The 80s gave us many special things: the mullet, the moonwalk, the trapper keeper, John Hughes, and feathered hair. The list goes on and on. But, it’s Halloween, people, so the one major 80s export we’re here to discuss today is the horror movie. The decade was somewhat of a golden age for horror flicks. Latex effects were peaking and the arrival of VHS provided a huge audience of kids and bored suburbanites looking to spice up their living room with some of the most terrifying and disgusting cinematic images ever created. As a result, major and indie studios were cranking out horror movies as fast as they could possibly be made and brought in some healthy profits. So many horror classics (and to be fair, so many steaming piles of horror garbage) were made during the decade that most have them have sadly vanished into obscurity for all but the most devoted genre lovers.
Oh sure, we all know the Freddys and the Jasons, the Shinings and the Evil Deads, but there are plenty of lost 80s horror goodies in need of fresh pairs of eyeballs to watch em and love em. With people programming their own Halloween horror movie marathons everywhere as you read this article, we here at Dork Shelf thought we would provide a collection of some of our most obscure favourites of the era that are your time this Halloween. From gothic monster romps to sadistic exploitation movies or campy/perverted gore comedies, this list has something for everyone. So, why don’t you go ahead ditch your usual Halloween favourites this year in favour of something you’ve never seen before? Who knows, you might discover a new vintage horror favourite that will disgust and delight your unsuspecting friends with for years to come.
The Company of Wolves (1985)
Next to Ginger Snaps, no film has ever captured the sexual nature of werewolf mythology as well as famed director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) did with a far better telling of the Red Riding Hood tale than that Catherine Hardwick debacle from last year. Much more Freudian and far more feminist in its aims, Jordan tells the story of a modern woman and her storybook counterpart who are haunted by the wolves in their respective lives. There quite simply isn’t any other creature film of its kind from the era and it boasts the same similarly strong and icky effects that were utilized in An American Werewolf in London and The Haunting. It’s an intense and quite unjustly underrated psychological thriller, and possibly the most assured film of Jordan’s entire career.
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Stephen King’s work has spawned a legion of horror classics (Carrie, The Shining, etc.) and…you know, movies that aren’t exactly classics (Maximum Overdrive, anyone?), but his most underrated effort might be Cat’s Eye. He penned this triptych horror anthology in the mid 80s and while the man-on-a-ledge and Drew Barrymore-versus-a-rubber-monster entries are both solid, the film is a must see for the segment entitled “Quitter’s Inc.” James Woods stars at his sleazy best as a man so desperate to quit smoking that he signs up for a mysterious service that guarantees success. The catch? He’s monitored 24-hours a day and if he slips up, his pet and family will be tortured before his eyes. The concept is utterly insane, yet somehow believably terrifying thanks to King’s oddly grounded world and Woods’ every-man-douche bag charms. Unsettling, darkly hilarious, and packed with gratuitous chain-smoking sequences, it’s a horror tale that could only come out of the Reagan era. And don’t worry, there is a solid latex monster in another segment if you need that to appreciate an 80s horror movie. James Woods should hold you over just fine though. The man is worth his weight in rubber monsters. (Phil Brown)
The Funhouse (1981)
More faithful and more tonally consistent of a follow up to director Tobe Hooper’s classic Texas Chain Saw Massacre than his own batshit crazy follow-up was later in the 80s, this underrated and slow burning gem holds more in common with the director’s most famous work than one would think. It’s a southern based story with a deep emphasis on family featuring a masked/deformed killer that takes a long time to get started and is somewhat unfairly lumped in with the slasher genre for a perceived level of gore that just simply isn’t there.
It might not have the same visceral thrills of other films in the decade. It takes 30 minutes to even get to the titular carnival attraction, 45 minutes for anything scary to happen, and an hour before the shit hits the fan as four teenage friends decide to camp out in a travelling sideshow funhouse for the night with deadly consequences.
Furthermore, it’s probably the first self-reflexive horror film of its type coming years before Wes Craven and John Carpenter would try similar works. It constantly references Frankenstein, Halloween, Psycho, and even Hooper’s own previous works, but overall the film stands as a statement regarding the underlying concepts at work in the genre as a whole. Just like how the funhouse (which in reality is almost a horror movie surrogate) has a deeper, darker lower level, so does this film that dared to expose the machinery of a genre long before anyone else thought of doing it. Also, it was just released by Shout Factory in a really nice Blu-ray package that’s worth picking up for the sound mix alone. You’ll hear the terrifying carnival barker’s voice in the back of your head for days afterward. (AP)
Dead and Buried (1981)
Unfairly forgotten these days, Dead And Buried was one of the few screenplays produced by genre legend Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, writer/director of Return Of The Living Dead). Set on one of those creepy isolated islands where bad things tend to happen to outsiders, O’Bannon whips up a twisted tale of murderous mobs, re-animated corpses, and a particularly insane medical examiner. Getting into plot details would spoil the fun, but rest assured that with Stan The Man Winston (more on him later) in charge of the effects, you’ll be seeing plenty of spectacular gory goodness (including a scene combining a hypodermic needle and an eyeball that’s worth the price of admission alone). Throw in some strong direction from Gary Sherman (Raw Meat) and an early performance from Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger…duh!) and you’ve got a cult classic in search of the cult. Dead And Buried was barely released theatrically and unavailable on video for years because the production company collapsed around it. Thankfully this flick is out there and easily available now, just waiting for eyeballs and gag-reflexes to discovered it. (PB)
While not released in North America officially until 1987, this often forgotten about giallo thriller from genre innovator Dario Argento is an intriguing personal statement from a filmmaker often criticized for violent and occasionally sexist subject matter masquerading as a well informed bit of onscreen criticism. The story of an American crime novelist heading to Rome to promote and defend his latest work amid a backdrop of copycat killings is convoluted even by giallo standards, but Argento really swings for the fences when talking about media bias towards his own work. But the real thrill here comes from the insanely ultraviolent conclusion (which gave the film the grammatically incorrect American title of Unsane) which might some of the filmmaker’s most grotesque work. The ending might require a second viewing for it to make any sense, but it surprisingly does (if you watch the European cut). Also, it has genre stalwart John Saxon in it, which should be more than enough for anyone. (AP)
From Beyond (1986)
Flush from the success of having created an instant cult-classic in Re-Animator, director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yunza, screenwriter Dennia Paoli, and co-stars Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton teamed up to adapt a second HP Lovecraft terror tale a year later in From Beyond. The Lovecraft short story they chose about a scientist breaking through to another dimension and letting loose some monsters from another world was finished by the main titles, so they had to invent the rest of the film. What follows is a cross between the fantasist Lovecraft source material and the magical perverse, gory, horror/comedy that became the Gordon/Yunza specialty. In their version, opening the door to another dimension doesn’t just cause mutation, but an explosion of bizarre sexual desires.
While Re-Animator was the team’s attempt to create the bloodiest horror yarn of the era, the From Beyond mandate seemed to be to create the slimiest film ever produced. The horny dimensional-travelers drip goo from all orifices and cause Combs to sprout a penile third eye in his forehead that makes him want to suck out people’s brains through their eye sockets. Yep, you read that right and you’ll be seeing it several times thanks to the unrated magic of DVD. The camp comedy horror tone of Re-Animator is recaptured perfectly and while the film was dismissed as a disappointing follow up at the time, now it plays like a worthy successor. Sure there’s no moment as iconic as the infamous “head” scene from Re-Animator, but there is a scene where Combs and Ken Foree (Dawn Of The Dead) fight a giant rubber tentacle monster in their underwear that’s just as hilarious as it sounds. If that doesn’t make a film worth watching, I don’t know what does. (PB)
Trick or Treat (1986)
No, not the unjustly forgotten about anthology film from a few years back. This forgotten bit of pure, unpasteurized cheese from a decade full of these films stars Family Ties’ Mark Price in a film that combines the standard 80s nerd revenge film with the satanic metal band sub-genre to create one of the most gloriously guilty pleasures of the decade. It’s the kind of film beer was invented for. Distraught metal fan Eddie (for no real reason nicknamed “Ray Man”) grieves over the loss of his favourite hair metal icon, Sammi Curr who literally died in a fire. When a kindly radio DJ (Gene Simmons!) decides to give Eddie the first pressing of Curr’s last single, it unleashed Curr on the world as a demonic force that helps Eddie get revenge on his douchy oppressors at first before setting his sights on world domination and DEATH TO FALSE METAL! Featuring one of the best hallway chase sequences not set to the Benny Hill theme and featuring gloriously over the top production values and cameos from Simmons and Ozzy Osbourne (as a televangelist), Trick or Treat is so delightfully goofy that it’s impossible to hate. It will have you shouting and laughing at the devil all night long. (AP)
Beloved 70s character actor Joe Spinell (The Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver) had a dream project he’d always tell his famous filmmaking friends about when he could get them to listen. That dream movie was Maniac, which starred Spinell as a man who lives with a collection of mannequins in a basement apartment by day and murders prostitutes by night. There’s no redemption, no happy ending, no hero. Just 87 minutes trapped with all too real…well, Maniac. After seeing the final version, it’s clear why none of the movie brats wanted to helm the project. This flick is nasty and horrific, causing massive controversy on release. The thing is that it’s supposed to be and it’s a victim of it’s own success. If you can stomach a gruelling experience, Maniac packs the punch of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Spinell is terrifying in the lead role and his eventual director William Lustig (Maniac Cop) used his lifelong genre love to whip up some intense set pieces for his unstable leading man. There’s no denying this thing is a rough watch, but horror movies aren’t all supposed to be fun, folks. The dirty serial killer exploitation picture delivers exactly what’s promised and will leave even hardened genre fans shaken. Oh, and Tom Savini also makes his own head explode ….so you can’t miss that. (PB)
Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
One of the better Canadian tax shelter productions from the decade was also the most bizarrely European feeling major studio releases of the decade. This slasher with the memorable poster and tag line boasting “six of the most bizarre death’s you’ll ever see” came courtesy of Cape Fear director J. Lee Thompson, who elevates the material to an almost artfully dreamlike level. This story of a young woman suffering from memory loss who thinks she might be killing off all of her popular friends in the “Top 10” clique in high school might be way, way, way too long at 110 minutes, but by the time it gets to its
multiple twist ending that puts Kevin Williamson’s Scream script to shame, it’s all worth it. Sure, it was only made to cash in quickly on the newly minted holiday based horror gimmick, but it’s easily one of the best one offs that very thankfully hasn’t been remade yet. We can leave that distinction to the already awful April Fool’s Day. (AP)
As an effects artist, Stan Winston made some of the greatest monsters in the history of the big screen, created in full-size animatronics that easily trounce any CGI creation (we’re talking about the Queen Alien from Aliens, the Predator, the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, and something or other in The Benchwarmers. You know, all the greats). As a director, he made only two films and this one is an unheralded classic. Plot-wise, it’s a fairly simple revenge tale with Lance Henrickson conjuring up a demon to punish some dirt bike loving teens who killed his son. However, that monster, designed by Winston and shot carefully by the effects guru for maximum realism, is one of the finest to ever freak out children on the big screen or VHS. The constantly growing and mutating monster will induce a little squirt of pants-wetting from even the most hardened horror fan and deserves to be ranked amongst Winston’s most iconic creations. If you’ve never seen Pumpkinhead before, you’re in for one of the great creature feature treats. For the love of god avoid all of the sequels though. No Winston involvement there, just some man-in-a-suit silliness (and not the good kind). (PB)
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Alright, so maybe this one isn’t as obscure anymore as some of the other films on this list, but that doesn’t mean it still isn’t woefully underappreciated (and if Phil can toss in Pumpkinhead, then…). Fred Dekker’s sci-fi, horror, comedy hybrid typifies 80s feel good filmmaking, and depending on which ending you watch (the director’s cut and TV versions have an interestingly different and bleaker take than the theatrical cut) it’s actually pretty upbeat despite the gore and grotesquery. With characters cheekily named as every living horror director of the era from Raimi to Cronenberg (probably the first film of its kind to do so this openly), a trio of students at Corman University try to get to the bottom of a slug like alien invasion.
James Gunn would do something eerily similar with Slither two decades later, but Dekker nails the balance of comedy and horror far better here, and Tom Atkins has one of his best genre appearances as a grizzled detective that’s so utterly bored with life that he actually sells every one liner with malicious glee. What can one really say that’s bad about a movie that opens with a ten minute black and white prologue and features a terrifyingly hilarious climax involving a bus load of zombified frat bros? It truly does play into some of our greatest fears: jocks gone rogue and getting slugs in our ears. (AP)
It was inevitable that when Re-Animator producer Brian Yunza got into directing he would deliver something a little odd. However, I doubt anyone saw Society coming. It’s one of those weird movies that qualifies as being in the horror genre for lack of any other appropriate classification. For most of the movie, you’ll be frustrated by the vaguely satirical story of an adopted social reject who just can’t connected with his super-rich family and neighbors played by 90210-quality actors. Sure, there’s some clever commentary, camp humor, and paranoid suspense to enjoy, but overall the movie feels like cheese. But then comes the 15-minute climax where you find out what the 1% get up to behind closed doors and it is one of the most singularly fucked up sequences in the history of cinema. I can’t in good conscious say what happens, nor could words possibly describe it. Let’s just say the film features a credit for “surrealistic make-up effects” assigned to some guy named Screaming Mad George and leave it at that. You know those, “you have to see it to believe it” movies? This is one of them. You may regret it, but you’ll never forget seeing “the shunting.” Every horror fan should know what that means. Go find out, young padawan. (PB)
The Stuff (1985)
Schlock master Larry Cohen made his best film about killer yogurt mined from the Earth with this hilariously gruesome satire about fast food consumerism and health conscious fads finally coming together. In a way, this tale of blob like bacteria that tastes great and is less filling, is even more prescient today in our culture of Vitamin Water and other supposedly healthy drinks that are slowly killing us all from the inside. It’s cheesy and the hero is a guy who works for the not-so-terrifying ice cream lobby, but it’s a pretty wild adventure. It also has one of my favourite non-sequitors of all time: “We all have to eat shaving cream at some point in our lives.” (AP)
Street Trash (1987)
A liquor store finds a case of dirty old liquor called Viper that’s looks like bright blue drain cleaner and has similar effects went dumped on objects. However, he figures it’s ideal stuff to sell to hobos for a dollar. One unfortunate soul picks up a bottle and melts into a bubbling puddle of goo. That’s the opening of Street Trash and somehow things only get stranger from there. It’s unclear how this bizarre film possibly got financed, but Hollywood steadicam specialist J. Michael Muro calling the shots as the director, it always looks great and is never a few minutes away from the next spectacularly gory set piece. The movie is a work of incredible bad taste that makes Troma look like Criterion, but one that never ceases to entertain. Deliberate or not, it’s as funny as any comedy and even though it’s not a horror movie in the traditional sense, you’d be hard pressed to find a bloodier and nastier horror flick in the 80s (and that’s really saying something). There’s no other movie out there like Street Trash and unless a group of nutcase renegade filmmakers drink a case of Viper and go insane on celluloid again, there never will be. See it just to confirm that it actually exists. (PB)
The Burning (1982)
Now known separately as the more high minded Miramax and the lower brow Dimension, the first film from the ultra-powerful Weinsteins was actually just a simple Friday the 13th styled slasher knock off that’s far scarier and better made than it’s more heavily hyped cousin. There isn’t much innovation in Bob and Harvey’s story about a burned alive drunk named Cropsy coming back from the grave to wreak havoc on a summer camp, but it’s grittier and far less pandering to its teenage audience and fan base. It also manages to remember to actually have young children at a summer camp (something the Jason Voorhees series didn’t get right for the first six entries), and a pretty stacked cast of then unknowns, including Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter. The plotting is pretty amateur hour stuff (sorry Bob and Harv), but Tom Maylam makes a gorgeous looking film and a multi-character massacre aboard a raft is one of the most harrowing sequences in genre history and not just of the decade. (AP)
There have been some strange damn horror movies to slip out of Japan over the years, but none of them can match Tetsuo for sheer filmmaking insanity. Shot in ultra-low-budget on beautifully grainy black and white filmstock that looks like it was left over Eraserhead, Tetsuo is a surreal nightmare odyssey about a man who slowly turns into metal. It starts off as a sort of fetish as he jams bits of steal into his body, but soon the metal takes over and starts painfully and involuntarily transforming his body into, well, Tetsuo: The Iron Man. This being a Japanese movie, obviously he’ll eventually turn into a giant robot to battle with others of his kind, but until writer/director Shin’ya Tsukamoto gets there, it’s a nasty work of body horror that would make David Cronenberg cringe, written with a delightful disregard for logic that would make David Lynch scratch his head. The film is also somewhat of a masterpiece in it’s own inexplicably twisted way. Tsukamoto went on to create a full Tetsuo trilogy with Tetsuo 2: Body Hammer (1992) and Tetsuo: The Bullet Man (2009). All three are worthy entries into the legacy of WTF filmmaking masterworks, but something about his DIY 1989 original still remains the best. It’s still a shock to the senses all these years later and will slither into your brain to disturb you in ways you weren’t even aware were possible. (PB)
Bob Balaban’s pitch black, late decade satire of suburban life in the 1950s not only creates parallels between the “family values” of the period under Ronald Regan and George Bush Sr., but he also frames a typical 80s horror convention in a new light. Instead of merely presenting a film where a young boy can’t get anyone to believe him when he says his parents (Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt) are cannibals, Balaban turns it into a horror of a more relatable kind: a coming of age film. The scares here are quite horrific despite the intentional laughs along the way, but there’s something almost Lynchian about watching this young boy grow up under such strained circumstances. It’s definitely a film that people have seen and loved in more recent years, but it was definitely far too strange to be much of a commercial success. (AP)