Like a lot of kids, growing up in the 1980s with my kid brother, we spent a great deal of time watching wonderfully inappropriate horror films, mostly on pay TV, late night cable or with parental permission, renting them from the local video store. Peeking through fingers, knowing we shouldn’t be seeing what we were seeing but unable and often unwilling to turn away as our hearts jackhammered our spines, thrilled at the scary spectacle unraveling before us; sneering monsters with crimson claws and drooling fangs, certain to inspire nightmares and night lights.
These late nights would lead to a lifelong fascination with genre films, and so, with a whiff of nostalgia in the air and a devilish grin, recounted here are ten of the best overlooked fright films the 1980s have to offer, and, despite some lazy tropes, overkill of slasher franchises, and uneasy exploitation misfires, the horror film had a heyday of artistic and commercial successes that has been unrivaled since. Enjoy!
10. The Gate (1987)
This surprisingly effective slice of horror-lite, targeted at a young audience who could easily identify with the film’s twelve-year-old protagonist, Glenn (Stephen Dorff, in his feature film debut), is a creepy, funny, and refreshingly unjaded dark adventure. An American-Canadian co-production from director Tibor Takács and writer Michael Nankin, both of whom share an appreciation of Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion, The Gate introduces us to Glenn, left in the care of his boy-obsessed 16-year-old sister Alexandra (Christa Denton), as their folks leave town for the weekend.
And while his big sis would much rather throw a party than pay her annoying little brother much attention, Glenn and his bff Terry (Louis Tripp), both heavy-metal enthusiasts, soon summon some dark shit from a hole left by a fallen tree in the backyard. A gateway to hell or just overly elaborate liner notes from their favorite aggressive LP, “The Dark Book”, played backwards, of course, just maybe? The Gate is first-rate horror-adjacent fare, and a perfect intro for moppets who are curious about monsters (it was certainly a “gateway” for me, to many more adult-framed fright flicks). A gem.
9. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
The boundary pushing body horror on shrill display in this cyberpunk fright flick is a large part of what made this low budget effort from cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto a hit with the midnight movie crowd.
Shin’ya Tsukamoto is the metal fetishist gone mad –– perhaps due to the writhing maggots that pour from his wounds where metal melds to his disgusting skin –– who’s mowed down on the highway by Salaryman (Tomorrow Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). These reckless lovers then dispose of his body by dumping it into a ravine. Little did they suspect this would provoke a decidedly nasty curse that transforms the flesh into iron in as many painful and vomitous ways as possible. Ain’t karma a bitch?
This strange, sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating, frequently gory, often funny, and always fucked up film would go on to father two just as transgressive sequels; Body Hammer (1992) and The Bullet Man (2009) while cinching Tsukamoto as an international provocateur of unconventional cult cinema. It’s also fair to say that this is a film for extreme fans but, that said, admirers of David Cronenberg (particularly 1983’s Videodrome) and David Lynch (shades of 1977’s Eraserhead) will dig and devour some of the surreal strangeness as well.
8. The Hidden (1987)
A precursor to his Special Agent Dale Cooper persona, Kyle MacLachlan stars as FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher in hot pursuit of an exotic car loving, nihilistic, and parasitic alien creature that moves from host to host leaving bullet-riddled bodies and swathes of destruction in its wake.
Director Jack Sholder, perhaps best known for 1985’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, is a fleet-footed filmmaker in this screaming, satisfying, and inflamed genre film, the perfect distillation of over-the-top action, alien sci-fi and messy horror.
Buttressed by a punk rock appreciation –– the Los Angeles locations add to this artful effect –– a driving, thumping rock score, and frequent exotic sports car chase scenes, and high fashion gun battles certainly influenced by Michael Mann’s then ubiquitous Miami Vice. The Hidden is an adrenalized actioner that seemed to materialize out of the ether, one that even Roger Ebert, sometimes too harsh on genre films, had to enthusiastically award a thumbs up, saying, “I don’t know what I was expecting, but certainly not this original and efficient thriller.”
7. Dead & Buried (1981)
Director Gary Sherman, who would go on to such memorable 80s films as Wanted: Dead or Alive (1986) and Poltergeist III (1988) managed to find a winning cult combo of EC Comics-style of dark horror fantasy with the exploitative aplomb of Herk Harvey’s 1962 indie horror Carnival of Souls, and the results are a somewhat unsung 80s slasher staple, Dead & Buried.
Buttressed by a decent cast (including Melody Anderson, Barry Corbin, James Farentino, and a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund), excellent practical gore effects from Stan Winston, and a screenplay tweaked by the likes of writing team Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett of Alien fame.
Dead & Buried takes place in the picturesque coastal town of Potter’s Bluff, Rhode Island. A tourist trap that promises good fishing and the kind of eerie, in-your-face locals who just might brutally murder out-of-towners, only to have said out-of-towners resurface as model citizens. That the town-folk seem readily versed in voodoo, particularly the reanimation of the recently deceased, well that’s just par for the course. And Potters Bluff’s sheriff (Farentino) has had enough of this odd behaviour. If he has to shake down all the eccentric chuckleheads in his community to get at the heart of this building mystery, including the suspicious coroner-mortician, William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson), well so be it.
Some small towns have big secrets, and sometimes they’re best left buried and undisturbed.
6. The Hitcher (1986)
As sadistic as it is deeply disturbing, Robert Harmon’s incredibly violent road thriller doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. In fact, it’s largely a retelling of Steven Spielberg’s Duel with a bigger body count and more splatter, with the added advantage of Rutger Hauer as our unstoppable boogeyman, and the likes of a post-Ponyboy C. Thomas Howell and a budding Jennifer Jason Leigh as the bad guy’s quarry. If all the blood spray and viscera leaves a bad taste, it’s intentional.
Jim (Howell) is a youngster in need of a lucky break. Agreeing to deliver a car from Chicago to San Diego as a side hustle, Jim makes his first mistake when he stops for hitchhiker John Ryder (Hauer), a rough-around-the-edges sort who raises about a dozen red flags before he’s even sat in the shotgun seat. Ryder’s murderous intent is soon revealed but before Jim can jettison the killer in his midst a whole lot of nasty shit goes down.
The Hitcher is the type of movie where the killer is literally unstoppable, where the hero seems jinxed with making every bad decision, where the police are as useless as a dewclaw on a kitty cat, and where a righteous babe like Nash (Leigh) is destined for the most grisly death of all.
The Hitcher is a white-knuckle detour through a hell of filling stations, roadside diners, and future crime scene hotel rooms. The chase is on, and the finish line might well end in mutual annihilation of the innocent and guilty alike.