Patrick Bromeley is Editor-in-chief at @fthismovie. Contributor at @dailydeadnews, Deadly Magazine and @aboutdotcom. Champion of the ambitious failure. Check him out on twitter at @PatrickBromley.
1985 was a great year for movies. While there are a lot of movies I love from that year — including my favorite film of all time (spoilers: it’s Back to the Future) — so many of the movies I love from ’85 don’t get the attention they deserve. That’s why I’m so appreciative of sites like Rupert Pupkin Speaks; not only am I getting a chance to talk about some of my favorite underrated movies of that year, but I’m also being introduced to dozens of new movies I might not have heard of otherwise on a daily basis.American Drive-In? Streetwalkin’? How have I not seen these yet? You better believe it’s something I plan to rectify fast.
1. Lifeforce (1985; Tobe Hooper)
I thought I’d start with this one, as it’s probably the film least considered “underrated” on the list. The years have been kind(er) to Tobe Hooper’s insane space vampire movie (based on the novel and originally titled…you guessed it…The Space Vampires), and Scream Factory helped legitimize its reputation with their 2013 Blu-ray release of the film. And yet when I tell people that I have always genuinely loved Lifeforce, I still get funny looks. What gives? The fact that the studio cut the film down and replaced the Henry Mancini score with one by Michael Kamen probably didn’t help the general assessment ofLifeforce when it first came out, but Hooper’s restored version has been available on DVD (and now Blu-ray) for years, allowing everyone to see just what a crazy, good, crazy good movie it is.
Lifeforce has a scope and ambition beyond anything else Hooper ever did and even beyond just about anything else Cannon Films was doing at the time. Of course, they paid dearly for it; the movie grossed less than half of its $25 million budget and added another nail in the coffin of Hooper’s mainstream directing career. That’s too bad, because Hooper remains one of my favorite directors and this one of his best movies. Most people only remember it as the movie in which Mathilda May walks around naked; while I can’t blame them, there is so much more to Lifeforce than that. This is a film that opens with giant rubber bats in outer space and ends with the destruction of London at the hands of a zombie apocalypse. It was so far ahead of its time that it’s no wonder audiences took years to finally catch up to it. I’m so glad they did.
2. Thunder Alley (1985; J.S. Cardone)
There are a ton of movies about bands forming and climbing/struggling/clawing their way to the top. J.S. Cardone’s Thunder Alley gets it more right than most. Roger Wilson of Porky’s plays Richie, a shy farm kid who is convinced by his friend Donnie (Scott McGinnis) to play guitar in his band, fronted by egomaniacal Skip, played by Leif Garrett. Naturally as the band gains more and more success, tensions rise — between Richie and Skip, who feels threatened by someone getting more attention than him, and between Richie and Donnie, who is falling deeper and deeper into drug addiction. Wilson is more than a little bland in the lead, but Clancy Brown does good, understated work as the group’s new manager and Jill Schoelen (!) is on hand as Richie’s adoring/adorable girlfriend. The music is great and the live scenes have an energy and immediacy to them lacking from a lot of other band movies — maybe because the actors either really know how to play or are better than most at faking it.
3. Smooth Talk (1985; Joyce Chopra)
How are more people not talking aboutSmooth Talk? This underseen ’85 drama (based on the Joyce Carol Oates story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”) features two incredible performances from a very young Laura Dern as a rebellious teenager and Treat Williams as the older man who preys upon her. While I have never been a teenage girl myself (save for one week in the early ‘90s), this movie is one of the best I’ve ever seen at capturing what I assume itfeels like to be a young woman, desperate to grow up and experience your idea of freedom and unaware of the power you hold over people.
The relationship between Dern and her mother (played by Mary Kay Place) is one of the best depictions of those difficult teenage years ever put on screen. Smooth Talk is so good that it would be a great movie even without the last half hour, during which Treat Williams shows up for a hypnotic,haunting and ultimately horrifying scene that takes the movie to a whole new level of good. Plus, it’s got Elizabeth Berridge, star of The Funhouse in it (if you’re keeping score, that’s my very favorite Tobe Hooper movie ahead of Lifeforce). Despite winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, the movie played in two theaters for one week and grossed a total of $16,000. HOW IS THIS RIGHT?
4. Radioactive Dreams (1985; Albert Pyun)
I am an unabashed fan of prolific genre director Albert Pyun, particularly his work in the ’80s — movies like Dangerously Close, Vicious Lips and Cyborg. This is one of his best. John Stockwell and Michael Dudikoff play brothers who are stashed away in a bomb shelter during nuclear war, spending the next 15 years reading old detective stories and listening to big band and swing music. When they finally reemerge into the post-apocalyptic wasteland, they are men out of time, chased by mutants and bikers and even monsters while guarding the keys to the last remaining nuclear missile. Combining Pyun’s usual predilection for post-apocalyptic sci-fi with his smoke-filled MTV visuals and two charming lead performances, Radioactive Dreamsis an anachronistic blast. This one never even got a DVD release in the U.S., but I’m still holding out hope for a possible Blu-ray in the future. I love it.
5. Warning Sign (1985; Hal Barwood)
This is the only feature film ever directed by screenwriter Hal Barwood, the guy who wrote Sugarland Express,Corvette Summer and Dragonslayer. Part outbreak movie, part siege film and part zombie movie, Warning Signrefuses to be tied down to just one genre as it tells the story of a lethal chemical virus that infects a top secret military research lab, which is immediately put under quarantine. Pregnant security guard Kathleen Quinlan is trapped inside with the infected while her husband, County Sheriff Sam Waterston, works to get her out. The great cast of character actors also includes Yaphet Kotto, G.W. Bailey, Rick Rossovich (because 1985) and Jeffrey DeMunn years before Frank Darabont andWalking Dead fans realized he’s the best.
The movie is effective because it’s completely unpredictable — we’re never sure who’s going to live and who’s going to die — and because it keeps shifting gears and becoming something else just when you think you’ve got a handle on where it’s going. It’s pity Harwood turned his attention to video games and never directed another film, as he does such a good job here of generating suspense and mixing all the best elements of the genres to which he’s paying tribute. If The Andromeda Strain, Assault on Precinct 13 and Day of the Dead made a baby, it would beWarning Sign.