The 1980s were the era of the slasher film pop icon, when Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers transformed from mere movie characters into branded franchises, helped along by signifying attributes like goalie masks, red striped sweaters, and William Shatner’s face. Toys, t-shirts, and posters followed, and children even dressed as their favorite mass-murdering, unkillable psychopaths for Easter. Or Halloween, if your family is more normal than mine.
Many filmmakers tried to emulate the success of these characters with unscary, disposable copycats like Dr Giggles and Horace Pinker (Shocker). Then there were the producers and directors who thought: let’s skip all the merchandising bullshit, the marketable killer, and enjoyment for the audience. Let’s make something unpleasant.
Depending on the type of horror fan you are, you may find unpleasant films pleasant (hey, I listen to Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, which a lot of folks find pretty unpleasant). Grimy, uncommercialized slasher films tend to have a documentary feel as well, which can set a somber, dreadful tone that is an absolutely viable artistic choice. Notable about grimy slasher movies–versus the more mainstream ones–is the tendency to build the story around the killer rather than the teenagers in peril. Jason Voorhees is usually on screen for about 10-15 minutes out of 90, whereas in 4 of the 5 films described below, we follow the killer through the entire film, see his daily life, and often get a deeper backstory that explains what sent him on a murderous path.
Oh, he’s usually a repulsive, greasy fuckface that you’d cross the street to avoid in real life. No catchy one-liners, either. In chronological order:
Maniac (1980), Director – William Lustig
Joe Spinell plays Frank Zito, a sweaty, pock-faced, overweight, hooker-scalping creep who imagines his mother while he kills. He is also dating tall, gorgeous Caroline Munro, in possibly the most implausible plot element ever committed to celluloid. Did they write this thing for Harrison Ford and leave the script as is when Joe Spinell took the part instead? Also, Spinell cries and rocks back and forth in a dirty, sweat-stained undershirt after he kills and mutilates his victims. Where can I get a poster of this for my bedroom?
The real star is Tom Savini’s gore effects. I’d say Maniac is a snuff film featuring real murders, but Savini kills himself in the movie and appears to be alive and well 35 years later, so maybe the guy is just gifted at special effects.
Don’t Go in the House (1980), Director – Joseph Ellison
Donny Kohler (Dan Grimaldi) picks up chicks, takes them back to his house, sticks them in a fireproof room with metal paneling, and burns them alive with a flamethrower. It’s not poorly made, but it is the kind of production that stuck the horror genre with the misogyny label. We find out that Donny was abused as a child, so I guess the message is: Don’t abuse your kids; they might burn people alive later. This is a somber flick and not very fun to watch. Like the Cosby Show now.
Nightmare (1981), Director – Romano Scavolini
George Tatum (Baird Stafford) is released from a mental institution and deposited back on the streets. This turns out to be a terrible decision, as he goes on a road trip/killing spree. That is, when he is not hallucinating, sweating, screaming, crying, going to porn shops, wetting the bed, wearing tighty whiteys, and foaming at the mouth, none of which makes people want to dress like him for Halloween. The uncut version his movie features the most over-the-top ax murder in all of cinema. No human holds that much blood.
Unhinged (1982), Director – Don Gronquist
This somewhat more traditional slasher film tells the story of three women on their way to a concert who get into a crash and are brought into a creepy old house populated by the last humans you’d ever want to be around, and that includes all 14 Wrong Turn movies. Unhinged is basically an all-female Three on a Meathook, which is something the world was most certainly clamoring for. The main reason this movie leaves me feeling grimy is the disturbingly androgynous (not that there’s anything wrong with it) villain, played by Janet Penner. I was wondering whatever happened to Nancy Culp from Beverly Hillbillies.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), Director – John McNaughton
Surely you’ve all seen this film by now. If you haven’t, please do so. It’s quite horrifying, disturbing, and haunting, and Michael Rooker is brilliant as the titular character. Based on real-life maniac Henry Lee Lucas, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer shows us a week in the life of an utter sociopath and feels very much like a documentary sans narration. It’s far better than the other four films on this list, but, like them, it’ll make you want to take a long, hot shower afterwards.
So what grimy 1980s slasher movies would you add to this list?