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.
Truly, 1981 is a horror bumper crop of epic proportions. The films here aren’t all what you’d call “cerebral” in nature, but the genre itself is as popular and prolific right now as it’s ever been. On the indie side of the spectrum, new low-budget auteurs like Sam Raimi are coming to the forefront, while at the multiplex and drive-ins, slasher films have their biggest year yet. Oh, and it’s the rare instance where we can claim a definitive “best year ever” for a specific sub-genre: 1981 is without a doubt the cream of the crop for werewolf movies. It wolfmen are your movie monster of choice, no other year comes close.
In terms of eventual impact on the genre, Raimi’s The Evil Dead lands at the top of the pack, and is also a strong contender to be considered the #1 horror film for 1981. On a shoestring budget, and working in isolated wilderness conditions that showed both his passion and naivete as a young filmmaker, Raimi produced one of the genre’s most singular crossovers between manic comedy and invasive horror. The Evil Dead is a strange series in that way—in the three original films, Raimi progresses steadily from genuinely disturbing horror to full-fledged comedy by the time we reach Army of Darkness, but the seeds of quip machine, “hail to the king” Ash Williams are there from the beginning, even if Ash starts out as a bit of a dweeb. Even more than the character, though, it’s the film’s irreverent tone and gory ultraviolence that peg it as one of the progenitors of the “video nasty” era of home video horror flicks. Its success led to much imitation in the nascent market for VHS horror and the subsequent rise of video rental stores, where titles such as The Evil Dead were perpetually hot commodities among a select clientele. The logical end result of this direction of expansion are the splatter films of Peter Jackson, such as Bad Taste and Dead Alive.
In 1981, though, it’s the slasher that is clearly in the middle of its golden era. This year is notable for the arrival of some of the first prominent slasher sequels, in the form of Halloween II and Friday the 13th Part 2, both of which would be commercially successful and establish the profitability of ad nauseum, lower-budget slasher sequels throughout the rest of the decade. Halloween II is a divisive film, with some fans claiming it’s on par with the original, while others find it cold and uninteresting, despite the more overt level of violence than John Carpenter’s original. Friday the 13th Part 2, on the other hand, is still fairly beloved by fans of the genre to this day for the fact that it introduces an adult Jason Voorhees as the killer, even if he hasn’t yet acquired his trademark hockey mask. If you’re asking us, though, the “single eye hole cut in a sack cloth” look is significantly creepier anyway. Beyond those two big franchises, though, there’s a wealth of classic slashers released this year, from Tobe Hooper’s beautifully shot The Funhouse to My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler and the best of the camp-based Friday imitators, The Burning. Just try not to be a little shocked by the brutality of the raft massacre sequence. Truly, 1981 was one of the best years for slashers in general.
There are plenty of other delights here as well, such as Isabelle Adjani’s incredibly disturbing subway meltdown in Possession, or the high water mark of the werewolf transformation sequences in The Howling. And don’t forget the exploding head in the opening of Scanners, or the underrated, eye-stabbingly great Dead & Buried. We could go on forever about this year.
1981 Honorable Mentions: The Evil Dead, The Howling, Possession, Scanners, Wolfen, The Burning, The Beyond, Dead & Buried, Halloween II, Friday the 13th: Part 2, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Hell Night, The Funhouse, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler
The Film: An American Werewolf in London
Director: John Landis
It’s not always quite clear, watching An American Werewolf in London, whether John Landis thought he was primarily directing a classically spooky monster movie or a pitch-black comedy—the truth, naturally, is somewhere in between, although the film has a fairly distinctive tonal feel to it. Long stretches veer quite confidently in the direction of bitter sardonicism, only to be interrupted by spikes of horror so intense and unexpected that they stop you breathlessly in your tracks. Eventually, you get the sense that this was the intention—Landis uses gallows humor to get us invested in the characters, but remembers to throw in something shocking every time we settle too far into our seats. He doesn’t want you getting too comfortable.
The film is essentially the story of David and Jack, two American backpackers who are hiking across the English moors, when they stumble into what is decidedly the wrong neighborhood for outsiders. Finding the locals inexplicably hostile, and hearing strange howling on the wind, the pair are turned out into the night, where they’re savagely attacked by a large, wolf-like creature. Jack is torn to pieces in the assault, leaving David as the heavily scarred sole survivor … or is he? Before long, David is being interrupted from his new romance with a pretty nurse by visions of Jack, his gruesomely mangled face flapping open as he calmly and cooly tells David that he’ll be transforming into a wolf himself at the next full moon. The only course of action, Jack assures him without much in the way of empathy, is to “take your own life.”
Such is the oddball tone of this classic werewolf story, a film whose sense of humor is so dark and so dry that it’s often unsettling in and of itself. Griffin Dunne steals the show as “undead” Jack, a persistent presence who we assume is there to comfort or advise his friend, but instead has no comfort at all to give—in fact, he hardly seems to care about the guy at all, which makes his “kill yourself!” advice that much less convincing. Death, it would seem, really changes a guy.
At the same time, though, An American Werewolf in London isn’t lacking for scares—it’s just that you rarely see them coming. The truly nightmarish dream sequences are the best example of these sudden spikes in adrenaline, as in the scene where David’s entire family are massacred in their homes by machine gun-wielding Nazi werewolf mutants, while he watches at knifepoint. Sounds ridiculous in writing, right? Well, it’s incredibly gruesome in practice. Landis even twists the knife a little further by using the “dream within a dream” reveal here, netting two effective jump scares for the price of one.
Rewatching the film today, what arguably stands out the most is the sublime quality of the practical effects, especially when it comes to the gore effects. This was the horror genre coming out party of legendary monster maestro Rick Baker, netting him the newly created Academy Award for Best Makeup—an award for which he would be nominated another 11 times in his career, including a further six wins. Suffice to say, every one of his contributions here is state of the art and raised the game for makeup and costuming effects, from the steady decay of Jack’s face to the blood and guts that result from David’s werewolf rampage.
And of course, we could hardly conclude this entry without discussing Baker’s masterpiece, which is American Werewolf’s iconic transformation sequence. This remains, bar none, the best werewolf transformation ever put on film—two and a half minutes of David undergoing what seems to be absolute agony, fully cognizant of his own body warping, shifting and splitting apart like a human cocoon. Like so much else in the film, the sequence begins with jarring suddenness—one second, David is reading a book, and the next he’s writhing on the ground and stripping off his clothes, cursing the heavens. It’s painful, protracted, and captures the full intensity inherent in the body horror aspect of involuntary transformation—even the act of individual hairs springing from David’s back seems to be tortuous. The sequence, largely thanks to Baker, set the bar for this genre at such a point where few werewolf films since have even managed to earn positive comparisons.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.