Modern horror as we know it today began in the 1970s, with the introduction to horror masters like Wes Craven, John Carpenter, and Tobe Hooper, and the introduction to genre megahits like The Exorcist. The 1980s would build upon the previous decade’s horror successes in a huge way. Between the materialistic mentality of the ‘80s and the technological advancements in special visual effects, this meant horror could go big in a way that it never could before. Advancements in animatronics, and liquid and foam latex ushered in a glorious age of practical effect driven horror.
Thanks to Halloween and the boom of VHS and video rental stores, the golden age of slashers really kicked into overdrive. Previously established horror pioneers further honed their craft, while new voices emerged. In terms of gore, monsters, and scares, the 1980s was vast and rich in both commercial and independent successes. With an overabundance of offerings, narrowing down the best of what the genre offered is a gargantuan task. After pouring over the decade, here are the finest horror offerings of the ‘80s:
The Shining (1980)
Stephen King and Constant Readers may have hated this adaptation for its stark departure from the novel, but Stanley Kubrick’s psychological take wound up making this a far more enduring classic. “Redrum,” “Here’s Johnny!” the hideous Overlook carpet, and infamous room 237 remain just a few of the iconic visuals and catchphrases. Kubrick’s tracking shots juxtaposed against the modernist classical soundtrack are atmospherically haunting. While Jack Nicholson may not have been the first choice to play Jack Torrance, it’s difficult to see anyone else in the role thanks to Nicholson’s complete lack of subtlety in Jack’s descent into insanity. And I mean that as a compliment.
Friday the 13th (1980)
Wanting to distance himself from Last House on the Left, and inspired by Halloween, director/producer Sean S. Cunningham created the beginning of a franchise that would span for 30 plus years. Harry Manfredini’s score is as iconic as the score from Jaws, with “”ki ki ki, ma ma ma” cleverly stemming from the line, “Kill her mommy!” Camp Crystal Lake and drowned son Jason Voorhees became the permanent fixtures of the franchise, but the twist reveal of the killer pushed Friday the 13th into the ranks of best slashers of all time. This classic openly borrows from films before it, but that doesn’t make its cultural impact any less relevant.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
This seminal horror comedy set the bar high in terms of both horror comedies and werewolf films. Writer/director John Landis, no stranger to directing comedies, wrote the script in 1969 during his work as production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes, but securing financing proved difficult when financiers felt the film was too scary to be a comedy and too funny to be a horror movie. It wasn’t until after the successes of Animal House and Blue’s Brothers that he would finally get his project greenlit. An American Werewolf in London solidified Landis as a horror master, but the true star to emerge was special make-up effects creator Rick Baker, who forever changed horror makeup for the better in the ‘80s. This film is memorable for its biting humor, its scary Nazi werewolf sequences, the charm of leads David Naughton and Jenny Agutter, but most of all is the best werewolf transformation sequence of all time.
The Howling (1981)
1981 marked the year that horror fans would receive not one, but two memorable werewolf classics. Unlike Landis, though, Joe Dante would play this one a little more straight. Originally Rick Baker was hired to handle effects, but the reigns were handed over to Rob Bottin when Baker left to go work with Landis on An American Werewolf in London. Bottin proved more than up to the task, as the sequence that sees creep Eddie Quist’s transformation into werewolf is the highlight of the film.
1981 wasn’t all werewolves, though. Andrzej Żuławski’s psychological horror film remains as captivating as it is confusing. A strangely told narrative about an international spy and the intense relationship he has with this wife, it’s a haunting dissection on the dissolution of a relationship, and the strange love affair the wife develops with a tentacle creature. Leads Sam Neill and Isabelle Adjani devote every fiber of their being to their roles, and I don’t know that anyone has so fully committed themselves to their role as Adjani since. Disturbing, unnerving, and confusing, Possession is more of an emotional experience than linear narrative, and there’s nothing else like it.
The Evil Dead (1981)
Childhood friends Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell, armed with only a 16mm camera, cobbled together every penny they could from everyone they knew and set about making a horror film. With not nearly enough money, they enlisted family and friends for cast and crew and set about making essentially the prototype for all subsequent cabin in the woods horror. They were only 20 years old. Putting every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears into their low-budget DIY film included Raimi showing the film to anyone he could find within the film industry, and lucky for us Cannes Film Festival founder Irvin Shapiro, who is also responsible for changing the film title from Book of the Dead, allowed Raimi to screen it at the 1982 fest where Stephen King saw it and sung its praises. The film took off from there, charming fans with its balance of gore and humor, and launching one of the most beloved cult franchises today.
From the mind of co-writer/co-producer Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper, this classic changed the game for the haunted house sub-genre. Visually a stunner with impressive special effects, Poltergeist also largely works thanks to the likeability of the Freeling family. Craig T. Nelson and JoBeth Williams’ Steven and Diane Freeling are the type of couple you root for as they navigate suburban life, a missing child, and, oh yeah, the craziest haunted house this side of the century. Poltergeist also made the unique choice of setting its haunting in a brand new, modern home, altering the trope that hauntings exist solely in creaky old houses.
The Thing (1982)
Adapted from 1951’s The Thing from Another World based on the novella Who Goes There?, this remake flips the bird at anyone that snubs their nose at remakes. Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel penned earlier drafts of the screenplay before screenwriter Bill Lancaster took a pass, honing in on an aspect from the original novel that would make this remake an enduring classic: the paranoia. John Carpenter’s controlled direction exploits that paranoia amidst the isolated research station and the tension becomes white-knuckled. With creature effects by Oscar-winner Rob Bottin, and an uncredited assist by Stan Winston, this intense thrill ride became a thing of beauty (and horror). Toss in a stunning score by Ennio Moricone and Kurt Russell as the flawed hero, and you have the perfect ingredients for one of the greatest horror films of all time.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
It’s hard to believe, looking back, that Wes Craven had a difficult time finding a studio willing to produce this now classic film. Studio after studio rejected his pitch, save for Walt Disney Productions, who was willing to produce if Craven toned down the content for a younger audience. Fledgling company New Line Cinema accepted, but they were so new at making films that the completion of A Nightmare on Elm Street wasn’t without struggle. The rest is history; New Line Cinema lovingly dubbed themselves the House That Freddy Built, and the film spawned 7 sequels, a reboot, a television series, in-depth documentaries and novels, and a ton of merchandise.
Fright Night (1985)
Written and directed by Tom Holland, this horror comedy works so well because it blends old-school horror tropes with new (for its time). The awkward Charley Brewster (William Ragsdale) may have made for an excellent audience proxy, but it’s Roddy McDowell’s Peter Vincent and Stephen Geoffreys’ Evil Ed that provide the emotional heartbeat of the film. McDowell’s Peter Vincent, a named homage to Peter Cushing and Vincent Price, is a scene stealer. Chris Sarandon’s take on seductive vamp next door Jerry Dandridge, though, triggers both lust and fear in a way that perhaps no other vampire achieved in the decade. Fright Night nailed the laughs, but the first time Charley lays eyes on his newly turned vampire girlfriend, with a Cheshire grin full of sharp teeth? Chills.
There’s something about the works of H.P. Lovecraft that’s extremely difficult to translate to screen. Unless you’re Stuart Gordon, that is. Originally intending Lovecraft’s novella Herbert West — Reanimator for television, an introduction to producer Brian Yuzna steered the course for a feature-length film. Re-Animator has it all; horny dismembered bodies, nudity, a joyous reverence for gore, and the darkest of humor. That alone would make it a memorably fun horror comedy, but what makes this one for the ages is Jeffrey Combs portrayal of mad scientist Herbert West.
The Fly (1986)
The Academy-Award winning makeup for this skin-crawling body horror is legendary. Seth Brundle’s unnerving transformation into the grotesque Brundlefly is the stuff of nightmares. David Cronenberg had already long since proven himself a master of body horror with previous works Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, and Videodrome, but The Fly proved to be a mature masterpiece for the auteur. Why? As visually visceral as the film is, it’s equally as emotionally devastating. The star-crossed romance between Seth Brundle and Veronica Quaife is bolstered by the amazing performances of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
This gritty, authentic feeling take on realistic horror struggled to find distribution after festival release due to its controversial nature. It wasn’t actually released until 1990 with an unrated cut. Loosely based on serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s unflinching portrait of American evil stands out in a decade that emphasized the fantastical and supernatural. Michael Rooker’s acting debut as the titular character was so uncomfortably creepy that it’s no wonder he became such a genre mainstay.
Horror author Clive Barker’s Hollywood debut, based off his own novella, packed quite a punch. Nightmarish, sexually charged, and visually arresting; it’s easy to see why the memorable Cenobites, which appeared for only 10 minutes or so of the entire running time, became the centerpiece of the entire franchise. As terrifying as Frank Cotton is, grotesque resurrection and all, nothing holds a candle to the villainy of Clare Higgins’ Julia Cotton. Her icy performance makes Julia one of the most underrated horror villains of all time.
Child’s Play (1988)
Directed by Tom Holland and created by Don Mancini, the quip spouting iconic villain Chucky began this franchise in terror, not the camp the series became known for. Brad Dourif’s voicing of serial killer Charles Lee Ray turned murderous Good Guy doll became a vital component in the enduring quality of the series. One of the best scare sequences of the ‘80s was the moment Catherine Hick’s Karen Barclay inspects the Good Guy doll box to find that the batteries were still there and realization dawns on her that her son’s doll has been operating without them the entire time.
The Blob (1988)
Chuck Russell may have already won hearts with the prior year’s release of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, but this remake takes a spot on this list instead for many reasons. The screenplay was written by Frank Darabont, who went on break genre fans’ hearts with The Mist and The Walking Dead. Creature Features aren’t nearly as common as they should be, and The Blob is an effective one. The practical effects of the creature and its gruesome kills make this one hold up- despite the cringe-worthy mullet of Kevin Dillon’s bad boy Brian Flagg. Shawnee Smith’s final girl Meg Penny is one for the ages, too. The Blob undeservedly tanked at the box office, but it still is one of the best of the ‘80s.
Brian Yuzna transitioned from producer to director for this insane body horror flick. Though embraced by Europeans for its strangeness, it took three more years to find a release in the U.S. It’s somewhat understandable, as it delivers one of cinema’s greatest twists in history. Special effects wizard Screaming Mad George already displayed an extreme talent for gore and creature effects with the likes of Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Predator, and Big Trouble in Little China, but nothing compares to the climactic scene in Society. If you’ve still not seen this one, and have been lucky enough to not have it spoiled, go in blind. You’ll thank me.
Santa Sangre (1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky had already established a visionary well versed in surreal imagery, but this marked the first time he really applied it to horror. The result is visually insane, avant-garde horror film about a man born and raised in a circus that later escapes from a mental hospital and joins his armless mother to enact brutal murders as her “arms.” If that sounds strange, well, the end result is even stranger. It’s visually arresting, bizarre, and gripping in a way that only Jodorowsky could deliver.