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The top 10 greatest horror films of the 1980s

@Russellisation

‘Seize the video nasties’ and ‘we must protect our children now!’ were just two of the many headlines that fueled the moral panic of video nasties throughout the 1980s. Blaming contemporary horror films for abhorrent real-life crimes became the port of call for many years, as films such as Child’s PlayA Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th were widely vilified. 

Such complaints came during a simpler time, before the panic of internet culture at the turn of the 21st century when mass media was blamed for the atrocities of the public, rather than the real-life horrors of war. Ignited by the likes of John Carpenter’s Halloween and Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre released in the previous decade, the 1980s became a slasher horror paradise, where blood, guts, gore and cliches splattered the walls of the cinema auditorium. 

Establishing a number of vivid cliches during its decade-long run of films, the slasher genre became known for its formulaic properties, featuring ‘the final girl’, ‘the jock’, ‘the stoner’ and ‘the virgin’, with each trope deconstructed in postmodern horror flicks Scream and The Cabin in the Woods. That’s not to say each and every horror flick fell victim to such stereotypical convention, however, with multiple pioneers of the genre being released throughout the decade, from slasher celebrations to joyously horrific body horrors. 

Without further ado, let’s take a look at the top 10 horror films of the 1980s.

The 10 best horror films of the 1980s:

10. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)

Grimey, disgusting and wonderfully creative, Clive Barker’s cult classic horror film Hellraiser is a punk joyride across the depths of hell, featuring one of the most iconic villains of all time in the hideous Pinhead. 

Described by Stephen King as “the future of horror”, Hellraiser follows the story of a woman who begins to kill for her recently resurrected brother-in-law so that he can escape the horrors of the underworld. It’s a bizarre, bombastic plot that well combines genuine terror and entertaining pulpy visuals, typified by the eclectic Cenobites, extradimensional beings who exist in a horrifying realm of dread.

9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)

Finding originality in the largely generic slasher genre, Wes Craven’s fleshy supernatural horror is a creative masterpiece, creating one of cinema’s most subversive and iconic villains, Freddy Krueger. 

Starring a young Johnny Depp, Craven’s film follows the evil spirit of Freddy Krueger, a deceased child murderer who seeks revenge from the grave on the children of those who sent him to his death. Featuring revolutionary, grungy special effects and a truly unique sinister entity, straight from the camp underworld, A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of slashers’ best and most unsettling. 

8. Evil Dead II (Sam Raimi, 1987)

Turning horror into a sandbox playground, Sam Raimi has long been a pioneer of the genre, injecting a healthy dose of manic comedy into his sequel film that would show brand new innovations to surpass its generic predecessor.

In Raimi’s inventive, slapstick approach to gory horror-comedy, he had subverted the bad taste of the genre like few others had ever done before. His bombastic journey into the depravities of hell’s most ghoulish and malleable creatures is campy horror fun, and equal parts grimy horror and deranged hilarity. Featuring the iconic Ash (Bruce Campbell) in his most famous chainsaw-wielding role, this may well be one of horror’s most enjoyable outings. 

7. The Changeling (Peter Medak, 1980)

Announced as a favourite of both Stephen King and Martin Scorsese, The Changeling from Peter Medak exists in a genre of its own, suffusing a haunting tale with one of atmospheric mystery and unease. 

The story follows a man retreating to the seclusion of a vacant Seattle mansion following the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash, only for his getaway to be disrupted by a paranormal presence in the house’s attic. Led by a terrific lead performance from George C. Scott as John Russell, this creepy gothic tale becomes something far more modern as it balances the despair of tragedy and the fragility of mental health. 

6. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986)

‘Be afraid. Be very afraid’ reads the tagline for David Cronenberg’s iconic body horror flick starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis that would pioneer a taste for gory, disgusting special effects. 

Based on the short story of the same name from author George Langelaan, The Fly follows an eccentric scientist, who upon trying to master teleportation, uses himself as a test subject to disastrous consequences. Encapsulated by Jeff Goldbloom’s scatty central character, The Fly is, first and foremost, a psychological paranoia that raucously descends into gruesome physical horror. As much a science fiction masterpiece as it is a horror classic, The Fly is an inspired story, ingeniously told by Cronenberg. 

5. An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981)

From the iconic cult director of Animal House, The Blues Brothers and The Kentucky Fried Movie, John Landis, comes his very best film, An American Werewolf in London, a horror film teetering on the borderline of terror and comedy. 

Perfectly toeing the line between the two genres, Landis directs a film both unforgettably disturbing and joyously camp. A pioneering horror-comedy, the film follows two American college students who are attacked by a mythical werewolf whilst on a walking tour of Britain. Injecting the tale with fun, fear and one of the most impressive transformation sequences ever put to film, An American Werewolf in London is an intelligent, funny and genuinely disturbing ride. Such films don’t come around often. 

4. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)

Possibly David Cronenberg’s most notable and most acclaimed films, Videodrome typifies the extravagant nature of 1980’s filmmaking as a visual rollercoaster that utilises the very best special effects of its time. 

Beloved by filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, the former even exclaimed in a Criterion interview that Videodrome was “one of the best films ever made”. Taking science fiction to brand new heights, Videodrome is a thrillingly sleazy judgement on new media and an entertaining conversation into what the technological future may have in store. It all follows the story of a TV programmer who becomes obsessed with a mysterious broadcast, and a new reality, named ‘Videodrome’. It’s a wild ride. 

3. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)

There are very few horror directors with the same industry clout as John Carpenter, having been responsible for some of the finest films of the genre, including Halloween, The Fog and Village of the Damned and The Thing.

Based on the John W. Campbell Jr. novella Who Goes There? as well as the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, The Thing is a pioneer of cosmic horror storytelling set within an isolated Antarctic research facility. Following the horrific activity of a cosmic being that perfectly assimilates its prey, The Thing deftly entwines the terror of man’s paranoid struggle with the inconceivable horror of the unknown with groundbreaking monster design from special effects artist Rob Bottin. 

2. Possession (Andrzej Żuławski, 1981)

A visually stunning 1980s masterpiece, Possession celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2021 and looks as though it could quite easily exist in the landscape of contemporary psychological horror. 

Directed by Andrzej Żuławski and starring Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill, Possession echoes with the inspiration of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion in its depiction of psychological breakdown, following the divorce of Anna (Adjani) and Mark (Neill) and the sinister fallout of the relationship. A classic of 1980s horror that defied the popular slasher zeitgeist, Possession was fuelled by the horror innovations of David Cronenberg’s The Brood and David Lynch’s Eraserhead to create something entirely new. 

1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Famously disliked by horror aficionados and the writer of the original story, Stephen King, The Shining remains an enigmatic horror classic that has kept audiences guessing the secret to the Overlook Hotel to this very day. 

Set in a magnificent, fictional hotel located in the Colorado Rockies, The Shining follows Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family who opt to look after the hotel over the winter, only for Jack to turn insane under the pressure of an evil presence. A chilling exploration of madness, elevated by the performances of a psychotic Nicholson and a physically fraught Shelley Duvall, The Shining is among the finest horror films ever made.