The thriller genre was going full steam in the late 1970’s, with the large scale success of John Carpenter’s low budget film Halloween in 1978 propelling the thriller genre forward into the 1980’s. Thrillers were generally made up of more conventional crime films and murder mysteries, or slasher films such as Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
This list will focus on the former, not the latter, particularly films that are underrated, either due to a lack of box office success on their release, or for some other reason. Here are 20 thriller films of the 1980’s that were underrated and are definitely worth seeing.
20. The Stepfather (1987)
Plot: Real estate agent Jerry Blake (Terry O’Quinn) is actually Henry Morrison, who brutally butchered his family for no apparent reason and then took a new identity. A year later, Jerry marries widow Susan Maine (Shelley Hack), but has a troubled relationship with her daughter, Stephanie, who is suspicious of Jerry.
Meanwhile, Jim Ogilvie, Jerry’s former brother-in-law, goes looking for the man who murdered his sister and eventually pins down Jerry’s location. Finally, Jerry’s lies and deceit come unraveled and the truth is revealed but not before a murderous outcome.
Why it’s great: A low budget cult success on its release in 1987, The Stepfather cleverly combined elements of the psychological suspense drama with the slasher films that were popular at the time. Audiences responded and the film spawned two sequels and a remake in 2009 that was not favorably received. While the film is far from a masterpiece,
The Stepfather is suspenseful and keeps viewers on the edge of their seat rooting for Stephanie to unmask her evil stepfather. Many viewers praised O’Quinn for his creep performance as the stepfather.
19. Year of the Dragon (1985)
Plot: New York police captain Stanley White (Mickey Rourke) is assigned to Chinatown, where he comes into conflict with Joey Tai, the head of the Chinese triad societies. White becomes romantically involved with TV reporter Tracy Tzu, who is brutally attacked in a reprisal. He sends a Chinese rookie cop undercover to work in Tai’s restaurant, but he is discovered and killed. Finally, White confronts Tai during a drug shipment and manages to get the upper hand.
Why it’s great: Year of the Dragon was protested by Chinese American groups on its release in 1985 due to complaints about racial stereotyping. The film was also directed by the infamous Michael Cimino, who’s 1980 film Heaven’s Gate became one of Hollywood’s most notorious flops. This double whammy undoubtedly caused what is otherwise a decent action thriller to tank at the box office but the film really deserved a better fate than it received and is worth another look.
18. To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)
Plot: Richard Chance (William Peterson) and Jimmy Hart are cops assigned to the counterfeiting unit on the trail of Eric Masters (Willem Dafoe). When Hart is killed by Masters and his bodyguard, Jack, Chance vows revenge. Masters and his new partner, John Vukovich, go undercover posing as corrupt bankers seeking to hire Masters to print them some fake money.
Also involved is Bob Grimes (Dean Stockwell), Master’s attorney. Chance takes more and more risks in his quest to bring down Masters and Jack, until a final shootout occurs.
Why it’s great: To Live and Die in L.A. was directed by William Friedkin, based on an authentic novel by former Secret Service agent Gerald Petievich, who also co-wrote the screenplay. Friedkin shot the film on a relatively low budget, using location settings and allowing the actors considerable room to improvise.
Star William Peterson was a relative unknown at the time. As a result, the film has a gritty, realistic style that was unusual for the time and was more reminiscent of Friedkin’s The French Connection from over a decade earlier. Only a modest success on its original release, To Live and Die in L.A. has grown in its reputation as many of the film’s stars have gone on to successful careers.
17. The Star Chamber (1983)
Plot: Judge Steven Hardin (Michael Douglas) is frustrated that a technicality in the legal system has forced him to let two men go free who raped and killed a ten year old boy. His friend, Judge Caulfield (Hal Holbrook) tells Hardin about a group of judges called ‘the Star Chamber’ who pass vigilante judgement on criminals they cannot convict within the system.
After Hardin joins the Star Chamber and convinces them to have the two men killed, police detective Harry Lowes (Yaphet Kotto) presents him with definitive evidence that the men were innocent. Faced with exposing the Star Chamber or letting the men be killed, Hardin makes a difficult decision.
Why it’s great: The Star Chamber had a great cast, a good story and was directed by esteemed filmmaker Peter Hyams. So why did the film fail badly at the box office when it was released in the summer of 1983?
With its condemnation of vigilante justice, The Star Chamber was probably slightly out of step with the new conservatism of the 1980’s, and audiences instead turned to movies such as Clint Eastwood’s Sudden Impact to get their thrills. The Star Chamber is no masterpiece, but it is a suspenseful film that deserves a better reception than it got 31 years ago.
16. 52 Pick-Up (1986)
Plot: Harry Mitchell (Roy Scheider), is a wealthy businessman whose wife, Barbara (Ann-Margaret) is running for city council. Mitchell is having an affair with Cini (Kelly Preston) and he falls victim to a blackmail plot when a video of him with the young girl surfaces. Unable to go to the police, Harry at first refuses to pay the blackmail, which results in Cini being killed and Harry framed for the murder. With his back against the wall, Harry risks his wife’s life in order to pit the blackmailers against each other.
Why it’s great: Top Gun was the big action movie of 1986, starring hot young stars Tom Cruise, Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan. By comparison, the stars of 52 Pick-Up, released a few months later, were quite a bit older and seemed past their prime to audiences of the day. As a result, the film received mixed reviews and failed a the box office.
Directed by John Frankenheimer – one of the masters of the genre – from a novel written by Elmore Leonard, 52 Pick-Up is a suspenseful thriller that should have done better business than it did back in the mid 1980’s and so it is worth another view.
15. Cutter’s Way (1981)
Plot: Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) sees a man dumping something in a garbage dumpster one night after his car stalls in a rainstorm. It turns out to be the dead body of a 17 year old girl. Bone’s friend, Alex Cutter (John Heard) is a disabled, bitter Vietnam vet and when Bone mentions to him that oil baron J.J. Cole resembles the man he saw, Cutter takes after Cole with a vengeance.
Joined by the victim’s sister, the pair attempt a blackmail scheme in order to bring Cole out, but the result is that Cutter’s home is burned to the ground and his wife, Mo, is killed. Stealing a friend’s invitation to a fancy party at Cole’s home, Cutter and Bone crash the event and eventually confront Cole with their suspicious before a dramatic finale.
Why it’s great: Part drama, part post-Vietnam War angst film and part thriller, Cutter’s Way was a little of everything and yet a lot of nothing to audiences when it was released in 1981. Still, the film features great performances by Jeff Bridges as Bone, Lisa Eichorn as Cutter’s depressed wife Mo and particularly John Heard in the title role.
Stephen Elliot’s menacing presence as Cole also helps the film sustain its moments of suspense as the audience tries to discern whether or not Cutter is on the right track in his vilification of the wealthy oil man. Cutter’s Way is worth seeing, not only as a thriller but also as an interesting time capsule of America recovering from the trauma of the Vietnam War.