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Ranking the Criterion Channel’s 80s Horror collection

Criterion 80s Horror Collection

Offering classics to slashers to B-horror to genuine obscurities, the best streaming channel you’re not watching has something for everyone this Halloween season.

In the midst of trying to keep up with the endless #content available via streaming, I tend to forget that I have an account with the Criterion Channel, a shameful oversight considering what a goldmine of classic, foreign, and arthouse cinema it offers. It’s not too shabby in the horror department either, and this October, it’s offering a real treat, the “’80s Horror” collection, profiling what many fans consider the best decade for the genre. Featuring a selection of the well-known, the long forgotten, and the newly rediscovered, there’s something for both gorehounds and scaredy-cats alike.

Since everything the collection offers is at least watchable, the ranking ranges from “Must Watch” to “Should Watch” to “Watch If You Get a Chance.” Consider your entire month sorted.

CRITERION CHANNEL’S ’80S HORROR COLLECTION: MUST SEE

1. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987): Long out of print on DVD and rarely available via streaming, Kathryn Bigelow’s cult horror Western should be at the top of your “must-see” list this month. Bill Paxton gives a career-best performance in this stylish, sexy film about a group of itinerant vampires who travel the desolate Southwest in a battered RV, and take on a new member who struggles with his responsibilities as a creature of the night.

2. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987): The concept of the second movie in John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy” – that the essence of Satan is contained in a big glass container in a church basement – is deeply silly, and yet, somehow, its foreboding tone and bleak ending, enhanced with the repeated image of a mysterious shadowy figure standing in a doorway, makes it unexpectedly, nightmare-inducing frightening.

3. Scanners (David Cronenberg, 1981): A group of people born with superhuman telekinetic and telepathic powers engages in a battle of good against evil in David Cronenberg’s iconic sci-fi horror film, which sealed Michael Ironside’s role as one of the all-time best cinematic bad guys. You almost certainly know “that scene” in Scanners, but watch the rest of it too, because it’s equally gripping and horrifying.

4. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988): Fine, so it’s more of a mystery than a horror film if you want to be pedantic, but if the idea of a loved one disappearing without a trace, let alone their kidnapper taunting you with the promise of telling you where they are (but not if they’re dead or alive), doesn’t frighten you, I can’t help you. A story in which both hero and villain are consumed by obsession, its dark ending will leave you sleepless. Don’t bother with the watered-down, triumphant ending American remake.

5. The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988): Whereas the original Blob was a charming, even kid-friendly bit of nonsense about a small town attacked by what looks like a spilled jar of Smucker’s grape jelly (set to the best horror movie theme song you’ll ever hear), Chuck Russell’s remake is a far more gruesome affair. Here, the carnivorous goop that arrives on Earth via meteor doesn’t just swallow people up, it melts them down first, resulting in some of the best, goriest practical effects of the ’80s. Saw series lead Shawnee Smith makes her scream queen debut and hero Kevin Dillon wears an excellent poet shirt; it’s a winner all around.

Criterion 80s Horror Collection
The Blob (TriStar Pictures)

6. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982): One of a rare few genuinely good erotic horror films, Paul Schrader’s very loose remake of the 1942 classic features Nastassja Kinski as a young woman who discovers that she’s born of a line of otherworldly people who turn into man-eating black panthers when they have sex and are forced (supposedly, though it seems like they don’t mind too much) to kill to return to their human form. Malcolm McDowell has the time of his life tearing off chunks of scenery with his bare hands as Kinski’s super-horny brother, who has just the solution for her problems (hint: it’s in his pants). It’s steamy, it’s creepy, and it’s a lot of fun.

7. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983): An excellent pairing with the above-mentioned Cat People, what The Hunger lacks in action, it more than makes up for in a sexy, sinister vibe, not to mention perhaps the best opening five minutes of any horror movie ever. Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie are perfectly cast as chic, charismatic villains, a pair of vampire lovers whose grand romance ends when one begins to age rapidly (hey man, we’ve all been there). (NOTE: though it’s listed as part of the collection, The Hunger will not be available until November 1st).

8. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986): Consider this a must-see with strong reservations. Loosely based on the real-life story of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, John McNaughton’s gritty nightmare takes an almost home movie approach to both Lucas’s crimes and the bizarre personal life he maintained with partner in crime Ottis Toole, and Toole’s younger sister. The film spares nothing in its depictions of the horrors Lucas inflicted upon his victims, leaving the viewer feeling almost complicit in them.

9. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989): Redefining the meaning of “body horror,” the first film in Shinya Tsukamodo’s low-budget cyberpunk trilogy shouldn’t be explained, just experienced. Visions of a “metal fetishist” haunt a man, and these visions soon carry over into real life, affecting everything and everyone around him. Gruesome, uncomfortably funny, and shocking, don’t put this one on for a Halloween party unless it’s a party full of weirdos.

10. Basket Case (Frank Henenlotter, 1982): Speaking of low budget, don’t miss this likably sleazy, deeply silly, incredibly entertaining film about a young man who carries around his deformed conjoined twin, named Belial (Hebrew for “worthless”) in a wicker basket, doing its bidding. Relying entirely on puppetry and stop motion, the murderous Belial’s attacks are shamelessly funny more than scary. The best part is that somehow they made two more of them.

Criterion 80s Horror Collection
Basket Case (Analysis Film Releasing)

CRITERION CHANNEL’S ’80S HORROR COLLECTION: SHOULD SEE

11, Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981): “Small town hides a dark secret” is one of the core tropes in horror, but no small town has quite the secret that Potter’s Bluff has in Gary Sherman’s eerie, gory Dead & Buried. The best Stephen King story Stephen King never wrote, it boasts a shocking ending and plenty of imagery you’ll never forget (that hospital scene, for one). 

12. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981): Though it wouldn’t be my pick for a Tobe Hooper film in this collection (that would be either Poltergeist or Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), this is still a solid, often overlooked title in the slasher genre. A group of teens spend the evening at a carnival, and end up stuck in the titular funhouse and stalked by a deformed creature. As with Basket Case, “deformed = monster” is a horror cliché that hasn’t aged particularly well, but as far as slasher movies go at least it was trying something different in what was already starting to feel a little stale.

13. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987): A cable staple in the late 80s before just sort of disappearing, The Hidden stars a pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan, who teams up with LAPD Detective Michael Nouri to investigate a series of bizarre events in which seemingly ordinary people snap and commit violent crimes. As it turns out, they’re under the control of a malevolent space alien, about which MacLachlan seems to know far more than he should. A sort of punk rock take on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s a fun, wild ride.

14. White of the Eye (Donald Cammell, 1987): A true obscurity, White of the Eye takes a standard thriller plot – normal suburban husband and father is secretly a serial killer – and turns it on its head, focusing less on the killer, here played by David Keith (best known to horror fans as the doomed Andy McGee in Firestarter), and more on his wife (Cathy Moriarty), and their lives leading up to the horrific present. Artsy and eerie (fans of Manhunter will especially enjoy it), it subtly gets under your skin by asking how well we can really know anyone, and is anything we have with them truly “real”?

15. The Slumber Party Massacre (Amy Holden Jones, 1982): As with a lot of cult classics, the story of how it got made is at least as interesting as the movie itself. Such is the case with Amy Holden Jones’ directorial debut The Slumber Party Massacre, which started as a parody of slasher movies written by mystery novelist and feminist activist Rita Mae Brown. Later, despite Brown’s protests, it was rewritten to have a more serious tone (even though there’s a scene where people eat pizza from a box sitting on top of a corpse). Despite its mixed to negative reception from critics, it’s gained acclaim over time and won status as an underrated slasher favorite. 

Criterion 80s Horror Collection
The Slumber Party Massacre (New World Pictures)

16. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989): The second movie on the list most likely to clear out a Halloween party after Tetsuo: the Iron Man, Brian Yuzna’s Society is one part body horror, one part class satire, and all WTF. A teenage boy suspects that his parents and their rich friends are engaging in strange, possibly murderous activities, and he’s right – but there’s even more than he imagined to it than that. More gross than scary, you may wonder why this was selected as opposed to, say, Reanimator, which Yuzna produced, but it should also be experienced at least once.

17. The Fan (Ed Bianchi, 1981): The only movie on this list that has Broadway musical numbers, describing The Fan as horror is a bit generous. But there’s so much to love about this delightfully campy thriller, in which a more dignified than the script deserves Lauren Bacall plays a legendary actress stalked by an ardent fan (a young and astonishingly handsome Michael Biehn) who wants more than her autograph, if y’know what I’m saying. A Lifetime movie with curse words and oral sex, it’s ridiculously entertaining. 

18. Next of Kin (Tony Williams, 1982): This bizarro Australian slasher takes place not at a camp, or a college dormitory, but rather a retirement home, where you’d expect the most exciting thing to happen would be rice pudding served for dinner instead of tapioca. Reportedly a favorite of Quentin Tarantino’s, come for its weird vibes, stay for the absolutely cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs twist.

19. Inferno (Dario Argento, 1980): Argento definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you want to become acquainted with his work, start with Suspiria, and then Inferno, which, while not a sequel exactly, carries with it some of the same themes, focusing on the Three Mothers, a trio of malevolent sisters who rule the world via different forms of witchery. Typical of Argento, the plot is muddled to the point of incoherent at times, but dazzling to look at, even during some truly grisly, drawn out murder scenes.

20. The House by the Cemetery (Lucio Fulci, 1981): A movie that combines both a take on Frankenstein, and haunted house tropes, already seems like it’d be a little busy from the start, and, indeed, The House by the Cemetery poses a lot more questions than it even attempts to answer. However, if you’re just looking for some atmosphere, and a bunch of gnarly, over-the-top kills, it delivers on both fronts.

The House by the Cemetery (Medusa Distribution)

CRITERION CHANNEL’s ’80S HORROR COLLECTION: SEE IF YOU GET A CHANCE

21. Road Games (Richard Franklin, 1981): Like The Fan, describing Road Games as a horror movie isn’t entirely accurate. A suspense thriller set in rural Australia, it stars Stacy Keach as a truck driver who discovers that there’s a serial killer in the area and sets out to capture him, eventually with the help of hitchhiker Jamie Lee Curtis, still in her initial Scream Queen era. A classic cat and mouse chaser, this mostly forgotten film has been long overdue for an audience reassessment.

22. Strange Behavior (Michael Laughlin, 1981): With such a wild premise, it’s a wonder that Strange Behavior has been largely forgotten. Teenagers are murdered in a small town, and it’s up to one local police officer to find out who’s responsible, and how to stop them. The late, great Louise Fletcher co-stars in a mystery that has all the elements of a slasher movie, but with a genuinely unexpected twist. 

23. Brain Damage (Frank Henenlotter, 1988): Frank Henenlotter is the only director who has the distinction of having two movies in the collection, and the second, Brain Damage, is even weirder and sillier than the first. A young man finds himself the host of a suspiciously penile-looking parasite that attaches itself to his neck and controls his body, rewarding him with doses of a powerful, hallucinogenic “juice.” This study in tasteful subtlety has the same level of amateurish acting and charmingly lousy special effects as its predecessor Basket Case, but leans even further into sleaze. 

24. Lair of the White Worm (Ken Russell, 1988): Oh, you want subtlety, huh? Then Lair of the White Worm is for you. Loosely based on the Bram Stoker novel of the same name (so loosely they basically just share a title), Lair stars Amanda Donohoe as a mysterious English heiress who turns out to be a high priestess serving an ancient snake god, and kidnaps a young woman (named Eve, get it?) to offer her as a sacrifice. Notable mostly for appearances by a very young Hugh Grant and Peter Capaldi, who pair up to rescue Eve, Lair of the White Worm is far more funny than scary, but worth it for its wild imagery and creepy snake makeup effects.

25. Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982): Going with this over Larry Cohen’s The Stuff may seem like a curious choice, but Q: The Winged Serpent has its loyal fans too (including this writer). Michael Moriarty, pre-Law & Order, plays a petty criminal who stumbles across the lair of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, right in the heart of New York City. In addition to some delightful old-school stop motion effects, it offers some sly political satire and Moriarty playing it all entirely straight. Give it a chance!

Q: the Winged Serpent (United Film Distribution)

26. Dream Demon (Harley Cokeliss, 1988): Creepy and puzzling, Dream Demon got in early on the “it’s really about trauma” trend in horror. Two women, a wealthy British schoolteacher haunted by bizarre nightmares, and an American tourist looking to learn about her family background, discover a mystery afoot in the basement of the schoolteacher’s house. Professional weirdo Timothy Spall co-stars in this unsettling thriller.

27. Wolfen (Michael Wadleigh, 1981): Combining traditional monster horror with an anti-urban development message, Wolfen is a stylish thriller that unfortunately suffered from being released the same year as An American Werewolf in London and The Howling, both of which have a sense of humor that Wolfen sorely lacks. Still, its desolate New York City at its worst setting, not to mention its use of “wolf vision,” plus some gory kills, make it a worthwhile watch anyway.

28. Vampire’s Kiss (Robert Bierman, 1988): Probably the most controversial ranking on the list (but keep in mind this is but one person’s opinion), Vampire’s Kiss, while atmospheric, is far more of a dark comedy than a horror film. If it works at all, it’s due entirely to Nicolas Cage’s balls-to-the-wall performance, playing a yuppie dirtbag by day and a sex pest dirtbag by night, who, after a steamy encounter with a mysterious woman, believes himself to be turning into a vampire. The entire movie has practically become a meme, but if you haven’t seen it in full yet, consider this a golden opportunity.

29. The Keep (Michael Mann, 1983): The Keep, while not a good movie, is a fascinating mess. A disastrous production from the get go, writer/director Michael Mann was forced to cut down his World War II era supernatural horror film by more than 100 minutes, and it shows in its baffling pacing, incoherent plot, and characters who just appear and disappear without explanation. Still, it’s a trip to see familiar faces like Ian McKellen and Gabriel Byrne try the best they can to make any of this work, and don’t feel too bad for Mann: his very next film after this was the masterpiece Manhunter.

UNRANKED

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Walerian Borowczyk, 1981): Unrated because this writer has not seen it (yet), the most obscure movie on the list comes by way of France and West Germany and stars Udo Kier in what promises to be a truly bizarre take on the classic Robert Louis Stevenson story, if for no other reason than because it involves the phrase “stars Udo Kier.”

The ’80s Horror Collection is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.

’80s Horror Trailer:

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CategoriesMovies
Gena Radcliffe

Gena Radcliffe is the co-host of the award-winning (not really) horror podcast Kill by Kill, and has also written for F This Movie, Anatomy of a Scream, and Grim magazine (although the Spool is her pride and joy). Her pitch graveyard and "pieces that don't really belong anywhere else" can be found at genaradcliffe.com, and you can see her slowly losing her mind at Twitter under @porcelain72.

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