Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s
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I vaguely remember my introduction to the horror film. My cousin was visiting, the curtains had been drawn on a sunny afternoon, and John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London had been placed in the VCR. I was seven years old. I recollect that evening, and for many nights consequently, I hardly slept. There was something under my bed, and there was even something in the closet, I knew it too well. Of course, it was easy to see since I’d cry bloody Mary if anyone tried to turn my light off. Could I keep my eyes open? It was becoming more difficult, all I could see were those green hills shrouded in the black cloak of night, and the warning: ‘Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors,’ delivered in that Yorkshire twang. Brian Glover’s short, controlled outburst – probably his unusual form of goodbye – ‘Beware the moon, lads.’ Then our hero David and best friend Jack are stranded. They’ve wandered off the path, there are no lights around, no one to help. They hear a sound, distant at first but growing louder. Could it be a dog, no, it sounds much bigger. Then the screams, the tearing of flesh, the quick cuts and extreme close-ups; we see a gun fire, all goes silent, and the darkness pervades.
I grew up as part of the video generation. Cinema was changing again – attendances were down and people were far happier watching videos or catching re-runs on television than they were venturing from the comfort of their own home. By the early 1990s, eighties babies were beginning to enjoy cinema beyond family movies, cartoons and the Wizard of Oz. In Britain, this audience – post-1984 Video Recordings Act – wanted to find their niche and what better place to start than the forsaken shelves of the video nasty. Bootleg, grainy copies of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tormented young minds, while the horror film cemented its place firmly in cult circles. This fervent popularity from both adults and teenagers for the horror film encouraged the industry (especially Hollywood) to produce some wonderfully surreal, engaging and stylish pieces of cinema. We saw the rampant emergence of the ‘Slasher’ movie from Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, gore and special-effects from Tom Savini, the body horror of David Cronenberg, the dreams and nightmares of Clive Barker, the cross genre comedy-horror from John Landis, Tom Holland, and Dan O’Bannon. There was franchised sequels, villains-as-heroes, gothic homage, iconic theme music, lunch boxes, action figures and other cross-promotion. Indeed, the horror film was as much derided as it was loved. But the eighties produced some of the greatest examples of the genre following, and certainly inspired by, the fears and trend-setting new traditions of the new-age horror from the seventies.
The genre has failed for years to get recognition from a critical standpoint. Much of the recognition it did receive was negative – throughout the 1930s and 1940s, horror movies were thought to be harmful to society and many local authorities banned films they deemed unsuitable. During the 1950s, Hammer Studios used negative press and liberal scare tactics to promote their films, and it was as much the backlash from politicians and critics that helped cultivate underground following for the genre. However, by the late 1960s, there was a trend beginning in France that saw critics warming to the genre, and by the time Carlos Clarens and Ivan Butler’s books were released, there was a new feeling that looked at the films as serious art forms. Instead of lambasting horror movies as detrimental, even dangerous, to society, writers were beginning to look at the long literary traditions that had first inspired these films. And they also investigated the history and transformation of the genre since the first examples were seen in such German expressionism as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. By the 1970s every critic who wanted a name for themselves had written about the horror movie, whether their point of view was positive, negative, or indifferent. Most importantly, horror had become a mainstream commodity with the obvious example being Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It isn’t surprising that the seventies produced the best and most influential films of the genre (The Exorcist, Halloween, The Wicker Man, Dawn Of The Dead), with audiences, the art form, and the industry all benefiting from this budding type of film.
Yet, the eighties was a period not far behind the previous decade in terms of quality output. Certainly, the genre was much more diverse with self-reference, parody, and hybrids such as Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark, showing what could be done. On top of that you had some lovely original pieces of cinema with such films as Dan O’Bannon’s special-effects homage to Romero The Return of the Living Dead, Joel Schumacher’s coming-of-age vampire flick The Lost Boys, and beyond Hollywood with the Dutch/French production The Vanishing, and stylistic Italian director Dario Argento’s Tenebre and Inferno. Indeed, the vibrancy for the genre in the 1980s came from films which embraced and celebrated horror. Prime examples would be the self-referential Fright Night, gore-fest The Evil Dead, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock-inspired Dressed To Kill. It has been said the eighties was, much like very early film, the cinema of attractions. It pushed the boundaries of the medium to new frontiers, backed by Reagan’s forward-thinking plans. Director’s thought visually, and nothing held their creative minds back. It was the period where dreams and nightmares were displayed on screen more realistically than had ever been seen. In effect, there appeared no better time for horror (much like science-fiction during the same period) – with its otherworldly themes – to prosper on a grand scale. In a sense you’ve got to thank George Lucas because with Star Wars he reintroduced audiences to escapism, which had somewhat been lost during the dominance of social-issue and character studies of the seventies.
The genre, which would continue to diversify into the nineties (postmodernism in A New Nightmare in 1994, which led to Scream and the revitalisation of the Slasher film; and the digital video revolution and use of new media with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s masterful manipulation of the audience with The Blair Witch Project), still retained a very distinct set of conventions that primarily challenged normality and distanced the real from the unreal. Reading many different theorists views about how the horror film works makes for wide reaching, and often, very politically motivated ideologies, but it’s interesting nonetheless. There’s a school that believes American horror is dominated by the struggles created by consumerism, patriarchal social relations, and family struggle, and that the location of the horror is in the home and our way of life. Others believe the monsters prevalent in horror films represent institutional fears, like the affect the church, government, or the police can have on breaking or changing familial tradition, while some writers look at the way the audience is manipulated through the aesthetics of the films by the way they play on the insecurities that defy rational explanation. There are also people such as Stephen Neale who believe the genre satisfies a fetish for violence and terror that is inherited by the society and cultural structure we live in, while feminist theorists argue the genre is dominated by misogyny and the ‘female’ as victim.
Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, the fact remains that the horror film is, and has been, a very popular genre for audiences. Despite its early critical backlash, the genre has been important as far back as the 1930s when Universal produced Dracula and Frankenstein amongst others, which were so well received by audiences, it enabled the company to become a major Hollywood studio. In the 1940s RKO created many films including Cat People, which pioneered a style which would be imitated by filmmakers for years to come. Instead of showing the monster, filmmakers used off-screen space, sound, lighting and deep shadows, character reaction, and the ambiguity of the audience’s imagination to produce stylish and emotionally impacting movies. Independent production prospered in the 1960s with the most influential film being George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, which led to a new respectability with Roman Polanski’s mesmerising Rosemary’s Baby, and the best film the genre ever created, William Friedkin’s terrifying The Exorcist.
”Apparently your generation doesn’t want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.”
Top 10, why?: Tom Holland’s superb self-referential horror-comedy is both delightfully funny and darkly sadistic, wryly telling the story of a teenager who knows a Vampire has moved in next door but no one believes him. A standout performance from Roddy McDowell is the centre point of a film that simultaneously celebrates and parodies the genre. This unique film inspired a lot of the post-modern sentiment later seen in the 1990s.
Critic quote: ‘…it’s hard to get into this movie and not have a little fun…’ (Nadd Yapp)
External review: Absolute Horror
”We will tear your soul apart”
Top 10, why?: The film embodies the idea of nightmares displayed on screen as Clive Barker creates a terrifying vision of hell on earth.
Critic Quote: ‘I have seen the future of the horror genre, and his name is Clive Barker.’ (Stephen King)
”The only way to tell you, is to make you share the exact same experience”
Top 10, why?: Sluizer’s film is about pacing and atmosphere. He plays with audience expectation (even telling us who the killer is half way through) and concludes the film with one of the best and most devastating conclusions to any horror film ever made.
Critic Quote: Sounds like an overworked premise for Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes), Roman Polanski (Frantic), or Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown), but The Vanishing quickly veers into new and intriguing territories. (Matthew Kennedy)
”Did you see that movie, “Night of the Living Dead”?”
Top 10, why?: Dan O’Bannon’s homage to Romero is fun, pacy and full of great production design and prosthetic effects. The film was essentially fighting against Sam Raimi’s excellent sequel to The Evil Dead, but I decided to go with O’Bannon’s effort because it’s a more polished affair with several good performances.
Critic Quote: ‘It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.’ (Roger Ebert)
”What am I working on? Uhh… I’m working on something that will change the world, and human life as we know it.”
Top 10, why?: Anchored by a brilliant performance from Jeff Goldblum, director David Cronenberg continues his investigation into the renowned body-horror, as Goldbum’s Seth Brundle attempts metamorphosis but it all goes wrong when a house fly gets caught up in the machine. As Brundle struggles to find a cure to his problem, he falls deeper in love with Geena Davis’ concerned Veronica. When he learns that his body structure is becoming that of a fly, the fruits of his new powers soon challenge his own sanity, and his own survival. The Fly is one of several great horror films made in the eighties by Cronenberg but it stands out because it is his most accessible, and probably most accomplished piece of work.
Critic Quote: ‘It’s hard to watch; not only because it takes a strong stomach to cope with the necessarily gruesome special effects but because the emotions depicted are so honest and direct that they eventually becomes overwhelming.’ (Mike Sutton)
External Reviews: Reel.com
”We keep odd hours…”
Top 10, why?: Near Dark has always fascinated me because it’s a horror film that only really works within the constraints of the genre based on the audiences expectation and understanding of the gothic, and of past vampire films. It’s almost a western love story, with the premise setting the scene for two star-crossed lovers from distinct families that cannot mix. It’s the Romeo and Juliet of the vampire world. The film features half the main cast from James Cameron’s Aliens, with Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein all working together again, and Paxton and Henrikson are superb in their roles as rogue bloodsuckers. This small-budget film was a given an awful marketing campaign that saw it fail at the box office, and also saw Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys become the remembered vampire film of 1987. However, Bigelow’s beautifully paced tale is a fantastic film because it was the most unique horror movie of the 1980s, and looked at the gothic story from a completely different point of view than had been seen before.
Critic Quote: ‘Near Dark is the best vampire movie you’ve never heard of…’ (Rod Armstrong)
”Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.”
Top 10, why?: It says a lot that this is the only teen slasher film to make the top ten. Wes Craven’s excellent film, much like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, embodies the idea of a nightmare on screen. It’s also backed by a brilliant premise that has a killer who can only hurt you while you sleep. Fantastic!
Critic Quote: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their gore leavened with thought-provoking ideas – something that is a rarity in this genre.’ (James Berardinelli)
”A naked American man stole my balloons”
Top 10, why?: John Landis’ 1981 classic was an easy choice for a top ten spot because it’s one of my all time favourite films. It’s also a horror film that Roger Ebert absolutely hates, which means it has to be one of the best films ever made. Not that I’m trying to have a dig at the renowned critic (I’ve used one of his quotes for Return Of The Living Dead), but I do believe he simply doesn’t get Landis’ film. He seems to believe horror and comedy have lived seamlessly for years, but not like this they haven’t. An American Werewolf In London is equally funny and frightening, and Landis is one of only a few directors to actually make it work. Ebert, while celebrating special-effects maestro Rick Baker’s work on the film, merely disassociates that quality for his overall appreciation of the film. Baker’s werewolf transformation was not only one of the most realistic special-effects ever to be put to celluloid at the time, but it was underpinned by Landis’ superb use of music (the brilliant irony of classic Blue Moon). It works so perfectly because it flirts between a line that doesn’t tell the audience to laugh or cry, and by breaking convention, the audience is left not knowing what might happen next. The sequence makes for the best werewolf transformation ever put on screen, and is one of the primary reasons the film has such a cult following and is regarded by horror fans as one of the best examples of the genre ever made.
Critic Quote: ‘…in the summer of 1981 came John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which has, in many ways, set the standard for the modern werewolf movie.’ (James Birardinelli)
”I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.”
Top 10, why?: Much like The Fly, I’d have to question whether to put this in the horror or science-fiction category but essentially they are both horror movies at the most primitive level. The Thing was John Carpenter’s sixth major feature production, and for me, it’s a work that he has never surpassed before or since. He made many excellent movies within the genre through the eighties, but the sense of paranoia amongst his ensemble cast in The Thing makes for wonderful, suspenseful viewing. The blood test sequence in the middle of the film is one of the best scene’s in horror cinema ever put to celluloid.
Critic Quote: ‘John Carpenter may be better known for Halloween or Escape from New York, but The Thing is easily the famed horror director’s best film.’ (Evan Pulgino)
External Reviews: James Berardinelli
Top 10, why?: This was an easy choice for number one. It’s Kubrick’s best film and one of the greatest films ever made, no matter what genre. What I love about the movie is that it gets better with every viewing, and I know the next time I watch it I’ll enjoy it more than the last.
Critic quote: ‘Stanley Kubrick doesn’t anything by halves. What this die-hard perfectionist has created, during the years of post-production work that went on while tucked away in a British film studio, are exemplary pieces of artistic refinement: 2001, A Space Odyssey was a masterpiece in science-fiction, Barry Lyndon set a new standard for historical epics and The Shining redefined the meaning of horror altogether.’ (Der Spiegel)
There’s obviously many great films that didn’t make my top ten, notably the Evil Dead’s, Dressed To Kill, The Lost Boys, Innocent Blood, The Howling, The Fog, Christine, Prince Of Darkness, a whole heap of teen slasher movies, Dead and Buried, Manhunter, Tenebre and other European independent films, Bad Taste, Cannibal Holocaust and a lot of exploitative filth, Critters, Gremlins (but I always enjoyed the sequel more), The Hitcher, Scanners, Re-animator, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Silver Bullet, Child’s Play, the list goes on.
I probably realised this before making my top ten, but it confirms that I don’t like sadistic horror films that set out to repulse the audience. You may notice that I’ve chosen mainly mainstream horror films. It’s all well and good making social comments like Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left, but when a film becomes the director’s perverted wet dream, it isn’t fun anymore. For all that the horror genre does to its audience it should always be fun and entertaining, leaving the viewer with a feeling of adrenaline, not sickness. For that reason, I think the eighties produced some of the best films from the genre (and don’t get me wrong, it also produced some of the worst). They were and still are entertaining movies. The improvement of special-effects may date the films now but the nostalgic feeling of watching them again makes up for that.
Top Five Moments from 1980s Horror
1. An American Werewolf In London – The Transformation
David Kessler tries to keep himself occupied in Nurse Alex’s house when she leaves him to go to work. As night falls, and the full moon comes out, he feels a terrible pain in his chest. His skin begins to burn, and his bones begin to crack, as his body changes into that of a werewolf. The great thing director John Landis does here is to make the whole scene painful to watch and clearly painful for David. This isn’t the easy transformation that had been seen in cinema before. This was bones, and flesh, moulding and changing; it hurt. The scene is very realistic, and the prosthetic make-up effects look better than any CGI would today. Landis beautifully underpins the scene with the blues classic Blue Moon which is sadistically ironic.
2. The Thing – Blood Test
Working out that alien and human blood react to each other, the surviving group conduct a blood test to work out which, if any of them, are alien. Carpenter infuses the scene with paranoia, creating a level of suspense he hangs on to for several minutes as the scene plays out.
3. Evil Dead II – Ash battles his own hand
When Ash’s hand gets possessed, he’s forced to cut it off. However, after the gruelling dismemberment, the severed hand (clearly pissed off at such an action), comes after him in one of the great comedic horror moments.
4. The Vanishing – The final twist and devastating conclusion
The film leaves both the viewer and main character Rex in completely darkness over the fate of his girlfriend. Although, we meet the man who abducted her, we are still unsure whether she is dead or alive. When Rex agrees to take a sleeping pill in order to find out what really happened, he awakens to have all his questions answered. This is one of the best endings to any horror film from the eighties. It’s both devastatingly affecting and cruelly ironic.
5. The Hitcher – They thought it was all over…it wasn’t.
The audience, and the characters, are left thinking the terror might be all over…but it isn’t. Jim leaves his hotel room to find Nash (the girl he had fallen for over the course of the film) tied between a truck and its trailer. If the police shoot the driver, his foot will leave the clutch and the truck will roll forward, ripping Nash in half. In order to save her, Jim gets into the truck with the driver to talk him out of it. He doesn’t succeed.