When the average person thinks of the 1980s, shoulder pads, power suits, and Huey Lewis and the News come to mind. But when most horror fans imagine the decade, visions of Camp Crystal Lake, raucous Gremlins, and the Overlook Hotel tend to beat out Madonna and Ronald Reagan as the prevailing icons. Back then, horror cinema welcomed a slew of new slashers on the block and a few pubescent vampires who were actually cool. Oh, the good old days.
So in honor of the era that gave us jelly shoes and Freddy Krueger, let’s take a look at a smattering of the best horror movies the decade had to offer. Feel free to play some Tangerine Dream for the occasion, but try to avoid any pop music. It’s just too scary.
The Werewolf Film: The Howling
Hollywood has this uncanny ability to release similar films almost simultaneously. In 1981, studio executives apparently declared it the year of the werewolf, which is the only reasonable explanation for The Howling’s release coming just four months prior to the next film on the list. If only someone would declare, say, 2015 the renaissance of the lycanthrope, then we might finally receive another pair of good werewolf movies.
A foreboding vibe blankets everything in The Howling, and the audience knows the moment Karen and her husband vacate the city for the Colony’s bucolic scenery that only darkness awaits. The majority of the film’s werewolf makeup is fantastic, and despite being chintzy in retrospect, the adorable stop-motion wolves wailing on the roadside near the end hold a special kind of charm. Move over, California Raisins. The Howling’s arrived.
Runner-up: An American Werewolf in London
And the first ever Oscar for Outstanding Makeup goes to… not this list’s top pick but the runner-up. Whenever Rick Baker and werewolf share a sentence, horror fans envision the same moment: David Naughton’s werewolf transformation sequence. Clever editing and practical effects beat CGI any day.
The Vampire Flick: Near Dark
In Pulp Fiction, Mia Wallace tells Vincent Vega everyone can be divided into two categories: Beatles people and Elvis people. You can enjoy both, but when it comes down to it, you prefer one over the other. Likewise, there are two sorts of 80s horror fans: Near Dark people and Lost Boys people. I’m personally partial to Kathryn Bigelow’s renegade vampires. Set to a backdrop of desolate American landscapes, the film’s inexorable grit easily wins out over glossy Californian vampires chilling in caves and reveling in Chinese takeout. Though it never got The Lost Boys’ Hot Topic merchandise, that’s okay. The nocturnal baddies of Near Dark would have been loath to sell-out anyhow.
Runner-up: Fright Night
From The Hunger to Lifeforce, vampires covered a wide scope in the eighties. But watching a washed-up horror host and hapless teen fight off Chris Sarandon’s suave bloodsucker never gets old. And even though the remake wasn’t the worst in the recent wave of Hollywood regurgitation, the 1985 film reigns supreme.
The Etcetera Monster: Gremlins
Some purists protest that Mogwais are far too cuddly to deserve the genre moniker. And with that sentiment, I’d agree. But as much as Gizmo is a main player in Joe Dante’s darkly comedic magnum opus, the titular gremlins wreak such gleeful and unrepentant chaos that to deny their cold-blooded reptilian hearts the honor of a horror title would just be downright cruel. Even minus the general Kingston Falls State of Emergency, sending the film’s real villain, Mrs. Deagle, up the stairs and through her window demonstrates Stripe et al’s monster street cred.
Maybe you’re still not convinced. Then consider this “Yum Yum” food for thought. During a time when the Creature Shop was making even the subjects of the Goblin King rather warm and fuzzy, Gremlins proved that puppets could be diabolically terrifying. Millions of scared kids the world over wouldn’t lie.
Falling somewhere between bloodthirsty cat and sadistic madman, Pumpkinhead is a fearsome antagonist. Though the deplorable sequels dampened its influence, the 1988 film boasts one of the best all-time monsters, due to both the glorious creature effects and the vicious personality of the revenge-obsessed golem. This folkloric brute likes to toy with his victims, so on your next trip to the Ozarks, watch where you’re driving. No need to ruin your vacation.
The Sci-Fi Hybrid: The Thing
In the seventies and eighties, John Carpenter practically ruled horror cinema. He along with a select few other directors produced films that subverted the way we would forever view the genre. The Thing is arguably his greatest accomplishment. Sure, Halloween almost single-handedly created the modern slasher, but when the eponymous monster can literally grow legs and walk away anytime it wants, you know it’s going to be a raucous ride.
Very few movies choose Antarctica as their setting, but no other film has defined an entire continent like The Thing. Maybe MacReady and Childs didn’t make it away from the fire. Or maybe one of them had alien blood in him. Either way, this was one freezing helicopter ride worth taking.
Aliens obliterates so many cinematic clichés. The film features an uncompromising woman as the lead and includes strong character development of the Marines, even though most are killed in their first onscreen firefight. And with a few guys in costumes as the aliens, the reductionist effects take simplicity to the extreme. Unless you’ve been to some wonky S&M clubs, men in rubber suits never seemed so frightening.
The Slasher Pic: Friday the 13th
In the annals of the slasher genre, a few killers stand out in the Parthenon. Jason Voorhes is undoubtedly among them. Although he makes only a brief appearance in the debut installment, the 1980 film set the stage for all machete-wielding frolics to come.
While Halloween brought terror into suburbia two years earlier, Friday the 13th removed it to a remote campground where the assortment of victims had none of the modern accoutrements to combat a killer. Practically no cars. No phones. No escape plans. Though it may not have been the first rural horror setting, Camp Crystal Lake is an icon all its own.
Runner-up: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
During an epoch that included Prom Night, Terror Train, Sleepaway Camp, and My Bloody Valentine among others, the slasher was alive and well, even if their celluloid victims weren’t so fortunate. Chainsaws, however, have that certain je ne sais quoi, so the second chapter of the Sawyer Family saga ultimately persevered. With tough leading lady, Stretch, as the clan’s adversary, this may be a sequel, but it doesn’t disappoint.
The Zombie Classic: Day of the Dead
I write so often about Day of the Dead that it’s almost an obsessive tic. Furthermore, I haven’t created a list for this site yet that hasn’t referenced Romero. Maybe it’s because I hail from the Pittsburgh area and his zombies are in my blood (though gratefully not after my cranium). Or maybe it’s that without his original trilogy, the horror genre wouldn’t be what it is.
The last of his real zombie movies–Land, Diary, and Survival seem like low-rent imitators by comparison–Day packs quite the wallop. Something about the fierce ragtag team of scientists and army men subsisting in an underground hell nags at you. Plenty of movies have tried the ‘people as monsters’ angle but rarely has it seemed so real or so bleak. Even if the bulk of the film has little effect on you, lead zombie Bub and his heartrending grief during the gore-laden finale might just make you wonder who you’ve been rooting for the whole time. Emotional manipulation may be an age-old tactic in films, but never before had it craved brains.
Runner-up: The Return of the Living Dead
For fluffier fare that pays homage to the undead, look no further than the 245-Trioxin zombie. Though it gives a wink and a nod to Romero’s classics, the film denies its creatures the easy bullet-to-the-head death to which we’ve all grown so accustomed. Instead, these zombies are nasty, they’re loquacious, and as the poster jovially informs us, they’re ready to party.
The Low Budget Masterpiece: Evil Dead
All independent horror filmmakers for the last thirty years have incorporated the phrase, “But Sam Raimi did it!” into their vernacular. It’s practically required. Film schools even teach ways to deliver this proclamation most effectively.
From point of view angles that maximize the frights (while minimizing the budget) to hellish creatures that prove to be both fun and terrifying, Evil Dead took John Carpenter’s reductionist approach and condensed it even more. Who needs financing when you’ve got original ideas like these? Aspiring visionaries study the film’s every frame and are still left breathless for more. Honestly, we all are.
Runner-up: Psychos in Love
The 1980s was the VHS Renaissance for horror films, so no less than several hundred titles could easily have been crowned runner-up. But let’s go peripheral and choose Psychos in Love. From monologues concerned with the horrors of grapes to cannibal handymen with an affinity for blackmail, the oddball 1987 film may not yet be on your must-see list, but for anyone with an irreverent sense of humor, it deserves the honor.
The Witchcraft/Magic Movie: Child’s Play
With a foul-mouthed, homicidal doll running in and out of this film and its sequels, it’s easy to forget how the Child’s Play series all began: with magic, of course. Evil, dark magic. Because witchcraft is the easy scapegoat anytime you need a catalyst to get your plot going.
Chucky was practically prefabricated to become an iconic horror villain. He spouts off great quotes, oozes sociopathic charisma, and never says die, even once he already has. Toys in horror films might have been bad before, but with the soul of a voodoo killer, Chucky made sure nobody except the truly brave wished for a Good Guy Doll—or even its real-life counterpart, My Buddy—under the Christmas tree ever again.
Runner-up: Night of the Demons
Night of the Demons rarely gets a place on lists like these, and that’s a real shame. The party-gone-wrong spotlights cool sets, over-the-top humor, and that broken mirror shot that proves horror movies can push the constraints of cinematography if they want to. Plus, any film that embraces a lipstick-swallowing nipple should really earn more love.
The Ghost Story: Poltergeist
Out of all the haunted houses in all the cinematic world, the Freelings own the scariest one. Many ghosts have imitated, but none have been as freakily effective as the irate spirits protesting gentrification in the 1982 classic.
This film’s really got it all. Supernatural elements and the visual effects to make them work. A great cast that includes kids who don’t inflict undue irritation on the audience. And how about the theme song with the singing children who giggle in unison at the end? Plenty of things are bloodcurdling, but that tune just seems cruel.
Runner-up: The Fog
The second John Carpenter film on the list, this supernatural romp reunites the director with star Jamie Lee Curtis as she fights her way through a coastal town plagued with questionable weather. The forecast? Ghosts are good, but ghost pirates are better.
Body Horror: Re-Animator
Any ode to body horror or 1980s cinema deserves a mention of David Cronenberg and his remake of The Fly. But despite being a defining film that incorporates spectacular makeup effects, poor Seth Brundle and his luckless paramour are too depressing for my tastes. It probably offers an odd window into my own psychology that zombie apocalypses are fine by me, but I just can’t enjoy star-crossed, Shakespearian-style tragedies. So feel free to yell at me in the comment section for its omission; I’ll completely understand.
Instead, let’s go for lighter fare and opt for Re-Animator. After all, Jeffrey Combs makes everything too darn enjoyable to be depressing. A Frankenstein for the Atari generation, this ultraviolent dark comedy escalates to epically ridiculous proportions… and then goes even further for its denouement. Keep Herbert West in mind the next time you post a Craigslist ad seeking a roommate. Sometimes paying the extra rent isn’t so bad. Just ask the family cat.
As a true bastion of horror, Pinhead could probably join the ranks of great villains if he wasn’t so insistent on making them all play with his puzzle box (a prospect that sounds dirtier than it should). And in the company of the cool and resourceful Kirsty, Hellraiser takes body horror to a whole new dimension. Hope you like a side of torment with your pleasure.
The Stephen King Adaptation: The Shining
Ever since polyester suits were popular, each decade earns its defining Stephen King adaptation. The 1970s had Carrie. The 1990s had The Shawshank Redemption. The 2000s (or augties if you will) had The Mist. But perhaps the most revered book-to-film from King’s oeuvre is Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 hotelier mindbender.
A superb exercise in production design, the Overlook Hotel is painted with such vivid and saturated brushstrokes that you probably recall its hallways better than any place you’ve ever stayed on a real vacation. If you haven’t gotten enough of its bewitching charm and want to careen off into bizarre symbolic territory, watch the documentary Room 237. Minotaurs and Tang never sounded so highbrow.
Runner-up: Pet Sematary
With some fiercely cool makeup effects, the cute-as-a-button yet matricidal Gage, and that killer theme song courtesy of the Ramones, film professors may not pontificate over this one like they do The Shining, but even a quarter-century later, it’s still a disturbingly good time.
The Uncategorized: A Nightmare on Elm Street
A catalog of 80s horror films couldn’t be complete without a shout-out to A Nightmare on Elm Street. But is it a slasher? A psychological thriller? Does Freddy’s power materialize from magic? Could the film even be a comedy?
Wes Craven’s masterpiece might defy categorization, but that just makes it all the more impressive. And unlike some of his predecessors or contemporaries, Krueger doesn’t feel awkwardly dated or frightfully diminished, even three decades on. Like a bad dream, he never stops dogging you.
As the sole anthology film on the list, Creepshow stands on its own. Another creation courtesy of Stephen King and yet one more film shot mostly in Pittsburgh, this omnibus of the eerie introduced us to prolific extraterrestrial vegetation, gangs of curious cockroaches, and my personal favorite “Fluffy”, the beast from The Crate. Zombies suddenly don’t look so bad.
What 80s horror movie is your favorite? Let me know in the comments below!