Category Archives: 1980s

Dawn of the Mummy (1981)

*. The Mummy genre meets gore. Or: The Mummy genre goes full zombie. Or: The Mummy genre as Eurotrash. Or: The Mummy circa. 1981. Or all of the above.
*. If nothing else at least it’s an eclectic mix. And I don’t think it’s anything else. The individual elements are all familiar and none of them particularly well done. Once the army of the dead start rising out of the desert sand we might be in any bargain-basement sub-Fulci movie, like Oasis of the Zombies (1982) to take an obvious comparison. This is not good company to be in.
*. It’s the sheer dreariness of these movies that gets to me. The muddy photography and colour. The use of crude camera work to inject some sense of urgency into the proceedings. Because really all we have here are some stiff zombies lurching about and falling on top of people. Then there’s the obligatory zombie feast, where the undead always look bored to tears while they’re stuffing their faces.
*. There are a few noteworthy points. It was shot in Egypt by an Egyptian director, which may have been a first for a mummy movie. The dummy heads used for the decaptations and the cleaver-in-the-brain scene are actually pretty good. And there’s one glorious bit of overacting when the head graverobber starts screaming for Sefirama and then finds the doorway to the treasure chamber, unleashing an orgasmic ecstasy of gold.
*. Aside from that it’s pretty dull, despite all of the different plot elements they threw into the mix. A gang of scruffy tomb raiders meeting up with a bevy of American models doing a photo shoot in the Egyptian desert discover a cursed burial site? Flesh-eating mummies? This should have been a lot more fun.
*. Of course there was no budget and no talent involved. Still, there’s nothing here that boosts this one out of the ghetto.

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Deathtrap (1982)

*. In my notes on Sleuth, a film that Deathtrap derives at least in part from, I mentioned how the genre of the country estate murder mystery was both historically bound and for all time. As a result, it’s a play (and a film) that hasn’t dated.
*. Deathtrap is slightly less successful in this regard. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “Deathtrap is not a great film and will not live forever.” I’d concur with both points, though it has managed to hang around longer than I think he might have suspected.
*. There are elements that stand out as dated. The theatrical poster, for example, has the cast popping out of a Rubik’s Cube. We’ll grant them a pass on that, however, as the same conceit was used on the poster for The Cabin in the Woods (2012), where I thought it was kind of witty. Things that haven’t aged as well include Clifford’s boots (which are, alas, mentioned in the script several time) and references to the Merv Griffin Show. I wonder how many people today even know who Merv Griffin was, despite all of his success in creating game shows. Along with most of the other wisecracks from the play, the references to Griffin’s show don’t even bring a smile.

*. Then there is the fact that the two leads — Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve — play a gay couple. This was pretty daring for 1982, and their on-screen kiss even more so (a kiss that isn’t in the play). It was also a big risk for Reeve, who was best (or really only) known as Superman up till then. And here he’s not only gay but a sociopath as well!
*. I wonder how much the gay subplot confused audiences at the time. I mean, it would be clear to most people that Sidney staged the murder of Clifford, but to what end? I think that’s a twist that might have surprised people in 1982, though it doesn’t now.
*. This brings me to the biggest difference between now and then. Today we’re used to complicated plots like this, and movies with several surprise twists. As a result, Deathtrap just doesn’t seem sophisticated or complicated enough. I think modern audiences have an easy time staying on top of it and there really aren’t any big surprises. Even the murder of Myra is no big shocker, being taken directly from Les Diaboliques. I was actually thinking she was going to be coming back at some point.
*. So is it still enjoyable? Not so much. For me, with every twist it became not only more improbable but far less interesting. More than that, however, is that nobody seems to be having any fun. Compare Olivier and Caine in Sleuth, where the two characters they play are obviously both enjoying themselves immensely as they put on a show for one another.
*. Pauline Kael: “What this comes down to is a broad, obvious movie that looks like an ugly play and appears to be a vile vision of life. . . . the actors don’t disgrace themselves. But their skill gives no one pleasure.” No one involved, and few people watching.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

*. This movie is sometimes said to be the one where the franchise got back to its roots, meaning it brought Jason literally back from the dead instead of pursuing the possibility of copycat killers. In fact, I find it an even bigger deviation from formula than the previous film, which was (supposedly) A New Beginning.
*. A bigger deviation and a much worse movie. Apparently, however, it enjoys a respectable reputation, with many critics considering it the best film in the series. It is also credited for having influenced the Scream franchise with its self-referential humour. I think this is way overstated and there is nothing remotely clever, witty, or funny about the script at all. I also think this is one of the worst Friday the 13ths.

*. But back to what’s different. In the first place Jason himself is now a supernatural force that cannot be killed by any means. Second: gone is the sleaze and moralizing. There are no tits in this film (the only film in the series, including the reboot, with no nudity), only one scene of casual sex (with the partners partially clothed), and no drug use. So the victims aren’t being killed because they’re bad but just because they’re in Jason’s way.
*. There’s an interesting point on the DVD commentary where writer-director Tom McLoughlin says that one of his big influences was Frank Capra because he wanted the audience to like the characters so that we would care about them when they were in danger. This is very different from what’s standard in these dead teenager movies where you hate the idiots so much you want them to die. In the end I think McLoughlin fell into the middle. I didn’t hate the victims in this movie but I didn’t like or care about them either.
*. Then there is the humour. McLoughlin wanted to make a funny movie and was told he could do so as long as he didn’t make fun of Jason. The results don’t strike me as being funny at all, in large part because there’s nothing scary going on either. For horror-comedy to work I’ve always felt that there has to be a certain amount of real tension or suspense as well, to highlight the humour and have it come as more of a relief. But here absolutely nothing works.
*. I’m not even sure McLoughlin stuck to the rule of not making fun of Jason. The opening credits are introduced by way of a silly nod to the Bond gun-barrel iris and later the deathless one has a paintball pistol fired at him. So he’s set up as at least a semi-comic figure.

*. So: more jokes and no boobs. And very little gore to go with it. Some of this was due to the MPAA still being on the warpath, but based on the deleted scenes included with the DVD I don’t think there was that much splatter in the first place. Audiences were spared the heads hitting the ground in the triple decapitation scene but that’s about it.
*. This is not to say there weren’t a lot of cuts, and additions. The sense I had was that the movie was made in a very slapdash manner. They even had to add one set of kills after the rest of the film was shot because there weren’t enough (according to the commentary, despite the tight budget “there was always money for a new kill”). Also the character of the caretaker at the graveyard was supposed to play a bigger role and not be killed (introducing us at the end to Jason’s father). Though I haven’t heard it discussed, I thought it strange that the deputy is safely locked away from Jason and his pistol with the laser scope is never actually utilized. That seems as though something else was dropped from the script at some point, though McCloughlin says on the commentary that he never thought of putting the red dot on Jason.
*. One of the problems with trying to be funny is that you lose all those magical moments where the movie isn’t trying to be funny but you still have to laugh. These make up a number of the most memorable scenes in this franchise. As, for example, when the two characters sing “Baby, Baby” to each other through the outhouse walls in A New Beginning. There are no moments like that in Jason Lives because all the laughs are written as gags, which means they’re not as funny.
*. I can understand some people liking this one, but I think what they like about it are things that make it different from a traditional Friday the Thirteenth movie. Some of the changes I didn’t mind (the lack of nudity, for example), but turning Jason into an immortal demon from hell, while perhaps inevitable, was a leap into stupidity I’ve never approved of. And as I say, the jokes all fall flat.
*. So while I give them credit for trying to do something different, at the end of the day this one just isn’t scary or funny or even that interesting. It was, however, the shape of things to come.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)

*. Actually not bad, as far as these things go.
*. I wasn’t bored. This despite the fact that Part 5 (as it is sometimes numbered, though this is not how its title appears on screen) is one of the most conventional and thus predictable entries in the series, right down to the stupid jump scare at the end. Plus the gore looks like it was done on the cheap throughout. (Though, in the film’s defence, some of the better kills had to be cut for being too violent. During the DVD commentary director Danny Steinman even remarks at one point “I’m looking at these kills and they are not good.” He’s right. They aren’t.)
*. Still, for some reason I kept watching and wasn’t distracted.
*. Maybe it was just the sheer number of bodies piling up. I believe there are over 20 kills in this instalment. According to Steinmann he was under a directive to give a scare, a jump, or a kill (“preferably a kill”) every seven or eight minutes. That keeps things moving along.
*. Another thing that kept me watching was the plot. Not because the plot is very interesting or original, but . . . it’s a Friday the 13th film with a plot! Meaning they actually try to set up a bit of a mystery as to the killer’s identity. Which in itself is remarkable as I think this is the one movie in the series where the killer in the hockey mask (a slightly different hockey mask, purists will note) is not Jason Voorhees.
*. Perhaps it was just the mix of old and new then. There are all the old, familiar touchstones like the jump scares with animals, the running through the woods in the rain, the discovery of the bodies, and Jason rising from the dead, but there’s also the Tommy Jarvis “is he or isn’t he?” angle.

*. Roger Ebert thought it “more recycled leftover garbage from the last time around” and didn’t see anything that set this movie apart from the first four but I think this is unappreciative of what was a real effort to reboot the series and take it in a slightly different direction. It didn’t work, as the Tommy Jarvis experiment turned into a damp squib, but in a way this movie did reset things and took the franchise in a new direction because in digging Jason back up again in the next film they had to fully enter the world of the supernatural.
*. According to “horror guru” Michael Felsher, interviewed for the “making of” featurette, A New Beginning has the worst reputation of any of the sequels. That’s a judgment he rejects, calling this “a very underrated movie.” This made me wonder how he ranks them. I mean, there does have to be a worst.
*. It had a weird launch. The series had attained a bad reputation and so it was cast under the fake (but nevertheless apt) title Repetition. The actors were unaware that it was going to be another Friday the 13th movie. Meanwhile, the director Danny Steinmann came from a background in exploitation work that censors had a lot of problems with. This is a track record he would continue with A New Beginning, which would be his last film. The MPAA wanted a lot of cuts to give this an R rating.
*. Steinmann had thought he was shooting a porno in the woods what with all the nude scenes he had included. I think that reveals a certain bent in his imagination. I mean, these movies always include some gratuitous nudity, but this one goes a bit further in that regard.
*. I’d be more censorious, but the fact is Deborah Voorhees looks sensational in her brief forest idyll. And how weird is it that she has the same last name as Jason?

*. Why is it that the killer is wearing a mask underneath his mask? Does that make sense? I don’t recall that ever being explained.
*. A final bit of weirdness: Why are the kids watching A Place in the Sun? There’s little thematic relevance I can see and it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing either of them would be into. I thought it telling that none of the four participants on the DVD commentary even knew the name of the movie until one of them looked it up.
*. Gene Siskel didn’t understand why this movie went in for skewering so much. I don’t think there’s any skewering except for the death of Demon. What I did note was how drug use had supplanted casual sex as the chief catalyst for death. For all their sex and violence, these movies were actually quite moralistic.
*. I can’t remember having seen this one before. I think I probably did see it a quarter-century ago but on this most recent viewing I seem to have forgotten it completely. Certainly the absurd plot twist at the end where the identity of the killer and his motivation is revealed took me by surprise. I was sure, however, that I’d seen the outhouse murder. Some things stick in your head. But why didn’t I remember the girl dancing the robot? She’s very good.
*. So there you have it. An oddity in the franchise that opened up several doors that had nothing behind them. Ironically for a new beginning, it was mainly a dead end. Jason, however, was going to prove to be eternal.

Cat People (1982)

*. OK, I think there’s really only one question that Paul Schrader’s Cat People poses today: Why don’t we laugh at it?
*. I mean, in the first place it’s really silly. It expands on the Val Lewton classic by adding a bunch of mumbo-jumbo about leopards breeding with humans in ancient times, and then throws in a kinky incest angle as well. It has Malcolm McDowell looking buggy. It has lurid lighting. It has a Giorgio Moroder score.
*. It should play like camp today. And assisting the camp view is something that Kim Newman points out: it’s in earnest. This is one of the essential features of camp, that it doesn’t realize how silly it is. As Newman observes, “Paul Schrader’s Cat People is one of the few totally serious horror films of the 1980s. The Howling and An American Werewolf [which both came out a year earlier] incorporate enough deliberate comedy to take care of the more ridiculous, but necessary, sides of their movies, but Cat People is almost solemn.”

*. Newman makes another point that I think is worth noting. Schrader adds several obligatory nods to the 1942 film but they’re done so quickly and are introduced so apparently at random that they don’t register except as dismissive gestures. The woman who calls Irina “sister” in the bar just appears and disappears, the bus turns into a streetcar and comes out of nowhere, not as the culmination of a scary walk, and the pool scene doesn’t make any sense at all (as Newman notes, Irina has not yet turned into a cat).
*. I take it from this that Schrader wasn’t actually that interested in Lewton’s movie. Apparently he even regretted using the title because it made people think of it. In fact, I’d go further and say he doesn’t seem to have been that interested in the horror genre. There are plenty of opportunities to build up creepy suspense sequences but they aren’t followed up on. I think this is what Pauline Kael meant when she said she found it “confusingly put together”: “Just when a scene begins to hold some interest, Schrader cuts away from it; the crucial things seem to be happening between the scenes.”
*. Did they even need to do the transformation scenes? Probably, after audiences had seen what could be done with werewolves. But it’s one part I actually wish they’d left out. All we get are bits and pieces anyway, and they don’t look good.
*. And yet despite all this not only do I not laugh at Cat People, I actually kind of like it. I think there are two main reasons for this.

*. The first is Nastassja (billed as Nastassia) Kinski. I said I didn’t think Schrader was that interested in Lewton’s movie, or making a horror movie at all. What he was interested in was Kinski, who apparently he was involved with during the shooting.
*. David Thomson: “There was a moment, in the early eighties, when Kinski was the rage, a sensation . . . the most beautiful girl in the world. Her greatest interest may be in pioneering the new brevity of such rages.”
*. New brevity? “It” girls have always had a short shelf life with the fickle public. Personally I don’t think Kinski was the most beautiful girl in the world, but she is easy to look at. And she moves well in the nude. That’s not as easy to do as you may think. She really sells being natural au naturel. I suspect that this is what Roger Ebert was noticing when he said “Kinski is something. She never overacts in this movie, never steps wrong, never seems ridiculous; she just steps onscreen and convincingly underplays a leopard.” Note that repetition, maybe unconscious, of “step.” Maybe it’s the modeling background but Kinski can do the catwalk. Not deliberately sexy, but appearing to be unconsciously so.

*. I’m not sure if she’s in the running for one of those “great performance in a terrible movie” awards, but the fact is she’s so good on her own that she takes Cat People all by herself up from being a bad movie to one worth watching several times. With no help at all from the script she projects innocence, seduction, danger, and pathos. And, of course, heat. Even Oliver can’t help minding the gap between the top of her waders and those booty shorts she’s wearing.
*. To give her performance the full credit it deserves, what other actress could have held her own and then some against a creepy/manic/horny Malcolm McDowell? And yet in their scenes together who do you find yourself watching?

*. The other thing I like about Cat People is the ending. It’s unexpected and surprisingly downbeat. Irena decides she wants to be among her own kind, but that makes no sense to me because (1) she is, presumably, the last of her kind; and (2) ending up in a private cage in the zoo isn’t exactly being among her own kind, even if there are other big cats in her immediate neighbourhood.
*. There’s another whiff of kink in her being bound spread-eagle to the bed, but then nothing much is done with the concept. One thinks again of Kael’s complaint that just when things seem about to get interesting Schrader cuts away. But then Oliver (John Heard) doesn’t seem like a very passionate guy. I wonder if he actually likes Irena more as a panther.
*. Then there’s the zoo itself that Irena ends up in. Zoos are bad enough places most of the time, but the New Orleans Zoo here (which was actually a set built on Universal’s back lot) really looks depressing. So much for creating a liveable habitat for the animals. They’re just cages with cement floors. It makes the ending grim indeed.
*. So I don’t laugh at Cat People. It should play as campy as hell today but then you see Nastassja Kinski’s sculpted buttocks rolling through the bayou and you kind of buy into the whole idea of the love cats of antiquity still walking the earth. And feel a bit sad for their passing.

The Big Chill (1983)

*. I had thought this film mostly forgotten by now. Where it was still remembered, I didn’t think many people took it seriously. But then, even when it came out I remember thinking of it as a bit of a joke. Was I wrong?
*. Well, it did get a Criterion release, if that means anything. And they include an essay by Lena Dunham where she seems to find some deeper meaning in it. Apparently “These are your parents.” Or at least her parents. Her essay seems mostly to be about herself, so perhaps there’s some inherited self-absorption going on. But in any event she takes the movie straight.
*. I think that’s more and more of a mistake. In hindsight The Big Chill strikes me as being high camp, and as the years go by it’s getting campier all the time.
*. What I mean is that this is not a bad movie in the sense of being dull or incompetent. In many regards it’s quite well done and entertaining: a polished production with an excellent cast. But it is also a joke.
*. This is going a bit further than contemporary reviewers did. They found it slick but empty. Pauline Kael (who, on balance, liked it): “The picture offers the pleasures of the synthetic. It’s overcontrolled, it’s shallow, it’s a series of contrivances. And whenever Kasdan tries for depth the result is phony.”
*. Or, Roger Ebert, saying something rather similar: “The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”
*. Of course that is part of the message, with the final line being Michael’s declaration that the group is never going to leave the comfort of their well-appointed womb. So, literally, it is a movie that doesn’t lead anywhere. It has no politics at all and the psychologizing is canned (the impotent Vietnam vet, the repressed housewife, etc.) In short, I think Ebert and Kael are right that this is a glossy film without any depth. Though it does try for depth. And that’s where it gets funny.

*. You could compare it to other movies concerned with defining a generation. Slacker, maybe. Or you could compare it to John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus 7, which writer-director Lawrence Kasdan says he had not seen. But when I was watching it this most recent time the movie I couldn’t get out of my head was Valley of the Dolls.
*. Both films are camp soap operas. They earnestly look to deal with Very Serious Matters but they are kitschy and absurd. In both films we have no sense of watching adults dealing with real problems. Instead, this is what a precocious pre-teen imagines being an adult is like. The angst. The ennui. The pills. The sex.
*. Laughs? I mean, unintended ones. There are more of these than there were scripted gags. How can you watch the scene with Sam and Karen on the boardwalk and not be grinning ear-to-ear? Give it another few years and I think we’ll all be laughing right through it. Or when John Hurt’s Nick says, in the perfect pissy voice, that “it’s only outside here, in the world, that it gets tough!” That’s a closer.

*. And it’s not just funny. It’s creepy too. It’s like all of Karl Marx’s and D. H. Lawrence’s worst fantasies about the beastliness of the bourgeoisie have been realized in a single weekend of frantic bed-hopping, with wounded men being pursued by mature professional women in heat. The climax of all this is the seeding of poor childless Meg, which we know was successful because we see her watching the virile Kevin Kline going out for his morning jog while she reclines on her pillows with a well-serviced smile of satisfaction. Oh my.
*. Of course it’s the essence of camp that it take itself seriously and the fact that Kasdan and co-writer Barbara Benedek really felt this loss of ’60s innocence and the warm atmosphere of college, with the subsequent big chill of entering into a colder “real” world, is what pushes the film into the realm of a camp classic.
*. Apparently all the actresses thought the breeding arrangement was ridiculous, insane, and unimaginable, but Kasdan found it “benign” and couldn’t understand why people thought it exceptional. Another example of his innocence leading to unintended hilarity.

*. In our own time we’ve come to hate this generation, and not without some reason. They are seen as the sell-outs who just coasted through life, enjoying the sunny days of America’s postwar golden-age economy while whining about their own loss of ideals. The fact that the friends here have achieved such a fantastic level of success only makes their complaining more ridiculous. A bunch of Michigan classmates have become the owner of a chain of shoe stores, a big-shot lawyer, the star of a hit television series, a writer for a national magazine (back when that was a good job), a syndicated radio host, a doctor . . . and we’re supposed to feel these people’s pain as they try to adjust to the cold cruel world of adult reality? Or because their lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted? That they didn’t, as the song has it, get what they want?

*. It’s very theatrical. Very talky, in a way where the lines are all clipped and meant to be significant (Ebert: “The dialogue sounds like a series of bittersweet captions from New Yorker cartoons”). The characters are quickly identifiable as types, which is to say unrealistic caricatures. Jeff Goldblum’s Mike is the worst, being so obnoxious and awkward it’s hard to understand how the other, more successful yuppies stand him.
*. So it’s all very silly and superficial and campy, which makes it fun in a so-awful-it’s-kind-of-good sort of way. If it stands for anything today I see it as representing the final turning away from the spirit of the independent American filmmaking of the 1970s. I thought it interesting that Criterion included an interview with Kasdan where he talks about his preference for working within the studio system. He makes several good points about the quality of the talent on both sides of the camera that he had to work with. One is able to do more with greater resources.
*. That said, so much has been lost. There’s no comparing the depth of a film like Five Easy Pieces to the silliness here. Even in its sincerity there is something so almost painfully immature about this movie and it’s resolution not to grow up. An indictment of its generation, or a touching elegy? I’m sure the aim was for the latter, but you don’t always get what you want.

Prince of Darkness (1987)

*. I’ve heard that John Carpenter considers Prince of Darkness to be the middle part of something called the Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing and ended with In the Mouth of Madness. I see little connection between the three films aside from his usual preoccupations as a filmmaker. I guess each movie deals with a threat to the planet or civilization as we know it, but that’s kind of broad.
*. On the DVD commentary he makes a more interesting statement, saying his movies tend to fall into two types: journey or siege. He calls Prince of Darkness a siege picture, which it is. We see various people and groups of people barricaded in different rooms in the old church. But while there’s something in this here I’m not sure it works out that well for the rest of his filmography. Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog are obviously sieges. Escape from New York and Starman are obviously journeys. Aside from that, things get murky. I mean, I guess Halloween is a kind of siege, but They Live? Village of the Damned?
*. Instead of looking to labels like this, I’d identify Prince of Darkness as a Ghostbusters thriller. What I mean by this is the kind of film where a team of specialists with a science background are called in to investigate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. Kim Newman traces the genre back to the 1972 BBC production The Stone Tape, which is as good a place as any to start. The Haunting is definitely a precursor, though it has less high-tech equipment. PoltergeistThe Entity, and Ghostbusters are other notable examples. Prince of Darkness is very much the same kind of thing, with the team of grad students in various disciplines unloading crates of equipment to study spooky goings-on in an abandoned church in L.A.
*. The Stone Tape was written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale also created Professor Quatermass, who was the main character in a number of Ghostbuster movies. Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Prince of Darkness but adopted the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass in the credits. So you see how this all comes around.
*. I might add here that Kneale was not impressed by this homage. He later wrote: “For the record I have had nothing to do with the film and I have not seen it. It sounds pretty bad. With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults? I can only imagine that it is a whimsical riposte for my having my name removed from a film I wrote a few years ago [a reference to Halloween III for which Kneale wrote an early draft] and which Mr. Carpenter carpentered into sawdust”. That’s pretty cold.
*. In most Ghostbuster stories science comes up short. I guess the point is to show us that there are some riddles science can’t solve, more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in its cold philosophy. As the computer message from the pit tells us here, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.” At least, I think that’s a dig at nerds.
*. In Prince of Darkness the inefficacy of science seems even more pronounced than usual, in part because it’s built up so much. There’s a lot of talk about the vagaries and uncertainties of quantum physics, and a ton of lab equipment brought to the church, but for all the talk and computer screens filled with scrolling code none of it means a thing. It has no relation at all to the green goop in the basement and never comes in to play. On the commentary Carpenter dismisses the science talk as basically mumbo-jumbo, which it is. Why bring all these brainiacs in when nothing in their areas of expertise is of any use? Even the expert on ancient languages isn’t able to add anything of value. The idea that the future (1999!) is communicating to our dreaming minds via tachyons is kind of funny though.
*. “I had the dream too. This image that didn’t seem to belong to my subconscious.” Hm. But how would you know an image didn’t belong to your subconscious? What qualities would it have that would make it seem that way?
*. It’s a very set-bound production, which makes me wonder why Carpenter keeps sticking to shooting in widescreen. He always talks about how much he loves widescreen, but surely some projects and some material is better suited for such a format than others. It doesn’t seem to work very well here.
*. Another one of Carpenter’s predilections is for the small group of people who have to team up to face a conflict together (this is basically something he borrowed from Howard Hawks). The only problem with it here is that our attention gets divided among a bunch of different threads, without any of them seeming to be of much importance.

*. Given the track record of rock stars appearing on screen, Alice Cooper wisely limits his role here to that of a speechless presence. His one big scene, the “grotesque gag” (Carpenter) of the bicycle murder, was taken directly from one of his stage shows.
*. The gore is limited and the special effects mainly consist of flipping the camera so that water drips upward and showing hands passing through pools of mercury. That’s not much. I did like the idea of the possessed vomiting streams of unholy water into their victims’ mouths. I wonder if that’s something they consciously adopted in 28 Days Later for the spread of the virus.
*. As in almost any film involving the devil or demonic possession, at least going back to The Exorcist, we’re left a bit unimpressed at the devil’s powers and ambition. Roger Ebert: “Let’s face it. When a movie promises us the Prince of Darkness, we expect more than a green thing in a tube that sprays fluids into people’s mouths, turning them into zombies who stand around for most of the movie looking like they can’t remember which bus to take. When we’re threatened with Armageddon, we expect more than people hitting each other over the head with two-by-fours.”
*. Why does the black guy go all goofy when he’s possessed, instead of turning into a zombie? Do I want to know?
*. Is it even worth asking what’s going on with Kelly? At first when I saw her swollen belly I assumed she was pregnant with Satan’s demon love child. But I guess that was just fluid that hadn’t been absorbed yet. Then her face breaks out in bloody sores and she seeks to draw her “father” over from the Other Side. But how is she different from any of the other zombies?
*. I don’t think Carpenter is that interested in questions like these. Or in what happens to Catherine at the end. Is she one of the devils now? Or on the side of the angels?
*. John Carpenter is a hard case for me. He’s directed a number of very good, seminal films, and at least one classic (The Thing). He’s also shown a real knack for re-imagining tired genres in interesting ways. But he’s also done a lot of work that just seems perfunctory. I think Prince of Darkness falls into the latter camp. The idea, which is pedestrian to begin with, is left unexplained and undeveloped. There are no great scares or suspense sequences. It’s basically a low-rent apocalypse, with homeless people instead of zombies but without any interest in the kind of social commentary that fascinated Romero. What we’re left with is minor Carpenter, which is a big step down from his best.

Ghostbusters (1984)

*. What a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Ghostbusters this time around. I saw it, along with everyone else, when it first came out, and of course I loved it then. But I hadn’t seen it in a long time, maybe twenty years, and I figured it would have dated badly.
*. Not so. The dry humour of Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis holds up really well. I mean, it’s been Murray’s signature his entire career, and it’s never gone out of style. Sigourney Weaver is so obviously having a great time, even when she’s possessed by the demon Zuul, that you enjoy every scene she’s in. The special effects aren’t bad for the pre-CGI era. Hell, I was even singing along to Ray Parker, Jr.’s theme song, a bit of call-and-response ear candy that was patterned after an advertising jingle and that I don’t think anyone ever forgets.

*. The supporting company is great too. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, and William Atherton (as the “dickless” dick) are perfectly cast. Ernie Hudson? He’s good, but you do have to wonder what he’s doing here. I like him as an actor and think he plays well, but the part seems so unnecessary.
*. On the commentary it’s said that Winston is the necessary everyman figure who the others can explain necessary plot points to, but really this only occurs in the one scene where they detail the working of the ghost trap in the basement, and they could have just as easily done that with Annie Potts. The rest of the time he seems like a fifth wheel. In a 2015 article for Entertainment Weekly, Hudson himself wrote: “I love the character and he’s got some great lines, but I felt the guy was just kind of there.”
*. Apparently the Winston Zeddmore part was supposed to be bigger because it was originally written for Eddie Murphy. When Murphy turned the role down it remained as a sort of vestigial tail to the script. Oh well. Apparently much of the script was improvised anyway, so you win some and lose others.
*. On the DVD commentary track Harold Ramis denies that there was any double meaning to the “crossing the streams” business. I don’t believe him for a minute, but part of what makes the movie so enjoyable is that the sexual angle is so deftly dealt with. There’s lots of that going on, but it’s never bawdy, and plausible deniability is maintained. That device Venkman brings with him on his first visit to Dana’s apartment? The post-coital positioning of Weaver and Moranis after the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster finally hook up? Those aren’t laughs, but they’re big smiles.

*. I think the funniest line is Stantz telling Venkman: “You never studied.” Such deadpan condescension, with just the faintest hint of wry amusement. But it makes me wonder what exactly it is that Dr. Venkman hasn’t studied. Aren’t they all experts in the paranormal?
*. It’s interesting that just a couple of years earlier The Entity had also introduced a ghost-busting unit that worked out of a university, but in that movie they played it straight. The genre of films where science is used to investigate the supernatural would go on to have a long life, but it was rarely the subject of comedy. Why not? It seems a natural fit.
*. What such a line as “You never studied” also serves to underscore is that it’s the little things here that are the funniest. Roger Ebert made a good point in his review of the film by mentioning how it upsets the general rule “that the more you spend, the fewer laughs you get.” In some ways it’s sort of like today’s Marvel Universe films, where a wisecracking, smartass superhero (Ant-Man or Deadpool) tear off one-liners in the face of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of CGI. Even the climax here, with the team assembled to shut down a portal from another dimension threatening to destroy NYC, is very Marvel-ish. And yet somehow it works.
*. Well, you can overanalyze comedy. I’ve never found Ghostbusters to be hysterically funny, but it was charming thirty-five years ago and it’s still charming today. Charming, I would add, without depending on nostalgia. Though I do miss the cards we see exploding from the drawers of the catalogue file at the library. Libraries used to be such magical places, you could believe a ghost was haunting the stacks. Now such spirits are almost as rare as books.

The Entity (1982)

*. Poor Barbara Hershey. She could’ve been, should’ve been a legendary scream queen. Black Christmas, where Hershey played the last girl, came out before Halloween, and was a very good movie in its own right, but it didn’t have anything like the same impact. Then this movie came out the same year as Poltergeist, and is a much better movie, but it fell into eclipse too.
*. Sure, horror afficionados today will talk your ear off about how good Black Christmas and The Entity are, but at the time both pretty much disappeared, and Barbara Hershey went on to other things. But then, even though she’s very good in both movies, maybe she didn’t want to be a scream queen. I can’t say, but I did think it was nice to see her back in a somewhat similar role in Insidious nearly thirty years later.
*. The story of The Entity is based on “actual events” (Carla Moran was a woman named Doris Bither). Well, so was The Amityville Horror. What I find interesting, and something I mentioned in my notes on The Amityville Horror, is the way the DVDs for these movies are packaged with bonus features that treat the subject matter as absolutely authentic. In the case of The Entity it’s a featurette called “The Entity Files.” I’m not sure why this genre gets this kind of treatment. I mean, I like The Entity but I don’t believe in any of it for a second.
*. Billy does look a little old to be Carla’s son, not to mention a bit too tough to be threatened by a ghost. In fact, David Labiosa was thirteen years younger than Hershey, and the film does say that Cara had Billy when she was just a kid so . . . I guess it’s OK.
*. Sidney J. Furie wasn’t looking to re-invent the wheel. He really loves him some Dutch tilts. He uses lighting to cast ghoulish shadows on faces, even when you can’t explain them. And then there’s that banging/clanging score. Effective? Annoying? Cheap? All of the above? I like it.
*. The Rube Goldberg-MouseTrap device at the end is ridiculous. Up till then the movie was doing so well making a virtue out of its cheap budget by not showing the creature and getting by on familiar low-budget horror-film techniques. Then the campus Ghostbusters build an entire house in a gymnasium to capture the entity? How would that work? Why would the entity only attack Carla in an exact replica of her home? Why would a spiritual entity freeze when doused in liquid hydrogen?
*. Still, as sketchy as the science is you do have to give this some credit as one of the earlier science vs. the paranormal films. There had been ghost hunters before, but after this film and Poltergeist it would really become a genre.
*. It’s an oddly anticlimactic end. The giant exploding iceberg looks silly, and then Carla just drives away. But we are told the entity still haunts her. So?
*. I do like the conference room full of doctors puffing away on their cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Was that the way things (still) were in hospitals in 1982? I don’t remember.
*. A feminist film? I would say so. Carla is a hard-working single mom threatened by sexual domestic violence. The men she looks to for help are useless. Dr. Sneiderman thinks she’s a hysteric and her lover Jerry is even worse: a lecherous older man who turns into a blubbering coward when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, Carla’s saviour is another woman: Dr. Cooley, who runs the parapsychology lab the medical old boys club want to shut down. Finally, Carla faces her antagonist at the end and, while admitting it may be able to rape her it will never “have” her. It’s a moment that could have been ridiculous, but Hershey sells it and makes it into something powerful.
*. Though it has its fans, I get the sense this is a movie that most people still don’t know. Personally, I think it’s a pleasant surprise. It’s not great, but if you haven’t seen it, it will probably beat the hell out of your expectations.

Gremlins (1984)

*. One of the things that makes this blog interesting (for me at least) is revisiting movies I haven’t seen in twenty or even thirty years and seeing how well they’ve held up. That’s the case again with Gremlins, which I remember catching when it came out but which I don’t think I’ve seen since. So call it thirty-five years.
*. I remembered the basic premise, or at least the part about not getting the mogwais wet because if you do they start reproducing like tribbles and turning into nasty little lizards. The basic iconography of good and evil: furry and big eyes = cute; scaly and narrow-eyed = vermin. Even at the time there were critics who saw something racial in this, since the gremlins are associated with several black stereotypes and enter the nearly all-white Kingston Falls by way of Chinatown.
*. Just sticking with that point for a second, I’ll register here how much I dislike the appearance of the mogwai Gizmo. With his furry cuteness he reminds me far too much of the ewoks in Return of the Jedi, which had just come out the year before. It’s a creature that looks like it was designed for the toy shelves.
*. The only other parts I had any recollection of were the scenes of the gremlins tearing around town raising hell. Of course, it had been a long time and I have a poor memory. But more than that, there really isn’t anything else here going on.
*. It’s a remarkably casual script. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the kind of movie it is: a bit of whimsy that isn’t meant to add up.
*. None of the characters aside from Billy are that important. It seems as though Mrs. Deagle is going to play a major role in the proceedings but her defenestration comes quick and early. Dick Miller’s Mr. Futterman looks like he should be fun, but again is quickly disposed of. I don’t know what the point was of introducing us to Judge Reinhold’s assistant bank manager. As Joe Dante says on the commentary, his character “just sort of goes away.” And we might say the same of Corey Feldman.
*. In the deleted scenes included with the DVD we get some more information, but it’s just as disposable. Mrs. Deagle was buying up the homes of distressed citizens in order to build some sort of toxic chemical facility, but what of it? There was no point keeping this discovery. More interesting was what Dante has to say about the deleted scene where Reinhold is discovered locked in the bank’s vault. Again, this is a pointless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or tell us anything but apparently it came down to a choice between keeping it or Phoebe Cates’s big speech about the death of her father and why she hates Christmas. In other words, her speech was basically just as pointless, even though Dante would claim that it “encapsulates the whole tone of the movie.”
*. All of this underlines my point about how casual the script is. Nothing connects, or is meant to be seen as important. Even Kate’s jarringly bleak Christmas story. It’s just . . . there, and I don’t think we’re meant to pay much attention to it at all. You can see why the studio, as well as test audiences and Spielberg, wanted to get rid of it. But that sense of not having any point or role to play in the story is typical of just about everything that’s going on.
*. Much the same could be said of all the old movie references. Joe Dante is a supreme film buff to be sure, but it would be a mistake to take any of these borrowings as homages. They are just dropped in to the mix and have little or no significance to what’s happening in the rest of the movie. Of course the gremlins turne out to be crazed cinephiles too, and it’s all fun but none of it has any weight.
*. One of the few references that did seem loaded was the gremlin eggs, which look so much like those that the facehuggers burst out of in Alien. For a moment you start to think that maybe things are about to get dark. Perhaps as dark as the original script, which had a real sadistic streak. But then the gremlins hatch and all they really seem to be about is creating chaos on a sugar rush.
*. But like I say, that’s just the kind of movie this is. It’s credited as being one of the films responsible for the PG-13 rating because of its violence, but it’s hard to take any of that seriously. Everything has the texture of fantasy. You know that as soon as you see how nobody seems that surprised to have discovered an entirely new form of life. They just think Gizmo is cute. And then there is the look of Kingston Falls, which is Universal’s backlot covered in fake snow. Again, this fits the tone of the movie, but it’s all so weightless I don’t see where there was much to be offended by.
*. I mentioned how the characters in the movie just tend to drop out, disappearing without any further mention. Could we say the same for the stars and the director? I think this was Zach Galligan’s feature debut, and though he’s kept busy ever since it’s been in mostly unremarkable work. I think Phoebe Cates retired in the mid-’90s, without having done anything else that memorable. Drop Dead Fred? And Joe Dante, who was riding high at the time with The Howling and an episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie just before this film, went on to do mostly TV work (and other stuff like the delightful Trailers from Hell web series). It seems an odd legacy for such a successful project. All three, however, did at least reunite for a sequel.