Category Archives: 1980s

Scanners (1981)

*. There can’t be many directors whose work divides fans and critics so radically as that of David Cronenberg. I don’t mean over the question of whether he’s any good or not, but over the question of what constitutes the good Cronenberg and what’s not worth bothering with.
*. In putting my own cards on the table I’ll repeat a point I’ve made many times before, both in my book on Canadian fiction and several other places. Most artists have a period of about ten years where they do most of their major work. I find this is the same for film directors as it is for poets and novelists. It usually comes in the front part of their career. With that in mind, I would put Cronenberg’s most creative years, or big decade, as running from 1979’s The Brood to 1988’s Dead Ringers. In other words, I like the early Cronenberg. Some of his later work is interesting, but I never want to see Crash or Maps to the Stars again.
*. That said, these early films do have their drawbacks. They are cheap and show it. At times they approach “so bad they’re good territory.” But they really are good. In Scanners I get the sense that Cronenberg was actually trying to jam too many ideas into the frame, but I still find it fascinating even forty years later.
*. The so-bad-they’re-funny parts can be quickly addressed. Stephen Lack’s performance as Cameron Vale has been universally panned, and with cause. Lack is actually an interesting artist in what is his day job, but he’s terrible here. I couldn’t even buy him as an oddity.
*. Then there are the improbabilities in the plot. I could (just) get on board with the homeless derelict Vale being transformed into a corporate spy extraordinaire, but the business about his being able to mentally hack computers from a phone booth because the network is just like a human nervous system was a bridge too far. Not to mention the way his mental powers not only make the computers blow up but also down power lines and turn gas stations into fireballs. You have to laugh at all of that. But then, this was a time when people using computers wore lab coats.
*. All of this, however, somewhat constitutes the Cronenberg aesthetic. In his review of Scanners Roger Ebert says something that I find very perceptive in this regard: “We forgive low-budget films their limitations, assuming that their directors would reach farther with more money. But Scanners seems to indicate that what Cronenberg wants is enough money to make a better low-budget movie.”
*. Setting the production bar where he does, Cronenberg can be counted on to deliver entertaining fare that, while it may draw on various sources (Kim Newman cites the run of ’70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and the psychic mumbo-jumbo of The Fury), always ends up feeling distinctive and unique.
*. Part of it has to do with his use of locations, or more precisely his way of turning everyday locations into uncanny spaces. Like a lecture hall, or even a food court at the mall. He has moments that make him seem like a discount Antonioni here, delivered with a garish genre inflection.

*. From the look of the film alone you could probably identify its auteur, but there are other fingerprints as well, including the familiar theme of medical science and technology run amok. All these scientists whose cures are worse than the disease. Or whose cures are the disease. The ephemerol kids are thalidomide babies, or LSD burn outs, so if you want there are those extra kinds of readings available. Political? Well, apparently Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok!) thought he was playing Che Guevara.
*. Apparently Cronenberg was writing a lot of the script on the fly, but because it was working out themes he was so thoroughly invested in this was something he could get away with.
*. It’s also to his credit here how he makes something out of what could very easily have been unintentionally hilarious: scenes of people making faces (grimacing, twitching, jerking their heads and having their eyes bulge) while supposedly engaged in psychic combat. There are really only the two big effects scenes where we actually see the kind of damage the scanners can do to a human body. The rest of it has to be mostly implied.
*. If Stephen Lack is a disappointment, Michael Ironside takes this movie over and makes it his own, even against Cronenberg’s visuals, Dick Smith’s special effects, and Howard Shore’s score. Just as he almost did, playing against Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, in Total Recall. How did this guy not become an even bigger star? He doesn’t have to over-emote to just chew a script to pieces.
*. Hands up if you identified Dr. Paul Ruth as Patrick McGoohan. I don’t think I would have caught him without a credit in a hundred viewings. I’m sure it’s mostly the beard, but still.
*. I know people who think the world of this movie, and (probably more) who think it’s just terrible. It’s not my personal favourite, that might be The Brood, but it has a place among the other works of what I like to think of as Cronenberg’s major phase. Major in the sense of most imaginative and creative — ironically or not, the years where he was just starting out and had the least to work with.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake and one can understand why. It seems so obvious that a better movie could be made out of such a premise. But at the same time any improvement, and maybe that should be in quotation marks, would mean making it into something else entirely. You can’t spend more money and make a better low-budget movie than this.

The Delta Force (1986)

*. “Liberal Hollywood” isn’t a total canard, as it’s probably true that the film business tilts somewhat to the left. That said, there has always been a link between Hollywood and the Republican party as well, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the latter name suggests, action heroes may be a natural fit with right-wing politics. Think also of names like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.
*. But among all the action stars of the 1980s it would be hard to get any further to the right than Chuck Norris, whose political views have tracked with the most extreme directions taken by the Republican party even into the age of Trump. But even in the ’80s many of his movies had a more obvious political message than those of his peers. In Missing in Action, for example, he got to go back and do Vietnam right, one-upping Stallone, and in The Delta Force we see Operation Eagle Claw getting a do-over, complete with a scene where our hero goes back to rescue a fallen comrade. America wasn’t leaving anyone behind this time!
*. As the Delta warriors bug out from the desert there’s a significant passage of dialogue where Norris’s character (McCoy) complains about how “they” screwed up the operation by going against his advice. He adds: “I spent five years in Vietnam watching them doing the planning, and us to die.” In other words, it’s all the government’s fault. Again. And if there’s any theme that unites today’s right more than its hatred of government I don’t know what it is. Bruce Willis: “I’m a Republican only as far as I want a smaller government, I want less government intrusion. . . . I hate the government, OK? I’m apolitical. Write that down. I’m not a Republican.”
*. I bring all this up as a way of introducing The Delta Force as an overtly political movie. In fact, I would call it propaganda. I don’t mean that pejoratively; I’ll allow that there may be good propaganda, and that a propaganda movie need not be a bad movie. I only use the label as a way of understanding what it’s about. It’s a cheesy action flick to be sure, but one that plays a lot of jingo tunes.
*. That message is one of American-Israeli solidarity. “Israel is America’s best friend in the Middle East” is an actual line of dialogue in the film. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, as co-writer and director Menahem Golan is an Israeli and the movie itself was shot in entirely in Israel. That’s where The Delta Force is, literally, coming from.
*. The story was a timely one in 1986, as the film was based on the hijacking of a TWA flight only the year before. Despite the timestamps used to give it all a sense of documentary realism, however, the script goes in for melodrama. The singling out of Jewish passengers on the plane was something that happened, but it’s introduced here in an incredible way. Could the hijackers have been that shocked that an American flight from the Eastern Mediterranean to New York had — gasp! — some Jews on board? Then there is the bit with the Holocaust survivor whose wife tells us that it is “all happening again.” And a little girl who pleads “Please don’t take my daddy! Daddy take me with you!” And a noble Catholic priest who volunteers to go with the Jews because Jesus was a Jew, etc. This is all laying it on pretty thick.
*. By coincidence I was listening to the DVD commentary track for All Through the Night while I was writing up these notes. Here’s what director Vincent Sherman had to say about propaganda: “You can do propaganda if it’s done well, if it’s done right. If it’s done in the context of the story and not just stuck in, but seems part of the story, and part of the character, then there’s no resentment to it. But if it’s obvious propaganda then you have trouble. Audiences turn away from it.” The Delta Force is obvious.
*. I’m not sure, but it may be that Golan thought he was making an important movie here instead of just another piece of crap. It has this important political message. It’s over two hours long. It has an all-star cast, with Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, and George Kennedy all putting in appearances. And Robert Foster, who I didn’t even recognize, playing the terrorist. He gives one of those really good performances in a bad movie that make you respect an actor’s professionalism and craft.
*. As for Lee Marvin, this was his last movie and I thought at times he didn’t appear in great shape. He also has wildly shaggy old-man eyebrows. Do you think they might have asked somebody to trim them? Luckily he doesn’t have to do too much but say things like “Take ’em down” and “One minute to go-time.” But at least he was game. “There aren’t too many firm film offers these days that guarantee money up front,” he later said.
*. As for Norris, in the words of Golan: “We look at Chuck as having the potential of a Clint Eastwood . . . His acting talent is getting better. He’s in the right style, and he’s very popular.”
*. Well, he was very popular at the time. But the bit about his acting talent getting better was only wishful thinking. Norris is no actor, and he’s at his best when he’s asked to do very little. I really didn’t find him convincing in this role at all, and what’s more disappointing is the fact that he doesn’t get to perform much in the way of martial arts. Which is, after all, the only thing he does well.
*. Alan Silvestri’s score is quite good, and would later get used as the fanfare for car-racing events on television. It is, however, overused. After an hour of it I think I’d already had enough, but then they seem to have just put the main theme on repeat for the whole back end of the movie.
*. Whatever his good intentions, I don’t think Golan could resist making just another stupid shoot-’em-up. There’s a car chase through some narrow streets that throws in about as many clichés as you can imagine. Norris hangs out of the passenger side of the van that’s being chased by the terrorists and shoots at them. Then he shoots out of the back window of the van after it gets blown away. The racing vehicles shear the open door of a car off. A vehicle smashes into a pile of watermelons. The cars go driving down a stairway. Vehicles crash and then inexplicably explode into massive fireballs. Did anything get left out?
*. So there’s the car chase. And lots of icky Arabs. And good guys walking through hails of bullets unscathed (except for one token fallen warrior), taking down bad guys while shooting from the hip. The icing on the cake, however, is Norris’s motorbike, which fires missiles forward and backward. This really pushes the movie over the line into silliness, undercutting any seriousness we might have been wanting to take its political message with.
*. Of course the good guys win, celebrating by cracking open some Bud and singing “America the Beautiful.” As I said, it’s a movie that wears its heart (if that’s the word) on its sleeve. Unfortunately its politics are an awkward fit with its trashiness, and instead of being a serious political thriller it quickly turns into another really dull Cannon action movie. Chuck Norris was in a number of flicks that were better than this, which should tell you everything you need to know about how bad it is.

Polyester (1981)

*. Polyester marks a kind of halfway house in the career of director John Waters, a baby step up from pure exploitation trash like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and indicating a turn toward what he would later describe as a “futile attempt at mainstream entertainment” (or at least “my version of a mainstream movie”). With later movies like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom the shock value would be dialed way down, which would lead to broader critical and public acceptance.
*. Was this a falling off? I guess that’s up to personal taste. I find I can return to the earlier films more often than his mainstream efforts, most of which I don’t think I’ll ever bother seeing again. But I wonder how much the direction Waters’ later career took puts those early efforts in a new light. I don’t think Waters really wanted to be respectable, but he did want to be commercial. He’s never been shy about owning up to the fact that he wanted his movies to make money. Would he even object to being called a sell-out? I don’t know if he’d consider that an epithet.
*. The times were changing too. As Waters also acknowledges, by the time of Polyester the golden age of trash was over because there were no more taboos to be broken. Not only that, he claims Polyester was the first of his films that wasn’t made to be a midnight movie because midnight movies had disappeared as well. I’m not entirely sure about this. In 1981 I think there were some still around. They were definitely on their way out, but they hadn’t disappeared yet.

*. I think another thing that helps the earlier movies out is that the production values fit the talent level. Not to put any kind of point, however fine, on it, but Waters’ crew of Dreamlanders were hopeless actors. At times they were just people he literally picked up off the street. Edith Massey is the most obvious example. She’s a character, but not an actor, and doesn’t belong in any kind of professional-grade movie. Waters keeps praising her on the commentary track for “really trying,” but so what? She belongs in a freak show like Pink Flamingos, but is out of place here. And even Divine is pretty limited. He can ham a part up, and has the star’s ability to command attention, but his acting is a joke.
*. As Waters moved into the mainstream his targets also became easier and more obvious. Mocking square, bourgeois, or middle-class suburban culture was too easy, but it was what he’d come to. Though it’s not so much nouveau rich bad taste that he wanted to mock as the desire, even compulsion, people have to adopt the trappings of that lifestyle as so much moral camouflage. It’s what people want that defines and condemns them.
*. One thing this means is that Francine Fishpaw is less sympathetic than she seems. Sure she’s not the monster audiences had come to identify with Divine from her previous roles, but in her desire to be part of “a normal American family” she is a target of scorn and ridicule. Just like Elmer taking up oil painting and Lu-Lu macramé, the cliché of art as therapy, is a joke in bad taste. Even Francine’s crush on teen heartthrob Tab Hunter is a sick dream, deserving of a tragic denouement.
*. There are a bunch of things in Polyester that I think miss. I didn’t understand the business where they drive around swatting minorities with a broom, and on the commentary track Waters admits this part doesn’t work (though he also says that it’s something he actually remembers doing). The AA meeting also struck me as a one-joke bit that had been shoehorned in. The hay-ride with the nuns I didn’t get at all.

*. Odorama. A meta-joke on William Castle gimmickry. It’s interesting how devices like this, suggestive of a more immersive audience experience, are in fact so alienating, always taking us outside the film.
*. Where I find Waters holds up best is in his little moments of acid observation. For example the way Francine’s husband showers affection on his dog while treating Francine like shit. Or Lu-Lu’s insistence on having an abortion. When Francine tries to tell her that her baby is a part of her, Lu-Lu angrily responds “It’s stealing part of me, you mean. I can feel it like cancer, getting bigger and bigger like the Blob. One day it will rip me open. And it will be there in my life, ready to rob me of every bit of fun I deserve to have!” That’s so over-the-top and so honest and real.
*. I like Polyester well enough for what it is. The downsizing and domestication of Douglas Sirk melodrama, with Francine’s breakdown threatening a trip to the snake pit, is effectively droll. Like me, you may want more than drollery from Waters, but times were changing and pop culture was turning into something satire-proof. As he puts it at one point on the commentary, the targets of Waters’ scorn had become his audience. But how can we all be in on the joke? Who are we going to laugh at?

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

*. The contemporary reviews of The Postman Always Rings Twice were almost universal in praise. Critics thought it a very good movie. But . . .
*. But, they’d go on to say, it wasn’t a classic. Meaning it didn’t measure up to the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Such a judgment is worth thinking about.
*. The first thing we might say is that this film isn’t a remake of the 1946 movie. There are some ways that the novel was first adapted that have been retained just because they were practical at the time and still are (for example the scene where Cora dictates her confession is played in both movies with Frank in a wheelchair, whereas in the novel he’s strapped onto a stretcher). Instead it’s more a return to the original source, James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. We may think of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which wasn’t a remake of The Thing from Another World but a more faithful adaptation of their shared source, the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.
*. The second thing to consider is that this is, in just about every objective way you can think of, a better movie than the earlier version. Jack Nicholson is well cast as the seedy loser Frank. David Mamet handled the script. Bob Rafelson directed and Sven Nykvist shot it. That’s a lot of talent.
*. Then there’s Cora. I said in my notes on the 1946 version how it was really Lana Turner’s movie. But Jessica Lange is a much better actress, and can more than hold her own in the sexy department as well. She was actually making a kind of comeback here after, in her own estimation, her debut in King Kong set her career back about four years. I think she’s sensational.
*. So then, a very good movie. A much better movie in almost every way. But. But. But was it too good for its own good?
*. I think it was. Here’s Pauline Kael’s take, and I think she got it: “Taste and craftsmanship have gone into this Bob Rafelson version of James M. Cain’s hot tabloid novel, but Rafelson’s detached, meditative tone is about as far from Cain’s American tough-guy vernacular as you can get. The impulsiveness and raw flamboyance that make the book exciting are missing, and the cool, elegant visuals (Sven Nykvist is the cinematographer) outclass the characters right from the start.”
*. Put another way, Cain’s novel was trash. Classic trash, but trash. The 1946 movie rolled with this. Lana Turner was trash. Classic trash. She belonged in that movie. Cain thought she was perfect. This Postman is better made and more authentic, but misses this. Instead it’s more of a love story, and even where they try to stick closer to the novel they land in trouble. Why bother bringing the lion-tamer woman (Anjelica Huston) back in? She just doesn’t fit in a movie like this. Kael found her appearance “a highly expendable episode,” and again I think that’s right.
*. But then something always struck me as being off with the structure of Cain’s story in the first place. It’s curiously shapeless. It doesn’t even matter that the movie ends here with the car accident, skipping over the legal proceedings in the final act. Because the story could really end at any point. That’s just the way it feels.
*. So, oddly enough, this is a movie that I think lasts for the same reason as the first did. We remember Lange in what was a terrific star turn — in the eyes of David Thomson “still, arguably, her most complete and disturbing performance.” The rest of it is very good too. But.

Missing in Action (1984)

*. First things first: let’s try to get these movies in their proper order. You might think, as I certainly did, that Missing in Action was a clone or rip-off of Rambo: First Blood Part II (the one where Rambo goes back to ‘Nam). But First Blood Part II actually came out a few months after Missing in Action. It was, however, based on a script (by James Cameron) that was originally written for First Blood Part II. So Cannon rushed it into production so as not to get sued.
*. You also might think that the next Missing in Action movie (Missing in Action 2: The Beginning) was a prequel. Which it was, but it (The Beginning) was actually made back-to-back with Missing in Action and I’ve read that it was actually the first part they shot. Cannon just decided to release Missing in Action (the real sequel) first because they thought it was a better movie.
*. The only real takeaway from this is that all of these movies came out within a year of each other, basically re-fighting the Vietnam War so that, in Rambo’s words, America would get to win this time. They also sought to cynically cash in on the widespread belief that there were American POWs languishing in Vietnamese prison camps at the time.
*. The question of whether there were (or are) MIAs being held in Vietnam is one that people still argue over. Needless to say, this movie accepts their existence, while also dismissing a trumped-up charge against the American hero Braddock (Chuck Norris) of war crimes. So it’s a political movie, playing out along pretty well-worn lines. I won’t get into that here. It’s the kind of story that was criticized in some circles as a dangerous right-wing fantasy, but I guess some people found it comforting or cathartic. Norris wanted to “instill a positive attitude” about Vietnam, and was pleased to see audiences standing and cheering at the end. It was huge at the box office.
*. As for the movie itself, it’s not very good even at being generic. The one oddity is that the two chief villains are killed off at the end of the first and second acts, leaving Norris free to just blow things up in last half hour. Buildings explode into fireballs. Bad guys can’t hit anything with their rifles and mortals but good guys drop bad guys while running and shooting from the hip.
*. Norris himself had by this time settled comfortably into what was his one role: a soft-spoken tough guy characterized by beard, blue jeans, and beer. M. Emmet Walsh goes along for the ride and gets to die a hero’s death (after curiously telling Braddock that he will see him in hell).
*. As with most of Norris’s efforts, Missing in Action is characterized mainly by its blandness, a quality its star projects, if not personifies. Aside from its political angle I can’t see where it’s of much interest at all. Since I don’t want to enter into its politics, I’ll just leave it at that.

Inseminoid (1981)

*. Let’s be perfectly honest: I don’t think anyone in 1981, or at anytime since, has gone into this movie thinking it was going to be any good. There’s simply no way a movie with a title like Inseminoid could be anything but a joke. But might it still be one of those so-bad-it’s-good, video-basement treats?
*. I think for the most part it is. It’s a terrible movie from start to finish, but so very bad that you just have to laugh at it. The script (apparently written in a rush) is full of deadly one-liners. The action proceeds by way of huge leaps in continuity. It’s SF-horror but the effects are laughable. The monster twins are just stiff plastic puppets and the gore consists of abrupt edits and then shots of victims with blood splashed on their faces or clothes. Even the weapons, including a welder and what looks like a hedge trimmer, are a joke.
*. The acting is also terrible. Judy Geeson as Sandy, the inseminated one, is praised in some quarters but I think the only thing you can say is that she’s giving it her all, and that her efforts don’t really help. The birth scene goes on so long you have to laugh to drown out her screams. But then there are also little things like the way Mark goes running through the tunnels. This reminded me a bit of John Belushi in Animal House.
*. Released a year after Alien, most people saw it as a rip-off. This is a charge the director, Norman J. Warren, has denied, saying they had not seen Alien at the time of writing Inseminoid. This doesn’t strike me as a very convincing defence, since there’s more to being a rip-off than just a script and the script in this case likely consisted of nothing more than an outline. To me it seems like an Alien rip-off, though I suppose you could say (and there have been those who’ve said) that Alien itself borrowed from other films, like It! The Terror from Beyond Space and Planet of the Vampires. Eventually everything gets recycled.
*. Another likely source was Demon Seed, with the pregnancy angle playing out in a roughly similar fashion. In fact, the script was originally called Doomseeds and had to be changed because of the resemblance. Though here I think the connection is more generic, with both movies fitting into the then popular sub-genre of reproductive horror.

*. Of course what set Alien apart from everything that had come before were all of its iconic design elements, starting with Giger’s creature. This movie has none of that going for it, unless you consider the rape or impregnation scene to be an early instance of what would develop into the Japanese porn fetish for tentacle sex and alien breeding. Otherwise the women all look fantastically made up, the spacesuits are borrowed from the 1950s, the phones from the 1970s, and designer blue jeans are now the rage in space.
*. But does this add up to something so bad it’s good? Kim Newman is someone who enjoyed it: “Most of the rip-offs [of Alien] are dull, but Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1980) aspires to hectic lunacy by having its cast (which includes a heavy feminine complement — Stephanie Beacham, Jennifer Ashley, Victorian Tennant and Judy Geeson) rush around some offworld catacombs with the enthusiasm of a crowd of schoolkids with plastic bags over their heads playing spacemen.”
*. Surprisingly, some reviews, at least in the U.K., weren’t bad when it came out. But I think since then it has gone on to gain a bit of a cult status based on its sheer incompetence. I don’t find it laugh-out-loud awful, or the stuff of favourite-bad-moviedom, but I do get a kick out of most of it. It’s cheap and derivative and, like most movies that are so bad they’re funny, it tries to do too much and keeps falling on its face in embarrassing ways. I wouldn’t call it one of the best worst movies ever made, but it is bad enough to want to see a couple of times. I’m happy to report that over the years I think it’s been getting better. And yes, by that I mean worse.

The Final Conflict (1981)

*. It’s 1981 and Damien Thorn has been growing like a weed. Apparently he’s 32 years old, which is amazing since he was only 12 in 1978.
*. I don’t know if there’s any explanation for this chronology. The dates mentioned in the script are scrambled around a bit (they say at one point that Damien took over Thorn Industries in 1971, which was apparently seven years ago, but also that this is 1982). I’ll confess I may not have been paying attention.
*. That said, I felt I might have been missing a lot more than this. I kept getting the sense that stuff had been taken out of the final script, with no regard to any gaps that might have been left behind. There are matters raised that don’t seem to have any connection to the plot. What’s all the stuff about a brewing conflict between Israel and Egypt? That has nothing to do with Damien because he’s the Ambassador to the United Kingdom. And why does Damien want to be President of the United Nations Youth Council? What the hell is that anyway?

*. This is on top of all the usual questions one has watching a movie like this. If Damien, in Chicago, can get people in London to kill themselves by remote mental control, could he not have them do it in such bizarre and suspicious ways? And what is it he really wants?
*. Of course he wants to get rid of “the Nazarene”: the Second Coming which is, according to the star-watchers at the observatory, going to happen somewhere in England — something Damien already knows based on some dodgy etymology that has “England” deriving from “angels” (which isn’t true). But aside from all that, just what is Damien after?
*. In his long speech/prayer to his dad (that is, Old Nick) he says he wants to “save the world” from “a numbing eternity in the flaccid bosom of Christ” and his “grubby, mundane creed.” Apparently “there is only one hell: the leaden monotony of human existence!” So Damien is a Nietzschean? I can’t say I disagree with him up to this point. “Two thousand years have been enough! Show man instead the raptures of thy kingdom. Infuse in him the grandeur of melancholy, the divinity of loneliness, the purity of evil, the paradise of pain.” I don’t know about the last two items on the list, but the grandeur of melancholy and the divinity of loneliness don’t sound all that bad. Maybe not an “ecstasy,” but not terrible.
*. As a theology I think this passes muster, but it still leaves me wondering what Damien’s goal is aside from revenge. Though I suppose that’s enough, for him if not for me.

*. I don’t think this a good movie at all, or as successfully trashy as The Omen, but Sam Neill looks like he’s having a good time and it does have some funny parts. The monastic order of killers made me think of the assassins sent to kill Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther Strikes Again. The kills are a hoot, including one where a hapless monk is beagled to death (OK, fox hounds are slightly larger than beagles, but they’re just as cute). The slaughter of the innocents, where Damien plots to kill all the infant male babies in England out-Herods Herod, and should at least be unsettling, but I laughed at all of it. Especially the pair of Scouts wanting to do their good deed for the day.

*. “Are you familiar with the Book of Hebron?” “I don’t know anything about the Book of Hebron.” For some reason that exchange also made me laugh. Is there a Book of Hebron? I don’t know anything about it either.
*. Even the ending manages to go flying over the top, with Damien’s dying line (“Nazarene, you have won . . . nothing!“), addressed to the appearance of a heavenly angel that is apparently just there to watch over his demise, followed by not one but two gratuitous pull quotes from the Bible to send us home with.
*. So, as bad as it is, it isn’t as worthless as you might imagine for the third part of a silly, low-budget franchise. Of course it wasn’t going to be the end of things, but you’d have known that going in. They probably should have stopped though, given what was up next.

The Morning After (1986)

*. I wonder what they were thinking. The set-up sounds like a psychological thriller, but it plays like a screwball comedy. On the DVD commentary director Sidney Lumet repeatedly refers to it as a melodrama, which is a word I wouldn’t have thought of. But then, as I understand him, he means melodrama refers to a movie that is story-(as opposed to character-)driven and suspenseful. Which is broad enough to include this film.
*. Another word Lumet uses on the commentary track that I had trouble with comes when he calls Alex (Jane Fonda) a “failed” actress. This seems harsh. Her salad days are clearly behind her, and since she can’t get any work she’s taken to drink, but she had a career and she’s still remembered by some people. She’s not a failure but someone whose career is over, as are the careers of most actors when they hit middle age.
*. I couldn’t get into this one at all. It starts off with a strained premise, introducing what might be a distaff version of In a Lonely Place, but then seems to immediately lose interest in the murder mystery (which is no mystery at all) as it tries to turn itself into a romantic comedy. Or something. Neither plot makes any sense at all, and Los Angeles is presented as a kind of empty pastel wonderland, eschewing Californian noir for something that looks more like Miami. Fair enough — Los Angeles struck me the same way the one time I visited — but it’s weird.
*. I won’t bother pulling the script apart for all its improbabilities. The big problems became so much I started wondering about little things like why Alex would have six bottles of mayonnaise in her fridge. Are they all open? Why?
*. What hurts even more is that the ludicrous script is both far-fetched and obvious at the same time. A movie like this really needs a twist or two to keep us guessing. Raul Julia is great, as always, but is there anyone who has seen this movie who doesn’t know right from the first time he appears on screen that he’s the one behind everything? I mean, I still can’t imagine how he managed to pull it all off, but it’s clear that he’s responsible.
*. Bridges is cute, as always. Fonda got a lot of praise, and an Oscar nomination, for her performance but the most I can say for it is that she was brave. She was pushing 50 and she wasn’t afraid of playing an obviously older woman trying to keep up appearances. Though her body does look amazing and she flashes some amazing legs. Making all those exercise videos worked for her. Plus she may have had a body double in some scenes.
*. Not a movie I could recommend to anyone, though given the talent involved it’s not the complete disaster that it seems headed for being. In any event, it’s mostly forgotten today, which seems right.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

*. With Halloween 3: Season of the Witch John Carpenter and Debra Hill had tried to steer the franchise in a different direction, meaning away from cookie-cutter, slasher-killer sequels. That hadn’t worked, and when they were approached to do Halloween 4 Carpenter and co-writer Dennis Etchison had come up with an idea for Michael Myers being a sort of phantom presence in Haddonfield. Producer Moustapha Akkad was having none of that, insisting on the (drum roll) return of Michael Myers. Hill and Carpenter bailed, leaving Akkad to get what he wanted, which was a rehash of the first Halloween. Hence Halloween 4.
*. It’s a good thing Akkad was so undemanding. Because the Writers Guild was just about to go on strike Alan B. McElroy had to come up with a script, from concept to final draft, in eleven days. That didn’t leave a lot of room for originality. But originality was not the goal.
*. So Halloween 4 picks up ten years after the end of Halloween 2, with Michael reviving from a decade-long coma he was sent into as a result of being blown up and burned to a crisp at the end of that film. Upon awakening he decides to head back to Haddonfield to kill his niece, the daughter of the now deceased Laurie Strode.
*. If you’re a fan of this franchise you’ll realize that this doesn’t make sense, since Laurie Strode is very much alive in later movies. This is what I mean when I call the Halloween movies the most chaotic of all the horror franchises. The way these inconsistencies are explained is by way of “retconning,” a word I was previously unfamiliar with. It’s short for retroactive continuity, and refers to the adjustment of facts, or their flat contradiction, in movie sequels. I’m not sure such a term applies, or is necessary, in the case of the Halloween series, as there is no explanation attempted for any of the major discontinuities. They were just doing whatever they wanted.
*. There’s not much to say here, given that it’s just an attempt to do again what had already been done. Danielle Harris does a good turn as Michael’s niece. Some of the exterior photography is nice. I particularly like the scene where they discover the wrecked ambulance in the river. I also like the bait-and-switch where you think the man sitting in the chair with the shotgun will turn out to be the murdered deputy but it’s actually Michael.
*. Aside from this, it’s all pretty grim. Michael himself isn’t much of a presence (or “Shape,” as he’s affectionately known). He’s played by two different actors in a terrible mask that they tried desperately to make look like the one in the first film. This isn’t just trivia; it looks really bad.
*. Some carryovers are downright bizarre. Why does the sheriff’s sexy daughter refuse to put on some pants? Isn’t that weird? And again we have the bizarre house with doors that lock on the outside, so that everybody inside is trapped. What’s up with that?
*. I didn’t think there were any good kills. I think the girl being speared with a shotgun is considered the highlight, but the only interesting thing I found about that was Michael’s refusal to use a gun. Later he’ll take the shotgun he wrests from the useless boyfriend and casually toss it away. He likes to kill his victims the old-fashioned way.
*. It’s a movie that has its fans. Personally I didn’t find it nearly as interesting as Halloween 3, but the box office was back on track, proving Akkad right in his assumption that audiences just wanted more of the same. And that was just what they were going to get.

Psycho III (1986)

*. Call it reverse psychology. Because Psycho is such a great and revered movie, one is primed to dislike the sequels (and, even more, the remake). Add to that the degraded genre that slasher horror had become by the early ’80s and I think everyone came, and comes, to the Psycho follow-ups with very low expectations. So when Psycho II turned out to be not that bad it seemed all the more impressive.
*. I think the same thing goes for Psycho III. I know I wasn’t expecting it to be any good, especially after Psycho II had ended on such a frankly ridiculous note. But while it’s not great, it doesn’t totally discredit the original and is head and shoulders above most of the other horror trash at the time. By 1986 horror was really feeling played out. I’ve mentioned before how Hellraiser (1987) came as such a jolt coming when it did, erupting out of what had become a wasteland.
*. In not being just another ’80s slasher film I don’t want to go too far in praising Psycho III though. There are real characters, like Norman and a weird ex-nun played by Diana Scarwid, but there’s also some very gratuitous nudity, with Norman’s victims often linked to sexual activity. That much is pretty standard. As are the kills. You can tell they wanted to try to do something different, like killing the girl in the phone booth, but none of it is presented in a very interesting way.
*. Despite the opening scene being a strained homage to Vertigo, there’s little of the spirit of Hitchcock here. Just one bit of gruesome humour relating to an ice chest. This was the first time behind the camera for Anthony Perkins, and he does well enough. It would be too much to expect him to have any sort of personal style though, and he doesn’t. Nor does he do a very good job building suspense. Gene Siskel thought the film “just sort of laid there for me,” and it did for me too.
*. It does at least aim for continuity with the previous instalments. The classic lines get recycled. Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies. We all go a little mad sometimes. Some camera tricks are repeated. Norman has his bag of candy corn back. The copy of The Belly of the Beast, which Meg Tilly was reading in Psycho II, is still lying around.
*. I like how Duke thinks a “five-figure salary” is a really big deal. In 1986!
*. But aside from it being better than slasher average for the time, I really didn’t like this one very much. They try to clean up the mess made of Norman’s parentage from the previous film but only end up with something even more ridiculous. And the whole subplot with Maureen Coyle as the ex-nun who mistakes Norman dressed up as his mother for the Virgin Mary, before later falling in love with him, was just too much. Was there any need to introduce such silliness?
*. Perkins is good, as usual. He’s comfortable playing the part of someone who isn’t comfortable in his own skin. But more than that, Norman isn’t comfortable in the ’80s, and neither is the movie. Even the homages seem weird and out of place, like dinosaur bones turned up in the excavation for a drive-through. The movies, like the highway, had by this time passed the Bates Motel by (though it would later appear on cable). That’s not to say movies were getting better, just that they were moving at a different speed and heading in another direction.