Five Obscure ‘80s Slashers for Your October Watch ListPhoto courtesy Arrow Video Movies Lists horror movies
There’s no doubt that the 1980s were a prime decade for American horror cinema in general—as we observed in a previous list of obscure zombie films of the decade, this was a time period when new horror subgenres were thriving, and even old films were receiving iconic remakes on a regular basis. Whether you’re a fan of zombies, werewolves, supernatural horror or practically anything else, the 1980s were a great time to head to the theater.
Even in comparison with zombie films, though, it’s safe to say that no horror subgenre is so intimately and inextricably associated with the 1980s as the slasher movie. As with zombies, it’s not that slasher films were born in the decade—Night of the Living Dead hit drive-ins in 1968, and the likes of Black Christmas and Halloween were codifying slasher conventions in the 1970s—but the 1980s were when the genre became an absolutely omnipresent phenomenon, one that ruled the horror landscape for almost the entire decade. Following the release of 1980’s Friday the 13th and its imitators, the floodgates were completely thrown open, resulting in a wave of subgenre saturation the world of horror has never seen again. The sheer number of slashers, especially in the first half of the decade, is breathtaking.
As a result, there’s no shortage of iconic slasher movies from the 1980s, but there’s simultaneously quite a few that were overlooked in their heyday, or faded into obscurity in the decades to follow. This Halloween season, then, enjoy the following list of little-known slashers, all of which we heartily recommend to set the October mood.
And if you want to go even further? Then definitely check out our master list of the 50 best slasher movies of all time.
1. Madman (1982)Director: Joe Giannone
Madman is a perfectly serviceable early ‘80s slasher that simultaneously feels extremely familiar but also slightly off-kilter and unconventional, a product of its especially derivative summer camp setting but unusual plotting. As a result, the specter of Friday the 13th initially looms large, but the actual film it shares the most in common with is Tony Maylam’s nearly as iconic The Burning. In fact, Madman was independently conceived to feature the same exact killer that appears in The Burning, based on the rural NYC legend of “Cropsey,” a disfigured camp custodian returning to seek vengeance. Unfortunately for Madman, The Burning simply beat it to the punch in being released, resulting in the killer of Giannone’s film being redesigned as a hulking redneck by the name of “Madman Marz,” who we’re told survived hanging to stalk the woods conveniently located next to a summer camp for gifted children. For the most part, the film is exactly what you expect it to be, full of red herrings and drawn-out stalk-and-slash axe killings, but it also has its moments of oddity as well—like a girl who is spied by the killer having sex in a hot tub, but goes on to become the Final Girl of the story all the same! For the most part, it’s an amalgam of comfortably familiar tropes, though—slasher comfort food, if you will. It serviceably does its duty, and for those who love “summer camp slashers,” that’s not a bad thing. —Jim Vorel
Note: Horror devotees will appreciate that Madman features Dawn of the Dead star Gaylen Ross (under the name Alexis Dubin), though her character isn’t nearly so iconic as in George Romero’s seminal zombie masterpiece.
2. Intruder (1989)Director: Scott Spiegel
The slasher genre was winding down and becoming increasingly silly and comedy-inflected by the time Intruder arrived in 1989, but this supermarket-based tale instead hews very much to the mold set earlier in the decade—it’s thoroughly conventional, makes a legitimate attempt to be scary, but mostly stands out for the sheer brutality of its death sequences and gory kills. Directed by longtime Sam Raimi associate and Evil Dead II co-writer Scott Spiegel, Intruder has a somewhat scraped-together feel to it, but it benefits from its unique grocery store setting, as the entire production was filmed in the evenings in an actual supermarket. Both Raimi brothers are here on screen, both destined to become corpses, and even Bruce Campbell pops in for a brief cameo. What makes Intruder stand out, after a fairly tepid opening (and obvious red herring setups), is its incredibly gross and over-the-top deaths, which are delivered via practical effects that are genuinely disturbing. If you’re a seasoned slasher buff, you’ve probably seen things like a head being crushed, or a man’s face being sawed in half, but you probably haven’t seen it shot in nearly such a gross and unflinching way as it is here, I assure you. How Intruder ultimately bore an “R” rather than “X” rating is anyone’s guess, but it remains an underrated entry among late 1980s slashers that is far more brutal than most of the competitors of this particular moment in the genre’s history. —Jim Vorel
3. Edge of the Axe (1988)Director: José Ramón Larraz
An eccentric late ‘80s slasher that is at once both formulaic and deeply strange, Edge of the Axe is a memorable watch in this day and age for its unexpected, tech-centric background in the early internet, which is not exactly what you’re expecting to see in a Spanish-U.S. co-production with the air of an evolved Italian giallo. The dialogue comes off as absurd in a modern context, but the script for Edge of the Axe is actually shockingly tech-literate for 1988, and it applies this method of suspect interrogation in service of a masked slasher film with a true cornucopia of suspects and red herrings. This is ultimately the film’s best element—it has so many moving pieces and oddball characters that it keeps its true antagonist quite well hidden until the ludicrous finale, which is entertaining in the moment and impossible to make any sense of upon reflection, like so many other slashers of its era. The kills, sadly, are numerous but uninspired in their execution—if you could have added the likes of Tom Savini to this production, it could have been an idiosyncratic classic from an era when the slasher genre was heading into hibernation. As is, it’s the fusion of stalk-and-slash action with computer geekery that still makes this one stand out. There’s nothing else quite like it. —Jim Vorel
Bonus: Edge of the Axe recently got a very attractive Blu-ray release from Arrow Video, so there’s never been a better time to see it.
4. Too Scared to Scream (1985)Director: Tony Lo Bianco
This is a bit of an oddly named slasher, given that there’s absolutely no shortage of screaming in it, but the title is the least of the unusual details on this largely forgotten film. For one, it was the only movie directed by prolific character actor Tony Lo Bianco, best known for portrayals of gruff policemen, although the film is so poorly remembered now that it’s not even mentioned on the actor’s fairly robust Wikipedia entry. And that’s all the more strange for the fact that the movie is filled with well-known actors, including everyone from Ian McShane (as creepy doorman/primary suspect Hardwick) to Anne Archer, Maureen O’Sullivan, Murray Hamilton and John Heard. Your hero? Why it’s Mannix himself, Mike Connors, playing a considerably older and more paunchy police detective. It’s one of the most high-profile supporting casts you’ll ever see in a 1980s slasher movie.
So what is Too Scared to Scream about, then? Well, it’s basically a slasher version of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, taking place in a posh, high-rise apartment in New York City where residents are being killed off one by one. Simultaneously, though, it has a twist of 1970s cop show, indicative perhaps of the fact that it was filmed in 1981 and sat on a shelf for years before finally being released in 1985. Archer and Connors play cops hunting for the high-rise killer, while the suitably creepy and downright weird McShane is a tortured doorman with some serious mommy issues, who can’t help but evoke Norman Bates. There’s plenty of bodies being thrown around here, but the violence itself is on the tame side. The true star of the film is really NYC itself at the absolute height of its sleaze, a gaudy wonderland of crime where carnival barkers outside porn theaters holler at passerby about the great show inside. With some gratuitous nudity and no shortage of gay undertones, leading into a classically nonsensical killer reveal, Too Scared to Scream has a lovely air of New York campiness around it. Bonus: An unforgettably embarrassing ‘80s dance sequence from Anne Archer, seen below. —Jim Vorel
5. Stage Fright, a.k.a. Aquarius (1987)Director: Michele Soavi
Stage Fright is what it looks like when Italian giallo films inform the American slasher genre, and then American slasher films return the favor by inspiring Italian imitation. Michele Soavi, perhaps better known in horror circles for 1994’s truly unique Cemetery Man, created this fusion of Argento-esque Italian horror (he was second unit director on Tenebrae and Argento’s similar film Opera) and American “escaped maniac on the loose” movies as an imaginative, gory dreamscape, and one that stands out as much for its ethereal visuals as it does for its shocking gore factor. Set overnight in a theater, where a troupe of actors is working overtime to premiere a new show about a homicidal killer, life of course ends up imitating art. The killer stalks the various nubile young actors dressed in an unusual owl costume, increasingly mottled with blood in its feathers as he impales or disembowels them. There’s a fantastical quality to Stage Fright that is its signature—a painterly quality to its beautiful set pieces that elevates it beyond the gratuitous violence. Although it takes a while to get going, once the killings begin, Stage Fright becomes a waking nightmare, and one of the most beautiful slasher movies of the era. —Jim Vorel
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film writing.