Sunday, March 2, 2014

1989: The Year in Horror

In March, The Exxon Valdez struck Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef in Alaska and unleashed hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the ocean, which devastated local marine and wildlife and is to this day considered one of the greatest environmental disasters of all time (though BP certainly managed to top it in a depressingly big way in 2010). Exxon was initially fined 5 billion in punitive damages, which they managed to whittle down to about 500 million by appealing the initial ruling countless times. The best thing that came out of the sorry incident was perhaps the passing of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 by Congress the following year. In July, the Tienanmen Square Massacre (or the July 4 Massacre), where a large gathering of non-violent protesters in Beijing were violently broken up by armed guards and tanks, played out to a stunned worldwide audience. There were countless arrests, injuries and deaths, but to this day no one knows the exact amount of actual casualties. The Chinese government downplayed the figure (claiming between 2 and 3 hundred) while the New York Times estimated as many as 800, student organizations and the Red Cross estimated a figure between 2 and 3 thousand and some sources even claim upwards of 7 thousand were killed. To top off the year's major stories on a more positive note: the Berlin Wall finally came down in November. Others making headlines were the metal band Judas Priest (who were taken to court for supposedly using subliminal messages to cause a teenager to commit suicide [the band was exonerated in 1993]), Rob Lowe (porn scandal), Salman Rushdie (marked for death by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini after releasing "The Satanic Verses"), Arsenio Hall (first black nightly talk show host), Lyle and Eric Menendez (who murdered their wealthy parents) and Pete Rose (banned from baseball [and a deserved spot in the Hall of Fame] for gambling). The stealth bomber was completed, the very first text message was sent, major advancements were made in Switzerland in regards to the internet, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became an instant hit and The Simpsons debuted in December. Yes, 1989 was a busy year all around. It was also a busy year for horror cinema.

Looking back, it's amazing at just how commercialized and mainstreamed the horror genre was throughout much of the 80s; particularly in the latter half of the decade. Horror was everywhere: in theaters, on TV, in video stores, in video games, in best-selling books... and all of that was accompanied by mass merchandising (much of which was actually marketed to children!) and numerous popular genre-specific magazines. You couldn't avoid horror if you tried. I have fond memories of my elementary school peers going on and on about the latest Jason and Freddy movies and have even fonder memories of being dropped off at a theater by my mom or aunt; neither of whom seemed to have an issue with my cousin and I watching stuff like A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master or Return of the Living Dead Part 2 then hopping back in the car afterward to excitedly recount for them all the different ways we saw people being butchered. We were just 8 years old at the time. As for the adults, well, they just seemed to just find it amusing. I still can't figure out whether I had a strange upbringing or if everyone's parents were like this back in the 80s. Either way, the 80s horror trend really seemed hit its peak around 1988. Like all trends, things rapidly started to head downhill just a year later. By this point, mainstream horror had just stopped taking itself seriously. It stopped being scary. Hell, most films didn't even try to be scary. There was bound to be some backlash and that's exactly what happened in 1989 when nearly all of the major genre releases of the year either failed to live up to expectations or just plain bombed. If anything, Pet Sematary (the most successful horror film of the year) should have taught the major studios a valuable lesson: audiences were starving for serious horror films. They didn't want to laugh. They didn't necessarily care about gore or body counts. They simply wanted to be scared. Unfortunately, scary was in short supply on the big screen in '89.

R.I.P Ghostbusters Cereal. 1985-1990

Not surprisingly, Columbia Pictures' heavily-promoted, fx-heavy Ghostbusters II was the top-grossing genre offering of the year. The original film's director (Ivan Reitman), screenwriters (Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) and stars (Bill Murray, Sigourney Weaver, Aykroyd, Ramis, Ernie Hudson and Rick Moranis) all returned for the film, which ended up making 112.5 million in North America (good enough for a # 7 placement), an additional 100+ million in foreign markets and over 60 million in VHS rentals on a budget of 37 million. While financially successful in its own right, the figures were still disappointing in comparison to the original, which made nearly 300 million in theaters worldwide plus an additional 132+ million (!) in rentals on a lower budget. So what happened? Pretty simple: Batman happened. Tim Burton's superhero blockbuster would open the following weekend and go on to become 1989's # 1 hit, earning 251.2 million dollars domestically. Also taking away another big chunk out of the pie was Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which opened the same weekend as Batman and ended up eventually passing G2 with a 130.7 million intake (# 5 for the year). Money aside, the critical reception of G2 was lukewarm at best. It even ended up on Siskel & Ebert's annual "Worst of 1989" TV special. That, combined with market over-saturation (tons of merchandising, numerous video games, cereal [see above], an animated series called "Slimer! And the Real Ghostbusters" running on TV at the time, etc.) and the decreasing profits meant the franchise was retired before it had a chance to wear out its welcome. As a side note, though the film is listed as an action / adventure / comedy / fantasy / sci-fi film on IMDb, I think it's time people start calling it what it really is: a horror-comedy. There are an array of ghosts and monsters and the film - like the original - continually attempts to mix laughs with scares throughout. If that's not the textbook definition of a horror-comedy, I don't know what is.

It's OK; Mr. Hanks: Your career will recover. As for you Mr. Ducommun...

The third highest-grossing genre film of the year was yet another horror-comedy; Joe Dante's PG-rated The 'Burbs, which centered around three bored suburban men who suspect a trio of weirdos who've just moved into their peaceful neighborhood may actually be killers. Though the high-budget, heavily-promoted film opened at #1 its first weekend and made 36.7 million in the U.S. alone, it was still considered something of a misfire in critic's circles and under-performed at the box office. Considering it was one of the widest releases of the year and factoring in the director's pedigree (he'd previously made the massively successful Gremlins [1984] and the enjoyable Fantastic Voyage-inspired Innerspace [1987]), plus that it starred Tom Hanks fresh from the popular comedy / drama Big (which he earned an Oscar nomination for), 34th placement for the entire year wasn't exactly stellar. Since its initial release, The Burbs has failed to pick up much of a fan following and is mostly enjoyed these days by nostalgic adults who saw it as kids. It certainly wasn't one of Universal offshoot Imagine Entertainment's finest hours and was completely eclipsed in popularity by their other major release of the year, Ron Howard's comedy / drama Parenthood, which earned over 100 million domestically in fewer theaters and received several Oscar nominations.

"Damn you, Louis! I said I didn't wanna be buried in a pet cemetery."

In terms of return on investment, Paramount's Pet Sematary was actually more successful than either The Burbs or Ghostbusters. Made for 11.5 million dollars, the film surpassed its budget opening weekend and ended up making around five times more than its production cost, which was good enough to rank it at #23 for the entire year. It's also the highest-grossing horror film of 1989 whose genre is simply not up for debate; this is a bleak, humorless, deadly-serious, straight-up, non-feel-good horror in the purest sense. Audiences didn't even care that the film received mostly negative reviews at the time: they just wanted some vicious stuff and that's precisely what director Mary Lambert and writer Stephan King served up with their zombie-kid yarn. Were the bad notices earned? I'd say both yes and no. Lambert and crew manage to impressively capture the grim tone of the disturbing novel and many of the individual set-pieces deliver. However, the core dramatic components - including centering the action around an amazingly foolish doofus (played by Dale Midkiff) and throwing in a bunch of pointless scenes featuring a ghost that could have been scrapped (despite being in the source novel) - were highly uneven. Then again, there's always Zelda to fall back on and she probably gave children (myself included) as many nightmares as Pennywise the clown the following year. When grosses are adjusted for inflation, Pet Sematary ranks as the 4th most lucrative King horror adaptation of all time behind only The Shining (1980), Carrie (1976) and Misery (1990). It also remains one of the most successful horror films ever directed by a woman. Despite the film's faults, or which there are many (anyone else want to strangle the daughter other than me?), there's also something to be said for the fact that it has retained its popularity all these years later. The 1992 sequel (Pet Sematary Two), also from Lambert, only made about 1/3rd of what the original did in theaters and is best left forgotten.

Known to cause bouts of uncontrollable laughter in Harlan Ellison.

The big-budget sci-fi / action film The Abyss, which involves a diving team encountering underwater aliens, had been announced back in 1987 as director / writer James Cameron and producer / Cameron's then-wife Gale Ann Hurd's follow-up to their massively successful Oscar-winning box office champ Aliens (1986). In an unprecedented move, before that film even went into production a slew of copycats hoping to cash-in were quickly churned out. Most even managed to beat their bigger-budgeted counterpart into theaters and successfully managed to cripple the well-publicized Abyss' chances for success in the process. First out of the gate was Sean S. Cunningham's Deepstar Six, which opened in theaters in January and did very underwhelming business (8.1 million / # 93 for year). Two months later, George P. Cosmatos' Leviathan (a De Laurentiis production) opened and netted just 15.8 million (# 66 for year) on what was reported to be a budget of around 30 million dollars. Roger Corman, of course, had to have his say and answered back with Lords of the Deep, but the Mary Ann Fisher-directed low-budget film was quickly ushered out onto video after an unsuccessful premiere (in June) and terrible reviews. In July, the South African production The Evil Below, yet another underwater horror filmed in the Bahamas, hit video stores. Spanish director J.P. Simon (Juan Piquer Simón) also had The Rift, another for the De Laurentiis company, in the can in 1988, but the film wouldn't be released until 1990 (under the new title Endless Descent) and nobody cared by that point. Because of all of the raping and pillaging that was going on, by the time The Abyss was finally released in August, the damage had already been done. It failed to achieve its 69.5 million budget; grossing only 54.2 million (#25 for the year), though it did at least manage to earn 4 Oscar nominations; winning one for its visual effects. The film has since strengthened its box office numbers via numerous re-releases.

Warning: Choking Hazard!!! Responsible parents will make sure their children don't swallow the tiny pieces when they play with their flame-broiled, psycho-killing, child-molesting bastard son of a thousand maniacs and his mutant aborted offspring.

Having, perhaps prematurely, been crowned the genre's first real horror star since the heyday of Cushing, Price and Lee by critics and the genre press, Robert Englund decided that 1989 was the year to expand his horizons. After all, that's exactly what all three of the aforementioned stars had to eventually do. Ditto for the genre-specific stars who came before them like Karloff. Each shared one thing in common: they initially became internationally famous for one role in the genre. Certainly typecasting followed each of those men throughout their careers, but longevity meant proving they were more than just a one-trick pony even within the genre. Englund's chance to break out of the Freddy mold came with a starring role in The Phantom of the Opera; an updating of the 1909 Gaston Leroux novel. It was a risky move. The "Phantom" had already been famously embodied on screen by silent film legend Lon Chaney back in 1925, Claude Rains in an Oscar-winning Universal production in 1943, Herbert Lom in a 1962 Hammer film and several others. A lot hinged on this one. If successful, it would cement Englund's reputation as a king of horror, as well as prove that his name alone - when not associated with the Freddy persona - could be a box office draw. In other words, it would prove people were going to the theater to see him act, not just play a particular character. And Englund really needed it, seeing as his fifth time out as Freddy in the murky A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (which was released just a few months before Phantom) was the least financially successful film in the franchise. Though it turned a profit (grossing 22.2 million and ranking # 47 for the year), the film made less than half the gross of the record-breaking previous entry in the series.

Dwight H. Little, who'd just made the reasonably successful Halloween 4 (1988), was tapped to direct and Englund was paired up with an ideal genre-friendly co-star in The Stepfather's pretty Jill Schoelen. It was filmed on location in Budapest, Hungary on a healthy budget. The production values were rather lavish. The Misha Segal score was good; good enough to win a Brit for Best Film Soundtrack. Even the lesser-known primary supporting cast added to the professionalism. Unfortunately, despite a fair amount of publicity and a sizable number of theaters, the reviews were bad and the film bombed at the box office; failing to even gross 4 million dollars (#120 for the year). Part of the problem was that it cheapened the Gothic romanticism people loved about the story with gore and laughs and transformed the tragic lead character into a gleefully sadistic Satanic psycho. The role ended up doing nothing to help Englund's career. In fact, it hurt it. Despite a change in character name and costume, the screenplay still required him to ham it up and included numerous out-of-place, Freddy-style wisecracks not befitting the character critics and audiences wanted to see. In addition, he was still asked to hide behind an extensive coating of make-up. Instead of donning a mask, Englund's Phantom stitched human flesh directly onto his face, which gave him a rather Freddy-like appearance. Even the film's posters were reduced to falling back on Krueger in order to sell it, with the taglines "Robert Englund was 'Freddy.' Now he's the... Phantom of the Opera." and "An all new nightmare!" to drive home the Elm Street connection. In other words, Englund was more or less just playing the same character all over again. The failure of the film led Englund to seek out other roles. He landed one the following year in the Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures of Ford Fairlaine (1990), but the film flopped, got terrible reviews and won the Razzie Award for Worst Film of the Year. Englund was back to playing Freddy just a year later with the 3D release Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991).

Phantom co-star Schoelen also solidified her status as an 80s Scream Queen with two other 1989 releases. The first was the very bizarre Curse II: The Bite, which was originally called just 'The Bite' before a title change and is unrelated to the original Curse (an adaptation of Lovecraft's "The Colour Out of Space"). The tale of radioactive snakes - which manage to turn one poor sap's entire arm into a giant snake with a mind of its own! - had Japanese, Italian and American backing and boasted impressive fx from Screaming Mad George but didn't make much of an impact on home video. Schoelen's best-circulated film from this year turned out to be Cutting Class, a mediocre slasher pseudo-spoof that failed to hit the right note as either a horror film or a comedy. Despite not being very good, it continues to be one of the most viewed titles of the year because of its star. No, not Schoelen; a young up-and-comer named Brad Pitt, who was making his feature film debut. An off-screen romance and eventual engagement also blossomed between Pitt and Schoelen, which has since been dredged up in the tabloid press numerous times. In a 2011 interview, Pitt described the "lowest point" in his life for reporters when: "She [Schoelen] called me up in Los Angeles and was crying on the phone. She was lonely and there was a huge drama. At this point I had $800 to my name and I spent $600 of it getting a ticket from Los Angeles to Hungary to see her." He continued: "I got there, went straight to the set [of Phantom of the Opera] where she was filming and that night we went out to dinner. She told me that she had fallen in love with the director of the film. I was so shocked I said, 'I'm outta here.' " Not long after Pitt's interview, Schoelen herself released portions of private love letters Pitt had written her to the tabloids.

Start spreadin' the ooze. I'm slayin' today.

The major studios were still churning out their slasher sequels. Critics continued to blast them but the movies were now beginning to fall out of favor with audiences as well. Aside from Stephen Hopkins' aforementioned Elm Street 5, Rob Hedden's Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan decided to move its hockey-masked fiend (Kane Hodder) from his Crystal Lake stomping grounds to a cruise ship and then New York City. Actually somewhat more enjoyable than most others in its series, the summer release grossed 14.3 million and clocked in at #70. Dominique Othenin-Girard contributed Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers, which featured Michael still in pursuit of his young niece (Danielle Harris) while still being pursued by Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasance). Despite a pre-Halloween October release, the film brought in just 11.7 million (#76 for year). Because these two films - and Elm Street 5 for that matter - were rather cheaply produced, each turned a quick profit for their studios but, in all three cases, the films were the lowest-grossing entries yet for their respective franchises. Overkill was starting to take its toll (Freddy and Jason were so mainstreamed by this point that both even got their own NES video game!) so it was time for a break. There was also Jeff Burr's Stepfather II: Make Room for Daddy, which brought back Terry O'Quinn as the titular psycho, and barely matched its 1.5 million budget on a limited release (it was #154 for the year). Aside from the theatrical releases, there were a handful of others making most of their money on home video. The campy slash-fest Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland featured she-male psycho Angela Baker (Pamela Springsteen) continuing to hack her way through a "caring and sharing" summer camp retreat, while the weird Silent Night Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! (from once-acclaimed director Monte Hellman) dredged the Santa Claus killer (Bill Moseley this time) back up for another round of murky mayhem.

Mitch Pileggi and Brion James: No more Mr. Nice Guyzzzzz.

Hoping to create a brand new slasher franchise were Wes Craven and Universal Pictures, who whipped up Shocker, the fx-heavy tale of serial killer named Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) who is fried in an electric chair but continues to live on through electric currents and can now possess various victims to help do his dirty work. The film was made on a healthy budget, featured state-of-the-art special effects, was heavily promoted and featured a hit Megadeath cover of Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" on the soundtrack (whose tie-in music video ran endlessly on MTV that year), but its combination of an uncharismatic cast, unlikable lead characters, lame humor and a silly plot sunk any real chance for it to be successful. The film made 16.6 million (#62 for the year), but the reviews were deservedly dreadful and it wasn't a promising enough starting point to spin an entire series off of. Interestingly, James Isaac's The Horror Show (which was nonsensically released overseas as the sequel House III) boasted an almost-identical plot of serial killer Max Jenke (Brion James) dying in the electric chair and returning as a one-liner-spouting supernatural entity to get revenge on those responsible for putting him away (in this case a detective played by genre regular Lance Henriksen). Roger Ebert may have been on to something when he said: " 'Horror Show' is taking a chance by assigning Max a recognizable face and voice. The genius of the "Nightmare," "Friday" and "Halloween" movies is that their slasher stars cannot be recognized." Ignoring the fact that Freddy actually does have a recognizable face and voice, the point we can take away from the statement is that it's difficult to spin a slasher franchise off a rather regular-looking Joe. These things need their gimmicks. Either way, neither film caught on. Ditto for dozens of other low-budget slasher flicks released this year that were taking up valuable video story shelf space.

Like father, like son.

So the new things weren't catching on? No problem. Enough other things already had and could produce offspring. Chris Walas, who'd won a makeup Oscar for David Cronenberg's hit The Fly back in 1986, was drafted to helm the obligatory sequel The Fly II. The film received mostly bad reviews and raked in just 20 million bucks in theaters (half of what the original made). Needless to say, it wasn't enough to prompt any more Fly films. The made-for-TV movie Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes was the first film in its series to move the action away from the famed haunted house and offered up the idea of "transference;" where the evil traveled elsewhere inside a cursed object procured from the Amityville home. The idea stuck around for the numerous other sequels that followed. The Amityville Curse (a Canadian production) was also released in 1989. Its connection to the other titles in the series was tenuous at best and it remains one of the least popular entries in that long line of films. The Howling series continued to thud along with the in-name-only Howling V: The Rebirth; a British production filmed in Hungary. The lame comic zombie sequel C.H.U.D. II: Bud the Chud featured a lively turn from Gerrit Graham but little else of interest. Brian Yuzna's Bride of Re-Animator checked back in on mad scientist Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) but, despite some neat effects, it ultimately came off as a pale shadow of the original cult classic. New Jersey's favorite superhero Toxie went to Japan in search of his father and then battled corporate bad guys in the splatstick comedies The Toxic Avenger, Part II and The Toxic Avenger, Part III: The Last Temptation of Toxie, which were filmed back-to-back and, combined, earned a nice million+ profit in a tiny amount of theaters. Jim Wynorski's lousy The Return of Swamp Thing brought back the leafy good guy (Dick Durock) for another round of juvenile nonsense that ended up winning star Heather Locklear a Worst Actress Razzie Award. The silly Canadian production Gnaw: Food of the Gods II climaxed in a scene featuring a pack of oversized rodents feasting on synchronized swimmers. Beyond the Door III, an Italian production filmed in Serbia as Amok Train, had absolutely nothing to do with the first two films - which actually had nothing to do with each another now that I think about it. Claudio Fragasso's ridiculous living dead action crap-fest After Death (starring gay porn star Jeff Stryker) was later re-titled Zombie 4 to pad out yet another unrelated series, while Michele Soavi's stylish but frequently senseless La chiesa / "The Church" (which was co-written and co-produced by Dario Argento) was planned - and released in some quarters - as Demons 3, though the director tried his best to deliver a classier end product.

As it turns out, there actually are things scarier than clowns after midnight.

One of the most noteworthy titles of the year ended up being Clownhouse, an above average low-budgeter which displayed a nice accent on serious suspense over trendy gore-comedy. Sadly, its later infamy had nothing to do with the movie itself and everything to do with what went down behind the scenes. Shot in 1987 on a 200,000 budget (and partially financed by Francis Ford Coppola), the film would go on to gain a minor cult following on video and also made history for being the first genre effort to be nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. What few at the time knew was that the film's director - a then 29-year-old Victor Salva - was a pedophile who had molested the movie's 12-year-old star, Nathan Forrest Winters. After Winters confessed what had happened to his mother, the police were notified and raided Salva's home, where they turned up pornographic home movies starring the director and several underage boys (one of whom was Winters). In April 1988, Salva pleaded guilty to five charges, including one for oral copulation with a person under 14 and three for procuring a child for pornography, and was sentenced to three years in prison. After serving 15 months, he was released and wasn't heard from again for a number of years. It wouldn't be until 1995 that the world at large would learn of any of this when Salva was hired by Disney's Hollywood Pictures to make Powder. Winters came forward to publicly protest the film, the director and Disney and the story exploded in the press. Research into the director's past also uncovered that he had previously written children's books and was employed at the Crawford Village Child Card Center (!) before his film career took off. Despite all that, the 10-million budgeted Powder ended up grossing three times its budget. Salva laid low again until the controversy blew over, then reemerged with Jeepers Creepers (2001), which also became a surprise sleeper hit. Salva even got to make a sequel two years later, which featured lots of long, loving shots of shirtless high school boys; something that creeped many audience members out more than the winged creature itself.

One of the biggest under-the-radar successes of the year was Charles Band's Puppet Master, a Full Moon production which raked in lots of dough on home video and Pay Per View. The film's array of distinctively deadly puppet killers (sometimes brought to life by stop-motion animator David Allen) appealed greatly to audiences who'd just turned Child's Play into a hit. Sudden demand for more of the same led to numerous direct-to-video sequels over the years. Band also financially backed Intruder, a gory slasher flick set in a grocery store that reunited numerous Evil Dead series alumni. Directed by Scott Spiegel (co-writer of Evil Dead 2) and featuring other ED2 alum like Sam Raimi, Ted Raimi, Dan Hicks and Bruce Campbell in acting roles, the film ended up being neutered by the MPAA for an R-rating and was released on video to little attention. It has since gone on to attract some fans after being released uncut on DVD. Another unexpected attention-getter tied in with the Evil Dead franchise was the super-low-budget zombie film The Dead Next Door from first-time director J.R. Bookwalter. Shot in Akron, Ohio for around 100 thousand dollars, it was the most expensive film ever shot on Super 8; a low-quality film stock used almost exclusively for home movies at the time. The film found an unlikely ally in Sam Raimi, who invested a chunk of his E2 salary into the production, while Campbell contributed by to the project by dubbing the voices of several characters. It took four years to finally complete and got a decent amount of attention in the genre press at the time.

"I've already lost three-hundred years of my life; what's three more?"

Steve Miner's Warlock, starring Julian Sands as the sardonic and thoroughly evil title character, had been completed in 1988 and debuted at Cannes in late Spring of 1989 but became lost in limbo once financiers New World Pictures went under. The film was later acquired by Trimark Pictures, who finally got it into theaters in 1991 where the 7-million-budgeted film became a surprise hit and was followed by several sequels. There were a few other modest box office successes of note for the year, including the Australian thriller Dead Calm, starring Sam Neill and a then-unknown Nicole Kidman (in her star-making role) as a troubled couple who encounter a psycho (Billy Zane) while out at sea. The suspenseful, well-made film did a respectable 7.8 million (#96 for the year). William Lustig's Relentless, which starred former Brat Packer Judd Nelson in a change-of-pace role as a serial killer and Robert Loggia as a detective, also did reasonably well, earning almost 7 million dollars and a #101 placement for the year. Its success led to three later direct-to-video sequels: Dead On: Relentless II (1992), Relentless 3 (1993) and Relentless IV: Ashes to Ashes (1994). Not fairing nearly as well was Communion. Writer Whitley Strieber (who'd previously written the novels "Wolfen" and "The Hunger;" both of which had been adapted into successful films) claimed he was (really!) abducted by otherworldly "visitors" in 1985, wrote a (supposedly) non-fiction best-seller about the incident two years later and the book ended up becoming a #1 New York Times best-seller that sold in excess of 2 million copies. Sounds like the stuff a box office success is made of, right? After all, The Amityville Horror rode its "true story" credentials to gold back in 1979. Australian Philippe More was hired to direct, Christopher Walken was drafted to play the lead and Eric Clapton contributed to the score, but the resulting film failed to garner much attention; bringing in less than 2 million dollars (#145 for the year). Strieber later publicly criticized the film.

If you only watch one horror film made in 1989....

While all of the above titles may have kept American audiences busy just trying to keep up, many of the best, most interesting and most unconventional titles of the year - as is often the case - were actually being produced abroad; most of which were not even released in the U.S. until years after they were made. Chilean-born Alejandro Jodorowsky gave us Santa Sangre, a colorful, visually extravagant hallucinatory nightmare released with the apt tagline "Forget everything you have ever seen." The Mexican / Italian co-production was unfairly slapped with an NC-17 rating here in America, which instantly limited its distribution (a censored R rated cut was later fashioned for the initial home video release). Director Jérôme Boivin's original, unsettling and darkly humorous Baxter dealt with a brooding, murderous bull-terrier whose often disturbing thoughts are vocalized for us; in French; not barks. Also from France came René Manzor's seldom-seen 3615 code Père Noël (aka Dial Code Santa Claus or Game Over), an alternately charming and scary tale involving a boy electronics wiz fending off a psychotic home invader dressed in Santa garb. Shin'ya Tsukamoto's black-and-white cyberpunk nightmare Tetsuo, the Iron Man from Japan, centering about a "metal fetishist" (played by the director himself), gained a deserved cult following on video. Emerging from Canada was Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the feature debut for Guy Maddin. The low-budgeter (shot on 16mm and in black-and-white) perplexed nearly every critic who saw it but successfully ran as a midnight movie at one New York City theater for upwards of a year. Swedish director Peter Borg delivered the eerie, underrated ghost tale Sounds of Silence, which received an American VHS release but has since been almost completely forgotten.  The hard-to-categorize Celia from Australian director Ann Turner, a dark drama about a 9-year-old girl (Rebecca Smart) driven to fantasy and madness by her toxic environment, gained critical attention but was poorly marketed in America with the subtitle "Child of Terror;" which delivered it directly into the hands of a mostly unappreciative audience. Nearby in New Zealand, Peter Jackson (still high on his Bad Taste success) delivered Meet the Feebles, a nasty, demented and hilariously perverse freak show with musical numbers. Oh, and it also starred a cast of puppets.

"Thanks for offering, but I can wash my own back."

Not that there weren't some standout titles produced here in America... Brian Yuzna's Society, which dealt with suburban paranoia, teenage alienation, class stature and some rather icky and unpleasant things being perpetrated in private by the rich, outwardly respectable and inhuman, made its Cannes debut in 1989. The film did reasonalby well in Europe, but was given the cold shoulder here in America and got shelved until its 1992 VHS release. Bob Balaban's Parents also decided to poke (very dark) fun at the establishment by making the cheerfully upright title characters cannibal-killers and setting the action in sanitized 50s suburbia. The film (shot in Toronto in 1987) was issued in less than 100 theaters and made less a million dollars (#176 for the year). Katt Shea's low-key but intelligently-written and surprisingly involving low-budget vampire film Dance of the Damned (made for producer Roger Corman) drew interesting parallels between a couple of ostracized, night-dwelling outcasts: a stripper and a vampire. Tibor Takács' I, Madman, featuring a creepy supernatural killer amidst a noir-ish visual presentation, ended up being much more imaginative (and better) than his initial and inexplicably more popular hit The Gate (1986). Mike Hodge's completely overlooked Black Rainbow, starring Rosanna Arquette as a psychic, won awards at numerous international film festivals in 1989 but gained next to no attention in America and was quietly released to VHS in 1991, garnering little attention in the process.

Camcorder gut munching courtesy of Redneck Zombies.

Other titles of note are Edge of Sanity (an unrestrained Anthony Perkins in a Jekyll & Hyde / Jack the Ripper mash-up), Legend of the Overfiend (graphic Japanese anime with "tentacle sex" which earned an NC-17 rating), Vampire vs. Vampire (a very fun Hong Kong action-horror-comedy directed by Mr. Vampire star Ching-Ying Lam), Godzilla vs. Biollante (superior kaiju / follow-up to Godzilla 1985), Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death (a surprisingly amusing and clever jungle romp through cannibal country starring Playboy sensation Shannon Tweed and future talk show host Bill Maher), Lady Terminator (a hilarious, action-packed sex-switch of The Terminator from Indonesia), Dr. Caligari (porn director Stephen Sayadian's super-bizarre follow-up to the German expressionist classic), The Woman in Black (fondly-remembered Brit TV movie from Herbert Wise that made a big impression on UK youth during its day), Trapped (a solid made-for-cable suspenser from Fred Walton), Transylvania Twist (an extremely fun anything-goes horror-comedy from Jim Wynorski), Cold Light of Day (British director Fhiona Louise's exploration of real-life serial killer Dennis Nilsen) and The Dead Pit (asylum / zombie weirdness from Brett Leonard). Fans of terrible movies also got such mind-numbing treasures as Elves (which boasts one of the most hilariously dumb plots ever [mis]conceived), Las Vegas Bloodbath, The Urge to Kill, Things (quite possibly the worst thing to cross the Canadian border since Celine Dion), Redneck Zombies and The Weirdo (one of Andy Milligan's final films), to sink their highly-questionable fangs into.

"Let's make Nazi incest babies... Oh yeah, and Merry Christmas to you, too."

Am I forgetting anything? Uh huh. Lots actually. There were well over 300 features from 1989 that fall under the horror umbrella, making it the busiest year of the entire decade for cinematic horror. In other words, if I included every single one of them in my write-up we'd be here till next month wondering why we never got a chance to see Chopper Chicks in Zombietown, Lobster Man from Mars, Stuff Stephanie in the Incinerator or The Bloody Video Horror That Made Me Puke on My Aunt Gertrude. Someone needs to shut me up now before I keep going...

What made money, what gained the respect of critics and what has endured with fans.

Horror, Top 10 Box Office (U.S. Domestic Gross)
(Rounded up or down to nearest hundred thousand.)
Title - Director - Domestic Gross - Overall Ranking for Year

1. Ghostbusters II (Ivan Reitman) [112.5 million] [# 7]
2. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert) [57.5 million] [# 23]
3. The 'burbs (Joe Dante) [36.7 million] [# 34]
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (Stephen Hopkins) [22.2 million] [# 47]
5. The Fly II (Chris Walas) [20.0 million] [# 54]
6. Shocker (Wes Craven) [16.6 million] [# 62]
7. Leviathan (George P. Cosmatos) [15.8 million] [# 66]
8. Friday the 13th, Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (Rob Hedden) [14.3 million] [# 70]
9. Halloween 5 (Dominique Othenin-Girard) [11.7 million] [# 76]
10. Deepstar Six (Sean S. Cunningham) [8.1 million] [# 93]

RottenTomatoes Scores
(Note: Not all films - particularly limited releases and foreign-language films - have enough reviews for a score and thus can't be factored in here.)
Title - Director - Positive Review Percentage as of March 2014 (subject to change)

1. Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce) - 90%
2. Santa sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky) - 85%
3. Baxter (Jérôme Boivin) - 83%
4. Tetsuo, the Iron Man (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) - 77%
5. Tales from the Gimli Hospital (Guy Maddin) - 71%
6. The Church (Michele Soavi) - 70%
7. Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson) - 70%

I'm unable to compile a full Top 10 because the rest are rated rotten (below 60%). Was it really THAT bad of a year?

IMDb User Ratings (Top 10)
(Films must have at least 150 votes for consideration.)
Title - Director - IMDb Rating as of March 2014 (subject to change)

1. Santa sangre (Alejandro Jodorowsky) - 7.7
2. Mister Designed (Oleg Teptsov) - 7.5
3. The Woman in Black (Herbert Wise) - 7.4
4. (tie) Baxter (Jérôme Boivin) - 7.0
4. (tie) Celia: Child of Terror (Ann Turner) - 7.0
4. (tie) Sweet Home (Kiyoshi Kurosawa) - 7.0
4. (tie) Tetsuo, the Iron Man (Shin'ya Tsukamoto) - 7.0
8. U.F.O. Abduction (aka The McPherson Tape) (Dean Alioto) - 6.9
9. (tie) Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce) - 6.8
9. (tie) Tales from the Gimli Hospital (Guy Maddin) - 6.8
10. (tie) Curse of the Undead Yoma (Takashi Anno) - 6.7 [Japanese anime]
10. (tie) Laurin: A Journey Into Death (Robert Sigl) - 6.7
10. (tie) Legend of the Overfiend, Part III: Final Inferno (Hideki Takayama) - 6.7 [J. anime]
10. (tie) Meet the Feebles (Peter Jackson) - 6.7
10. (tie) Vampire vs. Vampire (Ching-Ying Lam) - 6.7


For a look at my own personal list of Top 10 films for 1989, plus links to reviews, click RIGHT HERE.

Hope everyone's enjoying this series and sorry for the delay, by the way. As always, thanks for taking the time to read.
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