1981 - An Explosion of Horror Part 1
Since starting this project of visiting horror films released every year of my life, there has been a steady trickle of horror films that seems to erupt in 1981. My initial list has 34 films - that's just the horror list. I found another 20 honorable mention films that played a part in my life one way or another; while ignoring at least another 15 films that are such no-brainers that I simply passed over them. So I'm using both posts this week to cover all the movie magic from 1981.
This was a difficult choice to make. There are at least 10 movies that could kick off a greatest of horror lists on any other year but 1981. To me the choice was really between 2 films and An American Werewolf in London wins the top spot.
Written and directed by the man who brought us Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House, and The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf is John Landis's personal favorite of his films. After directing 2 huge hits, he was finally given the money to tackle his dream project.
It took around 8 years to get the funding, and the special effects genius he pegged to do the transformation was already working on another werewolf picture because he got tired of waiting. After an angry phone call, Rick Baker left that project and returned to An American Werewolf where he won the very first Oscar for Best Makeup (partly because of a truly amazing transformation scene - eat your heart out CGI.)
A side note, Landis selected the star after seeing him in a Dr. Pepper commercial. You can stream it on Peacock and amc+.
Blurb - Two American college students on a walking tour of Britain are attacked by a werewolf that none of the locals will admit exists.
The 1b to this list is The Evil Dead. Directed by Sam Raimi - the guy who conquered Spider-Man - and staring one of the greatest chin in Hollywood, Bruce Campbell, The Evil Dead is a low-budget horror fan's dream come true. They were working with so tight a budget, the "star" ended up putting his parents' house for collateral so they could get enough cash to finish the movie. But even with that hurdle, they still created an amazingly bloody mess that's a thrill to watch.
I think of this as one of the granddaddy films of the extreme horror sub-genre that is very popular within the horror community. It was banned in Germany a few weeks after its release date until 2016. It's a must-see movie which you can if you have HBOMax.
Blurb - Five friends travel to a cabin in the woods, where they unknowingly release flesh-possessing demons.
Spoiler Alert - Friday the 13th Part II is important and maybe should be #1 because it introduces us to grownup Jason. While his mother was the killer in the first film, and many believed the chance for any sequels ended with her death, Paramount could smell a cash cow in the little horror movie who could. Enter the beginning of a horror franchise.
This movie is also important as it is the debut of director Steve Miner who will be a big player in the genre for years to come. While a lot of the original footage had to be left on the cutting room floor, I still find this to be a fun slasher film. Add in the fact, I caught the ending of this when I was very young on cable and it may be the reason I gravitated towards horror. Catch it on Peacock.
Blurb - Mrs. Voorhees is dead, and Camp Crystal Lake is shut down, but a camp next to the infamous place is stalked by an unknown assailant.
Set directly after the first Halloween movie, Halloween II follows the survivor of part 1 as she is rushed to the hospital and the sheriff begins to look for Michael Myers. Carpenter didn't want to do another Myers film, feeling he got everything he needed from the first film. Rick Rosenthal was handed the directing duties, but in the end, Carpenter couldn't take it and jumped into the editor's chair to try and fix a movie he felt didn't understand the "slasher" movement in horror at the time. He even filmed a few more shots to try and add more blood and nudity to the film.
You can stream it with amc+ or spend a few $ and get it at Amazon or VUDU.
Blurb - While Sheriff Brackett and Dr. Loomis hunt for Michael Myers, a traumatized Laurie is rushed to hospital, and the serial killer is not far behind her.
Speaking of the growing "slasher" sub-genre, 1981 gave us The Burning. While it is a stand-alone film, it has all the familiar parts of your typical campers getting slaughtered in the woods film. This movie is important to the genre as it is the movie horror special effect icon Tom Savini decided to work on after refusing to join the crew for Friday the 13th Part 2. He continues to hone his craft with this picture, and it has some fun and gruesome kills.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to be available anywhere to stream but you can get a Collector's Edition Blu-Ray that has several extras to fill your head with useless The Burning trivia. Also note this is Jason Alexander's first movie - playing one of the cool kids.
Blurb - A former summer camp caretaker, horribly burned from a prank gone wrong, lurks around an upstate New York summer camp bent on killing the teenagers responsible for his disfigurement.
Just Before Dawn continues the "slasher" movement out in the woods. Even though they aren't campers or councilors, they are four people lost deep in the woods. The director of Squirn(1976) returns to give us this Deliverance-inspired tale of terror. This movie has a solid up-and-coming cast, a great location, and a fun twist. You can find it on Hoopla or Flix Fling - whatever that is.
Blurb - Five young people venture into the backwoods of Oregon to claim a property, and find themselves being stalked by a hulking, machete-wielding psychopath.
Paramount figured out the formula - Slasher-type killer and a holiday = box office $. Such was the case with My Bloody Valentine. I think I've only seen bits and pieces of this one, but there's a chance I've consumed the whole thing. I may sit down and revisit it to see if it pulls up any memories. You can catch it on HULU & Paramount+.
Blurb - A decades-old folk tale surrounding a deranged murderer killing those who celebrate Valentine's Day turns out to be true to legend when a group defies the killer's order and people start turning up dead.
As you can tell, the slasher genre dominated the year, and The Prowler stands out from the crowd. This is partly because it was able to secure Tom Savini to help with the special effects/kills. He was advancing what could be done in special effects, and he considers this to be his finest work. You can watch it on tubi & VUDUfree.
Blurb - An unknown killer, clad in World War II U.S. Army fatigues, stalks a small New Jersey town bent on reliving a 35 year-old double murder b focusing on a group of college kids holding an annual graduation dance.
Coming off the made-for-TV mini-series Salem's Lot, Tobe Hooper directed The Funhouse. It was his first major studio picture since Eaten Alive & Texas Chainsaw Massacre and launched his run of horror projects throughout the 80s. Interesting side note - Spielberg wanted Hooper to direct E.T. but he passed as he was tied up with this project. Makes you wonder how different that movie may have been. Stream it on Peacock.
Blurb - Four teenagers visit a local carnival for a night of innocent amusement. They soon discover, however, that there is nothing innocent or amusing there at all.
With the popularity of horror films rising, and the success of spoof comedies like Kentucky Fried Movie & Airplane, the combination of the 2 was bound to happen. Student Bodies is that movie. Filled with tongue-in-cheek puns & gags, this movie is heavy on letting you in on the joke while pilling them on top of you. FYI - they had to put in a scene where the guy simply drops an F-bomb just to secure the R rating they knew they needed to pull in fans of the genre. You can watch for free with Pluto TV otherwise you will need to rent/buy.
I watched this at a very young age, not realizing what it was or that I wasn't supposed to. I found that out when my dad was telling one of his friends about the movie on a car ride and I piped up from the backseat to fill in some of the blanks. He was none-too-pleased but his friend thought it was funny.
Blurb - A serial killer with his signature heavy breathing proceeds to systematically kill the students and teachers of Lamab high school.
We will continue 1981 on Wednesday and throw in some non-horror films that made an impression or are some of my favorites. We are getting to the time period when I actually remember seeing some of these for the first time in the theater.