20 Of The Most Bizarre 80s Films
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 the films of today aren’t just as strange (Swiss Army Man, anyone?), but weirdo 80s films just have a way of getting under your skin with strange antics, experimental lighting and stilted acting galore.
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
It’s not like 1982’s Cat People is the first remake that disappointed, but it’s also a film that really should never have been remade in the first place.
The 1942 version is a strange tale of women transforming into murderous panthers, but the Paul Schrader-directed remake takes the questionable elements of the wartime original and dials the weirdness up to eleventeen.
In fact, the very first scene has a panther mate with a sacrificial (and very human) maiden, as if anyone really wanted to think too deeply about how Cat People came to be.
And yet it gets stranger still. What follows is a cat-and-mouse tale of zoologists trying to figure out the link between crime scenes featuring rabid leopards and puddles of human flesh.
Oh, and along the way there are revelations about incest, offers to commit more incest, rampant limblessness and a mysterious green gas.
It’s no wonder, then, that the lyrics to the film’s theme song were written and performed by David Bowie, the 80s’ king of weird.
In the early 80s, Michael Keaton was best known as a comedic actor, and for relatively mainstream fare. While Night Shift, his film debut, was about the weird-adjacent life of a morgue worker, 1983’s Mr Mom was another entry in the well-worn tradition of a man struggling in a woman’s world. (Just how do those ladies do it? Pause for laughter.)
1988’s Beetlejuice, therefore, was a shade more manic than audiences were used to from Keaton. Starring as the titular demon, Keaton brings an ironic vitality to this story of ghosts and murder plots.
The actor would undergo another about-face with 1989’s Batman, also helmed by Tim Burton, but nothing in his career can compare to the sheer weirdness of Beetlejuice.
That’s not to suggest that Keaton is the only bizarre part of the film. Whether it’s Winona Ryder’s goth antics, or the delirious dancing to the Banana Boat song, the film is a rollicking ride through the downright odd.
It’s remarkable that such a famed cast ever signed on to such a film: alongside Keaton and Ryder, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Catherine O’Hara star. And did somebody say Robert Goulet?
Thankfully, the studio’s gamble on a sophomore director in Burton paid off – the film was a critical and commercial success, and was recently adapted into a stage musical.
18. The Pit
The 80s was a pioneering era for science fiction, from The Empire Strikes Back to latter-day classics like The Running Man. However, it wasn’t just the futuristic films that got pumped full of weird-juice, as evidenced by the decade’s mountain of horror films.
1981’s The Pit was hardly a box office smash, but what it lacked in ticket sales is more than made up for in straight-up strangeness. For one thing, it also goes by the title Teddy, which you might think says enough already.
Not so, as no one could have predicted that The Pit is in fact about a sexually frustrated, inter-pubescent boy who is encouraged by his stuffed animal to commit murder by luring unsuspecting victims to a hole full of flesh-eating monsters.
However, once Jamie Benjamin accidentally lands his babysitter in the pit, he frees the ‘Tra-la-logs’ to murder as they please.
The babysitter is played by Jeannie Elias, who went on to star as Pugsley Addams in the 90s cartoon version of The Addams Family, among several dozen other voice acting credits.
Sam Snyders, who plays Jamie Benjamin, has since retired from acting and become a dance teacher. Still, it’s inadvisable to follow him or anyone into the woods on the promise of an amazing hole.
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 the Technicolor wonder of Judy Garland’s 1939 classic.
How nightmarish, you ask? Well, Return to Oz 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.
Oz has been taken over by the villainous Nome King – it seems there really is no place like Nome – who has elevated Princess Mombi. Mombi, in case you’re wondering, has a remarkable collection of severed heads, and would like to add Dorothy’s to her exhibit.
Wheelers, humanoid creatures with wheels instead of hands and feet, roam the streets, and all of the munchkins have been turned to stone.
Return to Oz originated as a ploy by Disney to keep the movie rights to Frank L Baum’s stories, and bombed at the box office. Unsurprisingly, for something so terrifyingly inventive, it has since garnered a cult following.
16. Howard the Duck
After the success of his sophomore film, American Graffiti, George Lucas set his sights on a revolutionary science fiction project, the likes of which would still have a cult status decades later.
No, not Star Wars. We’re talking about Howard the Duck, the first theatrically-released Marvel film that eventually limped into theatres in 1986.
Lucas served as executive producer on the project, and Industrial Light & Magic constructed the ambitious strobe effects. What effects couldn’t save, however, was a bizarre plot and a frightening central character.
Howard the Duck lives on Duckworld, but is then sucked across the universe to Earth, for reasons only explained towards the end of the film. He gets a girlfriend who performs in a band, beats up thugs, and enlists the help of a janitor to get back home.
The Duck himself was portrayed alternately by a child actor and a dwarf actor, neither of whom enjoyed the experience; plus, the voice actor for the role wasn’t hired until after shooting concluded, meaning syncing up the movements of his bill and the voice track proved troublesome.
Howard the Duck was a critical and commercial failure; if you went back in time and described how Marvel has come to dominate cinema in the years since, Howard the Duck viewers would have laughed you out of the room. All four of them.
15. The Garbage Pail Kids Movie
Parody characters rarely make for good films, but it’s fair to say that the Garbage Pail Kids were a unique sensation in the 80s. An uproarious pastiche of the popular, wholesome Cabbage Patch Kids, Garbage Pail Kids were considered the height of playground counterculture.
Originally sold as trading cards, the Kids each had a deformity or disgusting habit, and encouraged children to delight in their ugliness.
All in all, then, not the best candidates for a live-action feature. But this was the 80s, so that’s what we got.
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.
Anyway, there’s a fashion show and then they steal some ATVs and that’s the end of the film. It was produced on a budget of $1 million.
You might have guessed from the wayward plot that the film was a complete flop, making only $1.6 million. Michael Eisner mooted a reboot in 2012, but plans were binned after an overwhelmingly negative response to the news.
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 sees a group of vicious aliens, who coincidentally resemble circus clowns, arrive on Earth and massacre a small town.
Not only do they resemble clowns, but the creatures also use an arsenal of circus-themed weaponry, encasing their victims in a cotton candy-like substance and dispatching people with popcorn.
While the film was marketed as a horror-comedy, that doesn’t stop the weirdness slipping from absurd to something more disturbing.
For example, a murder victim ends up being used as a ventriloquist’s dummy, and another scene sees a clown drinking gelatinised blood through a crazy straw.
Directed by the Chiodo Brothers, who are otherwise best known for their special effects work, the film has gained such a cult following that a sequel has been in loud, if concentrated demand for decades. As of yet, it’s still stuck in development hell.
Heartbeeps is a robot love story featuring the voices of Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters, and it’s frankly as bizarre as it sounds.
Despite that robots are essentially not sentient, the film is nonetheless a tale of love, loyalty and despair. At one point, the two robots even decide to assemble a third robot out of spare parts, naming him Phil and treating him as their child.
Oh, and their child is voiced by Jerry Garcia of Californian rock band The Grateful Dead. The film was – shockingly – a box office disaster, though it was one of the inaugural nominees for the Academy Award for Best Makeup in 1982.
Kaufman and Peters were certainly interesting choices for the two leads, with Peters a legendary Broadway star and Kaufman an alternative comedian.
In fact, Kaufman’s participation in Heartbeeps was considered a trial run for a film about Tony Clifton, one of his comedy characters. Unfortunately, Heartbeeps’ failure put paid to that idea.
Sadly, the film was Kaufman’s final theatrical performance before his death at the age of only 35.
Videodrome is nothing if not surreal, with its psychosexual themes and inimitable Cronenberg style. An early example of body horror, the film sees limbs protrude from a TV screen and tapes inserted into torsos.
Portraying a near future in which technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives, the film has since become a cult classic, and a must-watch for all the gore enthusiasts out there.
The film even stars Debbie Harry, of Blondie, as a sadomasochist who gets aroused by the titular TV channel. In fact, the film’s dire warnings about the dangers of broadcasting and cassette tapes almost feel twee in today’s digital age.
The channel in question depicts torture being performed, and viewers become so enraptured that they undergo terrifying mutations and psychotic breaks.
The film has turned out to be quite the Nostradamus, given last year’s incident of YouTube star Logan Paul discovering and leering at a dead body in the so-called ‘Suicide Forest’ of Japan.
If you aren’t yet sold on the film, it’s always interesting to listen to a Howard Shore score. Prior to his success with The Lord of the Rings, Shore was a regular Cronenberg collaborator.
11. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
In Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, eccentric man-child Pee-wee Herman attempts to find his lost bike, getting into all sorts of sticky situations along the way.
Tim Burton’s first foray into directing before he moved onto bigger projects like the Batman films, the child-like magic of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is both uncomfortable and undeniable.
Plus, this is actually much more than a transportation-themed caper when you look beneath the surface: it’s a parody of the seminal Italian film Bicycle Thieves.
That film, released in 1948, is a neorealist, Marxist tale of a man whose life unravels after his bicycle – which he needs to earn a living – is stolen.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure spawned two sequels, which admittedly have less cinematic pedigree. The first, released in 1988, was Big Top Pee-wee, produced by rival studio Paramount.
However, after Paul Reubens’ arrest for indecent exposure in 1991, Pee-wee fans had to wait until 2016 for another film – Pee-wee’s Big Holiday – in which Reubens doesn’t seem to have aged a day.
10. The Ninth Configuration
If you look at the poster for The Ninth Configuration, you’ll probably feel a startling similarity to The Exorcist. It makes sense, then, that The Ninth Configuration is written, directed and produced by William Peter Blatty, and based on one of his novels.
However, the fact that The Ninth Configuration’s initial title was Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane! should give an indication of the weirdness in store.
The film depicts the story of the astronaut from The Exorcist, who suffers a psychotic break during an abortive rocket launch. Sent to a castle that the US military has requisitioned as an insane asylum, the astronaut strikes up a prickly friendship with Kane, the commanding officer.
However, it’s revealed that Kane is in fact a Vietnam soldier who decapitated a young boy and then impersonated his brother in order to be dispatched back to the US, though the army knew his gambit all along and sent him to the insane asylum supposedly as its commanding officer.
The film is rife with hallucinations and plot twists, much like The Exorcist, but don’t let the odd mix of a Gothic setting and a cosmic protagonist fool you into doubting the movie: it won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay.
Blatty would go on to write and direct The Exorcist III in 1990, a film that brought in more money than Exorcist II: The Heretic, but was nonetheless considered a box office disappointment.
9. The Toxic Avenger
Today we know the Avengers as a motley crew of Norse gods, American supersoldiers and occasionally a woman or two – but there’s yet to be a crossover with cinema’s greatest hero: 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 sees a harassed nerd transformed into a goopy monster-hero after an accident at a health club.
Pitched as a ‘splatter’ film, a horror subgenre that delights in gore, The Toxic Avenger is one-part superhero satire and two-parts gross-out physical effects, all set in a fictional New Jersey town.
The film marked a watershed moment for Troma Entertainment, who moved heavily into B-movie horror after the cult success of The Toxic Avenger.
For fans of Schwarzengger-style one-liners, there’s a lot on offer here, including when the titular Toxie rips out the Mayor’s intestines to see if “he’s got any guts.”
Nor is that a coincidental comparison: a reboot of the film has been mooted since 2012, when the Governator himself was lined up to star. The project is supposedly still in development, but continues to stall.
8. Earth Girls Are Easy
Some of the best 80s films take an unabashed look at the bizarre and jump right in. Time-travelling DeLorean? Sure! Marshmallow man attacks New York? Why not? Alan Rickman with a moustache? Count us in!
Earth Girls Are Easy might not rank among the decade’s greatest hits – in fact, it returned a dismal $3.9 million on an estimated $10 million budget – but it certainly ranks among its wackiest.
Starring Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans as multicoloured extra-terrestrials, Earth Girls Are Easy has the 80s threesome pursue Geena Davis and Julie Brown for some intergalactic coitus.
While some would consider Geena 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.
The film would ultimately be adapted into a stage show, starring Kristin Chenoweth in Davis’ role. However, it was an ill-fated production.
The show began its run in September 2001, mere days after the 9/11 attacks, and failed to attract enough investors to become a complete production. Chenoweth would instead begin work on Wicked, which would debut in 2003 and become the defining role of her career.
7. The Dark Crystal
The 80s was a remarkable decade for The Jim Henson Company and its oeuvre of weird and wonderful puppeteering. Labyrinth could easily make this list, but 1982’s The Dark Crystal is weirder still.
Taking place on the distant planet of Thra, The Dark Crystal depicts the conflict between the innocent Gelfings and the malevolent Skeksis, the latter of whom exploit the titular crystal to elongate their lifespan.
What follows is a Tolkienesque quest to wrest the crystal from the Skeksis’ grasp before they can grant themselves immortality. And, yes, it’s all done through puppets.
At the time of its release, The Dark Crystal received mixed reviews; praise was offered for its worldbuilding and ambition, but the film was criticised for its markedly darker tone in comparison to Henson’s previous projects like The Muppets and Sesame Street.
That said, the film gained enough of a cult following to spawn a prequel Netflix series in 2019, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, nearly 30 years after Henson’s death. It received an overwhelmingly positive reception.
Viewers of the original film are perhaps most likely to remember the crab-like Garthim, surely some of the most terrifying creatures of the decade.
6. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
With a new Bill & Ted film releasing in 2020, and the enduring pop culture domination of the original, it can sometimes be hard to consider the series rationally – but there’s a lot about the classic that raises eyebrows.
After all, the crux of the film is that the pair’s lacklustre musical talent forms the basis of a future utopia. It’s such a remarkable utopia, in fact, that they send George Carlin back in time to make sure Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) stay together and record their prophetic discography.
How does Carlin do this? He invites them to use a time machine that looks like a phone booth in order to pass their History class, accidentally displacing Napoleon and other famous figures from their timelines. Woah.
The film delights in this kind of time travel nonsense, with future versions of Bill and Ted making appearances, and the sequel – Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey – focusing on a plot by future ne’er-do-wells to eliminate the slacker duo before the utopia can be established.
While Reeves had already found some success with films like River’s Edge and Dangerous Liaisons, it was the unexpected success of Bill & Ted – which grossed $40.5 million from a $6.5 million budget – that landed him a reputation as a bankable star.
It’s fair to say that, without Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, we wouldn’t have Point Break, Speed or The Matrix. A lot of 90s success is owed to 80s weirdness!
Nowadays, Christopher Walken and his iconic voice have transcended the man himself. Whether it’s the demand for more cowbell, or singing (badly) in Hairspray, or singing (badly) in The Jungle Book, Walken has become more of a pop culture reference than a real human being.
In the 80s, however, Walken was a steely-eyed proprietor of some truly odd Hollywood fare, not least of which is 1983’s Brainstorm. Directed by Douglas Trumbull, who also had a hand in sci-fi classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Brainstorm takes a simple premise and thoroughly Walkens it up.
The plot concerns a headset that can record and play back the mental experiences of the wearer. Walken and Natalie Wood star as a pair of estranged lovers and scientists who find the headset works better than they could have possibly imagined.
In fact, Michael Brace (Walken) becomes so enamoured with the technology that he becomes addicted to its power. After a colleague dies while wearing the headset, he becomes determined to experience what – if any – afterlife exists.
Part government conspiracy thriller and part full-throated sci-fi omen, Brainstorm very nearly never saw the light of day. One evening, after a day of shooting on Brainstorm, Wood drowned.
The exact circumstances of her death were never established, with some believing an altercation with her husband led to her death. The pair had been staying on a yacht, together with the yacht’s captain and her co-star Walken.
Werewolves are a tried-and-true cornerstone of popular mythology. Representing the inner viciousness of man, we’ve been transfixed by these creatures in everything from The Wolf Man to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
But if you’re a fan of hirsute dog-men, consider taking a time travel trip back to 1981, when not one but three werewolf films hit cinemas. One, The Howling, was a straight-up slasher. Another, An American Werewolf in London, was an acclaimed horror-comedy.
The last of the transmogrifying triumvirate is Wolfen, an uncomfortable crime film with a borderline racist premise. After the murder of a local magnate, Albert Finney’s Dewey Wilson is put back on the force. His first line of inquiry? Investigate the magnate’s black bodyguard.
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.
Wilson finds this out after cornering a ‘militant Native American activist’. He also sleeps with his partner, a criminal psychologist, after she’s lured into a church by the sound of a baby crying.
Wolfen received generally positive reviews for its unsettling tone and new angle on a typical werewolf story. The best part, however, has to be Finney’s remarkable hairdo.
3. How to Get Ahead in Advertising
The internet has delighted in the second act of Richard E Grant. In fact, the second act is itself based on the novelty of Richard E Grant’s second act, cyclically set in motion after his Oscar brush in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Early in Grant’s first act, however, was the underrated satire How to Get Ahead in Advertising. In the film, Grant plays 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 film.
The structure of a crazed man undergoing supernatural circumstances, while struggling to maintain his relationship with his wife, is the basis of most Jim Carrey comedy flicks from the early 90s.
2. Conan the Destroyer
Before The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger was known as something of a fantasy actor. Having debuted (dubbed) in Hercules in New York, the future governor’s breakthrough role came in 1982’s sword and sorcery film Conan the Barbarian.
This was followed by a sequel in 1984, mere months before The Terminator would change the course of Schwarzenegger’s career forever. But where the first film is a perfectly functional origin story, Conan the Destroyer is simply bizarre.
Schwarzenegger is joined by Grace Jones and basketball star Wilt Chamberlain as they face off against Thoth-Amon, played by Pat Roach (better known as the burly figure in the first three Indiana Jones films).
Ultimately, Conan is betrayed by Queen Taramis, as portrayed by Superman and Superman II’s Sarah Douglas.
If you love sword and sorcery films, there’s no question that you’ll find Conan the Destroyer entertaining. There are fight scenes aplenty and wizardry galore. Intelligible plot? Less so.
The film’s disappointing box office returns – especially compared to the original film, which made back its costs thrice over – meant a sequel was canned. However, as of October 2019, Schwarzenegger has confirmed a long-gestating project is still in development.
1. Teen Wolf Too
For some, 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.
Starring future dad bod model Jason Bateman in his film debut, Teen Wolf Too [sic] has Scott Howard’s cousin, Todd, forced into taking up boxing. Scott’s erstwhile basketball coach, recast as Paul Sands, has become a boxing coach, and hopes being half-man half-beast will make Todd his new star.
Todd’s hairiness and aptitude for beating up others brings him fame and girls, but he loses sight of sportsmanship and his goal of becoming a veterinarian.
It’s only once he decides to forego his lupine powers and box mano-a-mano that he realises what matters in life. When his ex-girlfriend mouths ‘I love you’ from the stands, he manages to deliver the knockout punch.
Who knew that the most unrealistic part of a werewolf boxing movie would be the supernatural power of three clichéd words?
Unlike the original film, which made a colossal $80 million from a budget of $1.2 million, Teen Wolf Too’s tripled budget returned only $7.9 million. Strange, given that they’re basically the same film.