If nothing else, the 1980s were an age of discovery for the horror genre, as well as a time of weird normalization. Horror movies finally shook off the yolk of the thriller and adventure stories where they originated in the 1970s and had created a line of movies that were uniquely interested in evincing terror of all sorts for the audience. One could argue something like Jaws is still, at its heart, an action-adventure story, but what on earth would you call The Texas Chainsaw Massacre if not horror? An experimental, Dadaist noir featuring some demented clown with a chainsaw?
That was the time of the genre being created and finding confidence, whereas the 1980s is where genre found itself and the 1990s was when it established itself in the pantheon of other big-studio genres. We first met Ms. Voorhees and her son, Jason, in the 80s and suddenly, you couldn’t go into the movie theater without seeing advertisements for another Friday the 13th movie or buying a ticket for one. These movies were cheap to make and people showed up in droves to see them, if only for the gratuitous nudity and buckets of fake blood. People liked seeing the monsters do their stuff from a distance, and though the money was never in the same abundance as it would be with the comic-book craze, there was still a lucrative fad going on.
It’s easy to see the decade as the era of Jason, Freddy, Chucky, and Leatherface’s continued reign, but the 1980s also laid down the foundation for some of the most crucial stylistic decisions of the genre as it exists now. The best movies from the era transcended the cheapness, the frivolity, and the easy pleasures of the franchises to seek out the true thrill and disturbing nature of murderers and monsters. The Thing tells the story of a group of men being consumed by an alien force that replicates them, but beyond the story, John Carpenter directed the movie as if it was a lost Antonioni script. For whatever else it might be, The Shining is a brutal self-excoriation and a frighteningly convincing portrait of a mind becoming untethered from daily life, family, and identity.
That’s where horror has become important, a new genre lined with violent, expressive images that open up all new realms of political, sociological, and cultural discussion. The best horror films of the 1980s might not have all went so far into the ether as Kubrick or Carpenter, but each one clearly came from both a unique point of view and an ambitious, capable artist, surrounded by technical geniuses and other artists who help them out as best they can. And the fact that genuine, mature artists have found not only refuge but glory in this genre suggests that its full power hasn’t even been surmised yet.
Here are the 50 best that were released in the 1980s.