10 Great 1980s Thriller Movie Classics You Probably Haven’t Seen

6. 10 to Midnight (1983)

Twenty-plus years after such career highs as Cape Fear, director J. Lee Thompson helms another dark thriller; this time, it’s 10 to Midnight, a first-rate crime thriller released by Cannon Films in the early 80s.

In the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th, 10 to Midnight could not avoid the slasher genre as the crime genre gets spliced with the horror genre to produce a memorable thriller with an excellent villain in Gene Davis as serial killer Warren Stacey.

Charles Bronson plays Leo Kessler, a no-nonsense cop on the trail of a serial killer. Kessler’s partner is Paul McAnn (Andrew Stevens), a by-the-book police officer, who begins a flirtatious relationship with Kessler’s daughter, Laurie (Lisa Eilbacher).

Serial killer Warren Stacey is young and good-looking but feels rejected by the opposite sex. As a killer, Stacey covers his tracks well, making anonymous phone calls and building clever alibis as he stalks and kills young women, getting ever closer to Bronson’s daughter.

Charles Bronson would make Cannon Films his home during the 1980s with a string of violent films, most notably the Death Wish sequels. In 10 to Midnight, Bronson plays a variation of his crusty hardman persona that audiences had grown accustomed to. Beginning 10 to Midnight as a clone of Dirty Harry before going full vigilante and becoming Paul Kersey by the final reel.

At the time of the film’s release in 1983, the violence in 10 to Midnight was met with scathing reviews, most notably by Roger Ebert. Drawing comparisons to real-life killer Richard Speck and Bronson’s own Death Wish movies, much of the violence in the film is still pretty full-on, particularly with serial killer Warren Stacey continually stark naked, peeping at young women in their underwear and murdering young nurses.

Thankfully, 10 to Midnight never pushes the romantic angle between Andrew Stevens’s bland cop and Kessler’s daughter too much, with director J. Lee Thompson firmly setting his cinematic guns on the action and violence audiences and fans of Charles Bronson would fully expect. In a crowded market of violent cop thrillers with the well-worn cliché of a cop chasing down a killer, 10 to Midnight is a memorable entry.


7. The Holcroft Covenant (1985)

Thriller specialist John Frankenheimer directs Michael Caine in The Holcroft Covenant. A mid-80s potboiler concerning a mysterious covenant set up in the last days of the Second World War by three officers of the Third Reich.

The film begins with an impressive sequence set during the War, combining stock footage with inky black-and-white cinematography. Three Nazi officers raise a glass to a mysterious covenant before committing suicide, with the action then switching to New York and the present day, which in this case is 1985.

Caine, cast as a last-minute replacement for James Caan, plays Noel Holcroft, a New York architect who wants nothing to do with his father’s Nazi past.

This bravado soon fades when Holcroft realises his Dad left him $4.5 billion. Holcroft’s father, General Heinrich Clausen (Alexander Kerst), was obsessed with guilt about the Nazi atrocities orchestrated by Hitler. So, in a bid to make amends, Clausen “intercepted” millions from “Wehrmacht payrolls” and created a foundation where, in the future, the intercepted money could be given to the children and grandchildren of families whose lives were shattered and ruined by the Nazis.

So, it’s up to Holcroft, as chairman, to dish out the dosh, but first, he must track down the children of the other two officers who committed suicide. As you would hope, Holcroft realises there’s more to the covenant than a guilty dead Nazi looking to atone for past crimes, and the twist and turns keep coming.

Based on the novel by Robert Ludlum, The Holcroft Covenant is an efficient thriller, with director John Frankenheimer favouring a Hitchcock mode of direction as Michael Caine becomes Cary Grant à la North by Northwest. Caine is always good, helping to dignify the familiar thriller tropes of the screenplay. His last shot, the film’s final scene with Caine, is reason alone to celebrate Michael Caine as a remarkable actor regardless of the film.

The rest of the cast, including the mysterious Helden played by Victoria Tennant, are good, too, with Lilli Palmer adding some gravitas as Holcroft’s mother, Althene. The Holcroft Covenant is no Manchurian Candidate, nor does it look ahead to Frankenheimer’s last hurray with Ronin, but it’s an enjoyable thriller with a great leading man,


8. The Package (1989)

Gene Hackman is veteran Army Sergeant Johnny Gallagher, the patsy in a secret plot involving a shady Colonel (John Heard) and a plan to thwart an American-Soviet peace treaty. Gallagher and his crack team are responsible for security at a nuclear disarmament summit when an American general gets ambushed and killed. Gallagher gets blamed and is given the menial job of retrieving a Sergeant from Germany to the United States for a court martial.

At the airport, Gallagher gets hit over the head and his “package” goes missing. Gallagher searches for his package, enlisting the help of his ex-wife (Joanna Cassidy) and an old friend (Dennis Franz) as they uncover an international plot involving potty Generals, corrupt cops and neo-Nazis, who are all hell-bent on assassinating a world leader.

A few years off his star turn-in The Fugitive, Tommy Lee Jones plays Thomas Boyette – Hackman’s missing “package”, a Vietnam veteran and expert triggerman, loose on American soil, with his target in sight. The clever, intricate plot of The Package revolves around a grounded central performance by Gene Hackman. In the era of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hackman is more brains than brawn, with his back catalogue of thrillers (The French Connection, Target) only hardening his credentials as a middle-aged man of action.

Tommy Lee Jones adds a cool steeliness to his role as a seasoned hitman, but the film belongs to Gene Hackman. Never typecast in any specific role, Hackman is totally believable in the part of a long-serving Army Sergeant caught up in international intrigue – an ageing “everyman” the audience can root for and invest their time in, all the way to the final reel.

Like Tommy Lee Jones, director Andrew Davis was a few years off a career-high with The Fugitive but had established himself as a strong candidate as the go-to guy for action cinema. Having helmed Steven Seagal’s debut flick, Above The Law and Chuck Norris’ Code of Silence, with The Package, Davis keeps up the pace and conspiracies of his previous entries while having the star power of Hackman to help navigate John Bishop’s maze-like script. The Package is an excellent, intelligent thriller, inventive, fast-paced and deserving of rediscovery.


9. Black Rainbow (1989)

Cinema has long held a fascination with mediums, clairvoyants, faith healers, and psychics for many years: Don’t Look Now, The Medusa Touch, Poltergeist, Leap of Faith, X-Men, The Gift and many more, with the theme of a fraudulent psychic also prevalent in Séance on a Wet Afternoon and Hitchcock’s Family Plot.

Black Rainbow is another such film, a supernatural thriller where a father and daughter tour the Southern states, conning humble country folk into believing that the daughter, Martha Travis (Rosanna Arquette), is in touch with God.

The story begins in the future, where Gary Wallace (Tom Hulce), a sceptical small-time journalist, searches for Martha, who has been missing for ten years. The local folk reckon Martha is “dumb” and “not one for company.” Desperate to find her, Gary spots Martha, but before we get any further, the film goes back ten years and finds Martha travelling on a train. Much younger looking, Martha is on her way to host a clairvoyant show with her father.

The father, Walter (Jason Robards), is a drunk and acts as Martha’s manager and stage assistant. On stage, Martha proclaims, “I’m only God’s instrument- a telephone exchange for those spirits who want to connect with their folks here on earth”. Dressed in white robes with an accompanying choir and wearing a gold cross, Martha goes through the motions, getting in touch with the dead, offering the bible belt folk of America the sunny side of death. Yet, it all goes wrong when Martha has a real vision and foretells a violent murder. Soon, Martha discovers her connection to the dead to be real and gets mixed up with a corrupt police officer, a scandal at a chemical plant and a domesticated hitman.

Due to James Randi’s debunking of televangelist Peter Popoff and a growing obsession with crystals and astrology parties, Black Rainbow’s narrative themes of bogus psychics linking Christianity, capitalism and showmanship were very much in vogue in the late 1980s.

Directed by Mike Hodges (Get Garter, Flash Gordon, Croupier), Black Rainbow is a low-key thriller, an eerie, subtle, yet violent ghost story. It’s a forgotten film, but it’s slowly finding a new audience on streaming sites. Like most of Mike Hodge’s oeuvre, Black Rainbow is worth seeing; it’s a strange, spooky thriller that deserves your attention.


10. Bellman and True (1987)

Based on a book by Desmond Lowden, Bellman and True was initially developed as a three-part television drama for Thames Television before Thames realised just how much a three-hour television production would cost. Eventually, HandMade Films and Euston Films decided to produce a television mini-series and also create a feature film, with Bellman and True making it to the big screen in 1987.

Hiller (Bernard Hill) is an expert in electronics, bribed by a criminal gang to disable security alarms at a “holding bank” at Heathrow Airport. Hiller has two weaknesses: alcohol and his devotion to a young boy (Kieran O’Brien), with the criminal gang holding the boy and Hiller captive until the job is finished. The film plays with two narratives: the robbery of the bank and the heartfelt relationship between Hiller and the young boy.

Well, not exactly Rififi; the robbery sequence is well-executed, tense, bloody and exciting. The relationship between Hiller and the boy, with Hiller’s bedtime stories and homemade toys, is the heart that beats throughout Bellman and True. A twisted love affair is also added to the mix as Hiller finds companionship with Anna (Frances Tomelty), an ex-sex worker who turns childminder when the price is right.

Director Richard Loncraine would practically remake the film with the Hollywood thriller Firewall in 2006 when a criminal gang forces Harrison Ford’s Jack Stanfield to help rob a bank. Bellman and True is much more gritter and less glamorous than Firewall and is all the better for it; Euston Films, who were behind such television hits as The Sweeney and Minder, add plenty of cockney grit, and the cast is a well-rounded mix of familiar faces: Derek Newark as the Guv’nor, Irish actor John Kavanagh as Donkey and Bernard Hill, best known for Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Blackstuff as the conflicted but likeable Hiller.

Coming along during a wave of British crime films, with The Long Good Friday, The Hit and Mona Lisa, Bellman and True was unfavourably compared to crime caper The Big Job and never received a big commercial release. Filmed on location in and around London, Bellman and True is an underrated film with a great cast and solid direction – a top-draw crime thriller.