Sometimes the challenge with these lists isn’t just what to put in, but what to leave out. We loved Princess Bride, but with a decent showing at the box office and a huge cult following, isn’t it a bit too popular to be described as underappreciated? Likewise Joe Dante’s Innerspace, a fabulously geeky, comic reworking of the 60s sci-fi flick, Fantastic Voyage.
What we’ve gone for instead is a mix of genre fare, dramas and animated films that may have garnered a cult following since, but didn’t do well either critically or financially at the time of release. Some of the movies on our list just about made their money back, but none made anything close to the sort of returns enjoyed by the likes of 1987’s biggest films – Three Men and a Baby, Fatal Attraction or Beverly Hills Cop II. Many are, however, absolute classics, while even the more flawed among them will provide a solid evening in front of the telly…
Toys came to life an awful lot in the 1980s, but Dolls is one of the more effective entries in a genre with a patchy reputation. That’s because it’s directed by Stuart Gordon, orchestrator of such anarchic delights as Re-Animator, From Beyond and Castle Freak. Dolls doesn’t quite hit the heights of those films, but it retains Gordon’s puckish sense of humor, and there are highly effective, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. The killer dolls of the title are creepy little things – one even looks a bit like Woody out of Toy Story, if we remember rightly – and Gordon stages his gore-laden shocks with glee. One sequence, where a doll holds up its detached eyeballs, one in each hand, may have been a subconscious influence on Guillermo del Toro and a not dissimilar moment in Pan’s Labyrinth.
Not everything works in this romantic comedy, but it’s worth seeing for the chemistry between its leads, Michael Caine and Sally Field. Caine plays a novelist who’s become increasingly distrustful of women after a couple of messy divorce cases, before a chance encounter with Sally’s sweet-natured Daisy starts to melt the icicles around his heart.
The plot throws in all kinds of left-field things, including a random jackpot on a fruit machine, interruptions from terrorists and a prostitute wielding a gun. Everything suddenly makes sense when you notice that Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus are among the producers. Golan is, after all, the producer who once raged about the sci-fi anime Robotech: The Movie, “This is not a Cannon film! We want lots of guns! Lots of shooting! Lots of robots!”
We’re guessing, then, that the more outre elements in Surrender were Golan’s idea.
18. Hell Comes To Frogtown
Plenty of post-apocalyptic B-movies came out in the wake of the Mad Max movies, but Hell Comes To Frogtown was one of the most entertaining ones you could find in 80s video shops. It stars Roddy Piper as a macho hero who’s coerced into rescuing a bunch of women kidnapped by a race of mutants, and features supporting turns from Sandahl Bergman, William Smith and Rory Calhoun. Director Donald G Jackson made a couple of sequels, but neither starred Piper, and neither were made with quite the same conviction as the delightfully rubbery, daft original. It also contains the unforgettable line, “You have aroused the three snakes!”
17. Neo Tokyo
A collection of three short films, Neo Tokyo reads like a who’s-who of great Japanese anime directors from the late 80s. The first story, Labyrinth Labyrinthos, is like a weird reworking of Alice In Wonderland created by Rintaro, director of The Dagger Of Kamui (1985) and Doomed Megalopolis (1991). Running Man is about a champion driver in a deadly version of Formula One, and directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Lensman, Wicked City, Ninja Scroll).
The third, and the best, is Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo’s Construction Cancellation Order. An office worker’s sent to order a halt to construction work somewhere in South America, only to discover that the robot builders have taken over the entire facility. Like Akira, it’s designed and animated with an obsessive attention to detail.
16. Street Trash
As Michael Weldon, the author of the magnificent Psychotronic Film Guide, once observed, Street Trash seems to have been engineered to outrage or annoy as many people as it can. Its plot, such as it is, sees a deadly consignment of cheap booze called Tenafly Viper melt anyone unlucky enough to drink it, so a grumpy cop (Bill Chepil, who seems to be channelling Dirty Harry here) steps in to investigate. Cheap, tawdry, and stuffed full of bad-taste gags that might have given early-career Peter Jackson pause, Street Trash is perhaps the ultimate movie in the “body melt” horror subgenre.
Even if Street Trash isn’t your usual cup of tea (or bottle of booze), it’s worth watching for its historical value alone. It’s the first movie by J Michael Muro, who later made his name as a camera operator and cinematographer on far more respectable gigs like The Abyss and Dances With Wolves. Legend has it that a young Bryan Singer also got an early credit on Street Trash as a camera assistant.
15. Cherry 2000
Before he made the cult classic Miracle Mile, director Steve De Jarnatt made Cherry 2000, which, if anything, might be even more obscure. Its plot is basically about an average Joe looking for a replacement for his broken sex robot (or gynoid), and ends up joining forces with gun-toting heroine Edith Johnson (Melanie Griffith) to help him find one. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine how De Jarnatt managed to acquire approximately $10 million to get this oddball post–Mad Max flick made, but we’re glad he did. Cherry 2000 isn’t a great film in the strictest sense – and certainly not of the calibre of the tremendous Miracle Mile – but it’s quite funny and Griffith is great value. Also look out for Lawrence Fishburne and Brion James among the supporting cast.
14. The Hidden
Mind-controlling parasites cause chaos in Los Angeles in this entertaining sci-fi thriller starring Kyle MacLachlan. Less button-pushingly hideous than Shivers – David Cronenberg’s debut about slug-like parasites – and less goofily outrageous than James Gunn’s similarly themed Slither, The Hidden is nevertheless a lot of fun. MacLachlan keeps an admirably straight face as an FBI agent, even when he’s wielding a flame thrower. Director Jack Sholder keeps the action coming at a decent lick, with the story throwing in strippers with shotguns, an alien-possessed dog and plenty of car chases.
13. The Monster Squad
What a year 1987 was for Shane Black. He became one of the highest-paid writers in Hollywood with Lethal Weapon. He appeared on the silver screen in John McTiernan’s sweaty action-fest, Predator. And he co-wrote this horror comedy offering with his friend Fred Dekker, who also directed. About a bunch of monster-movie obsessed kids who end up on the wrong side of the real Count Dracula and his toothsome cohorts, it’s a good-natured love letter to Universal’s classic monsters. Its numbers at the box-office were tepid, but it found a happy home in the video shop eco-system of the late 80s – which is probably where readers of a certain age would have first discovered it.
12. The Stepfather
This entry’s a little bit of a cheat, because The Stepfather was actually shot in 1985 and shelved for two years. But going by its year of release, this taut little thriller still qualifies as a 1987 movie. The plot sounds like your typical “killer in our midst” fare; a middle-aged maniac goes from place to place, starting new families under assumed names before offing them all horribly after a couple of weeks have passed.
What distinguishes The Stepfather from forgettable stuff like The Hand That Rocks The Cradle is the fearsome title performance from Anthony O’Quinn. We’re keenly aware from the opening scene that his character’s a maniac, but O’Quinn makes his chameleon-like shifts from chipper perfect father to axe-wielding monster endlessly watchable. Forget about the tawdry sequels and the depressing 2009 remake – the 1987 original is still by far the best.
11. Hope and Glory
Point Blank, Deliverance and Zardoz director John Boorman delved into his own history to make this deeply personal account of childhood life in World War II. Ten-year-old Billy (Sebastian Rice-Edwards) watches the bombs fall on London with wide-eyed wonderment, only dimly aware of the danger the Blitz represents. The rest of the film is seen from Billy’s innocent perspective, resulting in a funny, delicate drama that’s as much about the foibles of the boy’s extended family as it is about the war itself.
In critical and awards terms, Hope and Glory did well in 1987, but it barely broke even at the box-office. Among Boorman’s best films, Hope and Glory is a superbly observed delight.
10. City on Fire
This Hong Kong thriller acquired celebrity status in the early 90s when several critics noted similarity between it and Quentin Tarantino’s career-making Reservoir Dogs. But Ringo Lam’s thriller, starring Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee, is a far less confined affair, even if the plots aren’t dissimilar. About an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of jewel thieves, it’s tautly directed by Ringo Lam, and the action sequences are superbly staged.
9. Escape from Sobibor
Given its made-for-TV roots, this British-Yugoslavian co-production is shot and acted with real class. Based on the true story of a Jewish uprising in a Nazi concentration camp, it stars Alan Arkin as Leon Feldhandler, a freedom fighter who organises the escape attempt, while Rutger Hauer stars as Alexander Pechersky, a captured Soviet soldier. Less harrowingly graphic than Steven Spielberg’s later Schindler’s List, Escape from Sobibor is nevertheless a disturbing, uplifting account of a dark moment in history.
8. Wish You Were Here
Based on the life of brothel owner Cynthia Payne, who was quite a celebrity in late-80s Britain, Wish You Were Here features a great debut from Emily Lloyd, who went on to appear in such films as A River Runs Through It and Saturday Comes. Lloyd plays Lynda, a free-spirited and sparky teenager growing up in a decidedly beige, buttoned-up seaside town in the 1950s. It’s a bittersweet, keenly-observed and sad film.
Director David Leland was better known as an actor before he made his assured debut with this period drama. Leland later mined the life of Cynthia Payne a second time with Personal Services, a screenplay he wrote for Python-turned-director Terry Jones.
7. Stage Fright
Director Michele Soavi also made the uniquely surreal horror comedy Dellamorte Dellamore in 1994. Seven years before that, he made his feature debut with this curious entry in the giallo genre, where occupants of a theatre are terrorised by a murderer in an owl mask. Not just any owl mask, either – we’re talking about an outsized barn owl head which covers the killer’s head and most of his shoulders. It has feathers and everything.
Like Dellamorte Dellamore, Stage Fright stands out because it’s so wilfully strange; the theatre happens to be putting on a musical about a killer in an owl mask when the real thing turns up, sometimes clutching a chainsaw. If you’ve never seen Stage Fright before, get hold of a copy, gather some friends, and prepare yourself for a full evening’s entertainment. It really is a hoot.
6. Angel Heart
Barely breaking even despite solid reviews, Alan Parker’s devilish thriller is unlike anything the director made before or since. Mickey Rourke stars as a private investigator who’s hired to discover the whereabouts of a mysterious character named Johnny Favorite. Rourke’s character doesn’t seem to mind that his client is an imperious bearded chap named Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro)…
Parker brings a wonderfully shadowy quality to his noir thriller, which takes in New York and New Orleans. Some viewers may be able to predict where this twisty, murky thriller’s going to take them, but the ride remains one worth taking thanks to the quality of the acting and direction. Angel Heart‘s worth watching with another Carolco movie, Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, for a properly sinister double bill.
5. Prick Up Your Ears
Before he was seized on as Hollywood’s go-to villain in the 1990s, Gary Oldman appeared in some superb British films, such as Mike Leigh’s Meantime, Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy, and this drama from Stephen Frears. Based on the book of the same name by John Lahr, it’s about the stormy relationship between playwright Joe Orton and fellow writer Kenneth Halliwell (Alfred Molina). Oldman’s terrific as the outgoing, prodigiously talented Orton, but Molina’s equally good as his increasingly embittered lover.
4. The Wings of Honneamise
Modern culture owes a debt to Japan’s “bubble economy” years – a brief period between 1986 and 1991 which resulted in such classic animated films as Akira and the lesser-known Wings of Honneamise. You can see every penny of the huge 800 millon yen budget in each intricately-designed frame.
Even Wings’ subject matter is ambitious for a feature-length anime; essentially a fantasy reworking of The Right Stuff, it’s about a fictional republic’s efforts to put an astronaut in space. Designed and animated with extraordinary care and precision, from the exotic space ships right down to the uniforms in this unfamiliar world’s army, Wings of Honneamise is a sumptuous treat from beginning to end. As we’ve mentioned before, the film can also be enjoyed as a companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.
3. House of Games
Stage and screen writer David Mamet made his debut with this engrossing thriller, which stars Lindsay Crouse as a psychologist drawn into a world of high-stakes card gambling and con artistry when she meets a coolly charming gangster played by Joe Mantegna. The movie has a slick, simmering quality akin to Mantegna himself, and Mamet’s story builds to a satisfyingly hard-edged conclusion. House Of Games failed to make much of an impact at the box office, but the rave reviews it received on release mean it’s never quite faded from existence.
2. Best Seller
Perhaps best known for his sly cult horror work, like The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent or the It’s Alive movies, Larry Cohen is also a great writer of thrillers. Best Seller, starring James Woods and Brian Dennehy, is undoubtedly his best. Dennehy plays a retired cop-turned writer who, after a vicious bout of writer’s block, finds inspiration in Woods’s cool and collected hitman. Some critics didn’t much care for Best Seller when it came out, but there’s a great chemistry between Dennehy and Woods; the latter, in particular, is magnificent as a contract killer intent on having his story told.
1. Near Dark
Director Kathryn Bigelow’s now part of the Hollywood firmament thanks to the Oscar success of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. But a quarter of a century ago, she made Near Dark – for us, one of the best vampire films ever made. It imagines the blood-sucking undead as a group of lonely drifters who roam the plains and small towns of America; an ordinary human (Adrian Pasdar) is bitten by one of them and reluctantly joins their number.
Related at a more thoughtful pace than the trashier, more successful Fright Night or The Lost Boys, Near Dark is beautifully shot by cinematographer Adam Greenberg, and contains some emotive music from the none-more-80s electronica group, Tangerine Dream. We mustn’t forget the cast, either; Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton and Jenette Goldstein – all borrowed from Aliens, which Bigelow’s then-husband James Cameron had just directed – put in some great work here.
There’s a shot towards the end of the film, where several vampires run from the protection of car in slow-motion, still has the power to chill the blood even after multiple viewings. Near Dark is a classic film, and one well worth tracking down on Blu-ray.