20 Overlooked 80s Thrillers That Are Worth Your Time

14. Dead Calm (1989)

Dead Calm (1989)

Plot: Rae and John Ingram (Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill) go to sea in a yacht to try to forget a traumatic car accident in which their son was killed. They come upon a wrecked boat with one passenger, Hughie Warriner (Billy Zane) still alive and the other passengers dead. John goes on the boat to investigate and gradually realizes Hughie has killed all the other passengers; meanwhile Hughie takes off in the yacht with Rae.

A battle of wills between the two ensues as John tries to repair the boat and catch up with them. Rae allows Hughie to make love to her in an attempt to trap him, and eventually is able to spike his drink, causing him to pass out. She goes back to rescue John just before the boat sinks, but Hughie is still not done with the couple.

Why it’s great: Dead Calm was an Australian film and the first major effort for Kidman and Zane, who along with Neill went on to bigger things in the 1990’s. The film began as an Orson Welles project called The Deep, but Welles never completed the film and the rights were eventually sold to the producers of Dead Calm.

The film did well in Australia, but the box office returns in America were poor. Dead Calm is incredibly suspenseful and Zane gives a great, manic performance as Hughie, while Kidman and Neill are superb as the average couple under stress and fighting for their lives. If your nerves can handle it, see Dead Calm.


13. Target (1985)

Target (1985)

Plot: Walter Lloyd (Gene Hackman) appears to be a successful Dallas businessman who owns a lumber mill. He has a strained relationship with his son, Chris (Matt Dillon). Walter’s wife leaves for a trip with a group to Paris but word comes back that she is missing, and Walter and Chris hurry to the airport to catch a plane to Paris.

In Europe, Walter must confront his past as a CIA operative while at the same time trying to solve the kidnapping of his wife. Chris realizes that his father is not the mild mannered businessman that he thought he was, and eventually he helps his father in his efforts to thwart the enemy agents that have tried to destroy the family.

Why it’s great: Directed by Arthur Penn, Target flopped at the box office when it was released in 1985. The film may have been a bit too much for audiences to follow, as it features a complex plot with many turns and surprises.

Still, Target is a well done spy thriller with an interesting theme of the effect of espionage work on the lives of a family, how it pulls them apart and, in the end, helps them join back together to be stronger than ever. While Target is not a major film in Penn’s canon, it is an intriguing work that should be seen.


12. Frantic (1988)

Frantic (1988)

Plot: Dr. Richard Walker (Harrison Ford) and his wife, Sondra (Betty Buckley) are attending a medical conference in Paris when they realize that Sondra has accidentally picked up the wrong suitcase at the airport. When Sondra mysteriously disappears, Richard begins a frantic search for her after he is told she was forced into a car in front of their hotel.

Walker eventually encounters Michelle, a smuggler who picked up Sondra’s bag at the airport, and she joins forces with him to help him figure out what the smuggling scheme was all about. The film ends with a climatic conclusion at the river Seine.

Why it’s great: When it was released, there were high hopes for Frantic, which was directed by Roman Polanski and starring Harrison Ford, who had scored box office gold in films such as Witness and the Indiana Jones films.

The film, however, received a disappointing reception from both critics and audiences, pulling in only 17 million dollars at the box office in the U.S. Ford does his usual great job in the film as Richard Walker, a mild mannered, middle age doctor gradually pulled into an underworld of drug smugglers in a desperate effort to find his wife.

Most of the film concerns the interaction between Walker and Michelle, and their interesting chemistry provides the film’s best moments. Polanski directed in his adopted home of France, where he had gone after the legal troubles he incurred in the U.S. about a decade earlier.


11. The Morning After (1986)


Plot: Alex Sternbergen (Jane Fonda) is an alcoholic actress on the decline. When she wakes up in the morning with a hangover, she finds that the man next to her that she went to bed with last night has been gruesomely murdered. Unable to remember and fearing that she may have killed the man, Alex quickly cleans up the mess and flees, but at the airport she encounters alcoholic (sense a trend here?) ex-cop Turner Kendall (Jeff Bridges) who tries to help Alex figure out who and what put her in this situation.

Also around is Joaquin Manero (Raul Julia), Alex’s estranged husband. Alex and Turner become romantically involved before all the reasons for the murder become clear to the two lovers.

Why it’s great: The Morning After was a film made by extremely talented people, such as director Sidney Lumet and stars Fonda and Bridges, but when it opened on Christmas Day in 1986 the reviews were mixed and the box office disappointing. Most critics pointed to a weak plot and unsatisfactory climatic finale as the film’s shortcomings, but there are many upsides also.

Lumet does his usual superior job of direction, and Fonda gives a performance that many have likened to her Academy Award winning turn in Klute (1971). Indeed, she was nominated for an Oscar for this film, but did not win. Bridges and Fonda also have excellent chemistry, and Raul Julia is good in a supporting role.


10. Eye of the Needle (1981)

Eye of the Needle (1981)

Plot: Henry Faber (Donald Sutherland) is living in England at the start of World War II, and is revealed to be a ruthless German spy nicknamed “the Needle” because of his method of killing with a stiletto knife. Faber discovers that an allied airfield is a fake, leading him to realize that the point of the D-Day invasion will be at Normandy Beach. Attempting to return to Germany with this vital information, Faber is waylaid by a fierce storm to remote Storm Island, where he meets Lucy (Kate Nelligan), her bitter, crippled husband David, their son and Tom, a local shepherd with a two-way radio.

Needing the radio to reach his German contacts so he can give them the information, Faber ends up becoming lonely Lucy’s lover while killing Tom and, eventually, David. But Lucy ends up finally realizing that Faber is a spy and must face him in a final showdown that could change the course of the outcome of World War II.

Why it’s great: Based on a novel by esteemed writer Ken Follett, Eye of the Needle was released in the summer of Raiders of the Lost Ark (i.e. the summer of 1981) and while it was a modest box office success it has always been overshadowed by the more successful Indiana Jones film.

Eye of the Needle features a brilliant, suspenseful fictional story based on real events and outstanding performances from the lead actors, particularly Kate Nelligan as the heroic Lucy. Shot on location in England and on the Isle of Mull, Eye of the Needle was filmed by British director Richard Marquand, who would have a hit in 1985 with the Jeff Bridges – Glenn Close thriller The Jagged Edge.


9. Eight Million Ways to Die (1986)

Eight Million Ways to Die (1986)

Plot: Alcoholic L.A. cop Matt Scudder (Jeff Bridges), accidentally shoots a man in front of his family during a drug bust and goes off on a drinking binge that ends up getting him thrown off the force. Later Scudder goes to a gambling club run by Chance and meets Sunny, a prostitute who he is attracted to and who tells him that her life is in danger. His attempts to protect Sunny are futile, as she is kidnapped and killed.

Scudder suspects club regular Angel Maldonado, who is involved with Sarah (Rosanna Arquette). Realizing the Maldonado is using Chance’s club as a drug ring, he enlists Chance’s help to trap Maldonado. After finding his drug supply, the ex-cop will have a final showdown with Maldonado in hopes of saving Sarah and ending his reign of terror.

Why it’s great: Eight Million Ways to Die was the final feature directed by Hal Ashby, who had a string of hits in the 1970’s but whose career was on the downturn by the time he directed this film. Unfortunately, Ashby – an Academy Award winning editor in the 1960’s – was fired from Eight Million Ways to Die before he had a chance to finish a cut of the film, which may have made a difference in the poor box office results.

Still, Eight Million Ways to Die is an engaging and stylish thriller, a film with lots of potential that was not realized. The script was written by Oliver Stone just before he did Platoon, with uncredited help from frequent Ashby collaborator Robert Towne.


8. Dead of Winter (1987)

Dead of Winter (1987)

Plot: Katie McGovern (Mary Steenburgen) is an actress hired for a part by Mr. Murray (Roddy McDowell). They drive in a snow storm to the home of a psychiatrist, Dr. Joseph Lewis, and Katie is told she is replacing an actress named Julie Rose – to whom she has a remarkable resemblance – who had a mental breakdown during a movie shoot.

Gradually, Katie begins to find evidence that leads her to believe that the situation is not as it seems and that her life is in danger. Katie is finally held captive and must confront Mr. Murray and the doctor before she learns the awful truth about Julie Rose and what happened to her.

Why it’s great: Dead of Winter was a remake of the 1945 film noir My Name is Julia Ross, which was directed by cult director Joseph H. Lewis (who is alluded to in the name of the film’s doctor). Arthur Penn took over direction of the film during production and completed a surprisingly entertaining and scary gothic horror film.

Veteran actor Roddy McDowell and Mary Steenburgen play their parts to the hilt, and the result is that the audience is taken on a ride filled with twists and turns until the surprise ending is revealed. Unfortunately, Dead of Winter failed rather inexplicably at the box office when it was released in 1987, but if you like intelligent and scary thrillers, it is worth a view.