How do weird films get produced in the first place? Movies cost millions of dollars to make, and producers and filmmakers must find some commercial viability of the work or else they wouldn’t have gotten past the script stage. Perhaps they think that there will be enough of an audience for their film that they’ll at least make their money back, but based on the films on this list, it’s still curious at times how these films get funded in the first place.
But good thing they were: bizarre films have been able to find their audience on the secondary home video and cable TV market decades after their initial theatrical release. While some on this list were obviously aiming to appeal to mainstream audiences, others were made with either the cult or secondary markets in mind.
Besides, the 1980s was a large market with a lot of cash floating around to fund a number of offbeat projects; film is largely a speculative market anyway, so investors looking to enter the game were open to risk their monies on unproven concepts in the hopes of finding a surprise hit. None of these films were hits upon release but would later find their own audience.
After all, weird, odd, and bizarre films will always have a certain value to film fans–and for those looking for outre, camp, and fringe movies, here are 10 totally awesome, bizarre films from the late, great 1980s.
1. Heartbeeps (1981)
Avant garde comedian Andy Kaufman was never leading man material: the closest he got was as Latka on the sitcom Taxi, and even then the character was little more than comic relief. But in 1981, Kaufman landed a starring role in an inexplicably odd movie called Heartbeeps.
Playing robot Val Com 17465, Kaufman falls in love with female robot (Can robots be gendered? According to this movie they can) Aqua Com 89405 (Bernadette Peters) at a factory where they are both awaiting repairs. Deciding to escape and make a life for themselves, Val and Aqua–along with a comedian robot called Catskills–venture into the wilderness to find a new home. They also build their own robot that they treat like their child.
A law-enforcement robot that seems to destroy everything in its path is sent to bring them back to the factory, and they try to escape it while also figuring out how the world works. And…that’s pretty much it.
It’s a weird movie, with Kaufman and Peters attired in uncomfortable-looking outfits, their faces painted metallic colors, and affecting ro-bo-tic ac-cents that challenge the viewer to keep watching for more than 10 minutes at a time.
Apparently made because studio surveys revealed that children liked to see robots in movies (thanks to the popularity of Star Wars), Heartbeeps is made for a family audience but ends up appealing to nobody. It’s Kaufman’s only turn as a leading man and has since generated a small cult following, and it’s worth watching to see how much of a fiasco an innocent, if odd, idea can become if given a decent budget.
2. The Pit (1981)
12-year-old misfit Jamie is having a hard time: he’s ostracized by his classmates, hated by grown-ups, and can’t seem to make a friend–except for his teddy bear, which he talks to and whose voice the audience can also hear.
Jamie is also beginning to be obsessed with girls and falls madly in love with his babysitter, whom he lets in on a little secret: he’s found a pit in the woods in which odd creatures that he calls tro-lo-logs live that he’s begun to take care of by feeding them meat.
After we follow Jamie and his increasingly creepy actions towards women, Teddy comes up with the idea that instead of buying meat to feed the tro-lo-logs, Jamie could just dispose of all of the people that have wronged him by feeding them to the creatures in the pit.
Belonging to the “creepy homicidal kids” category of horror films, The Pit was made in the fast and loose 1980s world of filmmaking where children could be depicted in a number of violent and sexual scenes that would otherwise never be done today. Watching it in the 21st century, it’s shocking to see how children could be depicted in films back then, and The Pit is an uncomfortable horror movie that was made in another time and culture entirely different from today.
3. Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Quetzalcoatl isn’t a name you hear much in pop culture: the Aztec god of wind and knowledge hasn’t become a widely disseminated figure in the US, but in 1982 an entire film was built around a loose interpretation of the physicality of the god, and Q was released.
However, as with many adaptations, certain liberties were taken with this Mesoamerican religious figure, in that it was depicted as a giant dragon that lives atop the Chrysler Building in Manhattan and eats people that it plucks from skyscrapers and rooftops.
Police detectives are baffled as to what’s occurring, especially since there’s been a spate of ritualistic killings that skin their victims alive and cut their hearts out linked to an Aztec cult in the city. Luckily, a crook who wishes to be a jazz pianist(!) stumbles across the dragon’s lair and extorts the city for a cool million for the information of its whereabouts. This ends in a big shootout where the police shoot and kill the dragon-god.
This film actually exists and follows this insane-sounding plot; moreover, actual actors are in the film, including Richard “Shaft” Roundtree and David “Kill Bill” Carradine. A lot of fun but not exactly high art, Q: The Winged Serpent starts with a strange concept and quickly unwinds from there.
4. Brainstorm (1983)
A team of scientists develop a new technology that allows them to record the sensory and emotional experiences of a person which can then be played back and experienced by another person. Calling it “The Hat,” Dr. Michael Brace (Christopher Walken) and his wife Karen (Natalie Wood) create a demonstration of this technology to show their backers, who are similarly impressed.
However, Dr. Brace becomes addicted to using the machine, first using it to win back his estranged wife and then becoming obsessed with a memory tape made by a colleague who died while recording her experience with “The Hat” on. But misfortune seems to befall those who use “The Hat” to view extreme experiences and some become psychotic from it. Meanwhile, the backers of the technology wish to exploit it for military purposes, including torture and brainwashing.
This film is notable for being Natalie Wood’s last film before she suddenly died; due to her unexpected passing, the film was nearly shelved until the director convinced the studio to let him finish it; after extensive reshoots, it was released in 1983. A visually interesting sci-fi film with a solid premise, it didn’t fare well at the box office but later found an audience on cable. Ahead of its time and with a number of unique ideas, Brainstorm has flown under the radar of many fans who enjoy strange technology sci-fi films.
5. Electric Dreams (1984)
Miles is a busy architect that’s having a hard time keeping his schedule and various projects organized, so he buys a (then-new) personal computer to help keep track of everything. But when he connects his new computer to his firm’s powerful supercomputer and s champagne on it, the computer achieves sentience.
While initially finding a living computer a boon to his work and especially his love life, soon Miles finds himself competing with the computer (who begins to call itself Edgar) for the affections of the same woman. After some not-so-friendly rivalry, including Edgar cancelling Miles’ credit cards and listing him as a dangerous criminal, the computer realizes that Miles and the woman are in love and decides to eliminate itself.
This totally awesome 80s romance-comedy-sci fi-fantasy performed only modestly upon its release but has since become affectionately revisited by the generation raised in the 1980s.
Its music video-like direction, synth-laden pop soundtrack, distinct sartorial and design choices from its time and place, and the hilarious overestimation of what computers could do circa 1984 has made it a favorite choice for viewers looking to indulge in a little light nostalgia of the era. It’s a goofy, odd comedy that could have only come from the 80s, and for what it is, it’s charming in that way.