Since we’ve still got about two weeks to go until Hereditary graces our lives, I’ve been streaming my Shudder account and watching and rewatching classic cult ’80s horror movies that showcase what that particularly decadent decade was all about: offensiveness and lack of PC culture, practical effects, violence, humor, trashiness, and Billy Idol music-contained soundtracks. These are the five I chose to occupy my time watching (or waste my time, depending on how you look at some of them).
- Demons (1985)
In what could only be described as entertaining, self-aware, often darkly funny, and is not afraid to have you laugh while you’re gagging, Demons defines what we all both loved and loathed about 1980s horror films.
Taking place almost entirely inside a packed horror movie screening within a local movie theater, the moviegoing characters of Demons begin to regret their decision to attend, as more and more characters get transformed into red pupil-eyed, green ooze-festering, eye-scratching, blood-hunting demons.
Anyone familiar with the Scream franchise remembers the opening sequence of Scream 2, in which the characters attend a horror movie screening– within the horror movie that YOU yourself are watching (#meta) until shit starts to hit the fan, and the moviegoers start dropping like flies, (or in Demons’ case, turning into murderous demons) one by one. You’ll notice how 1997’s Scream 2 even borrows a specific nod from 1985’s Demons: in Demons, one character transforms right in front of the moviegoing audience’s eyes, directly in front of the big silver screen; in Scream 2, Jada Pinkett Smith’s character dramatically dies from stab wounds, standing directly in front of the big silver screen as well.
Sure, the acting and dialogue are horrendous, but the practical effects are pretty interesting..and the plot is simple, unpretentious, and fun-scary. It’s both predictable, yet contains some surprisingly intelligent horror tropes: characters stick together in groups instead of wandering off alone or “splitting up into pairs,” along with other typically dumb horror movie plot ideas. There’s also big, teased hairdos, a great ’80s metal soundtrack, cocaine, leather chaps, and a random motorcycle chase. Could Demons get any more awesomely ’80s? Nope.
With one last gut punch at the very last few moments, if you don’t have a good time watching Demons, you’re doing it wrong.
2) Sleepaway Camp (1983)
Oh, Angela. (United Film Distribution)
From its harrowing opening shots of an abandoned, creepy summer camp, Camp Arawak, to its laughably dramatic, soapy boat accident scene, to its final wtf twist in its conclusion, Sleepaway Camp isn’t considered ’80s cult classic material for no reason.
We meet a “shy” almost-silent Angela and her male cousin, who are about to leave for summer camp, after which the bodies start piling up shortly after they arrive. We never see exactly who is doing these creative killings- the camera only exposes an arm that could easily be a woman or man’s arm as he or she completes the evil deeds. Most of the victims are relatively deserving of their deaths though, so right away we side with the mysterious camp killer: one victim is a perverse pedophiliac who tries hitting on the preteen girls; another is a teenage, mean girl who ruthlessly makes fun of Angela for not hitting puberty; another victim is an old fart who wants to cover up these killings to prevent bad publicity and beats up a teenage boy who has nothing to do with the crimes being committed.
Sleepaway Camp absolutely revels in its campiness, which is why we love it: men are wearing crop tops, rowdy teenagers are being rowdy teenagers who you deep-down love to watch die, and a ridiculous finale reveal that shows the audience a rare glimpse of a full-on penis shot in a horror movie, Sleepaway Camp is a slasher cult classic.
PS: The bee scene will make you want to crawl up into a ball and just die. Horrific.
3. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (finished in 1986, but wasn’t officially released til 1990..so whatever it still counts)
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the misfit here, in comparison to the others I revisited. There’s essentially nothing fun, comical, or lighthearted in this film- in fact, watching this feels like someone punched you in the gut and then proceeded to toss your body in a black hole with no resolution or escape. Henry is one of the bleakest films ever realized on screen– but, if you’re a true crime nerd like me, and read countless biographies on the Gacey’s, Dahmer’s, and Bundy’s in the world, and curious to understand the psychology that lurks within a serial killer’s mind, Henry should be viewed once (maybe twice)…but that’s probably all you’ll be able to stomach.
Loosely based on real-life serial monster Henry Lee Lucas and his cohort Ottis Toole, Henry is one of those movies where you can actually taste the cigarettes that get lit up in the scenes– Henry is gritty and gut-wrenching, yet deeply personal and close-up, in terms of its characterization of Henry and its other supporting characters. You’ll lose a small piece of yourself after viewing.
Henry even gets sociopolitical too: “Anyone can get a gun. I can make a phone call and get a gun.” – (That statement is more relevant now than even back in the ’80s when it was filmed) and the quote, “What they (police officers) really like, what makes their job so much easier, is a pattern.” Henry might be so illiterate that he doesn’t even know how to read the words on character Becky’s shirt, but he’s intelligent enough to probably be two steps ahead of the cops. Some of the most notorious serial killers of all time possessed high IQ’s, and it’s compelling that Henry gives a nod to that fact.
The final 15 minutes are horrifically violent, yet artfully satisfying, as one of the most despicable characters of the movie (which is saying a lot) gets what’s coming to him, and showcases the amount of compassion (if very little) Henry still has left in his outwardly detached, sociopathic psyche…that is, until the very last scene, when you realize that you were mistaken, and that he really doesn’t possess any compassion or empathy for human life at all. Henry is hard to swallow, but not without any merit or purpose- you’re not just witnessing horrific violence for the sake of horrific violence- you’re stepping inside the mind of a monster-in-the-flesh to get an idea of what it may feel like.
4. Prom Night (1980)
(AVCO Embassy Pictures)
Since Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer takes a daunting toll, it was back to preposterous, teenage-killing slasher movies for me…
Before Jamie Lee Curtis was fully established as real life Scream Queen royalty, she played the prom queen at Alexander Hamilton High in Prom Night. Campy as any ’80s slasher movie can handle- even down to its offensive, homophobic slurs that would never be ok for today’s standards- Prom Night tells the story of a group of teenagers who get targeted by a mystery killer for an “accidental” death they were involved in when they were children.
Containing disco dance-offs scenes that were riding off the heels of the late ’70s and early ’80s, there’s just something special and even darkly hilarious about a mad man literally swinging an ax around the dance floor, while disco music and a disco ball flashes lights around a ruined high school prom night.
Prom Night definitely takes “inspiration,” we’ll call it– from Halloween, as the premise partially involves an escaped mental patient and Jamie Lee’s characters both having problematic siblings in both films; as well as Carrie, as the high school prom night is the setting for all the blood and heads that literally roll. The charm in Prom Night lies in the fact that nothing gets too gory until the final 30 minutes, so we get a decent set up to the plot and the characters- even if the characters are predominantly shallow and uncouth.
5. Night of the Demons (1988)
Night of the Demons is actually a first time watch for me– and honestly, it’s probably the weakest out of the bunch. I wanted to like this movie more than I did, solely because I think that picture of Angela on the movie poster is frightening–but alas, this is definitely a fun movie at times, but I got annoyed so often that I couldn’t wait for it to end.
A group of some of the worst D-movies actors I may have EVER seen introduces us to Angela (what’s with all the creepy Angela’s in ’80s movies, by the way??) and her blonde bimbo friend who throw a party on Halloween night at a cemetery. After a dumb idea of performing a seance in the funeral parlor, the teenagers gradually begin to turn into zombie-like demons that want to possess/kill each other. Nothing original here.
On the surface, there’s a lot of ’80s movie cliches to wince at here: cheesy, cartoony backdrop for the opening credits; obnoxious, pervy teen boys drinking beer while simultaneously driving; bad dialogue and even worse acting; sexist, unnecessary shots of naked actresses; characters carrying loud boom boxes to their ears; the special effects are about as cheap as what you’d see at Fright Factory or Valley of Fear during Halloween…I promise though, Night of the Demons isn’t all bad! It’s just awesomely bad.
Some positives include the fact that the one, solitary black guy in the movie isn’t the first one to die for once! 🤷🏼♀️ One horror trope reverted. Angela’s makeup as she transforms into a demon is also pretty solid- it’ll give you a chill. There are a few weird scenes that include eye gouging (I’m pretty squeamish for someone who loves horror) a lipstick tube being pushed into a nipple and swallowed by the demon inside of the girl it is possessing (I was confused, yet oddly fascinated too.)
Check your brain at the door for this one…