AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) John Landis followed up his one-two punch of Animal House and Blues Brothers with this superlative horror-comedy about American backpacker, David (David Naughton), who, while hiking the English moors, is cursed with turning into a werewolf. Funny, touching, and scary, American Werewolf set the standard for the modern werewolf movie, and has yet to be matched. Rick Baker’s Oscar-winning special FX still pack a wallop.
THE BLOB (1988) Before he was handling Hollywood heavyweights Jim Carrey and Schwarzenegger, director Chuck Russell was one of horror’s most visually successful filmmakers, going from A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 to this first-rate remake of the 1950’s cult classic about a man-made WMD gone horribly awry. Seamlessly mixing excellent special effects into its story and populated by well-written characters, The Blob is that rare remake that’s ten times better than its source material.
THE BURNING (1981) One of the best of the Friday the 13th rip-offs, The Burning is that rare slasher that presents both a fascinating killer arc and a satisfying protagonist story that converge at the end. An immensely likable cast of campers are terrorized by the creepy Cropsy, the former summer camp caretaker who’s seeking revenge for the prank which, five years earlier, left him a fire-scarred monster. A bleak atmosphere, some good scares, and ultra-gory splatter by Tom Savini make this a shining example of low-budget ’80s horror.
CREEPSHOW (1982) The teaming of George Romero and Stephen King paid off with this spirited tribute to the EC Comics of the ’50s. Spinning five tales of terror, Creepshow perfectly balances its scares with laughs, and each story delivers excellent acting and a sense of love for the subject matter. Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, E.G. Marshal, and Viveca Lindfors are all first-rate, as are the Savini make-up effects, including the ultimate bug rampage.
DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) Zombie King George Romero’s last great film, and the pinnacle of Tom Savini’s stomach-churning gore FX, Day of the Dead might lack Dawn‘s epic sense of story and character arcs, but this strong entry in the Living Dead series is filled with good acting, intelligent story structure, and some truly suspenseful set pieces. Lori Cardille’s Sarah is perhaps the most underrated heroine of the ’80s.
DRESSED TO KILL (1980) Brain De Palma has often been criticized for imitating Hitchcock, and although Dressed to Kill is essentially Psycho turned inside out, De Palma here proved he’s a genuine filmmaker in his own right. From its opening shower dream sequence, to its mesmerizing tracking shots, to the shocking final twist, Dressed to Kill is a slasher fever dream wrapped in a blanket of visual trickery that only De Palma—and, well, Hitchcock—could get away with. It’s a film that’s always one step ahead of you, and it’s as polished and slick as they come.
THE EVIL DEAD (1981) The original cabin-in-the-woods movie, The Evil Dead single-handedly created a sub-school of demonic possession/zombie flicks that made up half of the horror titles of the 1980s. The simple premise of college students accidentally summoning ancient demons that possess them into disfigured zombies is taken to groundbreaking heights thanks to Sam Raimi’s brilliant handling of the material—especially the whiplash-inducing, guerrilla-style camera work that’s since been copied to death, and the wink-wink black comedy thrown in with the outrageous gore. Bruce Campbell’s Ash is the anti-hero of ’80s splatter.
THE FLY (1986) Cronenberg’s masterful remake of the 1958 Vincent Price film is the kind of “re-imagining” Hollywood can only dream of making these days. Jeff Goldblum gives a star-making turn as the doomed Seth Brundle, whose teleportation science project turns him into the titular monster. Equally devastating is his blossoming relationship with journalist, Veronica (Geena Davis), who’s forced to make the ultimate sacrifice. Thoughtful, shocking, and sad, The Fly works because we ourselves fall in love with the characters, and they’ll stay with you after the movie ends.
FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) Initially looked at as nothing more than a Halloween clone, Friday the 13th has proven itself its own beast and is still one of the best slashers of all time. Set at the quaint, woodsy Camp Crystal Lake, New Jersey, an attempted reopening of the place is interrupted by a shadowy killer who bumps off most of the bubbly twenty-somethings until remaining counselor, Alice (Adrienne King), is the Final Girl standing. The murderer turns out to be the camp’s previous cook, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer), who’s taking revenge for the tragic drowning of her son, Jason, neglected by horny counselors years earlier. With a likable cast, terrific location, and an enjoyably memorable killer, Friday is, in many ways, the perfect slasher.
HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982) It’s ironic that the best sequel in the Halloween franchise doesn’t feature the masked maniac Michael Myers. Instead, this colorful entry spins a supernatural tale of witchcraft and robots in the small hamlet of Santa Rosa, where maniacal Irishman, Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), uses the powers of his ancestors to create Halloween masks that will kill all of America’s kids. Fast-paced and with a genuine comic book vibe—and a terrific score by Alan Howarth and John Carpenter—Season of the Witch is pure ’80s cheesy gold that works wonderfully.
THE LOST BOYS (1987) The best MTV movie MTV never made, The Lost Boys is possibly the quintessential horror movie—one that completely encapsulates the late 1980s. With a pounding rock soundtrack, flashy and colorful fashions, a first-rate cast (Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, Jason Patrick, Jamie Gertz, Kiefer Sutherland, Dianne Wiest), and terrific make-up effects, The Lost Boys took the dusty vampire movie into the roaring ’80s and infused it with exciting, fast-paced filmmaking. Sutherland makes for a seductive and scary vamp, while Wiest, Haim, and Patrick have a wonderfully affecting mother-and-sons subplot.
MANIAC (1980) The polar opposite of the post-Friday the 13th slashers, William Lustig’s brutal Maniac is perhaps the most unforgiving horror film of the decade. It also happens to be suspenseful, ugly, shocking, and packaged in a nearly-claustrophobic atmosphere that gets under your skin. Joe Spinell’s Frank Zito is a composite of the many types of serial killers that were predominant at the time, giving the movie a creepily authentic feel.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) You can’t write about ’80s horror and not mention Wes Craven’s brilliant take on the slasher. With Freddy Krueger, horror had a new iconic killer, brought to life by Robert Englund’s perfect handling of the material. Unlike Michael Myers or Jason, Freddy has a disturbing, unmasked, fire-scarred face, which Englund uses to his full potential. And with Nancy, Heather Langenkamp’s brainy, strong Final Girl, Nightmare delivers a rousing roller coaster ride of scares, laughs, and some spectacular FX set pieces—including the shocking murder of Nancy’s BFF, Tina (Amanda Wyss). There’s also a touching mother/daughter relationship rarely seen in ’80s horror, which is just another wonderfully written addition to a great film.
POLTERGEIST (1982) The film that brought the big budget special FX horror movie back into fashion, this influential Spielberg production became the blueprint from which all future haunted house flicks copied. The All-American Freeling family think they’ve bought their dream home, not realizing the California tract house in question harbors the vengeful spirits of the dead, whose graves were desecrated by the neighborhood’s development company. Despite its masterful special effects showcase, Poltergeist works because of director Tobe Hooper’s handling of the characters, who are always treated more importantly than the supernatural activity, making the film a first-rate thrill machine. It also reminded us why we’re scared of clowns.
PSYCHO II (1983) Unfairly criticized upon its original release, Psycho II is finally receiving the praise it deserves. Paying respect to Hitchcock, as well as updating the story for a modern slasher audience, the film shows how Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) has been declared sane by the state and released. Good ole Mama’s Boy Norman returns to the Bates Motel to find the place has been turned into a sleazy hangout for drug addicts and prostitutes, managed by a slimeball (Dennis Franz) who keeps referring to Normal as “loony.” It isn’t long until Mother starts beckoning (this time on the phone) Norman to do her dirty work and eliminating the sluts and weirdos who deserve it—including the beautiful Marion Crane-ish Mary (Meg Tilly), who’s shacking up with Norman and who might have a secret of her own. Conceived as a whodunit—is Norman really the killer, or is someone out to drive him crazy again?—Psycho II works wonderfully, mostly thanks to its cast (especially Tilly’s sympathetic Mary) and director Richard Franklin’s suspenseful set-ups and sequences.
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985) Taking all the rules of the Romero school of zombies and turning them on their heads, Return offers a wholly different take on the zombie movie by infusing its story with characters who’ve actually seen Night of the Living Dead—so when the dead crawl from their tombs, the survivors already know you gotta shoot ’em in the head. When an army-secured vat containing the remains of a corpse is accidentally opened by a couple of lunkheads, it releases a toxic green mist into the nearby cemetery, causing the neighborhood to overflow with the walking dead. And these zombies don’t just walk, but run and speak! Oh, and the whole “destroying the brain” thing doesn’t work in this universe. Written and directed by Dan O’Bannon, Return of the Living Dead is a film that’s pulsing with energy from beginning to end. It’s also extremely funny, and scary.
THE SHINING (1980) The perfect example of an artistic filmmaker at his prime, The Shining is Stanley Kubrick’s definitive work as both a master storyteller and a brilliant director. Wisely excising a large portion of Stephen King’s mammoth novel, Kubrick sets up the basics of the book and delivers a chilling story about Jack Torrence (an unforgettable Jack Nicholson), a man struggling in life and with art; his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall); and young son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), all of whom become victims of the sinister Overlook Hotel. The cast is excellent—especially Nicholson in a performance that would be mimicked for years to come—and Kubrick’s haunting tracking shots and use of wide open spaces gives the film a genuinely bone-chilling feel. An unsettling psychological slow-burn with a powerhouse climax, The Shining is in many ways the perfect horror movie.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983) An absurd slasher masterwork, Sleepaway Camp is the only rip-off of the 1980s to accidentally becomes a work of genius. In an attempt to mimic the success of Friday the 13th, the movie’s plot—about the gruesome murders of campers and counselors at a summer camp in upstate New York—becomes secondary to the larger-than-life characters and the overwhelming atmosphere of pure, unadulterated ’80s nostalgia. It shouldn’t, yet everything about the movie works, including Felissa Rose as Angela, who, in the film’s infamous twist ending, is revealed to be a teenage boy.
THE STEPFATHER (1987) Before he starred in the popular TV show, Lost, Terry O’Quinn gave a scarily realistic performance of a mentally unhinged serial killer in this nail-biting chiller. Both charming and unsettling, O’Quinn is Jerry Blake, a seemingly mild-mannered businessman whose recent marriage to single mom, Susan, (Shelley Hack), doesn’t sit well with daughter, Stephanie (Jill Schoelen), and for good reason. Jerry has a nasty habit of marrying into families and killing them when they don’t meet his Leave It to Beaver worldview. It builds to an incredibly intense finale between stepdad and stepdaughter. An underrated gem.
THE THING (1982) Much like The Blob remake, John Carpenter’s rebuffing of The Thing From Another World is a shining example of a remake done better. Kurt Russell gives one of his best performances as MacReady, the headstrong helicopter pilot stationed at Outpost 31 in the Antarctic. The U.S. research spot becomes a hotbed of paranoia when an alienoid parasite defrosts from its crashed spaceship and begins replicating and picking off the Outpost staff. Intense and claustrophobic, Carpenter not only builds suspense, but pushes it into your face when you least expect it. Added to the mix are some jaw-dropping Rob Bottin creature FX, which still hold up today.
Honorable Mentions: Friday the 13th Part 2, Fright Night, Hellraiser, The Howling, Humanoids from the Deep, Near Dark, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Re-Animator, Silent Night, Deadly Night