Seeing as how the 1980s gave us four Halloween movies, five Elm Streets and no less than eight Friday the 13ths, it’s pretty easy to see why the decade is considered the golden age of slasher flicks. Throw in all the lesser known psycho-killer/dead teenager flicks from the era that have since gone on to become bona fide cult classics – the Sleepaway Camp trilogy, Maniac, Pieces, etc. – and it’s pretty much indisputable that the Reagan years were indeed the glory days of cinematic mass murder.
Even in a decade glutted with degenerate cinema classics like My Bloody Valentine and Silent Night, Deadly Night, there nonetheless remain several unsung, unheralded slasher movies from the 1980s that definitely deserve more retroactive respect and reverence. Sure, none of the following flicks may be on par with subgenre heavy hitters like Black Christmas or Twitch of the Death Nerve, but they nonetheless have a certain Grand Guignol charm and ghoulish style all their own that puts them (severed) head and shoulders above most slasher movies from the age of New Coke and just plain coke.
In the mood for tubular terror and bodacious bloodshed with a side of huge hair and crappy pop-metal? Give these ten criminally neglected and underappreciated slasher films a try and see if they don’t scratch your cinematic itch for gnarly gore, sweet scares and – of course – some totally ill kills…
The House On The Edge of The Park (1980)
Here’s a movie that gives us one of the most incredible director/actor combos in the annals of horror history – and you just know a movie starring David A. Hess (Krug from Last House On The Left) and directed by the dude who made Cannibal Holocaust is going take “nasty” to a whole new level. Part home invasion fright flick, part rape-revenge potboiler and part sleazeball sex thriller, The House On The Edge of The Park pulls no punches with its graphic sexual torture sequences and gruesome razor blade slashings, with some scenes reaching I Spit On Your Grave levels of depravity. Imagine, if you will, Maniac, Funny Games, Last House on the Left and Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer pureed into a single motion picture and you pretty much have the gist of Ruggero Deodato’s peculiarly unsung masterpiece of debauchery; and if that wasn’t enough, it even has one of the best twist endings of the decade!
The Burning (1981)
Three years before Freddy Krueger invaded cineplexes, this outstanding “summer camp of the damned” outing gave us quite possibly the first deep-fried psycho of the slasher flick era. One of the first movies produced by Hollywood heavy hitter Harvey Weinstein, The Burning focuses on the exploits of a horrifically burned groundskeeper who now seeks revenge for the disastrous prank that cost him his skin five years earlier. Armed with a pair of humongous pinking shears, he decides to make an unannounced return to camp, and you better believe some heads – and arms, and legs, and index fingers – are going to roll. If Tom Savini’s outstanding gore effects aren’t enough of an incentive (and the infamous raft massacre scene is worth the price of admission alone), the movie also features a ton of actors and actresses before they became big time stars, including Fisher Stevens, Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter!
The New York Ripper (1982)
While Lucio Fulci is rightfully remembered and revered for his weird metaphysical zombie flicks like The Beyond and The House By The Cemetery, even hardcore horror fans have a tendency to sleep on some of his giallo movies. Somewhere between Maniac and Tenebrae lies Fulci’s 1982 mini-classic The New York Ripper, a film that not only delivers some solid guts and gore but actually has a halfway decent detective story to accompany it. At heart, it’s structurally your basic “serial killer on the loose” yarn, but the execution – and I do mean that in more ways than one – is very well done. And you really have to give Fulci and pals some points for originality: just how many other movies are out there about psychosexual maniacs that do Donald Duck impersonations before murdering strippers with switchblades?
The House on Sorority Row (1983)
Since there were about a dozen or so films with similar titles released around the same time – The Dorm That Dripped Blood, The Sorority House Massacre, Don’t Go In The House, etc. – it’s easy to see why this one never caught on with genre fanatics. That’s a shame, since the flick (directed by Mark Rosman, who would go on to direct the 1995 Sci-Fi Channel staple Evolver) offers a pretty good balance between gruesome, gross-out gore effects and legitimate suspense that not that many slasher films from the era were able to pull off. Like oh so many genre contemporaries, the flick begins with a bunch of kids taking a “harmless” prank a little too far, and the next thing you know a whole hell of a lot of people are getting their jugulars torn out by somebody wielding a preposterously sharp walking cane. Your mileage may vary on the Friday the 13th-inspired finale, but it’s unquestionably an awfully fun ride along the way – and come on, how can anybody hate a movie that depicts a character being stabbed to death by a jack in the box?
Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984)
There sure were a lot of Santa-themed slasher flicks in the 1980s, and while this one isn’t quite as memorable as Christmas Evil or Silent Night, Deadly Night, it’s still an immensely enjoyable little genre outing. This Brit-horror offering (interestingly, the only film ever directed by Italian shlock character actor Edmund Purdom) is something of a clever inversion of the “killer Santa” movie, as it revolves around a psycho killer who only murders Santa imitators. And rest assured, the kills in this one are downright grisly; we’ve got hatchets to the head, eyeballs getting sliced out, faces being melted off by red hot grills – hell, at one point, a guy in a Kris Kringle costume even gets his yule log hacked off by a straight razor! Naturally, the fun of the movie is in solving its whodunit plot and trying to figure out the killer’s mysterious motive, but the particularly nasty and over-the-top kills (including a pretty hilarious pre-ending credits humdinger) don’t exactly hurt it, either.
The Mutilator (1985)
Director Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator might be all style and no substance, but hey, isn’t that what made no-budget, VHS-era slasher movies great in the first place? For a movie with such a microscopic budget, the gore effects in this one are actually surprisingly good. Among other family-friendly delights, there are scenes of women having their guts blown out of their abdomen at point blank range, a part where an unfortunate fella gets his torso flayed open with a buzzsaw and – the film’s piece de resistance – a sequence where a gal has her uterus involuntarily pierced by a ginormous hook. In terms of plot, there isn’t much here you haven’t already seen before, but the four star splatter definitely makes this one a must for the genre faithful.
Slaughter High (1986)
Okay, nobody’s going to claim Slaughter High is the most creative slasher film of the eighties; yes, it is, essentially, yet another movie about a group of kids getting killed off, one by one, in the wake of a deadly prank-gone-awry. But man are the kills in this one just awesome: we’ve got a dude duped into drinking acid, another victim being melted alive in a chemical bath, one character getting his wrists slit and face whacked off by a tractor blade and two rather randy individuals getting barbecued on an electrified bed (boy, doesn’t that give new meaning to the phrase “smoking after sex!”). This has to be one of the more nihilistic slasher movies of the decade, one in which the directors (yep, all three of them) make no efforts to goad the audience into cheering for the would-be survivors. And all the moral-less mass murder is made even more enjoyable by Harry Manfredini’s score, which might be even better than his work on the Friday the 13th films!
Return To Horror High (1987)
Long, long before Scream, this clever horror-comedy was already deconstructing and disassembling the tried and true tropes of the slasher genre. Director Bill Froelich’s spoof uses just about every trick in the book to throw viewers off their game, with a nonlinear narrative that hops in and out of fantasy sequences and a very well done “movie within a movie” motif. This one’s a bit more cerebral than most films of the like, with more time dedicated to carefully rolling out the twist-laden plot than heaving buckets of fake blood and intestines at the screen. Its undoubtedly a pioneer of self-reflexive horror and a film that feels at least 10 years ahead of its time – and oh yeah, don’t be surprised if you see some guy who looks an awful lot like George Clooney just roaming the hallways…
(It’s totally George Clooney.)
Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers (1988)
Nobody’s ever going to consider a movie called Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers “great cinema,” but for a no-budget, self-parodying horror sex farce, it’s certainly one of the better from its timeframe (yeah, a big feat, I know.) As the title suggests, the film focuses on the exploits of a cult of power-tool wielding ladies of the night, who sacrifice the sundry scumbags of L.A. to some kind of weirdo Egyptian deity. Helmed by straight-to-video B-movie kingpin Fred Olen Ray, the flick is actually a fairly star-studded affair for genre nerds, since the cast features, among other horror notables, Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer and yes, the original Leatherface himself, Gunnar Hansen. And there is NO denying this thing doesn’t have one of the greatest taglines in movie history: “These girls charge an arm and a leg!”
Hell High ( 1989)
By the end of the decade, the slasher film was on its last legs. Even Freddy and Jason weren’t putting butts in the seats like they used to, so it’s no surprise an out-of-nowhere indie horror flick like Hell High didn’t get much love back in the day. It’s a pity, too, because this thing’s got more twists than a bag of pretzels, with a fairly formulaic premise that quickly spirals into quite the skein of intrigue; without giving away too much, let’s just say that in this flick, the roles of victims and victimizers aren’t exactly what they seem – and just when you think you know how things are going to pan out, you’re about to get swerved hard one more time. Give director Douglas Grossman some credit; at a time when it seemed like the slasher formula had long outrun its course, Hell High certainly injected a little vitality into the genre’s moldy, old bones – and if you haven’t seen it, you’re definitely missing out on one of the decade’s finest hidden gems.