- The 1980s saw the evolution of horror cinema, as the genre found its voice and took established tropes to their limits.
- The best horror movies of the 1980s are considered among the greatest films of all time, combining genres like sci-fi, fantasy, drama, and comedy.
- From iconic Western horror films to obscure Italian giallo and Asian horror cinema, these movies make a strong case for the ’80s being the best decade in horror.
The best 1980s horror movies represent a special era in the evolution of the genre. This is because contemporary horror cinema developed exponentially from the ’60s through the ’80s. While the very foundations of modern horror were set in the ’60s and ’70s, it can be said that it was in the ’80s when the genre truly found its voice.
Like the best horror movies of the 1970s, the genre’s greatest films of the 1980s are also considered among the greatest films of all time period. In the ’80s, new horror films took established horror tropes to their limits, which heavily involved other genres like sci-fi, fantasy, drama, and even comedy. The low-budget aesthetic established in the ’70s was upheld by the so-bad-they’re-good horror B-movies of the ’80s. From the most iconic Western horror films ever to the more obscure Italian giallo and Asian horror cinema from the era, the best ’80s horror movies make a strong argument for why it might be the best decade in horror.
20 Children Of The Corn (1984)
Release Date: 1984-3-9 | Director: Fritz Kiersch
Cast: Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton, John Franklin, Courtney Gains
Based on a short story by Stephen King, Children of the Corn took the evil child horror trope to new heights. Apart from launching the Children of the Corn movie franchise, this formative supernatural ’80s slasher is notable for the performance of John Franklin as Isaac, a nine-year-old boy who forms a murderous religious cult. Isaac and his followers worship and do the bidding of He Who Walks Behind the Rows, a malevolent spirit who pushes the small Nebraska community’s children into committing violent acts against all adults. A pivotal film for the evil child horror trope/subgenre, Children of the Corn dives deeply into religious zealotry, human frailty, and sacrifice.
19 Motel Hell (1980)
Release Date: 1980-10-18 | Director: Kevin Connor
Cast: Rory Calhoun, Paul Linke, Nancy Parsons, Nina Axelrod
Motel Hell is an iconic dark comedy based on the true story of the cannibal Karl Denke. It revolves around the secret recipe for Farmer Vincent’s delectable sausages — human meat sourced from the nearby Motel Hello. From how Farmer Vincent processes his meat to perfection in his secret garden, to the hilarious moments that break the otherwise palpable tension, Motel Hell deserves its status as one of the most important cult comedy-horror films from the ’80s. Despite its thick air of satire, the film’s terrifying premise still makes Motel Hello one of the scariest horror movie hotels ever.
18 Halloween III: Season Of The Witch (1982)
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
- Release Date
- October 22, 1982
- Tommy Lee Wallace
- Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O’Herlihy, Michael Currie, Ralph Strait, Jadeen Barbor
- 98 minutes
The supernatural sci-fi horror Halloween III: Season of the Witch is both lambasted and celebrated for how it departs starkly from the slasher genre, which the previous Halloween movies helped establish. In fact, it’s infamous for being the only Halloween movie to not feature the iconic Michael Myers. Centered around an evil corporation’s plan to use Halloween masks in order to sacrifice children during the festival of Samhain, the film is a surprisingly successful combination of folk horror and science fiction. Halloween III added a layer of mystery to the otherwise predictable franchise, the overall cultural influence of which was greatly expanded by this formative ’80s sci-fi horror.
17 Pumpkinhead (1988)
Release Date: 1989-1-13 | Director: Stan Winston
Cast: Lance Henriksen, John D’Aquino, Jeff East, Kerry Remsen
The Pumpkinhead movie franchise began with special effects whiz Stan Wilson’s directorial debut, which introduced the titular monster. After a grieving father seeks the aid of a witch to avenge his son’s death, a ritual of blood magic gives rise to Pumpkinhead, a grotesque, misshapen demon bent on revenge. As the creature wreaks havoc, Pumpkinhead explores themes of guilt and the consequences of seeking retribution. Known for its practical effects and atmospheric tone, Pumpkinhead has earned a cult following as an early folk horror fable that set high new standards for creature features.
16 The Company Of Wolves (1984)
Release Date: 1984-9-21 | Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Micha Bergese, Sarah Patterson
A surreal retelling of The Little Red Riding Hood, The Company of Wolves is a gothic folk horror film that shifts between reality and the fantastical dreams of a teenage girl. The movie unravels across four stories and three generations, exploring the evolution of werewolves and related folklore through dreamlike, nightmarish visions. While The Company of Wolves isn’t a well-known ’80s horror film, it has garnered praise for its atmospheric storytelling and imaginative approach to the classic fairy tale. Celebrated for featuring some of the most gorgeous cinematography in horror, The Company of Wolves remains one of the best werewolf movies of all time.
15 Hellraiser (1987)
Release Date: 1987-9-10 | Director: Clive Barker
Cast: Andrew Robinson, Clare Higgins, Ashley Laurence
Clive Barker’s Hellraiser revolves around a mysterious puzzle box that opens a gateway to a sadomasochistic realm inhabited by demonic beings known as Cenobites. When a man inadvertently opens the box, he unleashes these otherworldly entities, leading to a nightmarish and gory ordeal — featuring some of the best set pieces in body horror history. Hellraiser is celebrated for its innovative blend of horror and dark fantasy, exploring themes of desire, pain, and base human instincts. An intense and classic ’80s horror gore fest, Hellraiser is particularly iconic for Doug Bradley’s performance as the Cenobite known as Pinhead, one of the greatest demonic villains in 20th century cinema.
14 Friday The 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th
- Release Date
- May 9, 1980
- Sean S. Cunningham
- Peter Brouwer, Adrienne King, Betsy Palmer, Jeannine Taylor, Kevin Bacon, Robbi Morgan, Harry Crosby
- 95 minutes
There are plenty of horror movies about killers in youth summer camps, and it all started with Friday the 13th. This first of the Friday the 13th movies birthed the summer camp horror subgenre at Camp Crystal Lake, following a group of teenage camp counselors who fall victim to a mysterious killer. The movie is known for its suspenseful atmosphere, gruesome kills, and the iconic introduction of Jason Voorhees. Friday the 13th isn’t a perfect movie, but it nonetheless had a significant impact on horror cinema, particularly for how it established tropes that continue to define the modern slasher subgenre
13 Suddenly At Midnight (1981)
Release Date: 1981-7-17 | Director: Ko Young-nam
Cast: Kim Young-ae, Yoon Il-bong, Lee Ki-seon
A biologist and his wife hire a new housemaid, a beautiful young woman who is also the daughter of a deceased shaman priestess who died in a fire. As the South Korean erotic horror Suddenly at Midnight (aka Suddenly in the Dark) unfolds, the wife receives disturbing visions of the housemaid and her husband, especially after she discovers a strange wooden doll that the housemaid has brought into their home. Suddenly at Midnight is a wild combination of tragic romance, sheer paranoia, and the classic creepy killer doll concept, for which it notably predates Child’s Play by several years.
12 Street Trash (1987)
Release Date: 1987-9-16 | Director: J. Michael Muro
Cast: Mike Lackey, R. L. Ryan, Vic Noto
Street Trash is a dirty and ugly ’80s horror movie that only a cult following could love. Set in a decaying urban environment, Street Trash follows the chaos that ensues when a liquor store owner discovers and sells an old and spoiled stash of cheap booze. Anyone who drinks the poisonous booze painfully melts away into goo, which comes in a variety of bright colors. Street Trash is celebrated for its over-the-top gore, black humor, and social commentary on homelessness and urban decay. A rare example of a melt movie, Street Trash is an underrated cornerstone of ’80s dark comedy and cult horror cinema.
11 Wicked City (1987)
Release Date: 1987-4-25 | Director: Yoshiaki Kawajiri
Cast: Yūsaku Yara, Toshiko Fujita, Ichirō Nagai, Mari Yokoo
Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s Wicked City is a stylish combination of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. The horror anime movie follows the exploits of two agents of the Black Guard, an organization tasked with protecting humanity from the demonic creatures of the Black World. As they navigate dangerous alliances with peculiar mystics and demons, Wicked City explores themes of trust, betrayal, and the boundary between worlds. Known for its explicit content, stylistic animation, and great world-building, Wicked City draws inspiration from Japanese folklore, dark gothic fantasy, and noir storytelling.
10 A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
A Nightmare On Elm Street
- Release Date
- November 16, 1984
- Wes Craven
- Heather Langenkamp, Robert Englund, Amanda Wyss, John Saxon, Johnny Depp, Ronee Blakley, Jsu Garcia, Lin Shaye
- 91 minutes
The movie that introduced audiences to Freddy Krueger and inadvertently led to a string of Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the original Wes Craven film is a horrifically creative exploration of what would happen if nightmares became reality. The story centers on a group of teenagers haunted by Freddy in their dreams, where their nightmarish fates are reflected in the real world. Krueger’s ability to harm people in their dreams remains an unforgettable and compelling premise. The film is praised for its groundbreaking practical effects, which cemented both A Nightmare on Elm Street and Freddy Krueger as horror icons.
9 The Evil Dead (1981)
The Evil Dead (1981)
- Release Date
- October 15, 1981
- Sam Raimi
- Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly, Ted Raimi, Ivan Raimi
- 85 Minutes
The Evil Dead popularized the use of an isolated cabin in the woods as an effective horror setting. Though several movies had used this setting before, The Evil Dead was when the decrepit cabin was truly established as a viable horror movie trope. Directed by the legendary Sam Raimi, it also introduced Bruce Campbell’s Ash as a typical college student stuck in the woods — before becoming the chainsaw and boom stick-wielding face of not just the Evil Dead franchise, but campy ’80s horror itself. The Evil Dead‘s weird gore, dark humor, and introduction of the Necronomicon cement its place as a 1980s cultural phenomenon.
8 Child’s Play (1988)
- Release Date
- November 9, 1988
- Tom Holland
- Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Brad Dourif, Alex Vincent, Dinah Manoff, Tommy Swerdlow, Jack Colvin, Raymond Oliver
- 87 Minutes
Child’s Play wasn’t the first film to feature a creepy killer doll as its main antagonist. Yet, even today, it remains the most iconic movie to use this now-common horror trope. From the movie’s explosive opening scene to the finale, Brad Dourif’s performance as the serial killer Charles Lee Ray/Chucky is forever burned into audiences’ minds. Combining crime with a supernatural voodoo-inspired twist, the plot unfolds with a mix of horror and dark humor, which gave way to an iconic and enduring horror franchise. Child’s Play set extremely high standards for creepy dolls in horror, which most contemporary horror movies — including its own sequels — can scarcely meet today.
7 The Changeling (1980)
Release Date: 1980-3-28 | Director: Peter Medak
Cast: George C. Scott, Trish Van Devere, Melvyn Douglas, John Colicos
After the family of composer John Russell is killed in an accident, he moves to a long-vacant historic mansion for rent in Seattle. Through a series of eerie occurrences and unexplained supernatural events, Russell discovers that the mansion is haunted by the restless spirit of a child. While exploring themes of guilt and grief, The Changeling stands out from other haunted house films with its understated psychological terror and atmospheric tension. By relying on cinematography, editing, and practical effects to evoke terror in viewers, The Changeling is a prime example of great ’80s horror.
6 Possession (1981)
Release Date: 1981-5-25 | Director: Andrzej Żuławski
Cast: Isabelle Adjani, Sam Neill, Heinz Bennent
Possession is about the tumultuous breakup of former German spy Mark and his wife Anna, who exhibits increasingly erratic behavior after telling Mark that she wants a divorce. One of the many banned shocking movies that only became more famous after getting censored in the ’80s, Possession is renowned for its unconventional narrative, exceptional performances, and unsettling atmosphere. Even by today’s standards, the movie is a disturbing collision of supernatural fantasy, intense family drama, spy noir, eroticism, and Lovecraftian horror. For her performance as Ana, Isabela Adjani won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, during which Possession was also nominated for the coveted Palme d’Or.
5 Tenebrae (1982)
Release Date: 1982-10-27 | Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Anthony Franciosa, John Saxon, Daria Nicolodi, Giuliano Gemma
Dario Argento’s Tenebrae is a foundational giallo film, an Italian storytelling genre pertaining to murder mysteries. Centered around American horror novelist Peter Neal, the movie unravels across a series of murders in Italy, where Neal is promoting his latest novel, Tenebrae. Neal soon comes to the horrifying conclusion that the murders are inspired by the events in his violent horror books. From the pulsating score by the rock band Goblin to Argento’s slick, stylish cinematography, Tenebrae violently dragged classic American cinema slasher tropes into Italian arthouse territory. Horror director James Wan cites Tenebrae as one of the various Argento films that inspired Malignant.
4 Kisapmata (1981)
Release Date: 1981-12-25 | Director: Mike de Leon
Cast: Vic Silayan, Charo Santos, Jay Ilagan, Charito Solis
Retired police officer Dadong gets upset after his daughter Mila informs him that she is pregnant and that she wants to marry her boyfriend Noel. As the story unfolds, Dadong gets increasingly abusive and controlling. Kisapmata is a perfect psychological thriller in many ways, but it is defined by Vic Silayan’s disturbing performance as Dadong, a terrifying representation of patriarchy. Based on the true crime novel The House on Zapote Street by Filipino author Nick Joaquin, Kisapmata is an unsettling deep dive into domestic abuse. An allegory of life under former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship, Kisapmata‘sunique take on horror tropes makes it a cornerstone of cult ’80s cinema.
3 The Thing (1982)
The Thing (1982)
- Release Date
- June 25, 1982
- John Carpenter
- T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley
- 109 minutes
In a desolate station in Antarctica, a research team encounters a murderous alien organism that assimilates and imitates any life form. The Thing is known for its groundbreaking practical effects — particularly the grotesquely realistic transformations — and for how its plot deftly tackles paranoia and isolation. Kurt Russell leads as R.J. MacReady, the helicopter pilot determined to survive the claustrophobic alien encounter. From the mystery of what The Thing really looks like, to the bleak and ambiguous ending, this formative ’80s sci-fi horror will continue to subvert the expectations of viewers lucky enough to have never seen it.
2 Opera (1987)
Release Date: 1987-12-19 | Director: Dario Argento
Cast: Cristina Marsillach, Urbano Barberini, Daria Nicolodi, Ian Charleson
Opera is about a young understudy who gets to play Lady Macbeth in an operatic rendition of the Shakespearean tragedy. However, the understudy gets targeted by an obsessive and violent stalker inside the historic opera house where the play is being staged. Combining body horror, voyeurism, and arthouse cinema, the understudy becomes the literal captive audience of the stalker, who forces her to witness his vile crimes. Filmed on location at Italy’s Teatro Regio di Parma, Opera is a celebration of stylized violence and suspense and an underappreciated cornerstone of ’80s horror and Italian giallo slasher cinema.
1 The Shining (1980)
- Release Date
- June 13, 1980
- Stanley Kubrick
- Danny Lloyd, Shelley Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Scatman Crothers
- 146 minutes
Set in the isolated Overlook Hotel in the mountains of Colorado, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining follows the new caretaker Jack Torrance, who moves his wife and child into the resort before it becomes snowbound. As The Shining unravels the hotel’s dark history, supernatural forces come into play, and Jack becomes increasingly erratic and abusive towards his family. Featuring gripping cinematography and starring Jack Nicholson in one of the best performances of his movie career, The Shining is largely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. Despite what Stephen King thinks of The Shining, it remains one of the best adaptations of the horror novelist’s books.