Category Archives: 1980s

Creepshow 2 (1987)

*. The most successful genre fiction and films give us exactly what we expect, but with a twist. They make the familiar just a little unfamiliar. Not so much that audiences feel cheated about not getting what they paid for, but enough so that they don’t feel like they’ve seen it all before.
*. The twists on old, familiar stories are very small indeed in Creepshow 2. Here’s what I mean.
*. “Old Chief Wood’nhead”: the archetype here is the Mummy or, an even better fit, the Golem. A statue comes to life and exacts a bloody vengeance on those who have offended against its traditions and its people.

*. “The Raft”: I believe this is the only one of the three stories that had been previously published (by screenwriter Stephen King). The archetype is the Blob, now displaced into a quarry swimming hole. I think King really likes this story, as it also served as the inspiration for “The Lonesome Death of Jody Verrill,” the second story in the original Creepshow anthology (and the one where King himself played the title character).
*. “The Hitchhiker”: the archetype is the vengeful ghost, but there had also been spooky hitchhikers before. The story here may have been inspired by a Twilight Zone episode, and Rutger Hauer’s The Hitcher had only come out the year before. A hint of Spielberg’s Duel also seems to be playing in the background. Meanwhile, the plot of getting revenge for a hit-and-run would be used to kick off another King project in Thinner (1996).

*. I didn’t care for this one too much. Only the second story struck me as any good, with the first and last being far too formulaic. The first was the worst, as we’re just sitting around waiting for the Chief to come to life and do his thing, and the third didn’t have much to it aside from the comic indestructibility of the hitcher and his inane obsession with thanking Lois Chiles for the ride.
*. It was the ’80s, to I won’t mock the big hair or the jock’s yellow budgie smugglers in “The Raft.” I draw the line though at the soundtrack. Just listen to what we get as Chiles drives her Mercedes through the woods trying to knock the hitcher off her roof. It’s so generic, and unsuitable.
*. The frame story struck me as comic-book nonsense, but since it’s presented as a comic book I don’t know if that’s much of a criticism to make. Like a lot of the films made from King stories in the ’80s it all has a YA feel to it, and even the gore effects, which are pretty simple, don’t do much to affect this. All of which means it pretty much gave audiences what they expected. I just think that wasn’t enough.

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Cat’s Eye (1985)

*. I don’t mean it as a put-down when I say Stephen King is a small-screen kind of writer. I just mean that that’s what his work most comfortably adapts to. Dickens is the same way.
*. Maybe it’s his intimate domestic settings (turned upside-down, of course), and his focus on small, familiar experiences that swell in subjective time and space. Whatever the reason, when I watch King adaptations I rarely think of seeing these movies in a theatre. Kubrick’s The Shining is one exception, but I can’t think of any others off the top of my head.
*. Cat’s Eye is a horror anthology, consisting of a couple of stories (the first two here) that appeared in the collection Night Shift and a third that was written specially for the screen.
*. The cat as a connecting thread doesn’t work. It just runs from one story to another and only has a plot function in the last. (In the first story, as originally written, a bunny gets the shock treatment.) Apparently there was a prologue that explained the cat’s role a little more and how the troll was trying to steal the breath from another little girl (also played by Drew Barrymore), but this was cut, against director Lewis Teague’s wishes. With the Incredible Journey set-up gone, as things stand it’s not clear what the special relation between the little girl and the cat is. It’s said (by Barrymore) that he’s supposed to be trying to get “back” to save her, but when they do finally meet it seems as though it’s for the first time.
*. Well, there have been anthology-horror flicks with flimsier frames. I can’t say I was bothered by the cat here, even if he remains kind of enigmatic. Cats also make for poor actors (much worse than dogs) and the ones they had here (Teague says they used about a dozen) performs pretty well.

*. The first story, “Quitters, Inc.”, struck me as the best, both for having the most original story and for having James Woods playing the lead. His nervous demeanour fits well with the part of the overstressed exec suffering from nic fits.
*. My ranking “Quitters, Inc.” best is seconded by Teague in his commentary, where he calls it the most satisfying and the one that works best on its own. He also mentions how audiences remember it the most.
*. I don’t know this, but I’m guessing the little dig at the end comes from a Roald Dahl story, “Man from the South.” This story was also the inspiration for “The Man From Hollywood,” which was the Quentin Tarantino-directed segment in Four Rooms. These things get around.

*. I found the second story a bit of filler. It also gets off to a slow start (not in the original story) which just introduces us to the cat again and then lets us know that Cressner is a man who likes a good bet. That’s not enough information to bother with such a set-up.
*. After that we just have Robert Hays walking around on a ledge. I thought the cat might stroll out on the ledge to join him, and help with the pigeon, but that didn’t happen.
*. Speaking of the pigeon, I found it hard to credit that it would be so persistent in going after Hays’s ankle. In the story, however, King explains: “Pigeons don’t scare, not city pigeons, anyway.”

*. The final story was in fact the movie’s reason for being, as De Laurentiis wanted a vehicle for Drew Barrymore, which is kind of creepy in a way. As things turn out, however, she’s given very little to do. I think she was a great child actor but you don’t get to see that here.
*. You do get some pretty good special effects as the troll hops around the bedroom, and the final battle with the cat works well too, especially considering the difficulty of working with cats. But in the end it’s a very simple story about the kid who sees a monster in her bedroom but her parents won’t believe her, etc.
*. If you stay for the credits you actually get to listen to a “Cat’s Eye” theme song. They did that sort of thing in the ’80s.
*. As usual there are a lot of insider winks at the King oeuvre, beginning with cameos by Cujo himself (a film also directed by Teague) and the demon car Christine. But despite an obvious attempt at being lighthearted, there’s nothing particularly funny about any of it. It all just contributes to the sense of a movie that’s meant as light entertainment. Apparently it did OK box office but much better on home video, which was its natural home.

Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)

*. I wonder what went wrong. I’m not talking about the tragic accident that saw Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen killed when a helicopter fell on them. That’s a case that’s been through the courts and we know what went wrong there. I mean, what went wrong with this movie? They had some good material, a big budget, and decent talent involved. Why doesn’t it work?
*. The big problem, as I see it, lies in what they did to the stories. Specifically, they seemed intent on providing a bunch of happy endings. Steven Spielberg’s “Kick the Can” episode is the most obvious instance, but it’s not the only one. The third story was actually going quite well until the Happy Ending fairy struck again. And the thing is, it isn’t just a happy ending. It’s a happy ending that directly reverses the ending of the original episode, where Anthony is wishing for snow that will kill the town’s crops and lead to famine. Here he’s bringing the desert to bloom. That’s not just a change, that’s a spit in the eye of the original. And for what?
*. The first story is the only original one (that is, not taken from the television series). This doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it’s a really clunky morality tale about a bigot getting his comeuppance. Where is the wit and the weirdness in that?

*. It’s also worth noting that the first episode was supposed to also have a happy ending, with Morrow’s character being redeemed by saving a pair of Vietnamese children whose village is being destroyed. That it didn’t end up that way was only the result of the helicopter accident.
*. Credit Spielberg with at least being aware of the problem. Originally his story was to be the last one but I think he realized just how weak it was compared to Dante’s and Miller’s efforts and so demoted himself. Roger Ebert: “Spielberg, who produced the whole project, perhaps sensed that he and Landis had the weakest results, since he assembles the stories in an ascending order of excitement. Twilight Zone starts slow, almost grinds to a halt, and then has a fast comeback.”
*. The other problem with the stories is that there aren’t any twists or surprises. All of them play out just as you’d expect, or as less than you’d expect. The only nice touch was the reappearance of Dan Aykroyd at the end.

*. I think the critical consensus is nearly unanimous in finding the last two stories the strongest, and Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” the best overall. I’d agree with this, but I have to say that I’m not blown away by what Miller did. He took a great original and didn’t mess it up. John Lithgow almost takes things too far, but by this point in the movie I think we’re all ready for someone to start cutting loose. Still, watching this segment again recently I really didn’t find it as thrilling as I remembered. In fact, I’m not sure if the TV episode wasn’t better.
*. But maybe what went wrong really does go back to the helicopter accident. When something terrible like that happens, and it was the first of the episodes to film, it must have cast a pall over the rest of the production. I’m sure it affected Landis. Apparently Spielberg just wanted to wrap his episode up as quickly as possible and put the whole thing behind him. I’m sure it would have weighed on Dante and Miller too.
*. I guess it all might have seemed like a good idea at the time. But the direction they wanted to take it was all wrong, and in the event this was a movie built in the eclipse and rigged with curses dark.

Creepshow (1982)

*. The 1980s are calling! Check out Leslie Nielsen’s VHS library! Ted Danson’s leonine mane of hair! The world’s longest extensions cord — running all the way down to the beach just to plug that giant box of a TV in to! Oh, I remember the ’80s well. And I don’t miss them a bit!
*. For all of its dated corniness, however, I’m surprised at how well this movie has held up. It has, I think, a small cult following, and its air of gruesome silliness still works. In fact, given that movies in the twenty-first century have thus far been dominated by a comic-book/videogame aesthetic, it hasn’t missed a beat.
*. It wasn’t an original concept. British studios like Amicus and Hammer had already made anthology horror movies inspired by stories taken from Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, and other EC Comics. It was a natural fit between the two media, and I really like how the dissolves into and out of the pages of the comic book and the lurid colour scheme here plays this up.
*. Kim Newman: “The episodes tend to set up interesting situations, but fail to come up with the necessary funny/horrible punchlines.” I don’t agree with this. The punchlines seemed pretty good to me. The head-as-birthday cake? The eruption of cockroaches? And perhaps best of all, Leslie Nielsen’s triumphantly insane boast that he can hold his breath a long time? I thought these all struck the requisite note of ironic closure.

*. This shouldn’t be surprising, as both Romero and King have said they were raised on EC Comics and they’re both clearly in tune with the pulp spirit of the originals. I’m not sure Romero was a great director, but King does a great turn with the script here and I think it’s what mainly carries things along. He was at his peak as a writer in the ’80s, and the dialogue in particular is both naturalistic and dramatic in his best way.
*. King wasn’t a big fan of the sub-cult director Andy Milligan, calling his film The Ghastly Ones “the work of morons with cameras.” But I wonder if “Father’s Day” was at all inspired by that movie, since it contains a very similar scene. Maybe not (the idea goes at least as far back as the grisly end of John the Baptist), but perhaps he thought there was something there that he could borrow and improve on.
*. Speaking of possible influences, I wonder if the effect of bringing the pages of the comic book to life in a continuous dissolve was borrowed from Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror. They were both horror anthology films, so Romero might have had it in mind.

*. The cast also does a lot to help out. “The Crate” strikes me as the weakest story, at least in its concept, and it’s also the longest, but it’s given a jolt of energy with a couple of really good performances by Hal Holbrook and Adrienne Barbeau. Even though Barbeau in particular is really hamming it up, the comic-book tone is again captured perfectly and she just seems right.
*. King’s great theme has always been the threatened nuclear family, and that’s the basis of the frame story here as Billy (played by King’s own son, Joe) is abused by his crummy father (when gently prodded by his wife about his excessive discipline the man of the house replies “That’s why God made fathers, babe.”).

*. I wonder if the “Something to Tide You Over” segment was the source/inspiration for the Dutch film The Vanishing (1988). There’s the same premise of the lover with a need to find out what happened to his girlfriend being lured to a similar fate by a madman. I don’t know if the two films have ever been linked, but a connection seems possible.

*. To be sure, this is no Dead of Night. The anthology horror genre never climbed those heights again, and to be honest I don’t think it ever tried. Leaving Dead of Night aside, however, I think Creepshow stands out as one of the best of the rest. Some people prefer the British efforts, but I find them missing the sense of campy fun on display here. Before the coming of CGI, this was as close to comic books as the movies got. For better or worse.

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982)

*. Not Pink Floyd’s The Wall. But Pink Floyd: The Wall. Or, as it appears splattered on the title screen, Pink Floyd The Wall. Because that’s what’s on the album cover.
*. I think to some extent you have to be English to get it. Sort of like you have to be English to get If …., a movie that gives you some idea of where the satire on the education system here is coming from. As a psychobiography of Pink (Roger Waters), it’s very much the story of post-War England, or the England that the Second World War made. I don’t think that’s something an American audience can fully understand.
*. Gerald Scarfe brings this up on the DVD commentary, saying “I always sort of wonder how well this translates into other countries, you know because for us, or for me in particular, growing up in this period of the war it’s all very very reminiscent.” Unfortunately, Waters doesn’t respond to this and the point is dropped. Waters does, however, remark later that the movie Pink is watching on TV, The Dam Busters, means nothing to Americans but was a really big deal for English audiences.
*. Well, I can say that the album was so popular when I was a kid that it basically entered into my bloodstream, if not my DNA. It was a double album (if you remember such things) and I think I knew all the words to all the songs. I saw the movie around the time it came out and the imagery then got fastened to the music in my head.

*. I don’t think I’ve listened to it much since I was a teenager, or seen the movie again. Which is just to say that the story of a middle-aged man looking back on his life and trying to understand what went wrong is something I experience myself watching it for the first time in some twenty or thirty years. It’s not the story of my childhood or life, but it’s the story of the soundtrack to my childhood.
*. When I say I stopped listening to The Wall it’s not because I felt that I’d outgrown it or didn’t still like it, so much as I probably felt it didn’t have anything to say to me any more. Maybe I was wrong. It seems self-absorbed and a bit woolly today, but it still offers up its own magical “spots of time” (Wordsworth’s words for the kind of moments described in “Comfortably Numb”).
*. In short, while I was never a rock star trashing hotel rooms in the ’80s, I feel like I can relate to something here. Come to think of it, Roger Waters never trashed a hotel room either. So there, we do have something in common.

*. It’s an odd film in the sense of being a collaboration between three men — Waters, Scarfe, and director Alan Parker — who made roughly equal contributions. They did not get along well at all. Or at least Parker didn’t get along well with Waters. That seems to have been the main conflict.
*. Such conflict shouldn’t have come as a surprise. It’s hard to get three headstrong creative types all on the same page for a project like this. The surprising thing is that it came together at all.

*. It’s a movie I have a hard time judging today. So much of it seems a part of the past: both my own and a past world.
*. Perhaps the best example is the centrality of the different shots of Pink sitting like a zombie in front of the tube. Forget about relating to post-War England, I wonder if young people today can understand how much life revolved around television in the 1980s. We’re more accustomed to other screens and slightly different forms of autistic behaviour. I know of very few people, young or old, who do this kind of thing.

*. One thing a lot of (young) people were watching in the ’80s was MTV (launched just the year before this movie was released). You could think of The Wall as an extended music video and that wouldn’t be far from the mark. Also, as with some music videos, the images are now wedded to many of the songs. Before I saw the movie I’m sure I never associated “Comfortably Numb” with a kid throwing a dead rat into a canal, but now they can’t be pulled apart.
*. As a visual feast, it’s hard to fault the film’s design and the vitality and strength of its imagery. Scarfe’s animation in particular has really held up well. Even after so many of its types and referents have disappeared his images still have bite.

*. The Wall was a concept album, and I think the movie’s biggest failing is that the concept doesn’t come through all that well. Originally the wall just symbolized the barrier between a performer and his audience. It was a kind of mask, there to protect an artist’s vulnerabilities, but grew to encompass any sort of alienation (the television screen as a wall, isolating us in a cathode-ray cocoon) and finally even political borders.
*. I don’t feel that much of this comes through in the movie, which strikes me as being a thematic muddle. I think there must be a connection between Pink’s loss of his father and his subsequent morphing into an adult Nazi, but I’m not sure what it is. I don’t know why the post-War English should feel that the Nazis actually won in the end, somehow.

*. I also don’t understand Pink’s obsession with his mother. The album makes her out to be a smothering figure, a sort of fleshy wall of her own, but in the film she seems quite remote. You can’t help feeling that something isn’t coming through.
*. The result of much of this is to make Pink, played by Bob Geldof, appear more than a bit precious. Waters complains that the movie is “deeply flawed” because “it doesn’t have any laughs.” I think he may be on to something. A movie like this needed a bit of knowingness, an ability to laugh at itself, to show us that Pink understands how ridiculous, as well as tragic, he has become.

*. If I had to summarize here I’d say I still think it’s a great album, but not one I go back to much, and the movie is a great interpretation of the album but ditto. To borrow the image of the wall again, it seems like a hermetically sealed part of my own past and my memories of the ’80s. Or at least what I didn’t like about myself and didn’t like about the world in the ’80s. Which makes it a real achievement on one level, but it’s a past I don’t want to be reminded of now.
*. Does that mean I’m still building my own wall? Sure. I mean, whatever happened to alienation? It didn’t go away. In fact, I’d say there’s more of it than ever. We’re certainly more absorbed in our screens. But we don’t talk about alienation much any more. Narcissism is the new mantra. Either way, it’s an escape from looking at the real world that’s now taken for granted if not encouraged. Art, in turn, has become even further removed from the human, moving toward greater artificiality, superficiality, and convention. At least that’s my reading of the writing on the wall.

From Beyond (1986)

*. Why did this team — director Stuart Gordon, producer Brian Yuzna, actors Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton — give or take individual members, keep returning to the works of H. P. Lovecraft? After all, they changed the actual stories so much as to make them virtually unrecognizable. Indeed, in some cases they seem to have only kept the characters’ names.
*. Roger Corman had taken the same liberties with the works of Poe in his Poe cycle, and apparently Gordon had the idea of doing the same with Lovecraft. This doesn’t, however, explain the particular attraction Lovecraft had.
*. I think the main draw was that it was material that was in the public domain that had name recognition. The titles were even sometimes presented as H. P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond, H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, etc. At the same time, however, the stories were not sources that people were too familiar with or particularly wed to.
*. As an added bonus, with Lovecraft you got tentacles. Lovecraft is all about ropey, grasping tentacles. For some reason these movies really like tentacles too. They almost make a fetish of them. So there was something that was simpatico there.
*. There is one consistent, and glaring, digression from Lovecraft they make (I’m still talking about the Gordon-Yuzna Lovecraft films in general here). That has to do with sex. Most of these films have an enlarged and explicit sexual component, but sex was never big for Lovecraft. Or at least, it wasn’t big on the surface. Biographers and literary critics like to speculate on the meaning all those tentacles might have had in the mind of someone so repressed.
*. Of course there’s nothing new about erotic horror. Dracula was a sexy guy. The Wolf Man was the awakened id. Around this time, however, horror was getting downright kinky. A year after this movie was released Hellraiser came out, which played up the S&M angle even further. In fact, they’re very similar films in many ways, with horny devils from another dimension and women who get turned on by all that nasty stuff. For Dr. McMichaels the “resonator” is clearly some kind of proto-orgasmatron.

*. As with the famous scene of “the head giving head” in Re-Animator, the envelope here is pushed pretty hard. I mean, Katherine giving Crawford a handjob and then licking her fingers is pretty darn explicit.
*. Aside from the sexual angle though there’s nothing much of interest here. Lovecraft’s story is done before the credits start to roll. The plot basically just exists to show off a bunch of gruesome effects involving people’s bodies melting in grotesque ways. And pineal glands that sprout like erections from foreheads. And tentacles.

*. At the beginning of the movie (right after the credits) Dr. Bloch leaves her keys in the door to Tillinghast’s cell when she leaves. I thought they were going to make something out of that, but I guess it was just a slip.
*. It’s not a scary movie but it does have some fun moments. Bubba (Ken Foree, who was Peter in Dawn of the Dead) fighting the monster in his red Speedo-underwear. Crawford sucking out eyeballs. Just hearing the name Dr. Pretorius (in the story Tillinghast is the mad doctor while the Jeffrey Combs character is unnamed).
*. But basically it’s an effects film. Given the date and how cheaply the film was made (in Italy, where the producers could really stretch a buck), we shouldn’t expect too much from those effects today. Some of them, especially the floating fluorescent eels, look pretty bad. There’s also none of the sense of transgressive danger that would energize Hellraiser and make that movie such a game-changer. From Beyond doesn’t ask us to take it seriously, because that’s not how it takes itself.

The Beyond (1981)

*. Say what you will about the films of Lucio Fulci, the man knew how to talk the talk. Here he is defending The Beyond against critics complaining of its narrative incoherence: “People who blame The Beyond for its lack of story have not understood that it’s a film of images, which must be received without any reflection. They say it is very difficult to interpret such a film, but it is very easy to interpret a film with threads: Any idiot can understand Molinaro’s La Cage aux Folles, or even Carpenter’s Escape From New York, while The Beyond or Argento’s Inferno are absolute films.”
*. The notion of an “absolute film” sounds like Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” but that’s misleading. Pure cinema was a way of telling a story visually, but Fulci has no interest in story at all. “My idea,” he explains, “was to make an absolute film, with all the horrors of the world. Its a plotless film, there’s no logic to it, just a succession of images”

*. Those, then, are the ground rules. If you find The Beyond hard to follow then you just don’t understand that it’s a nightmare and isn’t meant to make sense. Don’t try to figure out what is going on, or why. Give up on trying to figure out who Emily is, what she’s doing, and why she has to be killed if she’s already dead. Or how that overturned bottle of acid just keeps pouring and pouring until it seems like it’s emptied a couple of bathtubs. Or how the doctor’s revolver magically reloads, and why he doesn’t understand, despite all the evidence he has in front of him, that you can only stop zombies by shooting them in the head. This film has nothing to do with such matters. Perhaps there are answers in the Book of Eibon, but good luck finding it!
*. We could even take this “absolute film” defence further. The Beyond is usually grouped together with two other movies — City of the Living Dead and The House by the Cemetery — as forming what’s been called the Gates of Hell trilogy. These three movies have little in common aside from dealing with very local outbreaks of zombies. But why even expect them to be connected? If The Beyond isn’t internally coherent, how could it function as part of a trilogy?

*. I’m not a big Fulci fan. I’ve mentioned before how I think he’s the least talented — and that by a long shot — of the big three Italian horror masters (the others being Mario Bava and Dario Argento). He has little skill when it comes to building suspense, preferring to wallow in gore and to throw a bunch of images up on the screen that should be scary but rarely are.
*. Maybe it’s the lack of any sense of pace. Damn but Fulci’s zombies move slowly. They’re just barely ambulatory. Other times they only stand around like mannequins. Then there are the big fuzzy spiders. They crawl about their victim here with a distinct lack of urgency. This seems to be Fulci’s default pace. Horror approaches very slowly and steadily, like the creep of bloody foam coming up to the girl’s shoes in the morgue. But it’s never very scary, or even threatening.

*. The slow pace and lack of a coherent story, with some help from bad dubbing and bad effects, make for some funny moments. I don’t laugh at Bava or Argento, even when they’re really bad, but I find myself laughing throughout a lot of Fulci’s movie, even, or especially, when he’s at his best. There’s something so wonderfully silly and surreal about them. Like Emily being shown running out of the house over and over. What’s going on there? Or is that another question not to be asked?
*. I just mentioned bad effects, and that’s a point I want to underline. After all, if you’re selling your movie as just a bunch of unrelated images, those images had better be good, right? Well, they’re not. The dog and spider puppets look terrible. The effect the film keeps going back to is having faces dissolve into sludge: with lime or acid dumped on them, or being torn apart by spiders. But the latex and goo just look fake. And look at the watery blood pumping out of Emily’s throat when it’s ripped open by her dog (a scene stolen from Suspiria, by the way). That’s just ridiculous. It clearly isn’t coming out of any arteries.

*. Fulci also has a thing about going after eyes, and this at least gives The Beyond it’s one “good” (if physically improbable) kill as the spike in the wall is driven through the back of Martha’s head and punches out her eyeball from behind. I’ll give him one point for that. But it’s not as good as the eye being impaled with a splinter of wood in Zombie.
*. By that time, however, The Beyond was so far behind on the score that it didn’t make any difference. For some reason this is considered a bit of a cult film, though I don’t think it even rates that highly among Fulci’s other work. I’d rather watch Don’t Torture a Duckling or Zombie or City of the Living Dead again than watch this. As always with Fulci there are a couple of standout scenes and some interesting sets (the morgue, the flooded basement, the moonscape of hell), but that’s it. All in all it’s a turgid, waxy mess that isn’t well put together or original in any way. It may be “absolute film” but that doesn’t make it any better.

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.