The Criterion Shelf: ’80s Horror

Scare yourself silly with these 29 horror classics.

The Criterion Channel’s collection of ‘70s horror movies, which streamed two years ago, touched on the transition that the genre was undergoing from moody character pieces to explicit opportunities for violence and gore. This became more prevalent after the mainstream success of The Exorcist and the underground breakthrough of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but when John Carpenter’s Halloween was released in 1978, one era was over and a new one began. The ’80s were around the corner and with them would come videocassettes, franchises, and the new antiheroes.  No longer baroque foreign gentlemen or bandage-wrapped monsters, the stars of ’80s horrors were humans with regular names from ordinary places who had an extraordinary ability to stick around until the next sequel: Freddy Krueger moved through dreams, and no matter how much you burned, boiled, or battered Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, they never stopped coming back for more.

In his BFI Companion to Horror, Kim Newman points out that horror films didn’t actually become gorier in the ’80s, they just became more lightweight in artistic quality because studios realized that they were an easy profit. They were shot on very low budgets (you always need fresh teenagers to kill, which means star salaries are never a problem) and usually had high profit margins even if they weren’t blockbusters. Directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg had rare moments in which they played it safe by making Stephen King adaptations during this time. Hooper went soft with Poltergeist after redefining the genre the decade prior. The market was flooded with films that were an easy sell to an audience that wasn’t holding them to a higher standard beyond a few easy requirements: number of kills, potency of the villain, and appeal of the victims. Penetrating pretty teenagers took on a pornographic tone, and knives in flesh became the money shot.

The advent of home videocassettes meant that horror movies could make money even if their theatrical runs weren’t so impressive, particularly as watching them at home became even more popular than in theatres, although anxieties over the access that young people had to this entertainment also increased censorship in many parts of the world. Most famously, the “video nasties” era of British home entertainment saw police seize video collections and jail sellers, making numerous films unavailable in that country for a long time (a number of which are included in this month’s collection).

It rarely happened that critics took notice of these films in any significant manner. They often wrote them off as indulgent fodder for teenagers meant to help keep a studio’s bottom line intact. It wasn’t until much more recently, when they became part of the general obsession with nostalgia culture, that anyone even gave them much consideration, as well as reviving them as mostly unwatchable remakes/reboots. Reaganomics, the underside of aspirational life (you can be the prettiest, richest girl in school but how does that prevent your getting sliced into ribbons) and the extremes of masculine obsession are the preoccupations of horror movies in this decade. These traits are more evident in retrospect.

Criterion’s ‘80s Horror Collection is an entertaining retrospective but not an aptly named one.  At a time when the genre was defined by major studio franchises who sold their main character as a brand, this assemblage is mostly underground, forgotten, or fringe selections that includes some choice delights. But these are rarely the films you think of when someone mentions ’80s horror.  Calling it “Alternate ’80s” or something like that would be less misleading, as there are a number of selections (The Hidden, Road Games) that really aren’t horror movies and others (White of the Eye) that don’t make for great slumber party material.

Of course, there’s The Slumber Party Massacre, that thin bit of indulgence that is now erroneously being re-litigated as “slyly subversive.” But to have two Frank Henenlotter films, but only one Cronenberg or Carpenter? Argento and Fulci aren’t the ’80s, sets that look like old train stations and bad English dubbing is the hallmark of ’70s cinema even when being made after 1980, while two selections (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Society) were only filmed in the ’80s, but were released and became culturally relevant (if at all) in the ’90s.  Of course, these selections, and particularly the omissions, speak to licensing woes, but from studio curiosities that verge on the arthouse (Cat People) to sci-fi dramas sagging under the weight of dramatic pretentions (Wolfen), anyone looking to buckle down for Halloween with a series of murder-by-numbers slasher pics will have little more than the slumber party girls to really make it feel worthwhile.

Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted. Thanks to Colin Biggs, Marko Djurdjic, Larry Fried, Rachel Ho, and Rachel West.


MUST-SEE ’80s Horror

The Fan (Ed Bianchi, 1981)

If you go by the definition of “horror” as evil pursuing good and “thriller” as good pursuing evil, this film does belong in this collection, although it feels like an odd fit even with a villain who is wielding a straight razor.  It’s also tons of fun, a flashy and exciting sibling to Eyes of Laura Mars in which early ’80s New York City is splashed across the screen with vigour while handsome and obsessed (and, it is insinuated, closeted) fan (Michael Biehn) spends his every free moment writing fan letters to a former film star, now Broadway leading lady (Lauren Bacall). His letters are at first handled by her devoted secretary (Maureen Stapleton) until she is made aware of his increasingly disturbing notes. She stops responding but it only makes things worse as Biehn decides to start getting rid of the obstacles standing in the way of his desire. At the time of its release, the film was criticized as cheap exploitation of a genuine celebrity concern (John Lennon had been shot only a year earlier), but the passage of time has been kind and its retro charms, combined with Bacall’s full-bodied and exciting performance, make it a perfect double bill with De Palma’s Dressed to Kill.


The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

Marko Djurdjic: With its opening 1-2 punch (a bank robbery followed by a wild high-speed car chase through downtown LA), this film stays lodged in your throat from the jump. Bursting with anti-establishment, adrenaline-fuelled gusto, the film depicts the degradation of society and morality in ’80s America through its condemnation of Reagan-era excess and greed. Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Nouri play a pair of lawmen assigned with tracking down a Ferrari-stealing psychopath, whose mindless pursuit of materialism, wealth, and power results in mayhem and murder. In Sholder’s vision of America, the whole damn system is rotten from the inside: self-destructive, horrific, and parasitic to its very core, perfectly reflecting Reagan’s USA and the lingering political paranoia it left behind. Although the middle section drags ever-so-slightly, with repetitive scenes and beats with little forward momentum, the tight action set pieces, literally explosive third act, and MacLachlan’s jittery performance—which reminds you that he’s one very underrated actor—more than make up for some flaws in pacing. It’s a truly unique experience—funny, violent, grotesque and with an unsettling ending that will leave you relieved yet undeniably cold. Revealing too much would be a crime, because this is definitely a “must see.”


The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988)

Rachel West: On the surface, George Sluizer’s Dutch psychological thriller is a simple story of love and obsession. Young Rex and Saskia are on holiday in France and Saskia vanishes from a gas station without a trace, never to be seen again. Three years later, her disappearance still consumes Rex and sets off a series of events that will lead to some much-sought answers. Devoid of thriller tricks and tropes, Sluizer puts his psychopath in plain sight as he ratchets up the tension in an unbelievable cat-and-mouse game that asks, “How far would you go for the truth?” The story is so good, even the 1990s English-remake with Jeff Bridges, Sandra Bullock and Kiefer Sutherland (also directed by Sluizer) is thrilling, if not a little more campy. But don’t just take our word that Sluizer’s taut thriller is a must-see: the director claimed Stanley Kubrick called him after watching to say it was the scariest film he had ever seen.


Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin, 1981)

This delicious combination of slasher horror and mad scientist fantasy is the first produced screenplay by future Gods and Monsters auteur Bill Condon (who also appears in the opening murder scene). Michael Murphy is terrific as the sheriff of a small Illinois town who is dealing with a rapidly increasing pile of slashed up bodies, while his son Pete (Dan Shor) gets involved in some questionable behavioural psychology experiments at the local university. Predating David Lynch and Twin Peaks investigations of the sick soul at the heart of a wholesome American small town, this one has actors who all give it much more than their characters demand (including the recently deceased Louise Fletcher, who shines in an underwritten part). The film was shot in New Zealand, which gives an otherworldly creepiness to the images of its sleepy location (and is also why a lot of Kiwi accents slip through the dialogue of the supporting cast).


Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982)

This represents Cohen at his best, perfectly balancing character detail with indulgent Saturday matinee-style creature feature. Michael Moriarty plays a petty criminal who escapes a diamond heist and takes refuge in the roof of the Chrysler Building, which also happens to be the nest of winged serpent that is a resurrected ancient Aztec god. The city needs help finding the creature’s lair in order to kill it, so Moriarty makes a list of demands in exchange for this vital information. The delight of watching Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion animation in the sky while down below Moriarty is doing his version of On the Waterfront is irresistible.


Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986)

Rachel West: Loosely based on the confessions of murderous drifter Henry Lee Lucas, who claimed to have killed over 360 people, Michael Rooker is utterly compelling, repulsive, terrifying, and dynamic in the title role. A true “portrait” of a killer, the theme here is randomness as the viewer drifts in and out of Henry’s life, much like his victims, as McNaughton’s film purposefully refrains from making judgments on Henry’s life. Instead, we the audience are implicated for consuming the on-screen violence as entertainment, passing more judgment onto us than the killer. While not explicitly gorier than its peers, the film was originally granted an X rating from the MPAA for “overall moral tone,” leading McNaughton to skip theatrical release and instead preserve his vision on home video. With our fascination of killers showing no signs of abating (just look at Netflix’s Dahmer), this one seems as fresh as it was nearly four decades ago.


Scanners  (David Cronenberg, 1981)

Larry Fried:  Scanners was the film that introduced me to the one and only David Cronenberg, an iconic horror director that had previously been elusive to me, a name on a checklist I would inevitably get around to crossing off. Well, the pandemic happened, and in my quest to narrow down my Criterion watchlist, I came around to Scanners as one of the few horror films featured in the collection. After just one viewing, I knew I had seen one of my new all-time favourite films.  A visionary work of sci-fi horror about a thoroughly realized world of telekinetic superhumans on the run sees Cronenberg dare to consider that anybody, even a homeless bum, can become a major player in the fight to survive capitalist persecution, even if they themselves are a product of it. Through stellar sound design and impeccable practical effects, the terrifying suspense is kept at an all-time high––any form of safety is compromised as soon as that head explosion hits. Entertaining, shocking, and impeccably crafted, it is the film that put Cronenberg on the map internationally and remains one of his most exciting works.



Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982)

A cult classic whose humorous elements do not dampen its thrills. Kevin Van Hentenryck shows up in New York City with a giant wad of cash and a basket containing a creature he refuses to let anyone else see, but which he is constantly feeding fast food to. Murders begin occurring everywhere that Van Hentenryck goes, but we soon begin to understand that he is under the influence of his hidden companion, and we learn of a history of botched surgeries and family secrets that have put a very angry little man on the path of revenge. Told with sincerity, ingenuity and no small level of grimy underground audacity, this is one you might not enjoy but you certainly won’t forget.


The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988)

Modern remakes of classic ’50s horror films are usually negligible, leaving behind charm and overindulging in gratuitous violence, but this one, while not as gorgeous as its predecessor, is a worthy revisiting of the classic tale of gelatinous goo gone wild. A strange amorphous parasite lands on earth and begins to cause mayhem in a small town already tense with conflict, with handsome football jock Donovan Leitch discovering the horror while on a date with Shawnee Smith. They try to warn the authorities, but the cops assume that it’s bad boy Kevin Dillon and his rebellious mullet causing all the trouble, sticking to their prejudices against him until it’s too late. The effects are wonderful and the deaths are actually quite scary, but it retains the sense of good-natured drive-in entertainment fun that makes the first one so great.


Prince of Darkness  (John Carpenter, 1987)

Colin Biggs: Prince of Darkess is unnnlikely to come to mind before other collaborations between John Carpenter and Donald Pleasence, but this is one of the horror maestro’s hidden gems. The premise seems goofy at first (the anti-Christ is in a jar of swirling green goo), but by the second act, you’re long past doubting the presence of evil. One of the academics tasked with studying the evil curio is devoured by beetles, which then reconstitute his body from the inside to warn his colleagues to “pray for death.” Reality, Carpenter posits, only matters if we believe it does. Once chaos takes over this abandoned church, the recurring nightmare that all the characters have pays off hauntingly. Untold horrors await us on the other side.


Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989)

Rachel Ho: It would be easy to draw comparisons between movies like The Fly and District 9 to Shinya Tsukamoto’s breakthrough film, particularly the engulfing of the human form by another species, or in Tetsuo’s case, inorganic matter. Films like these show humanity’s fragility and vulnerability to the Other. They hold a mirror to our delicate nature by way of other worldly circumstances.  While those films make a similar statement to Tetsuo, Tsukamoto approaches the subject matter in a manner completely his own. This black and white, frenetic and truly bizarre film has the most perverse sense of humour with ‘metal fetishists’ mutilating themselves with metal rods and penises transforming into drills. Maniacal in its premise and execution, this makes for a singular cyberpunk viewing experience that you won’t soon forget.



Society (Brian Yuzma, 1989)

Rachel Ho: “Shunting” is one of the worst words I’ve ever heard. It takes quite the mind to think that bodies should contort and melt together like a violent jigsaw puzzle. It takes an even more peculiar brain to assign this act to a word as revolting as “shunting.” But such is Brian Yuzma and his imagination. A film that begins as a conspiracy theory-laden high school family drama, it devolves into a pretty incredible display of body horror that rivals David Cronenberg’s early days. Society is meant to be a thought-provoking satire about the relationship between the rich and the poor, and considering this film was released at the end of a decade that glamourized upper-class high school angst so deftly, it could have been an interesting antithesis to the John Hughes fare of the day. However, Yuzma’s directorial debut falls short of being scathing satire and instead feels trite and superficial (ironically so?). This is a film for body horror completists and those inquisitive minds that need to know what the fuss is all about.


Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)

Legendary Oscar-winning character actor Jack Albertson (probably best known today for his performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) gives his final feature film performance and he’s a delight, playing a big band-loving mortician who helps confused sheriff James Farentino deal with a series of murders that keep popping up in their sleepy coastal town of Potters Bluff, Rhode Island. The sheriff is a transplant from the big city who married a local (Melody Anderson), and does not know that strangers who arrive in this seemingly quaint hamlet are immediately the victims of a violent death…but then somehow manage to pop up restored to life and health right afterwards as members of the community. The script, which comes from the writers of Alien, loses a great deal of its logic in its desire to deliver surprise twists. It’s not particularly scary and its East Coast mood is not as effective as it is in John Carpenter’s The Fog, but the makeup by Stan Winston is terrific and it has a kooky sense of midnight mass abandon that makes it a good time.


Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982)

Rachel West: How this film came to be is much more interesting than the final result on screen. Author and feminist activist Rita Mae Brown originally wrote a script parodying the slasher genre but her story was co-opted by producers and turned into a run-of-the-mill teen slasher. Film editor Amy Holden Jones selected the script from Frances Doel (Roger Corman’s writer and story editor) and, after turning down a job to edit E.T., embarked on bringing Slumber Party Massacre to screens. While the performances are uneven, the story moves along at break-neck speed, full of dark humour – both intentional and not – as bloody mayhem is unleashed on sexy teens. It’s a rollickingly good ride that has gained a cult following in the 40 years since its release. The movie got a “modern reimagining” in a 2021 remake.


Brain Damage (Frank Henenlotter, 1988)

Another indulgence from Henenlotter, in which Basket Case‘s Kevin Van Hentenryck even makes a cameo. Rick Hearst wakes up from a nap feeling ill and has no idea why until he realizes that a horrific parasite called an Aylmer has escaped from his neighbour’s apartment and attached itself to his skull. While flooding Brian’s brain with euphoric sensory pleasure, the Aylmer uses him to get close to other humans that he can feast upon, growing in power with each brain that he consumes. It’s a grindhouse indulgence that doesn’t work as well as Basket Case. The balance of shocking gore to sweet, humorous whimsy isn’t as even, but does feature cool effects and some unapologetic indulgences, including an outrageous scene of oral sex gone awry and a speaking voice for the Aylmer that makes him sound like the Great Gazoo.


Vampire’s Kiss  (Robert Bierman, 1988)

Colin Biggs: A cult favourite, not for the best reasons, mind you, but because of the forever meme-able performance Nicolas Cage gives as publishing yuppie Peter Loew. After being bitten by a one-night stand, Peter starts exhibiting bizarre behaviour: eating cockroaches, wearing fangs in public, etc. As his delusions increase, Peter pushes his secretary to her mental limits. (You’ve definitely seen this scene before, “ABCD!”) All the while, Cage chews not just the scenery but the whole damn film. American Psycho would skewer Reagan’s America more elegantly and effectively, but I applaud Cage for depicting mania in such an esoteric portrayal. You can’t take your eyes off him.


Next of Kin (Tony Williams, 1982)

Linda has inherited a rural Victoria mansion from her mother and turns it into a nursing home for senior citizens. Her quiet and remote life is interrupted by a sudden increase in residents’ deaths. They appear accidental, but soon show themselves not to be. She finds the diaries of her late aunt who died in psychiatric care and wonders if she has inherited her madness, or if she’s being gaslit by her employees. And what of the mysterious figure that she sees prowling about the place late at night? A creepy sense of foreboding slows things down a bit too much throughout this moody horror film, but the climax is so incredibly exciting that it makes it well worth the watch.


Road Games (Richard Franklin, 1981)

Marko Djurdjic: Truck driver Pat Quid (Stacy Keach) and hitchhiking heiress Pamela (Jamie Lee Curtis) pursue a sadistic serial killer through the Australian outback. A somewhat derivative Hitchcockian thriller with some legitimately macabre moments and oodles of De Palma-lite sleaze, the film is as unrelenting and as monotonous as the barren landscape it depicts.  Keach is perfect (naturally) and the extended scenes of him driving and talking to himself are hilarious and endearing. (He plays harmonica to Beethoven and snacks on celery…I mean come on!). This perfection makes his brief descent into sleep-deprived psychosis even more visceral and unsettling. Unfortunately, many of the film’s “shocking” reveals are poorly executed, resulting in a less-than-tense final product. While it is certainly more of a thriller than a horror film, it is nevertheless gritty and direct, although its 100-minute runtime and a less-than-satisfying ending make it a somewhat generic, if not altogether unsatisfying, watch. On this ride, you can see where you’re going from miles away.


Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

Bigelow’s solo feature film debut is intentionally loose in its use of vampire lore. You don’t see any extended fangs, crucifixes or cloves of garlic anywhere. Her underworld creatures bear the aesthetics of punk-rock western antiheroes. Cowboy Adrian Pasdar thinks he’s a man on the make when he insists that beautiful stranger Jenny Wright give him a goodnight kiss, but she gives him a love bite that makes him feel violently ill on his way home to his father’s ranch. He’s picked up by Wright and her RV full of vampire friends, most of them repurposed cast members from James Cameron’s Aliens, and they go on a violent rampage in an attempt to teach our hero to become one of them. There are a number of really cool sequences, the best of them Bill Paxton’s Jim-Morrison-meets-the-Joker bad guy tearing up a roadside bar for “dinner,” but Bigelow’s emphasis is on character and dramatic conflict rather than violent spectacle. She’s slim on both, however. ,There’s a numbing sense of aggravation as we wait for things to move along in a film that is clever and creative, but more than a bit dull.


The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)

Hooper was busy working on this film when Steven Spielberg offered him the chance to direct a little movie called E.T. Spielberg ended up directing that one himself and instead worked as producer with Hooper on Poltergeist. This is a fun and surprisingly not too graphic murder-by-numbers film that dares to enjoy a long setup before things turn nasty. Elizabeth Berridge and her new boyfriend Cooper Huckabee go on a double date with another couple to the local carnival. They enjoy games, rides and sideshow attractions before challenging each other to the ultimate dare, hiding out in the funhouse and staying all night after the carnival has closed. They get more than just a spooky atmosphere when they accidentally witness a murder and have to find a way out of the building before the killer, who has more going on under that Frankenstein mask than you could possibly predict, comes after them. Hooper makes the odd choice of setting up themes of illusion and misdirection but does not capitalize on them in any significant way, which is odd and strangely dissatisfying, but the colourful production design is a treat and the film doesn’t feel the least bit too long.


Dream Demon (Harley Cokeliss, 1988)

Jemma Redgrave is anxious about her upcoming marriage to a high-profile Falklands War hero and thinks it’s the reason for all the disturbing dreams she’s been having since she moved into her new house. An American visitor (Kathleen Wilhoite) shows up out of nowhere and asks to look around the place. She’s trying to jog her childhood memories from before she was sent away from England and adopted by a new family, but instead she ends up walking into waking versions of Redgrave’s nightmares. Secrets of the past are unlocked and, quite frankly, those secrets aren’t that interesting in the end, but the visual interpretation of dream logic is creative, sort of a softer version of Hellraiser or a feature length version of a Buffy episode.



White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987)

Possibly the most boring film on this list, White of the Eye is an attempt by the late Cammell to combine slasher horror with deep character investigation that fails on both counts. Cathy Moriarty has been happily married to David Keith for ten years. He’s a television and stereo tech who barely avoids having an affair with a rich and amorous neighbour (Alberta Watson). Keith is being questioned by the police because of a series of grisly murders of wealthy housewives in the area, but Moriarty is more interested in the possible failure of her marriage, flashing back to when she first met him on a drive across the country with her then-boyfriend Alan Rosenberg before she was seduced away by Keith’s boyish charms. The surprises aren’t that surprising, although the Arizona locales are photographed in a haunting and unforgettable manner. The ending is beyond ridiculous, and feels much more aggravating after such a tedious buildup.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Walerian Borowczyk, 1981)

Robert Louis Stevenson’s eternally famous horror novel is the starting point for this sumptuously photographed film by Borowczyk, who is sometimes referred to as the “genius who also happened to be a pornographer.” Jekyll (Udo Kier) has invited friends and family to his home to celebrate his engagement to Fanny Osbourne (Marina Pierro), but the quiet elegance of their evening is ruined by the discovery of a child attacked outside his door. This first rip in the veil of their Victorian propriety is followed by an all-out, sex-crazed bloodbath when the nasty Mr. Hyde (Gerard Zalcberg) enters the home and begins attacking everyone, leaving a trail of blood-stained, nastily violated bodies. It’s not until Fanny spies on her fiancé taking a bath that she learns the true horror and its origin. Borowczyk has fun taking a story meant to destroy notions of in-born class behaviour and using it to attack the cinema’s prim attitude towards sexuality, but the film could easily lose fifteen minutes. The whole thing takes place in one night and in one house, and doesn’t have enough going on to justify itself beyond the opportunities to ogle the Eurotrash-style nudie exploitation.


Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980)

The second film in Argento’s Three Mothers trilogy is as colourful as Suspiria but its plotting leaves a lot to be desired. Irene Miracle learns from an old book on the occult that the building in which she is boarding is the site of a great deal of witchcraft activity, but her explorations of the basement get her into trouble. Her brother flies in from Rome to look for her and enters a house of horrors where one body after another is slaughtered with fetishistic glee for Argento’s camera. Inferno is dazzling to watch and features a number of cool sequences and impressive effects. This one is far behind better films like Deep Red and The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, too confusing to be scary and too gross to be atmospheric.


Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)

Marko Djurdjic: I’m just gonna come right out and say it: Paul Schrader’s 1982 update of Cat People is just awful. Unlike Jacques Tourneur, the director of the 1942 original 1942, Schrader doesn’t seem to care about the psychological implications of what is happening to his main character, Irena Gallier (Nastassja Kinski), whose sexual desires and urges illicit a murderous, shape-shifting response. In Schrader’s incapable hands, it is turned from a harrowing character study of a woman struggling with her sexuality, to a cruel, gory creature feature. While the film’s cast (Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, and Annette O’Toole, to name the top-billed) does what it can with the material, the film pales in comparison to the dark, impressionistic original, which develops its horror through mood and atmosphere, not cheap jump scares and special effects.  This is the epitome of leering ’80s sleaze, a prime example of the vacuous filmmaking that exemplifies the worst of the decade, devoid of tone, empathy, or purpose. Somehow, there is neither subtlety nor depth: it’s as cold and as plastic as the synths used to produce its score. Schrader, although never derivative, has always toed the line between genius and hack. Cat People certainly tips the scales towards the latter. Do yourself a favour and watch the 1942 original: it’s much more effective in conjuring the dread missing from Schrader’s unimpressive remake.


The House By the Cementery (Lucio Fulci, 1981)

Fulci’s movies always feel like the sort of thing you watch on your hotel television because you can’t sleep. His fetish for relentless, stomach-churning gore is applied to a rare case of him attempting mystery and suspense in his storytelling. In this case, it’s the tale of a family of three who go to live in an old mansion in upstate New York. Husband Paolo Malco is continuing the work of a colleague who killed his mistress and committed suicide while researching the property. Little son Bobby keeps seeing a mysterious girl who warns them not to go into the house, while other visitors are sliced and diced and stored in the basement without mom Catriona MacColl’s having the slightest notion of what is going on.


Wolfen (Michael Wadleigh, 1981)

Back on the force after taking leave for personal reasons, NYPD captain Albert Finney is brought on to investigate a series of grisly murders that seem to have no particular motive. He’s teamed up with a criminal psychologist (Diane Venora) and a jovial coroner (Gregory Hines) as they investigate clues that lead them to believe that the killer is not human, which then takes them into the city’s indigenous community (represented by Edward James Olmos) and brings in zoologist Tom Noonan to give his expertise on wolves. The set-up shows promise and the eighties high-tech thermal imagery photography is still a pretty cool gimmick, but things take way to long to get going in this dull thriller and the end result is not worth the effort.


The Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988)

After an archaeologist digs up a strange relic from the backyard of a house in a rural English village, it revives interest in pagan traditions of the area involving the worship of a giant serpent. The practices are not so far back in the past, however, when the women of the house (Catherine Oxenberg, Sammi Davis) have to outwit the elegant lady of the local manor (Amanda Donohoe) and her very large sharp teeth. Hugh Grant stars in an early pre-stardom role in this silly horror film by Ken Russell, made well past the nutty auteur’s prime and featuring his kaleidoscope overload of visuals that somewhat undercut any possible sense of dread or fear. The film is based on the novel by Bram Stoker, which was inspired by the English legend of the Lambton Worm.


The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983)

The notorious film on Mann’s resume is this unwieldy adaptation of the F. Paul Wilson novel, which the studio forced him to cut from 200 minutes to a zippy 95.  German soldiers arrive at a remote village in Nazi-occupied Romania to take hold of a citadel that they do not realize is actually the prison of an ancient evil golem-like demon that, when released, begins eviscerating the humans in its path. Commander Gabriel Byrne believes that local partisans are doing the killings and taking revenge upon the villagers. Jewish academic Ian McKellen sees the demon as an opportunity to vanquish his enemies. Mysterious messiah-like wonder man Scott Glenn, finally, shows up to help keep the spiritual world in balance. A number of images are breathtaking in their beauty, but the bad guy looks like Skeletor and the whole thing is far too silly for the sincere and unironic treatment that it is being given.

Check out the full ’80s Horror collection on the Criterion Channel.