After cinema-going audiences had caught a whiff of the luscious flavour of red corn syrup in the 1970s, they were thirsty for more; horror was about to take an eventful trip into Bloodville. Body horror culminated in the 1980s, from bodily invasion to general dismemberment, this most likely stemming from the demon fetus in 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” the chest-bursting extraterrestrials in 1979’s “Alien,” and the limb-mutilating power tool from 1974’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Buckets of guts was the new “in thing,” and has continued with this status for quite some time.
From this, we have been given many icons of cinema that have haunted the dreams of many a filmgoer ever since they first graced the silver screen all those years ago. While the ’70s gave us stalk-and-slash Halloween killer Michael Myers and the snarling otherworldly Xenomorphs, the ’80s would bring us a mute masked machete-wielder, a cackling dream demon and a knife-swinging plastic doll. Upping the ante in the gore department became the cool thing to do in a horror picture, and the ’80s sure knew how to do it in style. Here are my top ten of that decade.
10. “Child’s Play” (1988)
Who’d have thunk that a children’s plaything could be so murderous? In director Tom Holland’s “Child’s Play,” the villain is Chucky, a Good Guy doll which is unfortunately possessed by a local serial killer. While six-year-old Andy is delighted to receive the doll as a birthday gift, he becomes a tad upset when the red-headed toy makes a habit of slaughtering people left, right and centre. While the film is a bit laughable today (not helped by the increasingly comedic sequels that followed), it’s undoubtedly entertaining and a cornerstone of the genre, creating a character who must‘ve scared the pants off kids back in the day. His name’s Chucky and he wants to be your friend. And kill you.
9. “The Return of the Living Dead” (1985)
No, this is not a sequel to George A. Romero’s zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead,” but is instead a semi-original slice of slapstick horror. Writer-director Dan O’Bannon’s cult comedy zombie flick tells the tale of two men who accidentally turn a whole city into the walking dead after unleashing toxic fumes from an army barrel. Teaming up with the local mortician and a gang of teenage punks, they desperately try to fight off the reanimated corpses, who are hungry for fresh human brains. The film is utterly hilarious and suitably demented, notable for having unstoppable zombies who can actually talk. A sequence in which a naked, headless corpse stumbles about while attacking our bumbling heroes is amazingly side-splitting. This is a gory slapstick comedy with imagination and brains. Mmmm, brains…
8. “An American Werewolf in London” (1981)
Probably best remembered for its revolutionary practical effects (created by make-up legend Rick Baker), “An American Werewolf in London” is a fabulous horror with a cheeky sense of humour about itself. John Landis’ film is, as you should be able to guess, a werewolf picture, our American main character finding himself bitten by a lycanthrope while strolling through the English moors. Throughout the course of the next few days, he begins to fear the full moon, as this is the time when his body goes through some animalistic changes and his slobbery tongue thirsts for blood. The make-up is astonishing, the famously graphic transformation sequence still harrowing today, but the film is more than just a collection of impressive prosthetics, making for a horror that’s both effectively scary and pretty darn funny. It’s wolf-tastic.
7. “The Fly” (1986)
If there’s anything that will put scientists off creating a teleportation device in the near future, it’s David Cronenberg’s “The Fly.” A remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 original, its story is of a scientist named Seth Brundle who has worked out how to teleport objects from one location to another. However, he finds out the device has one minor flaw — it can only take one object at a time, and when Seth goes into the machine with a fly crawling on the window, the two are spliced together. Throughout the rest of the film, he goes through some mood swings and eventually transforms into a hideous creature in the thrilling climax. Jeff Goldblum is excellently eccentric in the leading role, flawlessly hovering between sympathetic hero and villainous monster. The creature effects are awesome, the ending is a true tear-jerker and the film overall is just a buzzing brilliant sci-fi horror.
6. “The Evil Dead” (1981)
Writer-director Sam Raimi pushed the envelope for gore and shoved it down viewers’ throats with his shoestring-budgeted cinematic debut. “The Evil Dead” has a simple story: a gang of five college students go out to a cabin in the woods for some relaxation time, only to have their fun interrupted by soul-swallowing demons who wish to possess their bodies. This narrative is given extra weight by Raimi’s insanely inventive direction, filming the bodily mutilation with a keen eye for visuals. Infamous for its status as a video nasty, it is particularly gruesome, but a whole lot of fun. I still cringe at the pencil-in-the-ankle scene.
5. “Poltergeist” (1982)
The only film on the list to be given a PG rating in America, Tobe Hooper’s “Poltergeist” relies more on atmosphere and carefully handled chills to spook viewers — though a moment where a man peels the flesh from his own face is a bit out-of-place. The film revolves around a suburban family who suspect their home is being haunted by a ghost or two, this confirmed when the daughter is snatched and taken into another dimension. Writer-producer Steven Spielberg’s name is practically embroidered on every single scene, the film feeling just like one of his heyday pictures, albeit with an added chiller element. And who could forget Zelda Rubinstein’s stupendous performance as the spiritual medium? Her voice still sends tingles up my spine.
4. “The Thing” (1982)
The second of the two remakes on the list, “The Thing” is a reimagining of Christian Nyby’s “The Thing from Another World” of 1951. Set in chilly Antarctica, John Carpenter’s splatter-horror creature-feature centres on a group of Americans who stumble upon what looks to be a dead animal — only, it’s not dead. It turns out this creature is from a world unlike our own, it having the ability to shapeshift and mimic those around it. With this information, the entire crew becomes paranoid, unaware of who the murderous monster may be, causing them to constantly turn on each other. The film is monumentally tense, squeezing every ounce of suspense out of the fascinating premise, showcasing jaw-droppingly revolting practical effects as the creature begins to morph and change shape. Is the monster him? Or maybe it’s that guy? Or maybe…it’s you!
3. “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
Freddy Krueger has become one of cinema’s greatest on-screen icons, the vicious dream demon (played by Robert Englund) the kind of monster who’s difficult to escape from without a boatload of coffee. Clad in a fedora hat and a red and green sweater, the burn-faced slasher made his first appearance in Wes Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” cutting and gutting poor teenagers while they sleep. You see, this monster gets you by invading your dreams and toying with you until he tears you to shreds with his razor-fingered glove — and once he nabs you, you’ll never wake up again. Thank the lord that the film itself is worthy of such a mesmerising character, Craven showing off an ample sense of imagination in what is arguably his best film. One, two, Freddy’s coming for you…
2. “Evil Dead 2” (1987)
Sam Raimi’s franchise makes its second appearance on the list, proving that a sequel can indeed outdo the original. Here, the future “Spider-Man” director decided not to go necessarily for all-out scares, instead making this follow-up a slapstick comedy, and it’s all the better for it. The story picks up where the last one left off, with Bruce Campbell’s Ash stuck in the woods, all on his own, aside from the gang of ruthless demons lurking about. The first 40 minutes of the film are handled almost entirely by Campbell alone, as poor Ash is hilariously tormented by the invisible spooks that watch and giggle away at his suffering. Campbell’s goofy performance is legendary among film circles, and Raimi’s “Three Stooges”-inspired direction is once again deliriously creative and ferociously entertaining. Groovy.
1. “The Shining” (1980)
And in at number one is American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus (well, at least according to me). “The Shining” is based on the book of the same name by horror maestro Stephen King, starring Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer who becomes the caretaker of the isolated Overlook Hotel over the winter. With his wife and son staying with him in the deserted resort, Jack slowly but surely begins to go stark raving mad, whether this be from cabin fever or the ghosts that lurk in the corridors. Complete with an astonishingly chilling atmosphere and Nicholson giving one of cinema’s greatest on-screen performances, Kubrick’s masterpiece is a magnificent slice of claustrophobic horror. Heeeeeere’s a great movie.
Honourable mentions: “Friday the 13th” for introducing us to the iconic Jason Voorhees, though he didn’t make a full appearance until its 1981 sequel. I’m not a fan of the film itself, I’ve always found it lacked much of an imagination, though I admire it as a landmark of horror history. I’d say the same for Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser” of 1987; I love Doug Bradley’s performance as the villainous soul-tearing Pinhead (who’s become a staple of the genre), but I’m not too fond of the film.
By Stephen Watson