There’s a video of my choices on YouTube here.
10. The Burning
One of the most notorious films involved in the Video Nasties debacle, (but not the most notorious. That honour is reserved for another movie on this list) this was severely cut by the BBFC for cinema and video release. However, Thorn EMI Home Video accidentally released the film uncut before this version was recalled.
The film was so contentious for the BBFC due to the infamous raft scene which is still an outstanding piece of film. It’s strangely beautiful, like a savage, painful and blood-spattered ballet due to its choreography and editing. It also involved Tom Savini who was responsible for all of the make-up effects for this film so you just knew this movie would be extra special. The prostitute being dispatched with a pair of scissors also, ironically, met with the censor’s scissors also.
This should have been an anaemic Friday the 13th rip-off which instead is as good as many of the entries in that franchise. A great backstory involving a prank on a summer camp caretaker gone horribly wrong, the deformed killer making his way back to the summer camp with revenge on his mind via an eventful visit to a prostitute resplendent with 42nd Street sleazy locale, a problematic Final Girl who is, in fact, a guy (and a voyeuristic perv), bloody kills and early roles for Jason Alexander and Holly Hunter. The characters are well written which obviously puts this head and shoulders above such fare.
This was also the first film by production company Miramax and its co-owner Harvey Weinstein. And another reign of terror of a very different kind began.
9. Burial Ground
A film that had been on my radar for a while when I first saw the poster for it in a book about extreme horror movies. When I eventually saw it (not easy as it wasn’t readily available in the UK due to its graphic nature) it was worth the wait. Craggy-faced Italian zombies who seemed to really hate the living as displayed in the gory death scenes.
But I didn’t expect the whole sleazy subplot regarding Peter Bark’s character and his mother. No, I won’t reveal all as it would ruin a huge surprise for those who haven’t seen this film yet. Suffice to say, my jaw hit the floor when I saw it for the first time.
When this film eventually surfaced on UK video it had been cut by 3m 11s (ouch!). It’s now uncut on YouTube.
8. Just Before Dawn
Jeff Lieberman is a legend and has made many films that I hold dear (Squirm and Blue Sunshine being two of them). Just Before Dawn is his very original take on the town folk vs hillbillies subgenre and also on the slasher movie genre and is utterly brilliant.
Quirky characters twists galore and an ending that is both funny and surreal. Chris Lemmon and George Kennedy star in this movie that was unavailable for many years but is now (rightfully) on Blu-Ray. Look for the deluxe edition on Code Red.
Expect the unexpected.
7. The Howling
Werewolf movies were like buses in 1981. Wait long enough and three came along at once. One such movie was Joe Dante’s The Howling which skillfully blends horror and comedy to tell the story of Dee Wallace’s Karen, a plucky TV reporter who agrees to meet serial murderer Eddie Quist who seems infatuated with her. Things turn bloody as Quist is shot by the police with Karen having to escape to a resort at the recommendation of her therapist (played by the ever-brilliant Patrick McNee) to try to come to terms with what happened. Things then get really weird.
Whilst this film is very funny and there are lots of references to the werewolf genre and its legend for the eagle-eyed, this isn’t some vile horror comedy in the vein of the appalling Scream. This film does the horror brilliantly and the sequence in which Karen goes to meet Eddie in a cubicle in the back of an adult bookshop is one of the most unnerving sequences I’ve ever seen in a horror movie.
I remember reading the Gary Brandner book after seeing this movie and it’s very different but just as fantastic.
Look out for legend Roger Corman’s cameo waiting for Karen to finish her call in a phone booth, entering after she leaves and then checking for spare change. Fantastic.
6. Friday the 13th Part 2
Yes, Jason being alive after drowning in Crystal Lake doesn’t make sense. Do you watch Friday the 13th movies for realism or a coherent timeline?! Do you?!!
Alice, the Final Girl from Part 1 returns but is quickly dispatched by Jason in the first few minutes of this sequel (loving the fact that Jason then takes the whistling kettle off the stove after killing Alice with an ice pick through the temple. He’s a good boy after all! He also doesn’t mind that a little cat has joined him. He’s good with animals!) Adrienne King who played Alice doesn’t really even remember starring in this sequel as she had her own shit going on in real life- she was being stalked before the phenomenon of stalking was more widely talked about. He even broke into her apartment whilst she was in it so with her scenes in this film it really was the boundaries between life and art being blurred.
But I digress. This entry into the franchise sees Jason before he acquired his iconic hockey mask, instead donning a cloth sack over his head with one eye hole cut out of it. It’s reminiscent of the killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
We have some iconic kills too- a machete to the face of a guy in a wheelchair before he goes down a large outdoor staircase backwards (Jason believes in equal opportunities when it comes to killing), a spear impaling two people at once as they have sex (ripped off from the Bava Giallo movie Twitch of the Death Nerve which a member of the Friday Part 2 crew helped to distribute in the U.S.), someone being killed after falling into a rope trap that leaves them suspended upside down prior to their gruesome fate.
This film also has the distinction of granting the viewers to see inside Chez Jason, a makeshift shack that our hero has made in the woods. He knows a thing or two about decor! It’s within here that we see a shrine to his dead mother. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you all but I love the fact that the film makes sure to establish that the Final Girl, Ginny (Amy Steel, one of the series’ best characters) has previously studied psychology because her plan at fooling Jason is so intricate that it would require a psych major (!) The ending is unexpectedly slapstick in places but this emphasises the comic book-type dimensions of this entry.
A great sequel and one of the best in the series.
5. An American Werewolf in London
Another of the trio of excellent werewolf movies that was released in 1981 (the third was Mike Woodleigh’s Wolfen that didn’t make it into my Top 10 but missed out by a whisker. It’s a very different beast (pun not intended) to the other two films but is still amazing and well worth finding).
Spookily, this film also mixes horror and humour whilst making sure that the funnies don’t dilute the horror just like The Howling. A couple of American chums are hitchhiking across the North Yorkshire Moors and come across a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb (a huge red flag!) where the drinkers inside (Rik Mayall and Brian Glover feature among them) aren’t too friendly but send the boys on their way after a few drinks and warn them ‘to stay on the road!’ They don’t and one of them is brutally attacked by some kind of wild animal. The other wakes up in a hospital in London and…
This film is a treat. Gorgeous characters (including fantastic characters that feature in only a small way but make such an impression that they win the audience over- an example is the uncooperative little boy who is a patient of Alex the nurse played by the gorgeous Jenny Agutter).
This film also acts as a time capsule as we get to see Piccadilly Circus when it was a sleazy den of inequity as David meets his dead and decomposing chum Jack (who appears as a ghost) in the porno cinemas of the area.
We also have quite possibly the best transformation scene in film history, a very scary sequence in an underground station and lots more besides. With all of this, you have a genuine masterpiece. I remember this film when it was released when I was 6 years old. It featured in every newspaper and magazine we had knocking around the house and I remember posters and billboards on the street for it. It worked too. It was a huge hit and deservedly so.
4. Halloween 2
How do you follow up a film as great as Halloween? A sequel would seem like it was doomed to failure, especially with John Carpenter deciding not to direct it.
But Halloween 2 still succeeds admirably. Yes, it’s not as good as Halloween and if the original is an A+++ movie, then its sequel is a B+ film.
The decision to carry on straight after the events of the first film still seems audacious and original. Laurie is taken to Haddonfield Memorial Hospital to recover from the injuries she endures at the hands of Michael Myers. But Myers follows her there and picks up where he left off.
Cue some very disturbing sequences involving the disturbing sight of Michael Myers walking inhumanly up and down quiet nocturnal hospital corridors and being seen doing so on CCTV monitors which is very unsettling. It takes a while for Myers to catch up with Laurie but when it happens it’s well worth the wait. Props to the director Rick Rosenthal for making her POV shots slightly blurred to convey that she is sedated and groggy. The chase scene through the hospital is amazing with Laurie having to climb through a tiny window, fall onto and then walk through broken glass with bare feet and then wait for a lift door to close as she sees Michael approaching. One of the tensest and best chase scenes I’ve ever seen.
There’s also a revelation to possibly explain why Myers wants the same fate to become of Laurie as he meted out on Judith years before this.
I remember the first time I saw this was on Thorn EMI video which was cut to take out the hypodermic needle through the eye effect and severely reduce the brutality of the therapeutic pool scene. They’re all restored now though and show Halloween 2 to be a classy film which still packs a punch.
3. The Pit
File this film under ‘Quirky’. This movie still isn’t as well known as it deserves to be. Hopefully, the recent Kino Lorber Blu-Ray will help more people discover this gem.
Jamie is a rather misunderstood 12-year-old. But he has a secret discovery- a pit full of creatures called Tra-la-logs who are hungry for human flesh. The movie sees Jamie lure those who tease and ridicule him to the pit and then feed to the creatures who live within. ‘They don’t eat chocolate’ Jamie says at one point to illustrate their carnivorous tendencies (plothole nicely sewn up!)
There are so many great idiosyncratic aspects to this movie- the fact that Jamie confides everything to his teddy bear (the working title of this movie was Teddy. As filming went over schedule, the novelisation for the film came out with the title of Teddy- except the film was now to be called The Pit. Oops. The novelisation apparently also differs quite a lot from the final movie).
I love the humour within the film too, some of which is so quick that you might miss it. The entire town seems to be mean to Jamie but it’s great for the audience. Those who are mean to him are like characters lifted from a John Waters movie. In fact, The Pit at times feels like an especially edgy after-school special directed by Waters.
Something else about the film I love is that Jamie is really dirty and inappropriate in his actions and deeds. He’s 12 years old in the film (9 in the book apparently) and so on the cusp of puberty. He doesn’t realise that sneaking into the bathroom whilst his babysitter is in the shower to write on the mirror ‘I love you!’ in her lipstick is wrong.
Later in the film, he also takes pictures of the mean little girl and her mother as they do aerobics dressed in leotards. This is also, obviously, massively inappropriate. In real life, he’d be arrested. For audiences of exploitation cinema, Jamie is a boon. And an instantly entertaining character.
Ahh, the glory days of video. This was one of the first videos I ever saw on the great Guild Home Video label, resplendent with the minimalist electronic Guild intro which brings back so many memories for me.
This feels like a genre movie completely subverted by David Cronenberg with a down-and-out man shown to have the power to destroy adversaries just by thinking about it. Whilst this is happening we see a conference into these thought powers taking place with a smartly dressed person in front of the audience asking for a volunteer so that he can demonstrate his powers. He doesn’t realise that the person who volunteers also possesses similar powers but to a higher level and not with malevolent aims. Cue quite possibly the best practical special effect in film history and a sequence that would instantly give Scanners cult classic status.
But this film has a lot more going for it than just one perfectly executed (pun not intended) special effect.
Not only are we introduced to the concept and capabilities of scanning and scanners but we also get to see scanner vs scanner as the newly cleaned-up Cameron Vale from earlier is told of a very powerful and utterly ruthless scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside in an example of perfect casting) and his dastardly plans. It’s a race against time for Vale to stop Revok and his team of scanner assassins. Who knows what Revok and his followers could accomplish if they aren’t stopped. The previous conference and Revok’s display of power there was only a potential taster of what might be to come.
The locales Cronenberg uses within the film are extraordinary with the glass and metal world of downtown Canada, the shadowy concrete organisations such as ConSec (a staple of Cronenberg’s work) and the extraordinary lair of fellow scanner Benjamin Pierce who explains that his art keeps him sane. We get to see a whole range of very disturbing and fascinating pieces of art and how he sees the work because of his ability to scan. Witness the giant plaster cast head that Vale and Pierce walk into to discuss Revok.
When Vale and Revok finally meet it doesn’t disappoint. There are revelations, plans proposed by Revok to team up and then a duel to the death- with surprising results!
Scanners based its publicity around the extraordinary special effect that it showed within the first few minutes of its playtime. It also gave its audience a movie that was a rollercoaster ride that was just as brilliant, visceral and intelligent. Cronenberg reeled em in and gave em a film that most horror fans would never have normally seen. Now that’s subversive and brilliant. Cronenberg would do the same with the amazing Crash which proved so controversial with the BBFC years later.
1. The Evil Dead
Young friends persevere to make a horror film, get it finished and then get it distributed. Their new distributor has a hand in the new Cannes Film Festival and shows the film there. Stephen King just happens to see the film, raves about it and suddenly the movie starts to garner press and accolades. King’s endorsement was used in the film’s advertising and helped to get the film distributed worldwide.
But whilst everything was going well, a moral panic in the UK deems the film as ‘obscene’ (even though lead protestor and busybody Mary Whitehouse admits to never having seen the film (!) as she ‘didn’t need to’) which led to it being banned. The fact that it received an X rating in the US (the kiss of death of most cinemas now wouldn’t show it and most newspapers wouldn’t carry ads for the film) didn’t help matters either.
So, is The Evil Dead the most depraved, ugly and vile film ever made? Of course not. I first saw the film quite by chance. The film had been banned on video in the UK but one of my older brother’s friends was the daughter of the owner of one of our local video shops. During the ‘Video Nasties’ furore video shop owners were sent lists of films that had just been banned and instructed where to send these films back to. My friend’s father knew that a lot of business owners weren’t complying with this and more importantly, this wilful non-compliance wasn’t being followed up on or leading to more serious repercussions later on. So, he didn’t send the films back and instead she brought The Evil Dead to our house when I was about 9 years old. And look at me! It did me no harm whatsoever…
The thing that struck me the most about the film was its comic book humour, cine literacy and the sheer innovation to make things work even though the filmmakers had a tiny budget.
Yes, the film is still scary and brutal (the woods rape scene is very close to the edge still and feels out of place in the film. Sam Raimi the director said he wouldn’t include it if he was making the film today). But it’s also very funny and surreal in equal parts. An example- when one of the characters is stabbed in the ankle with a pencil, the blood doesn’t splatter or gush out as would happen in real life. It pours out like a tap has been switched on resplendent with a sound effect of water being poured for good measure. The film disorientates and leaves the audience feeling dazed and confused but in a very novel way. This is especially evident in the latter part of the film which finds the last man standing, Ash on his own, his mind playing tricks on him through fear and disbelief. But the situation he finds himself in is also to blame with the ancient evil that has been unleashed completely changing the logic of his known world and making it a dark and lethal place. Check out the surreal sequence in which blood starts pouring out of every place it can pour out of within the cabin, including into the inside of lightbulbs! As Stephen King said when he sang the film’s praises, The Evil Dead made him look at films and what a film can convey in a completely different way.
If this was a comic (and there’s plenty of comic-book devices within the movie) it would most probably be an EC Comic- fantastical, exaggerated and ghoulish all at once.
Originality, innovation and subversion are why The Evil Dead is my favourite movie of 1981.
3 thoughts on “Top 10 Horror Movies From 1981”
Hello. Lists are always fun cause someone includes a title you’re not fond of or something you are hasn’t made it.In this case if I was narrowing the field to 10 I’d have to edge out something and shoehorn Dead and Buried in here.
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A title that was bubbling under!
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