10 Great Dark Comedies From the 1980s You May Have Missed

6. Basket Case (1982)

Basket Case (1982)

Brothers can have close and sometimes troubled relationships–especially when one is a deformed conjoined twin that was separated against both brothers’ will. But brothers stick together (well, not literally in this case), and when Duane goes in New York City with his brother Belial–who now resides in a wicker basket–to seek revenge on the doctor who did this to them, they find revenge, some romance, and maybe even a resolution to their troubles.

This may not be the most honest summary of the film, which is ostensibly a horror movie, but it is a weirdly purposely funny movie. Director Frank Henenlotter–who also made the 1990 cult horror-comedy film Frankenhooker–infuses the film with an oddly touching, if not disturbed, story about a man and his deformed brother, while the squalid aesthetic of early 80’s New York City makes the perfect backdrop for this weird, darkly funny horror flick.


7. Throw Momma from the Train (1987)

Novelist Larry (Billy Crystal) is suffering from writer’s block and is still stewing over his ex-wife’s success with a novel that he had written but she stole from him. Teaching creative writing at a local community college, his student Owen (Danny DeVito) suffers from living under his cruel mother’s thumb.

After watching Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train for inspiration and overhearing his teacher’s rant against his ex-wife, Owen realizes that if he kills Larry’s ex for him, Larry could kill his mother with neither being connected to the murders. Of course, nothing goes to plan and the film eventually comes to a head while Larry, Owen, and the mother find themselves on a train, which presents the opportunity to, well, you know the title of the film.

This doesn’t sound funny, but the film is actually very funny, with its dark premise centered on two antagonists–a horrific ex-wife and mother, respectively–that the audience wouldn’t mind watching killed, while Crystal’s Larry is sucked into an insane plot that the somewhat idiotic

Owen forces upon him. It’s a dark comedy that surprisingly garnered an Academy Award nomination for Anne Ramsey as the titular mother. A weirdly breezy comedy for such a potentially alienating premise, Throw Momma from the Train is an often overlooked 80’s comedy.


8. Sweetie (1989)

Sweetie (1989)

Kay lives a quiet life surrounded by her boyfriend, her family, and especially her sister, Sweetie. Unfortunately, her sister has some undefined mental disorder: she swings between a childlike sweetness and energy to being physically violent and destructive to the world around her, especially her family home. Her parents indulge Sweetie despite her obvious problems while Kay becomes more alienated and frustrated with her family over their continued insistence that their Sweetie is all right.

Things come to a tragic climax that oddly seems to right all the problems the family have, suggesting that sometimes the solution to family problems is far more morbid and direct than anyone would admit.

Sweetie was Joan Campion’s first film, a low budget movie about the dynamics between sisters, and it’s an affecting comedy that takes a sometimes unpleasant look at dysfunction in a family. Still a potent film now nearly 30 years after its release, Sweetie is a dark comedy that seems to poke fun at mental illness while also highlighting how far family members will twist their logic to keep the comfortable status quo.


9. Kin-dza-dza! (1988)


The Soviet Union was not particularly known for its comedic output. But 1988’s Kin-dza-dza proved the exception to the rule, as a Soviet-era absurdist comedy.

Focusing on an accidental trip by two Russians to a far-off desert planet known as Pluke in the Kind-dza-dza galaxy, where all resources have been depleted and their society has devolved to a violent, unequal, and oppressive state, Kin-dza-dza! is now seen as a cult classics and one that Western audiences will appreciate for its cultural and historical significance–and because it’s a weirdly funny movie.

Finding the residents of Pluke telepathic and humanoid, and highly adaptable to their own native tongues, these travellers from Earth observe the strange, but oddly familiar, customs of the people of this planet.

As much a social satire as a look at class differences, Kin-dza-dza! is a unique, visually interesting film whose broad social satire may have been focused on the culture in the Soviet Union at the time but can be appreciated by anyone who is familiar with our sometimes arbitrary social customs and arrangements on planet Earth.


10. Grace Quigley (1984)

An elderly widow (Katherine Hepburn) lives in an old New York City apartment and has grown weary of life. Although she has attempted suicide several times, she can never seem to get it right.

Deciding that a professional will get the job done, and after witnessing a murder she hires a hitman (Nick Nolte) to finish her off, blackmailing him with the information to coerce him. But before she goes, she has some friends that would also appreciate his services. So Nolte–a hardened hitman who’s more used to killing those by surprise and for different reasons–finds himself the angel of death for a number of old people, who see his work as more merciful than anything.

This sounds like an unlikely movie to be made, but in the 1980’s worse movies were made for less reasons. Besides this, Grace Quigley marked Katherine Hepburn’s final on-screen appearance, and as the spry old lady who twists a hitman’s arm into doing something if not good then at least noble with his abilities.

Besides this, this delightfully black comedy has a tinge of sweetness to it, as Nolte and Hepburn form a close friendship as they go around performing assisted suicides. It’s both dark and weirdly light at the same time and remains an underseen dark comedy from the 1980s.

Author Bio: Mike Gray is a writer and academic whose work has been featured on Cracked and Funny or Die. He maintains a movie and TV blog at mikegraymikegray.wordpress.com.