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
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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]
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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?