Recently, Blumhouse.com Editor-in-Chief Rebekah McKendry published a series of articles listing the Top 10 Scariest Horror Movies by each decade. Her lists differentiated themselves from others by focusing on films that seriously bring the terror, as opposed to more general and subjective “Best Of” articles. I appreciated the way she focused in on films that elicit a particular effect.
It inspired me to launch my own series of lists, featuring horror’s most underrated films by decade (beginning with the 1980s). While nothing here is so obscure you’d have to spend hours digging for it, most have never been given the serious attention they deserve; all can be found on DVD, although some are out of print and therefore expensive. Most of these films have never been released on Blu-ray — which is a damn shame!
Below, in no particular order, are my picks for the Top 10 Most Underrated Horror Movies of the 1980s.
Future articles will explore more obscure (but no less awesome) horror movies from the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s (so far), so enjoy and check back soon!
PIN (1988, Directed by Sandor Stern)
If there was a contest for most uncomfortable movie to watch with a sibling of the opposite sex, PIN would take top honors. This Canadian horror gem, based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman, stars Terry O’Quinn and features an anatomically-correct medical dummy that gets more play than most teens ever dream! PIN is grueling psychological horror that will be appreciated by fans of David Cronenberg; it’s also a forgotten example of the “Scary Dolls” subgenre. PIN can be found on DVD, but it’s never been given the stunning Blu-ray treatment it desperately deserves.
PARENTS (1989, Directed by Bob Balaban)
When PARENTS was released at the tail end of the ’80s, it stuck out like a sore thumb in a genre dominated by slashers and supernatural thrillers. No one knew what to make of it, and the film’s deadpan, pitch-black comedy (which was way more cerebral than most of its ilk) fell flat with its target demographic. The film centers on a young boy who begins to suspect his parents, who appear to be the quintessentially happy 1950s nuclear couple, are in fact bloodthirsty cannibals; the story expresses a deep-rooted, almost primal fear of being poisoned by our own protectors. PARENTS can be found on several compilation DVDs — including one that includes FIDO, which would make for a great double feature; it also streams on Shudder but still deserves a Blu-ray release.
CHRISTINE (1983, Directed by John Carpenter)
It must be that John Carpenter and Stephen King were responsible for so many amazing, seminal films during the 1980s that CHRISTINE somehow fell through the cracks. I don’t doubt that horror aficionados are well aware that the movie exists, but it’s rarely given the accolades it truly deserves. You’re not likely to find this one listed among Carpenter’s best, or as one of King’s most chilling adaptions… but it really is. In many ways, CHRISTINE can be considered a companion piece to CARRIE, as they both deal primarily with the effects of extreme bullying and the tragic consequences of a young person being pushed too far. CHRISTINE is one of the few films on this list that you actually can find on Blu-ray.
HOUSE (1986, Directed by Steve Miner)
Almost half a decade before the psychological nightmare JACOB’S LADDER broached the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome in a horror context, the horror-comedy HOUSE gave the mental aftermath of war a treatment loaded with laughs, but no less poignant. It featured William Katt (CARRIE) as Vietnam veteran Roger Cobb, a man who moves into a haunted house he inherited. In addition to PTSD, Cobb is reeling from the recent disappearance of his son — who went missing under mysterious circumstances. HOUSE is free to stream if you subscribe to Amazon Prime, and you can find it on DVD as a double-feature along with its less impressive sequel… but it’s yet another that’s long overdue for the Blu-ray treatment.
WITCHBOARD (1986, Directed by Kevin S. Tenney)
There was definitely a surge in the popularity of Ouija Boards in 21st Century horror — thanks to movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, I AM ZOZO, and (of course) the OUIJA franchise. But this film waded deep into these supernatural waters long ago, even introducing a potential horror icon — the ghost of axe-murderer Carlos Malfeitor (played by J.P. Luebsen). Props to the awesome folks at Scream Factory for giving WITCHBOARD the Blu-ray reissue it deserves. If you’ve been wondering if it’s worth adding to your collection, trust me when I say it is.
THE BELIEVERS (1987, Directed by John Schlesinger)
Martin Sheen and the late Robert Loggia excel in THE BELIEVERS — a film that’s both a product and a condemnation of Satanic Panic and the greed-culture of “yuppies” in the 1980s. At the time of its release, genre fans seemed weary of religious horror, which could explain its relative obscurity, but it really is a contemporary of THE OMEN and ROSEMARY’S BABY. I’d also liken THE BELIEVERS to Ben Wheatley’s KILL LIST in terms of story, subtext, and mix of subgenres. You can find it on Blu-ray, but only as a limited edition release celebrating MGM’s 90th Anniversary… and it’s expensive.
DOLLS (1987, Directed by Stuart Gordon)
It’s hard to believe that Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna — the dynamic duo behind RE-ANIMATOR — didn’t strike gold again with their nightmarish lullaby DOLLS. In the pre-Chucky era, it had more of an old-school, allegorical approach to toys-gone-bad, where the diminutive fiends serve as perverted protectors of childhood and innocence. While dark fairy tales aimed at adults are popular these days, DOLLS was way ahead of the curve at the time of its release. Once again, we can thanks the brilliant folks at Scream Factory for giving this film an outstanding Blu-ray treatment.
THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (1988, Ken Russell)
It perplexes me how a film Variety called “a rollicking, terrifying, post-psychedelic headtrip,” based on a novel by Bram Stoker, and staring a young Hugh Grant, isn’t a cult phenomenon; still, THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM has somehow become relatively unknown. It’s got the mood and pervasive dread of a Hammer classic, true Lovecraftian flare, and plenty of self-deprecating humor. WORM can be streamed on Amazon and Shudder, but an out-of-print DVD will set you back more than $60! If you’re a collector, you can still find this one on laser disc, but it doesn’t yet exist on Blu-ray.
WATCHERS (1988, Directed by Jon Hess)
Based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz and staring late teen heartthrob Corey Haim, WATCHERS was and remains tragically underrated. The story of a boy and his super-intelligent dog — both of whom are stalked by a creature that escaped from a nearby government laboratory — is vastly entertaining. It won’t hold up against more recent horror gems, but it’s quintessentially 1980s; cheese flows from the dialog to the effects and even the soundtrack. Consider WATCHERS a brilliant time-capsule of the era. An out of print DVD of WATCHERS (which includes the first of two dreadful sequels) could cost you upwards of $150! Won’t someone resurrect this one ASAP?
LEVIATHAN (1989, Directed by George P. Cosmatos)
Lauded influential effects guru Stan Winston was already in top form when he designed the creature in the underwater thriller LEVIATHAN. This film came out the very same year as DEEPSTAR SIX, an underwater monster movie that is, on the surface, very similar (something that could go a long way in explaining why LEVIATHAN was basically ignored). Still, of the two movies, I honestly believe LEVIATHAN is the superior watch in terms of acting, scripting, and storytelling; it’s also got Cold War undertones that were and are unnerving. Luckily, you can find LEVIATHAN for a reasonable price on Blu-ray, so if you’re looking to unearth a forgotten masterpiece, seek this one out for your collection.