The 80s was a great decade for cinema, while not as fruitful as the 70s, it was an interesting period nonetheless.
With Reagan in office in the US, the political mood had shifted to the right. Films appealing to the patriotic spirit began to emerge, with the Brat Pack repelling a communist invasion in Red Dawn, Charles Bronson taking back the streets in the Death Wish sequels and Sylvester Stallone returning to Vietnam to finally win the war in First Blood Part 2.
On the opposite side of the spectrum we had Oliver Stone showing up the troubling world of corporate psychopathy and “greed is good mentality” in Wall Street, and Paul Verhoeven taking sly digs at the capitalist system with Robocop.
UK horror fans had their own right wing woes, Thatcher was in office and with it came a renewed drive to return to traditional values. Campaigner on all things moral Mary Whitehouse had gotten wind of the unregulated VHS market and the Video Nasties Scandal was born. The press whipped up a mass hysteria, and soon the government followed, horror films were seized by police, cut and banned, Sam Raimi even ended up going to court to defend The Evil Dead.
To top it all off, the cold war was raging! The 80s were indeed a turbulent time, and no better was it reflected than in the cinema of the age. This list was created to bring attention to some of the more overlooked films of the decade that never quite got the attention they deserved.
1. Combat Shock (1984)
Fifteen years have passed since Frankie Dunlan (Rick Giovinazzo) returned home from Vietnam. He is living in total poverty and trying desperately to provide for his wife (Veronica Stork) and their infant son. Unfortunately, employment is non-existent, and the stark reality of his grim surroundings are taking a toll on his already fragile mental state. Can Frankie avoid the temptation of crime and save his family from the horrors of poverty and urban squalor?
Why you should see it:
Combat Shock is a great example of what can be achieved on a low budget. Director Buddy Giovinazzo shot the film on a budget of $35.000 (some of of which came from funds indented for his own wedding!) To keep costs down, Giovinazzo shot on various locations without permits or permission, and much of the equipment used for the film was borrowed from the college he taught at. The Vietnam flashback scenes were filmed in the swamps around Staten Island, and the torture chamber scenes were done in his own mother’s back garden. Combat Shock, then, is the very definition of a low budget production.
Despite the budget constraints, Giovanozzo managed to create a truly grim and nihilistic vision of life on the breadline in Reagan’s America. From the filthy apartment Frankie and his family live in, to the barren, decaying streets of the economically depressed Staten Island, the viewer can not escape the sense of hopelessness. There is no work, Frankie’s childhood friend is a now heroin addict, and the sweet girl from down the street has been forced into prostitution. Sound depressing? It gets worse. Combat Shock was not designed to comfort, it was designed to confront. The issues here are real, and Giovionazzo does not shy away from them.
Combat Shock is an all out assault on the senses, and the final act has true lasting power. It may not be for everyone, but those willing to give it a chance are in for a powerful, thought provoking experience.
2. Midnight Run (1988)
Down on his luck Bounty Hunter Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) has been tasked with bringing elusive accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) from New York back to Los Angeles. The Duke is not only wanted by the mob, but also the FBI and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton). Can Jack evade these obstacles and return The Duke to LA in time to collect his $100.000 finders fee?
Why you should see it:
The 80’s was the decade for buddy movies, and with so many made, critics had begun to dismiss the formula as tired by the decade’s end. It is true that for every Lethal Weapon, or 48 Hrs. there was a Collision Course, but that doesn’t mean that the genre was dead. Proof of this was Martin Brest’s Midnight Run, one of the absolute best in the genre. Released in 1988, it wasn’t a failure, but it didn’t reach any where near the Level of Success, nor the place in popular culture that Lethal Weapon has enjoyed.
Part of what makes the film so successful is down to the exceptional cast. Yaphet Koto as FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely is great, likewise is Dennis Farina as the Vicious mob boss Jimmy Serrano. John Ashton also shines as Marvin, a man determined to snatch Mardukas for himself. Grodin, as the calm and considered Mardukas is the perfect foil to De Niro’s brash, hard nosed Jack Walsh. Films such as this succeed or fail based upon the chemistry between the two leads, and here it is excellent.
Without the well thought out casting, the humour in George Gallo’s script would not have been brought out nearly as well. Here, even a scene where Grodin’s character talks about his love of Lyonnaise Potatoes is hilarious. Credit must also go to director Martin Brest, who does a great job of balancing the action and the comedy. He was no stranger to this genre of course, having directed the classic Beverly Hill’s Cop four years earlier.
3. Interrogation (1982)
In early 1950s pro-soviet Poland, Tonia (Krystyna Janda) works as a Cabaret singer. One night, following a performance for a group of soldiers she is a arrested but not told why. She soon finds herself in a military prison awaiting interrogation, unaware that she will be there for some years. During the course of these interrogations the guards and prison officials try and force her to confess to crimes she did not commit, something which she heroically refuses to do. With each refusal comes new tortures and humiliations, which only strengthens her resolve.
Why you should see it:
The story behind the making of Interrogation is as fascinating as the film itself. An oversight due to the government authorities busying themselves with the imposition of martial law meant that the script was approved, despite it being deeply critical of their regime. Although approved Director Ryszard Bugajski did the best he could to keep the content of what he was filming from government observers, hoping to avert them from the grave error they had made.
Unbelievably, it worked, and he was able to complete and edit the film. Unfortunately, once screened, the authorities realised their mistake and banned the film from public view. Bugajski, fearing his work would be destroyed, buried copies of it, and helped to circulate others on pirate VHSs before leaving for Canada.
To put the events in context, it was only two years later that Jerzy Popieluszko, a priest, was assassinated for his vocal criticism of the communist government. Making a film like Interrogation, which was not subtle in its criticisms of the regime was very dangerous business.
Krystyna Janda gives one of her best performances, her progression from carefree Cabaret Singer to tortured prisoner is heartbreaking to watch. She brings the heroism and inner strength of Tonia to life, the tortures and humiliations she endures are harrowing to watch, but are made bearable by her defiant spirit. Tonia is a woman who will not be broken by the system which has claimed so many others.
As mentioned before, Bugajski’s direction is brave. The film seethes with anger, on many occasions Tonia questions the absurdity of her situation, and this acts as a wider commentary of the treatment of the Polish people at the time. Interrogation is not subtle, Bugajski, never shies away from the damage done to Tonia, achieving the cinematic equivalent of a hard slap in the face.
Banned for seven years, Interrogation was finally released in 1989 following the dissolution of the Soviet Block. Despite being entered into the Cannes Film Festival (where Janda won best actress) it fell back into obscurity. This is a shame, as Interrogation is a deeply powerful film which deserves to be seen.
4. Vice Squad (1982)
The Hollywood Vice Squad has a problem, a vicious pimp named Ramrod (Wing Hauser) is at large after murdering a prostitute. Tom Walsh (Gary Swanson) who is leading the hunt has no choice but to turn to streetwise prostitute Princess (Season Hubley) for help. Her assistance leads to his capture, but it isn’t long before he escapes again. His murderous rage now focused on princes, Tom and his team are now in a race against time to save her and bring the madman to justice.
Why you should see it:
Vice Squad is a gritty film, with a genuine street level feel. Many of the events depicted are lifted straight from LA Vice Squad case files. Under the penmanship of Sandy Howard, Kenneth Peters, Robert Vincent O’niell and director Gary Sherman, these tales of the crazy goings on on the sunset strip have been condensed perfectly into one hellish night.
For a film depicting the darker side of life, it sure does looks stunning. The Cinematography by John Alcott (regular DP for Stanley Kubrick) is excellent, and perfectly captures the grimy neon bathed world the characters frequent. Sherman, while wanting to show the reality of his subject matter, also wanted the film to look polished, in doing so elevating above the many others films in the genre.
The performances here also distinguish the film. Wings Hauser as the psychotic pimp is brilliantly unhinged, not to be upstaged, Season Hubley more than holds her own creating a tough character whose welfare you will genuinely care for. To prepare for his role, Gary Swanson spent ten weeks observing real Vice Squad Detectives, and it comes across in his authentic, understated performance.
With Vice Squad, the underrated Gary Sherman delivered an exhilarating, taut thriller which acts almost as a time capsule of the seedy side of early 80s LA.
5. Bellman and True (1987)
Computer expert Hiller (Bernard Hill) and his young son (Kieran O’Brien) are taken hostage by a group of bank robbers. Hiller has already provided them with details about a a bank’s security system, but they are not satisfied. This time they not only want him to decode an alarm system, but to take part in the robbery.
Why you should see it:
The British film industry produced some great works during the 80s, many of them coming from former Beatle George Harrison’s Hand Made Films. Titles including The Long Good Friday, Mona Lisa, Withnail and I and Time Bandits all came from the studio. Bellman and True is up there with their best, and a great example of the interesting and offbeat films they backed.
On the one hand Bellman and True is an intriguing drama about crisis bringing a father and son together, and on the other an unbearably tense heist film. Mixing the two elements could easily have gone wrong, but writer director Richard Loncraine and co-writer Desmond Lowden (whose novel it was adapted from) manage to strike just the right balance. The pair allow the viewer time to actually get to the know the characters, while also detailing the unfolding bank heist plan. The attention paid to the human angle of the story only makes the robbery more intense, as we have come to know and care about what happens to Hiller and his son.
The performances here are excellent. Bernard Hill as Hiller creates a complex character, he has been trampled on his whole a watching him gradually grow more assertive is one of the best elements of the film. Richard Hope steals many scenes as the Sly villain Salto and has a surprising character ark of his own. Child actors are notoriously hit and miss but Kieran O’Brien does a great job as Hiller’s son.
Bellman and True isn’t only a great underrated heist film, it’s also great drama and a must see for fans of British cinema.
6. The Dead Zone (1983)
A car accident leaves Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) in a coma for five years. A nurse attending to him unwittingly discovers that the accident has left him with psychic powers. Johnny is soon the talk of the town, and with the fame comes new pressures. The local Sheriff (Tom Skerritt) wants help with solving s series of brutal murders and charismatic local politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) presents an even more sinister threat.
Why you should see it:
The 80s was a boom time for Stephen King adaptations, some great, some awful, The Dead Zone is one of the best. It also marked the first film David Cronenberg directed that was not based off of his own screenplay. With that said, the ideas examined by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam, ie: alarming physical and psychological changes beyond the protagonists control, fits in well with themes previously explored by Cronenberg.
Cronenberg does a great job with the material, and although certain aspects of the source novel had to be scaled down for budgetary reasons, the overall impact of the film is not decreased. What made the book so compelling was Johnny’s metamorphosis from unassuming school teacher to reluctant hero, and the toll his psychic episodes have on him both mentally and physically. Cronenberg is faithful to the ideas in King’s book, and with each scene detailing Johnny’s torment he strengthens them by adding in his own unique touches. The horror elements of course, are very well handled, which is no surprise given his legendary status in the genre.
Christopher Walken is intense in a way that only Christopher Walken can be, perfectly capturing the anguish Johnny is going through. The role almost seems tailor made for his acting style. Martin Sheen as the corrupt “man of the people” Presidential hopeful is all too believable, especially if you have listened the Nixon Tapes.
7. China Girl (1987)
Tony (Richard Panebianco) an Italian boy and Tye (Sari Chang) a Chinese girl are a young couple in love. The only problem is that their romance is igniting tensions between the gangs of New York’s Little Italy and China Town, in Abel Ferrara’s modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet.
Why you should see it:
China Girl is among the most interesting of Abel Ferrara’s 80s efforts. After all, what could be more intriguing than Romeo and Juliet as envisaged by the man who brought us The Driller Killer and Bad Lieutenant? This outing represents another collaboration between Ferrara and frequent screenwriter Nicholas St. John, a pair who explore the dark side of New York like no one else.
The story will come as no surprise, but the energy and skill with which it was told is what makes this adaptation so refreshing. Updating the action to explore the deadly rivalry between the Italian Mafia and Chinese Triads allows Ferrara the opportunity to comment of the devastating effects of hatred and racism. The action scenes here are a highlight, with great pacing and Ferrara doesn’t skimp on his characteristic use of shocking violence. To top it off, it is caught beautifully by Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, making full use of the New York Locations.
Richard Panebianco and Sari Chang are convincing in their first cinematic roles as the doomed lovers, but the best performances come from the supporting cast. Here we have David Caruso as Mercury, a truly repulsive human being played with unbelievable relish. James Russo is intense as Tony’s hate filled older brother and the always reliable James Hong is great as the Triad leader Gung Tu.
Probably Ferrara’s most commercial effort, it nonetheless failed at the box office and was unfairly panned by critics. There were many interesting a unique New York films in the 80s, and this unjustly obscure example is more than worth your time.