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Every Slasher Released in 1981, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Universal; MGM; Paramount; Troma

An escaped asylum patient in a white mask stalks a quiet, unsuspecting suburb prowling for teenagers to mutilate. The premise of John Carpenter’s Halloween stands in for the very definition of a modern slasher film. Also known as body-count movies, slashers aren’t beholden to a strict set of guidelines but instead include a loose set of criteria cooked down to one central idea: A killer stalks and murders a group of people.

Carpenter’s 1978 hit might have perfected this model, but that film’s first imitator, Friday the 13th, two years later, signaled how easily the format could swiftly be replicated, generating millions at the box office. While horror purists know 1974’s Black Christmas was the first to hone the slasher tropes introduced in Peeping Tom and Psycho, both from 1960, the early ’80s saw the subgenre reach its peak. Its swift rise was matched by a swift decline in both quantity and quality, however. Despite their ardent supporters and subsequent reappropriation as cult favorites, franchise sequels and straight-to-video efforts put the slasher to sleep until the mid-’90s, when Wes Craven’s back-to-back meta-whammy of New Nightmare and Scream revived the gasping genre.

The latter kick-started a new cycle of teen slashers stretching into the early aughts and sputtering back to life again in the late aughts with a spate of remakes. Now, original franchises are returning with sequels or reboots of Scream, Candyman, and Child’s Play, all resurrected for eager horror hounds. Carpenter’s baby has been refashioned within that group too; Halloween Kills, the central chapter in Blumhouse’s reboot trilogy, is now in theaters breaking pandemic box-office records.

That’s nothing compared with the golden age of slashers. The apex of the subgenre’s wave, 1981, saw a staggering amount of them released into theaters. With no chance to broker streaming deals or corner the nascent home-video market, horror producers partnered with major distributors keen to pack mall multiplexes with youngsters who were happy to see their demographic skewered, bludgeoned, and sliced and diced onscreen.

Quick to produce and easy to score distribution, the slashers flooding cinemas 40 years ago varied in both quality and coherence. On that note, how many of these movies, which range from the independently produced to major-studio affairs, are actually worth a damn? From the supernatural to the occult to the quintessential teen, here’s every 1981 slasher, ranked for your displeasure.

29. Don’t Go in the Woods

Reportedly shot on a budget of $20,000, this woodland slasher has accrued a cult reputation since its release. But make no mistake: This isn’t a guilty-pleasure slasher; it’s an endurance test littered with looped dialogue, stilted performances, and questionable stylistic choices. Instead of shooting at night, with the cover of darkness masking any blemishes, director James Bryan chose to shoot during the day as a way to offset lighting costs. By doing so, he also offset any sense of menace or coherence whatsoever in this uneven scramble of a movie. The film’s killer presumably wanders the woods because they’re typically a remote locale in movies. But here? They’re a heavily trafficked thoroughfare. Originally shot as a comedy, the film quickly pivoted to a slasher to capitalize on the craze. Sadly, it doesn’t shake its zoinks! quality.

28. Scream

No, not Wes Craven’s self-aware slasher from 1996. 1981’s Scream does have a cult following but for all the wrong reasons. When an ’80s horror poster features a scythe shining with freshly spilled blood, it sets an expectation — not necessarily for quality but definitely for gruesome, bloody kills. As soon as Scream starts, it’s clear it won’t deliver on either front. The opening sequence follows a group rafting down a river. It’s cheery. It’s sun dappled. It’s set to the unmistakable sax of an ’80s-sitcom theme.

A chilly setup involving a ghost town is perfectly mined for gruesome scares in House of Wax; here it’s ignored in favor of bloodless kills in an old barn. But that’s not the most nonsensical part. How do the dozen or so characters know one another? It’s never explained.

27. Home Sweet Home

Less than a minute into Home Sweet Home, its killer, a 26-year-old escaped asylum patient, drags a man from his car (after being offered a beer, too; how rude) and strangles him as he dangles from the door. That speedy dispatch unfortunately belies the rest of the film’s intent, which is to drag out every scene with some of the worst acting ever committed to celluloid, in attempts to bring an irritating clutch of characters to life. This is a flat-out terrible film. Its few saving graces — amusing death sequences — aren’t sufficient to warrant a recommendation. Home Sweet Home has little to boast about, except the fact that it’s a Thanksgiving slasher, of which there are few.

26. Nightmare

Special-effects royalty Tom Savini notoriously demanded his name be removed from the credits of this splatterfest. Nightmare landed a spot on the U.K.’s video-nasty list, a conservative-led movement to ban gruesome horror films. Controversial for its brutal violence and splatter aspirations, it should instead be on that list for challenging the definition of the word tedium. The director, Italian filmmaker Romano Scavolini, molds what little there is of a plot around a murderer who is subjected to a medical procedure that seemingly increases his desire to mutilate and kill. It’s an unsettling watch, incomprehensible at times, but fans of splatter will adore it. An Italian stabathon, its attempts at giallo fool no one because there is no mystery to unravel, except why the hell this movie was made.

25. Bloody Birthday

Here comes another member of the “terrifying poster, shame about the film” club. A birthday cake with severed fingers lit as candles adorns the one-sheet, a confection sadly absent from the movie itself. Three children born under an eclipse decide to embark on a killing spree ten years later. It’s Chucky meets The Bad Seed. That concept packs a lot of promise — a prepubescent reaction to growing up — but fails to muster anything particularly scary. The angelic trio at its heart shoot, strangle, and Dennis the Menace their way through a body count while ogling naked teenage girls for no purpose other than to leverage in some T&A. But it falls flat. None of the murderous kids pack much malice into their actions. And guns and ropes are fine, but this slasher needed a knife.

24. Bloody Moon

Bloody Moon’s German title, Die Säge des Todes, means “The Saw of Death.” Its translators knew what they had on their hands and named its European release after its most notorious scene: The blade of a circular saw creeps closer to a restrained young woman, the camera cutting from her face to the blade and back again, its whinny growing louder until it finally smash-cuts to what is clearly a decapitated mannequin covered in bright-red gloop. If only the slipshod goofiness of that scene permeated the rest of the run time. This is a curious entry, more a random scrapbook of scenes tossed into a script than an actual screenplay. Exploitation director Jesús Franco tries to sympathize with an attempted rapist, who, after years of incarceration for killing a girl who wouldn’t sleep with him, winds up at a boarding school where a string of murders begins. But there’s more! Franco wedges in a strange subplot involving both a Lothario gardener and incest. Filmed in Germany standing in for the U.S., with dubbing throughout to further widen the cultural chasm, it’s a slog to endure.

23. Frightmare

Troma, the schlocksploitation production house responsible for distributing thousands of cult B movies, brings the supernatural to this slasher about a dead horror icon, Conrad Radzoff, a thinly veiled Christopher Lee type. His body is stolen by a bunch of horror fans whose proclivity for the genre extends to owning props and a total disregard for corpses. Radzoff’s wife brings him back from the dead, and his vengeful reanimated self slays the kids responsible. Despite its lean run time (86 minutes), it feels overlong and dull. The death scenes are a highlight, closing in on the ghoul’s face as he disposes of the teens. Arguably the best is saved for the future Re-Animator himself, Jeffrey Combs, who appears here in his first role. After he’s decapitated by a scabbard, his head thuds in slow motion down a staircase. We cut to an open doorway billowing with smoke, and his head bounces out, lands on the lawn, and is pecked at by a hungry crow. A masterstroke.

22. Absurd

Also known as Anthropophagus 2, Zombie 6: Monster Hunter, Horrible, and The Grim Reaper 2. A movie that can easily slip into several franchises gives cause to stop and ponder: What level of quality are we dealing with? With lines like “His body can regenerate dead cells” and “I serve Christ with biochemistry more than with rites,” uttered by a priest, not particularly high. That same priest purposely disembowels a man in his care as a way to curb his bloodthirst, so make of that what you will. This Italian slasher ends in a dizzying babysitter-killing climax scored with a repetitive prog piano-riff earworm that’s unlike anything the American productions dared to tackle.

21. Graduation Day

Ripped teens in tiny shorts thrust long-jump poles: So begins Graduation Day’s opening credits, setting the tone for what plays like a teen comedy coasting along on casual chauvinism. Like other entries in this list, it feels like a botched attempt to pivot an in-production comedy to accommodate the slasher craze. It possesses not an ounce of tension or anything remotely horrific — until the last ten minutes, when the killer’s reveal is matched by an utterly bizarre tableau featuring a corpse. Scream queen Linnea Quigley appears in a brief role along with future Wheel of Fortune host Vanna White. Strangely, it made $24 million on a $250,000 budget.

20. Madman

When a lead actor attached to a film changes their credited name, it’s a major red flag. Dawn of the Dead’s Gaylen Ross appears in this slasher, yet her opinion of it was such that she’s credited as Alexis Dubin. Whatever her opinion, Joe Giannone’s woodsy slasher is a fun, low-budget splatterfest. Although it was originally based on the Cropsey urban legend, the filmmakers reworked the plot when The Burning (No. 6 on this list) tackled the same tale. Here, we’re treated to Madman Marz, whose victims are dispensed with in grotesque, bloody ways with geysers of neon-pink spray marking their demise. Keep an eye out for a particularly unique death involving a car hood.

19. Student Bodies

Only one year after Friday the 13th came the first slasher spoof, Student Bodies. It’s a parody riff from its opening sequence — which features references to Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Jamie Lee Curtis — to the parting shot of its protagonist, Toby Badger. While Scream deconstructed the slasher in a clever, knowing way, this is a more zany, Jerry Zucker–style pic. Its main gag revolves around a breathless stalker whose voice-over charts his struggles with athletic victims. Even this early in the genre, exhausted tropes and hammy dialogue are mercilessly poked. “What’s with all the senseless killing?” asks an official. “Why not a murder that makes sense?”

18. Hospital Massacre

Jamie Blanks’s Valentine, a slick early-aughts slasher starring David Boreanaz and Denise Richards, loosely remakes Hospital Massacre, in which Susan (Barbi Benton) is stalked by a man whose romantic advances she spurned as a kid, a moment we see in an opening flashback involving another child being impaled on a coatrack. It only gets more twisted. A silly, frequently implausible plot nevertheless results in a fun climax: Susan sets the killer on fire, then tosses him off the roof. Moments later, we see her, with regular clothes on, exiting the hospital smiling like a normal patient. Bonkers.

17. Deadly Blessing

With Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes to his name, Wes Craven had a few more films to go before delivering his slashterpiece, A Nightmare on Elm Street. Deadly Blessing is one he presumably made to receive funding. It’s a hodgepodge of genres, with demons, monsters, and religion all in the villainous melting pot. Craven doesn’t quite pull off this tapestry of ideas, but this supernatural slasher telegraphs his later greatness and showcases Sharon Stone in an early role. Moments Craven would re-create in place in Nightmare, such as Freddy pushing through Nancy’s wall and his scissor glove rising from the soapy bath, will have you pointing at the screen like the Leo DiCaprio meme.

16. Eyes of a Stranger

Georgetown Productions, the company behind Friday the 13th, tried again to make the big bucks the following year. Weirdly enough, Eyes of a Stranger boasts none of Friday’s sense of fun. This is a morose serial-killer thriller, visually muted like a TV movie. Slasher beats added to its second act lift it firmly into the horror subgenre, alongside special-effects work from Tom Savini. The Love Boat’s Lauren Tewes plays the reporter who sniffs out a rapist-murderer across the street, a Rear Window–style plot device that elbows in an amateur-detective element. The movie’s high point is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who makes her screen debut as Tewes’s younger sister.

15. Just Before Dawn

“Where we’re going is no summer camp,” utters one of the hikers destined for the knife. The outdoors served as the perfect inexpensive setting for horror filmmakers during the slasher boom, and writer-director Jeff Lieberman’s ode to Deliverance — even called Survivance in Europe — sets itself apart from the teen slashers that came before. While may appear that all this film shares with John Boorman’s classic is a location and villains, it pounces on the hillbilly-slasher concept, making the most of its natural locations to offset the bloodletting frenzy. Just Before Dawn carries a nice twist on the final-girl trope and features one of the most brutal killer deaths, adding new context to the word fisting.

14. The Funhouse

A figure places a mask over his face, and the camera peers through the eyeholes, watching as we see a naked teenager in the shower. A knife stabs at her soaped navel — and bends. It’s plastic. Tobe Hooper’s opening sequence is less a sly wink to Halloween than a blunt elbow to the ribs. The concept of a deathly carnival, a traveling band of savages, perhaps, eager to slay patrons beneath the big top, is promising … but that’s not this film. Hooper’s good intention — well paced, beautifully scored — never quite matches Carpenter’s classic in terms of scares. Yet the masterful production design is impressive, a perfect backdrop for a clutch of teens picked off at a local fun house by a deranged killer. For a film so bloodless, it’s astonishing to learn it landed on the video-nasty list.

13. Madhouse

No slasher this unheard-of should look this good. Packed with stylish setups and great performances, had Madhouse been released ten years later, it would sit on a list of the best domestic thrillers. Under the eye of Italian filmmaker Ovidio G. Assonitis, who cut his genre teeth crafting a couple of Exorcist ripoffs and Tentacles, a sci-fi–horror flick with a top-notch cast, Madhouse is more than ’80s slasher offal. It leans heavily into the gory theatrics, a blend of chiller and slasher that follows Julia, a schoolteacher whose sister is incarcerated and breaks out to torment her sibling. The acting is excellent, but the real highlight is cinematographer Roberto D’Ettorre Piazzoli’s eye for capturing the true horror of Julia’s predicament.

12. Happy Birthday to Me

Another ’80s slasher that leans into the black-and-red VHS covers of the era, its tagline promising “six of the most bizarre murders you will ever see” below an image of a character skewered by a shish kebab. This fan-favorite slasher, an American giallo, really, follows Ginny, a member of an elite group at Crawford Academy whose friends are picked off one by one. It takes its time to get going and could benefit from a hefty edit, but the slow burn is worth it for the final tableau — a horrifically sinister setup matched only by its twist, which no doubt inspired Kevin Williamson’s Scream screenplay.

11. Night School

Critically panned at the time of its release, this brisk American mystery follows a Boston detective investigating a series of murders at a night school. Victims are dispensed in violent ways by a helmeted biker, resulting in their decapitation. Featuring a score by Brad Fiedel and cinematography by genre stalwart Mark Irwin, it’s more deserving of praise for its slick, over-the-top mash of serial-killer and slasher tropes. Its set pieces — which include an aquarium beheading — make this worth the watch. It’s uncertain whether its blatant misogyny is a deliberate attempt at parody, with lines like “Ah, I should’ve known. That’s why you’ve been acting crazy!” from a character upon learning his partner is pregnant, or serves only as a motive for the unlikely killer reveal.

10. Dark Night of the Scarecrow

A handful of bigoted southern townsfolk murder a man they suspect of killing a young girl, but, it turns out, she survived thanks to his help. Her avenger returns from beyond the grave as a murderous scarecrow who picks off his killers one by one. This made-for-TV slasher avoids the pitfalls of bigger-budgeted theatrical releases. Instead, Dark Night of the Scarecrow aims for creeps, generating atmosphere as it burns low and slow as a Twilight Zone–style feature. Are these men being picked off by a scarecrow, or are they simply paranoid? The last death is the best: At long last, the ringleader is stalked through the cornfields in arguably the film’s scariest scene.

9. Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker

Young Billy’s parents are unceremoniously offed in a Final Destination–esque car accident. Years later, he lives with his aunt Cheryl (Susan Tyrrell), whose urges to kill are matched only by her urge to chew scenery. In a whirl of spiraling mother mania akin to that of Carrie’s Margaret White, Tyrrell’s deliberately over-the-top performance plays like Mommy Dearest on steroids. Pushing at the boundaries of slasher, this is a domestic damning that swaps Cheryl’s maternal instincts for straight-up murder. It was also released as Night Warning, which makes zero sense; a better title might be All Homophobes Die. Unlike the other slashers on this list, Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker takes a progressive attitude toward its queer characters that is unusual for ’80s horror cinema.

8. Hell Night

Linda Blair unfairly scored a Razzie for her turn as Marti, one of four co-ed pledges escorted by fraternity president Peter to party in period garb before spending the night in Garth Mansion. Legend has it that former owner Raymond Garth murdered his wife, his deformed children, and himself, leaving one son, Andrew, free to roam the property. All of the twists are telegraphed early on, but that doesn’t distract from the glorious oddness at this film’s heart. Director Tom DiSimone pulls from the history of horror to curate this curious, and clever, movie, creating a slasher flecked with elements of the gothic, the supernatural, and cherry-picked tropes from Craven’s hillbilly horrors. The costume-party aspect adds a pleasing touch, displacing its era, unshackling the characters from the 1980s, and letting the performances float free, plucked from another time.

7. The Prowler

Overlooked given its similarities to My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler warrants attention for its juicy, blood-soaked kills. Thirty-five years after he murders his girlfriend, a WWII vet returns to hack up an unsuspecting group of teens. Joseph Zito brings the same sharp eye for visuals he would later bring to Friday the 13th IV: The Final Chapter, imbuing shots with great setups and dedicating time to lavishly executed kills. A pitchfork to the stomach, one particularly gruesome end, is brought to life by Tom Savini, whose skills are what make this a stellar body-count movie. A head exploded by a shotgun is a showy false ending that leads to the true last shot, which apes Carrie, as a zombified corpse hung from a showerhead lurches for the final girl.

6. The Burning

Friday the 13th serves as a loose inspiration for this terrific, nasty slasher. Pilfering a New York urban legend, The Burning re-creates the backstory of Cropsey, a caretaker who slays campers after they burn him alive. It’s yet another entry on the video-nasties list, owing in part to its notorious boating scene, in which the killer ambushes five teens on a raft, then butchers them in quick succession. The ban only stirred up more intrigue. Effects legend Tom Savini turned down Friday the 13th, Part 2 for this, and his work on its gruesome death scenes adds much-needed shock to what begins as a lighthearted thriller. It boasts a cast of up-and-comers who shine in small roles, including Jason Alexander, Fisher Stevens, and Holly Hunter.

5. Final Exam

What are your expectations when you settle down with a slasher? Criteria exist within murky borders, yet “lots of killing” remains an irreplaceable component. Final Exam skirts the necessity for actual bloodshed until the one-hour mark, and the clever conceit works, as the film dedicates its time to deepening its characters. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel in terms of plot: A small group of students on campus waiting to take their midterms are picked off by a masked killer. A tiny budget might have brought about the scant body count, but a by-product is how much this film invests in its characters, turning a typically annoying demographic — slasher teenagers — into damn likable students. The monetary restrictions also make this scrappy movie a feat, a rarity with third-act kills that will rip your heart out. Most novel is the killer’s identity: It remains unknown, along with their motive.

4. The Fan

Lauren Bacall famously bad-mouthed this movie after its release, claiming she was unprepared for its violence. But, chances are, had The Fan scrimped on its outlandish flashes of nastiness, no one would still be talking about it 40 years later. Bacall plays a Broadway star whose avid fan base includes an obsessive Michael Biehn. For most of its run time, The Fan operates as a polished thriller, brushing up against tropes later popularized by female stalkers in late-’80s and early-’90s domestic thrillers. While it doesn’t quite master the tension-building set pieces that Misery would perfect years later, it’s an altogether unique beast. Here, the stalker’s adoration of Bacall’s famed thespian bounces between “You already sent me that particular signed photo” to straight-up murder. What’s most unsettling is Biehn’s queer-coded character, a Travis Bickle–like zealot whose misplaced affection results in a string of brutal deaths, including one of the movie’s oft-talked-about moments, when he immolates a guy he picks up at a bar.

3. My Bloody Valentine

Reportedly Quentin Tarantino’s favorite slasher, My Bloody Valentine remains a solid pick among horror devotees. Adopting the holiday concept, it borrows and helps cement slasher archetypes introduced in Black Christmas, Halloween, and Friday the 13th, taking place in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day 20 years after a gas explosion left several local miners dead. A standout for its dedication to tradition, its goals are simple: Townsfolk are stalked and picked off for refusing to cancel the Valentine’s Day dance. What’s impressive is the film’s willingness to pivot slightly from slasher tradition. Here, everyone is fair game, not just teenagers. That’s why it feels so original despite having arrived at the height of the slasher boom. It takes chances, some of which involve the grisly death scenes. For the film to score an R rating, the MPAA demanded cuts to every character’s offing, and despite director George Mihalka’s compliance, it came back with an X rating. Eventually, nine minutes were excised, robbing audiences of the work of special-effects veteran Thomas Burman and a lot of narrative cohesion. The uncut version restores three minutes of these snips, but both cuts maintain the pièce de résistance: a closing ballad written about the killer.

2. Friday the 13th, Part 2

Released one year after Friday the 13th but set five years later, Part 2 takes the best elements of the original — the isolated, rainy camp setting — and betters it. Mommy’s gone, but this is Jason’s show now and he’s not afraid to get creepy. A new group of camp counselors is ushered in to be swiftly dispatched, but they’re not a faceless gaggle. We get to know and like them, including final girl Ginny. One body-discovery scene — a staple borrowed from Halloween — palpitates with fear as Jason delivers a genuinely terrifying jump scare. The original, while a schlocky, fun time, lacks this level of menace. Part 2 delights in spooky weirdness; a glimpse into Jason’s fractured psyche reveals a shrine to Pamela Voorhees featuring not only her classic baby-blue knit but also — ding ding ding! — her rotting head on a platter. This altar showcase leads into a sequence of thorough out-of-body oddity, in which Ginny becomes Pamela, sending chills down the spine.

1. Halloween II

One of the first sequels to pick up immediately after the events of the original, Halloween II loses John Carpenter’s name above the title and gains gallons of blood. This sequel is nasty. A mean streak threads through the film, as if Michael Myers’s initial rampage only hinted at his true malice and culminates in this final massacre: a violent and brutal butchering of (mostly) women. This movie shifts the action from the quiet suburban streets of Haddonfield to the quiet, empty hallways of Haddonfield Memorial Hospital, an equally isolated setting you wouldn’t expect for Halloween night. Tension mounts alongside the savage kills, and the film delivers one of the franchise’s best chase sequences when Michael pursues Laurie Strode (an underused Jamie Lee Curtis). An eerie visual of blood pouring from Michael’s mask, like the bloodied tears of a clown, is one of many impressive choices made by director Rick Rosenthal. Interestingly, it wasn’t Rosenthal but Carpenter (who co-wrote the script with Debra Hill) who decided to triple the body count and ramp up the gore, making this a vicious slasher that’s more akin to a brutal Friday the 13th sequel than the original 1978 Halloween.

Every 1981 Slasher, Ranked