If you’ve been following the site as of late then you know that we’ve been counting down the greatest horror movies of all time, year by year (each year we rank the top 15) – starting from 1970 to [insert current year here]. Now that we’ve finally made our way through the entirety of the ’80s we’ve decided to compile a huge list of the best of the best that the decade has to offer (before going knees deep into the dreadful ’90s era).
Looking back, the modern horror film indeed 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.
With all that being said, check out our list of the 50 Greatest Horror Movies Of The 1980s. Don’t forget to leave your personal favorite in the comments below.
50. Basket Case
Director: Frank Henenlotter
Stars: Kevin Van Hentenryck, Terri Susan Smith, Beverly Bonner, Robert Vogel
Possibly the ultimate 42nd Street exploitation movie experience, Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, a film made for the cost of a car, captures all that scuzzy NYC ambiance that’s as extinct as the dinosaurs these days. Two Siamese twin brothers – one human and the other looking like a mound of pizza dough with teeth – look up the doctors that literally separated them for some messy surgery of their own.
First of all, the over the top campiness of this film itself sets it apart from so many others. Like Hershell Gordon Lewis before him, Henenlotter took the bare bones of an obscure yet darkly hilarious situation, a scant budget and a couple of talented special effects makeup artists to create a movie that has to be seen to be believed. The obviously rubber mutant Belial with his globular, legless body and glowing red eyes launches himself from the floor and onto the craniums of his victims like a fleshy facehugger and uses his sharp, thick fingernails to rake them to death in grunting, blood spattered glory. The best parts of the movie are when Belial needs to get around outside of his basket. This was 1982, before CGI, and no one could afford robotics, so Henenlotter used the next best option – stop motion. When he gets displeased, Belial makes his way around the room by jerking and sliding along the floor like one of Tim Burton’s worst anxiety dreams, throwing televisions and slamming beds with insane abandon. It’s all so wonderful…
49. Night Of The Demons (1988)
Director: Kevin S. Tenney
Stars: Cathy Podewell, Alvin Alexis, Hal Havins, Linnea Quigley
On the night of Halloween, ten teens decide to go to a party at an abandoned funeral parlor. “Hull House”, rumored to be built on an evil patch of land and underground stream, is the place. Why wouldn’t you go there? While starting the party, the teens gather around a big mirror to perform a seance. They subsequently awaken an evil force and find themselves trapped and taken over one by one. They deserve it.
Night Of The Demons is probably most known for its scary demon faced poster art which by image alone seemed to do the trick. That face which stared out scaring shelf shoppers year after year was able to entice genre fans like none other. This movie was indeed one of those staples for rental in the early ’90s (particularly for sleepovers). Despite being a little hokey, silly, and, by today’s PC standards, could be considered completely racist, sexist, misogynistic, etc (by uptight people) – it is actually pretty damn awesome. It was made at a time when monsters were created with makeup, matte paintings were used as backdrops instead of CGI, the “slut” characters were abundant and gratuitous, and what may be thought of now as bad writing or acting, were all just endearing qualities of horror films.
48. Inferno (1980)
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleonora Giorgi, Daria Nicolodi
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. In the film, 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.
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 titled, unsurprisingly, 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 delightfully 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?
47. Friday The 13th (1980)
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.
46. Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)
Director: Charles Sellier
Stars: Robert Brian Wilson, Lilyan Chauvin, Gilmer McCormick, Toni Nero
Released on November 9th 1984, Silent Night, Deadly Night was a movie that was surrounded by controversy. The TV spots depicted a man dressed as Santa carrying an axe and murdering people, causing enraged parents to picket the movie during its opening weekend and subsequently got the movie banned. Although they clearly had not seen the film, many felt that it was wrong for Santa to be portrayed as a killer – not knowing the fact that it was actually a deranged and psychologically tortured man dressed as Santa doing the killing as opposed to Kris Kringle himself. It’s a classic tale of morons being told they should be offended by something as opposed to being genuinely offended.
The reason why this movie works so well is that it doesn’t need to focus on Christmas to make the story interesting. Whether it was Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the idea of Santa wasn’t intrinsic to the plot so much as a mascot, which normally makes people happy, was being corrupted.
45. The Stepfather (1987)
Director: Joseph Ruben
Stars: Terry O’Quinn, Jill Schoelen, Shelley Hack, Stephen Shellen
After murdering his entire family, a man remarries a widow with a teenage daughter in another town and prepares to do it all over again.
The Stepfather is refreshing because it turns the ‘80s horror paradigm on its head, finding a monster not in teenage sexuality but rather in the conservative patriarchy that is normally the ideological hero. This monster of patriarchy does not wear a mask nor wield some iconic weapon. His costume is the same costume many men have long worn as they play out the daily role of hard-working suburban family man: tie and jacket for work, sweater over a button-down at home. Indeed, what makes The Stepfather so compelling is that it starts from a simple truth about human life (the everyday lives we lead are performances) and takes it to a horrifying though honest extreme. Unlike Chucky or Jason Voorhees, the monstrous title character of The Stepfather is both plausible and a rich metaphor for the danger of a tradition in a world largely trying to move beyond that.
44. Pumpkinhead (1988)
Director: Stan Winston
Stars: Lance Henriksen, Jeff East, John D’Aquino, Kimberly Ross
Loving father Ed Harley is living a simple life in some boonie town. That’s until some “Big City” teens arrive, accidentally kill his son and ruin his life. Full of hate, Ed, with the help of some creepy witch, conjures up a nasty demon, a demon who only has one purpose… vengeance. The demon is loose and the fatalities are racking up.
Stan Winston – the man who helped create visionary special effect in movies like The Terminator, Aliens and Predator – helms his first film. It’s a triumph. This is a grim movie that doesn’t shy away from emotions. We understand Ed’s pain and also understand the teens situation. This flick could have easily fell into the derivative slasher mold but it avoids all the pitfalls. The teens are not horny and the teens do the right thing… “they run”. The movie feels old fashioned, almost like a children’s tale. The witch in the woods, the nursery rime, the demon buried in the pumpkin patch, all those elements contribute to that. Pumpkinhead is horror, fantasy, supernatural thriller and tragedy all wrapped up in an enthralling, phantasmagorically realized whole.
43. Phenomena (1985)
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Jennifer Connelly, Donald Pleasence, Daria Nicolodi, Fiore Argento
American-born Jennifer Corvino arrives at a boarding school in the Swiss Alps. Within minutes of the film’s opening, we learn that there’s a psychotic killer on the loose looking for girls like her. But there are no girls quite like Jennifer, because she has a secret of her own – a strange ability to communicate with insects and understand the world from their perspective. Unfortunately, she’s also a sleepwalker, which leads her straight into trouble. One night, Jennifer sleepwalks out of the school and subconsciously witnesses a brutal murder. When she snaps out of it, she comes face to face with Professor John McGregor, and learns that she can use her bug-communicating power to solve the identity of the murderer.
In short, Phenomena is by far Dario Argento’s most offbeat work. All of the director’s trademarks are on full display, but he cranks them up about a thousand notches here. The typical black-glove-wearing serial killer is present again, Argento’s love of animals shines through like gangbusters with the many insects and an angry chimp taking very active parts in the story. The theme of childhood also pops up, but this time it’s communicated through a pint-sized “demon” looking child. The atmosphere bursts through the screen with tree branches dancing in the wind, breathtaking scenery, eerie sleepwalking flashes and fairytale-like sequences. The gore is scaled-back but still quite plentiful, with heads crashing through windows in slow motion and one awesome surprise beheading. It’s great entertainment all the way through.
42. Tetsuo, The Iron Man (1989)
Director: Shin’ya Tsukamoto
Stars: 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!
41. Tenebre (1982)
Director: Dario Argento
Stars: Anthony Franciosa, Mirella D’Angelo, Veronica Lario, John Saxon
Tenebrae was Dario Argento’s return to giallo after a series of fantasy works. Facing endless criticism and questions about his perceived misogyny and love of brutally violent scenes, the film is a playful middle-finger to his detractors. Peter Neal, a successful American murder-mystery author, visits Rome to promote his new novel, Tenebrae. Shortly after his arrival a string of murders takes place that seemingly imitate scenes from the book. Beautiful women with their throats slashed by a cutthroat razor are discovered, and Neal becomes involved in a spiraling descent into murder and mystery as yet more deaths occur and he begins to receive letters from the killer.
Given Tenebrae’s content, it is unsurprising that it found itself on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasty” list. Throughout its duration, buckets of blood spurt from every human orifice all over the screen, accompanied by the oh-so-common motif of a helpless, shrieking young female, and wide-eyed cover art that suggested misogynistic violence was on the way.