Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
When you close your eyes and think of bad, hackneyed horror films, you’re probably thinking of the ones that came out during the ’80s. That’s the decade in which horror movies not only became hugely successful, but also ubiquitous: There were eight Friday the 13th movies in that 10-year span! But that doesn’t mean the genre didn’t hit some absolute highs that decade.
For this week’s Debate Club, we rank the top five scariest movies of the 1980s.
05. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
The original Wes Craven film isn’t a masterpiece. There are some that argue it’s not even the best in the series, with Craven’s meta entry New Nightmare years later taking that spot — but there is something about it that is so fundamentally terrifying that you’ll never get it out of your head.
It’s not Freddy Krueger, as mangled and gnarled and monstrous as he is. It’s the fact that the only way to stay alive is to stay awake. What could possibly be more helpless than that?
04. Evil Dead II (1987)
The Evil Dead was more of a straightforward horror flick — for the sequel, director and co-writer Sam Raimi decided to get nuts. Evil Dead II is pretty freaky in its own right, but it’s also ridiculously funny, presenting a slapstick-y nightmare of Ash (Bruce Campbell) doing battle with demons, which involves wacky bodily possession and the random decapitation.
This movie is disgusting and gory, but it has the spirit of an R-rated Looney Tunes cartoon. This probably makes Campbell a mixture of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Tasmanian Devil.
03. The Thing (1982)
What is it about the special effects, which don’t look even slightly real, in The Thing that make it so much more horrifying than the more tech-heavy effects we would see today? It’s probably the surreal nature of it, right? It’s so fundamentally gross — that poor dog — that it is almost too much for our brains to comprehend.
That any of the people around us could secretly be that ‘thing’ fries our nervous system. It makes us think all is madness.
02. The Fly (1986)
You could make the case for several David Cronenberg movies being included on this list — The Dead Zone, Videodrome, Scanners — but we’ll stick with this brilliant, troubling, and oddly moving remake.
Long before Jeff Goldblum became “Jeff Goldblum, Adorable Internet Mascot™” he played Seth Brundle, an ambitious scientist who’s going to learn the hard way that doing dangerous experiments while drunk is not the best idea. Cronenberg has gone on to have one of the most rewarding and iconoclastic careers, but what makes The Fly so enjoyable is that it synthesizes his themes and preoccupations into a mainstream package, delivering entertainment and subversive ideas simultaneously.
01. The Shining (1980)
“Just like everybody else,” Stanley Kubrick once explained, “I’m fascinated by the various experiments and the stories which have been published about ESP and psychokinesis.” And so we got The Shining, a movie the famed director made in part because he was looking for a commercial hit after Barry Lyndon’s disappointing box office.
Based on Stephen King’s novel, the movie is about a lot of things — ghosts, writer’s block, spousal abuse, toxic masculinity, maybe the faking of the moon landing? — but it boils down to the wonders, terrors and unknown powers of the human mind, which can warp people’s behavior and make them do awful things. And as with so many great horror movies, The Shining gets into your head — like the characters at the Overlook, you can’t ever quite escape this film.