dichotomies in an alternately funny and deeply shocking hybrid of a film that’s still ahead of its time.
But again, it’s the summer movie season of ‘86 we’re concerned with here, specifically the horror movies that premiered during that time, which display the same dichotomy that marked out the year overall. It was during the summer season that we got fluff like HAUNTED HONEYMOON, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS and FRIDAY THE 13th PART VI: JASON LIVES--a.k.a. the “funny” FRIDAY THE 13th movie. Tobe Hooper likewise went comedic in his goofy INVADERS FROM MARS remake, as did the makers of POLTERGEIST II, even if the comedy of that film was of the unintentional variety.
In the same comedic horror category were John Carpenter’s BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, which, quirky and enjoyable though it is, was a rather transparent attempt at replicating the success of GHOSTBUSTERS, and VAMP, which these days plays like a dry run for FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. There was also Stephen King’s directorial debut MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, which the man himself admits is the most ridiculous Stephen King movie adaptation of them all.
Then, in July and August, respectively, we got James Cameron’s ALIENS and David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, which were something else entirely. Unquestionably two of the greatest horror flicks of the decade, this dynamic duo was marked by massive quantities of bloodletting, slime and dramatic trajectories that were unashamedly bleak.
ALIENS was of course the long-in-coming sequel to ALIEN, and its action-intensive take on the material proved an ideal choice in a film whose manic intensity remains unsurpassed. THE FLY, a loose remake of the 1958 Vincent Price headlined B movie of the same name, was and remains one of the finest entries in Cronenberg’s bodily horror oeuvre, and proved that box office-wise Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic brand of biological horror could yield definite results.
Also released in the summer of ‘86 was STAND BY ME, another Stephen King adaptation. Directed by Rob Reiner, it showcased King’s more serious side in scads of weepy drama (which would never fly with audiences today) while still delivering the requisite scares in the infamous leech scene and the dead body around which the drama revolved. Its massive success effectively positioned it as the anti-TOP GUN, and paved the way for two of that summer’s final horror-themed releases, which outdid even ALIENS and THE FLY in bleakness.
MANHUNTER and EXTREMITIES, both released in August of ‘86, finished off the summer on a downbeat note. The former was a stylish yet deeply unsettling adaptation of Thomas Harris’ bestseller RED DRAGON that introduced Dr. Hannibal Lecter (here renamed “Lektor” for some reason) to movie audiences, while the latter was an adaptation of an infamous off-Broadway play by William Mastrosimone that played like a chatty variant on I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE. Mastrosimone, incidentally, went on to become a staunch advocate for non-violent cinema, although you can’t tell that from viewing EXTREMETIES, which isn’t a very good movie but certainly lives up to its title.
Neither film was much of a success, but the pair of them made for a memorable and entirely appropriate send-off to a season that began with the froth of TOP GUN and FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF. It’s been said that movie releases reflect their viewers’ collective subconscious, and the summer of ‘86’s segue from carefree optimism to nihilistic despair does indeed capture the public mood of 1986--and the decade overall.