Along with comedy, horror is the most inherently ephemeral genre, easily dated and forgotten with whatever fad dominates for a day. What had fashionably freaked folks out sixty years ago is now likely to induce chuckles and yawns, and what once haunted humanity can now be explained by science to be utterly banal; times, along with special effects, have certainly changed. Though there are rare and timeless exceptions, the majority of horror films from four decades ago simply don’t have the intensity, budget and creative freedom that have led some to call this past decade “a horror renaissance.” However, like fine wine and child actors, forty years can turn a horror film into something quite different than what was originally intended.
The charms of some scary movies can take ages to be appreciated, whereas others age so poorly that they can only ever be enjoyed comedically. Whether it’s due to nostalgia, generational irony, or simply streaming services, popular culture is somewhat obsessed with what is “so bad it’s good,” especially in regards to horror cinema — between podcasts, midnight screenings and blogs, much attention has been given to the guilty pleasures which cause guffaws instead of dread. For some reason, the 1980’s, with its perfect storm of painfully dated aesthetics and low production value, birthed a vast quantity of these half-disasters, half-treasures into the world. What unites them all and keeps us laughing is their total commitment to balls-to-the-wall insanity, rarely wavering in their ridiculousness. Here are the funniest “scary” movies from the 1980’s.
11 Chopping Mall
The half-hearted titular pun more than indicates what one should expect from this flick about horny teenagers and murderous robots. Before Jim Wynorski went on to direct over 150 cheap movies (from Piranhaconda to Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre), he quickly churned out this silly sophomore feature about mall employees hunted by the new ‘state of the art’ security system.
10 The Stuff
Anchored by a truly weird performance from Michael Moriarty, The Stuff features a Southern private investigator uncovering a diabolical, otherworldly plot involving an addictive ice cream company, and only gets odder from there. Larry Cohen is a director with great social commentary, and his parody of consumerism is spot-on here. What he didn’t realize is just how bizarre and (perhaps) unintentionally funny his awkward directorial choices would be.
9 Return of the Living Dead
Hardcore punk-rockers get weird in a cemetery and a morgue while the dead rise from their graves, all set to killer ’80s music — what’s not to love? Return of the Living Dead attempts to cash in on its namesake, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but is so over-the-top and bonkers that nobody would mistake the two.
8 Killer Klowns From Outer Space
This film is yet another case in which the title tells all. While the costume design is sometimes genuinely creepy, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is mostly a hokey laugh riot. From popcorn that eats you to bloody cotton candy coccoons, the film inventively goes for broke in its attempt to utilize every possible gag it can from clown culture.
7 Basket Case
Frank Henenlotter’s debut feature concerns a basket-dwelling, surgically removed siamese twin blob arranging the murders of everyone who’s wronged him (or it) and his brother. Basking in its own fetid outrageousness, this gory and debauched mess exists in the gutter of horror cinema, and Basket Case wouldn’t have it any other way.
6 Demons (1985)
Lamberto Bava, (son of famed maestro Mario Bava), directs this cheesy yet somehow clever movie about movies (and demons). An audience gets trapped in a theatre as an ancient demon is summoned from old film stock, but the narrative is practically tangential to the ridiculous set pieces, dialogue, and general wackiness of the film. Though there is some rich cultural criticism to be found here, the real comic delight of the film lies in watching bad actors with bad dialogue interacting with their claustrophobic surroundings.
5 Bad Taste
Before Peter Jackson was leading The Lord of the Rings series to 17 Oscar wins, he was a low-budget horror master from New Zealand developing what has been called ‘splatstick’ — something funny enough to be slapstick but gory enough to wetly splatter. This debut about aliens harvesting humans for a fast-food franchise may be the zenith of this period, and the title alone sums up the decade pretty succinctly, too.
4 Brain Damage
Over-the-top barely begins to describe this hallucinatory, gross, hypersexual oddity about a talking, phallic parasite which injects drugs into the chemistry of its host before using the human body as a means to kill and eat brains. Hilariously offensive and startlingly weird, the film nonetheless illustrates the seductive yet destructive world of drug use.
3 Texas Chainsaw Massacre II
While the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre is an avowed masterpiece, Tobe Hooper’s surprising sequel opts instead to highlight absurdity, eccentricity, and a kind of dirty wackiness over anything truly scary. Dennis Hopper goes ham as a cowboy-cop with a chainsaw, a radio DJ tries to escape a subterranean carnival, Leatherface’s gang crack jokes and eat people, and Hooper arranges it all into a jaw-droppingly weird grotesquerie that is as consistently funny as it is disgusting.
2 Evil Dead 2
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy is rightfully recognized as one of the most important and beloved horror series of all times. What is interesting is how the franchise begins in a state of pure horror and yet ends with slapstick comedy. Evil Dead 2, situated in the middle of this rollercoaster, acquires the best of both worlds, allowing Bruce Campbell’s blood-soaked character Ash total dominance over the screen with his intensely physical and comedic performance.
Stuart Gordon’s love affair with the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft reached its artistic peak with this insane adaptation, which manages to be simultaneously disturbing and hilarious. The special effects are top-notch, the tone is serious enough to be engaging but absurd enough to be funny, the cast and crew commit entirely, and one mesmerizingly warped set piece after another all lead Re-Animator to be the funniest horror film of the ’80s, blurring the lines of whether this is intentional or not in the process.
The slasher-heavy decade of the 80s brought some renowned classics and some truly scary movies that continue to live on in our pop culture collective.
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