Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

The Shining cmyk Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

With Conan the Barbarian and Fright Night remakes in theaters now, and a slew of reboots in the works, it seems like Hollywood is looking backward instead of forward for film ideas. The ’80s offers a cinematic smorgasbord of nostalgia-laced movies to remake, reboot and re-imagine. And it looks like filmmakers will sink their fangs into any sacrosanct iconic 80s pic to drain it of all life and heart.

This has me considering what makes ‘80s pics such tempting cinema for modern filmmakers/studios. Is it just the nostalgia, or is it that some filmmakers in the ‘80s weren’t afraid to take risks? Maybe it’s that sometimes silly innocence that reflects the “let’s break out into dance right now” spirit of the decade.

Since there are so many seminal ‘80s films out there, I’m going to start a Top Ten series highlighting the best ’80s movies in each genre, from horror to fantasy/adventure to everything in between.

So at the risk of giving exploitative filmmakers any ideas, or leaving out some rabid fan’s favorite pic, here’s my list of the Top Ten ‘80s Movies: Horror (and yes, many of these have already been given soulless remakes).


1. The Shining

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 thriller The Shining is a cult classic and then some. It has achieved a status few other horror films have, with a multitude of oft-quoted moments and creepy scenes that make the skin crawl. Following a haunted hotel and a little boy with a psychic twinkling, The Shining is a horror that stands out from the crowd in any decade.

All work and no play certainly do make Jack a dull boy, but Jack Nicholson’s performance was anything but. The charismatic, sly-eyed actor took to the role of Jack Torrence, writer and family man, and made him an incredibly believable psychopath. Shelley Duvall held her own against the power of Nicholson’s performance with a compelling take on meek Wendy Torrence with some great inner strength.

Kubrick used vivid imagery and cutting-edge filming techniques in his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name. The slow pacing builds a lasting tension and a great atmosphere of claustrophobia, with the hotel itself an inescapable, menacing chasm of horrors. Add the screaming string instrumentals and the deep sweeping classical soundtrack, and you have the makings of one of the greatest horror films ever made. REDRUM.

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2. The Thing

The Thing Kurt Russell 1350611835 crop 550x403 Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the best horror movies ever made, hands down. It’s a sci-fi/horror set in the sub-zero temperatures of a remote Antarctic research station. When an alien force that can shape-shift gets lose in the compound, everyone is a suspect. Kurt Russell led an impressive all-male cast in this 1982 horror classic.

Carpenter’s tense, slow-build horror boasts some of the most gruesome and frightening special effects of any horror I’ve seen, past or present. The bleak landscape becomes another force acting against the human contingent, and thus another layer to the horror element of the film. Still another layer is the dynamic between the survivors, who all begin to suspect one another and can trust no one in what becomes a very individual struggle for survival. This is a classic horror (and one slated for a remake…eeek).

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3. A Nightmare on Elm Street

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This seminal horror movie made the name Freddie Kruger and his blade fingers famous, and went where few horrors had gone before; into teen dreams. That’s a scary place to be anyway, much less when there’s a vengeance-seeking supernatural burn victim with knife fingers on the loose, and as we all know, if you die in your dreams you die in real life too.

From horror maven Wes Craven, A Nightmare on Elm Street represents one of the better slasher pic franchises spawned in this decade. And though it hasn’t aged particularly well, no remake or re-imagining (and there has been one) can hope to recapture the sometimes cheesy practical effects and the fun pop culture references rife throughout this old-school slasher horror with a twist.

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4. Poltergeist

poltergeist Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

1982 saw a little blonde girl and a TV set make horror movie history. They’re heeeere in a big way with this horror pic penned by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tobe Hooper. Not only are the special effects a feat given the technology of the time, but the script is crisp and well-developed and the ensemble cast including Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams and young Heather O’Rourke made the characters memorable.

Poltergeist has a simple set-up with all the right trimmings. It’s a haunted house story centering around an innocent little girl and an evil spirit that pulls her away from the world of the living. It’s a film that spawned two mediocre sequels, and made a TV screen of “snow” strangely sinister.

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5. The Monster Squad

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This is a fun horror/comedy reminiscent of Goonies where a group of pre-pubescent monster fans end up face-to-face with the real things. It’s got low production values and some spoof-worthy special effects, but it’s all about the heart in The Monster Squad. The members of the club are all stereotypical outsiders, from the teased chubster to the leather jacket-wearing flunkie to the earnest monster expert. This ragtag group of heroes takes on THE Dracula and his plan to bring evil back to the world by resurrecting all the old-school monsters.

It’s fun, it’s charming, and it’s a must-see for creature feature fans that want a little more wit and heart along with the bad monster suits and low-budget make-up effects.

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6. Fright Night

o craig gillespie to remake fright night Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

This is a seminal horror/comedy that has recently been given a soulless remake. The original Fright Night had some great self-referential humor and a likeable every-teen main character who takes on the vampire living next door. For a simple story, Fright Night had some great horror action and compelling special effects and make-up. It also boasts an un-chopped editing/filming style that allows for long, slow takes that draw the viewer in.

Fright Night was writer/director Tom Holland’s homage to the horror genre and those cheesy horror TV hosts like Elvira, so there is a certain amount of camp, but loveable camp. It also stands as a great example of what could be done in the’80s as far as self-reflective cinema.

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7. The Lost Boys

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Not only does the 1987 The Lost Boys feature “The Coreys” in all their glory, but it was a teen vampire pic refreshingly low on romance and glitter and high on angst and violence. Joel Schumacher directed a cast full of young up-and-comers like Jason Patric, Kiefer Sutherland, Jami Gertz and of course the outrageously ’80s teen icons Corey Haim and Corey Feldman.

Though it wasn’t exactly a box office success, The Lost Boys does represent the somewhat innocuous angst of the 80s with effective metaphor and cinematic style.

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8. The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead 1981 promotional artwork Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

Sam Raimi wrote and directed this shock and shlock campy horror in 1981, and it has earned cult classic status since it’s lukewarm box office reception in 1983. With an uber low budget, Raimi and star Bruce Campbell began planning for this gore fest and cinematic gamble in the late ’70s, risking just about everything on its success.

The simple story of a man and his friends discovering an ancient evil while at an isolated cabin in the woods is bolstered by non-stop terror and gore, and black humor. Raimi and co. went old-school on the effects and storyline, making the whole movie in the fashion of the low-budget gore-fests of the time. There’s nothing subtle about The Evil Dead, just tons of cringe-worthy violence and horror.

The popularity of The Evil Dead spawned a trilogy that is reportedly slated to become a quadrilogy, as a fourth installment is in the works with Raimi and Campbell reuniting for the project.

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9. The Fly

The Fly Jeff Goldblum1 Top Ten 80s Horror Movies

David Cronenberg’s The Fly is a twisted body horror that stars a young Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It’s an exceptional remake of the 1950s classic, giving the story the bizarre cinematic weight, story tweaking and special effects it needed to actually become horrific.

With Cronenberg’s deft touch with the directing and on the script, The Fly is an 80s horror classic full of bizarre weirdness and an intriguing social message re human technological advancements and the quest for knowledge.

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10. Watcher in the Woods

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Who says Disney can’t do horror? This little known horror gem stars Bette Davis in a cult-themed spooktacular directed by Escape to Witch Mountain director John Hough. It capitalizes on slow build tension and eerie atmosphere instead of blood and guts, and delivers some genuine scares. It will probably take some people by surprise as it is a Disney production, and though the acting isn’t high caliber it is a chilling horror film safe for pretty much all ages.

That concludes the list. Most of these are no-brainers, others may come as a surprise, but I feel these ten horror films represent a decade that was both innovative and forward-looking. I wish Hollywood would capture the spirit of ‘80s cinema and not its movie rights.

Have I missed any seminal ‘80s horror pics? Let us know in the comments section below.

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  • caja88

    This article should have been titled ” most popular horror movies from the 80′s” not “the best”. Although i do agree with some of your choices the rest are just best sellers in my opinion aimed towards the bandwagon horror movie watcher. Maybe I’m being too harsh. I mean is it really possible to sum up an amazing decade of horror in 10 choices? I don’t think so. I’m just saying that if your going to try and do one…make it epic.

  • Chad G

    Great list, Amy. Lots of excellent movies there. Many of which happen to be personal favourites.

    Still, nothing beats the original Black Christmas. At least, in my opinionated horror geek mind. However, that was released several years prior to any of the ones listed here.

  • Linda

    What about Near Dark, Witchboard, Warlock

  • Mark Harding

    An American Werewolf in London is certainly seminal. Aliens maybe, but that one is more sci-fi/action than horror. Return of the Living Dead?

  • Jason L. Watson

    John Carpenter’s “The Thing” at number 2 then saying it is one if the best horror films of all time is definitely wrong, does not belong in the top 10. I have tried watching this movie on 3 separate occasions and have fallen asleep each time due to its slow moving and just boring story. I start it then next thing I know I wake up and the cedits are rolling.

    • MidianGTX

      There’s nothing to say other than your taste in movies is bizarre. You can’t watch a film with some build up? The tension in the latter parts of the film is off the freaking hook, coupled with some of the best “monster” special effects ever put to film and a genuinely interesting premise make the whole thing unmissable. Perhaps you’re just an idiot for allowing 20 minutes of story to put you to sleep?

      • Barancy Peloma

        sounds like watson needs some george lucas cgi overdose to stay away. if an explosion doesn’t take place every 5 minutes with lasers and light saber battles, it is boring.

    • Chris

      The Thing isn’t just a great horror movie, it’s one of the most perfect movies ever made. I’m not saying it’s a heartfelt movie that deserved an Oscar. It was just so perfectly what it was.

    • drew

      I bet you think “Saw” is a masterpiece, right?

  • Pdog89gt

    The Fog ? Phantasm ?
    Seriously how could you leave these out

    • Craig Stephen Tower

      For the record: PHANTASM came out in the late 1970s.

  • SubPopGeek

    The statement “it is a chilling horror film safe for pretty much all ages.” Is somewhat of a paradox. This list is just a Hodge-podge mash-up of random titles, some of which don’t or barely fall under the “horror” genre, and two of which can’t even be found near the horror section because they are children’s/family movies. You might as well throw in “Goonies”, and “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”. “The Shining” is definitely more of a psychological thriller, so why not add “Fatal Attraction” as well? Weird list. :-/

  • caca

    another hipster list.
    wheres friday the 13th part 2, and nightmare on elm street 3?

  • poltergirl

    GO POLTERGEIST!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • poltergirl

    go poltergeist!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Tony Phillips

    Return of the living dead 1 & 2 and Night of the Creeps!

  • Joseph Mummerth

    pumpkin head should have been on the list ! but I agree with most of it ! the remake of the fly was a real stinker and should be on the worst of the 80`s list !

    • Mark

      Wrong. Just wrong.

  • Tommy Trull

    I was surprised to see Monster Squad on here, and was very surprised not to see Creepshow.

  • Stiltzca33

    My picks, Poltergiest, The shining, An american werewolf (for the all time best transformation is cinematic history, no computers used and still looks so real), the hitcher, the entity, pumpkinhead, Aliens, the lost boys, Fright Night, the thing. These movies are still watchable even by todays standards. Even though it was made in the late 70′s Black Christmas should be on this list because it started the genre of slasher movies that flooded the theatres in the 80′s. This movie pioneers the camera filming from the view of the killer. This had never been done before, so after black christmas the slasher movies of the 80′s all used it.

  • Yumi365

    Stephen Kings, “Creepshow” , instant classic…”Do y WANT A RIDE LADY”

    • drew

      That line is from Creepshow 2 dude…

  • Raven

    The Thing in 1982 was the remake of the 1957 “Thing from Outer Space” so technically it’s not even an original 80′s movie.

  • Craig Stephen Tower

    ah, you kids today don’t know the 1980s.