Countdown to Hell: The Ten Best Horror Movies from the 80s!

At heart this blog is your standard 80s horror movie villain. Like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers, no matter how many times I think Retrobacktive is dead it always seems to come back to life. It’s been three months since my last post. I was going to end the site on what I felt was the apex of what I wanted this blog to be, informative, researched and to some degree disruptive. But I should have known as soon as autumn rolled around and another Halloween fell upon us, throwing my two cents into the cultural macabre would be inevitable. This time we’re going to try a little something different.

As noted throughout the history of the blog a lot of inspiration is taken from James Rolfe’s Cinemassacre website. Every October James hosts “Monster Madness,” a retrospective of horror movies, both young and old. For myself, and legions of fans, it’s the highlight of the Halloween season. So drawing inspiration from James, I’ve decided to compile my own Top Ten Best 1980s Halloween Movies.

Obviously I won’t be showing clips or going into the depth James does on his site, but let this rundown serve as a quick guide to some of the best thriller films to enjoy for the remainder of October, or all year round.

First some quick preliminaries: I’m not saying these are the best, or necessarily scariest movies, of the decade. While all great films, my criteria was based on how well they embrace the spirit of Halloween; I envision these movies excelling in a group setting where everyone is up for a good spook.

Also, unlike my typical analysis, this is going to be much more informal. I’ve done absolutely no research into these films. Retrobacktive has a history of heavy deconstruction, and it requires a ton of research – and is one of the reasons I can’t maintain the site. Therefore everything in this list is what’s already in my head.

So here we go: the Top Ten Best 1980s Halloween Movies.

10.) The Blob (1988) – This is a remake of the Steve McQueen b-movie classic. It stars Shawnee Smith and Kevin Dillon and for the most part doesn’t stray too far from the original’s premise, save the monster’s origin whose reworking is a nice touch. Like all 80s remakes the gore level is cranked up and even child characters are fair game for the gelatinous title creature.

9.) The Monster Squad (1987) – As a child I was infatuated with this movie mainly because it featured a whole cast of classic Universal monsters. There’s Dracula, the Wolf-Man, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, and the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon. The heroes are a bunch of kids and it is admittedly a kids movie, but not a bad option if you’re looking for lighthearted Halloween fare that’s good for all ages.

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8.) Gremlins (1984) – Of all the movies on this list I’d expect this one to be the most controversial; is it horror? Is it comedy? Is it technically a Christmas movie? It doesn’t fit a perfect mold, but it does deliver a great blend of mayhem, hilarity and the supernatural. Joe Dante is one of those director’s with a great sense of dark humor. There are lots of tales of how morose the film would have actually been had the studio not interfered (e.g. Billy’s mom gets her head chopped off and thrown down a flight of stairs). But as it stands it’s a great film if you don’t mind your monsters small, plentiful and totally insane.

7.) Friday the 13th, Part III (1982) – With little effort this whole list could have been filled with slasher flicks, but for me Jason Voorhees is the standout. The character has become an institution where culturally he’s more significant than any one film in the series. Can’t say the same for Freddy or Michael. While many will argue the best film in the series is Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, the third film stands out as it features Jason donning the hockey mask for the first time. It’s the first in the series to showcase the iconic Jason as we all know him, and there’s no lack of scares or gore.

6.) Day of the Dead (1985) – With zombie fiction all the rage right now it’s easy to forget George A. Romero started it all in 1968 with a budget that in today’s big Hollywood market would equal peanuts. Romero has continued to make zombie films right up through present day (though he considers the monsters in his films to be “ghouls”), but most recognize his first three as the seminal trilogy. Day of the Dead is considered the weakest of the first three, but in many ways it fits in better with the current landscape of zombie culture with much of the threat centered not on the “ghouls” but the survivors’ inability to cooperate in self-preservation. A must for zombie fanatics.

5.) My Bloody Valentine (1981) – This one keeps it simple: a small town, a vicious killer with a pick-axe on the loose, lots of gruesome murders. There is nothing cerebral about this film. Hollywood did a remake; I’m sure it sucks. For pure Halloween fun, get the original, sit back and enjoy.

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4.) Return of the Living Dead (1985) – It’s one of cinema’s more interesting but lesser known feuds; after the success of Night of the Living Dead, George A. Romero and his production partner Dan O’Bannon got into an argument over the direction of the franchise. Ultimately they decided to go their separate ways and settled on Romero moving forward with his Dead series, and O’Bannon getting the rights to the name Living Dead for his. This was the latter’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead with a vastly different tone and directorial style. Return of the Living Dead is laced with off-beat humor, camp, and general exploitation. Not nearly as highbrow as the Dead series, but definitely more fun.

3.) The Fly (1986) – This is another remake of a campy 50s sci-fi film only with a much bigger budget, better actors, and under the helm of “body horror” master David Cronenberg. There’s nothing campy or “fun” about this one; it’s a direct assault on the senses. Jeff Goldblum plays a scientist who develops a means for teleportation but ends up splicing his genes together with a housefly that gets into the teleportation machine with him. The result requires a pretty strong stomach to sit through, but Goldblum’s performance is a tour de force not to be missed. the_thing_1982_theatrical_poster

2.) John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – Next time you feel like complaining about all the reboots Hollywood keeps churning out these days, remember it’s nothing really new. The only difference is in the 80s they were good. Like Cronenberg’s The Fly, John Carpenter’s The Thing is an improvement over the original – saying a lot considering the original is fantastic. While Carpenter elevates the gore level to new heights, it’s the psychological breakdown among the human characters that creates the movie’s unnerving suspense. It also features the greatest setting of any horror film ever: the middle of Antarctica.

1.) An America Werewolf in London (1981) – Here’s how you make a spectacular Halloween movie: start with a classic monster, like the Wolf-Man, put him in a modern setting, add plenty of blood and gore, some horrific dream sequences, sprinkle in a little light humor and a love story for grounding, and presto! A horror film classic. This John Landis gem gets the number one spot because of its versatility; it works on its own, in a group setting, or as the perfect background flick to your Halloween party.

There you have it; ten great Halloween movies, and it just so happens there’s ten days left before Halloween. Stay tuned for another list I’ll be putting together over the next couple days featuring my favorite Halloween movies outside of the 1980s. That’s right, folks; this Halloween we’re breaking all the rules!

…and CUT! Retrobacktive’s Halloween Special: The Slasher Film 101

Though digging up historical pop culture landmarks 30-some-odd years in the grave can, at times, be challenging if not in some critics eyes arbitrary, without a doubt one of the standout sensations of the 80s worth mentioning is the slasher film. In fact, if you were to ask any number of pop culture enthusiasts to name their top five defining trends of the decade, the slasher film would likely be noted on more than a handful of occasions. According to Peter Bracke’s Friday the 13th chronicle Crystal Lake Memories, in 1983 slasher films were responsible for 60% of all box-office earnings. For reasons argued up and down the annals of film academia, kids just loved going out in the 80s to watch their peers get chopped, stabbed, sliced, and generally mutilated by unstoppable psychotic killers.

Halloween, while not the first slasher film, w...

Halloween, while not the first slasher film, was the first major box office success in the genre. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For anyone new to the sub-genre, that last sentence pretty much sums up the slasher film. A more aggressive offspring of the classic monster movie, the slasher film almost always portrays a small group of people, usually comprised of teenagers, being targeted and viciously murdered by an overpowering, nearly invincible stalker. With a few notable exceptions (see below), these films typically eschewed plot and character depth in favor of graphic violence and inventive death scenes. In most films, the killer is (seemingly) destroyed in the end by a lone survivor of the group, usually a young woman.

Due to the horror genre’s popularity in the 80s, the list of films in the slasher catalog is dense and littered with obscurities and cheap knockoffs. But there are few better ways to spend Halloween than settled on the couch and sharing with that special someone… you’re favorite unstoppable serial killer! Presented in this seasonal Retrobacktive entry are all the basics you need to know – or re-known – about the slasher film.

See what I did there? Re-know is like Retrobac… ah, whatever; let’s get on with it.

Black Christmas – The first thing you need to know is that the slasher film sub-genre didn’t begin in the 80s; it began in 1974 with Black Christmas, a Canadian film directed by Bob Clark. Clark, most famous for the sophomoric Porky’s and lighthearted A Christmas Story, helped develop a screenplay by writer A. Roy Moore into what is widely considered the first true slasher film. The movie depicts a sorority house whose inhabitants are individually killed off by a killer whose identity is never revealed. Many of the techniques that would become staples within the genre were first executed by Clark here, including most famously camera shots from the perspective of the killer. Though the film was not a success upon its initial release, it has gained a cult following as the recognized progenitor of the genre.

Jamie Lee Curtis, in her feature film debut, p...

Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween is often credited as the first “final girl.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Final Girl – The Final Girl, or Survivor Girl, is a routine characteristic of the slasher film in which the killer is finally confronted by the last survivor within his/her intended group of victims. The survivor is almost always a woman, and usually one that has shown virtuous or masculine traits throughout the movie, and is thus able to destroy the killer. The term was first used by Carol Clover in her book Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. It has since gone on to be embraced openly by several of the genre’s most important filmmakers.

Englund as Freddy Krueger

Englund as Freddy Krueger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Freddy Krueger – The primary antagonist from Wes Craven‘s A Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddy Krueger is readily identifiable by his clawed glove with four razors jutting from the fingertips, as well as his brown fedora and red-striped sweater. Unlike many of his slasher villain contemporaries, whose menace only hinted at the supernatural, Krueger’s abilities completely defy human convention and allow him to carry out previously inconceivable methods of violence. The character was most famously portrayed by Robert Englund.

Friday the 13th – Arguably the biggest franchise to develop out of the slasher film phenomenon. The Friday the 13th series is most widely known for introducing the character Jason Voorhees. Known universally as simply ‘Jason,’ the hockey-masked killer didn’t actually begin terrorizing Crystal Lake until Friday the 13th Part 2. While well know to genre aficionados, it wasn’t until Wes Craven’s Scream (1996) that laymen audiences learned the killer from the original Friday the 13th was Pamela Voorhees, Jason’s mother. Jason’s signature hockey mask was another later development within the series, first being used in Friday the 13th Part 3-D and in all subsequent films – which currently span nine sequels, a spinoff, and a 2009 reboot.

Halloween – Although Black Christmas is considered the original slasher film, Halloween is far and away the genre’s most lauded and seminal entry. Fulfilling the trope that would follow in virtually every slasher film made in the 80s, Halloween in recognized for not only perfecting many of the slasher staples established in Black Christmas – including eerie first-person camera perspectives from the villain’s point of view – but also creating the genre’s most indelible component: the masked killer. What makes Halloween unique and outstanding (aside from Michael Myers’ white William Shatner mask) is John Carpenter’s deft direction. Halloween contains very little gore, and the violence pales in comparison to the numerous sequels that would follow. Instead Carpenter relies on tone and immaculate pacing to create suspense. It works; as a horror film, this movie is virtually flawless. Extra points for the creepy soundtrack, composed by none other than John Carpenter.

Hellraiser – While not a traditional slasher film in the strictest sense, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser deserves mention given its legacy in the horror film canon, and for introducing Pinhead, one of the genre’s most popular villains. Like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser leans heavily towards the supernatural, but the gruesome visuals and deplorable characters align the film with other slasher classics. As a precursor to ‘torture porn,’ Hellraiser could be seen as the original, and the best.

Kirzinger as Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason.

Ken Kirzinger as Jason Voorhees in Freddy vs. Jason. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jason Voorhees – Jason Voorhees is the main antagonist (or antihero, depending on how you view the films) in the Friday the 13th series. Though his mother is revealed as the killer in the original movie, Jason takes the helm throughout the remainder of the sequels. As the son of Pamela Voorhees, Jason was a mongoloid who supposedly drowned in Crystal Lake, his cries for help unheard by camp counselors preoccupied with sex. Despite his mother’s attempts to avenge her dead child, Jason is shown to be alive in Friday the 13th Part 2, and launches an endless campaign of violence upon anyway who dares to reside near Crystal Lake. Jason’s acquisition of a goalie’s mask in Friday the 13th Part 3-D would elevate his pop culture status as arguably the most recognizable serial killer in film history.

John Carpenter – An Academy-award winning American filmmaker notable for producing, writing, editing, scoring, and directing several watershed films within the horror genre, John Carpenter is most well-known for creating the classic horror film Halloween. Carpenter released a string of horror films in the 80s and is consider by many to be the most influential horror filmmaker of the decade. Other notable movies in his catalog include The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Prince of Darkness, and They Live!.

Leatherface – As the chainsaw-wielding, skin-wearing, transvestite butcher from Tobe Hopper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface arguably defined the image of the homicidal stalker that would become prevalent in 80s slasher films. A silent, brutish figure devoid of personality, actor Gunnar Hansen studied the behavior of children with mental disabilities to develop the character’s creepy mannerisms.

Michael Myers – Michael Myers (aka ‘The Shape’) is the primary villain from the Halloween film series. A mysterious and relentless opponent, Myers is portrayed as the epitome of pure evil after he murders his sister as a young boy and escapes a mental institution 15 years later to stalk and murder a number of babysitters on Halloween night. The famous white mask Myers’ wears was actually a Captain Kirk Star Trek mask painted white by production designer Tommy Lee Wallace. The mask that launched a hundred horror flicks cost the film crew only $1.98. Ironic considering John Carpenter’s horror masterpiece is the closest thing the slasher film has to high art.

Nightmare on Elm Street – Director Wes Craven followed the burgeoning success he’d grown with low-budget cult films such as The Hills Have Eyes and Swamp Thing with 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. The film introduces audiences to Freddy Krueger, whose wit and supernatural abilities set him apart from the traditional, silent slasher film villains of the day. Like Halloween and Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street spawned a number of sequels, spinoffs, and a recent remake. Most, however, lacked the artistic input of Craven, but the original is a highly innovative entry into the slasher film canon thanks to its incorporation of reality-bending concepts.

Phantasm – A little-known American horror film from 1979, Phantasm earns a place in this overview as it contains many of the traditional elements found in slasher films of the era, primarily a young teenage protagonist engaged in battle with a larger, brooding antagonist. In the case of Phantasm, the antagonist is large enough to be colloquially dubbed “The Tall Man.” As The Tall Man, Angus Scrimm plays a mortician who controls a brood of dwarf zombies that fulfill his murderous desires. Though not as popular as contemporary films such as Halloween or Alien, Phantasm gained a strong cult following, and three sequels were eventually released.

Pinhead – As the leader of the Cenobites, a order of extra-dimensional sadomasochistic beings from the Hellraiser series, Pinhead distinguishes himself from several contemporary horror film antagonists by demonstrating erudite mannerisms as opposed to belligerent aggression. He is, nonetheless, an imposing figure identifiable by an encompassing grid of pins impaled into his skull. Hellraiser director Clive Barker hired actor Doug Bradley to play the role; when Bradley asked Barker how he ought to interpret the character, Barker instructed Bradley to consider him a cross between an administrator and a surgeon. Bradley’s chilling clinical portrayal is spot on.

Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Released the same year as Black Christmas, Texas Chainsaw Massacre predates the rise of the slasher film. A groundbreaking work of horror, Tobe Hooper created a visually disturbing movie about a group of young travelers terrorized by a psychotic family of cannibals in rural Texas with a shoestring budget and cast of unknown actors. The grainy, broken camerawork and anonymity of the actors, however, gives the film a stark, documentary feel, which adds to the suspense and terror. Followed by two sequels, a remake, prequel, and one “almost-sequel” that references the earlier films but is essentially a shot-for-shot remake, the original TCM is relatively light on gore, but still stands as one of the most controversial movies in horror film.

Wes Craven – As a director, writer, and producer, Wes Craven has created several of the most indelible films in horror. His 1984 film A Nightmare on Elm Street launched one of the most popular slasher series of the 80s. Craven followed this success in 1996 with another horror mega-franchise, Scream, which unabashedly parodies several staples of the slasher film. Other notable films directed by Craven include Last House on the Left, The Hills Have Eyes, and The Serpent and the Rainbow.

Notable Mentions – Since this blog serves only as an introduction to the slasher film sub-genre, it would be impossible to cover every milestone within its sphere. Below are a list of films and directors who have bore some influence within the genre, or are simply worth further investigation. They might not all be slasher films, per se, but they deliver the same startles and chills as those mentioned above.

Alien, An American Werewolf in London, The Burning, Child’s Play, David Cronenberg, Sean S. Cunningham, House, The Howling, John Landis, Maniac Cop, My Bloody Valentine, Predator, The Prowler, Silent Night Deadly Night, Sleepaway Camp, Terror Train.

And not what you’ve all been waiting for… my favorite Jason kill scene!

Of all the Friday the 13th death scenes, this one is unbeatable. There’s so much wrong with it! For those who haven’t seen the movie, the character Julius is an amateur boxer, yet here he’s completely winded after about a minute! How do you go 15 rounds in the ring with somebody actually fighting back, but can’t handle 60 seconds of what is essentially shadow boxing? And why would you try to punch someone already wearing hardened facial protection?! If there’s a least effective way to battle Jason, this is it. That’s what makes this death scene so rewarding; Julius tells Jason to take his best shot. He does. And it is awesome. It’s so over the top, but you can’t help feel like this idiot deserved it.