The Best Dark Comedy Movies From Each Year Of The 1980s
BY MEGAN SUMMERS
March 4, 2021
From Motel Hell to Heathers, the ’80s were full of great dark comedy movies.
Here the best from each year of the decade.
Who doesn’t love a good dark comedy? Believe it or not, the 1980s produced some of the most morbid and bleak comedic features of all-time. From horror to social satire to sci-fi, the decade was rife with cheeky, brazen films that pushed the envelope and divided critics.
These dark comedies tackle taboo subjects like death, depression, and murder. Without skipping a beat, hilarious scenes give way to devastating ones in uniquely 1980s fashion. There’s big hair, big egos, and in some cases big cups full of gazpacho. There’s also tons of synth-heavy background music to accompany all the sarcasm and cynicism.
10/10: 1980: Motel Hell
Part satire, part comedy, and part slasher, Motel Hell is The Texas Chain Saw Massacre meets Pyscho for the ’80s VHS generation. The movie centers around Motel Hello, where proprietors, and siblings, Vincent and Ida Smith target passersby who dare to spend the night at their inn.
It turns out the special ingredient in Vincent’s smoked meats is human flesh. Donning a pig’s head mask and wielding a chainsaw, Vincent stays busy pursuing products for his renowned roadside snack.
9/10: 1981: An American Werewolf In London
John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London is a unique horror-comedy. This film about two American backpackers who are afflicted with lycanthropy after crossing paths with a werewolf in rural England features some of the most groundbreaking special effects in the genre, making it the first horror film to win an Oscar.
David Naughton stars as David Kessler, who is let loose on the streets of London on the night of the full moon. The film’s gruesome, graphic scenes are pitched perfectly against wry, sardonic jokes.
8/10: 1982: The King Of Comedy
One of Martin Scorsese’s hidden gems, The King of Comedy sees Robert De Niro showing off his comedic skills with Jerry Lewis and Sandra Bernhard. De Niro plays Rupert Pupkin, a wannabe stand-up comic obsessed with talk show host Jerry Langford, who is played by Lewis.
Pupkin dreams of appearing on Langford’s show, and when it’s obvious this dream won’t come true, he takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping Langford. The King of Comedy offers up some hilarious commentary about celebrity worship and media culture.
7/10: 1983: Trading Places
After An American Werewolf in London, John Landis helmed Trading Places. This dark social comedy features Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd at their best; they play a con man and a stock investor who are both wrapped up in a bizarre bet between two bored millionaires.
The one-percenters decide a social experiment: what happens when Murphy and Aykroyd’s characters trade places with each other? The result is a hilarious ride replete with plenty of insights about American capitalism.
6/10: 1984: Repo Man
Harry Dean Stanton and Emilio Estevez share the screen in Alex Cox’s directorial debut Repo Man. Grungy sci-fi aesthetics meet road trip comedy tropes in this unique feature about a young punk who gets a job working with a car repossession agency.
There are aliens, CIA conspiracies, and all the paranoias that came along with the final years of the Atomic Age. Even with its subversive themes and B-movie trappings, Repo Man was a critical success upon release.
5/10: 1984: Brazil
Terry Gilliam’s Brazil is an epic, bureaucratic nightmare whose plot unfolds with comedic mastery. The film stars Jonathan Pryce as Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who lives in a totalitarian society.
To keep himself from descending into utter despair, Lowry maintains an intricate fantasy world where he’s a brave hero who saves beautiful women from demise. Lowry has a chance to make his dream a reality when he gets involved with an underground resistance movement.
4/10: 1986: Ruthless People
In Ruthless People, Judge Reinhold and Helen Slater play a couple who kidnap the wife of a callous businessman who shafted them. The scoundrel, played by Danny DeVito, is actually overjoyed to be rid of the wife he was about to have killed before running away with his mistress — meaning he has no intention of paying the ransom.
Bette Midler co-stars as the wife of DeVito’s character, who doesn’t take well to being abducted. Ruthless People is the kind of hysterical caper that shows what people will do to each other when they are put in desperate situations.
3/10: 1987: Withnail & I
In the under-the-radar British gem Withnail & I, two unemployed actors try to make the most of it in 1960s London. Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann play the titular Withnail and I, aka Marwood, who share an apartment in the Camden Town neighborhood.
The duo ends up in the English countryside, where they spend a weekend with Withnail’s uncle Monty. What makes this film so uproariously hilarious are its stellar dialogue, existential ruminations, and scathing indictments against the creative class.https://d0f288c5fe3a47d3babd7e30291d2678.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
2/1: 1988: Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown
Beloved Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar weaves together a complex, multifaceted story in Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. This ensemble feature employs slapstick humor, situational comedy, and histrionic acting to tell a story about heartbreak, chance, and drinking lots and lots of gazpacho that may or may not be laced with sleeping pills.
Carmen Maura stars as Pepa Marcos, a voice-over actress reeling from a break-up with her married boyfriend Ivan. Over the course of one night, Pepa is overwhelmed by one visitor after the next, including a young Antonio Banderas.
1/1: 1989: Heathers
Michael Lehmann’s Heathers is the ultimate dark teen satire about what happens when a psychopathic nihilist dates one of the popular girls at school. Winona Rider stars as Veronica Sawyer, whose life is turned upside down after she meets the new guy, Christian Slater’s character J.D.
J.D. convinces Veronica to rally against the in-crowd, and a few rebellious jokes turn violent after Veronica’s friend Heather ends up dead. From there, J.D. leads Veronica into Bonnie and Clyde territory; the results are explosive.