10 Classic 1980s American Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen

6. The Caller (1987)

Described by its star Malcolm McDowell as “a mind game, written like a Pinter piece”, this is one of Malcolm’s most unusual film roles of the 1980s. McDowell had been, of course, one of the most controversial and promising stars of the 1970s, with films like A Clockwork Orange and O Lucky Man establishing his unique style. After 1979’s Caligula however, McDowell drifted into bit parts and B pictures. The Caller, though a lead role for him, was definitely a B movie, but thankfully a rather good one.

What is initially a very theatrical battle of wits between The Caller (McDowell) and The Girl (Madolyn Smith) soon mutates into a demented surreal thriller with what might be the most unexpected climax in film history. The plot is fairly simple: The Caller knocks on the girl’s door one night, claiming that his car has broken down and he needs to use her phone. Only then, once inside, does their strange coming together grow more distressing to observe, as they are drawn into a sexual and psychological struggle of power and resistance.

The film gives off a claustrophobic, electric feel, and much of this is down to two very fine performances. McDowell is using his showy style, charming yet slightly unnerving as he swaggers about the stranger’s house like he owns it. The under rated Smith, who has been seen in little else since, gives a tireless, energetic display in what is her strongest ever role. The ending may frustrate some viewers, but the rest of the film is so enjoyable that even those disappointed, perhaps totally miffed, by the finale will be able to forgive it.


7. The Hunger (1983)

The Hunger

One of the most stylish and original entries in the vampire horror genre is Tony Scott’s 1983 cult favourite, The Hunger. Initially a commercial and critical disappointment, it’s built up a following down the years and today has its own set of loyal defenders. The film stars Catherine Deneuve as a glamorous and sexy vampire named Miriam, who has been alive for thousands of years and had various partners by her side down the centuries. She promises them immortality and endless life; and though they do enjoy a long run, all of a sudden each of her lovers ages and crumbles away.

In 1980s New York (London in fact, where Scott and the crew shot most of the picture), she is living with John (David Bowie), who has been her companion since the 18th century, and together they prowl the night for fresh blood. They kill their victims with Ankh pendants which double as small blades, ideal for slicing open a jugular vein, then dispose of the bodies in their basement furnace. They are happy together in their quiet, hermetic life. Suddenly however, John begins to age, and rather quickly too.

After seeing a gerontologist named Dr Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) on the TV, John pays her a visit to discuss some prematurely-aged apes she is studying. When she stands him up, John leaves, and as he departs she sees the extent of his ageing. She later visits Miriam and John’s home, only Miriam has placed the crumbling, ailing man in a coffin. Miriam now sets her sights on Sarah and making her the latest companion in her journey through everlasting life.

The Hunger was firstly criticised for being overly stylised, shot as it was by Tony Scott, a veteran of the advertising world. Many critics felt the film has little beneath its glossy, arty surface, while Bowie himself commented in the press that while it looked good there was definitely too much explicit gore. The film, quite naturally of course, is rather bloody, and indeed Scott veers off into over the top direction now and then, but The Hunger can best be enjoyed for its engaging plot and strong performances.

Bowie is fantastic as the concerned John, desperately hanging on to his life but seeing it ebb away more and more by the minute. Unfortunately he is missing for the second half of the film, but thankfully Susan Sarandon is excellent as Miriam’s latest target. Deneuve however is the one who holds it all together, with a graceful and elegant performance which keeps the film grounded. Amidst all the camera trickery, creepy music and neck biting, Deneuve remains grounded in a weird kind of reality, classy as ever in her exotic costumes and laid back manners. In truth she makes the film, and it’s impossible to imagine the whole thing without her.


8. Twice in a Lifetime (1985)

After playing anti-heroes and rugged cops in the 1970s, Gene Hackman was taking on mature roles in the mid 1980s, ones that often hinted of a mid life crises. In Twice in a Lifetime (1985), directed by Bud Yorkin, he was a middle aged dad and grandfather, Harry, working in a factory, and coming home to his wife every night. But Harry is feeling the itch and craves excitement. On his 50th birthday he meets a barmaid named Audrey (Ann-Margret) and begins to fall for her. Eventually drifting away from his family environment, his kids and grandkids, he asks his wife Kate (Ellen Burstyn) for a divorce and sadly the unit begins to come apart.

Though Twice in a Lifetime rarely gets singled out in Hackman retrospectives, I think it’s one of the best of his 80s pictures. It’s subtle, quietly moving and engrossing. Hackman makes Harry a totally authentic and believable dad, so much so that one cannot help but feel genuinely sad that he begins to lose interest in the family, especially when the opening scenes of him with his wife and grandkids are so warm and convincing. But he’s discontented, and the key is in the boredom behind Gene/Harry’s eyes, even as his daughter reads out Kate’s heartfelt birthday message she’s written especially for her husband.

He is restless, fidgeting, clearly tired and aware that the years are flying by. Audrey offers a salvation, a woman still vibrant who excites him. Hackman never puts a foot wrong throughout the film and completely understands his character. Rightfully, he received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance, though I feel he genuinely deserved to win it. As a whole the film is tasteful and realistic, Hackman and the rest of the cast easing smoothly into their Middle American characters. As overlooked films go, this is one of the more understated from the 1980s.


9. Family Business (1989)

Sydney Lumet was one of the most prolific and acclaimed American directors of the latter half of the 20th century, but for every renowned classic there were at least two more overlooked gems. Family Business is one of them. Written by Vincent Patrick, the film follows three generations of the McMullen family; Jessie (Sean Connery), a Scottish-American who moved to New York in the 1940s and has a criminal past behind him; Vito (Dustin Hoffman), utterly ashamed of his father’s shady roots, living a straight life; and Adam (Matthew Broderick), Vito’s son, a young science student who drops out of college and tells his grandfather Jessie about an ambitious burglary plot, which the old man might just want a piece of…

Family Business is an understated and subtle comedy-drama about family and responsibility. While the idea of Connery being Hoffman’s father might be hard for some to swallow, once you get used to the idea they make a great pair, and the friction that increases and intensifies between them creates an interesting dynamic. In a fine performance, Broderick provides the young angst, rebelling against his straight laced father and leaning more towards the more rebellious patriarch. It is indeed a film to watch for the performances, a rather overlooked late 80s gem that seems to be fading more and more as the years go by.


10. Cop (1988)

Cop, based on James Ellroy’s Blood on the Moon, features James Woods in the role of hard-assed Police Detective Sergeant Lloyd Hopkins, who is trying to get to the bottom of a brutal murder in LA. The mystery leads him to the world of feminist literature, when he meets the owner of a poetry store and finds possible clues to the identity of the real killer, who in the mean time strikes again, and in an even more brutal fashion.

Cop is not your regular action thriller of the era, and Woods’ character is unlike any lead cop you’ve ever seen. Lloyd is another multi dimensional man in the Woods gallery of unconventional faces, someone who is good in the sense that he wants to lock the bad guys away, but doesn’t always go by the conventional book when doing so. In the hands of another actor, he would have been the typical 80’s cop, the renegade with a mullet, the gun happy maverick repeatedly given stacks of paperwork to fill in after whacking some scumbag. But Woods makes the cop an individual; a maverick yes, but one who doesn’t really care about the personal consequences his actions will have.

For him, work is life and life is work. Unable to separate the two, he loses his family, but keeps his focus on busting the killer. He is not a wise-cracking hero, and this is no buddy cop movie of the breed that were all the rage at the time (even though there are some lovely interactions with Charles Durning, who plays his partner). No, this man is something of a lone wolf, totally single minded and intent on catching the bad guy.

Cop is one of the great police thrillers of the 1980’s, and it’s well worth forking out the money and adding this gem to your collection.