10 Underrated Non-Franchise Horror Films From The 1980s

Neal Damiano goes beyond the big-name horror franchises of the 1980s to discover the underrated stand-alone films from the decade such as the subversively twisted April Fool’s Day, the tension-filled roller-coaster ride that is The Hitcher, and the austere suspense of The Changeling.

10. Motel Hell (Connor, 1980)

A satiric take on some of its most famous genre predecessors, this wacko horror-comedy involves a motel-operating couple who sell smoked meats that are really their guests/victims, whom they bury up to their necks in a “secret garden” until they’re ready to be harvested. A completely bizarre story premise that just somehow works.

9. The Gate (Takács, 1987)

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The big screen debut of Stephen Dorff (at the age of 14), Tibor Takács film is a superior midnight movie about some kids who, left home alone for the weekend by their parents, discover that the construction worker-created hole in their backyard is actually a portal to hell and furthermore, that clues to how it works can be found in a heavy metal album’s lyrics. Strange concept that still delights.

8. April Fool’s Day (Walton, 1986)

Besides being one of the all time great horror movie posters, this 1986 cult classic hybridises the slasher film and the manor house murder-mystery, detailing a group of college kids’ weekend getaway that turns bloody when someone begins picking them off. The film boasts a distinctive style that energises the stalk and the slash conventions. It also had a huge influence on the satirical horror trend that was to come.

7. The Stuff (Cohen, 1985)

Larry Cohen delivers an amusingly horrific satire of American appetites with this underappreciated B-movie about a mysterious yogurt-like diet snack that becomes a national sensation. There’s just one side-effect: the “stuff” turns consumers into zombie-like monsters. A very important film for the underlying social commentary alone, but also entertaining. Cohen recently passed away but his often overlooked contribution to film is undeniable.

6. The Hitcher (Harmon, 1986)

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Further emphasising The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s point that picking up strangers on the side of the road is a very bad idea, Robert Harmon’s 1986 thriller offers up Rutger Hauer as a psycho hitchhiker who makes life a living hell for nice guy driver played by C. Thomas Howell. Both performances by Howell and Hauer are unmatched. It is frightening that this film isn’t more loudly praised.

5. The Changeling (Medak, 1980)

The Changeling, Canadian Horror Film,

George C. Scott brings a measure of composure to this haunted house tale, about a composer who, still mourning the death of his wife and child, moves across the country to an eerie estate that boasts a ghost who likes to play unsettling little games. The Changeling is hardly ever mentioned when talking about ghost stories in film. It’s the precursor to all of the Paranormal Activity films that keep been shovelled out. The Changeling is such an influential film.

4. Poltergeist* (Hooper, 1982)

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Regardless of whether you believe Poltergeist was helmed by credited director Tobe Hooper or producer Steven Spielberg, this TV-phobic haunted house thriller delivers unforgettable scares and a classic horror cinema line (“They’re heeeere”), as well as a rather endearing portrait of the strength of the American nuclear family. It was a Norman Rockwell nightmare to the building and breaking down of the suburban American Dream.

3. The Fog (Carpenter, 1980)

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When discussing John Carpenter films, most people mention The Thing or Halloween, it’s very rare to hear The Fog mentioned. It’s a shame because the mood and atmosphere is so unsettling. Carpenter’s follow-up to his 1978 slasher is an old-fashioned ghost story about drowned mariners who return to exact revenge on the descendants of those who lured them to their death — a tale that’s elevated by Carpenter’s unparalleled mastery of widescreen visuals.

2. The Funhouse (Hooper, 1981)

Tobe Hooper goes back to the deformed, masked psycho with this entertaining 1981 B-movie, in which four teenagers decide to spend the night at a carnival, which already sounds like a bad idea, only to then have their fun ruined by a giant mutant freak with a lust for violence. Not a lot of action in this one, but it works here because the suspense and storyline are done so well.

1. Happy Birthday To Me (Thompson, 1981)

An outlandish genre work marked by its bizarre methods of murder and its even more bizarre narrative twists and turns, Happy Birthday to Me is the rare slasher film that constantly keeps one on its toes up to its surprising final revelation. It’s such a unique story, you can’t compare it to any other slasher film.

*Poltergeist was considered for this list because it formed part of a trilogy not a franchised series such as Friday the 13th, Halloween or Nightmare on Elm Street.

Written and compiled by Neal Damiano

Your turn: disregarding franchises, what are your fave underrated 1980s horror films?

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About the Author
Neal Damiano calls himself “an unhip film geek” who mixes his passion for movies with an enthusiasm for travel, music and journalism.

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  1. Dan
    Dan Reply

    A real mix of 80s scary movies, good “stuff” Neal!

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks Dan
      I enjoyed writing this list❗️

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      Mark Fraser Reply

      Interesting choices – some of which I haven’t seen. The Shining was the first thing that popped into my head, but it seems it’s of a different tenor to the other entries here. When Motel Hell came out, the reviewer for Fangora suggested it turned into something of a love story. Didn’t catch it until 1990, but when I did I couldn’t really see a love story at work. A moot point, but couldn’t we class Poltergeist as part of a franchise? There were, after all, three of them.

      • Avatar
        Neal Damiano Reply

        Thanks for reading, Mark
        . And I hear your point but I consider franchises if the film has more than 3 sequels. I guess it’s just what one considers.

        Motel Hell a love story hmmm, interesting never came to mind ( laughing).

      • Avatar
        Neal Damiano Reply

        Mark, I didn’t want to include iconic stand alone horror films such The Shining , Misery, The Thing, An American Werewolf In London etc…. where I was going with this one is horror films people certainly remember but hardly ever mention.

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    Rory Reply

    Interesting choices but I’d get rid of Poltergeist given it had two sequels and replace with something like Near Dark. An understated vampire story that’s still one of the best anti-gothic interpretations of the myth.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Rory, good one. I’ll agree with that Near Dark completely slipped my mind. Fantastic film.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Can’t say I’ve seen them all but love April Fool’s Day.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Cinegirl thanks for always reading my stuff! April’ Fool’s Day is a fun delight!

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        CineGirl Reply

        Some might say April Fool’s Day is just another one of those calendar-based exploitation films but it’s much more than that. It caught me by surprise when I first saw it and it works well the second time around when you know the twist. That’s the sign of a good film.

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          Neal Damiano Reply

          Remember this film really kicked off the comedic ending of a slasher . It is one of the first self aware films . Really influential to the Scream series. The film doesn’t get the credit it rightfully deserves. I often find it rarely gets mentioned in slasher film lists , sadly. And make no mistake it’s a slasher. Contains all the key elements, the only difference is that people didn’t really die.

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    Roger Keen Reply

    Like Mark, I think The Shining stands above most others. An American Werewolf in London did get a sequel but I wouldn’t all it a franchise so that’d be another that springs to mind. Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is another and Cronenberg’s Scanners. Good left field pics though Neal. I’m not a fan of Happy Birthday and The Funhouse but Motel Hell was pretty effective and April Fool’s Day surprised me a bit.

    • Dan
      Dan Reply

      My bad, I didn’t include the crucial word “underrated” in the list’s title, which kind of negates Neal’s ambition with this top 10. Apologies. Fixed now.

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        Roger Keen Reply

        Ah… that explains things. Let me echo Rory’s Near Dark then. And how about Maniac?

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          Neal Damiano Reply

          Again, I completely slipped on Near Dark a fantastic film that could easily make this list. Maniac I considered as well but it’s not that underrated it’s always mentioned in top slasher lists.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Roger thanks for reading! Ok fair enough interesting to hear your picks but like I said above I did not want to include iconic horror films. I don’t consider Werewolf in Paris a sequel either horrible film (laughing) . I did consider Henry but not to many are aware of that film or have seen it I find anyway. I know it’s a classic but you’d be surprised. You’re the first I assume horror fan I heard say they don’t care for Happy Birthday To Me,

  5. Dan
    Dan Reply

    One that has now crossed my mind that didn’t make the list is The Burning. I thought that was a particularly potent slasher film from the 80s that didn’t, thankfully, lead to a bunch of lesser sequels.

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      Neal Damiano Reply

      Dan, good one but it is hardly underrated I don’t know anyone that hasn’t seen or heard of The Burning (given horror fans) it’s an all time slasher classic. It’s pretty much mentioned in every slasher film list.

      • Dan
        Dan Reply

        Yeah, agree The Burning is definitely a big one for horror movie buffs but I’d argue it still gets forgotten about. Certainly in comparison to the franchised slashers and stuff like Black Christmas and My Bloody Valentine. But when you take Poltergeist, for example (a 100 million dollar box office hit, three Academy Award nominations, the notoriety around its supposed haunted cast, the “who directed it” conundrum, and its place in one of those AFI Top 100 lists) it’s a tiny film in comparison.

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          Neal Damiano Reply

          Right Dan, I’m not dismissing your choice . Your absolutely right it was big Hollywood successful film and maybe it shouldn’t be on the list? I’m just simply saying not many people mention Poltergeist when discussing supernatural haunting films . I personally find it gets over looked. It’s hard that what I’m trying to convey in this list. Not the success of the film. It’s a broad spectrum and can be misconstrued. I don’t know one person that doesn’t mention The Burning when I talk with them about slasher films.

          • Dan
            Dan

            You’re spot on regarding The Burning and it’s reputation amongst the slasher genre. I’m a big ghost story fan so Poltergeist has always been on my radar. It’s a terrific film and I’m glad you recommend it because for anyone who hasn’t seen it but loves supernatural horror it’s a must-watch.

  6. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    “ Horror films people certainly remember, but hardly ever mention “ ^

  7. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    This is just my personal opinion, when discussing film with people and different horror genres. I tried to make a well rounded list, again it’s just my personal experience these are the films that I find overlooked. Thank you all for reading and the feedback I love that it generates discussion.

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    Callum Reply

    The Funhouse creeps me out. Good choice.

    • Avatar
      Neal Damiano Reply

      It most certainly is a creepy one. Hooper was a master of creepy ❗️ Unfortunately It rarely gets mentioned when I talk about horror films with people.
      Thanks for reading, Callum

  9. Amilia Totten
    Amilia Totten Reply

    Happy Birthday to Me is a great little twisty thriller. Someone else mentioned Near Dark as a possible addition (love that one).

    • Avatar
      Neal Damiano Reply

      Thanks Amelia.
      It happens to be one of my favorite slasher films and I find it’s often forgotten on a lot of lists. There is a lot going on in this film. It didn’t get the shine of say My Bloody Valentine and equally a great Canadian slasher film.

  10. Avatar
    ArchE Reply

    One that hurtles to mind with the fitting ugliness of sewage is The Toxic Avenger with its outlandish effects and ghoulish gore (that is until I realise they made a crappy sequel which I think makes it the sort of franchise disallowed for this list).

    But I’m glad I saw The Gate when running my finger down your choices, a film that made me fill my tighty-whities with the brown stuff long after I’d given up nappies and a waterproof mattress.

    • Avatar
      Neal Damiano Reply

      You most certainly can put Toxic Avenger on your list if you desire. I wouldn’t but you can. As I and Dan stated before, I don’t consider films that have part 2 & 3 franchises. I consider those sequels or trilogies. Films with more than 3 sequels I consider a franchise.
      Laughing, yes “The Gate “ is a sleeper very scary for a 12 year old at the time when I saw this in the theater. Unfortunately, I find it rarely gets mentioned. ThNks for reading and feedback, Arch

  11. Avatar
    Dean Marsh Reply

    Good mix of films. I like Happy Birthday to Me too.

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    Gregory James Reply

    The Gate. i love it!

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