The 80s?! 25 Reasons and 200 Films That Show The Much Maligned Decade Can Hold Its Own: Part 1
In a decade derided for ghastly fashion, terrible hair, some goofy songs (Pac-Man Fever or Wham! Rap anyone?) and some questionable behavior, the decades films unfairly get lumped in with the rest of the baggy, day-glow Aqua-netted pop-culture trough.
The 80’s saw the birth of some great trends, some sublime genre pics, the last explosion of the traditional Hollywood Star, some great junk, and the first and last hurrahs of many major filmmakers.
There were plenty of silly films, as there always are, that served no greater purpose than to exploit the social atrocities mentioned above, but to dismiss the decade is to amputate a hand (or at least a foot and a few toes) from the body of cinema. Today is the first part of a few things that make the decade of the 80’s nothing short of rad. Tune in for part 2 Sunday night after your late local news.
1. DePalma’s Peak
Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, The Untouchables, Casualties of War.
Brian DePalma, a generally lesser thought of member of the Beard Brigade, emerged in the 70s with colorful and inventive well-crafted fare like Phantom of the Paradise, Sisters and Obsession. Along with Carrie, his output was among the strongest and most diverse of the decade. But it was the 80s where DePalma really got a handle on things (including more money) and had his greatest success.
From Dressed to Kill in 1980, through Casualties of War in 1989 he alternated between critical and box-office success, sometimes finding both. Although he continued to provide fodder for those that chose to lazily call him a hack, DePalma continued to showcase his flexibility and command of cinematic language while bringing controversial topics and themes to the mainstream.
2. Carpenter’s Peak
The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, Christine, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, They Live!
It’s hard to argue that any genre director has had a decade that can stand up against John Carpenter’s 1980’s output. Eight films of note is a hell of a resume in any decade. Carpenter went from independent and small films to studio pics, back to small. They cover the gamut from Sci-fi and horror, action and comedy. He combines sound, effects, music, editing and cinematography to create tons of atmosphere and complete worlds to set each story in.
Unfortunately, he petered out starting in the mid 90’s but he remains a relevant horror and genre icon despite relative inactivity in the 21rst century. Though still best known for his 70’s classic Halloween, his most enduring film has come from the 80’s: The Thing.
3. The Werewolf Trinity
The Howling, An American Werewolf In London, Wolfen
In 1981 filmgoers, unbeknownst to them, were about to experience an almost singular event in film history: Three films on the same topic release in a twelve week period. Each a different take, from very different filmmakers and all three excellent. Joe Dante, John Landis and Michael Wadleigh, while all operating outside of the mainstream came from very different film beginnings. Dante famously came up through the Roger Corman system, Landis transitioned from low level studio jobs to low budget film, and Wadleigh as an indie cinematographer and documentarian.
4. The Charm of Guttes
Cocoon, Police Academy, Diner, Short Circuit, Three Men & A Baby
In any decade of film you can pick one of a dozen or so contributors and rationalize that they are the person who best embodies or represents that decade. The 80s arguably has dozens, from Arnold and Stallone to Spielberg and Eddie. There is no agreeable right answer, but for my peso’s it is the man called Guttenberg. (Herinfor referred to by the pet name of Guttes (gootz)).
Guttes starred in films from the beginning to the end of the decade, straddling the more racaus early 80s until the more tame later years. This is best embodied by the Police Academy franchise that began its life as an R, and slowly deflated to a PG13 shell of its’ former self.
His popularity was strong enough to substantiate 4 sequels/franchises, and he even appeared in a Michael Jackson video(Liberian Girl 1989). His balance of charming innocence and vulgar rapscalianism created edge in tamer pics, and forgiveness in raunchier fare. With the exception of high concept action and low budget horror, Guttes ticked off the major 80s film boxes: High concept comedy (Three Men & a Baby), low brow/sex comedy (Police Academy), sci-fi/fantasy (Cocoon), ensemble comedies and dramas (aforementioned Three Men & Diner), period comedy (Diner).
5. Steven King Adaptations
Silver Bullet, Christine, The Shining, Creepshow, Stand By Me, Children of the Corn, Firestarter, Cat’s Eye, Cujo, Dead Zone
Coming into the 80’s, Stephen King was already a best-selling name-brand author who had had several successful adaptations of his work hit theaters and living rooms (Carrie, Salem’s Lot). Where Kings work and films of his work really exploded was in the decade of Run DMC and Reagan. No year passed without a film adaptation of his work in the cinema or a book of his on the best-sellers list. The adaptations are a mixed bag and King, like most authors, disliked most of them but there were standouts. Some succeeded well as mid-grade genre (Creepshow, Silver Bullet, Children of the Corn, Cujo) others just succeeded (The Shining, Stand by Me, Christine, The Dead Zone).
6. Indy Gets Serious
Witness, Mosquito Coast, Frantic
Harrison Ford shakes of the swashbuckler for spectacles and suits with big time directors Peter Weir and Roman Polanski to flex his acting chops for our pleasure. His serious efforts were a bit of a mixed bag, but he remained infinitely watchable, and still had his charm to fall back on.
7. Last Hurrah’s
Several storied filmmakers had their last hurrah in the 80s. Whether it was their final film or their final important film, Mel Brooks (Spaceballs), Sam Fuller (White Dog), John Huston (The Dead), Hal Ashby (8 Million Ways to Die), Jack Hill (Sorceress), Andrei Tarkovsky (Sacrifice), Akira Kurosawa (Ran), Francois Truffaut (Confidentially Yours) and John Cassavetes (Love Streams) showed they had something left for one last chat-worthy entry into cinedom.
8. Errol Morris
Vernon Florida, The Thin Blue Line
After finally completing Gates of Heaven in the late 70s (prompting Werner Herzog to make good on a bet and eat his shoe), Morris provided us with two unique pieces of cinema in the 80s. Vernon Florida began life as a documentary about a city with the highest incidence of workplace accidents and disability claims, and became instead a doc about the colorful people in a rural town. Morris felt endangered digging into the self-mutilation for insurance money industry of the city, and instead cobbled together what we see now. The Thin Blue Line shook up what was considered documentary filmmaking by employing re-enactment and fiction film devices to examine a real life case of a man serving a life sentence for a crime that he seemingly did not commit. Morris calls it ‘an essay on false history’
As a large advocate of the reflexive style of documentary film making, he provides you his films as documentary while calling into question the validity of the form as a presentation of fact and reliable information.
9. Sho Kosugi
Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Pray for Death, 9 Deaths of the Ninja, Black Eagle
Coming out of the Hong Kong kung fu movies of the 70’s, studios were looking for ways to spruce up the chop-socky that was getting a little stale. The new generation coming out of Peking Opera were injecting crazy stunts and humor into their fare, and some studios were anglo-fying theirs. The brash and ballsy boys at Cannon Films found their new fu sexy in the ninja, and no one was more ninja than Sho Kosugi. Beginning with Enter the Ninja(1981) and continuing through Blind Fury(1989) Kosugi in every way became what a ninja was to American audiences. The first three of these were for the G & G at Cannon.
Akira, Vampire Hunter D, Fist of the North Star, Grave of the Fireflies, Angel’s Egg, Wicked City
Anime was not new in the 80’s, but with a nice push from VHS it forced its way into America. The most famous and beloved anime of all Akira, went a long way to stoke a new lust in US kids for the genre. Most were action, adventure or sci-fi driven but others like Grave of the Fireflies and Angel’s Egg dealt with adult themes that would be at home with any serious live action film of the time.
Repo Man, Night of the Living Dead, Punk Vacation, Sid & Nancy, Suburbia, Ladies & Gentlemen The Fabulous Stains, Times Square, Class of 1984
Because of the slow nature of the Movie Machine it is often that a trend or movement is over or waning by the time that you see it on screen. Punks in film happened to catch the tail end of that time in musical history, with the relevant portion that it overlapped with coming out of Los Angeles.
While many of the films just kind of used a kinda punk aesthetic and/or music (Return of the Living Dead, Punk Vacation, Repo Man, Class of 1984), others were more specifically about Punk, Punks and Punk music. From that second group come some of the best under-the-radar films from the 80’s: Suburbia, Times Square and The Fabulous Stains. Each focusses on a small group from that scene and utilizes punk musicians and people living that lifestyle as cast. The exception is Times Square, which takes place in New York and is cast with mostly professional actors.
12. Franchises That Never Were
Remo Williams, Buckaroo Banzai, Streets of Fire
In the decade following the success of Jaws, Star Wars, The Exorcist and The Godfather, the 80s exploded with sequels and franchises. Most were the result of a blockbuster initial film, but a few were conceived AS franchises. The best laid plans and all that resulted in a couple of unique intros into series that would never be.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was backed by a Bond director, a Bond screenwriter, an A crew and an Oscar winning actor. Sadly, mixed reviews and middling box-office ensured the The Beginning was also the end.
W.D. Richter’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension went so far as to tell you at its conclusion that Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League was forthcoming. The writer of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (’78) and Brubaker, Richter takes a script from New York New York co-writer Earl Mac Rauch and creates a film so hard to explain and characterize that it caused a fistful of aneurisms at a 20th Century Fox hired PR company. That coupled with stiff competition from Ghostbusters, Indy and Star Trek ensured that not only would there be no box-office dollars to speak of, but that the World Crime League would remain safe.
Flying high after the success of 48hrs, Walter Hill had conceived of a high concept Rock music fairytale, whose first installment was called Streets of Fire. It is in every respect a Hill film through and through, but its combination of musical performance, over the top acting and timeless location managed to create considerable issues with the marketing of the film and failed to generate enough general interest to move forward with additional films.
13. Sex Comedy
Porky’s, The Last American Virgin, Blame it on Rio, Hard Bodies, Private School, My Tutor, Screwballs, Losin’ It, Up the Creek, Just One of the Guys, Hamburger the Motion Picture
If there is a sub-genre, aside from slashers, that is most closely associated with the 80’s, it is Teen Sex Comedy. Some of the worst films of the 80’s came from this dirty little corner but so did many of the most under-appreciated. Much like horror, comedies (especially sex comedies) are disqualified from the ‘good film’ conversation immediately. Films like The Last American Virgin, Risky Business, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky’s were among the best/better films to come out in their years of release. Others like Revenge of the Nerds, Hard Bodies, Private School, Just One of the Guys and Hamburger had much more to offer than audiences would have expected.