Rad 1980s horror part 1: the dark and the gritty

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Image courtesy Shudder
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Image courtesy Shudder /

Although horror movies have been around for over 100 years (the best known early horror film is Le Manoir du Diable, a 3-minute short released in 1896) , fans of the genre seem to have a particular love for 1980s horror.

So beloved is 1980s horror that a four-hour documentary titled In Search of Darkness was released on Shudder last year. Despite its length, it was popular enough to warrant a follow-up; In Search of Darkness II, also running at 4 hours, debuts on Shudder next month.

What made 1980s horror films so memorable, and why do hold onto them so fondly? To start with, horror had a renaissance during that decade. We were struggling with a lot of scary reality, with AIDS and the escalation of the Cold War. And serial killers were on the rise, creating panic in neighborhoods and often in entire states.

Richard Ramirez (The Night Stalker), Dennis Rader (the BTL Killer), Robert Ben Rhoades (The Truck Stop Killer) and Jeffrey Dahmer were all active during the 1980s. In the late 70s, Ted Bundy  and David Berkowitz (The Son of Sam) ramped up awareness of the danger of serial killers, so people were immediately terrified when news broke about a suspected serial killer on the loose.

Often, people deal with fear by pursuing it in books and movies. Maybe it’s because it helps us deal with real-life horror when we can look the fictionalized versions dead in the eye, rather than turning our backs on it to pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s what I tell people who question my interest in true crime.

At any rate, these are the events that may have inspired grim films such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980), a movie so gritty and realistic that many people thought it was a snuff film. After its premiere in Italy, director Ruggero Deodato was charged with murder, because rumor had it the actors were actually murdered on screen.

Those charges were dropped of course, because the actors were alive and well; too bad the same thing can’t be said of the animals killed on camera. At any rate, Cannibal Holocaust is widely regarded as the first found footage movie, preceding The Blair Witch Project by almost 20 years.

Viewing Cannibal Holocaust is almost a rite of passage for horror fans, I experienced it for the first time last year, when it was featured on The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs. I’m glad I watched it (covering my eyes during the scenes involving animals), but I will likely never watch it again, and it did make me feel slightly dirty.

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was also realistically grim. It was based on the story of real-life serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, and filmed over 28 days on a budget of $110,000. The film was shot on 16mm, which only added to the grittiness.

The violence and brutality were presented without flinching, or pulling away the camera, sometimes it feels like you are watching a sort of found footage. It’s a hard film to watch, and Michael Rooker’s performance is so good, you almost believe he IS Henry.

Due to the extreme violence contained in the film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer initially received the dreaded X rating after playing at several film festivals. Ultimately, it was put into limited release in an unrated version.

1980s horror
Maniac – William Lustig (1980). Image courtesy Shudder /

1980’s Maniac was another controversial 1980s horror film about a serial killer, who was played by Joe Spinell. In lesser hands, Maniac, which was a very low-budget piece, could have been just another forgotten slasher film. But, Spinell’s terrifying, yet somehow sympathetic performance was compelling, and Tom Savini’s ground breaking practical special effects rendered it a classic.

Savini actually played a small role in Maniac, and his character is shot, resulting in a fantastic exploding head effect. Like Henry, Maniac was released unrated.

A personal note here: The very first issue of Fangoria that I laid my hands on was printed in 1979, and it included a story about the filming of Maniac. I remember being both disgusted and fascinated with the photo showing a very realistic looking scalping.

I was a fan of the magazine for years after that, furtively thumbing through the gore-filled pages in the book store, and hoping nobody would walk by and see what I was looking at. I was giddy as a school girl when I finally paid for my first Fangoria subscription just last year.

1980s horror films didn’t always go for shocking realism, however. 1989’s Pet Semetary was another dark film. Although it didn’t feel as dirty as the three prior films mentioned, it was still very grim and definitely didn’t sport anything remotely resembling a happy ending.

I mean (spoiler alert), the adorable little boy doesn’t just die, he is hit by a semi truck. And then, just to add insult to injury, he comes back as a snappily dressed killer who murders the kindly old man across the street…while speaking in lispy baby talk!

Pet Semetary is one of the most faithful adaptations of a Stephen King novel, and was remade in 2019. There were a couple of changes made to the story, but these changes didn’t include a more cheerful ending,  and the remake is still pitch dark.

Make no mistake, though, not all of the horror films made in the 1980s were super-dark and brutal, there was plenty of lighter fare out there as well. For the next installment of Rad Horror of the 1980s, we will be discussing some campy, humorous films, so keep your eyes on 1428 Elm for Part 2.

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Are you a fan of 1980s horror? Tell us which 80s films are your favorites in the comments section.