• ERIC BUTLER

1981 - An Explosion of Horror Part 2

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. Here are the rest of the movies ...

While we saw from Monday's post that 1981 was dominated by the slasher sub-genre, there was an uptick in werewolf pictures as well. In the group of movies I selected to highlight in Monday's post, a werewolf movie was #1 - An American Werewolf in London. This trend will continue in today's post.


Joe Dante continues to build his impressive resume with The Howling. Coming off of 1978's Piranha and an uncredited directing credit from Rock 'N Roll High School, Dante started work on the film adaptation of Gary Brandner's book of the same name. He wasn't a fan of the original work so the movie is quite different, giving fans 2 different ways to enjoy the material. Dee Wallace stands out and shows why she was considered one of the top scream queens of the time. You can stream on amc+ or rent/buy on Amazon. It's only $4.99 right now.


Blurb - After a bizarre and near deadly encounter with a serial killer, a television newswoman is sent to a remote mountain resort whose residents may not be what they seem.




Another film with wolves as the "creatures", Wolfen is the lesser of the three but still a very good movie. Other than Albert Finney, who the director wanted to work with so badly that he refused Dustin Hoffman's request to play the title character, the cast is filled with no names and talent from Broadway. This is Gregory Hines's 2nd movie only because History of the World Part 1 came out a month earlier.


This is the only film the director, Michael Wadleigh, did that wasn't about Woodstock and may be the reason that another director was brought in for reshoots and dialog stuff. You can't stream it with any service for free, but it is available on all the major rent/own streaming services.


Blurb - A New York cop investigates a series of brutal deaths that resemble animal attacks.



The next movie up was a popular one on the Saturday USA Channel horror marathons in the 80s. I must have seen bits and pieces of The Hand every 3-4 weeks. Even though this was one of his "paycheck movies", Michael Caine is his usual amazing self, hamming it up in the old horror movie style made famous by Hammer and Vincent Price. This is also Oliver Stone's 2nd full-length feature and the last movie before he started his impressive run in the mid-to-late 80s.


Another picture you have to rent/buy to watch on the streaming services.


Blurb - A comic book artist loses his hand, which in turn takes on a murderous life of its own.



Roger Corman's New World Pictures saw how much $ Alien made and decided they should make an alien horror movie. Thus Galaxy of Terror was born. I could write an entire post just on this movie, and the amazing talent the movie had on-screen and behind the scenes.


Not only did the movie have Erin Moran (Joanie Cunningham from Happy Days), a pre-Freddy Robert Englund & Sid Haug on screen, but James Cameron was the Art Director and he hired Bill Paxton to be the set director. Because of this Paxton was a mainstay in all of Cameron's earlier movies.


Luckily, you can stream this one for free with tubi, IMDBtv(Amazon's free with ads streamer), and Roku


Blurb - Science fiction suspense thriller, in which a rescue space ship crew meets up with horrors projected by their own imaginations.



The producers of Galaxy of Terror were so impressed with Cameron and his quick thinking during the production, they gave him Piranha 2: The Spawning to direct. This turned out to be a ruse for Ovidio G. Assonitis to take over after a few days of shooting and become the director. Most of the movie is footage Cameron shot and there was a director's cut released that allowed people to see the movie he was trying to make, but most of the time you see Assonitis' vision - which is vastly different. However, the thing that ties them both together is the idea of piranha that can fly.


Looks like it's only on google and youtube to rent/buy.


Blurb - A scuba diving instructor, her biochemist boyfriend, and her police chief ex-husband try to link a series of bizarre deaths to a mutant strain of piranha fish whose lair is a sunken freighter ship off a Caribbean island resort.



Coincidentally, Ovidio G. Assonitis had to replace another director in a film that came out the same year. Here he got the director, co-writer, and co-producer credits of Madhouse. This one is more cohesive and tells a better story than what he tried to force on Piranha 2. Funny side note - the cast and crew had to be silent and still anytime the rottweilers were brought out. You can stream on tubi or rent it for only $.99 on Amazon.


Blurb - A woman is pursued by her murderous, psychopathic twin sister in the days leading up to their birthday.


This made-for-TV movie premiered on CBS in 1981. Dark Night of the Scarecrow had an all star cast of familiar TV faces and showcased Larry Drake(Darkman, Dr. Giggles, LA Law) as a simple-minded man who is wrongly executed by a group of vigilantes. You can watch it on tubi or Roku.


Blurb - In a small Southern town, four vigilantes wrongfully execute a mentally-challenged man, but after the court sets them free mysterious "accidents" begin to kill them off one by one.




1981 was a good year for Sam Neill as he had several projects come to the big screen, 2 of them horror. The first one was the 3rd part of the Omen: The Final Conflict. Neill was cast as grown-up Damien and was supposed to tie up the Omen story. Of course, 10 years later a 4th one came out.


Blurb - The now adult Antichrist plots to eliminate his future divine opponent while a cabal of monks plot to stop him.



To be honest, I haven't seen this film and after watching the preview I don't know if I reach the level of art-house pompousness needed to enjoy it. Maybe the director was bet they couldn't out-Cronenberg David Cronenberg, and this might be the most interesting thing to come out of 1981. I doubt it. If you've seen it and think otherwise, let me know.


Blurb - A woman starts exhibiting increasingly disturbing behavior after asking her husband for a divorce. Suspicions of infidelity soon give way to something much more sinister.



Dan O'Bannon is an important person to me. He is the writer behind one of the best horror science fiction films ever, Alien. He is the director of one of the best/funniest zombie movies, Return of the Living Dead. He is the co-writer of this film, Dead & Buried. But the reason he is important to me is he suffered from Crohn's - before they even knew what it was and had a name for it. He's one of the people I've shown to my son as an example of overcoming the disease and following his dreams. Even with a crippling illness, there are times when you can rise and do the things you find joy in. Dan's was making movies. I'm excited to see what my son conquers as he faces off with his Crohn's.


Blurb - A suspense horror film set in a small coastal town where, after a series of gory murders committed by mobs of townspeople against visiting tourists, the corpses begin to come back to life.


We'll end 1981 with more movies that I think are important. Of course, there were some super big hits and yes, you should see Raiders of the Lost Ark, but some of these may have slipped past you.

  1. Condorman - Spy/superhero movie that Disney put out before they ruled the world. Underrated and funny. You have to rent/buy to see. Fingers crossed it makes its way to Disney+ soon

  2. Time Bandits is a must-see movie. This is Terry Gilliam's 2nd movie after Monty Python and he stuffs it with an incredible cast. The film is everything right with movies and Gilliam's direction is perfection. It's on HBOmax.

  3. Dragonslayer is another movie that embraces magic and the unknown. Presented as a traditional quest movie, we get to join Peter MacNichol as he goes to do the impossible - kill a dragon. Find it on Prime & Paramount+.

  4. Heavy Metal - There was a time when this movie was just a word-of-mouth experience as those who were lucky enough to see it in the theater would tell people about it. It was impossible to find this animated experience of science fiction, fantasy, and hard rock music. Now you just need Starz.

  5. American Pop is an amazing experience of music and animation as Ralph Bakshi shows the story of four generations of a Russian Jewish immigrant family of musicians whose careers parallel the history of American popular music in the 20th century. You can find it on fubo.

  6. Road Warrior - Sign says Mad Max 2, but I'll always know this as The Road Warrior. This movie heralded the return of the action movie. It showed Hollywood there was a hunger for big action & stunts, and fewer monologues - which dominated films in the 70s. Stream it on HBOmax.

  7. Nighthawks is a Stallone movie where he plays a streetwise cop going head to head with an international terrorist. The cast is great, the movie screams late 70s/early 80s NY City, and the tension is real. One of my favorite Stallone movies. Stream it on Starz.

  8. Excalibur is an amazing feat in cinema; a worthy King Arthur film. Rent/Buy only.

  9. Clash of the Titans is a Ray Harryhausen production which means amazing creatures and action sequences. The cast is amazing and Medusa is awesome in this film. HBOMax.

  10. Caveman is a weird one. It's about some cavemen just trying to survive - very tongue in cheek and very funny. Starring Ringo Starr, Dennis Quaid, and Shelly Long. Find it on Prime & Paramount+.

  11. History of the World Part I is one of Mel Brooks' funniest movies. Rent/buy only.

  12. Zorro the Gay Blade is a movie I'm not sure gets made today, but it's pretty funny. Zorro passes on his persona to his son, but when he gets injured the only one left to step in and save the people is his twin brother - who happens to be gay. No idea where you can watch it but if you see it streaming you should stop down and check it out.

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