Tom Jolliffe ventures back to 1988 to look at ten underrated movies which deserve more love…
2023 is well underway now and that means that the cinematic year of 1988, stuffed with some classics and cult favourites like Beetlejuice (Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice!) and Die Hard, was 35 years ago. Pick yourself up off the floor and shake the shock of that off.
Whilst it’s well established that Die Hard is unsurpassed in the action genre (I’ll fight to a bloody nose to defend that one), there are some films from a stellar year which don’t quite get the attention they deserve. Let’s take a deep dive back into the big blue of 1988 (spoiler alert – Big Blue isn’t on the list) and take a look….
A big reason this one is slightly unheralded is that it has a pretty small cult following outside of its native Holland. Amsterdamned is a classic horror film though. It’s Dutch Giallo and one of the best of the sub-genre that came out in the entire decade.
Dick Maas had a pretty ingenious concept to start. A killer who decks himself out in scuba gear prowls beneath the waters of the Amsterdam canals between targeting his victims. He stalks by night, emerging from the canals to kill, sometimes killing from under the water, targeting young women in rubber dinghies (there’s a classic sequence involving a knife piercing up between the legs of a young female victim who is unaware she’s about to die). We see very little of the actual killer until later in the picture too, but occasional signs of his presence, so it plays a little like Jaws too.
Maas stalwart Huub Stapel plays the rogue detective tasked with tracking this Amsterdam serial killer. The film makes great use of the wonderful character of the City which is always a stunning location. It’s not purely confined to simple horror tropes either, as there are some cracking action set pieces thrown into the mix too, including a brilliant car chase.
This is the perfect blend of exploitation, and trash, with artistic flourishes and thanks to the advent of cult label physical media companies, there are a few slick Blu-Ray releases for this, well worth checking out.
Let’s start off by making one thing clear. Big this is not. Big, also released in 1988, might be the definitive body swap comedy, perhaps alongside Freaky Friday. However, in a well worn sub-genre, largely filled with drek, Vice Versa is actually a very entertaining entry. It probably should have been destined for wider appeal. Fred Savage was big at the time and Judge Reinhold was a household name too.
The film kind of got buried over time having been released the same year as Big. There was always an assumption that Vice Versa was the cheapskate, cynical cash-in to ride the coattails of Big but this wasn’t really the case. Whilst Big was a one-way swap, this, like Freaky Friday saw parent and child swapping bodies.
Ultimately, Vice Versa deserves a little more love and respect for delivering solid entertainment. It’s a lot of fun, the leads are likeable and play their alternate ages very well. Had it been released a couple of years earlier or later with adequate breathing room from the Tom Hanks staple, it would have had a better legacy. Body swap fans who have run their Big VHS into oblivion (they still do VHS…right?) could do worse than giving this one a watch.
Clarification time. People rate They Live, a lot. It’s a cult favourite. However, I still maintain this one is underrated and I’ll tell you jabronis (wait…that’s a Rock saying, not Piper) why. John Carpenter is vastly underappreciated in some corners as the cinematic auteur he was. The guy reinvented horror. For a time he was one of the Dons of B-picture genre cinema, crafting films with a skill and flourish that was rarely seen. The films dripped atmosphere with gorgeous cinematography (particularly his Dean Cundey lensed pictures).
He also managed to tap into inherent human fears and paranoia like few directors could, as well as tell stories with prescient themes (which have remained so). When you talk about Carpenter’s revolutionary cinema, most think of Halloween or The Thing. When you talk about his cultier work, many think of Escape From New York or the Fantasy theatrics of Big Trouble in Little China. The more I watch They Live though, the more I feel like this is up there with his magnum opuses.
They Live has classic Carpenter identifiers. It looks great. It has a simple but brilliantly executed concept and there’s a really great visual hook. The notion of sunglasses that allow you to tune out of the subliminal messaging foisted upon the underclass and see the reality of the elites who run the world is brilliant. Roddy Piper as our stoic, occasionally wise-cracking hero is a perfect Neo-Western hero. Above all though, They Live skewers consumerism, classism and conformism in one fell swoop. It was a Reagonist takedown of a fractured society that has stayed relevant (but has also become as prescient as it ever was). If Jordan Peele had written the same film in the modern era, he’d walk away with an Oscar.
They Live, from conception to delivery, works as escapist B movie entertainment with great sequences and killer lines. It equally works on a deeper level and is arguably Carpenter’s deepest film. THAT is why it’s underrated. I’m off to procure some bubblegum, as I’m all out.
From an interesting if flawed era in Roman Polanski’s back catalogue, comes arguably his standout film of the 80s, Frantic. I am a sucker for films which kick off with a character disappearing. In fact, this film, along with Breakdown, Burning and The Vanishing were key sources of inspiration for one of my own, When Darkness Falls (out on most streamers in the US).
Frantic was in actuality the first Polanski film I ever saw, largely because it appeared on TV one evening and it starred Harrison Ford. The very same year saw the release of Dutch masterwork The Vanishing, and whilst in retrospect, Frantic isn’t quite as uniquely subversive as George Sluizer’s work, Frantic is a little more of a classic 80-90s era potboiler (again, another kind of cinema I love). Sure things happen that stretch logic, or characters do questionable things but these are genre expectations. Ford plays a Doctor attending a medical conference in Paris, who brings his wife along. She’s kidnapped from their room.
That kicks off the inevitable action of the film where Ford has to take up the investigation himself, whilst facing suspicion laid upon him and encountering all manner of enigmatic and dangerous characters along the way. Is it ruthlessly simple in comparison to some of the complexity of earlier Polanski works? Yes, but it’s atmospheric and the divisive auteur captures the grimy depths of an unflattering Paris that add suitable menace for our fish out of water.
Do you like Buddy cop films? Do you like action films? Do you like 80s era James Horner action scores? Yes, you do, of course you do. You love all those things. Red Heat is unheralded. Schwarzenegger’s expertly delivered action comedy is a victim of Schwarzenegger’s exceptionally high standards of the time. It’s not The Terminator, Conan The Barbarian, Total Recall or Predator. It’s not even the killer concept prescient sci-fi of The Running Man. Its simplicity and its meat and potatoes action don’t have the uniqueness of Arnie’s more iconic works.
However, Red Heat is a Walter Hill film. This means not only a director who knows the buddy cop formula having galvanised it with 48 Hours earlier in the decade but a director who knew how to shoot, pace and cut an action film. Red Heat is great fun. It’s not 48 Hours great, but it’s still, much like Tango and Cash, an underrated buddy cop staple of the era. Arnold plays a stiff Russian police officer who comes to the US to escort ruthless criminal, Viktor (Ed O’Ross) back to face justice. Viktor escapes and it’s down to Danko (Ahnuld) and schlubby American cop Art (James Belushi) to hunt him down.
It’s rock solid with great interplay between Schwarzenegger and Belushi, some classic set pieces which you’d only ever see in an Arnold film (like a Russian sauna action sequence) and bolstered by a fine support cast including Larry Fishburne, Gina Gershon and Brion James.
I’ve sung the praises of this one before but it’s worth doing again. There’s arguably no more underrated film from 1988 than this. In fact, you could make a legitimate case that this might be the MOST underrated film of the entire decade.
People just have not heard of Miracle Mile. Even cineastes and lovers of obscure cult cinema still haven’t tracked this. Those who have are largely in agreement that this frenetic and brilliant film is a classic hidden gem. I discovered by chance, happening upon the film on TV right at the opening and instantly recognising the distinct synthy goodness of Tangerine Dream. Their propulsive and atmospheric score is a major strength in this.
Likewise, the concept is great. Guy meets girl, there’s a connection. He’s supposed to meet her again but misses the chance after his alarm fails him. He then intercepts a frantic phone call warning that LA is about to be wiped out by a stray Nuclear missile. Once he realises it’s not a crank call he’s got an hour to get to an extraction and escape the blast, but he wants to warn the girl (Mare Winningham) he’s now enamoured with. The film never stops from the point of the phone call, with a real immediacy as Harry (Anthony Edwards) faces obstacles at every turn. As the dash continues the inevitable chaos starts as the public becomes aware of the impending doom, making his escape even more difficult. The escalation in this is brilliantly realised.
A classic thriller of late cold war era paranoia, dressed up in 80s glam with a stellar Tangerine Dream score and engaging characters. The lack of “star” names makes it feel inherently more intense and real too.
Another unfairly forgotten rip-roarer from the 80s. Martin Brest had the more pop cultural hit with Beverly Hills Cop a few years prior, but Midnight Run sees a mismatched pairing (Robert De Niro’s bounty hunter and wanted bail jumper Charles Grodin) doing a cross-country trip whilst being pursued by criminals and Feds.
The interplay between Grodin, the bumbling fraudster and a fiery foul-mouthed De Niro really drives this film. The comedy (full of great lines) is offset by some enjoyable set pieces and there’s a great supporting cast including Yaphet Kotto, John Ashton and Dennis Farina.
The film was a big hit at the time but has slowly drifted a little (disappointingly) out of public recognition.
As Tears Go By
Wong Kar-wai will forever be associated with his gorgeous arthouse romance classics like In The Mood For Love, Happy Together and Chungking Express. Maybe lesser known to those who fell into Kar-wai fandom, is his auspicious debut, As Tears Go By. From a stylistic point of view, it’s one of his most stripped back and though it has his complex romance, it’s also a more traditional Hong Kong crime thriller somewhat in line with the works of Ringo Lam and John Woo of the time.
Though it was Kar-wai’s debut, and debuts can sometimes show an artist trying to find a sure footing in their style, it’s remarkably accomplished. It’s not just a side dish for completists, As Tears Go By is beautifully shot (as you’d expect) and the superstar cast of Andy Lau and the luminous Maggie Cheung, in their early days imbue the film with star power.
The action doesn’t have the precise chaos of Woo or Lam, but has a uniquely Kar-wai visceral energy. Some of his stylistic tendencies which he’d later use with more assurance are also evident.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Despite its controversies on release, this distinctly neutral and humanist view of Christ’s story has become a little bit of a forgotten part of Martin Scorsese’s career. Obviously, when you’re Scorsese with a career that includes Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and more, it’s natural that some films, even stellar, get a little forgotten.
The Last Temptation of Christ isn’t quite as criminally overlooked as After Hours, but as far as underrated films of 1988, it’s up there. It’s a marked change of style and genre for Scorsese who had flitted between gritty crime cinema and unique comedy to do a bleak historical epic which imbues Christ with real human flaws and desires.
Willem Defoe is sensational. The film is an interesting vision and elaboration on the bible and does as the title suggests. The film demonstrates Scorsese’s versatility. It’s tough viewing but in comparison to Gibsons, The Passion of Christ it’s Driving Miss Daisy.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
The 80s were full of classic comedies. Like the aforementioned Big, 1988 also had A Fish Called Wanda. There was also the hit Frank Oz film, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It’s become one that is slightly overlooked in 80s retrospectives.
Michael Caine is a high-class con man who fleeces rich widows out of their money across exotic locations. Then you have the low-level con artist Freddy played by Steve Martin. He’s all about quick in-and-out cons and deception to make a quick buck. Their paths cross, and Freddy is initially a potential inconvenience for Lawrence (Caine) who could scupper his next con. Lawrence then takes Freddy under his wing to teach him the art of the long con and to bring an air of grace and civility to his persona so he can target the upper classes.
It’s an old-school lark and caper powered by the headlining performances from Caine and Martin. Both are in great form, but more importantly, they work together brilliantly. Glenne Headly is equally fantastic as the ‘victim’ both men begin to compete against each other to target. The film should be held in MUCH higher regard.
Honourable Mentions: Young Einstein (an old childhood favourite with a unique Oz charm and irreverence), Waxwork (a great horror comedy from Anthony Hickox), The Great Outdoors (John Candy and Dan Aykroyd, and Candy plays the straight man), Maniac Cop (great Larry Cohen scripted action slasher), Lair of the White Worm (a film only Ken Russell could have made) The Paperhouse (a Bernard Rose horror based on a classic, albeit superior book) The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (Dazzling Gilliam fantasy that beguiles many, and occasionally frustrates just as many) and The Serpent and the Rainbow (underrated Wes Craven horror).
What’s your favourite underrated gem from 1988? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.