Disturbing Movies of the 1980s

There’s a real oddness at the core of many of the films from my childhood. Was I just young and impressionable or did the movies of the 1980s often delve into the disturbing side of life… sometimes in a very goofy way? It’s almost as if filmmakers of the 80s enjoyed exploring dark, unsettling themes, and yet couldn’t take them too seriously. The other main theme that comes up often, of course, is class division, often with a love story woven in. 

On this Halloween day, the very best of all the holidays, I’d like to revisit some of the strange and wonderful movies of my youth.

Heathers (1988): When I say “dark and twisted 80s teen flick” you say “Heathers!” Here you find the classic elements of a good 1980s high school drama – class warfare (popular kids vs. misfits), unlikely lovers – but with a murderous twist. Winona Ryder (of course!) plays the only non-Heather in a group of rich bitches. She falls for a mysterious sociopath played by none other than Christian Slater. Revenge is sweet until that pesky sense of right and wrong creeps in and it’s no longer clear who the good guys are.
A word about Winona: She was the ideal for a burgeoning alt girl such as me. Pretty yet a bit odd looking with her dark hair and pale angular face, she delivered all her lines like she was the smartest person in the universe and understood by no one.
Bonus: 1990’s Pump Up the Volume stars Slater again as a rebellious teen, this time doing pirate radio. Samantha Mathis plays the Winona character in this one and she is très cool. 

Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in Heathers

Winona Ryder and Christian Slater in Heathers

Stand By Me (1986): I had no idea Stephen King wrote this until I read his book On Writing in which he describes his childhood as being one of independence and [sometimes grim] adventure. Inspired by those times, this is the story of 4 boys (played by actors who all went on to major stuff, like fame, drug addiction and early death) who sneak off one summer to try and find the body of a dead boy. Having not watched Stand By Me since the 1980s, what stays with me now is an uneasy feeling and the sense that life is exciting yet scary. I unfortunately can’t think of a film in which girls embark on such an adventure. I must say that this is also a much more serious film than the others in this list; it is not hokey at all. It’s a master piece.

Beetlejuice (1988): Tim Burton before he got too serious made this delightful film starring Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis as a really nice deceased couple seeking help from a netherworld creature named Beetlejuice to scare off the disgusting yuppies who bought their house. These horrible people’s daughter Lydia, played by Winona Ryder (obviously), is the gloomy teen who not only is able to see the house’s ghosts, but also comes to their aid. The most inspired scene involves the dead duo using their very limited haunting powers to made an entire dinner table sing and dance to Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat. It’s gold!
Bonus: Edward Scissorhands (1990): For a slightly more emotionally intense Burton film, check out this weird story about a guy WITH SCISSORS FOR HANDS who cuts hair in the 1960s suburbs!!! Uh-hun. Winona is in this one too.

Witches of Eastwick (1987): Based on a John Updike novel, there’s no better premise and the casting is perfect in every way. Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Susan Sarandon are dissatisfied single women in a quaint New England town who are seduced by Lucifer himself, played by Jack Nicholson! It’s all sensual delights and good fun at first. But soon the three must summon their inner witchiness to beat the devil at his own game. The cherry pit vomit scene does leave a scar on the psyche, but I promise you’ll be mostly enchanted. 

Witches of Eastwick: It's all fun and games until you realise your lover is the actual devil!

Witches of Eastwick: It’s all fun and games until you realise your lover is the actual devil!

Vampire’s Kiss (1988): I did not see this gem until I was a young adult and I don’t think I would have been able to fully appreciate its amazing kookiness had I seen it at age 12 when it came out. In a brilliant performance, Nicolas Cage as a New York publishing exec gets bitten by a sexy lady vampire (Jennifer Beals) and believes he is also becoming undead. The psychosomatic transformation is hilarious and the way he loses it might be a comment on corporate America… but that could be reaching.
Bonus: For another tale of supernatural nuttiness set in New York’s publishing industry, check out 1994’s Wolf with Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and James Spader.

April Fool’s Day (1986): I’m not sure if the 80s were the heyday for horror flicks or if it’s just that this was the only time in my life I actually watched and enjoyed them. In any case, I used to go to the Co-op grocery store with my dad where they had VHS movies to rent and I always noticed the cover of this one. It is of a woman viewed from the back. She faces her friends who don’t see that she’s hiding a knife and that her hair is braided into a noose. One day, I finally rented it for a sleepover party. It was awesome! It has all the essential elements of a good teen horror flick: creepy remote location, pop-up frights, a little bit of sex, some humour, and a surprise ending.

Cry Baby (1990): This one doesn’t quite fit the mold because it’s from the twisted mind of John Waters. But the 1950s parody does incorporate all the best themes – class warfare (squares vs. drakes), rock n’ roll, and sexy times. Cry Baby Walker (Johnny Depp with a tear drop tattoo, no less) is the leader of a band of teenage misfits that includes his pregnant sister (played by Ricki Lake), a scary tough girl named Hatchet Face, and a sex kitten played by none other than former porn actress, Traci Lords. Iggy Pop also makes an appearance. Drama ensues when good girl Allison breaks out of her sh-boom sh-boom (yalalalalalala) bland existence to be with Cry Baby. Did I mention it’s a musical? Strange, cheesy, highly enjoyable.

Which films would you add to this list?


  1. What about the classic: The Lost Boys (1987) with Kiefer Sutherland? A Perfect Halloween movie with such corniness!

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