The leaves are changing, pumpkins are being carved, the harvest is in the air, and the Halloween season is in full swing. It must be October. Soon the television will be flooded with horror movies from channels that repeat the exact same features they’ve been showing for the last decade. Why? Easy ratings? Don’t fix what isn’t broken? People don’t like change? It’s a combination of everything, but for the adventurous fan who’s tired of watching the original Halloween or AMC’s Fearfest, there’s a huge cache of fun slashers from the 80’s that will never be shown on mainstream television.
Yes, it’s the internet age, and nothing is “underground” anymore, but in my teen years (quite some time ago) I got sick of watching the same old mainstream American horror and went on a search through the backwoods of the annals of horror for more. This was a great time of digging through musty boxes of VHS tapes and scouring rummage sales or mom and pop video shops selling off their inventory. The unpredictability that came with popping in an old sleazy tape that you couldn’t research on IMDb or Google was unmatched. What horrors lie beyond this grainy grindhouse footage?
I found slasher films that were so trashy and lovable it would be criminal not to share them with the rest of the world. I couldn’t wait to discuss the garden shears of Cropsy, talk about the best anti-valentine movie ever, and warn those who would listen to never go camping again. After all, I couldn’t be the only one watching, right?
That’s why it was so surprising recommending what I thought to be classic horror movies only to find that no one had heard of any of my favorites. I should have expected the response, because it’s not as if these were widely available or showing at the local cinema. When I started going to revival houses in major cities, I found myself with a similar gap in knowledge of other film genres and finally understood. It’s up to those who know to share their knowledge and so Joe Average doesn’t have to sort through 20 direct-to-dvd Blockbuster releases to find one thing worth watching.
By their nature, slashers are filmed on slim budgets with bad actors, buckets of blood, and the best FX money can buy. In many cases, special effects and elaborate set pieces take precedence over storytelling. Although some pre-genre films like Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, Hitchcock’s Psycho, and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas could be considered the basis for the modern slasher, it wasn’t until Carpenter’s Halloween hit in 1978 that the slew of ripoffs and countless imitators shot the genre to immense popularity.
For your convenience, here are 10 slasher films to watch using that lovely tool known as the internet.
1. Sleepaway Camp
Well known throughout the hardcore horror fanbase, Sleepaway Camp is what a Friday the 13th movie would look like if it didn’t involve the Voorhees family. It’s another “killer at a campground” movie that always sets a great stage for hacking up unsuspecting teens, but there are no zombies or hockey masked killers here. It’s extremely low budget, campy (ba dum tiss), and infamous. Haven’t heard of this one? Don’t go searching the internet for info. Sleepaway Camp has one of the most shocking horror movie endings in history, and it will be spoiled if you go poking around for info. Seriously. Don’t even Google image search.
2. The Mutilator
By pick, by axe, by chainsaw.. bye bye! Buddy Cooper’s one and only feature The Mutilator doesn’t even have the low budget of other low budget hack ’em ups like The Prowler or The Burning (more on them later), but what it lacks in money it makes up with charm. A teenager who accidentally committed matricide as a child (that’s killing your mother) now finds himself stalked by… his father?! If I were making an 80’s slasher version of the National Film Registry, The Mutilator would be packed away every time. If you’re a fan of doofus characters, horrid acting, hilariously out of place music, and buckets of blood, this one is for you. Make sure you watch the uncut version. You’ll never look at a fishhook the same way again.
3. Just Before Dawn
Here’s the plot for Just Before Dawn in a nutshell: A group of teens travel to the mountains for a camping adventure. A man warns them about a maniac with a machete. They go anyway and start disappearing one by one. Wait, isn’t this The Hills Have Eyes? It’s a familiar plot idea that’s been done over and over, but once the redneck mayhem ensues, you’ll feel right at home. Jeff Lieberman’s Just Before Dawn is arguably his best feature, and make sure to check out his other films Squirm and Blue Sunshine if this one does it for you.
4. The Burning
It honestly baffles me how The Burning isn’t more popular. It has everything a great slasher should have: A vengeful killer, a summer camp, unsuspecting teens, and garden shears! After a man is severely burned in a prank gone wrong, the Cropsy maniac reemerges years later to take revenge on the little brats that disfigured him. I’m as big a supporter of Friday the 13th as there is, but this is equal to the original FT13, and better in many ways. Tom Savini is rocking the FX, the murders are savage, and Cropsy is the best horror character you’ve never heard of.
5. My Bloody Valentine
Before the 2009 3D remake, My Bloody Valentine was a relatively unknown 80’s slasher based on a deranged murderer who’s more than a bit pissed off at those who celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. When the day rolls around, the wives tale says Harry comes out to kill off townsfolk one by one. But have no fear, it’s only an urban legend, right? My Bloody Valentine is the greatest coal-mining based horror movie of all-time, and it gained notoriety for being one of the first films to be mutilated by the MPAA, but can now be viewed in a restored uncut version. The iconic pick-axe and miner gear of Harry Warden is classic horror cinema and the original My Bloody Valentine is a lot more charming than the over the top remake.
6. The Prowler
The Prowler’s journal, June 28th, 1945. Pitchfork smashed through burst stomach. This couple’s afraid of me, I have seen their true face. An infamous unsolved double murder in 1945 sets the stage for a tour de force of visual FX by Tom Savini in Joseph Zito’s The Prowler. Now an ex GI is on the prowl (ba dum tiss) decades later to pick up where the killer left off. The Savini and Zito pair would team up again for Friday the 13th Part IV, but Zito directed the hell out of this movie and it’s a high point in both careers. There’s one thing to know about The Prowler: if he wants you, he’ll get you!
7. April Fool’s Day
Things go awry in an island mansion for 9 college students who find themselves stalked by an unknown murderer in a slasher version of Clue. More Hitchcock murder mystery than deranged killer slasher, Fred Walton’s April Fool’s Day is cleverly plotted and one of the best party horror movies after Return of the Living Dead and Lamberto Bava’s Demoni. Give this one a watch and try to outsmart it, because April Fool’s Day is not at all what you think it’s going to be.
8. Prom Night
Did you see the embarrassing remake and think “what would happen if this movie was rated R and not horrible?” Look no further than Paul Lynch’s Prom Night which features Jamie Lee Curtis and the naked gun himself Leslie Nielsen. After the accidental death of a young child, the teenagers responsible are hunted by a maniac out for revenge on the night of their senior prom. The influence of this film on the creators of garbage like I Know What You Did Last Summer is obvious, and while Prom Night is nowhere near the style or ability of Halloween, it’s classic horror cinema that’s been widely imitated ever since. Check out Lynch’s awesome 80’s creature feature Humongous too.
We’re gonna need a cleanup on aisle 5. The dudes behind The Evil Dead bring you the grocery store set slasher Intruder with first time director Scott Spiegel (who also penned The Evil Dead II) and a story from Quentin Tarantino producer Lawrence Bender. After a heated argument between a girlfriend and boyfriend, the overnight team at a local supermarket try to survive a deranged killer hell bent on murdering them all. Intruder is what happens when a bunch of buddies who love horror get together and make a movie. They simply don’t make stuff like this anymore, and because it was a bit too late to the party (1989), Intruder never got the credit it deserved. It’s a victim of timing much like 80’s hair metal band Skid Row who also showed up when the genre was on its way out. Make sure to skip the heavily edited version that’s circulating around the internet and find it uncut.
10. Happy Birthday To Me
This is one birthday party you’ll pray you’re not invited to. Happy Birthday To Me is an unknown gem that’s slipped through the cracks of horror cinema classics, and while it doesn’t live up to the promise of “six of the most bizarre murders you’ll ever see”, it still deserves recognition. When a tight knit group of friends start disappearing before a birthday party, the effervescent Virginia wonders if she may be next. Happy Birthday To Me is pure cult cinema, and Oscar nominated director J. Lee Thompson’s (Cape Fear) clever camera work puts this above lesser gimmicky genre films. It’s jerks at a prep school getting knocked off, and that should be good enough for anyone in the Wall Street bailout era.
Maybe you’ve seen all of them or haven’t heard of any, but these are classic horror films that fans of the genre owe a viewing. It’s easy to forget the men and women who built the foundation for a genre when so much time has passed, but people like me (and others) will proudly fly the flag of obscure appreciation. This list only includes straight up slashers that capture the essence of the sub-genre, and while there are no giallo films even though Argento would fit here, I also disregarded others that seem to mix sub-genres. This isn’t a compendium of obscure slashers, nor was it meant to be comprehensive catalog, just the best starting point. Seek them out, enjoy the mayhem, and instead of spending $10 on another exorcism movie this October, pay tribute to the pioneers.