With Stranger Things season 2 right around the corner, it’s time for us to dive into our favorite 80s horror films.
There are well over a hundred horror films that came out in the 80s (no seriously, check out this list), but I’m confining my list to just the top eight 80s horror films that I personally love. I do apologize if your favorite didn’t make the list, but feel free to add it in the comments! I chose films that resonated with me on a personal level, but what speaks to me might not speak to you, so proceed with that in mind.
When I think ’80s horror’ this is the first film that comes to mind. I grew up on this film (yeah, yeah, I probably shouldn’t have been watching it at the age of seven, but I did) and revisit it every few years for some good old fashion nostalgia. While the two sequels don’t stand up to how amazing the first one is, they still might be worth a watch for the sake of completion.
The story follows a family as they are terrorized by poltergeists in their new home. The disturbances particularly surround their youngest daughter, who seems to become the focus of the attacks. It set the standard for many horror tropes including the vague “Indian burial ground” haunting excuse, creepy children (Stranger Things definitely uses this trope, as do many others on the list), and making mundane things absolutely horrifying (TV static in Poltergeist, Christmas lights in Stranger Things). It’s a must watch for anyone who wants to get into the mood for 80s horror.
Lady in White (1988)
I don’t see Lady in White mentioned on many 80s horror movie lists (perhaps because it takes place in the 60’s?), but it’s by far one of my favorites. It’s one of the less frightening movies on the list and more of a tragic tale, but all things considered, the story itself is still rather horrifying. It can be downright sentimental at times, too.
The story revolves around a child who has a near-death experience at the hands of a mysterious stranger. When he’s brought back to life he makes it his mission to help solve the murders of several other children who had died in similar circumstances. Along the way he forms a close bond with a young ghost girl who was possibly the first victim of the same assailant many years ago.
Trigger warning for child murder and assault, but ultimately the story has a happy ending (if you can consider any story involving dead kids “happy,” anyway).
In my opinion, this film doesn’t get nearly enough love. Help me spread this hidden classic so others can appreciate it!
This is the only sequel on the list, mainly because the first film came out in 1979 and was therefore one year too early to make the cut (and yes, the poster to the right is from the first film – keep reading to find out why!). However, both of the first two films in the series are worth a watch. The others in the series? Debatable. Though I will watch Alien Resurrection because I’m a Winona Ryder fangirl (and hey! She’s also in Stranger Things!), it’s arguably the weakest in the franchise. I have not, however, seen Alien: Covenant so perhaps that one should hold the crown of ‘worst in the franchise?’ You tell me. I’m definitely out of the loop on that one.
Anyway, Aliens is a fantastic film and iconic for the horror genre. It follows Sigourney Weaver’s character as she awakes from hypersleep 57 years after the events of the first film. She finds herself aboard a ship orbiting earth and soon joins a team headed back to the same planet that is home to the aliens that terrorized the Nostromo nearly six decades previously. Wacky alien adventures ensue, of course.
Bonus fun fact: When I was a kid I had a crush on Sigourney Weaver and called her “Siggy.” This has been a fun fact.
The first Alien posters were also used as inspiration for some of Stranger Things season 2 promos (which is why I included it in this article despite that film being released in 1979).
— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) August 24, 2017
This may or may not be considered “horror” in the strictest sense of the genre as it sometimes focuses more on government conspiracies and scientific experimentation, but I still feel it touches close enough to the genre to be on this list. Besides, Stranger Things season 2 did use the poster (with a young and adorable Drew Barrymore, by the way) as the inspiration for one of their own promotional images, so perhaps they feel it’s close enough as well.
This Stephen King novel adapted into an 80s horror flick is about a young child with pyrokinesis. A mysterious government agency known as ‘The Shop’ attempts to capture her to control her power for likely nefarious purposes. Much of the film involves trying to protect her from them, generally aligning us with the “monster” and framing the human government as the antagonist.
Like Stranger Things, the child’s powers seem to be attributed to experiments done on her parents before she was born. It’s no wonder they used Eleven in her place in the promotional images for the second season of the show. There’s clearly a lot of resemblance between the two characters.
— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) August 31, 2017
The Shining (1980)
This is another classic that you need to see if you want to consider yourself an 80s horror movie aficionado. It’s a Stanley Kubrick film based on a Stephen King novel, and it turned out that this was a wonderful combination of creative minds – The Shining has gone down in history as not just an amazing horror film, but one of the most well-crafted films of all time. When I was in film school we discussed it frequently both within the horror genre and in a broader film studies scope.
The story is about a family who is tasked with caring for a hotel deep in the mountains over the winter months when the snow is too deep for tourists to stay there. Surprise! It’s haunted, and horrifying events ensue as the snow piles up and make it impossible for them to leave. (Don’t watch this film if you are prone to suffering from cabin fever. You’ll never make it through.)
If you’ve never seen the film before, you’ll be surprised at just how much of it you actually know already based entirely on the various parodies and memes that have permeated pop culture over the years. You’ll probably even be able to quote scenes verbatim. That said, it’s still absolutely worth watching.
The Lost Boys (1987)
I have to admit to a lot of bias toward The Lost Boys. A lot of it was filmed in the town I went to college in and every summer they’d show the film at the Boardwalk to celebrate our little claim to fame. The film definitely SCREAMS 80s and it’s about vampires, so it fits, but if I didn’t have this personal connection to the film I’m not sure I’d feel so strongly about it. It’s hella campy, guys. Like it bleeds camp (pun intended).
That said, if you want to get into the 80s horror mood, this film will definitely get that done. It stars 80s icons Corey Haim, Kiefer Sutherland, and Corey Feldman, and everything from the clothes, the music, and the hair (oh GOD the hair) just drips 80s from every pore.
The film tells the story of a group of teenage vampires in a California coastal town. Two Arizona brothers find themselves caught up in the mix and become a couple of regular vampire hunters as they attempt to rid their new town of the blood-sucking monsters. It’s a basic premise, but you aren’t watching it for the premise, you’re watching it for the setting and the vibe and the 80s heart throbs.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
While it’s not my personal favorite, it’s undeniable that A Nightmare on Elm Street is a classic 80s horror film. It caused a generation of teenagers to have horror-film-induced insomnia and cemented a legacy in the horror genre for decades after the film’s original release. Freddie Kruger has gone down in history as one of the most recognizable horror villains.
Like The Shining, first time viewers may be surprised at just how much of the film they’re familiar with through parody and memes alone. Most of these reference Freddie Kruger himself, but many scenes have become iconic on their own. And, also like The Shining, The Simpsons have parodied it heavily as well with Groundskeeper Willie in the iconic Freddie Kruger role.
And surprise! A Nightmare on Elm Street was also used as inspiration for a Stranger Things season 2 poster.
— Stranger Things (@Stranger_Things) August 10, 2017
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Absurdist musical horror comedy. It’s a wonderful mash up of genres. Little Shop of Horrors, based on the off-Broadway musical of the same name, follows the misadventures of a down-on-his-luck florist and the giant man-eating talking plant that interrupts his life. It’s amazing. And the music is superb. I still find myself humming the opening song on occasion. If you’re looking for a lighter 80s horror flick, give this one a shot.
Favorite 80s horror film not listed here? I’m sure it’s not, as this is a very abbreviated and very personal list. So please do share your favorites in the comments!
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.
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