Okay, yes, the title of this article indicates that you are about to read a “best of” list of horror movies but, let’s be honest, 1989 was really not that great a year for the genre. If you were to make a list of the 100 greatest horror movies of all time you would pretty much have no use for anything released during this period. There are no masterpieces, or shining examples of greatness – what we get are a bunch of guilty pleasure sequels to beloved franchises, one of the better Stephen King movie adaptations, and a few movies whose pure absurdity is their most redeeming quality.
As we truck along with our year-by-year breakdown, we present to you the 15 Best Horror Films Of 1989.
15. A Nightmare On Elm Street 5: The Dream Child
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Robert Englund, Lisa Wilcox, Kelly Jo Minter, Whit Hertford, Erika Anderson
After having survived Elm Street 4, Alice Johnson starts to have weird dreams again until she ultimately realizes that the bastard son of a hundred maniacs, Freddy Krueger, is attempting to be reborn through the dreams of her as-yet unborn baby. Now, this movie isn’t as terrible as a lot of people claim it to be. However, if you say it’s one of the better films of the NOES series, shame on you.
The film does get points for its generally darker tone. The dream sequences are more gothic than the previous films of the series; with a blue filter lighting technique used in most of the scenes. The black and white “Super Freddy” sequence is also a highlight. The nightmares in general throw up random images and events, which certainly captures the surrealism of dream logic but doesn’t make for a coherent film. Most of the acting is poor, the effects are unconvincing and it is all, of course, familiar stuff.
14. Friday The 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan
Director: Rob Hedden
Cast: Kane Hodder, Jensen Daggett, Scott Reeves, Barbara Bingham, Peter Mark Richman, Martin Cummins, V. C. Dupree, Kelly Hu, Saffron Henderson, Sharlene Martin
After years of mindless repetition, the eighth entry of the Friday The 13th series finally gave us a new twist on the franchise. Too bad it wasn’t a twist that anybody was particularly interested in seeing. This time around we find Jason Voorhees stalking a group of high school graduates on a ship en route to, and later in, New York City.
Every movie series has its ups and downs. This was definitely Friday The 13th’s “down”. There are simply too many flaws to keep track of, from ridiculous plot elements, an uneven pace to a lack of chills and incompatible attempts at humor. Though, we must admit that watching Jason literally knock a guy’s head off with a single punch is always fun to watch.
13. Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers
Director: Dominique Othenin-Girard
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, Tamara Glynn
By Halloween III, the Halloween franchise had become like that friend who you know is drinking too much but you don’t say anything because you think they’re just going through a phase. By Halloween 4, it was like, “OK, they’re still drinking too much, but I think they’re getting their act together, so I’m still not going to say anything.” With Halloween 5: The Revenge Of Michael Myers, the breaking point had been reached: It was time for a serious intervention.
This movie indeed has its share of problems but the biggest problem is the fact that it completely abandons everything that was interesting about the fairly promising cliffhanger of H4. Even worse, it introduces the totally off-the-wall plot device of the metaphysical psychic connection between Michael Myers and his young protagonist niece, but doesn’t fully commit the storyline in any way that could potentially make it interesting. Go home, Halloween 5; you’re drunk.
12. The Phantom Of The Opera
Director: Dwight H. Little
Cast: Robert Englund, Jill Schoelen, Alex Hyde-White, Bill Nighy
When falling victim to an accident at an audition, an aspiring opera singer finds herself transported from 1989 New York to 1881 London. She awakens to find that she is the understudy to the leading performer at the London Opera House, and that none other than The Phantom Of The Opera is her greatest admirer, determined to stop at nothing to get his idol to the top of her profession…
There have officially been oodles of retellings of Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom Of The Opera over the years (we counted: that’s the exact figure). Is this 1989 offering the best? Put it this way: is the square root of 12,433 the same as the number of men in a standard football team? No, is what we’re saying. But it’s not a completely terrible whack at the material. Focusing more on the horror contained within Leroux’s original story, this version is a wickedly ghastly and blood-soaked tale of obsession. This is what you get when you cross an ’80s American slasher with classic Brit-horror.
Director: Wes Craven
Cast: Michael Murphy, Mitch Pileggi, John Tesh, Peter Berg
Horace Pinker is a mass murderer and a television repairman… awesome job, right? Well, Horace is a little sloppy, and with the attentive eye of teenager, Johnathan Parker, Horace gets caught and is sentenced to death by electrocution. Almost needless to say, Pinker’s execution doesn’t go well. Yup, it’s common knowledge that most mass killers that utilize black magic can usually count on a dramatic execution. Horace is no dummy. Being a television repairman, he’s gained the power of immortality by jumping from TV to TV riding the lightning. Through electrical contact, he can also enter the bodies of others and turn them into hissing fiends.
One of the more underrated films in the late Wes Craven’s filmography, Shocker was the director’s attempt to create another franchise with another studio after the folks over at New Line Cinema did him dirty with regards to compensating him properly for his work on A Nightmare On Elm Street. Sadly the film didn’t really perform well with critics or film-goers – though it did gain a substantial audience as the years went by. Like a frenzied fever dream fueled by the power of righteous heavy metal, Craven’s Shocker is certainly one of his more oddball cult classics, an amalgam of his most ambitious ideas and a viciously wild visual style.
Director: Victor Salva
Cast: Nathan Forrest Winters, Brian McHugh, Sam Rockwell, Karl-Heinz Teuber
Just before Halloween, three young brothers alone in a big house are menaced by three escaped mental patients who have murdered some traveling circus clowns and taken their identities. It doesn’t get much more straightforward than that.
A huge plus for this flick is the fact that the actors portraying the three psychopaths are terrific at evoking a sense of otherworldliness that most cinematic psycho clowns don’t get across. These guys don’t giggle hysterically or brandish weapons or otherwise try to ham it up. They just dress like clowns, smile, and quietly murder you. There are times when you need to stop and savor the nuanced performance that a bit player can put into a low-budget bit of schlock, and this is one of them.
Director: Scott Spiegel
Cast: Elizabeth Cox, Renée Estevez, Dan Hicks, David Byrnes
It’s nighttime at Michigan’s Lake Supermarket and pretty cashier Jennifer is being harassed by her unhinged ex-boyfriend. Those who work at the supermarket look for him, kick him out, and call the cops. With everything back to normal, they find out that the store is closing permanently soon and by the beginning of next month they will be jobless. As a result, they will need to markdown the prices. Regardless, they go about their work. Soon, though, a deranged killer is stalking them and taking them out one by one in the most horrid ways possible.
Intruder is a truly underappreciated little slasher that seems to have been lost amongst fans, no doubt because it was released when slashers were going out of vogue. After all, as we’ve already seen on this list, 1989 was a pretty embarrassing year for the genre’s heavyweights (Jason, Freddy, and Michael, who all released less-than-stellar entries during the year).
8. Vampire’s Kiss
Director: Robert Bierman
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Maria Conchita Alonso, Jennifer Beals, Elizabeth Ashley
A publishing executive is visited and bitten by a woman and starts exhibiting erratic behavior. He pushes his secretary to extremes as he tries to come to terms with his delusions. The woman continues to visit and as his madness deepens, it begins to look as if some of the events he’s experiencing may be hallucinations.
Though actually a film about delusion and mental illness, Vampire’s Kiss is strange enough to be enjoyable as fantasy-horror even if it can all be rationalized by the fact of our protagonist’s madness. And the film has a smart-ass attitude about lust, love, and lunacy such as one doesn’t usually see filmed about the mentally ill. So it works as a little art-film about something serious, and it works on a cruelly campy level of laughing at the ill. Undeservedly dismissed by most critics, this original film, whether taken as a straight horror yarn or as a psycho-erotic nightmare, mixes elements of fable and satire in a straight up startling manner.
7. Puppet Master
Director: David Schmoeller
Cast: Paul Le Mat, William Hickey, Irene Miracle, Jimmie F. Skaggs
Puppet Master is kind of a mess, but it’s a sloppy, delightfully delicious one. In the film, puppet maker Andre Toulon, residing at seaside Bodega Bay, California, is in possession of a magical Egyptian scroll that allows him to imbue his creations with life. Rather than let the scroll and his work fall into the hands of Nazis, Toulon kills himself; his puppets, however, live on. Fifty years later, a cabal of psychics in search of ancient mysteries have learned that their leader, Neil Gallagher, has determined where Toulon died. They all have spooky visions, and agree to meet at Bodega Bay, where upon arrival, they find that Neil has shot himself. From here, things take on a haunted house meets Clive Barker vibe – people being stalked and dying, weird going ons, magicians and psychics doing their thing.
Despite its flaws, Puppet Master emerges as one of the more enjoyable of the “killer toy” type horror films. Child’s Play has the most genuine scares and suspense, but for pure little-things-running-amok-and-killing fun, the original Puppet Master is hard to beat. We say the original, because to date, there are no less than twelve sequels and one crossover (with another Full Moon Pictures franchise creation, the Demonic Toys). As with any other horror series, the individual entries are pretty hit or miss and the original will likely always reign supreme.
Director: Steve Miner
Cast: Julian Sands, Lori Singer, Richard E. Grant, Mary Woronov
In 1691, a warlock is sentenced to death. Before he can be executed, Satan appears and hurls him through time to Los Angeles circa 1989. Witch hunter Giles Redferne follows him through the portal, and continues his quest to put an end to the warlock. Waitress Kassandra inadvertently gets in the way of the warlock and finds herself on the business end of a nasty curse, so she joins up with Giles to get uncursed and save the world from Satan.
We’re pretty sure the pitch for this movie went basically like this: “Did you like The Terminator? Well, how about we whip up a dark fantasy-horror version of that, and add in dash of humor?” That pitch certainly makes it sound like Warlock is low on creativity, but that’s selling the film pretty short – while, yes, fundamentally, this is The Terminator, it’s also really funny, has a cool ’80s horror vibe, has some great actors, and it’s filled with inventions and ideas that flesh out its world of Satanic warlocks, witches, and their hunters. It’s a whole lot of fun… just forget the sequels.
5. The Church
Director: Michele Soavi
Cast: Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento, Feodor Chaliapin Jr.
The Church revolves around Teutonic/Templar Knights massacring a village/coven of people who is assumed to be witches in medieval Germany. The Teutonic Knights dug graves, buried the assumed witches’ dead bodies and build a titular/church structure over the corpses. The movie skips to present day where Evan is the church’s new librarian that is hired to organize the books. Evan meets archeologist Lisa who is researching the catacombs of the church. A curious Evan breaks the seal on the crypt which results in the evil spirits being released. Simultaneously, visitors and everyone in the church become trapped as the church’s automated mechanisms become triggered.
Originally planned by Dario Argento as a sequel to his earlier 1985 production Demons, The Church was taken over by Argento protégé Michele Soavi after the director of the preceding films, Lamberto Bava, was dropped under orders of the financial backers – his name being overly associated with second-rate horror pictures (or he left the project as he did not want to work with Argento again, depending on which source you read). At any rate, in the film, as the temple of flesh (a tower made out of human bodies) begins to rise from the depths of Hell, it will dawn on you that this film is yet another glorious example of unchecked Italian insanity. You simply can’t find this level of crazy anywhere else. Don’t believe us? A character at one point commits suicide with a jack hammer. ‘Nuff said.
Director: Bob Balaban
Cast: Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis, Bryan Madorsky
From the point of view of a child, the premise of Parents is simple: young Michael Laemle starts to suspect his parents are cannibals. The film is shot in a strange ‘50s retro kitsch world where Michael’s mother is the perfect housewife, and his father a hardworking supporter of the family. The All American dream with a nasty edge, for behind this facade of domestic bliss lies a dark secret.
For most of the film we’re never quite sure if this is all a child’s nightmare fantasy or reality. SPOILER ALERT: Yes, his parents indeed have a taste for human flesh. The film ends with Michael’s grandparents assuming his care. After placing him to bed, Michael’s grandfather leaves him a midnight snack consisting of a glass of milk and a suspicious looking sandwich, implying perhaps that his parents’ cannibalism was learned behavior. That’s not good…
3. Tetsuo, The Iron Man
Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Cast: Kei Fujiwara, Tomorô Taguchi, Nobu Kanaoka
A man who collects scrap metal (identified as “fetishist” in the credits) slices his leg open with a knife and inserts a metal pipe beside his thigh bone, then runs into the street when he notices maggots in the wound, where he is struck by a car driven by a salaryman and his girlfriend. The salaryman leaves the scene of the accident, and later finds a piece of sharp metal growing out of his cheek; as the days go by, his entire body begins to transform into a machine. Many hallucinations later, the fetishist, still-alive and also half made of metal, returns to do battle with the now almost completely mechanized salaryman. You got all that? Good.
Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man is a relentlessly energetic film made at a time when the energy had all but disappeared from Japanese cinema. The culmination of a decade’s worth of amateur short filmmaking and the crowning achievement on the activities of a private, experimental theatre group, Tetsuo had all the characteristics of unbridled zeal and amateur enthusiasm, and all the signs of true filmmaking talent. It combines early Lynch’s monochrome industrial landscapes, Cronenberg’s body horror, Ballard’s obsession with crashes and wounds, and Svankmajer’s frenetic stop-motion oddity (and staccato editing), but it nonetheless remains a singular monstrosity. And it’s weird as all hell!
2. Pet Sematary
Director: Mary Lambert
Cast: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Miko Hughes
Pet Sematary hinges on a simple question: If you could, would you bring a loved one back from the dead? By Pet Sematary’s end, the answer should be “HELL NO.” But what if you had a son who’s just learning to walk and gets trampled by a truck – would you risk him becoming a killer zombie if there was even the slightest opportunity of giving him another chance at “life?” Ask any parent: The response to such a question isn’t easy.
A native of Chicago, Louis Creed and his family move to Maine so he can take a job as a doctor for a local university, and perhaps to escape the city life. Upon meeting their new neighbor, the Creeds soon learn of a local pet cemetery in the nearby forest, which leads to an ancient Native American burial ground and its power to raise the dead. After the family cat is killed on the highway, Jud takes Louis to the burial ground… only for the cat to return the next day, acting strangely and smelling even worse. But once Louis’s toddler son Gage is accidentally killed, Louis starts to get some pretty malevolent ideas. And when he acts on them, he soon learns of the consequences of trying to undo death.
Director: Brian Yuzna
Cast: Billy Warlock, Devin DeVasquez, Evan Richards, Patrice Jennings
Some films are immediately resonant and manage to be even more so as time goes by and critics continue to properly contextualize them. Brian Yuzna’s directorial debut, Society, is one such film. Even when it was released in 1989, it was a clear reaction against ’80s excess and yuppie scum; however, in the wake of almost thirty years worth of unrest over wealth inequality, it’s tough not to hear a film insist that “the rich have always fed on the poor” and not consider it not only eerily prescient but also really awesome since it literalizes that insistence in an outrageously bizarre climax.
Everything leading up to that point is pretty solid too. Bill Whitney lives in a Beverley Hills mansion with his rich family consisting of his two parents and sister Jenny. He has a hot girlfriend, he’s a star player on the school basketball team and he’s in the running for class president. However, he’s never been able to shake the feeling that he doesn’t quite fit in. In fact, he’s convinced that he’s adopted. His sister is on the verge of adulthood, therefore she’s about to join the neighborhood society of the elite upper class; this sets off a series of truly bizarre events. Indeed, if a movie could ever be described as delightfully screwed-up, Society would fit the bill – and, again, it results in a climax we can promise you’ll never forget.
What was your favorite horror film of 1989? Let us know in the comments below.