Sometimes you’ll get home, turn on the television, and start watching a film halfway through. But even if you don’t know the title, director, or any of the actors involved, there are several very easy ways to tell at a glance whether the movie in question is from the 80s or not. So with this in mind, here’s our handy list of ten tell-tale signs…
If you wanted to make your audience believe that your movie’s protagonist was travelling back in time, encountering something supernatural or being reduced in size by a miniaturisation ray, there was one special effect to cover any eventuality. Perhaps mimicking those strange plasma globe things that became a popular novelty in the 80s, the animated lightning effect was among the most ubiquitous of the decade, appearing in almost every sci-fi, fantasy and horror movie you could care to name.
Achieved by compositing hand-drawn cels over live-action, variations on this lightning or plasma effect can be traced back to Forbidden Planet’s remarkable Id Monster (animated by Disney’s Joshua Meador), but brought firmly back into vogue by ILM’s lightsaber effects work on the Star Wars movies.
Thereafter, the composite lightning effect appeared everywhere, from electricity bolts hitting the DeLorean in Back To The Future, energy-sucking space vampires in Lifeforce, the sparks on an injured extraterrestrial bounty hunter in Predator, flying missiles on a computer screen in Wargames, and Christopher Lambert receiving the Prize in Highlander (which, now I think about it, wasn’t much of a prize at all).
Although similar effects have been used in the movies since, never have they been quite so prominent as they were in the 80s – and to be fair, they still look really cool.
Montage with upbeat music
An 80s movie just wouldn’t be the same without a montage. Whether it’s Danny LaRusso awaiting his big fight in The Karate Kid (cut to Joe Esposito’s You’re The Best Around), the teenagers of Ferris Bueller exploring a Chicago art museum (to The Smiths), or Balboa training in the Rocky movies (Rocky IV was almost exclusively made up from musical montages), these sequences are quintessentially 80s.
Musical montage sequences weren’t merely the preserve of teen comedies and lowest-common-denominator action flicks, either – even the classic Scarface had one, which saw ruthless anti-hero Tony Montana’s rapid rise to the top of the pharmaceutical distribution profession condensed into three minutes of Giorgio Moroder’s hideous Push It To The Limit. You don’t see stuff like this in gangster movies these days:
It’ll probably seem inconceivable to youngsters in another few years that, back in the 80s, people used to play games on computers housed in gigantic slabs of chipboard. And although amusement arcades were still occasionally seen in 90s movies, their golden era had already passed. No, if you’re watching a movie that sees a youngster wrestling with an arcade machine – whether it’s Galaga in Wargames, or a kid getting beaten by Bad Dudes Vs Dragonninja as Steve Martin looks on in Parenthood, it’s more than likely that it’s from the 80s.
One of Den of Geek’s favourites, The Last Starfighter, saw an arcade cabinet used as an interstellar pilot training tool by a race of aliens, which is about as 80s a fantasy film concept as you can get. A remake would presumably see the hero download an alien combat training app to his iPhone.
Teenagers have interesting adventures
If the 80s has taught us nothing else, it’s that teenagers got into all kind of entertaining and strange scrapes. If you thought Katniss Everdeen was unlucky for having to spend two hours up a tree to avoid a bunch of violent teen gladiators in The Hunger Games, the teenagers of Red Dawn managed to help fend off a full-scale communist invasion – and not a conveniently situated wasps’ nest in sight.
Other youths enjoyed fun days out in a stolen Ferrari (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), got lost with a bunch of little kids in Chicago (Adventures In Babysitting, actually shot in Toronto), got lost in time (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure), and even rescued their army parents from a Korean prison (The Rescue).
There’s an easy way to tell if the movie you’re watching is from the 80s, therefore: if it involves teens going on adventures, getting into fights or generally causing trouble, it’s probably from the shoulderpad decade. If the teenagers spend their spare time mooning over effete, pale young boys covered in glitter, it’s probably one of those new-fangled Twilight movies, or a recent episode of Home & Away.
Evil, conniving rich people
The arrival of the 2008 financial crisis has seen the subject of this entry make a return appearance in movies, but the evil rich are still a particularly prominent figure in 80s cinema. From Belloq, the ‘champagne villain’ of Raiders Of The Lost Ark near the start of the decade, via the smug Duke and Duke of Trading Places, to the conniving Burke of Aliens, white collar villains were the big-screen, cartoonishly villainous analogues of the 80s yuppie phenomenon.
John Carpenter’s They Live revealed yuppies to not just be different from ordinary working mortals in terms of wealth, but actually from a whole other planet – a satirical characterisation that is easily as satisfying and memorable as Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, who summed up the entire decade of excess with the immortal line, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Although about the 80s rather than written in the 80s, Brett Easton Ellis created another evil yuppie in 1991’s American Psycho – Patrick Bateman, a sociopath whose love for Whitney Houston and Phil Collins was matched only by his appetite for murder and dismemberment. It’s worth mentioning, though, that this brutal, satirical prodding at the ruthless nature of moneymaking and big business was, of course, anticipated by the mighty RoboCop, which saw suit-wearing corporate types murdering each other to stay ahead of the deal-making pack.
And finally, we come to the ultimate 80s yuppie slimeball – Die Hard’s Harry Ellis. Clad in yards of expensive suit material, prepacked in a perfectly clipped beard, addicted to coke of the illegal variety and afflicted with one of the most infuriating laughs in movie history, it’s a mild relief that his smarmy utterance, “Hans. Bubbie. I’m your white knight” quickly becomes his epitaph.
Gratuitous sex scenes
Now here’s one movie trapping we don’t see very often these days. Apparently killed off in the quest for a PG-13 certificate in modern films, the gratuitous sex scene reached its zenith in the 80s. A good example of this can be found in the 80s thriller No Mercy, in which Richard Gere’s tough Chicago cop went on the run from a crime lord with Kim Basinger in tow. Even though the spectre of death hangs over them, they still find time to stop off at a motel somewhere to engage in a raunchy, low-lit sex scene.
If a thriller didn’t have a sequence like the one described above (and if it was an erotic thriller, like Sea Of Love, it might have a couple), then it would at least have the following: during either a pursuit or a fight, someone would kick a door down, and there’d be either a couple having sex, or at least a topless woman waiting to be discovered.
For examples, see Commando, Red Heat, Die Hard (it’s brief, but it’s there), and too many others to count. And then there are all those 80s slasher movies and bawdy teen comedies, which were forced to include gratuitous scenes of sex and nudity by law…
A steel mill/factory/warehouse sequence
Sooner or later, characters in 80s movies always found themselves in some sort of industrial building. The Terminator concluded with a tense chase through a factory. RoboCop appeared to take place almost entirely in disused steel mills and warehouses. Schwarzenegger was stuck in a futuristic prison that looked more like an old factory than Wormwood Scrubs in 1987’s The Running Man. The conclusion of Sly Stallone’s Cobra took place in some sort of hellish smelting facility. Even the decade’s best dancers worked in steel mills – just look at Flashdance.
The reason for the number of these scenes is two-fold, perhaps. The production of steel, cars and other heavy industries, once a big part of the US economy, were in decline in the 70s and 80s, and this was reflected – whether consciously or not – by the era’s filmmakers. Certainly, the period’s decline in manufacturing provided directors with plenty of cheap, run-down places in which to shoot their movies, resulting in an entire decade of sequences set in industrial locations.
Dodgy nightclub sequences
Running close behind those steel mill sequences came the ones set in nightclubs. It became something of a legal requirement, it seemed, for 80s movies to have at least one scene set in the deafeningly noisy, blue-hued environs of a nightclub, with dozens of extras swaying awkwardly in huge shoulderpadded suits while desperately trying to avoid eye contact with the roving camera.
Examples? The fabulously 80s teen horror flick Fright Night featured a great nightclub sequence featuring a predatory Chris Sarandon. Sly Stallone stalked Rutger Hauer through a noisy nightspot in Night Hawks, while Arnie killed an entire discotheque full of revellers in The Terminator.
If the movie you’re watching doesn’t feature a night club, it’s likely that it’ll contain its seedier counterpart, the strip joint – these are often the dens of bad guys or a stopping-off point for cops on the hunt for clues. See Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop and its sequel, Clint Eastwood thriller Tightrope, sci-fi flick The Hidden, and many, many more. 1986 horror movie Vamp was set exclusively in a strip club, if memory serves.
It seems that, in the 80s, every adult male on their planet spent an inordinate amount of time frequenting bars where women took their clothes off – presumably to kill time until someone invented broadband. Look – even Beetlejuice was in on the craze:
Helpless female bystanders
A somewhat strange trapping of 80s movies and TV, this phenomenon is best exemplified in Sly Stallone’s cop movie effort, Cobra. During the climactic fight sequence, in which Marion ‘Cobra’ Cobretti engages in hand-to-hand combat with a villain called Night Slasher (the hulking Brian Thompson), love interest Ingrid (Brigitte Nielsen) simply stands around in the distance and watches the brawl unfold.
Admittedly, this sort of thing went on in entertainment long before the decade that taste forgot (Olive Oyl used to stand around shouting encouragement while Popeye and Bluto punched each other in the face, for example), but by the 80s, portraying women as hopeless sufferers of the bystander effect was beginning to look rather absurd. In the example cited above, the fact that Brigitte Nielsen is notably taller and broader than Sly Stallone, and kicked all kinds of backside in Red Sonja, makes the sequence look even more ridiculous.
Presumably, the bit where Sly walks away when the fight’s over and says to Brigitte, “You were bloody useless, by the way. Useless. Where were you? Reading a book or something? Look at the size of your hands. You could have crushed his head like a quail’s egg” didn’t make the final edit.
There was a similar scene in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gun fantasy, Commando, in which love interest Rae Dawn Chong watches Arnie punch Bill Duke in a hotel room. Hiding behind a wall, she emits the occasional squeal when a bullet flies in her direction, and is heard to remark, “I don’t believe this macho bullshit,” and the horrifying “These guys eat too much red meat.” Sigh.
It ends on a freezeframe
If you’re watching a movie and it suddenly stops approximately 100 minutes in, don’t worry – your Blu-ray player hasn’t crashed. It probably just means the movie you’ve been watching was made in the 80s. Used to singularly dramatic effect at the conclusion of the 1969 classic, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, the freezeframe ending became mysteriously popular among filmmakers a little over a decade later.
Stallone loved the technique, and presumably nicked it from John G Alvidsen, who later ended his Rocky remake, The Karate Kid, with a shot of Mr Miyagi looking sage and, if we’re being honest, a little bit smug. At any rate, almost every Rocky movie ended on a freezeframe of Rocky Balboa’s face looking battered yet relieved, and usually draped in the stars and stripes.
1984‘s Against All Odds ended with an extended freezeframe of Rachel Ward’s face, streaked with tears – tears provoked, no doubt, by the Phil Collins music playing in the background. Similarly, The Breakfast Club concluded with a still shot of a young Judd Nelson punching the air in jubilation, probably at the thought of the glittering Hollywood acting career which lay ahead.
Like many of the other 80s trappings on this list, freezeframes have still appeared occasionally since (quite memorably in The Full Monty), but never as frequently as they did in that decade.
And lest we forget, 80s comedy series Police Squad did freezeframes better than any other show on Earth…