Horror movies have been around since the invention of film but I’d argue they didn’t truly let their freak flag fly until the 1980s. This Renaissance of Horror brought about a lot of vocal detractors like conservative groups, Christian groups, conservative Christian groups and those nerf herders, the Reagans. But no organization was as detrimental to the creativity of up and coming horror artists as the gosh darn MPAA, led by some asshole involved with assassinating JFK. As we near both Halloween and the election this year, let’s defiantly celebrate with this ridiculously over-the-top and wildly inventive sub-genre of cinema. Fuck censorship (unless it’s hate speech, ya’ll) and let the proud boys choke on our cronenbergs!
Finishing off this list of my personal Top 50 80s Horror films with my Top 10…
10. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Freddy Krueger * Sleep Disorders * Dead Teenagers * Dark Humor * Legit Scary * Low Budget
A movie no one thought would succeed, made on a shoe-string budget (which it made back in 72 hours) that somehow manages to still terrify audiences based on the power of its ideas. What if something could kill you in your sleep and you had no way to escape or run away because it was in your dream? It’s basically a movie about sleep apnea.
directed by: Wes Craven ; screenplay by: Wes Craven ; starring: Robert Englund, Heather Langenkamp, John Saxon, Ronee Blakely, Johnny Depp, Amanda Wyss, Jsu Garcia, Lin Shaye. AVAILABLE FOR $2.99 RENTAL ON AMAZON.
9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Bleak * Drama * Critically Acclaimed * Great Lead Performance * Violent * Serial Killers * Chicago Movie
An NC-17 rated serial killer movie that pulls no punches and somehow managed to land on both Siskel and Ebert‘s Top 10 lists. This is incredibly disturbing stuff and a really intelligent examination of sociopathy. It also has one of the most haunting final shots on this list.
directed by: John McNaughton ; screenplay by: Richard Fire, John McNaughton ; starring: Michael Rooker, Tom Towles, Tracy Arnold. AVAILABLE ON AMAZON PRIME.
8. Dead Ringers (1988)
Identical Twins * Vaginal Horror * Bizarre * Drama * Great Lead Performance * Cerebral
Loosely based on the true story of two high society, identical twin brother gynecologists who went crazy, Dead Ringers plays like the most deranged episode of Frasier ever made. Jeremy Irons gives the best performance out of any actor on this list as the twins, imbuing each with distinctly different yet eerily similar personality traits, both overt and nuanced. What’s genius about this film, besides Irons’ masterful double performance, is how Cronenberg is able to take his usually quite graphic and visceral body horror visuals and tone them down, sometimes even completely internalizing them, in order to show that the real horror show is what’s going on in these brothers’ heads. This is incredibly cerebral stuff and not for horror fans seeking cheap thrills or clean resolutions. Cronenberg doesn’t just put your mind to work, he gives it a 9 to 5 gig.
directed by: David Cronenberg ; screenplay by: David Cronenberg, Norman Snider ; starring: Jeremy Irons, Jeremy Irons, Genevieve Bujold. AVAILABLE ON STARZ.
7. Poltergeist (1982)
Family Friendly * Haunted House * Spielbergian * Clown Shit * White People * Legit Scary * Heartwarming * Legalize Weed
Probably the scariest PG movie ever made, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg‘s collaborative effort, Poltergeist, perfectly balances wholesome 80s Americana with edge-of- your-seat, horrifying visuals. There’s also a scene that normalizes recreational marijuana use between two loving, responsible parents. Amen to that.
directed by: Tobe Hooper ; screenplay by: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor ; starring: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Zelda Rubenstein, Beatrice Straight, Heather O’Rourke, Dominique Dunn, Oliver Robins, James Karen. AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX.
6. Possession (1981)
Art House * Surreal * Great Lead Performances * Violent * Relationship Allegory * Kids Complicate Things
Andrzej Zulawski glazes Cronenberg body horror with an art-house, Criterion-esque sheen, creating something far more compelling than the sum of its parts. Basically it’s a break-up allegory seen through the eyes of a demonic possession thriller. The acting is powerful (Adjani won Best Actress at Cannes, and Neill is just as good) but ridiculously over-the-top. It feels like you’re watching two stage actors go through an intense Meisner exercise in a basement somewhere, but it’s backed up by universal truths about relationships and the trust or lack there of that grow from them. Even more insane than the actual movie is the fact that you can’t stream it anywhere. I had to buy a European region-free blu-ray off of an Amazon third party seller for close to $50. Please try to find it and watch it and demand it be released on blu ray. We can’t let this piece of film history be erased, it’s far too interesting.
directed by: Andrzej Zulawski ; screenplay by: Andrzej Zulawski, Frederic Tuten ; starring: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill. NOT AVAILABLE ANYWHERE.
5. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Surreal * Funny * Campy * Gory * Violent * Demonic Possession * Chainsaws * Groovy * Heavy Latex Makeup Effects
Not many people get a mulligan in the motion picture business, but Sam Raimi got one with Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn which is basically the first movie done infinitely better. Part 2 captures the absurdist humor the previous entry can’t seem to, with a level of confidence that’s pretty mind-blowing. The first half of the movie is basically just a one-man film with Bruce Campbell….well, let’s be honest, the whole thing is pretty much just a one-man show with Bruce Campbell playing off of nothing. It’s a dream team collaboration between actor and auteur that rivals Scorsese/DeNiro any day of the week.
directed by: Sam Raimi ; screenplay by: Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel ; starring: Bruce Campbell. AVAILABLE ON HULU and MOVIESPHERE.
4. The Terminator (1984)
Monster Movie * Science Fiction * Violent * Explosions * Dark Humor * Robots * Time Travel
Look I don’t want to hear any “technically, it’s a sci-fi movie” shit. A toothbrush isn’t manufactured as a dildo, but it gets the job done, ya dig? James Cameron‘s first Terminator is a relentless monster movie, Robot Jaws if you will, where Arnold Schwarzenegger is this unstoppable evil force that will decimate you beyond recognition for shit like having the name Sarah Connor. I’ll take my luck with the shark any day. This is a revolutionary film for several genres.
directed by: James Cameron ; screenplay by: James Cameron ; starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Linda Hamilton, Michael Biehn, Paul Winnfield, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Dick Miller. AVAILABLE ON HULU and AMAZON PRIME.
3. The Fly (1986)
Monster Movie * Science Fiction * Great Lead Performance * Drama * Tragedy * Heavy Latex Makeup Effects
I just saw this for the first time last year and was completely blown away. This is Cronenberg firing on all cylinders, succeeding in creating an incredibly thought-provoking film while still making it entertaining and accessible. Jeff Goldblum delivers a fantastic performance here as a scientist slowly and very tragically turning into a fly after a teleportation experiment gone wrong.
directed by: David Cronenberg ; screenplay by: Charles Edward Pogue, David Cronenberg ; starring: Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz. AVAILABLE ON STARZ.
2. The Thing (1982)
Monster Movie * Science Fiction * Ensemble Cast * Heavy Latex Makeup Effects * Cold War Allegory * Violent * Funny * Drama * Cabin Fever * Ennio Morricone Score
Probably the most relentlessly entertaining movie on my list, John Carpenter‘s magnum opus, The Thing, is less about an unstoppable killer organism and more about the fear of not being able to trust anybody. It’s thrilling, it’s funny, it’s shocking, and the ending proves that it’s also poignant.
directed by: John Carpenter ; screenplay by: Bill Lancaster ; starring: Kurt Russell, Keith David, Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hannahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas Waites. AVAILABLE ON SHOWTIME and for $3.99 RENTAL ON AMAZON.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King Adaptation? * Haunted Hotel * Legit Scary * Great Lead Performance * Drama * Dark Humor * Cabin Fever
Nothing else compares to Kubrick‘s atmospheric masterpiece The Shining. It’s a slow sink into terror, but once it sets its’ hooks into you, the sound of tricycle wheels alternating between carpet and wood floor is enough to make you squirm. Stephen King hated this adaptation of his work, but fuck him, he’s a lesser artist anyway. This isn’t a film about logic or character development, just primal fear. But if you want something more up to King’s pristine standards of filmmaking or just something that will make you want to gouge your fucking eyes out, check out his 1997 television mini-series adaptation of The Shining. Talk about a real horror show.
directed by: Stanley Kubrick ; screenplay by: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson ; starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Barry Nelson, Joe Turkel, Philip Stone. AVAILABLE ON AMC+ and for $3.99 RENTAL ON AMAZON.