The Best 1980s Horror Movies Are Like, Totally Scary

Ah, the 1980s. They brought us acid wash jeans, New Kids on the Block, and some of the scariest movies ever made. Yes, every decade has its share of awesome horror movies — but between serial killer franchises and standalone thrillers, the ’80s really went out of their way to freak us out. These days, we flock to see super-polished haunted house films like The Conjuring and gritty gore-fests like Saw. But many of our favorite modern horror filmmakers found inspiration from the awesome, terror-inducing movies that came out between 1980 and 1989. And many of these films have more than stood the test of time, remaining true classics in the genre. Here are the ten best horror movies of the 1980s.

10. Child’s Play (1988)

Chucky, a doll possessed by an evil spirit, as seen in Child's Play

Chucky leers in Child’s Play (1988) | United Artists

In the realm of iconic horror movie villains, Chucky may not be the absolute scariest. The doll at the center of Child’s Play isn’t always something to laugh at, either — at least not in the franchise’s first installment. Inhabited by the spirit of an evil serial killer, he doesn’t hold back when targeting his victims. The combination of Chucky’s child-like physical qualities and deranged personality create a weird horrific energy that’s never quite been replicated in the horror genre. And his transformation from innocent plaything to murderous predator makes Child’s Play one of the most original and subversive horror movies ever made.

9. Near Dark (1987)

The vampire Severen (Bill Paxton) in a scene from Kathryn Bigelow's underrated horror film 'Near Dark.'

Bill Paxton in Near Dark | Source: F/M Entertainment

When it comes to vampire films from the 1980s, The Lost Boys tends to get most of the attention. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark may have slipped under the radar when it hit theaters in 1987, but it more than deserves the attention it’s earned as a cult hit. It’s a genre-bending tale of a team of nomadic vampires: part western, part romance, part horror, and wholly entertaining from start to finish. But Near Dark offers up plenty of blood, lust and hedonism — i.e. everything you’d expect from a great vampire flick. And with horror legend Lance Henriksen and a truly memorable performance from Bill Paxton as the sadistic Severen, it remains a standout in the realm of vampire movies, and a must-see for anyone who loves them.

 

8. Aliens (1986)

The terrifying queen extraterrestrial on the prowl in a scene from James Cameron's 'Aliens'

Aliens | Source: 20th Century Fox

Sequels rarely live up to the expectation of their predecessors. Unfortunately, that’s especially true when it comes to horror movies. But it wasn’t the case at all with James Cameron’s contribution to the iconic Alien franchise. Aliens brings Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) back into the fold as an expert team hunts down the murderous extraterrestrial that killed most of Nostromo’s crew. But as the title would suggest, they encounter more than one fanged, acid-drooling, space-dwelling monster. Aliens is much more action-packed than its predecessor — but any glimpse of the mother alien or her spawn are enough to send a chill down your spine.

7. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) appears in a dark hallway in a scene from Wes Craven's 'A Nightmare on Elm Street'

A Nightmare on Elm Street‘s Freddy Krueger | Source: New Line Cinema

One, two, Freddy’s coming for you. With knives for fingers, a fire-melted face, and a truly evil laugh, Freddy Krueger is most certainly the stuff that bad dreams are made of. And he distinguishes himself from other more stoic slasher movie villains with his intelligence and filthy sense of humor. But there are plenty of other terrifying elements in A Nightmare on Elm Street: A helpless teen being cut open by invisible knives and thrown around the ceiling like a rag doll; Johnny Depp disappearing into a bed that then spews out his blood; those creepy little kids with their haunting playground rhyme.

Wes Craven established himself as a horror icon with Nightmare. And with the help of Freddy, it has become one of the most famous franchises in the genre. But creating a world in which the line between dream and reality is murky, Craven also helped prove that horror movies can be as smart as they are scary.

 

6. The Thing (1982)

Norris' assimilated head causes all kinds of horror in a scene from John Carpenter's <em>The Thing</em>.

The Thing | Source: Turman-Foster Company

When it hit theaters in 1982, The Thing didn’t exactly break box office records. But since its less-than-stellar initial reception, it’s gone on to become a true horror classic. John Carpenter — who became famous for the slasher hit Halloween — turned his attention to science fiction with this story of a group of scientists in the arctic that encounter a parasitic alien. It combines psychological thrills and gross-out horror with a more reflective meditation on what it means to be isolated and afraid. And those elements together are exactly what make The Thing such a stand-out film. It leaves you feeling unsettled, not only because of its disgustingly horrific special effects, but because of the paranoid uncertainty the characters have to face in trying to figure out who is still worth trusting.

 

5. Poltergeist (1982)

A demonic ghost threatens Diane Freeling (JoBeth Williams) in a scene from 'Poltergeist.'

Poltergeist | Source: SLM Production Group

A haunted house. An angelic child who can communicate with supernatural forces. Ghosts, gore, and one hell of a memorable tagline. Poltergeist is more or less the equivalent of the center space in horror movie BINGO — a blockbuster collection of the genre’s greatest hits. At its core, there’s the nearly perfectly crafted story of a completely average American family being haunted by a group of terrifyingly malicious ghosts. It tracks their experience, from bemused excitement to utter terror, and brings us along every step of the way. Poltergeist also features some of the best performances in a horror movie, bar none: Heather O’Rourke as an ethereal child with a creepy connection to a demonic realm; Jo Beth Williams and Craig T. Nelson as her terrified parents; and Zelda Rubenstein as a perfectly eccentric medium.

 

4. The Evil Dead (1981)

Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) tries to escape from the cellar in a scene from Sam Raimi's cult horror classic 'The Evil Dead.'

The Evil Dead | Source: Renaissance Pictures

How did an amateur team of filmmakers create one of the most iconic horror films of all time? By throwing caution to the wind and making a movie that’s gory, over-the-top, and positively brimming with raw energy. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead won’t ever win any awards for special effects or cinematography. But his tale of a group of friends that encounter a demonic entity on a weekend getaway was never meant to be perfect. Instead, it set a new bar for independent horror, showcasing exactly how weird, funny and campy a scary movie on a low budget could be. The Evil Dead helped launch Raimi’s career — he went on to direct the early-2000s Spiderman movies, among others. It also spawned a cult franchise, including two popular sequels, a reboot and a TV series.

 

3. The Changeling (1980)

John Russell (George C. Scott) ascends a fiery staircase in a scene from the 1980 horror classic 'The Changeling.'

The Changeling | Source: Associated Film Distributors

Peter Madak’s chilling psychological horror film may not have the name recognition of some of the others on this list. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t earned its place on every best-of list it’s ever been included in. The Changeling is even more disturbing, because it’s allegedly based on the real-life experiences of one of its screenwriters, Russell Hunter. Set in a perfunctorily creepy Victorian-era mansion, it follows John Russell (George C. Scott) as he escapes to a small Washington town following the sudden death of his wife and child. But his encounters with the vengeful ghost of a murdered child give him little time to grieve. With shattering windows, slamming doors, and burning staircases, Madak pulls out all the stops when it comes to showing us just how haunted Russell’s life has become. He also creates a perfectly chilling mood that sticks around long after the credits roll.

2. Friday the 13th (1980)

The seemingly idyllic entrance to Camp Crystal Lake is seen in the original 1980 version of 'Friday the 13th.'

Friday the 13th‘s Camp Crystal Lake | Source: Georgetown Productions

When you think of horror movie villains, a few iconic names probably come to mind. And one of them is probably Jason Voorhees, the hockey-mask wearing, machete-wielding maniac that targets unsuspecting visitors at Camp Crystal Lake. Sure, he’s not exactly the main antagonist in Friday the 13th; that honor belongs to his bereaved, deranged mother. But that doesn’t make the first installment of this legendary franchise any less scary. With a ridiculously high body count, plenty of sex and violence, and the bleak reality of horror in a seemingly idyllic settling, Friday the 13th is in many ways the quintessential slasher flick. Jason Voorhees has gone on to massacre dozens upon dozens of unsuspecting victims in the subsequent sequels and reboots, but Mrs. V’s first rampage in the series is still in many ways the most memorable.

1. The Shining (1980)

Two young girls stand at the end of an Overlook Hotel hallway in an iconic scene from Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining.'

The Shining | Source: The Producer Circle Company

The creepy twins at the end of the hallways. The ghostly party guests wearing macabre masks. Danny and Jack’s terrifying encounters in Room 237. The idea that just about anyone could go positively mad if they had a little help from some sinister supernatural elements. It’s hard to say what’s scariest about The Shining — yet most people who see it would agree it’s one of the most unnerving films ever made.

From the opening aerial shot of a car traversing a winding mountain road to the final pan in on an old-fashioned photo in the Overlook Hotel, it creates a sense of uneasy suspense and never lets up. Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, and Danny Lloyd all give truly memorable performances as the members of a dysfunctional family unit that’s completely falling apart. While Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King‘s classic novel diverges from its source material in numerous respects, it still stands alone as a gripping psychological horror. And it set the bar pretty high for all future movies about haunted dwellings.

Follow Katherine Webb on Twitter @prufrox.

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