Table of Contents
Why I made the list: After making a couple of lists of underrated 90s films, I decided it was time to turn my attention to the previous decade! So I’m highlighting some of the 80s cult classics I feel have flown under the radar of most people and didn’t get the love they deserved!
Most of the films are underrated sci-fi, horror, and fantasy from the decade as that is what I’m most drawn to. However, there are a couple of comedy/thriller outliers. I may make a follow-up list less focused on genre in the future! So, let’s dig in!
The Black Cauldron (1985)
You may notice that quite a few entries on this list are dark fantasy flicks aimed at kids. This is because I was barely a nipper when the 80s came to the end and saw these films at an impressionable age when they could make lasting (and often traumatic!) impressions!
First up among these entries is The Black Cauldron, a dark fantasy animation that was one of Disney’s biggest box office bombs of the 80s. It’s not that surprising that it didn’t do well. I can imagine the terrifying villain, scenes of decaying living skeletons dripping with gore, and cauldrons boiling with blood sending kids screaming out of the theatres in droves.
Nevertheless, the impressive animation and eerie mood make it well worth revisiting. The story is simplistic, and some of the characters are beyond annoying (Gurgi is basically the 80s Jar Jar Binks), but John Hurt’s performance as The Horned King alone elevates this into a superior animated effort.
The Brave Little Toaster (1987)
Sticking with the theme of supposedly family-friendly fantasy animation films that traumatized a generation, this story of a group of anthropomorphic electric appliances that go on a journey to find their human master looks pretty cute on the surface. But appearances can be deceiving!
As the friends traverse the outside world, they encounter a sadistic spare parts mechanic, and eventually end up in a junkyard where despondent living cars are sent to their doom in a terrifying crusher while singing a song called ‘Worthless’. So, to call the film dark for kids would be a bit of an understatement.
This film was single-handedly responsible for my giving household objects a fearful side-eye, long before Toy Story came along. However, it still holds up as a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt film with a great voice cast and lovely animation.
The Company of Wolves (1984)
This bizarre fantasy/horror film from the 80s is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Like Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), it has only a loose fairytale-like plot and relies on a barrage of surreal imagery and sexual subtext that subverts its Red Riding Hood trappings.
Nevertheless, in only his second feature, Neil Jordan displays a mastery of unsettling atmosphere and arresting visuals that would go on to serve him well in films like Interview with the Vampire (1994). Also, the werewolf transformation scenes are some of the best ever put to celluloid.
The Hunger (1983)
Tony Scott’s feature debut is a gorgeously shot, atmospheric modern vampire story whose stylish visuals still impress today. Sure, the story is borderline incomprehensible at times, and the tacked-on ending doesn’t make a lot of sense.
But what really makes the film, aside from Scott’s visual flourish, is the genius casting of Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as elegant immortal vampires. Their scenes together, as well as those with Susan Sarandon as the blood doctor who gets caught up in their web, are creepy, fun, and incredibly sexy.
If you’re looking for another unjustly underrated 80s movie about vampires, check out Near Dark (1987)!
This underrated 80s drama is a child’s eye-view of rural Australia in the 50s tinged with dark fantasy and leaves a big impression despite some dated elements.
Very much in the vein of classics like The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it’s a troubling, evocative film which you can find out more about in my full review of Celia!
Like Celia, Bliss is another severely underrated 80s film from Australia full of surreal imagery. Though it is a bit more adult and existential in tone, as director Ray Lawrence (Lantana, Jindabyne) tackles the story of a man who may or may not be experiencing the afterlife after suffering a heart attack.
Though not as accomplished as his later work, Lawrence conjures up a transfixing mood and some startling visuals, as well as some hilarious black humor. Check out my full review of Bliss to find out more!
Pepi, Luci, Bom (1980)
Pedro Almodóvar’s debut film is a ground-breaking, boundary-pushing black comedy that helped kickstart a revolution in Spanish cinema. Although pretty rough and unpolished, the DIY nature of the production adds to the film’s punky charm as Almodóvar gleefully bulldozes through a slew of taboos with manic abandon.
Although the director would go on to helm countless far more commercially successful and mainstream films, Pepi, Luci, Bom remains one of his bravest and most admirable efforts.
River’s Edge (1986)
Inspired by a shocking true crime and its aftermath, River’s Edge is an unflinching look at teen indifference and cruelty that still stands up as a fascinating thriller to this day.
Propelled by strong performances from an impressive cast including Dennis Hopper and a fresh-faced Keanu Reeves, it’s an unsettling experience that proved to be a major influence on later entries in the teen thriller genre, like Mean Creek (2004).
Return to Oz (1985)
Disney clearly didn’t learn that scaring kids shitless wasn’t a great way to get them into the theater after The Black Cauldron, as they released the equally dark Return to Oz the same year. Ostensibly a sequel to the classic MGM version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), this follow-up makes several changes that hew it closer to L. Frank Baum’s source novels.
For one, Dorothy is realistically presented as a pre-pubescent girl instead of a late-teens Judy Garland. For another, it goes all out in bringing some of the darker parts of Baum’s imagination to life on the screen.
Sure, the 1939 film had some disturbing moments (flying monkeys, anyone?), but this is on a whole other level. For starters, the film begins with Dorothy being shipped off to a sinister psychiatric hospital for electric shock treatment to cure her of her Oz ‘delusions’. She then almost drowns in a river while trying to escape, before waking up in a devastated Oz, complete with a torn-up Yellow Brick Road.
After discovering most of her friends have been turned to stone and getting chased by terrifying monsters called The Wheelers, Dorothy winds up getting captured by a head-swapping Witch called Mombi who wants to add the young girl’s noggin to her vast collection. Mombi’s ‘changing room’ still gives me chills to this day, and may not even be the most alarming scene in this parade of horrors.
However, putting aside the question of whether kids should even be watching this nightmare fuel, Return to Oz is undeniably a beautiful film. The practical effects and production design are stunning, and the story is scary, funny, and exciting overall. Pretty much everything you want from a fantasy film from the 80s.
After Hours (1985)
Martin Scorsese’s most uncharacteristic film is also (probably not coincidentally) one of his most underrated. While he’s best known for sweeping gangster epics stuffed with complex morality that tackle big issues, After Hours is pretty much the opposite: a slight, slice-of-life dark comedy with some absurdist elements.
Sure, there is definitely more going on under the surface than may first appear, with many suggesting the whole thing is a metaphor for the emasculation of modern man. You can look at it like that, or you could just sit back and enjoy the fun ride of this offbeat story of a regular guy who gets into a series of increasingly bizarre situations over the course of one night in New York.
Griffin Dunne makes for a likable protagonist and the range of unhinged women he meets are beautifully played by the likes of Rosanna Arquette, Linda Fiorentino, and Catherine O´Hara. The scenes involving the latter’s manic ice-cream van driver are among the most entertaining in the film.
Scorsese orchestrates some bizarre setpieces with his usual flair (it’s not surprising that Tim Burton was also once interested in directing it), and the film wraps up with some pleasingly thought-provoking symmetry.
So, those are my picks for the most underrated films of the 80s! What do you think? Strongly agree/disagree? Any egregious omissions? Let me know in the comments!