With Stranger Things 2 about to transport us to an Upside Down of terrifyingly brilliant nostalgia, we look at 10 greatest things about 1980s horror.
Being a teenage fright fan in the early 1990s, my first port of call for all things scary was 1980s horror – the good, bad and every variation in-between.
Who doesn’t remember scouring the shelves of the local video shop, marvelling at the VHS covers of the well-known genre films and the lesser-known, obscure releases? Thankfully for me, if the video shop didn’t have a title in stock – or if the guy working there didn’t have those “behind the counter” films that never had the chance to adorn those shelves due to being deemed a video nasty, I had a close high-school pal who had quite the collection.
This was a guy who had the best and worst titles you could think of – both legit and “banned”.
How else would I have been introduced to Kevin S Tenney’s Night of the Demons with that infamous lipstick scene? Or how about the notorious Cannibal Holocaust?
It’s fair to say that the 1980s is the pinnacle of horror. How else do we explain the sheer volume of 21st-century creations that pay homage to that era of scare tactics?
Even one of the most revered releases on Netflix, Stranger Things, took its cues from that decade from the setting to the synth score and all the knowing nods and winks to the classics from that period.
To that end, here are 10 things from 1980s horror that make me misty-eyed and nostalgic for a better time.
10. Film scores
Music in horror can make or break scenes. They can help build tension. They can create a feeling of dread. Or a simple shriek from a violin can be used to effect for a jump scare. Not to beat the John Carpenter drum too much, but Ennio Morricone’s work on The Thing and Carpenter’s on The Fog are masterful. The former’s throbbing, brooding work builds an atmosphere dripping in tension and dread. The latter’s is haunting. Fabio Frizzi’s City of the Living Dead is another masterpiece. And we can’t discuss music without mentioning Jerry Goldsmith’s Poltergeist work, which diverted from the synth and saw him use everything from a musical saw to chimes.
9. The rise of the horror franchise
A Nightmare on Elm Street. Halloween’s plethora of sequels. Friday the 13th. The slasher film was a staple of the 80s. Take one bloodthirsty movie monster – Freddy, Jason or Michael – add a smattering of nubile young teens and finish it off with a sharp instrument that brings death and destruction. While I was never big on the Jason Voorhees films, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger grabbed my attention. But the biggest standout from all these films – Halloween III: Season of the Witch. It veers so far from every other film in that series that it could be a stand-alone horror. It’s weird and sinister. It showed that film-makers didn’t have to feel restricted by the usual franchise conventions.
8. Schlock horror
C.H.U.D. might be a title you know about but have never seen. You may well be a fan of it, like me. But it’s one of those titles that drew my attention and left me with such an affection for the shoddy practical effects and dodgy performances. Who doesn’t remember the lightbulb eyes of the cannibalistic humanoid underground dwellers? Other memorable titles (probably for all the wrong reasons) include Chopping Mall and Rawhead Rex.
7. Horror anthologies
My frames of reference for the horror anthology – which have made a resurgence of late – were Twilight Zone: The Movie and Creepshow 1 & 2. In fact,Twilight Zone’s prologue “Something Scary” terrified me when I eventually saw it. As openings go, it was damn effective and set the tone for what was to come. Of the segments, Time Out stood out for how it portrayed the horrors of ignorance and racism. But the jewel of this particular crown was Nightmare at 20,000ft. Starring John Lithgow as an airline passenger suffering from a panic attack, his descent into madness is compounded by him witnessing a gremlin on the wing destroying the engine. It’s a masterclass in anxieties and tension.
6. Horrific horrors
While the 80s is home to some of the classics, it’s also the go-to for some of the worst creations. Those that aren’t even so bad, they’re good. They’re just bad. I endured a fair few of them in my quest to satiate my hunger for all things horror. But sometimes you just can’t get beyond terrible acting, poor effects and dire posters/villains. Piranha Part 2: The Spawning. Jaws: The Revenge. The Hills Have Eyes Part II. Creature. The Fly II. C.H.U.D. II – Bud the Chud. All awful. Few of them with any sign of a redeeming feature. But you can only appreciate the great by experience the terrible.
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5. Practical effects
Rick Baker was a god among men during the 80s. His creations gave horror films something tangible that had disappeared from monster movies until (yet another) 80s resurgence this decade. Practical effects that showed how gloriously grotesque films could be. Think of that major transformation scene in An American Werewolf in London. Or the bizarre visuals of Videodrome. But, possibly the piece de resistance was (and still is) Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror masterpiece The Thing. From the husky transformation to the spider head and the creature in the chest, Bottin brought nightmares to life in vivid style.
4. VHS covers
Creativity in these films wasn’t just for the actual contents of the movies. VHS covers were often a major reason for me picking a film before I’d even read the synopsis. I mean, who cares what the back of the box has to say when the front is that of Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead. Or Danny Bilson’s Zone Troopers. Or The Nest. Or The Fly. I could go on. The weirder, the better. It’s quite literally a lost art.
3. Video nasties
The BBFC enjoyed messing with our enjoyment of horrors by releasing them with rafts of cuts or – on occasion – simply not allowing films to be released on these shores. Some titles became so notorious due to their cuts or lack of availability that they became the holy grail for genre fans. Don’t Go in the Woods, Evilspeak, Tenebrae, The Last House on the Left, House on the Edge of the Park. Films I would never have experienced until I was much older had it not been for aforementioned pal and his American father who gleefully brought films back the US for us teens to watch, mouths agape.
2. An American Werewolf in London
This was a lightbulb moment for me. I watched it as a 13-year-old. I was bewitched by the fact it mixed horror with funnier moments – think Jack’s ever-decomposing corpse returning to warn David of what’s in store for him. While I may not have appreciated much of that as a young teen, I loved what I was seeing…until David’s Nazi monster nightmare scared me to the point I put the film off and hid it in a drawer. I tried to get past that point a few times more but it was a mental block for me. I couldn’t watch the film the whole way through until almost a year later. What changed? Who knows. But it’s now a Halloween holiday staple.
1. John Carpenter
Where to begin with the Master of Horror? Well, given this is a celebration of 80s horror, it makes sense to kick off with The Fog. The calming influence of DJ Stevie Wayne’s voice (Adrienne Barbeau) makes way for terror in the coastal town of Antonio Bay, when the sailors who perished on the Elizabeth Dane return to seek vengeance. Wayne’s voice becomes the vocal equivalent of a lighthouse warning ships of imminent danger. He followed this up with other terrifying creations including The Thing, Christine, Prince of Darkness and action sci-fi horror They Live. For one decade, that’s a helluva hit-rate.