I continue my summary of my favourite films by year and by decade with this, my favourite films of the 1980s. This is going to be tough. If I look back at my favourite all time movie list which I created on IMDB in 2002 or something, six or seven of my Top Ten movies were made in the 80s. It’s the decade I was born and grew up in, and it’s movies from that decade that always seemed to be on TV in my house right through to my early teens. As you’ll have seen from my individual year lists, there are many years where I had to list more than ten films – and those are just my absolute favourites and don’t include the ones I think are great, good, or that I simply like. I’m determined to keep this overall decade post to twenty films, but I’m writing this introduction before I’ve started to whittle any choices down, so who knows. Lets get to it.
26. Die Hard (1988)
Yeah, that went well. Most action fans list Die Hard as the greatest action movie of all time. It’s difficult to argue with that statement – it has it all; Guns, fights, explosions, stunts, thrills, suspense, a great cast, strong direction from a veteran, quotable dialogue, and iconic moments. It’s far from my favourite action movie and I don’t have the same attachment to it as most people from my generation do. As you’ll see further down my list, there are other films which are technically inferior but which I enjoy more. With that being said, I still love it. How can you not love it?
John McClane (Bruce Willis in is defining role – he’s had a few) is a wise-ass cop, husband, dad, visiting his wife on Christmas Eve at her workplace. That workplace? Nakatomi Plaza, a huge skyscraper the likes of which you just don’t get in my country (and if you had a building like this in my country in the 80s, you can be sure it would have been bombed on a weekly basis by more than Germans). She’s having an end of year party with her annoying, coked up, cliche Wall Street 80s boss, and a bunch of yuppie colleagues. While McClane meanders about, a bunch of terrorists quietly sneak into the building, seal it off, and… well, I’ve never been too clear on the whys – I guess it doesn’t matter. Basically they want money and the release of some random terrorists, and the whole thing turns into a huge hostage crisis with cops and feds eventually raining down on the place. Before then, McClane acts as the one man army – trying to stay alive while the terrorists hunt him down from floor to floor, and while he tries to contact the outside world and convince them that’s something’s going down. I’ll be saying this a lot, but if you’re reading this post you’ve already seen the movie. And yet, it’s important to keep these older movies turning in the minds of newer audiences. It feels weird saying it, but it is an old movie now – it’s thirty years old this year. Thirty years before Die Hard was 1958, so just compare Die Hard to a movie from 1958. Yippee dippy doo mother crusher and all that.
25. An American Werewolf London (1981)
The best werewolf movie of a mini resurgence in the 80s, and probably the best werewolf movie of all time. Some people point to The Howling as the better movie, but that’s blatantly false. While The Howling is more horror based, at least on the surface, this one still has the more frightening moments. It’s also funnier, sexier, has the better story, better cast, better effects while The Howling is fairly boring. And I still like The Howling.
The story here sees two friends from the US travelling through the Yorkshire Countryside – something which has almost certainly never happened, because who would ever want to do that? They find a pub – The Slaughtered Lamb – and meet the locals, including Rik Mayall and Brian Glover. They’re not local so they’re not welcome, so they leave with the warning of ‘keep to the road’ ringing in their ears. Long story short, they are attacked by something, one of them is killed, and the other wakes up in hospital with hot nurse Jenny Agutter attending to him. You can guess some of the rest – the survivor finding out he is a werewolf etc, but it’s all done in a fun and unique way. His dead friend comes to him in ever more rotted appearances, he has horrifying nightmares about Nazis, and he caper about London Zoo bare arse to the wind, all while falling in love with Agutter. It builds up to a terrific, and tragic climax. It’s rare that a film so brilliantly balances horror and humour, but this is one of the finest examples with John Landis nearing the end of a tremendous run of form.
24. First Blood Part 2 (1985)
When people think of Rambo, this is usually the film they think about – those images of long haired Stallone all glistening with sweat, huge muscles carrying a huge gun while he galavants about the jungle blowing away faceless bad guys. While people forget that the first film was much smaller in scope and less violent, they also forget the decent and topical plot for this one. Rambo’s anti-war speech at the end of Part One segues nicely into this one as the American war mongers mislead the veteran into returning to Vietnam under the pretense of locating POWs and bringing them home. The truth is that the government doesn’t care and they’re sending in Rambo as a box checking exercise and as a handy way of potentially getting rid of an irritant. Little do they realise that there actually are a load of POWs still left behind in terrible conditions and that Rambo saves them. What does the Government/Military do? Shrugs their shoulders and leaves them behind again. U-S-A! U-S-A! I mean, it’s not exactly Shakespeare, and thank fuck for that. Plot aside, it’s still an excuse for Stallone and co to go on a classic 80s action rampage using every imaginable piece of arsenal. Stallone dispatches of the enemies with iconic aplomb and even manages to head home and make a statement on US soil. He would go one further in the next movie by helping out the Taliban, but that’s a different story. For pure 80s adrenaline pumping fun, you can’t get much better than this.
23: For Your Eyes Only (1981)
One of my absolute favourite Bond films, and the only Bond entry on this list. There is a certain group of people who don’t care much for this film and there’s even a specific technical term for them – morons. Roger Moore gets a lot of heat for being the ‘comedy Bond’ meaning that his films are more light-hearted, less serious than those of Connery or Dalton. While some of that is down to the direction Moore and the writers and directors chose to take the series, some of it is purely down to the period the movies were made in. Nevertheless, For Your Eyes Only is dark as shit. It features a revenge plot led by the brilliant Carol Bouquet, it opens with the inexplicable/don’t give a fuck killing of Blofeld, a love interest is mowed down mercilessly while Bond looks on helpless, it features Bond visiting his dead wife’s grave, and has one of the most sinister henchmen/villains in all of Cinema in The Dove. The action is more grounded, the plot is not outlandish or out of this world, and the overall villain is not as memorable as others leading many viewers to label the film as forgettable. I would argue that the film is a more realistic representation of the spy world, with flawed people racked with grief and guilt, and the bad guy is a somewhat successful twist. It also features some of the most stunning locations in the series, the action set pieces are a lot of fun, and as I keep reminding people, it portrays Bond for who he truly is – a lost, barren slave, haunted by his past.
22: Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
It’s Indiana Jones – of course he’s going to be on my list of favourite 80s movies. Who didn’t grow up with these if you were born around the same time as me? There’s some slight differences between what constitutes and action movie versus what is an adventure movie. The clue’s in the name, I guess. When people say Die Hard is the perfect action movie, I say Raiders Of The Lost Ark is the perfect adventure movie. You can tell it’s a love letter to the genre, a love letter to cinema itself, and you know everyone involved was having such fun making it. Lucas and Spielberg throw as many of their personal interests a possible at the screen – history, mythology, travel, Nazis, treasure hunting, religion, but makes it all as captivating as possible by keeping the plot and action moving breathlessly and giving the viewer new twists on old action tropes. Harrison Ford is at his most dashing, there’s a great backing cast including Karen Allen, John Rhys Davis, Denholm Elliot, John Williams provides one of his most memorable scores, there are quotable lines, and there are moments which are seared into pop culture and which have been endlessly parodied – the boulder run, the whole treasure hunt intro, the pen on eyelids, the face-melting, the excavation silhouettes and more. It’s a rite of passage for everyone and it’s one of the most purely enjoyable films ever made.
21: Beetlejuice (1988)
I can’t wait till I reach the 80s in my Oscars posts. If you just happen to have landed on this page at random – in my Oscars posts I go through each year of the Oscars, starting at 1960, and give my thoughts and my picks from the Official Nominations of most of the categories, as well as giving my alternative nominations. You should read those. I’ve always felt that Michael Ketaon deserved a nomination for his work here – at times it feels like a stand-up routine but it’s so energetically acted, so funny, and iconic that he should have been in with a shout. You might see me mentioning snubs a few times in this post as there are many terrific films in this decade which were entirely ignored by the bigoted Academy. Regardless, this is a Tim Burton movie through and through with a colour palette, overall design, and plot only he could imagine. Tim Burton has one of my most loved early run of films ever, ignoring the atrocity that is Pee Wee. This film features Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, Catherine O’Hara, and Winona Ryder alongside Keaton and has some great make-up and effects (dated now of course) and a decent score.
For those who may not know the story – it’s about a newly wed young couple who move into a mansion on a hill, die, and find out that the afterlife is just as bureaucratic as…lifelife. Before long a new family moves in – self centered parents and a lonely daughter. The newlyweds, now ghosts, are determined to haunt the house and scare the newbs away, but take a liking to the daughter. Having difficulty getting rid of the yuppies, they contact Beetleguese, the ghost with the most who specializes in hauntings, but he has his own agenda. Burton has great fun with the cast and the story, is as inventive as always with miniature work and visuals, and never forgets to focus on character. There are enough creepy moments to keep this somewhere related to horror, but it’s very tongue in cheek – kids should be able to watch without freaking out. It’s truly a one of a kind movie.
20: Temple Of Doom (1984)
Even with my praise for Raiders, this is my favourite entry in the series. It has a lot more horror and gruesome elements, but mostly I think it’s the one I saw most when I was younger and the simpler plot kept me interested. Raiders is the better film, but this is my personal favourite. It always seemed to be on on a Sunday night when I was young and I watched it every time. It’s plot is interesting because it doesn’t really have a true setup – just a bunch of stuff happens. Jones is doing some smuggling in China with his sidekick Skidmark (or Short Round if you prefer). The Chinese bad guys chase him onto a plane that they happen to own. The pilots jump out leaving them with ‘no more parachutes’ and they crash in India. Oh yeah, Willie, a blonde bimbo singer is picked up at some point. They find a village where they learn that all the children have been kidnapped and are apparently being inducted into a cult as slaves. Indy and pals investigate, there are monkey brains, snakes, spiders, dudes getting crushed by massive stones, dudes falling into lava, dudes getting their hearts pulled out, and it all culminates in a frenetic finale with a mine-cart chase and dizzying rope bridge set piece. I love the action in this more than its predecessor. Shorty is a fun addition, and I’ve never minded Willie though I can see why most dismiss her. The Temple bowels are fantastic and the closing 30 minutes has some of the best stunt work and exciting action I’ve ever seen.
19: Batman (1989)
Tim Burton again with arguably, still, the best comic book movie ever. While I love Nolan, Bale, Ledger etc – this will always be my personal preference with Keaton and Nicholson being my favourite Batman and Joker. While the 90s Batman movies became far too camp and entrenched in comic book visuals, Nolan’s films strive for realism. Burton’s films are somewhere in between – you can tell it’s based on a comic but there’s also something more human and universal in there. There are so many great moments in this film – the Batmobile is the best version it has ever been, I love all of the ways the Joker dispatches with people, we have Prince music in the soundtrack, Kim Basinger is great, the chase and fight in Gotham Cathedral is superb, and the opening scene and revealed back story are all handled effectively.
This film also has that ever so 80s treat of Toxic Waste – how many films feature Toxic Waste as a weapon or plot device or as the entire basis of the story? Old Jack Napier falls into this and turns into The Joker – nice we get an origin story for him too. I also used to collect Topps (or some brand) stickers and cards from this movie – you know, you buy a pack of stickers/cards from some movie and you get this pink cardboard flavour chewing gum with it? I remember the Batman ones fondly because quite a few of them were gruesome – there was a shot of Grissom burned alive and charred to a crisp that was either called ‘Fried Alive’ or else that’s just what we called it, along with various Smilex victims and assorted Toxic Waste stuff. Wait, yeah, it was definitely called Fried Alive, I remember each card had a banner around it to make it look more like a comic panel. Do such things still exist for movies? I used to spend an unhealthy amount of time looking at those, and they somehow made the film better.
18: The Hitcher (1986)
For the longest time, no-one knew about this film. I was the cool kid who talked about it and no-one had a clue. Then they remade it with Sean Bean, flipped parts of the story around, and tamed it a little. The remake is okay, but never more than that. This original film is fantastic from start to finish, moody, ambiguous, and with an epic turn by Rutger Hauer. Guess what? It’s another which deserved a bunch of Oscar nods, most obviously in the Cinematography category but also in with a shout for Hauer and for the screenplay. If you’re wondering why it looks so good – well, it was shot by John Seale who won an Oscar for The English Patient but also worked on Witness, Gorillas In The Mist, Rain Man, Dead Poet’s Society, Cold Mountain, The Philosopher’s Stone, and Fury Road. I consider this maybe his best work. There’s so many just of twilight and dusk, sunrise and sunset that I love – momentary transitional periods which subtly suggest so much thematically. It’s another film that you can summarize in a single sentence but also write essays on, trying to break it down. It boils down to, a young man is driving a car from Chicago to San Diego and picks up a hitch-hiker – the hitcher turns out to be a little crazy and a cross country game of cat and mouse ensues. It’s fantastic. Even with the remake, this is still something of a cult gem that few people talk about. C Thomas Howell is good as the kid, Hauer is at his best as the Hitcher, and Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a pivotal role. The stunts are stunning, beautiful, and there’s that inevitability and nihilism in the plot that I love so much. I’m still amazed by the critical mauling this got – so many people completely missing the point. If there’s one film on this list more people need to see, it’s this one.
17: Day Of The Dead (1985)
Back when it used to be a trilogy, the Dead trilogy was generally known to consist of two bona fide classics, and an average gore fest. As we’ve seen above though, critics often get things viciously wrong. Day Of The Dead is not as groundbreaking as its older siblings, but its every bit as powerful and it’s still superb entertainment. The film opens with shots of a deserted city. A lone survivor is calling out for others, but the only voices to respond come from the rotting throats of the undead. The world is seemingly lost. We learn that a small group of solders, civilians, and scientists have holed up in an underground bunker, leaving only to scavenge for supplies and survivors. Various psychological problems seem to be setting in, caused by isolation, paranoia, and fear. We have soldiers, bossed by Captain Rhodes, scientists led by Dr Logan, and a handful of civilians caught in the middle. As time has moved on, relationships have broken apart – they group has lost contact with other outposts and supplies are dwindling quickly. The soldiers are pissed off that they are the ones placing themselves in danger while the scientists apparently sit around running pointless tests, while the scientists are pissed off that the soldiers are trying to order them around like subordinates rather than fellow humans. It quickly becomes clear that both sides cannot co-exist, that both leaders are bat-shit, and that the million or so zombies in the vicinity are going to get in.
There are maybe a handful of film in existence that wow me from a technical or from a special effects perspective every single time I see them. There are a few of them on this list – an older one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a more recent one would be Gravity. Day Of The Dead fits the bill. I don’t know what it is about modern effects – all the overblown Marvel films and Transformer types – I understand that a hell of a lot of work and time and money goes into them, but they either look shit, or they look amazing but leave me cold. I’ve seen skyscrapers collapse so many times now that it’s all so bland and safe. Day Of The Dead is jaw-dropping. There are effects shots here that you won’t believe. Even as a seasoned Walking Dead fan (Greg Nicotero stars and works here), Day Of The Dead contains work that has either been aped by that sister show or has effects that have yet to be bettered over thirty years later. Remember, thirty years before 1985, your best effects were a guy in a silver suit and a paper plate on a string. That is a huge expanse of time in technology, and yet Day Of The Dead destroys 99% of today’s input.
Beyond the effects and make-up, the sense of isolation and claustrophobia here is superb. Romero provides us with another no name case – no stars, no recognisable names, just regular working joes like you or I who may be lucky or unlucky enough to survive the apocalypse. As it’s Romero, there’s a a fair amount of satire and political stuff going on here – the argument between science and the military still raging on today. Naturally it’s taken to extremes, but you can see what Romero is saying and to be fair, no side gets off Scot-free. There are Oscar snubs here to be sure, but you’ll have to wait until I get caught up on those posts. This is an underrated beast, and yet it’s nowhere near the epic which Romero originally envisioned.
16: Near Dark (1987)
Near Dark is one of the greatest vampire films of all time; sexy, dark, violent, great cast, great director. And still it’s not even my favourite vampire movie of the year. At it’s core, Near Dark is a love story. Not a romance, but a love story nevertheless. Love between near partners, love between father and son, and familial love as we meet a band of marauding nomadic vampires who have been together for several decades, maybe much longer, as they try to recruit a new member. I mentioned The Hitcher having sublime cinematography – Near Dark is another contender with shot after shot of seductive shadows and expanse. Adam Greenberg provides the beauty here, a man known for The Big Red One, Ghost, and both Cameron directed Terminator movies among others. There are many, many Cameron crossovers with this film – it’s directed by his one time wife Kathryn Bigelow and features Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jennete Goldstein. It has a nifty score by Tangerine Dream, and it portrays vampires in a way you don’t often see – as characters with their own history, but beneath it all, killers. Even though this is also a cult hit it still feels like not enough people, especially outside of horror circles have seen it. Do yourself a favour and rectify that.
15: The Lost Boys (1987)
Where Near Dark strives to be a ‘mature’ vampire film, The Lost Boys aims for the MTV audience – it’s a teen movie through and through, yet it’s no less clever or entertaining for it. Like Bigelow’s film, the vampires here are depicted both on human terms and as vicious, vindictive killers. Though the style has long since been vanquished, it’s unquestionably stylish. The humour is still sharp, the twists still work, the cast – the two Coreys, Keifer Sutherland, Dianne Wiest, Jason Patric, and others – are great, and it’s another film which looks fantastic to this day. Naturally you have those 80s quirks like BMXs, comic stores, DIY home protection, and muscle-bound saxophone players, but what can you do? It’s a classic of the genre and the era.
14: The Goonies (1985)
Who grows up in the 80s or 90s and doesn’t see The Goonies? The film has become somewhat overly glorified, taking it out of context for what it really is. It’s a slice of Spielbergian entertainment – fast moving, loose, action-packed, filled with laughs, iconic moments, great characters, and quotable dialogue. You guessed it – it’s another film that seemed to be on TV every half-term so that on those inevitable rainy holidays every single kid in class would watch it. Again. Most people remember that the film is about a gang of kids who go on an adventure to find pirate treasure. Some people forget that the reason they are doing it is because they are about to be evicted and their homes replaced by condos or a mall or some shit. You may forget the criminal element too as the Fratelli family, on the run from the law, chase the kids who accidentally stumbled upon their hideout. The names have become legendary in their own right – Sloth, One Eyed Willy, Mouth, Mikey, Chuck, and people have been unnecessarily crying out for a sequel for decades. Let it go, as a one off slice of 80s magic. Richard Donner was on an incredible roll, and the soundtrack is pretty tasty too. Another vital part of my generation’s childhood.
13: Back To The Future (1985)
The undoubted classics continue. There are few films about time travel as smart or as entertaining as this. It’s a film you think you know off by heart, but that you’ll find new things in each time you watch. Marty McFly, ‘great Scott’, DeLorean, Biff, Enchantment Under The Sea, the clocktower – any mention of these things will evoke fond memories and misty eyes. It was a simpler time, a more fun time… all you needed was a little confidence. It’s such a smart film in the way it’s constructed, glossing over potential plot holes and murky details with energy and workarounds. Throw in superb performances from top to bottom, great dialogue, great soundtrack, and Zemeckis in total control and you have another film that was unnecessarily snubbed at The Oscars.
12: Big Trouble In Little China (1986)
It’s Carpenter time again, and as we always say when we talk about John Carpenter movies, this one was a cult film which has since found a wider audience and greater acclaim. Where do you even begin with this? It’s an action movie with fantasy elements, but there are also monsters, demons, gangs, and martial arts. The fantasy element sees Chinese Elemental Gods coming to Earth in search of green-eyed women for…. nefarious purposes? Jack Burton somehow gets roped into saving the day – a trucker with a John Wayne swagger and drawl – a man who knows all about reflexes but little else. This film was made for around 20 million, but somehow only made around 10 at the box office – WTF? To compare, in the same year Stallone’s Cobra made 15 million in one weekend. It’s a mystery why this wasn’t an immediate success – I could say that for at least five other Carpenter films. Kurt Russell is on epic form here, while everyone else hams the shit out of it – Kim Cattrall, James Hong, it’s really funny – funnier that most actual comedies, it has nifty effects, and you’ll be quoting it for the rest of your life. It’s another one of those movies that everyone watched and talked about the next day in school, inevitably acting out our favourite scenes at lunch time.
11: The Road Warrior (1981)
As much as I love Mad Max, this sequel ups the ante in every respect; Bigger, better. Apparently Miller wanted this to be his version of The Illiad. That’s a bit of a stretch, but the story goes; Max, still Mad from the events of the first film now travels the wasteland in his Interceptor, stopping for supplies where and when he can. He meets a fellow scavenger who travels by gyrocopter and tells Max of a nearby refinery – all the gas and oil a man could ever want. Naturally, Max finds that the refinery acts as a compound of survivors too and it is under siege from a massive biker gang who just slinked out of an S&M cosplay club. Max decides to help the compound get rid of the gang in exchange for some petrol of his own. Chaos ensues.
Up until the release of Fury Road, I cited The Road Warrior as the best car chase movie ever made – best car stunts too. Fury Road certainly goes bigger but there’s still something even more visceral about this one. Every single vehicle is a unique character, and each vehicle houses a unique character. Most are crushed to pieces. The action is pounding, frenetic, and ridiculous. Gibson is strong again as Max, ably backed by a cast of weirdos including Virginia Hey, Vernon Wells, Bruce Spence, and Emil Minty. The world of the first movie, broken and bizarre as it was, has since moved on and we appear to be left with desert – desert and scattered outposts. It didn’t take humanity long to descend to primal, feral types or adopt bizarre and impractical clothing. The atmosphere that I spoke of which oozes from the first film is replaced by something else here – another unique atmosphere, but one less unsettling and grungy. There’s a sense of desolation, but you get the feeling that there is still hope – hope in the individual. This is unquestionably one of the greatest sequels ever made, and bonus points for featuring a bad guy called Lord Humungus and for having a scene where a guy has fingers chopped off by a boomerang. Australia – where everything will kill you.
10: Commando (1985)
Man, this is a long post. Arnie again, and the second film in a row featuring Vernon Wells. Wells is Bennett, an ex Special Forces guy who has been going around killing all his old friends. He works with a wannabee dictator (Dan Hedaya) who plots a coup but needs someone to assassinate the man in charge. Arnie fits the bill – the boss of the Special Forces team who Bennett is offing and who has a relationship with the country where the coup is to take place. Really though, all that matter to us now is Jenny – Arnie’s daughter. The bad guys kidnap her to force Arnie to carry out the assassination, but he escapes and seeks revenge. It’s 90 minutes of Arnie slaughtering everyone in sight, and it’s beautiful. I’d pick this over Die Hard (often rumoured to originally have been a sequel to Commando) every time. I used to watch this movie at least once a week when I was young – for at least a couple of years. It’s a film that made me want to be a solider, and when I eventually became sort of part of the military and saw how boring it actually was, I was disillusioned. I just wanted to blow shit up and kill bad guys.
So many action movies have followed this format, but almost all have fallen far from the heights this one reaches. It’s dumb, but it’s fun and doesn’t pretend to be anything more than what it is. We have a tonne of one-liners, a cast of entertaining familiar face bad guys waiting to be destroyed – David Patrick Kelly and Bill Duke included – and the action stuff is over the top without being ludicrous. Arnie fighting his way through mall security guards, dropping Sully off a cliff, gearing up for war, and talking out a small army singlehandedly are all memorable moments. When I was young a small group of friends would copy these scenes, buying camo make-up from local Army surplus and camping shops, covering our skinny arms and faces, and hiding in bushes ready to snap the necks of unsuspecting dog-walkers and pensioners. This is a film where necks snap like twigs, punches sound like gunshots, and gunshots sound like the end of the world, yet all rub off the shoulders of the hero like dust from a… hero’s shoulder. Bonus points for the similarities in the score between this and the 48 Hours series – all James Horner.
9: The Thing (1982)
This top ten, by and large, represents films which have each shaped me as a person. Not only my taste in film, but my wider interests and in some cases my attitude to, well, existence. Any day of the week, any one of these could be placed differently in my top ten, except maybe for the number 1. The Thing is a film I knew about for year but could never get to see it in whole until after every other film on this list. Baring in mind I saw every other film on this list before I was ten. I saw snippets of this in friends houses, and knew I had to see it from start to finish. I knew I would love it long before I saw it. John Carpenter’s remake is frequently and rightly cited as one of, if not the best remake ever. It surpasses the original, which I like, in every aspect. Most crucially, it remains terrifying. Like Day Of The Dead, the effects work here is incredible. Carpenter hands over the scoring tools to Morricone who scribes one of his most startling and unusual works. If I have one gripe in the film it’s that quite a few of the cast members feel and look too similar. We don’t necessarily need big names here – indeed the facelessness adds to the paranoia and confusion – but some more variety would have helped. By the time we get down to the final survivors, things are more clear. That’s a minor thing, and goes away with multiple viewings.
The filmed is framed in a very similar way to the original – a group of scientists and researchers are working in a remote Antarctica station. An alien craft is found, some form of alien lifeform is uncovered, and it wreaks havoc. In this version, the Thing they uncover can take on the exact form of another living creature, be it dog or human. As the people in the station realize what they are up against, they can’t be sure that the person beside them is human or alien, and it’s clear the alien wants to survive, spread, and kill. Kurt Russell and Keith David, among others, are superb here, but it’s the effects and the direction which make it the undoubted classic that it is. It’s the little things – the shadows, the slow fades and pans, the snippets of dialogue, but then you have the action – the petri dish scene, the final fight, the nihilistic ending, the uncertainty, and the rewatchability. It’s a film you watch again and again trying to understand who is The Thing at any given time. One clue is in the eyes – Carpenter shot each face in such a way that only those with light visible and reflecting in their eyes could be human – watch closely. The film was ripped to shreds upon release – audiences gorged over Spielberg’s enjoyable fluff ET instead – and critics were apparently falling over themselves to get in the best barb. If you ever need reassurance that maybe the human races needs to be taken over by aliens, or has been already, then look at the reception for The Thing – one of the best movies of all time, barely making back it’s 15 million budget. It’s easy to see why the effects, gruesome as they are, might put some people off along with the film’s ambiguity – but would you really want to befriend someone who feels that way? The Thing is the perfect mix of sci-fi and horror, and a masterpiece from top to bottom.
8: Aliens (1986)
While we’re on the subject of top to bottom masterpieces, James Cameron looked at Ridley’s Scott’s classic and thought ‘yeah, I’ll have some of that’. Cameron is known to be a bit of a perfectionist, and also adept at creatively overcoming any obstacle – two factors ensuring that Aliens is every bit as good, if not better, than the first part. After Ripley survived her encounter with the Xenomorph in the previous film, she has been floating in hyperspace for years. Decades in fact. She is picked up, learns how long she has been asleep and that in the interim her daughter has heartbreakingly grown up and died after a long, peaceful life. ‘The Company’ grills her on the rundown of events – namely that her crew was wiped out by an unknown lifeform and the only way she could kill it was to blow up her ship and blow it into space. They would like to know who’s going to pick up the bill. Elsewhere, a mining colony has been living on the planet that Ripley found the Alien on, but has recently stopped communicating. Uh oh.
The Company decides to go down to the planet to check on Ripley’s claims and to check on their mining folks, taking with them a team of badass marines and Ripley herself. Finding the base deserted, but with evidence of a battle, we find that the Aliens have been busy making babies. There are so many things I love about Aliens – the same things everyone loves. From the dialogue to the characters to the performances to the action, it’s perfect. I’ll focus on two things I enjoy which rarely get mentioned – the pacing, and the fact that everything seems to go wrong progressively. Those are key to the film’s success. If the pacing was off, you’d risk boring the viewer – this is a long film, even without the director’s cut. It’s a long time before we get any action, but once it kicks off it rarely lets up. Cameron ensures those early scenes have enough tension, sadness, and intrigue that we are invested in the characters long before all hell breaks loose. I’m not sure if it’s a trope, but those films where the plot moves along by virtue of the situation for the characters continually getting worse, that’s a favourite of mine. The characters even reference it here, tongue in cheek. They land, they search for the aliens, they are attacked. They can’t fight back because they risk blowing up the entire planet. They lose their command, they lose their pilot, they are blocked from their means of escape, they are betrayed, they are trapped, they are outnumbered, and they learn the planet is about to explode anyway. Everything that can go wrong, does. It keeps you on the edge of your seat like few films do. We’re now firmly in the list of films where, even though I may own it on DVD, Blu Ray, VHS, or all – if it’s on TV when channel hopping, I still watch it.
7: Police Academy (1984 – Top Ten Of All Time)
A ridiculous choice for most, no doubt, but it’s a personal list. I’m not sure any film series has made me laugh as much as this one, and while the sequels hit an inevitable decline it’s easy to forget that the first one is actually good. It’s not a work of art by any means, and you’ll never hear me call any of the sequels ‘good films’, but I love them dearly. The film follows the same sort of story as any number of other late 70s, early 80s films a person or a group of misfits enter a world they would normally have no business with – fish out of water – and we watch their antics. Here, it’s a group of small time cons, crooks, and losers who decide (or are forced to) join the local Police Academy.The characters are colourfully drawn, the humour ranges from slapstick to sight gags, to dated offensive stuff, to the just plain weird, but I will never not laugh. I’ve never been particularly high brow in my sense of humour, but if there’s one thing lacking in today’s painful world of attempted gross out humour – it’s heart. Maybe soul too. Police Academy, weird as it may sound, has heart. The cast is great, the characters iconic in their own way, and the soundtrack deserved an Oscar nomination. Give it a chance if you’re looking down your nose at it – you may be surprised. Probably not, but at least you’ll get to see an old guy being sucked off in front of a crowd. You see? Heart.
6: The Empire Strikes Back/Jedi (1980/83 – Top Ten Of All Time)
So, this is a cheat. But not really, because I’ve always considered the original trilogy as a single entity, just in three distinct parts. That IMDB list I made had the Star Wars Trilogy at number one. I’m a rebel in that Jedi is my favourite of the bunch. I’m not going to put them at number one here, though everything in this Top Ten could switch around at a whim – it’s not important. Empire is the ‘dark one’, Jedi is the ‘fun one’ even though it has plenty of dark moments too. If you’re reading this and you’ve never seen these movies, then I’m not really sure what to say. I can’t tell you to go watch them, because you’ve probably entrenched yourself into a foolish decision to never see them, in which case you’re an idiot. Watch them. Only then can you moan about them. They are all essential – essential to us as movie fans, essential to us as humans.
5: Conan The Barbarian (1982 – Top Ten Of All Time)
I’ve always been an Arnie fan. I remember having an argument with a friend (RIP Scott) in P3 – for any foreigners reading, that’s our third year of school so I must have been 7 or 8 – over who would win in a fight, Bruce Lee or Arnie. Then, I was on the Bruce Lee side of the debate, but came to the conclusion that if guns were involved, then Arnie would win. I hadn’t seen Conan yet, so maybe that would have swayed me if we’d brought swords into the argument. It took me the longest time to see Conan. For whatever reason it was both difficult to come by and I’d dismissed it. I know I’d seen Red Sonja, which is crap, and probably assumed Conan was more of the same. I saw it first in my early teens, maybe slightly earlier and boy was I wrong. Directed by the legendary John Milius, based on the stories by Robert E Howard and with a script from Oliver Stone and Milius, it isn’t you’re standard sword and sorcery affair. The cast includes James Earl Jones and Max Von Sydow. Sandahl Bergman is terrific. Mako and Gerry Lopez provide able back-up. Can you imagine a better Conan than Arnie? The score by Basil Poledouris is, without a doubt, the greatest movie score in history. There are perhaps more one-liners here, or at least memorable dialogue, than in any other Arnie movie.
The plot boils down to an origin and revenge story – it’s Batman but without the body armour. We meet Conan as a child, his father explaining the Riddle Of Steel to him, shortly before his family is slaughtered at the hands of Thulsa Doom and his followers. Conan and several others are taken away to be slaves, Conan outlives them all before being trained as a gladiator/arena killer. Eventually earning his freedom Conan befriends a group of like-minded warriors and rogues and they embark on a series of adventures before being drafting into saving a Princess who has been captured and indoctrinated into Thulsa Doom’s cult. It’s a mish mash of Howard’s character’s, places, stories, and themes, but as a tale of violent revenge there are few better. The film has lately received more acclaim for its performances, music, dialogue, and action but I feel that even among Arnie fans it’s a little underrated. Buy the movie, buy the soundtrack, and let them tell you of the days of high adventure.
4: A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984 – Top Ten Of All Time)
My favourite horror movie ever. It wasn’t the first horror movie I ever saw, but it (and the character of Freddy) was the first to intrigue me. I’ve told the story before, of how I would always be drawn to the horror section of the video store – the faces of Krueger staring down at me from all angles. I’ve still no idea what it is about his image that both haunts and yet pulls so many in like a siren call. Is it the disfigurement? Is it the glove? Is it the unspoken threat of violence and sex? This is a film I had discussions about in Primary School before I’d ever seen it. I’d caught snippets of it, and they stayed with me up until the point I watched the whole thing. I’d somehow seen the ending, or at least the scene where Nancy dispatches of Freddy, before I’d seen the movie. The scene where Freddy stretches his arms, the bath scene, and several others I had seen images of and was familiar with for years before sitting down to watch.
What’s not to love? A great idea fleshed out with fervent imagination, and featuring a neat little cast, Craven’s macabre humour, visuals, fascination with the relationship between parent and child, and one of horror’s most effective fairy-tale like scores, A Nightmare On Elm Street, remains a unique mixture of slasher tropes and dark fantasy. For me, Heather Langenkamp’s Nancy was the first strong female character of an age I could relate to. She wasn’t superhuman, she wasn’t obviously smart, she was just a teenage girl in terrible danger whose friends were being killed and whose cries were being ignored. Rather than sitting back or hoping someone else could rescue her, she puts her own plan into action as everyone else continually lets her down. I love the ambiguity here, how the Nightmare scenes versus reality are at first obviously separate visually and tonally, but how they begin to merge into one as Krueger’s power grows. They give just enough back story to leave thing’s interesting – the sequels would become more convoluted as they sought to ‘explain’ – and even the standard shock horror ending is more bizarre than usual, leading most to utter a variance of WTF. As a hardened horror fan and a fan of this for decades now, it’s hard to say whether today’s generation would find it scary. I’d say there are genuinely frightening and expertly creepy moments, and the idea of a creature stalking you in your sleep is still ripe for exploration and is inherently scary. I think it’s by and large true that what one generation finds scary, the next doesn’t what with changing trends
3: Predator (1987 – Top Ten Of All Time)
I said Conan The Barbarian has plenty of quotable dialogue. Predator might top it for sheer one-liners. Some of them are your standard action movie quips such as ‘knock knock’ and ‘stick around’, but it makes you wonder what makes a line quotable. For me, it has to be funny, snappy, or insightful, and make you immediately recall the movie or scene it’s from. If you think of something like ‘here’s looking at you, kid’. There’s nothing funny or insightful there – it’s no different from ‘knock knock’, except that the latter might give you a cheap giggle. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid’ just happens to be from one of the most iconic movies ever made, even though it doesn’t make a lick of sense. It’s also repeated ad nauseum – imagine if Arnie repeated it after he killed every bad guy. What on Earth am I on about?
Predator sees John McTiernan looking at the badassery of Aliens and thinking ‘yeah, I’ll have some of that’. He takes the hardcore Marines, makes them all men, and dumps them in a jungle. They are supposedly sent in to retrieve a hostage taken in hostile territory, but in good old First Blood Part 2 fashion, the CIA doesn’t give a shit about any hostage and that it was really about retrieving classified information. The team isn’t impressed by this lack of transparency and general treachery, but before they can spank each other they discover that they are being hunted by an unknown and unseen assailant. As they get picked off one by one, they learn that their enemy may not be of this world.
Predator is a full blown masculine shitshow. The muscles are monstrous, the machismo is twelve inches long, and the only thing bigger than the balls are the guns. It’s fantastic. This, along with Commando I often watched as a double bill at least once a week. It was my prepping for the upcoming day or weekend’s play – spending all day with toy guns building bases and lurking in hideouts in our local forests, parks, streets, fields. If we lived in a warmer climate, I have no doubt we would have camped out more, stayed in our makeshift bases, and covered ourselves in mud to avoid detection (read – covered ourselves in mud and run through innocent neighbours’ backyards hootin’ and a hollerin’). I wanted to be half as badass as the guys in this film – Dutch, Billy, Mac, Dillon, Blain… maybe not Hawkins or Poncho. Me and the friend I spent most days watching the double bill with both signed up for military duties at a young age, but soon found out that it was all balls.
Stan Winston shines once more in Predator – his effects and makeup work being state of the art for the time, and still holds up in places today – certainly in the context of the film everything works. You have Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, Bill Duke, Jesse Ventura, Sonny Landham, Richard Chaves and Shane Black (who also worked on the script, naturally). Elpidia Carrillo holds her own. The Predator is a fantastic creature. There are so many great moments here – each kill is well thought out, the action is lethal, the final showdown and other moments are executed with smarts and racked with tension. The scene where the team effectively takes down an entire rainforest with their guns is possibly my favourite scene in any movie.
2: RoboCop (1987 – Top Ten Of All Time)
Where to begin with this one? I still argue it’s the most quotable movie of all time. It’s certainly rare that a day passes where I don’t quote it – it’s become so commonplace that I do it subconsciously. It’s got to the point where I quote it so much that people who I know haven’t seen the film or are even aware that what I’m saying is from a movie have adopted the dialogue and quote it too. The film is your traditional tale of young, ambitious cop who moves to a dirty, deadly district to try to clean it up but ends up being shot to (literally) pieces on his first day only to be resurrected as an unstoppable human-robot hybrid. What shouldn’t work on paper ends up being infinitely more than a sum of its parts – Paul Verhoeven doesn’t hold back with the violence, filling it with scene after scene of bloody carnage, he makes it a biting satire on justice, corruption, and The American Dream, throws in the odd Christ metaphor, and shoots the film with a mixture of the real and the outlandish. You’ve got to love all those news and advertisement intermissions.
Peter Weller gives a superb performance and was unfortunate not to get an Oscar nomination – not that they’d ever nominate something like this, and he’s backed up by the ever game Nancy Allen and the finest group of villainous scumbags you’re ever likely to find including Ronny Cox, Kurwood Smith, and Miguel Ferrer. You also have yet another classic Basil Poledouris score, a psychologically complex story boiled that you can still boil down to revenge action thriller standards, and on top of it all you have wonderful, ludicrous action. The guns are deafening, the swibs have gallons of the red stuff ready to explode at a whim, and you have any number of legendary characters and moments. Some people can’t handle the amount of swearing in the movie – don’t worry, there are plenty of re-dubbed versions where they replace the pesky f-bombs with more creative snippets which have in turn become even more quotable than the originals – ‘fuck you’ becomes ‘why me’ or ‘for you’ or ‘damn you’, ‘asshole’ becomes ‘airhead’, ‘bullshit’ becomes ‘baloney’, ‘fucking’ becomes ‘freaky’, and of course ‘you’re gonna be a bad mothercrusher’. Yes, there are of course versions with much of the violence removed, but why would you want to watch that? Instead, watch one of the several amazing fan edits out there, some of which go far beyond the boundaries of creative taste… taste? Tastes like baby food. Knock yourself out.
1: The Terminator (1984 – Top Ten Of All Time)
Was there ever any doubt? It’s always a toss up between this and T2 as my favourite film ever – doesn’t really matter though as they’re both perfect. You must know the story by now? In the future and artificial intelligence known as Skynet turned against its human overlords and kicked off a nuclear war which wiped out most of mankind. The survivors live in a desolate wasteland, hiding from and fighting back against the machines which Skynet has built to kill them. One such machine is known as a Terminator – a cyborg which can look and act human, but is essentially an unstoppable killing machine. Unable to eradicate the human resistance, the machines somehow build a time machine and send one such Terminator back to 1984 to kill the mother of the future resistance – a man named John Connor – before he can be born. In the future, the humans learn of this plan and manage to send someone back too, a protector known as Kyle Reece. So begins a race against time as both Kyle and The Terminator try to find Sarah Connor – a bumbling waitress with no idea what is in front of her.
I can’t be certain, but I think this was the first Arnie film I ever saw. I was pretty young, like maybe seven. I’ve been obsessed ever since. It’s safe to say the movie has had a massive influence on me personally, the notion of a selfless hero, of putting the greater good before the self often shaping the decisions I’ve made. I’m in no way a hero, but if there’s any character in a movie I’d want to be like it would be Reece. Linda Hamilton grows into the role as Sarah understands her position, and by the end she’s a beast. The three leads here are extraordinary. Cameron directs like his life depends on it, bringing sci-fi into realms previously unexplored. The film still looks stunning. The main soundtrack theme, in all of its guises, is maybe my favourite piece of music ever written. This is a chase movie, a cat and mouse movie, a dark and neon drenched thriller that seduced me at first sight. There are deleted scenes in the movie that are more vital and important than the entire filmography of other directors and actors. The film handles the mixture of action, violence, horror, tension flawlessly, while never forgetting that the characters are paramount. I’ve argued that it’s the greatest love story ever told. It’s a line I’ve used a few times in this post- that the effects may be dated in places but by the time you reach those moments you’re already invested in the story so that these can be ignored. Most of the time the effects work very well, the practical work more tangible than today’s rubber CGI. There are so many moments I could mention here as to why it’s my favourite movie ever, but you should just watch and pick your own, after all, there’s not fate but what we make for ourselves.
Well, that was a beast of a post. I’ll keep this bit short then – let us know in the comments what your favourite films of the 1980s are!
PS – Look what I found!