Perhaps more than any decade before or since, due largely to the home video market, the 1980s was a great time for cult films. Part of the attraction with these movies designated with cult status is that they are decidedly different and much more provocative than mainstream populist fare.
The cult film experience differs from conventional cinema by appealing to unique sensibilities, be it the counterculture, genre films, or niche audiences that joyfully zero in on taboo content and proscribed subject matter that deliriously upends convention with razor-sharp satire, exploitation, and/or legitimate ideological dangers or controversial content.
The following list looks at films from the 1980s that foster unhealthy obsession, stylish strangeness, and offer feelings of connection for the bravest or most eccentric viewers amongst us. If you’ve ever just clicked with an “out there” movie or seen something so weird and so wonderful that it seemed somehow tailor made just for you and you alone, then you may well want to join a cult such as those carefully catalogued here. Enjoy!
25. The Goonies (1985)
I was ten years old when director Richard Donner unleashed his silly, pre-teen adventure epic The Goonies and I fully admit that, as a result, my mantra for a time became: “Goonies never say die!”
With a funny and fast-paced script by Chris Columbus, from a story by Steven Spielberg (who executive produced), this idiosyncratic and very Scooby Doo-like actioner set in Astoria, Oregon, pits a group of young misfit kids (including Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, and Martha Plimpton) against a family of criminals (including Joe Pantoliano and Anne Ramsey) in a race to retrieve the long-lost treasure of fabled 17th-century pirate, One-Eyed Willy.
Armed only with a treasure map, some Baby Ruth candy bars, a few zany inventions, their wits, and a bag of marbles, will the Goonies be good enough to find the fortune, and with it save their neighborhood from demolition? And will the image of a tormented Chunk (Jeff Cohen) doing the “truffle shuffle” at Clark “Mouth” Devereaux’s (Feldman) mean-spirited request ever fade from your memory?
This is a nostalgic grab bag of funhouse s and thrills that meant a lot to audiences as kids and may mean even more to them now as sentimental adults.
24. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
“You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”
Impressed by his strange stage show at the Groundlings theater, Warner Brothers contracted Paul Ruebens to write a feature based around his quirky, child-like überbrat persona, Pee-Wee Herman. Inspired, strange as it sounds, by Italian neo-realist innovator Vittorio De Sica (specifically his celebrated 1948 film, The Bicycle Thief), Reubens wrote one honey of a nonconformist comedy and found the ideal director, a former Disney animator looking to leap into live-action features, Tim Burton.
Together Burton and Reubens combined Dalí-like surrealism into a live-action cartoon that would anticipate the long-running subversive Saturday morning kids show, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1986-1990), sequels, Big Top Pee-Wee (1988), Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday (2016), and introduce Tim Burton to the world at large.
With great gags, stunningly silly production design, and overflowing quotable quips, it’s no wonder discriminating audiences ate it up.
23. Lady Terminator (1986)
One of the most celebrated of Indonesian trash cinema from the 1980s, Lady Terminator intentionally bears many similarities to James Cameron’s 1984 hit The Terminator. Ostensibly the well-told tale of an indestructible cyborg stirring up trouble amidst an urban landscape, director H. Tut Djalil’s does add a few wrinkles of it’s own as well as lifting heavily from the Indonesian myth of the South Sea Queen –– a sexually insatiable and emasculating succubus-like legend.
The spirit of the South Sea Queen curses her enemy’s granddaughter, a naive American researcher named Tania Wilson (Barbara Anne Constable), she’s soon decked out in Arnold Schwarzenegger-looking black leather and accoutrements, to fulfill a 100-year-old curse that amounts to the usual; annihilation and doom. Soon castrated male corpses pile up and a ceremonial dagger is sought after, it being the only way to end Tania’s possession, apparently.
The campy, kitschy, OTT excessiveness of it all makes Lady Terminator a lively, sexually charged, and silly pisstake on gender politics, Western beliefs, and irresponsible Western ideology. Oh, and did I mention that Lady Terminator has lethal eye lasers?
22. Basket Case (1982)
In writer-director Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case, Duane Bradley (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is a normal, even pleasant looking fella who carries around a wicker basket and oh, his monstrously deformed gristly little jealous twin is in there, and he scuttles around killing people. This is an amazing movie.
The schlock and sleaze on brutal display as Duane checks into a sleazy New York City hotel and allows his deformed twin Belial –– with whom he has a psychic link –– to go on a jealousy-fuelled killing spree, is a lot of gross out fun, frankly. And Henenlotter would ride the cult success of the film into two sequels oddly enjoyable sequels; Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1991).
Basket Case is the film that Rex Reed referred to as being “…the sickest movie ever made!”, and Henenlotter wisely took this as a compliment. To miss this would be to miss out on a shit ton of disgusting fun.
21. Streets of Fire (1984)
Opening titles inform us that Walter Hill’s rock ‘n roll fable unfolds in “another time, another place” and the resulting neo-noir musical romance to follow, full to brim with action and juicy one-liners is full-tilt awesome if you can buy the premise.
Ellen Aim (Diane Lane) is an adored rock star who’s been kidnapped by one Raven Shaddock (Willem Dafoe), leader of a badass biker gang known as The Bombers. Lucky for Ellen, her ex-lover Tom Cody (Michael Paré) is a soldier-for-hire who teams up with a feisty mechanic and former soldier named McCoy (Amy Madigan) to infiltrate The Bombers stronghold, a cesspit called “the Battery”, that will result in an all-out, guns-blazin’, motors-revin’, battle through a 1950s-retro cityscape.
More akin to Hill’s comic book colorful, overtly stylish, and extravagantly violent fare like The Warriors (1979), this singular and strange pastiche of 1950s biker films and then contemporary 1980s music videos is a fun, fast-paced, and fist-pumping ride that’s worth it not only for the dreamy Lane, but for Madigan’s tenacious tough girl (she also gets all the best lines), Dafoe’s scenery-chewing, and early roles from Bill Paxton and Ed Begley, Jr., amongst others.
20. Near Dark (1987)
Director and co-screenwriter Kathryn Bigelow bravely reimagines the vampire mythos with a trailer-park Americana sensibility in her astonishing sophomore film, Near Dark. A genre mashup of two formulaic film types––the Western and the vampire movie––Near Dark also offers a romantic and contradictory fable for the midnight movie crowd.
Lance Henriksen is the patriarchal figure to a rogue band of vampires that also includes a spurs-adorned Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller’s man-trapped-in-a-child’s-body blood sucker. Toss in a first rate soundtrack by Tangerine Dream and the resulting film is a heady mix of extravagance, poetics, violence, and unrequited love. For all it’s flaws and imperfections, Near Dark still maintains a near perfect serrated edge of dark artistry.
19. Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)
The boundary pushing body horror on shrill display in this cyberpunk fright flick is a large part of what made this low budget effort from cult-film director Shinya Tsukamoto a hit with the midnight movie crowd.
Shin’ya Tsukamoto is the metal fetishist gone mad –– perhaps due to the writhing maggots that pour from his wounds where metal melds to his disgusting skin –– who is mowed down on the highway by Salaryman (Tomorrow Taguchi) and his girlfriend (Kei Fujiwara). These reckless lovers then dispose of his body by dumping it into a ravine. Little did they suspect this would provoke a decidedly nasty curse that transforms the flesh into iron in as many painful and vomitous ways as possible. Ain’t karma a bitch?
This strange, sometimes boring, sometimes fascinating, frequently gory, often funny, and always fucked up film would go on to father two just as transgressive sequels; Body Hammer (1992) and The Bullet Man (2009) while cinching Tsukamoto as an international provocateur of unconventional cult cinema.
It’s also fair to say that this is a film for extreme fans but, that said, admirers of David Cronenberg (particularly 1983’s Videodrome) and David Lynch (shades of 1977’s Eraserhead are ample) might dig some of the surreal strangeness as well.
18. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Enthusiastically described by Guillermo del Toro as “sheer pulp brilliant and dazzling magic,” and “the first of a franchise that should have been”, the trials and tribulations of the hard-boiled and fast talking trucker Jack Burton (Kurt Russell) are nearly impossible to resist. Caught in a sinister and strange conflict that he barely understands that’s unfolding within, underneath, and all around San Francisco’s Chinatown, Jack just can’t seem to dodge the unfolding dangers.
The silly and yet still very engrossing saga that Jack is snagged in involves a dangerous street gang called the Lords of Death, an evil sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong), a gorgeous green-eyed woman named Miao Yin (Suzee Pai)––fiancée to Jack’s BFF Wang Chi (Dennis Dun)––his own buddying beauteous love interest Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall), and a trio of powerful warriors under the nomenclature “The Three Storms”; Thunder (Carter Wong), Rain (Peter Kwong), and Lightning (James Pax). There’s ancient curses, martial arts action aplenty, fearsome orangutan-like monsters, and more.
A wonderful live action cartoon that sadly failed to connect with audiences at the time, thankfully home video editions of Big Trouble have performed well, as have deluxe Blu-ray editions, late night showings at repertory cinemas, tie-in video games, comic books, card and board games as well as constant rumors of a remake, have all added to the film’s mystique. One thing’s for certain, Jack Burton and the Porkchop Express are pop culture touchstones and their cinematic reconnaissance is easy to enjoy. A gem.