We were raised on spectacle, so getting our attention wasn't easy. True eighties kids - an exclusive club of youths who were born in the seventies but didn't become teenagers until the nineties - had the unique distinction of being raised in the decade of both Ronald Reagan and Freddy Krueger, He-Man and Hellraiser, Johnny Carson and the Toxic Avenger. For those of us with overactive imaginations, wired on a steady diet of store-brand cola and VHS, it wasn't enough to simply see Children of the Corn; we wanted to be them. Or Jason. Or Leatherface. Even Horace Pinker, if we could get away with swearing.
For all of the adulation the decade gets, both from those who lived through it and those who just caught on, when you examine the eighties closely, it's easy to see that much of it was crap. Try watching a few early music videos without checking your phone. (Hell, you can do that with most music videos now.) How about those wonderful Smurfs? Have you wondered what all that McDonald's plastic has done to the environment? We ate it up when we had to - no YouTube, after all- but if you had a VCR, cable or both, you were privy to the last great period of horror movies, period.
My earliest memories of the genre come from Saturday afternoons and evenings. We didn't get cable until 1982 or so, but back then you could still catch a Frankenstein, Mummy or Godzilla movie in syndication, along with monster-happy TV like Twilight Zone reruns. If you were up late enough, you could even catch Elvira, who was even more responsible for our collective cleavage fixation than Dolly Parton. (How's that for spectacle?) Then there was that night they showed The Exorcist in prime time, still terrifying even with the naughty bits cut. ("Your mother slugs cops with Mel!")
We got cable just in time for the gore boom. Karloff and Chaney were charming, but this was new. We were too young and impressionable to see something as intense as a slasher film on the big screen, but catch our parents in a more relaxed mood (Willie Nelson was big then), and you could catch Jason in all his pitchfork-toting, bag-headed glory. (The pretty women were nice, too.)
Eventually, you got to see one in the theater. My first was A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, a pretty good choice considering its competition. Nothing ever quite topped the experience of seeing Freddy kick ass on the big screen. Unless, of course, you count seeing Predator and The Lost Boys at a drive-in. Yes, there were a few of those left in the late eighties, and yes, they were cool as hell. Like I said, we were a generation in flux, not quite ready for laserdisc, but not about to give up honking the horn at a boring film.
Home video was even cooler in some ways. You could rewind and pause Re-Animator (yeah, you know where) until the tape fell apart. You could discover the great horror of the previous decade, turning Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left into your personal film school. Company logos of MPI and Vestron flew across your screen, accompanied by cheap synthesizer stings, promising the future as it gave you the past.
By the end of the decade, though, things seemed to be slowing down. Freddy prop gloves and talking dolls were a thing. Every critic, both armchair and pro, was making the same old joke about Friday the 13th Part 13. Chucky was fun and Pinhead showed promise, but parents were pissed. How dare those artists create art that offended a small minority of screaming pricks? The decade of Tom Savini the goremeister was giving way to that of Tom Savini the character actor. By 1990, the year of Darkman and Exorcist III, Fangoria gave its coveted Chainsaw Award for best film to a forgettable, safe bug movie called Arachnophobia. It was a grim forecast of the bloodless decade to come, a dark time of terrible computer-generated monsters and PG-13 horror films that wouldn't scare a five-year old, or worse yet, the sensitive asshole stupid enough to leave him unattended. (See: iPads.)
Of course, if horror wasn't going to cut it, maybe other genres would.