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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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?