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.
1988 is a year with an extremely wide variety of solid horror fare, but perhaps fewer unquestionably great films. The Vanishing anchors our #1 pick here and benefits from the fact that it is totally unlike the rest of the field, much of which is relying on declining slasher franchises and their goofy progeny. Like the rest of the decade, the films here are very uniformly “fun,” but they’re not often all that profound.
One film that stands out in a positive way for this year is Tim Burton’s light-hearted but simultaneously macabre Beetlejuice, which managed to present a wholly unique spin on the bureaucratic afterlife unlike anything audiences had seen before. Perfectly cast from top to bottom, whether it’s a particularly dorky Alec Baldwin, the wide-eyed, “strange and unusual” Winona Ryder or a delightfully deluded Catherine O’Hara, the film thrives on its performances and a memorable, bouncy score from Danny Elfman. But really, when all is said and done, it’s Michael Keaton’s movie. His “ghost with the most” is one of the single best, most deranged performances of the 1980s, regardless of genre. He commits himself with total, reckless abandon to selling the sleazy weirdness of Betelgeuse, and in doing so he creates one of the era’s most instantly iconic and quotable characters. It’s one of those cases where it’s hard to even imagine someone else attempting to play the role.
Also pertinent to the 1988 discussion is John Carpenter’s once cult, now beloved They Live, which one might make an argument is much more of a science fiction social satire than it is a true “horror” film, per se—but given the Carpenter connection, it becomes easier to include. Certainly, the idea of a society with alien overlords living among us is one that can work in a horror setting, but few horror films include a hilariously over-the-top, six-minute fight scene between two of the protagonists over whether one of them will put on a pair of sunglasses. Like Carpenter’s own Big Trouble in Little China, the jokes here are often poking fun at the comical excess of the era.
Outside these top few contenders, the rest of the year is dominated by films that feel very “1980s” indeed, whether that’s slasher sequels with diminishing returns, such as A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 or Phantasm 2—although we’ll put in a good word for Halloween 4 as still underrated by many fans to this day—or more unique, low-budget goofball fare, such as Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage or the Chiodo’s Killer Klowns From Outer Space. You also have what we’ll argue is the best overall Jason Voorhees design in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, as the undead Jason comes up against a psychic young woman, like Friday vs. Carrie. These flicks tended to cultivate a certain air of seediness that made them perennial rerun material in the early era of premium movie TV networks, and this, along with the boom in home video rentals, is what accounts for the cult status of so many similar films in this decade. As the decade draws to a close, we’ll see the slasher genre finally running out of steam in terms of the prominence of its releases, as the horror genre begins to experience a bit of a contraction.
1988 Honorable Mentions:
They Live, Beetlejuice, Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Child’s Play, Night of the Demons, Brain Damage, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, The Serpent and the Rainbow, The Blob, Killer Klowns from Outer Space, Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master
Director: George Sluizier
The Vanishing is a horror film about the deep, existential pain of uncertainty. It’s not the fact that he lost his girlfriend that tears at Rex, eroding his sanity and undermining any of the new relationships he attempts to build—it’s the not knowing what happened to her that is so impossible to live with. Did Saskia, his young, pretty girlfriend, simply decide to walk out on him that fateful day, in the middle of a cross-country road trip? Or was she somehow abducted from the highway rest stop where he saw her last, in full view of dozens of people? Who could have committed such a crime, and what hope is there of ever learning the truth, when years have passed since the day she disappeared? What is the point of continuing to search—and can you ever bring yourself to stop searching, even when you know you should, for your own good?
This Dutch thriller/psychological horror film provides a welcome change of pace from many of the American horror films we’ve been featuring throughout the 1980s in this project; a far more sober and composed rumination on grief, desperation and the all-consuming need to understand. Following the disappearance of his girlfriend, the world mourns with Rex … for a little while. Eventually, however, humanity’s lack of empathy rears its head—the people in Rex’s life expect him to “get over” what presumably happened to Saskia, but that’s something he simply can’t do. The lack of answers tear into his mental state to such an extreme that he’d gladly die in order to simply understand two things: How, and why?
The Vanishing is a powerfully unorthodox film, with an odd structure that runs counter to what audiences had been brought up to expect in serial killer/crime stories. For one, we are given the identity of the killer fairly early in the proceedings, and are then invited to voyeuristically see the world through his eyes a bit—not as he kills, but as he lives his otherwise normal life. The man has a family, as it turns out. He’s a beloved father figure, and a respected member of the community. He’s also a total psychopath, preparing his murders with air-tight professional competency and very much enjoying himself as he plays with Rex’s shattered nerves. Multiple times, he invites the grieving man to meet him for coffee, but then simply watches from across the street as Rex sits there pathetically, praying for answers. We can feel the way this likewise empowers the killer, to know he holds the secrets of Saskia’s end in his hands. It’s the ultimate power trip.
And of course, it’s his desperate need for that information that eventually leads Rex to his downfall. Ultimately, that’s the film’s most nihilistic thought, in a story full of them—the people who don’t need anything from this world are ultimately the ones who end up in control of it. Those who have a compulsion to seek justice or truth are punished, while those who exist outside of humanity ironically rise to positions of power within the human system. The Vanishing is a devastating story that may make you question the arbitrary cruelness of an uncaring universe wherein “karma” does not exist.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.