Monday, October 27, 2014

Newsploitation: Universal's '80s Halloween Horror Nights

With Halloween just a few days away, you just knew a couple of box office anniversaries for horror flicks would be popping up.  Rather than bore you with two entries, we’ll throw together two titles celebrating different birthdays that both came from Universal Studios in the 1980s. Of all the majors, Universal has the strongest connection with horror thanks to their classic B&W monster films from the ‘30s and ‘40s.  In the ‘80s they adjusted with the times and it gave us two horror films of varying degrees – the documentary TERROR IN THE AISLES (1984) and Wes Craven’s SHOCKER (1989), which are celebrating their 30th and 25th anniversaries, respectively.

Up first we have TERROR IN THE AISLES, which saw national release in the United States on October 26, 1984.  The brainchild of Andrew J. Kuehn and his Kaleidoscope Films, AISLES is quite possible the best and easily the most successful horror documentary of all-time.  Kuehn made his name in the entertainment industry as a developer in the fine art of trailers in the ‘60s.  In the ‘70s he directed one feature (FLUSH [1977]) but spent a majority of his time creating “behind the scenes” featurettes on films like THE SWARM (1978) and THE MAIN EVENT (1979).  Perhaps Kuehn saw the theatrical success of the musical documentary THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT (1974) and realized something covering the horror genre would do quite well.  Sure, Hollywood had beaten them to the punch with Paramount’s IT CAME FROM HOLLYWOOD (1982) and Universal’s own COMING SOON (1982), but AISLES was a different beast as it took the look at the genre with utmost seriousness.

The project was officially announced in July 1983 with Kuehn working alongside producer Stephen Netburn and writer Margery Doppelt, who has also written some of Kaleidoscope’s making of films.  Obviously aware of who horror fans enjoyed, the filmmakers cast hottie Nancy Allen and slightly hotter Donald Pleasence as our two onscreen narrators who take us into the world of horror as they sit in a theater full of folks watching scary stuff.  Here is really where AISLES succeeds because it features so many clips from horror classics.  One need only glance at the film’s “movie connection” link on the IMDb to see every major studio allowed their films to be shown in a rival’s product.  Could you imagine that today?  Hell, no!  Rather than just being a random clip show, AISLES actually does a great service to the genre as it swiftly moves from topics such as the psychology of horror to horror FX to alien invasion in some masterfully edited sequences (the opening credits montage still gives me goosebumps).  Even better, Kuehn and company don’t abandon suspense and there is a fantastic sequence in the middle that highlights the nail-biting work in non-horror films such as MARATHON MAN (1976), NIGHTHAWKS (1981), and VICE SQUAD (1982).  It is, sadly, the only time we will ever get to see Laurence Olivier and Wings Hauser share the screen.  Fittingly, the only filmmaker shown onscreen in AISLES is Alfred Hitchcock, who tells his “bomb theory” in an excerpt from THE MEN WHO MADE MOVIES: ALFRED HITCHOCK (1973).    

One of the more surprising things I found out about AISLES while looking it up was that the film was initially slapped with an X-rating (“TERROR IN THE AISLES has received a preliminary X rating in the 806th weekly listing of the Motion Picture Association of America’s Classification and Rating Administration.” – Variety, June 6, 1984).  This pretty much encapsulates how out of control the MPAA was in the ‘80s – a film filled with footage from films that all received an R-rating (or less) gets rated X.  The film was subsequently trimmed to get the highly-coveted R (“[AISLES] has been granted an R following changes in the final section of the film” – Variety, July 6, 1984).  Just over a month later Universal got the film into 18 theaters (in locations as diverse as Las Vegas, Louisville, San Antonio, and my old home, Norfolk) at the end of August.  Apparently they were pleased by the success of this trial run as they ran a full page ad in Variety touting the film’s grosses.  The film officially opened nationwide on October 26, 1984 and earned $4,009,866 to come in second place.  To give you an idea of how amazing this weekend was, look at the other two new films that bookended AISLES.

Yes, it made just under $11,000 less than THE TERMINATOR (1984).  In total the film ended up grossing $10,004,817.  While that may not seem like a lot, you have to remember this was a documentary.  In fact, it was the highest grossing documentary of that year…unless you count BREAKIN’ 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984).  Amusingly, it was Universal’s second highest grossing horror film that year behind FIRESTARTER (1984).

Five years after TERROR IN THE AISLES, Universal was still in the horror game but losing to their competitors when it came to their former reigning territory of movie monsters.  Paramount had Jason Voorhees and New Line had Freddy Krueger while Universal’s biggest horror star was that mama’s boy Norman Bates.  The studio, however, felt they got a bit of a coup as they signed the distribution rights for two modern horror masters – John Carpenter and Wes Craven – via Alive Films.

The story of Wes Craven during the ‘70s and ‘80s is actually a pretty sad one.  Despite having created three box office hits (THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT [1972], THE HILLS HAVE EYES [1977], and A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET [1984]) for different companies, the director still found himself broke in the mid-‘80s.  How broke? He signed on to do THE HILLS HAVE EYES 2 (1985) for the cash.  Goddamn!  Anyway, Craven sat back and watched his Freddy creation earn millions for everyone but himself and, even though he came back for part 3, he soon found himself frozen out of that film.  This led to doing TV work on the new TWILIGHT ZONE and DEADLY FRIEND (1986) before Craven scored the surprise box office hit THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW (1988) for Universal. This led to a 4-picture deal with Alive that began with SHOCKER.  Craven freely admitted to the press he wanted to do other things but couldn’t pass up the company’s offer for a new horror franchise with a character he owned.  Uh oh.

Telling a very ELM STREET-esque story of a vengeful killer who stalks a high school teen he has a mental connection with, SHOCKER is a glaringly obvious attempt to create a new franchise horror character.  If you had any doubt that Craven was trying to capture lightning in a bottle again, know that the original title for his script was DREAMSLAYER.  Hell, he was cooing about plans for SHOCKER 2 and SHOCKER 3 before the release and went so far as to tell Cinefantastique this:

“Certainly, this is a sincere and unabashed attempt to create a series that I will own and control with my partners.  There’s a profound sense of loss in being so out of the participation of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET…Rather than sulking in a corner or doing something really nasty, I go out and compete with them.  It’s my way of saying ‘I can do it again, can you?’”

Of course, this type of forced creation rarely succeeds and usually occurs in a more organic fashion with the audience deciding who they want to support on their killing sprees.  That, coupled with the fact Craven named his lead villain Horace Pinker, probably sealed the film’s fate before it started filming on March 3, 1989. Not only was it a cynical/commercial effort on Craven’s behalf, but you could practically see the studio salivating at the potential horror fan dollars as they filled the flick with a bunch of metal bands. “Horror fans love metal so lets fill the film with metal,” you could practically hear an old white exec say.  Naturally, the soundtrack came out via a subsidiary of Universal Music Group.

Fans, however, weren’t buying it.  Perhaps it was the film’s goofy ass poster or just a general horror burn out, but the film came in second place when it hit theaters on October 27, 1989.  It earned a total of  $4,510,990 that weekend and lost out to LOOK WHO’S TALKING (1989), which had previously felled HALLOWEEN 5 (1989).  In total the film made $16,554,699 at the U.S. box office.  That was about $6 million less that the fifth ELM STREET sequel from the previous August and a far cry from the $57 million garnered by PET SEMETARY (1989), that year’s biggest horror hit.  No one outside of Craven seemed to have an interest in the further exploits of Mr. Pinker.  LOL, Pinker, what were you thinking with that name, Wes?  The director rebounded for Universal a few years later with THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS (1991), but the deal with Alive ended there.  Craven later found himself partying with Freddy again in NEW NIGHTMARE (1994).  Oddly, that film didn’t rekindle the franchise flame and Craven has to suffer by making some film called SCREAM (1996), which ended up capturing audiences and creating a highly profitable series.  Kind of funny how that works.

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