Darkest Before Dawn featured

Darkest Before Dawn: The Best Horror Trailers of the 80s

Darkest Before Dawn featured

VHS Revival revisits those halcyon rental days, when promotional trailers often provided more of a thrill than the movies which followed

What do you miss most about the good old days of home video? Cover art is something that stands out – it made that oh so joyous experience of choosing your rental all the more joyous. Choice is the second thing that springs to mind. Sometimes you would arrive home on a Saturday evening and be thoroughly disappointed with a movie that promised so much and delivered so little. But that was part of the fun, particularly when you unearthed the kind of gem that you couldn’t wait to rent again.

One thing that could never disappoint was the series of similarly-themed trailers that teased you into your night of viewing. If one obsolete profession ranks as the most disheartening, it is that of the trailer voice-over guy. That man could sell you on anything, no matter how cruddy. There were plenty of lacklustre films out there, but sub-par trailers were few and far between.

In the first of a series of articles, VHS Revival looks back at some of horror‘s most exemplary trailers. How many do you remember?

The Burning (1981)

When it comes to pre-certificate slashers, Tony Maylam’s summer camp splatterfest is right near the top of everyone’s list. The story of a horrifically scarred caretaker who wreaks bloody vengeance on a group of vacationing teens, the movie is notable for featuring some of practical effects maestro Tom Savini’s best work, while also featuring an exceptionally young but already balding Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame.

The original trailer is equally memorable. Based on a real-life camp tale involving the infamous Cropsy, it focuses on a series of iconic images of our beautifully silhouetted monster wielding his equally iconic garden shears. It also features some spine-tingling music, offering glimpses of the infamously brutal canoe scene which sees a whole group of teenagers snipped to bloody ribbons. As our gravel-voiced narrator so ominously declares, “What happened one summer five years ago is about to happen again, and again, and AGAIN!”

“The Burning!”

Evilspeak (1981)

Back in 1981, home computers were becoming increasingly common, and Warner Brothers would cash-in on this modern phenomenon by combining it with another trend: the slasher movie. Perhaps the most anomalous entry on the ‘Video Nasties‘ list, Evilspeak is the story of a young cadet named Stanley Coopersmith (Clint Howard), who uses the power of the PC to summon the long-dormant spirit of a demon and take revenge on his high school tormentors.

The movie’s trailer is a wonderful example of how deft and well-orchestrated editing can make a fairly average film appear like a must-rent. Unable to fully disguise the film’s goofy undercurrent, it manages, like the movie itself, to build to one hell of a bloody climax, showing most of the best bits in an almost subliminal manner that leaves you wanting more, and also the movie’s seriously-dated computer effects, which would have been a huge selling point at the time. The voice-over guy also does a great job of conveying the plot, building in menace and putting the chills up any bully potentially watching out there.

“Remember that little kid you used to pick on? Well, he’s a big boy now!”

Kung-fu Cannibals aka Raw Force (1982)

The early 80s VHS boom gave us some batshit crazy, low-budget productions, and they don’t get much more mind-blowing than Edward D. Murphy’s Kung-Fu Cannibals, the story of a group of martial artists who travel to a remote island only to find it inhabited by a cult of cannibalistic monks with designs on bringing a clan of zombie ninjas back from the dead. This is cheap explosions, cheaper make-up, and a group of scantily-clad babes who are best described as…well, cheap, particularly those non-English extras who wander around the set wondering exactly what they’ve gotten themselves into. More a genre mash-up than a straight up horror, but one that more than qualifies for inclusion on this list.

The trailer sets about introducing each character in the most inanely linear terms imaginable, but when our voice-over guy informs us that female ‘martial artist’ Cookie Winchell’s best weapon is her body, you immediately forgive them for their tired format, delighting in a barrage bullets and boobs, as well as some of the oddest costumes ever committed to celluloid. So linear is the presentation of this original trailer that it does a better job of developing the plot than the actual movie, and once you’ve seen some of the side-splitting images it has to offer, you’ll be sure to rush out and buy grab a copy. And when you do, you will NOT be disappointed.

“Raw Force! Untamed. And unleashed to kill!”

Curtains (1983)

Here’s a truly terrifying trailer for Richard Ciupka’s pre-cert slasher Curtains. The story of a masked killer beset on a bloody rampage, the movie has the kind of premise you’ve seen a thousand times before, but in terms of imagery and execution it has much to offer. A slight variation on the usual stalk-and-slash fare, the movie takes place at a remote mansion where six young actresses are auditioning for a movie that is about to get just a little too real.

The trailer utilises the the movie’s strengths to devastating effect, paying particular attention to the killer’s gruesome mask, which resembles a wizened hound dog desperate to be put to sleep. It also teases two of the movie’s most memorable scenes: a doll standing ominously on a road and an infamous ice-skating set-piece that plays out in agonising slow-motion. The voice-over guy also plays his part, teasing every kill with his sparse and ominous delivery as the trailer races to a screaming end.

“Curtains! The ultimate nightmare!”

Splatter University (1984)

Splatter University is a bog-standard, post-censorship slasher that does very little to set itself apart in an oversaturated market of POV flicks. The plot is a familiar one: an escaped mental patient flees to a local college and has his wicked way with a gang of vacuous teens as yet another independent filmmaker sets about making a cheap buck off the back of some rather devilish marketing, and thanks in large part to this trailer, he no doubt achieved his goal, and then some.

This one begins with one of the cheapest tricks in the book, as a Priceian voice-over name-drops a couple of the genre’s high-points and promises to offer even more. If the filmmaker gave one crap about the quality of his actual movie, he’d be setting himself up for failure, but this is all about the sell, and for any gullible teenager out their waiting to sink their teeth into the next mind-numbing gorefest, it does a very fine job indeed. Because of the film’s minuscule budget and absence of creativity, props have to go to the ghoulishly sinister voice-over work and savvy editing, and anyone who can deliverer a toilet pun with such panache deserves a very special mention indeed.

“When you’ve gotta go, you’ve gotta go!”

Deadly Friend (1986)

Back in 1986, director Wes Craven was looking to move away from horror in order to prove his range, but Warner Brothers nixed that after a test screen audience, pining for more Krueger, complained of a lack of gore. That’s how sci-fi drama Deadly Friend became the muddled mess of a horror we all know and love. The story of a young science whizz who brings his dead girl back to life with a microchip, the movie is a zany hodgepodge of ‘Nightmare’-inspired concepts that would go on to attain cult status.

Since this was Craven’s first big studio outing following the success of A Nightmare on Elm Street, the trailer is of a considerably higher quality than previous entries on this list, and does a fantastic job of conveying the horror elements the studio craved. It also features a deleted scene, replacing the infamous exploding head death with that of Elvira Parker (Anne Ramsey) being smashed through a door. What really sets the trailer apart is the climactic pacing, ability to tell a story and Charles Bernstein‘s chimerical theme, while the trailer’s closing shot is truly breathtaking in its composition.

“Deadly Friend. She can’t live, without you.”

Dolls (1987)

Perhaps my favourite of all the trailers on this list is for Stuart Gordon’s 1987 tongue-in-cheek horror Dolls. The story of a group of people forced to take refuge in a creepy old mansion, the visitors in question are relieved to find the house inhabited by a harmless old toy maker and his elderly wife, until their dolls come alive and turn particularly nasty, dispatching of their disrespectful guests in a plethora of gruesome ways.

Another trailer of considerable polish, Dolls delivers on both an audio and visual level, exhibiting a series of grisly deaths which convey the movie’s comedy undertones. The language is poetic, the dialogue comical, and the voice-over is so irresistibly macabre that you can’t help but succumb to its grisly promise. It also gives us a glimpse at some of the movie’s dazzling practical effects, with a platoon of rifle-wielding soldiers and a murderous 15-foot teddy bear who turns playtime into a living nightmare. As the trailer’s sinister voice-over proclaims, “You’re never too old to plays with dolls. Until you’re dead!”


    1. Thanks Julien! Glad you enjoyed it.

      I really miss those trailers. It was part of the fun of renting movies. Those voice-over guys used to really get to me. Some trailers were better/scarier than the actual movies. Sadly, in a climate of instant gratification, we no longer have the pleasure.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I wish there were still movies like those… you know those crappy ones that we love anyways, like Puppet Master and Critters and Ghoulies. I’m glad I grew up in the heyday of VCR shlock

        Liked by 1 person

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