Phantom Sway

The Top 8 ‘Kids-in-the-80s-Investigate-Things’ Movies

With a new “It” movie set to come out in September, take a look back at some of the similar films in the genre to make the wait easier.

Despite having no interest in most horror movies, after seeing the trailer, I found myself drawn to the new It movie—which is set to come out on September 8th—in a way I hadn’t expected. Yet the reason was fairly obvious. It, set in 1986, falls into my favorite genre, what I lovingly call: “Kids in the 80s Investigate Things”.

Automatically, I started to think up the other films that reminded me of It. Other 80s kids movies that I’ve treasured over the years and I was surprised. For being what I would have to assume a well-beloved genre, I was disappointed by how few there were. Most of these films, or at least some of them, are beloved to many people. It’s a throwback to a simpler time, a nostalgic one that holds something of childhood innocence, of running around with your friends without a care—though some dark, sinister thing is usually there to spoil that innocence; a perfect formula for adventure and just a bit of horror.

So, in honor of the new It movie, I decided to rank my favorite “Kids in the 80s Investigate Things” films. Yes, the vast majority of them are obvious, and perhaps I missed one or two that people hold dear, but these are the ones I always go when I want an uncomplicated, fun film.

Yet to make a list with such a title as this, I first, had to set a few criteria to my list. The movie had to take place in a town, so movies like Labyrinth or Explorers were out. Back to the Future was out as well because it does not stay in the 80s and the other main character is an adult. Other films too, like the not-so-good Earth to Echo and Chronicle I would have liked to include in this list, but since they are not in the 80s, they’re out as well. Basically, if it didn’t involve a pack of free-roaming kids investigating something, with minimal adult interaction, riding their bikes across town, I wasn’t going to include it.

And so here are my top eight.

8: Super 8 (Date set: 1979, Director: J.J. Abrams)

Okay, technically, this isn’t set in the 80s, but it can’t be argued that this film wasn’t created to be part of the “genre” and so I’m including it here. Super 8 tells the story of a group of aspiring film makers who happen to catch something on their camera and are caught up in a world of faceless government agents and a creature we don’t know is a monster or not.

Perhaps best seen as a “Bad ET” movie, Super 8 takes the genre a different direction than previous films. The most obvious thing that sets this film apart is that it incorporates the “found footage” style, using shaky handheld camera shots to document the kids’ experiences—hence the name Super 8.

The reason this film is at the bottom of my list is partly to do with directing style and partly to do with tone. For me, I’ve found J.J Abrams has had some hits and misses with films. Super 8 is definitely a call-back to Spielberg’s ET, with a few dark twists of its own that are somewhat unsavory.

The film gives viewers a feeling of its predecessor, ET, but viewers will likely be hard-pressed to find something to identify with or like about the alien creature. Still, the film offers a unique presentation, adventure and a familiar setting that should make people of the original ET happy, as well as those wanting something new and perhaps a little more frightening.

7: Donnie Darko (Date set: 1988, Director: Richard Kelly)

It might be surprising to find this on my list, but Donnie Darko does fit my criteria. It’s in the 80s. It’s got kids—even if they’re a bit older. And something weird happens to them.

The film is certainly strange and has a very different tone compared to the rest of the films that make up this list. Donnie Darko is by far the darkest of these movies, and it also is the most mature. Gone is the innocent nature; Donnie is haunted by strange visions and schizophrenia and oddly enough, a giant bunny rabbit. Gone as well is the “nerd culture” which prevails in most other films in this genre. However, its strange, dark nature is probably more akin to the new It movie, and though figuring out what is going on is mostly up to Donnie, the film still attempts to pull in some familiar aspects and at least one late night bike ride across town. Donnie Darko offers plenty of good music and a plot that keeps viewers more engaged than the other films in this list, mostly because the plot is so convoluted. However, it has an air to it which hearkens back to crisp fall days and teenage drama and it is a worth a watch.

6 : Adventures in Babysitting (Date set: 1987, Director: Chris Columbus)

Nothing supernatural about this one (besides possibly a Norse god), but it’s a good one. When a night of what is supposed to be a boring babysitting job turns into a rescue mission in the heart of Chicago, crazy things happen. While wrangling two disrespectful, horny boys, a little girl who thinks she’s Thor and running from gang members and other trouble, babysitter Chris somehow manages to keep her cool and even meet a cute boy. Perhaps most similar to Ferris Bueller, but on a larger scale, this film is nothing but a fun ride and somehow manages to make a completely crazy plot identifiable with such wonderful characters.

 5 : Gremlins (Date set: 1984, Director: Joe Dante)

Admittedly a Christmas movie, but I would be remiss without adding this classic to the list. When Billy receives an adorable critter—mogwai—for a Christmas present, he’s thrilled. But little Gizmo comes with a list of rules—rules we all know by heart and soon enough the kid manages to break quite a few of them and the chaos begins.

Despite having an irresponsible lead who practically tortures his little pet by dropping water on it every moment he gets, Billy and his girlfriend take us on a wild ride trying to set things right. Adding to the charm are plenty of oddball characters in the town–most of whom meet grisly ends–giving the film a feel of that fabled small town that makes these films so good.

This film has quite a few laughs and fun scares, but what really sold it for me was seeing one hundred gremlins happily singing along to Snow White in a theater, proving Disney cartoons really bring out the best in people–even monsters.

4: Stand by Me (Date set: 1986, Director: Rob Reiner)

Perhaps it’s not fair to add another Stephen King story to this list, but I couldn’t leave this one out.And yes, I am breaking my list’s rules with this one as the film, though filmed in the 80s, is set in 1959. However, I believe it belongs.

The movie is based on a short story titled The Body, the film is as the name implies, about a group of kids who go on a journey to find a rumored body. There is nothing supernatural or scary about the film, which sets it apart from most other Stephen King stories—and most on this list—and I think that is why I like it. It is about boys, the trouble in their lives, worrying about growing up. It is the perfect coming of age story and the most serious. While we can’t know for sure at this time, I would be surprised if the new It film did not draw at least some inspiration from this classic.

3: The Goonies (Date set: 1985, Director: Richard Donner)

When it comes to movies in this genre, this film has to come to mind for people. It is an absolute classic. When their homes are about to be demolished for a golf course, a group of kids feel there is no hope. No hope until they discover a treasure map and go on a wild adventure to find the treasure and save their homes.

This film has it all: gangsters, monsters, inventions, an underground world, bike rides, and pirates. While the plot is not complicated at all, it still manages to captivate the audience. It also manages to mix age groups together in one amusing gang similar to Adventures in Babysitting that ends up in various crushes and lots of arguments.

I don’t see how a film like this couldn’t be made now and not fail miserably, but somehow The Goonies has held on this long and become a classic and I think, arguably, it is due to the time period.

2: ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (Date set: 1982, Director: Steven Spielberg)

It was a struggle to not put this as number one on my list. I adore this movie. I would watch it on a regular basis as a kid and it still brings a tear to my eye today when I sit down to watch it. We all know the story: When a young, not very popular kid named Elliot befriends a stranded alien, the two form a strong friendship. What results is a magical, sometimes tense adventure as they try to keep ET safe from the mysterious government officials hunting for him and try to send him home.

The thing that I think makes this film so special is that it focuses mainly on one boy: Elliot and his relationship to ET. It’s a very intimate movie, and when paired with a beautiful score by John Williams, absolutely beautiful. Spielberg also manages to create and incredibly real, identifiable family. Elliot’s life is far from perfect and perhaps that is what makes his friendship with ET all the more special.

Of course it also features the most famous bicycle chase from perhaps any movie of all time. ET will forever be the golden standard when it comes to films of this genre.

1: Stranger Things (Date set: 1983, Director/Creator: Duffer brothers)

Although perhaps the newest to the genre and a show not a film, Stranger Things, first premiering on Netflix in the fall of 2016, quickly became my favorite. It could be due to the fact that the show is so compellingly bingwatch-able.

When a young boy named Will goes missing, a group of friends tries to cope. And then the girl without a name shows up and things start to get crazy. The relationship between Mike–the boy who befriends Eleven–is very similar to ET, and it could be that familiarity, along with creepy plot, that have made it such a wonderful show.

I believe this show will become—if it hasn’t already—just as treasured and well-loved as ET or The Goonies. It is brilliantly written and brings people back to an era that has—thanks to previous films—a sense of nostalgia.

And it seems we’re reluctant to let go of that sense of nostalgia considering the array of movies set to come out later this year like Ready Player One, Blade Runner 2049 and—of course—It. I for one won’t complain. If we’re only getting remakes and sequels in the near future, they couldn’t have picked a better time period for their inspiration.


Photo by Joshua Ness on Unsplash

Taylor Leigh

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