The Top 20 Underrated Movies of 1986

From thrillers to sci-fi to horror, here's our pick of 20 films from 1986 that surely deserve a bit more love...

1986 was a fascinating year for film. It was a time when a glossy, expensive movie about handsome men in planes could dominate the box-office, sure (that would be Top Gun). But it was also a year when Oliver Stone went off with just $6 million and came back with Platoon, one of the biggest hits of the year both financially and in terms of accolades. It was also a period when the British movie industry was briefly back on its feet, resulting in a new golden age of great films – one or two of them are even on this list.

As ever, there were certain films that, despite their entertainment value or genuine brilliance in terms of movie making, somehow managed to slip through the net. So to redress the balance a little, we’ve delved back into the past to share some of our favourite films from 1986 that we believe deserve a bit more attention.

Now, bear in mind that we did a fair bit of agonizing over this. Take a film like Big Trouble In Little China, for example. A box-office flop at the time, it’s since gathered a loyal cult following. Such a devoted following that we decided to leave it off in favor of some less obvious movies. (Having said this, if you haven’t yet seen Big Trouble In Little China, we’d urge you to give it a watch – it’s worth seeing just for Kurt Russell’s comic performance.)

At any rate, here’s our pick of 20 underrated movies from 1986, starting with a high-octane thriller starring Tommy Lee Jones.

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20. Black Moon Rising

There was a strange appetite for vehicular action thrillers on both the large and small screen in the 1980s – see Firefox, Knight Rider, Street Hawk, Airwolf, and Blue Thunder for a few examples. Black Moon Rising is perhaps less famous than any of those, despite the presence of John Carpenter among the writing team (he came up with the story) and a top-notch cast. Tommy Lee Jones stars as a CIA agent who steals a cassette containing some vital information, and foolishly hides it in the boot of a terrifyingly fast sports car called the Black Moon.

Linda Hamilton stars as an unusually glamorous car thief at the helm of the experimental vehicle, while Robert Vaughn, Bubba Smith and Keenan Wynn also star. It’s all gloriously daft stuff, but Jones is as dourly charismatic as always, the action moves at a decent clip, and with its big hair and boxy cars, it’s a quintessentially ’80s thrill ride. There’s also a superb soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin.

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19. Deadly Friend

Think about the horror output of Wes Craven, and this killer cyborg movie probably won’t spring to mind. In fact, the premise in Deadly Friend seemed to prove a bit too outlandish even for its producers and advertisers – its movie poster gives no hint at its sci-fi underpinnings, and shoots for a more gothic atmosphere in line with A Nightmare On Elm Street. Extra scenes of gore were also added to give Deadly Friend a horror edge; one of these, which involves a basketball and Anne Ramsey’s head, is arguably more famous than the film itself.

Kirsty Swanson gets an early role as a teenager who’s killed by her abusive father but revived as a killer cyborg by her genius next door neighbour. Warner’s insistence that Craven add more gore and violence turns what could have been a quite sweet sci-fi drama into one of the weirdest films of the year – the shifts in tone between sunny teen performances and bloody carnage are thoroughly jarring. Nevertheless, Deadly Friend is well worth a watch, if only to experience just how bizarre it all is.

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18. Nomads

Before Predator and Die Hard placed him among the pantheon of great Hollywood action directors, John McTiernan directed this enjoyably odd horror film starring a pre-Bond Pierce Brosnan. Reviews weren’t too kind to this supernatural tale about Alaskan demons – one critic said it was “about as menacing as the chorus from West Side Story” – but it does have a kind of muddled charm.

It’s also worth watching just out of curiosity; Nomads may have a much smaller budget than Die Hard, but McTiernan still shows an ability to generate lots of shadowy tension. Nomads certainly impressed Arnold Schwarzenegger, who liked the film so much that he personally hired McTiernan to helm Predator.

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17. Project A-Ko

Like a bubblegum pop song, it’s light-weight, inconsequential and catchy; it’s about two schoolgirls, the likeable, clumsy A-ko, her best friend C-ko and their run-ins with brattish arch-nemesis B-Ko. As their schoolyard rivalry plays out, a race of aliens invades, convinced that C-ko is their long-lost princess.

Stuffed full of references to ’70s and ’80s Japanese animation and equally jam-packed with very strange humor, Project A-Ko‘s probably an acquired taste for the uninitiated, but an absolute treat for fans of anime. Weirdly, the director claims to have taken on the task of directing the movie because he needed to replace some missing teeth.

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16. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2

Tobe Hooper’s sequel to his terrifying 1974 classic left many horror plans nonplussed. Where the original was a white-knuckle exercise in suggesting bloodshed and terror through jarring imagery, Texas Chainsaw Part 2 unfolds as a lurid farce. Hooper later said he intended the film to be a satire of ’80s greed and John Hughes movies, and if you’re willing to accept it as a completely different (and far bloodier) beast, it’s a hugely entertaining slasher comedy.

Dennis Hopper, who enjoyed a new burst of creativity in the mid-80s, is good value as the lieutenant on the trail of Leatherface and his family of degenerates, while Caroline Williams provides a bravely physical performance as the tough heroine, Stretch.

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15. The Murders In The Rue Morgue

Yes, it was a TV movie, but the quality of the production and cast place this well above the usual small screen fare. Based on the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, it stars George C. Scott as the detective Auguste Dupin, who investigates a string of strange and very violent murders in 19th century Paris.

The story was adapted before in 1932 and starred Bela Lugosi, but this 1986 version is actually much more faithful to the original text, and director Jeannot Szwarc (Jaws 2, Supergirl) lends it real atmosphere. Look out for Rebecca De Mornay, Ian McShane, and a young Val Kilmer in supporting roles.

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14. Clockwise

John Cleese has long specialised in playing tightly-wound upper-class twits, and he’s perfect casting in this British comedy about a fastidious headmaster who rules over his school like the commandant of a POW camp. It’s therefore great fun to watch this controlling buffoon’s life gradually descend into chaos as he journeys to a conference for posh headmasters. Missed trains, mislaid speeches, drivers who don’t know their left from their right, and muddy quagmires all conspire to thwart his plans.

Cleese’s Brian Stimpson is a great creation; like Basil Fawlty, he has ideas above his station (he desperately wants to be headmaster at a private school, not an earthy state-run comprehensive). Stimpson’s a character out of time; and while the film itself looks like something from a bygone era, its low-key, exquisitely-observed humor is as sharp today as it ever was.

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13. From Beyond

Director Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator became an underground hit through sheer force of arms, its startlingly violent, wildly funny take on a HP Lovecraft tale horrifying censors and thrilling audiences. From Beyond didn’t achieve the same status, partly because the MPAA were quite aggressive about cutting the film down for an R rating.

Re-Animator‘s Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton reunite for another Lovecraft yarn, this time about a scientist’s investigations into altering the mind’s perceptions with a machine called a Resonator. Inevitably, all kinds of weird monsters and unforeseen perversions arise; what freaked out the MPAA, it seems, wasn’t so much the gore but the occasional glimpses of leather and chains.

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12. Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer

Finally released in 1990, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer actually made its festival debut in 1986, hence its inclusion here. Michael Rooker stars as Henry, whose capacity for murder is as horrifying as the title suggests.

Made on a budget of just $110,000, the production values let the film down at times, but the strength of Rooker – and Tom Towles, as his similarly sociopathic accomplice – lend the film a raw power. So much power, in fact, that the film sparked controversy and had to be cut to gain an 18 certificate in the UK. Now available in its unexpurgated version, John McNaughton’s film still packs a punch today.

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11. The Manhattan Project

This taut thriller lost a startling amount of money on release, despite a glowing review from the influential critic Roger Ebert. It wasn’t a view shared by other reviewers, but we’re actually with the late, great Ebert on this one: this tale about a teen genius who builds his own nuclear bomb is a genuinely enjoyable yarn, with well drawn characters and an interesting dilemma for the audience. The young lead, Paul (Christopher Collet) is so likeable, and his ambition so infectious, that we really want to see him make his bomb and show it off at a science fair. But since this is a thriller, we’re also aware that Paul’s probably rushing headlong into an atomic disaster…

The Manhattan Project was directed and co-written by Marshall Brickman, who  co-wrote Manhattan and Annie Hall with Woody Allen. This might explain why, of all the ’80s movies about clever whizkids building things (Explorers, Real Genius, and so on), The Manhattan Project is among the best written. Oh, and John Lithgow’s great as a fellow scientist.

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10. Mona Lisa

This cracking British thriller gave Bob Hoskins a chance to shine in the lead as an ex-con turned driver for a high-class prostitute (played by Cathy Tyson, who’s equally excellent).

Casting a long shadow over the film is Michael Caine in a rare villainous turn as Denny Mortwell, the crime boss who rules the seedy underbelly of 80s Soho. Neil Jordan makes the most of a lean budget, and the increasing bleakness of the story is leavened by the genuinely moving friendship between Hoskins and Tyson’s characters.

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9. The Mission

David Puttnam (now Lord Puttnam) briefly had the freedom to make just about anything he wanted following the unexpectedly huge success of Chariots Of Fire, so he co-produced this drama directed by Roland Joffe and written by Robert Bolt, the esteemed pensman behind Lawrence Of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The result is a drama that was unkindly described as well-meaning but ponderous in some quarters, and only just managed to make back its then lavish £16 million budget.

Give The Mission a chance, though, and you’ll find an immaculately acted period drama about a Jesuit missionary (Jeremy Irons) and a cynical mercenary (Robert De Niro) who try to defend South American natives from the brutality of Portuguese and Spanish forces. Beautifully scored by Ennio Morricone, The Mission builds to a heartbreaking, merciless conclusion. Liam Neeson also stars.

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8. The Name Of The Rose

Sean Connery gives one of his very best non-Bond performances in this adaptation of the Umberto Eco novel of the same name. He co-stars with a young Christian Slater as a pair of Franciscan monks trying to solve a murder mystery in their remote medieval monastery.

Jean-Jacques Annaud directs at a cracking pace, while F. Murray Abraham gives a superbly glowering turn as a French inquisitor. Look out, too, for Ron Perlman as a hunchbacked monk who may hold the key to the whole conspiracy.

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7. The Mosquito Coast

The mid-80s saw Harrison Ford strike out in some more dramatic roles that didn’t, to paraphrase something he once said himself, “involve running around, gun in hand.” He plays an idealistic inventor who, having grown weary of materialistic western society, leads his family off for a new life in Central America. Despite the father’s ingenuity when it comes to making machines out of scrap, the reality of living in the jungle proves to be less Swiss Family Robinson and more Apocalypse Now.

Ford is brilliant in an unusually unsympathetic role, and he’s supported by Helen Mirren as his long suffering wife and River Phoenix as his increasingly fractious son. Written by Paul Schrader and Peter Weir, The Mosquito Coast didn’t do well at the box-office, despite its magnificent pedigree. It’s one of those great dramas that, at the time, managed to slip through the net.

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6. Gothic

In 1816, a group of writers including Mary Shelley and John William Polidori met at Lord Byron’s rambling Lake Genevea home. The tales they told one stormy night resulted in two of the most famous stories in gothic literature – Polidori’s The Vampyre and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Ken Russell’s Gothic recreates that night of creativity, with Natasha Richardson starring as Mary Shelley, Gabriel Byrne as Lord Byron and Timothy Spall as Polidori.  The result is atmospheric, well acted and often very weird – but then, we’d expect nothing less from Russell, the director of such wild movies as The Devils and Altered States. The world really needs more directors whose sensibilities are as unfettered as Russell’s.

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5. Mauvais Sang

This one-of-a-kind sci-fi romance almost defies description. On the surface, it’s about a teenager named Alex (Denis Lavant), who’s hired to steal a sexually-transmitted virus which only infects young people. But it’s also about the flowering affection between Alex and Anna (Juliette Binoche), and even about the history of cinema itself – director Leos Carax seems to be paying homage to the heroes of French filmmaking here.

The film unfolds in weird montages, incongruous images and sudden edits. The result is a strange yet unforgettably mesmerising brew.

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4. River’s Edge

Here’s a drama-thriller that did well critically on release but arguably deserves more attention nearly 30 years later. It concerns the murder of a woman in a small town, and how it affects the group of teenagers who try to cover it up. The superb cast includes Crispin Glover, Keanu Reeves, and Dennis Hopper, who’s on reliably disturbing form (he also starred in the cult classic Blue Velvet that same year).

At a time when most movies about teenagers and murder were draped with a safe layer of artifice, River’s Edge has an unvarnished, harsh quality that sets it apart: the opening image of a teenage boy sitting in broad daylight next to a pale corpse, its eyes staring directly back at us, is difficult to shake.

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3. Manhunter

Five years before Hannibal Lecter became a household name in The Silence Of The Lambs, Michael Mann brought him to the screen with Manhunter, adapted from Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon. William Petersen stars as the cop on the trail of the Tooth Fairy, a serial killer played in terrifying, fascinating style by Tom Noonan.

Brian Cox somehow manages to dominate the film as the first incarnation of Lecter (here spelled Lektor for some reason), a coolly insinuating sociopath whose eyes seem to burn through the screen. That coolness is a perfect match for Mann’s direction, which has a slick shininess that is poles apart from Jonathan Demme’s more gothic sensibility in Silence Of The Lambs. The early sequence where Petersen investigates one of the killer’s latest crimes has a mesmerising power. A commercial failure on release but more widely recognised today, Manhunter is a mesmerizing, unforgettable thriller.

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2. At Close Range

A cracking cast and great reviews failed to give this superior crime thriller the audience it deserved. Sean Penn stars as a young man who moves in with his crime boss father (Christopher Walken, with creepy facial hair) and becomes embroiled in a world of heists and betrayal. Its subject matter is similar to David Michod’s searing Animal Kingdom, and Walken inhabits the same kind of mundanely evil role as Ben Mendelsohn did in that film; in a career full of villain roles, Walken really is a despicable piece of work here.

Sean Penn lends his trademark intensity as the lead, while the supporting players really is top notch: Chris Penn, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kiefer Sutherland and David Strathairn are all here. Director James Foley later went on to direct the acclaimed Glengarry Glen Ross; it’s a pity At Close Range didn’t garner quite the same attention.

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1. Salvador

Like Platoon, we have Hemdale to thank for this superb, incredibly tough drama by Oliver Stone. James Woods is on career-best form as an out of work DJ who partners up with a boozy photojournalist (James Woods) and head to El Salvador in search of some eye-catching pictures. What they find is a country in the grip of a violent civil war that shocks them out of their hazy of cynicism.

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Of Stone’s films released in 1986, Platoon was the Oscar-winner and box-office hit, while Salvador lost money and barely garnered any attention at all. We’d argue that Salvador‘s the equal of Platoon at the very least, with real chemistry between Woods and Belushi and Stone’s uncompromising direction providing a palpable air of danger.

The best film of 1986 that hardly anybody went to see in the cinema? Quite possibly.