10 Influential Horror Films from the 1980s

The 1980s brought with it many things, but during the Halloween season we choose to remember the slew of horror films, both good and bad, that came to the big screen and into our lives. Growing up in the 80s was both great and terrifying; repressed fears and frustrations came out in the form of gory and bizarre horror films that spanned the spectrum of the genre. After reading through this chronological list of 80s horror films that influenced cinema and pop culture, it’s little wonder that my generation is off kilter.

Friday the 13th (1980)

Although it was inspired by John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher film, Halloween, Friday the 13th took things a step further and made a gruesome full-on slasher film that turned off critics and turned on audiences. It went on to become one of the most successful slasher films in history. The success of Friday the 13th and Halloween has led to a long line of imitators. With over a dozen films in the cannon Friday the 13th remains one of the longest running horror franchises. Even Jason’s hockey mask (which didn’t show up until Friday the 13th Part III in 1982) has become an easily recognizable symbol in pop culture.

The Shining (1980)

The fact that more people know the phrase, “Here’s Johnny!” from Jack Nicholson’s brilliant performance as Jack Torrance in The Shining then from its origin on The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson is a testament to the influence The Shining has had on pop culture and film in general. Stephen King’s displeasure with director Stanley Kubrick’s vision of his novel is well documented, but there’s no denying that, on its own, Kubrick’s film is brilliant and holds up as a horror classic. An in depth analysis of the film reveals the hand of a master director at work. It’s been said that Jack Nicholson knows exactly what to do with a prop, and this has never been more true than when he’s wielding an axe in The Shining.

The Evil Dead (1981)

Sam Raimi’s experimental shooting and directing style in The Evil Dead has been copied and referenced in many films since. One of his more memorable technical contributions is the demon POV camera technique which is basically two guys running with a camera mounted on a 2×4. The Evil Dead’s real claim to fame, however, is its invasion into pop culture with a slew of catchphrases, most of which are uttered by the unlikely hero, Ash, played by future B-movie superstar, Bruce Campbell.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London is significant for several reasons, not only is it a great example of combining horror and comedy, but Rick Baker’s creature makeup and special effects set the bar so high that it necessitated the creation of a new category at the Oscars; Outstanding Achievement in Makeup. However, the films’ influence reaches beyond makeup and effects. Seeing An American Werewolf in London convinced Michael Jackson that he needed John Landis to direct his classic video, Thriller; and we can also thank An American Werewolf in London for inspiring Edgar Wright to become a film director.

Poltergeist (1982)

The ultimate ghost movie, many believe Poltergeist is cursed, and while there’s a list of untimely deaths to back up that idea, the film also managed to make kids seem creepy and forever change the way we say, “They’re here.” Poltergeist has also made a dent in the pop culture landscape, as is evident from parodies and tributes in The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy.

Gremlins (1984)

A few “small monsters” films were in production at the same time as Gremlins, but it’s the one that everyone remembers, it’s also responsible for dozens of lesser imitators. Gremlins was an instant classic and its oh-so merchandisable characters gave it a lasting impression on pop culture (I bet you can still remember the three rules of the Mogwai). One of the film’s many claims to fame is that it can also double as a Christmas film since it is set during the holiday season. So, be sure to show it at your next family Christmas.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Freddy Krueger is one of the most recognizable figures in pop culture. While I’ll be forever grateful to the film, and director Wes Craven, for introducing the world to Johnny Depp, A Nightmare on Elm Street also maintains a tight grasp on horror fans (many of which were afraid to fall asleep after spending two hours in the dark watching Freddy) and although A Nightmare on Elm Street contains many horror film clichés, it managed to create just as many imitators as it had imitated itself. It’s not far behind Friday the 13th as one of the longest running and most successful horror franchises of all time.

The Lost Boys (1987)

Possibly the most influential vampire film since the 1931 version of Dracula, The Lost Boys brought to pop culture several aspects of vampire lore that were little seen in previous films. These vampires mingled among modern day humans and were hip teens. The next time you watch itnotice how much of it has been borrowed by vampire films and television series since. In addition to bringing Keifer Sutherland, who was virtually unknown at the time, to the attention of audiences, The Lost Boys was also one of the Corey’s (Corey Feldman & Corey Haim) most popular screen appearances. Lastly, the film also boasts one of the greatest theme songs of the 1980s, Cry Little Sister by Gerard McMahon.

Hellraiser (1987)

Hellraiser was most filmgoer’s introduction to the work of horror writer, Clive Barker. The unique soul-torturing villainous Cenobites intrigued moviegoers with their mix of a gothic-alien appearance and disturbing levels of torturous violence that also paved the way for future big-budget films in the torture-porn sub-genre.

Child’s Play (1988)

Chucky wasn’t the first killer doll to hit the big screen, but he’s certainly the most memorable. This knife wielding half-pint scared the hell out of kids everywhere. Some people believe Chucky was inspired by the My Buddy doll, which was poplar at the time, but Hasbro’s That Kid doll from the 1960s may have been a bigger inspiration. Either way, Chucky forever changed the market for My Buddy dolls and cemented dolls as creepy in the minds of a generation.

Bonus Film!

Children of the Corn (1984)

While most horror films prey on universal fears, Children of the Corn, based on one of Stephen King’s novels, sought out a specific fear in a specific location. Growing up in the American Midwest, I can assure you that every kid who lived near a cornfield was afraid to leave their house at night. Part of what made Children of the Corn so effective was that the kids weren’t from another planet, or even possessed, they were just a religious cult that couldn’t be reasoned with.