Only in an era of Ronald Reagan conservatism could something as crude as slasher films hit their peak popularity. And though its market appeal couldn’t at least fluctuate like the Gipper’s approval ratings, the subgenre has given us some lasting figures of popular culture. Maniacal and monolithic villains Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees, for instance, terrified us, only to entertain us after they broke out into stardom. Fans and those that have studied the genre will tell you that its quality – not that there was much to begin with – began to dip just before the decade’s midpoint.
But amidst both the good and bad, there have been some truly strange slasher films to come out of the 80s, especially later on in the decade when the subgenre had begun the five stages of grief with a healthy dose of denial. For various reasons, these films were the decade’s biggest head-scratchers.
Here are The 13 Weirdest Slasher Movies of the ’80s.
13. Cutting Class (1989)
The silliness of slasher films had certainly reached their apex long before 1989, yet Cutting Class still feels like the subgenre’s prime example of goofy ’80s fun. Featuring a young Brad Pitt in his first major role, the film depicts the return of troubled teenager Brian Woods after spending time at a mental institution.
Predictably, people are mysteriously killed after his return, and the general suspicion is cast onto him. Most films would build suspicion in one direction, and then take it in another place entirely with one final plot twist. But amazingly, Cutting Class’s overall effort is so minimal it couldn’t satisfy even that basic requirement. From the first moment, Brian is the suspected killer, and in turn, the film offers no surprises when Brian [SPOILER ALERT, as if you care] turns out to be the killer. The film may have carved out new territories in slasher film laziness, but Pitt’s presence and its campy quality have partially saved it from complete insignificance.
12. April Fool’s Day (1986)
Perhaps a slasher film called April Fool’s Day was a really obvious choice for an attempt at parody. Even still, the film feels as familiar as can be. A group of friends travel to an island for a spring break bash where a friend is waiting for them with some pranks, ranging from the light-hearted to the genuinely dark.
One by one, the friends turn up mysteriously dead. Except, when the ending comes around, everyone is completely fine. If the film is, in fact, meant to be a parody of slasher movie tropes, it plays itself straight for most of its runtime. One final scene supposedly legitimizes any argument for its potentially being a parody, which seems rather flimsy when the beginning opens on a rather serious note as a deckhand on the ferry to the island for the rendezvous is brutally injured.
11. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Anyone who has seen the original Sleepaway Camp knows exactly why it’s being included, so bringing up the film’s legendary, so completely out-of-left-field twist ending is moot. But those in the know will tell you it’s probably the only reason the film remains relevant.
Even by 1983, the scene was familiar. In the film, a shy young girl named Angela joins her cousin Ricky at Camp Arawak, returning to the scene where a motorboat driver on the lake killed her father and brother. As soon as she arrives, the camp’s meaner inhabitants get what they give, dying in mysterious fashions. Everything about the film from the characters to the dialogue, the story, the acting and the deaths screams ‘miserable’ and ‘forgettable.’ One final, unexpected shot lifted Sleepaway Camp from horror obscurity to horror franchise – but ironically, the sequels themselves are quite obscure.
10. Just Before Dawn (1981)
The forest isn’t an uncommon setting for slasher films. Whether its teens and college students at a summer camp, out camping or shacking up in a cabin, many filmmakers have utilized the woods for its naturally terrifying aesthetics. Very few slasher films, however, have really taken advantage of its qualities like the little known Just Before Dawn.
Filmed at Silver Falls State Park in Silverton, Oregon, Just Before Dawn may feature a recognizable plot – five college students head to the woods for a getaway – but unlike most slasher films of the early ’80s, the film is more focused on atmosphere than delivering gory kills. For instance, the film features an especially creepy opening, with master shots of the sun rising over the forest accompanied by distant whistling. In addition to a murderous tag team, as opposed to a lone wolf, and a relatively low body count, Just Before Dawn is strange in the best way.
9. Stage Fright (1987)
Very few slasher films from the late ’80s stand out in a positive manner. While Stage Fright might not be one of them, it deserves recognition for trying to do something different with the genre – even if the results are rather mixed.
Directed by Michele Soavi, who had previously worked with Dario Argento, the film depicts a group of actors confine themselves to their set as they rehearse a musical about a murderous villain named the Night Owl. Little do they know a deranged actor has escaped from the asylum he’s been kept in to commit his own rampage. The film combines elements of slasher film and giallo to peculiar effect, although this amalgamation often clashes with the late 80s new wave cheese. This is possibly the sign of a first time director demonstrating some self-reflexivity, though those intentions are arguably superficial given the aesthetics.
8. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Jason Voorhees has been killed and brought back to life many times in the Friday the 13th franchise, but Part VII: The New Blood contains, by far, the most ridiculous means of revival. Tina Shepherd is a teen with budding psychic powers, but when her physician tries to use her abilities for his own purposes, she unwittingly resuscitates Jason from the watery grave Tommy Jarvis put him into in Part VI. Just in time for another batch of unenviable cannon fodder to arrive at Crystal Lake, too. To be fair, revival through troubled psychic teen was the next logical step after being brought back to life through a makeshift lightning rod in Part VI.
Even with special effects artist John Carl Buechler at the helm, the film’s double-digit body count – including the infamous sleeping bag kill – was heavily edited down thanks to the MPAA. But considering where the series went after Part VII, the overall damage was surely minimal.
7. Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 (1987)
Silent Night, Deadly Night 2 simultaneously had a lot and little to live up to. Its 1984 predecessor was met with much controversy as many families protested the film’s release for depicting Santa Claus, or rather a man in a Santa Claus suit, as a coldblooded killer, achieving cult status almost immediately. Then again, in many ways, Silent Night, Deadly Night was just another cheap, sleazy slasher film, and the critics’ anger towards it was palpable.
The sequel focuses on Ricky, the younger brother of the previous film’s villainous Saint Nick, and the murders he has committed. Much of the story is told in flashbacks, and incorporates Ricky into Billy’s story, which is a curious choice considering at the time of Billy’s murders, Ricky was still in the foster home. Not only that, the flashbacks primarily use footage from the original film. Finally, for a genre that thrives on bloody, creative kills, a significant number of Ricky’s victims die of single gunshot wounds – including the notorious “It’s garbage day!” kill, which became a meme when someone uploaded it to YouTube.
6. Final Exam (1981)
Lack of originality is one of the most tried and true criticisms of slasher films, right next to patent misogyny. There’s lack of originality, and then there’s Final Exam, a strangely blatant rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween.
In the film, students of Lanier College are dealing with the stresses of exam period, but that stress intensifies for a select few when a deranged killer visits campus looking for fresh meat. Similarities to Halloween only include a mysterious Michael Myers-type killer using a kitchen knife as his M.O., a Laurie Strode female heroine copycat, and the secondary tagline “He Came Back,” which is eerily similar to “The Night HE Came Home.” None of this is helped by the script’s failure to kill off any of its useless characters for nearly 50 minutes after the opening death scene.
5. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
At the time, no one knew that Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street would be such a critical and financial success. It did so well that New Line Cinema will forever be known as ‘The House that Freddy Built.’ Naturally, a sequel was quickly green-lit and released the following year, but many were caught off guard by the different direction it took.
In the film, Freddy uses vulnerable and insecure teenager Jesse as a conduit to continue his murderous rampage rather than kill teens in their dreams. This change to a possession-style Freddy didn’t sit well with many, and those people were perturbed even more so during the infamous pool sequence, when Freddy randomly appears in reality without warning. Perhaps, the film’s only saving grace was its pure camp, which was a break from Craven’s scares, and the homoerotic subtext, especially significant considering its premiere in an era of conservatism when AIDS was at the forefront of global discussion. And to think there was still more weirdness to come from this fledgling franchise.
4. Return to Horror High (1987)
A cast that included Alex Rocco (The Godfather), Maureen McCormick (The Brady Bunch) and a young George Clooney isn’t quite as weird as the personnel involved with Happy Birthday To Me, but that isn’t the weirdest part about the 1987 film Return to Horror High.
Depicting a film crew revisiting the high school where a series of gruesome murders took place for their own film about the massacre, Return to Horror High, for whatever reason, is told through a nonlinear narrative. In spite of its mere 95-minute runtime, the film tells its story through the perspective of the film crew getting picked off one by one, the film’s screenwriter, survivor of the massacre Arthur Lyman, being interrogated by local police and bizarre cinema verité segments of the film within the film’s principal photography. Such an approach would be admirable if there were any cohesion, not to mention a lack of another ending where the supposed ‘victims’ are only pretending to be dead.
3. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
One of Freddy Krueger’s most memorable lines comes from Dream Warriors, when he exclaims to one of his victims, “Welcome to primetime, b**ch!” With the help of director Renny Harlin on The Dream Master, the blackly humorous slasher welcomed himself to primetime, evolving from a terrifying demon to a playfully demonic puppeteer.
A film that uses a fire-pissing dog to bring Freddy’s remains back to life, The Dream Master was itself a marked change from the previous three films due to its various action film influences, including A Chinese Ghost Story. In the documentary Never Sleep Again, Robert Englund refers to the film as “the MTV Nightmare,” referencing its kinetic pace and camera and post-production tricks to help make the film more appealing for a mass audience. Unfortunately, parts of the script were being written during shooting because of an ongoing writers strikes – a fact that especially hurt one cheesy karate-based kill scene when Freddy is invisible. Yes, The Dream Child is arguably the strangest of the Nightmare films conceptually, but it’s all thanks to the new direction Harlin took the franchise and thus became par for the course.
2. Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
Among the most ardent of genre fans, the American-Canadian Happy Birthday To Me is one of the lesser known, yet most-beloved slasher films to come out of the ‘80s. A few factors contribute to its cult status, each perhaps more bewildering than the last. First of all, the film contains some of the oddest kills to grace the silver screen, including the shish-ka-bob through the mouth and being crushed by one’s own bench press. Secondly, there are a plethora of plot twists, including a final revelation that defies reason, but such is normal territory for a slasher film trying to play whodunit.
But strangest of all was the film’s main cast and its director. Its director, J. Lee Thompson, directed Gregory Peck in both the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone, a film that earned Best Picture and Best Director nominations, among six others. On top of that, two of the film’s primary stars were Melissa Sue Anderson, better known as Mary Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie, and the great Glenn Ford, who starred opposite Rita Hayworth in Gilda. What these big names were doing in a production so small is beyond baffling.
1. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)
Tobe Hooper’s original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one of the more grisly viewing experiences to undertake. The dinner scene alone is enough to make your skin crawl. Twelve years later, Hooper shocked viewers once again, although in a decidedly different fashion.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a more darkly comical view of the Sawyer family than its predecessor, and the presence of comedy of any kind is enough throw off anyone encountering the film for the first time. Every kill in the original film was met with an uncompromising viciousness that dared its viewers to keep watching. The beginning of Hooper’s sequel, on the other hand, continues with the trend of fun slasher films in the mid to late 80s, as Leatherface stands on a moving truck and wields his mighty chainsaw to eviscerate the two obnoxious frat boys in the car alongside him. A chainsaw duel between Leatherface and Dennis Hopper is the sweet cherry on top.
What do you all think was the strangest slasher film of the ’80s? Let us know in the comments!