The 1980s saw a rise in a peculiar kind of cobbled together aesthetics. The neon slickness of commercials and music videos, the safety pinned postmodernism of punk, and the crispy production design that Hollywood adopted thanks to technically auspicious directors like Ridley Scott, Adrian Lyne and James Cameron.
Horror grabbed on hard to these trends, swimming like champions in grungy decadence or deliberately bucking the system in favor of clean, old fashioned grammar. Movies like White of the Eye, Pumpkinhead, Razorback, Re-Animator, Humanoids from the Deep, Night of the Comet, The Entity, Motel Hell, The Changeling and The Hunger sit on either side of the divide, going for style or scares, atmosphere or assault, punk or classic rock.
There had never been anything like the hyperactive merging of influences and, thanks to the invention of VHS, these films influenced a generation in a more personal way than was ever before possible. For the first time, kids could take the horror home and watch over and over again.
Here is Screen Rant’s list of the 10 Best Horror Movies of the 1980s.
The Shining (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s reputation as one of the smartest and most exacting directors in the history of cinema was assured by the time he made The Shining in 1980. Many wondered why the director of Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon was even bothering with the populist thrills of a Stephen King novel, and the elicited a sense of disappointment when it was released.
In the decades since, however, various books and films have tried to uncover the hidden truths of this singularly bizarre adaptation. The simple version: this is one of the master’s best and most haunting films. Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, on the verge of losing his ability to play subtle) and his wife (Robert Altman’s muse Shelley Duvall) agree to take care of the mammoth Overlook Hotel deep in the mountains, conveniently miles away from civilization. Insanity creeps in like a mist through the long, impossible corridors of the overlook. Kubrick searches through the Overlook for the essential patterns of human emotion and locates a troubling disturbance in the heart of every artist. A change of scenery may mean the difference between life and death.
The Thing (1982)
Speaking of Rob Bottin, The Thing boasts not just his best effects work in a mightily impressive career, but also a little assist work from Stan Winston, the latex guru behind The Terminator and later Jurassic Park, among others. The best of the best. Which is a great way to describe The Thing. Though you wouldn’t guess it from the reviews of the period, the legendary John Carpenter had one of the best decades of any American director in the 80s. The Fog, Prince of Darkness, Star Man, They Live… One of those would be enough to guarantee you a spot in cult heaven. Add The Thing to that resume and it’s a mystery why we haven’t put him on the 20 dollar bill.
12 researchers and technicians are settling into a long, isolated winter at an outpost in the Antarctic when a dog shows up chased by a crazed gunman in a helicopter. After they clean up the mess, they try to investigate what drove the man so insane that he’d shoot a dog. Naturally, they aren’t thrilled by what they find, or by what finds them. A study in economic storytelling, grim production design and lived-in performances, The Thing isn’t just one of the great horror films. It’s one of the great American movies, period.
When the demented Tobe Hooper, mastermind behind The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, met Steven “aw shucks” Spielberg, coming off the success of E.T., the result was this awe-inspiring and awe-centric ghost story.
When the Freeling family moves into their new house, they don’t know what horrors await them. One night, their youngest daughter (Heather O’Rourke) communes with something called a poltergeist and it brings with it a whole host of telekinetic happenings and bad psychic vibes. The family is under constant assault by manifestations of their worst fears.
Spielberg’s family-friendly mode keeps Hooper’s grizzly invention from going too far into bleak territory, and Hooper makes sure that the film presents real stakes, a real sense of danger and intimacy. Sure, it remains terrifying all these years later, but it’s also, weirdly, the perfect family film. It makes you appreciate what it means to be in a crisis together.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Wes Craven didn’t become the master of horror we know today until he tapped into our unconscious minds and turned our dreams into madness. A film that posits that hard-lined capital punishment-crazed societies (Reagan’s America chief among them) would doom their children to answer for their crimes, A Nightmare On Elm Street went after the safety of where we go to escape from the world.
When we can’t even sleep without being attacked by the sins of the father, where is there left on earth to hide? This was Craven’s bread and butter, and he spent a career going to every far corner of the earth undermining the supposed safety of every kind of refuge. We can say we aren’t to blame, but that will just make it harder to reckon with the ghosts when they come looking for payback. Nightmare is full of unforgettable imagery and a tour-de-force performance by boogieman extraordinaire Robert Englund as the inescapable Freddie Kreuger.
Return of the Living Dead (1985)
A zombie movie with the sneering aggression and breakneck pace of a hardcore punk concert, Return of the Living Dead takes the metaphorical social critiques of early zombie movies and turns them into an all out war on youth culture.
When a couple of workers accidentally unleash a chemical weapon near a cemetery, it raises the dead and they’re none too pleased to be up and about. If you’ve ever heard anyone yell “brains” while pretending to be a zombie, then someone they know has seen Return of the Living Dead. It doesn’t have the respectability of Night of the Living Dead, but it’s infected the spring from which horror and post-modernism drink. Dan O’Bannon’s rampaging monster romp is a beer bottle smashed to shards and thrown at the classics.
Near Dark (1987)
Visual artist Kathryn Bigelow, better known now for prestigious Oscar fare The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, took the film world by storm with her lithe, rockabilly fresco The Loveless, but she cemented her reputation with 1987’s Near Dark, a neon “open” sign that invites viewers to a violent, Freudian buffet.
No sooner has Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) met Mae (Jenny Wright), the girl of his dreams, than her family abducts and indoctrinates him into their lifestyle. They’re vampires, and if Caleb wants to survive as one he has to learn how to kill and feed on the innocent. Bigelow’s country-fried tale of bloodlust and lawless romance shows off her acuity behind the camera. She directs love scenes to tug at the darkest part of the heart and violence to shake you to your foundations.
This is the pulp masterpiece that all new vampire films have to answer to.
Evil Dead 2 (1987)
There is a sense in which a lot of ’80s slasher films and cabin-in-the-woods movies are a collection of home movies, documenting the fashion, slang, and dreams of kids who wanted nothing more than to break into motion pictures at a young age. The Evil Dead may well have joined the ranks of The Dorm That Dripped Blood and Don’t Go Into The Woods as just one week among young film buffs turned into a silly little movie, except that director Sam Raimi wasn’t fooling around.
After the nerve-munching first film, Raimi returned to the well with a bigger budget and an even more warped sense of humor. Evil Dead 2 is the most macabre Saturday morning cartoon you’ll ever see. Bruce Campbell takes his fiancé to a secluded cabin in the woods and once more awakens a gaggle of soul-hungry demons. Raimi’s camera is the Bugs Bunny to Campbell’s Daffy Duck, putting him through every hilarious (if, of course, also completely disturbing and scary) trial it can dream up. Campbell fights possessed animal heads, a headless ballerina, a witch in the cellar and his own hand, and he never once eases up on himself. He and Raimi exert more energy than a classroom full of children out to recess. Evil Dead 2 has too many ideas, and for once that isn’t a problem.
After dipping his toes in the waters of the supernatural in Suspiria, Dario Argento dove in head first with Inferno, his masterpiece. An homage to the legendary horror director Mario Bava (who directed such deliciously subversive films as The Whip and the Body), Inferno is a shocking, expressionistic piece of devilry about a house in New York that consumes the spirits of those who enter.
Inferno derives great power from allowing impossible, uncanny events to transpire for just a little longer than they should. The stare of a mysterious stranger from across a classroom, the refusal of a man at a cauldron to turn around, a swim through a pastel-coloured, submerged room searching for clues, each haunting sequence works a short film on the experience of knowing that something wrong is about to happen and you can’t stop it. Argento’s images were never cleaner nor more startling.
The Howling (1981)
An American Werewolf In London may be the better-remembered of the ’80s werewolf movies, and while it doesn’t want for personality (the hero’s dream of machine gun-wielding monsters is one of the great sequences of the decade), it’s The Howling that secretly steals the show (poor Wolfen is a distant third). Joe Dante and John Sayles, two of the greatest cinephile wise-asses who ever lived, craft a film that’s part pop-culture sick love-letter, part extremely troubling serial killer PTSD study.
Dee Wallace plays a journalist haunted by memories of the killer who became obsessed with her before the police gunned him down. She and her husband (Christopher Stone) take a little time off to head to a coastal retreat run by a self-help guru (the late Patrick Macnee) whose methods are a little peculiar, to say the least. The Howling was the first film to play upon our collective understanding of an idea from the movies and TV (such as our collective knowledge of the tropes of a werewolf movie), and use it to wring dramatic irony out of a scary story (Scream is one of this film’s most notable disciples).
But none of that would matter much if the film weren’t scary. The film’s werewolves are truly unnerving, a beautiful display of practical effect wizardry by the dearly missed Rob Bottin, who retired when CGI overtook practical effects.
Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988)
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser was an excellent horror show; it gathers much of its charm through it feeling home made, as if the horror scribe did it in secret to show the world he was the only man up to the task of adapting his work.
Hellraiser 2 takes the strands left dangling at the end of the first film and knits a Boschian tapestry, a whole universe of erotic pain and jaw-dropping creatures. This sequel, directed by Tony Randel, one-ups Barker’s imagination with pristine execution. It’s a textural delight, all damp stone, squirming critters, leaky pipes and the promise of something worse right around the corner. As artistically edifying as the original was excitingly rough, Hellbound delivered on the promise of a cinematic universe in the shape of Clive Barker.
The 80s also gave rise to the slasher movie, as near-classics like The Burning, My Bloody Valentine, Humongous and Just Before Dawn, which set the stylistic/technical bar higher even than accepted classics like Friday the 13th and Prom Night.
It was also the age of the horror franchise, as the Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th extended their universes far past their original ideas and deep into our cultural consciousness.
What are your favorites? What horror films did you watch at sleepovers and halloween parties? Did you own any of these on VHS? Tell us about your ’80s horror experience in the comments!
Check out some more Screen Rant lists on the best horror movies to grace the big screen: