It’s time to venture back to 1984 and take a look at some great cult films you may have missed…
It’s fair to say that 1984 had a stellar selection of iconic films that became part of pop culture. Films like The Terminator, Ghostbusters and Amadeus are widely considered classics and well-known to general audiences.
However, in 1984 there was also an array of great films that didn’t pick up a wide mainstream audience but have grown a cult following. From early films from auteur filmmakers to quirky projects which lend themselves to accruing a cult following, here are eight great cult films from 1984 that you may have missed…
The Element of Crime
Lars Von Trier’s feature debut and the first in his Europa trilogy featuring distinct views of a futuristic Europe. The Element of Crime is Trier coming out of the blocks with typical assurance with an enthralling (if meandering) and visually stunning neo-noir. A Detective (Michael Elphick) is tasked with solving a series of grizzly murders in a dystopian Europe. Von Trier wore his love of Andrei Tarkovsky on his sleeve with this one, crafting a film rich in atmosphere and textures. Repeating shots of water and characters often dripping in sweat result in a film you can almost feel, whilst the sepia tone is reminiscent of the opening third of Tarkovsky’s, Stalker.
Ironically Von Trier was told Tarkovsky saw The Element of Crime and hated it, still, this one brought him plenty of attention straight out of the blocks across Europe where it was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. As far as audiences, it took longer to find its feet gathering a cult following over the years, particularly after Epidemic and Europa rounded off his trilogy (of films only loosely connected by a futuristic setting). Likewise, Von Trier found an American audience in the 90s and early 00s, inevitably inspiring fans of the controversial filmmaker to take a retrospective look back at his older works.
Alex Cox’s surreal and often zany sci-fi comedy sees Emilio Estevez as a young punk who takes up a job at a repo company (with Harry Dean Stanton). This film quickly gained a cult audience which only grew in time, but one which also set a high bar for Cox which he’s arguably struggled to match.
Repo Man’s enjoyably farcical plot involving a rogue car and aliens is beautifully shot by cinematography maestro, Robby Muller. It’s a film that is so unique and distinct that there are few you could compare it to and its inimitable style is what has given it longevity as a cult classic. Estevez is great as is Stanton who had quite the 1-2 punch in 1984 with this and Paris, Texas (also lensed by Muller).
Streets of Fire
A lot of cult films have an indefinable uniqueness, whether they’re fearsomely original or whether they amalgamate a strange gumbo mix of recognisable tropes. Streets of Fire is certainly the latter, with recognisable pieces coming together to create an original whole.
Walter Hill’s rock and roll action spectacular has Michael Pare tasked with rescuing his singer ex-girlfriend (Diane Lane) and running afoul of a biker gang headed up by Willem Defoe (who was quite the reliable antagonist in the mid-80s). This feels very much like a film that came out at the wrong time with such an energetic blend of elements and laden (even then) with nostalgia. Hill’s film and its unique blend would certainly find a wider audience in today’s irreverent loving world but it’s also why the film is increasingly being revisited. A great soundtrack and a memorable score from Ry Cooder (whose music was also such an iconic part of Paris, Texas), along with a great cast make Streets of Fire memorable, whilst Hill creates some atypically great set pieces.
Crimes of Passion
A film only Ken Russell could have made. It’s mesmerically one of a kind even if the film’s zaniness and occasional vulgarities might alienate some audiences. Kathleen Turner is a fashion designer by day and prostitute by night who becomes an object of affection from two men, a surveillance expert (tasked with investigating her) and a sexually repressed preacher (Anthony Perkins).
It’s an odd film but dripping with colourful neons and vibrant cinematography, whilst Perkins dials it up (and then some). Turner is excellent and it’s the cast and the unapologetic Russell’s style which make this one so memorable. Definitely a love-it-or-hate-it film but it has an ardent cult of followers for its unrestrained camp and shlock.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
This often anarchic and wildly quirky sci-fi rock opera feels like the forebearer to something as zanily conjured as The Guardians of the Galaxy. A veritable selection of zany characters find themselves in a battle against nefarious aliens. The oddball elements of the film didn’t strike a chord with audiences back in the day, proving to be something of an expensive flop but it quickly grew a fanbase on video which has seen it spawn comics and video game spinoffs.
It’s a nutty film as the titular Dr Buckaroo Banzai (played by Peter Weller) is a rockstar, neurosurgeon, physicist and all-around badass. The cast is rounded out by a great selection of character actors like Jeff Goldblum, John Lithgow and Christopher Lloyd, who all have an affinity for playing quirky/whacky characters.
The Toxic Avenger
Troma took the video stores by storm with their major breakout, The Toxic Avenger. For such a run-and-gun and slipshod approach to making movies, Toxie gained a level of attention that would have been beyond even Lloyd Kaufman’s dreams at the time. It was enough to inspire merchandise, a kid’s cartoon, comic books and more and even the reboot treatment with the upcoming Elijah Wood starring remake.
Despite the film’s rough edges and low budget, its unabashed silliness captured a legion of cult followers (enough to warrant three sequels). A lowly and weedy janitor is dunked in toxic waste and becomes a superhero hellbent on revenge. Ironically, in an era where Superman’s appeal was waning and the few comic book films that got greenlit but weren’t Batman, bombed, The Toxic Avenger was a rare runaway success. Like the best of Troma, it found a niche as a trashtacular classic on VHS, alongside the likes of Class of Nuke ‘Em High.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Hayao Miyazaki has just released (another) swansong, The Boy and the Heron. To the Western world he saw a niche audience thanks to films like Laputa: Castle in the Sky and My Neighbor Totoro grow into something bigger after the striking worldwide success of Spirited Away. Studio Ghibli die-hards of course know the company catalogue back to front but 1984’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is one that still evades more casual fans.
Although it doesn’t have the instant iconography of Totoro for example, Valley of the Wind is a beautifully animated film with a well-crafted story, always key to the Miyazaki canon. A princess must stop two warring nations destroy everything around them in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a classic and simple tale but as you expect from the studio, it’s effortlessly compelling and as per usual, Joe Hisaishi conjures a majestic score.
It’s frankly amazing that some people have yet to discover the brilliance of the almost ironically titled, Top Secret. Coming in between the success of Airplane (1980) and Naked Gun (1988), this Zucker brothers (David and Jerry, along with Jim Abrahams) comedy didn’t find the instant success of their two iconic films of the era. Something of a box office let down (though not terrible), Top Secret, for whatever reason just didn’t take off although it came out a few weeks after Ghostbusters which might account for audiences finding this a little later on video.
Top Secret introduced the world to Val Kilmer and its scattershot approach to humour hits almost every time. Filled with memorable gags and laugh-out-loud moments, Top Secret is definitely one that comedy fans should check out if they haven’t already.