Updated: Dec 22, 2022
The '80s was the golden era of horror movies. Everyone knows about the Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street franchises, but there's a treasure trove of lesser-known horror films lurking in that VHS bargain bin. Let's look at some, spanning everything from bugs to yogurt. Most of the content here isn't for the squeamish, so if you want to skip out, you can read my review of The Care Bears Movie.
This isn't a "top 10," because there are a metric ton of unsung '80s horror gems, and the movies are presented in no specific order. I own all of these cult-following films on physical media, and many were picked up from local video stores.
This list is free of major spoilers. Prepare for therapy!
This Italian horror/mystery flick belongs to the genre known as giallo. Translating to "yellow," referring to the covers of Italy's pulp thriller paperbacks, giallo films feature:
mysterious, gloved killers
plenty of POVs
plot twists galore
memorable scores and soundtracks (Phenomena's music ranges from opera to heavy metal!)
copious amounts of gore.
Phenomena stars a young Jennifer Connelly and the always-welcome Donald Pleasance of Halloween fame. It's written and directed by Dario Argento, who is largely responsible for the giallo genre with entries such as Trauma, Four Flies on Grey Velvet, The Cat o' Nine Tails, Inferno, Suspiria and Profondo Rosso (known outside of Italy as Deep Red). Argento counts Phenomena as his favorite project.
Fourteen-year-old Jennifer Corvino (Connelly) has the ability to telepathically communicate with insects. Mocked, misunderstood and feared by her classmates, Jennifer finds allies in bug-scientist John McGregor (Pleasance) and his trained monkey. Wheelchair-bound Dr. McGregor offers Jennifer resources to uncover the killer who's been stalking students at her exclusive Swiss boarding school.
Complimented by music from Claudio Simonetti's progressive rock band Goblin, and a host of heavy metal artists including Iron Maiden and Motorhead, this fever dream of a movie is unlike anything you've ever seen. Avoid the U.S. retitle Creepers, which cuts out a whopping twenty-eight minutes, and features cover art misrepresenting Jennifer as the villain. Phenomena is currently available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video, but if you're really hardcore, pick up the 1998 pressing on LaserDisc from The Roan Group!
I have Creepers on VHS and Phenomena on LD. They both came from my friend, the late John Polonia of Polonia Bros. Entertainment, as did the next movie on our list.
The Burning (1981)
Very much an exploitation film that doesn't skimp on the sleaze, this "video nasty" is more culturally relevant than it should be: The Burning marks the big screen debut of Jason Alexander, Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens! It features special effects helmed by practical effects wizard Tom Savini (Day of the Dead), and a score by Rick Wakefield of the band Yes.
The classic "summer camp slasher" trope, The Burning was inspired by an Upstate New York urban legend. The film was released a year after Friday the 13th, on which Mr. Savini also did the effects. Word on the street is that Savini was never happy with the antagonist's burn makeup, which he had to render in short time to accommodate the shooting schedule. Regardless, The Burning contains very solid effects work, including plenty of damage wrought by hedge clippers: Once you start loppin', there's just no stoppin'! So great is the film's gore that it was initially censored from all U.S. theatrical and video prints. A suspenseful cat-and-mouse game through isolated ruins is a highlight of The Burning.
Some horror fans accuse The Burning of being a Friday the 13th ripoff, but unrelated, similar movies are occasionally released around the same time. (Think Babe and Gordy, Antz and A Bug's Life.) It's funny how Friday the 13th was an intentional Halloween ripoff, but nobody seems to care!
Free (like the rest of the site) bonus content: Here's a much-chunkier me with Tom Savini at Pittsburgh's Monster Bash in 2004, where I got his autograph. I was working nights at a juvenile detention center during that time, and would routinely binge on Velveeta! Yes, I was single then.
Demons 2 (1986)
My dad never gets into horror movies, but I'll never forget the day he watched Demons 2 on LaserDisc with me. He loved it, to the point of saying, "Wow, this is really something!" The son of acclaimed director Mario Bava (Hatchet for the Honeymoon), Lamberto Bava delivers Demons 2. It's essentially a zombie movie, as only Italy could render. Produced by Dario Argento, this film sees a high-rent apartment building spiral to the depths of hell as demons from a televised horror movie push through the screen to possess the building's tenets. It's up to a college student to get himself and his pregnant wife out of The Tower by any means necessary. A highpoint of this film is the puppetry on the more ambitious monster sequences; this is yet another '80s horror entry that puts CGI to shame. The English dubbing borders on ludicrous at times, but that just adds to the fun, and the film's great score heightens the tension.
Demons 2 doesn't waste a minute as it catapults you into terror, and it's the most intense movie on this list by far. According to my wife, it "makes American zombies look like angels." Basically the same premise as its predecessor, and with much of the same cast in different roles, Demons 2 is more of a remake than a sequel, in a similar vein to Evil Dead 2. If you've got a weak stomach, don't watch Demons 2!
The following year, The Video Dead has zombies emerging from a horror movie on TV. Hey, maybe it's the same coincidence shared by Friday the 13th and The Burning!
The Stuff (1985)
On a much lighter note, The Stuff is a tongue-in-cheek horror odyssey from the late Larry Cohen, who brought the world the killer baby with the It's Alive franchise. The Stuff proves that anything can be fear fodder.
Your supermarket's yogurt section is way more popular than it used to be, as droves of consumers line up for "The Stuff," an all-natural, non-dairy treat that tastes great... and eats you from the inside out! The Stuff stars Michael Morriarty and also features Garret Morris of Saturday Night Live.
I'm such a fan of this movie that I've already given it a dedicated article, and have a stash of the nefarious snack in my home arcade. The Stuff isn't as appreciated as it should be, so check it out. Just... not at the grocery store! Is this thing on?
Tenebre, aka Tenebrae (1982)
Next up is another strong giallo entry from maestro Dario Argento. A psychopath is stalking the streets of Rome, patterning his killings on Tenebre, a novel by American author Peter Neil. During this time, Neil (Anthony Franciosa) is visiting Rome, and becomes entangled with the both the killer and the police. But what's really happening? The red herrings and plot twists hit you from all angles. Argento throws in an elaborate, two-and-a-half-minute tracking shot over and around a mansion, just because he can.
The awesome original score by Goblin compliments the intensity of Tenebre (Latin for "darkness"), and bonus points are awarded for a supporting role by the late John Saxon. Tenebre was retitled Unsane, and cut by more than ten minutes for its American theatrical release. Once again, Arrow Video comes through with the uncut print, but spin that Roan Group LaserDisc if you've got it!
The Blob (1988)
An organic, blubbery mass from another cosmos has crashed on Earth, and you know that's not going to be good.
1988's The Blob takes the concept of the 1958 original and capitalizes on thirty years of advances in special effects. It also serves up a warranted dose of cynicism towards the government, which is portrayed heroically in the first version. And you never forget seeing someone getting pulled through a sink drain. I know a guy who couldn't watch the movie after that point!
This production of The Blob is slick and fast paced, unlike the overly-talky original. It's actually the third Blob movie, after 1972's Beware! The Blob (aka Son of the Blob), which was directed by Larry Hagman (TV's Dallas). Beware! The Blob was released with the tagline, "The Movie that J.R. Shot!" 1988's The Blob is The Blob at its best.
I used to live in Phoenixville, PA where the iconic "people running and screaming out of the theater" sequence was filmed for the original The Blob. This scene is a source of pride for the area: Phoenixville holds an annual "Blobfest," highlighted by, well... people running and screaming out of the theater! (Some take the opportunity more seriously than others.)
I've also seen the 1958 Blob itself, which is just dyed silicone. The effect of The Blob engulfing the Colonial theater was accomplished by sliding the silicone down a tilted photo of the building. Today, The Blob's remains are trotted around to horror conventions in a Crock-Pot. You can't make this stuff up!
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Night of the Creeps is an homage to the "it came from outer space" double-feature movies of the '50s. This film was written and directed by Fred Dekker, who helmed the cult classic The Monster Squad. When slug-like brain parasites from beyond the stars are unleased on earth, two college students (Jason Lively and Steve Marshall) and a grizzled ex-cop (Halloween 3's Tom Holland) take the challenge to save humanity. However, it's way too late to salvage the school's formal.
If you like horror movies, you'll enjoy Night of the Creeps: It's filled with genre references, character and location names nod to famous directors, and the production has a B movie feel. Night of the Creeps is brimming with incredible practical effects, including the jiggling, slithering parasites that shoot at rocket speed toward any open mouth! I recommend the director's cut, which maintains Dekker's original vision of the ending. Holland's "Thrill me!" catchphrase has become the rallying cry for a generation of Creeps fans.
House's tagline, "Ding Dong, You're Dead." is one of my favorites!
With a story by Fred Dekker, and directed by Friday the 13th's Sean S. Cunningham, House follows the newly-divorced Roger Cobb, as he grapples with the otherworldly occupants of his late aunt's house which he has inherited. Cobb (William Katt) is a famous horror novelist. His latest project is a radical departure; he's penning a retrospective on his time in the Vietnam War. With psychological baggage freshly unearthed, Roger must also battle the house's Lovecraftian horrors, because an abducted life hangs in the balance. Roger's neighbor Harold (George Wendt) lends an initially-disbelieving hand.
House is interesting because its leads were primarily known for their work in TV comedies: Katt for The Greatest American Hero; Wendt on Cheers; even Richard Moll from Night Court pays a visit to House. Katt and Wendt play off of each other well, and their comedic talents aren't wasted, as the film does have its share of dark humor. I have a new appreciation for this movie, having inherited my grandmother's house, which she repeatedly told me used to be haunted!
House was followed up with a totally-unrelated sequel, House 2: The Second Story. As I've said before, the best part about that movie is the title.
I first saw Parents when I was working my Velveeta-chomping night job. Back then, I rented stacks of horror films from Video King just about every night, and watched them in succession. No wonder I'm so well adjusted! (By the way, don't ever watch Sleepaway Camp.)
You're a grade-school kid with crippling social anxiety. What would you do if you suspected your parents were cannibals? Who, if anyone, would you tell? How long could you politely skip out on dinner? Would you be able to fight the people who raised you? Parents brings horror home, challenging the '50s nostalgia which swept the '80s, and in a broader sense reminding us that no era is perfect. (But the '80s are pretty close.)
Parents is a rare glimpse at Randy Qauid's versatility: Best known as the redneck Cousin Eddie in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies, here Quaid delivers genuine dread as the intimidating father. Mary Beth Hurt is great as the mom, who must straddle the line between wifely compliance and standing up for her son. Bryan Madorsky is the boy, and you're really rooting for this understandably-skinny kid! Parents serves up a disturbing premise with the bonus of being a detailed period piece.
Cat's Eye (1985)
Wrapping up our list is Drew Barrymore's seventh film in her first ten years, Cat's Eye. It's a series of short stories by Stephen King, presented much like Creepshow, his 1982 collaboration with George A. Romero. In Cat's Eye, the tales (ha, ha) are connected by a stray feline's adventures.
Cat's Eye opens with an executive signing up with Quitters, Inc., an agency with diabolical methods to keep clients from smoking. In the second entry, an aging tennis pro must risk a deadly challenge, or be shot on the spot. Finally, Drew Barrymore shines as a little girl tormented by a viscous troll, voiced by '80s cartoon legend Frank Welker (The Transformers, The Real Ghostbusters)! This anthology isn't as intense as Creepshow, but Cat's Eye gets my highest recommendation. When I was ten, I loved to play with a neighborhood stray who looked just like the cat in the film.
What '80s horror movies do you cherish? What do you think of the list? Let me know in the comment box below, because any press is good press. I'd like to thank Michael Myers for his time, and my wife Adrienne for braving the photo shoot!
You'll want to check out our tribute to video stores and this showcase of physical media. And here's our location tour for Slugs, hosted by Larry Ann Evans, the film's production supervisor.