Time is a funny thing, especially when looking at movies. What would have simply been trends when a film was made become dated and retro upon viewing that film years later, thereby giving it a sense of cheesiness or even kitsch.
The 1980s are a notoriously cheesy decade in hindsight, but that is what makes it so endearing and puts a big smirk on your face. From those distinct tiled walls in houses, the now-goofy slang, the colourful and wacky clothes and hairdos, the upbeat synthesizer music (often conducted by Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo), and the overall great soundtracks; what’s not to love about this decade? It makes you wish you could step into these movies and live in this version of the 1980s.
Rather than talk about commonly discussed 1980s comedies like Ghostbusters or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, this article will focus on films that are unfortunately not as well remembered as they should be. Perhaps their cheesiness may be a deterrent for some viewers, but that is their loss. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes, and these movies are comedic gold!
(Some spoilers ahead!)
1. Once Bitten (Howard Storm, 1985)
A young Jim Carrey plays Mark, a high school student who wants to lose his virginity, but his girlfriend is not ready yet, which makes him very frustrated. Enter an ancient Countess (Lauren Hutton), a vampire who needs to feed on the blood for virgins to stay alive, and who aims to seduce Mark in order to make him a vampire too.
Considering how long Carrey has been a movie star, the fact that he is playing a high school student shows how old this film is. But besides a very young looking Carrey, this movie is an ‘80s delight. The synth heavy soundtrack (‘Face To Face’ by Real Life is particularly great), the boys with only one thing on their mind, and the vampire twist to the story give the movie that extra bite.
2. Back to School (Alan Metter, 1986)
College seems to be a common setting for many comedy movies aimed at young people, but this one has the middle-aged comedian Rodney Dangerfield as the lead, and it is all the better for it.
Dangerfield plays millionaire Thornton Mellon, whose only regret in life is not going to college and getting a proper education. Upon hearing that his son Jason (Keith Gordon) wants to drop out of college, Thorton steps in to reinspire his son and enrols to become a student too.
Those familiar with Dangerfield know what a wisecracker he is, and his performance in Back to School is Dangerfield at his very best. From hilarious one liners to being a loving father, you cannot help but be charmed by him. The villain is a crusty old college professor who is all prim and proper and wants Thornton to fail, but everyone else loves him.
The soundtrack is full of ‘80s pop rock (including a live performance by Oingo Boingo, and the ace ‘Back To School’ by Jude Cole), and the film features a young Robert Downey Jr. playing a very political wise guy with a wacky fashion sense.
3. Moving Violations (Neal Israel, 1985)
A film about traffic school may not sound very entertaining, but if you put it in the context of a 1980s comedy about a group of misfits facing off against corrupt police instructors, the result is a comedy from the creators of Police Academy called Moving Violations.
The film stars Bill Murray’s brother John Murray as a smart alec who always disrespects and tricks the bullying cops who put him in traffic school in the first place. He becomes the ringleader of the group of misfits who also want their driver’s licenses back, including as a confused old lady who is practically blind, a horror movie buff who recommends someone to watch The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to relax, a NASA rocket scientist who is also the love interest, and other oddballs.
This is John Murray’s only starring role in a film, which is a shame, as he is a very charismatic actor too, even if he seems to be copying his brother’s act somewhat. In fact, everyone in the film is funny, and if you have your eyes peeled, you will see a brief appearance from a young Don Cheadle working at a drive thru at a burger joint.
4. The Last American Virgin (Boaz Davidson, 1982)
At first glance, The Last American Virgin looks like a cheesy teen sex comedy, and while there is truth to that, the fact is it is actually hilarious. From the likeable teenage boys who get up to all sorts of funny hijinks to get laid, the partying, some stereotypical comedic characters, and awkward sexual situations, the film is hilarious.
What makes The Last American Virgin stand out on this list though is how it accurately deals with the awkwardness of first time sex for teenagers. It gets quite serious and sad towards the end, depicting an abortion subplot and leaving the protagonist to deal with a broken heart. This will definitely come as a shock when first viewing the movie, but this unexpected twist is what makes it work and hits viewers right in the core with the harsh realities of unrequited love that movies do not often touch upon.
Upon further viewings, this can be seen earlier in this film; while it is indeed a comedy, the whole film has a dark undertone and dim lighting, almost giving it a sense of dread. It is a really well made film, and it’s obviously dated low-production values actually makes the film even better.
On a more upbeat note, the film has a fantastic soundtrack that really compliments the film’s funny but dark edge. Consisting of popular ‘80s acts like The Police, Blondie, U2, The Commodores, The Cars, The Human League, REO Speedwagon, and many more, viewers are sure to enjoy these great tunes that will aide in making them both laugh and cry at what is happening on screen.
5. Teen Wolf (Rod Daniel, 1985)
Teen Wolf was made at the same time as Back To The Future, so Michael J. Fox was mainly known for the sitcom Family Ties at this point in his career. While his performance as the time travelling Marty McFly is far more famous, Fox playing Scott Howard in Teen Wolf should not be overlooked.
The film uses Scott turning into a werewolf as a metaphor for puberty, as his body is changing, he’s becoming hairier, and he uses his ability to become the cool popular kid at school. With funny scenarios like dancing on top of a moving van and winning a basketball game as a wolf, viewers know they are in for a good time with this movie.
Teen Wolf has quite a few 1980s teen movie clichés, from a loser trying to become cool to winning a girl over, but that’s the fun of it. Viewers know what they are getting with a film like Teen Wolf, and they get a werewolf spin on this type of teen film.
6. Earth Girls Are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988)
As the title suggests, Earth Girls Are Easy is not a high brow film, and sex is the source of the film’s humour. However, what sets this film apart from most sex comedies is the fact it is a trio of aliens, rather than mere men, who have their eyes set on the girls.
Set in flashy Los Angeles, three furry and brightly coloured aliens (played by Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans) crash their spaceship into Valley girl Valerie’s (Geena Davis) pool. She gets them shaved, which makes them look human, and she teaches them about life in Southern California.
Earth Girls Are Easy is an amusing story with a very ‘80s pop soundtrack that makes you want to live in the LA of this decade. The film is quite silly as the aliens look wacky (although since the film is a comedy, that was probably intentional), has a dance off in a nightclub, and an out of place musical number at a beach from a ditzy blonde. The film is also interesting for starring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans when they were all young.
7. Private Resort (George Bowers, 1985)
It is always interesting to see a film made early in a movie star’s career (as is the case with a lot of films on this list). Private Resort is one of Johnny Depp’s earliest films, and like a lot of actors, he started his career in a cheesy teen sex comedy.
Depp and co-star Rob Morrow play two teenage boys who are staying at a private resort in Miami for a weekend, and they are far more interested in the girls there than in relaxing by the pool. But they accidentally stumble upon a jewel thief’s scheme, causing all sorts of comedic shenanigans with the resort’s guests.
Private Resort is exactly what it sounds like, a low brow teen comedy full of ‘80s cheese, and it definitely delivers on that front.
8. Weekend At Bernie’s (Ted Kotcheff, 1989)
When two low level employees Larry (Andrew McCarthy) and Richard (Jonathan Silverman) inadvertently discover financial fraud on a printout and show it to their boss Bernie (Terry Kiser), Bernie invites them to his beach house. What they do not know is that the fraud was committed by Bernie himself, who hires contract killers to assassinate the two men. However, once Bernie himself is killed, Larry and Richard go to extremes to make it appear that Bernie is still alive.
Weekend At Bernie’s is definitely a “party movie”, where everyone is having a good time despite all the trouble that is happening. Seeing all the ways the two guys make it appear their deceased boss is still alive just so they can continue partying is amusing, and makes this an ‘80s comedy worth watching.
9. The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987)
The Lost Boys has a lot of what was cool in 1980s youth orientated movies: leather jackets, motorbikes, big hair, a great soundtrack, good looking actors, and vampires. The Lost Boys is considered a cult classic these days, and deservedly so since it’s a great romp!
When two teenage boys from Arizona move to a coastal Californian town that is dubbed as “the murder capital of the world”, they encounter a local group of young biker vampires who terrorise the town. While one brother works with two goofy vampire hunters, the other brother is lured into the vampire gang, slowly becoming one of the undead himself.
As The Lost Boys is technically a horror movie too, it has a great visual flair that its director Joel Schumacher is known for. Schumacher’s film just oozes with a very ‘80s sense of coolness that is simply undeniable. Any ‘80s movie aficionado will simply relish in everything The Lost Boys has to offer.
10. Bachelor Party (Neal Israel, 1984)
It is odd to think that since Tom Hanks is known for being an acclaimed dramatic actor that his early roles in the 1980s were in comedy movies. Bachelor Party has Hanks play a groom-to-be whose buddies want to throw him a crazy send off into marriage. But the odds of them having fun are against them when the bride-to-be’s friends are out to ruin the boys’ fun, the bride’s parents do not approve of the groom, and a disgruntled pimp wants his girls back.
Inspired by producer Bob Israel’s actual bachelor party, it has all the crazy party antics you would expect from such a movie. From lewd drunkenness, hookers, drugs (a donkey snorts cocaine at one point!), and all sorts of shenanigans, Bachelor Party is simply one of the most fun movies you could ever watch.
Bachelor Party is very ingrained in the 1980s, from the obvious aspects like the fashion and music, to a photographer at the start of the film taking portrait photos who states that he wants to try something “more ‘80s”. It is stuff like this that makes Bachelor Party a delightful ‘80s comedy.
11. Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985)
Whenever John Hughes films are discussed, usually his more popular ‘80s teen films The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off get mentioned. Weird Science seems to be somewhat of an odd inclusion on Hughes’ filmography, incorporating science fiction with his usual teen comedy shtick. Despite this, the film is actually hilarious.
When two teenage nerds want to improve their social standing, especially with the girls, they use their knowhow of computers, girly magazines, and a Barbie doll to create the perfect woman. Of course, things get out of hand when the perfect woman becomes too much for the boys and all sorts of havoc ensues.
No one could ever dispute that Weird Science was made in the 1980s. With all the very ‘80s fashion, the dated “advanced” computer technology, the awesome soundtrack (including Oingo Boingo’s catchy theme song ‘Weird Science’), and an over the top and perhaps unnecessary inclusion of a Mad Max parody, Weird Science screams 1980s.
12. Summer School (Carl Reiner, 1987)
The IMDb plot description for Summer School describes the main characters as a “bonehead English class for misfit goof-off students”, which really sets the vibe for the slack Californian teens the unwitting teacher has to put up with during the summer. Not only do the kids not listen to the teacher and cut class, but he has to put up with the scheming Vice Principal.
These teens are of the “dude” and “cowabunga” variety, and it is exactly what viewers would expect of such a 1980s comedy like this. But teacher Freddy Shoop (Mark Harmon) does not want to spend his summer in a classroom either, opting to take the students to amusement parks, the beach, and other fun places.
Unlike an actual summer school, the film is good fun to watch with likeable characters who are just out to have a good time while they pass school.
13. Revenge Of The Nerds (Jeff Kanew, 1984)
The old jocks versus nerds story is nothing new, and this blatantly stereotypical depiction of nerds and jocks would be considered ridiculous by today’s standards. Revenge Of The Nerds is a film that could only have been made in the 1980s.
When a college fraternity of nerdy types are constantly bullied by a jock fraternity simply for being nerds, the nerds decide to no longer take the type of abuse they copped in high school. This leads to all sorts of schemes and mayhem from the nerds, and viewers will laugh along the way.
While some viewers may criticise the film for being over the top, especially in its stereotyping, this exaggeration is what makes Revenge Of The Nerds so fun, and perhaps a bit of a wish fulfilment fantasy for nerdy types out there.
14. Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983)
Joysticks is the most lowbrow film on this list, but it is so much fun to watch. It has everything that you would expect from a film with old school video games mixed with teenage sexual hijinks (hence the double entendre of “Joysticks” that the teens play with).
Joysticks has the clichéd plot of teens getting together to stop business people from destroying their beloved hangout, in this case a video game arcade. The teens are not doing their schoolwork as they are spending all their time on games and with each other in the bedroom. The businessman and his nephews try all sorts of schemes to close down the arcade, but the gang keep on top of it all.
It is amusing to see video games, something that is often associated with geekdom, being combined with so much sex and nudity, especially female nudity. Joysticks is a very funny film that cannot be taken seriously, and it even ends with a video game contest that determines if the arcade stays open or not. Classic ‘80s cheese right there.
15. License To Drive (Greg Beeman, 1988)
Getting a driver’s license is a big deal for a teenager, as it is not only a means of transportation, but also a status of one’s maturity and, depending on their car, coolness. That idea forms the basic premise of License To Drive, a delightful teen comedy with the two Coreys that were a big deal in the 1980s.
Californian teen Les (Corey Haim) is certain that he will pass his driving test and will be able to take his dream girl Mercedes Lane (Heather Graham) on a date with a car. However, when he fails the test, it seems like his dream is over until he decides to risk it all by borrowing his father’s Cadillac without permission. Their date is far from smooth and all sorts of chaos happens.
Ultimately, License To Drive is a simply story of a boy trying to impress a girl, but it is so much fun to watch! The two Coreys are a perfect embodiment of ‘80s teen stars, and are very entertaining actors to lead through a film like License To Drive. Along with its nice poppy soundtrack, this film is a smooth ride of entertainment.
16. Three O’Clock High (Phil Joanou, 1987)
High school can be tough for anyone, but it is even worse when you know at the end of the day someone is out to get you. That is essentially the plot of Three O’Clock High, where nerdy kid Jerry (Casey Siemaszko) speaks with Buddy (Richard Tyson), the new kid at school, to interview him for the school paper, but the psychopathic Buddy then aims to fight Jerry for bothering him.
Three O’Clock High could be considered to be like a high school version of the classic western High Noon genre, where the film counts down to the big showdown at the end. Jerry does all sorts of things to avoid the fight, from stealing money from the school, paying someone to bash Buddy, and other funny nonsense. It is a very charming ‘80s teen comedy.
17. Better Off Dead (“Savage” Steve Holland, 1985)
Better Off Dead is often mentioned when movie buffs speak about 1980s teen comedies, and it certainly does stand out among the pack. It is a wacky comedy in a bizarre world with kids eager to solve maths problems in class, vengeful paperboys, and a big ski race in the usually not-so-snowy California. All of this happens while the film deals with the grim plot of a teenage boy wanting to commit suicide after his girlfriend leaves him for the popular ski champion.
This is the film that put its star, John Cusack, on the map, and rightfully so. Cusack shows off his charisma as a movie star. The weird animated visuals seem to almost come out of nowhere, giving Better Off Dead a sense of manic comedy to it, especially in the scene where Cusack works at a burger joint and imagines a male and a female burger dancing romantically.
18. Fast Times At Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Another 1980s teen movie that is still popular is Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The film does not really have much of a plot as such; it covers the day-to-day lives of a couple of students of the titular Ridgemont High who go through typical teen interests like sex, drugs, and partying.
While the film may not cover new ground, it is very entertaining and is as ‘80s as a film can get. From the kids talking about musicians like Blondie and Van Halen as if they were current acts, old fashions, and classic surfing and skateboarding culture, Fast Times has everything that comes to mind with 1980s era California. There is an abortion subplot towards the end of the film, but it does not really take away from the good vibe throughout the rest of the film.
It was also the launching pad for stars like Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, and Forest Whitaker. To this day, Penn’s performance as stoner Jeff Spicoli is still one of his most famous roles, despite having mostly done dramatic films since.
19. Can’t Buy Me Love (Steve Rash, 1987)
As the title, which is a reference to a Beatles song, suggests, you cannot buy love, but you can certainly buy popularity. High school nerd Ronald (Patrick Dempsey) is desperate to improve his social standing at school and become one of the cool kids, and naturally he has a crush on the most popular girl in school, Cindy (Amanda Peterson).
Ronald’s scheme is to pay Cindy $1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend for a month, only to perhaps predictably end up liking him for real and for all sorts of comedic mishaps happen to Ronald and Cindy.
The plot might seem cheesy these days, but since Can’t Buy Me Love was made in the 1980s, it fits perfectly with that decade and it is full of laughs.
20. Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek, 1989)
Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of those movies that is pure entertainment, and it certainly does excel at this. Like many of the aforementioned films on this list, it has many qualities that made it obvious that it was made in the 1980s, in a good way.
Two airheaded teens, Bill (Alex Winters) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), are on the verge of failing their history class. But Rufus (George Carlin) comes from the future with a telephone booth time machine for the boys to use to travel through time to gather famous historical figures to do a very impressive history report.
The premise is zany, especially with its wacky depiction of historical figures, such as Napoleon, Socrates, Abraham Lincoln, Billy The Kid, Sigmund Freud, Ghangis Khan, Beethoven, and Joan of Arc. Combine that with a time travel plot, a rocking soundtrack, and “dude humour”, and this is one of the most fun movies ever made.
Originally published here at tasteofcinema.com on Saturday 25 February 2017