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Games of Terror: The Best Slasher Films (1970 – 1990)

31 Days of Horror

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The Best Slasher Films of the 70s and 80s

april-fools-day

30. April Fool’s Day (1986)

Long before Scream was the world’s most creative ‘self-reflexive’ horror movie, there was April Fool’s Day, chock full of twists, turns, and red herrings. This meta-whodunit is a clear influence for Kevin Williamson, who penned such hits as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer. One of two films by director Fred Walton (When a Stranger Calls) to appear on this list, April Fool’s Day is populated with cliches, stock stereotypes, and all the other slasher conventions, but as cheesy as it can be, it’s also incredibly entertaining and has aged well.

halloween 2 1981

29. Halloween 2 (1981)

While John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween irrevocably changed the style of horror cinema, Halloween 2 only had Jamie Lee Curtis screaming and running in terror in a simplistic stalk-and-slash scenario. Regardless, I’ve always been a huge fan of the entire franchise and this entry is among one of my favorites. As with its predecessor, this film was written and produced by John Carpenter and Debra Hill, but the directorial duties were handed over to Rick Rosenthal. The film also does not feature Jamie Lee Curtis since she announced that she was quitting the horror genre, not wanting to be typecast as a slasher heroine (although she did return seventeen years later for Halloween H20). Rosenthal’s direction is rather stylish, and he does an excellent job in staging the climax. John Carpenter also delivers the score and Donald Pleasence is compelling as usual, this time stealing the show. The second Halloween, while not as good as the first, is still quite an entertaining entry and sets up ideas that pop up in future sequels.

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28. Happy Birthday To Me (1981)

Directed by J. Lee Thompson (1962’s Cape Fear) and produced by John Dunning and André Link (My Bloody Valentine), this Canadian production is one of the slickest-looking slasher films from the early-’80s heyday and boasts effective splatter effects by special effects master Tom Burman. The film was advertised with the marketing campaign “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see” and the marketing was dead on. The series of deaths include death by shish kebab, death by weightlifting and death via a scarf and motorcycle chain. The film is worth recommending on the overwrought climactic birthday sequence along with the many twists and turns that will take you by surprise.

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27. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

Director Tobe Hooper and co-writer Kim Henkel (of the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) originally had an idea for a sequel that would feature an entire town of cannibals, and also be a satire of the film Motel Hell, which itself was a satire of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The title of that sequel was to be Beyond The Valley Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the studio forced considerable changes to be made to the screenplay, even hiring a new screenwriter, and the result of those changes are what became Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2. Out of all the sequels and remakes, this is the only film which follows the same timeline as the original film. Now backed by a major company and with a considerably larger budget, Tobe Hooper was able to cast Dennis Hopper and hire makeup effects guru Tom Savini. Anyone expecting Hooper to repeat the claustrophobic terror and the visceral, grating feel of the original will be disappointed. Instead, the director opted for something different. The movie is far bloodier and gorier than its predecessor and was originally given an X rating, with Hooper ultimately opting to release the film unrated.

terror-train

26. Terror Train (1980)

A run of the mill slasher film that has the advantage of mounting its premise aboard a moving train. Led by the confident direction of Roger Spottiswoode and pristine cinematography from John Alcott, Terror Train has plenty of atmosphere, a number of good set pieces and the killer’s reveal is quite memorable. Spottiswoode had previously worked as film editor on several Sam Peckinpah classics, including 1971’s Straw Dogs (arguably the template for another horror sub-genre: the home invasion movie), and Alcott lensed Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The movie was shot in Montreal on a reconverted train in just over a three week period. Terror Train also stars Jamie Lee Curtis, who rose to become the quintessential early 80s horror scream queen.

the-stepfather-movie-1987

25. The Stepfather (1987) 

There was a flood of slasher films released in the 80’s and the further into the decade, the worse they became. Just when it looked like slasher movies were wholly irredeemable, director Joseph Ruben came along to breathe fresh air into the over-saturated genre. The Stepfather centers on a family man who moves from town to town and marries a single mother and then kills both her and her child. What elevates the film beyond the usual slasher is Terry O’Quinn’s brilliant performance. Released during the Bush Administration, the film is a satire of the whole retro notion of the 1980s as the new 1950s. Perverse, smart and bearing many homages to David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, The Stepfather also doesn’t feel the need to cheat the audience with absurd plot twists and surprise endings.

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24. Alone In The Dark (1982)

Some would argue that Alone In The Dark is not necessarily a slasher film. I think the best description I read, defined it as an amalgam of Carpenter’s Halloween and Assault On Precinct 13. But I’d argue there is enough Halloween in the mix to justify its presence on this list. The movie was such a success that director Jack Sholder, who previously edited The Burning, would later direct A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge and The Hidden thanks to his effort here. Alone features a fantastic cast which includes Jack Palance, Martin Landau, and Donald Pleasance, makeup by Tom Savini and a fantastic ending. What could’ve been a misfire actually rises above with its off-beat charm and dark comedy.

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23. I, Madman / Hardcover (1989)

The plot for I, Madman centers around a second-hand bookstore clerk who becomes absorbed by the book ‘I, Madman’ by Malcolm Brand. In the book, the deranged, deformed Dr. Kessler is obsessed with beautiful actress Anna Templar and kills people while sewing part of each victim’s face onto his own. But as Virginia continues to read, someone starts to emulate the killings in the book, targeting the people around her. This film comes from Hungarian-born, Canadian-based genre director Tibor Takacs, more well-known for The Gate and found a wide audience thanks to Roger Ebert who gave the film a positive review, despite not liking slashers or thrillers that hew to the slasher formula. The most intriguing aspect of I, Madman is its dual structure, crosscutting between the plot of the book and the heroine/reader’s life, with both roles played by Jenny Wright. Of all the films featured on this list, I, Madman might have the best screenplay.

eyes-of-a-stranger

22. Eyes of a Stranger (1981)

Eyes of a Stranger shamelessly takes its inspiration from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with dabs of Wait Until Dark, but Eyes Of A Stranger is still a cut above the average slasher. This 1981 flick is best known as the first feature film to star a young Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing a girl so traumatized by her past that she loses her sight and hearing. The best scene in the film takes place when the killer confronts her character and torments her by moving around the furniture in her apartment. Eyes is surprisingly gruesome, and director Ken Wiederhorn effectively holds the viewer’s interest by punctuating the proceedings with a number of terrifying set-pieces.

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21. Silent Night Deadly Night 
(1984)

Silent Night, Deadly Night attracted considerable controversy when it came out. The release of this film was picketed by angry parents who were not happy to see Santa Claus depicted as an axe murderer. To protest the film, critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel read the credits out loud on their television show saying, “shame, shame, shame” after each name. It wasn’t the only film to exploit the holiday. Others included To All a Good Night, You Better Watch Out, Christmas Evil, Black Christmas and finally, an episode of the Amicus horror anthology Tales from the Crypt — but thanks to the controversy, the film received a wider theatrical release on December 23rd, 1984 and became a box office hit. There were four sequels to Silent Night, Deadly Night, each terrible, but as slasher films go, the first Silent Night, Deadly Night is actually great, thanks to its darkly satirical, fiercely unsentimental take on Christmas. The film certainly has its fair share of gory scenes as well, and a handful of spectacular money shots. Finally, the scenes displaying the systematic abuse that goes on at a Catholic orphanage do a great job in establishing the psychological motivation of the killer. short of brilliant.

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Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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