Category Archives: 1980s

Missing in Action (1984)

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

Inseminoid (1981)

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

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

The Final Conflict (1981)

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

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

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

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

The Morning After (1986)

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

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988)

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

Psycho III (1986)

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

Psycho II (1983)

*. Alfred Hithcock’s Psycho is usually regarded, correctly, as a movie milestone. I would, however, only call it a distant ancestor of the modern slasher flick, a genre more directly born of Halloween (yes, Black Christmas, but it didn’t have the same impact) and Friday the 13th. It was as a result of the success Michael and Jason had that the early ’80s were awash with so many copycats.
*. So much so that Robert Bloch’s sequel novel, Psycho II, was a parody of the spate of slasher horror movies then coming out, taking place on the set of a film being made about the original Bates murders. That was considered to be too meta, and ahead of its time, for Universal, who wanted something more conventional (and presumably commercial). But perhaps Wes Craven was taking notes . . .
*. So what they ended up with here was something a good deal better than the usual slasher fare of the time, what with some capable direction by Richard Franklin (who’d done the surprisingly good Patrick a few years earlier), and the return of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates and Vera Miles as Lila (now Loomis, having married and been widowed by Sam in the interim). Also helping out is Meg Tilly, performing very well as Mary “Samuels” (the name Marion Crane had signed with in the original film).
*. When Psycho II came out I think it was met with the same sort of trepidation and misgivings as greeted Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho remake. So with the bar lowered on expectations, it was well received, especially given that it was not a big production. In fact, it had originally been intended as a TV-movie (making it not so far removed from the original, actually). So just the fact that it wasn’t hated (as Van Sant’s film was) is a real achievement.

*. I remember liking it better at the time. Now the story in particular strikes me as altogether too silly. As Roger Ebert observed, “It’s too heavy on plot and too willing to cheat about its plot to be really successful.” I’m inclined to think Bloch had the right idea. I mean, the whole “who’s your real mommy?” angle here is so preposterous it would have played better as parody.
*. I like Meg Tilly, but the script fails her. I just didn’t buy her character, especially in how she’s given all the maternal imagery in her relating to Norman. For him it makes sense — once a momma’s boy, etc. — but for her? Well, I guess she has mother issues as well.
*. In 1960 Perkins had been concerned that the role might affect his career, and that was certainly borne out. Twenty-two years later he was still Norman Bates. And you can see that resignation in his face. Once again he’s a sympathetic figure. He doesn’t even have a social worker, due to cutbacks. Arthur Fleck was going to experience the same problem around the same time.
*. I called Franklin capable, but I wouldn’t want to go much further than that. I like what he does with the actual physical location, but I think he goes overboard with the overhead shots. There are two before we even get out of the courthouse! This just seems like showing off, since they don’t have any purpose (as Hitchcock’s use of them in the original did). Otherwise I can’t say this is a terribly scary movie, though it does have a couple of decent sequences. Most of it just seems too weird, making you spend too much time wondering what’s actually going on rather than being creeped out.
*. The decision to start with replaying the shower scene struck me as a pointless act of homage. It has nothing to do with this story and we hardly needed to be reminded of it. I can’t understand the thinking there. Now restaging that scene from Norman’s point of view . . . that would have been interesting.
*. You can’t judge Psycho II on its own, and at the same time you can’t judge it in comparison to Psycho. As I began by saying, I think the comparison to be made is to other slasher films. As such, it’s miles ahead of Friday the 13th Part 2 and Halloween II (both 1981). This of course reintroduces our old friend the low bar. The original Psycho took as its challenge the making of a “good” exploitation flick, and it more than passed that test. It did not, however, reset the bar. Psycho II doesn’t try to change the game either, but does just enough to meet expectations.

Dressed to Kill (1980)

*. If you remember anything from Dressed to Kill it’s likely to be the elevator murder scene. Since Dressed to Kill is very much a feature-length homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, this scene stands in the same place as the shower scene from that film, and in its own way it’s almost as good.
*. What I particularly love about it, and what totally unnerved me the first time I saw the film, was the use of the convex mirror in the corner of the elevator to let Liz (Nancy Allen) see the killer hiding from her, bloody razor blade ready to strike. What makes this moment so scary is the fact that the killer is looking at Liz in the mirror just as she’s looking at the killer. Their gaze meets, with both of their faces looking out toward us.
*. It took me a long time to get over the sheer creepiness of that moment. I still think it’s one of the great scenes in the history of screen horror. So of course it’s no surprise that nothing else in Dressed to Kill is quite as good. The same has also been argued with regard to Psycho. David Thomson, for example, thinks nothing in the second half of Psycho was worthy of the lead-up to Janet Leigh meeting her end in the shower. In fact he even says that the rest of the movie “stinks.”
*. I don’t agree with that reading of Psycho, as I think there are a lot of interesting things about the rest of that movie. With Dressed to Kill, however, the same charge sticks a lot better. It’s not just that nothing much happens after Angie Dickinson gets sliced up in the elevator. Nothing comparable to the murder of Arbogast, for example. It’s also the drop-off from Dickinson to Nancy Allen, the fact that there’s no real surprise in revealing Michael Caine to be the cross-dressing killer, and the absolutely ridiculous dream ending that wraps things up.
*. The other scene in the movie that gets a lot of attention (I mean aside from the elevator murder) is the art gallery business with Dickinson being pursued, and then pursuing, her mysterious lover. I have to say this doesn’t impress me as much today. I think it had more of an impact in 1980 because Steadicam was still relatively new (it had first been used in Bound for Glory, released in 1976). Today it doesn’t seem as surprising, suspenseful, or erotic.
*. But then nothing dates like what was once erotic. The sexy stuff in Dressed to Kill seems downright laughable today, and right from the opening scene. First we notice the sickening soft-focus camerawork by Ralf Bode, which was Penthouse magazine’s house style. Suitable enough, I guess, since that’s Penthouse Pet Victoria Lynn Johnson in the shower. Not, to put it midly, a very convincing body double for Angie Dickinson (a point that would help inspire De Palma’s Body Double).
*. An aside: I know they’re just dreams in this movie, but at least Janet Leigh got her hair wet when she took a shower. And she didn’t look like she was wearing layers of make-up. This has to be one of the most aggravating movie clichés ever and it’s nothing short of laughable both in this opening scene and even more so at the end with Nancy Allen.

*. From the shower we transition to the bedroom and some simulated sex. Has Internet porn destroyed simulated sex? I think it probably has. Even tweeners today know what real sex looks like, and it sure as hell doesn’t look, or sound, anything like this.
*. When Silence of the Lambs came out there was some controversy over the portrayal of the transsexual killer. In 1960 just using the word “transvestite” to describe Norman Bates was considered shocking. I don’t recall there being much of a fuss over the trans angle in this movie, though there was some controversy over Brian De Palma’s perceived misogyny. Times change, and so does the list of things that are likely to upset people.
*. I’m not sure what De Palma himself thought about all this. The initial idea seems to have arisen out of a combination of Psycho, the script De Palma had written for Cruising (a project that would be taken on by William Friedkin), and an episode on the talk show Donahue dealing with a transgendered person that’s briefly sampled here. I doubt De Palma was being what we’d call transphobic, but he does seem to have found something sensationalistic or weird in the subject matter.

*. Given the subject matter I’m a little surprised De Palma couldn’t find a more expressive use for his signature split-screen and diopter shots, or other interests like voyeurism and electronic surveillance. These elements are all present and accounted for, but they don’t serve much of a purpose or do any interesting work.
*. Looking back on it forty years later, I don’t think this one has held up all that well. I still like the elevator scene but that’s about it. The ending strikes me as particularly weak, and drags out far too long. The style notes only seem clever, suggesting Thomson wasn’t far off when he called it “camp Hitchcock, a summer-vacation Psycho for rich kids.” Meaning film students, I think. This probably wasn’t a fair assessment of its impact in 1980, but it’s becoming more and more true.

Chopping Mall (1986)

*. There’s a famous line in George Romero’s zombie classic Dawn of the Dead where one of the characters doesn’t recognize a shopping mall. “It looks like a shopping center,” someone else chimes in, “one of those big, indoor malls.”
*. That was 1978, and in the 1980s we laughed at such ignorance. As a young person at the time I can testify that my generation spent a lot of time in malls. But by 1995 and Kevin Smith’s Mallrats the bloom was already coming off the rose. Today malls are abandoned witnesses to what’s been dubbed the retail apocalypse, often only hosting pop-up stores during the lead-in to Christmas or Halloween. I can’t even remember the last time I was in one.
*. Which brings us to Chopping Mall (originally released as Killbots), a horror-comedy set in a shopping mall about a bunch of teenagers being hunted by a trio of security robots (known as Protectors) who go on a homicidal rampage.
*. There’s no point going into a close analysis of this one. It’s one of those movies that’s so bad it’s good. Or at least kind of good. The special effects are a joke, the acting worse, the dialogue both intentionally and unintentionally hilarious, and pretty much everything about the production screams cheese. The robots, whick look a bit like Daleks, fire lasers in a rainbow of colours that most of the time do nothing at all but at other times blow up whatever they hit. Aside from one exploding head there’s very little gore, despite that being what was advertised. You can take your pick from a long list of most irritating things, but it would be hard to beat John Terlesky’s gum chewing.
*. So yes, it’s terrible but fun. Dick Miller, Mary Wornov and Paul Bartel drop in for cameos (reprising their characters from A Bucket of Blood and Eating Raoul respectively). And the quick running time means it moves along at a decent pace without getting too repetitive (though it is repetitive, especially with all the running around).
*. Most of all, however, it stands as a kind of compendium of ’80s horror badness. A time capsule, if you will. There’s the big hair and the high pants. The gratuitious boobs and bikini underwear. The score that sounds like it might have played as the background music in some video game from the era. And of course the mall.
*. This made me ponder the following question: What will the twenty-first-century equivalent of this shit be? What movies being made today will we look back upon in thirty or forty years and laugh at as much as we laugh with? Will social media, for example, still be a thing, or will it be like the malls of yesteryear?

Paris, Texas (1984)

*. It is, of course, pointless to ask where Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) has been for the past four years. Was he wandering the desert all that time? This isn’t a question we can gain anything by speculating on. But I think it is a relevant question to ask where he’s going.
*. The reason I think this is a question worth asking is because Paris, Texas is often described as a movie informed by a “mythic” vision of the American West, particularly as filtered through movies like The Searchers. I can see some of this, from Travis’s initial appearance walking out of a landscape reminiscent of Monument Valley, and his later adoption of a 1958 Ford Ranchero as his steed. But I wouldn’t want to go very far in this direction.
*. For all his bow-legs, Travis is not a cowboy. What’s more, and this gets me back to the question I started with, I don’t think he begins the movie anyway as a man on any kind of mission. I say this despite the comment Wim Wenders makes on the commentary track where he describes Travis as on a “mission to find his family and put it back together again.” But Travis is not Ethan Edwards.
*. When Travis comes out of the desert he is not looking to reunite with his family. In fact, he clearly wants nothing at all to do with them, even his well-meaning brother (Dean Stockwell). It’s only later that he begins to bond with his son Hunter (Hunter Carson). And even then he doesn’t seem to have any plans on finding his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) until his sister-in-law puts the idea in his head (which I take it is part of a plan on her part to get him out of her house). Then, at the end, he rides off into the sunset, which is hardly putting his family “back together again.”

*. This sense of Travis not being a coherent character — I don’t mean someone who travels a rocky character arc but someone who just doesn’t seem to always be the same person — may have been a product of the fragmented script. I guess Shephard wrote most of the beginning and the end and Wenders and L. M. Kit Carson sort of tried to stick things together as they went along, while also allowing for some improvisation. The results have a kind of patched-together quality, with some scenes, like the ranter on the bridge, not really having any place or purpose at all.
*. Kinski is very good. Her voice coach deserves a lot of praise, as she comes across as perfectly natural, with an accent not unlike Clarice Starling’s. I also like how she plays her one big scene. But is the relationship between Kinski and Stanton credible? Jane looks stunning and Travis, even after he gets cleaned up, looks like “forty miles of rough road.” Not to mention the thirty-year age gap.
*. As David Thomson notes, “I can believe the teenage Kinski could have fallen for [Sam Shephard, the co-screenwriter and someone Wenders originally wanted to play the part] and driven him crazy. But I’m not sure that she would have noticed Harry Dean Stanton.” I share that uncertainty. And I’m even more doubtful that she would still be pining for him, after having escaped being trapped in an abusive relationship with him years earlier. I’d have a hard time believing she’d forgiven him. This is clearly a woman with issues.
*. I suppose one response is just to say this is a male fantasy and the woman here is never really understood. But Jane is given a chance to explain herself and . . . it just doesn’t ring true. I’d almost be willing to believe that Travis was imagining the whole conversation, but I don’t think that’s a real possibility.
*. Watching that scene makes me wonder exactly when it is that Jane realizes Travis is the guy in the booth. Wenders says it only slowly dawns on her, which seems to be how Kinski plays it, but does that make sense? Wouldn’t there be a moment when she knows? Especially as she claims that since she left “every man has [his] voice.” That should make it more recognizable.
*. Do they still have those peep-show booths? The nature of the adult economy has changed so much. 1984 (the year, not the dystopia) seems like another world. Nowadays I guess Jane would have a camshow. But still not be making a lot of money.
*. But then so much has changed. Nick Roddick: “if Paris, Texas is a love letter to America and American cinema, it now also has something of the feel of a farewell. The world to which Wenders pays homage is vanishing fast: not the desert, which is close to eternal, but the pay phones and diners and motels that used to line the approach to every small U.S. town, now replaced by cell phones and McDonald’s and multistory Doubletree Hotels and Quality Inns. All offer a sterile, branded comfort—and all deny the lure of the road, the impulse to keep moving, by affirming that, nowadays, however far you go, it’s still going to look just like home.”

*. The peep-show booth scene is the big set piece. The actors wanted to keep every word of Shephard’s script and Wenders wanted to shoot it “very much as a stage play,” which is how it sounds. So apparently there were several cameras all filming the scene as one long take. It’s perfectly arranged though, even to the point of appearing somewhat schematic, with the sides of the mirror reflecting each other, and with Travis and Jane doing most of their talking while facing away from it. Given the constraints I think it’s a beautiful bit of filmmaking.

*. It’s the look of the movie that stands out. From the green wash of the urban lights to the found poetry of the land and cityscapes everything about it is beautifully rendered.
*. The performance are also all very good, and they stand out the more for this being such a strangely depopulated movie. Houston is as barren as the desert, with everyone locked away in their cars (even when doing their banking) or hotel rooms. I can’t think of another movie that so clearly underlies the growing atomization of society. People in this movie just don’t interact that well, if at all. Communication is done through telephone, walkie-talkie, intercom, or taped messages. Watching Paris, Texas one can understand how the Internet came to dominate social networks so completely, and so quickly. It was another stage of remove, or social isolation, that we were waiting for.
*. I’ll confess I’m less impressed by the story. Even Stanton’s subtle, “tender” voice (in Wenders’ precise judgment) can’t sell me on Travis, who seems a bit too much like the Man Who Fell to Earth. As I’ve already said, I also don’t buy the relationship between Travis and Jane, which is kind of important. I keep finding myself thinking that the whole thing is a dream, or that at least at some point it goes through the looking-glass into a world of fantasy. That story Travis tells sounds made-up, so maybe it never happened. Or maybe he never left L.A. with Hunter. Or maybe he died out in the desert somewhere, and these were his last thoughts.