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