From ’70s possession movies inspired by The Exorcist to the wave of found footage films sparked by The Blair Witch Project, horror has long been marked by the popularity of sub-genres that follow a big box office hit. As the 1980s dawned, the huge success of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th led to dozens of interchangeable slasher movies, before the craze died out by the middle of the decade. This was the era of the horror franchise, with the commercial power of the Friday the 13th, Halloween, and in particular the Nightmare on Elm Street series cementing the idea that there was no limit to the number of sequels that audiences would turn up for.
The ’80s were also marked by the rise of the comedy horror. Gone were the serious, gritty movies of the ’70s–mainstream American horror of this era was frequently played for laughs, with some classics (Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2), but many more movies that were neither funny nor scary. There is no better illustration than the change in the decade’s biggest horror icon–Freddy Krueger–who, over a few years, was transformed from a terrifying, loathsome child killer in the original Nightmare on Elm Street to the wisecracking cartoon villain of the later Elm Street movies.
But while Freddy and Jason might be the first things we think of when it comes to ’80s horror, they’re far from the whole story. Some the genre’s great directors continued to put out impressive work, with the likes of David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter delivering some of their best movies. The rise of VHS also meant that there was an incredible amount of horror available to watch easily, allowing some fascinating movies to find an audience that they otherwise might not have. There are many terrific ’80s horror movies that tried to do something different, some within the popular subgenres of the era, some from way outside. So here’s 14 underrated ’80s horror movies well worth rediscovery.
14. Alligator (1980)
Before he was the director of highly acclaimed indie dramas such as Lone Star and Passion Fish, John Sayles wrote a series of brilliant genre scripts in the early ’80s. His best known horror screenplays were for Joe Dante’s The Howling and Piranha, but Alligator is another witty gem. It actually has some plot similarities to C.H.U.D, which you’ll find later on this list–New Yorkers were clearly very worried about what was lurking in their sewer system back in the ’80s! In this one, a baby alligator is flushed down a toilet and grows into a huge, hungry gator after it feeds on genetically modified animal carcasses that have also been dumped down there. Like Sayles’ other work, this is a fast-moving, witty film that works as both an affectionate parody of monster movies, and an effective creature feature in its own right. Director Lewis Teague isn’t in the same league as Dante, but it’s a lot of fun, and has a terrific lead performance from the great Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Twin Peaks).
13. Waxwork (1988)
As you’ll see from this list, the 1980s was very much the decade of the horror comedy. There were many terrible examples, but the best ones–Evil Dead 2, Re-Animator, Return of the Living Dead–are now considered genre classics. Waxwork doesn’t hit those heights but it’s an inventive, off-beat movie that paved the way for the knowing, self-referential horror of the following decade. The film focuses on a spooky wax museum, in which a group of suburban kids find themselves trapped one night. The gimmick is that each display is a portal into another dimension–from Dracula’s castle to London of Jack the Ripper–and if you die there, you become part of the waxwork display. It’s not remotely scary, but director Anthony Hickox ladles on the laughs and the gore, and the cast–including Gremlins‘ Zack Galligan and veteran actors David Warner and Patrick MacNee–look like they’re having a blast. It was followed by an equally entertaining sequel in 1992.
12. C.H.U.D (1984)
One of the fun things to do while watching ’80s horror is looking out for upcoming actors who became big stars in the following decades. C.H.U.D has several, including John Goodman and Home Alone actors Daniel Stern and John Heard. As a result the acting is above the standard that you’d normally find in this sort of thing, and it remains an entertaining, satirical monster movie. The title acronym stands for Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers, a race of man-eating mutants who live in the sewers of New York. These creatures have been created by toxic waste that was dumped by unscrupulous city officials, and it’s up to a cop and a photographer to stop them. C.H.U.D throws in a ton of subplots and characters–probably too many–and the environmental message isn’t exactly subtle. But there’s plenty of monster action, and the witty script, strong performances, and gritty location photography make this well worth seeking out.
11. Paperhouse (1988)
Director Bernard Rose is best known to horror fans as the director of 1992’s classic Candyman, but four years earlier, he made this stunning dark fantasy. It’s a movie which plays with dreams and childhood trauma, in which an 11-year-old girl escapes from the difficulties of her life by retreating into a house that starts as a drawing but becomes increasingly real. It’s a subtle, haunting movie that relies more on atmosphere than shocks, and lingers in the mind long after it finishes.
10. Just Before Dawn (1981)
For the most part, the best known slasher movies of the ’80s–Friday the 13th, The Burning, My Bloody Valentine–are the best the sub-genre had to offer. The exception is Just Before Dawn, a stylish stalk’n’slash more interested in tension than in murder and gore. Which is not to say it lacks those elements; plot-wise it’s pretty generic stuff, as a group of kids get picked off one by one on a mountain camping trip. But director Jeff Lieberman makes great use of the Oregon locations, and it’s easy to see why he cited the survival classic Deliverance as a huge influence. It’s got some gripping sequences as the backwoods maniac stalks his victims and an eerie atmosphere, and the striking cinematography puts it way above its slasher peers. The movie also features an early score from Brad Fiedel, who went on to compose the music for several of James Cameron’s movies.
9. Evil Dead Trap (1988)
Horror filmmakers in South-East Asia have long pushed the boundaries of the genre, and Evil Dead Trap is no exception. It’s an intense, stylish, incredibly gory slasher in which a TV crew attempt to discover the source of what seems to be a snuff video and instead find themselves trapped in a warehouse by a crazed killer. This movie makes most US slashers seem bland by comparison, as director Toshiharu Ikeda pushes everything to the max. The atmosphere is steeped in dread, the storyline is increasingly bizarre, and the violence–some of it sexual–is shocking and gruesome. The movie’s climax has to be seen to be believed as well. It’s not for everyone, but hardcore gorehounds will love it.
8. Dead Heat (1988)
Away from horror, the ’80s was also the decade of the buddy cop movie. So it’s little surprise that the two would collide, the result being the cult favorite Dead Heat. This is one of those movies that feels like it’s being made up as it goes along as it swings from wise-cracking cop comedy and violent action to crazed zombies and mad scientists, and also features one of the last roles for horror legend Vincent Price. Treat Williams and former SNL star Joe Piscopo play hard-bitten cops who discover that the dead are not staying in the morgue; before long Piscopo is himself a walking, talking reanimated corpse cop. None of it makes much sense, but it’s a weird, wild ride, best enjoyed with like-minded fans of crazy cinema. The fact that Williams’ character is named Roger Mortis tells you all you need to know.
7. Stage Fright (1987)
The heyday of Italian horror was very much the ’60s and ’70s, when directors like Mario Bava and Dario Argento were at their peak. But there were still some great movies made during the ’80s, such as this stylish slasher. It marked the directorial debut of Michele Soavi, and took a ludicrous premise–a group of actors are picked off one by one by a killer during an all-night rehearsal–and delivered a superb, scary movie. Like much of the best Italian horror, it’s an incredibly stylish film, but Soavi balances the gorgeous cinematography with some brutal kills, including some by knives, drills, and chainsaws. Best of all is the killer himself, an escaped lunatic who carries out his night of mayhem wearing a giant owl mask.
6. Pumpkinhead (1988)
Amongst horror fans, make-up effects artists are as revered as directors–pioneering figures such as Tom Savini, Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, and Dick Smith are all beloved figures within the genre. The late Stan Winston was one of the greatest in his field, and was responsible for the groundbreaking effects in movies such as The Terminator, Predator, and Jurassic Park. He also directed a couple of movies, the first of which is the excellent Pumpkinhead. As you’d expect, the movie features a great monster–a terrifying demon who is conjured up by a grieving father to take revenge on the scum who killed his son. Although it was met poor reviews on its release, Pumpkinhead has aged well–Winston generates a scary, brooding atmosphere, and tries to give his movie emotional resonance you don’t always find in the genre, helped by a strong performance from genre veteran Lance Henriksen as the grief-stricken dad.
5. Pin (1988)
Scary dolls have long been a part of horror, but for the most part they are small and relatively easy to escape if they’re trying to kill you. One exception is the plastic protagonist of the spooky Canadian thriller Pin. He’s a life-size, anatomically-correct medical doll that a mentally unstable man called Leon is convinced is alive and speaks to him. What started as a harmless game he would play as a child in the doctor’s office becomes dangerous when Leon ends up bringing the doll home and carrying out murderous acts that Pin “asks” him to do. It’s a creepy, disturbing film marked by strong performances and an unpredictable script that feels very different from many of the trashier films of the era.
4. Street Trash (1987)
Perhaps the most outrageous horror comedy of the decade, Street Trash is the sole directing credit for Jim Muro, who would go on to be one of the most in-demand steadicam operators in Hollywood. There so much in here it’s hard to know where to begin–the main plot centers around a batch of ancient whiskey that is sold by an unscrupulous liquor store to homeless winos in Brooklyn, which causes them to melt in spectacular style. But there are also subplots involving cops, mobsters, deranged Vietnam vets, and the attempts of two runaway brothers to survive on the mean streets of the city. It’s utterly tasteless, with castration, necrophilia, and gang-rape jokes thrown around with wild abandon. But it’s also absolutely hilarious, brilliantly directed, and features some absolutely incredible psychedelic gore scenes. For better or worse, there’s no other movie quite like Street Trash.
3. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
Japanese director and actor Shinya Tsukamoto recently appeared in Martin Scorsese’s historical drama Silence, giving an acclaimed, dignified performance. But 30 years ago, Tsukamoto was making an impact in a very different way. His directorial debut, Tetsuo: The Iron Man, is an insane black-and-white cyberpunk nightmare, in which a man gets his revenge on the couple who tried to kill him by transforming himself into a fusion of man and machine. Tetsuo is true underground filmmaking, made on a tiny budget but overflowing with visual invention. Tsukamoto throws in stop motion animation, wild camerawork, fractured editing, and moments of truly shocking violence. It was shot over a difficult 18-month period, and Tsukamoto has subsequently said the experience left him wanting to destroy the negative after he had finished. Thankfully he didn’t, and the movie has gone onto to become a true cult classic.
2. Night of the Comet (1984)
It was recently reported that this cult sci-fi comedy horror is getting the Hollywood remake treatment, but it’s hard to see how the original can be topped. It’s a seriously odd but gloriously entertaining post-apocalyptic comedy, in which teenage sisters Sam and Reggie find themselves trying to survive in LA after a passing comet wipes out most of the population. It’s got zombies, mad scientists, a hilarious script, and a crazy visual style, but the movie’s true success lies with its two main characters. Played by Kelli Maroney and Catherine Mary Stewart, Sam and Reggie are that ’80s horror rarity–smart, strong, funny, totally badass lead female characters. Joss Whedon was a big fan, and later used Sam as one of the inspirations for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
1. Q: The WInged Serpent (1982)
While never as well-known as Wes Craven, George Romero, or John Carpenter, Larry Cohen was unquestionably one of the finest genre directors of the ’70s and ’80s. A brilliant writer as well as director, he would effortless blend genres to produce movies that were smart, scary, and unique. He’s best known for the It’s Alive movies (and for writing the mainstream 2002 hit Phone Booth), but Q: The Winged Serpent is perhaps his greatest film. It’s a monster movie, but one in which the creature action takes a back seat to some hilarious character-driven black comedy. Michael Moriarty plays a small-time crook who discovers that the winged creature who has been picking off New Yorkers is hiding at the top of the Chrysler Building, and sets about trying to blackmail the city for $1 million before he reveals its location. Moriarty gives a wonderfully wired performance, and there’s able support from B-movie veterans David Carradine (Kill Bill) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) as the cops on the monster’s trail. Funny, gory, and hugely entertaining, Q is one of the decade’s best.