6. The Prowler (1981)
“If you think you’re safe… you’re DEAD wrong!” . Released around the same time, the plot to this film somewhat mirrors My Blood Valentine. A couple is murdered by a man dressed in World War II fatigues in 1945 during a college dance, which results in the ban of school dances. The tradition is brought back in 1980 and the killer ends up returning to hunt down innocent college students.
This is a somewhat forgotten movie mainly because it lacks the star power or holiday gimmicks of some of the other memorable ones from this time. The two things that end up making this noteworthy and worth revisiting are the cool army fatigues gimmick, and the excellent and innovative special effects of Tom Savini.
The army fatigues coupled with the mask hiding the killers face are definitely creepy and there are several scenes where they do a great juxtaposition switching back and forth between the killer suiting up and a girl getting ready for the dance. Savini’s special effects are absolutely superb and are what truly make this movie worth watching, with multiple memorable kill moments involving an army bayonet and a pitchfork. I won’t go into any of the details so as not to spoil it for people who have yet to see the picture.
The director Tom Zito would end up working with Savini again on Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984). This motion picture is worth revisiting for the great kills and gore sees that Savini created.
7. The Burning (1981)
“If you go down to the woods today… Watch out for Cropsy!” . This was partially based on an urban legend that was often told at campsites. In this movie, a group of kids from a summer camp pull a prank on a janitor that ends up setting him on fire and getting serious burns. He spends years in the hospital recovering from his injuries and when he gets released looks to take revenge by killing kids that are attending the camp.
The picture has some similarities to Friday the 13th and the Jason character, but was actually released before the second one came out. This was the first motion picture produced by the Weinsteins and Miramax and features a great young cast, excellent special effects from Tom Savini, nudity, and tons of blood and gore.
The cast in this is actually better than Friday the 13th. While the only actor to become well known in that was Kevin Bacon, this one features Jason Alexander, Brian Backer, Ned Eisenberg, Fisher Stevens, Larry Joshua, and a small appearance by Holly Hunter. Most of them were unknowns appearing in their first film who were discovered while casting in New York.
The effects stand out in this because of the brilliance of Tom Savini, who has been previously mentioned for his work on several other movies on this list. He decided to work on this one as opposed to Friday the 13th Part 2 because he didn’t believe in the premise of Jason still being alive the whole time, that he had drowned in the river as a child. He also liked this script better and the idea of doing the burn victim effects.
Because of his effects, there are multiple memorable death scenes in this one including the infamous raft massacre. That particular scene is the main reason that it was banned in the UK and ended up on the video nasties list. It had issues in various states as well due to the large amount of blood and explicate death sequences.
This one is more than just a Jason rip off movie and is well worth your time if you haven’t seen it before.
8. Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
“The 80’s Body Count Classic from the Producers of “My Bloody Valentine” and the Director of “Cape Fear” . This is another Canuxploitation slasher film that plays more like a Hitchcock style mystery than a straight slasher movie. A year after Virginia suffered a terrible accident; her friends begin to get killed as it nears her 18th birthday. The mystery involves who the killer actually is, with a big twist ending.
There is a good mix of talent that worked on this picture that adds to the more classical style of this one. J. Lee Thompson had directed The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, and several Planet of the Apes motion pictures before directing more exploitative films during the 1980’s. Glenn Ford added a known name and some respectability to this, although he was reportedly unhappy with appearing in a slasher film and clashed with the crew.
Ford allegedly hit the assistant director, producer John Dunning stated that “He hit our AD who had called a lunch break in the middle of one of Glenn’s scenes. I had to stop the police from arresting him. It was a mess. Glenn wouldn’t come out of his dressing room until the first AD apologized, who said he would never apologize to Glenn. But I told him that this might be the end of his career as an AD if he didn’t. So, he went and said he was sorry… and Glenn said he was sorry. They kissed and made up. As far as I know, Glenn never hit anybody else” .
There are more than enough kills in this to satisfy most blood thirsty horror fans. It wins the award for best kill using a skewer in a movie, which was featured on the poster as the major advertising.
The special effects were done by Tom Burman, who worked on many movies including My Bloody Valentine, Cat People, Halloween III, The Goonies, Teen Wolf, and Howard the Duck. It also features a wonderful orchestral score filled with piano and strings that is very reminiscent of the Bernard Hermann scores that were done for Hitchcock.
9. Just Before Dawn (1981)
“Will Anyone Survive Those Hours Just Before Dawn?” . Its Deliverance meets Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a group of campers travel into the Oregon Mountains in order to check out some property that one of them recently purchased. There they run into a backwoods family and pair of killers.
The movie never got much of a release and had been hard to come by despite some initially positive reviews for its scenic atmosphere and cinematography. It was filmed in the Silver Falls State Park in Oregon, around an hour away from Portland. There were multiple versions of the picture released. The recent Blu-ray released by Code Red contains a restored 90 minute US version and an unrestored 102 minute international version.
There isn’t a ton of gore in this one, which may turn away horror fans seeking excessive violence. But it does contain some lush mountainous scenery and appearances from George Kennedy, Gregg Henry, and Chris Lemmon. Jeff Lieberman directed this, who also made the possibly considered cult films Squirm, Blue Sunshine, and Remote Control.
10. StageFright (1987)
“The theatre of death” . This is an Italian produced horror film about a group of struggling actors that get locked inside of their theater with a deranged killer, a former stage actor that had previously killed 16 other actors and has now escaped from the hospital.
The thing that makes this one so great is the ton of style that it exhibits in its surroundings and the killers mask. Everything virtually takes place in the theater and it’s full of great props, the stage set up, dressing rooms and behind the scenes areas, the upper rafters, the music and lights. The killer’s mask has to go down as one of the creepiest and most memorable in cinematic history. It is hard to top a large owl head on top of a man running around killing people.
There are enough interesting kills in this to please horror fans. But what really drives the horror and tension in this film is the haunting synthesizer score. Much like Halloween’s music, if you pulled the score out and watched this without sound there would be virtually no scares. There is also the defining sequence of the movie that makes this stand out, as the killer places the victims on the stage and sits in a red chair stroking a cat. All of this while feathers are floating through the air.
All the works cited can be found here.
Author Bio: Raul J. Vantassle is a jazz musician whose key strokes move about the page creating an explosion of formlessness to form, or just total bullshit. His heroes include John Waters, Robert Crumb, Charles Bukowski, and the Cobra Commander. His Knowledge of film goes across the board but he specializes in Asian and cult cinema. He may be the filthiest person alive. You can visit his blog here.