We can be forgiven for forgetting. Our 24/7 streaming reality inflates our watchlists to bursting as new movies rise and fall without ever blipping our radar (Michelle Williams does Marvel Movies now? They made another Godzilla?).
Why should we care about four-decades-gone cinematic detritus that missed out on the sort of immortality thrust upon The Breakfast Club and Karate Kid? Well, for a darker take on the ubiquitous High School Movie. For Sean Penn’s first serious role. For David Byrne’s life lessons on the path to wonder. Or for a neuroscientist rockstar saving us all from interdimensional aliens. When the hour is late and everything new feels too franchised and self-aware, dip into these obscure ‘80s movies that time forgot, and forget no more.
Streets of Fire (1984)
Motorcycle gangs? Yes. Underground nightclubs? Also yes. A sledgehammer duel? You better believe it. Set in a Blade Runner meets The Wild One dystopia, Streets of Fire centers on a kidnapped singer and the ex-boyfriend who goes up against the thugs who took her (thugs lead by Willem Dafoe in PVC overalls). Look for plenty of engine revving, fiery explosions, no sunshine, bit parts from Lee Ving and Bill Paxton, and a healthy dose of rock and roll.
The Legend of Billie Jean (1985)
Put Christian Slater and the guy from Christine in an ‘80s movie with Pat Benatar and Billy Idol on the soundtrack and it’s not a stratospheric hit? Whaa? Supergirl Helen Slater (no relation to Christian) stars as the eponymous protagonist who goes on the lam and chops off her hair (gasp!) after an accidental shooting. She quickly becomes an outlaw folk hero, which makes The Legend of Billie Jean feel like an ‘80s after school special precursor to Natural Born Killers.
Three O’Clock High (1987)
It should rank up there with Sixteen Candles and Ferris Buller’s Day Off but Three O’Clock High just didn’t get the love. The elements are there: an underdog kid, a leather-clad delinquent, eccentric friends, unjust authority figures—it’s even got Tangerine Dream on the dang soundtrack and Barry Sonnenfeld working the camera. It’s endearing. It’s stylish. If you can remember an epically bad day in high school, you’ll appreciate this take.
True Stories (1986)
We might see a soulless suburban shopping mall. David Byrne sees fascination and wonder at the ingenuity of humanity. You too can obtain a Daivd Byrne sense of wonder simply by watching his only directorial effort. To give it some form of plot, True Stories follows a nameless man in a cowboy hat (Byrne) as he encounters various residents of Virgil, Texas who are preparing for the town’s “Celebration of Specialness.” Really, it’s a series of case studies, finding the beauty encased in the mundane, the surreality folded into the ordinary. If you watch one movie from this list, make it this one.
Black Rain (1989)
With the moodiness (and director) of Blade Runner, a score by master composer Han Zimmer, and the acting chops of Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia, and Japan’s Ken Takakura, Black Rain should be up there with Die Hard and Untouchables in our collective memories. Lamentably, it’s not. When a New York cop and his partner bring an extradited Yakuza killer back to Japan, he escapes, forcing the American cops and the Osaka police to work together to return the fugitive to justice.
The Gate (1987)
The parents are gone, the teenagers are throwing parties, and the kids are left to their own devices. Naturally, they inadvertently open a gate to hell. Demons large and small, impersonating the dead and the living alike, infiltrate the parentless home until the kids gather their wits and close the hole. Generically bad heavy metal, inventive special effects, and a low gore quotient make for an almost family friendly foray into the horror genre that’s a heck of a lot of fun.
Prince Of Darkness (1987)
Between his cult classics Big Trouble in Little China and They Live, John Carpenter directed this forgotten fright fest. This time around, the big baddie is none other than Satan himself, whose essence was long ago captured in a goo-filled vial. Bringing Halloween’s Donald Pleasance along for the ride, Prince of Darkness is deftly crafted to heighten the surreality and tension until it scares bejesus out of you.
Bad Boys (1983)
It seems our memory slot for Bad Boys has been filled with the 1995 Will Smith/Martin Lawrence buddy cop movie of the same name. Instead of cops, these bad boys are actual criminals, juvie inmates with a propensity for violence. And instead of wise-cracking buddy banter, we get broken second chances and youth turned to despair. Raw and wrenching, it’s worth a spin for Sean Penn’s brilliant post-Spicoli performance.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
Bizarre and surreal and bright and flashy, it’s somewhat criminal that this sci-fi mashup isn’t permanently lodged in our collective memories. Starring Peter Weller as a scientist/pilot/rock star (yes) who must save the planet from evil aliens, the culty classic combines super neon special effects, warpspeed pacing, and a complex and involved plot that guesses at the encyclopedic MCU, GoT-style mythologies to come.
Slam Dance (1987)
No list of underrated movies is complete without a stylish noir. Slam Dance follows a cartoonist who gets tangled up with a call girl who ends up dead. Naturally, he’s the prime suspect in this low-fi erotic thriller. Slam Dance didn’t get the same attention as the many other titles in the genre (Fatal Attraction, Body Heat, No Way Out, Against All Odds—the ‘80s were a good decade for sex, lies, and murder) but it sets an eerie underground mood and isn’t afraid to let things get weird.