Category Archives: 1980s

The Big Chill (1983)

*. I had thought this film mostly forgotten by now. Where it was still remembered, I didn’t think many people took it seriously. But then, even when it came out I remember thinking of it as a bit of a joke. Was I wrong?
*. Well, it did get a Criterion release, if that means anything. And they include an essay by Lena Dunham where she seems to find some deeper meaning in it. Apparently “These are your parents.” Or at least her parents. Her essay seems mostly to be about herself, so perhaps there’s some inherited self-absorption going on. But in any event she takes the movie straight.
*. I think that’s more and more of a mistake. In hindsight The Big Chill strikes me as being high camp, and as the years go by it’s getting campier all the time.
*. What I mean is that this is not a bad movie in the sense of being dull or incompetent. In many regards it’s quite well done and entertaining: a polished production with an excellent cast. But it is also a joke.
*. This is going a bit further than contemporary reviewers did. They found it slick but empty. Pauline Kael (who, on balance, liked it): “The picture offers the pleasures of the synthetic. It’s overcontrolled, it’s shallow, it’s a series of contrivances. And whenever Kasdan tries for depth the result is phony.”
*. Or, Roger Ebert, saying something rather similar: “The Big Chill is a splendid technical exercise. It has all the right moves. It knows all the right words. Its characters have all the right clothes, expressions, fears, lusts and ambitions. But there’s no payoff and it doesn’t lead anywhere. I thought at first that was a weakness of the movie. There also is the possibility that it’s the movie’s message.”
*. Of course that is part of the message, with the final line being Michael’s declaration that the group is never going to leave the comfort of their well-appointed womb. So, literally, it is a movie that doesn’t lead anywhere. It has no politics at all and the psychologizing is canned (the impotent Vietnam vet, the repressed housewife, etc.) In short, I think Ebert and Kael are right that this is a glossy film without any depth. Though it does try for depth. And that’s where it gets funny.

*. You could compare it to other movies concerned with defining a generation. Slacker, maybe. Or you could compare it to John Sayles’s The Return of the Secaucus 7, which writer-director Lawrence Kasdan says he had not seen. But when I was watching it this most recent time the movie I couldn’t get out of my head was Valley of the Dolls.
*. Both films are camp soap operas. They earnestly look to deal with Very Serious Matters but they are kitschy and absurd. In both films we have no sense of watching adults dealing with real problems. Instead, this is what a precocious pre-teen imagines being an adult is like. The angst. The ennui. The pills. The sex.
*. Laughs? I mean, unintended ones. There are more of these than there were scripted gags. How can you watch the scene with Sam and Karen on the boardwalk and not be grinning ear-to-ear? Give it another few years and I think we’ll all be laughing right through it. Or when John Hurt’s Nick says, in the perfect pissy voice, that “it’s only outside here, in the world, that it gets tough!” That’s a closer.

*. And it’s not just funny. It’s creepy too. It’s like all of Karl Marx’s and D. H. Lawrence’s worst fantasies about the beastliness of the bourgeoisie have been realized in a single weekend of frantic bed-hopping, with wounded men being pursued by mature professional women in heat. The climax of all this is the seeding of poor childless Meg, which we know was successful because we see her watching the virile Kevin Kline going out for his morning jog while she reclines on her pillows with a well-serviced smile of satisfaction. Oh my.
*. Of course it’s the essence of camp that it take itself seriously and the fact that Kasdan and co-writer Barbara Benedek really felt this loss of ’60s innocence and the warm atmosphere of college, with the subsequent big chill of entering into a colder “real” world, is what pushes the film into the realm of a camp classic.
*. Apparently all the actresses thought the breeding arrangement was ridiculous, insane, and unimaginable, but Kasdan found it “benign” and couldn’t understand why people thought it exceptional. Another example of his innocence leading to unintended hilarity.

*. In our own time we’ve come to hate this generation, and not without some reason. They are seen as the sell-outs who just coasted through life, enjoying the sunny days of America’s postwar golden-age economy while whining about their own loss of ideals. The fact that the friends here have achieved such a fantastic level of success only makes their complaining more ridiculous. A bunch of Michigan classmates have become the owner of a chain of shoe stores, a big-shot lawyer, the star of a hit television series, a writer for a national magazine (back when that was a good job), a syndicated radio host, a doctor . . . and we’re supposed to feel these people’s pain as they try to adjust to the cold cruel world of adult reality? Or because their lives didn’t turn out the way they wanted? That they didn’t, as the song has it, get what they want?

*. It’s very theatrical. Very talky, in a way where the lines are all clipped and meant to be significant (Ebert: “The dialogue sounds like a series of bittersweet captions from New Yorker cartoons”). The characters are quickly identifiable as types, which is to say unrealistic caricatures. Jeff Goldblum’s Mike is the worst, being so obnoxious and awkward it’s hard to understand how the other, more successful yuppies stand him.
*. So it’s all very silly and superficial and campy, which makes it fun in a so-awful-it’s-kind-of-good sort of way. If it stands for anything today I see it as representing the final turning away from the spirit of the independent American filmmaking of the 1970s. I thought it interesting that Criterion included an interview with Kasdan where he talks about his preference for working within the studio system. He makes several good points about the quality of the talent on both sides of the camera that he had to work with. One is able to do more with greater resources.
*. That said, so much has been lost. There’s no comparing the depth of a film like Five Easy Pieces to the silliness here. Even in its sincerity there is something so almost painfully immature about this movie and it’s resolution not to grow up. An indictment of its generation, or a touching elegy? I’m sure the aim was for the latter, but you don’t always get what you want.

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Prince of Darkness (1987)

*. I’ve heard that John Carpenter considers Prince of Darkness to be the middle part of something called the Apocalypse Trilogy, which began with The Thing and ended with In the Mouth of Madness. I see little connection between the three films aside from his usual preoccupations as a filmmaker. I guess each movie deals with a threat to the planet or civilization as we know it, but that’s kind of broad.
*. On the DVD commentary he makes a more interesting statement, saying his movies tend to fall into two types: journey or siege. He calls Prince of Darkness a siege picture, which it is. We see various people and groups of people barricaded in different rooms in the old church. But while there’s something in this here I’m not sure it works out that well for the rest of his filmography. Assault on Precinct 13 and The Fog are obviously sieges. Escape from New York and Starman are obviously journeys. Aside from that, things get murky. I mean, I guess Halloween is a kind of siege, but They Live? Village of the Damned?
*. Instead of looking to labels like this, I’d identify Prince of Darkness as a Ghostbusters thriller. What I mean by this is the kind of film where a team of specialists with a science background are called in to investigate a supernatural or paranormal phenomenon. Kim Newman traces the genre back to the 1972 BBC production The Stone Tape, which is as good a place as any to start. The Haunting is definitely a precursor, though it has less high-tech equipment. PoltergeistThe Entity, and Ghostbusters are other notable examples. Prince of Darkness is very much the same kind of thing, with the team of grad students in various disciplines unloading crates of equipment to study spooky goings-on in an abandoned church in L.A.
*. The Stone Tape was written by Nigel Kneale. Kneale also created Professor Quatermass, who was the main character in a number of Ghostbuster movies. Carpenter wrote the screenplay for Prince of Darkness but adopted the pseudonym of Martin Quatermass in the credits. So you see how this all comes around.
*. I might add here that Kneale was not impressed by this homage. He later wrote: “For the record I have had nothing to do with the film and I have not seen it. It sounds pretty bad. With an homage like this, one might say, who needs insults? I can only imagine that it is a whimsical riposte for my having my name removed from a film I wrote a few years ago [a reference to Halloween III for which Kneale wrote an early draft] and which Mr. Carpenter carpentered into sawdust”. That’s pretty cold.
*. In most Ghostbuster stories science comes up short. I guess the point is to show us that there are some riddles science can’t solve, more things between heaven and earth than are dreamt of in its cold philosophy. As the computer message from the pit tells us here, “You will not be saved by the god Plutonium.” At least, I think that’s a dig at nerds.
*. In Prince of Darkness the inefficacy of science seems even more pronounced than usual, in part because it’s built up so much. There’s a lot of talk about the vagaries and uncertainties of quantum physics, and a ton of lab equipment brought to the church, but for all the talk and computer screens filled with scrolling code none of it means a thing. It has no relation at all to the green goop in the basement and never comes in to play. On the commentary Carpenter dismisses the science talk as basically mumbo-jumbo, which it is. Why bring all these brainiacs in when nothing in their areas of expertise is of any use? Even the expert on ancient languages isn’t able to add anything of value. The idea that the future (1999!) is communicating to our dreaming minds via tachyons is kind of funny though.
*. “I had the dream too. This image that didn’t seem to belong to my subconscious.” Hm. But how would you know an image didn’t belong to your subconscious? What qualities would it have that would make it seem that way?
*. It’s a very set-bound production, which makes me wonder why Carpenter keeps sticking to shooting in widescreen. He always talks about how much he loves widescreen, but surely some projects and some material is better suited for such a format than others. It doesn’t seem to work very well here.
*. Another one of Carpenter’s predilections is for the small group of people who have to team up to face a conflict together (this is basically something he borrowed from Howard Hawks). The only problem with it here is that our attention gets divided among a bunch of different threads, without any of them seeming to be of much importance.

*. Given the track record of rock stars appearing on screen, Alice Cooper wisely limits his role here to that of a speechless presence. His one big scene, the “grotesque gag” (Carpenter) of the bicycle murder, was taken directly from one of his stage shows.
*. The gore is limited and the special effects mainly consist of flipping the camera so that water drips upward and showing hands passing through pools of mercury. That’s not much. I did like the idea of the possessed vomiting streams of unholy water into their victims’ mouths. I wonder if that’s something they consciously adopted in 28 Days Later for the spread of the virus.
*. As in almost any film involving the devil or demonic possession, at least going back to The Exorcist, we’re left a bit unimpressed at the devil’s powers and ambition. Roger Ebert: “Let’s face it. When a movie promises us the Prince of Darkness, we expect more than a green thing in a tube that sprays fluids into people’s mouths, turning them into zombies who stand around for most of the movie looking like they can’t remember which bus to take. When we’re threatened with Armageddon, we expect more than people hitting each other over the head with two-by-fours.”
*. Why does the black guy go all goofy when he’s possessed, instead of turning into a zombie? Do I want to know?
*. Is it even worth asking what’s going on with Kelly? At first when I saw her swollen belly I assumed she was pregnant with Satan’s demon love child. But I guess that was just fluid that hadn’t been absorbed yet. Then her face breaks out in bloody sores and she seeks to draw her “father” over from the Other Side. But how is she different from any of the other zombies?
*. I don’t think Carpenter is that interested in questions like these. Or in what happens to Catherine at the end. Is she one of the devils now? Or on the side of the angels?
*. John Carpenter is a hard case for me. He’s directed a number of very good, seminal films, and at least one classic (The Thing). He’s also shown a real knack for re-imagining tired genres in interesting ways. But he’s also done a lot of work that just seems perfunctory. I think Prince of Darkness falls into the latter camp. The idea, which is pedestrian to begin with, is left unexplained and undeveloped. There are no great scares or suspense sequences. It’s basically a low-rent apocalypse, with homeless people instead of zombies but without any interest in the kind of social commentary that fascinated Romero. What we’re left with is minor Carpenter, which is a big step down from his best.

Ghostbusters (1984)

*. What a pleasant surprise. I was expecting to be underwhelmed by Ghostbusters this time around. I saw it, along with everyone else, when it first came out, and of course I loved it then. But I hadn’t seen it in a long time, maybe twenty years, and I figured it would have dated badly.
*. Not so. The dry humour of Murray, Aykroyd, and Ramis holds up really well. I mean, it’s been Murray’s signature his entire career, and it’s never gone out of style. Sigourney Weaver is so obviously having a great time, even when she’s possessed by the demon Zuul, that you enjoy every scene she’s in. The special effects aren’t bad for the pre-CGI era. Hell, I was even singing along to Ray Parker, Jr.’s theme song, a bit of call-and-response ear candy that was patterned after an advertising jingle and that I don’t think anyone ever forgets.

*. The supporting company is great too. Annie Potts, Rick Moranis, and William Atherton (as the “dickless” dick) are perfectly cast. Ernie Hudson? He’s good, but you do have to wonder what he’s doing here. I like him as an actor and think he plays well, but the part seems so unnecessary.
*. On the commentary it’s said that Winston is the necessary everyman figure who the others can explain necessary plot points to, but really this only occurs in the one scene where they detail the working of the ghost trap in the basement, and they could have just as easily done that with Annie Potts. The rest of the time he seems like a fifth wheel. In a 2015 article for Entertainment Weekly, Hudson himself wrote: “I love the character and he’s got some great lines, but I felt the guy was just kind of there.”
*. Apparently the Winston Zeddmore part was supposed to be bigger because it was originally written for Eddie Murphy. When Murphy turned the role down it remained as a sort of vestigial tail to the script. Oh well. Apparently much of the script was improvised anyway, so you win some and lose others.
*. On the DVD commentary track Harold Ramis denies that there was any double meaning to the “crossing the streams” business. I don’t believe him for a minute, but part of what makes the movie so enjoyable is that the sexual angle is so deftly dealt with. There’s lots of that going on, but it’s never bawdy, and plausible deniability is maintained. That device Venkman brings with him on his first visit to Dana’s apartment? The post-coital positioning of Weaver and Moranis after the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster finally hook up? Those aren’t laughs, but they’re big smiles.

*. I think the funniest line is Stantz telling Venkman: “You never studied.” Such deadpan condescension, with just the faintest hint of wry amusement. But it makes me wonder what exactly it is that Dr. Venkman hasn’t studied. Aren’t they all experts in the paranormal?
*. It’s interesting that just a couple of years earlier The Entity had also introduced a ghost-busting unit that worked out of a university, but in that movie they played it straight. The genre of films where science is used to investigate the supernatural would go on to have a long life, but it was rarely the subject of comedy. Why not? It seems a natural fit.
*. What such a line as “You never studied” also serves to underscore is that it’s the little things here that are the funniest. Roger Ebert made a good point in his review of the film by mentioning how it upsets the general rule “that the more you spend, the fewer laughs you get.” In some ways it’s sort of like today’s Marvel Universe films, where a wisecracking, smartass superhero (Ant-Man or Deadpool) tear off one-liners in the face of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of CGI. Even the climax here, with the team assembled to shut down a portal from another dimension threatening to destroy NYC, is very Marvel-ish. And yet somehow it works.
*. Well, you can overanalyze comedy. I’ve never found Ghostbusters to be hysterically funny, but it was charming thirty-five years ago and it’s still charming today. Charming, I would add, without depending on nostalgia. Though I do miss the cards we see exploding from the drawers of the catalogue file at the library. Libraries used to be such magical places, you could believe a ghost was haunting the stacks. Now such spirits are almost as rare as books.

The Entity (1982)

*. Poor Barbara Hershey. She could’ve been, should’ve been a legendary scream queen. Black Christmas, where Hershey played the last girl, came out before Halloween, and was a very good movie in its own right, but it didn’t have anything like the same impact. Then this movie came out the same year as Poltergeist, and is a much better movie, but it fell into eclipse too.
*. Sure, horror afficionados today will talk your ear off about how good Black Christmas and The Entity are, but at the time both pretty much disappeared, and Barbara Hershey went on to other things. But then, even though she’s very good in both movies, maybe she didn’t want to be a scream queen. I can’t say, but I did think it was nice to see her back in a somewhat similar role in Insidious nearly thirty years later.
*. The story of The Entity is based on “actual events” (Carla Moran was a woman named Doris Bither). Well, so was The Amityville Horror. What I find interesting, and something I mentioned in my notes on The Amityville Horror, is the way the DVDs for these movies are packaged with bonus features that treat the subject matter as absolutely authentic. In the case of The Entity it’s a featurette called “The Entity Files.” I’m not sure why this genre gets this kind of treatment. I mean, I like The Entity but I don’t believe in any of it for a second.
*. Billy does look a little old to be Carla’s son, not to mention a bit too tough to be threatened by a ghost. In fact, David Labiosa was thirteen years younger than Hershey, and the film does say that Cara had Billy when she was just a kid so . . . I guess it’s OK.
*. Sidney J. Furie wasn’t looking to re-invent the wheel. He really loves him some Dutch tilts. He uses lighting to cast ghoulish shadows on faces, even when you can’t explain them. And then there’s that banging/clanging score. Effective? Annoying? Cheap? All of the above? I like it.
*. The Rube Goldberg-MouseTrap device at the end is ridiculous. Up till then the movie was doing so well making a virtue out of its cheap budget by not showing the creature and getting by on familiar low-budget horror-film techniques. Then the campus Ghostbusters build an entire house in a gymnasium to capture the entity? How would that work? Why would the entity only attack Carla in an exact replica of her home? Why would a spiritual entity freeze when doused in liquid hydrogen?
*. Still, as sketchy as the science is you do have to give this some credit as one of the earlier science vs. the paranormal films. There had been ghost hunters before, but after this film and Poltergeist it would really become a genre.
*. It’s an oddly anticlimactic end. The giant exploding iceberg looks silly, and then Carla just drives away. But we are told the entity still haunts her. So?
*. I do like the conference room full of doctors puffing away on their cigars, cigarettes, and pipes. Was that the way things (still) were in hospitals in 1982? I don’t remember.
*. A feminist film? I would say so. Carla is a hard-working single mom threatened by sexual domestic violence. The men she looks to for help are useless. Dr. Sneiderman thinks she’s a hysteric and her lover Jerry is even worse: a lecherous older man who turns into a blubbering coward when the going gets tough. Meanwhile, Carla’s saviour is another woman: Dr. Cooley, who runs the parapsychology lab the medical old boys club want to shut down. Finally, Carla faces her antagonist at the end and, while admitting it may be able to rape her it will never “have” her. It’s a moment that could have been ridiculous, but Hershey sells it and makes it into something powerful.
*. Though it has its fans, I get the sense this is a movie that most people still don’t know. Personally, I think it’s a pleasant surprise. It’s not great, but if you haven’t seen it, it will probably beat the hell out of your expectations.

Gremlins (1984)

*. One of the things that makes this blog interesting (for me at least) is revisiting movies I haven’t seen in twenty or even thirty years and seeing how well they’ve held up. That’s the case again with Gremlins, which I remember catching when it came out but which I don’t think I’ve seen since. So call it thirty-five years.
*. I remembered the basic premise, or at least the part about not getting the mogwais wet because if you do they start reproducing like tribbles and turning into nasty little lizards. The basic iconography of good and evil: furry and big eyes = cute; scaly and narrow-eyed = vermin. Even at the time there were critics who saw something racial in this, since the gremlins are associated with several black stereotypes and enter the nearly all-white Kingston Falls by way of Chinatown.
*. Just sticking with that point for a second, I’ll register here how much I dislike the appearance of the mogwai Gizmo. With his furry cuteness he reminds me far too much of the ewoks in Return of the Jedi, which had just come out the year before. It’s a creature that looks like it was designed for the toy shelves.
*. The only other parts I had any recollection of were the scenes of the gremlins tearing around town raising hell. Of course, it had been a long time and I have a poor memory. But more than that, there really isn’t anything else here going on.
*. It’s a remarkably casual script. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just the kind of movie it is: a bit of whimsy that isn’t meant to add up.
*. None of the characters aside from Billy are that important. It seems as though Mrs. Deagle is going to play a major role in the proceedings but her defenestration comes quick and early. Dick Miller’s Mr. Futterman looks like he should be fun, but again is quickly disposed of. I don’t know what the point was of introducing us to Judge Reinhold’s assistant bank manager. As Joe Dante says on the commentary, his character “just sort of goes away.” And we might say the same of Corey Feldman.
*. In the deleted scenes included with the DVD we get some more information, but it’s just as disposable. Mrs. Deagle was buying up the homes of distressed citizens in order to build some sort of toxic chemical facility, but what of it? There was no point keeping this discovery. More interesting was what Dante has to say about the deleted scene where Reinhold is discovered locked in the bank’s vault. Again, this is a pointless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or tell us anything but apparently it came down to a choice between keeping it or Phoebe Cates’s big speech about the death of her father and why she hates Christmas. In other words, her speech was basically just as pointless, even though Dante would claim that it “encapsulates the whole tone of the movie.”
*. All of this underlines my point about how casual the script is. Nothing connects, or is meant to be seen as important. Even Kate’s jarringly bleak Christmas story. It’s just . . . there, and I don’t think we’re meant to pay much attention to it at all. You can see why the studio, as well as test audiences and Spielberg, wanted to get rid of it. But that sense of not having any point or role to play in the story is typical of just about everything that’s going on.
*. Much the same could be said of all the old movie references. Joe Dante is a supreme film buff to be sure, but it would be a mistake to take any of these borrowings as homages. They are just dropped in to the mix and have little or no significance to what’s happening in the rest of the movie. Of course the gremlins turne out to be crazed cinephiles too, and it’s all fun but none of it has any weight.
*. One of the few references that did seem loaded was the gremlin eggs, which look so much like those that the facehuggers burst out of in Alien. For a moment you start to think that maybe things are about to get dark. Perhaps as dark as the original script, which had a real sadistic streak. But then the gremlins hatch and all they really seem to be about is creating chaos on a sugar rush.
*. But like I say, that’s just the kind of movie this is. It’s credited as being one of the films responsible for the PG-13 rating because of its violence, but it’s hard to take any of that seriously. Everything has the texture of fantasy. You know that as soon as you see how nobody seems that surprised to have discovered an entirely new form of life. They just think Gizmo is cute. And then there is the look of Kingston Falls, which is Universal’s backlot covered in fake snow. Again, this fits the tone of the movie, but it’s all so weightless I don’t see where there was much to be offended by.
*. I mentioned how the characters in the movie just tend to drop out, disappearing without any further mention. Could we say the same for the stars and the director? I think this was Zach Galligan’s feature debut, and though he’s kept busy ever since it’s been in mostly unremarkable work. I think Phoebe Cates retired in the mid-’90s, without having done anything else that memorable. Drop Dead Fred? And Joe Dante, who was riding high at the time with The Howling and an episode of Twilight Zone: The Movie just before this film, went on to do mostly TV work (and other stuff like the delightful Trailers from Hell web series). It seems an odd legacy for such a successful project. All three, however, did at least reunite for a sequel.

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.

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.