Our look at underrated films of the '80s continues as we head to 1988, the year of Die Hard, Beetlejuice, and some obscure gems.
Either in terms of ticket sales or critical acclaim, 1988 was dominated by the likes of Rain Man, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Coming to America. It was the year Bruce Willis made the jump from TV to action cinema with Die Hard, and became a star in the process.
It was the year Leslie Nielsen made his own jump from the small to silver screen with Police Squad spin-off The Naked Gun, which sparked a hugely popular franchise of its own. Elsewhere, the eccentric Tim Burton scored one of the biggest hits of the year with Beetlejuice, the success of which would result in the birth of Batman a year later. And then there was Tom Cruise, who managed to make a drama about a student-turned-barman into a $170 million hit, back when $170 million was still an awful lot of money in blockbuster terms.
Well outside the top ten grossing films of 1988, which also included Crocodile Dundee II, Twins, and Big, there were the films you’ll find below. Many were considered failures either critically or financially. Others were low-key releases at the time and have gradually built up a cult following. All are well worth a watch.
25. Married to the Mob
Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, The Silence of the Lambs, swept the Oscars, winning a Best Director gong for himself in the process. But the film he made before couldn’t have been that much more different.
Married to the Mob is a really enjoyable comedy with a standout performance from Michelle Pfeiffer at the center of it. She plays Angela de Marco, the eventual widow of Alec Baldwin’s mob member Frank. Enter Matthew Modine and Oliver Platt as the FBI agents who begin to investigate her–all the while as she tries to break away from mob life.
Dean Stockwell, incidentally, got a supporting actor Oscar nomination for this one, but this hugely enjoyable comedy has lots of ingredients that work–not least Pfeiffer herself. It’d odd, given its profile at the time, that it’s dropped so far out of sight with a tepid DVD release and not a lot else encouraging people to seek it out. But it is very much worth the effort to do so.
24. Vice Versa
If Big was the premium-grade body swap comedy of the 1980s, then Vice Versa can take pride of place alongside Like Father Like Son in the bargain basement bin of the video shop. Take away Tom Hanks and the Oscar nomination, and instead you get Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage.
Based on a script by British sitcom legends Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, Vice Versa paled in comparison to Big in truth, but given the fact that it was more readily available at the video rental shop, we watched it a lot more. And you know what? It’s fun.
After all, there aren’t many Judge Reinhold movies whose plot centers on a skull that’s been nicked from a monastery in Thailand. A pity that there’s a Netflix subgenre waiting to happen right there…
The Qatsi trilogy of films from Godfrey Reggio are beloved by those who have seen them but are generally unknown to pretty much everyone else on the planet. Powaqqatsi, then, is the middle part, following Koyaanisqatsi.
Dialogue-free, Powaqqatsi‘s focus is on development in countries described as the third world. With stunning photography, Reggio charts the growing impact of industrialization while set to outstanding music from Phillip Glass. He’d eventually follow this one up with Naqoyqatsi, the final part of the boxset. Do consider giving one of the films a try.
22. Red Heat
You might be forgiven for thinking that the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger would have made Red Heat a surefire hit, but it didn’t make anywhere near as much money as, say, 1987’s Predator or Twins, also released in 1988. In fact, Red Heat only made about $6 million more than its then huge $30 million budget at the box office.
Schwarzenegger stars as Ivan Danko, a Soviet cop who heads to Chicago to track down a bad guy who’d slipped through his banana-like fingers back in his native Russia–a vicious drug boss Viktor Rostavelli (Ed O’Ross). Danko forms an uneasy partnership with an American detective, Art Ridzik (James Belushi) and together, the two put their opposing ideologies behind them in order to track down Rostavelli.
Essentially a riff on director Walter Hill’s earlier hit, 48 Hrs., Red Heat is an entertaining buddy-cop action comedy that runs as predictably as a Swiss watch, yet gets by thanks to the strength of its leads and the grit in Hill’s direction. The supporting cast is also great; Gina Gershon, Laurence Fishburne, and Brion James all show up. An ’80s action American action movie wouldn’t be the same without Brion James.
21. Deadly Pursuit
This fast-paced thriller, also marketed as Shoot to Kill in some places, didn’t do badly in cinemas, but when was the last time you saw or heard anything about it? Deadly Pursuit was directed by Roger Spottiswoode, a prolific filmmaker who’s made some quite good movies (Under Fire, Turner & Hooch, Air America) and some very bad ones (Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot). Deadly Pursuit is definitely among his best, with a commanding central turn by Sidney Poitier as a cop pursuing a killer through the wilds of Washington and Canada.
The clever twist is that we don’t initially know the identity of the bad guy Poitier’s chasing across mountains and rivers; some canny casting means that Clancy Brown, Andrew Robinson (or a couple of other actors known for playing villains) could be Poitier’s target. The plot is the movie equivalent of a pulp novel you might pick up at an airport, but the quality of the cast and direction makes Deadly Pursuit well worth a watch.
Adapted from the novel by Andrew Neiderman, Pin is the kind of horror film that needles your intellect rather than hit you over the head with lashings of gore. David Hewlett stars as a quiet, disturbed young man who’s convinced that the medical doll left behind by his late father (Anthony Quinn) is actually alive.
A subtle, riveting film from director and screenwriter Standor Stern, and featuring a stunning central performance from Hewlett, Pin is more Peeping Tom than Child’s Play, and shot with the incisive approach of David Cronenberg, who, like Stern, is a Canadian.
Pin is one of those films that, although it barely made a dent at the box-office in 1988, has quietly lurked on shelves in video shops and, in the 21st century, continues to make its presence felt on services like Netflix. It’s a smart, disturbing psychological horror film that, more than a quarter of a century later, still holds fascinating power.
19. Running On Empty
When he died in 2011, Sidney Lumet left behind an exceptional body of work, which included, to name a few, 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. Tucked in among his most famous output is Running On Empty, a drama that earned a ripple of praise at awards ceremonies but failed to gain the same long-term traction as Network or Serpico.
It’s largely told from the perspective of dreamy-eyed teen Danny (River Phoenix) who’s spent his entire life being dragged across America by his counterculture parents, who are wanted by the FBI following an explosive incident which took place while Danny was still a toddler. We watch as Danny tries to square his own need to grow up and make friends with his parents’ need for anonymity. The story could be pure melodrama, but the strength of the performances, from Phoenix to Martha Plimpton as his would-be girlfriend to Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch as his parents, make this an absorbing watch.
20. Brain Damage
Dark master of exploitation flicks Frank Henenlotter followed up the infamous Basket Case with this bad-taste horror comedy in which a guy named Brian (Rick Hearst) finds his life taken over by a disgusting brain parasite.
A veritable feast of low-budget gore effects and uneasy laughs, Brain Damage is the very definition of a cult film–initially shunned by its own distribution company, it’s since wormed its way into our consciousness like the slug-like beast at the story’s center.
17. The Blob
Arriving at the tail-end of a wave of ’50s remakes, which included John Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly, and Tobe Hooper’s disappointing Invaders From Mars, this extremely good reworking of The Blob got lost in the mix. But time has been unusually kind to this gooey monster flick, directed by Chuck Russell and co-written by a young Frank Darabont. The oozing beast of the old ’50s flick is reimagined here as a far more aggressive entity, capable of lashing out with tentacles and melting human bodies like a deluge of concentrated acid.
It’s clearly influenced by The Thing, with similar mutation effects and even a plot point where the Blob can “take over” human hosts, but it’s brisk, well made, and boasts a sterling cast. There’s Kevin Dillon as the rebellious teen lead, Shawnee Smith as his love interest, and the late Del Close as a creepy reverend. Also look out for Candy Clarke; she has a spectacular scene where she’s trapped in a telephone box which is engulfed by the Blob’s icky mass.
16. The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
From the ’90s onwards, Antipodean director Vincent Ward became famous as one of the many filmmakers who almost got to helm the troubled Alien 3–his concept, abandoned by 20th Century Fox, of an alien hunting monks on a wooden artificial planet is one of the great “what ifs” of modern sci-fi cinema. Before all that though, Ward made this low budget, beautiful looking fantasy set in Black Death-era Europe. A group of adventurers go on a holy quest, hoping that their efforts will save their village from the ravages of the plague, but their journey takes them to a place that neither they nor their audience could predict.
Garnering acclaim at film festivals, The Navigator did relatively little at the box office. But it’s a great movie, and it’s not difficult to see why Fox pursued Ward for Alien 3, even if they did end up rejecting his ideas later on.
A remake of the 1949 thriller of the same name, D.O.A was the first feature from co-directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton–the Max Headroom creators who later went on to make the ill-fated Super Mario Bros. movie in 1993. Regarded as a box office disappointment at the time, D.O.A was nevertheless well received by some critics, in particular Roger Ebert.
Dennis Quaid stars as a poisoned English teacher who devotes the final day of his life to tracking down his own killer. The noir premise keeps the plot rolling along all by itself, but Quaid and Ryan (who previously worked together on Joe Dante’s Innerspace) give the film added zest. Although not perfect, this entertaining whodunit has aged better, we’d argue, than a thriller like Black Widow (1987) or Masquerade (1988), which seemed far less old fashioned at the time.
If you believe some of the accounts set down in Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Dennis Hopper was even more scary than some of the characters he played on the silver screen. There was little doubt, however, that he had huge talent, whether it was behind the camera or in front of it. Colors was a long overdue reminder of Hopper’s abilities as a director; its depiction of gang culture and police procedure in ’80s Los Angeles is hard-hitting and superbly acted, with the cast including Sean Penn, Robert Duvall, and Maria Conchita Alonso.
Admittedly, Colors did well on its release both critically and financially, but we felt it deserved a place low down on this list due to its sheer quality; less commonly discussed than other films from 1988, like Die Hard or Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Colors is nevertheless one of the best movies of that year.
13. They Live
John Carpenter’s Reagan-era twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers‘ paranoid school of sci-fi is everything you’d want from the director in his creative prime: imaginative, exciting, and very funny. Ex-wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper stars as a drifting loner called Nada, who has a kind of post-modern Road to Damascus moment: a pair of shades reveal that adverts are coded messages and that the wealthy are actually ghoulish aliens in disguise.
Not everybody warmed to the B-movie excesses of They Live (nor the comically protracted fight between Piper and co-star Keith David), but there’s real satirical bite, not to mention a sense of anger, beneath the flying saucers and goofy humor. With politicians and corporations now able to bombard us on more fronts than ever–YouTube, social media, and so on–They Live’s theme of subliminal control seems as urgent as it ever did.
12. Stand and Deliver
When we looked back at the underappreciated movies of 1989, we touched on Lean On Me, a surprisingly little heard-of entry in the field of inspirational teacher movies. Stand and Deliver, even more so, deserves a lot more prominence.
This time, it’s a pre-Battlestar Galactica Edward James Olmos who stars, and in his case, he picked up a Best Actor Oscar nomination for portraying Jaime Escalante. It’s based on a true story, although you can easily draw lines as to where the film is going to go. No matter: director Ramon Menendez pieces together an excellent drama, and his film precedes the far glossier teacher tales that’d follow over the oncoming years. There’s a rawness about Stand and Deliver that sets it apart, along with Olmos’ tremendous lead performance.
11. The Adventures of Baron Munchausen
After the critical acclaim of Brazil, this mega-budget fantasy was a notorious box office disappointment for director Terry Gilliam, as it surfed into cinemas on a wave of stories about cost overruns and chaotic experiences on set. In reality, Gilliam was simply unlucky; there was a regime change going on at Columbia Pictures, and there seemed to be little appetite to get the film marketed or circulated properly in U.S. theaters.
History aside, Baron Munchausen is as visually inventive as anything Gilliam made before or afterward; a sumptuous, creative, sometimes bewildering poem to the power of storytelling and imagination. Fair warning: the late, sorely missed Robin Williams’ performance as the King of the Moon is enough to induce nightmares.
10. Clean and Sober
Michael Keaton may have failed to snare an Oscar for his work in Birdman, but his career isn’t shy of other performances that warranted award acclaim but didn’t necessarily get it. Clean and Sober isn’t always a fun film to sit through, but this was the movie where he clearly proved that his range wasn’t restricted to the comedies he was known for at the time.
Here, he plays a cocaine-addicted estate agent by the name of Daryl, who is in the process of effectively destroying his life, and is ultimately trying to arrest his decline. Keaton is excellent here, but then he’s supported by one of the best supporting casts of the year. Most notably, Morgan Freeman and Kathy Baker.
It’s hard to say, in fairness, that you get too much in the way of entertainment out of Clean and Sober, but then that’s sort of the point. It’s a rough, unvarnished look at a man heading to and hitting rock bottom–and what happens next.
9. Bright Lights, Big City
Michael J Fox signed a three-picture deal with Universal in the 1990s, and it’d be fair to say that the material, aside from The Frighteners, sold his abilities short. He picked a couple of by the numbers comedies, eschewing the drama work he’d done in the 1980s.
When he came to film Bright Lights, Big City, Michael J Fox had wrapped Back to the Future, but was still in the midst of his punishing schedule on the TV show Family Ties. As such, he had a 10-week window for director Joyce Chopra to get the film in the can. She never got the chance. She was removed as director after a week, to be replaced by James Bridges, who pulled back on the drug content in the movie (although not all of it). That said, the end result is still a harsh, grown-up drama, that at the heart was a stark contrast to the screen image of Fox.
What came out at the end of the process, then, was an intelligent, interesting piece of cinema that very much has a feeling that there was something more in the core material (United Artists executives reportedly hadn’t read the novel before giving the film a greenlight, and thus were ‘surprised’ when they learned of the content).
Fox would never fully lose his wholesome family image, but Bright Lights, Big City, along with Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War, did demonstrate relatively untapped potential…
8. The Last Temptation of Christ
The controversy and media hoopla surrounding this Biblical drama from director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader meant that far too many overlooked just how good the film itself was and is. Willem Dafoe plays an earthy, self-doubting and unusually human Jesus in a movie full of incredibly left-field casting choices: Harvey Keitel mopes around with a shock of red hair as Judas Iscariot, Harry Dean Stanton plays a surly Paul of Tarsus, while David Bowie shows up as Pontius Pilate.
Boldly made and superbly shot, The Last Temptation of Christ was essentially tarred and feathered by its opponents, whose protestations over its inaccurate treatment of the Bible story were so shrill that the film was pulled from several theaters. Only after the furor died down did it become possible to appreciate the movie beneath all the news headlines. Along with Bringing Out The Dead, The Last Temptation is, for us, among Scorsese’s most underappreciated films.
7. Miracle Mile
Independent production company Hemdale was very good at getting unusual films like A Breed Apart, Salvador or even The Terminator made, but it wasn’t quite as effective when it turned its hand to distribution. This might explain why this brilliant romantic thriller, written and directed by Steve De Jarnatt, didn’t become a greater financial success.
Ordinary guy Harry (Anthony Edwards) picks up a ringing pay phone and hears from the man on the other end of the line – who clearly has the wrong number – that America’s a mere 70 minutes away from a nuclear war. Harry frantically works his way across Los Angeles to find his lover Julie (Mare Winningham), whom he hopes to whisk away from danger before the missiles drop. But is the threat of nuclear war real, or is Harry simply spreading panic?
In turnaround for years before De Jarnatt grew impatient and directed the film himself, Miracle Mile is filled with a palpable sense of urgency bordering on blind terror; it helps that the central characters are so unusually ordinary and believable. Whether the apocalypse is coming or not, you really come to care about their fate as the city descends into hysteria all around them.
6. Eight Men Out
How underappreciated you regard Eight Men Out is arguably directly related to how many lists you read online about the best sports movies. Adding further fuel to the argument that it’s baseball that provides the basis for better sports movies than any other game, Eight Men Out is John Sayles’ drama based around the Chicago White Sox in 1919.
It’s a story that doesn’t mean much to those outside the US, but we didn’t find that a disadvantage. Sayles takes his time to set up the characters and the situation, and finds a group of young man who fall for the temptations laid out by gamblers to throw the World Series.
It’s a cracking ensemble that Sayles assembles, with David Strathairn a particular standout. It’d be remiss not to note the terrific work of John Cusack and D B Sweeney here, too.
An excellent telling of a dark story from the annals baseball, Eight Men Out is accessible, and surprisingly human.
James Woods, as we’ve discussed before on this site, was busy in the ’80s and ’90s making interesting, edgy films that tended to fly under too many people’s radars. Just check out Best Seller for a strong example of that.
But check out Cop too, based on the book Blood on the Moon by James Ellroy. Woods co-produced this one, along with writer-director James B. Harris, and it’s a film that was pretty heavily slated on its original release. Looking back now, in the context of the relatively by the numbers cop thrillers that permeate the big and small screen, it genuinely stands out.
Granted, there are moments in Cop where you wonder if it’s veering a little too close to leering and exploiting rather than investigating and telling a story. Yet that’s where Woods is the trump card, a complicated and troubled central character, yet another terrific leading man performance in a career that’s been full of them.
Like most Ellroy stories, underneath the main investigation narrative there’s far more going on if you dig a little deeper. Mind you, just finding a decent copy of Cop is a bit of a challenge at times. It’s worth the effort though. Who else, other than James Woods, could pull out roles such as these?
4. Dead Ringers
David Cronenberg scored the biggest hit of his career to date with his icky, poignant remake of The Fly, yet resisted the inevitable offers to direct the latest big budget Hollywood thriller. Instead he made Dead Ringers, a minimal, crushingly sad story of twin gynaecologists whose love for an actress (played by Genevieve Bujold) leaves them spiralling into addiction and despair.
Marking the moment when Cronenberg put aside overt horror and strove instead to make something more subtle and insidious, Dead Ringers is still far from Oscar bait material; its frank, often cold depiction of human frailty and carnality clearly alienated wider audiences, since the film failed to gain anything like the same attention as The Fly. But Dead Ringers is also arguably among Cronenberg’s very best films; in the dual roles of Eliott and Beverly Mantle, Jeremy Irons puts in one of the most mesmerising performances of his career. Coupled with Howard Shore’s tender theme, the combination is unforgettably powerful.
3. Spoorloos (The Vanishing)
Dutch director George Sluizer’s Dutch drama thriller may have had praise heaped on it in the past, but we had to include it anyway–with Spoorloos now 27 years old, there’s a chance that it might have passed some readers by. A young couple, Rex and Saskia, are on holiday in France when Saskia suddenly disappears from a busy petrol station one bright day. Rex spends years fruitlessly trying to find his missing girlfriend, when a man named Raymond turns up and says he’ll reveal Saskia’s whereabouts if he follows him on a journey.
Spoorloos is one of those fascinating films where even mundane scenes are invested with eerie tension; the opening shot of a figure standing in a darkened tunnel, light shining from the other end, is a portent of the nightmare to come. Forget about the superfluous 1993 remake starring Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland (regrettably, directed by Sluizer); Spoorloos is a masterpiece that remains unmatched.
2. Talk Radio
A film sandwiched uncomfortably between the Oscar nominated films Platoon (1986), Wall Street (1987), and Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Talk Radio was one of those films that critics loved but audiences seemed reluctant to actually go and see. The problem, perhaps, is that it doesn’t have the easily marketable hook of director Oliver Stone’s other films of that era, often uncompromising and adult though they are.
Whereas Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July dealt with the big theme of the Vietnam War and its after effects, Talk Radio is more low-key; it’s about a shock jock who soars to success with his controversial broadcasts, but also invites angry calls and occasional death threats. Actor and playwright Eric Bogosian, who co-wrote the adaptation of his original play, also stars as the DJ Barry Champlain, and it’s a terrific performance that sweeps through the entire film. Oddly, Bogosian later turned up in, among other things, action sequel Under Siege 2: Dark Territory. We suspect he took that role on to pay the bills; Talk Radio is among his best work, and arguably among Stone’s finest movies too.
Director Bernard Rose went on to make the classic ’90s horror Candyman and the Beethoven drama Immortal Beloved in 1994, but years earlier, he made the hugely underrated fantasy chiller, Paperhouse. About a fever-ridden girl who finds that the drawings she makes in her waking hours have an effect on her nightmares, it’s an unforgettably eerie film, full of images that are all the more disturbing because of their simplicity.
Appropriately, Paperhouse has many of the hallmarks of a nightmare; it’s symbolic, unpredictable, and leaves you feeling decidedly unusual even after the final scene has faded to black.
So do you agree or disagree with this list?