Thirty years ago, Marty McFly was riding high with the smash hit Back to the Future, while Sylvester Stallone enjoyed his most successful year yet with the one-two punch of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rocky IV. It was an era of family sci-fi and teen comedies and bullet-spraying action, where The Breakfast Club and Teen Wolf rubbed shoulders with Death Wish 3 and Commando. Then there were low-key dramas like Out Of Africa and The Color Purple, which were both awards magnets at the Oscars.
Away from all those big hits, 1985 saw the release of a wealth of less successful movies, some of which found a second life on the then-huge home video circuit. Here’s our pick of 20 underappreciated films from the year of Rambo, Rocky, and Back to the Future.
20. My Science Project
Released in a crowded summer for sci-fi comedies, My Science Project was eclipsed by the huge box office of Back to the Future and, to a lesser extent, John Hughes’ hit, Weird Science. My Science Project is about a high school kid who acquires a mysterious and powerful bit of alien technology, which he then discovers is powerful enough to tear the whole planet apart.
Clearly not in the same league as Back to the Future, My Science Project is still better value than some of its grumpier reviews suggested. Dennis Hopper’s as a whacked-out science teacher and the film as a whole are a fun time capsule of a long-gone decade of big hair, chunky phones and that rotoscoped plasma effect that all ’80s sci-fi films simply had to have.
19. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was an early attempt to adapt the Destroyer series of pulp novels. The villains are far less outlandish than the ones in the books, but its title hero (played by Fred Ward) still has the ability to dodge bullets and sprint on water. Remo’s a former soldier drafted into a secret organisation as an assassin. Trained in martial arts by Chiun (unaccountably played by Joel Grey in frankly embarrassing prosthetic make-up), Remo’s sent off to infiltrate a gang of evil arms dealers.
It isn’t the best action film of the ’80s, to be sure, but Remo is still an enjoyable yarn thanks in no small part to Ward’s charismatic turn in the lead. Shane Black is reportedly working on a new adaptation of the Destroyer adventures, so maybe now’s a good time to give Remo a chance if you haven’t seen it already.
18. Crime Wave
Sam Raimi followed up his low-budget hit The Evil Dead with this very strange confection, which he wrote with the Coen Brothers. The production was immensely troubled, which might account for the unpredictable and chaotic nature of the finished film: an amalgam of horror comedy shot in the style of a ’40s and ’50s film noir.
The humor doesn’t always hit the mark, but it’s a great-looking film, all long shadows, intense colors and emphatic zooms. As an early look at what Raimi and the Coens got up to in the early stages of their careers (the Coens had released the cult thriller Blood Simple just one year before), Crime Wave is well worth a watch.
17. The Mean Season
Kurt Russell, perhaps best known for playing tough guys like MacReady in The Thing or Snake Plissken, is unusually cast as a crime journalist in this sultry thriller. Already burned out and miserable from years of reporting on the grisly goings on in Miami, Russell’s life is made even more complicated when a serial killer rings up and details his forthcoming exploits.
The Mean Season is by no means the best thriller of the ’80s, but it’s well paced, tense, and has a superb supporting cast–Mariel Hemingway, Andy Garcia, and Joe Pantoliano also star.
16. The Black Cauldron
This dark and unusually violent animated fantasy marked something of a box office nadir for Disney since it made less than half of its then-huge $44 million budget. Nevertheless, we’re glad it exists, even if its tone is completely out of place when you view it in the context of the studio’s earlier work.
But it’s also an interesting experiment–an attempt to bring something more adult and Tolkien-esque to the screen. The story, about a young boy who longs to be a night, is a bit of a mixed bag, but some of the animation is beautiful and ably backed by Elmer Bernstein’s soaring score.
Joe Dante reportedly ran out of money while filming this lighthearted, family sci-fi movie, which explains why it doesn’t have the strongest ending in the director’s body of work. But it’s still a romp full of warmth and humor with Ethan Hawke providing a great, early performance as one of a group of kids who attempt to make their own space ship.
The film’s problems extended to its release, where Explorers failed to find the audience it deserved; a pity, since it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Goonies in any discussion about great, fun ’80s childhood adventure movies.
We always have time for a Rutger Hauer movie, and he brings another great performance to this very lavish fantasy film directed by Richard Donner. Matthew Broderick is the nominal star as a young thief named Mouse, but the movie really belongs to Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, who play doomed lovers separated by a terrible curse; by night, Hauer’s former army captain takes the form of a wolf, while Pfieffer transforms into a hawk in the day.
It’s a slow but beautiful looking movie, and well worth a watch for the scenery and performances.
13. The Adventures of Mark Twain
Stop-motion animator Will Vinton brings extraordinary detail to this Claymation adventure based on Mark Twain’s famous characters. Here, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher join Twain on an airship voyage to Halley’s comet, a journey which takes in all kinds of odd, loosely-connected stories and characters. There’s a terrifying scene where the three leads meet a stranger with nothing but a theatrical mask for a face. “We’ll have a storm now. And an earthquake if you like,” says the demonic entity, as he squashes some tiny, Morph-like figures with a cruel hand.
Your humble writer lost sleep over it as a kid, and the scene still has an unsettling power even now. The Adventures of Mark Twain is a clever, creative and sometimes very surreal exploration of the author’s life and work.
12. Return to Oz
Perhaps startled by its unexpectedly downbeat tone, audiences and critics didn’t exactly warm to Return to Oz when it appeared in the summer of ’85. Admittedly, it’s a bit disconcerting to see Fairuza Balk’s Dorothy being given electric shock treatment, and some of the creatures are maybe a bit too scary for the very young (the Wheelers – brr), but there’s a boldness to Walter Murch’s direction, and the film’s vision of a broken-down, neglected Oz is certainly an arresting one.
Plus, there’s Tik-Tok, the sad-eyed robot; strikingly similar to the character depicted in the books, he’s an adorable creation.
11. Mr. Vampire
For lovers of martial arts cinema, Mr. Vampire is probably about as underappreciated as Star Wars, but its mix of humor and horror as well as action make it one of the most broadly entertaining films of 1985, which is why we had to give it a mention here.
Sammo Hung pioneered the jiangshi movie genre with the 1980 classic Encounters of the Spooky Kind, and he also produces this similarly supernatural thrill-ride. Lam-Ching-ying stars as Kau, a priest who fights the revived corpse of a businessman, who’s become a vampire. Not the vampires of western folklore, you understand, but the spirit-sucking, hopping ghouls of Chinese legend. The result is a classic of Hong Kong cinema.
10. Young Sherlock Holmes
This Barry Levinson-directed adventure film should have spawned a whole series of Sherlock Holmes movies, but its meagre takings at the box office nipped those plans in the bud. But taken as a one-off, there’s an enormous amount to enjoy here; Nicholas Rowe’s turn as the youthful detective, Alan Cox as a very funny incarnation of Watson, plus some truly ingenious hallucination sequences – one featuring some pioneering CG work courtesy of Pixar, and another where a shop full of living cakes stuff themselves into Watson’s mouth.
With all the hoopla surrounding BBC’s Sherlock, we’re surprised this one hasn’t been picked up for a remake.
We would have loved to have been a fly on the wall at Cannon Films when this bizarre sci-fi horror confection got the greenlight. Directed by Tobe “Texas Chainsaw” Hooper and based on the novel The Space Vampires, Lifeforce relates the sorry sequence of events that unfold when a naked female alien-vampire (Matilda May) is discovered in the tail of Halley’s Comet (yes, really) and is brought back to Earth.
A pre-Picard Patrick Stewart, exploding bodies, gratuitous nudity and a city in the grip of terror are just a few of the things you’ll find in this one-of-a-kind film. Perhaps inevitably, it proved a bit too strange for cinema audiences, who largely avoided it, but it’s deservedly grown into a cult item since.
8. Vampire Hunter D
Directed by Toyoo Ashida, who also helmed the incredibly violent ’80s Fist Of The North Star anime, Vampire Hunter D is a unique, eccentric blend of horror, post-apocalyptic sci-fi and western. The hero’s the titular wandering vampire hunter, who’s part vampire himself and also happens to have a sentient hand that talks to him when no one else is around. D winds up protecting Doris and her younger brother, who’ve come under the terrible scrutiny of the evil Count Lee and his twisted cohorts.
What follows is an entertaining, claret-covered action romance, with some imaginative set-pieces and a few really weird creature designs. One of several adaptations of the Japanese novel of the same name, Vampire Hunter D may be looking its age a bit now, but it’s still a great, full-blooded piece of anime.
7. The Stuff
The ’80s was a great period for gooey, shape-shifting horror, with The Thing showcasing Rob Bottin’s freakish effects design, and The Blob reviving the 50s B-movie in fine style. Between them came Larry Cohen’s great, scruffy satire on consumerism and advertising, with Michael Moriarty brilliant as an industrial espionage expert out to discover the origins of the Stuff – a yogurt-like white goo with zero calories and insidiously addictive qualities.
Needless to say, there’s something quite sinister going on behind the scenes. The low budget means the effects aren’t quite as special as those in The Thing, but all the same this is a great, rip-roaring horror comedy that still has a certain relevance today.
6. Flesh and Blood
Paul Verhoeven’s first American film delivers on the promise of its title, serving up a gory and sordid adventure set in medieval Italy. Rutger Hauer stars as a warrior who plans to exact revenge on a city ruler who betrayed him and his clan of mercenaries, while Jennifer Jason Leigh appears as a maiden who falls under Hauer’s spell.
Flesh and Blood is a muddy, chaotic film, full of plague victims, squalor and brutality–quite a contrast to the glossy, kitsch Legend, released the same year. That Flesh and Blood wasn’t a hit suggests that it was probably a few decades ahead of its time; Game of Thrones fans will almost certainly get a kick out of Verhoeven’s earthy take on an age of knights, castles, and protracted sword fights.
5. Letter to Brezhnev
A low-key but beautifully observed drama, Letter to Brezhnev is about little more than a pair of working class women and their relationship with a pair of Russian sailors. It doesn’t sound like much, but its performances, from Margi Clarke, Alexandra Pigg, Peter Firth and Alfred Molina, are uniformly excellent, and Frank Clarke’s script is subtle and full of earthy wit.
This creepy movie’s probably about as close as Dario Argento will ever get to directing a superhero flick. It stars a young Jennifer Connelly as a young girl with the power to control insects with her mind. There’s also a serial killer while Donald Pleasence stars as an insect expert with a chimpanzee assistant.
Less overtly surreal than, say, Suspiria, Phenomena is nevertheless a gory, unpredictable and pleasingly dreamlike horror fantasy with a truly jaw-dropping conclusion.
3. Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters
Writer and director Paul Schrader seems to have lost his mojo somewhat of late, with his last two films, 2014’s The Dying of the Light and 2013’s The Canyons, both roundly savaged by critics. Thirty years ago, meanwhile, Schrader was still at the height of his powers, and Mishima is quite possibly the finest movie he ever directed.
Relating the turbulent life story of Japanese author Yukio Mishima, who made a doomed attempt to start a military coup in 1970, Schrader’s film also brings to life scenes from the author’s books. Lengthy but consistently absorbing, Mishima’s elevated by an intense performance from Ken Ogata in the lead and a superb score written by Philip Glass.
2. The Quiet Earth
Made on a tiny budget, this New Zealand sci-fi movie has a hypnotic atmosphere from start to finish. A scientist named Zac (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up one day to discover that he’s apparently the only man left on the planet; the film shows what happens as he struggles with his increasing loneliness and despair. It’s a concept that has appeared in film and literature many times, including the novels The Purple Cloud and I Am Legend.
But director Geoffrey Murphy’s pared-back film is a fresh take on the theme, with the lack of horror and violence creating an eerie, unsettling atmosphere that’s difficult to shake. Murphy went on to direct movies in America, including Young Guns II and Under Siege 2. The Quiet Earth is arguably his best film.
1. Runaway Train
Say what you will about Cannon Films, but their output in the mid-80s was nothing if not varied. The same year the firm released the likes of Invasion USA, Lifeforce, American Ninja, and a raft of other films, it also gave us this truly brilliant thriller. Directed by Andrei Konchalovsky and written by the great Akira Kurosawa, Runaway Train sees a pair of escaped convicts wind up in a deadly situation in the frozen wastes of Alaska. You can probably guess from the title what that deadly situation is.
Jon Voight and Eric Roberts are brilliant as the two escapees (and were Oscar nominated for their efforts), and the film’s best moments come when Voight, the older, wider convict, tries to impart some worldly wisdom to the younger, more impulsive Roberts. Konchalovsky’s direction is also wonderfully bleak; by the time the movie ends, you can also feel the sense of icy desolation in your bones.