The 10 Most Underrated Thriller Movies of The 1980s

6. Mona Lisa (1986)

Even though it did receive an Oscar nomination, Bob Hoskins’ deeply affecting turn as a grumpy, low-ranking hoodlum with a heart of gold who just got out of jail and agrees to chauffeur a high-class call girl from job to job — arriving six years after he proved his chops as a criminal kingpin in John Mackenzie’s “The Long Good Friday” — still deserves mention as one of the most understated performances of the entire ’80s decade.

One in a lengthy list of shadowy crime thrillers to hit the multiplex during that era that at once embraced and toyed with established noir genre tropes, Neil Jordan’s Taxi Driver-inspired breakout hit guides us through the seedy criminal underworld of London, with the likes of Michael Caine and Robbie Coltrane popping up in brief but memorable roles.

The Irish writer-director’s creative mojo seems to have dried up as of lately, but his keen attention to detail and unwavering empathy for losers and misfits nicely are fully on display in this Thatcher-era tale of love, betrayal and redemption, which has enough intrigue and double crosses to keep you locked in for every beat and is only now beginning to find its cult audience thanks to a 2021 home release by Criterion.


7. The Hidden (1987)

Here’s a deep cut for the Twin Peaks crowd: In an unwitting dry run for his career-defining turn as Dale Cooper in the cult TV series, David Lynch regular Kyle MacLachlan earned top billing for his zany portrayal of a quirky Seattle FBI Special Agent travelling across country to Los Angeles in hot pursuit of the unidentified serial killer who murdered his family and former partner.

Of course, there’s more to the whole murder mystery that what may appear at first glance (including a sci-fi twist that takes a page out of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”), with the film deftly towing the line between light-hearted buddy-cop romp, over-the-top B-actioner, and gory body-horror extravaganza. A cult movie in every sense of the word, Jack Sholder’s “The Hidden” is everything you could want from a low-budget 1980s thriller, and even though it wasn’t a barn burner at the box office where it had the misfortune of going up against the original “Lethal Weapon”, it endures as a midnight-crowd fixture that only gets better over time.


8. Streets of Fire (1984)

There is not an ounce of fat on Walter Hill’s neon-soaked, genre-bending rock ballad, arguably the most woefully misunderstood offering from the director of “The Warriors” and “The Driver”, and a film perhaps best remembered today for having one of the coldest opening sequences of all time.

Originally conceived as the first entry in a trilogy of films before flaming out at the box office having barely earned a dime, “Streets of Fire” hooks you right off the bat with delirious set pieces, full-blown musical numbers, bravura shots and a deliciously crisp aesthetic as we witness Willem Dafoe and his sadistic biker gang break into a crowded concert and kidnap famous rock singer Ellen Aim. What follows is standard Hollywood fairytale, with the stoic and highly competent ex-boyfriend joining forces with a sundry group of misfits in order to track down the whereabouts of the lady in distress and bring her safe all in one piece.

The intro and climax are where the film makes its impact, and not every scene in-between holds up remarkably well today, but the whole thing is worth taking the plunge if for no other reason than to soak in the atmosphere and visuals.


9. Smooth Talk (1985)

The growing pains of adolescence underpin this adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ tricksy short story, headlined by a star-making performance by Laura Dern as Connie, an awkward 15-year-old naiveté who spends most of her summer vacation cruising around town, hanging out at the mall with friends, and bickering with her mother at home. All seems fine and dandy in this time capsule view of white picket fence American suburbia until an alluring thirtysomething called Arnold, who has been secretly spying on Connie, turns up unannounced on her doorstep one afternoon.

The Eighties saw an uptick of movies that tried to assess the shifting nationwide attitude towards sex and violence on screen. Outside of David Lynch — who was so impressed by Dern’s performance here that he decided to bring the young actress on board for his own cracked-mirror vision of Americana in “Blue Velvet” — few did it as convincingly as Joyce Chopra. In her breakout debut, the trailblazing filmmaker not only allows the story to unexpectedly edge into much-darker territory but rewrite the rules of the rom-com meet-cute altogether, elevating the film beyond standard Hollywood-movie tropes into something more truthful and sinister.


10. The 4th Man (1983)

Before he broke camp and rode off to America after Hollywood came knocking in the mid-’80s, Paul Verhoeven had already carved a cool niche for himself as the master of sleaze and one of Europe’s most provocative auteurs with censor-pushing thrillers spiked with disturbing imagery and transgressive themes that repeatedly freaked out unsuspecting audiences.

The best out of his early Dutch output and a solid onramp for strong-stomached newcomers, “The 4th Man” is a tale of fatal attractions and deadly obsession that in several ways preempts 1992s “Basic Instinct”, not only for its palpable erotic tension but for the figure of a Hitchcockian blonde-turned-cunning femme fatale. The story concerns a debauched bisexual novelist trying to walk the straight and narrow who runs into much bigger problems after becoming entangled with a thrice-widowed hairdresser, whom he begins to suspect may actually be a serial killer with a knack for murdering former husbands.

Things only get wilder as the film progresses — just to be clear, we’re talking visions of castration, nightmarish crucifixions and startling bursts of violence — so proceed at your own risk. Just don’t hold your breath for a happy ending.