There are few genre success stories more endearing than the run horror movies had throughout the 1980s. Visual effects – in all their animatronic and latex glory – had finally reached a point where they could capture the twisted fantasies of filmmakers. The genre began to latch onto a singular identity, going out of its way to distinguish itself from the form it had taken for the previous generation. These were not your parents’ cheesy werewolf movies.
By allowing the audience to watch slayings through the eyes of the killer, Halloween opened the door for slasher flicks to become the most successful genre on the planet. But they certainly weren’t all hits. Sure, movies like Friday the 13th and Prom Night were smashes at the box office, but for much of the early 1980s there seemed to be a new slasher movie making its way into cineplexes almost every weekend, and many of them slipped under the radar. Studios were making movies for next to nothing, and just throwing everything against the wall to see what would stick.
After Hollywood had run out of holidays to make scary (My Bloody Valentine, To All a Goodnight, New Year’s Evil), they made a groundbreaking discovery: some of the most popular killers had much more staying power than was previously realized. Soon, executives were turning any property that would sell into a series of perennial favorites. They were even resurrecting hits from the 1960s and 1970s (Psycho, Jaws, Halloween). Before long, slasher movies saw the birth of the modern film franchise. If you are wondering why every mildly successful movie gets an unnecessary sequel, you can blame the culture of greed during the Reagan administration.
In 1984, horror movies saw a drastic tonal shift. Two of the highest-grossing entries into the genre that year were A Nightmare on Elm Street and Gremlins, movies that made huge strides as they boasted gross-out practical effects. Following in the footsteps of soon-to-be cult classics (The Thing, The Evil Dead, Scanners), the primary goal of mainstream horror movies was no longer simply to be scary. Instead, they began to try to top one another with elaborate kills and over-the-top physical transformations. For the second half of the decade, body horror would be king, leading to such gnarly nausea trips as Hellraiser, Re-Animator, and The Fly.
Body horror brought with it a twisted sense of humor, giving rise to a revival in horror comedy. The craze was led by a fascination with metanarratives that played with the established conventions of scary movies (Beetlejuice, They Live). Audiences stopped buying tickets to horror flicks with the expectation of jumping out of their seats; now, they were going to scary movies for a laugh. This would pave the way for the revisionist approach to the genre in the 1990s, culminating with Scream.
The United States reveled in excess in the 1980s, and horror movies were no exception. The gore, the frights, and the nudity were all thrust to their extremes, and American teenagers couldn’t have been happier about it. In many ways, this was a staunch rejection of the gradual, looming psychological horror films of the previous decade. This allowed for the genre to connect with a wider audience and ensured that filmmakers would be paying homage – either through loving tribute or blatant theft – to this period for years to come.