• Rough Cut Staff

The Essential Horror Canon: Part 2 (80s & 90s)

Our journey through the most important horror movies since Psycho continues today with the films of the 80s and 90s. As a reminder, these are the five films from each decade we feel that — for better or worse — most influenced the western horror canon, so don't be concerned if your favorite isn't on this list (RIP The Thing and The Fly). You can find Part 1 here if you missed yesterday's look at the 60s and 70s.

The Shining (1980)

Warner Bros.

A story by one of the greatest horror writers, brought to life by one of cinema’s greatest auteurs — what could go wrong? According to Stephen King and contemporaneous critics, quite a bit, but Kubrick had the last laugh as The Shining now stands as one of the most revered horror films of all time. The off-screen issues haven’t been swept away of course — Kubrick’s treatment of Shelley Duvall chief among them — but in terms of artistic merit you’d be hard-pressed to find another horror film (or perhaps another film of any ilk) that’s been as analyzed and picked apart as The Shining. But as thematically rich as the film may be, the craft on display is just as influential: between the iconic effects work and the innovative early use of Steadicam technology, Kubrick’s film opened new doors for horror moviemaking. -Carson Cook

Friday the 13th (1980)

Paramount

The original cracks a door open, but the first copycat busts it down. Such is the case with Halloween and Friday the 13th. Explicitly designed to capitalize on the success of John Carpenter’s slasher, Friday repackaged the exploitative elements of its forerunner in a shameless cash grab just two years later. And it worked. Development executives industry-wide were watching closely as the emptier, bloodier, faster-paced Friday raked in ten times its budget, setting the course for the next decade by proving Halloween wasn’t a one-off surprise. If there’s one guaranty in tinseltown, it’s that you can always count on a success story being stripped for parts, repackaged, sucked dry, and tossed to the side within a few decades. -Zach D'Amico

The Evil Dead (1981) & The Evil Dead II (1987)

New Line Cinema

The Evil Dead is a supernatural thrill-ride, but Evil Dead II is funny. Going bigger and bolder than its original, including by leaning into the absurdity of the evil faced by Ash & co., Evil Dead II carved out its own niche subgenre over-the-top manic-terror. It makes you laugh without ever letting go of your shirt collars. It’s been partially replaced by the gentler humor of Shaun of the Dead and Young Frankenstein, horror comedies that shift and subvert the tropes of horror for laughs. But the Evil Dead series isn’t interested in cathartic laughter, it wants uncomfortable chuckles and terrified giggles. It spawned several sequels and a reboot, and created perhaps the most iconic figure in the world of cult cinema — Bruce Campbell. We also have the series to thank for some of the most interesting superhero movies — and if the onset of the MCU formula is any indication, maybe the most risk-taking ones we’ll have for a long time — with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. -ZD

Gremlins (1984)

Warner Bros.

A blend of all the best traits of executive producer Steven Spielberg, writer Chris Columbus, and director Joe Dante, Gremlins helped prove a sizeable (i.e. $200+ million on a budget of $11 million) market existed for more family-friendly horror, significantly expanding the possibilities of the genre for studios, filmmakers, and consumers. With its wonderful practical effects, sly consumerist satire, and charmingly endearing characters, Gremlins created the ideal model for a four-quadrant horror success. Not only that, but its gleefully cheeky violence and menace ended up changing the industry forever — it, along with fellow Spielberg project Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom directly led to the creation of the PG-13 (no, Tobe, Texas Chainsaw wouldn’t have managed to wrangle this rating either). -CC

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

New Line Cinema

Another Slasher? It’s hard to believe, but despite drawing a good deal from Halloween and Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street has nonetheless had its own grand impact. Beyond reviving the subgenre that had begun to wilt at the box office under the weight of uninspired cash grabs, Nightmare put its own twists and turns on the formula de rigueur that would live on in the decades to come. Wes Craven’s film is notable for shifting culpability from the children to their parents, foreshadowing a wave of films that would more directly turn mother and father against daughter and son (Carrie, The Shining). The film also added bits of fantasy and comedy to the traditional slasher approach, making room for genre crossovers and mash-ups. And Nightmare broke Wes Craven out of a mid-career slump, revitalizing his career and thrusting it forward into the next stage — a stage that would go on to include one more movie on this list. -ZD

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Orion Pictures

In terms of Oscar hardware in the horror world, no other movie even comes close — but winning Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Adapted Screenplay somehow still undervalues how incredible The Silence of the Lambs really is. Nearly every psychological thriller since is — consciously or not — trying to be the next version of Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, whether in terms of prestige or sheer fear-inducing intensity, but few manage to come close (including the film’s own sequels, which sorely miss the presence of Demme, Jodie Foster, and a non-hammy brand of Anthony Hopkins). It’s unfortunately hard to imagine another horror film taking the awards circuit by storm the way Silence did, but then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone making another horror film this perfectly calibrated and executed. -CC

Candyman (1992)

TriStar Pictures

Though far from perfect in its depictions, Candyman is particularly notable as a piece of mainstream horror that reckons with the historical realities of being Black in America. Writer-director Bernard Rose, adapting a Clive Barker story, brings a level of complexity and depth often missing from your run of the mill slasher; issues of mental health, socio-economic inequities, and generational trauma are all present, though these themes do wind up taking a backseat to the flashy kills and scares — which, to be fair, are very flashy indeed. In many ways it’s a B-movie given serious prestige treatment (including a fantastic Philip Glass score), but it does so without losing a sense of fun — something future attempts at “elevated horror” should seek to emulate. -CC

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)

20th Century Fox

Buffy the Vampire Slayer holds a unique position on this list, important less for what it inspired than for what it directly spawned. The film itself is a fairly minor curio: a perfectly fun trifle with an intriguing premise but not too much substance. But when the film’s writer Joss Whedon — unhappy with the finished product — rebooted the concept as a television series five years later, Buffy suddenly went from unheralded movie to major cultural phenomenon. The mash-up of teen comedy and teen melodrama with the supernatural proved an irresistible combination, unlocking horror for yet a broader demographic. Vampires have never really gone out of fashion, but it’s hard to believe they would have had the modern resurgence they did without Buffy’s critical and popular success. -CC

Scream (1996)

Dimension

October in the mid-90s was a tough time for young teens. Sure, they could wear the hand-me-down masks from their older siblings: Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kreuger, Michael Myers. But after Chucky in 1988’s Child Play, Hollywood churned out sequel after sequel, failing for eight years to give us an A-list villain, someone you could take home to mom and dad for costume-fitting. Hannibal Lecter was the best backup, though he’d already been introduced years before The Silence of the Lambs in both book and movie form.


Along comes Wes Craven, here to revitalize the horror genre once again with 1996’s Scream. Ghostface is a particularly inspired villain, modeled after Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream, and given a cheeky personality that perfectly reflects the film’s wink-and-a-shrug approach to meta-horror. Scream also added both A- and B-list celebrities to the horror mix, redefining a casting approach that had mostly relied on younger, unknown actors. And don’t forget that just a year later, it pulled off what is arguably the most successful sequel in all the major slasher franchises, Scream 2. -ZD

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Artisan Entertainment

It is impossible to understate the earth-shattering impact of The Blair Witch Project. The Sundance-debuted indie-horror effectively founded the found footage subgenre, going on to inspire movies like Paranormal Activity and Cloverfield. At the dawn of the digital era, its low-fi, low-budget approach led to massive box office returns and dozens of “I can do that” imitators, though few as commercially successful. And coming at a similar crux in time just before the explosion of the internet, The Blair Witch Project and indie distributor Artisan Entertainment figured out how to use online culture to tap into the zeitgeist and market the hell out of this film. It may be impossible to replicate the film’s successful strategy of actually convincing people that this was real, but their approach to guerilla marketing has become a staple of the industry in the 21st century. -ZD