Horror films channel the fears and fervor of modernity, acting as reflectors turned against their viewers. They’re the most epochal form of escapism of the last century. Take, for example, James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein, which uses monsters and madmen to depict the internal torment of repressed sexual orientation at a time when homophobia was the norm, or Psycho and Peeping Tom, which explore the identity suppression and psycho-sexual struggle of the McCarthy era (to which The Wicker Man would provide a gleefully perverse epilogue in 1973). John Carpenter’s Halloween presents suburban banality and parental tyranny — no pot, no premarital sex, be home by nine — personified as a living urban legend in Michael Meyers. David Cronenberg’s skin-tighteningly creepy Shivers, and later his remake of The Fly, capture the fear of disease and bodily disintegration. The fear of communism permeates Invasion of the Body Snatchers (both of them), while Carpenter, always happy to usurp the conservative norm, portrays the fear and paranoia of communism, rather than communism itself, sinisterly in The Thing.
But it’s the slasher film — usually considered the dumbest, bloodiest, least respectable of horror’s myriad sub-genres — that feels the most precognitive, the most retrospectively relevant. “Slashers” have the unique ability to vivisect culture while dissecting helpless victims on limited budgets. Roger Ebert’s beloved Dead Teenager flicks, with their the Reagan-era excess, their gallons of blood and bushels of gore, their copious nudity and every-man-for-himself mentality — they’re capsules of the Gordon Gecko decade. You might say that Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger were the Donald Trumps of their time: they trampled over bystanders to get what they wanted, and a certain sect of American society embraced them.
Slasher films reached an apex during the 1980s; their gross grandiosity and unrestricted derangement, often achieved through cheap and frivolous practical effects that fooled no one but satiated the myriad horror fans, are rooted in the more-is-better mindset. The increasingly bloated Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Hellraiser series are axiomatic entities of the ’80s horror canon: they started off as passion projects of their creators, with which the studios interfered very little (although studio problems would afflict the subsequent works of Craven and Barker). The franchising of the unstoppable masked madmen of that decade — cutting down naked girls with big, fake, heaving breasts and guys whose sole conviction in life is to chase naked girls with big, fake, heaving breasts — is the cinematic kin of big corporations and white-collar criminals. Jason Voorhees may as well wear barrel cuffs and red suspenders instead of a hockey mask.
The vast majority of ’80s horror films, a horde of straight-to-VHS schlock-and-shock flicks suffused with fake blood and big boobs, followed the Greed Is Good mentality. Their ambitions were meek, their achievements meeker still, and their cost-to-profit ratio stellar. The most progressive thing about your typical ’80s slasher film is its willingness to recycle bits from other films (i.e., the hand reaching around the tree trunk, grabbing the victim, and slitting his/her throat). This is why horror fans, especially those interested in the cultural significance of the genre, will find a certain joyful rebelliousness in Richard Ciupka’s 1983 Canadian slasher flick Curtains, which is screening as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Scary Movies Festival and allegedly undergoing a restoration for DVD and Blu ray.
Curtains, a B-minus-grade film that gets a B-plus for effort, was released right at the advent of the genre and can be viewed as a premonition of the impending swell: Friday the 13th just introduced Jason’s now-iconic hockey mask the year before with Steve Miner’s Friday the 13th 3D, and the next year Jason would “die” in the falsely titled Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, paving the path for the zombified slice-and-dice-machine Jason that we all love dearly. Wes Craven would soon unveil A Nightmare on Elm Street, which spawned too many sequels and gave American high schoolers their first sharp-tongued, one-line-loving killer in Freddy Krueger, equally apt as a teenager-slaying ticket-seller and as a mass-market plush toy.
Curtains, starring John Vernon (the dean in Animal House, and four different villains in Mission: Impossible) and a bunch of attractive ladies, is the antithesis of these series. It’s cheap and it tries to be clever with pseudo-meta fake-outs; the killer isn’t hugely marketable (the mask is a prop from a film within the film, sort of) or supernatural; it’s a woman, although guessing which woman is part of the fun. A group of actresses are all spending a long weekend at the house of a famous, and famously demanding, director (Vernon), competing for a role in his upcoming horror film. The part seemingly involves going crazy and killing people, so of course one actress aptly goes crazy and starts killing people, eliminating her competition (as vivid a metaphor for pure capitalism as any cheap ’80s Canadian horror film has ever produced). It tries to make up for its limited budget with “gotcha” moments and reversals, and probably the first slow-mo shot of a serial killer ice skating her way to a would-be victim.
The deaths, surprisingly, aren’t gratuitous, or graphic, or aesthetically excessive (although the film does include a hand reaching around a tree trunk and a victim’s throat being slit); they’re so sudden, and the image quality so muddy, characters are gone before you’re even able to put a face to a name. The killer is a person, we know, not a franchise, and she’s ostensibly motivated not by blood lust or the unsquelchable need to breed sequels but by a fervid longing to act — a passion for the arts before Hannibal Lecter even contemplated gutting the subpar cellist in the Baltimore Orchestra. Curtains and its killer unconsciously refute the Gordon Gecko style of horror, and for that it deserves appreciation.
The slasher film, surprisingly, isn’t dead yet, nor is the Gordon Gecko style (Alexandre Aja continually tries to elevate the more-is-better style into high art, but only occasionally comes close). And a certain clever species of slasher movie thrives: the meta-horror films, which mingle screams and laughs, satire and sadism, with a wink and a wicked grin. Curtains — while less self-aware than, say, Sam Raimi’s inimitable Evil Dead trilogy, or John Landis’ brilliant An American Werewolf in London, or Joe Dante’s not-quite-brilliant-but-still-very-good The Howling — is a kind of distant ancestor to Gen-X, cable-era bastard offspring like Waxwork and Scream and, later, Behind the Mask and the Whedon-tastic Cabin in the Woods. These are films that took tropes as worn and faded as an 8-track left on a sunny dashboard and laced them with wit, a sort of retrospective gaze that lovingly laughs at its forefathers while paying homage.
But even these self-aware films are rooted in a specific time and place. Consider Drew Barrymore, in her finest ten minutes on film, as she gets ready to watch the rented VHS we can safely assume she got from Blockbuster Video (R.I.P.) — Craven crafts killers who consume horror on VHS and cable fiendishly and without remorse. “Don’t blame the movies,” our pretty-boy killer tells us, because the movies just “make killers more creative.” These are characters who watch horror films, yelling at the screen “Turn around! Turn! A! Round!” while they themselves are about to take a knife to the back — like Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson are pointing out how many, many filmmakers piously watch John Carpenter’s films but choose to imitate instead of innovate.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that at least one filmmaker hasn’t turned his back on ’80s horror: Ti West, whose brilliant, slow-burn panic-attack House of the Devil is an ode to the fright flick of West’s childhood. But it looks and feels like an idealist’s fuzzy memory of what an ’80s horror film looked and felt like — and it’s probably better, and scarier, than 99.666% of the films that were actually produced during that decade. It’s a perfect antipode to the Freddies and Jasons of the world: almost nothing happens for an hour, and then West terrifies you for 30 artery-bursting minutes. It makes a great nightcap to your Halloween horror marathon, and an excellent epilogue to ’80s horror.