• James Rutherford

10 Excellent and Underappreciated Films from the 1980’s


10 Excellent and Underappreciated Films from the 1980’s

1. House of Games​​

“House of Games” (1987) is a superb psychological drama about a psychiatrist and author named Margaret Ford (Lindsay Crouse) confronted with a dilemma after one of her patients threatens suicide over outstanding debt to a criminal named Mike (Joe Mantegna). Promising to be of personal assistance, Margaret confronts the shadowy Mike herself only to be given a promise of forgiveness if she is willing to assist in a bluff involving a high-stakes poker game. Margaret’s involvement quickly escalates as she’s taken under Mike's wing as a burgeoning con artist herself, learning the tricks of the trade from a seasoned professional—and leading her down a path of deceit toward a conclusion of electrifying finality. Written and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner David Mamet (Things Change, Glengarry Glen Ross), “House of Games” is a quintessential treatise on the art of the con and the psychological foreplay inherent in high-stakes games of deception. Top-notch 80’s-era entertainment all the way.

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2. Blood Simple

The first feature-length film from Joel and Ethan Coen (Fargo, No Country For Old Men), “Blood Simple” (1984) is a razor-sharp thriller that finds a wealthy businessman named Julian (Dan Hedaya) hiring a greasy private detective, Visser (M. Emmet Walsh) to kill his wife Abby (Frances McDormand) and her lover Ray (John Getz) after his own attempt ends in failure. With his own agenda in play, Visser photographs Abby and Ray in bed together, then proffers a photograph to Julian that has been doctored to indicate that they are dead. Sickened yet darkly satisfied, Julian offers his reward to Visser, only for Visser to turn on him in a moment of treachery—setting off a cascading series of misreads and double-crosses as the remaining parties scramble to cover their tracks and avoid recrimination. A darkly twisted neo-noir escapade from the venerable Coen Brothers at the beginning of a long and celebrated dual-career, “Blood Simple” is a unique and wildly inventive modern classic.

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3. Blue Velvet

Written and directed by David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive), “Blue Velvet” is an unconventional mystery-thriller about a young man named Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) who discovers a human ear in an open field, without any clues to its origin. Taking the mysterious appendage to the police, Jeffrey is reacquainted with the lead detective's daughter, Sandy (Laura Dern), who clues him in to a possible connection to a local singer named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Jeffrey is soon infiltrating Vallens’ home in search of clues to whatever crime may have occurred, and ultimately drawn into association with a vicious psychopath named Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) and his gang of criminal accomplices—all the while falling into a passionate affair with the increasingly distressed Vallens. This early entry into Lynch’s remarkable oeuvre balances accessibility with dark, twisted undertones and characterizations, playing out as one of his finest and most satisfying accomplishments.

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4. Drugstore Cowboy

Set in the Pacific Northwest in 1971, “Drugstore Cowboy” (1989) follows a group of downtrodden drug addicts, lead by the inimitable Bob Hughes (Matt Dillon), who rob pharmacies and hospitals to support their burdensome drug habits. After successfully scoring a highly-sought-after cache of Dilaudid from a chemist in Portland, Oregon, the group absconds to their local hideout—only to run afoul of local police detective hot on their trail. Bob’s subsequent scheme to trick the police through an elaborate ruse goes horribly wrong and a policeman is inadvertently shot, leaving the quartet of junkies on the run from the authorities as they cross the land, robbing prescription drug dispensaries in a frenzied crusade of desperation. An early gem from esteemed indie auteur Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Milk), “Drugstore Cowboy” is an invigorating depiction of desolation and discovery, highlighted by Van Sant’s uniquely stylized brand of storytelling. A genuine cult classic.

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5. Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren)

Set in the 1850s, “Pelle the Conqueror” (1987) is a Danish-Swedish drama about an elderly man named Lasse (Max von Sydow) and his young son Pelle (Pelle Hvenegaard) who emigrate from southern Sweden to the Danish island of Bornholm in search of work. Desperate to earn a living wage, Lasse finds labor upon a large homestead farm—where he and Pelle are mistreated and discriminated against as lowly Swedish foreigners. The storyline follows their gradual adjustment to this new environment, as Pelle gains confidence in the Danish language and attends school, while Lasse suffers under the fierce leadership of the brutal Kongstrup (Axel Strøbye). Based on the 1910 novel by Danish author Martin Andersen Nexø, “Pelle the Conqueror” is a profound depiction of the desperation of 19th-century subsistence from director Bille August (The Best Intentions, Les Misérables), that delivers a strikingly moving depiction of human resilience and reclamation.

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6. River’s Edge

“River’s Edge” is a dark teen drama that opens with John (Daniel Roebuck) standing over the naked body of his girlfriend, Jamie, who he has brutally strangled to death. Carrying on guilelessly, John openly brags to friends and classmates of his crime—going so far as to invite them to the scene where her corpse rests alongside the titular riverside. Stunned and dismayed, the group disbands aimlessly while Matt (Keanu Reeves) in particular struggles with the reality of his friend’s actions. As John goes into hiding in the home of a local drug dealer (Dennis Hopper), tensions rise as the police besiege the group for information on Jamie’s death. Released in 1987, “River’s Edge” came at a time when John Hughes and Steven Spielberg dominated cinemas with lighthearted tales of adolescent escapism, yet Tim Hunter’s offbeat film offers a far grittier look at the wayward lives of lost young souls in America—delivering a resonant illustration of alienation and moral desertion.

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7. Manhunter

“Manhunter” (1986) is a visceral and intense crime thriller starring William L. Petersen as Will Graham, a retired FBI profiler brought back into the fold to hunt down a vicious serial killer known only as “The Tooth Fairy” (Tom Noonan). In his attempts to enter the mind of the enigmatic killer and determine his motives, Graham consults with the imprisoned Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Brian Cox), who holds his own twisted ulterior motives for engaging Graham. Brought to the screen by writer-director Michael Mann (Miami Vice, Heat), “Manhunter” is the first adaption of a Thomas Harris novel (“Red Dragon”) featuring the infamous “Hannibal the Cannibal”, and precedes the storyline of The Silence of the Lambs and it’s eventual sequels. The same source material would be adapted in 2002 as Red Dragon starring Edward Norton, yet Mann’s sleek take on Harris’ novel stands alone as a highly stylized, gripping and thoroughly engaging highlight of 80’s-era entertainment.

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8. Sid and Nancy

“Sid and Nancy” (1986) is a biographical recreation of the brief, combative relationship between Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman), famed bassist for seminal British punk band "The Sex Pistols", and American party girl Nancy Spungen (Chloe Webb). The storyline begins in 1977 as the band has already gained widespread notoriety for their provocative and controversial punk stylings, with Vicious and Johnny Rotten (Andrew Schofield) running roughshod throughout London—drug-fueled and hellbent on destructiveness. Once Sid meets Nancy, a heroin-addicted groupie, he is seduced almost as quickly by her spirit as he is by the heroin she introduces him to—setting off a quarrelsome and desperately co-dependent alliance between the two wayward souls. Highlighted by absolutely stunning performances by both leads, “Sid and Nancy” evolves in tone from outrageous to contemplative and ultimately tragic, yet at its heart, the film serves as a wonderfully perverse love story tied so inextricably to music history.

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9. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1986) is a highly controversial low-budget horror-crime drama that follows the fictional character of Henry (Michael Rooker) as he leaves a trail of mayhem and death across America, before reuniting with his friend Otis (Tom Towles) and Otis’ sister Becky (Tracy Arnold) in Chicago. Henry recruits Otis as accomplice in a series of savage murders, following his personal creed “it’s them or us” in respect to the rest of the world, while purposely varying the style and location of their slayings in order to elude police. Horrifically realistic in its depiction of sadism and brutality, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” was originally rated X by the MPAA, before the advent of the NC-17 rating as a fitting replacement. It’s an utterly terrifying experience altogether—a documentary-like examination of depraved souls—and yet its so astutely directed by John McNaughton (Mad Dog and Glory, Wild Things) in such a non-exploitive manner that the artisanship at hand is undeniable. Recommended, though with a considerable grain of salt.

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10. Apartment Zero

“Apartment Zero” (1988) is a disquieting psychological thriller starring Colin Firth as Adrian LeDuc, a socially isolated English expat who runs an aging movie house in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Beset by poor ticket sales and forced to move his mentally ill mother to a nursing home, Adrian is impelled to take on a roommate in the form of Jack Carney (Hart Bochner), a charming American purportedly contracted by a local tech company. The two new housemates quickly bond due in large part to Adrian’s open affection for Jack, even as Jack begins to befriend the neighbors that Adrian steadfastly detests. The homoerotic undertones of the storyline morph into jealousy and paranoia for Adrian, who pines for Jack’s attention while Jack’s true intentions remain veiled—all while a killer tied to the Argentina Death Squads of the 1970’s runs amok throughout the city. An immersive and provocative neo-noir venture, “Apartment Zero” plays out a terse, equivocal storyline culminating in a stunningly twisted and memorable climax. A little-known gem worth seeking out.

View the trailer here.