Here we are folks. I have been building toward this post for an entire year. Last October I discussed how 1981 featured several of the greatest werewolf films and transformations of all time. Then, this spring I waded into the controversy over two of the more iconic nature-horror films of all time: both featuring lions and both released in 1981.
At that point I probably could have stopped with quite a case built as to why 1981 was a great year for horror fans. But of course horror is much more than werewolves and animals run amok. For instance, I haven’t even mentioned as of yet perhaps the most successful horror genre of the past forty years – the slasher film. Largely kicked off by the October 1974 release of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (which introduced several key elements of the genre – including murder by power tools and a powerful mask wearing killer) the genre exploded in popularity during the early 1980’s.
Now I’m not going to run down the history of such films, but I will mention two of the most prominent slasher franchises:
Halloween (with the original film released in October 1978)
And Friday the 13th (released in May of 1980).
I mention these two not just because of their iconic status, but due to the fact the second film in each franchise was released in…..you guessed it…..1981.
To that end Halloween II and Friday the 13th Part 2 are not quite up to the standards set by their predecessors, but both represent solid efforts. In particular I liked the spooky atmospherics of a dark hospital in the middle of the night as in Halloween II. And what’s not to enjoy about the introduction of Jason as the killer in Friday the 13th Part 2. But here’s the thing – in just about any other year either of these films would have been the best slasher films of the year. Nevertheless, such was the strength of 1981’s lineup they were decidedly second tier compared to and for example….My Bloody Valentine.
Say what you want about the atmospherics in Halloween II, My Bloody Valentine takes it a step further in a dark, moody experience that hits all the right notes. Regarded today as a slasher classic it was not only violent in the extreme (and that’s saying something for a slasher), it was downright scary. Taking place a small mining town with a dark past the climax takes place in a creepy abandoned mine. To the director’s credit real mining sets were used, which only made things so much better. Though crazy enough it might not have even been the best Valentine’s Day slasher movie’s ever – with that distinction potentially going to The Prowler – also released in 1981.
And if werewolves, killer animals, and slashers don’t float your boat we have yet another selection in 1981’s pantheon of classics: Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead! The film that introduced one of the most loved horror franchises of all time.
Set in an old cabin in the woods, a group of five friends are looking for a weekend away when instead they discover a battered tape recorder, along with a gnarly book made of human skin, which includes strange drawings and illegible script penned in blood. When they play the tape they activate a road to the other side, and a battle to the death with demons. Possessed of a sense of humor (like The Howling, American Werewolf in London, and other great horror films) a great score, very good sound effects, and surprising verisimilitude for being low budget The Evil Dead is an entertaining thrill fest that ranks among the best horror films of the decade.
But I haven’t even gone over The Wolfen, The Beyond, Scanners, The Night of the Werewolf, and others….that when coupled together more than make 1981 the greatest year for horror films, and perhaps puts the late ’70’s to early ’80’s as a strong contender for the golden age of horror.