The ’80s were a strange time in American culture. Recovering from the smiley-faced, lackadaisical haze of the ’70s, everything suddenly became shiny, large and over the top. Bigger was better. Action films starring Stallone and Schwarzenegger ruled the box office, music became slick and electronic, and horror films … well, they turned vile, nasty and angry. This subgenre of horror, which usually involved a homicidal maniac murdering oversexed teens, came to be known as the slasher movie.
The slashers were unabashedly exploitative, but there was something significant and profound behind their bloody façade. Deconstruct a slasher film from the ’80s and you'll find a society at war with itself. Galvanized by the new conservative atmosphere of the Reagan era, parents felt a call to arms to take control of morality in society, which many felt had slipped away. And teenagers who misbehaved were the victims. You can see the scars of this social stratum in movies like the Friday the 13th series, where smoking a joint and a roll in the hay got you a machete in the head. Or A Nightmare on Elm Street, where director Wes Craven exposed the consequences of an autocratic vigilante society.
In many ways, the slashers were the most successful independent films of the ’80s, at least in spirit. Although some of them were backed by major studios, the brass were happy to take the money the films garnered but wanted nothing to do with their creation. So they handed control to the misfits and let them run wild. The result is a strange, disturbing but fiendishly fun genre that has outlasted most films in popularity and still looms large in the collective mindset. Here's a list of our favorite cinematic killers and the slasher films that made them iconic — or should have. Some of our picks deviate from the typical, a few don't even hail from the ’80s, but all of them are creepy, campy, bloodthirsty and perfect for a revisit during this season of the witch.
13. Frank Zito
Some films require a shower after viewing them. This is definitely the case with the ’80s exploitation classic Maniac. Dirty is a nice word for Maniac but nasty is better (it made the “video nasty” list of obscene films in the U.K. when it hit VHS). I would even recommend a body scrub after watching this blood-splattered classic. As Zito, Joe Spinell (The Godfather, Rocky) hunts his unsuspecting victims (specifically women) on the garbage-strewn streets of New York, then murders and scalps them. Post-bludgeoning, he goes home to his den of mannequins, where he plays house. A Freudian nightmare with a lead who looks like the guy who runs your local pizzeria, Maniac also features one of the great head explosions in cinema history.
The early ’80s gave us some cultural gold — slick rock bands like Loverboy and Night Ranger, Dolphin shorts and a few slashers cashing in on the Friday the 13th craze. The Burning (1981) is the best of these contenders. A janitor named Cropsy gets his revenge on a bunch of punk-ass campers who mistakenly burned him in a prank years prior. Notable victims (all donning Dolphins) include George Costanza (well, actor Jason Alexander), Holly Hunter and Fisher Stevens. By the way, “pranks gone wrong” sure created a lot of murderers in the slasher genre (House on Sorority Row, Hell Night, Carrie, Slaughter High). Just sayin’.
Brutal is the word that comes to mind when describing The Prowler, the hallucinatory tale of a killer in WWII combat garb who invades a graduation ball in a small coastal town. Bayonets, pitchforks … and roses? Yes, he’s a slasher with a crush. Special effects master Tom Savini did the makeup for this overlooked gem (actually, his fingerprints are on a few of the films on this list), and some of the kills are downright ugly (or beautiful, in horror jargon).
10. Kenny Hampson
Let’s go mobile with Terror Train, a nasty little tale from 1980. The poster featuring a knife-wielding psycho wearing a Groucho Marx mask freaked me out as a kid. The movie has the same effect. After being released from a mental hospital, the traumatized victim of a college prank (see #12 for “pranks”) boards a train for a New Year’s Eve costume party, where he picks off his enemies one by one. Jamie Lee Curtis cements her status as the best scream queen of all time, and … is that David Copperfield?
9. “The Night Owl”
Although the slasher is as American as apple pie, the Italians took a stab at it, too. Some claim the Italians invented the slasher, with their horror and giallo films from the ’60s and ’70s, which featured faceless murderers wearing black leather gloves. And although the giallo influence is undeniable, the slasher is unique in its brutality, edge and shameless vulgarity. It's as if we stole their Mozart and turned it into Van Halen. Either way, the Italians had their own take on the American slasher, and the result is beautifully odd. Just check out 1987's Stage Fright, a small opus about a band of actors forced by their overbearing director to rehearse for a play overnight. Big mistake. They don't get much work done as each cast member gets chainsawed, drilled and stabbed by a killer wearing an enormous … owl mask? That's the European take on the slasher … the owl mask. It's a doozy and it must be seen to be believed! Magnifico!
8. Virginia “Ginny” Wainwright (or is it?)
Just when you thought the slasher was purely a boys' club, along comes Happy Birthday to Me, a surrealist, at times hilarious, mystery highlighting a high school senior and her unhinged mental capacity. We soon find out that our heroine,“Ginny” Wainwright (played by Little House on the Prairie's Melissa Sue Anderson!) was not only locked away in a mental hospital but might be responsible for the massacre of her friends at an elite high school. I won't give too much away. Suffice it to say that although this 1981 hit has a feminine edge, that doesn't mean the kills are tame. We're talking a motorcycle wheel, garden shears and the famous shish kebab skewer (featured on the poster). Words to the wise: Don't ever forget a girl's birthday.
7. Billy Chapman
Slasher films aren’t just for Halloween. They should be celebrated every holiday. Even Christmas! In Silent Night, Deadly Night, a young Billy Chapman witnesses a Santa Claus–clad criminal murdering his parents and grows up with a skewed idea of holiday cheer. To say this film was controversial when it was released in 1984 is putting it lightly. Parents across the country picketed the film, mostly due to the poster featuring a guy in a Santa suit holding an ax. Nasty death scenes aside (including an impalement on deer antlers, ouch!), there lurks an intellect and wit in this grisly Yuletide classic (yes, classic — this is my It’s a Wonderful Life). You'll never look at Santa the same way again!
There are no rules in the slasher genre, but some die-hards will claim a plastic toy has no place in this discussion. Nevertheless, the Good Guy doll from Child's Play not only has a demonic soul but has racked up enough kills to earn the respect of the lowliest of psychotic murderers. Not to mention, this little fella can go from zero to 60 with one-liners. He goes from “Hi, I'm Chucky. Wanna play?” to “You stupid bitch!” in the same breath, and he actually declared himself a spot on this list in Seed of Chucky: “As a doll, I’m fucking infamous! I’m one of the most notorious slashers in history! And I don’t wanna give that up. I am Chucky, the killer doll! And I dig it!”
5. Hannibal Lecter
Who says all murderers are dumb? Celebrated psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter of the Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs proves you can be a bloodthirsty maniac and an intellect. The Albert Camus of slashers (if Albert Camus were a cannibal), Hannibal toys with your psyche and plunges you into an existential void, before he eats your liver (yes, with “fava beans and a nice chianti”).
The cooks are in the kitchen but who's gathering the food? In 1974's horror game-changer The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (one of the movies that laid the foundation for the slasher), the job of hunter and gatherer goes to Leatherface, a member of the industrious Sawyer clan, who use human flesh to spice up their award-winning chili. A gargantuan man-child, Leatherface wears a dusty three-piece suit, a blood-soaked apron and a crusty mask made of human skin. He isn't very creative in taking out his victims, but who needs artistry when you have a massive chainsaw?
3. Freddy Krueger
How does that saying go? “Once burned, twice shy?” This could apply to Freddy Krueger from the A Nightmare on Elm Street series — well, not the “shy” part. You know the story: Freddy Krueger exacts his revenge on the children of the local PTA who burned him alive years prior. The twist is, Freddy is dead, so he picks off his victims in their dreams, using a glove with knives for fingers. The Salvador Dali of slashers, Freddy invades your dreams, exposes your most vulnerable fears and uses them to paint a gory masterpiece — and he's funny, too.
2. Jason Voorhees
This cinematic maniac is so famous that even the most proper of Midwest parents who bake pies and watch Julia Roberts movies on repeat know his name — Jason! The masked prince of the slasher! Thanks to the Friday the 13th films, you’ll never look at a hockey mask without thinking of teenagers being decapitated, eye-gouged, smashed against a tree in a sleeping bag, speared through the midsection while having sex, pierced through the throat with an arrow, sliced down the middle while doing a handstand … you get the gist. Though his face shield didn't actually appear on film until the third installment in the series, it's become part of who Jason is. Of all the murderers in cinematic history, this guy is the most dexterous and shall we say, handy? From a machete to a corkscrew, you never know what to expect when Jason's on the prowl for campers in Crystal Lake, but be assured he'll use every tool in the shed until they're dead.
1. Michael Myers
If Jason rocks as a slasher, Michael Myers reigns. It's always up for debate who takes the mantle for the king of maiming and murdering: Halloween's Myers or Friday the 13th's Voorhees. My vote goes to Mr. Myers. It's a tough decision, though. Both candidates are mute, stalk horny teens and are known for wearing masks, but Michael is just more … ominous? While Jason jumps out at you, Michael lurks in those peripheral corners. And that nondescript mask molded from Captain Kirk’s visage takes the cake for disturbing simplicity (yes, Myers’ disguise was basically a teased and painted likeness of William Shatner, bought at a store in Hollywood); not to mention the guy has the best theme music. The first Halloween is slasher high art and it may never be kicked off the top spot, though the brand-new version that hit theaters this past weekend might come close!
Honorable mentions: Prom Night, Slumber Party Massacre, Hell Night, Silent Scream, Graduation Day, Evilspeak, Sleepaway Camp, April Fool's Day, My Bloody Valentine, The Mutilator, Slaughter High, Scream, Black Christmas, Madman, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Pieces.
Most films on the list available for streaming via Amazon.com.