Category Archives: 1980s

Silver Bullet (1985)

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*. I guess the full title of this one is Stephen King’s Silver Bullet. But you might have guessed that much.
*. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Stephen King, especially his work in the 1980s, but it is very much of a piece. The nuclear family under stress, threatened children, realistic domestic details, small-town drama. He never strays far from his strengths.
*. Even certain structural elements keep repeating. I was reminded of this here as the Sheriff (Terry O’Quinn) figures out what is going on only to suffer immediate termination. This made me think of Scatman Crothers coming to the rescue (not) in The Shining, or Richard Farnsworth (ditto) in Misery. It’s just a way of teasing the audience into thinking that help is on its way and then yanking the rug out from under them.

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*. Tarker’s Mills is another one of those idyllic King communities with a dirty secret. It might be next door to Lumberton (the town in Blue Velvet) or Twin Peaks (where Everett McGill also resides). But where Lynch is weird and surreal, King is grounded in the familiar and the everyday. King believes in the essential normality (and, ultimately, goodness) of life. I don’t think Lynch does.
*. I mentioned King as being particularly good in the ’80s, and just as there’s no mistaking Silver Bullet as a Stephen King movie, there’s also no mistaking its date. The soundtrack would be enough of a tip-off, with its poppy electronic score, but the haircuts clinch it. Also noticeable is the way you get to see so much of Marty’s hair, since back in the day you didn’t have to wear a helmet when riding your motorbike.
*. But more than any of this, the killer’s point-of-view shots are the biggest ’80s giveaway. As James Kendrick observes, Silver Bullet is really “little more than a slasher film in which the slasher is a lycanthrope, rather than a run-of-the-mill psychotic.”
*. I’m not sure who directed what. Don Coscarelli was the original director and apparently filmed part of it, but he resigned at some point and was replaced by Dan Attias. Attias went on to have a very prolific career as a television director but I don’t think he ever made another feature film.
*. One of the things there seems to have been some creative disagreement about was the appearance of the werewolf. I don’t think it looks that bad, but it’s nothing special either. I’d say the same for the transformation scenes. In the end, it’s a movie that’s less interested in the werewolf than it is in the Coslaw family (something that is very typical of King). We don’t really learn that much about the Reverend Lowe, which is a bit of a shame since he seems to be a tortured soul. When Uncle Red asks Jane a basic question like how he became a werewolf she just shrugs, and so does the rest of the film.

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*. The bit at the end where Marty has to pluck the silver bullet out of the grate had to be borrowed from Strangers on a Train. It’s not in the book. It remains just a throwaway homage here though, as this is never a very suspenseful or scary film in the Hitchcock manner.
*. Roger Ebert thought the comic parts saved an otherwise very bad movie, but he wasn’t sure if they were intentional. I think they were, and I wouldn’t say this was a bad movie. It is, however, a horror film for young people. It has the feel of an after-school special, even with its occasional bursts of gore. That may be why it did so poorly at the box office. It rated as a tweener.
*. Most of the credit for what’s good has to go to the script. It’s not great, but it’s proficient: an effective arrangement of set-piece scenes (based on a novella, Cycle of the Werewolf, that was itself a collection of short stories all set in the same town). The plot builds just as it should, there are well paced reveals, and overall it makes for a nice blend of darkness and humour. Over thirty years later, it’s held up very well.

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An American Werewolf in London (1981)

*. Re-watching this movie after not having seen it for decades led to a slight feeling of let down. I had very fond memories of it from back in the day, but seeing it again I was less impressed. It’s still a fun, quirky little movie, but there’s less here than I remembered.
*. Among the things I’d forgotten: what an asshole David is. I’m prepared to give him a pass for running away when the werewolf attacks Jack, because at least he does go back to help (when it’s too late). But when he won’t take off his headphones when Nurse Price is talking to him he’s being a real jerk. That kind of behaviour would get you some rough treatment in most hospitals. But he’s cute and she’s already fallen in love with him, so she ends up hand-serving him his food and decides she’d like to take him home with her. Sheesh.
*. On a related note, it’s a little thing, but I kept wondering why David was being kept in the hospital for so long when there seemed to be absolutely nothing wrong with him. And in a private room no less (Griffin Dunne refers to it as “a real full-service hospital” on the DVD commentary). David must have had some good insurance. Even in 1981 you couldn’t expect luxury like that.
*. Meanwhile, I like how on the commentary Dunne asks David Naughton why his character’s parents never visited him in the hospital. I was wondering that myself. I guess someone told them that he wasn’t badly injured, though he’d apparently been in a coma for quite a while.
*. Whatever happened to David Naughton? Jenny Agutter? Griffin Dunne? Dunne was in After Hours, so that’s something. Agutter (who had been on screen since the age of 12 and played the Girl in Walkabout) did a lot of TV. Hey, they all kept busy working, which in itself is an achievement for an actor. But it’s strange that none of these relatively young stars, appearing in a hit movie, really went on to have big careers. The curse of the werewolf, maybe.

*. Rick Baker won the first Best Makeup Academy Award for his work on this film, though the actual transformation scene, and there’s really only one, doesn’t last long. Still, I think it holds up pretty well nearly forty years later. And Griffin Dunne’s decaying body is just as impressive in many ways. I still look at his shredded throat and wonder how they managed to give it such a realistic appearance of depth.

*. By the way, is there any consensus of when you use “makeup” or “make-up”? In the credits, Baker is said to be in charge of “make-up,” and that’s the way I’ve usually spelled cosmetics and such. But I think more often now we say makeup (as the Academy Awards do, for example).
*. Baker was surprised that Landis didn’t want a bipedal werewolf. It was an untraditional choice, especially coming from a director with such a strong sense of tradition. And usually the four-footed variety of werewolf are played by actual wolves, or dogs (I’m thinking of The Beast Must Die or Wolfen). The only other four-footed, special-effect werewolves I can think of are in Ginger Snaps and Brotherhood of the Wolf (even in the sequel to this film, An American Werewolf in Paris, the creatures move around upright unless they’re in a hurry). I’m sure there have been others, but the point stands that it’s not a conventional choice.

*. I thought it interesting to hear John Landis, in an interview included with the DVD, referring to the transformation scene in sexual terms: “essentially it’s an erection metaphor.” He likens lycanthropy to puberty, with the growth of hair where you never had it before and a painful, uncontrollable swelling.
*. Now to some extent this has always been implicit in the werewolf psycho-mythology. The wolf-man is the beast within, the unleashed id that can’t wait to rip its clothes off and wreak havoc on convention. But what makes An American Werewolf in London odd is that David has already got the girl and taken her to bed before he turns into a wolf. After he goes through his transformation he is no longer a sexual threat but merely a wild dog ripping people’s heads off.

*. Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” was released in 1978. Why isn’t it on the soundtrack here? It’s hard not to think it was some kind of inspiration, though Landis has said he had a draft of the script written as early as 1969. On the commentary, Naughton and Dunne say they don’t know why Landis didn’t obtain the rights to it. Maybe it was too expensive, as it was a pretty big hit.
*. What I still like about this movie is the friendship between David and Jack that survives death, and the whole business of Jack’s genial, decomposing corpse showing up to offer advice. This was something new, and it works really well. I don’t mind the quick ending, or the blend of comedy and horror, but the comic parts really aren’t that funny (aside from the bit where David and Jack arrive at the tavern) and there’s very little horror. This makes it seem longer than I remember it, which is always a bad sign. Still, there are plenty of good parts and those are what stick with you.

Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (1988)

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*. What a strange and uncomfortable film. And yet undeniably effective.
*. Canada doesn’t get enough appreciation for its great little horror movies. Everyone knows the name of David Cronenberg, but there are also lots of other quirky classics like, for example, Ginger Snaps, Cube, and this movie. All in all, horror is probably the genre Canada does best.
*. Pin takes its mythic chassis from Psycho, only Leon is the repressed young man whose personality is split with a plastic anatomy dummy rather than the effigy of his dead mom. Like Norman hiding his violent self behind “mother,” Leon hides his psychopathy behind Pin.
*. So the story itself doesn’t break a lot of new ground. But it’s handled in such a surprisingly thoughtful and mature manner that it stands head and shoulders above the ocean (I was going to say pool) of crap that flooded screens in the 1980s. I mean, I don’t think we even see a knife being brandished once. “Pin” may be a killer, but he’s no slasher.
*. Yes, the psychologizing can be heavy-handed. We get it that mom was a neat freak and dad was . . . Terry O’Quinn. So authoritarian and odd. Plus seeing the nurse use Pin as a sex doll would have scarred anyone, and attending his sister’s abortion might not have been healthy for Leon either. But I give the script credit for presenting us with this much back story and making it interesting. I mean, we never do find out what Norma Bates did to little Norman.
*. A man chopping wood is almost always a bad sign, isn’t it? At least that’s what I thought when I saw Leon with his axe building up the wood pile. It made me think of James Brolin in The Amityville Horror. I only learned later that the script for Amityville Horror had been written by Sandor Stern, who wrote and directed this movie. So maybe it’s just a personal association.
*. The cast is great. David Hewlett looks eerily plastic himself, especially with that haircut. He also has the ability to tilt his mouth at a striking angle. Cyndy Preston isn’t just a scream queen as Ursula but someone we can relate to.
*. They did a good job with the dummy, and an even better job casting Jonathan Banks (probably best known as Mike Ehrmentraut on Breaking Bad) as Pin’s voice. With his flat reasonableness he reminded me a bit of Hal in 2001, the computer that goes insane. I also like how Pin seems to become progressively bossier and less empathic as things go on. With his final words, doesn’t he even display a certain contempt for Leon?
*. Ah, once again with the old, bizarro-world cliché of being trapped in a house where all the doors are locked from the outside. It takes Ursula coming home to rescue Marsha. Now how much sense does that make?
*. Oh, these introverted families and their isolated homes. Gothic nightmares all play the same way (the author of Pin, Andrew Neiderman, became the ghost writer for V. C. Andrews after her death, and wrote the stage adaptation for Flowers in the Attic). “A good job is worth more than the money, it’s good for the mental health,” their aunt tells the new orphans. Good advice. At least a job will get you out of that damn house.
*. I can understand why this wasn’t a bigger hit. It’s too quiet and understated for its own good. And yet it’s presented with real professionalism throughout, and despite its familiarity in so many regards (the Psycho angle, the evil-mannequin angle, the gothic horror angle), it has a unique feel. Horror in the ’80s wasn’t all bad. It’s just that sometimes you have to look hard for the good stuff, and only find it hiding someplace weird.

Predator (1987)

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*. It was thirty years ago and I was 18 and Predator was not a movie I or any of my friends would have dared to miss.
*. I went to see it a couple of times when it first came out, and I’ve watched it several times since. I think it’s held up remarkably well, earning a place among the best of the ’80s action crop.
*. It is, of course, a comic book. Apparently the initial idea was inspired by a joke running the rounds that had it that Rocky’s next opponent (after Ivan Drago, in Rocky IV) would have to be an alien. Our hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger, has veins like bungee cords sticking out of his arms. When he throws a massive knife at a bad guy, pinning him to the wall, he laughs “Stick around!” (I was neither surprised nor impressed to hear that this was an improvisation.) Despite presumably traveling light, the team manage to blow off what seems to be an entire truck load of ammunition (and ammunition is really heavy to lug around). There are lots of explosions, with stunt men flying through the air.

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*. But for all this cheese, or maybe because of it, Predator is a great action flick, the sort of movie Howard Hawks might have made if he’d been making movies in the ’80s. The concept is as old as The Most Dangerous Game, with the super-soldier Dutch finding himself no longer the hunter but the prey in a jungle game of cat-and-mouse. Pure cheese, but it’s all put forward with professionalism in every department.
*. Item one: the pounding — and I mean pounding — score by Alan Silvestri. It’s not there to build suspense but to increase the flow of adrenaline, and it demands attention whenever it’s allowed to kick in. As a complement also worth noting, listen to the wonderful use of sound in this movie. When the team attack the guerilla camp you can hear the rising whine of the helicopter preparing for take off long before we see it, making it almost seem like part of the score. And it could be part of the score for how perfectly it fits in with all the other elements. Then there are the various Predator noises, including what was the sound of a whip snapping to register shifts in its vision. You can’t beat the sound of a whip snapping in an action flick.

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*. Item two: the fluidity of the action sequences. Some of this is just good editing, but what struck me more is how well set up they were. Like the way we transition from one bit of action to another in the attack on the guerilla camp with a quick pan. Or the way the Predator is introduced in several different shots coming up behind Arnold.
*. Item three: the gradual revealing of the Predator. First we get the thermal-vision point-of-view shots. We see a hand that looks like a claw reaching out to pick up the scorpion. Then we see it as a camouflage effect in the jungle. Then its eyes. Then partially coming out of its camouflage, for very brief shots or only showing isolated body parts. Then, all at once, rising out of the water (ironically revealed at the very moment Arnold, covered in mud, has disappeared from its view). Then the climax in the final battle as it removes its helmet and we get to see the ugly motherfucker in all its glory. By showing us just little pieces a bit at a time, director John McTiernan makes the striptease last the entire film.

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*. Yes, on the surface it’s a brainless action movie full of musclemen blowing things up real good. But a movie like this is easy to underestimate because its effects are so direct and visceral. And as for those musclemen, well, two of them would go on to become state governors.
*. Some of it I don’t like. Shane Black’s crude jokes aren’t even remotely funny. The final duel between Arnie and the Predator is actually the dullest part of the movie. None of the plot points bear much thinking about. And yet it’s all good, silly fun and the idea naturally developed into a franchise. Along with the Alien creature the Predator would turn into one of the period’s iconic movie monsters. Eventually, the two would have to face off, like Dracula meeting Frankenstein. But that would take a while yet.

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Saturn 3 (1980)

*. The whole project was doomed from the start.
*. It was production designer John Barry’s baby. He wrote the original story and was slated to make his directorial debut with it, but got pulled at the last minute, apparently due to a falling out with Kirk Douglas. Never a good thing.
*. Barry was replaced by Stanley “The King of Hollywood musicals” Donen, who was one of the producers. I’m not sure Donen belonged in space. Actually, after the demise of the big studio musicals, he might not have belonged in Hollywood.
*. The cast didn’t belong in space either. Kirk Douglas does his best, but never seems at home. Farrah Fawcett is strictly eye candy. And Harvey Keitel . . . well, he was so out of place even his voice had to be dubbed.
*. I thought Fawcett’s Alex sounded dubbed as well. And the dog screams like a girl. What’s up with the sound in this film?
*. The script was by Martin Amis, and what Amis knew about screenwriting was nothing. There’s no continuity in the action, or even explanation for anything that’s happening. Roger Ebert: “The level of intelligence of the screenplay of Saturn 3 is shockingly low — the story is so dumb it would be laughed out of any junior high school class in the country.”
*. I mean, who is Benson (Keitel) and what is he up to anyway? Why has he gone to Saturn 3? What does he want to do there? Just hide out? Grow some hydroponic weed and chill with Farrah? Then, when Hector takes over, what is his game? I guess Hector’s brain has been infected with Benson’s obsession with Alex, but what does Hector think he’s going to do with her? Does he want to breed her in some Demon Seed sort of way?
*. Another dig at the script: “Did you know the original Hector came to a tragic end? He was killed by Achilles . . .” Yes, but what of it? What comparison is Amis (or Barry) trying to draw between the robot and Homer’s Hector?
*. Despite Barry being a design man, I thought everything about the look of the film was terrible. The usual endless dark corridors with lots of jetting steam and ductwork. Model spaceships doing slow crawls across the screen. Farrah Fawcett in a parade of sexy outfits, including a different nightie for every day of the week and a jogging ensemble including go-go boots and a blouse that’s only connected at her neck.
*. And then there’s Hector. Despite being the first of the “demigod series” he looks like a pair of Christmas tree lights sticking out of a Terminator chassis, brought to life by a tank of brain matter that circulates through by a network of silly-straws.
*. Douglas is in great shape. He even manages a nude scene, which is impressive for a senior. Fawcett was thirty years younger. One can sympathize with Keitel wanting to “use” her body. The only fun scene in the movie has him upbraiding her for her “penally unsocial” monogamy. It’s a crime that Douglas gets to keep her for his “personal consumption.” Don’t mistake that for a liberated or progressive point of view, by the way. I’d say this vision of the future looks like it’s taking a big step backward for women.
*. In recent years there’s been a slight uptick of interest in this film, in part because of some of the names involved but I think more for its delayed “camp” value. Well, I’m not going to jump on this particular train. It just seems to me to be a really bad movie, and not worth much attention.

The Hunger (1983)

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*. There has long been a critical consensus on The Hunger. In brief, that it is all style and no substance.
*. I don’t see any reason to challenge that view. Tony Scott got a lot of flack for being a director of commercials and music videos who just transferred this sensibility to the big screen. On the DVD commentary he does nothing to shy away from the charge, frankly admitting that the look of the film was very much of a piece with the world he was coming from. “I brought the commercial world to the world of movies,” he says, though he also points out that this was not an original development since his brother Ridley, Alan Parker, and Hugh Hudson had all followed the same career trajectory and been doing work in the same vein.
*. As far as criticism of the look of the film itself went, Scott is equally at ease. He remarks how critics slammed The Hunger as “artsy, esoteric, and self-indulgent,” and that they were right. He only adds in his defence that it is “still an interesting film.”
*. Well. Sort of interesting. But not interesting enough, at least in my book.
*. A couple of shots of drapes blowing slowly in the otherwise still air would not have been too much. Or perhaps even five or six such shots. But once Scott got up to a dozen it was probably time to start cutting back. And after two dozen . . .
*. I can understand the darkness of the Blaylock’s mansion, seeing as they’re vampires. Though they’re never called vampires in the script and I’m not sure if they’re bothered much by sunlight (or crosses, or whatever). It’s also odd that they appear in mirrors when they’re otherwise not visible, which sort of inverts the usual vampire lore. But anyway, to get back to my point, I can understand their mansion being dark. But why does the medical center have the same dismal, bluish lighting as the disco? And why do so many people wear cool sunglasses at night, in dark buildings?
*. Scott said he was inspired by Roeg’s Performance, which was an influence I didn’t pick up on at all. Is it just because both movies had rock stars in them? He also says the style was inspired by Helmut Newton. I guess you could see someone like David Fincher being a modern inheritor to this look. During his commentary, Scott says if he were making The Hunger today he’d do it in a grittier, more realistic and less operatic way. But still somewhat operatic. That sounds like Fincher.

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*. I would have thought a more obvious influence was Daughters of Darkness. The plot has a general resemblance (the decadent vampires who have a falling out, only for the queen to die and be succeeded by her lesbian lover), and I can’t believe they weren’t consciously trying to make Catherine Deneuve look like Delphine Seyrig. But Daughters of Darkness isn’t even mentioned by either Scott or Sarandon on the DVD commentary.
*. I found the editing to be painful. There just isn’t enough time to establish where you are before you’re bounced to somewhere else. And is all the obvious cross-cutting really necessary? I think the sequence where Bowie ages while waiting to see the heartless Dr. Roberts works very well on its own. I didn’t need to see the monkey dying at the same time. Because Bowie doesn’t have progeria, right?
*. Another reason I like that aging sequence is that it’s something we can all relate to. Your doctor doesn’t see you on time very often, does she? But this time she’s sorry!

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*. David Bowie had a number of prominent movie roles, but I don’t think he’s any better than any other rock star has been on screen. Which is to say, he’s a hopeless actor. At least he doesn’t have to do much here but get old. The make-up effects for his aging are great though.
*. I was surprised they showed a large urine stain in the front of John Blaylock’s pants when Miriam crates him up. I guess that’s realistic, but still not something I expected.
*. I wonder when the wedding of alternative music (punk or whatever) with a gothic look and vampirism got started. Long before this. Perhaps it was with those Hammer vampire films set in swinging London. It seems vampires are drawn to clubs, and for a while “vampire sex clubs” were sort of a thing.

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*. Bauhaus were never my thing. But then, neither was Bowie. I don’t care for the score of this film at all. The classical notes sound chintzy. The Lakmé flower duet, later to be used in a famous British Airways commercial (directed by Hugh Hudson, to come full circle) during the love scene between Miriam and Sarah is insipid. And what is that annoying noise being made when Tom discovers Sarah going through her withdrawal symptoms? It made me want to turn the sound off entirely.
*. Eternal life seems kind of dull on these terms, doesn’t it? You get to wear nice clothes, and live in swell digs, and listen to lots of classical music, but aside from that . . . not much. Maybe that’s why they all spend so much time making smoking look sexy.

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*. It was marketed as an erotic horror film, and we all know what that means, don’t we boys? Hot lesbian action! Roger Ebert: “The Hunger is an agonizingly bad vampire movie, circling around an exquisitely effective sex scene.” I wonder what he meant by “effective” in that context. Tumescence?
*. At the end of the day, it’s a movie that just doesn’t add up to much. There’s about enough of a story to fill a half-hour television slot, tricked out with lots of flashy art direction. After a while, a very little while actually, it starts to get annoying. The climactic confrontation in the attic at the end was too much, what with the blowing drapes, flapping pigeons, and crazy camera tilts. (“Crazy” because according to Scott it’s actually supposed to be the attic itself that’s tilting! Ask yourself how that’s possible.) And what were all those damn pigeons doing in the apartment anyway? Did they fly in from Blade Runner? A John Woo picture? Everything in that attic would have been covered in pigeon shit. I know.
*. Then the studio insisted on adding a coda that brought Sarah back to life and stuck Miriam in a box. I don’t think it makes sense (Sarandon: “I was kind of living, she was kind of half-dying, nobody really knew what was going on”), but they wanted to leave the door open for a sequel. They didn’t get one (because, in Scott’s words, “The Hunger didn’t make a bean”), though there was a short-lived TV series based on the premise. Because for a movie that never had a story in the first place, where was there to go?

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Amityville 3-D (1983)

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*. 3-D! Oh no! Duck! Here comes the title!
*. I jest. A bit. The thing is, I’ve never seen this movie in 3-D, which means I may be missing a lot. Indeed, I may be missing the whole point of the exercise. A Frisbee comes flying out of the screen, and later a swordfish.
*. As with Friday the 13th Part III and Jaws 3-D, which were both released the same year as this, the 3-D process used was something called ArriVision. This was a process that was supposed to revitalize 3-D, but audiences didn’t like it. It probably didn’t help that the movies were crap.
*. I guess this is a sequel to The Amityville Horror, and its prequel Amityville II: The Possession, though none of the movies seems to inhabit quite the same fictional (or quasi-fictional) universe. This is, for example, the first film to mention the DeFeo family murders. In Amityville II the family is given a different name. And there is no mention of the Lutzes here at all (I think for legal reasons).
*. Why does it always have to be a writer who goes crazy in these haunted houses?
*. Another question: Why the hell does John want to live in such a massive mansion by himself? The Lutzes and the Montellis were married couples with loads of kids, so it made sense. But why would a single man with no kids living with him want, or need, a six-bedroom Dutch Colonial barn? He mentions before buying it that it will give him “plenty of room.” Well I should think so! But plenty of room for what?
*. I found this time out that I was starting to get tired of the house. The franchise as a whole is quite bound by the same basic set. We rarely leave the house, and that basement and that attic get very familiar quickly. Not that the series doesn’t try to get out more often, making the demon’s power remarkably mobile, but this in turn only makes me question what limits that power has.
*. The photos Melanie takes showing the rotting face of the soon-to-be-dead real estate agent are pretty creepy, but it seemed strange to me that nobody was very impressed by them. I don’t think anyone could see pics like that and think there was something wrong with the camera or the film. Though I have to admit, that angry emoji she discovers is pretty darn silly. Maybe the silliest thing in this silly picture.
*. Poor Dr. West. For a paranormal investigator he really didn’t have a clue what he was up against, did he?
*. It’s probably best known today for being what I believe was the feature-film debut of Meg Ryan, but is there any indication here of her later becoming a star? I don’t see anything.
*. There’s the same peculiar sense as in the other two instalments of a movie that isn’t sure what it’s finally about or where it’s going. Even at the end it’s left unclear what happened to Susan, or why. Is she that pathetic-looking orange light effect? As for the well being the gateway to hell, why does it fill with water? Or flames? And what is that stupid-looking, fire-breathing demon? Is that supposed to be the angry Indian?
*. The ending would seem to have driven a stake through any thought of a sequel, but then the house had blown up real good at the end of Amityville II and that didn’t stop them from bringing it back. Instead, it was poor box office that left the franchise dormant (at least for theatrical releases) until the twenty-first century, when all the horror classics from the 1970s and ’80s were remade. Next stop: 2005!

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Amityville II: The Possession (1982)

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*. The Amityville Horror was a terrible movie, but was made on a budget of $5 million and did $86 million in box office. So . . . Amityville II.
*. Amityville II: The Possession is a better movie (it would be hard not to be), but on a $5 million budget (which was much better spent) did only $12 million in box office, and was panned with even harsher reviews than the first film (Roger Ebert thought it “slightly better” than the original, but included it as one of his worst films of the year for 1982 and gave it a “BOMB” rating anyway). What happened?
*. I think it disappointed critics and audiences for two reasons.
*. In the first place, there’s an incest subplot that is thrown in for no good reason. I say no good reason because it’s only something hinted at in the source and it has no dramatic purpose here. I think it might still have worked as a way of showing the devil at work in Sonny, but it’s actually hinted at even before the devil takes him over and, most bizarre of all, his sister is totally up for it! What? I mean, this is really weird.

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*. In the second place, the end of the movie is crap. Up until the murder of the Manelli family things were going well. It’s a far more suspenseful film than The Amityville Horror, and the sequence leading up to Sonny’s possession is really quite effective. There’s even one shot where the evil spirit yanks a tablecloth and drapes it over a crucifix that I think is excellent. But then . . .
*. But then the movie effectively ends. With the family dead there’s simply nothing else at risk and nothing for the movie to do but turn into a brainless Exorcist rip-off, down to the writing that appears on Sonny’s skin and the priest calling upon the devil to enter him at the end in an act of self-sacrifice.
*. I wonder what Hans Holzer, whose book was the source for this film, thought of all this. In his commentary on The Amityville Horror he stresses how the possession had nothing to do with religion, and that you don’t need a priest to do an exorcism anyway. But here the religious angle is placed front and center.

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*. I’ve heard complaints about the poor effects, but I thought they were pretty good. In my notes on the first film I mentioned missing some Fulciesque gore to go along with the stupid “opening a doorway to hell” plot so I was happy to see a bit more blood and latex introduced here. Sonny’s head peeling off doesn’t look bad for 1982.
*. It’s still not clear who or what the devil/demon is. An Indian spirit? A ghost? A pagan devil? As with the first film, many questions are left unanswered. Who are those people shambling out of the basement? What happens to the priest?

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*. Did you notice how the black moving man seems to sense there’s something wrong with the house? And how the black police chief has seen something like Sonny’s possession before, in Puerto Rico? That’s a horror cliché you don’t see as much any more, but it still pops up every now and then.
*. Technically this is considered a prequel because it deals with the events that occurred before the Lutzes moved in to the house. There’s not much attempt at maintaining continuity though. And the Walkman is definitely anachronistic.
*. The fact that, even more so than the first film, it was based on a true story (the DeFeo murders), actually makes it all a little more unseemly, since it seems as though the film wants to exculpate Sonny on the lame demonic possession defence.

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*. In almost every regard this is a better movie than Amityville Horror, and the incest angle gives it a trashy cult edge that holds up at least as well as the first film’s camp hamminess. The heartless destruction of the family strikes me as being downright contemporary, what with today’s nihilistic values making the slaughter of the family de rigueur.
*. Its poor reception might have ended the franchise. In a better world, perhaps. For whatever reason, however, the series kept going, taking its next step into a new dimension! 3-D! Let’s blow this shit up!

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Night Trips (1989)

*. Porn movies aren’t about people having sex. They’re about watching people having sex.
*. That may seem kind of obvious, but I think it’s something that’s so essential to the mode that it’s easily forgotten. The “real” sexual act isn’t the fucking on screen, but the masturbation (mostly) that it is meant to inspire. I mentioned this in my notes on Mr. Adam Bitt at Convent (1925), which is one of the earliest porn movies ever made, and it’s been true ever since.
*. So as Night Trips begins and we see the silhouette of Tori Welles caressing a video screen showing preview clips from the fantasies Night Trips is about to explore, and her first words challenge us with “What the fuck are you lookin’ at?”, we know we’re in the game. Porn has long been the leader of a direct assault on the fourth wall. Even today we may think of the fetish made out of “eye contact” in the POV genre.
*. To show how this works, let’s start with the basic set-up here. Tori Welles is having trouble getting a good night’s sleep because of all the sexual dreams she’s having. So she’s hooked up to the “mindscan imager,” which will allow a pair of researchers (Randy West and Porsche “the top sexual psychologist in the nation” Lynn) to view her dreams on a TV set while Tori is under hypnosis.
*. The first dream, or night trip, has Tori, who is in the dream as a spectator, watching a couple having sex. As she watches she starts to rub herself on a brass rail. Spears and Lynn watch this on the TV, while also watching Tori masturbate in the clinic. As things go on, Lynn will enter the dream and begin to masturbate herself while watching Welles masturbate, while Welles is dreaming of masturbating. You see how this works. It’s an erotic mise en abyme.
*. That may sound high-falutin’ for a porn movie, but Andrew Blake is a high-faulting’ porn director. Night Trips marked his hardcore feature debut, and won not only AVN’s film of the year (which is not a big deal, in my book), but also a non-porn award: the Silver Medal at Houston’s WorldFest in the non-theatrical release category.
*. Blake was the first adult director to win a film award at a mainstream international film festival. How did he manage to receive such acceptance? In brief, by making sex look classy. Acknowledging Helmut Newton as inspiration (a couple of the scenes here are even shot in a tinted black-and-white), his stated style is “erotic fashion.” Violet Blue describes the look as “decadent, lush, opulent, unfailingly arousing, moneyed and sophisticated.”
*. That reference to money is the essential point. The people in an Andrew Blake film enjoy all the good things in life: living in big houses, collecting fine art, driving beautiful cars, and wearing the best clothes. This is the luxury porn of today’s real estate programs. The sex is almost incidental, and indeed will often be more concerned with carefully staged foreplay than the usual hydraulics.
*. The models are little more than another species of luxury item. There is almost no dialogue, making the score by Burke all the more important (and it’s very good). People often remain faceless or hide behind sunglasses. Seen through a cool blue filter, Victoria Paris and Ray Victory seem like animate mannequins, perfect physical forms making out by a perfect pool. Aside from a trademark blast from Peter North there is none of the industry’s usual emphasis on money shots, a climax that Blake has never cared much for. I suspect he finds them messy.
*. Is it just me, or is the revelation that the faceless stunt dick in the final scene is actually Randy Spears strike anyone else as creepy? I mean, he’s her psychiatrist! He owes Tori a duty of care and instead he’s taking advantage of her nymphomania. It all seems very unprofessional, though I guess Harry Reems’s unorthodox treatment for Linda Lovelace’s misplaced clitoris in Deep Throat set a precedent.
*. In an interview twenty years after the release of Night Trips Blake had this to say: “My style has changed dramatically over the last twenty years, from a conventional narrative approach to a more free-flowing, abstract style. By abstract I mean combining images in certain patterns that reflect and become a metaphor of the brain achieving orgasm. The random thoughts that go through the mind when masturbating.”
*. This stream-of-aroused-consciousness approach may not have been fully developed yet in Night Trips, but it was already Blake’s signature. It is most clearly expressed in his camera movement, which is random, brief and discontinuous. What it mimics is the surreptitious gaze over parts of exposed flesh, as opposed to the wide, glistening stare of more conventional adult films. In his later movies this style marker would be even more pronounced, but you can already see the direction Blake was heading in here.
*. Al Goldstein rated this as one of the best adult films ever made, saying that real sex never looked as good. You might think that this would be a prerequisite of any porn film, but it has not always been the case. While I wouldn’t say Blake gave porn mainstream credibility (something I don’t think it can or should aspire to achieve) he gave it something more. He gave it a sense of style and refinement. He made it beautiful. If he made it less human too, that was collateral damage.

Reds (1981)

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*. For a long time in the world of painting there was a hierarchy of genres, with large canvases of historical or mythological subjects taking pride of place and still lifes at the bottom. Sometime in the nineteenth century, with the rise of Impressionism in France, this hierarchy was thrown out and history painting has largely disappeared from the art scene.
*. You know what I’m going to ask next. What happened to Hollywood’s historical epics? At one time they ruled the roost, the studios’ go-to prestige projects and Oscar bait. There was Doctor Zhivago and Gandhi, and Dances With Wolves. Then something changed. David Lean died. Attention spans shortened. People (at least the masses of people that big-budget films depend on) lost interest in history.
*. Instead of the traditional (fuddy-duddy) roles of art to instruct and to delight, audiences only wanted to be delighted. Instead of history lessons they wanted comic books and fantasy. CGI gave a lending hand. The final instalment of The Lord of the Rings trilogy would win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
*. This is a roundabout way of saying that they don’t make movies like Reds any more. It was bold, and to some extent quite original for its time. The story of a doomed love affair between a pair of American communists could never have been considered high concept. It’s still shocking to me that Paramount signed off on it. Not because of political or ideological reasons, but because the public was never going to embrace it.

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*. The Witnesses were also something new, and were a gamble that I think really pays off. Then Ken Burns came along and wrecked it, making us feel today like we’re just watching another PBS documentary.
*. It’s a very personal project, though initially Beatty didn’t want to star in it. I think his playing Reed was probably inevitable. And I think he does well, in part by staying true to form.
*. What I mean is that Beatty is a clown. He is seemingly compelled to include comic bits in most of his performances — doing an entire scene in a ridiculous chef’s hat in Bugsy, even putting on the sunglasses with the one missing lens at the end of Bonnie and Clyde. Here the movie is full of them: doing a scene with his face lathered for shaving, putting on a dog costume, banging his head repeatedly on a low-hanging chandelier, riding a hand cart on a railway, burning dinner in the kitchen.

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*. As I’ve said before, Beatty is an odd leading man in that he has a comic face and funny voice. And Diane Keaton has always specialized in playing kooky parts. Casting them as the leads here might seem a stretch, but the thing is they’re both playing somewhat naïve idealists with an air of childishness about them. That’s not to belittle either the content or the strength of their political convictions, but it emphasizes their vulnerability. We take Reed’s side against Zinoviev (a very effective Jerzy Kosinski), of course, but at the same time we know it’s an argument he’ll never win. It’s not just the soulless Soviet bureaucracy he’s up against, but a whole different cast of mind.
*. That said, it was nice to see Beatty not backing down on Reed’s own revolutionary intensity. When Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) confronts him with the manifest failure of the Bolsheviks he admits as much but offers up the defense that you can’t make a revolution without breaking some heads. For him, the ends justify the means.
*. Keaton’s Louise Bryant is less well drawn. In the first half of the picture she looks like she might be developing into as full a character as Reed, but in the second half she disappears, her face mainly being used for cutaway reaction shots.
*. I don’t care at all that Jack Nicholson doesn’t look like the real Eugene O’Neill. Leaving appearance aside, I still think he’s badly miscast. He just doesn’t belong in a historical drama.
*. What is the significance of Reed joining the cavalry charge when the train is attacked? Does he know he’s dying anyway and so is trying to get killed? Has he given up on the revolution? Is he frustrated with being a man of words and now wants to go out in a blaze of glory as a man of action? I’m guessing a bit of all three, but despite being nicely filmed it also comes across as another quasi-comic bit. He’s wearing a suit, for heaven’s sake.

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*. The film was shot on locations all over the world, but it’s really worth noting how well they incorporate famous landmarks in a few brief scenes. Lessons to be learned: go for short takes and a low camera angle (to make the streets disappear).
*. Reed’s death is introduced in a heavy-handed way, what with the symbolism of the dropped cup being picked up by the boy, but I thought the final shot worked very well, seeing him lying on his death bed through a narrow frame, with Keaton’s silhouette exactly blocking out his head.

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*. But . . . no, they don’t make them like this any more. Neither studios nor audiences have the patience. You could greenlight a project like this for a television miniseries, but that’s about it. Unless you could find some way to introduce orcs. Or zombies.

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