The 1980s was the decade that catered to teens. With the rise of MTV and John Hughes, the world of music, film, and pop-culture began to see adolescents as a profitable market and media began to indulge in the angsty adolescence of the 1980s. The films released at the beginning of the decade showed remarkable potential and set the stage for the progression of multiple different genres. However, one year that particularly stands out with an impressive collection of classic films is 1984.
Renovation of Horror Films
The films released in 1984 are not only widely known by multiple generations but it was the first year that encapsulated the new wave of films marketed to teenagers. This year showed the significant renovation of the horror genre with films like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, the Stephen King adaptations Firestarter and Children of the Corn, and the 4th and “final” Friday the 13th. While it additionally kickstarted the 1980s teen genre with films like Sixteen Candles, Karate Kid, Footloose, and Red Dawn and the adventure/fantasy films that bring on strong bouts of nostalgia for Generation X such as Indian Jones and The Temple of Doom, The Last Starfighter, and The NeverEnding Story.
Slasher flicks boomed in the 1980s. With the rise of Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1974, Halloween in 1978, and Friday the 13th in 1980, the decade saw a rise of unstoppable killers with a thirst for young teen blood. However, those films only began to test the waters of what was possible of a teenage horror film. Yes, Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason are very convincing villains; however, it wasn’t until 1984 and the release of A Nightmare on Elm Street where we saw a new brand of serial killer. Director, Wes Craven, noted “A lot of the killers were wearing masks: Leatherface, Michael Myers, Jason. I wanted my villain to have a “mask,” but be able to talk and taunt and threaten. So I thought of him being burned and scarred.”
Along Came Freddy
These characteristics of Craven’s villain were extremely effective and just unique enough to scar teenage audiences for life. Think about it – a severely disfigured killer, with a glove of steak knives and a strong disdain of young adults, who is capable of reaching you when you’re at your most vulnerable – while you sleep.
Taught since childhood, people are comforted by the fact that what happens in their dreams can’t actually hurt them. However, A Nightmare on Elm Street revokes this security blanket by showing Freddy Krueger butcher young people in their nightmares. It was an interesting story that allowed for non-linear storytelling, making the audience question whether what was happening on the screen was real or a dream. While additionally posing the terrifying possibility of not ever being able to go to sleep again. Plus, while there were gore pre-1984, I will forever be traumatized watching a young Johnny Depp being dragged into his bed and a fountain of blood spurting from his place.
Rules of Horror
This film was a staple point in Wes Craven’s career who later on made the iconic Scream franchise in the 1990s. The horror auteur is most well known for introducing the concepts of horror movie “rules”. Jordan Crucchiola notes these staple rules – “If you want to survive a scary movie, don’t say you’ll be right back. Don’t drink, and don’t have sex. If there’s a sequel, the body count is always higher. And never forget: The killer always comes back for one final scare.”
A Nightmare on Elm Street utilized these regulations and played on the morals of the younger generation by punishing sexual promiscuous teens, a concept that was reused over and over throughout the decade up until the 2000s. At the beginning of the film, 15-year-old Tina is killed because she has underage sex with her bad-boy boyfriend and then decides to go outside in the middle of the night without any pants on to investigate an ominous voice calling her name. The next person killed is her bad-boy boyfriend, who again, she had sex with. In terms of body counts, there are massive amounts of sequels (some pretty questionable) that continue the rampant crackdown on teenage population control. And finally, at the end of the film, when we think the good girl protagonist, Nancy, has finally escaped Freddy’s sharp clutches, it’s revealed she is still in her Krueger induced nightmare and she is likely going to die.
A Teenage Journey
In addition to horror film rules, teen character tropes also made a name for themselves in 80s films. These tropes were popularized in John Hughes’s films and it was in these films that we got those stereotypical “jock”, “priss”, “nerd”, “weirdo”, “delinquent” characters. Yes, I just named the infamous group from The Breakfast Club. But before the 1985 release of The Breakfast Club, we had the classic teen rom-com Sixteen Candles. This film jump-started the rise of Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall, two pivotal members of the infamous “Brat Pack” (a group of actors reoccurring in similar teen films throughout the 1980s). Both actors went on to star in The Breakfast Club the later year, while Ringwald went on to additionally star in Pretty in Pink in 1986 and Michael Hall in Weird Science in 1985.
It was in these films that we started to see more focus on the teenager’s journey as they explored the relatable woes of high school bullies, teachers, parents, and their social lives. A huge recurring theme relevant throughout the teen films of the 80s is a conflict with authority and feeling misunderstood within the home environment. Sixteen Candles solidified these themes for Hughes’ later line of teen flicks. Nothing says problematic home environment like forgetting your daughter’s sixteen-year-old birthday. In Footloose, the overly religious adults in the town forbid dancing and rock music (out of all things) and with the help of Kevin Bacon, the oppressed teens fight the power to restore their freedom. Plus, in Karate Kid, we see themes of being the new kid at a new school and overcoming bullying.
Impact of Today’s Culture
In the past few years, it’s become clear that 1984 has had significant impacts on our entertainment culture. The new season of the anthological television show American Horror Story premiered this month. The season, dubbed AHS: 1984, takes place at a sleep-away camp eerily similar to Camp Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th franchise and its clear inspiration stems from the slasher flicks of the 1980s.
Likewise, the Netflix series, Stranger Things, is well known for its depiction of 1980s nostalgia and utilizes pop-culture references from the notable films of the mid-1980s. The second season opens on the week of Halloween 1984 and is not shy in showcasing what the year had to offer in terms of film and pop-culture. Throughout the season, the town movie theatre displays showings for The Terminator. In Trick or Treat Freak, the gang of middle schoolers dress up as the team of scientists from Ghostbusters for Halloween only to be mocked relentlessly by their peers. Eleven’s telekinetic powers bare strong similarities to Drew Barrymore’s Firestarter and Dustin’s discovery of a seemingly friendly reptile who he affectionately names, Dart, that later ends up being a blood-thirsty monster, bares a strong resemblance to Gremlins.
1984 had the strongest collection of films throughout the 1980s. Over the span of 30 years, it’s easy for a mediocre film to slip through the cracks. However, the films of 1984 have continued to remain classics because of the audience they cater to – teens. Whether it be the adults who were teenagers in the 80s or the younger generations who watched reruns as kids, these films have maintained their popularity due to their relatability, their sense of nostalgia, and their ability to scare the pants off of the audiences watching.