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Decades of Horror: 1980s Edition


By all accounts, the 1980s were a flagship decade for the horror genre. Freddy, Jason, and Pinhead were all born and slashers roamed the Earth.

Join Shelby, Matt, and Sean as they recount their favorite horror films of the decade by year. Check back next Friday for Decades of Horror: 1990s Edition!

1980:

Shelby - The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

I’m not sure how I could have justified picking anything other than The Shining for 1980. I love this movie so much that I don’t even mind that it isn’t a *great* adaptation of the Stephen King novel (which I also love).

Matt L. - Friday the 13th (dir. Sean S. Cunningham)

Granted, there’s (sort of) no Jason, and the reveal of the killer is ridiculous, but as the OG summer camp slasher movie, this is pretty solid.

Sean M. - Motel Hell (dir. Kevin Connor)

I was surprised by how well this movie balances the creepy and comedic. Very similar in tone to Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (it even has a climatic chainsaw fight!). For my money, though, I’ll take Motel Hell.

Jose - The Shining (dir. Stanley Kubrick)

I know this adaptation of Stephen King’s classic novel was far from faithful, but this was the first film that gave me nightmares. Nicholson is over-the-top (even for Nicholson) but the real star is Kubrick’s unblinking vision aided by John Alcott’s haunting cinematography.

1981:

Shelby - The Evil Dead (dir. Sam Raimi)

The film that catapulted Bruce Campbell into B-level stardom and would eventually, inadvertently, lead to my second favorite Spider-Man series (yeah, I said it). What’s not to like?

Matt L. - An American Werewolf in London (dir. John Landis)

This is one of my “haven’t seen, but should” picks. Sad confession - I HAVE seen An American Werewolf in Paris. In theaters. On opening day.

Sean M. - The Funhouse (dir. Tobe Hooper)

The creepy carnival movie to end all creepy carnival movies.

Jose - Wolfen (dir. Michael Wadleigh)

Didn’t actually see this film until last year and boy, did I miss out. Albert Finney provides the perfect center for this noir-ish tale of telepathic wolves terrorizing an upscale Manhattan neighborhood. And the reverse-negative technology used for the wolves POV is still effective today.

1982:

Shelby - The Thing (dir. John Carpenter)

Okay, confession time - I haven’t actually seen The Thing...yet. To be fair, I apparently haven’t seen ANY horror films from 1982. But I can say with confidence that The Thing is the horror film from this year that I’d be most likely to fall in love with (I mean - I really like the X-Files episode that rips it off, at least).

Matt L. - The Thing (dir. John Carpenter)

As much as I like They Live and Halloween, this is my favorite Carpenter. From the first to the last shot, this movie just works.

Sean M. - Poltergeist (dir. Tobe Hooper)

You got your Spielberg on my Hooper! You got your Hooper on my Spielberg! Two great directors who go great together!

Jose - Cat People (dir. Paul Schrader)

I guess when it comes to horror, I am all about imagery and Schrader brought it in this New Orleans based tale of modern day “cat people.” Plus, Nastassia Kinski transforming into a leopard is truly genre-defining.

1983:

Shelby - Sleepaway Camp (dir. Robert Hiltzik)

An early 80’s horror film with unsurprisingly messy gender politics, but a surprisingly interesting and nuanced take on childhood trauma and sexual repression. The film also includes the classic line: “Eat shit and live, Bill” which I try to work into regular conversation as often as possible.

Matt L. - Something Wicked This Way Comes (dir. Jack Clayton)

I think I’ve seen this. I’m, like, 90% sure I’ve seen it. And I’m a huge fan of Ray Bradbury’s writing, and the story this is based on, so that’s enough for me.

Sean M. - Psycho II (dir. Richard Franklin)

I was surprised by how much I liked this. Seeing Anthony Perkins return as Norman is a real treat. There’s also some great supporting performances, especially Meg Tilly and Dennis Franz.

Jose - The Dead Zone (dir. David Cronenberg)

Another Stephen King adaptation but this one is so rich featuring one of Christopher Walken’s best performances. There are so many levels to this tale a man who returns from a six coma with the ability to see the future and Cronenberg beautifully captures every one leading up to the catastrophic conclusion.

1984:

Shelby - A Nightmare on Elm Street (dir. Wes Craven)

It was a close call between this and Joe Dante’s Gremlins, but I think ultimately I think of Gremlins as more of a holiday movie than anything. Something about destruction, mayhem, and slimy green critters really screams “Christmas,” ya know? Anyway, A Nightmare on Elm Street is classic and Freddy is one of my all-time favorite creeps.

Matt L. - Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante)

Sure, this is sort of a Christmas movie, more than a Halloween film, but it’s creepy and dark as hell, and definitely scared the crap out of me when I was a kid.

Sean M. - The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan)

Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s werewolf stories offers a dark take on Little Red Riding Hood. This perfect blend of fantasy and horror is a precursor to Labyrinth, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and Guillermo Del Toro’s entire body of work. Also, Angela Lansbury is pretty creepy as grandmother.

Jose - Gremlins (dir. Joe Dante)

I know Nightmare on Elm Street is the easy choice, but this movie actually gave me nightmares. Dante finds the right balance of comedy, nostalgia and pure childhood terror of what happens when you don’t follow three simple rules.

1985:

Shelby - Day of the Dead (dir. George A. Romero)

Although this isn’t my favorite Romero movie, I do like how each addition to the Night of the Living Dead series does something totally new and different. Day’s reflections on the role of the military and scientific-industrial complex in the zombie apocalypse are incisive and still feel relevant nearly 35 years later.

Matt L. - Fright Night (dir. Tom Holland)

I discovered this movie pretty late (within the last year or so) and it’s right up my alley. It’s a horror comedy that walks the line between the two genres perfectly and has a great performance by Roddy McDowell.

Sean M. - Re-Animator (dir. Stuart Gordon)

Jeffrey Combs saying “I gave him life” after Dr. Gruber’s head explodes gives me life.

Jose - Stephen King's Silver Bullet (dir. Daniel Attias)

Nothing like a classic werewolf tale with our heroes being a pair of kids that no one with listen to. I would be surprised if this wasn’t a small inspiration for Stranger Things. But it’s Gary Busey who makes this film memorable as the neer-do-well uncle who believes his niece and nephew and is willing to help them take a stand.

1986:

Shelby - Little Shop of Horrors (dir. Frank Oz)

Okay, so this is just barely a horror movie. I’ve seen scarier episodes of Sesame Street. But I absolutely love Little Shop of Horrors, so who cares that it isn’t reaaally that horrifying?

Matt L. - April Fool’s Day (dir. Fred Walton)

Another movie I only saw fairly recently. It’s cheesy and unpredictable and I kind of loved it.

Sean M. - The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg)

Utterly depressing. But, like, in a good way.

Jose - Manhunter (dir. Michael Mann)

Before Silence of the Lambs, Michael Mann delivered this eerie masterpiece anchored by a trio of brilliant performances: William Petersen as the brilliant but damaged FBI agent Will Graham, Brian Cox as the brilliant but psychopathic Hannibal Lector and Tom Noonan as a brilliant real life boogeyman, Francis Dollarhyde.

1987:

Shelby - Hellraiser (dir. Clive Barker)

Lament Configuration is the coolest name for anything ever and also the name of my band, I just decided (and I’m calling dibs).

Matt L. - Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker)

Yes, I know Hellraiser and Evil Dead II came out this year. Shut up. Monster Squad is like if Stranger Things did a season with the Universal Monsters. And it introduced the phrase “Wolf Man’s got nards” into the world. I couldn’t pick anything else.

Sean M. - Evil Dead II (dir. Sam Raimi)

Essentially a remake of the original. Part II is funnier and a bit more refined. Bruce Campbell is at his Bruce Campbell-iest.

Jose - Angel Heart (dir. Allan Parker)

I like to think of this film as a neo-noir version of Jacob’s Ladder, with Mickey Rourke slowly descending into a nightmare landscape and Robert Deniro pulling the strings until the final shocking reveal.

1988:

Shelby - They Live (dir. John Carpenter)

Eating from the trashcan of ideology never looked so rad (with apologies to Zizek).

Matt L. - Monkey Shines (dir. George A. Romero)

I don’t remember a lot about this movie, other than watching it at a younger age than I should have, and being super creeped out by the helper monkey.

Sean M. - Pumpkinhead (dir. Stan Winston)

This is the first film directed by special effects legend Stan Winston. The story revolves around a man getting revenge against the people who killed his young son. It can be a bit dour at times, but the titular Pumpkinhead is easily one of the great movie monsters of all time.

Jose - Child's Play (dir. Tom Holland)

As if talking dolls weren’t creepy enough, Tom Holland brought it to the next level with this creepy and darkly comical tale of a serial killer who takes possession of a young boy’s new best friend. Bonus points for Chris Sarandon playing against type as the good guy cop.

1989:

Shelby - Society (dir. Brian Yuzna)

Yet another year where I haven’t seen any representative horror films. Does this mean I need to return my M.A. in film & media studies? Either way, Society is the film from 1989 that I’d be the most interested in watching - despite the warnings I’ve heard about its excessive gore and general creepiness.

Matt - Tetsuo: The Iron Man (dir. Shinya Tesukamoto)

I haven’t seen this, but I’m super interested. A double feature with An American Werewolf in London, perhaps?

Sean M. - Society (dir. Brian Yuzna)

“The top one-tenth of 1% have 90% of the mutant orgies.” –Bernie Sanders

Jose - Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (dir. John McNaughton)

This film unnerved me when I first saw it and there is no denying its power thanks to Michael Rooker’s transformative performance. I don’t think I have seen it’s rival in portraying true evil so starkly and so simplistically.

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