With October being the spookiest month, we’ve been placing a particular focus on the horror genre in the weeks leading up to Halloween —we’ve already looked at the best Foreign Language Horror movies, and last week we presented a list of the Best Horror Films of the 1970s. This week, the obvious move was to take a look at the genre in the 1980s.
The modern horror film crystallized in the 1970s, thanks to megahit “The Exorcist” and 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.
Picking the best of a hugely rich decade of horror was tricky, but we’ve worked out our 25 favorites from the 1980s, and you can find them all below. Agree? Disagree? You can make your thoughts known in the comments below. Just make sure you do it while accompanied by a synth score.
25. “The Howling” (1981)
We love “Gremlins” as much as anyone, but while other titles here tread the comedy/horror line, none is of quite such a disqualifying family-oriented bent (check out this essay on “Gremlins,” and the PG 13 rating). But to ensure we’re not wholly Joe Dante-less, there’s his prior film, the one that got him the “Gremlins” gig. While the archly comic sensibility is unmistakable, “The Howling” is much more grown-up. It’s a werewolf movie with some of the best transformations this side of the land(is)mark further up this list, but beneath the splashy, schlocky scares, there are also surprising smarts. John Sayles‘ self-aware script overtly plays with an underlying misogyny that goes unexamined in lesser horrors, giving this tale of a TV reporter (Dee Wallace) sent to convalesce at a retreat full of werewolves an unusually reflexive and satirical edge, taking in everything from gender politics to media manipulation to self-help fads.
24. “Day Of The Dead” (1985)
Putting aside a sense of z-fatigue thanks to its omnipresence these days, “Day Of The Dead” is easily the weakest of George Romero’s initial Dead trilogy, lacking the purity and ingenuity of “Night Of The Living Dead” and the satirical bite and satisfaction of “Dawn Of The Dead.” But it’s still a Romero zombie picture, so there’s plenty of rewarding stuff to find here. Set after the undead have essentially conquered the world, it’s set principally at a Florida military base, where scientist Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) is attempting to train zombies, particularly Bub (Sherman Howard), despite the suspicions of commander Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). The living humans in the cast aren’t terribly interesting, but the film’s attempt to flip the genre on its head a bit and give empathy to the undead felt (at the time at least) fresh and laudable: as ever with Romero, the worst monsters are found in humanity. And yet it might be the most human and optimistic of the three. Even if the whole isn’t as satisfying, it also contains some of Romero’s best sequences, and certainly the best kill, as Rhodes is torn apart by the undead.
23. “Scanners” (1981)
As this list makes apparent, the 1980s was the decade that David Cronenberg came into his own as a true horror master, and it all kicked off with “Scanners,” a film remembered most for its splattery exploding heads, but which has much more to recommend it beyond that. Hitting early on with a literal bang, as Michael Ironside’s sinister psychic (or ‘scanner’) makes a rival’s head go off like a volcano in front of a crowd, it tracks the battle between corporation ConSec, and their new recruit Cameron (Stephen Lack), and upstart Revok (Ironside). As much sci-fi thriller as it is horror, “Scanners” is more conventional and less perverse than some of Cronenberg’s very best work and suffers a little bit from having the dull Lack in the lead role. But it’s also enormously enjoyable, often heady and at its most out-there moments (the climax in particular) as horrifying as anything the director’s made. If he’s best known for body horror, this is his take on mind horror.
22. “Hellraiser” (1987)
The trouble many horrors from this era have is that their names have been sullied over the years with countless direct-to-video sequels, and “Hellraiser” is the best example as such: the brand is now utter garbage, but the original, while imperfect, is a genuinely ambitious, imaginative and terrifying picture. The feature film debut of horror author Clive Barker, its somewhat convoluted plot sees teen Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) discover that her step-mother (Clare Higgins) has resurrected her uncle (Sean Chapman), who was killed by solving a puzzle box that summoned Cenobites, extra-dimensional explorers in search of carnal pleasures. The film’s rough around the edges, with obvious budgetary limitations and uneven acting (not helped by some dubbed American accents), but it builds up a truly grim and transgressive level of fear through its mythology (and some memorable creature design, particularly the iconic Pinhead played by Doug Bradley), while avoiding hollowness, thanks to its investigation of perversity and BDSM.
21. “Santa Sangre” (1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s visionary return from the shadows is smeared in decadence and besotted with the director’s darkest imagery. ‘Santa Sangre’ marked a bonafide comeback for the revered absurdist, overflowing in fantastic fashion with his beguiling visual style and trademark symbols. The narrative is split open in a flashback and a flash-forward, as it traces the life of Fenix (played by Jodorowsky’s sons, Axel and Adan) as an innocent child and mentally-broken adult. Growing up in a circus-cum-cult as a child magician, Fenix endures much through his despicable father and religious mother (an unforgettable Blanca Guerra), though he’s luckily spared from seeing his mother pour acid on her cheating husband’s genitals and his subsequent revenge of dismemberment. Not your everyday coming-of-age fable, this. Jodorowsky retains his politically-incised stripes that blur the lines of illusion and reality, while inventively playing with horror conventions —serial killing, mental institutions, unhealthy familial bonds, gore— and churns out something that’s captivating and unnerving in equal doses.