"Horror Films of the 1980s: Volumes I & II" Book Review

Written by Robert Gold

Published by McFarland

horror films of the 1980s poster

Written by John Kenneth Muir
2007, 829 pages, Reference
Released on October 24th, 2012


Countless movie review guides clutter store shelves and for the most part they are all interchangeable, following the same basic template: an alphabetical listing of titles, and sometimes a rating scheme with a number of stars, thumbs, skulls or chainsaws, is accompanied by a brief plot synopsis occasionally sprinkled with snarky critical comments. Horror Films of the 1980s is something different and readers will be pleased by the attention to detail that is lavished on each of the 325 films included.

Author John Kenneth Muir (Horror Films FAQ) offers a far more thorough approach to the material and his dedication creates a definitive reference book, which is spread over two volumes. The first indication that readers are in for something special arrives in the form of the thoughtful essay "Don't Worry, Be Happy (Or, Be Afraid... Be Very Afraid)", a 15-page introduction that studies the political climate of the 1980s and frames the governmental, socio-economic and military contexts of the decade. President Ronald Reagan is taken to task on several fronts, exposing the hypocritical and contradictory nature of the man and his administration. This study explores how filmmakers reflected the growing fears of society and led to a cinematic trend focusing on the vulnerability of the human body, either fantastically through a popular wave of werewolf films (An American Werewolf in London, Wolfen and The Howling, all 1981), clinically, as in the works of director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers), or through the rise of the slasher film.

Muir breaks down this popular subgenre and studies the formula that works no matter how often repeated in the detailed (40-page) thesis: "The History of the Dead Teenager Decade". All of the recurring tropes and conventions are brought to light, including the familiar character archetypes, the killer's motivation and appearance, common scenarios and frequently-visited locations. Moving on, he covers the introduction of the Final Girl as a new and reliable source of hope within increasingly bleak pictures. 1980s horror ushered in a new trend in escapism by simply re-dressing the key elements, as recognizable onscreen characters now appeared in the guise of yuppies, valley girls, punk rockers and drug abusers so movie goers could identify with either the changing fashion or music of the people they were watching as they continually met the same fates across the decade.

The '80s welcomed a slew of anthology films and cinematic adaptations of tales from the prolific Master of Horror, Stephen King (The Dead Zone, The Shining... etc.). Audiences were also treated to the return of the classic monster movie, where creatures from the darkest reaches of space or the depths of the sea threaten the lives of people of all ages. Muir switches gears to look at the filmmaking process and studies the increasing use of the subjective first person POV camera angle and other methods to define space relations between antagonist and potential victims. From there, the focus shifts to include a look at the return of the popular 3D viewing experience of the 1950s. He then addresses the rise of sequels and studies how the growing home video market had a lasting effect on the type of films being made. Finally, Muir zeroes in on the three major scandals that rocked the decade, all involving filmmaking giant Steven Spielberg.

Wow, that's a lot of coverage on a pair of articles that intro a reference guide to '80s horror films. Yes, but clocking in at a whopping 55 pages, the work deserves the attention here. Looking to the content of the book outside of well-written essays, readers are in for another set of treats, as the films included are presented in a thoughtful, accessible manner and come with more than a casual summary of the plot. This collection begins with a handy table of contents, listing all titles alphabetically, grouped in chapters by year of domestic release with a corresponding page number for which that review appears. Yes, review. Rather than limiting the coverage to a simple encapsulated plot synopsis, this guide offers a detailed critique of each movie and also reprints sections from what noted critics had to say at the time of the initial theatrical release. Another nice touch finds each chapter prefaced with a timeline of significant historical events to provide perspective highlighting that particular calendar year.

Horror Films of the 1980s does follow some of the basic tropes of layout, including a listing of technical specs, crediting cast and crew members, rating and running time, etc. Selections occasionally cross genres into sci-fi or comedy if the overall intent is horror, and all titles are graded on a five-star rating scale, based only on merit. Each review begins with a brief plot synopsis and more popular titles occasionally include either a highlighted passage of dialogue or are concluded with a legacy acknowledgement of the film's lasting impact or influence on the genre. Muir's critique is balanced with several contemporary “guest writers” who offer alternate perspectives on certain movies and, whenever possible, interviews with relevant members of the cast or crew of specific titles are also included for an inside view of the filmmaking process. I really don't have any complaints about this book and can't recommend it enough, but if forced to come up with something regrettable, it's that I cannot give it more than five stars.


Overall: 5 Star Rating Cover
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Robert Gold
Staff Reviewer
Robert's favorite genres include horror (foreign and domestic), Asian cinema and pornography (foreign and domestic). His ability to seek out and enjoy shot on video (SOV) horror movies is unmatched. His love of films with a budget under $100,000 is unapologetic.
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