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10 Box Office Flops From the ‘80s That Are Beloved Today


10 Box Office Flops From the ‘80s That Are Beloved Today


Not every movie is guaranteed commercial success at the box office or critical acclaim upon release. However, the beauty of life, and more importantly, time, is the ability to retrospectively understand the intentions of a film and gauge its relevance in years beyond its premiere.

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The 1980s saw the release of juggernauts like Dead Poets Society and the Star Wars Franchise. While the aforementioned films saw much success and adoration, these select films may have underperformed during their premiere in the 80s. However, with time came much needed reflection and evidence of their lasting impact. From campy comedies to chilling thrillers, here are a select number of films that have stood the test of time.

10 Clue (1985)

Based on the popular board game of the same name, Clue is a 1985 film starring Eileen Brennan, TIm Curry, and Christopher Floyd. Opening in 1954, the film takes place in a secluded New England mansion that hosts several guests under mysterious pretenses. Owned by the ominous Boddy (Lee Ving), he soon reveals to his guests that he has orchestrated an elaborate scheme consisting of blackmailing and intimidation. However, before more is revealed, the lights go out, and he is found dead, kicking off a whimsical whodunit.

Channeling the Fun, Mysterious Essence of Its Source Material

The film was initially panned upon release, with many finding the writing and performances lacking any wit, instead relying too much on novelty. Clue opened with $14.9 million dollars at the box office, barely meeting its $15 million budget. However, almost four decades after the film’s release, retrospective reviews now appreciate Clue‘s comedic tone, with many citing its sense of humor and experimentation with multiple endings as a fun and forward-thinking film that brought the board game to life. Thankfully, director Jonathan Lynn would later find success directing the beloved comedy My Cousin Vinny in the early 1990s.

clue

9 The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is a 1982 film starring Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady. Based on the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., the film focuses on a group of American researchers in Antarctica, or more specifically, their experience with an extraterrestrial being. While stuck together, they learn that the being in question can morph and assimilate into organisms it comes across. Believing that one of them could be the eponymous Thing, all trust evaporates and the group attempt to survive while evading the alien.

An Eerie, Influential Horror

The Thing opened to negative reviews, with many critics harshly discarding the film for its cynicism and coldness compared to the warmth and optimism found in films like E.T. Other critics highlighted the poor pacing and subpar dialogue as reasons for the film’s disappointing performance. Of course, it also failed to draw big numbers at the box office, making less than $20 million on a production budget of around $15 million.

However, retrospective analysis saw the film being celebrated for its bleakness and its absolutely stunning practical gore effects, transforming into a cult classic by the late 90s. Currently, the film enjoys its status as one of the most influential horror films released, and as one of John Carpenter’s best films in his entire filmography. Buy or Rent The Thing on Apple TV.

the thing

The Thing (1982)

Release Date
June 25, 1982

Tagline
Man is The Warmest Place to Hide.

8 The Manhattan Project (1986)

The Manhattan Project is a 1986 film starring Christopher Collet, John Lithgow, and Cynthia Nixon. Dr. John Mathewson (Lithgow) is a new neighbor who maintains that he works for a medical company based in New York. Paul (Collet), meanwhile, is an exceptionally talented student who does not buy Mathewson’s backstory. Suspecting that the medical company is merely a front for a nuclear weapon project, Paul decides to construct an atomic weapon of his own for a national science fair. The situation comes to blows when agents intervene and threaten both John and Paul’s safety, birthing a newfound collaboration in hopes of preserving the atomic weapon and keeping their community safe.

A Slightly Unserious Adventure Against an Imminent Threat

Upon release, The Manhattan Project was met with mixed reviews, with some even attributing the then-recent Chernobyl disaster to the film’s performance and reception. On a modest production budget of only around $18 million dollars, it failed to gross even a fourth of that amount at the box office, even with the talented director Marhsall Brickman of Annie Hall fame working behind the camera.

However, esteemed critic Roger Ebert found the film “clever” and amusing, giving the film four out of five stars. Since its release, The Manhattan Project would become a celebrated film in its own right, due to its commentary on the threat of nuclear weapons as well as its overall humorous approach. It would also be an impressive early role for Cynthia Nixon, who would later find stardom in HBO’s Sex and the City. Buy The Manhattan Project on Prime Video.

The Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project

Release Date
June 13, 1986

Director
Marshall Brickman

Cast
John Lithgow , Richard Council , Robert Schenkkan , Paul Austin , Adrian Sparks , Curt Dempster

7 Ishtar (1987)

Ishtar has left quite a mark on the many people involved in bringing it to lfie. The Elaine May-comedy starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman focused on two American songwriters down on their luck. With hopes of turning things around during a trip to Morocco, the two are inadvertently roped into a Cold War-fueled stand-off between four feuding factions, including the CIA, guerilla fighters, and the Emir of the titular fictional country.

An International Adventure Defined By Its Controversy

Its 1987 release would begin a long period of negativity that continues to shroud the film. Billed as one of the worst films ever, Ishtar reportedly lost $40 million dollars during its release, making it one of the most expensive flops in history. Coupled with allegations against Hoffman and May’s own dismissal of the film, it seemed impossible for Ishtar to escape its less-than-stellar reputation.

Nonetheless, reviewers in the early 2010s reevaluated the film, complimenting the range and intention built into the film’s narrative. These reevaluations aren’t purely driven by a select few, either. Famed cinema icons like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino have praised Ishtar, per Far Out, with Warren Beatty continuing to defend its positive qualities to this day. Stream Ishtar on The Criterion Collection.

6 Possession (1981)

Possession is widely beloved for its themes and its impact on horror, though this wasn’t always the case. The Andrzej Żuławski film follows a spy named Mark (Sam Neill) who returns home to find his wife Anna (Isabelle Adjani) wanting a divorce. Puzzled by this new revelation, Mark attempts to discover the reasons behind Anna’s persistent request for a divorce and her general awkwardness, leading to a startling revelation that forever changes both of their lives.

A Uniquely Gripping Story

Considered to be a must-see for anyone interested in deeper film analysis, Possession is nothing short of a subversive and poignant film that interrogates identity and desire. Its flirtation with the grotesque resulted in the film being banned in the United Kingdom, while performing fairly well in France and its limited run in the United States. However, Possession‘s original release didn’t necessarily go as planned.

An edit of the film that cut out more than 40 minutes of footage was originally distributed to the United States to negative reviews, leading to a total of just over $1 million at the box office on a budget of $2 million. In the time since, however, the original intended vision for Possession has since become more easily accessible. Despite its controversial subject, Possession might be the best example of a film not only evading a permanent “flop” narrative, but crystallizing into a cult classic. Stream Possession on Shudder.

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5 Labyrinth (1986)

Labyrinth stars Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie in a fantasy-comedy that focuses on a 16-year-old girl named Sarah (Connelly), who embarks on a magical adventure to save her younger brother after she wishes him away without knowing the full consequences. The musical journey sees Sarah travel through an illustrious maze where she meets figures like Jareth, the Goblin King (Bowie).

A Magical, Coming-Of-Age Fairytale

Labyrinth had a budget of $25 million, but only grossed a little over $12 million, barely meeting half of its budget in total. Reviews of the film were mixed, with many citing the lack of tension as a main reason for its underwhelming story. Nevertheless, some reviews pointed out that the film made for a decent coming-of-age narrative that adults could appreciate, seeing themselves in a frustrated Sarah.

Years removed from its release, and Labyrinth currently enjoys a reputation for being a vibrant and wondrous fantasy, due in part to its revitalization on home video. Its numerous puppets, primarily provided by the famed Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, are still marvelous to look at even four decades later, and it would mark the last of Jim Henson’s feature-length directorial credits. Plus, David Bowie dazzles as the iconic Goblin King, which is still considered to be one of his best film roles. Stream Labyrinth on Peacock.

4 The King of Comedy (1982)

The King of Comedy, starring Robert De Niro, is a 1982 film that chronicles a growing, dangerous obsession an aspiring comedian has for his more successful idol. Rupert Pupkin (De Niro) spends most of the film working towards an appearance on the Jerry Langford show, but he is constantly denied by the staff and Langford (Jerry Lewis) himself. However, his delusional imagination paints the entire situation as a common conversation between two friends rather than complete strangers, developing into a precarious situation that balances terror and wit.

An Atypical Journey to Notoriety

At the time of its release, The King of Comedy debuted with stellar reviews. However, the film floundered at the box office, ultimately grossing only $2.5 million against a budget of $19 million. The acclaim, however, buoyed the film, carrying it to contemporary discussions, where it is still widely regarded as one of the creepiest yet strangely enthralling films to come out of the 20th century. The film even saw a resurgence of popularity after the release of Todd Phillips’ Joker, which shares some plot elements from this underrated Scorsese classic. Stream The King of Comedy on Paramount+.

3 Highlander (1986)

Highlander opens with a mythical warrior named Russell Nash (Christopher Lambert) murdering a man in a one-on-one sword fight in modern day New York. After the encounter, forensic scientist Brenda Wyatt (Roxanne Hart) and her co-worker Lt. Frank Moran (Alan North) attempts to figure out the reason behind the violent sword fight, stumbling upon a centuries-old feud between immortal beings.

A Bombastic Epic That Transcends Time

Despite its unique combination of modern drama and fantastical adventure, the film was rather underwhelming as a whole according to critics at the time. Outside a few entertaining scenes, reviewers from magazines like Variety found it overall messy. On a budget of $19 million, the film barely managed to gross just under $13 million at the box office.

However, the renewed reassessment of Highlander saw new eyes appreciate the film for its tackiness, finding enjoyment in its maximalist approach to storytelling. Sean Connery and Clancy Brown perform amicably in their respective roles, and it’s hard to deny that several elements from Highlander haven’t dug their own niche into film history. After all, iconic quotes like “there can only be one” can’t be ignored. Despite underperforming, Highlander would be the start of a full-on media franchise consisting of multiple films, a television series, and other multimedia ventures. Stream Highlander on Hoopla.

highlander

Highlander

Release Date
March 7, 1986

Tagline
There can be only one.

2 Heathers (1988)

Among contemporary discussions, it’s unimaginable to consider Heathers anything but a dark and campy masterpiece that would influence female-led teen dramas to come. Westerburg High School’s tragic stories of bullying and ostracization have forever lingered in the halls of the high school. The notorious Heathers rule the school with an iron fist. However, Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) becomes disillusioned with their callous ways, finding solace in a new confidante, J.D. (Christian Slater).

A Wonderful Illustration of the Horrors of High School

Between the Heathers’ ridiculous demands, the twisted comedy of the tragedies that take place in the film, and the chemistry between Veronica and JD, Heathers is a well-written, campy look into the horrors of high school. It even won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. However, many did not feel the same enthusiasm at the time of its premiere.

Seen as an unnecessarily morbid commentary on teenage life, the film was cast aside as a flop, opening with over $100,000 against a budget of $3 million before closing its theatrical run with only a third of its total budget in earnings. However, upon revisiting the film, Heathers has been credited for reimagining the teen comedy, setting the stage for films like Jawbreaker, Mean Girls, and Do Revenge. Its enduring popularity would even lead to the development of a stage musical adaptation in the 2010s. Stream Heathers on Prime Video.

heathers

Heathers

Release Date
March 31, 1989

Director
Michael Lehmann

1 Brazil (1985)

Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is a science-fiction black comedy set in a dystopian future where humanity’s future rests in the hands of poorly functioning ventilation machines. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a bureaucrat at the lower end of the corporate ladder, comes face-to-face with his overall discontent with the world he lives in. Digging deeper into the mysterious mechanisms of the elite, Sam finds himself unearthing a frightening truth that threatens his existence and understanding of the world.

A Surreal and Skeptical Masterpiece

Brazil has earned comparisons to George Orwell’s 1984 and works by German author Franz Kafka. Sam’s journey to the truth is anything but pretty, but it speaks to the anxieties of the everyday person, and the grave, omnipresent injustices that surround them. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into box office success. The film grossed approximately $10 million against a budget of $15 million.

However, Brazil has received universal acclaim since its release, going onto be a highly influential film that continues to deeply resonate with audiences for its grandiose approach to illustrating the hyper-surveillance and repression many have grown accustomed to. It’s an incredibly inspirational piece of sci-fi filmmaking, one that influenced talented creatives in just about every medium you can think of, including the likes of the Coen brothers and Tim Burton. It’s safe to say that, without Brazil, many of the beloved movies we know today wouldn’t likely be the same. Buy or Rent Brazil on Apple TV.

Brazil Movie Poster

Brazil (1985)

Release Date
December 18, 1985

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