Pinpointing the greatest year for genre releases isn’t easy. In fact, if we were to really explore the topic, we’d be combing through decade upon decade and thousands of films, and you’d end up attempting to read a 30,000-word article on your lunch break. That’s not going to happen.
What has happened, however, is that I’ve spent the last two weeks doing a ton of research for you, attempting to pinpoint the very best year for the horror genre. Believe it or not, I think I’ve found it… and it may surprise you.
That year was 1987 — and the additions to our beloved genre during that year were consistently superb; thus a multitude of genuine classic pictures were born. We’re talking true, true classics, still adored today, and they really poured into the laps of horror buffs across the globe.
There were so many elite films produced in 1987, in fact, that we’re only going to skim through the highlights — because, again, time is money, and the standouts of ’87 are plentiful, but they’re not lining any one of our pockets right this moment.
That year of terror began on January 9th, when RETURN TO HORROR HIGH arrived to little fanfare and meager theatrical exposure. It’s no prize, but it has gone on to earn a home in the hearts of plenty of fans who can’t resist a silly ‘80s slasher flick, and it did get them primed for the criminally underrated and deeply disturbing Joseph Ruben film THE STEPFATHER, which hit screens just two weeks later. THE STEPFATHER didn’t win crowds over unanimously either, but over the years it has consistently drawn favorable reviews and inspired two follow-ups and a remake. It also made way for one of the year’s absolute best…
If you want to talk about a respected slasher pic at the front of the line in ’87 was A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 3: DREAM WARRIORS — one of the finest films in the NIGHTMARE franchise — which hit theaters on February 27th and surprised many with an opening weekend that saw the film slide into the top box-office slot with an $8.8 million haul. The flick would eventually find a home on favorite lists, before exiting theaters having earned more than $44 million domestically. It was a commercial success — and it really got the ball rolling for the genre year.
Fans had very little downtime to contemplate the state of things, as the horror express continued to plow onward… on March 13th, EVIL DEAD II possessed moviegoers, hoping to ride the renewed interest generated by DREAM WARRIORS. While not nearly as successful out of the gate (the film failed to crack the $6 million mark, but it was only released in 310 theaters), EVIL DEAD II would go on to become a landmark film in director Sam Raimi’s young franchise — and one of the most influential independent films ever made.
But we got away from the ultra-low-budget business quickly, as CREEPSHOW 2 (still a somewhat low-budget film, for the record) arrived on May 1st with a much heavier promotional push, which ultimately paid off. Despite the fact director George A. Romero had passed the directorial torch (though he did write the screenplay, which once more consisted of Stephen King adaptations) to frequent collaborator Michael Gornick, fans were still intrigued by King’s tales told in an anthology style — and thanks to stories like “Old Chief Wood’nhead” and “The Raft,” the flick was yet another success, peaking at the #2 slot at the box office and walking away with a following that would eventually establish itself as built-in — all while raking in an initial $14 million on the big screen.
Horror cinema was in robust health by this point — to put it mildly — and another fan favorite soon crept up on fans in May as THE GATE (which made its official premiere on May 15th) produced numbers that mirrored CREEPSHOW 2 and showcased the skills of a young and promising actor named Stephen Dorff. It’s another solid piece to be uncorked in 1987 — even if it does, to some extent, remain underrated.
Summer marked the arrival of a string of flicks that would go on to solidify positions as timeless classics; that run began on June 12th, when John McTiernan’s action-chiller PREDATOR arrived to a warm embrace. Audiences devoured the flick — which not only opened in the top box-office slot, but impressed international markets as well. The movie made nearly $100 million against a $15 million budget, and further boosted the stock of action star Arnold Schwarzenegger. It also welcomed a new menace to celluloid that (though few knew at the time) would eventually become one of the most popular movie monsters of the last century.
Outshined by the riveting PREDATOR, THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK hit big screens on the same day, and fought valiantly to make its own mark on the industry. While the comedic horror piece didn’t earn quite as much money, and failed to launch any longstanding franchise presence, it wasn’t too far behind PREDATOR in regards to reception. While PREDATOR dropped in the top slot, EASTWICK trailed in the second. It also earned a respectable $63 million before finding a comfortable home on VHS.
The summer fun continued on July 31st… and that fun had nothing to do with witches or aliens; it was time for the vampire to rise again and remind audiences that overgrown incisors were still terrifying. Joel Schumacher’s THE LOST BOYS is stylized as it gets (Michael Chapman’s cinematography and Robert Brown’s editing are both still absolutely stunning), and it has a cast to die for. The characters are top-notch, the action is unrelenting and (even better) at times legitimately frightening. It all worked out for Schumacher and company, as the film — which didn’t immediately turn as many heads as some may have anticipated — has gone on to be recognized as one of the two greatest vampire movies the 1980s produced. (We’ll talk about the other one soon.)
With the dog days of summer plaguing everyone and their mother, a few were savvy enough to waltz into air-conditioned theaters to catch the astoundingly charming nod to classic Universal Monsters, THE MONSTER SQUAD. Fred Dekker’s cult classic crept from the shadows on August 14th… and at the time, audiences just didn’t get it. Maybe the timing was all wrong; maybe the promotional campaign was poorly designed and executed; whatever the case, MONSTER SQUAD was a commercial failure… that is, until it hit VHS, and parents realized they had a built-in (and respected) babysitter for 90 minutes, and kids discovered an amazing monster movie designed to make the meek feel rebellious. The movie has been a smash ever since.
HELLRAISER lifted many a gorge just a month later, on September 18th. About as extreme as a commercial film gets, HELLRAISER is drenched in gore and pulls back the curtain on Pinhead — a now-iconic villain who can’t be mistaken for any other. HELLRAISER could have easily left the masses running in the opposite direction, but it ended up turning in a fair performance at the box office. Like THE MONSTER SQUAD, however, HELLRAISER found a much larger audience on home video. The deeply sadistic, it would seem, finally had a mainstream film to admire… and 1987 definitely had yet another monumental moment for the genre.
Circling back to the other stellar vampire film of the ‘80s — we have Eric Red and Kathryn Bigelow’s NEAR DARK. It could be called the antithesis to THE LOST BOYS, with its gritty visual style, merciless characters and generally hopeless tone, but it was a brilliant antithesis, if that’s how you opt to view the film. Bill Paxton gifted the genre a once-in-a-lifetime kind of performance (Paxton, God rest his soul, gave us more than one), and fans got a legitimately shocking and often too-realistic inversion of the Gothic vampire. October 2nd wasn’t a big financial day for horror, but it was important — as NEAR DARK is now unanimously adored, and will likely only gain new followers as the curious look into the film following Paxton’s shocking and untimely death.
The year wound down with an appreciated offering from a living legend: John Carpenter. Hitting the big screen just in time for Halloween (October 23rd), PRINCE OF DARKNESS had a solid (though not spectacular) theatrical showing. Numbers were on par with HELLRAISER — which hints that fans may not have had a tremendous amount of faith in the film, even if they were curious. Fortunately time has been pretty kind to PRINCE OF DARKNESS, as it now frequently earns mention among John Carpenter’s 10 greatest films. Not too shabby.
OPERA and BAD TASTE were a few other important films for the genre, but they catered to a different audience upon first landing. Both OPERA and BAD TASTE saw release in their home countries of Italy and New Zealand, respectively, in ’87 before making their way stateside a few years later. Michele Soavi’s STAGEFRIGHT also landed in Italian theaters, before an eventual US release in 1989. These international winners helped close a banner year for the genre, all but pinning a guaranteed ‘all-time great’ status on 1987 as a whole.