25 Great 80s Cult Movies You Might Not Have Seen
Oh how great were the 1980’s? Everything was big; big hair, big colors, big tits, and big spending. We lived in a material world where greed was good. Cable television and VHS rental stores had never been bigger, movies were now more available than ever.
Distribution rights for a film were bought around the world before it had even been made: sold on the basis of a star’s name, a short plot synopsis, or a quickly made poster. All of this brought about the perfect storm for an abundance of cult movies. This list is not meant to be an all inclusive list or a best of list; it is simply twenty five cult movies that may be worth your time.
[Author note: If a movie isn’t included it may have been used in a prior list]
1. Shogun Assassin (1980)
“He whips out his sword and relieves his victims of their heads!” . This declaration may actually piss some people off, but this is a totally must see bad ass blood splattering samurai action masterpiece. So for the uninformed viewers, why would this statement piss people off?
Well, this movie is actually the first two films of the Lone Wolf and Cub film series; it was condensed, re-edited, dubbed into English, and re-scored for American release. So there are some purists that really dislike this version and feel that it bastardizes the series. The fact remains that this version was most Americans first introduction into this series and the world of crazy samurai spraying blood movies.
The story involves Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro as he walks the land with his son in a baby cart, looking for samurai jobs and battling enemies that are trying to kill him. He was originally the head executioner for the Shogun, until the shogun went mad and starting having people killed. Itto’s wife was killed during an attempt to eliminate Itto, the shogun then expected him to swear his loyalty or commit suicide, so he turned against the Shogun and became an assassin for hire.
This is simply a totally bad ass movie. The American edit is super fast paced and filled with a ton of bloody action, featuring eleven fight scenes, tons of spraying blood, and splitting heads. All of the fight scenes are memorable and Lone Wolf always has some type of tricks ready on his baby cart.
The narration by the child and the new score are perfect for a dubbed film and are a good fit for the time when this was released, the synthesized score is very reminiscent of the sound from John Carpenter films and the Phantasm horror series.
The movie was highly influential on many film makers, most notably Quentin Tarantino and John Carpenter. Tarantino has incorporated the super violent spraying blood into the Kill Bill films and many of his other ones. This film is the one that the bride’s daughter watches when she goes to bed in the second Kill Bill film.
Carpenter used some similar imagery from this film in Big Trouble in Little China, mainly the three guys wearing the straw hats. If you like action and violence, then this is essential viewing. There are also six films from the original Lone Wolf and Cub series, along with a television series and the comic that they were based upon.
2. Altered States (1980)
“In the basement of a university medical school Dr. Jessup floats naked in total darkness. The most terrifying experiment in the history of science is out of control… and the subject is himself” . This sci-fi horror film from controversial director Ken Russell presents the question of can memories from our primal selves be passed along just like genetic markers, and do we have the answers to the history and evolution of man locked somewhere deep inside of our brains.
A Harvard scientist is obsessed with finding this out and is willing to sell his soul in order to find out this great truth, pushing aside love and willing to sacrifice his body and mind to make some great discovery. In order to do this, he takes a strong hallucinogenic drug from a Mexican tribe and puts himself in an isolation tank.
This is probably Russell’s least controversial and most universally liked film, even though it does have some sexual situations, Catholic imagery, and pagan imagery that some people may find offensive. The hallucination scenes are startling and shocking at times, with some very stark imagery including a Christ like crucifixion with six eyed sheep’s head on the body of a man.
The sound and score are excellent and haunting in the film, with both receiving Academy Award nominations. The acting is good overall and was the feature film debuts for both William Hurt and Drew Barrymore. In many ways this is similar to the Fly, a horror film that features someone pushing the boundaries of science and changing physically because of it.
3. Polyester (1981)
Brought to you in stunning Odorama; this is John Waters satirical take on the 1950’s middle class family and the Hollywood melodramas that featured stories about them. The Odorama was a gimmick paying homage to the William Castle gimmick movies, with a scratch n sniff card that you would smell when prompted during the movie.
Divine plays an alcoholic wife who is struggling with her dysfunctional family, which includes a cheating husband, a pregnant daughter, and a drug addict son with a foot stomping fetish. She end ups meeting a dream boat played by Tab Hunter who she falls in love with and hopes will change her life for the better.
This film was a dramatic change for Water; it was the first with a completed script before shooting, it was the first shot in 35mm, it had his largest budget to date in $35,000, and it was the first time Divine was playing an actual character as opposed to the Divine personality.
While not as bizarre, perverse, and offensive as his previous films, it still pushes boundaries and depending on your tastes is rather hilarious. It contains a lot of great campy dialogue and situations that spoof the 1950’s lifestyle; including giving the finger under the table during grace, swatting people of different races with a broom from a car, a porno theater featuring a movie called “My Burning Bush,” a guy zipping up his pants after leaving the porno theater, Ilsa and Faster Pussycat movie posters in an office, the foot stomper scenes, drinking from a shoe, puking in a purse, an AA meeting spoof, abortion protestors, a dog hanging itself, a trick or treater home invasion, and so much more.
Depending on your personal tastes, you’ll either find this totally revolting or downright hilarious. Some fans view this as the best or favorite one of Water’s films. Divine and Tab Hunter are great in this. Hunter was a huge teen heartthrob during the 1950’s. He also performed the opening song for the film, which was written by Debbie Harry and Michael Kamen.
They also wrote and performed several other songs for the movie. Kamen would go on to be a well known composer for some big films; including the Lethal Weapon series, the Die Hard series, Robin Hood, the Highlander, and so many more.
4. Knightriders (1981)
“The Games…The Romance…The Spirit…Camelot is a state of mind” . Written and directed by the king of zombies George A. Romero, this is a drama about a group of traveling medieval renaissance actors that joust on motorcycles. There are a lot of personal struggles among the group as the leader tries to keep them together while dealing with corrupt cops, a promoter that wants to represent them, a faction that wants a new leader, and his body breaking down.
Ed Harris gives a breakout performance in one of his first films, showing a great intensity and power as the king and leader of the group. The film also includes a large group of Romero regulars such as Ken Foree and Tom Savini. Keep an eye out for a cameo from Stephen King.
5. Turkey Shoot AKA Escape 2000 (1982)
“Controversial! Violent! The film that shocked Australian critics and broke Box Office records in London!” . This is what happens when you mix together Mad Max, Caged Heat, the Most Dangerous Game, Ozploitation, and a little extra weirdness. The end result is a bloody good time featuring nudity, violence, gore, an eclectic group of rich hunters, a Mr. Hyde type monster, and a very large and explosive finally.
Set in a dystopian future, deviants or opposers of the government are sent to concentration like camps where they are tortured and re-educated. This particular camp also has a side business involving hunting the prisoners for sport a la the Most Dangerous Game theme. The film starts out as a women in prison type of movie and then about thirty minutes in it turns into a full on man hunt.
There are some great characters in this, notably the chief guard Ritter played by Roger Ward. Ward is probably best known for appearing in Mad Max and is very tall and opposing, with a bald head and big mustache. He has a very memorable scene where he is throwing air punches at a female prisoner while she is supposed to be reciting the rules of the prison.
The film stars Steve Railsback, who has been known to play cutting edge characters like Charles Manson and has been involved in a series of movies that are considered cult classics, including another on the list called Lifeforce. The film was directed by Bryan Trenchard-Smith who has another movie appear on this list later on.
6. Made in Britain (1982)
Ten years before becoming forever known as Mr. Orange and blowing us away in Reservoir Dogs, Tim Roth made his acting debut in an absolute tour de force performance as a young racist skinhead in this BBC television movie.
Like most of his other film and television series, director Alan Clarke presents to us the more gritty and violent side of the British working class. The way that he tries to present the characters and situations is in a more realistic, documentary style.
This film is no different, as we are presented with a character that doesn’t hold back on his hatred, racism, use of violence, and use of foul language. Just like American History X and Romper Stomper, this film is not going to appeal to everyone because of the tough and offensive subject matter. If you are a fan of Tim Roth than this is a must see, because this is one of his best performances.
7. Alone in the Dark (1982)
“They’re out… for blood! Don’t let them find you!” . Four murderous psychopaths escape from a mental institute and are determined to kill the new psychiatrist that is taking over, because they believe that he has killed their old one.
The psychos include a paranoid for POW (Jack Palance), a pyromaniac preacher (Martin Landau), an obese child molester, and a murderer nicknamed the bleeder because his nose bleeds when he kills. The institute is run by a doctor (Donald Pleasance) who has radical psychiatric procedures and refers to the patients as travelers.
This is unfortunately a somewhat forgotten intelligent film in the slasher genre, featuring some great actors, interesting characters, gore, violence, punk rock, and some memorable scenes.
The three known actors do very well in their respective parts, but Landau particularly stands out the most as the psychotic preacher. He is very good at making himself appear crazy throughout the film with just his smile and specific facial expressions, as opposed to displaying any physicality. Palance is able to do the same thing, but it is more that he has a certain presence to the character that you wouldn’t want to screw with him.
This is a must see for horror fans, or fans of the three main actors.
8. Vigilante (1983)
“If the law won’t get them… we will!” . The criminals in New York City are taking over and a group of co-workers led by Nick (Fred Williamson) have formed a vigilante group to combat the gangs and drugs flooding the city. Eddie Marino (Robert Forster), who also works with them, has his child murdered and his wife almost murdered by a ruthless gang.
Nick tries to get him to join the vigilante group, but he believes in the legal system and wants things to go through the courts. The gang member ends up getting a suspended sentence through bribes to an attorney and the judge, Eddie goes nuts in the court and gets put into jail for contempt. In jail, a pair of inmates tries to rape him and he is saved by another inmate.
Once he gets out of jail, Eddie finds out that his wife no longer wants to see him because of everything that has happened. He ends up joining the vigilante group in order to get revenge.
While some reviewers have labeled this as simply a Death Wish knock off, there are actually many differences and much more going on in this film. Eddie goes through so much more as a character than Bronson did; witnessing government corruption, the failures of the justice system, being put in jail, and his wife leaving him.
There is also the added element of more than just one man trying to take back control of the city. The film is well done and features fine performances from both Williamson and Forster, an excellent score reminiscent of John Carpenter’s films, and good use of real New York City locations.