In terms of movies, the 1980s were full of incredible works. There were movies with intense action like Die Hard and Rambo; gripping adventures like Indiana Jones, coming-of-age stories like The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink; and other mega-hits like Top Gun, Footloose and Gremlins. The 80s are an instantly recognizable decade, from music to fashion and the general vibe. And while the 80s happened over 30 years ago, the decade still reigns supreme today, as 80s nostalgia is hugely prevalent in modern media. There are countless movies from the 80s that were not only major hits when they were released, but also remain popular today.
The decade seemed to touch just about every genre and produce a slew of hits, one of those genres being thrillers. While the films made in the 80s were certainly not as technologically advanced as what we see in theaters today, there were still several that managed to evoke undeniable chills and thrills. In a way, something about the stripped down nature of ’80s filmmaking – as opposed to today’s technology – is part of what makes some of the ’80s thrillers so believable and successful. There are countless ’80s thrillers that made a lasting impression on the genre, but here are some of the best.
Updated July 31, 2023 by Timothy Lindsey: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
9 Fatal Attraction (1987)
This psychological thriller premiered in 1987, starring acclaimed actors Michael Douglas (Falling Down) and Glenn Close (101 Dalmatians). It’s about Dan Gallagher (Douglas), a married man who has a weekend affair with a woman named Alex (Close) who becomes obsessed with him and won’t leave him alone. Fatal Attraction was a big hit at the box office and went on to be nominated for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress.
The character of Close has been used as an example when psychiatrists discuss borderline personality disorder, a condition that the character of Close describes quite effectively. Although the film has received criticism over the years due to its depiction of mental health, it still stands out as one of the great recognizable thrillers of the 80s. The suspense and tension of having a relentless stalker is a chilling plot that hasn’t lost its touch.
8 Clue (1985)
This comedic mystery brought the famous board game Clue to life on the big screen. Starring Tim Curry (It) as the butler, leading the goofy group of guests on a thrilling night of murder mystery as they all scramble to figure out “thriller.”
At the time of its release in 1985, it received mixed reviews and failed to create a box office sensation. However, over time, this campy mystery has amassed a significant cult following. In 2018, it was announced that Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool) will star in a remake of Clue produced by 20th Century. The remake is in development, but there is no set release date or detailed casting information yet.
7 The Dead Zone (1983)
Paramount Pictures/De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
The Dead Zone, created in 1983, is one of Stephen King’s most successful adaptations of the 80s. The film is based on King’s 1979 novel of the same name and follows Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) who wakes up from a coma with psychic powers that allow him to see a person’s future with just a touch. At one point, Johnny shakes hands with an aspiring politician and sees that there would be great danger if he ever came to power, so Johnny sets out to kill him before the future he saw becomes reality.
The film is a real mystery/thriller, but also contains sci-fi elements, which makes it enjoyable for just about anyone. The Dead Zone has received very positive reviews and is often considered one of Stephen King’s best film adaptations. Following the success of the film, it was remade as a TV show starring Anthony Michael Hall (The Breakfast Club) which ran from 2002 to 2007.
6 Burning Mississippi (1988)
Pictures of Orion
If there are any viewers who appreciate the combination of history and crime, Mississippi Burning is the movie for them. In 1964, two FBI investigators (Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe) are dispatched to Jessup County, Mississippi, after three civil rights workers go missing and are later presumed dead. Both are struggling to find answers as local deputies are linked to the Ku Klux Klan.
The two investigators have a different way of handling things, but they find a way to come together after a brief altercation and devise a plan that ends with the indictment of all the guilty members involved. The film provides excellent historical context to the times of Mississippi during the civil rights movement. However, it also has a great Hollywood touch. The Oscar-winning film received an A rating on CinemaScore. It sold out within the first four days of its release in Mississippi State.
5 Blue Velvet (1986)
De Laurentiis Entertainment Group
Blue Velvet is a thrilling mystery that combines psychological horror, film noir and drama to create a very compelling storyline. It’s about Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student who returns home to care for his sick father. When he arrives, he discovers a severed ear in a field and teams up with a detective’s daughter (Laura Dern) to try to solve the mystery. It took a while for Blue Velvet to hit the big screen. The script circulated widely in the 1970s and early 1980s, as no production studio felt comfortable producing a film with such graphic sexual and violent content.
When Blue Velvet finally premiered, it received a divided response, as some reviewers either disliked the explicit content or found it necessary to the story. However, over time, Blue Velvet became one of Lynch’s greatest works and one of the best films of the 1980s. In 2008, Blue Velvet was chosen as one of the greatest mystery films ever made. by the American Film Institute, cementing his place in film history.
4 Heathers (1989)
Images of the New World
This comedy drama is a uniquely dark take on high school life, from cliques to schemes and everything in between. It’s about a group of girls – three of whom are named Heather, plus Veronica (Winona Ryder) – who run the school in their untouchable clique at a high school in Ohio until the new boyfriend from Veronica, JD (Christian Slater), introduces herself. JD wants to kill all the cruel and popular kids at school he doesn’t like and present their deaths as suicide and Veronica sets out to try to stop him.
Heathers failed to shine at the box office, but it continued to have a cult following and is often called one of the greatest coming of age films. In 2010, Heathers was adapted into a hit Broadway musical. The show wrapped up on Broadway in 2014. Since then there have been a variety of off-Broadway performances and the musical has played in local theaters across the country, bringing the thrills of the hit film to all the scenes.
3 Witness (1985)
Everyone remembers Harrison Ford as the legendary archaeologist from Indiana Jones, as well as the brave smuggler from Han Solo. However, his role as Officer John Book in Witness is the only Oscar-nominated role of his career. The film is one of the most underrated crime films of the 1980s. In it, an Amish mother (Kelly McGillis) and her son, who witnessed a murder, seek protection from Book. The son is able to identify the murderer, a rogue cop (Danny Glover), who is pictured in a police station log. After realizing just how much police corruption is involved, Book brings the two back to the Amish countryside in an effort to protect them.
The Oscar-winning film has a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes. In almost every film starring Harrison Ford, the action and mystery will be top notch. This is exactly the case in Witness. The Amish element of the film provides fans with a unique twist on the story, as crime is not associated with the people who choose this way of life. There is also an element of romance in the film, which makes it very complete. 80s movie buffs need to check out this movie, especially if they love Harrison Ford.
2 The Shining (1980)
This psychological horror/thriller is one of Stephen King’s most recognizable works and film adaptations. Based on the novel of the same name, The Shining is about Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) and his family as they travel to the Overlook Hotel to tend to space during the winter. Jack is a writer, hoping to wipe out his writer’s block in the secluded Colorado hotel, but the Overlook isn’t exactly what it seems. From disturbing visions to psychological turmoil, Jack begins to spiral out of control into a murderous maniac bent on murdering his family.
The film is chock full of chills and thrills. The music is weird, the shots and camera angles are unsettling, and all of these elements work together to make the audience feel like they’re going crazy alongside Jack. Along with the excellent production, the performances in The Shining are also top-notch, with Nicholson’s portrayal of one of King’s most notable characters ranking among the best performances in a King film adaptation.
1 The Untouchables (1987)
In another film with a little historical significance, The Untouchables follows fellow Prohibition agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) as he assembles a team of law-abiding officers in an effort to stop the infamous crime boss. Al Capone (Robert De Niro) illegally selling and transporting alcohol in the city of Chicago. With the help of battered veteran cop Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery), intern George Stone (Andy Garcia), and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), Ness is ready to do whatever it takes to uphold the law. .
The Untouchables isn’t just one of the great crime movies of the 1980s. It’s one of the great crime movies of all time. Sean Connery won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Malone. Vincent Canby of The New York Times called the film “a smashing work… vulgar, violent, funny, and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful.” The combination of gun violence, witty quotes, and brilliant acting puts the film in its own league.