The Top 20 Underrated Movies of 1984

The year that gave us Gremlins, Ghostbusters and The Temple Of Doom also gave us these 20 underrated movies...

It’s been said that 1984 was a vintage year for movies, and looking back, it’s easy to see why. The likes of Ghostbusters and Gremlins served up comedy, action and the macabre in equal measure. James Cameron’s The Terminator cemented Arnold Schwarzenegger’s star status and gave us one of the greatest sci-fi action movies of the decade.

This was also the year where the Coen Brothers made their screen debut with the stunning thriller Blood Simple, and when the Zucker brothers followed up Airplane! with the equally hilarious Top Secret!

And we still haven’t even mentioned Beverly Hills Cop, This Is Spinal Tap, The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones and the Temple Of Doom, and the unexpectedly successful romantic comedy, Splash. Then there was Milos Forman’s sumptuous period drama Amadeus, which was a hit with audiences and at the Oscars.

With competition like that in cinemas, it’s hardly surprising that there are some 1984 movies that didn’t generate quite the same clamor of interest. This brings us to the following: a selection of thrillers, sci-fi, comedy, and horror that were either overlooked at the time or have dwindled from view since.

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20. Cloak & Dagger

Our original thought was to put The Last Starfighter on this list, but Cloak & Dagger, which was initially released on the same double bill, is arguably more obscure. An adventure film in the same family-friendly vein as D.A.R.Y.L. or Flight Of The Navigator, Cloak & Dagger stars Henry Thomas (you know, Elliott out of E.T.) as a videogame-obsessed kid who becomes an 11-year-old spy.

It’s a fun, eventful adventure that concludes with an incendiary action sequence that wouldn’t look out of place in a Die Hard sequel.

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19. The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai

The plot of this sci-fi adventure almost defies description: it’s about Buckaroo Banzai (Peter Weller), the rock star, brain surgeon, martial arts expert, and all-round polymath who has to save the world from inter-dimensional beings. John Lithgow, Ellen Barkin, Christopher LLoyd, Clancy Brown, and Jeff Goldblum (a fellow brain surgeon who unaccountably dresses as a cowboy) all co-star. Buckaroo Banzai should have been the start of a series of weird adventures, but the tepid performance of this debut outing nipped all of that in the bud.

Admittedly, Buckaroo Banzai‘s stream-of-consciousness plot and eccentric humor won’t be to everybody’s taste, but its sheer strangeness make it a great cult item. In retrospect, it’s also fascinating to see the ties between Buckaroo Banzai and Back to the Future, released the following year; both films shared the same producer, Neil Canton, who was instrumental in picking Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown in that 1985 hit. Other details can be found sprinkled throughout Buckaroo Banzai.

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18. Wheels on Meals

Less famous than the movies that made Jackie Chan into a global superstar–Police Story, Armor of God, Project AWheels on Meals is another winning cocktail of stunts, action, and broad slapstick comedy. Wheels on Meals benefits from the magnificent Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao as its co-stars (Hung also directs), and aside from being an entertaining film on its own terms, deserves a footnote in history for helping to invent the fighting videogame genre.

The movie, called Spartan X in Japan, got a videogame tie-in of the same name courtesy of Irem. That game reached the west as Kung Fu Master, thus sparking a wave of ’80s side-scrolling brawlers.

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17. Razorback

The second film from Highlander and Ricochet director, Russell Mulcahy, Razorback is arguably the best killer boar movie ever made. What could have been just another nature-on-the-rampage movie is transformed by Mulcahy’s stylish direction, which adds menace and claustrophobia to the simple story and uneven effects.

As an aside, it should be added that the VHS cover for Razorback–depicting a hunter with a rifle and the silhouette of a giant boar looming up against a full moon, was damn near irresistible. It’s in a local video shop, we suspect, that most people first discovered this Australian horror gem.

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16. Dreamscape

Predating such films as Paprika and Inception, Dreamscape is about a scientific breakthrough that allows psychics like Alex (Dennis Quaid) to project themselves into other people’s slumbering brains. It’s a much lighter movie than those later films though, with Alex uncovering a plot by a government agent (Christopher Plummer) to have the U.S. President killed in his sleep.

Co-written by Dave Loughery and directed by Joseph Ruben, Dreamscape is a fast-paced thriller with some great, imaginative dream sequences, including one really eerie one involving an unfeasibly long, winding staircase.

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15. Runaway

Unfortunate enough to appear almost at the same time as James Cameron’s low-budget, high-impact sci-fi masterpiece The Terminator, Michael Crichton’s Runaway didn’t really stand a chance. With its sometimes groan-inducing script and daft plot, it’s also a lesser film from Crichton, and certainly not in the same league as his ’70s hit Westworld.

But Runaway is a thriller with some great sci-fi ideas and gadgets, including killer robot spiders that inject acid into their victims before exploding, and a gun which fires heat-seeking bullets. These are wielded to startling effect by Gene Simmons’ unblinking, lizard-like villain, who plans to take over the world with his special computer chips that make robots evil. Or something. Tom Selleck plays the techno cop charged with hunting Simmons down, and he gives the part a laid-back charm, like Ron Burgundy with a policeman’s badge and a computer science degree.

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14. Streets of Fire

Walter Hill returned to the kind of street-tough territory he explored in his 1979 thriller The Warriors. But where that film had a lasting impact, Streets of Fire didn’t muster the same attention. Apparently set in the ’50s, yet drenched in the trappings of ’80s pop culture like big hair, neon, an aerobic soundtrack, Streets of Fire sees rival biker gangs clash over the kidnapping of a rock singer, played by Diane Lane.

Willem Dafoe cackles fiendishly as the leader of the kidnappers while Michael Pare and Amy Madigan are among the group trying to get the rock singer back. Violent and mesmerisingly colorful, this is another great, underrated thriller from Hill.

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13. Starman

Two years after he outraged some critics with his sci-fi horror remake, The Thing (“Instant junk!” one reviewer growled), John Carpenter tried to make amends with this romantic genre fable. Karen Allen plays a bereaved widow who’s visited by a benign shape-shifting alien (Jeff Bridges) who takes on her late husband’s likeness

Perhaps surprisingly, Starman has aged less well than The Thing, but its performances remain evergreen. Bridges, in particular, is magnificently strange as the alien, all weird vocal rhythms and staccato movements. The film is nicely framed despite the absence of Carpenter’s usual cinematographer Dean Cundey, and the POV opening sequence, set in and around a remote house at night, is particularly effective. The Thing is now rightly held up as a classic; Starman, which made little noise at the box office, arguably deserves some reassessment of its own.

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12. Tightrope

Clint Eastwood (who also directs) plays a very different kind of cop in this well constructed thriller. Unlike Dirty Harry, Eastwood’s detective Wes Block is more introspective and brooding; there’s a serial killer roaming the streets of New Orleans, and the investigation forces Block to confront his own dark proclivities as the death toll continues to climb and the murders hit closer to home.

Could it be that Block himself has something to do with it all? That question is what gives Tightrope an air of tension that’s deserving of its title. A hit at the time but less commonly discussed these days, Tightrope is well worth tracking down if you haven’t seen it already.

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11. Night of the Comet

A sci-fi comedy with nods to John Wyndham and Richard Matheson, Night of the Comet sees the population of Earth reduced to little piles of red ash or turned into slavering zombies. Teenagers Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and Sam (Kelli Maroney) are among the few who were shielded from the effects of the comet, much like the protagonist of The Day of the Triffids.

Tongue in cheek and full of affectionate movie references, Night of the Comet is like a great ’80s pop record: short, fizzy, and a whole lot of fun.

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10. A Private Function

Handmade Films produced some of the best British films of the ’80s, including Time Bandits, Mona Lisa, Withnail and I, and this wonderfully quaint period comedy co-written by Alan Bennett. A stolen pig provides the flashpoint for a lightweight yet very funny romp, illuminated by a stunning cast.

Michael Palin, Maggie Smith, Richard Griffiths, and Pete Postlethwaite all star as increasingly fractious residents of a small town in the UK’s post-war.

9. Flashpoint

Here’s a brilliantly paranoid throwback to the conspiracy thrillers of the Nixon era–most obviously Parallax View. The chance discovery of a corpse and a partly-buried jeep reveal long-hidden links back to the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which spells all sorts of trouble for the Texas cops who unearth the whole affair.

Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams star in a thriller told by director William Tannen in taut, terse fashion.

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8. The Brother From Another Planet

John Sayles began his career writing a string of great genre movies, including Piranha, Alligator, Battle Beyond the Stars, and The Howling. His movies as a director, which he also wrote, tended to be straight dramas, such as Baby It’s You, City of Hope, and Passion Fish. The Brother From Another Planet saw Sayles write and direct a sci-fi movie, and it’s an unusually gentle fable about an alien (Joe Morton) who lands in Harlem.

The extremely low budget tells on the production at times, but it’s an observant story about a stranger struggling to adjust to a strange land, and Morton’s lead performance is captivating throughout.

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7. The Company of Wolves

Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle, counsels Angela Lansbury’s grandmother in director Neil Jordan’s dreamlike fantasy, The Company of Wolves. A series of loosely-connected stories with an overarching theme, this is a spectacular horror fantasy with a profoundly uneasy atmosphere.

Based on Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, The Company of Wolves is beautifully shot and acted, with its cast also including David Warner, Brian Glover, and an uncredited Terence Stamp.

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6. A Breed Apart

We couldn’t very well compile a list like this without including at least one Rutger Hauer movie. A Breed Apart is an unusual film, even for Hauer, and it’s produced by Hemdale–the home of odd movie projects through much of the ’80s. Hauer stars as a Jim Walden, a conservationist whose task is to protect a nest of rare bald eagle eggs from Donald Pleasence’s villainous collector.

As unlikely as it sounds as a subject matter for a thriller, director Philippe Mora gets considerable mileage from it, and Hauer, true to form, is excellent. Powers Boothe and Kathleen Turner also co-star.

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5. 2010: The Year We Make Contact

When this sci-fi sequel was announced, many wondered aloud: does 2001: A Space Odyssey really need a sequel? Director Peter Hyams doesn’t try to ape Stanley Kubrick’s style of filmmaking and opts instead for a faster paced approach more akin to a Cold War thriller than a sci-fi meditation on life, the universe, and everything. Roy Scheider stars as Dr. Floyd, a scientist who investigates the discovery of life on Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons.

Hyams has a specific way of lighting and framing his movies that gives them an almost oppressive air of tension; where 2001’s spaceship interiors were bathed in light, 2010’s are dimly-lit and claustrophobic. It’s of a piece with Outland, Hyams’ underrated space Western starring Sean Connery: cut off from society, blue skies and clean air, life in space is akin to a spell in prison.

The visual effects in 2010 were groundbreaking at the time, though less conspicuously so than those in 2001–even then, audiences had become numbed to the sight of ships majestically orbiting planets–and they still hold up well today. With return appearances from Keir Dullea and Douglas Rain, the latter again providing the soothing voice of HAL, 2010‘s far better than its tepid reception suggested.

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4. Repo Man

Alex Cox was on top form with this brilliantly punky, off-the-wall sci-fi comedy, which he both wrote and directed. Emilio Estevez stars as Otto, a former supermarket worker who ends up repossessing cars on behalf of Bud, played by the great Harry Dean Stanton. Otto and Bud wind up on the trail of an old Chevy with a $10,000 bounty on it, apparently because there’s something extraterrestrial stashed in its boot.

It’s a free-wheeling, weirdly fascinating movie, full of incidental details, unexpected laughs, and quirky exchanges; Tracey Walter, another great character actor, gets a superb scene where he rambles philosophically about time machines and cars. “The more you drive,” Walter’s character reflects, “The less intelligent you are…”

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3. Once Upon A Time in America

Sergio Leone’s sumptuous, punishingly long drama about organized crime in New York was subjected to a brutal edit for its North American release. Chopped down from 229 minutes to 139, the edited Once Upon A Time in America was scorned by critics for its lack of coherence, and largely shunned by audiences. It was a cruel fate for a superbly acted and mounted film, with Robert De Niro and James Woods both magnificent as Jewish gangsters climbing the ranks of Prohibition-era Manhattan.

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If you can’t spend the near four hours of attention the film requires, our advice is to watch it in two parts. Woods once described Once Upon A Time in America as Leone’s finest film. He may well be right.

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2. 1984

Terry Gilliam’s funny, febrile Brazil was clearly inspired by George Orwell’s classic dystopia. Director Michael Radford’s official adaptation of 1984 has less of a cult following, but it undoubtedly had its own bleak impact. A far more faithful rendering than previous attempts, Radford’s 1984 stars John Hurt, who is magnificent as the everyman Winston Smith. Smith falls in love with Julia (Suzanna Hamilton), an act forbidden by a totalitarian regime, and the consequences are spectacularly grim.

The use of real London locations approximates the grubby future world Orwell wrote about, and Roger Deakins’ cinematography is somehow ugly and beautiful at the same time. Look out too for Richard Burton, who’s magnificent in his final screen appearance as O’Brien. Like the book, 1984 is the kind of film that can haunt the mind for days afterward.

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1. Impulse

This remarkable sci-fi thriller was once a regular sight on cable TV before it dropped off the radar to such a degree that it’s now quite difficult to track down on DVD. Impulse’s plot is a variation on George Romero’s The Crazies, but director Graham Baker’s execution of it is very different and full of suspense. Take the opening sequence: a sleepy small town is subject to an earth-tremor that is just powerful enough to put a crack through the local barbershop’s front window. At the same time, we see a young ballet dancer (Meg Tilly) interrupted mid-lesson by a phone call from her mother. The ballet dancer listens in horror as the mother rages incoherently down the line, before abruptly shooting herself.

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Thus begins Impulse’s story of what happens when all the niceties and mores gradually seep away from a remote community. Residents begin to randomly lose their temper, engage in acts of petty theft and spur-of-the-moment sexual congress. In short, everyone goes nuts, and Meg Tilly can only look on as the little world around her crumbles to its foundation.

Superbly shot and acted (Bill Paxton and Tim Matheson also star), Impulse is an undeservedly overlooked gem of its kind, recalling such genre classics as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Midwich Cuckoos. In a year prized for its contribution to cinema, Impulse stands up as one of its best films–underappreciated or otherwise.

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