Top Ten Horror Films 1980s

A column article, Top Ten by: Laura Akers, Danny Djeljosevic, Dylan Garsee, Nick Hanover, Shawn Hill, Paul Brian McCoy, Steve Morris


It's that time again!

Time to pull the blankets up to your chin, keep your flashlight at your side, and pretend you really believe that's just a tree branch scratching at your window!

Here's The Bulletin's Top Ten Horror Films of the 80s!

And before you start complaining, yes we have directors doubling up (tripling up if we count last week), but you know what? It's not about being fair and leveling the playing field. It's about the best.

And dammit. We think these are the best.

By consensus.

And just to make sure you're not missing out here are the lists for Pre-1970 and The 70s!

Now have at it!

1980 – The Fog (Dir. John Carpenter)

The great thing about the Fog … well, there's several: director John Carpenter, star Adrienne Barbeau, and the perfect setting along a dusky, lonesome strip of California coastline. But most of all, it's the mood of the thing; the palpable sense of doom that haunts the film from the start, that creeping feeling of dread, the growing knowledge that some inevitable evil is coming, for everyone.

Well, not everyone, just the descendants of the original settlers who did a very bad thing to a ship full of sailors a very long time ago. Who really cares what they did or to whom exactly? That's where all these remakes miss their footing; they try to explain the hell out of everything. The Amityville house was built over the site of an ancient crazy cult, huh? The Haunting house had a really bad patriarch who kidnapped children? Sure, I guess. Some mumbo jumbo about some sailors, some pirates, some uptight citizens, a treasure and an ancient curse, fine. Like Poltergeist, all you have to say: Indian burial ground. Didn’t move the bodies. There, done in two! But don't waste the entire conclusion of the movie figuring it all out in boring detail. Figure it out just when it’s already too late instead, and then only halfway.

Or do what Hitchcock did; let everything go almost completely to hell and actually over the cliff, and then explain the heck out of it in the denouement, long after the climax. Not as the climax. Definitely not before the climax. Or even better, don't bother at all. Have a pithy line, end on a spooky shot, let that cat jump at the camera one last time. This movie ends in a church, with countless ghoulish hands breaking into stained glass windows to fondle and strangle Jamie Lee Curtis and Barbeau, and just when it gets a little too silly, it just … stops. Carpenter didn't really have an ending. He didn't need one. He'd already scared everyone to death with two taut hours of showing as little as possible.

A fog from which withered hands reach. Lights which inexplicably fail all over town. An ill wind that portends fear. Formerly useful devices that now turn on and off at will. Barbeau narrating her lonely (sexy) radio show as she tries to figure out what's happening, and protect her son. Jaime just a hitchhiker wandering through town with very bad timing, feeling flirty and then pitching in as needed to protect the children. Nobody in the story is all that important, not even the seedy faded glory of Hal Holbrook, his ineffectual minister clearly a relic of better days long gone. Just like Janet Leigh in one of her last roles, reaching for the big scary thrill one final time.  

It's the sort of film that makes you double-check the locked door before you go to bed back at home. Right, as if doors and windows keep out fog. It's totally irrational. It’s neither epic nor even all that heroic (though Barbeau does her B-movie best to channel a little Ripley our way). It’s really more about guilt than anything else, and the way that we, as Americans, sometimes feel we have a whole lot to apologize for. Don’t try that shit on the fog-pirates, ya’ll. They ain’t listenin’.

Shawn Hill

1980 – The Shining (Dir. Stanley Kubrick)

There are many horror films in which the fear comes from watching a sympathetic character slowly unravel and go mad, but few of these films manage to stick the landing. The all-too-common problem is that these films never show enough reason to make a compelling case for why the hero has gone insane, and that the descent into madness feels forced as a result.

Not so with The Shining, Stanley Kubrick's exhausting horror based on a Stephen King novel. In this film, we have a fully-committed insane lead character in the shape of Jack Nicholson's tour-de-force psycho performance as Jack Torrance; but also a trip into psychotic hell unlike any other committed to film.

The Shining sees Nicholson take a job as a caretaker in an isolated hotel in the middle of winter, which is quickly trapped there with his family due to a snowfall. Over this short period of isolation, Nicholson is driven mad by a series of images and supernatural scenes which work him into a murderous frenzy -- at which point he sets upon his family with an axe.

It's the descent which acts to drive the film so firmly into the mind of viewers, however, as Kubrick works hard to ensure that every moment is filled with nail-cracking tension. The film throws horrific sequences at the viewer with a wild invention which threatens to overwhelm the rest of the movie, only to then dial back with a more human form of terror: after several visual jolts, at one point the film turns to the single most unsettling moment of its core, as a ghostly butler tells Jack to 'correct' his wife and children. After some unsubtle shocks, the sequence is played slowly, tautly, with the ghost almost appearing to be logical before the audience becomes fatally aware of just what 'correction' would involve.

The film also has powerful thematic elements threaded wonderfully through: amid the twins and blood and "redrum" and typewritten threats, the film also offers a secondary tale, more thoughtful than the central narrative. Jack's visions and madness are never quite presented as being the result of supernatural forces: rather, this could ultimately be a broken man seeing things which aren't there. Kubrick seems to revel in twisting the viewer, undercutting his chills with an ulterior motive even chillier.

What if this is all a macabre experiment in creative movement, with Kubrick and King as the possessors haunting and forcing the hand of their protagonist? The Shining offers several different interpretations, all of which come to the same conclusion: it'd be bloody scary to be in that hotel with Jack Nicholson.

Haunted, intelligent and shocking, The Shining retains a sense of horrific power even now. Watch it at night, on your own. All work, no play....

Steve Morris

1981 – An American Werewolf in London (Dir. John Landis)

1981 was a good year for werewolves. Maybe the best year ever, to be quite honest. That was the year we were introduced to the Wolfen, a creepy Native American mythology-infused tale with Albert Finney and Edward James Olmos, The Howling, Joe Dante's horror-comedy with groundbreaking special effects by Rob Bottin, and An American Werewolf in London, John Landis' horror-comedy with ground-breaking special effects by Rick Baker.

Seriously. If there's been a better year for werewolves, I'd like to know.

Landis, who wasn't really known for this sort of outing, having made his name with comedies like Kentucky Fried Movie, National Lampoon's Animal House, and The Blues Brothers, establishes this film as something special right from the very beginning with a smart and funny script, brought to life by David Naughton as David, and Griffin Dunne as Jack, two twenty-somethings backpacking across the UK.

The original idea for the story hit him in 1969, while working in Yugoslavia as a production assistant on Kelly's Heroes (1970) and he sat on the script for over ten years before finally putting all the pieces into place. And it was worth the wait.

Landis understood that to really craft a truly effective horror film, especially one where our main character is fated to transform into something monstrous, we have to care about our characters. And Landis was talented enough to put together a script that does that groundwork without boring the audience or making them feel manipulated. David and Jack aren't the best guys, they're shallow and a little sexist, but they're clever and funny at the same time. A brilliant combination of good script and charismatic actors really keep this film moving for the, quite frankly, long opening leading up to the werewolf attack.

But the most effective thing about this script, what makes it stand out from The Howling in particular (which covers a lot of the same basic narrative ground, but without The Howling's hit-or-miss social satire), is the focus on David's psyche post-attack. Jack is condemned to an undead half-life in limbo as a victim of the werewolf and haunts David repeatedly, pleading for him to kill himself before his first full moon. Baker's effects really stand out here as Jack decomposes more and more with each visit.

It's not only funny, but it's horrific as David's victims join the chorus suggesting ways he should off himself. This, combined with a series of startling nightmares (ultra-violent Nazi monsters, anyone?), takes An American Werewolf in London in a direction very different from any werewolf film before or since and helps it earn a spot on our list. When combined with practical effects for the werewolf transformation that earned Baker an Oscar, and a patented John Landis massive car pile-up at the conclusion (but instead of playing it for laughs, a la Blues Brothers, this time the bodies pile up at a startling rate), this film has everything required to make a classic horror film.

And I didn't even mention Jenny Agutter as Nurse Alex Price. Oh my! This could be the film that launched a thousand nurse uniform fetishes!

Paul Brian McCoy

1981 – The Evil Dead (Dir. Sam Raimi)

Not to be confused with its splatter-stick horror-comedy sequel, The Evil Dead is a brutal and unforgiving film that was banned in many countries after its initial release. Shot over a year and a half on weekends and any spare minute they could find, Sam Raimi's feature film writing/directing debut was a textbook example of how to put together a low-budget film in the Eighties.

The story is fairly basic, but helped to establish clichés that would be worn out over the following decades, as five college-aged friends travel to a cabin in the woods for a getaway, where they discover the Book of the Dead and accidentally unleash a horde of demons. As his friends and lover are tortured, mutilated, possessed, and ultimately try to kill him, Campbell's character, Ash, transforms from a loving boyfriend to an unhinged sole survivor (of sorts).

Through a combination of hucksterism, obsessive horror movie watching at the local drive-in, a couple of cheap suits, and a half-hour short called Within the Woods serving as a prototype to show investors, Raimi and lead actor Bruce Campbell  raised $375,000 dollars to shoot their 16 mm feature and in the process made low-budget gorehound history.

The lack of money meant a lack of professional equipment, but thanks to some innovative thinking (and some plywood) Raimi and company were able to create remarkably smooth simulated steadycam shots by mounting their camera on a 3 foot long piece of wood and running through the woods with a camera operator on each end – the "Shaky-cam". They also rigged up the "Vas-o-cam" – two longer pieces of wood, covered in duct tape and then greased up with Vaseline to allow for smooth left to right tracking shots, and used a wheelchair for a POV chase scene.

Most of the gore was done in post-production with another round of shooting, and then with the help of Editor Joel Coen (yes, that Joel Coen) a rough 117 minute workprint was assembled. And from there it was just a matter of raising more money for promotion, settling on a final cut, and setting up distribution. It still took six years to repay all of their investors and break even on the project, but by then Evil Dead 2 would be ready to go, and then a whole new world would open up for Raimi and Campbell.

Paul Brian McCoy

1982 – The Thing (Dir. John Carpenter)

Ridley Scott's Alien may have defined sci-fi horror for the latter half of the 20th century, but its story of an invading force that hunts through covert infiltration wasn't as new as one might assume. Prior to Alien, that horrific infiltration was investigated in The Thing from Another World (1951), where an otherworldly entity uncovered by overly curious researches sets about destroying Earth's alpha predators before being defeated by good old American ruggedness. So it's only natural that Alien would indirectly allow for that work to be revisited by John Carpenter, who arguably reached the apex of his career with The Thing, a film that updated its Cold War relic source material with '80s body horror and truly terrifying effects.

It's a pity that The Thing failed to be a commercial success to match its artistic achievements, but time has proven to be incredibly kind to the film, thanks in large part to the brilliant pairing of Carpenter with special effects wizard Rob Bottin, with a special assist by the legendary Stan Winston. Bottin and his team of engineers created imagery that is devastatingly realistic even today, full of gruesome manglings of otherwise recognizable human and animal features, which allowed Carpenter's vision of a literally indescribable alien presence let loose in a profoundly isolated arctic research center to be all the more realized. Carpenter of course more than does his part, coaxing a typically excellent performance from his muse Kurt Russell, who serves as rugged antihero Macready, while also unveiling Keith David, a then unknown actor whose chemistry with Russell set him up for a longstanding cult career.

The Thing succeeds because of the way these worlds of directing, effects, and acting are so effectively blended, making for a work that runs so smoothly it can't help but impress. Carpenter maximizes the strengths of his collaborators, trusting Russell, David, and the rest of his cast to not only command the screen with a minimal amount of dialogue and scenery but to also be powerful enough to go toe to toe with Bottin's vicious creations. In the wrong hands (like, say, the hands that the remake of The Thing was placed into), The Thing could have been a nonstop run of jump scares and murky effects, but Carpenter turns it into something altogether more terrifying, an exploration of how alone we can be, both on our own planet and in the universe at large.

Nick Hanover

1983 – Videodrome (Dir. David Cronenberg)

It's no accident that the tagline to David Cronenberg's visionary work of mass media dissection Videodrome is "First it controls your mind." Ever since television was unveiled and sold to the masses, it's been depicted as a mind-warper; a malevolent entity that's out to rot your brain the way candy rots your teeth. Yet we can't help but sit our kids in front of it, to devote countless hours to following its programming, worshipping our talentless peers who somehow become famous through it. Videodrome is horror as prophecy, a terrible vision of Youtube as snuff film epicenter, of networks as usurpers of reality itself.

This being a Cronenberg film, those prophecies are tied to insane collisions of technology and anatomy, specifically through the perspective of James Woods's Max Renn, the sleazy proprietor lead of Videodrome. Renn is our anxious guide to Videodrome's reality, a broadcaster who has grown bored with typical shock TV and has instead found himself seduced by exotic, allegedly Malaysian programming that's realer than real. But as Renn descends further and further into this world, he finds his body becoming more and more alien to him, sprouting parasitic techno growths and broadcasting hallucinogenic programming of its own. 

Videodrome's story is secondary to the mood and tone it creates, the special effects Cronenberg unleashes in particular-- like the legendary TV torso Renn deals with-- are impossible to forget because they so expertly develop the ideas Cronenberg is expressing in a way dialogue and words couldn't possibly hope to convey. How closely we've mirrored Cronenberg's soothsaying is dependent on your world view and where you fall on the parasite/symbiote divide when it comes to television, but there's no denying that his central point-- that we want a sensational reality to subvert the one we're accustomed to-- has become all the more relevant as our technology continues to evolve along the lines of broadcasting each of our own interpretations of real life. Maybe we aren't uploading snuff films to Vimeo, but communities like reddit and 4chan certainly aren't strangers to cataloging the insane atrocities we enact on one another in everyday life, or the weirdness that we occasionally run into. If the first step is controlling our minds and we've arguably reached that point, the only question is: what's next?

Nick Hanover

1985 – Re-Animator (Dir. Stuart Gordon)

I am from Beaumont, TX, a medium sized city near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and the southwest border of Louisiana. The city’s main exports include petroleum, Edgar Winter, and closeted homosexuals looking to make it in the big city. In 2008, it got its first taste of culture (if you don’t count Edgar Winter) with the Boomtown Film and Music Festival. Along with a Q&A with the screenwriter Edward Neumeier, of Starship Troopers fame, the main attraction of the fest was a contest where one had to remake a scene from Re-Animator. Being 17 and having just watched Requiem for a Dream, I assumed I was a filmmaker and set out to recreate my favorite scene: the cat scene.  After completing the project, I quickly realized what monstrosity I created, I deleted the footage and cried myself to sleep for weeks because I created the Eraserhead baby of short films.

Re-animator is to film as The Knife’s Silent Shout is to music: drawing very clear influences, yet somehow inimitable. One part Evil Dead, one part The Fly, with just a dash of The Brain The Wouldn’t Die, Re-Animator never takes itself too seriously (how can you with one character who spends most of the time as a disembodied head), however it never winks at the audience or makes fun of them. Instead it treats the subject of the philosophy of raising the dead as serious as the actors at Seaworld treat the Shamu stage show. As bright as a black light, the film pokes fun at the overly gratuitous viscera of various 80s films with a wit that could only be found in H.P. Lovecraft stories, which is the source material of the film.  

This film will always have a special place in my heart, not only because it showed me that I need to spend more than three hours making a short film, but because it introduced me to films that can be over the top, yet grounded in sincerity and love for the source material. I think we’re finally getting out of the era of irony that plagued the past ten years in film, and hopefully we’ll see more movies in the same vein of Re-animator.

Dylan Garsee

1986 – The Fly (Dir. David Cronenberg)

I have a special category of film: “That was truly great. I never want to see it again.” There are some films that you recognize the genius, the artistry, the flawless execution…but they are so intense or painful or otherwise emotionally wrenching that you cannot bring yourself to ever choose to experience them again. For me, this category includes BambiE. T. and pretty much the entirety of David Cronenberg’s opus, save one: The Fly.

Not that you could mistake The Fly (produced by Mel Brooks, of all people) for anything other than a Cronenberg film. The director’s fascination (obsession?) with Rabelaisian grotesques and the ability of science to remake the body are in full force in the piece, which is based loosely on a 1958 horror film of the same name. In both, a scientist attempts to create a teleportation device, and then tests it on himself. A housefly is accidently introduced into the experiment, and the scientist morphs (at very different rates in each film) into a sort of human-fly hybrid. But that’s where the similarity ends.

While the earlier film focuses on the legal and familial consequences of the experiment on all parties involved, Cronenberg’s film is essentially a love story between the scientist (Jeff Goldblum) and a journalist (Geena Davis) who is interested in both the man and his work. Like most of Cronenberg’s movies, there’s a lot going on in the film, but he manages to keep himself in check—just barely. He plays with ideas on disease, medical ethics, the essence of humanity, sexual metaphysics made corporeal, and about a dozen other things. But the love story—the nerd who has managed to attract the homecoming queen, through science of all things—is what pulls all the strands together and engages the viewer.

Cronenberg’s depiction of the relationship does some interesting things in terms of gender: in this film, it is the male body on display and visually consumed by the audience (thank you, David!), not the female one that horror films so regularly make bank on. Despite being played by renowned Hollywood flirt Goldblum, Brundle is the ingénue, while Davis plays the very world-weary Veronica. And it is the woman who is horrified by the pregnancy, rather than the standard male hysteria that has birthed films like Rosemary’s BabyIt’s Alive, or even Cronenberg’s own The Brood.

The chemistry between the two lovers is undeniable (Goldblum and Davis were romantically involved before either was cast) and the film leverages both of them well, particularly in Goldblum’s case; the actor’s habitual delivery of dialogue that appears to be addressed to no one (just voiced philosophical digressions—think Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park) really works in this role, making it harder for the audience to determine whether he’s losing his mind to his fly half or is just too used to being alone and just talking to himself. The romantic interaction between the two is awkwardly endearing at first but quickly develops into a very real love—one that we know, from the very start, will end tragically. And it’s this that becomes a large part of the horror: both find what each of them has wanted and needed, but Brundle’s experiment forces them to watch it all slip slowly and inexorably away…leaving them as powerless to stop its disintegration as they are Brundlefly’s.

Laura Akers

1987 – Evil Dead 2 (Dir. Sam Raimi)

The original Evil Dead was a punk rock horror movie -- loud, fast and full of such manic, youthful energy that it puts most of its big budget, studio-supported counterparts to shame.  What's more amazing is that Sam Raimi and company didn't ease up when it came to making a sequel. In fact, Evil Dead 2 louder, faster and even more manic than its predecessor.

Evil Dead 2 takes the most exhilarating moments of the original -- the energetic set pieces, the frequent physical injuries to protagonists, the fluid splatter all over everything -- and stretches it through the entire film's runtime. It's an ordeal -- but an entertaining one – as we watch Bruce Campbell's physical and mental distress as Ash gets chased by an unseen apparition in, for example, an impressively long one-take chase shot entirely in the POV of the monster. We see him unhinge, rehinge and unhinge again before another group of people visit the cabin and we get even more bodies to torment.

With this sequel (that's also technically a remake), Raimi has a better handle on tone and atmosphere, managing to create a horror movie with some really great scares as well as legitimate laughs. As awesome as the original is, it's hard to tell if Evil Dead was actually trying to be funny, while Evil Dead 2 mixes horror and hilarity so well that it remains one of the top horror films to beat in terms of successfully straddling the genres.

Moreover, Evil Dead 2 never lets up on the mayhem, not even during its final scene, a wild fuck-you to genre form and audience expectations. The big ultimate twist is so audacious that any follow-up could never hope to capture the feeling of that final scene. And, to be honest, it really didn't.

Danny Djeljosevic

1987 – Hellraiser (Dir. Clive Barker)

After two bad experiences writing screenplays for London based director George Pavlou (the rarely seen Underworld, aka Transmutations, and the utterly horrendous Rawhead Rex), horror writer Clive Barker decided to take matters into his own hands, writing and directing his first feature film, Hellraiser.

Having already burst onto the literary scene with his Books of Blood short story collections and his first novel, The Damnation Game, it came as no surprise that his first film would touch on most of the same fantastic horror themes with a healthy mix of sexuality. It was with the same vigorous expanding of horror boundaries that Barker launched into film and also introduced horror fans to one of the most original monsters to hit the genre since Romero reimagined the walking dead: Cenobites – leather clad torture artists from another dimension, accessible only by a magical puzzle box.

And in a twist reminiscent of something David Cronenberg would normally play with, the torture isn't necessarily a bad thing for the tortured. As the poster proclaimed, the Cenobites were demons to some, but angels to others. Barker's monsters explored the hazy area between pleasure and pain in graphic detail, emphasizing the sexual obsessions and the murderous acts of antagonists, Frank (Sean Chapman) and Julia (Clare Higgins).

With a budget of only $1 million, the filmmakers were forced to work right up to the limits of their budgetary constraints, at times falling very short (the animated lightshows leave a LOT to be desired), but at other times exceeding all expectations. Frank's transformation from skeletal monster to skinless murderer is particularly effective, as is the design of the Cenobites – especially the character listed only as Lead Cenobite in the credits, Pinhead (Doug Bradley).

In a post-Hellraiser world, leather fetishists and body modification enthusiasts had a whole new realm of inspiration to draw from.

Paul Brian McCoy

Great googly-moogly that was scary!

Tune in next week to get a look at our list of Top Ten Horror Films of the 90s! We promise, no more Cronenberg or Carpenter!

Well, maybe just a little bit more Carpenter.

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