I’ve finally breached a new decade on my seemingly endless journey to choose my five favorite horror movies from every year since I was born (way the hell back in 1972, in case you’re new here). 1980, of course, would mark the beginning of the “slasher decade,” though of course there were loads of other great horror movies in the 1980s from all subgenres. For 1980, the top five were easy picks, but there were so many other films I love that passed just under the wire, so I’ve got loads of honorable mentions to sort through.
First off, a film that I can’t say I so much enjoy watching as I remain aware of its importance to the horror genre in general: Ruggero Deodato’s notorious Cannibal Holocaust. Yes, the animal cruelty and slaughter here is unforgivable, but you have to give this movie props for going farther than most movies had up to that point, and being so gruesome that the filmmakers famously got dragged into court to prove that they hadn’t actually made a snuff film and killed off their real actors. Cannibal Holocaust is also legitimately the first of the found footage subgenre, so it will always be mentioned as one of the most influential horror films of all time.
For my other honorable mentions, I’ll name-check one of John Carpenter’s lesser films, but one I’ve always adored for its classic, old-school ghost story feel: The Fog. And to round out the also-rans, I’ll throw in the first Friday the 13th flick (an acknowledged Halloween ripoff that spawned an unbelievably long franchise, though I’ll argue that the second one is actually the best); William Lustig’s grubby New York psychological horror Maniac; the wildly entertaining and campy Motel Hell; and the one-two slasher punch of Prom Night and Terror Train, both of which starred Jamie Lee Curtis and easily augmented the coveted scream queen status she’d achieved in Halloween two years previously.
And now that we’ve plowed through the appetizers, let’s dive into the main course.
Ken Russell is one of the most fascinating filmmakers of all time; his movies are generally profane and tinged with the surreal, and are almost always extremely provocative. Altered States is probably his most approachable film, but it’s still pretty damn weird, and although the special effects look pretty dated by modern standards, I actually think they make the movie work even better nowadays, because the low-fi appearance gives the whole thing an even more bizarre aesthetic.
Initially conceived as a take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the story (by Paddy Chayefsky, who later turned his screen treatment into a novel) was partly inspired by real-life experiments with altered states of consciousness by Dr. John C. Lilly. William Hurt, in his film debut, plays a psychopathologist at Columbia University named Edward Jessup, who is studying schizophrenia and theorizing that different states of consciousness may be just as “real” as what we generally perceive as reality in our day-to-day experience.
In order to explore this idea, he begins a series of trials, using himself as a guinea pig, in which he spends long periods of time in a sensory deprivation tank, attempting to trigger these other states of reality. Initial results are interesting, but not earth-shattering; the real crazy shit doesn’t start to pop off until several years later, after he’s married a fellow researcher and started a family. Jessup thinks the experiments would be a lot more effective if he was also high as balls, so he goes to Mexico to get some of the really good drugs. His hallucinations are pretty intense, but he doesn’t realize how fucked up stuff can get until he starts pairing the drugs with the sensory deprivation, after which he essentially begins reverting to an atavistic physical state at very inopportune times. Turns out it’s hard to blend in at the faculty cocktail party when you keep randomly transforming into Homo erectus and breaking into the zoo to eat some sheep, you know?
The best parts of the movie are the utterly bonkers hallucination sequences, the most famous of which is a goat-headed crucified Jesus with a whole bunch of eyes, which is a jarringly disturbing image no matter which way you slice it. If you’re new to Ken Russell’s work, Altered States is the best film of his to start with, in my opinion, as it retains much of his particular style without being so out there that it would alienate newbies.
Easily one of my favorite haunted house movies of all time, The Changeling is all the more frightening because of its relative restraint and subtlety, and also due to the stellar lead performance of George C. Scott. Because you just know that if General Fucking Patton is scared of something, then there definitely has to be some nightmarish shit going on.
A Canadian film directed by a Hungarian (Peter Medak), The Changeling is based on an allegedly true incident experienced by playwright Russell Hunter while he was staying at the Henry Treat Rogers mansion in Denver, Colorado. Whether the events really happened is not particularly important (and I suspect they didn’t, at least not the way the film portrays them), because the movie itself is a thing of beauty, wonderfully creepy and emotionally affecting; it’s a tragic ghost story and a compelling murder mystery all rolled into one.
Scott plays a famous and financially comfortable classical composer named John Russell, with a much-beloved wife and daughter. At the beginning of the movie, however, his family is brutally snatched away in a freak car accident, and the inconsolable widower feels the need to get away from it all for a while. He rents a gorgeous old mansion in Seattle (though the entire interior of the house in the film was built as a set, which is pretty incredible) and tries to pick up the pieces of his shattered life.
Not long into his stay, though, he begins to sense that the gloomy pile he’s residing in just might just be a wee bit haunted; the faucets come on by themselves, and windows shatter of their own accord. During an investigation of the labyrinthine corridors, John also discovers a boarded-up attic room containing a music box that plays the same tune he thought he had just composed on his piano downstairs. Not long afterward, he starts seeing an apparition of what appears to be a dead boy in a bathtub.
After one of the eeriest séance sequences ever committed to film—with the flat voice of the psychic giving me the willies every single time—John begins to suspect that the mansion is home to the spirit of a boy named Joseph Carmichael, and throughout the remainder of the film, John becomes more and more obsessed with finding out what happened to the child, eventually stumbling on a long-ago plot involving one of the city’s most prominent citizens.
Though the narrative is pretty standard ghost story fare, it’s the execution here that really shines, and I will happily attest to the fact that this is one of the spookiest movies of the era. Any film that can wring so much terror out of a simple red ball bouncing down a staircase is aces in my book, and if you love classic haunted house movies as much as I do, you owe it to yourself to turn out all the lights and immerse yourself in this one.
City of the Living Dead
Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (also released as The Gates of Hell in some territories) was the first of the loosely-thematically-connected Gates of Hell Trilogy; the other two films, of course, were The Beyond and The House by the Cemetery, both released in 1981. All three films, though not linked in any narrative sense, do have some similarities: for example, all three starred Catriona MacColl (playing different characters each time), all were mostly shot in the United States, all were pretty fucking gory, and all shared a similar gothic surreality, sometimes filtered through a vaguely Lovecraftian framework.
Like many of Fulci’s movies (and let’s be honest, most Italian horror films from this era), the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there is a sort of dreamlike logic to the whole thing that leads you from one grotesque set piece to the next. To wit, the film starts with a séance (I really like seances in movies, as my former entry can attest), in which Catriona MacColl’s character, Mary Woodhouse (perhaps a reference to Rosemary’s Baby) has a vision of a priest hanging himself in a cemetery in a town called Dunwich (see, there’s that Lovecraft thing), which presumably causes the titular gates of Hell to open. Shortly afterward, Mary has some kind of cataleptic episode and is presumed dead, but is buried alive. Luckily for her, a journalist named Peter Bell (Christopher George), who’s been investigating her death, hears her screaming from beneath the soil, and is able to rescue her (by busting open her coffin with a pickaxe that he seriously swings right where her face is, missing her by inches…like, bro, thanks for saving me and all, but damn).
Anyway, after that, Mary and Peter team up to try and find out where Dunwich is, who this doomed priest is, and what exactly is supposed to happen on All Saints Day, only a few days hence. According to the Book of Enoch, all the dead are gonna start walking the Earth, so I’m presuming that the pair are going to try to find a way to, you know, stop that from happening.
Along the way, all kinds of shenanigans take place, including a maggot shower, a scalping, disappearing corpses, a woman barfing up her own intestines after seeing a vision of the priest…you know, the standard stuff. There’s also a character named Bob (played by Giovanni Lombardo Radice) who gets a giant drill plunged all the way through his head in one of the film’s most famous scenes, one that was completely trimmed out in the UK (it was the video nasty era, remember).
All of this leads up to what must surely be one of the most baffling endings in horror movie history, one that seemed to have been cobbled together from whatever footage was available, though that might just be my perception. Although it seems at first blush that the evil has been defeated, with the priest and all the zombies bursting into flame, at the very end, a kid named John-John comes running toward Mary, and she’s really jacked that he survived the whole mess, but then she starts screaming like something is horribly wrong, and then the screen fades to black with a cracking effect. This obviously would have made much more sense if we zoomed in on John-John and saw he was undead or something, but no, the kid looks normal. I suspect that some footage was lost or unusable, and Fulci just did the best he could, but over the years, some interesting theories have popped up about whether the ending was deliberate, and if so, what it could have possibly meant. I’m not about to sit here and tell you I have a theory, though; I just think John-John was supposed to be zombified and they lost the bits with him in the makeup. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I’ll note that this is probably my least favorite of the three Gates of Hell movies, but it’s still pretty fucking awesome.
Though not nearly as amazing or iconic as 1977’s Suspiria, the first in the Three Mothers Trilogy (and followed up many years later by the frankly pretty lame Mother of Tears in 2007), Inferno is nonetheless a solid entry into Dario Argento’s oevre, with some of the beautiful visuals of the earlier film and a slightly more cohesive storyline.
This time around, the action takes place mostly in New York City (with some sequences in Rome). A woman named Rose (Irene Miracle) lives in a stunning art nouveau apartment building that happens to butt up to an antique bookstore, in which she purchases a tome called The Three Mothers, which fills the audience in on the lore about the trio of witches and their bases of evil in Freiburg, New York, and Rome.
Rose has been writing about her discoveries in letters to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey), a music student in Rome. It appears that Mark himself might have become the target of one of the witches, Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness, as evidenced by the hot but creepy chick who keeps lurking around stroking a kitty (not a euphemism) and giving him intense stares like she wants to peel all his flesh off and eat it like a Fruit Roll-Up.
Fearing his sister is in danger, Mark travels to New York, but by the time he gets there, Rose has disappeared, and with the help of an elusive Countess who also lives in the building (played by frequent Argento collaborator Daria Nicolodi), the two try to sort out what exactly is going on concerning all of this witch business.
Even though I just mentioned that Inferno was more cohesive than Suspiria, that’s really not saying a lot; there are still a bunch of fantastic but peculiar scenes whose meaning isn’t entirely clear. One of the best-known of these occurs when Rose, exploring a cellar beneath her building, drops her keys in a hole and climbs in to get them, only to find a massive ballroom that’s completely submerged in water…and also contains a corpse that floats up and scares the bejeebers out of her. There’s also a bit where the bookseller Rose purchased The Three Mothers from gets devoured by rats while trying to drown a bag of cats in the river (that’s the animal kingdom getting one back at you, jerk), as well as a scene where a friend of Mark’s discovers a spooky alchemy lab complete with bubbling cauldrons underneath a public library. It’s all very mysterious, but it looks cool as shit, so I’m not gonna complain.
While I will say that the “final form” of Mater Tenebrarum looks a little too much like an animatronic Grim Reaper from Spirit Halloween for my liking, overall this is a worthy follow-up to Suspiria, though I’m not going to bullshit you and say it’s anywhere near as good, because it isn’t. Compared to Mother of Tears, though, it’s frickin’ Citizen Kane.
Man, what more is there to say about this Stanley Kubrick classic? I’ve written extensively about the movie elsewhere (such as here and here), so I’ll try not to belabor the point and end up repeating myself, but hot damn, do I love The Shining. It’s not only one of my favorite horror films of all time, it’s also one of my favorite films, period, and even though I must have seen it at least fifty or sixty times by now, if you were to ask me today if I wanted to sit down and watch the fucker again, I would absolutely not hesitate; I’d even pop the popcorn and bring the bourbon. This is one of those movies where I get something new and different out of it every time I watch it; a rare quality, even in the very best films.
Everyone and their mother knows that The Shining was based on Stephen King’s 1977 novel of the same name, and everyone also knows that King infamously hated Kubrick’s adaptation, which was admittedly loose, but not all THAT loose, in my opinion. I wrote previously that Kubrick’s version is so good because it leaves so much unexplained; rather than bogging the movie down with exposition (as King’s own regrettable 1997 miniseries version did), the 1980 film puts you in the shoes of the Torrances, seeing all this creepy shit in the Overlook without any real context or understanding of what’s happening, which makes the whole ordeal that much scarier, in my view. Matter of fact, I first saw this movie when I was probably nine or ten years old, and it frightened the ever-loving crap out of me, especially the part with the lady in the bathtub of room 237. Immediately afterward, though, I felt compelled to watch it again; there’s just something about the whole vibe of it that really transports me to a place that most films don’t.
To me, The Shining is like the perfect movie: you can totally watch it as just an unsettling, haunted hotel story and enjoy it purely on those terms, but if you want to, you can delve much deeper into all the symbolism and allegory going on, and lose yourself in all the theories surrounding Kubrick’s use of detail; the whole film just feels laden with just-hidden meaning, which is likely why it’s endured this long as an absolute classic of the genre. The film has become so embedded in popular culture that it’s impossible to not at least know something about it, even if you’re not a horror fan; hell, you could probably walk up to a toddler on the street and screech REDRUM at him and he’d know exactly what you meant (pro-tip: please don’t screech at random children if you can possibly avoid it). Seriously, approach anyone and show them pictures of the famous patterned carpet or the Grady twins (who weren’t actually twins because one was two years older than the other one, but still…) or Danny on his Big Wheel, and all eyes will light up in recognition. Few horror movies reach that level of saturation, and there is absolutely a reason why so much of The Shining has seeped into the American consciousness. It’s scary, it’s mythic, it has a fantastically eerie score, it boasts some absolutely knockout performances by Jack Nicholson, Shelly Duvall, Scatman Crothers, and Danny Lloyd, and it’s completely open to the interpretation of the person watching it. Every time I see it, I’m reminded anew what a masterpiece it is, and I will vehemently defend it to all haters, if indeed there are any (are there? Well, y’all are wrong). Now, let’s go watch The Shining.
So, since you all can presumably count, you know that my next post in this series will cover 1981, and I can already tell you that I’m gonna have a really hard time narrowing my choices down to just five movies, because 1981 was a HELL of a year for horror. While you’re waiting for that, though, remember to keep it creepy, my friends. I’ll see you on the next one.