15 Best Horror Movies Of 1981

Between 1980 and 1989, the horror genre gave us well over 200 slasher flicks; most of them were cheap, a lot of them mostly sucked, and very few of them had much of a lasting impact on audiences (aside from rabid horror fans like us, that is). Flaws and all though, we loved most of these flicks.

1981 is widely considered the pinnacle of the Golden Age of the slasher flick. Indeed, as you’ll see on this list today, the sub-genre absolutely dominated. However, this isn’t all the year in horror had to offer. Nope, we got non-slasher classics from the likes of Lucio Fulci, David Cronenberg, and Sam Raimi – as well as the two greatest werewolf movies of all time.

With that, as we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1981.

15. Just Before Dawn

Director: Jeff Lieberman
Cast: George Kennedy, Mike Kellin, Chris Lemmon, Gregg Henry

Five campers arrive in the mountains to examine some property they have bought, but are warned by the forest ranger that a huge machete-wielding maniac has been terrorizing the area. Ignoring the warnings, they set up camp, and start disappearing one by one. If that sounds too run-of-the-mill, there’s a genuinely shocking plot twist half-way through.

Just Before Dawn is a well above average backwoods slasher with several ingredients that set it apart from the pack. The film has a deliberate pace, which is usually a death knell for this sort of movie, but rather than becoming dull the story builds up pleasingly to the inevitable slaughters. The better than expected acting helps maintain interest, and there are some very well done eerie moments. The forest setting creates a claustrophobic feel and the killer’s wheezy laugh is also an effective tool to generate unease. The characters do some stupid things, which is commonplace in these types of films, but they’re not so terribly stupid as to be implausible, which is virtually unheard of in this genre.

14. Happy Birthday To Me

Director: J. Lee Thompson
Cast: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Sharon Acker

Virginia Wainwright is a spirited young woman who has returned to a private school having survived a deadly accident and regenerative brain surgery. She is proud that she belongs to the Top Ten – the school’s inner circle with the best students – and attempts to resume a normal life. But her friends are falling prey to a grueling series of murders, and soon there will be no one left to attend her 18th birthday party. Could it be her? Striving to rekindle the memory of her nightmarish accident, Virginia suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts.

Any way you slice this birthday cake you certainly get an excellent piece of ’80s style horror. HBTM is now considered a verifiable classic to gorehounds. Many of the genre’s rules/clichés that we now take for granted were forged by this opus and no real slasher fan should exclude this well wrapped gift from their collection. Whether you buy the outlandishness of the final reveal or not, the atmospheric and delightfully grotesque party scene is one for the ages.

13. The Prowler

Director: Joseph Zito
Cast: Vicky Dawson, Christopher Goutman, Lawrence Tierney, Farley Granger

A soldier returning from World War II receives a Dear John letter from his lady, Rosemary, saying she’s tired of waiting for him and has found a new man. This rightfully pisses off soldier boy, and he gets revenge by murdering the two of them on the night of the Graduation Dance. Cut to the present – well, 1981 – and the dance hasn’t been held in Avalon Bay since the murders. This year it’s back, and someone apparently has a problem with that because a “prowler” is stalking kids at the local college dorm and murdering them in gruesome ways.

The Prowler is the perfect example of an early slasher film; this is well before the franchises began to take over. The cast of relatively unknowns all handle their roles well and the pacing between the grisly murders is flawless. The film benefits greatly from makeup effects guru Tom Savini’s first-class carnage, particularly when the titular maniac jams his pitchfork through a naked chick while she’s showering – the blade-into-flesh impact looks startlingly real. The Prowler also doesn’t mess around with its final scare as it truly is a terrifying last shot that will cause even the hardest horror fan to have trouble sleeping at night.

12. The Funhouse

Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: Elizabeth Berridge, Kevin Conway, Cooper Huckabee, Largo Woodruff

A shady carnival has just rolled into town and four teenagers think it’s a swell way to spend their Saturday night. As their evening of merriment draws to a close, the idea hits them: Spend the night in the funhouse! Because this is the sort of thing rationally-thinking teenagers do for fun, the quartet sneak into the chamber of horrors for a spooky orgy. However, their orgy doesn’t last long, as they find the funhouse to be the home of a deformed monster that has no qualms about strangling the life out of folks. After making the mistake of raiding the funhouse’s cashbox, enraging not only the monster but his unscrupulous carny father, the teens are locked inside the maze-like freakshow to be hunted down one at a time.

In a year that saw almost an endless amount of standard slashers being released, The Funhouse is almost a breath of fresh air as it refuses to fall into the tropes of the age. Instead, what we get is more of a throwback, atmospheric monster movie. The slasher genre is even poked fun of with a Halloween/Psycho homage during the film’s opening sequence. A masked intruder attacks the protagonist as she showers, resembling the famous shower scene from Alfred Hitchcocks’s Psycho. The “attacker” turns out to be her younger brother (playing a practical joke), a nod to John Carpenter’s opening to Halloween. Whether it’s intentional or not, this acts as a humorous snub to the flood of slasher films at the time and subsequently sets it very much apart from the pack.

11. The House By The Cemetery

Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Ania Pieroni, Giovanni Frezza

When talking about the films of Lucio Fulci, it’s fair to say that most of them tend to offer little in the way of sense or logic, instead focusing heavily on atmosphere and visceral terror to get their point across. Watching his work is almost like watching someone’s fever dream come to life. That’s really the beauty of Fulci films though, and because of that dynamic, they truly are unique.

In The House By The Cemetery, Norman Boyle takes his family from New York to Boston to investigate and write a report on the murder-suicide of his friend and colleague, Dr. Peterson. Peterson was researching a disgraced 19th century physician, Dr. Jacob Tess Freudstein at the time of his death. Upon moving into creepy Oak Mansion that sits next to a cemetery, bizarre occurrences take place. The Boyle’s soon discover to their horror that the house has a permanent, and zombiefied resident living in the basement. Decapitations and internal organs getting ripped out ensue.

10. Friday The 13th Part 2

Director: Steve Miner
Cast: Amy Steel, John Furey, Kirsten Baker, Stu Charno, Marta Kober, Bill Randolph

Most fans remember this entry of the Friday The 13th franchise for being the debut of Jason Voorhees, or at least the debut of adult Jason Voorhees. It’s also memorable because it’s the only film where Jason is the killer and he isn’t wearing his iconic hockey mask. Instead he’s wearing a homemade sack mask with one eye hole cut out of it (which is far more scary if you ask us).

Jason proves he can live up to his murderous mother’s legacy by mercilessly killing a new group of teenagers in new inventive ways. This is also, by the way, the last time that any sympathy can be felt for anyone dumb enough to go up to Jason’s stomping grounds, Camp Crystal Lake. The rest of the sequels are filled with people who deserve to die anyway for being so naive.

9. My Bloody Valentine

Director: George Mihalka
Cast: Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier, Neil Affleck, Don Francks, Cynthia Dale

There’s a big valentine-party planned in the little coal mining town of Valentine Bluffs, Nova Scotia. It is the first Valentine’s Day party in 20 years, because then there was an accident in the mine, and the accident happened because the men responsible for the security was at the party. The sole surviving miner later killed them, and told the town never to arrange a Valentine’s Day party again. The party begins, and so does the killing.

One of several slasher productions made in Canada in the early ‘80s (along with Prom Night, Happy Birthday To Me and Terror Train), My Bloody Valentine proved easy for slasher buffs to adore, even if the MPAA – then on a crusade to neuter the new wave of splatter films – demanded heavy cuts be made before it was awarded an R-rating. The film has a sense of place matched literally by none other. Fun fact: Quentin Tarantino has named My Bloody Valentine his favorite slasher film of all time.

8. Halloween II

Director: Rick Rosenthal
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers, Pamela Susan Shoop

When Halloween became the highest-grossing independent film of all time in 1978, it was a given that a sequel wouldn’t be far behind. Still, how could another installment even attempt to match the success of its predecessor, a horror masterpiece that basically ushered in the golden age of slasher films that this article is praising? In short, it couldn’t. But comparing this film to its OG isn’t fair, especially since Halloween II holds up as one of the best horror sequels ever made.

The plot picks up right where the first film left off, with Michael Myers pumped full of bullets courtesy of Dr. Loomis. But while he may be down, he’s anything but out, and has followed Laurie Strode to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital where she’s receiving treatment for her injuries. Haunting the hospital’s deserted hallways, Myers makes use of medical equipment on whomever he finds in ways that the AMA certainly wouldn’t approve. While Laurie tries to evade her would be killer, Dr. Loomis obsessively hunts Myers, leading to a fiery conclusion.

7. The Burning

Director: Tony Maylam
Cast: Brian Matthews, Lou David, Leah Ayres, Brian Backer, Jason Alexander

As a stalk-and-kill flick, The Burning is indeed debatably better than the films it was trying to capitalize off of (the Friday The 13th movies in particular). The film tells the story of an alcoholic, weirdo caretaker at a camp (nicknamed “Cropsy”) who falls victim to a prank carried out by a bunch of nothing-better-to-do campers who accidentally burn the poor guy alive. After recovering, Cropsy leaves the hospital and heads back to the camp to execute his revenge.

As far as the genre goes, The Burning is way above average. Sure, it has the obligatory teenagers in summer camp and a deranged stalker out for “revenge” but there are some authentic tension-building moments and quite a few sufficient scares. The effects are impeccable thanks to gore-king, Tom Savini and Rick Wakeman’s electronic music score is far more effective than Harry Manfredini’s psycho-like strings in Friday The 13th. The Burning is a film that dances to its own beat, and is a ball from beginning to end. Just one piece of advice: be sure to find an uncut version of the film if you’re able to.

6. The Howling

Director: Joe Dante
Cast: Dee Wallace, Patrick Macnee, Dennis Dugan, Christopher Stone

After being assaulted by a bizarre serial killer, Karen White, a TV news reporter traumatized by the incident, heads off for the country to recover. Once there, Karen and her husband discover that something is seriously wrong with the people living in and around this isolated retreat.

Superb hair-raising horror from the fabulous filmmaking hand of New World ex-cohort, Joe Dante, who, along with his crew, manage to imbue this modest production with a frightfully wicked sense of dread laced with an endearing self aware sense of humor. As opposed to eliciting laughter, the humor here is more akin to bringing a smile to a horror fans face from all the references and cameos from notable genre personalities. Although occasionally eclipsed in conversation when [insert the name of the next film on our list] is brought up, it’s nigh impossible to discuss one without the other not to mention both films coming out just a few months apart. Aside from one film being an independent and the other from a major, The Howling was the first film of its type in a good number of years.

5. An American Werewolf In London

Director: John Landis
Cast: David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, Griffin Dunne, John Woodvine

Arriving a few months after The Howling, John Landis’ seminal werewolf film is more expensive and more adventurous, with frequent 180-degree shifts in tone that make Evil Dead 2 look straight-faced by comparison.

In the film, a couple of American backpackers wander through the English moors. A werewolf attacks. One of them dies, although he’s not that dead; the other one gets bitten. And then the movie sets off on a series of tangents: A screamingly funny werewolf-soldier dream sequence, a screamingly horrifying transformation sequence constructed by effects legend Rick Baker. A freaky nighttime attack sequence leads into a farcical scene in which the protagonist, having transformed back into a human, finds himself naked at the zoo. There’s an extended interlude set inside of a porno theater; there’s an elaborate action scene set in London’s busy Piccadilly Circus. Then it ends. Werewolf movies are all about releasing the monster within, and American Werewolf In London is a magnificently energetic mess that feels directed by pure id. Carnivorous lunar activities definitely don’t come any more entertaining than this.

4. Scanners

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside

David Cronenberg continues a theme established in his earlier films of scientists manipulating the human body and the consequences of such interference, though here he eschews the body horror of disease, infection and birth that informed his earlier work. Looking at it now the premise could be for an X-Men film. After an incident at a shopping mall, a troubled drifter, Cameron Vale, is taken into the care of scientist Paul Ruth. Vale, it turns out, is a scanner – someone who can read and manipulate the minds of all those around them. The good doctor introduces Vale to the organization ConSec and tells him that he can stop the incessant barrage of voices, but first he requires Vale to infiltrate a rival group of scanners led by the psychotic Darryl Revok.

In the close to half a century he’s been making movies, David Cronenberg has supplied the medium some of its most memorably disgusting images. The most iconic is probably still the Grand Guignol money shot of Scanners. Even those who haven’t seen the movie in years can usually recall its most infamous scene: A low-level telepath, working for the corporate research company ConSec, attempts to demonstrate his supernatural abilities to a room of VIPs. Unfortunately, his volunteer from the audience is no ordinary man, but a cerebrally powerful assassin. And after a minute or so of mental struggle, the stranger exhibits his superior gifts in the messiest manner imaginable. Splat!

3. The Beyond

Director: Lucio Fulci
Cast: Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck, Cinzia Monreale, Antoine Saint-John

In 1927 Louisiana, a group of angry villagers brutally assault and crucify a man named Sweick, a painter and alleged warlock living in the Seven Doors Hotel, the apparent guardian of a door to hell situated in the hotel’s basement. Fifty-four years later, a young woman purchases the old hotel and notices bizarre occurrences that are intensified after she meets a peculiar blind girl named Emily. Detailing that she must leave the establishment before the gate is opened, a plumber inadvertently locates a hidden room in the bowels of the hotel thereby allowing hell’s minions to walk the Earth.

The Beyond is a mixture of surrealism and straightforward horror, and this mixture naturally makes for a lot of happenings that don’t make much sense. For this reason, The Beyond can be difficult for people to “get,” often feeling like a linear narrative that is thrown together without any sense of “how” or “why,” but in reality the events’ lack of logic is exactly what makes them horrifying. Combine this purposeful lack of logic with deceptively adept pacing, and you have a true horror masterpiece.

2. Possession

Director: Andrzej Zulawski
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Margit Carstensen, Heinz Bennent

“If you had only seen what I saw!” This line is screamed by a distraught and bewildered character about ninety minutes into Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, and after the movie ends it’s pretty much all you’ll want to run down the sidewalk shouting at strangers. In the film, a woman starts exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking her husband for a divorce. Suspicions of infidelity soon give way to something much more sinister.

Directed with a slimy mix of David Cronenberg’s gut-spilling style and Brian De Palma fixation, Possession piles on an atmosphere of anxiety and gruesome horror and adds a decidedly European sensibility to the mix. It is a film that highlights the tragic underpinnings of obsession, exposes sexual panic and stands by its characters, unafraid to show their flaws. The film is not easy to explain. The narrative can get very confusing and sometimes downright nonsensical. Yet is also remains compelling and intriguing. Beginning with what seems like a commonplace break-up of a marriage, the films sets out to answer a simple question: why has the woman left? Well, let’s just say that things get nuts. Soon enough, her inner evil takes on a living form of a wiggling slimy creature. She goes on a killing spree to keep him alive. That is, when they’re not having sexual relations. And, of course, there is the infamous subway passage scene in which our main character miscarries her own faith. She is rolling in milk, blood, urine, mucus and every other bodily liquid you can imagine. It’s insane.

1. The Evil Dead

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Hal Delrich, Betsy Baker, Sarah York

We all know the story: The Evil Dead focuses on five college students vacationing in an isolated cabin in a remote wooded area. After they find an audiotape that releases a legion of demons and spirits, members of the group suffer from demonic possession, leading to increasingly gory mayhem.

Even after all these years, director Sam Raimi’s no-budget debut effort isn’t simply a rollercoaster ride of a movie – it’s that flying-off-the-rails coaster from the beginning of Final Destination 3. Out of control from beginning to end, Raimi’s production is a jocular cut of the jugular. The film has a razor-sharp tongue that plunges through its own cheek in bloody fashion, creating a maniacal blend of horror and humor that has acted as an everlasting cult experience that continues to inspire horror directors to this day. It’s a testament to how bliss and the spark of inspiration can elevate a film of any budget in any genre from routine to sublime.

Honorable mentions: Absurd, Bloody Birthday, Bloody Moon, Cannibal Ferox, Dead & Buried, Deadly Blessing, Final Exam, Galaxy Of Terror, Ghost Story, Graduation Day, Hell Night, Madman, Mystics In Bali, Nightmare, Road Games, Student Bodies, The Boogens, The Pit and Wolfen.

What was your favorite horror film of 1981? Let us know in the comments below.

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