Thursday, March 4, 2010

ZOMBIE VAMPIRE REAGAN vs. THE KOMMUNIST KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE: The Art And Psychology of The 1980's 'Paranoid Comedy'

America was indeed a great and prosperous place in the 1980's. As Mighty Ronnie beat back the Great Red Menace, Wall Street soared, putting Coke on every kitchen table and coke up every nose. These were times of patriotism, times of honor. The 1950's on steroids, the American Dream come to life in blazing, vivid Technicolor.

But there was a darker side to American life in the 1980's as well. A creeping paranoia, fueled by the threat of Communist spies, the Arms Race, the two-faced double-dealings of Ollie North, and the ever-present Suede Denim Secret Police. The 80's were a time of suspicion, a lurking fear of the Red Death which was well documented - as is the case with any disturbance in the collective subconscious - by Hollywood. The Cold War heebie-jeebies at the heart of Red Dawn were the same lampooned by Spies Like Us. Who remembers the video for Genesis' "Land of Confusion"? Was the President indeed drugged to the tits with his finger hovering over the "Nuke" button? Was all civilization on the brink of annihilation? Shut up, you, and eat your TV dinner!
But it is human nature to laugh at that which we most fear, and hence, the 80's were also the Golden Age of the "paranoid comedy". Closely tied to the "black comedy" but more over-the-top and conspiracy-obsessed, the paranoid comedy was one of the greatest inventions of that decade, surpassing the Walkman and perhaps even the original Nintendo. Today we'll take a look at three different subgenres of the paranoid comedy subgenre, with three different films featured in each. Nine movies to provide an apt summation of an under-recognized niche in cinema, movies that gave us more of a glimpse into the American psyche than any of us most likely realized.

And as you read on, don't forget the wise and prophetic words of the great George Carlin: "That's the great thing about paranoia -- You only have to be right ONCE to make it all worth it".



(Classic fucking line at 0:48, PS)

The first film in our first category is also one of the best, a modern (at the time, at least) fable about corroded family dynamics, the perils of technology, and a cryptic threat from behind the Iron Curtain... of Space.
When a semi-dysfunctional (and very "80's") family installs a new satellite disc in their home, they get quite a bit more than they bargained for: Big, nasty space aliens, hungry for blood. While their parents are distracted by their "swinging" lifestyle, the family offspring are left to defend the homestead from an onslaught of malevolent creatures beamed to their world through the faulty disc.

Fear of technology, anyone?
The 1980's saw the rise of the home computer, home gaming systems, VCR's, and a slew of other handy domestic gadgets. Could it be that this goofy B-movie romp might have been somehow channeling the fears of a nervous society not yet completely prepared for massive technological advance? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But read on for more paranoia, cloaked under the mask of "comedy"...

Added bonus: Jon "Uncle Rico" Gries as the incorrigible metalhead "OD".

THEY LIVE (1988)

There can be no doubt about the symbolism and inherent paranoia in John Carpenter's 1988 classic They Live. Again, we have aliens beamed to Earth, but this time they are controlling all of society, hiding behind holographic disguises that can only be pierced by... Magical sunglasses?
Indeed, and Carpenter is one of the few directors who could make a plot this zany work. Maybe They Live was not marketed or remembered as a "comedy", but one viewing of the six-minute fight scene between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David at the apex of the film will confirm that Carpenter's tongue was planted firmly in cheek.

They Live focuses on the "conspiracy" more than just about any other film on this list, providing the best documentation of the underlying paranoia American citizens felt about their government and their society in the 1980's.
"OBEY", "CONSUME" and "WATCH TV" were the subliminal messages Mr. Carpenter exposed in this mind-bending tale, all of which were specialties of the obedient real-world public of 1988. Coincidence that this was the same year the first Bush took office?
I will not speculate further...


Say what you will, but Coulrophobia ("fear of clowns") is very real and very common.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space was a huge, previously-undocumented phobia come to life. No one before or since has given this much screen time to this particular psychological affliction, except maybe Stephen King's It.
Did I mention that these clowns shoot lazers, kill with cotton candy, and drink liquified human tissue? Menace from space, indeed.

Klowns could also belong in the next category...



Part black comedy and part blood-curdling horror, John Landis' (Blues Brothers, Animal House) first monster flick provided a glimpse at another obscure paranoia: Distrust of the self. At the beginning of the film, Landis' protagonist David (David Naughton) survives a grisly attack by an unidentified lupine beast which takes the life of his best friend Jack. Recovering in a London hospital, David is visited by Jack's reanimated corpse... But this is the least of his worries.
As David slowly succumbs to lycanthropy, his faith in himself is completely destroyed as he questions both reality and his own sanity. We can easily question the reliabilty of our government or our society, but when the threat comes from within one's self, where do you run?
This theme can be found in movies as diverse as Inner Space and The Manchurian Candidate. Werewolf does it best.


The 1984 Valley-Girl-with-Uzis horror-comedy Night of the Comet works as both an allegory for fear of nuclear war and fear of the Communist scourge.
When a strange comet passes by the Earth, almost all humans are turned into small piles of dust (red dust, I might add). For the survivors, the horror has only begun. For not only has the comet killed off most of the world's population, but most of those left are now, you guessed it... Bloodthirsty zombies.
I can't think of a better metaphor for the collective fascination/fear the public held for nuclear apocalypse in the mid-80's. The comet = The bomb. It's quite simple.
Also of note is the manner in which the two Valley Girl protagonists react upon realization that society has suffered a nuclear holocaust: They go to the local mall, to grab all the clothes and beauty supplies they can.

You can watch Night of the Comet on the 'Tube in its entirety HERE


Your next door neighbor could be a vampire. Do not trust him.
Your next door neighbor could be a Communist/terrorist/serial killer. Do not trust him.
Another excellent film which deftly mixed fear and paranoia with belly laughs and sight gags. Chris Sarandon was at his soap-operatic finest as The Vampire Next Door, summarizing suburban fears about the very human monsters that could be lurking in even the cleanest corners of every community. Proof that the safer and happier you are, the more you will worry about your safety and happiness.
Chris Sarandon = Richard Ramirez? Chris Sarandon = Gorbachev?

Fright Night could also belong in the next category...



A brilliant and hilarious paranoid comedy in which "straight man" John Belushi is slowly driven absolutely fucking nuts by his two suspicious new neighbors (Dan Aykroyd and Cathy Moriarty). Belushi's Earl Keese is the epitome of suburban contentment, living a life of lazy comfort along with his wife Enid (Kathryn Walker) and teenage daughter Elaine.
Enter Vic (Aykroyd) and Ramona (Moriarty). Decked out in an assortment of scuba gear, radio transmitters, and over-reaching friendliness, Earl's new neighbors are as intrusive as they are annoying, putting both his patience and his sanity to the test. Is Vic sleeping with Earl's wife? Is Ramona trying to seduce Earl? Are the new neighbors serial killers? Sex freaks? What happened to the station wagon?
Although Neighbors was directed by John G. Avildsen, it seemed tailor-made for the paranoid sensibilities of Roman Polanski. Like Fright Night, it laid bare the suburban/American security blanket, which lay in tatters by the end of the film.

THE 'BURBS (1989)

Probably my favorite film on this entire list. Although separated by almost a decade, The 'Burbs acted as a more fleshed-out and intense version of Neighbors, taking place (as Neighbors did) entirely within the same suburban enclave.
Tom Hanks is the Earl Keese of this film, weighing suspicion and paranoia against common sense and skepticism when his new neighbors (the "Klopeks") move in next door. Are they a Satanic cult? Why are they digging holes in the back yard in the middle of the night?
Another in a long line of "suspect-thy-neighbor" black comedies, The 'Burbs took 1980's paranoia to its logical conclusion, and fittingly so, as it was released at the very end of the decade.

And talk about an ensemble cast! Not only Tom "Joe Versus The Volcano" Hanks, but Carrie Fisher, Bruce Dern, Henry Gibson and COREY FUCKING FELDMAN.

My favorite, though? BROTHER THEODORE.

PARENTS (1989)

Bob Balaban's directorial debut!

Fuck "NEXT DOOR", they are IN YOUR HOUSE!




Helm said...

I'll be watching at least 50% of these soon. Once again, thanks.

RyGar said...

Shit, these are some of my top faves from the eighties. "American Werewolf..." has screaming, undead Nazis killing a suburban family, for Pete's sake. Best werewolf movie, ever in my opinion. (Silver bullet was alright, as was the Howling.) They Live might just be based in fact, or life is imitating art. As I was reading the list, I was like, "What about Parents?" And then I scrolled down, and I was like, "Of course dude has this shit covered." For some of us, that paranoia never went away.

Roger Camden said...

"What were they before they were leftovers?"