Ten Must See Horror Movies from the 80s and 90s
Written By: Angela DiLella
Edited By: Grave Reviews Staff
This week, we thought we’d put together a “cheat sheet” for horror movies from the eighties and nineties to help new and old horror fans alike explore the genre a bit. We have organized this list in order of release year, so you can get an idea of how the genre evolved over the years, rather than our own personal preferences. If a lengthier review of a certain movie is on Grave Reviews elsewhere, we will link it in its respective section. Here are our Ten Must See Horror Movies from the 80s and 90s.
The Shining (1980)
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) moves in with his family to an evil, isolated hotel. Torrance starts out as a fairly average family man working on a novel, with an average wife and a psychic kid who has premonitions of things to come and can see some things that have already happened. The hotel has other plans for its temporary residents, and the ghosts of past visitors decide to get in on the action. Isolated in Colorado during the winter, the Torrances have no choice but to weather the literal storms outside as well as the one brewing within the hotel.
Based on a Stephen King book of the same, it is notorious that Stephen King hates Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his work—but it’s hard to argue the movie’s place in pop culture. At the end of the day, both the book and the film have a similar basis but tell slightly different stories thanks to different points of view and attention. They both have their own merits, though it’s hard to find anything worthy of either the original book or the eighties film in the 1997 television miniseries adaptation.
In 2013, King published a sequel to The Shining called Doctor Sleep about Torrance’s son Danny, which was also subsequently adapted for film in 2019.
The Changeling (1980)
Following the death of his wife and child, John Russell (George C. Scott) decides to move across the country to start anew. Bad news: the big creepy mansion he moves into is haunted and the ghosts that haunt it aren’t the quiet types. Russell decides to look into the mystery himself and find out who—or what—is causing all the ruckus.
This movie is slow-burning and tense throughout. Everything is ramped up to eleven, inducing anxiety and dread in any viewer in any environment. If I were to describe the scene everyone talks about as having terrified them, you would probably laugh. It is centered on a rubber ball, after all. But watching just the clip of that one scene is enough to send some people reeling. (Myself included!)
Although The Changeling was a bit hard to find until a few years ago, the film is highly regarded in both the horror community and the film community in general.
New suburban developments seem like fun places to raise your kids until you realize what they’re built over. An average family finds their idyllic suburban life upturned suddenly when youngest daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) begins communicating with something in the television, and whatever is in there gets out into the house. Suddenly, the house is moving items on its own, toys are coming to life, the tree in the backyard has gained a personality, and there appears to be a portal to the unknown opening wide within the house.
Believe it or not, Poltergeist came from a joint effort of Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. Legend holds that Spielberg’s name led many families with young children to see the film, thinking it would be a family picture, and ending up horrified by what they witnessed. That said, we recommend you catch this movie on DVD, as TV showings still tend to be heavily edited.
Poltergeist was remade in 2015, but it seems to have been largely forgotten.
The Thing (1982)
One of the things I love about Alien (1979) is how it takes its time to build up suspense that primes you for the action and attacks. One of the things I love about The Thing is that it does none of that: a group of researchers in Antarctica take in an escaped dog, and things go downhill almost immediately. This movie is a gross gorefest, but it’s worth at least one look even if you don’t go in for that, simply for the impressive special effects. The sound design is great too; it plays on the viewer’s nerves. And by the way, if you speak Norwegian, you might want to cover your ears for the first five minutes or so. The Norwegian researcher’s dialogue in the first few minutes spoils the whole movie!
Although The Thing did poorly in the US when it was first released, it is a cult classic now. It’s hard to find a horror fan who hasn’t seen it, much less one who doesn’t like it! Its community is so strong that a remake/prequel was released in 2011, but its poor effects and story left most fans and general audiences cold. Every few years rumors of another remake floats around the Internet, but reactions are generally tepid.
If you’re interested in watching the movie, there are a few different versions of it floating around on DVD and Blu-Ray. Hardcore fans swear the Shout Factory Blu-Ray is the superior release.
The Fly (1986)
This movie is the king of body horror: up-and-coming scientist (Jeff Goldblum) invents teleporters. He tries them out, not realizing a fly is in them with him. Their DNA mixes and Goldblum begins an ugly descent into the insect world. As he puts it in the film itself: “I’m an insect who dreamt he was a man and loved it. But now the dream is over.”
The eighties Fly is a remake of a 1958 horror movie of the same name, though the fifties movie is closer to the original short story of the same name by George Langelaan. The original story and the fifties movie have the same basic plot with the teleporter and the mixed DNA; David Cronenberg gives us a less neat, more grotesque tale that makes one question the sanctity of their own body. Worse than the mutations that one sees center-screen as Goldblum devolves are the quiet implications and hints that are hard to catch upon first viewing.
Although all of the versions of The Fly are very different, like The Shining the book and The Shining the movie, they all are great in their own ways. This version is really the only scary one anymore, due to different horror standards. Although horror fans are conflicted over the 1989 sequel, it does have its own affectionate fanbase. Another sequel has been rumored for years but has not moved at all.
Evil Dead II (1987)
The Evil Dead series is noted for its special effects and dark humor. This is the “cabin in the woods” movie. It may not have made the subgenre, but it is practically the blueprint for the subgenre now. Some teens end up in an isolated cabin and accidentally play a recording of some cursed words that raise the dead and demons. The deadites, as they are known, quickly make it their business to tear the teens apart—quite literally, in some cases!
The fans of this series are divided over how it fits with the first movie—if it’s just a remake with a bigger budget or picks up directly after the first film—but either way, it’s worth a watch. (The first one is good too, and a bit grittier for effects buffs.) For me, it ranks closely with The Thing (1982) in terms of gruesomeness, but for very different reasons. It’s the less smooth aspects of the effects in this movie that make it gruesome to me.
It’s worth noting that in addition to the violence, there is a bloodcurdling rape scene involving a possessed tree. This scene is usually cut short or cut altogether when Evil Dead II is aired on TV, but it might be best to skip the movie altogether if you are sensitive to such subject matter.
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
This movie doesn’t fit quite as well with the other listings, since it straddles horror and crime genres. Still, Anthony Hopkins’ fifteen minutes in the movie as the ravenous Hannibal Lector is terrifying, because in some ways he is an impressive sophisticate. When he starts eating people it’s a stark reminder of the sort of guy he is. It also forces the viewer to deal with the fact that this character is just as bad if not worse than serial killer Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) who main character Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is pursuing with Lector’s help.
This movie’s status as a horror film is often downplayed, as it won five Academy Awards, including best picture. However, it cannot be denied that Silence of the Lambs stands alone as the only true horror movie to have ever won best picture.
Thomas Harris’s original book is extremely close to the movie in content, with very little changes between the book and the script. Silence of the Lambs’ popularity and success led to the adaptation of many of Thomas Harris’s other Lector-related books as well. That is why The Silence of the Lambs goes on our Ten Must See Horror Movies from the 80s and 90s.
Grad student Helen (Virginia Madsen) is researching local urban legends when she uncovers the Bloody Mary-esque legend of the Candyman (Tony Todd). He seems a suave man, save for the fact that he kills people, has a bloody hook for a hand, and is full of bees. After she carries out the ritual to summon him, he begins appearing and her life deflates around her: he torments her and begins framing her for abductions, attacks, and murders. Candyman is as terrifying as he is debonair, and the movie is as tense as it is scary because Helen suffers for all of her and the Candyman’s actions. There aren’t any movie loopholes or logic to protect her from real world or supernatural repercussions. On the plus side, her cruddy husband gets exactly what he deserves.
This film inspired two sequels and has a remake set for release on October 16, 2020. It was based on Clive Barker’s short story “The Forbidden,” but it feels safe to say that it has surpassed the original tale.
Shallow Grave (1994)
Three flatmates put a room in their apartment up for a rent and get a new guy who dies almost immediately. He dies with a ton of cash in his possession, so they just bury him and play with their gains. Well, two of them do. Flatmate number three (Christopher Eccleston) starts descending into madness, giving into a creeping paranoia that turns out to be catching.
Perhaps the best endorsement for this movie comes from director Danny Boyle’s father. He claims that this is his father’s favorite of all his films, and, though he goes to see all of his son’s films, reviews them all as, “good, but not as good as Shallow Grave.”
This film can be a little more difficult to find in the US, but it’s worth the search.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
This wasn’t the first found footage horror movie ever made, but it really kicked the genre into high gear and was quite a pop culture phenomenon for a while. Three film students get together to do a project on Maryland urban legend figure, the Blair Witch. They interview some locals, some of whom claim to have seen it and even some who claim not to believe but still avoid the area she’s said to dwell in, and then head into the woods. Thanks to some monkeying around with the actors’ actual supplies and emotions, there are very real emotions and performances caught on tape that culminates in events made horrible for what they imply.
It’s hard to convey how much of a phenomenon The Blair Witch became in the late nineties and early two thousands. If you really get into this film, there is plenty of content to dig into, like videogames, books, archived websites, and even the occasional film sequel. The film with the closest multimedia presence probably would be 2008’s Cloverfield, which used technology and the blooming social media scene to lead intrigued audiences on a wild goose chase to try and learn more about the teased film.
How was that for a cheat sheet? Were there any favorites already here or any new listings that really scared you? Or do you think the Grave Reviews team needs to step it up a notch? Let us know in the comments below! What is your Ten Must See Horror Movies from the 80s and 90s?
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