There are all sorts of reasons to love the ’80s, but the glut of slasher films that poured into theaters like so much fake crimson blood during this decade is definitely in the top five. The era gave birth to a number of hallowed traditions that continue to be honored in modern Dead Teenager Flicks—although nothing can beat the unmistakable effects and sting chords of the decade that started it all. In case you need a reminder, here’s a look back at some of the stellar flicks that marked 1980 as a turning point for the genre. In alphabetical order:
1. April Fool’s Day (1986)
Using a holiday as the theme for a killing spree is a hallmark of the genre—and you didn’t think we were going to let Cupid and Michael Myers have all the fun, did you? Aside from Halloween, April Fool’s is the ideal holiday for a story about a murderous rampage, because the requisite pranks serve as a great cover for the actual killings. Director Fred Walton and his star, Deborah Foreman, use the conceit to great effect in this 1986 genre staple, situated (where else?) at a remote island compound.
2. The Burning (1981)
This cult classic might not be widely known outside of diehard fan circles, but it’s definitely worth a look if you’ve never seen it before—or even if you have. The basic structure—hell-raising youngsters cause a freak accident, thereby leading to the gruesome extraction of revenge at some point in the future—might be nothing new, but the special effects (by Tom Savini) are among the best you’ll find for this era. Fun fact: The Burning was banned under the Video Recordings Act in the UK in 1984, which only served to cement its cult status.
3. Child’s Play (1988)
The introduction of Chucky, the redheaded menace who would go on to terrorize legions of hapless toy owners, is still one of the genre’s most iconic development. Those who would argue that the movie is cheesy are missing the point—the unrealistic nature of the doll’s movements only add to the fear factor. The best moment? When Catherine Hicks sees the batteries fall out of the Good Guy dolls box, and realizes that Chucky has been operating under his own steam all this time.
4. Friday the 13th (1980)
Like Halloween, this was originally intended to be a stand-alone picture, not a franchise kickoff. However, before the decade was out, horror fans would be treated to a whopping 8 films featuring the hockey-mask-wearing boogeyman known as Jason. This first installment, however, is still the best. The notion of a “death curse” lingering over Camp Crystal Lake after a decades-ago tragedy is a masterstroke, and the character of Pamela is still one of the most tragically relatable villains in the genre.
5. The Funhouse (1981)
Director Tobe Hooper might be well known, but his entry into the ’80s horror race continues to maintain a low profile. That’s unfortunate, because this chiller—set at a spooky carnival where the lines between fantasy and reality are blurred—serves up a bloody good time. Wayne Doba, who portrays the horribly disfigured son of the carnival’s owner, is a highlight, as is the expert makeup work that’s consistently on display throughout.
6. Halloween 2 (1981)
It might seem hard to believe now, but the original Halloween wasn’t really meant to have a second installment—let alone several others. Back then, sequels were considered risky ventures at best and absolute messes at worst. While this second go-round, in which the seemingly deathless Michael Myers follows Laurie Strode to a Haddonfield hospital, has its detractors, it’s still one of the best films in the franchise. The whole “Laurie is Michael’s sister” thread has since been retconned out, but it was a delicious shocker at the time. Remember, this was released only five months after The Empire Strikes Back, so the twist of having the main character be secretly related to the villain was just getting warmed up.
7. Madman (1982)
If you’ve ever caught a few scenes of this movie on cable, you may remember it from the vibrant blue lighting effects that were used in the murder scenes. If you caught one scene in particular—in which killer Madman Marz spies on “final girl” Gaylen Ross and her boyfriend while the couple is getting it on in a hot tub—you were likely disappointed at the outcome since horror tropes dictate that any sexual activity by teenagers usually results in their demise. Maybe that’s why Gaylen Ross fought to keep her name unconnected with the project.
8. My Bloody Valentine (1981)
How can you go wrong with a psychotic killer in mining gear? Maybe the getup taps into some elemental fears about being trapped in a confined area, doomed to certain death. Or maybe this Valentine’s Day-themed flick would have brought the thrills no matter what the murderer was wearing. This is one of the earliest—and most entertaining—examples of the holiday-themed boogeyman pic.
9. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
All right, so some of the sequels got downright ridiculous (remember the chick turning into a bug in The Dream Master?). Still, this prototype—starring Heather Langenkamp and Johnny Depp—deserves props for introducing the world to Freddy Krueger, the hideously scarred baddie described as “the bastard son of a hundred??? maniacs.” A villain who can hijack your dreams and turn their gruesome events into a reality? Talk about giving new meaning to killing you in your sleep.
10. Prom Night (1980)
Never mind the haters—Prom Night took a page out of Lois Duncan’s “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” nearly two decades before the book itself was adapted into a film. The difference is, this one has a set of balls to go along with the guts. Jamie Lee Curtis plays one of a group of four friends who, six years ago, caused the death of a ten-year-old girl. Now, a masked killer is setting out to exact revenge, using the fancy dress ball as a backdrop. As always, the scream queen delivers. Too bad this was one of her last slasher outings before moving on to “serious” film.
11. The Prowler (1981)
In the deranged minds of slashers, one revenge outing is never enough. There’s always a reason to keep on slicing and dicing—and conveniently, the reasons usually come in the form of teenage flesh. The antagonist, in this case, is a World War II veteran who got his first taste of killing when he received a “Dear John” letter from home while overseas. Though he succeeded in murdering both the girl who jilted him and her new lover, he decides to relive the whole episode 35 years later by opening up a new batch of victims (pun intended). The premise is intriguing enough, but the special effects (by Savini again) succeed in putting this one over the top.
12. Sleepaway Camp (1983)
On the subject of twists: How about that ending? The rest of Sleepaway Camp is entertaining enough, sure, but it’s the big reveal at the end of the movie—shy, reclusive “Angela” is actually Peter, the survivor of the speedboat accident that took place in the opening salvo—is what has people still talking about this slasher fave more than thirty-five years later.