Rad 1980s horror part 4: slashers slice their way into our hearts

Slashers were big in 1980s horror; bigger perhaps bigger than at any other time in film history, but the buildup began in the 1970s with movies such as Black Christmas, Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Director-Producer Sean Cunningham was seeking to capture the same lightning in a bottle that 1978’s Halloween had experienced, and shopped the screenplay for Friday the 13th while it was still in the process of being written. Paramount Pictures, United Artists and Warner Bros. fought for distribution rights, with Paramount ultimately purchasing the rights to the tune of $1.5 million. It was an amount unheard of for an independent film at that time.

Friday the 13th was a huge success, earning close to $6 million in its opening weekend in May of 1980. Taking into account an estimated budget of $550,000, that was a huge profit for a slasher film starring a bunch of mostly unknown actors (the exception being Betsy Palmer, who played Pamela Vorhees).

Friday the 13th’s simple outline would be emulated for years to come, and the summer camp setting has since become a horror trope. To date, there are ten sequels and a remake available for your viewing pleasure.

1980s horror

The Burning. Image Courtesy Shudder

1981’s The Burning was actually conceptualized before Friday the 13th’s release, but the plot bears a striking resemblance to the better-known film. In this case, the killer is a former camp caretaker who was horribly burned in a prank gone bad, and takes revenge years later.

The Burning features stronger acting performances than Friday the 13th, although most of the cast members were new to film at the time. Jason Alexander, who would later be known as George Castanza on Seinfeld appears as Dave, and Fisher Stevens (Short Circuit), Holly Hunter (Crash) and Brian Backer (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) also starred.

1980s horror films excel at gore, and with Tom Savini providing the special effects, The Burning was no exception. However, several violent scenes were required to be trimmed in order to obtain an R-rating, and a restored version of the film was not available until the 2007 DVD release.

Freddy Krueger gave “slasher” a whole new meaning when A Nightmare on Elm Street was released in 1984. Not content to slice and dice his victims with just one knife, Krueger had gloves equipped with knives attached to each finger, and worst of all, he invaded your dreams in order to kill you.

Although most of the seven sequels featured a lot of campy humor, the first installment was played for horror, and there are scenes that still give me the shivers. My favorite is the moment Nancy sees her dead friend Tina pawing at her classroom door, partially covered in a creepy body bag. When Nancy steps into the hall, she sees the body bag laying on the floor with Tina inside. Tina’s feet are lifted by an unseen hand, and the body is dragged away, leaving a trail of blood.

The young cast was led by then-unknown actors Heather Langenkamp (Nancy), Johnny Depp (Glen) and Amanda Wyss (Tina), with John Saxon and Ronee Blakely cast as Nancy’s parents. Of course, Robert Englund was perfectly cast as Freddy, and those of you who think of his performance as mainly comedic should go back and watch the first film again. In A Nightmare on Elm Street, Fred Krueger is a terrifying character.

1980s Horror

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street. Image Courtesy Shudder, Amber Gray Photography

With a total of five films released between 1984 and 1989 (and a badly received remake in 2010), A Nightmare on Elm Street definitely deserves a place of honor in the 1980s horror hall of fame. And if you want to see a documentary that may just bring you to tears, watch Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street (available to stream on Shudder). It tells the story of young actor Mark Patton, whose acting career screeched to a halt after he was cast in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.

It may be stretching things a bit to call 1980’s Fade to Black a slasher, it’s really more of a psychological 1980s horror film, but I am going to include it anyway. It’s a movie I first saw on the big screen, and when I recently re-watched it on Shudder, I was captivated by its originality and mood. And, our “bad guy” does kill people in creative ways, so I’m calling it close enough to be considered a slasher.

Eric (Dennis Christopher) is weird, no doubt about it. He is socially awkward, and has become obsessed with the old films that he loves, so when he meets a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who appears to stand him up, he officially goes over the edge.

Like many other classic slasher villains, Eric begins killing people who have wronged him; his abusive  Aunt, a co-worker who has bullied him numerous times, a prostitute who recently insulted him. But, rather than just shooting or slashing his victims, this cinephile-turned-murderer offs people in ways that emulate his favorite movies.

1980s horror

Fade to Black. Image courtesy Shudder

Aunt Stella is confined to a wheelchair, and he pushes her down a flight of stairs, just as Richard Widmark’s character killed a woman in the 1947 film noir Kiss of Death. There are also scenes that resemble those in films such as Psycho and White Heat, and Eric frequently dresses in costumes in order to “become” characters like Count Dracula and Hopalong Cassidy.

Fade to Black is by no means a 1980s horror gore fest, but it is a rather psychotic love letter to older films, and the fantasy sequences are beautifully shot.

Well, readers, that completes my series on 1980s horror, I hope you have enjoyed reading the installments as much as I enjoyed writing them. If you haven’t seen any of the films I wrote about, by all means take care of that right away!

What are your favorite 1980s slasher films? Tell us all about it in the comments section.