It was a time of neon colors; of spandex and pop music laced with synthesizers. And at the movies, audiences flocked to E.T., Back to the Future, the latest adventures from Indiana Jones, and the triumphs of underdogs like Rocky and The Karate Kid.
You can take some of the best movies from the 1980s, pop them on now, and enjoy them as excellent films, regardless of their release year. That’s not the case with every beloved ‘80s movie. Nostalgia’s a funny thing, and sentiments shared for popular movies tends to cloud our better judgments, allowing passion to affect taste. Now that several decades have passed between the release of these films and today, we’re able to recalibrate our opinions of accepted "hits" from the 1980s and realize, perhaps a little sheepishly, that there are movies that aren’t nearly as good as we once thought.
Let’s fire up the flux capacitor and revisit some gems from the ‘80s that just don’t hold up to scrutiny these days.
St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)
St. Elmo’s Fire, Joel Schumacher’s 1985 coming-of-age drama about a group of recent Georgetown University graduates struggling in the jump to adulthood, is one of those movies everyone hypes up, but when you start watching it, you discover it’s nothing but melodrama, self-absorbed characters, and some troubling subplots. Sure, it boasts an outstanding cast consisting of Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Andrew McCarthy, and three-fifths of The Breakfast Club, but they’re mostly wasted on overly-sappy (and problematic) stories. Save yourself some pain and suffering by watching John Hughes’ classic high school comedy, which came out just months earlier.
Howard The Duck (1986)
Howard the Duck failed to impress critics and audiences alike back in the summer of 1986, but the movie has become a cult classic in the decades following its release. The first live-action Marvel movie to land in theaters, this superhero comedy follows the titular anthropomorphic duck (Chip Zien) as he is transported from Duckworld to Cleveland, where all kinds of nonsense takes place. It’s got that “so bad it’s good” charm going for it, which does make it tolerable, but it would be cool to see a new version of the character (not just cameos in James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy franchise) to rectify the many issues with this one.
On Golden Pond (1981)
One thing that will continue to baffle me until my dying day is how anyone could think On Golden Pond was not only a good movie, but one that was good enough to win three Oscars. Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda both took home multiple awards for their portrayals of Ethel and Norman Thayer Jr., and Jane Fonda’s a talented actress in her own right, but Mark Rydell’s adaptation of the 1979 stage play of the same name is nothing but boring, overly-dramatic, soft-lit melodrama for the better part of two hours.
Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood is this great meditation on how a country turns its back on a Vietnam veteran (Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo) and disregards him as nothing more than a vagrant passing through a quiet Washington town. It has its action sequences, but it was far more dramatic and understated than what would follow. Its sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, directed by George P. Cosmatos, on the other hand, seems to miss the point of its predecessor and instead becomes an over-the-top and messy action spectacle. Is it fun to watch? Yes. But let’s not act like it’s even one of the best Rambo movies.
You could make an argument for Caddyshack being one of the best sports movies of all time, as well as one of the funniest movies of the ‘80s. Both of those claims are more true than they’re not, but can we just agree that Harold Ramis’ star-studded comedy is nothing more than a series of funny scenes loosely tied together? Don’t get me wrong, the movie has some iconic quotes that never get old, but you could just watch the best moments on YouTube and save yourself a couple of hours.
Weekend At Bernie’s (1989)
The idea behind Ted Kotcheff’s Weekend at Bernie’s probably sounded great at the pitch meeting. The ‘80s were a time of corporate ladder climbing, and the two entrepreneurs played by Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman would go to impossible lengths to make it in business – even carting their boss’ corpse around a beachfront paradise. But in execution, it’s a physical gag that can only last for so long, and the movie’s gallows humor concept goes from pitch black to dumb to bland before the credits roll. How this movie actually got a sequel is beyond me.
National Lampoon's European Vacation (1985)
On paper, it made complete sense. National Lampoon’s Vacation was incredibly popular, so another trip with Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold and the whole hilarious family was a no-brainer. Shift the location to Europe, then sit back and print the money. Yet, despite a few memorable lines ("Look kids! Big Ben. Parliament."), National Lampoon’s European Vacation was a slapdash series of middling skits tailored to each popular European location. A dog jumps off the Eiffel Tower. Clark backs into Stonehenge, knocking it over. By the time the storyline about an Italian thief kicks in, you’ll want to travel back home. It’s not the worst Vacation movie, but it’s certainly far from being the best.
Look Who’s Talking (1989)
Look Who’s Talking is kind of cute, for a few minutes. A baby with Bruce Willis’ voice as his inner monologue comments on the social practices of his single mom (Kirstie Alley) and the latest man in her life (John Travolta). But like all of those comedies that lean on a talking fill-in-the-blank (a dog, a cat, a baby) to deliver all of its jokes, Look Who’s Talking wears out its welcome when it needs to move a story along.
Alley and Travolta have no chemistry to speak of, and Willis’ punchlines – penned by director Amy Heckerling – are amateur hour efforts that needed a punch up. Remarkably, Look produced two sequels! They weren’t nearly as good as this first movie… and this first movie’s pretty damn bad.
Friday The 13th (1980)
The one that started it all… except, in hindsight, it’s not that good. We probably don’t need a spoiler alert for a 43-year-old movie, but the original Friday the 13th didn’t involve the hockey-masked camp-counselor killer, Jason Voorhees. Rather, the series started off with his angry mother (Betsy Palmer) lashing out at the lazy teenagers she blames for her son’s death.
This is a matter of preference, but I thought the Friday the 13th series started finding its groove once Jason picked up his machete – to name one weapon – and started administering horror-movie vengeance on not-so-innocent victims. And, I thought the franchise got better as it got bloodier, grislier and, yes, more ridiculous (in a fun way). The 1980 film launched a legendary franchise and all-time great horror icon, but most sequels improved on this initial seed.
Police Academy (1984)
Studios, in the ‘80s, were desperate for the next Animal House. They all wanted to replicate the Slobs vs. Snobs formula, to pit outcasts against the establishment somehow, and the idea of setting that story in a police academy is inspired. But, the colorful characters assembled for Police Academy far outshine the sophomoric jokes propping up the screenplay – credited to five writers. George Gaynes warms your heart as the clueless Commandant Lassard. Michael Winslow milked his gimmick as the walking sound-effects machine. And Steve Guttenberg is legitimately great. However, Police Academy, as a movie, is not that good… and the formula thinned out considerably from sequel to sequel.
Cocktail ran on one of the cable stations a few years ago, and I started watching it from the get-go. However, it quickly became clear that Roger Donaldson’s…comedy (drama? romance?) had very little going for it beyond Tom Cruise’s megawatt smile and that cool visual trick of the spinning bottles. In all honesty, other movies have come to the screen powered by less.
The one thing that holds Cocktail back – and it’s a problem many alcohol-themed movies run into – is that there are endless scenes of people having a good time (in neon-drenched bars, in Jamaica, where Cruise romances Elisabeth Shue), but we’re not having fun. Can someone spin a bottle again, because Bryan Brown’s subplot about his professional conflicts with Cruise put me to sleep.
Man, Andrew McCarthy loved picking mediocre comedies with ridiculous concepts. In Mannequin, as you might imagine, the spirit of an ancient Egyptian is transported into the "body" of a department-store mannequin. Along the way, the mannequin designer (McCarthy) falls in love with his latest creation… who happens to be the beautiful Egyptian. They team up to create beautiful window displays, all set to the Oscar-nominated music of Jefferson Starship. The problem is that most music videos have more plot than Mannequin, and while McCarthy and Kim Cattrall were cute together, and James Spader gives a great performance, the movie’s a sappy, sloppy mess.
Mommie Dearest (1981)
Our family still doesn’t use wire hangers or clean the bathrooms with Comet because of this damn movie. There’s "camp," and then there’s Mommie Dearest, the based-on-horrible-but-true accounts of Christina Crawford’s abused childhood under the demanding eye of Joan Crawford (played without an ounce of restraint by Faye Dunaway).
An unintentional comedy, Mommie Dearest has become a how-to manual for awful parents – my favorite scene is Joan beating Christina in a swimming race, then explaining how the daughter will never beat her mother because she’s not strong enough. Aside from a few ludicrously overblown scenes, the hazy biopic struggles to hold our interest, painting with far-too-broad strokes as it creates a Hollywood monster out of a supposed icon.
Short Circuit (1986)
Short Circuit is sort of like Chappie… only, 30 years later, audiences knew better and just skipped the movie about the emotional robot, altogether. Steve Guttenberg and Ally Sheedy (both of whom seemed to appear in just about everything for a stretch of years) find an experimental military robot constructed for use during the Cold War who comes to "life" after being struck by lightning.
Mixing E.T. with Pinocchio (and several other easy sources), Short Circuit charmed audiences at the time. The film’s clunky comedy and Cold War "tensions" – which director John Badham also explored in WarGames – make it a time-capsule relic that’s dated and dull. Like so many movies on this list, Short Circuit benefitted from having a hit song, "Who’s Johnny," that likely helped sell more tickets than was necessary.
Breakin’ / Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
Steven Spielberg gets a lot of credit – and deservedly so – for putting out two movies in the same year. Few can wrap their brain around being able to deliver Amistad and The Lost World: Jurassic Park in the same year, let alone Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can or Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. So I’ll applaud the producers behind the Breakin’ films for cranking out back-to-back breakdancing movies… even if both of them are unspeakably bad.
Both Breakin’ and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo captured a movement relevant to this time. They are to the 1980s what the Step Up movies are to the 2000s. And Electric Boogaloo has become the default joke for ANY movie that gets an unwarranted sequel. The acting, direction and screenwriting in both films is atrocious, and the movies are so awful that you can’t even entertain yourself by making fun of them. Moonwalk into another decade, and hope for better results.
These aren’t the worst movies of the ‘80s (for the most part, anyway), but none is as good as memory or hype would lead you to believe. If you want to know about all the upcoming releases after taking off those rose-tinted glasses, check out our 2023 movie schedule.
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Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Sean created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.