Okay, so going back to Psycho in 1960, the slasher film has been around for quite some time. Hitchcock’s masterpiece about a maniac hacking up innocent victims was certainly what got the mill churning. The trend continued through the ‘70s with classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, and of course, the quintessential slasher movie (and perhaps horror film, period) John Carpenter’s Halloween. The film premise of an inescapable madman terrorizing youngsters is a pure, simple, terrifying and effective one, after all.
Then came 1980 and Jason Voorhees (actually, his mother, but everyone understands what I mean) in Friday the 13th. Fans went crazy, as evidenced by the box office returns, and thus began the “slasher boom” of the 1980s. In an effort to capitalize on Friday the 13th’s success, there were literally dozens of similar films released, and it lasted through the better part of the decade. Of course, Halloween, Friday the 13th, and later, A Nightmare on Elm Street also scored their fair share of sequels, often overshadowing the lesser-known efforts of this sub-genre. Regardless, studios continued to turn them out. Some of them were good (as long as one could appreciate such lurid subject matter), many of them were NOT.
However, I’ve always found myself intrigued and entertained by this horror staple, plus the ‘80s marked an influential time in my childhood and the beginning of my movie-watching career. So, it’s with all this in mind—and to kick off the Halloween holiday celebration—that I present the ten best (or at least memorable) and relatively unknown and under-valued slasher movies of the 1980s that didn’t feature someone named Jason, Michael or Freddy. Incidentally, many of these films would later inspire insipid remakes in the late 2000s that would be unleashed upon the world in Hollywood’s lazy effort to cash in on a new horror explosion. Let’s pretend they don’t exist. All sequels will also be ignored. Here we go:
Prom Night (1980): Naturally, after Halloween and Friday The 13th, many slasher movies had to focus on a particular holiday or event, and this one wasn’t any different. Additionally, while Jamie Lee Curtis cut her horror teeth in the aforementioned classic Halloween, some folks may not remember her as the protagonist in this little gem about a certain someone taking revenge on high-school students for a childhood accident. (In fact, Curtis would certainly become an early horror heroine of the ‘80s, also starring in solid films such as The Fog and Terror Train). Anyway, the knock on this film is that aside from the opening sequence, it takes a full hour for the killing to start, but it’s rare that a film of this type from the ‘80s is at least decently acted, and that’s what kept me engaged here. Besides, Leslie Nielsen is in it, and the beheading at the end is a tour de force.
The Burning (1981): First of all, any film set in a summer camp already has plenty going for it, but wait… There’s actually a slasher film that features a very young Fisher Stevens, a very young Holly Hunter, and a very young Jason Alexander (you know, George Costanza from Seinfeld) in their film debuts!? Where do I sign? Not only that, but The Burning also stars Brian Backer (you know, Rat from Fast Times At Ridgemont High) and Leah Ayres (you know, Jean-Claude Van Damme’s girlfriend from Bloodsport); features tremendous make-up effects from the master, Tom Savini; includes a musical score from Rick Wakeman from the band Yes; and marks the first film from the Weinstein brothers (who produced and co-wrote). Now, that’s star power! Anyway, the film is a total Friday the 13th rip-off (in a good way), about yet another childhood prank gone wrong, as (you guessed it) a horribly burned psycho wreaks revenge on campers with a pair of garden shears as his preferred weapon. The multiple-kill scene on the raft is one of the all-time greats.
The Funhouse (1981): While this one may not quite be a typical slasher flick in terms of body count and gore, it certainly qualifies as one as far as style and tone is concerned. Directed by Tobe Hooper (who knows a little something about horror), The Funhouse provides fantastic atmosphere and tension, as four teens decide to spend the night in the creepy funhouse attraction of a sleazy traveling carnival that has garnered a bad reputation. While inside, they soon witness some things that they shouldn’t have, not the least of which is the mutant son of the funhouse’s slimy owner. From there, all hell breaks loose. The menacing plastic and porcelain figures that populate the funhouse left an indelible mark on me as a young man, and I think of this film literally every time I see a carnival. I defy others not to think of it, as well, after viewing it. Another make-up ace, Rick Baker, famous for An American Werewolf in London and countless others, provides the killer effects.
Happy Birthday to Me (1981): Complete with the Scooby-Doo ending (literally), this one is actually one of my favorites. The story concerns a young girl (Melissa Sue Anderson) in the popular clique at a private school who’s suffering from blackouts and memory loss due to (yep, once again) a childhood accident that killed her mother and experimental brain surgery. Of course, the incident involved a birthday party celebration, and naturally, once Anderson’s 18th birthday draws near, all of her friends start turning up murdered. Who’s the killer? Is it Anderson? Who really cares? What’s important is that the film includes one of the best and most creative kills (Hint: It involves weightlifting) in film history, and features screen legend Glenn Ford getting violently dispatched with a fireplace poker. Now, who doesn’t want to see that? The final scene is creepy and laughable at the same time, and the eerie title song adds a nice touch, as well.
My Bloody Valentine (1981): This is actually one of the best “slashers” of the decade. That’s especially impressive considering that the film managed to gain a cult following despite being butchered by edit-happy censors upon its initial release. Definitely check out the director’s cut in the special edition that has all the violence left intact. It makes an already good movie that much better. Writers Stephen A. Miller and John Beaird are obviously geniuses, because it’s unimaginable how they came up with the idea of setting a slasher movie in a coal mine and having it revolve around a Valentine’s Day dance, but that’s just what this film is. Yet another obligatory childhood tragedy unleashes a killer upon the sleepy mining town of Valentine Bluffs, and the production is incredibly enhanced not only by it being shot in an actual mine, but also that the killer does away with his victims while fully adorned in mining gear.
Slumber Party Massacre (1982): So this one was actually made and created by women, so there’s no need for anyone to cry about how the girls were horribly exploited, because they did it to themselves. What’s admirable about this one is that it doesn’t have any pretense to be something it isn’t. In fact, the film may be the most straightforward slasher movie ever. Anyway, this piece of celluloid is what unleashed the dreaded Driller Killer upon the masses. High-school girls decide to have a sleepover, and an escaped lunatic decides to take them out. That’s pretty much all there is to it, but sometimes minimalism is what works best. However, I did always marvel over how quietly the killer managed to murder his prey despite the fact that he was operating a giant power drill! Anyway, most of the typical slasher trappings are present (though, thankfully minus the childhood tragedy this time) including nudity and senseless gore, and in no way is that depressing.
Silent Rage (1982): I bet you didn’t expect to see the inimitable Chuck Norris on this list, did you? Well, before Norris became a pop-culture punch line, he was actually a pretty bad dude who made really fun action/martial arts movies. This effort is a bit of a departure for him, and admittedly it’s a guilty pleasure of mine, as the film is universally panned. However, Michael Myers doesn’t have anything on mute killer John Kirby (played chillingly by Brian Libby) who’s injected with an experimental serum that makes him virtually indestructible. This proves to be very unfortunate since Kirby is a certifiable psychopath! It then becomes Norris’ duty as a Texas town’s sheriff to stop the madman. It may seem like no small feat, but Chuck Norris is so tough that he roundhouse kicked Pluto to the end of the solar system. Besides, Flounder from National Lampoon’s Animal House is in the film, so “Oh boy, is this great!”
Phenomena (1985): No conversation about horror films in general would be complete without mentioning director Dario Argento (dubbed the Alfred Hitchcock of Italy), so one of his films has to be on this list, as he is a true master. While many would possibly point to Tenebre or even Opera as his best slasher movies, Phenomena is my personal favorite, and no, not just because a young Jennifer Connelly (another one of my favorites) is the star. The movie is nice twist on the genre, as Connelly plays the protagonist who can communicate with insects and must use them to do battle with a killer stalking the grounds at a girls’ private school. Stylistically shot, with great music from acts such as Goblin, Iron Maiden and Motorhead, and some good gore, this one is not to be missed.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986): OK, so this film is totally grim. It’s actually more of a character study, but it still has a rightful place on this list. Complete with its gritty look and almost documentary style, “Henry” is totally free of any contrivances, which is what makes it so disturbing. The movie is also a departure from a typical “slasher” in that it doesn’t feature a masked killer terrorizing teens because of a childhood trauma, nor does it feature insane amounts of gore. However, anyone who views it will most likely categorize it as a “slasher.” After all, the film is loosely based on the life of Henry Lee Lucas, one of America’s most notorious serial killers. The fact that the film doesn’t use the usual horror tactics is exactly what makes it so chilling. The movie has gotten some bad press over the years, and was even released without a rating, as the MPAA didn’t want to touch it. That’s a shame, because it sometimes tends to overshadow Michael Rooker’s performance as Henry, which is unbelievably compelling.
Return to Horror High (1987): The concept of the slasher parody had been done before with such releases as Student Bodies, but honestly, the joke got stale after about fifteen minutes. The idea of poking fun at the genre while simultaneously paying reverence to it with legitimate scares would also be done much better in the ‘90s with Wes Craven’s Scream, but Return To Horror High is still a valiant and worthwhile effort nonetheless. It seems the halls of Crippen High School ran red with blood when a serial killer whacked a bunch of students and was never caught. Five years later, Hollywood is making a movie about the slayings and shooting it on location at the murder site! That turns out to be a bad move, because it seems the murderer has some unfinished business. Refusing to take itself seriously, RTHH is completely tongue-in-cheek and packed with laughs. It also manages some minor frights while not only paying homage to slasher flicks, but to the business of filmmaking, as well. Additionally, the release features a young George Clooney in one of his first movies as the initial victim, and a totally hammy, over-the-top performance from Maureen McCormick (yep, Marcia Brady) as an “investigating officer” that’s ridiculously fun.
Honorable mentions: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and April Fool’s Day (1986): Aside from maybe Bad Santa, Silent Night, Deadly Night may be the best Christmas movie ever made, about a psycho masquerading as Kris Kringle and terrorizing the townsfolk. As far as April Fool’s Day is concerned, I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s technically not a slasher movie, though it’s still a nice twist on the genre, as Deborah Foreman lures her college friends to her island home on said holiday. The problem is, someone doesn’t have much of a sense of humor.