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.
40. Gremlins (1984)
A comedy-horror must watch around Christmastime as these lovable pint-sized creatures claw their way into your heart. A well-meaning father searches for the perfect gift for his son as he is able to procure a fuzzy-faced little guy named Gizmo. He is given strict instructions of don’t get them wet, don’t expose them to bright light, and for the love of God whatever you do, don’t feed them after midnight. Well, as most every single horror film goes, all three of the rules were broken and we are given a wacky tale with mesmerizing puppetry work as the miniature monsters wreak havoc on a cozy little town.
Director Joe Dante was able to create one of the most iconic horror-comedies that is able to provide laughs and frights as the PG film can get a bit dark as well. That chimney story anyone? As most great horror films do, Gremlins sparked several imitators of small creature features that were never able to top this original classic.
39. Prince of Darkness (1987)
Science and religion collide in the second entry of John Carpenter’s Apocalypse Trilogy, Prince of Darkness. When a priest played by Donald Pleasance discovers a large canister of swirling green liquid, he enlists the help of a quantum physicist professor and his students in his search for answers. During their research, they learn that the liquid is not only sentient but also broadcasting complex data. They begin to realize some difficult truths, that perhaps God and Satan were extra-terrestrials and an Anti-God exists in the realm of anti-matter as the liquid begins to infect the students one by one. There’s nowhere to flee, either, as a growing mass of crazed homeless people surrounds the church to slay anyone trying to escape.
This is one of those films where the atmosphere is a co-star of the film. Carpenter was working with a limited budget and had to get creative to create a claustrophobic sense with overall creepiness to make it feel like the world and the spiritual world was closing in on the characters and the viewers. The film has some iconic horror shots that even you don’t like the movie, these shots still linger in your mind and pop up when the movie is discussed. You are picturing them now aren’t? A gnarled hand pulling another creature’s hand through a liquid looking mirror and one cannot scrub the haunting news transmissions from their mind. One of John Carpenter’s underrated films that needs more love.
38. The Stepfather (1987)
Loosely based on the story of John List, the New Jersey man who killed his family in 1971, The Stepfather is about a man obsessed with the perfect nuclear family. He envisions himself a family man, with a wife and two perfect kids. A house with a white picket fence and the greenest grass in the neighborhood. And if one element of his fantasy is wrong, like for example, a mouthy teenager who doesn’t like him, he’ll kill them all and start over. Terry O’Quinn is absolutely phenomenal as the titular stepfather. His rage-induced outbursts, coupled with his penchant for talking to himself, make him a dangerously unpredictable character. He turns what could’ve been a Lifetime movie into one of the best thrillers of the decade.
37. Dead & Buried (1981)
When I think of Dead & Buried and what happened to the original cut, I’m reminded of the 1928 masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc. After completing the original cut of the film, director Carl Theodor Dreyer learned that the entire master print had been accidentally destroyed. With no ability to re-shoot, Dreyer re-edited the entire film from footage he had originally rejected. One of the greatest films of all time was made up of takes the director felt were inferior. I can’t imagine what his original version must’ve been like. Would it have somehow improved an already perfect film? Were the changes so insignificant, that it would’ve been impossible to tell anyway? Or could it have somehow damaged the film in some way? Since the original cut is lost forever, it’s impossible to know.
Just like it’s impossible to know what the original cut of Dead & Buried would’ve been like. We know at least two killings in the film were reshoots but apparently, the first cut was radically different. The producer who bankrolled the film reportedly said “If I wanted a Bergman film, I would’ve hired Bergman”, which implies it was a slower-paced art-house film but the director claims he originally made a dark comedy. The fact that there’s potentially a better version out there or at least was out there, is fascinating to me considering the cut we have now is flawless. It’s a perfectly constructed mystery that somehow manages to successfully pull off not one, but two amazing plot twists. A lot of films feel Hitchcockian but this is the first to nail the look and tone of a Rod Serling story.
36. The Changeling (1980)
No offense to actors working today but there was a time where some of the greatest actors alive, were signing up for horror. I don’t know if the studios thought their stature would lead some credibility to the genre but whatever the case, sometime at the beginning of the ’80s, the paradigm began to shift. They stopped casting from the theater and turned their attention to whoever had the best face and was willing to pop their tops on camera.
The last gasp of the old school way of thinking was The Changeling. Released right before Mrs. Vorhees started chopping up teenagers at Camp Crystal Lake, The Changeling was a horror film for adults. In a genre built on the money from blood/titty obsessed teenagers, a film made for the older crowd no longer exists but if The Changeling was the swan song, it went out on a high note.
35. Tenebre (1982)
While I take issue with the plot structure and pacing of his films, there’s no denying that Argento was an artist when it came to murder. His canvas was the human body, his paint was blood and his paintbrush was his imagination. Taking inspiration from his peers and not his contemporaries, Argento looked to the past to create his future masterpieces. He wasn’t copying what was around him at the time, instead, he went all the way back to the days of Grand-Guignol, where murder set pieces were elaborate, meticulous, and most importantly: bloody.
He knew that audiences wouldn’t care about the characters or the plots, as long as the deaths were unforgettable and the score was memorable. And he was right. Outside of the fact that this isn’t part of his “Mother of Tears Trilogy”, I can’t remember a single thing about it other than the kills. I couldn’t tell you who was dying or why but I could perfectly describe the scene in which they died and I haven’t seen this in at least a decade. That’s a true testament to his skills as an artist, that his films don’t just live with you, they bury themselves deep within your subconscious, infecting it like a plague of nightmares. His films are nightmare cancer and Tenebre might be the most contagious and potent of all his creations.
34. The Fog (1980)
After proving he could terrify you simply by spray painting Captain Kirk’s face white but before he would embark on what would be known as his “Apocalypse Trilogy”, Carpenter gambled it all on his most risky endeavor up to that point: making a campfire ghost story actually scary. There’s a reason why camp counselors or your uncle or whoever it was telling you spooky stories when you went out camping in the woods at night would point the flashlight at their faces and shout at the end of the story they were telling. They needed every gimmick they could to try and sell you on what was guaranteed to be a lame-ass story you’d heard about a billion times at that point.
Deciding that that would be fertile ground to make a scary movie, Carpenter looked to his own childhood memories and created what would be his most divisive film. Some find the low fi haunts and lack of blood to be quaint and adorable, while others skip it in favor of his more gruesome or scarier work. I’m somewhere in the middle, in that I agree that it isn’t scary but I also don’t think it was supposed to be. Or at least, not for adults. This is Carpenter making his only true gateway horror film, a horror film that gets younger audiences into the genre without fucking them up too badly. Just like the campfire stories of old, this is for them. He made a legit horror film for kids and a damn fine one at that.
33. The Howling (1981)
If you’re a lycan fanatic, the year 1981 must be a godsend. Within a span of 365 days, there were no less than five werewolf movies. While two were forgettable (Full Moon High and The Monster Party) and one was pretty good (Wolfen), the last two just happen to be the best in the genre: An American Werewolf in London and The Howling. Even though they were directed by real-life best friends who share similar interests, neither film is similar in any way. Both are horror comedies about werewolves and not even the comedic tone or design of the werewolf is alike.
Because while Landis made a comedy that turns into a horror film, Dante made a drama with comedy sprinkled throughout that turns horrific. There are bits and pieces you’re supposed to laugh at but for the most part, it’s played completely straight. And it’s all the better for it. The werewolves are more terrifying, which makes the threat seem more dangerous, which in turn ups the stakes and makes the entire film more suspenseful. Landis might have made the more iconic werewolf movie but Dante definitely made the scarier one.
32. Friday the 13th (1980)
Part of the wave of slasher films created by the massive success that was Halloween, Friday the 13th actually took its inspiration from the Italian slasher A Bay of Blood released eight years previously. I use the word inspiration loosely considering it straight-up lifts some of its best kills but adds a much more streamlined plot. It’s easily as influential as Halloween but the only reason it isn’t more well known is because it is convoluted as fuck and Bava didn’t have Tom Savini.
Besides the iconic theme song, the true star of the film is the makeup effects of Savini. Starting his life as a Vietnam photographer, he quickly transitioned from the real-life horrors of war to the fake horrors of cinema and used his real-life experience to craft some of the greatest effects ever. The Kevin Bacon kill is in the hall of fame of great horror deaths. It’s such a perfectly constructed scene with a great fucking pay off. In all honesty, Friday the 13th isn’t the greatest made film and it’s nobodies favorite film in the franchise but the kills still hold up, it’s impact is undeniable and the ending is still shocking.
31. Videodrome (1983)
One of David Cronenberg’s most beloved films by fans, it follows James Woods as a sleazy cable TV programmer whose life begins to spiral out of control once he stumbles about a broadcast signal featuring extreme torture. The concept stemmed from Cronenberg’s childhood when he used to pick up television signals from Buffalo, New York after Canadian channels had gone off air and his childhood worry of seeing something not meant for public eyes. The surreal imagery combined with special effects master Rick Baker’s work on the film combined to create one of the strangest, entrancing horror films way ahead of its time.
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!