80s horror is far more than it's cracked up to be. While it may not be the brilliant 70s, loaded with iconic films, zombie masterpieces, and paranormal gems, the slasher-heavy decade of the 80s brought some renowned classics and little treasures as well.
Admittedly, there was a great deal of garbage in the 80s, as slashers became the norm and violent goofiness rose to prominence. Effects were at their cheesiest, and borderline parody seemed to be a draw for audiences. To some extent, people began really wanting silliness in their gory horror. Amidst the cheese, however, was a slew of outright great or criminally overlooked horror flicks. These films still showcased atmosphere, slow-builds, and genuine creepiness, much like 70s movies were quite notorious for. It wasn't purely killer flicks, though even many of the slashers don't get the credit they deserve for being very solid films. One thing's for certain - directors in the 80s still knew how to scare.
I'm here today to countdown 18 of the scariest horrors the 80s had to offer, and I'd like you to journey with me as I do so. Many of these are widely known, while others may be some seldom seen surprises. Regardless, I want people to be aware of just how strong the 80s was for good horror.
Note: There is no particular order here. The film's are simply listed in order of which I happened to type them.
The Beyond (1981)
Plot: A young woman inherits a rural Louisiana hotel only to find out it's the gateway to Hell.
I admit, I'm a sucker for Italian horror, but this is a fair choice even for a biased party. Fulci is known for his almost plotless gore-fests, and The Beyond is no different, though it truly is his finest. It's packed to the brim with gruesome, oddly beautiful visuals, and there's no shortage of terror. As with any Fulci film, The Beyond does not shy from gross territory, so I'd recommend not viewing it for the first time while having a nice date-night dinner (like I did.)
Children of the Corn (1984)
Plot: A young couple in the process of moving to a Nebraska town encounter a religious cult of children who believe anyone over the age of 18 should be murdered.
Children of the Corn, despite any and all critiques, aged incredibly well up until the last 20 minutes or so. Once effects are brought in it becomes cartoonish and laughable, but prior to the finale Children of the Corn is a simple, well-crafted eerie showing. I, like many, saw this film young, and that's perhaps why it remains creepy to me as an adult man who has seen some shit. The opening sequence in the diner is, to this very day, one of the most terrifying scenes on film.
The Funhouse (1981)
Plot: Four teens spend the night in a carnival funhouse where they're stalked by a deformed man in a Frankenstein costume.
This is, without a doubt (in my humble opinion) the most underrated film on the list, and one of the most overlooked gems in horror history. Tobe Hooper doesn't get nearly enough credit for this all-encompassing fright, and that's possibly because he made Texas Chain Saw Massacre years prior. The Funhouse is practically uncategorizable, though it's mostly slasher, but Hooper incorporates almost every element of horror here. It has it all - brutal killings, the paranormal, a deformed monster, and said deformed monster paying a washed-up fortune teller for sex. You couldn't ask for much more than this sincerely disturbing, early 80s good time.
The Burning (1981)
Plot: A former summer camp caretaker, burned alive in a prank gone wrong, returns with a vengeance to kill the current campers at an upstate New York summer camp.
Don't let the generic slasher plot fool you - The Burning is brilliantly-crafted cult classic material. It did woodsy summer camp horror better than Friday the 13th, yet receives no credit for that close-to-fact. This is smarter than your average slasher, more suspenseful, and brutal to watch at times. If horned up teens getting murdered isn't enticing enough, The Burning features a startling young Jason Alexander (much better known as George Costanza.)
Prince of Darkness (1987)
Plot: A clueless research team finds a mysterious cylinder in an abandoned church
I debated the inclusion of Prince of Darkness because it's so good a film overall you often forget it's terrifying. Horror legend John Carpenter frequently lightens the load with some very funny dialogue, but between witty banter is sheer darkness, grim atmosphere, and horrifying imagery. Prince of Darkness is an authentically fun watch, but it's a scary flick even more so.
Plot: A family's home is haunted by a slew of vengeful ghosts.
What's an 80s horror film list without Poltergeist, you ask? Nothing, I'd respond if you were actually asking. It's such a haunting classic I feel my words are virtually unnecessary. At least 3 scenes could be mentioned in a "scariest movie scenes ever," list, and it holds up as well as it ever did. This marks 2 appearances for director Tobe Hooper, and there could be 3 if he didn't go entirely tounge-in-cheek with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel.
Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Plot: The spirit of a slain child murderer seeks revenge by invading the dreams of teens whose parents were responsible for his death.
Reasoning with you why A Nightmare on Elm Street warrants a spot on the list is like explaining why golden retrievers are one of the best family dog breeds. You all know Freddy Krueger, and you all know damn well this is a timelessly scary movie.
Plot: An unfaithful wife encounters the zombie of her dead lover.
I almost didn't want to include Hellraiser. If you're interested in any bit of personal opinion, I never really cared for this movie. I've long been unable to "get into it," so to speak. I can't empathize with characters, and I'm not particularly enveloped by the atmosphere. It is, however, a frightening movie, and deserving of recognition for that fact. Hellraiser is pure nightmare fuel, and therefore littered with some of the most horrifying visuals on screen. I can't deny its ability to disturb.
Pet Sematary (1989)
Plot: A grieving father discovers an ancient burial ground behind his home, known as Pet Sematary, which has the power to raise the dead.
Pet Sematary is close to my heart, so I'm forced to assess this honestly. It didn't age as well as it should have. The acting is atrocious, save for Fred Gwynne as Judd, and that diminishes the effect. With that being said, Pet Sematary does still have some of the scariest material seen on screens. Zelda, alone, is still the most haunting character I've come across, and Gage with the achilles slit is nothing to bat an eye at. Despite its several late-80s flaws, Pet Sematary remains a hair-raising watch.
Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Plot: A shy, damaged young girl is sent to summer camp with her cousin. Once there, any and all bullies and bad people receive their due.
This choice demands defense, I know, as I can't just run away with another campy slasher being ranked amongst the scariest horrors of the 80s. Sleepaway Camp is so much more than standard 80s bloody cheese, and that comes down to atmosphere. Although it's shot in a beautiful location, a feeling of dread permeates throughout the entirety of Sleepaway Camp. It's eerie from start to finish. The kills are all inventive. The ending? It may have aged to be comical, it's still the most shocking end to a horror, and the utmost memorable for it. Sleepaway Camp is levels above the endless lot of 80s slasher flicks.
Plot: A scumbag tv-programmer sees the future of media spin out of control in a frightening new reality.
Videodrome is one of Cronenberg's best, and a pleasant look at James Woods decades before he became a far-right Twitter nut. It's one of those films so grimy you feel the need to go exfoliate after watching. This is sheer sleaze, but sleaze done tastefully. Simply a disgusting, strange watch that's everything it's supposed to be. Cronenberg is widely known for his body horror, and Videodrome is the pinnacle of body horror.
The Shining (1980)
Plot: A family stays in an isolated hotel for the winter where an unseen force influences the father into violence and hysteria.
Is The Shining late 70s or early 80s? The release says 1980, so we're including it. A movie as renowned as this needs no write-up. One of the most nightmare-inducing films ever made, and as effective as it ever was.
The Changeling (1980)
Plot: A man staying at a secluded mansion finds himself being tortured by an entity
The Changeling set the bar for paranormal, and is for me the textbook well-made haunted house movie. It relies on atmosphere, and what the audience doesn't see to truly frighten. There are no over-the-top ghosts or mangled children with stringy hair crawling - just sounds and the occasional spine-chilling visual. Amidst the slew of corny, jump-scare ridden haunted house films is the treasure known as The Changeling.
The Thing (1982)
Plot: A research team in Antarctica is hunted by a shape-shifting alien
What can I say that isn't already known about this damn near perfect sci-fi horror/thriller? It's beautifully acted, grotesque in all the right ways, and not short on suspense. The practical effects look just fine today, and Carpenter has a knack for getting the right pacing. I needn't praise The Thing but it's arguably the greatest sci-fi horror ever made.
The Evil Dead and The Evil Dead 2 (1981 & 1987)
Plot: Five friends staying in a cabin in the woods release zombie-like demons.
I've grouped these two together because I didn't want to take up space with two brilliant films in the same series. Sam Raimi really went for it with these films, in a pioneering kind of way. They're as absurd and funny as they are horrifying, though the bizarre comedy doesn't take away from the horror. One could argue the original and sequel got a little silly or went overboard with the gore, but the disgusting humor define these films.
Plot: An anthology telling five tales based on the E.C. horror comics of the 1950s.
The very best horror anthology ever, for me personally. All 5 stories leave a uniquely creepy impact, however, there is a weak link and I won't admit which one. The 1st story is the finest, in which a woman murders her overbearing father, and the beast in the crate bit is also absolute excellence. The comic-book style narration adds an element of fun, but the actual shorts are anything but. Worth noting, the sequel Creepshow 2 is nothing in comparison to the original, but The Raft story is a must-watch for any horror fan.
House By The Cemetery (1981)
Plot: A New England home, where an unknown guest is lurking in the basement, is terrorized by a slew of murders.
Here we are again with an almost void-of-plot Fulci flick, but it's another gruesomely horrifying one. If you can get past the ridiculous dubbing of the young boy in this movie, you're in for a terrifying treat.
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Plot: Two American college students on a tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.
An American Werewolf in London is so good it almost makes the Landis family likeable. It's yet another example of brilliant, funny dialogue being present in horror but not detracting from the dreadful atmosphere. An American Werewolf In London is the finest example of shock horror, and one hell of a monster movie. Now that we've entered renowned classic territory, I don't feel the need to get wordy. These are films that don't require my little old opinion, and this flick in particular stands on its own. It's not the absolute scariest, and it's by no means the greatest horror ever done, but it's worthy of an all-time best movie list.
- The Very Honorable Mentions, all of which I would have loved to include:
- The Fly (1986)
- The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)
- Re-Animator (1985)
- Aliens (1986)
- The Fog (1980)
- Maniac (1980)
- Fright Night (1985)