The thrilling and extremely physical experience of watching a great horror film is timeless and dates back to the earliest silent images. With the advent of new motion-capture techniques and more realistic props and gore in the 1980s, the horror genre was plunged into a golden age of terror-inducing movies. Using the films released in the 1970s as a springboard for innovation, the 1980s broke new ground in special effects, costumes, set design, acting and directing. It is within this decade that great directors such as John Carpenter, David Cronenberg and James Cameron have built cinematic masterpieces that will continue to shape the genre for years to come. Compared to previous decades, we see creators starting to take risks and break new ground within the genre that would influence horror for decades.
A notable feature of 80s cinema, however, is the prevalence of genre compilations or mash-ups. This is the combination of multiple genres in one film, each style being complemented by a new, distinct feel. This stylistic choice led to the creation of some very unique films, such as Ghostbusters, Predator, beetle juice, and Gremlins. Many of these films contain comedic or action elements. By ignoring these excellent but not strictly horror movies, we can focus on the most horrifying, disturbing, and truly horrific movies of the 1980s.
10 A nightmare on Elm Street
This terrifying and instantly popular film features a young Johnny Depp and Heather Langenkamp, led by the great Wes Craven, who face haunting misadventures with the murderous dream ghost, Freddy Krueger. This knife-wielding, fedora-wearing child killer is now one of the horror genre’s most iconic characters. The acting, set design, makeup and uniquely chilling story all work to create A nightmare on Elm Street one of the most horrifying, interesting and influential films of the 80s.
9 The thing
Realism is, of course, incredibly important when you’re trying to evoke fear when watching a movie, but the problem arises when you’re trying to portray something that doesn’t exist in the natural world. John Carpenter’s The thing finds incredible success in creating realism with unreal, disturbing things; the great special effects, combined with the extremely unique and desolate arctic setting, make for a great horror film. The story sparks fear with its surprisingly tense investigation of American researchers stranded in a research base of shape-shifting aliens. Plus, Ennio Morricone’s music is epic and grim, the perfect compliment to this haunting film (which is getting another update, this time a promising one from Blumhouse).
Directed by Tobe Hooper and co-written by Steven Spielberg (whose signature focus on childlike wonder is ever-present here), poltergeist is a supernatural horror film that appeals to audiences, and one of the few terrifying films that did not receive an R rating (after Spielberg and Hooper appealed to the MPAA for a PG rating; Spielberg would two years later help the PG-13- classification). Focusing on a suburban family whose daughter has been abducted by a poltergeist, the juxtaposition of childhood innocence and demonic spirits evokes a sense of unease, making an already disturbing story even more terrifying. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that four of the franchise’s cast members have died young and mysteriously, leaving many (including documentary makers) to wonder if there’s a ‘poltergeist curse.’
Aliens might add some sci-fi cues to the classic set-up of the original, but it’s an action-packed horror movie at heart, with terrifying creatures and compelling suspense throughout almost the entire movie. James Cameron, a master of sequels, adds a dose of novelty while retaining the essence of Ridley Scott’s original film: Ripley (played by the irreplaceable Susan Sarandon) fends off monstrous aliens as she tries to protect her crew (including a young child , who increases the bet). A surprisingly tender meditation on motherhood doesn’t strip the film of its absolute horror in several now-legendary sequences, and the overall cinematic quality of the film ensures that Aliens remains one of the scariest movies of the 80s.
6 Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
Starring the amazing Micheal Rooker and directed by John McNaughton, this incredibly disturbing serial killer horror will have you locking your doors at night. Loosely based on the serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, the film follows a man named Henry and his friend Otis as they kill strangers for fun and videotape their murders. Unlike other movies on this list that rely on supernatural or alien elements, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, preys on our very real fear of running into an unhinged sociopathic killer. The film was heavily censored and banned for years, earning an ‘X’ rating from the MPAA, “some said the film was too violent and disgusting to bear,” as Roger Ebert wrote in his review. Deadly serious and practically traumatizing, the film is terrifying for how real, artfully screwed up it is. The story was recently re-examined by Netflix, but it’s nowhere near as authentic, horrifying and disturbing.
5 prince of darkness
John Carpenter secures a new spot on this list with this incredibly scary and gross story. prince of darkness is a lesser-known Carpenter film, but has been critically revised and still makes an impact, following a group of teenagers who discover a mysterious object in an abandoned church. They accidentally unleash an evil force on the world that has the ability to possess humans, and as darkness spreads across the world, the group must grapple with the existential mistake they’ve made. Prince of Darkess has good acting, set design and costumes, but where this film really shines (along with Carpenter’s typically excellent music and special effects) is in its strange theology and the horrifying, satanic mythology that is gradually revealed. This ‘demonic apocalypse’ story has all the ingredients for a great horror movie.
4 The shining
Perhaps one of the most famous and respected horror films of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s The shining is still enjoyed more than four decades after its release. Throughout the film, Kubrick creates some incredible images that have left a lasting impression on popular culture: a large hotel hallway is drenched in a tidal wave of blood, a young boy grumbles “Redrum” and a screaming woman is locked in a bathroom while an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson tries to break into the door. The film is packed with details (which are meticulously documented in the great documentary) Room 237), which makes re-watching easy and enjoyable. This delirium-inducing film successfully captures the essence of ’80s horror with artistry, paranoia, and plenty of gore.
3 Cannibal Holocaust
The controversial movie Cannibal Holocaust explores the fringes of what constitutes acceptable content, with a documentary crew documenting the lives of indigenous peoples living in the Amazon rainforest, discovering much more than they bargained for in what may be the first found-image horror film. The film was seized by Italian courts shortly after its release and its director, Ruggero Deodato, was charged with obscenity. He was later charged and discharged with murder after rumors that the onscreen murders were real. Cannibal Holocaust was banned in the United States and other countries for needless and graphic blood, sexual assault, and animal cruelty. Known for its controversy and censorship, the film is an ugly, grotesque cinematic monument that is still terrifying today.
the terrifying one Hellraiser, brilliantly adapted by director Clive Barker from his own novella The Hellbound Heart, follows the story of married couple Kirsty and Larry as they move into Larry’s childhood home. Soon Kirsty finds her brother-in-law in a strange way, partially resurrected and somewhere between life and death. She begins to kill him in order to heal his body and save him from terrifying demonic creatures who want to take him back to their underworld. Nothing is lost in the translation from text to screen, where every unique detail (sometimes literally) is worked out. Incredibly scary characters and compelling stories led to several sequels (and even a video game) making this one of the most terrifying horror films of the 80s. A remake featuring a female Pinhead character is in the works and has generated a lot of excitement.
1 Evil Dead
Evil Dead follows a group of five friends as they travel to a cabin in the woods – classic setup, but groundbreaking results thanks to excellent special effects, ironic acting and a truly unique cinematic perspective. In the basement of the hut, the friends find an Egyptian book of the dead and a tape recorder belonging to a deceased archaeologist; the recording unleashes a human-possessed demon that forces the friends to fight for their lives. Sam Raimi’s breakthrough film introduced the beloved Bruce Campbell to the world and then inspired an entire media franchise, including later beloved films, television, comic books and video games, with the new Evil Dead Rise coming to HBO Max this year.
Horror movies this year had a great mix of gruesome, shocking and disturbing elements. These are the best horror picks of 2021.
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