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.
It’s funny how the 1980s have several specific years that are banner frames for a particular type of movie monster. 1981 had werewolves. 1985 was the best year ever for zombie cinema. And 1987 is a damn good year for vampire flicks, although perhaps not quite as indisputable for the “best ever” title. Still: Near Dark, The Lost Boys and The Monster Squad in a single year makes for three very different, very entertaining takes on the vampire mythos—from reality grounded fatalism, to teenage rebellion, to the classical arch-fiend found in the underrated Dracula portrayal in The Monster Squad in particular. Perhaps this simply speaks to both the volume of horror cinema in the 1980s, and the strength of this year’s lineup, which is another very strong one.
One of the A-tier selections in the estimation of most horror fans would certainly be Hellraiser, the only entry in this deplorably strung-out franchise to actually be directed by Clive Barker, the creator of its characters. The resulting film is tidy in its construction but icky in its overtones and subtext—vintage Barker, in other words. It revels in his typical obsession with dualities and the blurred lines between them, whether it’s pleasure vs. pain or freedom vs. imprisonment. It brings us one of the genre’s best and most dynamic final girls in the form of Kirsty Cotton, although we all know it’s the Cenobites that people remember, and their leader Pinhead in particular. These designs, from Pinhead’s titular, dotted dome, to the teeth-clattering Chatterer, became immediate horror icons the moment they first strolled onto the screen. None of the sequels, save for Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, have ever managed to do the Cenobites justice again.
A very honorable mention as well to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, which is almost unanimously considered the finest of the Nightmare sequels by fans, with some even ranking it above the 1984 original. Unlike the unusual, homoerotic question posed by first sequel Freddy’s Revenge, Dream Warriors benefits greatly from a returning Heather Langenkamp as Nancy Thompson, now old enough to play a researcher attempting to help a hospital full of troubled teens battle Freddy on his own territory. It’s the perfect example of a horror sequel that expands on the imagination and premise of the original, as new layers of dream mythology give the kids new methods to combat Krueger, while simultaneously imbuing Freddy with that many more tools to pull off creative kills. This is likewise the zenith of the character in terms of the perfect balance between threatening and darkly funny—he’s still enough of a threat to be occasionally frightening, but he has no shortage of memorable zingers. From this point on in the Nightmare series, the threat of Freddy is greatly de-emphasized, until Craven returns in New Nightmare.
Other notables for 1987 include Arnold Schwarzennegar going one-on-one with an alien big game hunter in Predator, Dario Argento stylishly torturing a wide-eyed Cristina Marsillach in Opera, one of his finest overall giallo films, and John Carpenter’s perennially underlooked but cult-popular Prince of Darkness, reuniting the director with Halloween’s Donald Pleasance once more. In a low key way, this is a strong contender for the best horror crop of the decade.
1987 Honorable Mentions:
Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Opera, Predator, Near Dark, The Lost Boys, The Monster Squad, Angel Heart, Prince of Darkness, Stagefright, aka Aquarius, Creep Show 2, Blood Diner
Director: Sam Raimi
On first inspection, it’s actually rather hard to tell how Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2 is meant to relate to the film that preceded it. Is it a loose remake of the same story, or a direct follow-up? The truth is somewhere in between—the opening moments of the film are meant to reconstruct a hurried recap of what happened in Evil Dead, but Raimi took the opportunity to heavily revise and truncate the plot of the first film in the process, simplifying the slate of characters to just Ashley “Ash” Williams and his girlfriend Linda, who becomes possessed by a “Kandarian demon” and runs amok in a cabin in the woods. Within 10 minutes or so, though, we’ve essentially reached the end of Evil Dead—Ash is still in the woods, his girlfriend is (un)dead, and he’s under attack by invisible demonic forces. Or in other words, the stage is primed for hilarity.
That’s the aspect that truly separates Evil Dead 2 from its forebear—where the first film is a legitimate horror/gore showcase that was shocking in its brutality to 1981 audiences, the sequel is seemingly coming from a very different corner of the director’s mind. Although there’s still plenty of gore and violence in Evil Dead 2, the bloodletting compels a tone of slapstick humor, rather than outright horror—an admission on Raimi’s part, perhaps, of how hardened genre audiences had become since the earlier days of the slasher boom. It’s a film that took the temperature of the genre and then adjusted itself to fit the tone of the day, becoming one of the all-time horror comedies in the process.
Practically all that is great about Evil Dead 2 flows from the synergy between star Bruce Campbell and Raimi’s frenetic direction. As Ash, Campbell has evolved significantly from his more low-key depiction in Evil Dead, becoming a full-on force of nature and larger than life personality. On one hand he’s a potent satire of the exceptional American alpha male/action hero, combining stunning good looks with a smart-alecky attitude and never-ending supply of quippy one-liners. At the same time, though, Ash is a fool, and the butt of all the film’s jokes—a rubber-faced buffoon who is endearing in his temperamental outbursts, bad decision-making, unflappable humor and everyman lack of understanding. He’s not the kind of character who thinks up brilliant stratagems to work his way out of a problem; he’s more likely to throw dirt in your eyes and then kick you when you’re down, congratulating himself as he does it. And somehow, this only makes us like him more. It’s one of the genre’s greatest one-man-show performances, at least for the film’s first half.
Raimi, meanwhile, is working with a significantly bigger budget here than in the original Evil Dead, and he pours all of it into maximizing what can be done with the film’s classic “cabin in the woods” setting. The use of puppets and animatronics is outstanding, particularly in sequences such as Ash’s mental breakdown, where he envisions every object in the room mocking him with laughter—books, lamps, mounted deer heads, the works. The depth of detail in this sequence in terms of the number of moving pieces, combined with Raimi’s active camera and choice of select Dutch angles, should be shown to film 101 students as shorthand for exactly how you evoke a character’s descent into madness. Few films in the genre have ever done it better.
Ultimately, Evil Dead 2 is one of those sequels that thrives on a philosophy of “more” and “bigger.” It’s the more bombastic, funnier, far more polished film than its predecessor, with a legendary performance from Bruce Campbell, although some understandably prefer the original for being more purely frightening. Nevertheless, with the right audience, Evil Dead 2 is close to the most fun you can have in a theater.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.