25 Underappreciated Horror Films From The 1980s

12. Screamplay (1985)

Director: Rufus Butler Seder
Stars: Rufus Butler Seder, Eugene Seder, Katy Bolger, Cheryl Hirshman

Screamplay is possibly the greatest Troma movie you’ve never heard of before. Obviously, the film didn’t get a wide release. In fact, Troma was the only studio that would even pick up the film. Indeed, it is definitely not a “typical” Troma blood and boobs B-movie and it’s safe to say that it wasn’t fairly marketed during its initial release. So since then, the film has pretty much languished in obscurity.

The film tells the story of aspiring screenwriter Edgar Allen as he arrives in Hollywood carrying his most valuable possessions: a suitcase and a typewriter. Edgar Allen’s best attribute is his wild imagination. He imagines scenes so vividly for the murder mystery he is writing that they seem to come to life… and they do, quite literally. As the barrier between fiction and reality grows increasingly blurry, Edgar attempts to solve these murders. This results in a meta-mind-melt of epic proportions. Those that appreciate a good surrealist slasher with silent film-like aesthetics will no doubt fall in love with this underrated and little-known gem.

11. Warlock (1989)

Director: Steve Miner
Stars: 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.

10. The Church (1989)

Director: Michele Soavi
Stars: Hugh Quarshie, Tomas Arana, Barbara Cupisti, Asia Argento

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.

9. Manhunter (1986)

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: William Petersen, Kim Greist, Joan Allen, Brian Cox

Although it underperformed with audiences and critics upon its release in August 1986, the cult of Michael Mann’s clinically stylish serial-killer procedural, Manhunter, has grown steadily over the years (its status as the first Hannibal Lecter—sorry, Lecktor—movie has also helped secure its place in cinema history). Manhunter’s acolytes fetishize it for its meticulousness and painstaking attention to color and composition; each is carefully calibrated to the emotional needs of a scene, although the prevailing emotion is “detached.”

Favoring faraway, symmetrical mise-en-scènes, Manhunter keeps its distance from its blood-stained subject matter, in line with the theme of voyeurism that runs throughout. FBI profiler Will Graham is still recovering from the last time he got inside a killer’s mind, and a key piece of evidence in his latest case comes when the killer can’t resist the urge to touch his victim without gloves on. Watching from afar is fine; it’s when you get too close that things become dangerous. Here, you can see the birth of such popular forensics shows as CSI in this film’s blend of the police procedural and the horror film. Eminently worthy and stylish, Manhunter is a slick and glossy chiller that still holds its ground extremely well.

8. Shocker (1989)

Director: Wes Craven
Stars: 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.

7. Street Trash (1987)

Director: James M. Muro
Stars: Mike Lackey, Bill Chepil, Vic Noto, Mark Sferrazza

When a liquor store owner finds a case of “Viper” in his cellar, he decides to sell it to the local hobos at one dollar a bottle, unaware of its true properties. The beverage causes its consumers to melt, very messily. Two homeless lads find themselves up against the effects of the toxic brew, as well as going head to head with a fellow named Bronson, a Vietnam vet with sociopathic tendencies, and the owner of the junkyard they live in.

Street Trash is a horror comedy that is shamelessly stupid, but that’s half the fun. Hell, the ending song features a guy posthumously singing about how much being dissolved by Viper hurts. So no, Street Trash is nothing to take seriously. The film is a celebration of all that is excessive and exciting in the world of splatter films. It is a truly misguided masterwork.

6. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Director: Tobe Hooper
Stars: Dennis Hopper, Caroline Williams, Jim Siedow, Bill Moseley

Over ten years after making the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper returns to his deranged family of reclusive cannibals for another round of chainsaw chases and non-stop screaming. Hooper brings a real budget this time (having recently “directed” Poltergeist for Steven Spielberg) and the talents of veteran make-up artist Tom Savini. This means he can make things bigger, louder, and gorier than ever before; and they are. He also brings a wacky, self-deprecating sense of humor, as if deliberately flaunting Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s status as one of the first and still greatest “slasher” movies. The result is an impish take-off on the original film (and contemporary horror movies in general) which elevates its own clichés (buckets of blood and gore, droll dialogue, the screaming female lead) to the level of high camp.

TCM 2 is loosely concerned with a small-town disc jockey named “Stretch” (who does most of the screaming) and an embittered Texas Ranger. They team-up and decide to put an end to the murderous activities of the notorious Sawyer family once and for all (that is, of course, until Texas Chainsaw Massacre III). The tale is a strange, sweaty, uncomfortable mix of horror and humor and it’s completely brilliant. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

5. Angel Heart (1987)

Director: Alan Parker
Stars: Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, Lisa Bonet, Charlotte Rampling

The year is 1955. We meet Harry Angel, a washed-up, grimy private eye, in the vein of parody-esque Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Here though, it’s played completely straight, and it completely works. He’s hired by a man named Louis Cyphre to track down Johnny Favorite, a jazz crooner whom Louis had made famous during his early days and who’d vanished after the war. Angel takes the job, but there’s one problem. Every lead he follows turns up dead. And there’s little else we can say without spoiling the film. The plot is fairly simple once everything’s made clear, but there are twists and turns to be had, twists and turns we’d like not to ruin.

In short, Angel Heart is amazing. Beautifully shot and perfectly performed, it captivates from start to finish. The scares come mostly from dripping atmosphere. The cinematography, the pulse-pounding music, the unexpected twists and turns, the oozing blood from… well, again, you don’t want it ruined for you. Perhaps the narrative is a bit too simplistic, but it’s elegant that way. A slick neo-noir detective story with a supernatural twist, Angel Heart unquestionably delivers a unique experience.

4. Prince Of Darkness (1987)

Director: John Carpenter
Stars: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Jameson Parker, Victor Wong

A sinister secret has been kept in the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church for many years. With the death of a priest belonging to a mysterious sect, another priest opens the door to the basement and discovers a vat containing a green liquid. The priest contacts a group of physics graduate students to investigate it. Unfortunately, they discover that the liquid contains the essence of Satan himself, and they also discover that he will release HIS father – an all-powerful Anti-God! The liquid later comes to life itself, turning some of the students into zombies as the Devil comes forward to release his father. Will these students be able to stop him?

Crossing the boundary at the outer reaches of the physical world where science meets superstition and reason collides with the irrational, Prince Of Darkness tells a tale as miraculous as the Bible and as dry as any technical text. This is not a dream, indeed!

3. Altered States (1980)

Director: Ken Russell
Stars: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Drew Barrymore

Dr. Eddie Jessup is a Harvard physiologist who used to experience religious visions as a teenager and is now studying the phenomenon of hallucinations caused by sensory deprivation in isolation tanks. His inquiries into the nature of consciousness eventually take him to an isolated tribe in Mexico who use a powerful psychedelic mushroom in ancient Toltec religious rituals. When he combines the magic mushrooms and the isolation tank, he finds that the mixture causes him to regress to an earlier evolutionary state.

Like much of director Ken Russell’s work, Altered States is ostentatious and pretentious yet genuinely engaged with ideas and style. It’s by turns pseudo-analytical head-twister and skull-pounding monster romp, including glorious whip-crack dialogue. Think of it as an extravagant and exhilarating, if over-the-top, piece of filmmaking that’s dippy, to be sure, but engrossing at the same time.

2. Brain Damage (1988)

Director: Frank Henenlotter
Stars: Rick Hearst, Gordon MacDonald, Jennifer Lowry, Theo Barnes

Average Joe Brian wakes up one morning feeling disorientated, finding his bed sheets soaked through with blood. He doesn’t seem to be cut, but when he looks in the mirror he finds a strange parasitic creature on his person. Looking like a turd with eyes and big teeth, it also has a name, Aylmer, and speaks in a dignified foreign accent. Injecting Brian through the back of the neck with a blue liquid that gives the unsuspecting goofball a drug-like sense of euphoria, Brian gets hooked on the stuff, and Aylmer exploits his addiction for food. Only Aylmer has a taste for human brains, and so Brian must spend his sober hours searching for human victims.

Brain Damage is a horribly funny addiction allegory, equally likely to make you feel sympathy and sorrow, or burp up a tiny bit of sick. As high on concept as it is low on budget, Frank Henenlotter’s 1980s urban horror is cheap, sleazy and irresistibly addictive. It’s the best kind of bad trip.

1. Psycho II (1983)

Director: Richard Franklin
Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia

Despite the desperate pleas of Lila Loomis (whose sister was brutally killed in her shower at the Bates Motel all those years ago), a court releases schizophrenic murderer Norman Bates under the watchful eye of his psychiatrist. Norman finds a job at a nearby diner and befriends a young woman having relationship troubles. Having been kicked out of her apartment, Norman invites the girl to stay at the Bates house. However, coming back home brings back many memories for Norman, and it isn’t long before Mother Bates’ presence is felt in the house once again. All the more troubling are the mysterious notes and phone calls Norman begins receiving, allegedly from Mother. Soon, the line between reality and insanity begins to blur, and certain homicidal cravings begin to rear their ugly head once again.

The great thing about Psycho II is that it doesn’t over-concern itself with trying to top its predecessor, and instead focuses on delivering a solid continuation of that film’s events. Attempting to outdo a Hitchcock film would be a completely foolish task, so it’s refreshing to see the filmmakers here being perfectly content to just do their thing without soiling the sandbox too much. Scary and fun, Psycho II is as worthy a sequel as one might reasonably expect.

Any other films you’d like to add to the list? Let us know in the comments below.

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