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 list of some lesser-known gems from that decade. We’ve got some undervalued sequels to otherwise beloved franchises, as well as some forgotten one-off classics from the likes of Wes Craven and John Carpenter.
So, without anymore preamble, this is 25 Underrated Horror Films Of The 1980s.
25. Sweet 16 (1983)
Director: Jim Sotos
Stars: Aleisa Shirley, Bo Hopkins, Susan Strasberg, Dana Kimmell
Melissa Morgan’s sixteenth birthday is coming up, and her parents are planning a traditional party just like the days long before. But Melissa is anything but traditional. She wants to drink and sleep with the guys, no matter who they are or what their motives are. It’s a shame that the people this troubled child keeps bumping into are ending up dead. Could this girl, not even of legal age yet, be a killer at heart? Perhaps the answer will come when Melissa finally turns the dreaded age of…Sweet Sixteen.
Sweet Sixteen was not generally a well-regarded slasher movie during its time since it did not contain a lot of graphic violence or gruesome Tom Savini-type special effects. It is more of a murder mystery. And though the identity of the murderer is pretty obvious, it is nevertheless pretty effective. It has a great small-town setting (whereas most other slashers were set in suburbia) and a potent atmosphere. Parts of it are quite masterful like a scene near the end (prominently featured in all the promotional artwork) where the central girl and a male admirer go skinny-dipping at night in a lake lit only by a single cross-shaped key light. The story is also a pretty different in that all the victims in this movie are young males rather than promiscuous young females. It’s kind of surprising that they haven’t remade this, although, released a few years back, All The Boys Love Mandy Lane is probably the closet to such a thing.
24. The Living Dead Girl (1982)
Director: Jean Rollin
Stars: Marina Pierro, Françoise Blanchard, Mike Marshall, Carina Barone
Cahterine Valmont, a rich heiress died a young death and is buried in a burial chamber underneath the chateau that she lived in. Two years later some fellows are attempting to hide some chemical waste down there and they accidentally knock it over, thus bringing Catherine back to life. Catherine is now a walking undead, and she feeds on the flesh and blood of her victims. With each kill she becomes stronger and more human like. She manages to call her best friend Helene, whom discovers the secret and decides to help bring her fresh victims in hopes of getting her old friend back.
As Catherine becomes more self-aware, she feels conflicted about her “evil” existence in which she must drain others of life to survive. Once she finds her humanity she doesn’t wish to continue. Meanwhile Helene, trying to preserve her friendship by any desperate means necessary, becomes more monstrous as she tries to force victims on Catherine, and killing anyone who may threaten the livelihood of her love – now more Helene’s obsession. There’s something intriguing about watching Helene slowly become the true monster as Catherine grows more aware of her unnatural existence. It’s interesting, and the finale really is a triumph in effective horror filmmaking. The Living Dead Girl has plenty of flaws, but director Jean Rollins was passionate about the films that he made. That passion shines through with The Living Dead Girl and turns it into a B-level horror film well worth watching.
23. Cat People (1982)
Director: Paul Schrader
Stars: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O’Toole
Whenever we want to prove that we as horror fans don’t immediately recoil at the thought of remakes, we invariably point to The Thing, The Fly, and The Blob, the triumvirate of ’80s updates that are defensible on many grounds. One frequent refrain insists that they were justified due to the advancements in effects and Hollywood’s leniency with what those effects could now show compared to their relatively prudish ancestors. Perhaps we shouldn’t lump Paul Schrader’s Cat People in with those three, but it certainly benefits from the same thing; even though the Val Lewton original was a sultry allegory for femininity and sexuality, he and director Jacques Tourneur could only go so far. For example, they couldn’t also make it a story where a creepazoid brother needs to bone his own sister in order to ward off an ancient curse, which is exactly where Schrader took the material.
That’s probably a little reductive and facetious, as Schrader isn’t just concerned with amplifying the exploitation; in fact, calling it an erotic update of the Lewton is not only a disservice but an outright fallacy. Consider the prologue, which acts more of an evocative, tasteful overture: Giorgio Moroder’s moody synth strains rumble over an ethereal desert landscape where leopards seductively lounge in barren trees, awaiting the arrival of a young human female for a mysterious, sexual ritual. It’s a sequence that speaks to the divide of a film that simmers with desert heat, yet remains cold and distant throughout.
22. Poison For The Fairies (1984)
Director: Carlos Enrique Taboada
Stars: Ana Patricia Rojo, Elsa María Gutiérrez, Leonor Llausás, Carmen Stein
Mexico City circa 1965: Flavia is an aristocratic little girl, who is very lonely and bored. At school she meets and befriends a strange and beautiful girl named Verónica, who dreams of becoming a witch. Their games get increasingly sadistic and morbid, and escalate to involve the bloody murder of a piano teacher and macabre mayhem.
Poison For The Fairies is an eerie and poetic children’s horror that really gets under your skin. Here, childish flights of fancy are not a source of wonder but dread and adult logic has no place in a world that seems alien, yet unsettlingly familiar like some half-remembered dream, since we were all children once. Just as in Charles Schultz’s Peanuts cartoons, grownups are only glimpsed in the background, their voices heard but faces never seen. They are removed from the private fantasy world of children where petty grievances seem like life and death and an active imagination makes ghost and magic come alive. The filmmakers make inspired use of familiar childhood terrors: tree branches claw at the bedroom window, a museum full of mummies seem to come alive, witches haunt Flavia’s dreams, the girls candlelit trek through a haunted forests. Let’s just say that, thirty years before The Babadook warned us of the perils of neglecting to vet our bedtime reading in advance, Poison For The Fairies provided a similar cautionary tale against filling small children’s heads with unsuitable stories.
21. Just Before Dawn (1981)
Director: Jeff Lieberman
Stars: 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.
20. Slaughter High (1986)
Directors: George Dugdale, Mark Ezra, Peter Mackenzie Litten
Stars: Caroline Munro, Simon Scuddamore, Carmine Iannaccone, Donna Yeager
Okay, here’s the basic rundown: Marty was the uber nerd back in high school complete with pocket protector and taped glasses, that everyone used to pick on. At the beginning we see the cool kids (actually, it seems they were the ONLY kids at the school…. and we’re using the term “kid” loosely here) humiliate a naked Marty and give him a swirly, just when the poor kid thought he was gonna get some pie for once. After another prank gone wrong at the hands of these kids, Marty inadvertently gets splashed with acid and becomes horribly disfigured. Years later a reunion is held at the same high school where each of the students face a stalker killer who may or may not be Marty out for revenge.
Okay, what really makes this little known slasher stand out is the kills. Point blank. They’re wonderful. The first guy gets it when he drinks a beer with acid in it and his stomach explodes outward. Shirley, the Asian chick, gets blood on her from this and when she decides to take a bath (um, a bathtub in a school? Sure. Why not?) and the water suddenly turns to acid too which proceeds to melt her body. She actually tries to turn off the water while still in the tub instead of like, trying to get out, which would have been anyone else’s first thought. There’s also death by lawnmower blades, drowning in a pit of what we can only presume to be poo, and an electrocution while a couple are enjoying some coitus on a bed in another room (um, a bed in a school? Sure. Why not?).
19. Intruder (1989)
Director: Scott Spiegel
Stars: 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 yet another truly underappreciated slasher that seems to have been lost amongst fans, this time, no doubt, because it was released when slashers were going out of vogue. After all, 1989 is seen by most as a pretty embarrassing year for even the genre’s heavyweights (Jason, Freddy, and Michael, who all released less-than-stellar entries that year).
18. The Deadly Spawn (1983)
Director: Douglas McKeown
Stars: Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter, Jean Tafler
A meteorite crashes in the woods near a secluded neighborhood. A small, unfriendly alien emerges and, after being exposed to water, begins to grow at an alarming rate. The beast and its brood take up residence in the basement of a home and goes to work making meals of each household member and anyone who happens to go downstairs.
This is Do It Yourself maverick horror of the highest order and one of the best micro-budget horror flicks of the ‘80s, bearing a look and feel on the level of Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. The ‘70s and the first half of the ‘80s were populated by a dedicated group of guerrilla filmmakers, a number of which went on to successful careers of varying degree. The Deadly Spawn (aka Return Of The Alien’s Deadly Spawn) is a monster movie for monster kids and a dream project for all those involved. Regardless of the limited means at the disposal of the filmmakers, the dedication and love for the subject matter is evident in virtually every frame – most particularly in the overzealous gore sequences. It certainly isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but if you have a high tolerance for low quality than it’s definitely worth a watch. And the film’s last few seconds will bring a smile to your face for both its simplicity and awesomeness.
17. Evil Dead Trap (1988)
Director: Toshiharu Ikeda
Stars: Miyuki Ono, Yuji Honma, Hitomi Kobayashi, Shinsuke Shimada
TV personality Nami Tsuchiya is the hostess of a late-night TV program called, appropriately enough, “Late Night With Nami.” The show plays homemade blooper videos sent in by her viewers. One day she receives a disturbing snuff film of a woman being horrifically tortured in a local abandoned factory that contains an image of Nami shown at the very end. Taking a camera crew out to investigate, Nami finds the factory deserted. As Nami and her crew begin to scour the factory, they are murdered one-by-one in grisly fashion.
As a loving Japanese take on the slasher genre, Evil Dead Trap kicks the ass of many of its fellow cookie-cut J-Horrors. Rather than being a supernatural tale steeped in folklore and overrun by long haired apparitions (as we have come to expect from Japanese horror), Evil Dead Trap is more reminiscent of non-Asian horrors of the era such as the works of Henenlotter, Argento and Fulci. Evil Dead Trap has a grim and gritty anti-charm that’s almost endlessly entertaining.
16. Friday The 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Director: Danny Steinmann
Stars: John Shepherd, Shavar Ross, Richard Young, Juliette Cummins, Carol Locatell, John Robert Dixon, Tiffany Helm, Debi Sue Voorhees, Jere Fields, Miguel A. Núñez, Jr.
Okay, put your pitchforks down! Yes, we are well aware of the general consensus of this film. For some reason people always seem to have nothing but bad things to say about the fifth entry of the adored Friday The 13th franchise. And we can certainly understand why. For one, it doesn’t even feature Jason Voorhees as the actual killer. The killer is just some guy named Roy who is upset that his son got murdered over a candy bar. Point number two… well, we don’t know what point number two is.
Indeed, if you can get beyond the fact that Jason is nowhere to be found then you might find yourself enjoying this film immensely. The kills are just as impressive as its predecessors. It’s actually pretty hilarious (the enchilada scene, in particular, is a standout). Punk-rock-goth-girl Violet gives us the best version of the robot dance ever put to film. It’s the last movie of the franchise that was still realistic and didn’t feature its antagonist as an unstoppable killing machine. And on top of it all, it features, until she gets her eyes gouged out, the hottest female character of the entire F13 franchise. Enough said.
15. Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers (1988)
Director: Dwight H. Little
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, George P. Wilbur
Including sequels, remakes and sequels to remakes, there have been ten Halloween movies so far. But let’s face it, there’s only one truly great film there – the original, John Carpenter classic.
That being said, Halloween 4: The Return Of Michael Myers stands out as another great film in the series. Intended to revitalize the brand, following the unsuccessful, Michael Myers-free Halloween III, the 1988 sequel – released ten years after the first film – did what the title promised and brought back the masked serial killer. With original protagonist Laurie Strode’s days fighting her homicidal brother behind her (for the time being), the character was killed off-screen, as Michael set his sights on his niece, a young girl given the in-joke name of Jamie. In short, the film is better than any fourth sequel in a slasher flick franchise deserves to be.
14. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)
Director: Tony Randel
Stars: Doug Bradley, Ashley Laurence, Clare Higgins, Kenneth Cranham
There are some sequels that blend with their predecessor so seamlessly that you’re left with the impression that they’re just the second half of one really long movie. Hellbound: Hellraiser II is one of those movies. Despite being directed by a different person from the original, it has all the atmosphere and presence of Clive Barker’s original Hellraiser to the point that if you were ill-informed (or maybe just illiterate) you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Hellraiser II picks up moments after Hellraiser. Kirsty has been admitted to a psychiatric facility after essentially seeing the zombie of her uncle Frank wearing the skin of her father being dismembered by supernatural creatures. Her story catches the attention of the hospital’s founder and head practician Philip Channard who turns out to be an occult freak. He owns several lament configurations and heard many stories of their mythical powers. Encouraged by Kirsty’s testimony, Channard requisitions the mattress where Julia has been left for the Cenobites to feed on in the first movie and brings her back to life using a poor self-mutilating patient’s blood for her to feed on. And things just get more insane from there…
13. Dolls (1987)
Director: Stuart Gordon
Stars: Ian Patrick Williams, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Carrie Lorraine, Guy Rolfe
The chewy, plotty center: Car trouble and a bad storm forces a family to seek shelter at the spooky house of a seemingly kind old couple. Soon after, a motorist and two punk rock girl hitchhikers he picked up arrive at the house as well, and they all start to find out that this doll maker and his wife – and their plethora of dolls throughout the house – are not at all what they seem to be.
Fresh off of Re-Animator and From Beyond, veteran director Stuart Gordon brought to life this grand old American cheese fest and packaged it like a serious Italian horror film (which, if you watch the credits, is because it was shot in Italy, with what seems to be an entirely Italian crew). This is one of the film’s finest points, as stylistically it’s brilliant. Dolls is purposefully over-the-top and crazy, like a Looney Tunes short re-envisioned by Freddy Kruger. They don’t make horror movies like this anymore, and it’s a damn shame.