Category Archives: 1980s

Children of the Corn (1984)

*. Technically, it’s Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. I’m not sure what King thought of it though or how much he was involved. He isn’t interviewed in the documentary on the Anchor Bay DVD release and his name is only mentioned once, indirectly, on the commentary track (with director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby, and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains).
*. The story (which was first published in Penthouse) is expanded on quite a bit and has a completely different ending. Burt and Vicky aren’t an attractive young couple just starting out their lives together but are instead on their way to breaking up. They are taking a cross-country road trip to save their marriage but they both seem to know that isn’t going to work. This was probably changed because movies prefer happy people. It’s hard to like characters who don’t even like each other.
*. Movies also prefer happy endings, so the ending of the story, with both Burt and Vicky murdered and the cult going on its merry way, is jettisoned. Again, I don’t know how involved King was with any of this. He apparently did write a script but it was rejected for an adaptation he didn’t approve of. They still really wanted King in the credits though, as by this time his was a name to conjure with.
*. One thing you might turn to the story for is some explanation of how the children have managed to stay hidden away in the town of Gatlin for three years. Presumably they are harvesting all that corn themselves. And turning it into ethanol. Meanwhile, just by changing some road signs the town has vanished so completely that nobody can find it. Not government services or utilities. Not family members wondering whatever happened to in-laws or cousins. It’s just gone.
*. Well, reading the story won’t help clear this matter up. The children there have been in control of the town for twelve years without anyone noticing. As Burt reflects at one point, “What seemed to have happened in Gatlin was impossible.” “How could such a thing be kept secret?” he wonders. “How could it go on?” Answer: He Who Walks Behind the Rows works in mysterious ways. This is one of those things that’s just a given in order for there to be a story.

*. I remember not liking this movie much when it came out. And I’ve always wondered why it was turned into such a long-running franchise when even the original wasn’t a blockbuster. It did take a while for the first sequel to appear (Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice in 1992). Suffice it to say that the studio (which was also driving the Hellraiser franchise into the ground) was taking the low road to a bit of easy money. But that’s another story.
*. Watching it again now, I like it a bit more than I did at the time. It actually gets a fair bit of mileage out of its tiny budget (Kiersch says $1.3 million, $500K of which went to King, so less than $800K, which is nothing). It’s well directed, keeping most of the violence off screen, and it holds our interest. For such a cheap movie most of it looks suprisingly good. Still, I think it would be largely forgotten today if not for the fact that they rolled aces in the casting of Franklin and Gains as the odd couple of teenage psychopathy, Isaac and Malachai. Who can forget these two? Franklin (who was actually 23 at the time) with his Vulcan haircut (courtesy of a commercial he was shooting for a Star Trek video game) and Gaines as the ginger Mick Jagger. Is it any wonder they’re the only members of the cast on the commentary and in the “making of” documentary? They’re the stars.

*. Ah, yes. Once again the city people have left the highway to travel the back roads, and end up getting lost out in the country. Not the wilds, or a forest somewhere, but just the country. A small town. That’s terrifying enough.
*. Kiersch says he thought of it as a B-horror, which it is, but then says his models were Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Day of the Triffids. Hm. Can’t say I see it. And I’m not sure why I’d want to see it. How flattering a comparison is Plan 9?
*. The DVD box declares this to be “The original that started it all.” Well, that’s what originals do. And I like the noncommittal “it.” I take it that this refers to the long string of sequels, which almost nobody saw and few people remember today. King himself didn’t keep track of their number. Blame “it” all on this movie, people!
*. The basic idea is nothing new. The children of the corn are the children of the Village of the Damned. Because ankle-biters are rarely that scary in themselves they have to hunt in packs. It takes a village. Or at least a gang. Hence the Midwich Cuckoos. Or the kids in Devil Times Five, the psycho-spawn in The Brood, the bloodthirsty brats in the Sinister movies, or the whole island of pubescent maenads in Who Can Kill a Child? (remade as Come Out and Play). The premise is, however, an inversion of the usual King starting point, which is terrorized tots. I guess the revived Gage in Pet Sematary is another outlier, but more often in King it’s children who are threatened by adults.
*. I guess Jonathan Elias, who did the score, was listening to The Omen and liked that chanting business. I don’t think it fits. King has a major hate on for organized religion, but I found the evil force here a confusing thing. Why does it adopt so much Christian imagery, ritual, and language? Is there a connection between He Who Walks Behind the Rows and the God of the Old Testament? Why does the gopher demon care if the kids are listening to music or playing games? I didn’t think pagan cults were such puritans.
*. The ending has been much ridiculed. I don’t know. It was a microbudget movie so how surprised can we be that the ending looks cheap? I think they probably did the best they could under the circumstances. I wish it made more sense, but I wouldn’t make fun of the execution.
*. I won’t go so far as to say this is a cult favourite of mine, but watching it again today I appreciate it a lot more and can see why it’s stuck around. As a franchise, however, it went downhill fast and stayed there.

The Cannonball Run (1981)

*. Why hasn’t this movie been remade? Or why has it taken so long to remake? I ask for a couple of reasons
*. In the first place, it’s a terrible movie that nevertheless made a ton of money and generated its own sequel just a few years later. That’s a combination that screams remake to most studios.
*. Second: it has dated, but in obvious ways related to fashion that can be easily corrected. I don’t think the concept has gone out of style. On the DVD commentary, producer Paul Ruddy remarks that “if you had this movie out today it would be just as successful, this exact movie.” Director Hal Needham immediately agrees: “Oh, I think so.”
*. On the review show Sneak Previews Gene Siskel, who thought The Cannonball Run “unbelievably bad,” would only disagree in the matter of execution. As he put it: “if there’s a sure-fire formula in American movies it’s the car chase cross-country, it always works, until this one. They blow the easiest formula in the history of American movies. Films like The Gumball Rally, Grand Theft Auto, Deathrace 2000, these are no-brainer films. And they blow this.”
*. It’s also true that some parts of the formula here have had continued success in our own time. We still have car chase movies that do well, as witness the Fast and The Furious franchise and its cast of “highway scofflaws and degenerates” (as they are dubbed here by the racemaster). We also have contemporary examples of these all-star cast movies working, as we’ve seen with the Ocean’s films. So doesn’t The Cannonball Run deserve a remake, whatever meaning you want to put on “deserve” in this context?
*. In some ways it also can be considered a bit ahead of its time. All of the self-reflexive winks, for example, with Roger Moore playing a guy who thinks he’s Roger Moore playing James Bond. Or, when Dom DeLuise suggests getting a black Trans Am for the race, having Burt tell him “that’s been done before” (a reference to the Smokey and the Bandit movies). Or Peter Fonda in a cameo as a biker. And there’s also the business of running outtakes and bloopers during the end credits, which Needham claims to have invented.
*. Those end credits are representative, however, of what I disliked the most about The Cannonball Run. They’re evidence of the fun everyone was having on set, which is often an indication that a production is overly self-indulgent or even out of control. Think of Beat the Devil, or those Ocean’s movies I just mentioned. You get the same feeling while listening to the commentary, as Ruddy and Needham keep laughing at a bunch of stuff that isn’t funny at all.
*. Roger Ebert thought all of this in bad faith. “The Cannonball Run is an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition. In other words, they didn’t even care enough to make a good lousy movie. Cannonball was probably always intended as junk, as an easy exploitation picture. But it’s possible to bring some sense of style and humor even to grade-zilch material. This movie doesn’t even seem to be trying.”
*. I’m not so sure. They don’t seem to have been trying very hard, but I think they thought they were at least giving the audience what it wanted (and, apparently, did). When Needham says that “in this kind of movie you’ve got to be ridiculous to hold people’s attention and entertain them” I think he’s being honest. As he is when he says, “if you can’t think of anything else to do, blow up something.” We even get the old cliché of a car exploding into a fireball after just being nudged.
*. A more targeted criticism would be to say that it was just a cash grab. That’s what Burt Reynolds thought anyway, when it made him the highest-paid actor in history for getting $5 million for four weeks work. “I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham, and I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out, so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”
*. Another example of the bottom-line thinking is all the product placement. Lots of brand names are featured throughout and DeLuise even sings a couple of commercial jingles. And Needham was totally unapologetic for this, proud of exploiting all the endorsements.
*. Apparently the script had a lot of improvisation and at times there doesn’t seem to be anything connecting the various episodes at all. We’re just magically whisked from one to another. For no reason at all Burt and Dom are in a plane, which they land in the middle of a town somewhere just so Dom can pick up more beer. Then they take off again. There’s no continuity running through any of this.
*. A great trivia question to spring on your friends: Who actually wins the race? I believe it’s Adrienne Barbeau’s team — we see her being the first to punch the clock at the end — though I don’t think it’s ever mentioned. I guess it was never all that important.
*. So why not do it all over again? They’d have to work on making it more politically correct, but it could still be done. And done better. This is a movie that a lot of people have fond memories of — I think of Captain Chaos in particular — but most of it is just terrible. The rest only looks good in the rear view mirror, but I think the brand could be pimped out for another rodeo.

Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)

*. When discussing Burt Reynolds it’s often said that there’s a Good Burt and a Bad Burt, the latter being most easily identified by his moustache. The Good Burt played well in good movies. The Bad Burt was in far more popular movies where he was . . . well, all he needed to be.
*. Watching Smokey and the Bandit II I found myself wondering whether, if you’d only seen Reynolds in movies like Smokey and the Bandit or The Cannonball Run, you would think he could act at all. I think the most you would be able to say is that he had charm. But that charm wore off in a hurry, even when treated in a winking, self-referential manner, as it is here (a manner that, I think, is also supposed to be charming).
*. But as I say, Burt was just doing what he was supposed to do. And in his defence, he thought this sequel nothing but a stupid cash grab (which it was). His co-star, Sally Field, would consider it the worst movie she ever made. Critics came down hard. Roger Ebert called it “basically just the original movie done again, not as well.” Not nearly as well, I would say.
*. To give you some idea of just how stupid and thoughtless it is: how are we supposed to believe that the Frog we knew and loved in the first movie has gone back to marry Junior? They couldn’t think of any other way to reintroduce the same characters except to replay the exact same situation?
*. Nobody seemed to care. In the face of the critical brickbats director Hal Needham took out ads in the trade papers featuring quotes from negative reviews alongside a picture of himself sitting beside a wheelbarrow full of cash.
*. That same spirit of cynicism finds its way into the film. Everyone has their price. Even the fellow running the animal park isn’t going to let Charlotte give birth on his grounds until the Bandit pays him off. Yes, the Bandit calls him a putz later, but he’s no different from anyone else in the film.

*. Ebert didn’t know why the elephant had to be taken to Texas. They never say, but I assume she’s to be the mascot at the Republican convention. What I couldn’t understand is why the Burdette’s want to help out. How do they profit from pre-empting the Governor, whose responsibility this is? I feel like something got left out of the script here.
*. There’s not much more to say. Dom DeLuise shows up as a gluttonous (naturally) Italian doctor with an accent he soon tires of. Mean Joe Greene flips the sheriff’s car, causing Buford T. Justice to expostulate “I knew this would happen as soon as they started that bussin’ shit!” Then we meet Buford’s brother, who is a flaming queen named Gaylord. And I thought this was kind of sad, because there was a time when Gaylord was a normal, or at least not uncommon name before it became a slur.
*. The highlight here is a giant smash-up derby between transport trucks and squad cars in the desert. It makes no sense at all, and has no point, but we get to see lots of cars smashed up in different ways while Snowman and the Bandit go “Wah-hoo!” “Woo-hoo!” and “Woo! Woo! Woo!”
*. How awful were those tight jeans? Burt’s are even tighter than Sally’s. At the time this was the style. One can and should be thankful that the bellbottoms from the first film have gone away, but fashion is cruel.
*. There was a chance they might have done something interesting here with the whole idea of the Bandit having become a legend in his own mind — “one of the most beloved grass-root folk heroes in America!” — but this is so underdeveloped I couldn’t really figure out why they were bothering with it. This isn’t a movie that wants to poke fun at itself, and I don’t know why not. Maybe it’s too busy laughing at us.
*. It was not quite the end of the line. There would be a Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, but Reynolds would only drop in at the end of it in a cameo and Field had moved on. It’s sometimes regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. So just a small step down from this.

TerrorVision (1986)

*. There seems to be a generational effect when it comes to nostalgia, relating to the amount of time it takes for something that was once cool and then passed out of fashion to come back again and be seen as camp, kitsch, cool, or even in a few exceptional cases classic. In the 2010s the 1980s enjoyed such a rediscovery.
*. Even in the 1980s, however, there was a sense of self-awareness about just how ridiculous the 1980s were. TerrorVision is evidence. If you were looking to send up that decade you could do a lot worse than just cutting and pasting this mess.
*. TerrorVision was an Empire International release, and qualifies as one of their less restrained efforts, which tells you something. Charles Band’s company was behind a lot of the sillier horror-comedies from this period, including titles like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Ghoulies. TerrorVision, however, really goes off the rails.
*. It’s less well known than those other movies I mentioned, and I think for good reason. It begins with a monster being put into a garbage disposal unit on the planet Pluton, from which it’s accidentally beamed to a satellite receiver on Earth. The monster then proceeds to egress from television screens, leading a lot of cheesy chaos.
*. If you thought scary things coming out of your TV set got started with Ringu then you didn’t live through the ’80s, which gave us this movie as well as Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Shocker. Where the idea first began I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to bet sometime in the 1950s. It was in the ’80s however, with the advent of VHS and satellite receivers, that people really started getting anxious about what was coming into their homes.

*. TerrorVision could have been, if not good, at least a lot better. There’s the family of stereotypes: a little boy who no one believes has seen a monster (while his parents just want to put him back on his meds), a New Wave daughter dating a metalhead boyfriend, a crazy grandpa, and swinger parents (with Mary Woronov reprising this role from Eating Raoul). And there’s a slimy dumpling of a monster that devours its victims by sort of melting them down into puddles of goo.
*. On the horror-comedy scale TerrorVision tilts heavily toward comedy, with most of the humour being very loud and broad. Today it’s hard to find anything funny in it at all. Indeed, it would be much funnier if they had played it straight. That’s part of the generational effect I mentioned.
*. But if TerrorVision tilts toward comedy it tilts even more toward incoherence. The thing about hysterical movies like this is that they have to maintain some sense of artistic control or else they just feel like they’re falling apart. TerrorVision feels like it’s falling apart. The main joke seems to be that TV is toxic garbage. It’s noteworthy that part of the architecture of Pluton includes a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise (which I noticed right away because I had that model hanging from my ceiling when I was a kid). The point being, I think, that Star Trek was just as much a piece of crap as the slimeball that Pluton beams to Earth. When the alien appears in a kind of PSA, begging us to turn off our TV sets or we’ll be devoured we understand the point he’s making. Look at what channel 69 did to the parents.
*. That is, however, a simple joke and it isn’t developed in an interesting way. In fact nothing about TerrorVision is interesting, or funny. When silliness is just silliness it starts to wear on us pretty quickly, and TerrorVision outstays its welcome by more than an hour. Even television in the ’80s wasn’t as bad as this. Honest!

Child’s Play (1988)

*. Sometimes it’s the things you least expect to last that end up dating the least. Over thirty years later, what impresses me the most about Child’s Play is how good Chucky looks. A mix of animatronics, puppetry, little people dressed in the doll’s clothes, and oversized sets, he’s just as believable as he was back in 1988.
*. They even manage to finesse the difficulty of making us believe that such a small figure could do so much damage. To make the obvious comparison, I don’t buy the Leprechaun at all, but Chucky doesn’t do anything impossible here. He just fights dirty, and it works.
*. It’s not only the technical elements though that are so good, like the way Chucky’s face can so quickly distort into a malign snarl. His basic design is great too. With his coveralls and freckles he might be a demonic Dennis the Menace, and the combination of the flaming, troll-like hair and icy blue eyes works perfectly.
*. That’s a good thing, as Chucky is the film (and, subsequently, the franchise). I like Chris Sarandon but I’d completely forgotten he was in this movie. Catherine Hicks is very good, but I wouldn’t have remembered her name. I don’t think I’ve seen her in anything else. Ditto for Alex Vincent as Andy, who I don’t think did much else aside from some of the sequels.
*. A lot of the cast’s forgettability comes from their playing types. Their thinness is admitted to by writer Don Mancini on the commentary track, and the fact that for the most part they’re just there to serve the plot. The harried single mom. The cop who cares. The sweet but vulnerable child. Whatever. They’re not important. But everyone remembers Chucky, and Brad Dourif’s voice. This is what it means to be a horror icon: You don’t just take over, you erase everything else around you.
*. Child’s Play is usually lumped in with other demonic doll movies, and Mancini mentions Magic (1978) as being one influence. His original script was even closer to this sort of ventriloquist horror, as in Magic, Devil Doll, and the Michael Redgrave story in Dead of Night. Andy and Chucky were linked in some spiritual way, with Chucky being Andy’s angry id and only coming to life when Andy is asleep. All that was dropped for the voodoo angle we get in the film.
*. Another, no less important influence the film taps into is the satire of children’s advertising and marketing. The Good Guys dolls were most directly inspired by the hysteria over Cabbage Patch Kids, but the plot also ties in well with earlier ’80s horror flicks like Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and Larry Cohen’s The Stuff (1985). In each case the crap being sold on TV through catchy jingles and ad lines turns out to be not just dangerous for small children but lethal.
*. I wish there was a bit more of this, but it’s a subject that Mancini seems to lose interest in as things go on, both in this movie and in the series in general. There’s more of it at the beginning of Child’s Play 2, with children being referred to as consumers-in-training, but then it’s dropped from that film as well. Later movies wouldn’t bring the matter up at all.
*. Aside from the iconic Chucky, Child’s Play has a lot of other things going for it. At only 87 minutes (the original cut was over two hours) it “moves like a bullet train,” as one contemporary review quoted by Mancini put it. Within those tight confines it’s also very well paced. The slow reveal of evil Chucky is nicely drawn out and perfectly timed, with the climax (when Karen discovers the batteries) coming at the exact halfway point in the movie.
*. It’s a well made, well conceived movie. I love Andy watching Chucky climbing the stairs into the hospital building, and the various shots of Chucky’s enlarged shadow. It’s a little thing, but notice that sudden move to a close-up of Karen’s face when she discovers the batteries still in the box. Throw in a couple of really good explosions — blowing up a storefront and a derelict building entirely — and it’s hard to see what more they could have made out of this material. When we think of ’80s horror we tend to think of a lot of different movies that played out as serials, few of which were actually any good or could claim to be well made. I wouldn’t call Child’s Play a timeless classic, but it is an exception to that general rule.

The Stuff (1985)

*. Larry Cohen died just a week after I finished writing up these notes. This lends what follows an air of retrospective. Where does he rate, based on his total body of work? For originality, intelligence, and commercial instinct (a rare combination) you have to give him high marks. In his first edition of Nightmare Movies (published in 1988) Kim Newman includes Cohen in a separate section discussing individual horror auteurs, and begins by complaining of how he hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves. At the time, Newman saw Cohen as “still a developing, surprising talent”: “all Cohen’s movies are lively, packed with off-beat and unusual ideas, well acted and laced with quotable dialogue.”
*. But by the time of the next edition of Newman’s book (2011) there was little to add. Cohen had basically stopped directing at the end of the ’80s. As it turned out, The Stuff would be his last important work. Though I thought his episode in the first season of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up,” was one of the series’ best.
*. There is another side of the ledger when it comes to Cohen. As a filmmaker he strikes me as having a level of competence below that of Roger Corman. Newman calls The Stuff “so haphazardly assembled that the director seems to be on holiday.” Editing and sound are sometimes so far out of whack as to be hilarious, and I don’t get the sense Cohen cared all that much. The Stuff would be followed up by It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen and that may be taken as further evidence of a growing indifference to the quality of his work. Might we also see in it the seeds of his getting out of the business of directing altogether? Perhaps all he really wanted to do was write.
*. I think we have to take the good with the bad. The Stuff is a mess from start to finish. The effects, and this movie is full of effects, provide the most striking range of incongruities. As a director Cohen’s reach always exceeded his grasp, but (surprisingly given his low budgets) he rarely falls on his face. Some of the special effects here are laughably bad, but others impress. You never know what you’re going to get from one scene to the next.
*. Overall, however, I enjoyed all the pre-CGI trickery on display, from the model work to the process shots to the prosthetics. Hell, they even threw in the upside-down room from A Nightmare on Elm Street. But at the same time there were a number of shots I wish they had left out. So like I say, you take the good with the bad.
*. The premise is typical of the paranoia horror that was the subtext to a number of movies in the ’80s. A possibly sentient yogurt bubbling up from the depths of hell proves to be addictive. In time, our addiction consumes us, leading to the deathless ad line here: “Are you eating it, or is it eating you?” We may say the same of many items found in the developed world’s diet.

*. Its main inspiration is taken from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the scene of Mo and Nicole looking down on the “mining” operation seems a direct quote), but we can also think of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and They Live (1988) for more contemporary satires of consumerism. It’s not something we see as much of these days, and I’m not sure why. Have we just learned to accept that the Market is always right, and that there’s something elitist or non-patriotic in criticizing consumer choices? Even when those choices have been manipulated by evil corporations? But note that even here we see the (black) market triumphant in the end. The Stuff doesn’t actually need Nicole’s marketing genius behind it. It sells itself.
*. Does this movie work without Michael Moriarty? I don’t think so. It’s odd, but after thirty years his performance stayed in my memory more than any of the big effects scenes. His low-key approach to the crazy proceedings grounds the film and stops it from becoming mere slapstick. This might have been a film that got out of hand without him. Even with him it comes very close. I’m not sure the introduction of the militia unit at the end really fits with the rest of the film, though they do make for curious heroes.
*. I mentioned that I still remember this movie thirty years after last seeing it, which is no small accomplishment for any film given the way I forget things. I even had the jingle still in my head: “Enough is never enough, of The Stuff!” Many of the details I’d forgotten, but the basic plot had stayed with me. So maybe Cohen wasn’t “still a developing” talent at the time. Maybe this was all there was. He made a handful of indelible films — It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q, and The Stuff — that are holding up just as well if not better than the work of his better-known peers, and the fact that there are so many calls for The Stuff, which was not a hit, to be remade is a tribute to its continuing relevance.

Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

*. So there’s this cop, you see. Actually he’s not a cop, but a semi-mythical frontier figure known as a Texas Ranger. Name of Walker. No, that’s not right either. Name of McQuade. J. J. McQuade. Chuck Norris.
*. Even the toughest thugs and gangsters on the border grow still at the mention of the words “Texas Ranger.” This McQuade is a bad-ass who likes to power around the border in his mud spattered Ram Charger, living off a diet of Pearl Beer. Pearl Beer and nothing but. When he cracks one open it’s like Popeye ripping the lid off a can of spinach.
*. As a cop his methods are . . . unorthodox. But he gets results. Even though his so-called superiors are always busting his ass for not being more media friendly. His marriage has broken down but he’s still on good terms with his ex and his daughter. It’s just that being a cop was too hard when it came to having a relationship. You know how it is.
*. Luckily for him, this means he’s available for a random hot babe (Barbara Carrera) to fall in love (and in bed) with him at first sight. She’s easy on the eyes and she can clean house. Too bad she already belongs to a mean dude who smokes a cigarillo and who also knows karate (David Carradine). Hell, the mean dude even drives a car with a license plate that says CARATE.
*. McQuade works best on his own. A bit of a “lone wolf,” you might say. Though he does have an older mentor figure named Dakota (L. Q. Jones). But then admin saddles him with a rookie partner, who’s also Hispanic. McQuade just hopes the kid won’t get in his way. He also hopes the damn Feds sent out by Washington don’t get in his way either.
*. Some bad guys are up to some bad things. Like smuggling weapons . . . somewhere. To terrorists. Maybe. The Ranger is on their case, but then they push his daughter off a cliff and send her to the hospital. And kill his mentor. And kill his dog! That’s going too far. Now it’s personal. But first the chief has to put him on leave. He doesn’t want the Ranger turning this into a vendetta.
*. So McQuade and the kid and the black FBI guy (the only Fed you can trust) head south of the border to take out Mr. Carate. This they do with machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, a crossbow, and lots of karate kicks. Bad guys go flying through the air from explosions. Good guys dance between hail storms of bullets. The black FBI guy gets gut shot, but it’s no big thing. He can walk it off. The babe gets killed, dying in McQuade’s arms. Damn. Now it’s really personal. McQuade and Mr. Carate draw their weapons on each other but then toss them away so as to settle this mano a mano. Then McQuade blows Mr. Carate up, because it was written into Carradine’s contract that his character couldn’t be bested in hand-to-hand combat.
*. You can tell from this synopsis why Chuck Norris went on to become such a figure of fun in later years. There’s being an action star and then there’s a career built on cookie-cutter stuff like this.
*. But while Norris is a terrible actor, and his movies generally range from bad to very bad, Lone Wolf McQuade is pretty easy to take. The whole thing is done up as a kind of homage to spaghetti Westerns, down to Francesco De Masi’s score, so highly derivative of Morricone. The mix of martial arts and the Western had been done before with David Carradine playing the monk Caine in the television series Kung-Fu. Basically the masters of the martial arts are now gunslingers, and vice versa. Kurosawa had raided the genre, Leone had ripped off Kurosawa, and now there was no telling East from West.
*. The fight scenes are reasonably well handled. And if they’re over pretty quick at least they’re not edited all to hell like so many other martial arts movies. Norris and Carradine wanted to do as much of the fighting themselves as possible, and I think that helps.
*. The script, as I’ve outlined, is just a string of clichés. Apparently John Milius had a hand in it, and it sounds like something he didn’t spend a lot of time on. He didn’t get a credit for writing but was listed as a “spiritual advisor.” Whatever that means.
*. Just before they fight Carradine says to Norris “I’ve waited a long time for this.” Like what? 48 hours? I think that’s as long as it’s been since they met.
*. OK, I do have to admit that driving his truck out of its grave Bat Out of Hell style was great. If I were rating movies on a scale of 1 to 10 that scene alone would be worth a point.
*. They were clearly setting McQuade up to be a franchise hero, though it would take a decade for Norris to return as Walker, Texas Ranger. But the years didn’t matter. He’d always been a dinosaur.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

*. Jason Takes Manhattan has a special place for me in the canon of Friday the 13th films in that it’s the only one that I saw in a cinema upon its theatrical release. You may judge me accordingly. And by that I mean judge me harshly.
*. It’s also usually regarded as the worst film in the franchise, both among critics and that segment of the general public that cares about such things (meaning fans). This is not, I can personally attest, a revisionist view. We all thought it was shit at the time.
*. There is some legitimate debate over whether this low estimation is because it’s just a shit movie or because the title was so misleading. Jason spends little time in Manhattan, with most of the film’s action taking place on a rusty freighter that has been refitted, rather improbably, as a cruise ship. At least it has a sauna and a disco on board. A bunch of high school grads are taking the ship to NYC. A creepy crew member (the only crew member?) appears at odd times to say things like “This voyage is doomed” and “He’s come back and you’re all going to die.”
*. Of course, the audience is already aware of this because we know that Jason is a stowaway on the Lazarus (get it?). He proceeds to kill almost everyone on board. He then later pursues the survivors through the streets of Manhattan before being dissolved, apparently, in toxic goo.
*. So the story makes even less sense than the previous instalments. The score is less interesting, with none of the signature notes and a very dated theme song (“The Darkest Side of the Night”). They only shot in New York for a couple of days and as far as famous landmarks go only made use of one brief sequence in Times Square. Most of the film was shot in Vancouver, so the streets of the Big Apple are just so many steamy, garbage-strewn alleys.
*. I mentioned how good Jason looked in the previous film, The New Blood. In this version they weren’t trying as hard. Despite Kane Hodder reprising his role they didn’t bother with the rotting physical body and his face isn’t nearly as well done. Basically he’s just a burly guy in a hockey mask.

*. I appreciate that director Rob Hedden wanted to do something different. “The biggest thing we could do with Jason is to get him out of that stupid lake where he’s been hanging out,” he said. Mission accomplished. The script was apparently the result of bolting together two different concepts: Jason on a ship and Jason in a big city. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with either premise and we’re still just watching a string of unrelated killings.
*. As had become usual, these killings were edited to pass the censors. Based on the outtakes I don’t think much was lost though, and only one remains very interesting, with Jason winning a rooftop boxing match with a devastating KO punch.
*. That this is also a very silly scene, ending on a comic beat, gives you some indication of the tone of the film. Let’s face it, we’re all cheering for Jason to thrash the punks he runs into in New York, just as we’re pulling for him to kill mean Mr. McCulloch. But sticking with the latter, I think if you spend the entire movie building up a heel he needs to be given a more spectacular send-off than being drowned in the slum version of a butt of malmsey.
*. It’s not just that the two parts of the film — on the ship and in New York — are only awkwardly linked. The rest of the plot’s construction seems equally flawed. I couldn’t understand how Rennie’s repressed childhood trauma linked her psychically to Jason, as seems to have happened. I also questioned the way Jason reverts to an earlier form at times. What was the significance of that? Was the young Jason supposed to represent his innocent self? Because he seems just as vengeful as the adult version. But then there doesn’t seem much consistency in his appearance among his various youthful iterations either.
*. Oh well. It’s not like anyone would have expected this to be any good. I sure didn’t in 1989, though now I can’t remember just what it was that lured me into the theatre. It had a great poster. Maybe that was it.
*. I may like it a bit more than I did thirty years ago, which is not to say that I misjudged it back then. The passage of time, however, has brought out more of its goofy ’80s charm. It remains a really dumb movie though and I can’t think of any reason to go back to it aside from nostalgia.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

*. There’s not much point hating on a late entry in a lousy franchise that was by this time far removed from its not-so-lofty peak. I’ve always tried to find some good in these Friday the 13th films, and I remember being somewhat amused by them as a young man. But The New Blood is a weak entry with little to recommend it.
*. The only new wrinkle this time out is that the last girl figure, Tina (Lar Park Lincoln), has psychokinetic powers. Director John Carl Buechler frankly describes her as “a clone of Carrie.” This actually makes for a fun battle between her and Jason in the final act as she goes all Carrie on him and he is (as always) indestructible. If this sounds a bit like a trial run for Freddy vs. Jason (2003) that shouldn’t be surprising because they were planning at the time on having the two franchise heavyweights face off against each other in a crossover film but the studios couldn’t come to an agreement.
*. Up until the final fifteen minutes, however, this is dull stuff. I can’t think of a Friday the 13th movie where the kills are more perfunctory. As had become usual by this time a lot of the gore had to be taken out to placate censors, but even so most of the kills are just the usual slashings and skewerings. There was a nice bit with a sleeping bag that made me think of the classic scene in Prophecy, and a scene that had to be cut of Jason crushing Ben’s head with his bare hands, but aside from that there’s nothing to get excited about. The circular saw is often cited by fans, but I think it just looks silly.
*. Just as perfunctory are the characters. They are the usual types — the nerd, the preppie, the pothead, the black couple, the slutty rich bitch — but even being this crudely drawn I found them nearly indistinguishable. Usually these people are only so much fresh meat (or “new blood”) anyway, but this movie took my disengagement to a new level.

*. Jason, however, played by Kane Hodder in his first turn under the mask, has never looked better. He’s apparently been rotting at the bottom of Crystal Lake for about ten years, so despite his burly physique he’s also showing signs of zombie-like decomposition, with a visible rib cage front and back. His clothes are covered in a layer of muck and he’s also got a chain wrapped around his neck. When his mask comes off he looks even more zombie-ish, and I mean that in a complimentary way. For the most part he’s just doing the usual Jason things — crashing through windows, throwing other people through windows — but he’s looking good doing it.
*. The script is crap but it does manage to hit with one great line when the nerd, who is an aspiring author, is rejected by the rich bitch. “Rejection? Fine. I can take it. I’ve been rejected by some of the finest science fiction magazines in the continental United States!”
*. So up until the fight between Jason and Tina I would rate The New Blood below average for the franchise. The ending, however, does a lot to redeem it. This was something new for a slasher film. To be sure there’d been feisty and resourceful last girls before, usually in the first part of a franchise (Nancy Thompson in the original Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind), but I don’t think there’d been anything like Tina going toe-to-toe with one of these superhuman killing machines. Note how, after she discovers that Jason has killed her mother, Tina immediately goes chasing after him!
*. On the commentary Lincoln mentions how she thinks Jason probably enjoys the challenge of fighting someone who is his equal, and I think she has a point. It’s fun seeing these two go at it, and I’d also add that, while nothing spectacular, the psychokinesis effects are pretty good. This is never a scary movie — it’s too formulaic to either care about or be surprised by — but it turns into a decent little action thriller in the end.

Night Shift (1982)

*. A movie full of not-quite debuts.
*. It wasn’t Ron Howard’s first feature film working behind the camera, but it was his first Hollywood studio film (and he’d done some TV-movies as well). It also wasn’t Michael Keaton’s first film, though it was the part that made him a star. Shelley Long had been on TV a lot. Going down the list of credits, it wasn’t even Kevin Costner’s first movie (he’s Frat Boy #1 here, but had appeared in Malibu Hot Summer the year before), or Shannon Doherty’s (she plays one of the Girl Guides).
*. It wasn’t Henry Winkler’s debut either, though again you’d be forgiven for thinking it was at the time. There can’t be that many people who had seen The Lords of Flatbush. He was, however, the biggest star in the cast because of his role as the Fonz on Happy Days.
*. It’s easy, but nonetheless fair I think, to ascribe the general small-screen feel of Night Shift to the fact that all of this talent was coming from television. This isn’t a big movie, and is content to mainly play within its handful of sets (the morgue, the jail, the different apartments). Sets, I would add, that very much look like sets. How many hallways in apartment buildings have we seen on sitcoms that look like the ones here?
*. Another near first: I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched on video after getting a VHS tape machine in the ’80s. Watching movies at home without commercials seemed almost magical then.
*. What also seems magical: the fact that Chuck (Winkler) is investing his hooker clients’ money in accounts that are returning 17.5% (you can read the numbers on his computer). Oh, those interest rates! I remember them going up even higher than that in the ’80s.
*. There is one first. That’s the first recorded version of “That’s What Friends Are For” being sung by Rod Stewart over the end credits. It seems a bit downbeat, however, to wind the movie down with.
*. As for the film itself, I can’t think of much to say. I think this was the first time I’ve seen it since the days of VHS, which is over thirty years ago now. I guess it’s kind of a sweet in a very conventional way. Winkler is Caspar Milquetoast. Long is the hooker with a heart of gold. Keaton I can still enjoy, but he’s only playing a type as well.
*. What sort of type? The American dreamer with endless entrepreneurial schemes for making it big. Night Shift is a movie dealing with adult subject matter but it doesn’t have much to say about the morality of what’s going on. In so far as it does glance in that direction it only suggests that conventional morals are for squares. Making money has its own, transcendent, morality. Is Belinda going to have to go back to work at the end? She will if Chuck can’t support her. And Billy . . . there’s no saying what depths he was likely to fall to after being fired as a towel boy. I hope his idea for microwaveable clothes took off.