15 Best Horror Movies Of 1980

Human beings are indeed a particularly peculiar bunch. No other species derives pleasure from fear quite like we do. And the horror movie genre is solid proof of this fact. And with that being said, we’ve decided to take a look back at the greatest horror movies ever made, year by year – starting from 1970 to [insert current year here].

After trudging through a bit we’ve now made our way to the ‘80s. For some, the greatest decade for horror… the most derivative for others.

Indeed, the modern horror film crystallized in the 1970s, thanks to pioneering work from the likes of Ridley Scott and John Carpenter, but it truly exploded in the 1980s. Sequels and rip-offs of Halloween and other slasher films became hugely prevalent and popular aided by the boom of VHS, while directors like Carpenter, Dario Argento and David Cronenberg built on their great 1970s work with further masterpieces. New filmmakers emerged and some old masters like Stanley Kubrick turned their attention to the genre as well.

We’ll eventually make our way through the entire decade but, for now, this is the 15 Best Horror Movies Of 1980.

15. Mother’s Day

Director: Charles Kaufman
Stars: Tiana Pierce, Nancy Hendrickson, Deborah Luce, Beatrice Pons

Three female friends head to the woods to remember their collegiate good times, all the while with no idea that they’re being hunted by a dysfunctional hillbilly family. Mother is teaching her backwoods boys how to rape, torture and kill young women – and her adept pupils are more than willing to practice their lessons.

Roger Ebert famously hated this film. Upon its release, he wrote (for the Chicago Sun-Times), “So far there seems to be no end to the vogue for geek films. And there seems to be no limit to the inhuman imagery their makers are prepared to portray in them.” He then concluded with the death nail, “The question, of course, of why anybody of any age would possibly want to see this film remains without an answer.” Well, as much as Ebert knew films, his reviews were for the masses, recommending films to anyone and everyone. Thankfully, with bloody fantastic sites like the one you’re reading right now, fans know where to go to enjoy the movies they love without shame.

14. Alligator

Director: Lewis Teague
Stars: Robert Forster, Robin Riker, Michael V. Gazzo, Dean Jagger

A baby alligator is flushed down the toilet and banished to a life in the sewers. The thing then grows exponentially over time due to hormonal experimented rat carcasses he’s been feasting on. Soon enough, the thing is roaming around town chomping on anything he can sink his teeth into. Yeah, you get the gist of this…

Former Roger Corman protege, Lewis Teague directs this excellent action-horror throwback to the much beloved creature features of the 1950s and the Nature Gone Amuck renaissance of the 1970s. With a script by John Sayles (Piranha, The Howling, Battle Beyond The Stars), another Corman acolyte, the screenplay is peppered with various in jokes and a tone that keeps its tongue firmly in cheek. There are moments where the film is genuinely creepy and there are also times where the film evokes quite a few laughs with ease. Teague and Sayles seamlessly balance both as well as creating some memorable characters aiding immensely in the enjoyment of this cult horror classic.

13. City Of The Living Dead

Director: Lucio Fulci
Stars: Christopher George, Catriona MacColl, Carlo De Mejo, Antonella Interlenghi

“The soul that pines for eternity shall out span death. You dweller of the twilight void come Dunwich.” And with that we are served a chilling, culinary delight of terror from Italian horror legend Lucio Fulci. The use of rolling fog and mist eclipse into something sinister that is simply taken for granted in today’s horror films. Fulci not only has a firm grip on what fears us as an audience, he exploits our disdain in shocking revelation.

What gives City Of The Living Dead its sharp edge is the story’s race-against-the-clock conceit: If the protagonists, a New York reporter and a psychic medium, don’t figure out a way to close the figurative gate to Lucifer’s playpen, the world is basically over. Being that this is a Fulci movie, don’t expect that to actually happen; instead, expect puke to drown a person’s intestines, a drill press to pierce through a dude’s skull, a rainstorm of maggots, and numerous brains ripped out of people’s heads. You know you love this stuff!

12. Christmas Evil

Director: Lewis Jackson
Stars: Brandon Maggart, Jeffrey DeMunn, Dianne Hull, Andy Fenwick

Widely recognized as (one of) the best of the Christmas horror efforts, Christmas Evil is the story of a person perpetually captivated by Christmas. Harry Stadling is so absorbed with the idea of Santa Claus that he actually makes it his mission to carry out the duties of the jolly ol’ man in red. He spies on the children in his neighborhood, jotting down in his big book whose been naughty or nice. His job at the toy factory is filled with crooked workers and greedy businessmen, who seem to have forgotten what Christmas is really about. Harry’s brother Phil has also abandoned the belief in Santa and the festivities, but this year, Harry will show them all. The good boys and girls are going to cheer with joy when Harry, dressed as the famous gift giver, shows up to present his toys to all those worthy of receiving them. And to those who are less commendable, he’s got an ax stuffed away in his bag of goodies to make sure that they no longer share their unhappy beliefs with the rest of the world. Harry no longer worships Santa… he is Santa!

On a side note: It’s not hard to see why Christmas Evil has developed quite a following over the years – it looks and feels like the depressed small town America many of us remember from our childhood, and when it takes a turn for the berserk, it feels all too possible.

11. Terror Train

Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, Sandee Currie

Alana Maxwell is a graduating med student who is celebrating New Year’s Eve at a costume party on a chartered train. Haunted by a three-year old practical joke that went wrong and drove a fellow classmate insane, Alana and her fraternity friends’ evening of booze and sex is interrupted when they find themselves the target of an anonymous killer.

Firstly, yes, Terror Train is an atypical slasher, giving away its killer’s identity almost right away. Without any whodunit mystery trappings to worry about, the film instead makes you guess what silly costume will the killer wear next (every time he offs someone, he dons whatever get-up the last victim had on). And because of that, Terror Train is the only slasher to ever have someone butcher a co-ed while sporting a giant lizard suit.

10. Prom Night

Director: Paul Lynch
Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Leslie Nielsen, Casey Stevens, Eddie Benton

Prom Night is a cult-classic, enjoyable little slasher romp that follows Kim, one of a group of high schoolers who must live with the accidental death of one of their pals (and Kim’s sister) some six years previously. However, there’s a ski-masked, glass-shard wielding lunatic on the loose with some horrible telephone etiquette, and he/she doesn’t seem anywhere near as willing to let it go.

Prom Night is a fun ride that features an interesting plot, nice death scenes, and just an overall ominous tone that most slasher flicks today are sorely missing. It also has some great ’80s cheese as well; which includes the typical horny high school students, bad hair, ugly ass clothes, and some pretty goofy tunes. In the film’s big showstopper, our protagonist dances awkwardly with her father and then sets the floor aflame with her boyfriend to the movie’s earworm theme song. A prolonged dance sequence set to disco music is unusual for a slasher film, but it’s a beautiful thing to witness nonetheless.

9. Inferno

Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi

An American college student in Rome and his sister in New York investigate a series of killings in both locations where their resident addresses are the domain of two covens of witches.

1977’s Suspiria was an extremely successful international hit for director Dario Argento, and he was faced with distributors wanting more of the same. The result is Inferno, another surreal journey through trippy colorful sets and stylish horror scenarios, to the heart of a profound evil hidden away in a threatening architecture, like a secret for the film’s protagonist to unveil. Inferno is a sequel to Suspiria, but it was unlikely that a sequel was initially planned, so Inferno takes on the task of relating the two films at the start by accounting the legend of the Three Mothers through a male voice-over that sounds while protagonist Rose is reading a copy of an evil book, simply titled The Three Mothers. With that said, you don’t necessarily need to see Suspiria first to enjoy Inferno, in fact if there’s that little chance that you haven’t seen Suspiria yet, we’d recommend checking out Inferno first because there seems to be an inevitable comparison viewers make between the two that really ends up being an unfair fight for Inferno. This film is a fascinating and frustrating phantasmagoria of the mysterious and the unexplained, a strange journey into realms beyond human understanding, where events happen without rhyme or reason, and little or no explanation is given. Sound familiar?

8. Altered States

Director: Ken Russell
Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Drew Barrymore

Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks. His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals. When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Like much of director Ken Russell’s work, Altered States is ostentatious and pretentious yet genuinely engaged with ideas and style. It’s by turns pseudo-analytical head-twister and skull-pounding monster romp, including glorious whip-crack dialogue. Think of it as an extravagant and exhilarating, if over-the-top, piece of filmmaking that’s dippy, to be sure, but engrossing at the same time.

7. Maniac

Director: William Lustig
Stars: Joe Spinell, Caroline Munro, Abigail Clayton, Kelly Piper

Frank Zito misses his mother, who was killed in a car accident years before. She was abusive to him, and made money selling her body, but Frank still misses her. He tries to keep her from leaving him, and reform her evil ways, by killing young women and putting their scalps on mannequins which he displays around his apartment.

This disturbing shocker is a dark character study in the form of a city slasher. Maniac has been hailed as one of the most troubling pictures ever made. Gruesome effects by Tom Savini highlight the feature and adds even more to the already severely grim atmosphere (the shotgun to the face scene is always a crowd pleasing moment). People have called the film an abomination, filthy trash, and even the worst of the worst. Which just makes it all the more wonderful. The 2012 remake is actually worth checking out as well.

6. Friday The 13th

Director: Sean S. Cunningham
Stars: Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Jeannine Taylor, Robbi Morgan, Kevin Bacon

Sean S. Cunningham had a title and an image (the Friday The 13th logo smashing through a pane of glass) but not much else. With the help of writer Victor Miller, they created a film set over one night as a group of teens setting up a summer camp, and away from any adults, are picked off one by one.

In a nutshell, Friday The 13th succeeded because it was brazen enough to steal so many tricks from the many brilliant horror films that came before it. The filmmakers have cited Psycho, Halloween, Carrie, and Jaws as key influences on Friday The 13th’s production, and the “homages” aren’t exactly subtle. But by taking some of Hollywood’s all-time great horror movies and throwing them into a blender, Friday The 13th accidentally created the no-frills, platonic ideal of the slasher movie, and its modest pleasures have only grown more potent in comparison to the scores of slipshod knockoffs it inspired.

5. Cannibal Holocaust

Director: Ruggero Deodato
Stars: Robert Kerman, Gabriel Yorke, Francesca Ciardi, Perry Pirkanen

A New York anthropologist named Professor Harold Monroe travels to the wild, inhospitable jungles of South America to find out what happened to a documentary film crew that disappeared two months before while filming a documentary about primitive tribes deep in the rain forest. Well, not only does he discover what happened to them but it turns out they had a run-in with some natives who don’t mind indulging in rape, beheadings and some cannibalism.

Cannibal Holocaust is nasty, sometimes quite difficult to watch and is worthy of any depraved adjectives you could think of. It’s also a near masterpiece by its director Ruggero Deodato. It’s a horror film in the most literal sense. It isn’t necessarily scary, though it doesn’t try to be. Despite its scenes of horrendous violence it’s not simply a gross out movie like the torture porn films of today. What Deadato attempted with this film is to disturb the viewer, provoke a reaction and make that person think. Cannibal Holocaust truly stands in a league of its own – and its reputation is quite well-deserved.

4. Motel Hell

Director: Kevin Connor
Stars: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod

The successful horror comedy is a rare and elusive find. Not only does it need to be both scary and funny, but it has to blend the two together in almost perfect symmetry. Some of the best films that strike an ideal balance between terror and laughs include Evil Dead II, An American Werewolf In London, The Return Of The Living Dead, Re-Animator, and Fright Night. Motel Hell can undoubtedly be included on this list.

The film follows a seemingly friendly farmer, Vincent, and his sister as they kidnap unsuspecting travelers and bury them alive, using them to create the “special ingredient” of their famous roadside fritters. It’s nutter butters. And while the humor of it all is quite effective, the horror dimension is still plentiful. The sight of Vincent’s “secret garden,” where he buries his victims up to their necks alive until he’s ready to butcher them, has the irrational power of a nightmare. And the dueling chainsaw climax, which might have inspired a similar scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, is informed by the memorably creepy touch of Vincent’s deranged laughter, which can be subtly heard from underneath the huge and absurd-yet-nevertheless-unsettling pig’s head that he insists on wearing for whatever reason. Tying the figurative room together, so to speak, is the film’s heightened atmosphere of sleazy, remote, red-light-district woodiness, which is ineffably specific of ’80s horror films and, in this case, suggestive of every weird country burg you’ve ever driven through as quickly as possible.

3. The Fog

Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, Tom Atkins

For a director, following up a mega hit is always going to be a daunting task. The expectations and the pressure must be immense. No one wants to find themselves relegated to the ‘One Hit Wonder’ barrel after all. This was the position that John Carpenter found himself in 1980. His 1978 film Halloween had been a knock out success, and people were keen to see what this new master of horror was going to come up with next to strike fear into the hearts of cinema going audiences. Instead of sticking with the slasher genre he had helped create, he chose a different tack, and directed (and co-wrote with long-time collaborator Debra Hill) The Fog – a low key, small scale chiller, full of the essence of old folk tales told around bonfires.

As the centennial of the small town of Antonio Bay, California approaches, paranormal activity begins to occur at midnight. 100 years ago, the wealthy leper Blake bought the clipper ship Elizabeth Dane and sailed with his people to form a leper colony. However, while sailing through a thick fog, they were deliberately misguided by a campfire onshore, steering the course of the ship toward the light and crashing her against the rocks. While the town’s residents prepare to celebrate, the victims of this heinous crime that the town’s founders committed rise from the sea to claim retribution. Under cover of the ominous glowing fog, they carry out their vicious attacks, searching for what is rightly theirs.

2. The Changeling

Director: Peter Medak
Stars: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, Jean Marsh

John Russell up sticks and moves across the country where Claire Norman helps him procure the rental of an impressive old Victorian mansion, in which he can start to rebuild his life after the death of his wife and daughter. It soon becomes apparent that he is not alone in the vast, imposing house. Doors behave erratically, windows shatter, and a presence leads John to a bordered up attic room, in which he discovers, among the decades of accumulated dust and cobwebs, a small wheelchair, such as a child would use. Convinced the ghostly presence and this room are linked, John enlists Claire’s help in finding out the truth; that a young boy called Joseph died in that room, in the most horrific circumstances. Now Joseph’s ghost wants recognition and revenge, and needs John’s help in achieving these aims.

The Changeling is a classic old school haunting film that every horror fan needs to see at least once. Practical effects, great acting, and perfect location set the film apart from several of the same era. Queue this up the next time you’re home alone and have a storm brewing. Good times.

1. The Shining

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” – or, rather, a homicidal boy. Yup, Stephen King may have hated it but Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s novel is still essential viewing for anyone who even considers themselves a mild horror fan. The premise remains just as creepy as it did in 1980: Writer and recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance accepts a job as the winter caretaker of a massive hotel in Colorado, and moves his family there just as the cold sets in among the mountains. But the hotel is the source of great evil.

The iconic and freaky moments in the film are endless. Whether we’re talking about the rivers of blood pouring out of the elevator, Jack taking an ax to the door as he does his best Johnny Carson impersonation, the twin ghost girls who want you to come play with them, the naked woman in the bathtub, the list goes on. Frankly, Kubrick’s film is a work of art that will continue to be broken down and explored for decades to come.

Honorable Mentions: Antropophagus, Don’t Go In The House, Eaten Alive, Fade To Black, Hell Of The Living Dead, He Knows You’re Alone, House On The Edge Of The Park, Humanoids From The Deep, Nightmare City, Night Of The Demon, The Children and The Silent Scream.

What was your favorite horror movie of 1980? Let us know in the comment section below.

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