Ah, 1989. The year the Berlin Wall came down and Yugoslavia won the Eurovision Song Contest. It was also a big year for film, with Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade topping the box office and Batman dominating the summer with its inescapable marketing blitz.
Outside the top 10 highest-grossing list, which included Back To The Future II, Dead Poets Society, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, 1989 also included a plethora of less commonly-appreciated films. Some were big in their native countries but only received a limited release in the US and UK. Others were poorly received but have since been reassessed as cult items.
From comedies to thrillers, here’s our pick of 25 underappreciated films from the end of the ’80s…
25. An Innocent Man
Disney, through its Touchstone banner, had high hopes for this thriller, which was supposed to see Tom Selleck play in heavier fare. Helmed by Peter Yates, it’s an entertaining thriller, although it carries nowhere near the weight you suspect it was supposed to.
The plot follows a pair of cops who frame Selleck’s holier than thou character for a crime he inevitably had nothing to do with. As such, he gets sent to prison, and transformed into Hard Man Tom Selleck, who soon finds himself on the path to revenge.
You could, in truth, sit and pick holes in abundance at An Innocent Man. But then it’s got a core of being really entertaining to it. It helps that F Murray Abraham pops up as a prisoner with the necessary sage advice, but also, Selleck has an everyman presence to him, and a fantastic moustache. These things matter.
24. Who’s Harry Crumb?
Few times in the late John Candy’s career did it feel that he was appearing in material that was, for want of a better way of putting it, worthy of him. For every Planes Trains And Automobiles or Stripes, you didn’t have to search hard to find something like Delirious or Wagons East.
In truth, Who’s Harry Crumb? isn’t necessarily vintage Candy either, but it’s still a lot of fun, and gives him a title role that he clearly enjoyed. Harry Crumb is another bumbling comedy private eye, in this case tasked with a crime he’s not supposed to be able to solve. You don’t have to stretch your mind too much to fill in the blanks, but the joy of when Candy gets a decent role is you know, even while watching it, that the fifth time around will be as much fun as the first. So it proves here.
23. Lock Up
1989 was clearly the year for movie stars to go to prison, after their absolute innocence had been established. So it is that the script to Lock Up makes it abundantly clear that Sylvester Stallone has done nothing wrong, before promptly sticking him in chokey and basically throwing away the key.
His particular nemesis – and this really helps make the film extra fun – is Donald Sutherland as the prison warden for the final few months of Stallone’s stretch. “How much can a man take… before he gives back?” went the tagline. Like we all didn’t know.
Shamelessly ’80s, Lock Up pulls a better than usual performance from Sly, but it’s also the cast around him that help lift this to cable TV gold. Danny Trejo? John Amos? Tom Sizemore? That’ll do.
One thing, though. Remember that Adam Sandler film, I Now Pronounce You Chuck And Larry, where Sandler played a man who pretended to be gay? And to offset that, he wrote himself scenes with naked women in to make it clear to the audience that he liked girls really? Well, Lock Up is a bit like that with Stallone’s innocence. He is an innocent man, friends, and that he was locked up at all is an outright scandal.
22. Meet The Feebles
Before he established himself among the Hollywood firmament, Peter Jackson made a series of gross-out movies in his native New Zealand, among them Bad Taste, Brain Dead and, perhaps the weirdest of them all, Meet The Feebles. A scatalogical, risque puppet-based musical, Meet The Feebles is a very strange, unpredictable horror comedy. For a generation who only know Jackson for his Tolkien movies, the lo-fi grotesquerie on display in Meet The Feebles might come as a shock.
21. The Fly II
A sequel was always going to suffer in comparison to David Cronenberg’s almost perfect 1986 body horror, The Fly. But to be fair to director Chris Walas (the effects artist on Cronenberg’s film), his Fly follow-on doesn’t even aim for the philosophical drama of the previous movie, and instead exists as a delightfully splashy B-movie, complete with a 50s-style “son of the monster” plot. This time, it’s Eric Stoltz’s turn to undergo a hideous mutation, stricken as he is by the same insect DNA as his late father, Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum, seen here briefly in unused footage from the first film).
As you might expect from a movie by an effects artist, The Fly II goes heavy on the prosthetics, monsters and gore, but there’s actual pathos beneath all that goo. Stoltz’s performance is an unexpectedly heartfelt one, and Walas is careful to properly introduce his characters before pulling out the buckets of claret.
20. Vampire’s Kiss
Here’s an early example of Nicolas Cage operating at the jazzier end of his acting scale. Playing a literary agent whose behaviour grows increasingly strange after being bitten by a vampire, Cage brings us one of the most bizarre performances of his career – and that really is saying something.
Having watched the film a couple of times, we still can’t fathom out what accent he’s trying to pull off – we’re guessing he’s shooting for “upper-crust New Yorker”, but he misses it for a mile and ends up sounding like the terrifying hybrid of Eric Cartman and Peter Lorre. Try to count how many times Cage screams “I’m a vampire” in this film. We’ve included a taster of this gonzo performance above.
Fun fact: director Robert Bierman went on to direct episodes of The Bill.
19. Red Scorpion
After his star-making turn in Rocky IV, Dolph Lundgren seemed doomed to be typecast as a robotic Russian ubermensch. Here, he plays a Soviet special forces soldier who ends up fighting to protect an African village against his own people after choosing to defect. Pure trash from Cannon Films, it’s also invested with a certain 80s ramshackle swagger by director Joseph Zito. Lundgren does some of his own (very dangerous-looking) stunts with bikes, trucks and explosions, there’s a rousing shoot-out at the end, and a villain gets to utter the immortal line, “This is such a small room… and this is such a big grenade!”
(NB: Although released in some territories the year before, we’ve gone by this film’s US release, which was 1989.)
Christopher Walken’s characteristically odd performance is the main reason to see this alien abduction drama, based on the book by Whitley Strieber. As the author, Walken experiences a series of visitations from impish beings with black, almond-shaped eyes. Are the beings real, or a figment of Strieber’s imagination?
The creature effects are rubbery, but Walken’s performance cuts through the hokum; his character’s almost as unreadable as his extra-terrestrial guests. A scene where the great actor engages in what appears to be a dance-off with the goblin-like aliens is unforgettably bizarre.
17. Next Of Kin
We miss you, Patrick Swayze. Next Of Kin was the film he made that was sandwiched between Road House and Ghost. It’s also a blast.
Here, Swayze plays Truman Gates, the brother of Liam Neeson’s Briar Gates, and… yeah, you’re right. It sounds great already. There’s another brother though who’s been murdered, and the hunt is on to find his killer.
That that movie comes from director John Irvin will be of little surprise, when you realise that the same John Irvin directed Raw Deal with Schwarzenegger in it. But it’s also a welcome reminder of how violent, raw, and entertaining 80s action movies could be. Before focus groups, $100m opening weekends and trailers for trailers became a thing.
As a double bill with Point Break, Next Of Kin should adequately fill any evening’s testosterone quota.
16. Physical Evidence
At some point, we’re going to have to get around to looking at the directorial work of the late Michael Crichton in a lot more detail. Having made Runaway with Tom Selleck’s moustache five years’ earlier, 1989’s Physical Evidence saw him recruit Burt Reynolds’ facial hair. We’ll never know which he preferred.
Physical Evidence has a bit of a bar napkin plot to it, but it wins bonus points for a strong performance from Theresa Russell, and for sticking a clothed Burt Reynolds into the midst of a courtroom drama. Again, look at it all a bit too closer, and the whole thing begins to fall apart, but Physical Evidence is just content to be a happily entertaining thriller, that’s worth digging out of the archives because, well, it just is really. Sometimes, that’s enough.
And here’s a fun fact: this was apparently first considered as a Jagged Edge sequel. Spoiler: Jagged Edge is better.
15. The ‘Burbs
Joe Dante directed a string of great films in the 1980s, but with the obvious exception of the hit Gremlins, not all of them took off at the box-office as they should. The ‘Burbs is one of the prime examples: an entertaining, mischievous comedy about the foibles and pettiness of suburban life. Highly-strung suburbanite Ray (Tom Hanks) has his summer holiday at home rudely interrupted when a secretive, spooky-looking family move in across the street.
Ray, along with his neighbors Art (Rick Ducommun) and gun-nut Mark (Bruce Dern) are convinced that something’s not quite right about them. Are the Klopek family a bunch of murderers, as Ray suspects, or just misunderstood?
Admittedly, the plot never quite gets going in The ‘Burbs, but the cast makes it well worth a watch; Hanks is the film’s likeable centre, but Dante’s gallery of supporting players are the real draw: Corey Feldman, Ducommun and Dern make great nosy neighbors, and Henry Gibson is perfectly sinister as Dr Werner Klopek, the newcomer with something strange going on in his basement.
14. Best Of The Best
Could Best Of The Best feature the strangest cast in ’80s martial arts cinema? We wouldn’t necessarily have put Eric Roberts, Chris Penn and James Earl Jones together as a bunch of rock-hard fighters (with Jones as their trainer), but we’re glad somebody else thought of it. The plot’s a fairly straight post–Rocky/The Karate Kid sports drama about rival martial arts champions.
It’s all very daft, but that is, as is often the case with these kinds of films, all part of the fun. The 1993 sequel, about an evil underground fighting tournament, is absolutely hilarious.
13. God Of Gamblers
Released the same year as John Woo’s classic The Killer, God Of Gamblers isn’t quite as well known in the west as that film, but it’s nevertheless another great film starring Chow Yun-Fat, who was at the height of his charismatic powers at the time. Taking in comedy, suspense and gun-blazing action, God Of Gamblers is a cracking thriller from start to finish. Incredibly, the movie’s so far amassed five sequels in Hong Kong, as well as a multitude of spin-offs.
12. Black Rain
Although rarely cited as vintage Ridley Scott, we’ve got a lot of time for Black Rain. It’s a film that brings together Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia as a pair of cops who are tasked with arresting a member of the Japanese Yakuza, and escorting him back to his home country. What follows is a very hard-edged cop movie, where the shift in locale means a shift in rules.
Considering many ’80s US cop movies took place in a major American city, Black Rain feels distinct in part by moving to a country that mainstream Hollywood films had been eschewing. There’s a sense of unease and discomfort too (something that Rising Sun would attempt to tap into many years later), and in the midst of the quality one-liners, Scott captures a compelling culture clash story, wrapped in dark, atmospheric clothes.
11. Deep Star Six
Another entry in a wave of undersea action-horror films which vied for our attention at the tail end of the ’80s, Deep Star Six is so low-rent that it makes Leviathan (see later) look like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Nevertheless, there’s a certain charm to this swiftly-produced monster flick, in which an ocean-bottom facility of some sort is attacked by a bogus-looking prehistoric monster.
Unlike James Cameron’s The Abyss, Deep Star Six doesn’t even pretend to have been made for some higher purpose; instead, it introduces its gallery of stock characters, ushers the monster in stage right, and lets the rest of the film write itself. There’s lots of gory action, and one character explodes. It’s all in a day’s work for Sean S Cunningham, the director of the original Friday The 13th.
10. Sweet Home
Without Japanese chiller Sweet Home, the survival horror videogame genre may never have existed. Shortly after the film’s release, Capcom created a tie-in game with the same haunted mansion theme, and it was this game that greatly inspired the setting and mechanics of Capcom’s hugely successful Resident Evil. That bit of pub trivia aside, Sweet Home’s an interesting genre flick in its own right; made long before The Ring sparked an interest in J-horror, it’s an eastern take seemingly inspired by classic supernatural movies like Robert Wise’s The Haunting.
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa later made the superb Pulse in 2001.
“From the director of Rambo: First Blood Part II!” honked the posters for this watery sci-fi horror from Carolco, as though that might get audiences flocking to their local fleapit.
Really, they’d have been better off marketing Leviathan on its who’s-who of geek actors among the cast. It includes Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, Rambo‘s Richard Crenna and RoboCop’s Peter Weller to name but three. Its plot is also completely crazy: a couple of crew members aboard an undersea mining facility foolishly take a sip of some contaminated Russian vodka, which leaves a couple of them turning into murderous shape-shifting monsters.
Obviously influenced by Alien and The Thing, Leviathan is pure schlock, seemingly rushed into production as an answer to James Cameron’s expensive The Abyss, which also came out in 1989. The creature effects, devised by Stan Winston, are variable at best, but some of them – like the bit where Daniel Stern gets attacked by a toothsome tentacle – are really effective. Best enjoyed with a beer and some unhealthy snacks, Leviathan is perfect for an evening’s trashy entertainment.
8. Blind Fury
To the best of our knowledge, the only western film based on the Zatoichi series, Blind Fury stars Rutger Hauer as the swordsman of the title. The fights are outlandish (and nicely choreographed by director Philip Noyce), but Hauer plays it straight, delivering a charismatic and excitingly physical performance. Interestingly, Blind Fury was one of two movies directed by Noyce and released in 1989; the thriller Dead Calm, starring Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman and Billy Zane, was the slightly higher-profile of the two, though neither was exactly a huge hit.
If you’re pining for more Daredevil, Blind Fury’s an eminently watchable stop-gap.
“What were the left-overs before they became left-overs?” asks average American kid Michael (Bryan Madorsky) after being served up another unidentifiable plate of grey flesh for dinner. Before he went all eccentric on us, Randy Quaid was a great character actor, and Parents is the perfect showcase for his ’80s and ’90s talents; from the very beginning, we can tell there’s something a bit weird going on beneath his average middle-class facade. You can probably guess what it is, but knowing what Michael’s parents are cooking up for dinner doesn’t stop this obscure cult film from being deliciously funny.
6. Lean On Me
Netflix must have an ‘inspirational teacher’ category by now, and the likes of Robin Williams (Dead Poets Society), Richard Dreyfuss (Mr Holland’s Opus), and Michelle Pfeiffer (Dangerous Minds) all scored successes by tackling such a film.
It’s a shame, then, that the harder-edged Lean On Me tends to get overlooked. Notwithstanding the fact that it earned Morgan Freeman a lot of acclaim (although not an Oscar nod), John G. Avildsen’s film does veer into Hollywood sugar coating from time to time, but its leading man is utterly magnetic in the starring role. Freeman plays Joe Clark, in a film based on a real story. The film then tells how Clark transformed his approach to a troublesome collection of students, and in turn, began to clean up their school.
Different filmmakers could perhaps have made an even tougher story out of this (have a look at Kevin Reynolds’ 187, starring Samuel L Jackson). But Lean On Me still works, and is an acting masterclass from a man who’s more recently turned into Man Who Spouts Exposition In Confusing Movies.
5. Drugstore Cowboy
Gus Van Sant’s second film as director remains one of his very best. In fact, Drugstore Cowboy kicked off a real purple patch for the writer-director, who would follow the movie up with My Own Private Idaho, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (less loved perhaps, but it has its moments), To Die For, and Good Will Hunting (before the Psycho remake stopped him in his tracks a little).
Drugstore Cowboy also gives Matt Dillon arguably his finest screen role as Bob, about a junkie trying to change his life. A life that consists of breaking into pharmacies, and moving from one high to the next. Van Sant’s film blatantly doesn’t pull its punches either, asking far more questions than it ever comes close to answering.
Drugstore Cowboy did reasonably well on the awards circuit come its original release, yet inevitably given the darkness of what it’s talking about, the mainstream gong shows didn’t give the film a second look. A pity, and it’s a further shame that it’s slipped out of conversation as time has gone on. This is a powerful, instinctive piece of work, powered by talent before and behind the camera taking a genuine risk on something that mattered, and matters still.
Brian Yuzna started out as a movie producer on the likes of Stuart Gordon’s classic Lovecraft adaptation, Re-Animator. There’s that film’s sly, death-black humor in Society, a very weird satire about a young man who suspects that his Beverly Hills neighbours may not be all they appear. Blisteringly funny and seemingly restrained, Society goes all-out for a startling conclusion that is sickening, mesmerising and oddly amusing all at the same time.
Along with John Carpenter’s They Live, Society is one of the best B-movies to deal with the subject of ’80s Reaganomics head-on; in fact, its stiletto-sharp parody of the wealthy’s appetite for consumption still seems pertinent over a quarter of a century later.
Robert De Niro was still at the top of his game when he made this relatively obscure drama about a traumatized Vietnam veteran struggling to come to terms with his past. The ’80s saw no shortage of films examining the psychological fallout of the Vietnam war on the American psyche – Brian De Palma’s Casualties Of War also came out in 1989 – and it’s possible that the sheer number of them left audiences a little fatigued by their number. But Jacknife is, unlike many other ‘Nam films of the era, a quiet, unshowy film, with De Niro at his restrained best as the haunted protagonist.
2. Tetsuo: The Iron Man
We’ve written quite a bit about Shinya Tsukamoto in the past, and for good reason: his films are reliably creative, daring, and often scarily unpredictable. Shot in grainy black-and-white, Tetsuo is a startling tour-de-force of body horror and outright surrealism. An ordinary Japanese salaryman is attacked by a stranger in the street one day, and thereafter, finds himself gradually turning into a walking machine.
The influence of two famous Davids – Lynch and Cronenberg – are easy to see, but Tsukamoto subsumes them with his own preoccupations and style. Although not for the faint of heart, Tetsuo is a must for connoisseurs of extreme cinema.
1. Violent Cop
The versatile, prolific Takeshi Kitano is one of the best and most celebrated actor-filmmakers in Japan, and Violent Cop is one of his masterpieces. As its title implies, Violent Cop is about a brutally amoral law enforcer who seems to be careening towards self-destruction. In some ways, it’s Japan’s answer to Bad Lieutenant, and Kitano’s performances is on a par with Harvey Keitel’s here.
Some might argue that Violent Cop is too celebrated to count as an underappreciated film, but we’d counter that, as the film recedes into history, now’s a good time to remind younger readers of the brilliance of Kitano’s ’80s and ’90s output – Boiling Point, Sonatine, and Hana-Bi are all worth tracking down. Violent Cop, meanwhile, is quite possibly Kitano’s finest film.