Compiling this list of the best horror movies of the 80s was certainly a trip down memory lane. That decade produced many of the genre’s biggest franchises such as the Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street and the Evil Dead series. There were also several individual films that still stand up as some of the scariest films ever made. Though I can’t claim to have seen every horror movie made in the 80s, I have certainly put more than my share of time in watching slasher flicks on both the big and the small screen. Here are my picks for the scariest movies of the 80s:
50 – Children of the Corn – Expect to see plenty of Stephen King on this list. The greatest horror novelist of all time has seen several of his books adapted to the big screen, and this chilling tale of a cult of murderous children in Nebraska definitely creeped me out back in 1984.
49 – Basket Case – Evil things sometimes come in small packages. A young man packs his deformed, detached Siamese twin with him in a basket on a spree of murderous violence. However, when he wants to start a normal life, his miniature evil twin escapes and continues its violent rampage.
48 – Manhunter – Five years before Silence of the Lambs (and Anthony Hopkins’ incredible performance) made Dr. Hannibal Lecter a household name this psychological thriller was spooking audiences. Brian Cox gives a great performance (though admittedly not as good as Anthony Hopkins) as Hannibal the Cannibal, and this time Will Graham (William Peterson of CSI fame) has the unenviable task of tracking down the brilliant serial killer.
47 – Silver Bullet – Though young people today might never even have heard of the late Corey Haim, at one time he was of the biggest teen stars in Hollywood. In this 1985 werewolf movie adaptation of a Stephen King story Haim plays a handicapped child who plays a brave sleuth trying to track down the man who is committing gruesome murders every time the moon is full.
46 – Demons (or Demoni) – Not much mystery in the title of this 1986 horror flick. Adding a little European flavor to the list, this Italian film by horror master Dario Argento not only has plenty of gore to satisfy the bloodthirsty in the crowd, but also features top-notch cinematography of a quality rarely seen in horror films. Yes, the plot is your pretty typical fare, but this film is definitely worth a watch if you are a fan of the genre.
45 – C.H.U.D. – Only in the 80s would you find a title like Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers. If you are the sort of viewer that watches 80s horror movies for their comedic value as much (or more) than their scariness then this movie about a gang of murderous deformed sewer-dwelling hobos will be right up your alley. C.H.U.D. is pure 80s horror movie cheese as its finest.
44 – Happy Birthday to Me – One of the more confusing films on the list, this movie uses flashbacks heavily to try and convey the history of the killer. Though it can be hard to follow Happy Birthday to Me has some impressive camerawork, and some inventive death scenes that will delight even hard-bitten horror movie buffs that enjoy an unusual kill.
43 – The House on Sorority Row – Expect plenty of screams in this 1983 film. A sorority prank goes horribly wrong, and a young woman ends up dead. Rather than owning up to the crime, the sorority sisters hide the body. Little do they know that there was a witness to their evil deed, and that witness is hell-bent on vengeance, stalking and taking them out one by one.
42 – Christine – Yet another adaptation of a Stephen King novel. This time the enemy is not human, alien or monster, but is instead an evil-infused Plymouth Fury that corrupts its new owner.
41 – Hellbound: Hellraiser II – The cenobites are back in this sequel to Clive Barker’s original horror classic. This time a psychiatrist is seeking the gateway to Hell, and when a young patient named Kirsty who holds the key falls into his lap he again invites evil into the world, murdering his patients and offering them as food to call forth a demon bent on bringing the cenobites across. Kirsty and the Dr. Channard’s young assistant Kyle must team up to defeat them, and save mankind from an eternity of torment.
40 – The Fog – John Carpenter was arguably the best horror movie director of the 80s, and his horror follow-up to 1978’s Halloween – one of the best horror movies ever made – he again spooked audiences with his 1980 film The Fog where denizens of a California fishing village come under attack by a killer fog, containing zombie-ghosts from a century old leper colony.
39 – Pumpkinhead – One of the most underrated scary movies of the decade, this one is a great choice if you are looking to rent horror movies on Halloween. This is another classic tale of revenge where a man summons forth a murderous demon called Pumpkinhead to avenge the death of his son.
38 – Scanners – Director David Cronenberg’s career has been all over the map, but throughout the 80s his bread and butter was definitely the horror genre. One of his best efforts of the decade was the sci-fi horror classic Scanners where a ruthless group of psychics with the power of mind control strive for world domination.
37 – Puppetmaster – With the enormous success of Child’s Play the usual string of copycat movies came out. Puppetmaster was the best of these films, and many consider it to be better than Child’s Play. I am not in that camp, but it is definitely worth a watch or two. This time the enemy is legion, when multiple murderous puppets are unleashed after a man rediscovers an ancient Egyptian formula to create life.
36 – Angel Heart – Not a slasher flick like many of the other horror films on this list, Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourque, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet is a stylish and creepy thriller where a private investigator takes a case from the Devil himself to track down a serial killer. I won’t say any more about the plot because I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say there are plenty of twists in this film, including one monster revelation that is one of the best horror movie twists ever.
35 – Halloween II – Like most horror movies that enjoyed success during the era the original Halloween spawned several sequels. Different people will have their own ideas as to which of the follow-ups came closest to approaching the mastery of John Carpenter’s original. In my opinion Halloween II was the best of the film’s many sequels. The movie picks up right where the original left off. It is still Halloween, 1978, and Michael Myers is still on the loose and continuing his murderous rampage.
34 – Prince of Darkness – Yes, this list is becoming a bit of a two man show with John Carpenter and Stephen King vying for the title of horror master of the decade. Carpenter gets another notch with the 1987 film Prince of Darkness. When a priest stumbles on a vat of green liquid in the basement of his church a tremendous evil is unleashed upon the world as the liquid – the essence of Satan – comes to life and only the priest and band of physics students can stop him as he tries to bring his all-powerful father into the world.
33 – Creepshow – Not so much a traditional horror movie, but rather a series of short horror stories this 80s cult classic is a collaboration between Stephen King and George A. Romero of zombie movie fame. With comedic elements Creepshow will make you laugh as often as it will make you jump, but there is plenty of creepiness as well, particularly for those with an aversion to cockroaches.
32 – The Changeling – A haunted house movie done exceptionally well, The Changeling will shiver the spines of even hardy horror veterans. George C. Scott is excellent as always in the lead role as a widower who soon discovers he is not alone in the old Victorian mansion he has retired to. As he delves deeper he discovers the horrible secret that has kept the resident specter chained to mortal world.
31 – Day of the Dead – George A. Romero has made a career out of writing and directing some of the best zombie movies of all time. Though not quite on par with the original Night of the Living Dead or 1978’s Dawn of the Dead this chapter still has plenty for zombie movie buffs to enjoy. Far gorier than the first two films, Day of the Dead will be a delight to those who consider blood and guts to be the most important elements of a horror film.
30 – Cujo – There is no animal cute or cuddlier than a St. Bernard. Loyal, obedient, and willing to brave the elements to bring its master brandy or Neo Citran, the St. Bernard is the very definition of man’s best friend… unless it gets bit by a rabid bat. Then it ceases to be so friendly and terrorizes an entire town. Though not as terrifying as the novel by Stephen King there are still plenty of white-knuckle moments in this classic 80s horror film.
29 – Dressed to Kill – As much a mystery as it is a horror film, Dressed to Kill starring Michael Caine and Angie Dickinson is a significantly different film from many of the others on this list. That’s not a bad thing. This stylish thriller has plenty of intensity and a few moments that will make you jump out of your seat.
28 – My Bloody Valentine – I always like to include a little Canadian content in my lists, and this film set in a small mining town in Nova Scotia fits the bill. After a devastating accident on Valentine’s Day the sole survivor of the incident warns the town in no uncertain terms never to hold another Valentine’s Day dance. Twenty years later when the warning goes unheeded the bodies quickly pile up.
27 – The Serpent and the Rainbow – Stephen King and John Carpenter weren’t the only horror heavyweights of the 80s. A certain director by the name of Wes Craven also delivered his fair share of scares during that decade, and he chilled viewers with one of the creepiest films of the decade with 1988’s The Serpent and the Rainbow. A young Bill Pulman stars as an anthropologist who travels to Haiti in search of the source of the zombie legend. When he arrives he gets pulled into a terrifying voodoo world that threatens to turn him into one of the walking dead.
26 – House – No this isn’t the tale of a sarcastic, self-centered M.D. who has a talent for diagnosing obscure medical conditions every other doctor misses. Steve Miner’s House is, predictably, a classic haunted house tale. A former Vietnam veteran and horror novelist must duel zombies in the house where his son has disappeared and his aunt has mysteriously died.
25 – Child’s Play – The notion of a knife-wielding doll running around murdering people might sound more comic than horrific, but this movie about a foul-mouth homicidal doll has plenty of moments that will make you jump, and lots of gore to boot. This puppet film has gone on to spawn four sequels and Chucky has become one of the true icons in the horror genre.
24 – Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter – Speaking of horror movie icons, there are few villains as identifiable in the genre as Jason Voorhees. His outfit of overalls and a hockey goalie mask is nearly as recognizable as Superman’s tights and cape. Initially this film, as the title implies, was intended to put an end to the popular horror franchise, killing off Jason in a spectacular fashion. However, the huge box office success of The Final Chapter motivated producers to continue on with the series, bringing Jason back to life for several more episodes of murder and mayhem.
23 – The Howling – Based on the horror novel by Gary Brandner this 1981 film is one of the best modern werewolf movies, behind only the stellar An American Werewolf in London. The make-up work in the film is impressive for its era with terrifyingly real transformation scenes. Unfortunately the same level of mastery could not be recaptured in the several sequels the film spawned. Enjoy the first movie and stop there. Don’t bother wasting your time with the drek that followed.
22 – Shocker – Wes Craven makes another appearance on the list of the best horror movies of the 80s. This time his creation is a serial killer who makes a deal with the Devil to come back to life after his death by electrocution. He is able to use his energy to take over the bodies of others to continue his murderous rampage, and only a youth with a strange dream connection to the killer can put an end to the murders.
21 – Return of the Living Dead – Despite the title of this film this movie was not written or directed by George A. Romero. Instead it is a tongue-in-cheek homage to Romero’s zombie flicks, boasting far more comedy than horror. Still, like the recently released Zombieland, Return of the Living Dead is a must-watch for fans of the genre, and holds a place along with Romero’s classics among the best zombie movies ever made.
20 – Hellraiser – Based on the novel The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker this 1987 served as Mr. Barker’s introduction on the big screen, and also introduced another horror villain icon in Pinhead. The film is far more original than most on this list, thanks to Clive Barker’s deliciously dark imagination.
19 – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 – Though it couldn’t live up to the high standard set in the original 1974 classic, the 1986 sequel did live up to its promise to bring the buzz back. Leatherface is back and as demented as ever, using his signature chainsaw to dole out death indiscriminately. Dennis Hopper lends a bit of star power to the film as a former Texas Ranger with a personal connection to the cannibalistic family.
18 – The Vanishing – Though most horror fans will recall this movie from the 1993 remake starring Kiefer Sutherland, the film was originally a Dutch movie called Spoorloos. After a woman disappears from her vehicle at a rest-stop her lover begins a multi-year quest to find out what has become of her. The ending contains a deliciously evil twist that was omitted in the 1993 remake. If you don’t mind reading subtitles then this a must-watch for fans of psychological thriller horror.
17 – The Hitcher – Rutger Hauer gives one of the most convincingly chilling performances of the 80s with his turn as a homicidal hitchhiker who terrorizes a young man traveling across the country. You’ll find yourself inspecting your french fries very carefully after you watch this film.
16 – Pet Sematary - The pet lovers in the crowd will cringe watching this one. This creepy adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name chilled audiences back in 1989. Louis Creed, mad with grief following the death of his young son, Gage, unleashes unspeakable horror upon his family when he buries the boy’s corpse in an ancient cemetery that brings the dead back to life. Unfortunately Gage returns not with love in his heart but with murderous impulses, leading to horrific consequences.
15 – The Lost Boys - We’ve seen a vampire craze in recent years, with franchises like Twilight, True Blood and The Vampire Diaries all enjoying massive success across a variety of mediums. Back in the 1980s there was a similar upsurge in fanged phantom popularity and 1987’s The Lost Boys certainly capitalized on that popularity. The film featured many of the decade’s most popular young stars, including both Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, as well as a young Kiefer Sutherland, playing the bad guy role.
14 – The Evil Dead - Sam Raimi’s classic horror masterpiece makes number 14 on the list of the greatest 80s horror films. Though its sequels – Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness – played more like comedies than horror films in most respects, the original film was more or less a straight up fright fest. Though the make-up and special effects are pretty rudimentary by today’s standards, this story of demonic possession still stands up pretty well considering this film is now more than three decades old.
13 – Poltergeist - The poster for this film, featuring a young girl sitting in front of a glowing television, is one of the most iconic images in movie history. The story at its roots is a simple tale of a haunted house, but under the legendary Steven Spielberg’s expert direction the film is anything but a genre cliché and remains one of the best haunted house films ever made.
12 – Friday the 13th - Though this franchise has seen numerous sequels, reboots and clones over the years, the original Friday the 13th film stands strong as one of the scariest movies ever made. Yes, the whole “teenagers terrorized by serial killer while out on a party weekend in the woods” plot has since been done to death, but rarely this well. Though the film introduces iconic killer Jason Voorhees, it is actually his dear mom who does all the slashing this time around.
11 – April Fools Day - A classic horror film with a nice mystery twist in there as well. Like most horror films the acting certainly isn’t Oscar-caliber, but not every director has the benefit of having a Jack Nicholson in the starring role. If you saw the 2008 remake and were unimpressed, definitely give the original a shot. It is the far superior version.
10 – Near Dark - Though perhaps not as well-known as most of the other films on this list, Near Dark, like many other cult films, has seen its popularity grow over the years, and now holds its rightful place as one of the best horror films of the decade. This movie about vampires is nothing like today’s Twilight films (thankfully), and the road movie theme is a refreshing take on the vampire genre. Bill Paxton gives a great performance as Severen, adding yet more quotable lines to his resume.
9 – Re-Animator - B-movie legend, Jeffrey Coombs stars in this creepy H.P. Lovecraft adaptation about a college medial student who experiments with reanimating dead tissue. He achieves success and before long the dead are back for a great combination of gore and laughs. Fans of the Evil Dead franchise should love the “camp” factor of this film.
8 – The Fly - One of those rare cases where a remake exceeds the quality of the original film, David Cronenberg’s 1986 reinvention of The Fly did just that. Jeff Goldblum is perfectly cast as Seth Brundle, a brilliant scientist who is attempting to build a teleportation device when one of his experiments goes horribly wrong. When a house fly catches a ride, Brundle’s DNA and the fly’s are mixed together with ultimately horrific results. Don’t watch this film if you like donuts.
7 – Fright Night - More vampires and more laughs in this 1985 classic. Fright Night features stellar special effects that looking back really were ahead of their time for a mid-80s film. The acting is refreshingly good as well. Yes, this is another horror/comedy hybrid, but it is far from pure campiness, with a few shocking scenes that will please the gore-lovers in the crowd. Definitely worth checking out, even if you are a little tired of vampires these days.
6 – Evil Dead 2 - Speaking of B-Movie legends, Bruce Campbell certainly fits that particular description. After a relatively low-key introduction as Ash in the original Evil Dead, Campbell ratchets up the cheesy goodness in this 1987 sequel. He returns to the cabin in the woods and again does battle with the reanimated dead (seemingly with no memory of his first encounter), and delivers some of the most quotable lines in the history of the horror genre. Despite the obvious tongue-in-cheek theme of the film, Evil Dead 2 does retain a scary side, finding a good balance between horror and comedy, and giving fans of both genres plenty to enjoy.
5 – An American Werewolf in London - The laughter ends here as we enter the top five. An American Werewolf in London is pure creepiness with nary a moment of levity to be found. The werewolf genre has been surprisingly underrepresented on this list, but this film is the gold standard of that genre. Atmospheric and chilling, this is the perfect film to watch home alone in the dark if you’ve got a masochistic streak in you.
4 – A Nightmare on Elm Street - If anyone can give Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees a run for their money as the most iconic horror villain of all time it is surely Freddy Krueger, the knife-fingered, sweater-wearing, burnt-to-a-crisp antagonist of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise. Written and directed by horror movie legend Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street had legions of young people scared to close their eyes at night after this film’s 1984 release. Gruesome and chilling, the buckets of blood in the film should satisfy even the most demanding gore-fiend. Sharp-eyed viewers will recognize a young Johnny Depp (at least before Freddy’s through with him.)
3 – The Thing - Speaking of a movie with not a hint of levity, John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing certainly qualifies. A remake of the 1951 film, The Thing from Another World, the movie takes place at the frozen South Pole, where a team of scientists must contend with an alien life form with the ability to take over the bodies of its victims. Word of warning: dog lovers might want to steer clear of this one.
2 – Aliens - Yes, I know that this is first and foremost a sci-fi movie, but there is certainly enough spookiness and gore to allow it a spot on this list as well. In fact, few movies on this list ratchet up the tension of the viewer as well as Ridley Scott’s masterpiece. Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Lance Henricksen all deliver great performances as a squad of space marines sent on a mission to a very unfriendly planet. Not only was Aliens a great film for its day, but it is one of those exceedingly rare 80s movies that seems every bit as good today as it did in the year of its release.
1 – The Shining - No surprise to find another Stephen King adaptation sitting at top spot on the list of the top horror movies of the 80s. Yes, Mr. King’s stellar novel provides a perfect base for the film, but it is Stanley Kubrick’s visionary directing and an iconic performance from screen legend Jack Nicholson that really make this movie stand out as not only the best horror film of the decade, but perhaps the greatest of all time. Creepy and outright bizarre at times, The Shining is one of those movies that instill a vague sense of unease, one that will stick with the viewer for days after they’ve watched it. Yes, it really is that spooky.