This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Another strong year overall, 1986 continues the mostly “fun”-focused tone of 1980s horror, while also introducing an underbelly of darker psychological horror in the form of several particularly uncompromising serial killer movies. These two notable films, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Manhunter, certainly raised some eyebrows at the time of their release, and provided the building blocks that would eventually get the genre to crossover smash hits like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven—and not just because Manhunter is the first on-screen appearance of the Hannibal Lecter character, either.
Of the two, it’s really Henry that is hardest to forget or wash away, after watching. This is a dirty, grimy, icky film, notable for the way it sets its story through the point of view of its titular killer, but never even attempts to somehow get the audience on his side. Henry is a monster; one who doesn’t quite seem to understand what drives him, but also makes no effort to fight it. He simply wakes up one morning, dispassionately feeling like maybe he should kill someone, and then goes out and does it. Michael Rooker is superb as the damaged and totally empty Henry, staring into the mirror with nothing at all behind his eyes, able to avoid asking himself any difficult questions. This film’s violence, likewise, is totally unlike the gleeful carnage of the still popular slasher genre—the audience is meant to react to it with disgust and revulsion rather than cheers or titillation, especially in infamous sequences like Henry and Otis’ “home movie.” It was a significantly different approach to horror, in a time when most cinematic serial killers were wearing a mask or spouting off cheesy one-liners as they hacked up teens.
The biggest contender for an alternate #1 film this year is of course James Cameron’s Aliens, one of the genre’s most pitch-perfect sequels, even though it utterly transforms the genre and tone of Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic original. Gone is the slow, atmospheric game of cat and mouse, the fear of a single xenomorph lurking among the visually similar tubing and bulkheads. Cameron correctly concluded in his assessment of the situation that in order to top Alien, he had to raise the stakes (and threat level) with a bevy of the creatures, but that in doing so, the fear generated by any single xenomorph would be sacrificed—also known in the world of tropes as the “inverse ninja law.” Wisely, then, he instead switches gears from outright horror to focus on explosive action and characterization, setting up the returning Ripley alongside a cast of endearing colonial marines, who we sadly have to watch be picked off one by one. Aliens, like Cameron’s own Terminator 2, completes Ripley’s path from fearful starship crewwoman on the run, to hardened badass—the same sort of transformation experienced by Sarah Connor in between the first two films of that series. Few films in cinema crystalize that sort of character growth more epically than Ripley striding out in the power loader: “Get away from her, you bitch!”
There’s still a bevy more honorable mentions of merit, especially in the slasher genre, which is increasingly turning toward gimmickry here in an effort to remain fresh, such as in April Fool’s Day or the amusing killer robots of Chopping Mall. Special credit goes to Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, which has got to be the best SIXTH installment of any slasher franchise, and a fan favorite to those who love Jason Voorhees, who returns here as a superpowered, undead engine of destruction for the first time. The cracks are beginning to show in the foundation of the slasher genre, but it still has a few more decent years left in it.
1986 Honorable Mentions:
Aliens, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, Manhunter, From Beyond, Night of the Creeps, The Hitcher, House, Chopping Mall, April Fool’s Day, Poltergeist II: The Other Side
Director: David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg isn’t exactly a director known for shying away from disgusting or otherwise fucked-up imagery, but his remake of The Fly is truly gross, even by his standards. Like its contemporaries in 1950s horror that received bigger budget 1980s remakes (The Thing, The Blob), the story of 1958’s The Fly has had its camp element stripped away, replaced with pitch-black gallows humor and FX-driven, gross-out bombast. Here, in the golden age of practical effects, we’ve reached an era where films like The Fly seem to be daring audiences to make it through a screening without losing their lunch—a turn of events that unsurprisingly drew quite a lot of criticism from social conservatives, who wondered if there was any depiction of violence the genre wouldn’t dare to touch.
It’s not exactly a typical film from Cronenberg, whose personal style in the earlier portions of his career usually trended toward somewhat slower, more brooding and psychological stories. Entries like Shivers, The Brood and Scanners all qualify on the body horror front, and they’re all known for some of their gory or otherwise disturbing visuals, but The Fly’s “mondo” elements are on an entirely different level. There’s not much in the way of subtlety here, and perhaps that’s why The Fly ultimately ended up as the director’s largest success at the box office—it is purely entertaining and easily accessible, provided you can stand up to all the bloodletting.
Much of the credit for The Fly’s charms belong to star Jeff Goldblum, who exudes confidence as egotistical scientist Seth Brundle, who somehow manages to afford an entire warehouse laboratory on the non-salary of a freelance theoretical physicist. Spacious digs aside, Brundle’s masterwork is a teleporter pod that performs admirably at zapping inanimate objects from place to place, but has a tendency to turn living creatures inside out—this is exactly as unpleasant to witness as you might expect. Eventually, Brundle manages to perfect the device, but of course there’s a fly in the ointment, so to speak. With his DNA crossed with that of a fly, Brundle first experiences an upswell of vitality and power … and then descends into madness as his body melts away, replaced by that of a massive fly. Goldblum deftly conveys the sardonic streak of a man who knows his time is limited, even as he develops new physical tics that indicate the increasing dominance of the primordial insect consciousness in his mind.
The Fly isn’t quite the gory screwball comedy you see in say, Peter Jackson’s Braindead, but it’s as close a facsimile as an average theater-goer is likely to come across. Indeed, the film often is quite funny, in a demented sort of way, whether it’s the empowered Brundle gruesomely breaking a biker’s wrist in a seedy arm-wrestling competition, or the “Brundlefly” creature vomiting digestive acid onto the meddling newspaper editor investigating his transformation. It wields its ultraviolence in a way that pushes it beyond the disturbing and often intentionally into the realm of absurdity. At the same time, it also retains significant pathos, especially in the pathetic end of the Brundlefly’s life. The Fly deftly balances a few of these disparate tonal elements, making it one of the decade’s most singular sci-fi/horror features.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.