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.
1984 is an interesting year for American horror cinema—there’s no shortage of good films here, but the volume is lower than in the rest of the decade. Whereas 1983 had more volume but fewer classics, 1984 has more classic films, but a roster that is a bit less deep.
Of course, a lot of that is dependent upon what kinds of films you want to allow into the honorable mentions list. Ghostbusters, despite having “ghost” right there in the title, is one of the decade’s greatest pure comedies, but I’m sorry—I can’t accept seeing that on a list of horror movies. James Cameron’s The Terminator, on the other hand, is a lot easier to make a case for. We wouldn’t begrudge someone naming The Terminator as the best horror film of the year—unlike the array of sequels that followed, the original film is horror adjacent at the very least, largely because it views its mechanical monster through the lense of Sarah Connor’s almost total helplessness. Sarah and Kyle Reese don’t have the advantages of weaponry and technology possessed by human fighters in later installments of the series—they’re going up against a nigh-indestructible robot with entirely improvised tactics, and that is pretty frightening at times. Although the effects on The Terminator haven’t aged nearly as well as those in T2: Judgment Day, they still maintain an air of gritty faux realism.
Other notables for 1984 include the fantastical, fairy tale-inspired werewolf yarn The Company of Wolves, which features some of the strangest werewolf transformations the genre has ever seen, and the oddball ’80s pop culture satire Night of the Comet, which feels like the meeting point between Ferris Bueller-style truancy and Romero’s nihilism in Day of the Dead. Joe Dante also gifts the world with Gremlins, one of the few horror movies you can get away with throwing into a “Christmas” viewing playlist.
As for the slasher genre, this is another high-water mark, not necessarily in the number of releases but in terms of their impact on the genre. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street injects some badly needed new ideas into the system, while Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter explores the possibility of killing off a franchise cash cow, with the first “real” death of Jason Voorhees. Of course, the series would partially walk that decision back only a year later in Friday the 13th: A New Beginning, and then all the way back in 1986’s Jason Lives, but The Final Chapter remained an important precedent for franchises dependent on the kayfabe vitality of their most important central characters. It’s also rather amusing to think, decades later, that “The Final Chapter” constitutes entry number four in a series that now has 12 official outings.
1984 Honorable Mentions: The Terminator, The Company of Wolves, Gremlins, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Night of the Comet, The Toxic Avenger, Children of the Corn, C.H.U.D.
The Film: A Nightmare on Elm Street
Director: Wes Craven
People who have never actually watched an entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street series tend to incorrectly assume that the thing meant to be most frightening about Freddy Krueger is the character’s scarred appearance, or the tool with which he so delights in murdering teenagers—the iconic, razor-fingered glove. This is a gross oversimplification, the same as stating that Michael Myers is frightening because he wears a mask, but nonetheless a common hurdle to clear in discussion of slasher movies in polite society. Suffice to say, it’s not about the face, or the glove—it’s about the invasive way Freddy penetrates what is supposed to be a personal inner sanctum, overpowering you in the place where you’re meant to be most empowered. He finds you where you’re strongest, just to rub his superiority in your face before killing you.
By this point in 1984, the slasher genre had become old hat for audiences, and the relentless sequelization of series such as Friday the 13th was already the persistent butt of jokes—if only they knew how much further it would still go, right? New blood was desperately needed, and Wes Craven was ready to answer the call. As he would so many other times—in 1994’s New Nightmare, and again in 1996’s Scream, particularly—Craven demonstrated his genius by having the insight to be able to take stock of the direction an entire genre was headed, in order to take a calculated step down a new avenue of exploration. That was Craven’s gift in his prime, the ability to read the currents of the industry and see a way to disrupt the staid flow of recycled ideas.
Freddy Krueger, then, was ultimately exactly what the slasher genre needed in this moment—a new legend that cemented the fact that the most effective way to create a new slasher villain was to give him an effective anchor for his mythos. For Krueger, it’s the grisly details of how he came to be a supernaturally empowered bogeyman—lynched by a group of vigilante parents of the children he murdered, and burned to death, only to swear revenge from beyond the grave. That backstory helps give motivation to both Freddy (as well as a degree of earned vengeance) and Nancy Thompson’s guilty parents, although mostly this manifests in Ronee Blakely’s clumsily handled alcoholism subplot. Even in a masterpiece like A Nightmare on Elm Street, we should acknowledge the clunky stuff.
The nature of Freddy’s attack vector, though, through the dreams of his victims, constituted a gift from Craven to all the visual and FX artists who would work on the Nightmare on Elm Street series for the next few decades. It was a blank creative check; an acknowledgement that they were free to innovate and design the wildest set pieces and strangest deaths imaginable, being freed entirely from the necessity of operating within the boundaries of reality. Here was a new set of rules to play by, in which you could strangle a kid with a living bedsheet, or have them dragged onto the ceiling by an invisible force, or have them chewed up and spit out as a geyser of blood by their own bed. In the later, zanier entries of the series, these concepts would be pushed to their breaking points and beyond, resulting in such deaths as a girl being turned into a cockroach and then ripped apart in an insect trap, or a boy being inserted into a videogame played by Freddy. But here, in the original, they’re more disturbing than they are funny—especially the death of poor Tina, disemboweled on the ceiling while her scruffy boyfriend looks on.
Freddy Krueger, as a slasher villain, would likewise grow and change in the years to come. His dark humor is partially present here in the original go-round, but more than in any of the sequels that would follow, Craven was focusing on the scarier aspects of the character, rather than the jokester that began to emerge in Dream Warriors and was carried on into absurdity by films such as The Dream Child and Final Nightmare. Craven’s film remains the simplest, purest, scariest execution of the character, establishing an icon that would make Robert Englund beloved to horror fans to this very day.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.