There are those film critics who call 1981 one of the greatest years in horror history. That’s certainly a reasonable claim, even if other years, like 1931, 1960, 1968 and 1999, produced movies that are more iconic. In terms of sheer depth, it’s difficult to find years that can match the volume that was produced in 1981. In fact, it was such a monumentally deep year for horror that I’ve expanded the usual selections of a “fabulous five” films to a “great eight.”
The list from 1981 includes two slasher films, three movies from the werewolf sub-genre, one old-fashioned ghost story, a film that involves supernatural resurrection, and one particularly wild film that is difficult to slot into any conventional category.
Let’s count them down, from the very good to the very best.
8. The Funhouse
Made on a small budget and featuring mostly young actors lacking in brand name value, The Funhouse is an example of a horror film that overachieves. Perhaps that’s because of the skill of director Tobe Hooper, who a few years earlier found a way to make a horror classic on little money when The Texas Chain Saw Massacre made its debut in 1974. That is not to say that The Funhouse is nearly as good as Texas Chain Saw, but it does feature some of the same grittiness and evokes a similarly terrifying effect.
Shot on location in Miami, Florida, The Funhouse centers on two teenage couples who decide to spent an evening of innocent fun at a local carnival attraction. One of the teenagers then suggests that they remain after hours and spend the entire night in a ride known as “The Funhouse,” a decision that results in them becoming witnesses to the grisly murder of a fortune teller. The killer is wearing a Frankenstein mask, one that covers up his horrific identity. He happens to be the carnival proprietor’s son, and at the behest of his father, he pursues the four teenagers so as to prevent them from reporting what they have seen to the police.
Hooper brings a sense of style to The Funhouse, as he puts the spotlight on the kind of small-town carnivals that were once quite popular across America. He also manages to build early suspense in terms of what the killer’s mask is hiding, and later uncertainty by making us wonder if any of the teenagers will survive.
The Funhouse is not high art, but by using a carnival as the backdrop, it presents an interesting twist on the typical slasher film, giving us a high level of atmosphere that is buttressed by an excellent musical score.
Three stars for The Funhouse.
7. My Bloody Valentine
It produced mild numbers at the box office and received middling reviews upon its release back in 1981, but has since become a cult classic. My Bloody Valentine relies on a no-name cast and a small budget, but it has become a guilty pleasure for those who love slasher films.
Set in a small Canadian mining town, where an accident killed several miners 20 years earlier, the film takes place during the days leading up to Valentine’s Day and then the holiday itself. Some people within the town believes that anyone who attends the revival of the Valentine’s Day Dance, canceled ever since the mining tragedy, could become a victim of a miner who was badly injured during the original accident. He initially went insane, but has since escaped from a local asylum.
My Bloody Valentine is quite violent, but it was even bloodier in its original form. Censors demanded severe edits, resulting in nine minutes of footage being removed. Some, including the director of the film, George Mihalka, say that this came about in the aftermath of the murder of John Lennon. Given the timing of the film’s release, which was only two months after the slaying of Lennon, Mihalka believes that a backlash resulted against films containing so much blood and gore.
Many viewers would argue that My Bloody Valentine is violent enough in its edited form. Violence aside, the film offers a refreshing change from the slasher formula by changing the focus from teenagers in trouble to working adults in a middle class community. The movie also has an authenticity to it because of Mihalka’s decision to do the filming in an actual Nova Scotian mine that had closed in 1975. It’s another reason why fans of the film remain rabid about it, including current day director Quentin Tarantino, who has called it his favorite slasher film of all time.
Three stars for My Bloody Valentine.
One of three werewolf films to come out in ’81, Wolfen is the least popular of the three but is still a very good movie. Wolfen stars Albert Finney as a New York City police detective who investigates a series of killings that appear to be the result of animal attacks, but are actually a bit more complicated than what they seem.
Finney, a high-profile actor who rarely did horror films, brings intelligence and gravitas to Wolfen. He is also supported by a terrific cast, including Diana Venora, Gregory Hines, Edward James Olmos, and Tom Noonan. The film is beautifully shot, with all of the filming taking place on location in New York City, including Central Park and Battery Park, and some of the decaying neighborhoods of the Bronx.
In contrast to films like The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, the “Wolfen” of the title are not exactly werewolves. Rather, they are said to be wolf spirits with god-like qualities, in line with Native American tradition.
Wolfen is also a groundbreaking film. It was the first horror movie to use thermographic photography, as director Michael Wadleigh gives us the visual perspective from the Wolfen themselves. This kind of photography has become a common special effect, used in later films like Predator, but Wadleigh was the first to give it a try. And it worked.
All in all, Wolfen is an underrated film, one that tends to get lost in the shuffle of so-called werewolf pictures and is rarely shown on television these days, but is very much worth a look.
Three stars for Wolfen.
5. The Howling
It’s a film that will forever be grouped with its 1981 rival werewolf films, but The Howling deserves its own level of recognition. It features a young Dee Wallace in a starring role; she plays newswoman Karen White, who is stalked by a serial killer. Seeking refuge in a remote mountain colony, where White expects relative peace and quiet, she soon encounters strange wolf-like activity.
Wallace is typically good in her lead performance, no surprise given her later starring roles in such films as ET and Cujo. Director Joe Dante also relies on a supporting cast that is remarkably deep, full of horror veterans young and old. Venerable favorites like Patrick Macnee, Kevin McCarthy, Slim Pickens, and the legendary John Carradine all lend their hand, giving The Howling an old-fashioned feel. Among the younger actors, the late Christopher Stone stands out. He and Wallace were engaged at the time of filming and soon became married.
To add to the eclectic cast, three other famous people make uncredited appearances in The Howling: directors Roger Corman and John Sayles, and Forrest Ackerman, the genius behind Famous Monsters of Filmland.
One of the most interesting parts of The Howling are the werewolves themselves. Throughout the film, they walk upright, and not on their hind legs, as we often see in films of this genre. This characteristic makes the werewolves more human, more lifelike, and more frightening.
All in all, The Howling is a hoot—a good, old-fashioned werewolf movie full of mystery, suspense, and atmosphere. And it has a horrifying ending, one that caught many viewers, including this one, completely off guard.
Three stars for The Howling.
4. Ghost Story
A particular favorite of this writer, Ghost Story is set in the winter of 1979 in New England and centers on four elderly members of an elite group called the “Chowder Society.” On the surface, the four men are all successful and all seemingly enjoying the fruits of retirement, but they are also hiding a collective secret from their days as young men. That secret, unfolded in flashback form, involves scandalous activity that literally comes back to haunt the men in the present day.
The four Chowder Society members are played by Hollywood royalty – Fred Astaire, John Housman, Douglas Fairbanks, and Melvyn Douglas – all near the end of their careers, but all still very capable as actors. In contrast, two younger actors play key roles, including Craig Wasson as the son of one of the men, and Alice Krige as the young woman at the center of the Chowder Society scandal. In a way, the film conveys a feeling of two different generations of actors coming together in one setting, and it makes for an effective blend of youth and age.
Forty years after its premiere, Ghost Story doesn’t receive as much attention as it should, perhaps because director John Irvin presents an old-fashioned story that is very different from the horror films to come during the decade of the 1980s. But Irvin’s Ghost Story is well-acted, features beautifully done special effects, has plenty of atmosphere in the form of a spooky old New England house, and unfolds a creative story. A classically presented horror picture, Ghost Story is an enjoyable throwback to an earlier era of film.
I love this one. Three and a half stars for Ghost Story.
3. Dead and Buried
Of all the films featured on our 1981 list, Dead and Buried is probably the least known. It had relatively little impact at the box office, but has gained some notoriety over the years for its creativity, atmosphere, and shocking conclusion.
The late James Farentino takes the lead role as Dan Gillis, the sheriff of a small seaside town where visitors are suddenly turning up dead in a series of grisly murders. Farentino begins to investigate, only to discover that the corpses are somehow coming to life. Amidst an atmosphere of paranoia and conspiracy, Sheriff Gillis sets out to discover who might be the culprit behind the gruesome phenomenon.
Farentino is ably assisted by Melody Anderson, a fairly average actress from the 1970s who in recent years has become a noted social worker and public speaker on the issue of drug addiction. Anderson raises her performance to a career peak in Dead and Buried, playing Farentino’s wife with innocence, charm, and sultry beauty. And then there is the great Jack Albertson, who was seriously ill throughout the filming but gamely reported to the set day after day. It would turn out to be Albertson’s last theatrical film; he attended the premiere with the aid of an oxygen tank, and then passed away less than two months later. Fittingly, Albertson delivers a terrific effort as the town’s friendly undertaker, a worthy swansong to a wonderful career that included appearances in shows like “Night Gallery” and “The Twilight Zone”.
When I first saw Dead and Buried on cable television in the early eighties, it scared the daylights out of me. And then about five years ago, I re-visited the film and was delighted to find that its impact remained strong, even on a cynical adult viewer. Dead and Buried relies on plenty of gore that is creatively presented, excellent special effects from Stan Winston, and a twist near the end of the film that I absolutely did not see coming.
All in all, it’s a vastly underappreciated film, a mini-cult classic, from 1981. Three and a half stars for Dead and Buried.
2. An American Werewolf in London
For the second straight article, this film makes one of our “best of” lists. Already well established as one of the finest werewolf films of all time, An American Werewolf in London clearly deserves recognition as one of the top horror films of 1981. In my mind, it is good enough to be ranked No. 2 on our list.
David Naughton and Griffin Dunne play two likeable college friends on a hiking trip through the northern English countryside. While backpacking in the British moors, they are attacked by someone—or something. The brutal attack leaves Dunne’s character of Jack Goodman dead, while Naughton’s David Kessler is left badly injured. Kessler is taken to a nearby hospital, where a beautiful nurse (Jenny Agutter) provides his care and soon falls in love with him. As their relationship develops, Kessler is continually plagued by nightmares and eventually realizes that his body is changing – in a very unwanted way – thanks to the attack in the moors.
An American Werewolf in London is a gory film, particularly for its era, but what sets it apart from so many films of its type is its humorous tinge, the chemistry between Naughton and Agutter, and its creative willingness to inject a ghost-like character into the werewolf proceedings. And then there are the phenomenal special effects. The legendary Rick Baker oversaw the makeup and transformation effects, which were so well done and so ahead of their time that Baker won an Academy Award in the category of makeup, newly created for the Oscars at the time.
It’s another reason why An American Werewolf in London has become a classic. Three and a half stars.
1. The Evil Dead
This is a film that frightened me so much during my first viewing as a teenager that I refused to revisit it for many years. To this day, some of the scenes make me cringe in terror, as if I were still a child. It’s also the film that takes the top spot on our list from 1981.
A young Bruce Campbell takes center stage as Ash Williams, one of five friends who have set out for a vacation in a remote, seemingly peaceful cabin. There they soon discover a strange book and an audio tape. Listening to the tape and reading an incantation from the book, the friends unwittingly unleash a maelstrom of demons, evil spirits, and undead beings. One by one, the demons do away with the group of friends, leaving only one who will survive into the next day.
Director Sam Raimi used an actual abandoned cabin for the filming, and that only contributes to the feelings of terror, especially in the dark woods that seem to come alive with an array of wild manifestations of evil. To call the film bloody would be an understatement; at one point, Campbell’s shirt was so caked in fake blood that when he attempted to dry the shirt, it actually broke in his hands.
Given its extremely gruesome nature, The Evil Dead was banned in several countries, including the United Kingdom. (In fact, it remains on the banned list in several countries, 40 years after the fact.) Some religious groups went so far as to brand the film as “evil,” plain and simple. Such criticism created problems with regard to the distribution of the movie. Initially premiering in Detroit in October of 1981 and then showing at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 1982, The Evil Dead did not earn a nationwide American release until 1983. Even with the delays, the film performed well at the box office and garnered mostly positive reviews.
As powerful and effective as The Evil Dead is, it is a difficult film to watch, even for the most avid followers of horror—including this writer. It is so creepy that I will not watch it at night, a recommendation that I pass along to those who might be the least bit squeamish. Watch it in the safeness of the daylight—and then give it a try during the darker hours. If you dare.
Four stars for The Evil Dead.
From The Evil Dead to The Funhouse, 1981 provided plenty of terror in graphic form. It had a little bit of everything, including demons, werewolves, ghosts, and serial killers. Veteran actors and younger stars came together, along with a few creative directors, to give us a memorable experience—one that we can still enjoy 40 years later.
Be sure to check out more horror content from Bruce on his Facebook page: Ghostly Gallery.
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