The Top 21 Underrated Films of 1983

We head back to the year of Return of the Jedi to seek out 21 underrated movies that are well worth your time.

To Star Wars fans, 1983 might be best remembered in movie terms as the year George Lucas’ trilogy thundered to a close with Return of the Jedi. To Tom Cruise devotees, 1983 also was the year he broke through as a major star with Risky Business. ’83 even saw Adrian Lyne’s pop fairytale Flashdance storm the charts while computer whizz Matthew Broderick almost sparked a nuclear conflict in John Badham’s hit thriller, WarGames.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, these articles ignore the big successes of any given year. Instead, we’re celebrating some of our favorite, lesser-known movies of 1983. So with apologies to BMX Bandits, Strange Brew, and a few other flicks that didn’t quite make the cut, here’s our pick of 21 great, under-appreciated films from the year of Jedi, Superman III, and Flashdance

21. Sole Survivor

Emerging like a half-forgotten hybrid of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable and the Final Destination franchise, Sole Survivor makes up for its low production values with a clever concept.

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A young woman (Anita Skinner) is the only person to walk away from a catastrophic plane crash and then finds herself possessed with the notion that something’s stalking her. Is it survivor’s guilt or is she really being punished for cheating death? You can probably guess which it is. Less scary than it could have been, but still consistently entertaining, Sole Survivor was directed by Thom Eberhardt, who brought us the cult classic Night Of The Comet in 1984.

20. Golgo 13: The Professional

Manga’s most famous sniper got his first movie with this lurid and extremely bloody anime thriller. In it, Golgo 13 – real name Duke Togo – is hired to kill the son of a wealthy oil baron. Once the mission’s completed, the oil baron himself mobilizes what looks like the entire planet’s military and police forces to kill Golgo 13 in retaliation. What follows is a blistering procession of sex and violence – the kind of thing that would probably leave people unfamiliar with Japanese animation open-mouthed.

It’s also stylishly designed and constructed; there’s a superb moment where Golgo takes out a bad guy by firing a high-powered rifle through the side of one skyscraper and into the window of the next. Thrillingly, we see the whole execution unfold from the bullet’s point of view.

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19. Strange Invaders

A university teacher (Paul Le Mat) returns to his old Ilinois town to discover it’s still stuck in the ’50s – all because of a quiet alien invasion which took place 25 years earlier. A fun spin on Cold War invasion flicks, Strange Invaders was sorely overlooked at the time of release. It was the second collaboration between director Michael Laughlin and screenwriter Bill Condon – the latter would go on to great success as the writer and director of such films as Gods and Monsters and Dreamgirls.

A collision of ’50s soft-focus nostalgia and flashy ’80s special effects, Strange Invaders is an engagingly fun little sci-fi curio.

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18. Mausoleum

This gloriously trashy low-budget horror is like an exploitation cross between The Amityville Horror and Children Of The Damned. About a 30-something woman, Susan (former Playboy model Bobbie Bresee) who inherits something more ancient and evil from her affluent family line than money, Mausoleums full of hilariously incongruous moments: Susan burns a man alive in his car with her evil glowing eyes and kills another male victim with a gardening implement.

Before too long, Susan’s husband (former evangelist turned B-movie specialist Marjoe Gortner) begins to think there might be something a bit sinister going on. That Susan’s breasts have a tendency to turn into toothsome mouths is a subtle giveaway.

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17. Brainstorm

The release of this quietly groundbreaking sci-fi was overshadowed by the untimely death of Natalie Wood. Her passing cast the production of Brainstorm into turmoil, as MGM shut the movie down mid-shoot and director Douglas Trumbull was left without the requisite funds to get the film finished.

That Brainstorm‘s making was so troubled is a tragedy in itself. Years before Inception or Strange Days, it’s about a group of scientists – played by Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, and Louise Fletcher – who create a machine which can record sensations and memories, allowing other users of the device to play them back and experience them first-hand.

Trumbull, a genius when it comes to special effects, lets his imagination run riot during these playback sequences. Where the normal, everyday scenes in the film are shot in ordinary 35mm, Trumbull shoots the memory playback scenes in ultra-wide 70mm. The effect is appropriately mesmeric, and could have had even more impact had Trumbull been allowed to go with his original plan to shoot the memory scenes in 60-frames-per-second. Like David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, this would have created the impression that Brainscans computer-powered playbacks are more vivid than the film’s own grainy, flickering version of reality.

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Such visual trickery aside, Brainstorms well worth watching for Walken’s performance. He’s as great as he always is as laid-back scientist Michael, who wears slip-on shoes over bare feet, rides a recumbent bicycle, and in one standout scene, talks with unblinking intensity about his memories of “peanut butter and hot fudge sauce.”

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16. The Hunger

Tony Scott’s second film is an early showcase for his distinctive brand of lighting and cinematography. Some critics were scornful of the film, but I’ve always had a bit of a soft-spot for it; Scott’s slick, decadent style fits hand-in-glove with The Hunger‘s story about ancient vampires still stalking modern (or ’80s) New York.

David Bowie plays one of the more urbane vampires while Susan Sarandon plays a doctor who falls into his seductive orbit. Bloody, shadowy, and full of smouldering stares out of windows or across smoky rooms, The Hunger is very much a product of its time, but remains a horror thriller well worth watching.

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15. The Wind In The Willows

Before it made the long-running TV series, Cosgrove Hall (also purveyors of Danger Mouse and Count Duckula) made this charming made-for-television feature. It is, of course, based on Kenneth Grahame’s classic story about a group of woodland creatures – the affable Ratty, the timid Mole, the irascible Badger, and, best of all, the cheerfully hedonistic Toad.

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It goes without saying that the stop-motion animation is exquisite – full of character and loving detail. But it’s also worth mentioning just how perfect the voice acting is: Michael Hordern providing the grouchy yet dignified tones of Badger, while David Jason, Cosgrove’s frequent collaborator, is faultless as the irrepressible Toad.

14. The Keep

With its minimal dialogue and languid pace, The Keep is more an interesting curiosity than an essential classic. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to see director Michael Mann, better known for his tough, terse thrillers like Thief and Heat, try his hand at making a fantasy horror film. Based on the book by F. Paul Wilson, The Keep sees a detachment of Nazi soldiers occupy an ancient citadel in an isolated Romanian town, only to unleash an evil force that starts killing them all one by one.

Mann’s film replaces the vampires of the novel with a shaky-looking figure inspired by the Golem legend, but it’s in evoking an atmosphere of dank, muddy desolation that The Keep excels. Heavily cut by its studio and incredibly difficult to get hold of in any form due to rights issues over its music, The Keep is a lost oddity from Mann. 

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13. The Last Battle

Luc Besson showed off his now famous capacity for arresting visuals with this black-and-white sci-fi thriller. The opening shot alone hints at the movies Besson would make in the future: a static shot presents us with a seemingly ordinary, plush office. But then we notice that, unaccountably, there’s sand all over the floor. The camera slowly pans around the room, and we see the post-apocalyptic devastation that was once out of view – and, comically, the startling image of a man fraternising enthusiastically with a sex doll.

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The rest of the film lets the images talk instead of the characters; it’s a kind of Mad Max-style future without the cars. Survivors hunt around among the scrap and engage in protracted, vicious fights. Jean Reno, in the first of several films with Besson, appears as a huge, scary character, appropriately named The Brute. If you’re vaguely familiar with Besson’s later work, it’s well worth heading back to The Last Battle to see how accomplished Besson’s direction was at the start of his career. Subsequent movies SubwayThe Big Blue and Nikita all helped establish Cinema du Look, and French cinema would never be quite the same again.

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12. Eureka

A recent episode of the BBC documentary series Arena served as a reminder that Nicolas Roeg is one of the UK’s very best filmmakers – a director who’s made such celebrated films as Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell To Earth while shunning the media spotlight himself. Eureka is perhaps the most expensive, star-laden film Roeg has yet made; it’s the story of a prospector (Gene Hackman) who goes off searching for gold in the Yukon, closely followed by a pair of gangsters (Mickey Rourke and Joe Pesci) after the same fortune. Meanwhile, the prospector suspects his daughter and her other half (Theresa Russell and Rutger Hauer) are plotting against him. Like all of Roeg’s films, the plot’s more complicated than this, with events cross-cutting between past and present, but that’s all part of its brilliance.

Eureka‘s a typically great-looking film about the futility of avarice, thus it’s somewhat strange that Eureka was so overlooked at the time of release – MGM was reportedly nonplussed by it and, thinking it unmarketable, simply didn’t bother to try. Hackman’s outstanding as the quixotic millionaire-turned-explorer, and Roeg’s mosaic-like drama builds to a superb conclusion.

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11. The Fourth Man

Before he set sail for fame and fortune in Hollywood, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven left this incredibly violent thriller as his parting shot. Jeroen Krabbe stars as a writer who falls under the spell of Renee Soutendijk’s femme fatale, who may or may not be an embodiment of the Devil. Shot with lots of intimate close-ups, The Fourth Mans twisted religious imagery and use of color gives it the hyperreal tone of a nightmare.

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The story may be slight, but Verhoeven rings every last drop of dramatic (and horrific) possibility from it. Sharing certain elements in common with the later Basic Instinct(the femme fatale, the sleazy hero), The Fourth Man is by far the better thriller. With cinematography by Jan de Bont, this may also be Verhoeven’s best-looking movie.

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10. Rumble Fish

While Francis Ford Coppola was making The Outsiders, he also made another drama based on an SE Hinton novel, Rumble Fish, at the same time. The Outsiders was the more popular film, but there’s still much to appreciate in Rumble Fish with its superb cast – look out for Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, Diane Lane, and Nicolas Cage – and its beautiful black-and-white cinematography.

Stewart Copeland’s electronic soundtrack doesn’t exactly fit with the ’60s setting, but Rumble Fish is nevertheless a creatively-told and superbly acted drama. One fight sequence, in particular – taking in Matt Dillon, Mickey Rourke, a knife and a motorbike – is one of the most electrifying things Coppola shot in his ’80s body of work.

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9. Krull

An extraordinary amount of money was thrown at this post-Star Wars fantasy, and its investors weren’t exactly rewarded for their outlay at the time. But the spirit of Krull lived on thanks to VHS and television, and it’s the latter where most kids of my generation probably discovered it – Krull‘s such a cult film these days, in fact, that I initially hesitated to add it to the list. But what about the young whippersnappers among our readership, who might have missed that golden period where Krull was just about inescapable on TV or down the local video library? It’s for them that Krull appears here.

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Revisited today, it’s surprising just how dark and moody this story of a prince (Ken Marshall) a princess (Lysette Anthony), and an evil creature called the Beast actually is. It’s a kind of road movie without the tarmac, with Prince Colwyn assembling a motley crew of mercenaries and criminals to help him find the Black Fortress and defeat the Beast. Genuinely likeable characters are killed mercilessly and, at times, in disturbing fashion – I’ll never forget the bit with the old man and the swamp.

The handsome leads are joined by a veritable army of great character actors, including Freddie Jones, Bernard Bresslaw, Robbie Coltrane, Liam Neeson and Todd Carty, of EastEnders and Grange Hill fame. If you’ve never seen Krull before, do track it down; you’ll definitely be left making your own cardboard Glaive afterwards. Or was that just us?

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8. Something Wicked This Way Comes

“We butter our plain bread with delicious pain.” Jonathan Pryce is perfectly creepy as Mr. Dark, the owner of an even creepier carnival that sweeps into an Illinois town one autumn night. Adapted from the novel by Ray Bradbury, Something Wicked This Way Comes captures the poetry in the author’s prose, and the exquisite balance between darkness and cosy nostalgia that is one of Bradbury’s trademarks.

And yet, criminally, Something Wicked was a terrible flop for Disney, making back less than half its lavish $19 million budget and soon drifting into obscurity. Perhaps audiences at the time were unprepared for such a horror-infused film from the House of Mouse. Whatever the reason, this magnificently eerie fantasy is ripe for rediscovery.

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7. Prize Of Danger

This killer game show sci-fi thriller came out a year after Stephen King’s The Running Man novel was published, but was actually based on a Robert Sheckley story from the 1950s. Interestingly, Le Prix Du Danger (Prize Of Danger) has aged far better than the high-camp Running Man movie, which served as a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1987 and seems as influenced by this film as it was King’s book. Where The Running Man was all one-liners and larger-than-life killers, Prize Of Peril is ominously low-key. 

Take the opening sequence: a contestant is chased through a cold industrial landscape of concrete by armed pursuers in blue uniforms. As the contestant is mercilessly hunted down, his death is leered over by a camera crew’s coldly indifferent lenses. It’s a powerful introduction to the movie’s future game show, where ordinary members of the public volunteer to become hunters or hunted on TV’s most popular series. The remainder of the film follows a jobless citizen (Gerard Lanvin) who, desperate for the prize money, offers himself as a contestant. A relentless, bloody pursuit through city streets ensues – all captured for an applauding, baying audience.

6. Testament

A newly escalating Cold War saw a resurgence of nuclear war movies in the 1980s, from the family friendly (WarGames) to the downright bone-chilling (Threads, When The Wind Blows, Miracle Mile). Testament began life as a TV movie, but it was considered well-crafted enough to get a theatrical release by Paramount. Even now, you can see why: it makes the most of a middling budget by not focusing on the spectacle of nuclear war, but rather its impact on an average American family.

This intimate, ground-level approach captures the psychological effects of a nuclear bomb as much as the physical; a blinding flash of light is all we see of the event itself. Thereafter, the growing sickness and public turmoil are captured with chilling detail. Look out for an almost unrecognisably young Kevin Costner in a small role alongside a similarly pre-fame Rebecca De Mornay.

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5. Of Unknown Origin

This quirky horror, which reads like a lost Edgar Allan Poe story updated for the ’80s, is well worth seeing for Peter Weller’s rock-solid performance. Weller’s character, Bart Hughes, owns one of those really nice New York brownstone houses you often see in movies (see also: Pacific Heights). But Bart becomes convinced that there’s something nasty and rat-like in the basement, and all kinds of antics ensue.

It’s far less schlocky than it sounds, particularly given that it comes from George P. Cosmatos, a director not exactly known for his subtlety (he did Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and the admittedly brilliant Tombstone). Cosmatos handles the suspense and chaos extremely well, but Weller really carries the movie – just check out the scene where he regales the guests at a posh dinner party with his rodent knowledge. Boy, is this guy obsessed with rats…

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4. Under Fire

This drama thriller has a few things in common with Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986), in that it’s about journalists who pay eye-witness to a bloody conflict – in this case, the Nicaraguan revolution of the late 1970s. Director Roger Spottiswoode doesn’t give the story quite the same visceral kick that Stone brought to Salvador, but the acting – courtesy of Nick Nolte, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris and Joanna Cassidy – is top-notch, and the movie has a convincingly natural, unvarnished feel. Like Nick Nolte’s character, a photo-journalist, we become voyeurs in a country tearing itself apart.

Under Fire deservedly won plaudits and great reviews at the time of release, but these failed to translate into anything significant at the box-office. Even today, it doesn’t seem all that easy to get hold of – the DVD appears to be out of print, and a Blu-ray only came out in Spain. If you can find a copy, you’ll find much to appreciate in what might be Spottiswoode’s best film as director.

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3. The Star Chamber

In between two really good, similarly underappreciated sci-fi films – 1981’s Outland and 1984’s 2010: The Year We Make Contact director Peter Hyams made this corking, mystifyingly obscure thriller with a great premise. The idea is this: a secret group of judges (the Star Chamber of the title) weed out criminals who’ve slipped through the official justice system’s net, and despatch anonymous assassins to kill them.

Michael Douglas plays a more honest judge who doesn’t agree with the Star Chamber’s methods, while Yaphett Kotto plays a cop who gradually learns of the judges’ murky form of justice. They both deliver magnificently intense performances, and Hyams’ style of low-lit, stifling cinematography is perfect for the conspiracy-fuelled premise.

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2. Barefoot Gen

Isao Takahata’s Grave Of The Fireflies is easily the most famous and technically accomplished animated film about the ravages of war, but Barefoot Gen has its own searing potency. Like Grave Of The Fireflies, it’s told from the perspective of children; Gen and Shinji are two ordinary Hiroshima kids growing up in the dying days of World War II. And then the first atom bomb drops.

Barefoot Gens simple, elastic animation style contrasts with Keiji Nakazawa’s merciless and unflinching story, adapted from his own manga series. Gen and Shinji are forced to deal with the day-to-day threat of starvation in the wake of the bomb, and Barefoot Gen contains some truly haunting images: bodies atomised in the wake of the blast, zombie-like victims roaming the landscape, their flesh molten like wax. The film’s graphic style gives these sequences unforgettable power. Even something as simple as a line of ants scurrying into Gen’s home – a portent of the devastation to come – has an unsettling quality that is difficult to shake.

Barefoot Gen 2, which deals with the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing in the late 40s, is also well worth seeing.

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1. Videodrome

Here’s a film I keep finding myself writing about – and returning to – over and over again. So much so that, like Krull, I initially hesitated to include it in this rundown; these days, David Cronenberg’s sci-fi horror is widely regarded as a masterpiece. But it’s worth remembering just how odd and borderline unsellable Videodrome was seen back in 1983; all told, the film made less than half of its $5 million budget back in cinemas.

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There’s something poetic, however, about what happened next. Cronenberg’s trippy, indelible fable about the seductive power of images on videotape found a second life on VHS. And what a heady, powerful fable it is; James Woods is terrific as Max Renn, the moral blank of a cable TV president, who becomes obsessed with the origins of an illegal broadcast which appears to show real-life torture and murder.

It’s the start of a detective story which takes Max to some very murky places indeed. It’s transgressive, violent, and a pointed satire of censorship and those who’d enforce it. One of the best films of 1983? Most certainly.