10 Great Horror Movies of the 1980s: Ahh, the 80s! It was a time when you could skip school, rent a couple of video nasties without getting checked for ID, go on a BMX adventure and still get back before mum and dad arrived home from work. All under the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. While the killer trio of Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th), Michael Myers (Halloween), and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street) were the dominant horror icons of the decade, it’s unfair to dismiss the 80s as just the slasher era. It was one of the most diverse and inventive periods for horror, with the golden age of VHS bringing an incredible array of scary movies into peoples’ homes.
Box office bombs like John Carpenter’s The Thing found an appreciative audience on tape; insane arthouse head trips like Possession blew minds while the gnarly Cannibal Holocaust made people blow chunks; crazy one-offs like Killer Klowns from Outer Space developed a devoted cult fanbase. There was even crossover into mainstream family-friendly viewing, with Ghostbusters and The Monster Squad providing gateway scares for a new generation of horror fans. It was the first fully rewindable decade and these films felt like ours. While the haircuts and the fashions may look dated, 80s horror retains a thrilling sense of anything-goes mayhem, packed with quotable lines, off-the-wall performances, gloopy special effects, gratuitous nudity, unpredictable WTF moments, and some serious scares. Here are 10 great horror movies of the 1980s.
10. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Friday the 13th may have kicked off the summer camp horror craze, but Sleepaway Camp does something far more interesting than mere stalk ‘n’ slash. After surviving a fatal boating accident, a painfully shy teen is sent away to summer camp with her overprotective cousin. As the bullies and pedophile staff home in on the meek kid, people start falling victim to a series of unlikely murders. Opening with a peculiar dedication to the director’s mother, it feels like a really weird passion project from Robert Hiltzik whose only other movie was direct-to-video Return to Sleepaway Camp in 2008.
Unusually for a slasher, he casts real teens and lets them be as profane and obnoxious as teens are in real life. Apart from the kills, there are many quaint and curious bits of business to keep you busy, from a cop’s obviously painted-on mustache to the bonkers performance from Desiree Gould as wacky Aunt Martha. That’s all before the film’s infamous and truly shocking surprise ending. Do yourself a favor and do not Google Sleepaway Camp before you see it!
9. Hellraiser (1987)
Horror novelist Clive Barker made an assured directorial debut with this kinky and very grown-up adaptation of his novella, The Hellbound Heart. Globetrotting pervert Frank Cotton is in Marrakech looking for ever-more esoteric kicks. He buys a puzzle box that summons the Cenobites, a gang of horribly mutilated inter-dimensional pain freaks, who rip him to shreds and take his soul captive.
While the Cenobites are the iconic image of this film, their appearance is mostly a cameo. They’re the ghastly supporting act to the grubby tale of undead Frank’s adulterous lover seducing men and bringing them home for him to feed on after he is reanimated by a drop of her husband’s blood. Shot through with putrid, twisted decadence, Barker combines a sordid story with some seriously grisly special effects for a very adult horror movie. The spell is broken somewhat by the silly rubber monster at the end, but Hellraiser still retains its power to scar you for life.
8. Return of the Living Dead (1985)
While Dan O’Bannon’s pitch black horror-comedy frequently pays homage to Night of the Living Dead, its punk vibe has more in common with Repo Man than Romero’s genre-defining classic. Even so, it is no less influential – it introduced the concept of brain-munching zombies and was also the first movie to show them running and talking. After a pair of warehouse workers accidentally release a toxic substance that revives the corpses in a neighboring graveyard, they hole up with a gang of punks to fight for survival against a horde of indestructible ghouls. Meanwhile, the military has a devastating plan for dealing with the crisis.
The film has some great punk needle drops on the soundtrack, ghoulish special effects, a grave top striptease from scream queen Linnea Quigley, and a nihilistic FU of an ending. Bleak, gross, and hilarious, Return of the Living Dead feels very much the perfect zombie movie for its time and plays equally well today.
7. Poltergeist (1982)
Possibly the scariest movie to ever receive the PG certificate, Poltergeist is a feel-good supernatural blockbuster that also scared the bejesus out of millions of kids. It holds up 40 years later thanks to its luminous special effects from Industrial Light and Magic and wonderful performances, especially JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as ordinary parents trying to hold their family together after their youngest daughter is abducted by an evil force. Playing like a ransom thriller with ghosts, the film’s longevity owes much to its everyday setting of suburban life, family meals, grumpy neighbors, and kids on bikes – it’s so easy to relate to this family.
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This grounded setting also helps us suspend disbelief when furniture starts flying, ghosts emerge from the TV set, and – most terrifyingly – a guy rips his own face off. There is still lively debate about whether Tobe Hooper actually directed the movie or how much of Poltergeist is Steven Spielberg’s vision. One thing for sure is that for all the spooky moments, it has the same sense of wonder as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
6. Evil Dead II (1987)
After the disaster of Crimewave, Sam Raimi returned to his scary cabin in the woods to create a splatstick masterpiece that exceeded – and bettered – his low-budget breakthrough The Evil Dead on every level. Equal parts sequel and remake, Bruce Campbell returned as square-jawed Ash, once again battling for survival against an evil force unleashed from the Book of the Dead. Wildly veering from in-your-face zombie terror to Tex Avery-style slapstick, Raimi goes all-in on the zany visuals and throws just about every directorial trick into the mix.
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It’s a breathtaking ride that is both scarier and funnier than the original while also toning down its predecessor’s nastier edge. Evil Dead II also minted Campbell’s status as a cult icon. After he gets beaten up by his own possessed hand, chops it off and replaces it with a chainsaw, how could it not? Groovy indeed.
5. Possession (1981)
For those who think Midsommar is the ultimate horror break-up movie: you guys really need to check out Possession! Andrzej Żuławski mashes together searing scenes of a marriage in its final violent throes with surreal moments of blood-slicked horror in a film that feels like a true spiral into insanity. Sam Neill plays a spy returning home to Berlin to find that his estranged wife wants a divorce so she can be with her lover. Turns out that her new object of lust is not of this earth.
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Neill is great but the film is dominated by the unhinged turn from Isabelle Adjani as a woman fully overcome by her strange desires. Adjani said in interviews that she took several years to recover from the performance and it’s an uninhibited tour-de-force, culminating in a feral freak-out as she miscarries something unspeakable in a subway tunnel. The icky special effects from Carlo Rambaldi, the man who gave us E.T, are still disturbing and the apocalyptic final scene troubles the memory for a long time after.
4. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
If you sleep, you die. Like all the best horror, Wes Craven’s hit slasher taps deep into our primal fears. Freddy Krueger, the malevolent spirit of a child killer burnt to death by vengeful parents, attacks his new victims when they are at their most vulnerable…in their sleep. Krueger became a pop culture sensation, equally likely to rap in a music video with The Fat Boys as he was to stalk your nightmares, and a string of sequels turned him into a cartoonish villain.
It is always refreshing to return to the original to see what a truly frightening bogeyman he was, played with sinister relish by Robert Englund in his iconic fedora, striped jersey, and bladed glove. A Nightmare on Elm Street successfully blurs the lines between dreams and reality, casting the viewer into a somnambulistic state where anything could happen at any time. The gore set pieces are still effective today, but it is the film’s haunted, dreamlike atmosphere that lingers and unsettles the most.
3. Santa Sangre (1989)
Santa Sangre is the most accessible film from Chilean madman Alejandro Jodorowsky, the visionary sculptor-writer-guru-director who brought you cult touchstones El Topo and The Holy Mountain. It’s a rich, psychedelic, sensual, psychological horror that manages to rip off major elements of Psycho while still feeling like it’s uniquely its own thing. Set in a dark fantasy world of circus big tops and religious cults, it is the strange tale of a young man who escapes a mental hospital to become his armless mother’s “arms” and commit a string of brutal murders.
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It may sound ridiculous but Jodorowsky’s vision never wavers, and it all makes sense while watching it. If not logically, then at gut-level emotionally. Santa Sangre features plenty of the director’s usual surreal moments, burlesque humor, and avant-garde provocations, but it is also something else. It is an uncommonly empathetic horror that has a heartfelt understanding of grief, madness, and buried trauma.
2. The Thing (1982)
Originally a box office flop panned by critics, John Carpenter’s The Thing is now widely revered as one of the greatest sci-fi horrors ever made. Set in the icy wastes of the Antarctic, Kurt Russell heads an excellent ensemble cast as MacReady, helicopter pilot and de-facto leader of a group of overwintering men preyed on by a shapeshifting alien creature. While Carpenter quotes key images from the original 1951 The Thing From Another World, his deeply paranoid version reinstates a key feature from the source material.
In his novella Who Goes There? author John W. Campbell imagined a vicious creature that could assimilate and perfectly replicate its victims. On the outside, at least. The first act is a masterclass in suspense as Carpenter patiently accumulates creepy images and ominous details, aided by Ennio Morricone’s sparse score and some tension-relieving gallows humor. Then the creature bursts onto screen and all hell breaks loose before an ambiguous, downbeat ending that is absolutely perfect. The incredible special effects from Rob Bottin are still a horrific landmark in imaginative creature design.
1. The Shining (1980)
Stephen King might hate it, but Stanley Kubrick’s glacial adaptation of his novel is rightly hailed as a horror masterpiece. Jack Nicholson stars as Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and former alcoholic who takes a caretaking job at a remote mountain hotel during the winter. He soon finds himself with a fatal case of writer’s block while the resident spirits have designs on his son’s psychic powers. The Shining has little in the way of traditional scares. Instead, it gets deep under your skin with its hypnotic rhythm and slowly escalating terror as Kubrick’s Steadicam prowls after the Torrance family through the hotel’s empty corridors, hallways, and cavernous ballrooms.
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Rather than relying on cheap scares, the Overlook’s most frightening apparitions are chilling in their stillness – the twin girls standing hand-in-hand in a corridor, or the naked woman emerging ever so slowly from a bathtub in the infamous Room 237. Ever the perfectionist, one of Kubrick’s key changes was switching the book’s living topiary animals for a hedge maze, mirroring the Escher-like labyrinth of the hotel’s interior and setting the scene for one of the most thrilling endings in horror movie history.