As we prepare to wrap up another decade, I decided it would be fun to take a look back through the history of horror and find the most essential movies of each decade. It’s important to note that these are not the films that I consider the best of each decade, nor are they the most popular, they are the ones that I feel are essential viewing for fans of the genre. This also isn’t a ranking of these movies, in fact I decided that the best way to compile this list was chronologically. This time around we’re taking a look at the 13 most essential horror films of the 1980’s. This journey started with our look at the 1970’s which can be found here.
Friday The 13th (1980)
Of course Friday The 13th is on the list. This is the movie that launched a million imitators, some good, most not. Is there anything more iconic in horror than the idea of a masked killer hacking up kids at a summer camp? I don’t think so. This is where it all started. Sure. they borrowed some things from A Bay Of Blood and Halloween but they perfected the formula of lots of blood and plenty of sex. Both things are now a staple of the slasher sub-genre. They also introduced us to an icon in Jason Voorhees while giving us a great bit of trivia in the fact that Jason isn’t the killer in this film. Everything came together in this one little film in 1980 and horror movies were never quite the same afterwards.
The Shining (1980)
I have gone on record as saying that I don’t like The Shining, in fact I don’t like Stanley Kubrick films. His movies leave me cold. Everything feels so distant and detached that I can never get fully invested in them. I do recognize that The Shining does have a place on this list though. It is considered the best horror movie of all-time by a lot of people and it certainly has taken it’s place in popular culture. It’s a film that does a lot to help the genre be taken seriously by many in the film community who would otherwise dismiss horror as being lesser than. After all, many in that community would put Kubrick on their Mt. Rushmore of filmmakers. Ultimately, I think it’s essential viewing for all horror fans even if I don’t like it because they might love it.
An American Werewolf In London (1981)
An American Werewolf In London is a milestone in the world of horror-comedies. It’s a horror movie directed by the guy who made National Lampoons Animal House and it delivers on both the laughs and the scares. The effects alone are enough to earn this film the designation of “essential”. Rick Baker achieved things during the transformation scene in this film that had never been seen before. It was a huge break through in the makeup and effects realm. Add in the comedy in the script from writer/director John Landis and you have a surefire horror classic on your hands. Michael Jackson was such a huge fan that he recruited the duo to make the video for “Thriller” and none other than Edgar Wright has sighted the film as having a major influence on him.
George Romero is mostly known for his work on zombie movies. Stephen King is mostly known for his work as a novelist. In 1982 they came together to make an anthology film and they hit it out of the park. As a general rule I’m not a fan of anthologies. By their very nature they tend to be uneven and I don’t like having to sit through the segments that I don’t like in order to get to the “good stuff”. Creepshow is the exception that proves this rule. I don’t think any of the segments are bad, though I certainly have ones that I like more than others. This film proves that the anthology format can work if executed properly. It doesn’t hurt to have an all-star lineup working on the project either. Creepshow is graced with the talents of not only Romero and King but Hal Holbrook, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Ted Danson and Ed Harris. The whole thing is held together by a comic book style and the stories are not only scary but also darkly comedic.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing was poorly received when it came out. It’s hard to believe now because it is widely hailed as one of the best horror movies of all-time. The story of isolation, distrust and paranoia keeps the audience on edge just as much as it does the characters. The setting of Antarctica proves a beautiful background for gruesome horror. The score is phenomenal, the cast is top notch and the effects look great. This film has been praised by Guillermo Del Toro, J.J. Abrams, Neill Blomkamp and Quentin Tarantino. If it’s good enough for them, it’s probably good enough for you.
Poltergeist features a number of iconic scenes and lines. There’s plenty of off-screen lore to go along with this one too. The strange deaths of many who worked on the film. The controversy surrounding who actually directed it. The film manages to overcome all of that by simply being a great movie. In the early 80’s no place on Earth felt safer than the suburbs. Tobe Hooper and/or Stephen Spielberg brought horror to the suburbs and scared the wits out of millions of middle class white folks. The film perfectly captures life in the suburbs and The Freelings feel like a family that you have known for years. Watching their world be turned upside down by forces beyond their control or understanding is a horrific experience.
This one is another one that a lot of people would say doesn’t belong on a list of horror films. I would encourage you to go back and watch it again if you’re of that persuasion. Gremlins is a brutal film in a lot of ways and one that terrified kids and taught them the truth about Santa Claus via a horrendous story. Will adults find this film scary? Probably not. But children still do. A film doesn’t have to scare grown ups in order to be a horror film. In fact, I would argue that a film doesn’t have scare anyone in order to be labeled a horror film but that’s a discussion for another time. Gremlins is a movie that holds up just as well for 43 year old me as it did for 8 year old me. It’s still a fun movie to watch and sadly it has been mostly left out of the debate about what constitutes a Christmas movie and what doesn’t. For the record, Gremlins is most definitely a Christmas movie.
A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
By 1984 that slasher craze had started to wane. All of the Friday The 13th knock-offs had pretty much run the sub-genre into the ground. The big franchises were still doing okay but slasher movies were in need of something new. Enter Wes Craven. Craven took the slasher movie formula and switched it up. He gave us a killer who traded a mask for an ugly sweater. One who was decidedly not silent. And one that we couldn’t hide from. Freddie Krueger was just as dangerous as Michael and Jason, probably more evil, certainly more imaginative and he was super natural. Craven wrote and directed a new horror masterpiece that gave us not only Freddy Krueger but also Johnny Depp. It’s hard to imagine the comedic pop culture icon that Freddy would become when you watch this film because here he is nothing but pure evil and the horror genre is all the better for it.
Fright Night (1985)
There is so much to love about Fright Night. There is a genuine love for the genre that comes through when watching this film. Much of that is due to the horror host character, Peter Vincent. In the 80’s horror hosts were everywhere and they were the gateway into the genre for a lot of young people. You didn’t see them portrayed in films often though and it really made Fright Night stand out. There is also something about the character of Charley Brewster. It’s extremely easy to put yourself in his place for some reason. It adds a layer of fear to the movie. At it’s heart Fright Night is just a fun, and funny, vampire next door story.
Re-Animator is over the top, funny, fun, disturbing, gruesome and insane. Basically everything that denotes a great 1980’s horror film. The performances are solid all around. The story is crazy. The score by Richard Band is phenomenal, by his own admission Band borrowed heavily from Bernard Hermann’s classic score for Psycho. I won’t claim that Re-Animator is a perfect film but it might just be a perfectly flawed film. It’s a no holds barred good time that every horror fan should see.
Alien is the perfect marriage of sci-fi and horror. It’s sequel, Aliens, is the perfect marriage of action and horror. In fact, Aliens probably leans more in the direction of being a straight up action movie than it does a horror film. The fact that it is a sequel to Alien is good enough to get it a spot on this list, however. Written and directed by James Cameron, the movie has been universally praised and a lot of people claim that it is superior to the original.
Evil Dead II (1987)
Is it a remake or a sequel? Who cares? Evil Dead 2 can be considered a bit of both but it has to be considered 100% awesome. It’s a movie that only Sam Raimi could make and only Bruce Campbell could star in. The violence is so over the top and gory in this film that you have no other option but to laugh. This film remains the undisputed champion of black comedy-horror and it turned Ash Williams into a horror icon.
The Lost Boys (1987)
When I think of 80’s horror movies, this is usually the one that I think of immediately. Horror films don’t get anymore 1980’s than The Lost Boys. A vampire movie that stars the two Coreys? Are you kidding me? Everything about this movie hits the mark. The tone, the setting, the characters, the music, it’s all perfect for the creation of young, cool, sexy vampires. Twilight probably doesn’t exist without this movie (I’ll let you decide if that’s good or bad). It’s full of iconic characters (David, Michael, the Frog Brothers) and iconic scenes. Before Us, The Lost Boys was here to make the Santa Cruz Boardwalk scary. It’s a great horror film, a great 80’s film and a great vampire film.