Category Archives: 1980s

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

*. “What you can see in Conan the Destroyer, if you look closely, is the beginning of a movie dynasty. This is the film that points the way to an indefinite series of Conan adventures — one that could even replace Tarzan in supplying our need for a noble savage in the movies.” So began Roger Ebert’s review of Conan the Destroyer. And indeed what he describes was the plan.
*. There were originally supposed to be four Conan movies, and given the success of Conan the Barbarian there seemed no good reason to give up on the franchise. Alas, Conan the Destroyer was to prove to be the last. It made money and was generally well received but Schwarzenegger had other plans and had fulfilled his contract with Dino De Laurentiis by doing Red Sonja and Raw Deal. So Conan the Conqueror, which was the next up, turned into Kull the Conqueror and that’s where things lay until the 2011 Jason Momoa film.
*. This should have been a better movie. The initial sequel in a franchise is often the best film in the series because it’s still fresh material but it gets a chance to cut loose a bit. And that was the direction they wanted to go here. They wanted a more family-friendly, comic-book approach. A little more silliness, a few more laughs.
*. I say this was the right direction to go in, but Arnie didn’t approve. I’m not sure Schwarzenegger was that great a judge of these things. He didn’t like what they did with Predator 2 either, and yet bringing the alien to Los Angeles seemed to me to be a logical next step for that franchise to take.

*. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe Richard Fleischer was the wrong guy for the job. Otherwise it was a cheesy enough production, and the addition of Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones — not actors, but commanding presences — was a plus. Arnie still couldn’t act (he’s just awful in the scene where he gets drunk), but he gets to show off his muscles even more than in the first film.
*. And yet it all seems to drag. It wants to be a funnier movie than the first, but paradoxically it’s the pomposity of Conan the Barbarian that seems funnier today. John Milius took the shit he wrote seriously. This film could have had a field day taking the piss out of Conan but comic book irony wasn’t as well developed in the 1980s as it is now.
*. I think it needed to be a sexier movie too. Jones looks fetching in her leather monokini and fox-tail get-up, but the princess is a virgin and the sexiness of Queen Taramis (the striking Sarah Douglas) is dialed way back. Read the novelization and see what I mean!
*. It’s episodic, by which I mean it just moves from one fight scene to another with some limp gestures toward character and attempts to fill in the narrative during the down time spent around the campfire. But the big action sequences we build toward are nothing special. Conan fights an ape-like creature in a hall of mirrors and then wrestles a bizarre-looking amphibious demon named Dagoth (André the Giant in costume) at the end.
*. I’ve always pronounced Cimmerian (as in Conan the Cimmerian) with a hard “c.” In this movie they pronounce it with a soft “c” (or “s”) sound. I wonder if they’re right. I prefer the alliteration with “Conan.”
*. Was all the dialogue added post-production? It doesn’t even seem synchronized.
*. I think everyone agrees that Malak (Tracey Walter) is one of the worst sidekicks of all time. He’s right up there with Rob Schneider’s Fergie in Judge Dredd. Maybe worse.
*. And so we come to the end of the line. This was only the second Conan movie and Schwarzenegger was already sick of the role. Conan would remain an uncrowned king, as there wasn’t going to be any dynasty. All things considered, I think this was probably for the best, not to mention a wise career move for the Austrian Oak. Next up . . . the Terminator!

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Conan the Barbarian (1982)

*. Does anyone still read the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard? I’m sure there’s still a fan base, and the character has been spun off in countless ways, but from the few of them I’ve read I don’t think the originals are very good. Nevertheless, a big dude with a big sword gets people’s attention.
*. Oliver Stone and John Milius? I can certainly understand the latter name, but I was a little surprised to see Stone had a co-writer credit on the screenplay. I’d forgotten his involvement with the project. As it turns out, his initial draft was far from canonical, being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was also going to run 4 hours and involve a lot of special monster effects. The producers wanted something more orthodox and less expensive. Mainly less expensive.
*. Milius, on the other hand, was definitely the man for the job. He’d already written Dirty Harry and Magnum Force and as far as I can tell took all of this shit seriously. This is a comic book movie before comic book movies discovered irony. We begin with a quote from Nietzsche, though what the philosopher would think of Conan is hard to say. I doubt he would approve of Conan’s crude recipe for happiness. I think Nietzsche meant something a little more by amor fati than just crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. And I’m not sure he would have cared much for Crom either.
*. Conan does, however, get to beat up a bunch of hippies and flower children. Milius must have loved that, and knocking the fruity cult priest on the head. This is a world where men are men and women are (a) valkyries; (b) pleasure slaves; (c) breeding units; or (d) witches.
*. Milius had also written Apocalypse Now, and the end of this movie seems a clear echo of the end of that earlier film, with Conan as Willard ritually beheading the cult leader Thulsa Doom/Colonel Kurtz at the top of the stairs.
*. Come to think of it, there’s something of the end of De Palma’s Scarface (written by Stone) there too. It seems to have been a bit of a motif at the time.
*. Shouldn’t a he-man like Conan have been able to chop Thulsa Doom’s head off with one swing of that mighty broadsword? It looks like he’s up there chopping wood.
*. The design of the film was inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta, who I guess is pretty much the only visual source for this kind of material. It looks nice in the traditional fantasy style, with lots of corkscrew stone pillars and scantily-clad slave girls. Aside from the crowd scenes though I don’t think there’s anything else much to be impressed by. Conan’s swords apparently cost $10,000 a piece but they might have been made out of plastic for all I could tell. The giant snake is a bit of a yawn. The ghosts are hardly worth the trouble.
*. Milius took the business of painting magic words on Conan’s body from Kwaidan. Influence is a funny thing.
*. Sandahl Bergman is pretty good, in what was to be her biggest role. She really had a striking look. And for parts like this, what else did she need?
*. Maybe she just plays well against Arnold. Schwarzenegger went on to get a bit better, or at least more comfortable, with acting, but really he’s just terrible here. The only thing he can do is pose (which is something he does a lot). He delivers his lines as though he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, much less anything about their timing. This was to be a breakout movie for him, but at the time it was hard to see much in the way of promise. He was just another hunk of beefcake.
*. I immediately recognized Basil Poledouris’s familiar stirring score, but it might not have been from this movie. Apparently it has been sampled extensively by other epics. This is understandable, as it’s very good.
*. I guess I’ve been pretty negative here, but to be honest I was actually quite surprised at how well this movie has held up. It’s a bit ponderous and could have really used some more humour, but for its genre it manages to stand out. Mind you, there were a lot of terrible swords-and-sandals movies that came out around this time so that’s not saying much. Still, I enjoyed seeing it again — for the first time in probably thirty years — and I think I might even end up watching it again sometime. I mean, James Earl Jones turns into a snake! That’s something you can never forget.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

*. File this one wistfully under “What might have been.” The idea had huge potential, and with Steve Martin as the golden-age gumshoe Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as the damsel in distress they had two perfect leads. But somewhere along the way they forgot something.
*. Specifically, they forgot to write a script. The concept of the “collage film” put together out of short clips from noir classics no doubt hurt them in this regard. Whatever story they came up with was going to have to be written around the various clips and cameos they wanted to include, and not the other way around.
*. Given the limitations that come with such a concept, they must have had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent script. And by decent I mean something funny or at least coherent.
*. Though I suppose they could have got by without coherence. Noir is famous for its plots that don’t always add up, and at the end of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid they have some fun with this, as Martin and Carl Reiner get in a duel to see who can best explain what’s been going on. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few good scenes in the movie.

*. Where Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid fails is in its lack of laughs. The way that clips from other old movies are woven into the fabric of the film is interesting, but by contemporary standards it seems pretty crude. Except for one scene with Martin and Cary Grant sharing a train carriage (taken from Suspicion) it’s all done by way of editing and over-the-shoulder shots. More to the point, however, is that aside from the game of trying to recognize the sources there’s nothing funny about the resulting interactions. Sure they’re clever, but none of them have any real connection to the plot and few of them work as comic bits. Trying to give Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager a puppy and having it crap on the floor is a highlight, which tells you something.
*. Making matters worse is just how awkward so many of the cameos are. It doesn’t take long before we realize they’re merely throwaways that have nothing at all to do with the main plot, so we stop paying attention to them. Five minutes after they appear, and then quickly disappear, could you remember who Burt Lancaster (from The Killers) or Ray Milland (from The Lost Weekend) were playing? Even Bogart, as Marlow (drawn from a few different movies), has nothing to add to the proceedings.
*. This leaves us with the rest of the movie, which has little more to recommend it. Where are the funny parts? In Reardon groping Juliet while she’s unconscious? In her sucking bullets out of his shoulder? In Martin getting dressed up in drag? Certainly not in the lame vaudeville gag that has Martin going into full meltdown mode every time he hears the words “cleaning woman.”
*. So the promise was there but it remained unrealized. I know a lot of people like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but I think most of them just see it as a charming homage to favourite films of the past. Judged on its own it seems to me to be a trifle, and an unsuccessful one at that. Ironically, the movies it mines for material are all more watchable, and seem far less dated, today.

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

*. Believe it or not, there’s some dispute over who has the bragging rights to having launched the sub-genre of Italian cannibal horror flicks that ran for about a decade in the 1970s and early ’80s. There actually weren’t that many of these movies, but seeing as each was released under a bewildering variety of names it always seemed like there were a lot more than there really were. “Ferox,” by the way, is Latin for fierce or ferocious. The film was also released as Make Them Die Slowly, among other titles.
*. The two main claimants to having kicked things off are Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. I think most people who follow these things (I hesitate to call them scholars) give Lenzi the nod for having made The Man from the Deep River in 1972. It was, however, Ruggero’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that really raised awareness of the so-called “cannibal boom.” In any event, by the time of Cannibal Ferox the conventions of the cannibal film were pretty much set and Lenzi wasn’t going to make any changes to them.
*. So, once more into the jungle, dear white people. This time we have two groups of doomed travellers. Mike and Joe are small-time drug pushers who leave the Big Apple when things get too hot, and end up hunting for emeralds among the tribes of the Amazon. If that seems a stretch, so is the idea that the subsequent murder of a junkie in Mike’s old apartment will set off an international manhunt to track him down to what was then the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Mike and a badly wounded Joe are joined by a trio of explorers: ethnographer Gloria, her brother Rudy, and a superfluous pair of breasts named Pat. Apparently Gloria is looking to prove that cannibals don’t really exist. She doesn’t seem very well-informed, but then she doesn’t speak the language of the country she has traveled to either. Nothing good will come of this.
*. Nothing good does. Mike and Joe went full Kurtz on a tribe of natives but were overthrown and hunted down. It is as they were trying to escape that they met up with Gloria and her pals, who then find themselves in the same bloody boat. They are captured, tortured, and killed. Gloria alone survives to tell the tale.
*. There are numerous cutaways to local fauna, and the natives killing and eating animals. I don’t know what the point of these is, but they are a staple of the genre. Perhaps they’re just meant to show how “natural” cannibalism is. But since wild animals don’t know how to perform for the camera these sequences all seem pasted on. The piranha attack on Rudy is particularly silly.
*. This brings us to the moments of unintentional humour. After the piranha attack, Rudy escapes from the river and screams for the natives (!) to help him . . . while he has one (1) piranha attacked to his leg. And he is sitting on dry land. This is ridiculous. Even worse is the pig trap that Gloria falls into which looks like it could easily be climbed out of. There she is tormented by a baby pig that looks terrified and about as dangerous as a puppy. That the pig is later butchered by Mike only makes the silliness distasteful.
*. The usual political message gets short shrift, coming entirely in Gloria’s speech to Pat: “What a goddamn fool I was! Thinking I had to leave New York to find the reason behind cannibalism. Do you realize it’s us, the so-called civilized people who are responsible for their cruelty? Us and our superior society. . . . Violence breeds violence.” Fair enough, I guess, but then why does Gloria go back to NYC and write up a false report of what happened? Just to get her doctorate from the good liberal thinkers at New York University?
*. Basically the only point of these movies is to build up to a few scenes of shocking torture and death. They’re exploitation flicks, and Cannibal Ferox was marketed as “the most violent film ever made” and “banned in 31 countries.” So with that billing you have to deliver some video nastiness beyond watching natives kill and eat turtles and lizards.
*. For what it’s worth, the big scenes here involve cokehead Mike having his penis and then the top of his skull cut off, and Pat being hung up with hooks through her breasts. If that latter bit of depravity makes you think of A Man Called Horse (1970) you shouldn’t be surprised at the connection. Lenzi was inspired by that film and its influence was obvious in The Man from the Deep River.
*. Is it entertaining? Not really. Some of the dialogue is unintentionally funny in a crude way. The gore isn’t too bad, but it’s really only three very quick scenes. The plot is a total mess, wasting a lot of time following the police investigation back in New York. This has nothing at all to do with the main story, as Gloria will later be rescued by a pair of seedy monkey poachers who show up out of nowhere.
*. The cult cachet of these movies has gone up in recent years, leading to their being released on DVD with commentaries and other special features. Eli Roth even made an homage to them in 2013 (The Green Inferno). But really, they’re very poorly made and not all that interesting. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all but you’ve probably seen enough.

The Dead Zone (1983)

*. When commenting on doing this adaptation of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg made the remark that the only way to be stay faithful to the source, Stephen King’s novel, was to betray it. It’s an interesting observation, and it raises the question of how much of this movie is King’s Dead Zone and how much of it is Cronenberg’s.
*. The screenplay went through a lot of drafts and the novel was considerably pared down. What was left seems almost like a kind of fairy tale. Even post-Donald Trump the rise of a hard-hatted huckster like Stillson doesn’t seem probable, or the ease with which Johnny takes him out. Castle Rock is in New Hampshire (not Maine, as it is in King’s universe), which is a big primary state, but it still looks more like Cronenberg country, which is Southwestern Ontario.
*. The Dead Zone went on to become a short-lived television series, and I’ve mentioned before how small-screen King often seems. Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the few times he’s been done on a grand scale. Perhaps it’s because his longer books adapt more easily as miniseries. Or perhaps it’s because King himself was more a product of television than he was of film. In any event, the smallness of Castle Rock fits the same template. Stillson rarely seems to be talking to groups larger than twenty or thirty people. And how weird is it that when Johnny takes Sarah to the amusement park they are the only two people on the rollercoaster? Indeed, aside from the rollercoaster operator they seem to be the only two people in the entire park (filmed at Canada’s Wonderland, just outside of Toronto). All of this just adds to the film’s fairy tale feel.

*. Of course the Weizak clinic is a classic Cronenberg location, and the idea of the hero’s body turning against him is another familiar touchstone, this time taking the form of a vampiric form of psychic precognition and visions that drain his life force. The religious fanaticism, however, is all King.
*. What a nice bit of countercasting. The dorky high school teacher played by Christopher Walken, a man perennially on the verge of a nervous breakdown. How many other actors could give that line about how “the ice is gonna break!” and get away with it? Not many. Certainly not Bill Murray, who was originally sought for the part.
*. Can we talk about the wallpaper? It may be the scariest thing in the movie. During one of the featurettes included with the DVD Cronenberg talks about the cowboy wallpaper in the room of the killer Dodd and says how this was a deliberate choice, to make him out to be not fully mature (I was reminded of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho). But he also says that it was part of a design concept to make the sets look like something out of a fantasy American past: a 1950s, Norman Rockwell America.
*. Whatever the rationale for it, I think we can agree on just how horrifying the results are. Not just in Dodd’s bedroom but in the Stuart mansion (both the entrance hall and Chris’s room) and in the kitchen of Johnny’s house. I wonder if young people today can even imagine what it was like to grow up in homes that looked like this. I can because I did. Behold.

*. Perhaps Cronenberg just loves all that busy-ness on the walls. Because he also likes to look up the elaborate ceiling in Johnny’s old home. I don’t think he uses low-angle camera shots in any other set but this, but whenever he gets in this one he drops down to capture it. The effect is of ceiling wallpaper.

*. Nice to see Herbert Lom. I was wondering what had happened to him. Before this he was mainly keeping busy playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus in a whole slew of Pink Panther movies. I’d forgotten how many of those there were. Now I want to forget again.
*. Cronenberg gets credit for being a low-key kind of director, but I really thought the psychic vision sequences in this one needed more of a spark. I like Johnny in the burning bed, but the World War 2 material was dull (Cronenberg originally wanted a tank to burst through the wall of Dr. Weizak’s office) and the gazebo sequence just doesn’t have enough punch despite looking more than eerie enough.

*. The tripartite structure was very deliberate. It’s an interesting choice, but the problem with such a narrative is that it frustrates the building of any continuous interest. As, for example, with the relationship between Johnny and the casually adulterous Sarah. I got the sense that the movie really wanted me to care about these two, but at the end I just couldn’t.
*. The Dead Zone is often considered to be one of the better Stephen King adaptations, and I guess I agree, with the following two caveats: (1) there have been a hell of a lot of Stephen King adaptations; and (2) most of them have been mediocre at best. Judged on its own, I find it a movie of interesting moments but one that doesn’t add up to be more than the sum of its parts. With King, Cronenberg, and this cast, I was expecting something a little more special.

Silkwood (1983)

*. It’s hard not to get sucked into the hybrid game trying to classify this one. As in “this movie is a combination of movie x and movie y.” So, yes, my first thought was that I was watching a combination of The China Syndrome and Norma Rae (both 1979). This immediately led me to wonder how many people today watch any of these movies. How many young people will have even heard of them? And yet at the time they were all celebrated, award-winning films on controversial political subjects.
*. Well, it may be that nothing dates as much as the political. “Of course,” David Thomson says of Silkwood, “it’s a subject that we all prefer to forget.” Or, I would say, that we would prefer not to look at or into too closely in the first place. I think we’re all aware of the fact that a lot of the work people do is not only hard and poorly paid but unsafe and degrading. We all know that many of the comforts and conveniences of contemporary life have a dark side, but we prefer not to think about where the meat on our plate comes from, where our waste goes, who’s mining our data online, or just how little the big corporations that rule the world care about our well being.

*. The movie poster (and DVD box cover) is something else that has dated. The trio of leads (Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher) look like the group from a 1980s romcom. But this is something else that led me on to further thoughts. Why is this movie so centred on these three characters and their cozy household and not just on Karen Silkwood? I couldn’t even remember the names of the other two characters five minutes after the movie was over (he’s Kurt Russell is Drew and Cher is Dolly). I was trying to remember the names while reading Roger Ebert’s review and found, to my slight chagrin, that he doesn’t name them either but just names Russell and Cher. I wonder if he forgot their names too. There may be something significant in that.
*. Do they really add that much to the film? Not in the eyes of many reviewers. Thomson writes them off quickly: “Cher was better than anyone expected, and Russell does nothing to get in the way.” Pauline Kael was even more withering: “Kurt Russell . . . is used mostly for his bare chest and his dimples.” No disagreement here. He’s cute, and he does spend a lot of time with this shirt off. Meanwhile, “Cher . . . has a lovely, dark-lady presence, but she’s used as a lesbian Mona Lisa, all faraway smiles and shrugs. It’s a wan, weak role.” Note how, in the scene when they’re all on the airplane together, she’s kept out of focus even in the foreground, when it would be interesting to see her face so we can judge what she may be thinking or hiding from the others.

*. So why are they there? A buff good ol’ boy who doesn’t get in the way and a dark lady in a wan, weak role? They don’t even have enough presence to act as foils for Karen. Craig T. Nelson has more gravity, projecting a field of dull menace.
*. This leaves us with Streep. The two critics I’ve been quoting — Thomson and Kael — are divided. Thomson describes her portrayal of Silkwood as “a wolflike maverick, sexy, insolent, and rebellious, but casual and lazy.” Kael: “She has no natural vitality; she’s like a replicant — all shtick.”
*. This shouldn’t be surprising. Streep has a reputation for being an actor who divides opinion. Some people just don’t like her (I mean, of course, as an actor). To be honest, I’m not a big fan myself and I’ve tended to like her more in supporting or character roles. In big parts I always feel like I’m watching a programmed star turn. Maybe that’s unfair, but even here I was always conscious of the fact that I was watching Meryl Streep doing an Okie accent. Maybe it’s just the curse of overfamiliarity. I have the same problem with Tom Hanks.
*. I saw Silkwood first sometime in the mid-’80s and I remember it having a much greater impact on me then. Today its message seems muted. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all become inured to the existence of such corporate misbehaviour and conspiracies. Maybe it’s because Bridges and Cher seem so laid back (and remember that even Thomson found Streep’s Silkwood “casual and lazy”). And maybe it’s because the fact that Karen is dying of radiation poisoning while she’s chain-smoking and drinking her way to an early grave anyway seemed sadly comic.
*. Worst of all, however, is the ending. Reviewers found it abrupt, which was something forced on the production for legal reasons (they didn’t want to get into a fight over what really happened on the night of Silkwood’s death). Personally, I wish it had been even more abrupt, as the montage that plays to “Amazing Grace” struck me as awkwardly sentimental and cloying. I wonder if that’s how Mike Nichols wanted to end the movie. I have my doubts.
*. I still think it’s a good movie, but like The China Syndrome (another good movie) it just doesn’t seem that essential any more. Maybe it needed to be angrier. Or maybe we’re all too jaded now to relate, or care.

Pet Sematary (1989)

*. One of the more depressing parts about running this blog is going back to movies that I first (and perhaps last) saw some twenty-five or thirty years ago and realizing they’re not as good as I remember them being. In some cases it’s just that the times have changed, in others I have. But still.
*. Pet Sematary is a bit different. I actually didn’t like it much at the time, mainly because I was really upset at the way they presented the victim of spinal meningitis as a monster. Today I have a more relaxed view on this. Stephen King has never shied away from grounding his horror in the things that scared us as kids and then making them real. So people with disabilities, or even the elderly, are presented as monsters in his work. Beloved family pets turn against you and there really is something hiding under the bed. Fair enough. I don’t think horror, any more than comedy, should hold anything sacred.
*. There are good things in Pet Sematary. The script (also by King) translates the novel well and serves up what should have been several wonderful sequences. I remember laughing with friends for years after over some of the lines. “The ground is sour.” “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” “Sometimes dead is better.” We laughed, but we remembered them because they’re great lines. Fred Gwynne is a delight as the old-timer Jud and Miko Hughes is outstanding as Gage, looking a bit like a real-life Chucky doll when he comes back from the dead (a resemblance noted by director Mary Lambert on her DVD commentary).

*. But while I still love the novel (a reimagining of the W. W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw” that was all the better for being one of King’s bleakest efforts), the movie now seems like a let down. It looks like most of the King movies from the 1980s, which is to say like a cheap movie-of-the-week put together by a director who didn’t really understand suspense or horror. That blue light that comes beaming out from the beyond. That soft focus used for the flashbacks. Ugh.
*. Apparently George Romero was originally slated to direct but he had to pull out. Lambert does keep things moving along with a story that is a really slow burn but I’m not sure she was the right choice to fill in. King’s core anxiety over the breakdown of the family isn’t developed much, jump scares courtesy of Church the cat are a lame and overused cliché, and the “good angel” character of Pascow (who seems modeled on Jack in An American Werewolf in London) lightens the mood too much. This should be a darker story.

*. The other big problem is Dale Midkiff, who just doesn’t seem to have the chops to pull off such a demanding role: the man falling to pieces before our eyes and becoming progressively insane. We really need to feel for Louis in this movie, to buy into his despair, and Midkiff plays him too much as a blank. His howls of anguish over the death of Gage — another cliché that is repeated — aren’t enough. In fact, given how silly they seem now, like Kirk screaming out for Khan, they are counterproductive.

*. So like I say, Pet Sematary is a mixed memory for me. The fact is, I do remember it. It’s a great story and is filled with passages that play better in my memory than they do seeing them again. For example, in the final section, which the movie is all a build-up to, we have Gage in his sinister old-tyme get-up, or grinning down at us from the attic. But such moments are all undercut. The next thing we know Gage has turned into a doll that’s been thrown at Louis, leading to another laughable moment.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake. With the success of the remake of It — another of King’s better books that was a respectable TV movie around the same time as Pet Sematary came out — it may happen. King may become one of those authors whose work endures by being constantly updated and reinterpreted for the tastes and concerns of following generations. That’s better than a long chain of sequels anyway.

Pieces (1982)

*. The origins of the American slasher film can be traced back to the Italian giallo, a genre of psychological thriller usually featuring a mysterious murderer wearing black gloves whose identity was only revealed at the end. What happened when the giallo came to America is that it got a big injection of gore along with much simplified plots (meaning you rarely had to pick the killer out from a line-up of suspects).
*. Pieces is a giallo where the influence goes the other way, re-crossing the Atlantic with a chainsaw and buckets of blood. But while the American influence is unmistakeable, this is still a giallo. The familiar ingredients (some of which were picked up for the first wave of slasher flicks) include the POV killer shots (black gloves, heavy breathing), the giant knife that reflects blinding flashes of light from some indeterminate source, and the multiple suspects, each of whom seems guilty as hell.
*. But then there are the gratuitous boobs (not so much a giallo fixture) and of course the extreme gore. A chainsaw, for example, seems an unlikely weapon just because it’s so noisy and unwieldy. I had to laugh at how the killer keeps it hidden behind his back as he enters the elevator. But it does do a good job of splattering lots of blood around, and (at least in movies) it can carve people up in a hurry.
*. The hybrid nature of Pieces is underscored by the setting. It’s obviously a European production, what with the dubbing and nonsensical dialogue, and was indeed shot in Spain, but apparently we’re in the Boston area. But it’s a very peculiar New England college, where girls go skinny-dipping at noon in the campus pool and there’s a kung-fu professor on staff.

*. The script is silly, and apparently many of the lines were improvised to pad the running time. So we get one girl telling us that “the most beautiful thing in the world is smoking pot and fucking on a waterbed at the same time,” and another telling her boyfriend that he can gag her to keep her quiet during sex (an unfortunate word choice given today’s porn habits). Perhaps the film’s highlight (out of many candidates), however, is Lynda Day George howling out “Bastard! Bastaaaaaaaaard!” She sure seems upset!
*. So Pieces is a funny film, and not always intentionally so. It does, however, show some signs of real cleverness. The murder on the waterbed, for example, is an inspired bit of work. And the gore effects, a specialty of exploitation director Juan Piquer Simón, are actually quite well done, considering the period and the budget.
*. Ultimately, however, the whole thing collapses into hilarious nonsense. I mentioned how the college is a bizarre place, but the film itself approaches the surreal. I don’t just mean the kung-fu professor (Bruce Lee imitator Bruce Le, in a baffling cameo), or the bonkers ending. But instead think of how strange it is that the first girl is killed out in the middle of a campus lawn by a man with a chainsaw, and no one notices. Or look at how long the one girl has to walk from the dance class to the women’s washroom. What’s up with that?
*. You’ll have guessed from all this that I really enjoyed Pieces. The mystery story could have been better done (the red herrings are too obvious and the final reveal is disappointingly handled), but the rest of it is adorably zany. It’s gone on to gain a cult status among horror fans, and deservedly so. This is trash you can love.

L’Argent (1983)

*. I suppose the one thing that everyone knows about Robert Bresson is that he’s the author/auteur of a moral vision. The exact nature of that vision is harder to pin down.
*. Bresson was Catholic (though he may have considered himself a “Christian atheist”), and that’s something more in evidence in his earlier films than in his later work. His models in L’Argent were Russian, a story by Tolstoy and Doystoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but he takes all the religion out of both sources. I don’t think there are any references to religion in L’Argent aside from the old woman’s expression of her faith in forgiveness. Yves doesn’t even bother seeing a chaplain while in prison. Where’s Claude Laydu when someone really needed him?
*. Bresson didn’t want to bring religion into the story because he was indicting a contemporary sense of social malaise, which is grounded either in a lack of faith or the worship of a false God (money). “Tolstoy talks about God and the gospel. I didn’t want to follow in his footsteps because this film was made against the careless indifference of people today, who think only about themselves and their families.”

*. I think that indictment of careless indifference is powerfully made. L’Argent is a giant tragedy whose impetus is only a tiny nudge given by people acting on a whim. But underlying it there is a religious, and I think Catholic, moral vision.
*. Here’s a passage from T. S. Eliot’s essay on Baudelaire: “So far as we are human, what we do must be either evil or good; so far as we do evil or good, we are human; and it is better, in a paradoxical way, to do evil than to do nothing: at least, we exist. It is true to say that the glory of man is his capacity for salvation; it is also true to say that his glory is his capacity for damnation.”
*. This idea that even a very bad person may be better off than the common herd of human cattle if they are only man enough to be damned, because such a “capacity for damnation” at least means that they have a spiritual dimension (no matter how corrupted), is something that crops up in a lot of preachy religious writers, from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky through the High Church Eliot to Graham Greene and Walker Percy. It’s not a point of view I share, but I can see where it’s coming from. And if you see echoes of Yves in Jacek from Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, well, that’s part of the same (Catholic) religious vision.
*. But this is an idea that almost has to be made in the negative. That is, a lack of evidence of redemption, or even redeeming qualities, is what establishes Yvon as worth saving. Bresson was concerned that at the end of L’Argent he wasn’t able “to dwell on Yvon’s atonement and the idea of redemption . . . but at that point the film’s rhythm would not allow it.”
*. I don’t know what Bresson means by not dwelling Yvon’s atonement. He felt that he had slipped the idea into the ending but I have trouble seeing it. Because Yvon confesses? But given Yvon’s total blankness (a lack of emoting that Bresson demanded from his “models”) what can we read into that? He might have finally become weary of life. That strikes me as more likely than his now feeling sorry for anything. Like those who caused his downfall, he is now simply indifferent to others.

*. A lot depends on how you read that final shot. I’ll admit I don’t have a good explanation for it. Put another way, I’m not sure what Bresson meant.
*. In brief: a group of bystanders wait outside the door of a café, looking inside while the police march Yvon out in handcuffs. As Yvon passes by they don’t turn their heads to watch him go but remain staring into the now empty café, looking at nothing.
*. When interviewed, Bresson had this to say: “Perhaps it’s too symbolic, but I love those passersby staring into space. Once there was everything, now there is nothing.” Too symbolic? But what is it symbolic of?
*. I don’t know. But I do think it ties in to something done throughout the film. I think the crowd outside the café are looking into the same void that Bresson’s camera often does, with an intent focus but missing something that it only just sees part of, or that they can only hear off-screen. They’re looking at the sound of thunder, having missed the lightning.
*. An example of the kind of thing I mean is the scene where the rotten kids escape into the subway. We first see them running down the stairs and exiting from our (the camera’s) sight. Given Bresson’s attitude toward camera work, we don’t follow them. We remain staring at the stairs. And staring, at nothing. We then cut to a shot of the subway platform as the train is just leaving. In other words, we missed all the action we were supposedly following. And still the camera sits, staring at nothing, just like the bystanders at the end. Are we still waiting for something? Or only taking in a sort of ghostly after-image, a mental reconstruction of what we know just happened but didn’t see?

*. Such a technique strikes me as being akin to those word games or tricks of the eye where only a limited amount of information is given but we mentally fill in the blanks and “see” what isn’t there. I think the same sort of thing is going on with the overlapping sound between cuts. Bresson is using editing to create an imaginary film in our heads. I think it’s possible that a lot of people think they saw things in L’Argent that weren’t actually on screen. Of course this goes for obvious things like the violent murders, which are all elided, but would probably go for other things as well. Do we ever see the face of the girl whose ass we stare at as she’s sitting on the couch?
*. The faces of the actors have a similar role. They’re blank slates that we project on. What do they say to each other? It’s hard to remember a line from this film, and that’s at least partly on purpose. As Bresson put it, “no one in L’Argent is acting. That’s the reason it goes so fast: what they say is not what matters.” Apparently he wanted to film a version of Genesis as his next project, and do it in Hebrew not for “realism” but because it was a language no one would understand.

*. You could call all this “pure cinema,” and I think that’s a fair way of looking at it. It’s also formalist, with the compositions having a silent solidity that often appears posed and painterly. There are no strange angles or deep fields or even much in the way of camera movement, and yet the camera is not inarticulate, it has a point of view. Hence all those headless bodies. Hence the lingering look at the girl’s bum.
*. Bresson’s formality was the product of an impressionistic theory of film. “More and more, what I seek to do, to the point that it was practically a method on L’Argent, is to convey my impression. What dictates the shot is the impression of the thing, not the thing. We are the ones who make the real. Each individual has his own.” Well, yes, but if the shot is conveying the director’s impression then we in the audience have to follow along. We aren’t totally free to make our own reality.
*. If the impression of the thing is what counts than an image (or a sound effect) may continue to have that after-image effect I mentioned earlier. So perhaps that final shot is taken from somewhere inside the theatre, with the backs of all those heads in front of us staring into what might be a screen stood on end.
*. It’s a technically accomplished film, but it strikes me as having an anti-humanistic vision. That may, indeed, be the point of the technique. Yvon is a subject for analysis, a case study. What I think Bresson may be saying is that such an approach has its limitations. Does Yvon have the capacity for damnation? What image of him is left when he walks toward us, and drops out of the screen?

Nightmare City (1980)

*. This is a bit of fun. The movie that’s “so bad it’s good” is a far rarer phenomenon than you’d think given how often you hear movies described that way. But Nightmare City fits the bill.
*. One of the surest ways for any movie to go wrong is by trying too hard or attempting to do too much. Their reach exceeds their grasp. But you have to have a grudging respect for a movie like Nightmare City that had no budget and no talent to work with but which nevertheless decided it didn’t want to do anything by halves.
*. Just before I get started I should say something about Nightmare City‘s status as a zombie movie. Some people (including the director, Umberto Lenzi) insist the infected aren’t zombies but are only suffering from some kind of radiation sickness. I don’t think it makes much difference what we call them, but for what it’s worth the alternative U.S. title is City of the Walking Dead while in France it was released as L’invasion des zombies. In addition they sort of eat their victims (or at least drink their blood), apparently infect others (although this isn’t made clear, their numbers certainly seem to be growing), and can only be stopped by head shots (hence the command given to “aim for the brain,” which is a memo that nobody in uniform seems to have received).
*. On the other hand, at least some of them move quickly and they seem to have unimpaired mental functioning. They can even use automatic weapons and drive vehicles. When we see a zombie cutting the phone line to the general’s house with a pair of garden shears, or a team of commando zombies taking out the city’s power station, we know we’re dealing with some pretty clever undead.
*. I’m calling them zombies. Because even if they aren’t technically zombies the story fits the traditional pattern of zombie apocalypse films. It’s the same as the virus outbreaks in 28 Days Later and World War Z. If you want, you could think of Nightmare City as ahead of its time.
*. A zombie movie with no budget is difficult but not impossible. But trying to do a full-fledged zombie apocalypse in a major city (unnamed in the film but I believe the exteriors were all shot around Madrid) with limited means is courting disaster. Disaster ensues.
*. We know we’re in trouble right from the opening firefight. A drawn-out massacre where cops and zombies go at it with submachine guns at close range. But there don’t see to have been any squibs available so all we see, over and over again, is people throwing their hands up in the air and then falling to the ground. Later we’ll see their corpses with a bit of blood splashed on their clothes.
*. As for the zombies, they’re just a bunch of normal looking guys but for the fact they have varying degrees of mud on their faces (and no other part of their bodies). None of them seem to be wounded in any way or suffering any other adverse effects from radiation but manic bloodlust.
*. So we have terrible-looking zombies and no good gore effects. That’s bad for a zombie movie. But it gets worse. Or better.
*. The proceedings are bizarre. For example, we get a slaughter scene set in a television studio that is broadcasting some kind of dance or aerobic show live. I really don’t know what the point of this show is. The girls seem to be working out but they’re wearing heels. Cue the monsters!
*. Other moments seem totally inexplicable, at least to me. What is the bloody knife doing sticking in the eye of the clay head near the beginning? Did some explanation for that get cut?
*. The action is all pretty dumb, but I did like the way a man throws a television set and it explodes, setting not one but two zombies on fire. That usually only happens with cars.
*. The dialogue is entertaining in an over-the-top yet obscure way. Here’s a sample exchange. Dean: “It’s frightening, how could a thing like this happen?” Anna: “It’s part of the vital cycle of the human race. Create and obliterate until we destroy ourselves.” Dean: “Words. We’re up against a race of monsters.” Anna: “Created by other monsters. Who only have one thing on their mind. The discovery of greater power. At least this time there won’t be any historical justifications, if any of us survive.” Dean: “Do you think it’s possible to stop them?” Anna: “The infection is like an oil stain, and who knows how far the contagion has spread?”
*. Apparently nobody in the city has flashlights so when investigating the basement you have to light a lamp. A lamp. Even in 1980 these were antiques. They are also very hard to operate unless you really know what you’re doing. I know because I’ve tried. They’re not at all as simple as lighting a candle.

*. I love how Anna’s idea of stocking up on provisions is to fill a crate with bottles of milk and hard liquor. You gotta stick with the basics when zombies attack. Hell, even the zombies like their booze. The shot of the lot of them hanging around the ambulance drinking it up was another moment of (unintentional?) hilarity.
*. The ending suggests the circular nightmare that might have first been done in Dead of Night. But shouldn’t the journo Dean evince some awareness that his nightmare is becoming reality, that he’s experience all of this before?
*. That same crazy disconnect between what’s going on and people’s reaction to it is part of the fabric of the film. Look at how the two newsmen just stand watching the massacre at the airport, not even bothering to run for cover from all the bullets flying around. And even better is the blank expression on the face of the guy at the television studio when he discovers the body of the girl whose throat has been slashed. Is he surprised? Frightened? Curious even? Nothing registers.
*. The main narrative climaxes at an amusement park, as Dean and Anna try to escape the zombies by climbing a roller coaster track. Why? Because in a movie like this where else could they wrap things up? This is all as silly as it gets, but for those who enjoy Eurotrash horror it is a lot of fun.