Category Archives: 1980s

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

*. There’s no question mark at the end of the title. I didn’t know that. Seems odd. The source (which only provided the basic premise for the film) was a novel by Gary K. Wolf titled Who Censored Roger Rabbit? and it had a question mark.
*. With that important point out of the way, on with the show (this is it).
*. Up until this latest reviewing, I don’t think I’d seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, at least all the way through, since it first came out thirty years ago. I seem to remember catching bits of it on TV a while back, but that’s it. So I was really wondering how it would hold up.
*. Of course, on one level I think it’s fair to call it a gimmick movie. The mixture of real and animated footage had been done before, but nothing like on this scale, and as such an essential part of the plot. There are two points I want to make about this.
*. In the first place, it was not a technological breakthrough. That would come later, with the digital revolution in computer animation. The animation here is old school. As the director of animation Richard Williams says on the “making of” documentary included with the DVD, there was never any problem with being able to do the animation, the problem was time and money. A studio was going to have to (and in the event did) throw a ton of money at such a project to make it work, including hiring a small army of animators.
*. My second point, following on the first, is that because it’s a movie defined more by its craftsmanship than its use of a new technology it doesn’t fall into the trap of dating as badly as other movies that were all about their new effects. Early CGI, for example, looks pretty awful by today’s standards, but the animation here is something different, rather than something more primitive, than you’d see today.
*. It certainly looks like a different species of animation than CGI. It’s not as crisp and the colours aren’t nearly as bright. Put another way, the figures look dark and blurry to an eye trained to the arcade-style visuals of today’s computer effects. That doesn’t bother me too much, because while I don’t think this makes the animation more “realistic” (whatever that might mean in this context), I do think it fits the film’s noir setting. I only wonder how it plays with younger audiences, the digital natives. To be honest, I don’t even know any young people who have seen it that I could ask. This was a very successful movie when it came out but I don’t know how well known it is today.

*. David Thomson: “one of the last great works of wit and beauty, magic and terror, to come out of a Hollywood studio.” Wow. That’s pretty high praise (I think; but Thomson doesn’t think much of the direction Hollywood was going in around this time). Still, it’s an opinion that I think a lot of people share. I really enjoy it too, but just to register a couple of negative notes . . .
*. I don’t like the character of Roger Rabbit. I don’t like his manic personality, or his voice, or his appearance. He looks strung out most of the time and doesn’t have the same kind of freshness as the classic Disney and Warner Bros. characters we meet still possess. After just a couple of scenes I started finding him irritating, and he never really grew on me.
*. I don’t find the story that interesting. It’s basically just Chinatown with a twist. It seems to me they might have done more.
*. I don’t think there’s anything very funny going on, particularly with the script. It’s littered with groaner gags, the verbal equivalent of the hand buzzers and whoopie cushions put out by Acme. Then there are some adult double entendres that get a smile because they’re coming from ‘toons. But really there’s not a lot of wit to any of it.
*. What makes it so watchable? Bob Hoskins is great. Perhaps no one has ever played against an absent element better, even as stars have had to all become used to it. Jessica Rabbit’s shape was immediately iconic, with the pneumatic bliss of her figure bouncing and swinging in every different direction. Christopher Lloyd is perfect as the villain cartoonish enough to be a ‘toon. And finally, while there’s nothing special about the story, it is all neatly done from start to finish, with no loose ends or excess weight. It was just too expensive a production to be wasteful, so pretty much whatever they shot had to count. The DVD contains only one deleted scene that I’m glad they cut (the rather grim pig head business).
*. There’s been a lot of talk of a sequel over the years, but given the fullness of the closure we get at the end I’m glad they’ve resisted opening it up again. Why bother? I don’t think I’d go so far as David Thomson does in the line I quoted above, but I do agree that there’s something about this movie that stands at the end of something, more so than the change in animation. Even if there were a sequel I don’t think they could ever do something like this again. Why not? Because it’s only fluff.
*. One suggestion: I think this movie really was a labour of love. Sure it’s a send-up of the genre in lots of ways, as so many movies in our own time are, but there isn’t a hint of cynicism about it. Maybe that’s what did the rabbit in.

Advertisements

Walker (1987)

*. Then, and then, and now. 1855: William Walker’s conquest of Nicaragua; 1987: Alex Cox’s film Walker; 2007: the recording of the Criterion Collection’s commentary track for the film, featuring Cox and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer.
*. And here’s what the two had to say about then (when the film was made) and now (2007). Cox: “I think people were more inclined to be activists in those days. I mean these guys, these actors came down to Nicaragua because they wanted to make a statement, they wanted to say we’re behind the people of Nicaragua and we’re not behind our government.” Wurlitzer: “That’s true, and there was still a residue of Vietnam too, you know, that was lingering in the collective consciousness in those days. This is like the tail end of the Vietnam disaster.”
*. The next generation would be determined to rid the collective consciousness of this residue of Vietnam, kicking what was called the “Vietnam syndrome” (defined as a nervousness about getting involved in foreign wars that might turn into quagmires). Then, as Cox explains, it was precisely because this generation had forgotten Vietnam that they recreated it in Iraq.
*. William Walker, meanwhile, was a name known to only a handful of historians in 1987. And, despite the notoriety of this film, I don’t suppose many more people have heard of him today. Selective amnesia is a constant in any culture.

*. The military had learned its lesson too. Just as they controlled the media coverage of the 9/11 wars to a far greater extent than in Vietnam they also knew the value of bringing Hollywood on board. If you were going to make a war movie about Iraq (or wherever) you were probably going to need some help from the army to do it. Good luck being critical of the military when you’re that compromised.
*. But all that was still to come. In 1987 Hollywood could still make an anti-war film. Or just barely. Both Cox and Wurlitzer were outcasts at the time, and Walker wasn’t going to get them back into anyone’s good graces.
*. That said, I had a hard time believing it was a movie that met with as much opposition on its release as they make out on the commentary. At least that’s the way I felt until I dug up Roger Ebert’s contemporary review, in which he gave it one of his no-star ratings. I guess the anachronisms really did bother people. Ebert called it a “travesty” (twice!) and said that if it was meant as a satire he didn’t know what the target of the satire was. Really? Not one of your finer moments, Rog.

*. Another way of looking at then vs. now is in the way war is filmed. Walker‘s battle scenes are very much in the Peckinpah tradition, with the spins and twists of bodies dancing to bullets in slow motion. Today the language of battle is borrowed entirely from video games, where everything seems to move much faster than in real life. In today’s war films death is something anonymous and abrupt. The enemy are only a score of kills to be tallied.
*. I like how Cox consistently works the margins. Walker’s wife (played by Marlee Matlin) literally has no voice and can only sign her contempt for the businessmen in the smoke-filled room (a contempt that Walker deliberately mistranslates). Later we’ll see something similar in the way the Nicaraguans have their real feelings for Walker put into subtitles (“this is no ordinary asshole”). Hornsby (Sy Richardson) is a central character but is someone pushed increasingly to the margin as the film proceeds, his big scenes often playing like moments just out of frame. His criticism of Walker becomes mere sniping from the shadows, and he is finally disposed of in what seems like an afterthought.

*. Ed Harris’s Walker is a fascinating creation. After the death of his wife the brakes come off his monomania, the sense he carries with him of his own greatness. He is less the poster boy for American imperialism (as Wurlitzer calls him) than its embodiment. He is the grey-eyed man of destiny but selfless. “Walker’s goals involve a higher purpose than the vulgar pursuit of personal power.” He says so himself.
*. His referring to himself in the third person prefigures the annoying habit of today’s celebrities to do the same and suggests the same pathological dissociation. For what is such a creature of destiny but a tool of that same destiny, a vehicle for the spread of American ideology? As Walker recognizes, and tells the people in the church at the end, he may die but more Americans will come. He is only a drop in the tide.
*. It’s correct to have Walker deliver his final speech in a church from a pulpit. Manifest destiny is an article of faith, and at the end of the day Walker is a political fanatic, sustained by his sense of the rectitude of his cause. Not necessarily his own rectitude, mind you, but that of his mission.

*. Harris’s performance I think nicely captures this. He has the blank look of an android or alien and his actions underline the paradoxical passivity of such a hero. Since he is only a representative of a larger, inevitable historical force he allows himself to be swept onward by fate, walking through battles indifferent to his own safety. In much the same way he can casually dispose of principles like being against slavery if that is what the situation requires. He is not leading but being led by larger forces. He cannot be compromised because he is only embracing fate.
*. After its poorly-received initial run Walker has gone on to gain a bit of a cult following, despite being a film that runs against the various currents, political and artistic, that I’ve mentioned. The main reason being that it’s a well made movie, but also because it’s political message has stayed relevant. The final CIA airlift was meant to recall the fall of Saigon, but on the commentary track Cox insists that “this is Fallujah.” Walker’s sermon on the inevitability of America’s expansionary destiny is still a message for our time, whether you think of it as a warning or a promise.

The Curse (1987)

*. Fulci goes to the heartland. That is, if you include Tennessee in America’s heartland. In any event, it’s where debut director David Keith’s farm was located, which is where they shot the exteriors for this film.
*. Apparently Lucio Fulci handled the gore, which you wouldn’t need anyone to tell you. The plastered faces and messes of maggots and worms give the game away. As does the music. There’s no mistaking we’re in Fulci territory.
*. The source for the script is an H. P. Lovecraft story, “The Colour Out of Space,” that for some reason has attracted a lot of filmmakers. I think it was first filmed in the ’60s as Die, Monster, Die! There’s a bit more Lovecraft in this one. The idea of the trees moving without any wind comes from the story, for example, as does the fact that the farm is about to be submerged under a reservoir.
*. Aside from that, this film is more Stephen King than Lovecraft: from the way the poison in the groundwater tears the already dysfunctional family apart, to the mocking of the religious wingnut farmer, all the way up to the failed rescue attempt by the doctor and the collapsing house. (And in fact King had actually starred in another movie based on the same story: “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill” segment from Creepshow.)
*. Another influence at work is the eco-horror of the ’70s. Think films like Frogs and Prophecy. We’re not dealing with man-made pollution here, but all the same the oozing meteorite might as well have been an airplane turd (which it is originally identified as) or factory runoff.
*. A final connection I’ll make. Watching The Curse I couldn’t help but be reminded of the now classic so-bad-it’s-good Troll 2 (1990). The same plucky kid (Zack here, played by Wil Wheaton) set against his oblivious family. The same motif of the food converting people into monsters. The fully degenerate mother here even looks like one of the trolls.
*. That’s quite a farm Nathan (Claude Akins) is running. He has horses, dairy cattle, chickens, and apple orchards. No wonder he has to spend so much time crunching numbers at the end of the day.
*. When you see a house that’s so obviously a model you know it’s going to be destroyed at the end. Talk about a giveaway.
*. The gore is all pretty dull. The only good bit of business was the mother sewing the sock to her hand, which was a good idea but not very well realized.
*. I mocked the clichéd crashing-through-the-banister scene at the end of Die, Monster, Die! and here it is again at the end of this movie! I wonder if it was meant as a nod to the first go ’round or if it was just laziness. Probably laziness. I mean, they even follow it up with the old swinging-lightbulb effect for good measure.
*. The Curse is a very bad movie, to the point where I had to wonder (as I wondered at Troll 2) whether it was meant as a joke. I don’t think it was, which makes some of it even funnier. The chicken attack, for example, or the muddy cows. That verrrrry slow-moving meteorite was also comic. But, on the other hand, the whole business with the rotten food was effectively disgusting. Not scary, but disgusting. The mother cutting open the cabbage was a highlight.
*. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. It’s very typical of low-budget ’80s horror, which was ugly stuff. It’s not without interest, but I prefer my Fulci neat and the same Lovecraft story has been made into better movies. Today I think this version has been mostly forgotten, for good reason.

Conan the Destroyer (1984)

*. “What you can see in Conan the Destroyer, if you look closely, is the beginning of a movie dynasty. This is the film that points the way to an indefinite series of Conan adventures — one that could even replace Tarzan in supplying our need for a noble savage in the movies.” So began Roger Ebert’s review of Conan the Destroyer. And indeed what he describes was the plan.
*. There were originally supposed to be four Conan movies, and given the success of Conan the Barbarian there seemed no good reason to give up on the franchise. Alas, Conan the Destroyer was to prove to be the last. It made money and was generally well received but Schwarzenegger had other plans and had fulfilled his contract with Dino De Laurentiis by doing Red Sonja and Raw Deal. So Conan the Conqueror, which was the next up, turned into Kull the Conqueror and that’s where things lay until the 2011 Jason Momoa film.
*. This should have been a better movie. The initial sequel in a franchise is often the best film in the series because it’s still fresh material but it gets a chance to cut loose a bit. And that was the direction they wanted to go here. They wanted a more family-friendly, comic-book approach. A little more silliness, a few more laughs.
*. I say this was the right direction to go in, but Arnie didn’t approve. I’m not sure Schwarzenegger was that great a judge of these things. He didn’t like what they did with Predator 2 either, and yet bringing the alien to Los Angeles seemed to me to be a logical next step for that franchise to take.

*. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe Richard Fleischer was the wrong guy for the job. Otherwise it was a cheesy enough production, and the addition of Wilt Chamberlain and Grace Jones — not actors, but commanding presences — was a plus. Arnie still couldn’t act (he’s just awful in the scene where he gets drunk), but he gets to show off his muscles even more than in the first film.
*. And yet it all seems to drag. It wants to be a funnier movie than the first, but paradoxically it’s the pomposity of Conan the Barbarian that seems funnier today. John Milius took the shit he wrote seriously. This film could have had a field day taking the piss out of Conan but comic book irony wasn’t as well developed in the 1980s as it is now.
*. I think it needed to be a sexier movie too. Jones looks fetching in her leather monokini and fox-tail get-up, but the princess is a virgin and the sexiness of Queen Taramis (the striking Sarah Douglas) is dialed way back. Read the novelization and see what I mean!
*. It’s episodic, by which I mean it just moves from one fight scene to another with some limp gestures toward character and attempts to fill in the narrative during the down time spent around the campfire. But the big action sequences we build toward are nothing special. Conan fights an ape-like creature in a hall of mirrors and then wrestles a bizarre-looking amphibious demon named Dagoth (André the Giant in costume) at the end.
*. I’ve always pronounced Cimmerian (as in Conan the Cimmerian) with a hard “c.” In this movie they pronounce it with a soft “c” (or “s”) sound. I wonder if they’re right. I prefer the alliteration with “Conan.”
*. Was all the dialogue added post-production? It doesn’t even seem synchronized.
*. I think everyone agrees that Malak (Tracey Walter) is one of the worst sidekicks of all time. He’s right up there with Rob Schneider’s Fergie in Judge Dredd. Maybe worse.
*. And so we come to the end of the line. This was only the second Conan movie and Schwarzenegger was already sick of the role. Conan would remain an uncrowned king, as there wasn’t going to be any dynasty. All things considered, I think this was probably for the best, not to mention a wise career move for the Austrian Oak. Next up . . . the Terminator!

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

*. Does anyone still read the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard? I’m sure there’s still a fan base, and the character has been spun off in countless ways, but from the few of them I’ve read I don’t think the originals are very good. Nevertheless, a big dude with a big sword gets people’s attention.
*. Oliver Stone and John Milius? I can certainly understand the latter name, but I was a little surprised to see Stone had a co-writer credit on the screenplay. I’d forgotten his involvement with the project. As it turns out, his initial draft was far from canonical, being set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. It was also going to run 4 hours and involve a lot of special monster effects. The producers wanted something more orthodox and less expensive. Mainly less expensive.
*. Milius, on the other hand, was definitely the man for the job. He’d already written Dirty Harry and Magnum Force and as far as I can tell took all of this shit seriously. This is a comic book movie before comic book movies discovered irony. We begin with a quote from Nietzsche, though what the philosopher would think of Conan is hard to say. I doubt he would approve of Conan’s crude recipe for happiness. I think Nietzsche meant something a little more by amor fati than just crushing your enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women. And I’m not sure he would have cared much for Crom either.
*. Conan does, however, get to beat up a bunch of hippies and flower children. Milius must have loved that, and knocking the fruity cult priest on the head. This is a world where men are men and women are (a) valkyries; (b) pleasure slaves; (c) breeding units; or (d) witches.
*. Milius had also written Apocalypse Now, and the end of this movie seems a clear echo of the end of that earlier film, with Conan as Willard ritually beheading the cult leader Thulsa Doom/Colonel Kurtz at the top of the stairs.
*. Come to think of it, there’s something of the end of De Palma’s Scarface (written by Stone) there too. It seems to have been a bit of a motif at the time.
*. Shouldn’t a he-man like Conan have been able to chop Thulsa Doom’s head off with one swing of that mighty broadsword? It looks like he’s up there chopping wood.
*. The design of the film was inspired by the art of Frank Frazetta, who I guess is pretty much the only visual source for this kind of material. It looks nice in the traditional fantasy style, with lots of corkscrew stone pillars and scantily-clad slave girls. Aside from the crowd scenes though I don’t think there’s anything else much to be impressed by. Conan’s swords apparently cost $10,000 a piece but they might have been made out of plastic for all I could tell. The giant snake is a bit of a yawn. The ghosts are hardly worth the trouble.
*. Milius took the business of painting magic words on Conan’s body from Kwaidan. Influence is a funny thing.
*. Sandahl Bergman is pretty good, in what was to be her biggest role. She really had a striking look. And for parts like this, what else did she need?
*. Maybe she just plays well against Arnold. Schwarzenegger went on to get a bit better, or at least more comfortable, with acting, but really he’s just terrible here. The only thing he can do is pose (which is something he does a lot). He delivers his lines as though he doesn’t even understand what he’s saying, much less anything about their timing. This was to be a breakout movie for him, but at the time it was hard to see much in the way of promise. He was just another hunk of beefcake.
*. I immediately recognized Basil Poledouris’s familiar stirring score, but it might not have been from this movie. Apparently it has been sampled extensively by other epics. This is understandable, as it’s very good.
*. I guess I’ve been pretty negative here, but to be honest I was actually quite surprised at how well this movie has held up. It’s a bit ponderous and could have really used some more humour, but for its genre it manages to stand out. Mind you, there were a lot of terrible swords-and-sandals movies that came out around this time so that’s not saying much. Still, I enjoyed seeing it again — for the first time in probably thirty years — and I think I might even end up watching it again sometime. I mean, James Earl Jones turns into a snake! That’s something you can never forget.

Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)

*. File this one wistfully under “What might have been.” The idea had huge potential, and with Steve Martin as the golden-age gumshoe Rigby Reardon and Rachel Ward as the damsel in distress they had two perfect leads. But somewhere along the way they forgot something.
*. Specifically, they forgot to write a script. The concept of the “collage film” put together out of short clips from noir classics no doubt hurt them in this regard. Whatever story they came up with was going to have to be written around the various clips and cameos they wanted to include, and not the other way around.
*. Given the limitations that come with such a concept, they must have had a lot of trouble coming up with a decent script. And by decent I mean something funny or at least coherent.
*. Though I suppose they could have got by without coherence. Noir is famous for its plots that don’t always add up, and at the end of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid they have some fun with this, as Martin and Carl Reiner get in a duel to see who can best explain what’s been going on. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few good scenes in the movie.

*. Where Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid fails is in its lack of laughs. The way that clips from other old movies are woven into the fabric of the film is interesting, but by contemporary standards it seems pretty crude. Except for one scene with Martin and Cary Grant sharing a train carriage (taken from Suspicion) it’s all done by way of editing and over-the-shoulder shots. More to the point, however, is that aside from the game of trying to recognize the sources there’s nothing funny about the resulting interactions. Sure they’re clever, but none of them have any real connection to the plot and few of them work as comic bits. Trying to give Edward Arnold from Johnny Eager a puppy and having it crap on the floor is a highlight, which tells you something.
*. Making matters worse is just how awkward so many of the cameos are. It doesn’t take long before we realize they’re merely throwaways that have nothing at all to do with the main plot, so we stop paying attention to them. Five minutes after they appear, and then quickly disappear, could you remember who Burt Lancaster (from The Killers) or Ray Milland (from The Lost Weekend) were playing? Even Bogart, as Marlow (drawn from a few different movies), has nothing to add to the proceedings.
*. This leaves us with the rest of the movie, which has little more to recommend it. Where are the funny parts? In Reardon groping Juliet while she’s unconscious? In her sucking bullets out of his shoulder? In Martin getting dressed up in drag? Certainly not in the lame vaudeville gag that has Martin going into full meltdown mode every time he hears the words “cleaning woman.”
*. So the promise was there but it remained unrealized. I know a lot of people like Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, but I think most of them just see it as a charming homage to favourite films of the past. Judged on its own it seems to me to be a trifle, and an unsuccessful one at that. Ironically, the movies it mines for material are all more watchable, and seem far less dated, today.

Cannibal Ferox (1981)

*. Believe it or not, there’s some dispute over who has the bragging rights to having launched the sub-genre of Italian cannibal horror flicks that ran for about a decade in the 1970s and early ’80s. There actually weren’t that many of these movies, but seeing as each was released under a bewildering variety of names it always seemed like there were a lot more than there really were. “Ferox,” by the way, is Latin for fierce or ferocious. The film was also released as Make Them Die Slowly, among other titles.
*. The two main claimants to having kicked things off are Ruggero Deodato and Umberto Lenzi. I think most people who follow these things (I hesitate to call them scholars) give Lenzi the nod for having made The Man from the Deep River in 1972. It was, however, Ruggero’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) that really raised awareness of the so-called “cannibal boom.” In any event, by the time of Cannibal Ferox the conventions of the cannibal film were pretty much set and Lenzi wasn’t going to make any changes to them.
*. So, once more into the jungle, dear white people. This time we have two groups of doomed travellers. Mike and Joe are small-time drug pushers who leave the Big Apple when things get too hot, and end up hunting for emeralds among the tribes of the Amazon. If that seems a stretch, so is the idea that the subsequent murder of a junkie in Mike’s old apartment will set off an international manhunt to track him down to what was then the ends of the earth. Meanwhile, Mike and a badly wounded Joe are joined by a trio of explorers: ethnographer Gloria, her brother Rudy, and a superfluous pair of breasts named Pat. Apparently Gloria is looking to prove that cannibals don’t really exist. She doesn’t seem very well-informed, but then she doesn’t speak the language of the country she has traveled to either. Nothing good will come of this.
*. Nothing good does. Mike and Joe went full Kurtz on a tribe of natives but were overthrown and hunted down. It is as they were trying to escape that they met up with Gloria and her pals, who then find themselves in the same bloody boat. They are captured, tortured, and killed. Gloria alone survives to tell the tale.
*. There are numerous cutaways to local fauna, and the natives killing and eating animals. I don’t know what the point of these is, but they are a staple of the genre. Perhaps they’re just meant to show how “natural” cannibalism is. But since wild animals don’t know how to perform for the camera these sequences all seem pasted on. The piranha attack on Rudy is particularly silly.
*. This brings us to the moments of unintentional humour. After the piranha attack, Rudy escapes from the river and screams for the natives (!) to help him . . . while he has one (1) piranha attacked to his leg. And he is sitting on dry land. This is ridiculous. Even worse is the pig trap that Gloria falls into which looks like it could easily be climbed out of. There she is tormented by a baby pig that looks terrified and about as dangerous as a puppy. That the pig is later butchered by Mike only makes the silliness distasteful.
*. The usual political message gets short shrift, coming entirely in Gloria’s speech to Pat: “What a goddamn fool I was! Thinking I had to leave New York to find the reason behind cannibalism. Do you realize it’s us, the so-called civilized people who are responsible for their cruelty? Us and our superior society. . . . Violence breeds violence.” Fair enough, I guess, but then why does Gloria go back to NYC and write up a false report of what happened? Just to get her doctorate from the good liberal thinkers at New York University?
*. Basically the only point of these movies is to build up to a few scenes of shocking torture and death. They’re exploitation flicks, and Cannibal Ferox was marketed as “the most violent film ever made” and “banned in 31 countries.” So with that billing you have to deliver some video nastiness beyond watching natives kill and eat turtles and lizards.
*. For what it’s worth, the big scenes here involve cokehead Mike having his penis and then the top of his skull cut off, and Pat being hung up with hooks through her breasts. If that latter bit of depravity makes you think of A Man Called Horse (1970) you shouldn’t be surprised at the connection. Lenzi was inspired by that film and its influence was obvious in The Man from the Deep River.
*. Is it entertaining? Not really. Some of the dialogue is unintentionally funny in a crude way. The gore isn’t too bad, but it’s really only three very quick scenes. The plot is a total mess, wasting a lot of time following the police investigation back in New York. This has nothing at all to do with the main story, as Gloria will later be rescued by a pair of seedy monkey poachers who show up out of nowhere.
*. The cult cachet of these movies has gone up in recent years, leading to their being released on DVD with commentaries and other special features. Eli Roth even made an homage to them in 2013 (The Green Inferno). But really, they’re very poorly made and not all that interesting. If you’ve seen one you may not have seen them all but you’ve probably seen enough.

The Dead Zone (1983)

*. When commenting on doing this adaptation of The Dead Zone, David Cronenberg made the remark that the only way to be stay faithful to the source, Stephen King’s novel, was to betray it. It’s an interesting observation, and it raises the question of how much of this movie is King’s Dead Zone and how much of it is Cronenberg’s.
*. The screenplay went through a lot of drafts and the novel was considerably pared down. What was left seems almost like a kind of fairy tale. Even post-Donald Trump the rise of a hard-hatted huckster like Stillson doesn’t seem probable, or the ease with which Johnny takes him out. Castle Rock is in New Hampshire (not Maine, as it is in King’s universe), which is a big primary state, but it still looks more like Cronenberg country, which is Southwestern Ontario.
*. The Dead Zone went on to become a short-lived television series, and I’ve mentioned before how small-screen King often seems. Kubrick’s The Shining is one of the few times he’s been done on a grand scale. Perhaps it’s because his longer books adapt more easily as miniseries. Or perhaps it’s because King himself was more a product of television than he was of film. In any event, the smallness of Castle Rock fits the same template. Stillson rarely seems to be talking to groups larger than twenty or thirty people. And how weird is it that when Johnny takes Sarah to the amusement park they are the only two people on the rollercoaster? Indeed, aside from the rollercoaster operator they seem to be the only two people in the entire park (filmed at Canada’s Wonderland, just outside of Toronto). All of this just adds to the film’s fairy tale feel.

*. Of course the Weizak clinic is a classic Cronenberg location, and the idea of the hero’s body turning against him is another familiar touchstone, this time taking the form of a vampiric form of psychic precognition and visions that drain his life force. The religious fanaticism, however, is all King.
*. What a nice bit of countercasting. The dorky high school teacher played by Christopher Walken, a man perennially on the verge of a nervous breakdown. How many other actors could give that line about how “the ice is gonna break!” and get away with it? Not many. Certainly not Bill Murray, who was originally sought for the part.
*. Can we talk about the wallpaper? It may be the scariest thing in the movie. During one of the featurettes included with the DVD Cronenberg talks about the cowboy wallpaper in the room of the killer Dodd and says how this was a deliberate choice, to make him out to be not fully mature (I was reminded of Norman Bates’s bedroom in Psycho). But he also says that it was part of a design concept to make the sets look like something out of a fantasy American past: a 1950s, Norman Rockwell America.
*. Whatever the rationale for it, I think we can agree on just how horrifying the results are. Not just in Dodd’s bedroom but in the Stuart mansion (both the entrance hall and Chris’s room) and in the kitchen of Johnny’s house. I wonder if young people today can even imagine what it was like to grow up in homes that looked like this. I can because I did. Behold.

*. Perhaps Cronenberg just loves all that busy-ness on the walls. Because he also likes to look up the elaborate ceiling in Johnny’s old home. I don’t think he uses low-angle camera shots in any other set but this, but whenever he gets in this one he drops down to capture it. The effect is of ceiling wallpaper.

*. Nice to see Herbert Lom. I was wondering what had happened to him. Before this he was mainly keeping busy playing Chief Inspector Dreyfus in a whole slew of Pink Panther movies. I’d forgotten how many of those there were. Now I want to forget again.
*. Cronenberg gets credit for being a low-key kind of director, but I really thought the psychic vision sequences in this one needed more of a spark. I like Johnny in the burning bed, but the World War 2 material was dull (Cronenberg originally wanted a tank to burst through the wall of Dr. Weizak’s office) and the gazebo sequence just doesn’t have enough punch despite looking more than eerie enough.

*. The tripartite structure was very deliberate. It’s an interesting choice, but the problem with such a narrative is that it frustrates the building of any continuous interest. As, for example, with the relationship between Johnny and the casually adulterous Sarah. I got the sense that the movie really wanted me to care about these two, but at the end I just couldn’t.
*. The Dead Zone is often considered to be one of the better Stephen King adaptations, and I guess I agree, with the following two caveats: (1) there have been a hell of a lot of Stephen King adaptations; and (2) most of them have been mediocre at best. Judged on its own, I find it a movie of interesting moments but one that doesn’t add up to be more than the sum of its parts. With King, Cronenberg, and this cast, I was expecting something a little more special.

Silkwood (1983)

*. It’s hard not to get sucked into the hybrid game trying to classify this one. As in “this movie is a combination of movie x and movie y.” So, yes, my first thought was that I was watching a combination of The China Syndrome and Norma Rae (both 1979). This immediately led me to wonder how many people today watch any of these movies. How many young people will have even heard of them? And yet at the time they were all celebrated, award-winning films on controversial political subjects.
*. Well, it may be that nothing dates as much as the political. “Of course,” David Thomson says of Silkwood, “it’s a subject that we all prefer to forget.” Or, I would say, that we would prefer not to look at or into too closely in the first place. I think we’re all aware of the fact that a lot of the work people do is not only hard and poorly paid but unsafe and degrading. We all know that many of the comforts and conveniences of contemporary life have a dark side, but we prefer not to think about where the meat on our plate comes from, where our waste goes, who’s mining our data online, or just how little the big corporations that rule the world care about our well being.

*. The movie poster (and DVD box cover) is something else that has dated. The trio of leads (Meryl Streep, Kurt Russell, and Cher) look like the group from a 1980s romcom. But this is something else that led me on to further thoughts. Why is this movie so centred on these three characters and their cozy household and not just on Karen Silkwood? I couldn’t even remember the names of the other two characters five minutes after the movie was over (he’s Kurt Russell is Drew and Cher is Dolly). I was trying to remember the names while reading Roger Ebert’s review and found, to my slight chagrin, that he doesn’t name them either but just names Russell and Cher. I wonder if he forgot their names too. There may be something significant in that.
*. Do they really add that much to the film? Not in the eyes of many reviewers. Thomson writes them off quickly: “Cher was better than anyone expected, and Russell does nothing to get in the way.” Pauline Kael was even more withering: “Kurt Russell . . . is used mostly for his bare chest and his dimples.” No disagreement here. He’s cute, and he does spend a lot of time with this shirt off. Meanwhile, “Cher . . . has a lovely, dark-lady presence, but she’s used as a lesbian Mona Lisa, all faraway smiles and shrugs. It’s a wan, weak role.” Note how, in the scene when they’re all on the airplane together, she’s kept out of focus even in the foreground, when it would be interesting to see her face so we can judge what she may be thinking or hiding from the others.

*. So why are they there? A buff good ol’ boy who doesn’t get in the way and a dark lady in a wan, weak role? They don’t even have enough presence to act as foils for Karen. Craig T. Nelson has more gravity, projecting a field of dull menace.
*. This leaves us with Streep. The two critics I’ve been quoting — Thomson and Kael — are divided. Thomson describes her portrayal of Silkwood as “a wolflike maverick, sexy, insolent, and rebellious, but casual and lazy.” Kael: “She has no natural vitality; she’s like a replicant — all shtick.”
*. This shouldn’t be surprising. Streep has a reputation for being an actor who divides opinion. Some people just don’t like her (I mean, of course, as an actor). To be honest, I’m not a big fan myself and I’ve tended to like her more in supporting or character roles. In big parts I always feel like I’m watching a programmed star turn. Maybe that’s unfair, but even here I was always conscious of the fact that I was watching Meryl Streep doing an Okie accent. Maybe it’s just the curse of overfamiliarity. I have the same problem with Tom Hanks.
*. I saw Silkwood first sometime in the mid-’80s and I remember it having a much greater impact on me then. Today its message seems muted. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all become inured to the existence of such corporate misbehaviour and conspiracies. Maybe it’s because Bridges and Cher seem so laid back (and remember that even Thomson found Streep’s Silkwood “casual and lazy”). And maybe it’s because the fact that Karen is dying of radiation poisoning while she’s chain-smoking and drinking her way to an early grave anyway seemed sadly comic.
*. Worst of all, however, is the ending. Reviewers found it abrupt, which was something forced on the production for legal reasons (they didn’t want to get into a fight over what really happened on the night of Silkwood’s death). Personally, I wish it had been even more abrupt, as the montage that plays to “Amazing Grace” struck me as awkwardly sentimental and cloying. I wonder if that’s how Mike Nichols wanted to end the movie. I have my doubts.
*. I still think it’s a good movie, but like The China Syndrome (another good movie) it just doesn’t seem that essential any more. Maybe it needed to be angrier. Or maybe we’re all too jaded now to relate, or care.

Pet Sematary (1989)

*. One of the more depressing parts about running this blog is going back to movies that I first (and perhaps last) saw some twenty-five or thirty years ago and realizing they’re not as good as I remember them being. In some cases it’s just that the times have changed, in others I have. But still.
*. Pet Sematary is a bit different. I actually didn’t like it much at the time, mainly because I was really upset at the way they presented the victim of spinal meningitis as a monster. Today I have a more relaxed view on this. Stephen King has never shied away from grounding his horror in the things that scared us as kids and then making them real. So people with disabilities, or even the elderly, are presented as monsters in his work. Beloved family pets turn against you and there really is something hiding under the bed. Fair enough. I don’t think horror, any more than comedy, should hold anything sacred.
*. There are good things in Pet Sematary. The script (also by King) translates the novel well and serves up what should have been several wonderful sequences. I remember laughing with friends for years after over some of the lines. “The ground is sour.” “The soil of a man’s heart is stonier.” “Sometimes dead is better.” We laughed, but we remembered them because they’re great lines. Fred Gwynne is a delight as the old-timer Jud and Miko Hughes is outstanding as Gage, looking a bit like a real-life Chucky doll when he comes back from the dead (a resemblance noted by director Mary Lambert on her DVD commentary).

*. But while I still love the novel (a reimagining of the W. W. Jacobs story “The Monkey’s Paw” that was all the better for being one of King’s bleakest efforts), the movie now seems like a let down. It looks like most of the King movies from the 1980s, which is to say like a cheap movie-of-the-week put together by a director who didn’t really understand suspense or horror. That blue light that comes beaming out from the beyond. That soft focus used for the flashbacks. Ugh.
*. Apparently George Romero was originally slated to direct but he had to pull out. Lambert does keep things moving along with a story that is a really slow burn but I’m not sure she was the right choice to fill in. King’s core anxiety over the breakdown of the family isn’t developed much, jump scares courtesy of Church the cat are a lame and overused cliché, and the “good angel” character of Pascow (who seems modeled on Jack in An American Werewolf in London) lightens the mood too much. This should be a darker story.

*. The other big problem is Dale Midkiff, who just doesn’t seem to have the chops to pull off such a demanding role: the man falling to pieces before our eyes and becoming progressively insane. We really need to feel for Louis in this movie, to buy into his despair, and Midkiff plays him too much as a blank. His howls of anguish over the death of Gage — another cliché that is repeated — aren’t enough. In fact, given how silly they seem now, like Kirk screaming out for Khan, they are counterproductive.

*. So like I say, Pet Sematary is a mixed memory for me. The fact is, I do remember it. It’s a great story and is filled with passages that play better in my memory than they do seeing them again. For example, in the final section, which the movie is all a build-up to, we have Gage in his sinister old-tyme get-up, or grinning down at us from the attic. But such moments are all undercut. The next thing we know Gage has turned into a doll that’s been thrown at Louis, leading to another laughable moment.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake. With the success of the remake of It — another of King’s better books that was a respectable TV movie around the same time as Pet Sematary came out — it may happen. King may become one of those authors whose work endures by being constantly updated and reinterpreted for the tastes and concerns of following generations. That’s better than a long chain of sequels anyway.