The 80s might have brought us some of the most iconic films of all time, but the decade also gave us some of the most bizarre. From a giant talking duck to murderous circus clowns, some of the wackiest movies came out of the 80s. Of course, that’s not to say that there aren’t any strange films today, but weirdo 80s films just have a way of getting under your skin.
To honour these oft-forgotten works of art, we’ve compiled a list of the most bizarre films from the 80s. They’re all real, we promise.
20. Cat People
The original 1942 version of Cat People is a strange tale of women transforming into murderous panthers, but the Paul Schrader-directed remake dials the weirdness up to eleventeen. The film follows zoologists trying to figure out the link between crime scenes featuring rabid leopards and puddles of human flesh.
Soon enough, Nastassja Kinski’s character discovers she is a member of a family of were-cats who assume feral female form when they have sex, and that this curse can only be broken if she has sex with her brother Malcolm McDowell. It’s not surprising that the filmmakers have admitted a lot of cocaine was used during production.
1988’s Beetlejuice gave Michael Keaton (up to that point a relatively grounded comedy actor) his most outlandish role yet as the ghostly ‘bio-exorcist’ who offers his services to scare off the living from the homes of other ghosts. The recently deceased Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis summon him to get their house back, but quickly come to regret it.
On top of having an outlandish premise, Beetlejuice is one of the most visually striking and unusual films of the 80s, with a garish colour scheme, strange abstract shapes, alarming make-up jobs and old-fashioned special effects used to bring director Tim Burton’s bizarre vision to life. The film ran the risk of being too weird for most audiences, but ultimately proved an enduring hit.
18. The Pit
Weird horror movies were by no means in short supply back in the 80s, but few got quite so weird as 1981 Canadian production The Pit. This thoroughly odd movie centres on a hormonally charged 12-year-old loner who discovers that flesh-eating monsters he names ‘trogs’ live in a pit in the woods near his home.
The film is also known as Teddy, due to the fact that the best and only friend of young protagonist Jamie (Sammy Snyders) is his teddy bear, who literally speaks to him and tells him to feed people to the monsters. Way too peculiar for the wider audience back when it was first released, The Pit/Teddy has since developed a bit of a cult following.
17. Return to Oz
Admit it: you weren’t at all surprised to see this film on the list. Return to Oz is a film responsible for the nightmares of an entire generation, and is a far cry from Judy Garland’s 1939 classic. How nightmarish, you ask? Well, it reveals that Dorothy was thought to be delusional after her initial adventures in Oz, and has been sent to a psychiatric hospital for electroshock therapy.
When Dorothy attempts to escape the hospital, she wakes up in Oz, where her companions are no longer an adorably bashful lion and a neurotic scarecrow, but a robot and a pumpkin-headed monstrosity. Soon afterwards we meet the menacing Wheelers with wheels for hands and feet, Princess Mombi with her collection of severed heads, and the evil Nome King. It’s seriously creepy, even for adults.
16. Howard the Duck
After the gargantuan success of the Star Wars and Indiana Jones movies, George Lucas had the power to get a green light for just about anything, as proven by the utterly bizarre 1986 sci-fi comedy Howard the Duck. It may have been the first major movie based on a Marvel comic, but this was no Avengers: Endgame.
Centred on an alien duck-man mysteriously transported to Earth, Howard the Duck features a creepy-looking central character and an even creepier sense of humour. The level of raunchy adult humour is uncomfortable for a family-oriented movie, and it’s even more uncomfortable given the sexual overtones to the relationship between Howard and Lea Thompson’s Beverly.
15. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie
The Garbage Pail Kids were a unique sensation in the 80s. An uproarious pastiche of the popular, wholesome Cabbage Patch Kids, the grotesque characters were the basis for a top-selling trading card line. Not the most likely candidates for a live-action feature, but this was the 80s, so that’s what we got.
The movie sees The Garbage Pail Kids come to Earth in a garbage can spaceship, where they intervene in a fight between a child and some bullies, and eventually end up in a prison for ugly people that counts Santa Claus, Gandhi and Abraham Lincoln among its inmates. Believe it or not, the movie’s even more ridiculous than it sounds.
14. Killer Klowns from Outer Space
“IT’S CRAAZZY!” So says the poster for 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space, and there’s no denying that it does what it says on the tin. The film features a group of vicious aliens who happen to resemble clowns, travelling in a spaceship that happens to resemble a circus tent. They arrive on Earth and massacre a small town.
The aliens also use an arsenal of circus-themed weaponry, encasing their victims in a cotton candy-like substance and dispatching people with popcorn. Stephen King’s It may be the big daddy of the creepy clown horror stories, but Killer Klowns from Outer Space still offers ample nightmare fuel for all the coulrophobia-sufferers out there.
When we think about 80s movies involving loveable robots, Short Circuit is probably the first that comes to mind – but there was also Heartbeeps, the 1981 romantic comedy which casts legendary comedian Andy Kaufman and Broadway star Bernadette Peters as two robots who fall in love.
Along the way, the robot couple even decide to start a family by building their own ‘son’ out of spare parts, whose voice is provided by Jerry Garcia of rock band The Grateful Dead. It might not surprise you that Heartbeeps proved to be a box office disaster, but nonetheless it was among the nominees for the very first Best Makeup Oscar in 1982 (losing to An American Werewolf in London).
Canadian director David Cronenberg has been synonymous with bizarre, boundary-pushing horror ever since the mid-70s, and 1983’s Videodrome might well be his most memorably strange work. James Woods stars as a cable TV executive looking for more extreme material, who discovers Videodrome, a pirate TV channel broadcasting seemingly real scenes of sex and violence.
The more viewers watch of these scenes, the more it literally warps their minds, blurring the lines between reality and nightmare. We see limbs protrude from TV screens and tapes inserted into torsos – and those are just some of the milder moments. Videodrome is an intelligent and sophisticated horror film, but there’s no escaping its overwhelming weirdness.
11. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
After finding huge popularity on TV, comedy actor Paul Reubens brought his character Pee-wee Herman to the big screen in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. This was also the first film of director Tim Burton, whose oddball sensibilities lined up well with those of Reubens, so it’s hardly surprising the film wound up being pretty weird.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure sees our hero lose his bicycle, and go through all manner of absurd scenarios trying to get it back. Along the way he encounters ghosts, psychics and escaped convicts, rescues animals from a burning pet shop, and accidentally becomes a rodeo bull rider. ‘Madcap’ seems a pretty word to describe it all.
10. The Ninth Configuration
The Exorcist writer William Peter Blatty made his directorial debut with this 1980 film which didn’t come close to enjoying the same level of success. It’s hardly surprising that The Ninth Configuration wasn’t a hit, as it’s not exactly an easy sell: the film blends slapstick comedy, dark psychological drama and hints of religious experience to strange yet compelling effect.
The story follows an astronaut who suffers a psychotic break, and is sent to a remote castle which has been repurposed as a military mental hospital, mostly filled with deranged Vietnam veterans. Stacy Keach plays Kane, the military psychiatrist assigned to treat the patients – but it turns out he’s the most troubled of them all.
9. The Toxic Avenger
Simultaneously lauded as “a silly and ribald superhero spoof” and damned as “too self-consciously parodic to be good kitsch,” The Toxic Avenger was the breakthrough movie of notorious indie studio Troma. It sees a harassed nerd transformed into a goopy monster-hero after an accident at a health club.
Pitched as a ‘splatter’ film, The Toxic Avenger is one-part superhero satire and two-parts gross-out physical effects, all set in a fictional New Jersey town. It proved a surprising hit, launching a long-running franchise, a 90s children’s cartoon series (alarmingly), and even a stage musical adaptation. There’s also a remake on the way starring Peter Dinklage, Elijah Wood and Kevin Bacon.
8. Earth Girls Are Easy
Earth Girls Are Easy might not rank among the biggest movies of the 80s (it returned a dismal $3.9 million on an estimated $10 million budget), but it certainly ranks among its wackiest. It may reunite The Fly actors (and real-life couple) Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis, but it’s an extremely different film.
A musical sci-fi comedy, Earth Girls Are Easy stars Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans as colourful furry aliens who touch down on our world, meet Geena Davis, and quickly develop an interest in human women. While some would consider Davis a casting coup for such a bizarro film, the role had in fact first been offered to 80s stalwarts like Molly Ringwald and Madonna, who for some reason turned it down.
7. The Dark Crystal
After the huge success of the light-hearted, kid-friendly Muppets, no one expected The Jim Henson Company to veer off in such a strange and sinister direction as they did with 1982’s The Dark Crystal. The first feature film to exclusively focus on puppets, it presents an often nightmarish vision of a bizarre fantasy world.
The Dark Crystal depicts the conflict between the innocent Gelfings and the malevolent Skeksis, centred on the all-powerful crystal of the title. Widely criticised on release for being far too dark and scary for its target audience, The Dark Crystal later proved popular on home video and TV, and recently spawned Netflix prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance.
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
1988 sci-fi comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure proved to be a franchise-launching hit that led to sequels, a cartoon, a live-action TV series and even a breakfast cereal, as well as making Keanu Reeves a star. Even so, when you go back and look at the film that started it all, it’s hard not to gape at how unbelievably weird and silly it all is.
After all, the crux of the film is that two teenage dimwits form a rock band which, centuries later, provides the basis of a utopian society. Because the band’s future hinges on the duo passing high school history, they are provided with a time-travelling phone booth which they can use to do research for their final report. Written down like that, it’s hard to deny the premise is – well – utterly absurd.
The second and last feature film of director and groundbreaking special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, Brainstorm is a mix of conspiracy thriller and full-on science fiction, centred on an experimental device which can record and play back the memories and mental experiences of the wearer.
It’s a bizarre premise, and Brainstorm is of course only made more bizarre by the casting of Christopher Walken, the man who can make any word sound like a question, in the leading role. As scientist Michael Brace, Walken really Walkens it up as he becomes addicted to the machine, and tries to use it to find definitive proof of an afterlife.
1981 was a busy year for werewolf movies, producing the still-popular horror hits The Howling and An American Werewolf in London. Less well remembered is Wolfen, an adaptation of Whitley Strieber’s novel which casts Albert Finney (complete with an eye-opening hair piece) as a detective whose murder investigation leads him down an occult path.
It soon becomes apparent that the murder was not committed by any mortal man, but by the ‘Wolfen,’ Native Americans who can exchange their souls with wolves. There’s a lot of strange and sinister stuff going on in the film, but by today’s standards Wolfen is hard to watch without wincing at the blatant overtones of racism.
3. How to Get Ahead in Advertising
Underrated British satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising stars Richard E. Grant as Dennis Dimbleby Bagley, a morally conflicted advertising executive who suffers a breakdown while marketing pimple cream. The film truly takes a turn for the absurd when one of Bagley’s pimples, treated by the cream, grows a face and an attitude. What it’s missing, however, is a code of ethics.
The presence of a parasitic growth isn’t anything new in cinema, but the macabre conclusion of the film is certainly more horror than comedy (let’s just say it involves lancing some boils). According to Grant, fellow weirdo actor Jim Carrey described his performance as “genius,” and it’s easy to see why Carrey might have been attracted to the outlandish film.
2. Conan the Destroyer
Before The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed a major breakthrough with 1982’s sword and sorcery hit Conan the Barbarian. This was intended to spawn an ongoing franchise, but these plans were quickly derailed by the critical and commercial failure of 1984’s strange and silly sequel Conan the Destroyer.
Intended as a more family-friendly film after the adults-only action of the original, Conan the Destroyer trades grit and gore for often painfully goofy humour and broad theatrics. Schwarzenegger is joined by an oddball ensemble including Grace Jones, on typically over-the-top form as a near-feral warrior woman, and one of the major action set pieces involves a battle with Andre the Giant in laughable monster make-up.
1. Teen Wolf Too
1985’s Teen Wolf is bizarre enough. Michael J Fox stars as a shape-shifting basketball wannabe who ends up using his lycanthropic powers to shoot some rad hoops. Often forgotten, however, is its even-more-bizarre sequel, Teen Wolf Too [sic], which casts Jason Bateman in his film debut as the cousin of Fox’s character.
To all intents and purposes it’s the exact same film as the original, except it’s set in college rather than high school, and where Fox played basketball, Bateman is a boxer, who discovers he too has the werewolf gene. While the set-up may have had a certain charm the first time around, Teen Wolf Too veers between being silly to being just plain boring. Small wonder Bateman has long since expressed regret about making the film.