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

My Top 10 Horror Films of 1978

History results from timing and convergence. The late 1970s saw the rise of the horror-auteur director just as Star Wars was causing a paradigm shift in the movie business. The fuse had already been lit on the upcoming home-video revolution. Italian filmmakers would soon find a new, global audience, and independent movies were coming back into prominence.

Combine those elements, and you get a 10-year span, 1978-87, unmatched in horror history both in terms of total output and in an incomparable run of major classics. From Halloween to Hellraiser, from Jason to Freddy, the conventions of modern horror were defined in—and continue to radiate from—this era.

That doesn’t mean 1978 represents a break in continuity from the past. Hollywood was still knocking out movies inspired by the then-recent success of The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie, such as Patrick and The Manitou. Even the director of Carrie, Brian De Palma, copied himself with The Fury, another movie about telekinetic teens.

But it wasn’t Hollywood self-imitating that would launch the new wave of horror. The two films at the top of today’s list played a slightly bigger part.

My 10 Ten Horror Films of 1978

  1. Dawn of the Dead

 

Is there another horror film more effective at making you feel so present as the events unfold? From the entropic opening sequence, to the SWAT attack on the apartment building, to the siege at the shopping mall, George A. Romero’s masterpiece sinks its rotten teeth in and drags you into the action. This movie  catapulted Tom Savini into the realm of make-up FX stars, and with good reason.

Dawn is arguably the best zombie film ever made. For whatever record anyone is keeping, I prefer co-producer Dario Argento’s European edit, but both it and the U.S. versions are equally brilliant.

 

  1. Halloween

 

Choosing between Dawn of the Dead and this film to top today’s list was like choosing a favorite child. Halloween would have come in first place in nearly every other entry in this blog series.

With his third feature, John Carpenter put horror in a place it had rarely ventured: the suburbs. If the genre had scared you out of the ocean, the woods, the desert, the city, and the mountains, at least you felt safe in your suburban neighborhood. That is, until the night he came home.

 

  1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers may just be the best remake in horror history, aside from The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly perhaps. It’s also likely the scariest PG-rated film you’ll ever see. Every scene is that much more unnerving than the one before, until the movie reaches its devastatingly bleak climax (which, of course, has been ruined by internet memes. Damn you, internet).

A masterpiece of paranoia that can be read many ways.

 

  1. Grapes of Death

 

As this blog series leaned heavily on Italian, Spanish, American, and British films to round out its top-10 lists, our French pal Jean Rollin was hovering on the periphery. In 1978, while taking a break from vampire flicks (and softcore porn), Rollin delivered this most excellent and underappreciated zombie film.

Borrowing a few ideas from Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue but putting his own spin on them, Rollin tells the story of a woman (Marie-Georges Pascal) trapped in a nearly abandoned village by a horde of undead flesh eaters, who were rendered so by pesticide-contaminated wine. If you enjoy the vibe of European horror of the 1970s and haven’t seen this one yet, put it on your watchlist right away.

 

  1. Piranha

 

Roger Corman gets it.

While other producers and studios try to mimic hit films by making inferior versions of the same thing (e.g., Orca imitating Jaws), Corman made films that looked superficially like knock-offs but in actuality embraced their uniqueness. Starcrash, for example, may have been a Star Wars cash-in, but it maintains a quirky look and feel all its own. You could say the same about Piranha relative to its inspiration, Jaws.

Directed by Joe Dante, who went on to make The Howling and Gremlins, Piranha is a silly good time as shallow as the water the nasty little bastards swim in, and it’s a hell of a lot more entertaining than The Deep.

 

  1. Alucarda

 

A histrionic Mexican nunsploitation flick featuring a rather spirited performance by Tina Romero in the title role. Trashy, gory, erotic, and overwrought … all the qualities you want in a film about Satan-possessed nuns.

 

  1. Magic

 

If the word “creepy” hadn’t existed in 1978, they would have invented it for this movie. Starring Anthony Hopkins and a ventriloquist’s dummy, the story concerns a … ah, I don’t really need to keep going, do I? That was enough to certify creepiness right there.

 

  1. Damien: Omen II

 

This sequel to the 1976 hit is so polished and tautly suspenseful that you kinda don’t notice it’s little more than a rehash of the previous film and does absolutely nothing to move the story forward. There’s no arc, as we end up in exactly the same place we were at the end of part one. You get a higher body count this time, though.

 

  1. Blue Sunshine

 

Underappreciated director Jeff Lieberman’s offbeat thriller about recreational drugs turning people into murderers serves as a sort-of bridge between Romero’s The Crazies and Cronenberg’s Scanners, both of which explore the unexpected side effects of chemicals on the human mind and behavior.

The film is missing (in my opinion) some of the visceral qualities of those classics, which leaves it somewhat unsatisfying. Still, Lieberman’s attempt at literate, provocative horror on a low budget deserves recognition.

 

  1. Toolbox Murders

 

When you say something is “half” this and “half” that, you usually mean the two haves are blended together. Half-vanilla and half-chocolate swirl, for example. With Toolbox Murders, we get half a splatter movie and half a psychodrama spliced together. Meaning, the first half is about gory murders, and the second half is about getting into the killer’s head.

The mix of gloomy character study and graphic violence prefigures the approach taken with Maniac, Don’t Go in the House, Christmas Evil, and Nightmare a few years later.

 

Honorable mention

 

I Spit on Your Grave

 

Some will wonder how this film didn’t crack my top 10. While I Spit on Your Grave is hardly the first rape/revenge film to shock audiences, it‘s surely the most notorious. Camille Keaton brings a lot of screen presence and acting skill, making the gang-rape sequence all the more grueling to watch.

However, beyond Keaton’s performance, I don’t think it’s especially well done. The pacing is flat, and the revenge portion is unsatisfying. I venture to say that if this film had gone out under the original title of ‘Day of the Woman’ sans the lurid ad campaign, it would not garner as much attention.

 

Dracula’s Dog

 

Also known as Zoltan, Hound of Dracula, this is a movie so absurd but played so straight that I can’t determine if it’s crap or brilliant satire. If it’s satire, what are they satirizing? If it’s crap, why is it so cool to see a vampire dog rising from his coffin?

 

My Top 6 Horror Films of 1968

I consider 1968-1988 to be the Golden Age of Horror.

There were certainly concentrated bursts of artistic brilliance and innovation before that: the pre-code classics of the early 1930s, Val Lewton’s horror-noir masterpieces of the early 1940s, and the taboo-shattering period of 1957-60 that began with Hammer’s first Technicolor terrors and ended with “Mrs.” Bates not swatting that fly.

In viewing 1968 as the start of the golden age, I’m not overlooking Mario Bava’s edgy, sometimes kinky gothic horrors, H.G. Lewis’s invention of the splatter genre, or the significance of early ‘60s classics like The Birds and Eyes Without a Face. I am saying, though, that these films had to stand out against a wash of movies that seem rather dated today.

Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein shared 1957 with a barrage of now archaic-looking giant-monster flicks like The Deadly Mantis and The Giant Claw, for example. Bava competed against Roger Corman’s assembly line of Poe-themed costume dramas, which we can admit are fun and nostalgic but hardly pushed the art of film forward.

Then, in 1968, horror cinema turned postmodern. The Vietnam War, the bloody civil rights struggle, nuclear proliferation, and a series of history-altering political assassinations made movies about haunted castles appear silly. In short order, graphic violence and nudity became commonplace on theater screens, and films were suddenly imbued with social commentary.

In the ensuing twenty years, the concept of the horror icon was born and spawned franchises, and directors and make-up FX artists became the stars of the genre. By 1981, it seemed as if at least one new horror film hit movie screens per week. The flood of theatrical releases reached its crest in the mid 80s and then began the inevitable run off. By 1989 and into the early ’90s, most titles ended with a Roman numeral and had largely faded into a blur of forgettable direct-to-video-store shelf filler.

Legendary horror films have been released throughout cinematic history, from Nosferatu in 1922 to The Ring in 2002. But there’s something about the 1968-88 era that many horror film fanatics, including me, hold in especially high regard.

Going forward, I make no attempt to mention every film you might have heard of, nor do I claim my choices are “the best.” They are merely my favorites. We begin:

My Top 6 Horror Films of 1968

  1. Night of the Living Dead

George A. Romero’s debut feature is a nihilistic masterpiece that eviscerates government authority and white cultural hegemony even more savagely than the featured undead do their on-screen victims. This movie both wrote the zombie rule book and created the blueprint for low-budget, drive-in horror.

  1. Rosemary’s Baby

In his harrowing study of paranoia and isolation (which may be even more relevant today), Roman Polanski takes us from wanting to save Rosemary, to thinking she’s loony, to having no idea what’s real and what isn’t. Sounds a bit like everyday life.

  1. Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell

Placing the adjective “bizarre” in front of the phrase “Japanese horror film” has been a superfluous act from the get go. As is typical of East Asian genre movies, Goke is visually captivating while making no attempt to depict anything naturalistically. Director Hajime Sato is every bit as effective as Romero at generating paranoia within a group of isolated survivors (this time of a plane crash in the mountains).

  1. The Living Skeleton

When Japanese horror isn’t being bizarre, it’s being eerie, and The Living Skeleton is among the eeriest. Is there a better film about a ghost ship? Well, Matango is pretty great (and bizarre and eerie).

  1. Targets

How wonderful is it that Boris Karloff, after decades of acting in generally artless B-movies, got to deliver one of his greatest performances at the end of his life? Playing an old, forgotten horror actor, Karloff comes face to face with a disaffected young killer bent on committing a mass shooting. It’s like director Peter Bogdanovich knew he was documenting a paradigm shift in the genre.

  1. The Devil Rides Out

I’m partial to movies about witchcraft and devil worship. Add Christopher Lee and stir until scary.

 

Honorable mention (a.k.a. I must be an idiot for not choosing these movies instead)

  1. Witchfinder General

This film is one of the most talked about “subversive” horror films ever made, and its director, Michael Reeves, had all the tragic qualities we like in a tortured (pun intended) artist. Honestly, though, I find it a bit boring. Hey, it’s my list!

  1. Dracula has Risen from the Grave

The second sequel to Horror of Dracula somehow escapes the rambling/sloppy storytelling of the other films in the series, and the character dynamics are legitimately interesting. However, for a film that cast a Roger Daltry lookalike for the lead and tried super hard to make the adults look like squares, its “brush your teeth and eat your vegetables” message at the end seems like a bait and switch.

  1. Brides of Blood

I almost bumped The Devil Rides Out from my top 5 list in favor this utterly trashy Filipino monster flick, which I adore on many levels. Better judgement won out (barely).

Next time, I name my favs of 1969 (duh)!