In the eighties, horror movies took off in a big way, garnering mainstream success and becoming mega-hits for the first time. It all started in 1981, after the circulation of success between powerhouse indie blockbusters like Halloween, Dawn of the Dead and Friday the 13th. The latter had the most impact on the subsequent year because it was one of the earliest wide-release movies and was a success virtually right out of the gate, unlike Halloween which was wildly successful, but built its success over a few weeks. By 1981, every studio wanted to get in on this new “slasher craze” and produce minimum-budget movies for maximum profit. This year saw more slasher movies than any other year in horror history, but there were some pretty important gems from all walks of horror that found their way in as well. Taking all of that into account, here are some of the most impressive 1981 horror movies to all hit within that single year.
Tom Savini turned down the effects on Friday the 13th Part 2 to do The Burning, which is virtually the same movie. It really is basically a Friday the 13th, with sex-crazed teens and a demented madman at a summer camp picking them all of one by one. But it also had some things that make it stand out on its own. The movie, up until the kills—which are separated out through the movie more than a Friday—is basically a teenage sex comedy, and a pretty good one. It’s way more Meatballs than Friday the 13th until Cropsy shows up on the scene. It also features some of the best effects that Tom Savini ever did.
FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2-
This is not to undermine the success of Friday the 13th Part 2, which followed only a year after the incredibly successful original. Obviously the first movie was successful, there’s no debating that. But it’s the sequel that determines whether or not you are going to have a franchise. While nobody who worked on the first film had planned on a sequel, it was clearly the intent of Paramount to start a franchise and that wouldn’t have happened if Friday the 13th Part 2 didn’t work. But it did work. In some ways, in some of the kills and some of the characterization, it actually tops the original. It also gave the series something it needed in order to stick around: an icon.
MY BLOODY VALENTINE-
My Bloody Valentine might be the most popular early slasher to never spawn a franchise. A lot of this is due to the 2009 remake, but that only mirrored the success of the original. It did well and the reception was reasonable, so a sequel seemed inevitable and nothing came of it. Despite the camp factor—well, in part because of it, really—My Bloody Valentine is a solid and memorable slasher with a great killer. It has a nice twist on the Halloween-ish backstory that needed to be tied to all of these movies. The killer is presumed to be Harry Warden, who chopped up teens years earlier and was then locked away in a sanitarium, for the first two thirds of the film. And after that, it could be anybody. The gas mask, the black uniform, the pick-axe. It’s how you make a memorable horror movie villain. It’s a shame we didn’t see more of him.
The Prowler is one of the most underrated slashers out there. It’s got another good outfit for its killer, sort of a faceless World War II ghost, and features the best Tom Savini effects he ever created during his gore years. When Savini was the king of splatter, this was the pinnacle. Even the makeup artist himself thinks his most realistic, shocking effects were in this movie. Even watching now, it’s hard to believe they got away with what they got away with. It’s a solidly paced whodunit, but the death sequences (especially the killer’s) are what really draw people in and bring people back to check this one out again.
Friday the 13th wasn’t the only major slasher that saw its sequel this year. Halloween felt the pressures of the marketplace and got its sequel off the ground in 1981 as well. John Carpenter and Debra Hill returned to write the script which continued on from the last scene of the first film and carried on through the night until daybreak. So probably the last half of the movie actually takes place on November 1st. It is an effectively made slasher, a little gorier than the first, but it retains much of the suspense. Of the numerous sequels that followed the first film, this one is probably the best and Dick Warlock is a very menacing successor to Nick Castle.
Two Lucio Fulci movies saw release in this year. To my money, The Beyond may be the director’s best film. It is oozing atmosphere from the first moment to the last. The gore sequences are some of the most effective and cringe-worthy. The entire film feels like a living nightmare. The plot, thin as it is, centers on a Louisiana hotel that stands over a gateway to Hell. The barrier between worlds is getting thinner and the dead and the damned are stepping into the living world to wreak gory havoc. It’s a terrific visual presentation, pure horror, and even though many scenes are very hard to look at it’s also pretty hard to look away.
HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY-
House by the Cemetery may not live up to the great work of The Beyond, but it’s fairly impressive in its own right and at least provides a very different atmosphere. This one is set in a more isolated location, a small New England house. Like The Beyond, it hovers over a gateway to Hell. City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery form Fulci’s loosely connected “Gates of Hell” trilogy. This one is a literal zombie movie in that there is only one zombie, lurking inside the old Victorian house and picking off the residents in ghastly ways.
In addition to the slasher movies, two of the best werewolf movies of all time also hit in 1981, just within a few months of each other. The Howling was loosely based on a novel by Gary Brandner, about a news reporter who suffers a trauma and is sent to recuperate in a northern California commune that is in actuality overrun with werewolves. The special effects on this movie are fantastic. Rob Bottin, who would go on to do The Thing the following year, created full werewolf transformations as opposed to the time-lapse that people had been used to since The Wolf Man and really introduced the bipedal werewolf that has been the standard ever since.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON-
A very different film, American Werewolf in London is just as important. This one brought a very similar attitude to the werewolf sequences, but achieved very different results. Rick Baker won the first special makeup Oscar for his astounding transformation scene in this film. The film itself is beyond fantastic. It is a perfect blend of humor and horror. While director John Landis is known mostly for his comedies, he makes it clear that it’s the intention for this one to be a horror movie first that happens to have some very funny moments. And it does, and it’s all pulled off perfectly.
THE EVIL DEAD-
Maybe the most important horror movie to hit that year, maybe one of the most important horror movies of all time. The Evil Dead shows how much can be accomplished with incredibly few resources. The movie is cheap and it doesn’t really try to hide how cheap it is, but it is so engaging and so accomplished that it just makes you not care. It is manic, off-beat, often funny and yeah, often scary. It’s a movie with personality, and it’s a personality you want to get to know. It’s the person you meet at a party that’s so energetic that they draw the attention of everyone in the room, and that you can’t stop thinking about the next day. It’s a movie that came out of nowhere but wound up being one of the most important films of the decade.