It was the 1980s – hair metal and syth-pop ruled music charts, Cabbage Patch Kid dolls were all the rage, and for a brief, fleeting moment, the slasher film dominated the horror genre. Derided by critics the slasher film has been most aptly defined by Molitor and Sapolsky (1993) as a subgenre featuring “suspense-evoking scenes in which an antagonist … attacks one or more victims [and the] is on extreme graphic violence” (p. 235). Even casual horror fans are familiar with the standout slasher franchises – Friday the 13th, Halloween, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Other slasher titles, including My Bloody Valentine and Prom Night, found new audiences when Hollywood went on its slasher remake craze in the 2000s. While many slasher titles are probably best left buried in the 1980s, there are a few titles that have been unfairly forgotten at the bottom of discount bins in Walmart. In this list I pick out five of the better slasher films you have may have missed.
Number 5 – Slaughter High (1986)
No one will ever mistake Slaughter High for a good movie – on any imaginable barometer of filmmaking quality. Nonetheless, I can guarantee that you will never forget watching Slaughter High. The plot is an absolute generic re-hash of much better slasher films released at the peak of the era. Science nerd, Marty, is the victim of a cruel April Fool’s prank gone horribly awry. Seduced and tricked into undressing in the girl’s bathroom by a popular cheerleader, Marty is humiliated by the ‘cool kids’ in one of the most bizarre pranks in horror film history. Words cannot do it justice but it involves electrocution, using a javelin to poke at his genitals, a laced joint, and an exploding science experiment that leaves Marty horribly burned. Years later, the “cool kids” behind the prank are invited to a high school reunion where a killer in a jester mask stalks them.
Nothing in Slaughter High makes the slightest bit of sense. Its plot is a convoluted excuse for an outrageous mix of carnage and sex. Despite arriving at a reunion to which no one else was invited, finding the school closed, and in disrepair, the characters still decide to break in and party. After one character’s stomach bursts open from ingesting acid, another character decides to take a bath to clean up. Why is there a bathtub in a high school building? Who takes a bath in a building where you’re trapped and a killer is on the loose? Other characters disappear to have sex. Why? It doesn’t matter, so don’t ask. The killer wears a jester mask that has actual bells on it and, yes, they jingle during the climatic chase of the film’s “final girl”. Some of the actors, who are supposed to be playing Americans, clearly have British accents.
Yet in spite of its ineptitude, Slaughter High manages to offer an unhinged good time for a slasher film fans. Featuring a creepy score from Friday the 13th’s Harry Manfredini, the film’s death scenes are outrageously over-the-top – from lawnmower blades to acid baths – and are guaranteed to prompt screams and guffaws. No one is watching a slasher film from satisfying character arcs and deeper thematic meaning and Slaughter High delivers the goods on its kills. The film goes completely off the rails at the end and, whether intended or not, the result is an uneasy feeling of dread and discomfort, an effect usually only achieved by much better horror films.
Number 4 –The Prowler (1981)
Back in the era of VHS and videostores, The Prowler (1981) was one of those cassette boxes I always vividly remember staring at when my dad would take us to rent a movie. The imagery on the cover jacket just always stood out for me. Directed by Joseph Zito (Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter), The Prowler dutifully checks off almost all of the slasher film boxes. The prologue opens with the tragic backstory – Rosemary sends her boyfriend, overseas during World War II, a ‘Dear John’ letter. Shortly thereafter, Rosemary and her new boyfriend are brutally murdered during a graduation dance by a man in a combat uniform and mask. Thirty-five years later a group of teenagers ignore the advice of older townsfolk and foolishly decide to hold the first graduation dance since the tragic death of Rosemary. Can you guess what happens next?
The Prowler makes it on this list for one reason and one reason only – the incredible gore effects created by the legendary Tom Savini. Featuring some of the most brutally staged death scenes in slasher film history, I’ve always felt that Savini’s work in The Prowler actually upstages the effects he created for Friday the 13th. Aside from the film’s special effects, there isn’t much else to recommend as The Prowler actually drags quite a bit in its second half.
Number 3 – Just Before Dawn (1981)
Following the box office breakout of Friday the 13th (1980), slasher films saw a boom in production and, in particular, several camping-themed horror films were quickly released to cash in on the horror heavyweight’s success. Not surprisingly, with so many similar films saturating the market, some titles flew under the radar and never found an audience. While it never caught on with filmgoers in the 1980s and still remains hard to find on Blu-ray and streaming services Just Before Dawn is worth seeking out. On the surface, the storyline is familiar with several college students venturing too deep into the woods for a camping trip only to be stalked and killed by an unseen menace. Just Before Dawn is surprisingly understated and restrained for a slasher film placing a much greater emphasis on atmosphere and mood. It’s greatly aided in this regard by an unsettling score by Brad Fiedel (Terminator, Terminator II) and impressive cinematography for a low-budget horror offering. The film has not one, but two killers – deformed hillbilly brothers – and while deformed rural killers are an overused horror trope the antagonists of Just Before Dawn do manage to stand out – you will certainly remember that creepy laugh and whistling sound. Just Before Dawn also gets points for featuring one of the more creative ways of the “final girl” dispatching the antagonist.
Number 2 – The Burning (1981)
Of all the films on this list, The Burning (1981) probably has the largest following and familiarity among horror audiences. Sadly, casual horror fans may be apt to skip this one over in favour of the usual suspects in the slasher film library. Like Just Before Dawn (1981), The Burning is one of a slew of “don’t go camping” slasher films that were rushed into production following the unexpected success of Friday the 13th. A prank at Camp Blackfoot leaves cruel caretaker Cropsy horribly burned and disfigured. Five years later, after several failed skin graft surgeries, Cropsy returns for revenge against the campers. Despite its utterly generic plot, The Burning has lot going for it and it definitely still manages to feel like a unique horror viewing experience.
Film buffs will be shocked at the number of respected actors who got their start in this low-budget slasher film. Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, Fisher Stevens, and Oscar-winning Holly Hunter, all turn up in small supporting roles. The real star of The Burning is once again Tom Savini’s amazing gore effects in the death scenes. While some younger audiences may find the effects a little dated, Savini’s work in The Burning still helps set this slasher apart from the assembly-line of “also-ran’s”. The “Raft Scene”, which in part earned the film a spot on Britain’s infamous “video nasties list”, still remains one of the standout horror film death scenes of all time.
Number 1 – Intruder (1989)
Produced by Sam Raimi of The Evil Dead and Spider-Man fame, Intruder (1989) had the misfortune of being released well past the expiry date of the 1980s slasher film phenomenon. Set in a supermarket that is closing down after the final night shift, a small group of employees find themselves stalked by an unseen killer. Is it a disgruntled employee or the violent ex-boyfriend of the film’s “final girl”? There is nothing inherently unique about Intruder; it doesn’t add anything or twist the subgenre’s expectations in any way. Yet while it hits all the familiar plot points of its predecessors, Intruder distinguishes itself with just the right balance of outrageous humor and over-the-top horror, tone, and a surprising level of suspense. The practical gore effects are still outstanding even after nearly thirty years. It also happens to feature one of the bleaker slasher film endings in the subgenre. Most importantly, Intruder is a fun slasher film, the perfect choice for a viewing marathon if you’re looking for something you may have missed.