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14 overlooked horror and sci-fi movies of the '80s you need to stream

Contributed by
Nov 21, 2017

We all know that the 1970s was a golden age of sci-fi and horror cinema, but what about the decade that came after that?

Well, it turns out that while the '70s may have been a watershed era for both genres, the 1980s weren't too shabby either. Of course, we know the staples, ranging from sci-fi landmarks like The Empire Strikes Back, The Thing and Blade Runner to horror classics like Friday the 13th, Alien and The Fog. The Star Trek and Mad Max franchises hit their initial peaks as well, and the Back to the Future trilogy came damn close to hitting the trifecta. But the decade yielded up its share of overlooked and underrated gems as well, most if not all of them still just a click away to stream

Some of these films have not aged as well as others, of course, and a lot of them also have that special 1980s sheen (usually something to do with fashions or hair styles) that immediately mark them as products of that decade. But all of them are well worth another look. Check out some of these would-be or forgotten classics yourself and tell us if they hold up for you -- and perhaps we'll look into the succeeding decades in the months to come as well.

The Final Countdown (1980)

The U.S.S. Nimitz finds itself hurtled by a mysterious storm back in time to December 5th, 1941, just two days before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Does the crew of the aircraft carrier intervene in the attack and change the course of history? This is a classic time-travel scenario given a reasonably strong workout by a solid cast that includes Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Katharine Ross and Charles Durning. The ending is a disappointment, however, and doesn't allow the movie to fully explore the themes it raises (it was a few more years before a major motion picture embraced all the ramifications of time travel), keeping the film from becoming a true classic. (Watch here)

Altered States (1980)

What happens when renowned playwright/screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky (Network) and insane director Ken Russell (The Lair of the White Worm) make a sci-fi movie? You get Altered States, a mind-bending motion picture that positively revels in its own outlandishness (Chayefsky apparently took his name off the project because Russell didn't take the material as seriously as him). A fresh-faced William Hurt takes his first leading role as a researcher obsessed with finding the ultimate source of human consciousness, using deprivation tanks and tribal hallucinogenics to aid him on his quest as he first turns into an ape man and then a blob of primeval goo. The effects are wild for their time (and even, in some cases, hauntingly beautiful) with Russell and Hurt going all in for a total assault on the senses. (Watch here)

Outland (1981)

Sean Connery plays the new sheriff in town -- with "town" turning out to be a rough-as-hell mining colony on Jupiter's moon Io -- whose investigation of a series of bizarre deaths among the miners leads him into a head-on conflict with the station's greed-driven corporate overlords. Yes, writer/director Peter Hyams (2010) borrows the basic storyline from the classic Western High Noon -- but so what? It transfers quite well to space in this gritty, suspenseful thriller. Connery gives one of his better "wilderness years" performances (the era between Bond and winning the Oscar for The Untouchables), Hyams delivers remarkable visuals and the cramped, maze-like sets are terrifically rendered. A proposed remake has yet to materialize. (Watch here)

Dead and Buried (1981)

This quietly eerie tale of a town that harbors a macabre secret -- and where a series of murders leads to the corpses rising from the dead -- was directed by Gary Sherman, best known for his 1972 British subway shocker Death Line. The screenplay was credited to the Alien team of Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, although O'Bannon later disavowed the film and said Shusett wrote it on his own. Dead and Buried has its problems story-wise, but its vicious deaths, overall mood and superb performance by Jack Albertson (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) make this a cult item worth revisiting. (Watch here)

The Beyond (1981)

Italian director Lucio Fulci is best known in the U.S. for Zombie, one of the best knock-offs of the original 1978 Dawn of the Dead. A few years later, Fulci made something altogether more original with The Beyond, about a Louisiana hotel that serves as a gateway to hell. Fulci, never known for strong narratives, works with the thinnest of plot lines here, but he's not after a solid or even coherent story. Instead, The Beyond is a series of eerie and/or gruesome setpieces, including some truly morbid imagery, a gory series of deaths and a surreal ending. Is it a masterpiece? We're not sure. But it is a high-water mark of '80s horror that exerts a powerful sense of dread in almost every frame. (Watch here)

The Sender (1982)

This authentically creepy and little-seen horror film tackles some of the same ideas as A Nightmare on Elm Street, but arrived a full two years before Freddy Krueger hit the scene. Kathryn Harrold plays a psychiatrist whose newest patient (Zeljko Ivanek) may be a telepath capable of sending hallucinations into the minds of others. Things go from bad to worse when the unnamed patient’s frightening mother (Shirley Knight) shows up as well. Gripping and unsettling, this is the kind of film that people still remember years after seeing it – if they ever got a chance to see it at all. (Watch here)

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

This fourth feature from writer/director John Sayles -- one of America's foremost independent filmmakers at his peak -- takes a familiar genre premise and makes a witty social satire out of it. The plot is right out of The Outer Limits: an alien slave escapes his masters and lands on Earth, where he both studies and integrates himself into the culture until his captors come looking for him. The twist here is that the alien is both mute and black (and played with tremendous heart by Joe Morton) and serves as our window into various little vignettes that take small but scathing digs at society, racism and more. Sayles himself and David Strathairn play the Brother's pursuers in one of the more amusing aspects of this spot-on sci-fi comedy. (Watch here)

Night of the Comet (1984)

What do Valley Girls do when the end of the world is upon us? Go shopping, of course! At least that's what Reggie (Catherine Mary Stewart) and her younger sister Sam (Kelli Maroney) do after the tail of a passing comet leaves everyone either disintegrated or turned into zombies. But the girls can't spend too much time at the mall -- a group of surviving scientists is after them to learn why they made it through unscathed. As you can tell, Night of the Comet is a homage to B-movies of all kinds. Some of the humor misses the mark, but most of the time the movie makes the apocalypse quite funny and entertaining. (Watch here)

The Stuff (1985)

Writer/director Larry Cohen churned out some of the wildest indie horror and sci-fi flicks of the '70s and '80s, including the mutant baby classic It's Alive (1974) and the bizarre alien/religion thriller God Told Me To (1976). The Stuff is Cohen at his satirical best, working with a decidedly limited budget to tell the story of a strange, gooey substance that is being insidiously marketed to everyone as a new kind of dessert, but is actually an intelligence that takes over anyone who eats it. The Stuff is paranoid, subversive and -- dare we say it? -- a treat. (Watch here)

Enemy Mine (1985)

Based on a story by Barry Longyear, this movie has a history that sounds ripped from 2017: production began under a different director, was halted for almost a year, then resumed again under a different director who essentially started from scratch. Despite that troubled timeline, Enemy Mine works, thanks to the impressive production design and the dynamic between Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. as a human and alien respectively who are forced to work together to survive on an inhospitable planet -- even though the two races are at war. It may not be a great movie, but we could learn a thing or two from it these days. (Watch here)

The Quiet Earth (1986)

This is the kind of movie that people refer to as “cerebral science fiction.” A scientist (Bruno Lawrence) wakes up to discover that he is seemingly the only person left on Earth – and that the activation of a new, worldwide power grid that he was working on has caused the fabric of reality to shift in some unforeseen way. Produced in New Zealand, The Quiet Earth hits some eerie notes – particularly in its first half – but is hampered by some conventional melodramatics once other characters are introduced. The ending is either wonderfully surreal or frustratingly ambiguous, but in line with the thoughtful nature of the rest of the film. (Watch here)

The Hidden (1987)

This was a modest hit when it came out, and its reputation has grown over the years even if it looks a bit elderly now. Michael Nouri and Kyle MacLachlan (Twin Peaks) play a cop and FBI agent investigating a series of apparently unrelated crimes -- that turn out to be committed by an alien parasite jumping from one human host to another. Director Jack Sholder keeps things moving with lots of action, chases and plot twists, not to mention a nice sense of humor and good performances from his leads. In the rather small genre of "sci-fi cop buddy movie," it doesn't get much better than The Hidden. (Watch here)

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Directed by makeup legend Stan Winston, Pumpkinhead is a rather routine horror movie built around one of the coolest monsters of the 1980s. Lance Henriksen plays a rural storekeeper who gets a witch to unleash the title creature after his son is accidentally killed by a group of young people. Of course, once you let a demon out, it's hard to get it back inside again. While not written or acted particularly well (save for the reliable Henriksen and Florence Schauffer as the genuinely unsettling witch), Pumpkinhead does reflect on the cost of vengeance -- something not always seen in the reactionary old 1980s. And that monster is pretty awesome. (Watch here)

Miracle Mile (1989)

What would you do if you picked up a ringing phone and was told by the voice on the other end that nuclear missiles were just over an hour away? That is what happens in this tense and mournful thriller, which stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham as a man and woman for whom love at first sight is rudely interrupted when Edwards accidentally intercepts that terrifying phone call. As chaos erupts throughout Los Angeles when news of the alleged impending strike spreads, Edwards just wants to reunite with his newfound soulmate. It's dated-looking now, but Miracle Mile has built a bit of a cult following over the years for its urgency and boldly downbeat ending -- which writer/director Steve De Jarnatt had to fight to keep. (Watch here)