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Best Horror Movies of All Time – 1980s

Best Horror Movies of All Time – 1980s

Best Horror Movies of All Time – 1970s / 1980s / 1990s / 2000s / 2010s

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)

The Shining

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)

Friday the 13th

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)

An American Werewolf in London

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)

The Howling

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.


Possession (1981)

Possession

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)

The Evil Dead

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.


Poltergeist (1982)

Poltergeist

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)

The Thing

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)

Nightmare on Elm Street

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)

Fright Night

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.


Re-Animator (1985)

Re-Animator

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 Fly

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)

Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer

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.


Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser

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)

Childs Play

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)

The Blob

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.


Society (1989)

Society

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)

Santa Sangre

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.



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COMMENTS

74 Comments
  • pablitonizer

    I still can’t deal at how good Child’s play is!

  • drew

    Creepshow
    Aliens
    Night of the Creeps

  • Vincent Kane

    Solid list. I could do without of few. Here is a some that I would add.

    The Return of the Living Dead
    The Lost Boys
    Near Dark
    Night of the Creeps

    • MeeGhoulz

      Near Dark is really good. Night of the Creeps is so great!

    • scream4ever

      Yes absolutely The Lost Boys!!!

    • James

      It’s a toss up between lost boys and near dark. Both are excellent in their own ways.

  • Nia Snacks

    Is this a list of the best horror movies or most popular horror movies?

  • The Night King

    The 80’s started off with a bang horror-wise, but then it turned a corner into over the top camp and corny sequels. As soon as that wimpy kid in ANOES 3 said “I am the wizard master!” it was pretty much over. MTV’s influence didn’t help either.

    • MeeGhoulz

      Anoes like dwarves? Never heard of it!

  • Blood Boil

    Great list

  • Biscoito18

    – “The Beyond”;
    – “They Live”;
    – “Killer Klowns From Outer Space”;
    – “Beetlejuice”;
    … And so much more. The 80s are an endless sea of classics.

    • MeeGhoulz

      Killer Klowns deserves the Love!

  • Definitely solid.

  • DJV1985

    This is the sort of lists I prefer and one of the reasons I actually enjoy reading on here. So many other sites break lists down to two per page so that they make more money per page click but on here you guys not only do great lists but you also do them well.

    I think I’ve got a thing for lists??? lol

    • J Jett

      i agree 10000000%. i fucking hate the sites/articles where it will list 20 best of movies (or whatever) and you have to click on 20 different pages to read the whole article/list.

  • SupernaturalCat

    One Dark Night (1982) …saw it theatrically, remains a favorite
    Superstition (1982)
    City of the Living Dead (1980)
    Creepshow (1982)
    The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
    The Keep (1983)
    Demons (1985)
    Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
    Night of the Demons (1988)
    Motel Hell (1980)
    Phantasm II (1988)
    Inferno (1980)
    The Dead Zone (1983)
    The Hitcher (1986)
    Altered States (1980)
    The Changeling (1980)
    From Beyond (1986)
    Prince of Darkness (1987)

    • biff

      A better list, I’m anxious to say, that the one given above. Nothing against the article — it did include Possession, Santa Sangre and Society, but missed the likes of Phantasm II, The Dead Zone or From Beyond — which was recently mentioned on the site, I think.

    • J Jett

      great list but the fact you listed THE CHANGELING just shows how awesome you are! 🙂

    • dsxy

      Lol scarecrows, I remember that being awesome….. Watched it again a couple of months ago, that one is probably best left as a memory!

      • SupernaturalCat

        Well, take into consideration that being born in the late ’60s, I was a teenager in the ’80s, and saw many of these listed movies either theatrically (I was fortunate to exist in the “drive-in” theaters’ final days, and saw tons of horror movies at them) or when they were initially made available on VHS/Betamax, so, for me, many of these old genre movies have a nostalgic aspect that make them all the more endearing to me. And that tends to get a lot of mileage in helping to overlook the sometimes dodgier production aspects of some of these old lo-fi horror flicks …in fact, often times it’s those aspects that really give a movie that diamond in the rough status.

        Re Scarecrows …despite it’s obvious limitations, it nonetheless contains an atmosphere of dread/doom throughout (an often overlooked aspect in horror flicks) and the scarecrows themselves are very creepy considering the shoestring budget they were working with.

        • dsxy

          Would have loved to have gone to the old style drive ins.

          You are right though, the feeling of dread created in this film is severely lacking in today’s horrors.

          Good list and some excellent recommendations in the comments.

      • MrX13

        Damn, I don’t remember Scarecrows. I just saw the trailer and don’t remember if I’ve seen it or not. I need to watch it now

    • James

      Excellent additions and I’d add The Pit for just being completely out there and having one of the creepiest kid characters in the 80s.

      And I do feel like Creepshow belongs on this list. Two wonderful horror kinda came together and created such an awesome love letter to horror.

    • MrX13

      My favorite all time is always Demons and Night Of The Demons! I do love the others on that list but that those are just a badass movies! Something about the way the demons were portrayed in the movies and the practical effects that were used in those movies are very detailed and great!

      • biff

        Demons is batshit crazy, but yeah — it’s awesome.

        • MrX13

          Batshit crazy is the reason I love this movie…hahaha

    • Schmee Ali Mushmouth

      Killer Klowns and From Beyond <3

  • dukeblues

    Halloween 2,3,4
    F13 3,4,6

  • Mad

    Evil Dead 2 ?

  • Inferus

    The Fog!!!

  • bondagegel

    Overall, a great list. I would swap Evil Dead 2 for 1, but that’s just me. The only film I’m seriously missing here is Videodrome. It’s arguably Cronenberg’s greatest film, and a totally original mindfuck of a must-see horror film.

    • biff

      If you can find it, get the Critereon of Videodrome. It is excellent.

  • MeeGhoulz

    The Howling is quite disappointing…

    • MrX13

      What didn’t you like about it? The Howling (first movie) is one of the best werewolf movies out there made in the 80s

      • MeeGhoulz

        The way they try to make a complex plot to justify more werewolves on a movie instead of bringing a better story and keeping it simple like An American Werewolf in London… just as an example, I like Silver Bullet, all Ginger Snaps movies and Wolf (Jack Nicholson) ,so lychanthropy interests me. Never got to the Howling’s sequels though ,they any better?

        • MrX13

          The others are…ok They’re not better than the first one but are watchable. The first one is the best one though. Give the sequels a watch

          • MeeGhoulz

            Thanks. Will do. There’s so many movies I neglected for not being released around here (Brazil) back in the days… I’m something of a completionist when it comes to sequels, even when they’re not superior to the first!

          • MrX13

            If you can watch them for free, go for it, but I wouldn’t pay to rent them there are other good movies to rent, just my opinion

  • J Jett

    Meagan, great list! and i love that you’re doing “THE BEST…” in separate decades!
    oh and THANK YOU for including POSSESSION on your list! i accidentally caught part of that movie for the first time on TCM a couple of years ago and it was SO freaking bizarre (Anna’s possession/break down scene in the subway tunnel!!) that i loved it instantly. i went and bought the bluray and it’s become one of my faves! such a fucking weird awesome movie!

  • J Jett

    oh i forgot…(in no particular order)….

    -THE FOG
    -THE CHANGELING
    -F13 PART 2

    there are more but i can’t remember them right now. 🙂

    • FeministFriendly

      The Fog is a goshdarn classic.
      Even John doesn’t give that one the credit it deserves.

      He talks about it like a throwaway minor thing,
      but it was one of the best things out of all the great things he did.

      • J Jett

        agreed! 🙂

      • MrX13

        Love The Fog!

    • biff

      I rank The Fog up there with Halloween and The Thing as far as fave Carpenter films are concerned. Such a great cast, atmosphere and solid trademark Carpenter pacing, and the soundtrack is absolutely perfect. I have no idea what dinguses had a problem with it back during its release, but it’s completely on par with the above-mentioned films in my book. As for the pathetic remake, it was the only film I nearly (my stepsister begged me not to leave her alone in the theater) walked out on. It had me furious.

  • FeministFriendly

    Lol @ Childs Play.
    But people seem to like it.
    I’m the one who just doesn’t get it.

    I dont think I’ve ever seen Society.
    Yuzna’s pretty middling, but after time nostalgia can give things a forgiving texture.

    He’s still better then jj abrams.

  • Nahuel Benvenuto

    lots of great stuff there

  • Rocky

    no

  • Rocky

    The Burning – remains the definitive camp slasher film (more so then F13th),
    The Lost Boys – made vampires ‘cool’ (although I prefer VAMP)
    Maniac – just plain nasty and genuinely disturbing.
    The Beyond – nothing else to say
    Silver Bullet – another good SK adaptation, hot on the heels of Stand By Me
    Tenebrae – The ultimate who dunnit.

    • James

      Tenebrae is so good

  • DS Ullery

    “Who Goes There?” ( the basis for The Thing) is a novella , not a novel.

    In regards to the entry about The Shining: Nicholson has no descent into insanity in The Shining. He comes off as not quite right from the opening scenes. That’s one of the big issues a lot of fans of the novel had with the film. On a related topic: When you state The Shining is a far more enduring classic, what are you comparing it to? The novel? Because I’m pretty sure the book is almost universally held in higher regard than Kubrick’s movie.

    • James

      See I felt his character in the book never quite felt right from the start either. I expect the descent in the movie to be quicker because it fits in a film’s timeframe, but really not that much of a stretch.

  • Jack Derwent

    King’s original novel is still held up as one of the great modern horror novels, I’d say it’s enduring just fine.

  • MrX13

    Great list! Seen them all except for Santa Sangre, Henry and Possession. But that Society movie, that ending will totally mess with you!

    A lot more are missing from that list but what’s there are good. My list would be longer

  • Schmee Ali Mushmouth

    Good stuff. I’d flip Society for From Beyond and add Bad Taste.

  • The One and Only

    Suspiciously missing from the list.
    Pumpkinhead(1988)
    The Lost Boys(1987)
    Fright Night(1985)

    • Fright Night’s in there. Good suggestions in there. I’d add Aliens, Terminator and Night of the Creeps.

      • Bloodspatta

        Well Terminator and Aliens aren’t horror films. They are clearly Science Fiction Action movies.

        • I dunno. They sure scared the crap out of me when I was a kid. I think there’s an argument to be made. Same with Predator. Oh! Monster Squad. Add that to the list.

        • I know that’s how Horror fans classify them, but when I was a kid they scared me more than Freddy. What stuck with me was their “otherness” and their relentless pursuit. Glossing red eyes. Blips on a monitor closing in. Teeth and claws and metal fists ripping out a man’s heart. Sure there’s a car chase or a smart gun but everything else was the stuff of nightmares : D

  • kieron callaghan

    A really good list, so nice to see Santa Sangre on there, The Fog, Videodrome, The Entity, Creepshow and Day Of The Dead are also some of my favourites from this great era.

    • biff

      Damn, forgot about The Entity. Love that one, it’s like the dark and gritty sister of Poltergeist.

  • marshally

    Videodrome (1983) was a favorite

  • Brian

    No love for Pet Sematary?

  • Bloodspatta

    I’d add The Lost Boys as well, but this is pretty good list.

  • Mccuish1525

    Hellraiser is a franchise I wanted to like, but I just couldn’t get into it.

  • Mr J.

    Vamp
    Lair of the White Worm

  • Michael

    This list is an abomination. The best…from an entire decade? Did you just cobble it together from whatever popped in your head. As entertaining as some of these may be, half hardly qualify as the best. Have you even seen Tetsuo: Iron Man?

    • DS Ullery

      I don’t know if this list is an abomination, but it does seem heavy on franchise launching films. Take Elm Street: I think the franchise warrants inclusion, but I’d have listed Dream Warriors, which I think is the better film overall.

  • Horrormikfl

    I’m all for those. I’d add RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, THE STEPFATHER, EVIL DEAD 2, DAY OF THE DEAD…

  • TheRealBadHatHarry

    Not Videodrome??

    • David Nagle

      Videodrome should be there i agree the movie just has a great dark feel through out from the music and special effects visually stunning one of my favs 🙂

  • DS Ullery

    I’d add House to that list as well. One of the best horror comedies and a terrific, practical f/x driven haunted house flick.

    I’d also list Gremlins.

  • Rollins

    The Thing
    A Nightmare on Elm Street
    Pet Sematary
    Friday the 13th Part III

  • Jaguar67

    Motel Hell
    Wolfen
    The Sender
    The Dead Zone
    The Stepfather
    Near Dark
    Waxworks

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