For a genre that only really came into existence a few years before, slashers really managed to carve out a name for themselves in the 1980s. Every single year of the ’80s saw multiple slasher movies released and, while they all couldn’t reach the heights of Halloween, many of them actually made a lot of money.
Related: Every Main Character In Halloween (1978), Ranked By Intelligence
As for what classifies as a slasher, aside from Box Office Mojo categorizing them as such, there’s generally a masked or scary character killing people, often in gory ways, throughout the runtime. Plenty of times the low grossing ones are still very good, but this batch of high grossing slashers largely features the big three: Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and Freddy Krueger.
10 A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Box Office: $25,504,513
When A Nightmare on Elm Street came out in 1984 Wes Craven managed to turn a nightmare he once had into a shared experience with millions, and the film wound up making millions as a result. Robert Englund’s well-received portrayal of Freddy Krueger was quite different from the other high grossing slashers of the ’80s in that it was very personality-based. Freddy doesn’t just stalk and slash, he has things to say.
Budgeted at $1.7 million (per AFI), A Nightmare on Elm Street would up grossing 15 times that amount domestically and made a cultural icon out of Freddy Krueger. New Line Cinema existed before A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the success of the film, and its sequels, lead to the studio rightly being referred to as “The house that Freddy built.”
9 Halloween II (1981)
Box Office: $25,533,818
Set on the same night as 1978’s Halloween, this sequel continues the Michael Myers murder saga. Jamie Lee Curtis returns as Laurie Strode, but she spends most of the film recuperating in a hospital room (a story choice that 2021’s Halloween Kills repeats). John Carpenter’s booze-fueled writing process and general disinterest in the sequels, as detailed by Vulture, are well known, but money is money.
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While it didn’t match the original in reception or earnings, ultimately Halloween II‘s budget of $2.5 million (via AFI) was made back 10 times over, earning the studio a pretty penny. The other Halloween movies released in the ’80s delivered diminishing returns, but the franchise eventually rebounded and has Halloween Ends scheduled for release this October (per Screen Rant).
8 A Nightmare On Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Box Office: $29,999,213
Opening less than a year after the first film debuted, this sequel actually managed to earn more at the box office than the original – a rare accomplishment. With a male lead in Mark Patton (an outlier for a slasher) and queer subtext, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is widely known as one of the gayest horror movies ever made. There’s even a documentary, 2019’s Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street, about its homoeroticism.
This $2.5 million production (per AFI) went on to make 12 times the budget and cemented Freddy Krueger’s money-making value to New Line Cinema. Despite this film’s success, none of these characters reappear in any future installments, making this the sole film of the series with the only repeat character being Freddy himself.
7 Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Box Office: $32,980,880
Friday the 13th‘s fourth installment is largely known as the one with Corey Feldman as Tommy Jarvis, but die-hard fans also remember it for the return of make-up legend Tom Savini (previously from Friday the 13th). It was as popular with film critics as a machete to the face, but these movies aren’t made for the Siskel & Eberts of the world.
Despite the finality of the film’s title, Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter proved to be far from the end. A sequel actually came out less than a year after this one opened, because when a movie makes 15 times its $2.2 million budget (via AFI) there will absolutely be another one.
6 Child’s Play (1988)
Box Office: $33,244,684
Chucky carves out a spot for himself on the list of highest-grossing slashers of the ’80s with the one and only Child’s Play movie released that decade. Of all ’80s slashers, the Child’s Play/Chucky series is the only one still building on the original continuity thanks to writer/director Don Mancini, who has been with the franchise since day one. The 2019 reboot is legally a separate beast, so it isn’t included.
In contrast to the rather tiny budgets of most slashers on this list, Child’s Play cost around $13 million to produce (per AFI). Even with that comparatively huge budget, it earned enough to kick off a seven movie and one TV series franchise that’s still chugging along today (Chucky S2 premieres later this year). The combination of the creepy doll and Brad Dourif’s foul-mouthed voice work turned out to have quite the staying power.
5 Friday the 13th Part III (1982)
Box Office: $34,581,519
Friday the 13th Part III is notable for being the sequel that gave Jason his hockey mask (as opposed to the silly sack he wore on his head previously). This is also the only time a director returned to do a second Friday the 13th film, so Steve Miner actually ended up being responsible for both bringing adult killer Jason in the mix as well as his iconic look.
Although Friday the 13th had already jumped the shark multiple times by this point, Part III managed to bounce back up to nearly $35 million after Part 2 topped out with just under $22 million. So, while the dated 3D effects are mostly just good for a laugh nowadays, the gimmick proved rather effective at the time.
4 Psycho II (1983)
Box Office: $34,725,000
Sequels might be commonplace today, but Psycho II coming out 23 years after Psycho was a trailblazer in that respect. Anthony Perkins and Vera Miles both returned from the 1960 Hitchcock classic, but some of the creative choices in regard to how Miles’ character was written might leave a bad aftertaste for fans of the original.
Related: 10 Movies & TV Scenes That Parody Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
While not a unique horror movie premise, on a $4 million budget (per AFI) Psycho II was able to ride that slasher craze and gross more than enough to justify 1986’s Psycho III. That installment proved to be less lucky, making well less than half of this while costing twice as much to produce, according to the AFI.
3 Friday the 13th (1980)
Box Office: $39,754,601
If there was any doubt about slashers being a profitable genre after 1978’s Halloween made an obscene amount of money, Friday the 13th laid those concerns to rest with a bloody arrow through Kevin Bacon’s throat. As far as gore and body counts go, Friday the 13th definitely set the standard for cheap and profitable slasher fare for years to come – and even features a somewhat sympathetic horror movie villain.
Produced for just $650,000 (via AFI), Sean Cunningham’s tale of camp counselors being graphically murdered went on to make over 61 times its budget. That’s a ridiculous return on investment that nobody could have ever predicted, but many tried to replicate.
2 A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Box Office: $44,793,222
A third film was inevitable after the success of the first two, but with Heather Langenkamp returning as Nancy and Wes Craven returning as a writer, A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors had a couple of things working in its favor. Having a young Laurence Fishburne (or “Larry” as he’s credited here) didn’t hurt, either.
Even with an increased budget of about $4.5 million (per AFI), the film made 10 times its cost and managed to increase in gross from the previous film once again. No other horror franchise of the ’80s (or ever, really) displayed as much upward mobility.
1 A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988)
Box Office: $49,369,899
With the number one spot, A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Master is the fourth film from this franchise to place in the ranking of highest-grossing ’80s slashers. Turns out A Nightmare on Elm Street was able to increase in gross one last time, making it the unmatched king of horror franchise growth.
With a budget of $6.5 million (via AFI), this was the most expensive film to produce so far, but based on the huge success of the previous three it was almost a sure thing. Even though the fifth of the series crashed down to about 22 million the following year, New Line Cinema was already “The house that Freddy built” and nothing could take that away.
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