In any case, 1981 was a surprisingly good year for horror films. Folks who follow my 6 Weeks of Halloween posts know that I'm a big fan of slasher films, and in 1981, slashers were at the height of their popularity. You apparently couldn't go a week without a new slasher film being released. Most were horrible, I'm sure, but the year wasn't limited to slashers either. There were also a couple of the finest werewolf movies ever made released in 1981. There were psychics and ghosts and demons and even killer piranhas. A banner year for horror, which is surprising because the 80s don't exactly have the best filmic reputation for horror (especially having just come after the excellent 70s horror).
So without further ado, my top 5 1981 horror films (in alphabetical order):
- An American Werewolf in London: John Landis' werewolf opus holds up pretty well, even to this day. There's something about the setting and the way humor is injected into the film that really balances well. Plus, it's got the best transformation sequence in all of werewolf cinema (the only real contender is 1981's own The Howling). I could have sworn I've written about this on the blog before, but apparently not... It's a classic horror touchstone.
- The Evil Dead: I have to admit to being more taken with the sequels to this film - how often do you hear that! - but that's not to diminish the effectiveness of the film that started it all. Unlike its sequels, this film plays the premise straight and mostly does not waver from it's earnest depiction of an evil presence in a small cabin in the woods. It's ultra-low budget and derivative plot don't really serve it well, but Raimi manages to evoke a lot of tension and creepiness out of the proceedings, not to mention some of its more controversial elements. Again, not one of my favorite films ever, but it's definitely an important milestone in horror cinema and worth watching for that fact alone.
- My Bloody Valentine: Of all the imitators that sprang up after the success of John Carpenter's classic slasher Halloween, this one is the most important. I don't know about the business side of the film (though I do know of the infamous neutering of the film's gore at the hands of the MPAA), but I'm a little baffled that it never spawned any sequels. More details in an old 6WH writeup. Among the throngs of slasher films, this is one of my favorites.
- The Prowler: Another slasher, and a somewhat more obscure one at that (if I was going to pick a film not part of the featured 30 films, this would have been the one). I actually don't have that much to say about it - it's pretty standard slasher fare, but it's way above average in its execution. A solid backstory and special effects from Tom Savini are what really elevate this one above the other imitators.
- Scanners: David Cronenberg's tale of dueling psychics is quite entertaining and very well crafted. Perhaps most famous for it's exploding head sequence, it's got a lot more going for it. However, I did revisit this film somewhat recently, and I have to say that it wasn't quite as tightly plotted as I had remembered... though it still holds up reasonably well, and Cronenberg's script touches on a bunch of other genres that we don't normally see within horror - like espionage and computer networking stuff (pyschic hacking!). It's a surprisingly effective and memorable film.
And for reference, here are the links to the aforementioned sites' (much more comprehensive) writeups:
- Badass Digest/Horror Movie A Day
- Bloody Disgusting
- Dread Central
- Shock Till You Drop
- Arrow In The Head