50 Best Horror Movies Of The 1980s

40. Pet Sematary (1989)

Director: Mary Lambert
Stars: 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.

39. Society (1989)

Director: Brian Yuzna
Stars: 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 charmingly screwed-up, Society would fit the bill – and, again, it all results in a climax we can promise you’ll never forget.

38. Creepshow (1982)

Director: George A. Romero
Stars: Hal Holbrook, Leslie Nielsen, Adrienne Barbeau, Leslie Nielsen, Carrie Nye, E.G. Marshall, Viveca Lindfors, Ed Harris, Ted Danson, Jon Lormer, Elizabeth Regan

EC Comics, to those who aren‘t aware, was a force to be reckoned with in the 1950s. They had such titles as Crime Illustrated, Weird Fantasy, and Shock Illustrated. What they were best known for though, and ended up getting in trouble for, were such titles as Tales From The Crypt and The Vault Of Horror. It is within these horror comics that thee Stephen King and George Romero found the inspiration for the anthology film Creepshow.

Five tales of terror are presented. The first deals with a demented old man returning from the grave to get the Father’s Day cake his murdering daughter never gave him. The second is about a not-too-bright farmer discovering a meteor that turns everything into plant-life. The third is about a vengeful husband burying his wife and her lover up to their necks on the beach. The fourth is about a creature that resides in a crate under the steps of a college. The final story is about an ultra-rich businessman who gets his comeuppance from cockroaches. Everyone has their favorite moment, what’s yours?

37. Child’s Play (1988)

Director: Tom Holland
Stars: Brad Dourif, Alex Vincent, Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon

In the first of many more films to come, serial killer Charles Lee Ray (aka Chucky) is shot as he tries to escape the police. Nearing death, he ultimately transfers his soul into a “Good Guy” doll he comes across in a toy store. Little does he know a little boy by the name of Andy Barclay will soon be the new owner of him. Charles confides in Andy while he commits numerous murders. Once the adults accept Andy’s story as truth, it’s too late.

Triumphantly, with every kill and every swear word, Chucky brings this movie to life and, in turn, provides the seed (pun totally intended) for which the entire franchise would grow. Had Chucky not worked, either because of the effects or the performances, this would just be another silly horror movie to poke fun at. Yet, through the magic of cinema, Chucky is brought to horrible life. The efforts of all those involved turn a potentially ridiculous idea into a legitimate scare fest (the subsequent sequels, on the other hand, are a completely different story).

36. The Entity (1982)

Director: Sidney J. Furie
Stars: Barbara Hershey, Ron Silver, David Labiosa, Margaret Blye

Carla Moran awakens one night to find herself being beaten and raped by an unseen presence. Terrified of what’s happening to her, and shunned by friends and family who think she’s lost her mind, she seeks help from parapsychologists. The researchers soon discover that evil spiritual force has been drawn to Carla and is responsible for the violent attacks. The question now, however, is how do they stop it?

None other than Martin Scorsese considers The Entity to be one of the scariest horror films of all time and it’s easy to understand why he feels this way. The film bluntly confronts the idea that is suggested by so many horror films but seldom spelled out – that the attack of the obligatory monster is willed by its victims, that the horrible being is an external manifestation of internal torments. Another good example of this is Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. Here, there are legitimate terrors – legitimate because they come from a real and terrible place. And for those who enjoy at least some defiance of natural laws, The Enity has that too.

35. Maniac (1980)

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.

34. Motel Hell (1980)

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 (all movies we’ll be getting to in a moment). 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.

33. The Hitcher (1986)

Director: Robert Harmon
Stars: Rutger Hauer, C. Thomas Howell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jeffrey DeMunn

With The Hitcher, we are presented with one of the most disturbing antagonists in movie history. Apparently polite and affable when young driver Jim Halsey finds him hitching a lift by a quiet road one night, John Ryder gradually reveals himself to be a complete and utter maniac. And try though Jim might, he just can’t get away from this knife-wielding killer, who murders numerous innocent people, blows up a petrol station, and leaves a severed finger in Jim’s chips. And that’s just the beginning of the madness.

How great is The Hitcher? Well, Roger Ebert gave it zero stars and called it “diseased and corrupt,” that’s how great it is. It’s definitely one for the books. A thriller with brains, an action flick with soul, a horror film with purpose, sporting a captivating baddie to boot. Engagingly vague, razor directed, well acted and heavy on the suspense, it’s one of those rare genre films that simply works on every level.

32. Fright Night (1985)

Director: Tom Holland
Stars: Chris Sarandon, William Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse, Stephen Geoffreys

Fright Night centers on young Charlie Brewster, a high school student who lives with his Mommy and has problems with the next door neighbors, Jerry Dandridge and Billy Cole. After the new neighbors move in Charlie begins to notice there is something a little strange about them. Maybe it’s the coffin they put in the basement, maybe it’s the prostitutes who are in their house one night and on the evening news reported dead the next night? Could be anything. Charlie begins to suspect that Jerry is a vampire, and his obsession begins to worry his girlfriend Amy and his only friend “Evil Ed.”

Tom Holland’s classic vampire tale is full of gloriously campy old-school touches, feeling almost like a traditional Hammer or Universal horror dragged into the eighties. Our villain, Jerry the vampire, seems like a walking dry ice machine. When Charlie stabs him through the hand with a pen, he doesn’t just recoil – he literally spins away from the young boy. Characters are prone to make dramatic entrances and exits, with the set design looking like something from a vintage studio piece. None of this, of course, is bad. It just means that the film has to be looked at in a particular way. This is, after all, cheesy and campy horror, but it’s lovingly crafted cheesy and campy horror. Those looking for a more serious or a grittier horror film might be better served to look elsewhere. Those who can embrace, and even relish, those old studio-bound horrors will be in for a treat.

31. The Beyond (1981)

Director: Lucio Fulci
Stars: 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.

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