Category Archives: 1980s

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.

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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.

The Evil Below (1989)

*. The main character in The Evil Below is a scruffy charter boat operator played by the director, Wayne Crawford. The character’s name is Max Cash. His father’s name is Max Cash, Senior.
*. Since this is a terrible movie, and rather dull for long stretches, I had the chance to spend some time thinking about this. Was “Max Cash” meant as a joke? Crawford had, after all, played the eponymous lead in Jake Speed, a comic book action film released just a few years earlier.
*. I think The Evil Below was probably meant as just such another comic book adventure, only this time with divers looking for a sunken treasure ship. Alas, as you may guess from the name of the ship, the El Diablo, it is cursed. Apparently (and I’m by no means certain that I got the story straight) the El Diablo was being crewed by a sect of heretic priests when it sank. Because the ship was not destroyed, the power of this evil bunch will continue to grow “until Armageddon.”
*. So it’s up to Max and his new lady friend to destroy the ship, which is something they don’t really want to do because it’s full of glittering baubles. There are also some rival treasure hunters sniffing around, some dangerous aquatic life, and an undead millionaire. This last-mentioned zombie guy is so evil he even wears a black hat underwater!
*. I really like how the priest manages to write the word “ship” in his blood before he dies. Is that supposed to be a clue? To what? They already know all about the El Diablo. Seems a kind of pointless way to spend your final moments.
*. I had some trouble following what was going on, in large part because the editing is so rough that it’s hard to pick up when a scene has shifted location. Nevertheless, there were moments when I was entertained in a so-bad-it’s-kind-of-good way. The dialogue is very funny. The girls all wear bikinis. Because there was no budget the action scenes are all cut so that you never actually see anything except a bloody corpse after the fact.
*. 1989 was the year of underwater thrilles. Think The Abyss, Leviathan, and DeepStar Six. The Evil Below sinks well below all of these and I can’t really think of any good reason to watch it today. Thirty years ago it might have seemed like a harmless enough way to pass the time, but that time has passed.

Leviathan (1989)

*. Leviathan is usually — and by “usually” I mean “universally” — described as a rip-off of Alien and The Thing, with the action this time being set on the ocean floor. It’s only real borrowing from The Thing, however, is the appearance of the creature.
*. Which means it’s an Alien rip-off. And by “rip-off” what I mean is “remake.” Instead of spacesuits there are futuristic deep-sea diving suits, which look exactly the same. The union crew of the mining base argue over their contracts and when their time will be up. They explore a wreck that has been overcome by a dangerous parasitic life form and inadvertently bring it back on board. It proceeds to slime its way through various dark industrial corridors, picking off the crew one by one. You get the picture.
*. Fun fact: before calling it the Nostromo, the spaceship in Alien was going to be called Leviathan.
*. Even the crew is the same old gang. Peter Weller is Tom Skerritt, the resourceful and self-sacrificing team leader. Amanda Pays is Sigourney Weaver, right down to her sexy underwear. Ernie Hudson is Yaphet Kotto, the token black man. Daniel Stern is Harry Dean Stanton. Richard Crenna is Ian Holm, the doctor who is hard to trust. Hell, even Megan Foster is “Mother,” the sinister, inhuman corporate head who treats the crew as expendable.
*. When you’re watching a movie that’s this much of a copycat you fall into the trap of having the audience say, “This is just like Alien.” And, since Alien was a great movie, this quickly turns into “This is just like Alien, only not as good.”
*. Leviathan is a long way from being as good as Alien. Just for starters, the creature here looks silly. Actually, it looks like about a dozen different things at different stages of its development, all of them silly.
*. The script also seems to be working too hard. Poor Ernie Hudson in particular is stuck repeating lines on numerous occasions when it appears that nobody is paying attention to him. He does, however, have one saving moment when the CEO says that she realizes the crew must have gone through hell and he responds “Gone? Bitch, we’re still here!”
*. Then there is the premise. Wouldn’t it be easier to gentically mutate a deep-sea creature into a deep-sea monster than to do the same to a human?
*. Things really fall apart at the end. It’s hard to exaggerate how bad this is. It is very, very bad. First Weller, Pays and Hudson escape to the surface only to be surrounded by sharks. The sharks don’t do anything. Then the creature surfaces, looking quite ridiculous while . . . treading water? Things look very much like the end of DeepStar Six at this point. Then poor Ernie is killed, for no reason at all aside from the fact that the black guy always gets it. This was still the ’80s. Weller manages to dispose of the monster by tossing an explosive into its mouth with a circus shot. This gives him the chance to yell out a defiant last line: “Say ah! motherfucker!” Then he coldcocks Megan Foster, which makes him feel “much better,” despite almost all of his crew being dead.
*. 1989 was the year of the underwater action flick. The Abyss and DeepStar Six were the other two biggies. Leviathan isn’t much worse in any particular regard, but then it isn’t any better either (and in fact very little of it was shot underwater). I saw it in the theatres when it was first released, and this latest time was the first time I’ve seen it since. I doubt I’ll be watching it again, but I do remember it being fun back when I was younger and less critical.

DeepStar Six (1989)

*. Yes, this is the same Sean S. Cunningham who produced and directed Friday the 13th. In my notes on that film I mentioned his remark that the slasher killer Jason was meant to be a creature like the shark in Jaws. So with DeepStar Six we might think of him as returning to those same roots.
*. There’s something endearing about the way DeepStar Six goes back to this idea of the old-school monster movie. 1989 was the year of the underwater horror-action flick. In the other movies, however, just a simple monster wasn’t enough. The supernatural had to be dragged in (The Evil Below), or aliens (Lords of the Deep), or some Thing-style shape-shifter resulting from experiments in genetic engineering (Leviathan, The Rift). In DeepStar Six the creature is just a hungry lobster set free by the irresponsible use of explosives. It’s far closer to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms than it is to Alien.
*. Which is all to the good. I’ll go on the record here as saying that despite having a coveted zero critical rating on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (last time I checked), I think DeepStar Six is the best of these underwater flicks precisely because it’s such an unabashed B-movie.
*. It’s corny as hell, but it’s a good time and rarely drags. There are a handful of suspenseful scenes, like the one with the sub teetering on the edge of the cliff. There are some good kills, at least in the script (the gore effects aren’t great). The monster looks like something borrowed from Toho Studios. The cast are the usual bunch of types, with Greg Evigan as the bearded hunk, Nancy Everard as the girl in the wet shirt and no bra, and Miguel Ferrer stealing every scene as the hapless douche Snyder.
*. Isn’t it weird how the monster seems to change size so radically, being able to get through little doors and hide in small enclosed spaces, but then turning into Godzilla every time he surfaces?
*. I wonder why they bothered introducing the taping business with the remote (“Start the VCR!”) when they weren’t going to re-introduce the tape later. I thought we’d at least see a blurry image of the creature. Maybe something got cut from the script or fell on the editing room floor.
*. Apparently Cunningham was trying to scoop the other underwater movies slated for release in ’89. This upset James Cameron, who was working on The Abyss, but he had nothing to worry about.
*. It definitely could have been better done. It’s cheap, crudely shot, and very stupid (Snyder is just following orders when he nearly blows the installation up!). But it’s also a silly bit of fun that manages a few memorable scenes, the best of which is the man in the diving suit who is cut in two. Of all these underwater movies it’s the only one I think is worth re-watching. But it helps if you’re a kid, with a hankering for classic Creature Features. Even thirty years ago they really weren’t making them like this any more.

The Abyss (1989)

*. I’ve written before (or at least I think I have) about the myth of the “director’s cut.” These became very popular with the advent of DVDs, leading to a host of “special” or “restored” editions of movies that had (so the story went) been butchered by heartless or brainless studio executives on their theatrical release.
*. I call it the myth of the director’s cut because I think it’s a fiction that these restored versions are always better than what audiences saw in theatres. Not every bit of trimming was the equivalent of the desecration of The Magnificent Ambersons or Touch of Evil. Nevertheless, that was what some directors wanted you to believe when the director’s cut came out on DVD.
*. I guess the most salient example of when the director had a real case to make came with Blade Runner, whose release truly was bungled and which now exists in several different versions. But Blade Runner was an exception to the general rule, which is that most of what gets cut from a movie before it’s final release is cut for a reason. How many “deleted scenes” have you seen that you thought should have been kept? In my experience there have been very few. Was Apocalypse Now Redux really Redux? Not in my opinion.
*. Anyway, to bring this discussion around to the present case, James Cameron is a director with a healthy ego (I mean that in a positive way) who has availed himself of the myth of the director’s cut on several occasions, most notably with the special editions of Aliens (1986) and The Abyss.
*. I am surprised at how many people think Aliens was improved with the added material, but that’s a case that seems to have been absorbed into the Blade Runner narrative now pretty firmly. The Abyss is a bit different. The special edition adds about 30 minutes of material that Cameron was apparently happy to cut at the time and which audiences didn’t mind losing either. Nevertheless, given that DVDs were invented to give us more, we now have more.
*. I saw The Abyss in 1989 when it came out and I thought it too long then. Instead of adding 30 minutes they should have cut the same. Mainly what has been added is the business at the end where the luminiscent sea monkeys threaten major coastal cities with tidal waves. Are they doing this in protest of man’s pollution of the oceans, industrial whaling and fisheries, or the outrage of the Great Pacific garbage patch? No. They are concerned about our species’ propensity for violence. I don’t know why. I would have thought they’d be happy to have us kill ourselves off.
*. All kidding aside, I applaud the earnestness of Cameron’s anti-nuclear message, which also featured prominently in Terminator 2. I just think it’s a poor fit with this film and the fact that this entire climactic sequence was cut on release without leaving a sense of anything missing gives some idea of what a bag of yarn The Abyss is in terms of narrative.
*. Another thing Cameron deserves a lot of credit for is his ability to handle mega-projects like this. The Abyss was an absolute nightmare to make. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend the 1993 documentary Under Pressure: Making The Abyss. Apparently this was one of the most difficult film shoots ever, and one can believe it.
*. Was it worth all the trouble? That will depend on how you view the results, but I’d just point out that 1989 was the year of the underwater adventure film and the other two big titles — Leviathan and DeepStar Six — actually didn’t do much underwater photography. They just shot the film in such a way that you thought the actors were underwater. I don’t think that hurt either film, so the authenticity of The Abyss came at quite a price.
*. I do appreciate the underwater stuff and think it looks terrific. When it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, however, it was for the CGI and animation done by Industrial Light & Magic. This is far less impressive. The liquid pseudopod effect took six months to create, and was cutting edge at the time but doesn’t look like anything special today. Meanwhile, the sea creatures and their glowing pink city just look silly and frankly rather crude. The CGI can be excused for being very early CGI, but there had been better animation before this. Cameron wanted to do for the bottom of the ocean what 2001 did for space, but the star gate sequence in 2001 was more impressive than the pink jellyfish castle and its slightly robotic-looking butterflies.
*. You might have thought Michael Biehn would get to be the hero again (he played the all-too-human Reese in The Terminator), but . . . he’s sporting a moustache. That’s a sure sign that’s he’s gone over to the dark side. So, no. Sorry Magnum.
*. I wonder what Cameron’s thing is for battlebots and fighting machines. The Terminator(s). Ripley strapped into the cargo-loader contraption at the end of Aliens, which we get again in Avatar‘s climactic battle. Here it’s dueling submersibles. I’d read something into all this, but I think he’s just a mechanically inclined person.
*. Part of being a popular artist (in any medium) is having an uncomplicated or conventional sensibility that translates as authenticity. I mentioned the earnestness of Cameron’s anti-nuclear message but his sentimentality is another more obvious example. This is a guy who really believes in the power of love and he’s not afraid to play it up. In Titanic I think this worked, for the most part, but in this movie I thought all the business with Lindsey telling Bud how much she’s always loved him while he descends into the bone-crushing depths got kind of corny. Does that make me cynical? Hard-hearted? I don’t think so. I’ll cry at a good romance. I just thought that in this movie it was mush.
*. At the box office it barely broke even, which was a pretty big disappointment given the budget and Cameron’s track record at the time. Since then, and with the release of the special edition, it has gained some fans and is occasionally even referred to as a cult film. This surprises me.
*. It surprises me, at least in part, because, as noted, I don’t think the material they put back in helps it a bit. But more than that, I just don’t think it has aged that well.
*. Some popular artists last, others don’t. I have doubts about Cameron’s staying power. He has a well-deserved reputation as king of the blockbusters: from setting the standard with action franchises (Terminator, T2 and Aliens) to stand-alone megahits like Titanic and Avatar. I really liked all of these movies (except Avatar) when they came out, but today . . . not so much. I even came away from a recent re-viewing of Aliens feeling let down, which surprised me.
*. The Abyss was, as I began by saying, not a movie I liked in 1989 and I think even less of it now. Some of the underwater work is truly amazing, but aside from that it’s overwrought and clunky, lurching from one crisis to another before whisking us off to its fantasy ending. I actually enjoy the silly monster movies Leviathan and DeepStar Six more, if only for being trimmer. There may be a moral in there somewhere about the nature of what lasts. It’s not always what was biggest at the time.

Creepshow 2 (1987)

*. The most successful genre fiction and films give us exactly what we expect, but with a twist. They make the familiar just a little unfamiliar. Not so much that audiences feel cheated about not getting what they paid for, but enough so that they don’t feel like they’ve seen it all before.
*. The twists on old, familiar stories are very small indeed in Creepshow 2. Here’s what I mean.
*. “Old Chief Wood’nhead”: the archetype here is the Mummy or, an even better fit, the Golem. A statue comes to life and exacts a bloody vengeance on those who have offended against its traditions and its people.

*. “The Raft”: I believe this is the only one of the three stories that had been previously published (by screenwriter Stephen King). The archetype is the Blob, now displaced into a quarry swimming hole. I think King really likes this story, as it also served as the inspiration for “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill,” the second story in the original Creepshow anthology (and the one where King himself played the title character).
*. “The Hitchhiker”: the archetype is the vengeful ghost, but there had also been spooky hitchhikers before. The story here may have been inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, and Rutger Hauer’s The Hitcher had only come out the year before. A hint of Spielberg’s Duel also seems to be playing in the background. Meanwhile, the plot of getting revenge for a hit-and-run would be used to kick off another King project in Thinner (1996).

*. I didn’t care for this one too much. Only the second story struck me as any good, with the first and last being far too formulaic. The first was the worst, as we’re just sitting around waiting for the Chief to come to life and do his thing, and the third didn’t have much to it aside from the comic indestructibility of the hitcher and his inane obsession with thanking Lois Chiles for the ride.
*. It was the ’80s, to I won’t mock the big hair or the jock’s yellow budgie smugglers in “The Raft.” I draw the line though at the soundtrack. Just listen to what we get as Chiles drives her Mercedes through the woods trying to knock the hitcher off her roof. It’s so generic, and unsuitable.
*. The frame story struck me as comic-book nonsense, but since it’s presented as a comic book I don’t know if that’s much of a criticism to make. Like a lot of the films made from King stories in the ’80s it all has a YA feel to it, and even the gore effects, which are pretty simple, don’t do much to affect this. All of which means it pretty much gave audiences what they expected. I just think that wasn’t enough.

Cat’s Eye (1985)

*. I don’t mean it as a put-down when I say Stephen King is a small-screen kind of writer. I just mean that that’s what his work most comfortably adapts to. Dickens is the same way.
*. Maybe it’s his intimate domestic settings (turned upside-down, of course), and his focus on small, familiar experiences that swell in subjective time and space. Whatever the reason, when I watch King adaptations I rarely think of seeing these movies in a theatre. Kubrick’s The Shining is one exception, but I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.
*. Cat’s Eye is a horror anthology, consisting of a couple of stories (the first two here) that appeared in the collection Night Shift and a third that was written specially for the screen.
*. The cat as a connecting thread doesn’t work. It just runs from one story to another and only has a plot function in the last. (In the first story, as originally written, a bunny gets the shock treatment.) Apparently there was a prologue that explained the cat’s role a little more and how the troll was trying to steal the breath from another little girl (also played by Drew Barrymore), but this was cut, against director Lewis Teague’s wishes. With the Incredible Journey set-up gone, as things stand it’s not clear what the special relation between the little girl and the cat is. It’s said (by Barrymore) that he’s supposed to be trying to get “back” to save her, but when they do finally meet it seems as though it’s for the first time.
*. Well, there have been anthology-horror flicks with flimsier frames. I can’t say I was bothered by the cat here, even if he remains kind of enigmatic. Cats also make for poor actors (much worse than dogs) and the ones they had here (Teague says they used about a dozen) performs pretty well.

*. The first story, “Quitters, Inc.”, struck me as the best, both for having the most original story and for having James Woods playing the lead. His nervous demeanour fits well with the part of the overstressed exec suffering from nic fits.
*. My ranking “Quitters, Inc.” best is seconded by Teague in his commentary, where he calls it the most satisfying and the one that works best on its own. He also mentions how audiences remember it the most.
*. I don’t know this, but I’m guessing the little dig at the end comes from a Roald Dahl story, “Man from the South.” This story was also the inspiration for “The Man From Hollywood,” which was the Quentin Tarantino-directed segment in Four Rooms. These things get around.

*. I found the second story a bit of filler. It also gets off to a slow start (not in the original story) which just introduces us to the cat again and then lets us know that Cressner is a man who likes a good bet. That’s not enough information to bother with such a set-up.
*. After that we just have Robert Hays walking around on a ledge. I thought the cat might stroll out on the ledge to join him, and help with the pigeon, but that didn’t happen.
*. Speaking of the pigeon, I found it hard to credit that it would be so persistent in going after Hays’s ankle. In the story, however, King explains: “Pigeons don’t scare, not city pigeons, anyway.”

*. The final story was in fact the movie’s reason for being, as De Laurentiis wanted a vehicle for Drew Barrymore, which is kind of creepy in a way. As things turn out, however, she’s given very little to do. I think she was a great child actor but you don’t get to see that here.
*. You do get some pretty good special effects as the troll hops around the bedroom, and the final battle with the cat works well too, especially considering the difficulty of working with cats. But in the end it’s a very simple story about the kid who sees a monster in her bedroom but her parents won’t believe her, etc.
*. If you stay for the credits you actually get to listen to a “Cat’s Eye” theme song. They did that sort of thing in the ’80s.
*. As usual there are a lot of insider winks at the King oeuvre, beginning with cameos by Cujo himself (a film also directed by Teague) and the demon car Christine. But despite an obvious attempt at being lighthearted, there’s nothing particularly funny about any of it. It all just contributes to the sense of a movie that’s meant as light entertainment. Apparently it did OK box office but much better on home video, which was its natural home.