Five Sci-Fi Movies from the 80s That Will Give You Nightmares

What’s the best part about Halloween? Besides candy corn, gourds and creative costumes– horrifically horrendous horror films, of course! I’m not a big horror fan myself, and I’d take cavities and tummy aches over Saw any day, but I’m here to prove that you can still enjoy a creepy Halloween season without running into Freddy or Jason. I will be compiling lists for the non-horror fan this month of movies that will scare or scar you. First up this week, it’s Sci-Fi movies from the eighties. They will be graded Ghoulishly Good, Scarily Scarring, or Batshit Bad. I blame it on the pumpkin juice.

Fly free in a post-modern dystopia! Poster from Universal Studios.

1) Brazil

“Don’t fight it son. Confess quickly! If you hold out too long you could jeopardize your credit rating.”

If you’ve ever sat through Monty Python and wondered “what the hell is up with that animation?”, you are not alone. Terry Gilliam, the token American in Python’s Brit comedy troupe, took off on a directorial career after the team fell a part. Brazil is one of his earliest full-length feature films and does more to establish the distinct Gilliam style in cinema. An upbeat Brazilian song is the constant soundtrack to the dystopian, whimsical future where bureaucracy threatens to choke the humanity out of the distracted inhabitants. What’s worse: this madness all takes place during Christmastime, so there are Gestapo-like policemen singing carols, everyone getting each other the same gift, and colorful bits of decorations adorning the houses of the woefully destitute. Visual gags and stunning act direction aside, the movie deals with rather dark subjects like anomie, depression, torture, terrorism, the reality of dreams and a society handicapped by technology, all while boasting some of the most interesting critiques of both corporate and pop cultures. You won’t forget Brazil once you see it. All you need is the happy-go-lucky song to take you back to where torture is better known as “questioning” and life revolves around improving one’s appearance. You may not have to go too far. Ghoulishly Good (but remember to go for the director’s cut!)

It only gets scarier, if you can believe that. Poster from Universal Pictures.

2) Legend

“What care I for human hearts? Soft and spiritless as porridge! A faerie’s heart beats fierce and free!”

There’s something about “Darkness” in this film that unsettles me. Perhaps it’s Tim Curry (Rocky Horror Picture Show) playing the devil himself or Tom Cruise in one of his pre-Top Gun roles no one ever hears much about anymore. Or maybe it’s the elves, unicorns, and a fairy princess that push this film over the edge. Dungeons and Dragons this is not, but if you can imagine a Never Ending Story for grown-ups, it could be Legend. Apparently, the devil (known as Darkness in the film) decides to end daylight for good and wipe out unicorns and must marry a princess in order to complete the wicked witchcraft (Holy matrimony, how evil!). Then, a good-hearted forest boy decides to rescue the day with his trusty gang of elven creatures. No, really that’s the plot. I also could have shortened it to a few choice words: girl, boy, devil, light, unicorns. So aside from the fact that the film has a script as complex as a Mack Sennet short film in Middle Earth, I blame the visuals for my nightmares. They spare no expense in giving Tim Curry the most massive horns and chin I think I’ve ever seen on a cinematic demon. The unicorn scenes are shot in true 80s fashion: soft focused to near blur. It’s supposed to be magic or something. But you can imagine seeing this as a child and going into damn near hysterics when the demon minions slay a unicorn. I survived The Last Unicorn just fine, but Ridley Scott went too far into the live action realm for comfort. If this film was meant to be a fairy tale for adults, complete with a moral-instilling fear of the great tempter, it’s succeeded. Nothing quite puts the fear of God into impressionable minds like an 11-foot devil seeking to end light by killing animals. May I suggest a new platform for PETA: Save the Unicorns! Batshit Bad, unless you’re into these sorts of movies.

It's like a detective novel but with a lot more technology. Poster from Warner Bros. Pictures

3) Blade Runner

They don’t advertise for killers in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-cop. Ex-blade runner. Ex-killer.”

Synth music, midgets, and skinny ties, oh my! Ridley Scott’s resume seems to be hit or miss when it comes to the eighties. Tom Cruise was preceded by Harrison Ford as the leading male savior figure (watch the trailers back-to-back; you’ll see what I mean).What makes this oft-referenced film remarkable is its mix of dystopian future and film noir framework. Your usual film noir fare is almost entirely represented: a hardened detective, a damsel in distress, questionable trust in many characters, and dramatic lighting yet plenty of darkness. What’s also interesting is Scott’s portrayal of a future that is a perfect mix of Eastern and Western cultures. Girls in kimono advertise food above skyscrapers while Ford dons a western duster below. Unfortunately, Harrison Ford is no Humphrey Bogart, so many of the film noir-esque exchanges in the movie are laughable for me. Beware of watching the theatrical cut, or you will wind up wanting to sock Ford for his monotone narration. In a last minute decision, studio execs decided to add the narration in order to explain the movie to audience. In rebellion, Harrison Ford read the entire narration as poorly as he could, and it still haunts releases to this day. But let’s leave the knockoff Bogart character for a minute to explain why this film is scary. It’s not just the visual direction this time, but also the concept of the kind of Robo-pocalypse that has preyed upon movie audiences since the sci-fi heyday of the fifties. Replicants, as they are known in the movie, are super-human robots that have developed emotions and started to rebel violently against their human masters. That’s where blade-runners come in: they are the robot assassins. Whether or not robot-killing is or mere deactivation becomes the ethical question of the day. The lines between humanity and the inhumane are quickly disappearing. Ghoulishly Good.

Lether-clad cop does not always mean "The Full Monty." Poster from MGM Studios.

4) Mad Max

“They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore. Well damn them! You and me, Max, we’re gonna give them back their heroes!”

Okay, so this Australian gem that gave the world Mel Gibson in leather is technically from ’79. However, I’m holding it over because by the time it hit Stateside, it was the eighties and the sequels that followed became the staples of the era (you can thank them for the term “Thunderdome”). Apocalypse has come in the form of an oil crisis and renegade biker gangs terrorize whoever dares to roam the streets  without a gun. Law and order rides the Outback in the form of leather-clad policemen. All’s fine in love and revenge, but the movie is so over-the-top with camp, I can’t watch it like an honest action-cop movie. The Aussie accents are so thick and the slang so often dropped that one would appreciate some subtitles. The movie borders on grindhouse for the amount of violence and carnage these men wreck. It’s bad when I can tell you that Escape from New York made more sense. Random outbursts from characters, freakishly cartoonish villains, and Mel’s a responsible family man. Bonus points for Max’s lady’s mean sax playing in random parts of the movie. Batshit Bad

5) Twilight Zone: The Movie

“You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension. A dimension of sound. A dimension of sight. A dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into… The Twilight Zone.”

Now, I know what you are thinking by now. I like my sci-fi movies like I like my Facebook account. There is such a notion out there that you can have too much of a good thing. This movie adaptation of the classic TV show had four (for the price of one ticket!) drawn out episodes by some of the most influential directors of the time. John Landis, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante, and George Miller  strung together a marathon of their favorite afternoon episodes for one over-blown, over-bloated production. Rod Serling had a beautifully thoughtful, yet sensational serial on television in the fifties and sixties. We could have left the story there, in wondrous monochrome for posterity’s sake.

All you need to scare an audience are words. Poster from Warner Bros. Pictures.

Unfortunately, raising the buried reruns of the show had a human cost. By the end of the debacle, three actors were dead, a major Hollywood player was pushed to early retirement, and the movie has carried an eerie shadow ever since.

In the first segment of the film, we hear the story of a bigot who’s going to learn the lesson of tolerance in true Twilight Zone manner: by becoming the races he has prejudices against. Hooray for tolerance, right? On one of the final nights of the John Landis (Animal House) directed segment, there was to be a scene of the Vietnam war. The leading man was to flee from U.S. soldiers and helicopter bombers while rescuing two young Vietnamese children from harm’s way. By 80s standards, it should have been a standard action sequence: bombs, flames, and on-set mayhem. That’s right, all of the explosions and helicopter action shown on film would be authentic, as would be the actors running underneath. No green-screen or stand-ins: the shot had to show the change of a man’s heart to understand what it felt like to be persecuted. So in the early hours of a darkened summer morning, a helicopter was hovering above a fabricated war zone populated by an elderly actor trying to calm the fears of the two kids on either side of him. Places were taken, helicopter lowered, and the director yelled “Action!”

What happened next is what real nightmares are made of. Mistimed bombs, technical malfunction, and a helicopter incident that cost the lives of actors and the careers of many involved. The disaster changed the industry, including restrictions on child actors and safety for actors on the job. The nineties brought in the revolution of CGI, and special effects were no longer a life-threatening liability. I heard about this story before seeing the movie and read the incident reports that detailed the disaster. The movie’s much more sinister now, and not by the movie’s intention. It was a step too far into The Twilight Zone. Scary Scarring.

So there you have it: getting really scared doesn’t have to involve watching “torture porn” pandering of Saw. Be sure to keep checking the Quad, as next week will bring out another genre’s scary side.

About Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo (CAS '11) is a Film writer for the Quad. Drawn into the world of film studies accidentally, she's continued on writing, writing, and writing about film since. She also co-writes on another blog,, which is about even geekier film stuff. If you have the time, she would love to watch a movie with you.

View all posts by Monica Castillo →

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