As one of the popular entertainments of the Reagan era, the slasher film became as ubiquitous as Cabbage Patch Kids and party lines, and the emergence of VHS and home entertainment systems left America chomping at the bit for a constant flow of the type of mind-numbing gore only the subgenre could provide. Like most trends, the slasher boom flared out fast, reaching peak popularity by mid-decade and all but dying out by 1989. Still, the amount of films released during those years was massive, and for every Friday the 13th sequel or Halloween ripoff, there's solid gold, forgotten slasher that got lost in the shuffle. Below are the ten best slashers you've probably never heard of.
10 Nightmare In A Damaged Brain (1981)
When effects master Tom Savini has to distance himself from your film, you know you’ve done something right in the shock department. Romano Scavolini’s slasher landed on the UK’s infamous “video nasty” list is one of the films that actually earned its reputation with its story of a man who leaves a psychiatric institution to hunt down and murder his ex-wife and child. The controversy surrounding the film got so great when a distributor was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for refusing to edit out a moment of violence, that Savini (who had been rumored to be involved in its creation, likely to boost the film’s profile) had to come out and publicly deny that he had anything to do that. He should have taken it as a compliment, as Nightmare In A Damaged Brain remains a brutally effective, sexually-discomfiting psycho chiller from the slasher genre’s golden era.
9 Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1982)
Academy Award nominee Susan Tyrell practically immolates the screen in this Oedipal horror show, in which she stars as a woman whose inappropriate sexual attention for her teenage nephew lead to madness and bloodshed.
Tyrell goes from gorgeous to viciously reptilian in the blink of an eye in her tour-de-force performance, and the film’s homosexual subplot, though not particularly PC, is an intriguing early instance of gay life depicted in a mainstream film genre.
8 The Mutilator (1985)
Probably the only slasher with its own chipper original theme song and end credits montage, Buddy Cooper’s The Mutilator has become something of a classic in its own right as horror fans have rediscovered it during the current boutique Blu-ray label boom. A fairly simple plot about a group of more-likable-than usual kids spending fall break at a beachside cabin turns into one of the cruelest films in the subgenre, with an ending that packs a genuine emotional punch.
7 Blood Hook (1986)
During a Wisconsin town’s annual “Muskie Madness” fishing competition, a group of young people encounter a killer with a penchant for dragging teens below water with an oversized fish hook. Jim Mallon’s totally insane regional shocker is so much better than a movie about a murderous fishing enthusiast has any right to be, with a surprisingly solid (if extreme) plot and plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor. Fun fact: Mallon would later go on to executive produce the universally-loved Mystery Science Theater 3000.
6 Slaughterhouse (1987)
Slashers tend to lack much artistic flourish, but writer/director Rick Roessler’s Slaughterhouse is the rare entry in the subgenre that feels like the person behind the camera isn’t asleep at the wheel. When the owner of a long-shuttered slaughterhouse (Don Barrett) is strong-armed into selling his property by local government agents, he unleashes his obese, simple-minded son to cut a bloody swath through the town that wronged him.
With off-kilter humor, inventive kills and cadaverous art direction to rival the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Slaughterhouse is a forgotten slasher as stylish as it is disgusting.
5 Blood Harvest (1987)
Cult director Bill Rebane, infamous for his online rants and outsized appreciation for his own work, did create one essential film during his active years, and that film stars Tiny Tim. Blood Harvest, another Wisconsin-shot regional effort, features the famously eccentric recording artist as a mentally-ill former clown who may be stalking his town’s newest female arrival. Rough around the edges and made on a budget too small to be called shoestring, Rebane’s film is a gauche, grim, sexually perverse little bloodletting that’s totally worthwhile.
4 Blood Rage (1987)
The tagline “This Thanksgiving, it’s not cranberry sauce!” tells you all you need to know about this slasher dedicated to the holiday least-represented in horror cinema. A brilliantly brutal effects showcase about two twins (one good, one evil) featuring an outre performance by Louise Lasser, Blood Rage is worthy of yearly viewing for those who like a little ultraviolence with their stuffing.
3 Cheerleader Camp (1988)
Featuring teen idol Leif Garret and bad movie hall-of-famer Lucinda Dickey (Ninja III: The Domination), Cheerleader Camp proves that sometimes what the tired old summer camp slasher needs is a fun theme to keep things zippy. Betsy Russell (later a fixture of the Saw franchise) stars as Alison, a cheer captain haunted by pom pom-filled nightmares that may or may not be connected to the deaths of her friends and squadmates.
More silly than scary, Cheerleader Camp still delivers on its ludicrous premise with mascot dance battles, 80s teen sex comedy guffaws and a final twist so good it deserves its own spirit stick.
2 The Undertaker (1988)
Italian-American actor Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Crusing) may be most famous for his sweat-slicked, mad-eyed turn as mommy-obsessed serial killer Frank Zito in William Lustig’s sleaze classic, Maniac, but this deranged turn as a murderous funeral director in one of his final roles before his death is just as good, if not better. The film was long only available in bootlegs or heavily cut, but has recently been restored. And thank goodness: The Undertaker features Spinell at his grotesque, flamboyant best!
1 Cutting Class (1989)
Rospo Pallenberg’s Cutting Class isn’t just notable as the first film to feature Brad Pitt in a major role, but it also shows that there was something churning in the post-modern waters before Wes Craven came along and re-invented the genre with Scream in 1996. Taking an emotional interest in its characters, Cutting Class feels a bit like a teen drama before the body count starts growing and the wheels fall off in a deliciously over-the-top finale, winking and nudging all the way. Easily one of the most entertaining films of the 80s slasher cycle, Cutting Class feels at once of its time and ahead of it.