This Autumn of 1980 will be remembered in Hollywood as the season when horror movies, those unspeakable celluloid things, cracked out of their pods en mase to gorge anew on the wallets of American filmgoers.
"The Awakening," "Motel Hell", "He Knows You're Alone," "Schizoid," "Prom Night," "Fade to Black," "The Howling," "The Shining," "Terror Train," "Halloween," "When a Stranger Calls," "Dressed to Kill," "The Boogeyman," "Mother's Day," "Don't Answer the Phone," "The Changeling," "The Fog," "Death Ship," "When the Screaming Stops," "Phantasm," "Zombie," "The Exterminator," "Silent Scream," "Friday the 13th" -- all of them throbbing like abscessed teeth in the gaping maws of the nation's multiplex theaters.
Soon, however, like the predestined perpetrators of their own fevered tales, they too will return to restless graves, there to spawn a new cycle of cinemagraphical excess. So it's a hello-goodbye to the biggest glut of nightmare movies in film history.
"Yes, I've just canceled production on a horror film," said Roger Corman, the legendary king of the quickies, with more than 170 low-budget movies to his credit. "The cycle is peaking and by spring the market will be oversaturated. No harm done. I'll just put that particular property on the shelf for two or three years. Horror films will be back -- but for the cycle to begin again, it first has to end."
At Filmways studios, however, a third of the 150 scripts that come in every month are still for horror pictures -- though nearly all go unmade. At Avco-Embassy, "uncountable" similar proposals continue to arrive. "Too many," according to Mick Garris, who says his title is vice president in charge of horror films. Garris believes there is a glut of "psycho-knife-killer movies," but that there's still plenty of interest in fright movies in general.
"The money is pretty amazing," said Tom Phillips, a publicist for Paramount pictures. "We've got 'Friday the 13th,' which cost almost nothing to make and has grossed $41 million so far. And we're going ahead with 'The Fright,' starring Lee Grant and William Shatner." According to Phillips, horror movies will "always succeed if they deliver -- blood, decapitation, stuff like that. Some of them, like 'Prom Night,' just don't deliver."
"Horror films have always been a way to break into moviemaking, and there are a lot of talented young people now," said Marvin Goldman, proprietor of Washington's KB theater chain and twice president of the National Association of Theater Owners. To him, the proliferation of horror films has a financial, rather than preternatural, explanation.
"It's just like Procter and Gamble," Goldman said. "One soap sells, pretty soon there are lots of similar soaps.But since the people who make horror movies are independents, they can't break into high-visibility movie periods like Christmas, Washington's Birthday or mid-June-to-Labor Day. That's why you usually see a flurry of independent films in September and October. This year, they're horror pictures."
Part fairy tale, nightmare and morality play, scare films have been alive -- in their fashion -- since the dawn of movies. Early examples, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1917), "Nosferatu" (1922) and Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera" (1925) are now classics. Frankenstein and Dracula have been made and remade; and when audiences hungered for more, they were given mushroom people, crab monsters and various varieties of irradiated insects, lizards, worms, men, women and children. A single scene -- Janet Leigh's doomed shower in "Psycho" -- excited generations of bright-eyed student directors to greater heights, and by 1974, with "Texas Chain Saw Massacre," the knife had become gasoline-powered.
The main stocks on the horror shelf, however, have always had low budgets and looked it. They once were routinely completed for $60,000 ("Not of This Earth") or less ("The Wasp Woman" cost $45,000). Now a film like "Schizoid," a drama about five women in a hot tub who share the same scissors-weilding group therapist, requires $1 million. A movie with that kind of budget is very likely to be made very close to Los Angeles, in four weeks of shooting. With many similar movies playing across the nation in hundreds of theaters simulaneously, not all of them break even. But "Halloween," made in 1978 for $30,000 and re-released this season, has so far grossed will over $24 million.
Merely repeating past stories is not enough to guarantee success, however. Earlier cycles already did that, anyhow, perhaps the most memorable being the 20 or so that Roger Corman turned out for American International Pictures in the early 1960s. They had fright scenes and copious blood and gore, and often a sense of humor of one sort or another. The personnel were unlikely but enthusiastic: Basil Rathbone (a student of poetry); Peter Lorre (a specialist on German expressionism); Boris Karloff (connoisseur of orchids) and Vincent Price, collector of paintings and sculpture.
When the budgets rise, however, comedy seems to be the first to fall. The big-hitters of recent years -- "The Exorcist," "Rosemary's Baby," "Carrie," "The Omen," "Alien" and "Dressed to Kill" -- have played their stories straight. They seem to have succeeded with audiences in direct proportion to their ability to "deliver the goods." A less friendly observer might also say that a certain humanistic quality has been sacrificed to the gods of contemporary gore. Frankenstein, King Kong, and Godzilla were themselves cpable of suffering, and even Dracula sometimes wished he were somebody else; today's monsters are psychotic, and simply kill until killed. A current horror film sympathetic to its monster doesn't even dare call itself a horror film. (It calls itself "The Elephant Man.")
The horror movie cycle seemed to be ending right on cue two weeks ago, when United Artists unveiled "Motel Hell," which it declared to be a "takeoff of every horror film ever made." Unfortunately, "Motel Hell" -- in which Rory Calhoun makes sausage out of visitors to his lonely farmhouse -- is neither a send-up nor a take-off, just another horror pic that never gets up to taxiing speed.
Meanwhile, the hearty of spirit are going right ahead in an attempt to twist the knife profitably before the cyclical goose is totally cooked.
Pearce, for example, is now associate producer of a movie called "New Year's Evil," pegged naturally to open on or about Jan. 1. It's the tale of a man compelled to kill when the clock strikes midnight of the New Year, and he works his way West time-zone-to-time-zone as New Year's Eve progresses.
"These pictures aren't too different from those that have gone before, and what makes them work is more craft than art," Pearce said. "It's all a game -- a group of coeds are endangered. Who is it? What is it? Sure the cycle is going to end soon, but there are twice as many films this time as ever before. One of the reasons is that you can get financing for a horror picture right now. We get a lot of proposals, because Cannon has a line of credit out of a foreign bank."
"Here's one that just came in," Pearce said. "Somebody wants to make a picture called 'In Broad Daylight.' They want a million and a half dollars. They've got a script, a production company, a budget. Obviously these guys are young and ambitious."
The name on the proposal was Tom Green, and his film organization was listed as The Runamuck Co. "Every other film has a knife in it," Green explained on the telephone from Los Angeles. "But the actual villain of 'In Broad Daylight' is sunlight! That, plus ordinary objects like a deep freeze, a piano, a flying blender. We're turning the whole thing around: 'In Broad Daylight, Pray for the Night to Come!'"
Green says his picture is about "necropsychokinesis. See, there's a Menonnite graveyard in Utah, and somebody wants to disturb the graves. But the dead don't want to move, so they start moving things themselves. By necropsychokinesis. But all this happens in daylight -- and we're working on ways to get a special chrome glare. Nobody realizes how frightening the sun can be. But it is. You know, maybe a woman looks terrific at night. Then you wake up the next morning and look at her. Agh!"
To make a horror movie, Green said, all you have to do is "Swallow six tons of concrete for your stomach lining, and give up 10 years of your life. You have to have integrity, and have to have an office. You have to keep plugging. On this picture, I'm the director and my partner, Jon Torp, wrote it, and we put everything together -- we've got our own music, our own gaffers and the four leads signed up. Then sell it. Love me, love my dog."
Horror movies have been a kicking-off place for filmmakers -- and sometimes actors, too: James Arness in "The Thing," Steve McQueen in "The Blob." (Writers, on the other hand, usually are happier to be forgotten: as James Clavell, author of "Shogun" and also of "The Fly.")
The current horror movies even have a queen: Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Tony Curtis and, appropriately, Janet Leigh. Curtis stars in four of the current crop, "The Fog," "Prom Night," "Terror Train" and "Halloween."
She isn't happy with the "queen" title, but "it'll have to do until something else comes along," she said the other day. "Horror pictures are okay, as long as they send you somewhere else. I got paid scale for 'Halloween,' and the others weren't that lucrative for me, although it's getting better."
Curtis said she is asked often about the traditional role of threatened, half-clothed victims in horror pictures. "There's usually a sexual factor, yes. They kill the loose girls and save the virgins in most of these movies. I don't get excited about it. Women in jeopardy is just a standard ploy, nobody thinks about it. It's better than dismembering babies, like in 'When A Stranger Calls.'"
Curtis agreed that the horror cycle is "fizzling out," but said she doesn't go to many of them herself anyway. "I'm petrified," she said."I sat through 'Death Ship' with a coat over my head."
If so, wither the next cycle?
"Probably science fiction," Corman said. "We put out 'Battle Beyond the Stars' last summer, and it's done well. Now we've got 'Journey Beyond the Galaxy,' at $7 million, and 'Planet of Horrors,' which is budgeted at $5 million. You can't make them as cheap, because audiences want good special effects. But we've just built our special-effects studio, to keep costs down and meet our own deadlines. Everybody else is totally backed up. People want sci-fi, and they're going to get it."
But before horror films slink back to where ever they go between cycles, there are a few more screams in the theatrical dark yet to be heard: "Space Vampires," "X-Ray," "Harvest of Fear," "Lover's Lane" (starring none other than Wayne Newton), "The Boogens" ("There is no escape . . . "), "Maniac," "Never Pick Up Stranger," "Teddy" ("Jamie Wouldn't Kill Anyone . . . Unless Teddy Told Him To"), "The Attic" ("13 Steps to Terror"), "Scream for Vengeance," "The Vengeance," "Scanners" ("10 seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 seconds: You Can't Breathe. 20 Seconds: Your Head Explodes."), "Evilspeak" "Delusion" ("The Nightmare is real."), "Albino" ("From the White evil, There is no Escape"), "Frozen Scream," "Don't Go in the Woods," "Nightkill" ("How Do You Hide From a Killer Who's Already Dead!"), "Night Mares," "Macabra,", "Alligator," "Inseminoid," and more, and that's not even cracking the lid of the foreign language markets, with "Zombies Atomicos," "Apocalipsis Canibal," "La Isla de los Monstruos" and "El Gendarme y la Revancha de los Extraterrestres."
Sleep well. But remember, the ones that don't escape this time live on in the studio vaults, biding time to strike again.