My Top 10 Horror Films of 1984

As a teenage horror fan in the 1980s, I felt as if I were living in an age of discovery. Only now, when compiling this list, do I realize 1984 was limited in its breadth of offerings compared to the years around it. Perhaps I had been too busy tracking down bootleg videos of Joe D’Amato and Paul Naschy films to notice.

In retrospect, A Nightmare on Elm Street cast such a long shadow across the genre that it disguised the dip in quantity and quality elsewhere. Still, as with 1983, there are a few gems and more than enough enjoyable B-efforts to cobble a list together.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1984

 

  1. A Nightmare on Elm Street

 

I’m going to be negative for a moment. In comparison to other Golden Age of Horror classics, A Nightmare on Elm Street hasn’t aged that well. There’s quite a bit of cringey acting and hokey dialog, and the ending is poorly conceived.

That said, the scares still work great, and Freddy Krueger is a truly inspired villain that takes the concept of “horror icon” way beyond the silent-killer-in-a-mask routine. The film is, in the end, a dark fairy tale masquerading as a slasher movie.

Among all the great horror directors of the time, Wes Craven may have been the most outside-the-box thinker. Flawed or not, Elm Street changed the genre more than any film since Halloween, and that’s no small achievement.

 

  1. Terminator

 

Terminator is a film that can be claimed by several genres, including action and science fiction. That it also works as horror is a testament to James Cameron’s dynamism as a filmmaker.

Despite the high concept, Terminator’s relatively low budget works in the film’s favor. It’s lean, mean, and harsh looking, which adds both to the intensity and the realism. That chewed-up looking Schwarzenegger-bot above is a nightmarish sight indeed.

 

  1. Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter

 

Though a big fan of the Friday the 13th franchise, I recognize the repetitiveness of the films and their low artistic merit. For some reason, though, I’ve always found them more unnerving than the other well-known horror series. As I’m wont to say, horror is supposed to be scary. The other factors become less important when a movie is successful in getting under your skin.

Admitting that we’re dealing with a low-brow concept here, I think The Final Chapter is the second best in the series (after the original). They got the formula down, added some human drama, upped the body count, and brought Tom Savini back to stage some great kills. Ted White made a more physically imposing Jason than anyone before as well. A great film, no. But it works well for what it is.

 

  1. Gremlins

 

I’ve never been into Hollywood glitz. I don’t like “cute” films and I have little interest in sanitized horror.

Once in a while, there’s an exception. Gremlins is just so creative and fun, and so full of homage to classic cinema, it’s hard not to like it. It doesn’t hurt to have Joe Dante at the helm, the talented filmmaker who had previously directed The Howling and Piranha.

 

  1. The Company of Wolves

 

This British werewolf flick is a delightful oddball with its a strange mix of childlike storytelling and extreme graphic violence, operating very much in the spirit of Grimm’s fairy tales. This is one instance in which a bigger budget might have helped, as the FX, while creative, are spotty in terms of execution. Overall, though, The Company of Wolves marches to the beat of its own drummer, an admirable quality in a film.

 

  1. C.H.U.D.

 

This has to be the most referenced and joked about film that hardly anyone has seen. It’s a throwback to 1970s-era eco-horror but with a 1980s twist in animatronic creature FX. C.H.U.D. drags at times and ultimately lacks payoff (where’s the big, gory, all-out monster attack?), which keeps it from being a real genre classic.

Contrary to popular belief, “C.H.U.D.” does not stand for “cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers.” You have to stick around for the last act to find out what it really means.

 

  1. Rats

 

When an idiotic post-apocalyptic flick about flesh-eating rats makes number seven on a Top 10 list, it’s either a weak year or your list maker is drunk. Perhaps it’s a combination of both.

Look, I know there are fans of Night of the Comet wondering why they don’t see that film anywhere on this page, while a $5 piece of trash from Bruno Mattei is front and center. The answer: I like Rats better. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

[I don’t get the appeal of Night of the Comet, to be honest. But shhhh, people get legit annoyed when you don’t like a film they like]

 

  1. Silent Night, Deadly Night

 

Though Christmas-themed horror films and killer Santas were nothing new in 1984, this slasher flick seemed to inspire a fair amount of outrage among the parental-warning-sticker crowd. I’m not sure how much of that was real and how much was staged for marketing purposes, but either way, it worked for the filmmakers.

Silent Night, Deadly Night is a surprisingly gloomy film and not one you’d call “fun” in the way that Friday the 13th Part 2 and Pieces are fun. It probably wouldn’t crack my Top 10 list in a stronger year, but it has its merits, including Linnea Quigley in a small but memorable role as one of the killer’s victims, this coming before her rise to scream-queen fame.

 

  1. The Toxic Avenger

Lest you think I’ve lost my mind, I’m fully aware The Toxic Avenger is not a good movie by any standard. At the time, though, before Troma’s garbage aesthetic became a known quantity, this film was hysterically terrible in ways no one had ever imagined a film could be.

It’s a nostalgia pick for one reason: I actually saw this movie in a theater and watched through tears of laughter as patron after patron marched out in disgust. I stayed until the end, and it was great.

 

  1. The Initiation

 

Sigh. This goofy slasher would not have gotten anywhere near my Top 10 lists from 1980-82. But here we are in 1984, when horror hit a lull, so we work with what we’ve got.

The Initiation has some good kills going for it, plus Clu Gulager and Vera Miles, two actors who can elevate a B-movie.  Daphne Zuniga fans ought to enjoy her extensive screen time as well. It’s a mostly dumb and not-at-all scary flick, but measured against the entirety of 1980s slashers, it’s not bad.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Children of the Corn

 

We all have subgenres we like and ones we don’t. For whatever reason, the Amish/Mennonite horror scene (Wes Craven’s The Deadly Blessing is another example) doesn’t appeal to me. I can see how others would dig the look and atmosphere of Children of the Corn. I just never got into it.

 

Terror in the Aisles

 

Hey, they tried! Terror in the Aisles, a documentary ostensibly celebrating the horror genre, helped pave the way for the likes of His Name Was Jason, Halloween: 25 years of Terror, and other recent, in-depth examinations of popular horror franchises.

However, Terror is little more than a string of random clips and seems targeted at people who know nothing about the genre. The running time is liberally padded with scenes from action movies and cop thrillers as well. The idea behind this production is good but the execution is forgettable.

 

Death Warmed Up

 

Up to this point in this blog series, I haven’t given much attention to the contributions of our filmmaking friends down under. To rectify that, either this one or Razorback was getting talked about today. However, since I’ve never seen Razorback (gasp!), the choice was already made.

The arrival of Death Warmed Up in North America was preceded by some buzz within the horror world, but I admit to having been underwhelmed when I saw it. I’ve watched it since and still don’t find it that great, but I could hardly shun the Australians for the likes of Firestarter or Monster Dog, could I?

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

Like Vikings setting sail on a murky, mist-shrouded sea, we wade into the fog of 1983, the first year in over a decade without a consensus horror classic. No Texas Chainsaw Massacre, no Alien, no Evil Dead to be found.

It’s tantalizing, in a way, the mysterious path before us.

From the darkness ahead, choices emerge: gory, micro-budget space monster epics from New Jersey … trippy alien invasion flicks from England … weird Nazi monster somethings in a fortress … beloved pets turning on their owners … beloved appliances turning on their owners. Perhaps we’ll come up short if we go looking for another Halloween or The Exorcist, but the allure of discovering personal favorites and unearthing hidden gems is powerful nonetheless.

 

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1983

  1. The Deadly Spawn

 

There’s no point making a Top 10 list if you’re going to pander to your audience. Integrity is my calling card. One of them, at least. My other calling card is making melodramatic and hokey declarations about calling cards.

But anyway, after I compiled a comprehensive list of titles to choose from and analyze, I was left with an incontrovertible truth: I adore the crap out of The Deadly Spawn. I’ve made no secret of my love for the aesthetic of low-budget horror flicks. If the filmmakers are talented, imaginative, and passionate, I don’t care if the budget is $10; I’ll probably like the movie.

This fun and gory flick is imbued with an authentic rainy-day atmosphere and a variety of unexpected moments and nasty kills. It also stars a rare non-annoying kid actor (Charles George Hildebrandt), whose character is a misunderstood horror fan, something many of us can relate to.

 

  1. Xtro

 

While we’re on the subject of low-budget, imaginative films, it’s hard to top Xtro.

It’s no surprise, following the success of Alien, that we’d see a bunch of R-rated alien-invasion knock-offs in its wake. But while many transferred the action to terra firma for budgetary reasons, only one featured a monster with its head (and dick) on backwards; a giant, murderous toy soldier; and a dwarf clown with a glowing razorblade yo-yo. All swirling around a poignant family drama in which a mother’s loyalties are torn between the man she once loved and… aw fuck it. Just watch it. It’s as slimy as it is trippy.

 

  1. Videodrome

 

These segues are writing themselves today.

If you think Xtro is trippy, get a load of David Cronenberg’s most perverse, hallucinogenic body-horror tale yet. In the film, TV producer James Woods starts watching a late-night broadcast called Videodrome and soon grows a vagina on his abdomen, in which he stores a bio-mechanical gun. That’s not even the hallucinogenic part.

 

  1. Psycho II

 

If there’s one movie you’d never make a sequel to, it would be Psycho. Why? Because Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece is so cinematically perfect that a sequel would be an insult to the art of film itself.

Well, they made a sequel anyway, and you know what? It’s pretty good. Of course, unlike its predecessor, Psycho II is not one of the greatest films ever made. It is a solid horror mystery with cool twists, however, and body count movies rarely feature such multidimensional characters. The ending is a trip too. At worst, this one falls into the category of pleasant surprise.

 

  1. Dead Zone

 

Dang. Two David Cronenberg movies in one year? 1983 does reward the genre fan who digs deep enough.

This film, based the Stephen King novel, is certainly the more “Hollywood” of the Canadian director’s two productions. You get bigger stars and a more mainstream storytelling approach than you do with Videodrome, the latter of which any reasonable fan must admit has limited appeal due to its difficult narrative and perverse imagery. That said, Cronenberg successfully avoids studio glitz with The Dead Zone and keeps the narrative focused on a compelling human drama.

It’s too bad Christopher Walken and Cronenberg never teamed up again. They seem made for each other artistically. Imagine how much better Scanners would have been with Walken in the lead.

 

  1. Mausoleum

 

Here’s another of those low-budget horror flicks that could only have been made in the early 1980s, when the genre was flourishing as never before and kids like me craved cheap, nasty, over-the-top terror. For various reasons that may or may not have something to do with a mausoleum, buxom beauty Bobbie Bresee is transformed into a reptilian demon with killer tits. That should be detail enough for you to agree that Mausoleum is high art.

 

  1. Latidos De Panico

 

Sounds the trumpets; the great Paul Naschy is making his long-awaited return to this blog series. The Spanish horror star had done some solid flicks through the late 1970s and early 80s, but a simultaneous run of well-known genre classics banished him to the listicle dungeon. Well, he’s back.

I’ve said this before, but I don’t know of any actor/filmmaker whose movies better capture the mood of a lurid horror comic book cover. In Latidos De Panico (AKA Panic Beats), Naschy plays a ghostly knight who chases his victims down atop a phantom horse and bludgeons them to death with a military flail. His first victim, pre-credits, is a butt-naked young woman making a not-too-enthusiastic attempt to escape as he emerges after her from a glowing fog bank. Right off the cover of Weird Tales or some such grisly rag, if you ask me.

 

  1. The Hunger

 

David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve play a sexy vampire couple who become immersed in a world that combines 1970s lesbian-vampire erotica with 1980s rock-video cinematography. I don’t know if The Hunger is that substantial of a film, but it’s pretty to look at and stylish to a fault. Captivating when you’re in the mood for a horror that’s elegant and melodramatic. Willem Dafoe completists should take note of his role here as Thug # 2.

 

  1. American Nightmare

 

I debated with myself whether this is a horror film, since it lacks supernatural elements, monsters, aliens, a body count, or a masked killer. The tone is so utterly bleak, however, that it becomes horrifying. The presentation is essentially “a day in the life” of a guy spiraling so far into hopelessness he’s compelled to annihilate not just himself but everything that represents his existence. Features one of the darkest endings you’ll ever see.

 

  1. Christine

 

Since we’re keeping it real today: I don’t love this film. In a stronger year it wouldn’t make my Top 10 list, and I don’t think it measures up to John Carpenter’s previous horror efforts in terms of scares, FX, or memorable moments. That said, it’s well directed and sports gorgeous cinematography. Overall an entertaining watch but a lesser effort from a guy who has delivered some major genre classics.

 

Honorable mention

Today’s honorable mention section is devoted to movies that a lot of people like but which I don’t. As I told you, I shan’t pander by pretending I like things I don’t like. I’ve got to maintain my integrity.

 

Sleepaway Camp

 

To be honest, I don’t get the appeal. The movie is fun in the way average slasher flicks are fun, and Angela is a cool character. Otherwise, the acting’s weak, it’s not scary, there are way too many dudes in half-shirts (“not that there’s anything wrong with it”), and the movie is liberally padded with meaningless scenes of kids hanging out in the mess hall or playing softball. Is it the fucked-up ending that makes it great? Am I missing meaningful subtext? Feel free to elucidate the film’s merits in the comments.

Regardless of my personal view, it’s quite popular, so I would be remiss if I didn’t give it an honorable mention.

 

Twilight Zone – The Movie

 

This film is a slick, watchable production. However, it could have been a great one if they’d picked better stories and gone with a darker tone. John Landis phoned in a bland comic-book-justice bit, and Steven Spielberg went with a treacly remake of an episode that was already overly sentimental. George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” segment was well done but too easy a choice. Joe Dante’s entry was the most imaginative, if unsatisfying in resolution.

Hollywood rarely gets this kind of effort right. Imagine a directing team of John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Dario Argento, and David Cronenberg, all near the peak of their artistry at the time, tackling this project instead.

 

The Keep

You got tanks, Nazis, stone fortresses, good actors, a talented director, and a golem-like demon. The imagery is cool, but, for me, the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. At the same time, I would totally understand if this were someone’s top film of 1983. It’s unique, and that’s worth something.

 

House of Long Shadows

 

Oh lordy. A film with Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and John Carradine should have been great, but it falls flat, not unlike earlier attempts at all-star horror like Madhouse and Scream and Scream Again. Star power is seldom enough to make a movie good on its own.

 

Microwave Massacre

 

I’m only including this one because I made reference to it in the intro. I could just as easily have mentioned Cujo or Curtains, both of which are okay and have a bit of a fan following. Neither of them boasts Jackie Vernon, the voice of Frosty the Snowman, however.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1982

After the barrage of bloody horror that splashed across theater screens in 1981, the volume of releases normalized to a more sustainable level the following year. It turned out there were only so many audience dollars to go around.

Though the quantity of titles was lower, 1982 offered good variety. Instead of slasher after slasher, we got aliens, mutants, new gialli, a demonic possession/haunted house flick, and the return of anthology horror, which had fallen out of favor midway through the 1970s after Amicus faded into oblivion. There was also a comic book superhero monster in Swamp Thing, a sexy, stylish Hollywood remake in Cat People, and a rare R-rated stop-motion monster movie in Q, the Winged Serpent. None of which appear on the list below.

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1982

  1. The Thing

 

This is the easiest decision of this entire blog series. The Thing, the pinnacle of John Carpenter’s career, is as close to a perfect horror film as you’ll see. It seamlessly builds from eerie to unnerving to outright scary. It’s perfectly cast. The music score gets under your skin (like a shape-shifting alien), and Rob Bottin’s make-up FX work is both innovative and surreal. In short, this film deserves the near-universal adulation it gets from fans.

 

  1. Tenebrae

 

In the early 1970s, the giallo film was all the rage, with a new one hitting theater screens every other weekend. But by the beginning of 1982, the genre had seemingly seen its last razor-wielding, black-gloved killer.

Until Dario Argento said, “Not so fast,” and delivered this killer classic that plays like a “giallo’s greatest hits” film. I didn’t know what giallo was when I first saw Tenebrae way back when, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction.

 

  1. Creepshow

 

In 1982, George A Romero returned to the horror genre for the first time in four years to deliver this homage to classic horror comics, using a script written by Stephen King. The individual stories lack the clever twists associated with those old comics, but the visuals are a feast: garish colors, striking transitions from artwork to live action, and now-classic make-up FX by Tom Savini, who was, by this point, almost as legendary to genre fans as his two collaborators mentioned above.

 

  1. Forbidden World

 

In my previous post, I praised New World Pictures’ Galaxy of Terror for being exceptionally creative and ambitious when the producers could have just as easily have crapped out some exploitation fare featuring a rubber monster chasing after topless models. Well, New World took the latter route with this follow up, and we ended up getting a delightfully entertaining piece of trash about an alien that reduces humans to blobs of bloody protein for easier consumption. Forbidden World is a real grindhouse treasure.

 

  1. Pieces

 

If the previous film on this list is a grindhouse treasure, Pieces is a grindhouse legend. The slasher/giallo hybrid features genre favs Christopher George, Jack Taylor, and Paul Smith, absurd dialog, a hilarious array of red herrings, gallons of splatter, a nonsensical ending, and the single worst moment of acting in the history of movies.

This flick is the kind of delirious cinematic mess that compels me to shout derisive comments at the screen, yet I can’t imagine life without it.

 

  1. Basket Case

 

You know how you can often recognize when a film was made, give or take a year, by the “look” of it? Early 80s horror looks different from late 80s horror, for example, and micro-budget American splatter flicks from the early 80s have an aesthetic you can spot instantly: hard lighting, a slight graininess, compressed audio, and fake blood of a deep crimson that filmmakers can’t seem to capture on camera anymore. And the subject matter tends to be in bad taste.

Cult director Frank Henenlotter‘s Basket Case is the quintessential flick in that idiom, the cinematic equivalent of a really good punk rock album on an indie record label. To “normals” raised on big-budget Hollywood spectacle and over-produced pop music, it’s the sort of artistic creation that would be labeled “garbage” in two seconds and is likely to offend on multiple levels. But if you’re the kind of person who gets it, you love it.

 

  1. The Beast Within

 

The Beast Within combines elements of 1950s sci-fi films about mutated humans and oversized bugs and repackages them as a gory, slimy horror film. The plot: a woman is raped by a giant beetle and gives birth to a son who, 17 years later … turns into a giant beetle. Lots of townsfolk meet bloody ends.

Perhaps inspired by the spectacular werewolf transformations depicted in American Werewolf in London and The Howling a year earlier, the producers hired then up-and-coming make-up FX artist Tom Burman to concoct a man-into-bug metamorphosis sequence that turned into perhaps the most over-the-top transformation scene ever filmed. No shot was too absurd to be included in the final cut, which may have been ridiculous at the time but garnered the film some long-term notoriety.

 

  1. Poltergeist

 

Some readers will scoff at Poltergeist sitting all the way down here at number 8. Of course, it’s a horror classic with many iconic moments. For my taste, though, it’s a little too Hollywood, a little too glitzy, and little too reliant on the light show. Few do spectacle better than Steven Spielberg, but I would like to have seen Tobe Hooper unleashed and free to go for an R rating.

 

  1. The New York Ripper

 

Shifting from Poltergeist to The New York Ripper could blow a listicle’s transmission, but for you I’ll take the risk.

Like his countryman Dario Argento, Italian splatter maestro Lucio Fulci returned to the giallo film in 1982 and delivered what is surely that genre’s most gruesome and violent production. Fulci was never about elegantly orchestrated camera moves and clever staging. He was about the visceral aspects of life and death, and there’s one kill in this film so disturbingly visceral it has led some genre fans to declare that Fulci went too far.  To me, if a film’s participants are consulting adults of sound mind, and no one is actually in danger, there is no “too far.” That doesn’t mean I think the scene is ho-hum. It’s kinda fucked up, actually.

 

  1. Amityville II: The Possession

 

By mainstream cinephile standards, this sequel does not compare to the original on any level. By my standards, it’s actually better. As stated in earlier posts in this series, I believe less money generally leads to better horror, because the real scary stuff doesn’t require A-list actors and Hollywood razzle dazzle.

 Amityville II: The Possession is creepier, gorier, more violent, and easily more disturbing than its predecessor. It’s a horror film, for fuck’s sake. Those are good qualities. And Burt Young goes to some dark places with his character.

 

Honorable Mention

 

Friday the 13th Part III

 

I believe there are two groups of Friday the 13th fans: The ones who favor the darker, grimmer early films and those who find the later, campier ones more entertaining. I belong to the former group. Horror is supposed to be scary, IMO.

That said, Part III is the weakest of the four “classic” films. It offers some good kills as well as my favorite pre-zombie Jason make-up.  However, the blurry 3D footage is annoying in 2D, and there are too few likable characters. I like it, but better films bumped it from my top 10.

 

Halloween III: Season of the Witch

 

That time John Carpenter said, “Let’s make a Halloween movie without Michael Myers.” A divisive decision to be sure. On the one hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd, and I can see why so many fans dismiss this entry. On the other hand, the concept, plot, and execution are absurd enough to be audacious and ironically cool. It probably doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch did manage to produce some iconic genre moments.

 

The Slayer

 

Perhaps this obscurity shouldn’t warrant “honorable mention” over Cat People, Swamp Thing, Slumber Party Massacre, Parasite, House Where Evil Dwells, and a number of other titles released that year, but I’ve long had a soft spot for it. The Slayer is a bit rough around the edges, but it’s legitimately creepy and desolate, and it digs more deeply into the human psyche than most low-budget horror flicks do.

My Top 15 Horror Films of 1981

And thus we arrive at the most prolific year in the history of horror, the likes of which we shall never witness again. Let us pray…

52 titles appear on this page, which equates to a new horror film every week, and I’ve surely overlooked or forgotten more. What a glorious time it was to be a genre fan.

I tried really hard to limit this list to 10 films, but it simply wasn’t possible. If you find this abuse of power unconscionable, you may submit your official complaint to the Department of Listicles ($10 processing fee).

My Top 15 Horror Films of 1981

  1. The Evil Dead

 

If I absolutely, positively had to answer the question, What’s your favorite horror film?, I’d have to go with The Evil Dead. It’s not the best acted or most polished movie, but it is 85 minutes of pure, unpretentious, unrelenting horror, and Sam Raimi‘s directorial prowess is miles above and beyond the norm. To those who claim that splatter and terror are exclusive of each other, I say bullshit.

 

  1. The Howling

 

Werewolves were my favorite monster when I was a kid, but I never understood why the inevitably tragic hero viewed his lycanthropy as a curse. I wanted to be a werewolf. And so do the lycanthropes in The Howling, a movie that’s scary, funny, and totally outside the box. In my opinion, it’s the best werewolf film of them all.

Also, since my prior blog posts discussed the make-up FX artist as the “movie star” of 1980s horror: How about then-relative unknown Rob Bottin’s work in this film? It’s like he showed up to a high-school dance in a Lamborghini.

 

  1. An American Werewolf in London

 

You know it’s a deep draft when John Landis’s werewolf classic ends up at number 3 on a Top 10 list. As with The Howling, American Werewolf in London is both scary and funny and boasts legendary FX work, this time by Rick Baker. How much iconic horror imagery can come out of one film? A lot, it turns out.

 

  1. Galaxy of Terror

 

Considering its minuscule $700K budget, Galaxy of Terror may be the most ambitious film ever made. The producers could have set the whole show on a spaceship and then let a rubber monster pick off the crew one by one, and few would have complained. But instead we are given a mythology to contemplate, a host of monsters and other horrors, and a giant pyramid game in which humans are the playing pieces and the fate of the universe is at stake.

You can make fun of it for being “cheesy” if you like, but it’s a pretty bold take on Alien. Shit, Prometheus and Alien: Covenant rip this movie off, however unintentionally. That’s irony.

 

  1. Halloween II

 

This film has to be one of the most underappreciated sequels in horror. Halloween II is scary and intense, nearly equaling the original in that regard, yet with more of a 1980s-style body-count ethos. I love the conceit of setting the story on the same night as the original. A wise choice.

 

  1. House by the Cemetery

 

Some Lucio Fulci fans view House by the Cemetery as the weakest of his splatter epics, perhaps because it lacks the surreal horror set-pieces you get in the other films (e.g., the zombie-shark underwater fight in Zombie and the spider attack in The Beyond). I rather enjoy its simplicity, though. It’s a haunted house movie of sorts, and an eerie one.

And it’s not like Fulci scrimps on the gore. Some pretty savage kills occur in this flick.

 

  1. My Bloody Valentine

 

The slasher film is probably the cinematic sub-genre most reviled by critics. I say fuck ‘em. There are good and bad slasher films, and My Bloody Valentine is one of the good ones.

The small-town setting, the character drama, and the horror all feel authentic, and the filmmakers exploit the “valentine” imagery memorably. The unrated version boasts some truly grim kills as well, and the murderer, with his pick-ax and gas mask, is as striking a figure as any of the more well-known horror icons.

 

  1. Burial Ground

 

My god, this guy’s shirt.

Home video marketers tend to throw the word “sleazy” around to promote trashy horror films and gialli from the 70s and 80s, as if we genre fans all wear trench coats in theaters and subscribe to Barely Legal.

I’m saying, save the word “sleazy” for when you really mean it, like when you’re talking about Andrea Bianchi’s Burial Ground. Everything from the ridiculous zombies to the casting of a porn actor as one of the male leads to the nauseating oedipal subplot, it’s quite a piece of trash. And of course there’s that scene. Just try to unsee it.

 

  1. Nightmare

 

If we’re going to talk sleazy films, we might as well get ‘em out of the way all at once.

Nightmare, like Maniac and Don’t Go in the House from a year earlier, is a character-study slasher. That is, we are aware of the killer’s identity from the beginning, and instead of getting to know a bunch of attractive young people and then watching them get picked off in turn, we follow the killer around as he commits his crimes.

The body count is comparatively low in this flick, but the kills are extremely nasty and bloody. And if you thought it impossible for an actor to out-repulse Joe Spinell from Maniac, you haven’t seen Baird Stafford cry, scream, foam at the mouth, and turn into a sweaty, quivering blob when sexually aroused.

 

  1. Ghost Story

 

Whew. It’s time for a little Hollywood glitz to wash away the filth.

Ghost Story, loosely based on the Peter Straub novel, tells of four elderly men with an old, dark secret that’s finally catching up to them. The film offers an air of wintery doom, great make-up FX by The Exorcist veteran Dick Smith, and a pitch-perfect performance from Alice Krige as the vengeful specter.

There are some unexplained character motivations and a pointless subplot about a menacing hoodlum that goes unresolved, but it lives up to its promise as an eerily atmospheric horror.

 

  1. Scanners

 

David Cronenberg’s tale of a mind war between telekinetic rivals is bursting with ideas and revels in its ambiguity. And it features one of the best-known FX set pieces in horror history, when Michael Ironside blows up some guy’s head by thinking at him.

Although Scanners is most certainly more intelligent than most of the films above it here, I have it at 11 because of some momentum-killing pacing problems and a woefully miscast lead actor.

 

  1. Friday the 13th Part 2

 

In a sub-genre often mocked for lack of originality, Friday the 13th Part 2 is so derivative of its forerunner that one could call it a remake. A more polished and less scary remake.

That said, most of the characters are likable, which makes their deaths more impactful for the viewer, and the overall proceedings are fun and fast paced. And we all know Amy Steel is, with good reason, the poster child for “The Final Girl.”

 

  1. Dead and Buried

 

Somehow this film remains relatively obscure, which is a shame because it’s eerie throughout and quite chilling at times. The story eventually unravels thanks to an overload of plot twists that stop making sense after a while. Perhaps it’s best to enjoy the ride and avoid thinking about what it all means. Arguably the scariest film on this list.

 

  1. The Prowler

 

1981 offers a cornucopia of slasher films to explore, from the classic My Bloody Valentine to the forgettable Graduation Day to the flat-out bizarre Student Bodies. I wouldn’t say The Prowler is exceptional (compared to some of the others on this list, it drags in spots), but it has one sure thing going for it: Tom Savini.

Savini did fine FX work in Maniac and The Burning, but I believe the kills in this film are his best achievement in the slasher realm. Most happen on camera with the actors in motion, and they’re quite harrowing. The knife-through-the-top-of-the-head scene, when the victim’s eyes go white, is my favorite kill shot in any slasher film. Bravissimo, Mr. Savini.

 

  1. Cannibal Ferox

I knew Umberto Lenzi would show up on one of my lists eventually, even if I had to cheat and go to 15 entries.

This gorier knock-off of Cannibal Holocaust is the cinematic equivalent of Burger King: It’s bad for you and leaves you feeling sick, but when that hankering hits, damn you enjoy it. Those of us who grew up in the video nasty VHS era—when this movie was called Make ‘em Die Slowly—know well the allure of films so offensive they dare you to rent them. In that context, you won’t find a better marketing tagline than “Banned in 31 countries!”

 

Honorable mention

 

The Beyond

 

Shockingly to some, this film is my least favorite of Fulci’s “big four” zombie classics. But it’s still a few steps ahead of most other horror films. Had it been released a year or two later, it would easily have cracked my top 10.

 

The Burning

 

It tells you what kind of year it was when one of the better slasher films of the decade only earns an honorable mention.

 

The Funhouse

 

Tobe Hooper once again proves his directorial chops with this stylish and well-shot slasher that seems more profound than it is thanks to his skillful filmmaking. Gore was never Hooper’s thing, but this one might have moved into the top 15 had the kills been more memorable.

 

Happy Birthday to Me

 

That’s it, 1981 is officially the Year of the Slasher. This entry is a solid horror flick with a “you gotta be kidding” twist that’s audacious enough to be cool.

 

_________________________

 

Here are more horror films released in 1981, many of which are excellent. You could make a strong Top 10 list from these “leftovers” alone:

Absurd · Black Cat · Blood Beach · Bloody Birthday · Bloody Moon · The Boogens · Dark Night of the Scarecrow · Dawn of the Mummy · The Deadly Blessing · Don’t Go in the Woods · Don’t Go Near the Park · Evilspeak · Fear No Evil · Final Exam · Full Moon High · Funeral Home · Graduation Day · The Hand · Hell Night · Inseminoid · Just Before Dawn · The Loch Ness Horror · The Nesting · Night of the Werewolf · Omen III: The Final Conflict · Piranha 2: The Spawning · The Pit · Porno Holocaust · Possession · Saturday the 14th · Student Bodies · Wolfen · Zombie Lake