It’s cool with the in crowd to mock the eighties as an anti-golden age of all things creative and dismiss eighties horror as a wasteland of sequels and cookie-cutter slasher flicks. And you know what? That’s just plain wrong. It doesn’t take a lot of searching to see that the Me Decade spawned plenty of world-class horror movies, including the first installments of what went on to become beloved and vital fright franchises. One take on the top ten follows. If you think an eighties fright flick worth discussing has been left out, talk about it in the comments section.
10. They Live
John Carpenter’s sci-fi-horror hybrid is a pointed critique of a “greed is good” social Darwinism. Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” They Live so successfully swaddles its still-subversive message — that the rich and powerful are not like you and me; they’re amoral, inhuman, and would rather eat your babies for breakfast than relinquish a crumb of privilege — in a layer of dark comedy that two decades later it’s still dismissed as a goofy misstep in the career of a great genre director. Wake up, puny humans: the skull-faced ghouls are here.
U.K. horror writer Clive Barker was riding high on the critical and popular success of his Books of Blood (none other than Stephen King dubbed him the “future of horror”) when he decided to try his hand at directing. The result was Hellraiser, and it didn’t matter that reviews were mixed (and absolutely correct in their critique of weak plotting): Hellraiser is great horror. Forget the flaws. The movie is all about the elegant, self-mutilating cenobites and their world of ecstatic pain — and of course leather-clad horror icon Pinhead, the pinup who put the “stiff” back in “scared stiff.”
8. Near Dark
Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow’s second feature is the rare vampire movie that never mentions the word “vampire” but is truly terrifying in its tale of a roving, Manson-like “family” trolling the American Southwest for blood. Near Dark is a sunbaked slice of nightmare that conflates ancient folktales and the very modern specter of psycho killers whose paths just might cross yours at some ordinary looking motel, gas station, or rest stop along a lonesome highway. And that’s some scary stuff.
7. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Inspired by the confessions of real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s stark chronicle of unpleasantly real horrors follows the killer and his pal as they matter-of-factly murder whole families for no better reason than because they’re there. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer proved that understatement can be devastating: the murders aren’t shown in detail, but the aftermaths — battered corpses tossed aside like so much trash — are utterly chilling.
Avant-garde director Stuart Gordon’s gory, gleeful romp through H.P. Lovecraft’s most pulpy novella — about a medical student’s efforts to create life out of death — is farce at its blackest. And reddest: Re-Animator pours on gore like an Irish bartender dishing out Guinness on Saint Patrick’s Day. The most outrageous gags — like Dr. Hill (David Gale) refusing to allow the fact that his head and body are separated to stop him from abusing the comely student he lusts after — are so baroquely vulgar that you almost feel bad for snickering. But you do anyway because they’re funny. And horrible.
5. Child’s Play
Child’s Play is at heart a spin on dummy movies like Dead of Night, with the twist being that child-size Good Guy doll Chucky really is bad to his plastic core and is not the evil id of the 6-year-old boy who is locked in a psych ward as a murderous bad seed. Which is a pretty good spin, especially since Brad Dourif plays the serial killer whose soul lives in the tacky toy. His unmistakable voice is always good for a shudder or two. Child’s Play spawned a slew of increasingly tongue-in-cheek sequels, but the original is a shocker.
4. The Fly
Like Cat People and The Thing, David Cronenberg’s Fly is a genuine reimagining of a classic movie — long before the term “reimagining” became every moviemaker’s preferred synonym for “remake.” While the original version is a formulaic “There are things that man must leave alone” tale, Cronenberg’s Fly is a pure tragedy in which a brilliant scientist scrambles his atoms and is forced to bear witness to his own slow, painful physical destruction. And so are we. That’s horrifying.
3. The Howling
The Howling may lack An American Werewolf in London‘s groundbreaking transformation sequences, but Joe Dante’s movie has the smarter script, loosely based on horror writer Gary Brandner’s novel and heavily rewritten by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless. In The Howling, werewolves live among us, keeping the beast within at bay the same way everyone else does: self-denial, peer pressure, and therapy. It just works better for some than for others. That’s a great conceit — funny and more than a little disturbing.
2. The Evil Dead
First-time moviemaker Sam Raimi’s gory and darkly funny tale of vacationing young people possessed by ancient demons got the kind of PR money can’t buy when Stephen King declared it the “most ferociously original movie of [the year].” Hardly any movie — horror or otherwise — is more deserving of that praise, which catapulted The Evil Dead from obscure horror pic to bona fide phenomenon overnight, made a cult star of Bruce Campbell, and inspired a generation of would-be horror auteurs to get their asses in motion by proving that you didn’t need high-end special effects to scare the bejesus out of people.
1. A Nightmare on Elm Street
Wes Craven had already made a name for himself with The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, but A Nightmare on Elm Street kicked it up to a whole new level: the sneering razor-fingered child killer Freddy Krueger took on a life of his own, starring in a dozen sequels. And while Freddy got steadily more campy as the decade progressed — the “Henny Youngman of horror,” Craven dubbed him, not entirely affectionately — the original Nightmare is genuinely creepy stuff. After all, who hadn’t woken up from a nightmare and sighed with relief, “It’s only a dream”? Nightmare snatches that comfort away with fiendish glee.