100 thrillers to see before you die: 1980s

From Dead Calm to The Vanishing: the best in suspense from the 1980s.

Blow Out (1981)

Director Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma’s gorgeously expressive style reaches its peak in this perfectly articulated murder mystery. A diffident sound-recording man (John Travolta) unwittingly records evidence of a politically motivated murder, and falls into harm’s way when he begins to investigate. Set against the patriotic American bicentennial, it builds to a memorably tragic conclusion and folds into itself with a startling sense of self-awareness. CN

See also: Dressed to Kill (1980); Body Double (1984)

Blue Steel (1989)

Director Kathryn Bigelow

Blue Steel (1989)

In this early Kathryn Bigelow thriller, Jamie Lee Curtis is NYPD cop Megan Turner, who becomes the object of obsession for new lover Ron Silver (Eugene Hunt). Initially ignorant of Ron’s dark motives, Megan comes to realise that she will have to save her own life, in an explosive ending reminiscent of Curtis’s breakthrough film, Halloween (1978). NB

See also: Point Break (1991); Copycat (1995)

Dead Calm (1989)

Director Phillip Noyce

Dead Calm (1989)

“High seas, deep terror,” promised the poster, and this Australian nailbiter more than delivers. Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill play the grieving couple whose recuperative sailing trip takes a deadly turn after they rescue a marooned man. Orson Welles never finished his own adaptation of Charles Williams’ 1963 novel, but Phillip Noyce’s version sets sail with a nervy energy all its own. SW

See also: Malice (1993); The Shallows (2016)

Deadly Pursuit (aka Shoot to Kill, 1988)

Director Roger Spottiswoode

Shoot to Kill (1988)

This now largely forgotten 1980s thriller throws together FBI agent Sidney Poitier and gruff wilderness scout Tom Berenger on the trail of a killer who’s escaping to the Canadian border via the Cascade mountains. Full of vertiginous peril, guess-the-psycho gameplay and fish-out-of-water fun, Deadly Pursuit was once the stuff that video-rental dreams were made of. SW

See also: Cliffhanger (1993); The River Wild (1994)

Miracle Mile (1988)

Director Steve De Jarnatt

Miracle Mile (1988)

Any number of quirky ’80s movies set a boy and a girl off on an uncertain route to romance. One of them made the end of the road the end of the world. Harry (Anthony Edwards) falls for Julie (Mare Winningham) at an exhibition about the extinction of the dinosaurs. Then, as suddenly as it might happen in real life, nuclear war breaks out. The bombs start falling. Another extinction begins. Harry and Julie try to outrun the inevitable. HB

See also: Seven Days to Noon (1950); WarGames (1983)

Runaway Train (1985)

Director Andrey Konchalovskiy

Runaway Train (1985)

This could easily have been another thick-eared Cannon Films actioner. But, drawing inspiration from a screenplay originally drafted by Akira Kurosawa, director Andrei Konchalovsky uses the locomotive hurtling through the frozen Alaskan wastes to intensify the battle of wits between escaped prisoners Jon Voight and Eric Roberts and sadistic warden John P. Ryan. DT

See also: Narrow Margin (1990); Transsiberian (2008)

Thief (1981)

Director Michael Mann

Thief (1981)

Unsurprisingly, a nocturnal crime thriller marked the beginning of Michael Mann’s film directing career. Featuring a gruff James Caan as a veteran safecracker, Thief is a twisty, stylish affair. With a soundtrack from Tangerine Dream and the rain-flecked, neon environs of Chicago as its setting, Mann’s debut is exciting, humane and beautifully rendered. CN

See also: The Driver (1978); To Live and Die in L.A. (1985)

The Vanishing (1988)

Director George Sluizer

The Vanishing (1988)

Infinitely superior to its 1993 American remake, also directed by George Sluizer, this Dutch thriller takes a straightforward premise – the abduction of a young woman, and her partner’s three-year search to find her – and kicks it up a gear with an intriguing structure. With the audience knowing more than the characters, this is a fascinating psychological puzzle with a terrifying twist. NB

See also: The Wicker Man (1973); The Fourth Man (1983)

Read more

Back to the top

See something different

Subscribe now for exclusive offers and the best of cinema.
Hand-picked.