Siskel and Ebert might have hated them, parents groups may have protested them and the British courts might have had them banned but the popularity of ’80s horror movies has never waned. It seems like every nonhorror fan in the world was hellbent on killing the genre dead but like the supernatural killers that inhabit most of the films within said genre, it was impossible to destroy. And that was because of the fans. For the first time ever, they had to fight in order to protect a genre they loved from seemingly everyone. Studios loved making them because they were cheap but they were also not afraid to pull some due to controversy.
The only thing that kept horror alive in the theatres is that the fans demanded more. The gorehounds came out in droves and because they voted with their wallet, their money outweighed the negative reception. I believe that’s partially why people are still nostalgic for that decade, specifically the genre fare, to this day. The passion of the audiences of that time has carried through the last forty years. This list is dedicated to not only the masters of the macabre that helped define the decade with their splatter effects and practical monsters but the fans that loved that shit so much, they kept it from dying.
This is The 50 Greatest Horror Movies of The 1980s.
20. Aliens (1986)
While working on the set of Galaxy of Terror, a young James Cameron noticed that everything from the cast, to the crew, to the sets, were as low quality as possible and wondered why they weren’t trying to make a film as good as Alien. The crew, having worked on many a Corman production beforehand, was used to banging out cheap knockoffs made solely to chase a hot trend but Cameron couldn’t fathom why. If they were going to a movie anyway, why not make the best movie possible? Cut to five years later and that same set designer who had to make a futuristic set out of spray-painted Styrofoam containers he bought from McDonald’s, was helming Aliens.
Cherry-picking the best elements of Alien, Cameron took what worked in Ridley Scott’s masterpiece and ditched everything he didn’t like. Namely, the haunted-house-in-space setting and slower pace, and adding in action hungry space marines, while also fleshing out the xenomorphs biology and giving Ripley some much deserved emotional weight. The xenomorph queen is a brilliant creation and say what you will about Cameron as a writer but Weaver was nominated for a reason. Ripley is finally given something to do outside of opening and closing doors or arguing with men and Weaver attacks the role like a hungry dog. She’s spectacular in it and amazingly, the film is worthy of her performance.
19. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1987)
No other franchise save for maybe the James Bond series has split it’s fanbase as equally as the Friday the 13th films. You ask 100 Friday the 13th fans which film is their favorite and I guarantee each film in the series will be picked at least once. Some fans love the over the top cheese of the 3rd, while others defend the divisive remake and Jason X, and believe it or not, there are a select few that even go to bat for A New Beginning, The New Blood and Jason Takes Manhattan. They’re rare but they do exist.
But if you got that same group of fans and asked them which film they think is the best, the results would be radically different. Part 2 is arguably the scariest and Jason Lives the most fun but The Final Chapter is pound for pound the most enjoyable in the series. It has the best kills, the best cast of victims, the best story, and the third-best Jason behind Hodder and Mears. Pretty impressive for the last entry in the franchise.
18. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
After the monumental success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, every studio immediately greenlit at least five slashers in order to mimic their success. In a span of just six years, over fifty copycats were produced and the greatest by far was My Bloody Valentine. The plot followed a group of young adults who decide to throw a Valentine’s Day party, only to incur the vengeful wrath of an assailant in mining gear who begins a violent killing spree. It was far darker than the rest, much more violent (it was so violent, that an unrated cut became a legend amongst fans and was the most sought after alternative cut of a film ever) and has a killer that should be as iconic as Michael Myers or Jason. The Miner has a fantastic look, a great weapon and I’d argue, is more intimidating than either Michael or Jason.
17. The Blob (1988)
A meteorite crashes outside a small town in California where a homeless man finds the weird-looking sphere where some type of slime attaches itself to his hand causing agonizing pain. Three high schoolers find the man and transport him to the hospital where the slime begins to grow as it dissolves whatever it touches. A remake that is much more entertaining than it’s predecessor that embodied ‘80s horror with some stunning effects and some fun gore.
This remake doesn’t work if they don’t get the cheesiness and tone just right and they did that effectively. This is a fun and entertaining film where you are actually rooting the victims on which isn’t always the case in horror. The Blob is one of the best examples of a good time popcorn horror flick.
16. Fright Night (1985)
This horror-comedy works so well because it is able to blend several old-school horror tropes with the entrancing ‘80s vibe. Writer-director Tom Holland does a wonderful job of giving us laughs and frights by parodying Hitchcock and John Hughes’s movies while giving us relatable characters.
A seductive vampire (played perfectly by Chris Sarandon) moves in next door to awkward teenager Charley Brewster who makes it his mission to rid the neighborhood of this monster. He enlists the help of scene-stealer Roddy McDowell, who pays homage to icons like Peter Cushing and Vincent Price as a vampire-slaying TV show host. McDowell’s Peter Vincent is the emotional heartbeat of the film as we see him go from coward to hero.
15. StageFright (1987)
A stylish Giallo thriller where a killer in a mascot like owl head slowly picks off members of a stage play one by one. The killer traps the victims in the theater building as he attacks separately which lends to a neat setting for a slasher and gives us some fun kills. The owl head is one of the most unique masks a killer has worn in a horror film and becomes more and more sinister as the movie goes on no matter how impractical that headdress is to murdering fools.
This was Michele Soavi’s directorial debut that takes many inspirations from mentor Dario Argento but gives his own vision with this low-budget slasher film with a killer soundtrack and some decent performances. Soavi is able to blend some “Hitchcockian” flavor to the film, especially in the finale, to help make Stagefright not feel like an “Argento lite” film, but something all his own.
14. Pumpkinhead (1988)
Working as a sort of southern fried Faust, Pumpkinhead is what happens when you make a deal with the devil and the devil actually delivers. After a group of teenage campers kills a young boy in a dirt bike accident, the father (a career-best Lance Hendrickson) stricken with grief, seeks a witch that lives in the woods that can offer him a chance at retribution through black magic, but at what cost?
Directed by special effects wizard Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is one of the few monster films that puts character above the effects. It’s a drama first, monster film second but it also doesn’t skimp on the scary shit either. It’s like a peanut butter cup: it has the perfect blend of story and monster killing excitement. It’s a shame that Winston never directed another horror movie because his debut is one of the best.
13. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer might be the most accurate depiction of a serial killer ever caught on film. Henry doesn’t have a clever MO like John Doe in Se7en or the charisma of the killer in Man Bites Dog nor is there an elaborate cat and mouse game between him and a clever detective. He’s just an evil man in an uncaring world. He doesn’t get caught because nobody cares about his victims and he doesn’t stop because he can’t. He was built wrong. He has no backstory, so he lacks any empathy or sympathy. All there is are his actions. Actions so horrific, that this film is still one of the only films to be rated X for violence.
12. Child’s Play (1988)
Was this an inspiration for Toy Story? I like to think so. Slashers were all the rage in the ’80s and most filmmakers were trying to find something different or fresh to make their mark on the sub-genre. We had seen men in masks, women behind the scenes and shadowy figures that attack you in your sleep, and even kids as killers but hadn’t seen a pint-sized doll with the spirit of a serial killer voiced by the great Brad Dourif slashing up fools before!
A clever slasher that hides just enough of what’s going to not know what was really going on at first. Was it actually the doll or did the kid go crazy and start murdering people? It was a fun and energetic horror film that is a good time and helped spawn a franchise and an iconic doll killer that crossed over into pop culture in the form of Chucky.
11. The Fly (1981)
Anchored by a good script and even better performances, the 1958 version of The Fly is a well-regarded sci-fi classic that was among a handful of films that helped elevate the genre past the kitschy schlock of the time. But the remake is on a whole other level. Take the premise of the original and infusing it with his signature body horror style, Cronenberg’s take is a deeply unsettling Greek tragedy about what it is like to witness a loved succumb to the disease, addiction, or obsession.
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis give remarkable performances as the doomed couple combined with Cronenberg’s incredible direction and stellar practical effects that will haunt your minds for a long time after the final frame. There are not too many horror films are that end up on best movies of the year lists, however, The Fly is one of the few that is not only a great horror movie but is a great film in general.
What do you think of the selection so far? What are some of your favorite horror movies of the 1980s? Maybe they will show up further on the list!