In his essential 2008 tome SHOCK FESTIVAL, author/illustrator Stephen Romano proclaims “There may never again be another time in film history like the end of the eighties–or a year like 1987,” a period when “schlock low-budgeters rode saddle-by-saddle with big studio releases, when major new talent broke the playing field, and revamped genre chestnuts took center stage.” For my part, I believe Romano’s contention is entirely correct: 1987 was a vital year for genre cinema and fiction, a fact confirmed by 25 years’ worth of reflection.
“When schlock low-budgeters rode saddle-by-saddle with big studio releases, when major new talent broke the playing field, and revamped genre chestnuts took center stage.”
To be fair, 1986 was pretty strong, as any year that features ALIENS, BLUE VELVET, David Cronenberg’s THE FLY, Stephen King’s IT and Patrick Suskind’s PERFUME indisputably is. 1987, however, was (for whatever reason) the year when the stars really aligned in the horror-sphere. It was then that two brash young filmmakers–Clive Barker with HELLRAISER and Kathryn Bigelow with NEAR DARK (both released in the U.S. on the same day)–took on the considerably more seasoned John Carpenter–who provided the audacious but underwhelming PRINCE OF DARKNESS–and won.
Continuing the young-usurping-the-old theme, in 1987 the late Rex Miller made an unforgettable fictional debut with the brutal and blistering novel SLOB, while Richard Christian Matheson proved himself a worthy successor to his legendary father Richard Matheson with the now-classic collection SCARS AND OTHER DISTINGUISHING MARKS. Robert R. McCammon, until then a relatively obscure figure whose following was limited to horror buffs, outdid Stephen King’s THE STAND with the apocalyptic wonder SWAN SONG and became a bestselling author in the bargain. I still say SWAN SONG is McCammon’s best novel, a lengthy and complex yet unfailingly energetic and enjoyable epic.
Speaking of Stephen King, the man published no less than four novels in 1987–THE DARK TOWER II: THE DRAWING OF THE THREE, THE EYES OF THE DRAGON, THE TOMMYKNOCKERS and MISERY–an impressive output even by King’s usual standards of prolificacy. What’s more, two of those novels–THE DRAWING THE THREE and MISERY–rank among King’s finest. Another experienced horror scribe who made his voice heard in 1987 was Whitley Strieber, with the “nonfiction” tome COMMUNION, detailing Strieber’s alleged encounter with space aliens.
A far stronger nonfiction work was provided by editor Adam Parfrey with the alternative culture compilation APOCALYPSE CULTURE, the dark and scary inverse of the popular RE/Search books. An equally iconic 1987 anthology was editor David G. Hartwell’s THE DARK DESCENT, one of the most potent compilations of great horror stories in existence (even though nearly all those stories are readily available elsewhere). The above-mentioned Clive Barker, meanwhile, gave us the fascinating and expansive WEAVEWORLD, his second novel and the first of the horrific fantasy epics that would come to comprise much of Barker’s literary output.
Needless to say, the horror fiction boom that began in the early eighties was still very much on in ‘87, and inevitably some good books were lost in the shuffle. Such was the case with Jack Ketchum’s peerlessly suspenseful psychodrama COVER and Richard Laymon’s sci fi tinged gorefest FLESH, both of which took over a decade to receive their rightful dues as genre classics. Joe Lansdale’s wrenching STRAW DOGS-on-PCP shocker THE NIGHTRUNNERS is another 1987 publication whose reputation has steadily increased with time; the novel is now recognized, rightfully, as one of the seminal works of the then-burgeoning splatterpunk movement.
Also in 1987, the Dutch madman Paul Verhoeven, known for saucy arthouse offerings like TURKISH DELIGHT and THE 4th MAN, turned the Hollywood action movie formula on its head with ROBOCOP, a potentially routine sci fi actioner that emerged as an outrageously splatterific satire whose pulpy intensity remains unsurpassed. Sam Raimi performed a similar feat with EVIL DEAD 2, whose mix of horror and slapstick reinvigorated the backwoods slasher formula that Raimi himself helped instigate, and set a standard for comedic horror that remains in effect today.
Then there was THE LOST BOYS, Joel Schumacher’s resolutely trendy teen vampire epic. It doesn’t seem like much now, and probably deserves condemnation for making superstars out of the two Coreys (Haim and Feldman), yet the pic was a lot of fun back in the summer of ‘87. The same can be said for FATAL ATTRACTION, the adultery-themed chiller whose monster success took everyone by surprise. The film hasn’t dated well at all, but was quite the thriller in its day (audiences back then actually applauded the scene in which Anne Archer threatens to kill Glenn Close over the phone), and gave rise to the erotic thriller cycle of the nineties.
I’ve never been all that enamored with PREDATOR (a.k.a. RAMBO MEETS ALIEN), but it is enjoyable enough, and the Stan Winston designed title creature remains one of the screen’s most distinctive monsters. THE HIDDEN is no classic, but did provide an invigorating action-intensive take on the age-old PUPPET MASTERS / INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS premise. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS wasn’t particularly great either, but displayed enough demented imagination to render it the finest of the ELM STREET sequels (which admittedly isn’t saying much).
Glancing over 1987’s mainstream movie offerings, it turns out the scary stuff wasn’t the only worthwhile entertainment that year had to offer. ‘87 was the year of LETHAL WEAPON, which with its surprisingly intense brutality and knockabout comedy was as influential as FATAL ATTRACTION. The same is true of Oliver Stone’s WALL STREET, whose unfailingly entertaining portrayal of greedy NYC day traders remains quite pertinent in today’s world. The hilarious PLANES, TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES was the first “grown-up” feature directed by the late John Hughes, and the last really good movie Hughes made before cheapening his particular brand with the likes of HOME ALONE and CURLY SUE. Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Nam pastiche FULL METAL JACKET is one of his most contentious efforts but contains quite a few classic moments, while the TV-inspired THE UNTOUCHABLES turned out, in a most surprising development, to be one of Brian de Palma’s finest-ever films. Marek Kanievska’s LESS THAN ZERO wasn’t a “good” film by any means, but it is a first-rate guilty pleasure whose portrayal of late-eighties hip culture is far more accurate than that of the following year’s BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. There was also the woefully underrated WEEDS, ably directed by LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH’S John Hancock and starring a never-better Nick Nolte, which can be viewed as the SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION of the eighties. Barbet Schroeder’s funny-seedy BARFLY is in my view the definitive movie on L.A.’s fabled Charles Bukowski, and a standout release of the late Cannon Group. Cannon also put out Andrei Konchalovsky’s peerlessly haunting bayou set drama SHY PEOPLE in ‘87 (as well as the somewhat-less-than-great MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE). Finally, Joe Dante’s INNERSPACE was arguably the finest example of sci fi escapism since BACK TO THE FUTURE, being fast, freewheeling and feverishly inventive in a manner only the inimitable Dante could achieve.
Once again: 1987 was quite an amazing year for entertainment. Will we ever see its likes again? I’ll go out on a limb here and offer a prediction: Nope!