Forgotten or Unappreciated Films of the 1980s: Vol. 1
When you think of cinema and the 1980s there are many things that come to mind. John Hughes for starters. Die Hard second. Followed by Episodes V and VI perhaps.
What about all the films that have been buried under three decades of new releases? Well I’m here to recall some of those forgotten gems and unappreciated sleepers that slipped into the cracks behind the dusty shelves of cinema history. (Phew.)
Suffering writer’s block, cop and crime author Denis Meechum (Dennehy) is approached by a sleazy hitman named Cleve (Woods) who offers to tell his story; it’ll be a best seller, he insists. Torn between fingering this guy and getting new material, Meechum decides to let Cleve tell his tale and arrest his arse later. But things never go to plan, a tenuous bond is formed, and then when Meechum’s daughter is kidnapped the two must team up to get her back safely. Brian Dennehy, a mountain of a man, has always displayed both kindness (Cocoon) and the ability to impose himself on screen (First Blood), and his conflict with James Woods is the crux of the film. Woods can play sleaze while catching some zzzz’s, and the focus on his long, solid career usually bypasses Best Seller. Shame.
A film with a definite yet small cult following, The Hidden is the kind of movie that is practically begging someone to remake it. Not that a remake would improve it, as the film is pretty damn cool just the way it is. Scriptwriter Kouf and director Sholder knew exactly the way to get an audience’s attention back in ’87 by opening their film with a riotous car chase between an alien with a penchant for fast cars (in this case a Ferrari) and the cops pursuing this outer space bank robber. This alien is a just an oversized cockroach and it can live inside a human host, discarding the body if it’s dying (eg: full of bullet holes like our opening scene guy). Out of the mouth and into the throat of a new host. It’ll even take over a dog if nothing else is available. In pursuit of this alien bad-ass is alien good guy Kyle MacLachlan, who teams up with human cop Mike Nouri and gets drunk on one beer. Smart, funny and action-packed, The Hidden is the hard-edged brother of Alien Nation that came out a year later.
Inspired by true events, River’s Edge tells the story of a teenager who murders his girlfriend and then shows his apathetic friends the body. They try to make sense of the crime and are directed by ringleader Layne (an insane Crispin Glover) who demands they don’t desert their unstable, murderous friend and alert the authorities. This is no happily melancholic John Hughes film, but a rather disturbing portrait of 80s teens; a closeted peek into dispassionate youth, much like Larry Clark’s Kids from 1995. These are teens on the fringe, dealing with broken homes and a drug-fuelled lethargy. There is a sense that there is no future for them; these kids aren’t going to college and they know it. While there is no reason explored for them ignoring their friends’ crime, it is almost self-evident that the majority of them simply don’t care, whether out of indifference or fear. The great cast features Ione Skye, who three years later would become a teen idol to millions of boys when she starred in Cameron Crowe’s seminal 80s classic Say Anything…
Like any number of horror films, protagonist Billy is sure something is amiss in his slice of Prosperity, USA. And of course, when the waste hits the fan, no one’s gonna believe him. You see the adults in Billy’s town are fond of crazy orgies where their bodies meld into one another, creating a ghastly tableau of upper-class decadence. If that’s a bit lofty, consider a bowl of porridge with arms and legs and eyes and mouths – lots of them. Anyway, Society is that rare kind of film that successfully blends some pretty gross horror with a whacky sense of humor. This ain’t horror-scary, it’s more like funny-horror-with-a-pinch-of-yuk. Or John Waters crossed with Lovecraft. Which is most apt, considering first-time director Yuzna’s appreciation of H.P. (two years previous he served as producer on Re-Animator). Society was one of the most underrated genre films of the splatter-filled decade.
Until the early 90s, Robert De Niro had made classic film after classic film. A few duds thrown into the mix, sure, but his early body of work has become legendary. Then something happened. Great films were more frequently replaced with failed ventures and odd choices. Don’t get me wrong, the man is a great actor; but we can all agree that he doesn’t produce the quality he once did, and that his legend status hangs largely on that early work. Jacknife, a little project from 1989 still stands tall among De Niro’s ‘smaller’ roles, despite its relegation to the corners of most audience’s minds. De Niro is excellent as a Vietnam veteran with a thin veneer of resilience attempting to reach his alcoholic friend Davey and deal with combat trauma. Ed Harris, as Davey, is the real powerhouse in this film, delivering one of his best performances.
A vicious criminal eludes city-boy FBI agent Warren Stantin (Poitier) and runs to the hills. Literally. This bad dude joins a recreational hiking party lead by Kirstie Alley with the view of escaping across the border into Canada. But Stantin is on his trail, and with the help of scruffy mountaineer Tom Berenger they’ll put this guy down. That’s the plan anyway. Anyone familiar with the words “There can be only one!” will quickly guess that Clancy ‘Kurgan’ Brown is the antagonist here. Brown plays a solid bad guy, and was unfortunately typecast as such through much of the 80s and 90s, before finding some middle ground. As a precursor to films such as Cliffhanger, Shoot To Kill (titled Deadly Pursuit here in Australia) is a neat, well-shot little thriller with a disposable supporting cast ready to be thrown over the edge of a cliff, a damsel in distress, and hilarious fish-out-of-water shenanigans from the legendary Poitier.
Perhaps not forgotten, Prizzi’s Honor is certainly one of the less discussed films of both the 1980s and Jack Nicholson’s career. The second last film of the great John Huston is beautiful to look at with its muted tones and often soft-focus lenses. It’s as hilarious as it is romantic, and Nicholson’s role as a somewhat dim-witted Mob enforcer is certainly his greatest comic role if not one of his best ever performances. Golden girl of the 1980s Kathleen Turner displays both the soft damsel of her roles in such films as Romancing The Stone and the femme fatale of Body Heat. This gangster tale of two assassins in love is provided more weight by an exceptional supporting cast, in particular the hilarious William Hickey as the frail and irascible paterfamilias, and the director’s daughter Anjelica in an Oscar-winning role.
The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)
Starring Ruben Blades, Richard Bradford, Sonia Braga, Julie Carmen, Chick Vennera, Melanie Griffith, John Heard, Daniel Stern and Christopher Walken
Written by John Nichols and David S. Ward
Directed by Robert Redford
By the late 70s, Robert Redford decided he wanted to direct films. His first feature in 1980, Ordinary People, won him an Oscar so he had every reason to pursue this. He spent subsequent years acting in the films The Natural, Out Of Africa and Legal Eagles, before returning to helm The Milagro Beanfield War in ‘88, based on the book by co-writer Nichols. The film completely failed to find an audience, with its whimsical tone and myriad character sub-plots derided by some critics. In short, it was considered somewhat of a well-made muddle, or the old case of a book not translating to the screen. For this reviewer, time has only enhanced and strengthened this admittedly uneven movie; its enjoyment comes from how whimsical you want to feel while watching it. Falling under its spell is easy if you just drink the potion it offers you.
Teenage punk is sent to a young offenders prison, battling the prison gangs with a pillow slip filled with soft drink cans until eventually becoming the rooster. Riding on the heels of the British cult classic Scum, Bad Boys is America’s version of young life behind bars. This is no Escape From- or Birdman Of- Alcatraz, but a gritty, exceptionally well-acted and directed film with a dense, claustrophobic atmosphere. This was one of my favourite films as a teenager, featuring The Breakfast Club’s Ally Sheedy (who I had a sizable crush on), Ferris Bueller’s Alan Ruck (“Fry?… Fry?…”), 80s Latino crim go-to guy Esai Morales, Clancy ‘Kurgan’ Brown again, and a fearsome performance from Penn.
Okay, so who wants to get depressed? If a downer is what you’re after, you can’t go past Bille August’s incredibly dour tale of an impoverished father and his young son travelling to Sweden from Denmark in the late 19th century to work as basically slave labor on some rich asswipe’s farm. Amid the bleak, muddy landscape, the pair will attempt to find some kind of peace and happiness. Despite the somber narrative, and almost relentless oppression of the main characters, Pelle The Conqueror is a heartbreakingly beautiful film that deserves to be seen and remembered. Hell, it won Best Foreign Language Film at both the Oscars and Globes, as well as the Palme D’Or at Cannes.
Before Irish director Neil Jordan became the man known for The Crying Game and Interview With The Vampire, he teamed with author Angela Carter to film this twisted Red Riding Hood tale. The big bad wolves here are werewolves, and the film is an almost psychedelic visual trip with dreamily impressive art direction. Budget constraints are noticeable at times, with the film feeling somewhat stage-bound; but it’s a tribute to Jordan’s skills as a filmmaker and writer that the film presents such a unique atmosphere. It’s Joe Dante’s The Howling that is often rated beside An American Werewolf in London as the formative wolf films of the 80s, but let’s not forget The Company Of Wolves as a possible contender.
Before he had his face rearranged through both amateur boxing and plastic surgery, the 80s ‘Mr. Cool’ Mickey Rourke played a guy who undergoes surgery to rearrange his disfigured face. Irony aside, Rourke was always a formidable actor and his 80s catalogue is impressive. Johnny Handsome is a revenge piece, moody and well-directed by Mr Machismo Walter Hill, notable for its amazing cast: Barkin (always as sexy as she was bitchy), Bishop (sorry, Henrikson), Wilson from The Walking Dead, Whitaker and Morgan-friggin’-Freeman! And quite frankly, any film with music by the great Ry Cooder is worth a look.
Coming soon: Vol. 2