20 Overlooked 80s Thrillers That Are Worth Your Time

7. Dead Ringers (1988)

dead ringers

Plot: Elliot and Beverly Mantle (both played by Jeremy Irons) are twins living in Toronto, running a successful gynecology practice. The delicate balance between the twins is upset when they treat actress Clare Niveau (Genevieve Bujold) and Beverly becomes involved with her.

When Clare leaves to act in a movie, Beverly, now addicted to prescription drugs, becomes depressed. He commissions a set of bizarre gynecological instruments to be made and assaults a patient during surgery. Elliot locks Beverly in their clinic and tries to clean him up by synchronizing their bloodstreams; when Clare returns, Beverly seems to recover but now Elliot’s life is in a tailspin, with disastrous results for both twins.

Why it’s great: Loosely based on the life of real life twins Stewart and Cyril Marcus, Dead Ringers was directed by Canadien David Cronenberg, who often took odd subjects for his films. Dead Ringers was no exception, and the film was a bit too much for American audiences to take, grossing only 8 million dollars at the box office.

But Irons’ dual performance was acclaimed, as he won the New York Film Critics Award for best actor; three years later, he won the Academy Award for Reversal of Fortune and thanked director Cronenberg in his acceptance speech. The film’s offbeat subject matter, weird characters and violent moments make it more of a cult film than a mainstream movie, but there is much still of interest in Dead Ringers.


6. Something Wild (1986)


Plot: Yuppie banker Charlie Driggs (Jeff Daniels) has a chance encounter in a cafe with an attractive young woman named Lula (Melanie Griffith) and on an impulse they run off together. They go to Lulu’s home to see her mother and she reveals her true name is Audrey and she is a blonde.

At her high school reunion, Audrey’s ex-convict husband Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta) shows up and after he dumps his girlfriend the three of them go on a short lived crime spree. Audrey realizes she must stay with Ray after he warns Charlie to stay away, but Charlie follows them and convinces Audrey to come with him. Things really begin to go wrong for Charlie after Ray arrives at his house to claim his wife.

Why it’s great: Jonathan Demme was a promising young director who had yet to hit his stride, when his 1986 film Something Wild gave an indication of the degree of his talent. Lauded by critics, the film did only marginally well at the box office but nonetheless has remained a cult favorite and the launching pad for the careers of Daniels, Griffith and Liotta.

Demme handles the moments of suspense like a master as the audience wonders when Charlie and Ray will come into conflict over the beautiful but crazy Audrey. When the final explosive showdown happens, the tension has been ratcheted up to an extreme level. In 1991, Demme’s promise was fulfilled as he won the Academy Award for Silence of the Lambs.


5. Still of the Night (1982)

Still of the Night (1982)

Plot: A patient of psychiatrist Sam Rice (Roy Scheider) named George Bynum has been murdered, and Rice is visited by the enigmatic Brooke Reynolds (Meryl Streep) who was having an affair with Bynum. Both worked at Crispin’s auction house in New York, where Bynum had also had numerous affairs with other women.

Rice is questioned by the police but tells them nothing, but he is troubled by a dream that Bynum related to him and the sense that he is in danger. He consults with his mother (Jessica Tandy), a well known psychiatrist, and eventually comes to suspect Brooke Reynolds of the murder. After following Brooke to a family estate on Long Island, she tells Rice that she accidentally killed her father and that Bynum was using this information against her. A final showdown occurs, in which the true killer is revealed.

Why it’s great: Still of the Night seems to be a polarizing film, as many don’t like it (with Streep herself disowning it) while others appreciate the film for its moments of taut suspense and as an intelligent Hitchcock homage. Sadly, the film tanked at the box office on its release in 1982.

Still of the Night was directed by Robert Benton and the screenplay was based on a story by Benton and his writing partner David Newman, who had penned Bonny and Clyde. While the ’whodunnit’ reveal is something of a letdown, Still of the Night certainly has many good moments that make up for that, and the interplay between Scheider and Streep and Tandy is very good. The dream sequence, presented as a flashback, is also a tour de force.


4. After Hours (1985)

After Hours (1985)

Plot: Word processor Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) meets comely Marcy Franklin (Rosanna Arquette) and on an impulse goes to her Soho apartment, ostensibly to buy a sculpture from Marcy’s roommate, Kiki. On the way, Paul loses his only money, a $20 bill, out the window of a cab.

Paul’s attempts to begin a romance with Marcy misfire and he begins to try to make his way back home with no money, which results in a series of weird misadventures during the course of what turns out to be a nightmare evening. Paul eventually ends up deposited in the early morning hours at his place of business having survived, but just barely.

Why it’s great: After Hours was directed by Martin Scorsese, who was looking for a fallback project after the commercial failure of The King of Comedy and the initial scuttling of his Last Temptation of Christ project. Shot on a low budget, with many young, up and coming actors, After Hours ended up being a modest success at the box office and gaining a cult reputation.

Scorsese ended up righting his career and directed The Color of Money shortly thereafter. Paul Hackett’s troubles in After Hours have a nightmare quality to them that takes the film out of the realm of a comedy and makes it a black comic thriller, more in the tradition of Hitchcock than Sturges or Wilder. See After Hours if you haven’t, because it is an enjoyable and well made film.


3. The Stunt Man (1980)

The Stunt Man (1981)

Plot: Cameron (Steve Railsback), who is on the run from the police, stumbles onto a war movie set and appears to cause the death of one of the stunt men. The film’s autocratic director, Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole) agrees to hide Cameron from the police if he will take the stunt man’s place. Cameron falls in love with the film’s beautiful star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) who begins to return his affections.

Cameron believes that Eli is putting him in increasingly dangerous situations as the film shoot goes on, possibly in retaliation for his amorous overtures to Nina. He and Nina agree to run off together, but only after Cameron has performed one last dangerous stunt for Eli in the film’s climactic scene.

Why it’s great: The Stunt Man received only a limited release in the U.S. in 1980, grossing a modest 7 million dollars. Featuring great performances from Peter O’Toole as the lunatic director Eli (based by O’Toole’s own admission on his Lawrence of Arabia director, David Lean) and Steve Railsback as Cameron,

The Stunt Man is a roller coaster ride in which the audience is never sure what is real and what is part of the fictional ‘film’ that is being shot. O’Toole was nominated for an Academy Award for best actor in the film, but critical reviews were mixed and The Stunt Man has been somewhat resigned to an unfair fate. The film is a fun and exciting adventure for audiences, well acted and directed and deserves to be seen if possible.


2. The Bedroom Window (1987)

The Bedroom Window (1987)

Plot: Terry Lambert (Steve Guttenberg) returns to his apartment from an office party with Sylvia (Isabelle Huppert) his boss’s wife. Later when Terry is in the bathroom, Sylvia witnesses a young woman being attacked by a red headed man outside of Terry’s bedroom window. Sylvia is unable to come forward as a witness since it will reveal she is having an affair with Terry, but after the news surfaces that another woman was killed nearby later that night, Terry contacts the police bravely and tells them he witnessed the incident.

Unable to pick the man out of a lineup, Terry follows the suspect and witnesses what he believes is another murder. In over his head now, Terry eventually becomes so deeply involved that he is suspected of the murders after Sylvia is killed, until Denise, the young woman (Elizabeth McGovern) originally attacked, agrees to help Terry clear himself by catching the real killer in the act.

Why it’s great: The Bedroom Window was a modest hit when it opened in 1987, but the film’s reputation has not grown much in the years since it was released and it seems unfairly neglected now. Owing much to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as well as Antonioni’s Blow Out and Coppola’s The Conversation, The Bedroom Window was directed by Curtis Hanson, who would go on to direct L.A. Confidential in 1997.

The sequence in which Terry and Sylvia rendezvous to discuss the situation at the Baltimore Aquarium recalls not only Hitchcock’s Sabotage, but also Orson Welles’ classic The Lady from Shanghai, another film about marital infidelity and murder. The Bedroom Window is a great thriller that keeps the audience on the edge of its seat until about the last twenty minutes, when the film falls apart as Terry and Denise try to trap the killer in a ridiculous, elaborate plan. Still, it can’t ruin what has been up until then a truly top notch thriller.


1. Thief (1981)


Plot: Frank (James Caan) is an ex-con and safe cracker who has used the proceeds from his jewelry heists to run several legitimate businesses. Frank is dating Jessie (Tuesday Weld), a cashier at one of his businesses, and he hopes to settle down with her. Frank comes into contact with Leo (Robert Prosky), a high level fence and member of the Chicago syndicate, and Frank eventually agrees to do a job for Leo that he hopes will set he and Jessie and their newly adopted baby son up for life.

The job goes well and makes a big score, but Leo denies Frank his full cut and kills his friend and associate Barry (Jim Belushi), telling Frank that he must continue to work for him for life or Leo will kill Jessie and his baby. Frank is outraged and he sends Jessie and the baby away before a final showdown with Leo and his henchmen.

Why it’s great: Although at the time it was barely noticed, Thief can now be viewed as having a unique style that influenced years of television and film throughout the 80’s and 90’s and into the new millennium. Directed by Michael Mann, who would go on to become the executive producer of the dominant police TV show of the 1980’s, Miami Vice, Thief featured a unique electronic music score by Tangerine Dream that established a moody musical style that was used extensively in years to come.

The visual style of Thief was also highly unique, featuring low lit nighttime scenes with a realistic cinema verite look. The film also introduced the world to a number of actors such as Dennis Farina, Robert Prosky, Jim Belushi and William Peterson who would become popular in the next few years on film and in television. In addition, Thief is a fine thriller and neo-noir film that is as entertaining as if was influential.

Author Bio: Jim Davidson is a 1980 graduate of Northwestern University’s Radio-TV-Film Dept. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been a video producer since 1987. Jim has written articles for Images Film journal and is currently working on a book about the movie Harold and Maude.