I’m a great lover of 80s horror, so when a friend of mine, C.T. Phipps, shot me through an advance copy of his latest novel Psycho Killers in Love I was delighted to give it a read (you can check out my review here). The story pays homage to some of the great slasher flicks of the era, particularly Friday the 13th, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Child’s Play and Candyman. But it got me thinking about some of my lesser known favourites from the decade, so I put together a list of eight eighties gems lovers of those same films will enjoy!
Motel Hell (1980)
“It takes all kinds of critters to make Farmer Vincent fritters” – even if you’ve never seen Motel Hell you’ve probably come across the film’s famous tagline. Farmer Vincent Smith abducts folk passing through town and butchers them to sell as part of his smoked meat business – seems pretty straightforward, right?
Why that process involves cutting out their vocal chords, burying them up to their necks in a secret garden and hypnotising them with bizarre light shows is never explained. But there’s a lot of this film that goes unexplained! Why does the beautiful Terry fall suddenly in love with the long, tall and ugly Vincent, played by Rory Calhoun? Why does Vincent put on that pig’s head? As a horror film or a satire of horror, it’s full of terrific and truly weird moments, with what is still I think possibly the best chainsaw duel put to film.
An Ozploitation classic, the titular Razorback is an enormous wild boar that starts hunting and killing people in rural Australia. Noted for its incredible cinematography which captures and exaggerates a nightmarish vision of the Australian outback, I also love how Razorback steamrolls into the story from the very first scene and wastes little time on pleasantries.
Personally, I feel Carl Winters is a bit of a letdown as a protagonist, a character who allows the plot to happen to him rather than moving things forward as he searches for his disappeared wife. But a memorable monster, vile villains, and a beautifully captured setting make this one a must-watch gem.
“How many pairs of teenage titties in this one?” My partner asks as I pop on Scarecrows for a rewatch.
“None, that I can recall,” I say. “I mean, it’s not teenagers in this one, they’re like a bunch of mercenary criminals.”
“Mercenary titties then.”
Clearly my partner has sat through enough 80s horror with me over time. Titties or lack thereof aside, the switch up in Scarecrows from your usual gaggle of horny and overly curious coeds to a bunch of bank robbers hunting for one of their own is refreshing. Atmospheric, gruesome and full of original moments, Scarecrows is a seriously underrated gem.
Monkey Shines (1988)
A quadrapelgic man, Allan Mann, is given a helper monkey to help him gain back some independence. Unfortunately, said monkey, Ella, has been subject to experimentations with human brain tissue and gains a stalkerish obsession with her charge, and anyone who she believes has wronged him.
The horror in this one is surprisingly effective for such a concept, after all it is written and directed by the legendary George A. Romero. I feel Monkey Shines could’ve done without the slightly more fantastical elements of Allan’s connection to Ella, as the more grounded themes of Allan’s helplessness and humiliation and eerily intelligent animal scares work so well on their own.
Chopping Mall a.k.a Killbots (1986)
A shopping mall adds three untested and heavily armoured robots with Tasers and head-popping lasers to their security force, presumably to deal with shoplifters and teens loitering too long in the food court. What could go wrong?
In a shocking turn of events, lightning strikes and sends the killbots haywire, reverting to their core programming which is apparently to kill everything in sight. On the same night, a group of teens decided to have a drunken party verging on Roman orgy in the mall’s furniture store. Can you guess what happens next?
Chopping Mall follows something of a formula but it is filled with great action and benefits from not taking itself too seriously.
Neon Maniacs (1986)
“When the world is ruled by violence, and the soul of mankind fades, the children’s path shall be darkened by the shadows of the Neon Maniacs.” – What does that mean? Does it mean literally anything? It’s about as clear as anything that happens in this low budget, seriously bizarre slasher.
The Neon Maniacs, basically the Village People meet the mutants from The Hills Have Eyes, emerge from their hiding place beneath the Golden Gate Bridge to hunt teenagers while avoiding their terrible weakness, liquid water.
To be clear, I absolutely love this film. The fact that someone spent clearly so much time on the design of these creatures and then set them loose with virtually zero budget and direction, it’s something magical. I would’ve watched a dozen sequels all as completely inexplicable as this film if they’d ever been made.
I was hesitant to include Society on this list mostly because I felt like it was the film most fans of 80s horror would have already seen. But it does encapsulate what is probably my favourite thing about horror and sci-fi from this period – with enough cocaine, there’s nothing you couldn’t do.
In Society, rich elites have literally evolved into another species that feeds on the poor, and can do seriously twisted things with their own bodies. The result is something like a teen comedy written by Hieronymus Bosch. If you haven’t seen this gem yet, make it next on your list.
The Mutilator a.k.a Fall Break (1984)
This film is less of a gem and more a dishonorable mention. If your thing with 80s horror films is to get together with a few friends, have a few drinks, and rip the acting, story and effects to shreds, look no further.
The Mutilator opens strong with a young boy, Ed, accidentally killing his mother while cleaning his father’s guns. Jumping ahead to Ed now in college, he seems to have no idea why his relationship with his father, Big Ed, is so strained (you KILLED his WIFE, you dumb shit) and is genuinely annoyed when Big Ed asks him to close up their beachfront condominium for the winter. Certainly he seems to bear no guilt or ongoing trauma about his mother’s death and it serves only as an inspiration (maybe?) for Big Ed’s murder spree when Ed brings his friends along on the getaway.
Some genuinely original and seriously gruesome killings are undercut by possibly the most atrocious acting I’ve ever seen in a slasher and a plot that meanders pointlessly between killings. Genuinely a so-bad-it’s-good gem, just watch out for that hook.