Horror films can be a cult favorite, fan favorite, or a film of the moment, but regardless, there are plenty of them that get lost in the mix. Once the 1980s rolled in, piggybacking off of exploitation films of the 1970s or the Italian films of the 1960s, the VHS and MTV world carried into horror. Here are 10 horror films from the 1980s that might be a cult favorite, genre specialty, overlooked gem, or just a great horror film from the era.
1. Murder Obsession (1981) – Riccardo Freda
The mentor of Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda combines those Bava elements of giallo, erotica, and screams in an old fortified castle, all while commenting on the film industry as well. “Murder Obsession” certainly uses all the elements of the genre. For example, when our lead, the blonde beauty Silvia Dioniso has a nightmare, Cristiano Pogany’s lucid cinematography comes to life juxtaposing with Franco Mannino’s score.
Freda knew how to make a horror film and he didn’t make them in a cliché way, but rather delivers on what the audience wants and expects out of a horror film. He simply knew his craft and left no technical and creative decisions on the floor. So if you want a film to watch as night descends, one that sets the stage for a prominent decade of horror filmmaking, look no further than this film. And how can you go wrong with the man who mentored Mario Bava?!
2. The Ninth Configuration (1980) – William Peter Blatty
The man who wrote the novel and script for “The Exorcist” brings back actor Jason Miller in a film that is almost split into two parts. The film revolves around a group of soldiers with PTSD who are locked in a European castle toward the end of the Vietnam War. What begins as a comedy of slapstick portions and over-the-top mayhem slowly dives into a deeply unsettled look at the psychology of haunted individuals.
Since it starts on a light note with Stacy Keach’s Army doctor arriving to inspect the patients, we see the characters first hand, from Scott Wilson to Robert Loggia. However, halfway through it shifts tonally and emotionally in a character-driven manner. Perhaps the realism and non-horror introduction makes the second part all the more chilling and frightening, and when Blatty is adapting his own novel once again, you know it’s layered, deep, and meaningful, much like this film.
3. Opera (1987) – Dario Argento
A horror list from the 1980s without Dario Argento wouldn’t be much of a list at all, but instead of “Inferno,” “Tenebre” or “Phenomena,” it’s “Opera,” his last film of the decade, that sticks out for several reasons ranging from the motif of torture, the literal operatic setting, and the kill scenes.
Argento creates a world heightened in supernatural elements while never falsifying the design, construction, and music of his films. So here is a film grounded in realism due the “opera within a film,” and the behind-the-scenes look where a killer is on the loose.
Containing scenes that literally makes you want to shut your eyes (but you can’t, much like the character at play), it’s the film’s visuals that linger in your head. But Argento doesn’t stop there and repeats this notion with different setups and ultimately kills. It certainly is a bloodbath, but using the opera that inspired Argento’s filmmaking, it’s more than a giallo or homage – it’s like two worlds combining under one of its masters.
4. Parasite (1982) – Charles Band
For every serious horror or subgenre of a horror film, we need that ridiculous feel-good horror film that delivers the goods, but certainly can be taken with a grain of salt. That’s what director Charles Brand does here.
Coming to audiences in 3D, a parasite is created that links to people’s stomachs while a group of hicks and government officials are after the goods, with a novice Demi Moore in the way. Therefore, the film has plenty of bugs on the screen and bodies being thrown for the technical effect, but it’s a film that if you buy into it, it’s exactly what you signed up for. So, while ripping off the plot for “Alien” or using 3D to literally exploit your audience, that’s what you get with this exploration flick on the low-budget scene.
5. Nightmare Beach (1989) – Umberto Lenzi
Capping off the decade with the most outlandish 1980s set pieces, costumes, and most importantly style, this film features fun parties, mysterious bikers, and great death scenes.
What begins as a spring break type of film, while introducing police officers with corny dialogue and threats, quickly turns into a slasher, electric, literal and figurative film that creates its own cult following. Maybe since Umberto Lenzi was bringing his Italian roots to the shores of America, he was able to mix the eccentric MTV world of the 1980s America with giallo roots of murder and execution.
For any fan of those cheesy 1980 flicks that delves into the ‘blood and tits’ genre, look no further as Lenzi delivers plenty of both, and honestly, a fun night out at the movies.