Ten Secretly Excellent Cheesy Horror Movies of the 70s and 80s

The Gate
The Gate (1987) New Century Vista Film Company

The platonic ideal of a cheesy horror movie from the 1970s or 1980s has between five and six-and-a-half stars on IMDB and an intermittently active message board. It received no critical acclaim of which to speak, though maybe Roger Ebert proclaimed it a solid bet “for genre obsessives only.” It contains no A-list actors, but maybe there’s someone who later wound up with a supporting role on The O.C. or something like that. It does not contain a cameo from Vincent Price, but it desperately wishes it did. It is goofy and dated in the best possible ways, and full of killers or people-eaters or demons who lurk somewhere between Poltergeist and Troll 2 on the believability spectrum. Its title is not a household name, but its poster is imminently recognizable to anyone who spent a little too much in high school browsing the aisles of a suburban video store.

On this Halloween, we humbly submit this by-no-means-exhaustive list of our 10 favorite underappreciated horror movies of the era and campy persuasion. They are not, ostensibly, good films by any respectable critical measure, but they are great films within the sphere of horror. Of course, almost none of them are available on Netflix instant watch. Sorry. You can probably find battered VHS copies for 50 cents at your weird next-door neighbor’s garage sale.

1. Bad Taste (1987)

Bad Taste Image Entertainment

Peter Jackson made Bad Taste in 1987, a full 14 years before he achieved mainstream success with The Fellowship of the Ring. Once you watch Bad Taste, you will be as shocked as I am that they ever let Peter Jackson near a movie camera again, much less something with the budget of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And when I wrote Peter Jackson made this movie, I mean it: He wrote it, he directed it, he co-starred, he co-edited it, he filmed it, he did the special effects and makeup. It was, from start to finish, his vision, which means he couldn't even claim plausible deniability when it came time to direct The Lord of the Rings.

The plot of the move is this: A group of big-headed space aliens land in an isolated New Zealand village, where they plan to harvest local humans and turn them into ground meat for an intergalactic burger chain. The humans fight back, and things get messy. Like, this messy:

Bad Taste

THEY LET THIS GUY DIRECT THE LORD OF THE RINGS. —Taylor Wofford

2. Blood for Dracula (1974)

Blood for Dracula Bryanston Distributing

Blood for Dracula (1974) is the tale of world-weary Romanian vampire (Count Dracula, portrayed by seminal vampire-portrayer Udo Kier) and his quest to find the blood of a virgin to keep his ailing sister, also a vampire, from falling into a torpor. To find the blood of a virgin, Drac travels to Italy, because, as his utterly serious yet mincing manservant Anton informs him, Italian women, living in roughly the same geographic area as the pope, are sexually pure.

Rather than explaining all the reasons you should watch this Andy Warhol-produced camp masterpiece, I’ll just describe its best scene, because I think it encapsulates the film’s aesthetic quite well: Dracula draws back his fangs from the neck of Saphiria Di Fiore, the second of three daughters of a shabby Italian aristo at whose manse Dracula has ostensibly arrived to find a virgin bride. Dracula leans back, gasping and panting, his bloodlust/regular lust (the whole film is an allegory for sex, or possibly capitalism) sated after months of searching for the blood of a virgin. But—uh-oh!—Saphiria wasn’t a virgin after all. Anton has whiffed it, yet again. Dracula’s eyes go wide, his face turns practically neon green, and then he stumbles over to a bathtub and projectile voms blood everywhere. Ze blood of zhese hoo-ahs is killing me! screeches Drac, before passing out on the bathroom floor, covered in his own blood-vom. —Taylor Wofford

3. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark ABC Broadcasting/USA Home Video

Not to be confused with Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark?, this terse, made-for-TV goblin tale might best be remembered as the film that terrified Guillermo del Toro as a child. The Mexican director went on to produce a 2011 remake, though it’s impossible to match the subtle Victorian eeriness of the original. Favoring slow, creeping fear over big-budget scares, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tells the story of Sally, who comes to find that a terrifying band of whispering goblin creatures are occupying the sub-basement of the mansion she recently inherited from her grandmother. Like most of the films on this list, Don’t Be Afraid has built up a substantial cult following over the years. It has also attracted some degree of feminist analysis, thanks to the blowhard husband character who dismisses Sally's fears until it's much too late. —Zach Schonfeld

4. The Gate (1987)

The Gate New Century Vista Film Company

Ah, The Gate—how to explain the seemingly limitless campy delights of this film? The Gate is the hyperspeed throw-in-every-special-effect-that-we-can-afford glorious mess of 1980s demon movies. It is what happens when an inexperienced Canadian punk-producer-turned-director tries to reimagine Poltergeist with a cast of teenage unknowns, a $2.5 million budget and a satanic heavy metal tie-in. The film stars Stephen Dorff in his first role as a teenager whose group of friends discovers that a hole in his backyard is a gateway to hellish demons somehow summoned by heavy metal lyrics and the sacrifice of a dog corpse. All hell breaks loose, literally, in an irresistibly flashy swarm of biblical overtones and underworld tormentors literally played by actors in rubber suits. The result is jam-packed and visually imaginative enough to scare and stick with kids who, like me, were allowed to pick it up at Blockbuster because of the PG-13 rating. The film is apparently slated to get a 3D remake, as per an announcement in 2009, though it’s not clear if filming has ever begun. —Zach Schonfeld

5. Gremlins (1984)

Gremlins Amblin Entertainment/Warner Bros.

Jealousy is a vicious green-eyed monster, but the little green terrors in Gremlins are sharp of hearing and idiotic-looking. The trouble starts when inventor Randall Peltzer (Hoyt Axton) buys a little creature, a mogwai, for his son Billy (Zach Gilligan) because apparently, monsters are available for purchase in Chinatown antique stores. Billy names his new weirdo pet Gizmo, who is dopey but affectionate. The fun basically stops there when he accidentally spills water on him—a no-no—and Gizmo then magically breeds five mogwai from his body.

The resulting five offspring are jerks who turn cocoon and become evil monsters after they trick Billy into feeding them after midnight (another no-no), because Gremlins is quietly about food-shaming (midnight snacks forever!). The gremlins terrorize the Peltzer family and the town of Kingston Falls before being pulverized, chopped and microwaved in a memorable, green goo-covered kitchen scene, causing this writer to never look at a food processor the same way again. Beware of your kitchen this Halloween, readers. —Paula Mejia

6. Invaders From Mars (1986)

Invaders From Mars Cannon Pictures/Cannon Film Distributers

After having already made a name for himself with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper turned his attention to resurrecting Invaders From Mars, a fondly remembered 1953 sci-fi flick. Alas, another three decades has nearly passed, and Hooper’s reboot isn’t so fondly remembered. The bad news is that the remake replaces the subtle, Cold War-era dread of the original with flashy horror, cheesy dialogue and ghastly special effects. The great news is, yes, it’s full of flashy horror, cheesy dialogue and delightfully ghastly special effects—enough to frighten me as a child far more than the original ever could. Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman are effectively creepy as a pair of suburban parents whose bodies are subtly possessed by emotionless Martians, while Karen Black has a great turn as a school nurse who teams up with the innocent son to fight back, eventually teaming with the Marines, for some ungodly reason. The themes here are similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and 1983's Strange Invaders, but it's campier and more kid-oriented than the former and more overtly scary than the latter. The result is an underrated gem. —Zach Schonfeld

7. The New Kids (1985)

The New Kids Columbia Pictures

After directing Friday the 13th, Sean S. Cunningham went on to make teen slasher flick The New Kids, starring James Spader as a wild-eyed thug who says things like “You want crazy? Well, I’ll show you crazy!” The gory film centers on two new kids, Abby (Lori Loughlin) and Loren (Shannon Presby), who arrive as newcomers in small-town Florida after their parents die in an accident. Soon they’re terrorized by a gang of drug-addled miscreants led by Dutra (Spader) who eventually kidnap Abby. Of course, their aunt and uncle inexplicably own a Santa-themed amusement park where festive horror unfolds, and a terrible shower scene, a nod to Psycho, is one of the many eye-rollers in The New Kids certain to scar newcomers for life. —Paula Mejia

8. Parents (1989)

parents Vestron Pictures

Between The Exorcist and The Omen, the 1970s brought us the indispensable innovation of The Creepy Child in a horror movie. Parents flips the script—in this odd horror–comedy hybrid of the late 1980s, it’s the Nice Suburban Parents who embody sinister, creeping terror. Their kid, a hapless 10-year-old named Michael, is suspicious of the eerie sounds that pass up from the den and the hulking, bloody slabs of “leftover” meat they feed him each night. ("Leftovers from what??" he asks futilely in one hilarious scene.) A lurching soundtrack and bloody, Shining-esque dream sequence are among the highlights as he investigates.

A box office failure, the movie was an early directorial attempt by Bob Balaban, who is far better recognized for his acting roles in a string of Wes Anderson and Christopher Guest movies (he’s the increasingly neurotic concert organizer in A Mighty Wind). It’s not much wonder this movie failed to find an initial audience: It’s too goofy for the slasher-flick crowd, yet far too bloody and dark for a family-friendly audience. Naturally, it did better in video store world. Recommended to any kid who has had the lingering misfortune of walking in on his parents having sex and/or hungrily consuming human flesh. —Zach Schonfeld

9. Sleepaway Camp (1983)

Sleepaway Camp American Eagle Films/United Film Distribution Company

Wes Craven made A Nightmare on Elm Street on a measly budget of just $1.8 million or so, which is sort of cool, except that a largely anonymous NYU-grad-turned-filmmaker-turned-law-student named Robert Hiltzik made Sleepaway Camp on a budget of $350,000 the previous year. The story concerns Angela, a painfully shy girl who spends her summer at a frightful sleepaway camp where cooks are boiled alive and mean girls hacked to death in the shower. You can pick up the clues from there—though not all of them.

If not the 1980s’ most acclaimed slasher flick, Sleepaway Camp is one of the oddest and most memorably twisted, combining amateurish student-film-ish dialogue with some thoroughly gruesome murder sequences and a plot twist that succeeds in being twice as disturbing as the one you expect. The movie’s cult appeal inspired a Weird Al song (“Nature Trail to Hell”) and spun off two sequels starring Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela Springsteen, though director Hiltzik abandoned film for law practice and reportedly had no idea of his movie’s popularity until 2000, when he was approached to record a DVD commentary. He eventually returned to the fold to direct a sequel of his own. It was finally released in 2008 and entirely ignores the existence of the previous sequels. —Zach Schonfeld

10. Vampire Hookers (1978) 

Vampire Hookers Cosa Nueva See

The trailer to the softcore horror B-movie Vampire Hookers promises a “tasteful, delicious, pulse-pounding entertainment,” but “tasteless, campy and hilarious” is probably more apt. John Carradine stars as Richmond Reed, a Shakespeare-spouting vampire who recruits three vampy ladies named Cherish, Suzy and Marcy (Karen Stride, Lenka Novak and Katie Dolan, respectively) who pose as prostitutes to bring back unassuming men for dinner. That’s about it as far as the plot goes—the one-liners are atrocious, as is the movie’s cringeworthy theme song, whose chorus is, seriously: “They’re vampire hookers / And blood is not all they suck.” Alternate titles included “Night of the Bloodsuckers” and “Sensuous Vampires,” if that gives you any ideas of the horrors that await. You’ve been warned. —Paula Mejia

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