Category Archives: 1980s

The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985)

*. This movie is almost universally reviled, though it does have a few champions. I’m not going to defend it here but just address a couple of the points that come up most often in what’s been said about it.
*. In the first place, it’s often remarked how surprising it is that Wes Craven turned out this turkey around the same time as he was making A Nightmare on Elm Street. The chronology is significant. Craven wrote and shot this movie before Elm Street but then the project was stuck in limbo because of budget issues. Then, after Elm Street went on to become a hit the studio asked him to go back and finish it. Unfortunately they didn’t want Craven to shoot any more footage, so he had to pad things out to 90 minutes by including flashbacks to the events of The Hills Have Eyes.
*. Not a great way to make a movie. And indeed Craven thought it was garbage. As I think everyone else did too, including Michael Berryman, who returns as Pluto. I don’t think it even had a theatrical release. Still, it’s hard to figure why this was such a dud when Elm Street was so fresh and creative. My guess is that Craven never wanted anything to do with it and was only taking the job to make money. It shows. Hack work can still be really good, but you can tell when a director doesn’t have his heart in a project, and since Craven was writing the script too the movie was doubly snake-bit.
*. The other point that’s usually trotted out about, and against, this movie is that the dog from the first movie, a German Shepherd named Beast, experiences one of the flashbacks. People hoot at this, and I think Craven may have thought of it as a joke, but I’m not sure what’s so crazy about it. Dogs are intelligent animals. Indeed, I thought Beast the smartest “character” in the original film (as he is again here). Dogs have memories. They can remember people for years. They can also dream in some fashion, as anyone who has watched a sleeping dog twitch its paws in its sleep can testify. So why is it so crazy that the dog here has a flashback? Beast remembers when he attacked Pluto in the first movie, which seems a likely thing for him to remember when he catches that character’s scent here. I don’t find this far-fetched at all. I was more mystified by how Pluto learned to ride a dirt bike so well.
*. I’ve often read reviews of The Hills Have Eyes that mention its sense of humour. I’ve tried to see this in it but have never come up with much. This movie, on the other hand, has more obvious comic flourishes, providing further evidence both of the way Craven was moving (toward Elm Street and Scream) and that he didn’t take this movie seriously. It even begins with some voiceover narration saying “The following film is based on fact.” Meaning it’s based on the fact that there was a previous movie called The Hills Have Eyes. None of which was based on fact.
*. The plot is a real mess. Bobby from the first film is introduced talking about his experiences in the desert to a psychiatrist. Then we find out that he’s invented a new kind of fuel to supercharge motorbikes. And is linked with Ruby, now living a normal life under the name of Rachel. Then the motorbike crew (which includes a Black couple looking for a disco in the desert and a blind girl in love with one of the bikers) hop on a bus and head out to the same desert as the first film, only without Bobby, leaving one to wonder why they even bothered to re-introduce his character in the first place. In any event, they take a shortcut because they missed Daylight Saving Time. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Ruby/Rachel warns them but before long they’re in crazy country being picked off by Pluto and Jupiter’s big brother, a guy named the Reaper.
*. I think that’s all about right. But to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention. In most ways it’s a retread of the first film, which is something Craven doesn’t even try to hide. He even has the bad guy fall into a nearly identical trap at the end, despite his protestation that “Reaper don’t get fooled like Papa Jupe! Oh no!” Oh no? Oh yes.
*. If it’s similar in outline to the first film it has none of the same edge. No threatened baby. No cannibalism. No mock crucifixion. Just a bunch of nonsense that, as I say, I had a hard time staying interested in. Plus the lighting is execrable and it’s hard to see what’s going on.
*. “Depressingly shoddy” was the verdict of Kim Newman. I’d just call it ugly, dark, and dull. Not a movie to hate, or to laugh at, but just to avoid.

Hopscotch (1980)

*. In his Criterion essay on Hopscotch Bruce Eder calls it “the only ‘feel-good’ realistic spy film ever made.” I’d quibble with this. For starters, I have a hard time seeing it as being in any way realistic. The basic premise is far-fetched and the way it plays out goes even further. While more down-to-earth than the zanier spy spoofs of the 1960s, it’s not that far removed, at least to my eye, from Charade and Arabesque.
*. For Eder’s “feel-good” I might also substitute genteel, mature, or cozy. As screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his own novel) put it, “I wrote it with a very specific aim in mind and that was to show that it’s possible to do an exciting story with lots of suspense and adventure in which nobody gets scratched let alone killed.” So sort of like a Disney spy movie for grown-ups. But grown-ups who are young at heart. Barrels of oil tipped out of the back of a truck, making the cars in pursuit slip and slide into a ditch? Good fun!
*. I haven’t read Garfield’s novel but apparently it is not comic. Nor was the less-than-cozy novel he’s best known for writing, Death Wish. So this really was a change of pace. Efficient but unglamorous field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) doesn’t even carry a gun, and wouldn’t use one if he did. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
*. As for the maturity, what can we say about a spy movie where the spy in question wears argyle sweaters, listens to Mozart, and has prostate issues? And one where his main motivation is, according to Garfield, mere boredom.

*. It’s hard to be negative about a movie that, in the estimation of director Ronald Neame, “never pretended to be anything except a lighthearted comedy.” The presence of Matthau made me think of Charade, and the way Isobel (Glenda Jackson) uses the word “charade” a couple of times can’t have been a coincidence. But even Charade, which was a bit of fluff, was a darker movie than this.
*. Eder talks a bit about how against the grain this was for the time. Spy movies had been taken over by violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976). I guess by the time the decade turned over to the ’80s we’d become more optimistic. Credit Reagan. And so, Eder again, Hopscotch was not “a simplistic anti-establishment movie — a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty).”
*. The way I would put it is that the CIA isn’t presented as evil so much as incompetent. They are bumbling bureaucrats and Keystone Cops. Sam Waterston seems a decent enough guy, but in being so he is totally out of place. Now the question of whether stupidity and incompetence may be a greater threat than corruption and conspiracy is still a live one, but I don’t think it’s one that Hopscotch addresses.
*. Not that I can complain about that. As Neame says, it’s a nothing more than a lighthearted comedy. Looking for any deeper message or meaning to it is pointless. It’s still enjoyable forty years later. But if I’m being honest, totally forgettable too. Roger Ebert: “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over. . . . It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is . . . pleasant.”

Dead & Buried (1981)

*. A couple of preliminary points. First, Dead & Buried is a movie with a bit of a twist ending, or a couple of twists, and I’ll be talking about them here so consider yourself warned.
*. Second: I love the work Blue Underground puts into their special editions. This one comes as a 2-disc DVD with three commentary tracks and a bunch of other extra features. But, and I’m sure I’ve said this before, if you’re going to go through all this trouble why not have subtitles, or at least closed-captioning? Even the most bare-bone DVD releases usually have closed-captioning.
*. Now, on to the movie.

*. Potters Bluff, Maine. Though I thought Rhode Island was mentioned at one point. In any event, it was shot in Mendocino, California. A very foggy Mendocino. Even foggier indoors than outside at night. This was done quite deliberately by photographer Steven Poster, as he explains on his commentary track. All kinds of steps were taken to diffuse the lighting, from hanging a giant sail from a crane to block out the sun in the opening scene to using a smoke machine indoors. The point was to have the audience leaning forward in their seats trying to see what was going on before springing a surprise at them. It’s not an effect I care for, but it is a distinctive look.
*. “A New Way of Life.” Ho-ho. Potters Bluff (yes, another giveaway) is a town with a Fulci-esque feel to it, a feeling only deepened by the fog and woeful dubbing. Not that the dialogue is worth much anyway. Note the way the concerned mother repeats the line about needing a “cold compress” for her kid’s head while exploring the spooky old house. Why not check the fridge? Sure to be a cold compress in there, even if it looks as though the power hasn’t been on for years.
*. They had to dub that scene because of the presence of a child actor who wasn’t allowed to shoot at night. This meant the house had to be covered in a tarp, which made things very noisy because the location then had to be ventilated (requiring the sound to all be put in later). But then many other scenes seem badly dubbed as well and I don’t know what was going on with them.
*. Commentary tracks can be really helpful. The legendary Stan Winston did the effects here, and it was one of his first theatrical projects. The effects are generally very good, and I only thought the doctor’s death stood out as being below par. But Sherman explains this: Winston didn’t do the fake head of the doctor because (as I understand the story) that scene was added later at the request of the studio, who wanted more gore. It’s too bad, as the head is clearly a dummy and it really strikes a wrong note.
*. The DVD box tells us that it’s a movie that’s from “the creators of Alien.” I’m never sure what exactly is meant by the elastic term “creator.” It doesn’t refer to Stan Winston, who worked on Aliens but not Alien. Instead, what is meant is that the script was by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien. Though apparently it was all Shusett here and O’Bannon had actually wanted his name taken off the credits. Not because he didn’t like the film but just because he didn’t think any of it was his work.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it’s a good concept, working very much like an extended Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt comic. I could see it as being one of the stories in Creepshow.

*. Thinking of how much it looks like Creepshow made me think of various other connections. I already mentioned Fulci and I had to wonder if the needle-in-the-eye scene was inspired by the splinter-in-the-eye from Zombie (or Zombi 2). Carpenter’s The Fog had come out just the year before, and its seaside town overrun with murderous ghosts might have also been in play. Then there is the central conceit of the protagonist (Sheriff Dan here, played by James Farentino) not knowing who he really is, which may remind you of Carnival of Souls, or later characters like Harry Angel and Malcolm Crowe.
*. Though there are all these connections, Dead & Buried still feels fresh. Part of this may be due to when it came out, a time when theatres were saturated with slasher flicks and horror cinema had reached a kind of nadir. But more I think is due to the character of the town’s “official coroner-mortician” Dobbs, played by Jack Albertson in his final role.
*. Dobbs has his progenitors as well. Sherman says that the horror film he was most inspired by was the 1953 House of Wax, and Dobbs is clearly an artist-madman in the same vein, even using many of the same materials as Vincent Price. But Dobbs is also a comic figure, perhaps a leftover of early drafts of the script where the movie was imagined as more of a dark comedy. And he is also a sleazier kind of artist, with his library of Super 8 snuff films and Platonic necrophilia. His zombies, after all, are “even more beautiful than the living,” which is a doubly-charged boast since he is one himself.
*. The other element that gives Dead & Buried an extra bit of juice is the ambiguity with which the zombie townsfolk are presented. In the first place we may wonder how many people in Potters Bluff are zombies. It’s impossible to say for sure because not all of them know if they’re alive or dead (though surely they should be, since the dead all need frequent touching up). Then there is the question of their moral character. Sherman describes them as mere puppets, and directed the actors to play them cool and not villainous. They kill their victims in what seem to me to be cruel ways, but even this may be by direction, in order to conceal cause of death. By the end we’ve come to see them as being, like Janet, sympathetic figures, a sad community of the dead who care for each other. And has Janet found release in being finally dead and buried? Or will she wake up tomorrow morning and make Dan breakfast?
*. I’m not being entirely facetious. Why is she going on about what’s going to be for dinner at the end? She sounds like Bobbie having her mechanical meltdown at the end of The Stepford Wives (1975).
*. One of the selling points of the film today is that it has Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund in a bit part as a tow-truck driver. One of the featurettes included with the DVD is an interview with him as well. Which is fine because he’s an interesting guy to listen to, but I can think of a half-dozen other people who might have had more to say.
*. Despite the deluxe Blue Underground treatment I don’t think Dead & Buried is a classic. It is, however, a fun little movie with some style and originality. Poster comments on how a lack of experience made them more likely to take chances, and I think there was a real attempt to make something good. Sherman had a strict colour scheme worked out, for example, which he enforced to the extent of changing the taillights on the cars so that bright reds would be kept out. There were also some impressive long takes, some of which ended up being pruned.
*. I’m not sure these efforts panned out, at least in terms of making this a better, or scarier, movie. As with the fuzzy picture, it was all deliberate but I don’t think the results had quite the effect they wanted. I guess the picture quality adds something to the atmosphere, but to me it just looks blurry. The colour scales are dull. The effects in the final graveyard scene are disappointing. I wanted to see whole faces falling off! I wanted House of Wax plus!
*. Still, it is a movie that I think lasts, mainly on the back of the weirdo Dobbs and his perverse battle with the indignity of death. That Albertson himself was dying adds a poignancy to the proceedings. Many if not most actors go out on less distinguished notes.

The Fly II (1989)

*. The Fly II didn’t receive many positive reviews. In fact, it was panned. And I remember not thinking much of it at the time. Returning to it thirty years later I have to say I appreciate it a lot more. It’s not bad at all.
*. Why the change in opinion? For one thing, I think the critics who dumped on it may have been giving Cronenbergr’s The Fly a bit too much credit for being something more than a creature feature. Yes, Goldblum and Davis are strong as the leads, so we do buy into their relationship (which was a real one at the time). But it’s still a monster movie, with their characters taking a back seat to the make-up in the end. The same kind of story plays out in The Fly II, and while it dials up the gross-out effects I think it does so less than is imagined. Director Chris Walas (who’d been the effects man on The Fly) “specifically avoided” going full gore. We even have to start off with a version of the shocking maggot-birth scene from the first movie in large part because that’s all the gross stuff we’re going to get for a while.
*. Another reason for my changing evaluation of The Fly II is my increased appreciation for practical effects. As Walas says on the commentary, CGI does some things remarkably well but there’s “something about the reality of the moment that it just hasn’t captured yet.” And while Walas didn’t want to just make an effects movie he obviously didn’t have any issues with returning to what worked well the first time. This movie would have been so bad with CGI, especially the CGI they had in 1989. Instead we get some really good stuff (Martin in the cocoon, the man’s head dissolving in acid vomit and the other head being crushed by the elevator) mixed in with some merely OK parts (the mutant dog and transformed Bartok, primarily).
*. I also really appreciated Eric Stoltz playing Son of the Fly. As an aside, I’m not sure why they didn’t call this Son of the Fly. On the DVD commentary track Walas says that he tried to have a different title and “would have preferred Son of the Fly,” but this was “back in the day when sequels had to have a 2 in them.” Well, at least he got Roman numerals. That’s class.
*. Back to Stoltz: he’s very relatable without the goofiness or charisma of Goldblum. But then that wouldn’t fit with this story, which I find to be darker. Martin Brundle is a victim of his father’s original sin, and it’s hard to imagine him happy at the end (even in the deleted ending, which leaves him fishing off the dock with Beth). Let’s face it, he had a pretty traumatic, if accelerated, childhood.
*. I’ve read that Keanu Reeves, Josh Brolin, and Vincent D’Onofrio were all considered for the part of Martin as well. You always hear stories like this. I think it’s likely that everyone tries out for or is interested in every part at some point in their career.
*. The rest of the cast are role players. Daphne Zuniga is the girl. Lee Richardson is the usual cruel corporate head, going by the name of Bartok (a Cronenbergian moniker if ever there was one, just as Simon Fraser University provided an authentic Cronenberg location). Gary Chalk is slimy as the security chief Scorby. They all take a back seat to the monster.
*. It’s fitting that the DVD commentary has Walas conversing with monster memorabilia curator Bob Burns. They spend a lot of time talking about growing up as “monster kids” and their shared love of monster movies, which Burns sees this as being an old-fashioned example of. To which I’d say Yes, and perhaps a bit of No.
*. The script is actually pretty tight. I like the way the young Martin’s helmet that squirts water returns at the end with his ability to spew vomit. And the way the fate of the dog is worked back into the story. At first I took the bonding between Martin and the dog to only be a typical pat-the-dog bit of business, but it’s not superfluous. Beth’s fly-fishing was also a meet cute that worked.
*. There’s real darkness at the end too. Indeed, it’s quite a bit darker than the first movie. I say that despite the far-fetched notion that somehow Martin can re-integrate by being genetically spliced with Bartok. But it’s the fate of Bartok that is the kicker. Walas doesn’t mention Tod Browning’s Freaks on the commentary, but the ending here seems to me to be a pretty clear nod to the end of that nightmare, with Bartok in the role of the transformed Cleopatra. And just as with Freaks I think it may have been too much for audiences. There seems to be a line, not directly related to gore or shock value, that even horror audiences don’t want to go over. There may be a rule that the punishment of the wicked not be so severe that we feel poetic justice has transgressed moral bounds.

The Fly (1986)

*. My DVD box cover for The Fly has a pull quote calling it “a true Cronenberg masterpiece.” This it is, which is a little odd given that it began as a less personal project and not something he’d dreamed up on his own. Still, like a band covering a song and making it their own, he certainly took it over.
*. The script helped. At the beginning of his commentary Cronenberg says he thought it “felt, in fact, so much like me that I was kind of surprised, I’d never really seen a script that had so many things in it that felt like me, to me.” In other words, he was a great fit for the material.
*. Sticking with that script, as well as most of the promotional material, let’s mention the line “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Apparently this was suggested by producer Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks), and it would go on to become a very popular tag line that would crop up in other contexts over the following decades and be nominated as one of the greatest lines ever in one of those silly AFI polls. All of which goes to show that classic lines are funny things, depending almost entirely on context. Because what’s so special about “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Who would think that was a great line if they just read it? A great screenwriter, William Goldman once said, has to imagine the dramatic and visual context for their dialogue, which is what transforms lines like this, or “You’ve got to be kidding,” or “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” into something memorable.
*. The practical effects by Chris Walas are first-rate (leading to Walas going to the top of the credits and being picked to direct the sequel), and the design elements are excellent, capped with those transporter pods patterned after the engine cylinder on Cronenberg’s Ducati Desmo motorbike. I also wonder how much those pods might have been influenced by the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States. The two movies have a lot in common.
*. When he saw the original film as a kid Cronenberg was upset both that the fly had such a big head (he could see no logical reason for this) and that the fly-vision effect where the screaming Hélène is duplicated dozens of times was not actually how an insect’s composite eyes work. I don’t think these things upset many people though. Meanwhile, a change he insisted on that really did make dramatic sense was allowing Seth to continue to be able to talk up till the very end. This allows his character to continue to develop and reveal itself and gets rid of the clumsy business of having to type notes out all the time. A win-win.
*. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis worked so well together they’d get married the next year. What I like the most is how light they play it. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle keeps cracking jokes throughout his metamorphosis (I love his line “Oh, that’s disgusting” when he first vomits on his food in front of Ronnie), and this actually makes him more threatening at the end. Davis, meanwhile, was only known as a comic actress before this, which is something Cronenberg liked.

*. The original was one of those minor genre classics that didn’t seem to have any extra meaning. In 1986 it had become necessary to read more into these things, and some critics concluded that Seth’s sickness was a metaphor for AIDS. Cronenberg didn’t understand this, as the movie is pretty explicit in linking his transformation to cancer, a longstanding bugbear of his. Brundlefly is another instance in his oeuvre of a body turning against itself, making a man into a monster.
*. Also Cronenbergian is the linking of disease with sex. Brundle’s experiment in gene splicing leads to a wave of “cocaine exuberance” (Cronenberg), with a buff Goldblum (who was pumping up between takes) becoming a gymnast and superman both on the bars, at the bar, and in bed.
*. Speaking of the bar fight, that’s Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo getting his wrist snapped. He was also killed with an ice cream cone in Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. Not a lot of respect for someone who was never knocked down in 93 professional fights, including two against Muhammad Ali.
*. I like how Stathis Borans (John Getz, who Cronenberg had liked in Blood Simple) is redeemed at the end. He certainly starts off being quite the sleazy heel. With a beard in the fashion of I believe nearly every Canadian male at the time.
*. Yes Stathis Borans. And Geena Davis plays Veronica Quaife. These are Cronenberg names.
*. One of the last great monster flicks done with all practical effects. Cronenberg’s commentary: “Who knows how this would be done in the modern era. I mean certainly there’s a man in a rubber suit playing the scene and it’s obvious. Of course there are many ways to do that now, where you might have the actor acting a completely computer-generated character, although doing the acting himself would have been more extreme or more effective in the sense of body shape that an actual human body could not have. But there’s a sort of immediacy and physicality and a realness to the man in the rubber suit routine that’s very effective as well. So I suppose it might look very, mm, tacky and a few other things to a modern audience but at the same time there’s an immediacy and a physical presence that you don’t get with CGI and I would wonder in about twenty years’ time how something like this will compare with the way CGI looks to a future audience because CGI also has its drawbacks and it too might look quite tacky and primitive in twenty years, or even fewer years than that.” Damn right.
*. It seems perverse to me to make a movie like this with only three significant parts and basically one set. But Cronenberg knew this minimalist theatricality would work, especially with the soaring score by Howard Shore backing it up. Indeed, I think it was later made into an opera with Shore’s music, but I don’t know when or for how long it played.
*. The maggot birth is a showstopper, and did in fact end the movie in some early drafts of the script. It’s so shocking that Cronenberg even gets away with the old wake-up-screaming gag. As it stands the film ends quite abruptly but in a way that I think is completely satisfying. As Cronenberg explains, there was no where else to go so we get “the same ending as The Dead Zone basically, although in this case the woman actually does the mercy killing.” I think he was right. Do we really need a coda? Why do so many movies end with these superfluous send-offs anyway? And don’t get me started on post-credit scenes.
*. In sum, the material, the moment, and the man all met together to make this a thoroughly successful reinvention of a classic. I’ll say it’s not a personal favourite of mine, and not even my favourite Cronenberg, but at the same time I can’t think of anything it does wrong and there are many things it unquestionably gets right. A true Cronenberg masterpiece then, and not just one for his fans.

Café Flesh (1982)

*. I’ve written before (starting here) on how porn movies aren’t about people having sex but about people watching people having sex. It is an essentially voyeuristic form.
*. This is a point that reached its sardonic apotheosis in Café Flesh. The idea here is not unlike Behind the Green Door, with the movie presented as a hardcore floor show into which an innocent newbie from Wyoming is introduced. In terms of the hydraulics what we get is a series of artistic (or, if you’re feeling snobby, pseudo-artistic) vignettes being acted out on stage in avant-garde fashion. I remember performance pieces in the ’80s that looked like this, without the sex. I don’t know if they still do.
*. The difference between this film and Behind the Green Door is that we’re in a bunker. This is post-apocalyptic porn. The “Nuclear Kiss” of World War III has divided the population into Sex Positives and Sex Negatives, with the former group constituting only 1% of survivors (it seems the lucky 1% will always be with us). The Sex Negatives, or “erotic causalities,” are people who “want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill.” They can, however, get some vicarious kicks by watching the Positives perform at clubs like this.
*. But are the zombies in the audience, who are shown in frequent cutaway shots, having a good time? They look to me more like the devil at the end of Devil in Miss Jones, experiencing the torments of Tantalus in hell. Perhaps it’s a masochistic thrill. As Nick puts it, “torture is the one thing left I can feel.”
*. Adding to their perverse debasement are the taunts of Max Melodramatic, Joel Grey of this sexy cabaret (writer Jerry Stahl saw the club as “Cabaret-goes-New Wave . . . an irradiated Ship of Fools“). Played by Andrew Nichols, Max has a decent patter combined with the ickiness suitable for such a joint. Surprisingly, as with most of the cast here, he isn’t a total embarrassment in the acting department either.
*. There seems something allegorical about what’s going on. Stahl thought the club’s come-on was the audience’s (that is, our) own apocalyptic yearnings: “the fetish for fiery climax that gives some folks a secret frisson at the prospect of the Holocaust to come.” This made me think of the thrill-seekers at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and it’s a provocative point. Is porn the afterglow of sex?
*. Danny Peary, writing in Cult Movies 3, found it “hard to believe it [Café Flesh] wasn’t made to comment on AIDS.” This would make it a part of the venereal horror that was taking off at the same time. In our own day, however, I read it more as an indictment of online thrills. As young people admit to having less sex while spending more and more time on social media or watching Internet porn, haven’t we come to resemble the zombified Sex Negatives? Those blank faces are instantly recognizable as the same that stare into cell phones even at public events. Today this would definitely be an online hangout, our parents’ basement as bunker. Especially since one of the few bits of our infrastructure actually designed to survive a nuclear war is the Internet.
*. It’s art, but is it porn? Meaning, does it arouse? Peary found the stylized costumes and sets to be erotic. The idea of Angel’s corruption and Lana’s awakening, the two of them taking on the Marilyn Chambers role from Behind the Green Door, has a thrill to it. What’s unerotic, at least to me, is the ironic presentation of sex. The performers are like parodies of the usual pistoning porn parts: more like props than flesh-and-blood people, made up in costumes that dehumanize and objectify them totally (a giant rat, a giant pencil, a mannequin typist). They are automata, or furniture with pubic hair.
*. Well, it could be argued that all porn is objectification. And the very theatricality the sex is presented with here may be a turn-on for some. It would lead to Gregory Dark’s New Wave Hookers (starring an underage Traci Lords) just a few years later, a film generally regarded as the start of the alt-porn movement, where being bizarre became part of the fun. But those days are gone now.
*. To stick with Peary for just a bit longer, it’s interesting how he sees a sex-positive message in the ending, with Lana leaving the audience, no longer just being a spectator but fulfilling herself sexually on stage. But Nick is banished from the club, no longer allowed to even watch. So where do we stand? Are we in or out?
*. Directed by Stephen Sayadian under the pseudonym Rinse Dream, a man who’s been credited with creating his own genre of “surrealist nightmare art-porn.” Alongside Café Flesh his best-known films are Nightdreams (as co-writer) and Dr. Caligari. He seems to have circled around porn for most of his career, imagining creative new directions for it to go in. The results he achieved in the ’80s were at least interesting, psychologically insightful, and even touchingly human at times. Nightdreams, for example, looks like it was the inspiration for Andrew Blake’s Night Trips, and with its mix of voyeurism, technology, and sex it’s as prophetic as this film today. Blake’s movie, on the other hand, is just as artistic in its own way, and is better porn.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

*. This remake of the cultish classic 1953 film of the same title divided a lot of people when it came out. I think that’s probably as it should have been, as the original version was a weird movie that opinions are still split on today. I would have been disappointed if they’d just played it safe.
*. No movie made in the ’80s was going to be able to duplicate the dream-like weirdness of the 1953 version, but at least in the early going here I thought this one did a good job, having a unique feel of its own while being studded with references and in-jokes tying it back to the original. The best of these has the actor Jimmy Hunt, who played David in the original, back as one of the two cops who go to investigate the crash site the morning after. As he walks the hill he says “Gee, I haven’t been up here since I was a kid.” There are a few other cute parts like this. But what the alien head in the glass bubble was doing in the school’s basement is beyond me.
*. I like almost all the players. Hunter Carson (Karen Black’s son) does well in the part of David. He played the kid in Paris, Texas and (trivia alert) the original Bud Bundy in the pilot for Married . . . with Children (which I don’t think ever aired). I see from his filmography that he’s kept working, but I don’t think I’ve caught him in anything since this.

*. Timothy Bottoms is great as a dad whose concern would be off-putting even if he weren’t being controlled from the mother ship. Karen Black is the woman who is just too humanly weird to ever be duplicated by an alien. It’s Louise Fletcher though who steals the show as the possessed and obsessed teacher who is going to get her hands on “David Gardner” if it’s the last thing she does. About the only casting decision I wasn’t totally on board with was James Karen as the general. He’s jut too obviously comic and loopy.
*. Directed by Tobe Hooper, who was coming off of Lifeforce, a really good movie that bombed for Cannon. This movie would bomb as well, and Goland and Globus apparently hated it and thought Hooper had misled them. Hooper seems to have been one of those guys who had a hard time catching a break after his initial success with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Which is a shame, because he had real talent.

*. The creature effects were by Stan Winston and I think they’re wonderful. The monsters are likened in the script to Mr. Potato Heads, and I really liked seeing creatures that looked realistic, a bit different, and that weren’t CGI. The head alien looks a bit like the belly-mutant in Total Recall, but that movie came later so you have to give Winston credit here as well.
*. But like I say, it divided people. Those who hated it, really hated it. I liked it though. At least the first half is very good. The back end turns into more of a routine action flick and I’ll admit that’s where I lost a lot of interest. The first part of the movie does a great job balancing creepiness and humour, but they give up on that at the end as well.
*. They do, however, keep the bizarre dream-within-a-dream twist from the original, though it doesn’t have the same punch. Because we’d been here before and knew what was coming? Maybe. It just felt too pat this time around.
*. Part of the weirdness may relate to the target audience. Winston was working on Aliens at the same time, which had a lot more violence and bad language but which still appealed to kids. Put another way, this is a family film, in a genre where I think everyone (including kids) would have been expecting something a little stronger. As it is they just have to make do with Louise Fletcher eating a frog.

Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)

*. Hey! You know that batch of alien eggs they revealed at the end of Critters? Well, you’re never going to guess what happened . . .
*. OK, you probably don’t need to guess what happened. You knew what was going to happen. And in Critters 2 it happens. This is Critters 2: The New Batch. Or The Main Course. Whatever.
*. But don’t give up hope. It’s really not as bad as it sounds. Much like Critters, it’s a formulaic ’80s horror-comedy that puts enough of a spin on the material to at least hold one’s attention for almost 90 minutes. Note I didn’t say that it’s interesting. I don’t think it rises to that level. But it does hold your attention.
*. So the herd of Critters actually looks pretty neat. The way the one shape-shifting alien bounty hunter turns into a Playboy centerfold is worth an eyeroll at its cheesiness. And the giant Critterball at the end is inspired. That’s a lot more than I was expecting.
*. I’ve read lengthy accounts online seeking to explain the Critters (or Krites). Which is weird since they don’t seem to be presented in any consistent way. They eat absolutely everything, which made me wonder why they were even bothering going after humans. The way they seem to reproduce like Tribbles is never explained. In Critters 4 Charlie says the eggs take six months to hatch, but that can’t be right on the evidence here. In the first movie a giant Critter appears, but that’s the only time we see one of them. Just as the Critterball would be dropped in the next two movies and only reappear in Critters Attack! For the most part though they just seem like pests. Why were they being sent to a prison asteroid at the beginning of the first movie then? None of this adds up for me.
*. Gone are the stars from the first film: Dee Wallace and M. Emmet Walsh. Though Walsh’s character is still here, being played by another actor. Instead we have to get by with the return of Scott Grimes (Brad), Terrence Mann (Ug), and Don Kieth Opper (Charlie).
*. Horror aficionado Mick Garris has the helm in his feature debut. He was a fan of Critters and said he wanted to make a sequel that was scarier. It isn’t, and I’m not even sure where it tries to be. It seemed to me to be trying to be funnier. Also debuting is David Twohy with his first script credit. He went on to write The Fugitive, Waterworld, and G.I. Jane, before writing and directing all of The Chronicles of Riddick films (to date).
*. The last film in the franchise to have a theatrical release. From here things would really drop off with Critters 3 and 4 (a diptych filmed simultaneously). But hate on them all you want, these little furballs did keep rolling.

Critters (1986)

*. Probably the first response anyone had to Critters when it came out was that it was a rip-off of Gremlins. This is something that director Stephen Herek (whose debut this was) has denied, saying that the script had been written before Gremlins went into production.
*. So, fair enough. But the thing is, Critters is such a typical production of the mid-’80s comedy-horror mill that I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained by shooting down such rumours. It’s a lot like Gremlins. Or Ghoulies. There are nods to E.T., including Dee Wallace playing the mom with a son who heats up a thermometer to get out of school. And it’s a movie where aliens land near a small Kansas town and terrorize a family homestead. There’s the gag where one guy gets drawn beneath a car to be mangled and we cut immediately to a woman pushing food into a sink’s garbage disposal unit. There’s a scene where a man tries to escape up some basement stairs and a monster catches him by the leg. There’s M. Emmet Walsh as the town sheriff. There’s a final shot where we see Critter eggs that have survived the destruction of their spaceship, allowing for the inevitable sequel.
*. That said, Critters is still a lot of fun. It’s clichéd but quick, and adds just enough wrinkles to the mix to keep things interesting. I like how the lead bounty hunter transforms himself into a big-hair ’80s rock star to mix in with the locals. And while the Critters (or Krites, or Crites as they are rendered by the subtitles) aren’t very impressive when we finally get to see them, they do have some neat attributes, like the ability to fire poison quills and a form of locomotion where they roll themselves into balls. While their behaviour is certainly gremlin-like (witness the scene where they tear apart the bedroom), they’re different enough from gremlins.
*. Fame and stardom are odd. If you had seen this movie, Leprechaun, and Eight Legged Freaks back-to-back-to-back, who would you have put your money on becoming a star: Nadine Van der Velde, Jennifer Aniston, or Scarlett Johannsson? Each actor was playing a similar role, and I think Van der Velde is just as good here as the others were in their debuts. But perhaps she wanted to do other things. She went on to produce and write quite a lot. Watching her here though, I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t have been as big a star. Leonardo DiCaprio would get his start in Critters 3, so obviously there was no stigma or curse attached to the little furry beasts.
*. Despite the sequels, and a 2019 reboot, I don’t think this is a movie that a lot of people know about today. It’s very much of its time, and even when it came out it didn’t do great box office (though it made money). Still, among the wasteland of ’80s horror it stands out as one of the more creditable efforts. A movie I’ll ever watch again though? Probably not.

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

*. It seems fitting that Halloween 5 came out in 1989. It has that feel of the end of the ’80s. I don’t think this is just because of the generic New Wave girls either. The Halloween franchise, along with ’80s horror in general, was winding down.
*. I said in my notes on Halloween II (1981) that it was a very tired, half-assed effort, which was all the more remarkable for being only the second film in the series. Halloween III: Season of the Witch then tried to go in a new direction, but that turned out to be a short detour. Halloween 4 brought Michael Myers back to do his (only) thing, and was quite successful. So, if you’ve been following me this far, Halloween 5 plays a bit like Halloween II, being another tired-feeling retread of tropes that had just recently been revived.
*. What are those tropes? The POV shots. The promiscuous teens being cut down in flagrante delicto. The glimpse of Michael, the masked Shape, from a window. Donald Pleasence, not looking at all well, emoting for the ages while delivering the same lines about Michael’s blank evil. Cats (live and dead) jumping out at us. People running around screaming “Help me! Help me!”
*. I’m not sure Halloween 5 has much of a story or even purpose behind it aside from all of this recycling. Apparently they started making it without a finished script, which is something I can certainly believe. Despite all the formulaic elements it’s amazing how chaotic a movie this is.
*. This is the second movie built around the character of Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the niece of Michael Myers. And immediately we start going off the rails. Why make Jamie mute? I get the psychological block, as far-fetched as that is, but I mean what does it add to the film? Even Harris was unclear on the purpose, since she can still write important messages. But then when given that opportunity Jamie doesn’t want to say anything. It’s all very confusing.
*. Then there is the psychological link that Jamie shares with Michael. What is the point of this? One suspects they were thinking of something along the lines of The Eyes of Laura Mars, but they didn’t get it. Similarly, it seems director Dominique Othenin-Girard was going after a Psycho-like medial caesura with the murder of Rachel (Jamie’s mom), but Ellie Cornell thought it an odd decision and her death itself is presented in a perfunctory way (stabbed in the shoulder with a pair of scissors?).
*. Lurking in the background is the Man in Black with the silver-tipped boots. Who is he? According to the documentary on the making of the film he wasn’t mentioned in the script at all but was just dropped in to hopefully tie things together in some way or to help make sense of what was going on. Mission not accomplished. He just adds to the confusion. Plus his identity wouldn’t even be explained until The Curse of Michael Myers, which was up next.

*. Here’s a horror cliché that I don’t think gets enough attention. It’s right up there with the people who find themselves locked inside a house (something that may go back to the first Halloween). If it’s the middle of the night, where is all the light coming from that’s pouring in the windows from outside? Look at the scene where Loomis confronts Michael on the staircase. That’s not a streetlight. Those are stadium lights beaming in from outside. Where is it coming from? A lot of movies do this (I think I pointed it out in my notes to Don’t Breathe), but people usually let it go without comment. It’s something that bugs me.
*. The idiot plot is one thing, but it’s disturbing that the dog here is smarter than any of the people in the movie. The people really are that stupid.
*. You know you’re in trouble when you start imagining a better movie than the one you’re watching. About halfway through Halloween 5 I was thinking that it would have been a lot better if Dr. Loomis had actually been the killer all along, and Michael Myers was just some alter ego of his who died in the looney bin years ago. No such luck.
*. I don’t know if Halloween 5 is the worst film in the series — there’s some stiff competition — but I think it’s my least favourite. Not only did I not enjoy it, I positively hated it most of the time. There isn’t a single good kill. There’s no suspense or humour. The plot is a total mess. And finally there’s way too much running about and screaming at the end. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, even knowing that there would be no end for some time yet. Or ever.