This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
There’s not going to be much debate as to the #1 horror film for 1980—our apologies to The Changeling in particular, but going up against The Shining in this project is an unenviable task that few films could possibly win. Outside of the top spot discussion, however, things become much more interesting.
Chief among the contenders is the aforementioned Changeling, a film beloved by horror geeks but still underseen by general film fans. A truly haunting blend of classical ghost story and psychological horror, The Changeling stars the ever-gruff George C. Scott as a man attempting to heal from personal tragedy by renting a huge, Victorian mansion … which of course, turns out to be haunted. In this case, however, the restless spirits of the house aren’t necessarily malevolent in nature—but the actions that led to their demise certainly were. Equal parts mystery and genuinely blood-curdling suspense, The Changeling features some of the most effective “haunted house” sequences ever put on film. Who would have thought, for instance, that you could get such a powerful reaction out of the repeated appearance of a child’s toy ball? Even in its most subtle of moments, The Changeling feels profound.
1980 is also the year that the slasher genre truly kicks into overdrive, going from a wide field of “Halloween imitators,” including this year’s Prom Night and Terror Train (both with Jamie Lee Curtis), to a genre that would dominate the horror box office for most of the next decade. The film that signals the opening of the floodgates: Friday the 13th.
Sean Cunningham’s first Friday film is, let’s face it, a pretty average slasher by later genre standards. As should really be common knowledge at this point, the killer in the original installment isn’t the better known Jason Voorhees, but his deranged mother, Pamela, seeking revenge on a new class of horny Camp Crystal Lake counselors, a year after her son supposedly drowned due to their lax supervision. Its characters are on the stock side, and the film largely made a splash upon release for its imaginative death scenes (the arrow through Kevin Bacon’s neck in particular), but it’s the sequels that truly established what we think of as the classic Friday formula. Notably, it’s those very sequels, and the increasingly popular character of Jason, that quickly begin transitioning the slasher genre from stories with sympathetic protagonists to collections of annoying bodies the audience wants to see maimed and torn asunder. By the time we’ve reached parts 3-6 of a series like Friday the 13th, it’s become clear—when the seemingly indestructible killer is the sole returning face in each installment, he becomes the de facto protagonist in his own sick way.
Elsewhere, 1980 gives us an additional handful of minor classics in one form or another, from the beautifully shot, ghostly sailors invading Antonio Bay in Carpenter’s The Fog to Joe Spinell blowing a guy’s head apart with a shotgun in William Lustig’s ultra-gritty Maniac. Italian grindhouse horror is likewise is having a moment, including batshit zombie flicks like Umberto Lenzi’s Nightmare City or Lucio Fulci’s supernatural shocker City of the Living Dead, which would lead to what is arguably the director’s most famous work, next year’s The Beyond. And of course, there’s the infamous animal violence of Cannibal Holocaust to tip-toe around. It’s a fine year all around, even if every one of these films to some degree exists in the shadow cast by The Shining.
1980 Honorable Mentions:
The Changeling, Altered States, Friday the 13th, The Ninth Configuration, The Fog, Maniac, Inferno, Cannibal Holocaust, Prom Night, City of the Living Dead, Terror Train
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Reading about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, you’re eventually bound to come across the “fun fact” of how Stephen King famously dislikes this particular adaptation of his novel source material. It begs an obvious question: Why would King be opposed to what is generally considered one of the greatest horror films of all time? It’s only after reading King’s novel that one can truly start to grasp his grievances: Kubrick’s The Shining is a masterpiece of composition and design, but it’s not truly much of a faithful adaptation, nor did Kubrick intend for it to be. The famously—shall we say “willful,” given the circumstances—director simply breezed through King’s work for inspiration, then reframed King’s more recognizably human characters in his own, uniquely malignant light. In doing so, he created something King no longer recognized as his own, but the result is a masterpiece all the same. It’s just that it’s Kubrick’s masterpiece in this case, rather than King’s. It makes sense that Kubrick reportedly screened Eraserhead for the cast and crew, while trying to get them into the right headspace.
Indeed, it’s pretty clear from the moment we first lay eyes on Jack Torrance (during the classic interview scene) that there’s something wrong inside this guy. He wears the predatory false smile (thanks to Jack Nicholson’s irreplaceable grin) of a man who nods and shakes your hand while seething with rage just under the surface. He seems to resent everyone and everything around him, finding the job of “caretaker” far beneath his unrecognized brilliance. He looks at his wife and child and sees them as both distractions from his “work” and impediments to his freedom. It’s only when he opens up a bit to Lloyd the ghostly barman that we begin to understand the combination of shame and resentment that drives him. He knows that he’s behaved monstrously in the past, but is unable to find enough empathy for his family to keep it from happening again.
As an aural-visual experience, The Shining is likely the single most distinctive horror film ever made. Its droning soundtrack, innovative Steadicam shots and singular images, like that of the two little Grady girls standing in the hallway, beckoning to Danny, are instantly recognizable even to people who have never explored horror cinema. Its most famous sequences, such as Danny scrawling “redrum” on the wall or Jack chopping down the bathroom door to get to Wendy, are so deeply embedded in pop culture at this point that references to them will be easily understood until the end of recorded history. At the same time, though, The Shining also still rewards scholarly analysis of its elements that are less known to the casual cinemagoer, such as Kubrick’s unique use of dissolves layered on top of one another to create composite images, or the seemingly purposeful continuity errors that pop up in a handful of scenes. These small details have for decades fueled mysteries and conspiracy theories about the director’s true intent, as was captured beautifully in The Shining documentary Room 237 by Rodney Ascher. Watching that film, one begins to understand how a movie such as The Shining can draw forth deep, primordial responses from its audience, such as the all-consuming need to understand.
Do we even need to talk about performances? Jack Nicholson is amazing, focusing latent rage and the frustration of a recovering addict into a man who tends to put a smarmy face on all his daily interactions. Shelley Duvall is an unbearably anxious, nervous wreck, sadly reflecting what has often been reported as her actual state at the time, thanks to Kubrick’s tortuous direction and seeming fixation on her. And the film thrives in its mesmerizing bit parts, from suave Lloyd the bartender to the chilling Delbert Grady, who suggests that Torrance’s family needs to be “corrected” … or perhaps, “a bit more.” Each exchange of dialog tends to beg for further analysis.
It is telling that, unlike some of the other great horror films on this list, The Shining saw few attempts at what you’d call direct imitation in the years that followed. It was too much the product of an auteur mind to be so easily unwrapped and reverse engineered; nor was its initial reaction entirely positive, contrary to what you might now assume. It was and remains an exceptional film of great beauty, coldness, precision, calculation and yes, fright.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.