From the ominous music to the screaming girls, a lot of ‘80s horror movies are tropes of bad special effects, terrible decisions, stereotypical caricatures and often are more silly than horrific. But a few rise above the rest, providing chills, thrills and more than a few scary moments. Here’s our take on the best of ’80s horror, in order by date.
The Shining (1980)
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
When you talk of horror movies, there’s no film that encompasses the genre more spectacularly or terrifyingly as The Shining. Jack Nicholson’s stand-out performance makes this Stanley Kubrick-directed Stephen King story even more horrifying. It covers so many sub-genres – psychological thriller, supernatural horror and slasher suspense. The isolation of the location and the size of the hotel, with it’s many different hauntings and twists, pulls you along as Jack devolves into madness. Kubrick’s unique, demanding style of directing and the edgy idiosyncratic cinematography set the distinctive, disturbing visual tone. While King criticized the movie’s deviations from his original book, this film is considered a masterpiece of horror.
The Fog (1980)
“To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.”
As a thick, glowing fog creeps in and surrounds a sleepy coastal town, the residents start being attacked by the ghosts from a ship that sank 100 years before. This John Carpenter film is high on suggestive suspense, with the ghosts coming out of the shadows, as people try to outrun the fog and find somewhere safe to hide. While many other horror stories have used the disorienting nature of fog itself as a motif, the addition of vengeful spirits riding the fog to murder is a unique addition. It also stars two of the genre’s leading ladies: a gorgeous Adrienne Barbeau and a youthful Jamie Lee Curtis.
Friday the 13th (1980)
“She can’t hide; no place to hide.”
Set next to an idyllic seeming lake, a group of teens are hired to reopen a summer camp where a young boy had drowned many years before. Starring a babyfaced Kevin Bacon, the teens start getting mysteriously killed, one by one. An interesting use of character perspective, you often see the action from the eyes of the killer, without ever seeing the killer themselves. The unexpected plot twist reveal at the end is in some ways like a reverse of Psycho, changing your perception of everything you just watched. It’s a engaging, suspenseful snapshot of a more innocent time….that ends up being not so innocent.
The Changeling (1980)
“That house is not fit to live in. No one’s been able to live in it. It doesn’t want people.”
This Canadian supernatural horror film stars the brilliant George C. Scott as a composer who moves into a large mansion after the death of his wife and daughter. As various supernatural events start occurring, he fearlessly tries to uncover the source, remaining in the house even when most sane people wouldn’t stay for a second longer than they have to. Thrilling, terrifying and creepy, screenwriter Russell Hunter claimed it was based on real life events that happened to him while staying at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver. The film’s iconic scene of a red rubber ball bouncing down the stairs will have you screaming out loud in terror.
The Howling (1981)
“A secret society exists, and is living among all of us. They are neither people nor animals, but something in-between.”
When a journalist is attacked by a stalker she’s investigating, her doctor sends her and her husband off to a resort to relax. Little does she know she’s walking into the den of a pack of werewolves. Featuring an unrecognizably young Robert Picardo (from Star Trek: Voyager), it builds on the lore that you can become a werewolf simply by being bitten, similar to a vampire, rather than something familial and inherited. With notes of Wiccanism and cult-like behavior by the pack, it’s at times sexually charged and psychologically dark. With the limitations of makeup and special effects in the early ’80s, the werewolf transformations can seem a little corny, but it’s suspenseful and pulls you along as the characters discover what they’ve really walked into.
American Werewolf in London (1981)
“ Beware the moon, David.”
With too much intentional humor to be a true horror film, but too much real horror and gore to be a comedy, this classic deftly treads the fine line between both. Two friends set off on a fateful trek across the Yorkshire moors. Ignoring the advice of the locals, they’re attacked by what they think is a rabid wolf, resulting in one of them, Jack, dead and the other, David, eventually, turning into a werewolf. Jack’s ghost haunts David, and will until the line of the werewolf that killed him dies out – which means for him to be at peace David also has to die. Meanwhile, David is in denial that he’s become a werewolf at all, until he’s faced with undeniable evidence.
Evil Dead (1981)
” I have seen the dark shadows moving in the woods and I have no doubt that whatever I have resurrected through this book is sure to come crawling… for me.”
While extremely cheesy at times with terrible special effects and equally garish makeup, this film is the first appearance of the legendary character of Ash Williams, and was a launching pad for director Sam Raimi. Another classic “let’s go out to the woods and party in a ramshackle cabin” movie – which never end well for the young adults – a recording stashed in the cabin sparks zombies in the woods to attack them. Unusual cinematography, heightened suspense, black humor and a career-launching turn by Bruce Campbell make this an entertaining evening’s viewing.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
“You’d be proud of me now, Mother. All the kids like me.”
While this Canadian film starts off seeming like just another silly teen horror movie, even when you think the puzzle pieces are falling into place and you’ve figured out the mystery – well, you haven’t. The seemingly obvious story and heavy handed clue dropping is just a distraction. Stick with it and the out-of-left-field plot twist at the end is a satisfying finale and is the final puzzle piece that pulls the entire story together. It’s also fun to see Melissa Sue Anderson (Mary from Little House on the Prairie) without her pinafore, in a completely different, heightened and crazy setting.
Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster supernatural horror film has scared the pants off of viewers for decades. After daughter Carole Anne starts talking with the static on the family’s TV set, mysterious, increasingly disturbing paranormal activities start happening, including Carole Anne disappearing in a portal in her closet. When parapsychologists determine poltergeists have invaded the house, they attempt to rescue Carole Anne from the alternate dimension where she’s being held captive. A terrifying, high intensity film by one of the masters of filmmaking, if there’s one takeaway from Poltergeist, it’s this: Don’t build houses on tribal graveyards.
The Thing (1982)
“Somebody in this camp ain’t what he appears to be. Right now that may be one or two of us. By spring, it could be all of us.”
Kurt Russell stars in this suspenseful film of scientists on a base in Antarctica who get invaded by an alien species. The aliens become duplicates of the creatures they come in contact with, making it difficult to know who is real and who’s a copy. While the special effects can be hokey at times, what really makes this a standout is the suspense and tension of not really knowing who exactly you can trust. The psychological aspect adds complexity to what could have been a simplistic story and makes it an engaging watch.
“ I’m going to get you! Do you hear me, Richard? Do you hear me, Richard? I’ll get you!”
This series of five separate comic horror shorts takes the skills of two masters of terror, Stephen King and George Romero, and combines them into one film anthology. Intended to replicate the EC Comics horror comic books of the ’50s, the stories have a heightened, stylized feel that’s both campy and creepy at the same time. The star studded cast includes Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Leslie Nielsen, Hal Holbrook, with an appearance by Stephen King himself.
“Whoa, whoa. You better watch what you say about my car. She’s real sensitive.”
A car is just a car. Until it wants to kill. That’s what Arnie Cunningham finds out when he buys a classic 1958 Plymouth Fury named Christine. It seems to have a mind of its own…and a jealous, possessive, homicidal disposition. As Arnie works on Christine to fix her up, his own personality begins changing, becoming darker and paranoid. As dangerous accidents increasingly continue happening around the car, attempts to destroy her fail when it’s discovered Christine can now repair herself. Dark and suspenseful, it’s a fantastic adaptation of the book by horror master Stephen King.
Children of the Corn (1984)
“In my dream the Lord did come to me, and He was a shape. It was He Who Walks Behind the Rows. And I did fall on my knees in terror, and hide my eyes, lest the fierceness of His face strike me dead!”
Set in a fictitious town in Nebraska where children have been brainwashed by an evil being called “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” to murder all the adults in order to ensure a good corn harvest. When a couple driving through stumbles on the area, they’re beset by murderous children aiming to sacrifice them as well. Full of fantastic, disturbed and super creepy children, this is every babysitter’s nightmare come to life.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
“One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. Three, four, better lock your door. Five, six, grab your crucifix. Seven, eight, gonna stay up late. Nine, ten, never sleep again.”
Featuring an almost unrecognizably young Johnny Depp, a group of teens start to have similar dreams of being chased by a demented killer with long metal claws. While only attacking teenagers and feeding off of their fear, serial killer Freddy Kreuger becomes the villain in their waking nightmares. Written and directed by Wes Craven, this movie is credited with creating the “slasher film” genre by incorporating many different tropes, images and styles from earlier horror films.
Fright Night (1985)
“Ready to do battle with the undead!”
Intentionally cheesy at times and lightly comedic, the story follows Charlie, who discovers his next door neighbor, Jerry, is actually a vampire. Charlie enlists the help of a TV vampire hunter to try and stop the killings. Jerry begins to threaten Charlie, chasing him down and attacking him, but Charlie and his friends work to overcome him. An interesting take on the vampire lore, in that many of the traditional anti-vampire “weapons” like crucifixes only work if the wielder believes in the principles behind it, tying in the notion of the power of faith.
The Lost Boys (1987)
“You’re a vampire, Michael! My own brother, a goddamn shit-sucking vampire! You wait ’til Mom finds out, buddy! “
Starring a who’s who of young film stars of the ’80s, this well written, well acted and suspenseful vampire movie is high on heart-pounding action and supernatural thrills. When two brothers move to a fictional town in California with their divorced mother, the older brother, Michael (Jason Patric) gets enmeshed in a coven of vampires led by David (Keifer Sutherland). The young brother, Sam (Corey Haim), and his friends race to kill David and save his brother from becoming a full vampire. A fun fact: the name is a reference to the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, who never grow up. Just as the vampires never age.
“You solved the box, we came. Now you must come with us, taste our pleasures.”
A cursed puzzle box opens up a portal to another dimension where the murderous and sadomasochistic sect called the “Cenobites” exist. They create mayhem and inspire others to commit deathly acts. At times cheesy, at times terrifying, each of the Cenobites have distorted, mutilated or otherwise disfigured features. Cenobite Pinhead’s head, covered entirely in evenly spaced pins, has no doubt inspired countless nightmares throughout the years.
Child’s Play (1988)
“Hi, I’m Chucky, and I’m your friend till the end. Hidey-ho!”
A serial killer named Charles, facing his death, uses a voodoo spell to transfer his soul into a doll, who becomes animate and names himself Chucky. When a mother buys the doll and gives it to her son for his birthday, Chucky then begins a murderous rampage. The stilted animatronics and Chucky’s high pitched singsongy voice only add to the sinister creepiness. Fun fact: October 25th is “Chucky, The Notorious Killer Doll Day.”
“God dam* you! God dam* you!” ” He already has, son. He already has.”
When a bunch of entitled city kids come to the backwoods for vacation and create havoc, a father takes vengeance by way of a local witch and a violent undead creature. This film’s silly-sounding title makes more sense when it is explained that it comes from the pumpkin patch from which a violent demon is resurrected, as well as the hillbilly culture it originates from. Lance Henriksen’s solid, strong performance anchor the film and elevate this to more than just another supernatural horror flick.
Pet Sematary (1989)
“Sometimes, dead is better.”
The first of many adaptations of Stephen King’s terrifying novel, a family moves to rural Maine. When their cat dies, one of their neighbors shows them a local pet cemetery behind their house. The cat returns alive…but changed. When their son is killed by a truck, the father tries to revive him as well by burying him in the same spot, despite warnings that he will come back as an evil entity, not the boy they loved. It’s a twisted tale of grief and the extents the humans will go to to bring back lost loved ones.