Category Archives: 1980s

The King of Comedy (1982)

*. The King of Comedy was a movie that failed very badly at the box office. This shouldn’t have been that surprising. Even Martin Scorsese’s strongest critic-fans, big names like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, had major reservations. They found the movie an oddity, and uncomfortable.
*. Its reception makes me think of The Cable Guy (1996), another black comedy that seemed a little too black, or too close to home, when it came out. The Cable Guy made money (it starred Jim Carrey at the height of his celebrity), but I think the box office was still disappointing, and critics were put off.
*. Today the conventional view is that The King of Comedy (like The Cable Guy) was ahead of its time. Maybe, but we have to specify in what ways. The script by Paul Zimmerman had been kicking around for ten years (Dick Cavett was the model for Jerry Langford), and just as a satire on celebrity or the media I don’t think it was saying anything terribly new. Lauren Bacall had been stalked by a crazy fan just a couple of years earlier. But of course that was a slasher flick, and this was Scorsese.
*. In the featurette included with the DVD release both Scorsese and Sandra Bernhard argue more for it being a movie that marked the end of something, a great period or golden age of America filmmaking, than being ahead of the curve. Bernhard: “I don’t think a film like The King of Comedy could be made today.”
*. Of course, in 2019 they did try to make a movie very much like it in Joker. But Joker is set in 1981, so is it of its time or does it harken back to a lost world?

*. I’ll pursue this a bit further. Here’s Roger Ebert: “This is a movie that seems ready to explode — but somehow it never does. . . . That lack of release disturbed me the fist time I saw The King of Comedy . . . I kept straining forward, waiting for the movie to let loose and it kept frustrating me. Maybe that was the idea. This is a movie about rejection, with a hero who never admits that he has been rejected and so there is neither comic nor tragic release — just the postponement of pain.”
*. Originally, Jerry Lewis had wanted the same kind of thing Ebert found missing, some more explosive catharsis. Lewis argued that Pupkin should have killed Jerry Langford at the end but Scorsese nixed the idea and Lewis was disappointed in the result, feeling the movie didn’t have a proper finish.
*. Joker would not be so discreet or ambiguous, erupting in a climax of individual and mass violence. Why? Because in 2019 perhaps we were all Arthur Fleck. In 1983 we most definitely weren’t all Rupert Pupkin. So in that sense at least we can say The King of Comedy was ahead of its time.
*. Rupert is not a gangster but one of Scorsese’s disturbed loners, men who don’t belong to any gang or community, or who even have girlfriends. Travis Bickle and Max Cady are the other two that come to mind. These people are very dangerous, existing outside of any socializing structures (however criminal those structures may be). Does Rupert even live with his mother? Or is that another part of his fantasy? Scorsese didn’t want audiences to be able to differentiate, any more than Rupert can. Without any social connections, unless you include the equally deranged Masha, Rupert is free to make up his own reality.

*. What is Rupert’s chief fantasy? Is it fame? Yes, but only as a means to an end. That end is not his being able to marry Rita (Diahnne Abbott, De Niro’s wife at the time) but rather to get revenge. He jokes with Rita about being able to spit down on those who will be beneath him when he becomes famous. In the dream wedding scene his high school principal is made to grovel, begging forgiveness. But most of all there’s the closing monologue, which consists mainly of a catalogue of the abuse Rupert suffered at the hands of his parents, being picked on and bullied by fellow students, and even developing an eating disorder. Is all this just made up too? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Something is fueling Rupert and I think this is it.
*. It’s a testimony to De Niro’s performance that we can feel Rupert’s anger beneath his unflappably nice persona. Despite the loud suits and the funny moustache and the general air of a prolonged losing streak we sense Rupert is a dangerous and nasty man. We can understand him, but can we sympathize with him? I don’t.
*. Masha is a scary figure too, and it’s remarkable how Bernhard not only holds her own with Lewis and De Niro but actually manages to upstage them. But what happens to Masha at the end? I guess she could have afforded a good lawyer, if charges were ever laid.

*. This is a movie that makes me think and wonder. One thing I wonder about is the freeze frame that Scorsese holds on for the opening credits. Masha inside the limo, pressing up against the glass. Rupert on the outside, illuminated in a flash and staring in at her. What meaning did Scorsese see in this image that he wanted us to look at it for so long? Is it just playing with the idea of our fascination in what’s on the other side of that invisible membrane?
*. One thing I don’t wonder about is Scorsese’s comment that the visual style of the film was somehow influenced by Edwin S. Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (1903). I think that was just pulling our legs.
*. How often have movies done TV well? I think of Network but not much else. There’s something about television that doesn’t translate to the big screen. Not because they’re in competition but because they’re mediums that don’t really communicate with each other. The fact that they seem to be growing together in the twenty-first century may be erasing that difference though.
*. I really love the script, even if I share David Thomson’s sense that Scorsese might not have understood it and in many scenes the dialogue was improvised. But setting those scenes up is done perfectly. All the notes are struck just right: the televised wedding fantasy as a way of expressing Rupert’s anger; the blow up with Jerry; the way Rupert’s final monologue is funny because it’s true; the housekeeper complaining that “He’s touching everything. He’s ruining the house.” That last gave me a flashback to the scene in Pink Flamingos when Divine and her son break into the house of their enemy and rub themselves over everything. Rupert has a similar kind of taint to him.
*. It was a masterstroke to cast Jerry Lewis in the role of Langford and then get him to play the part with such quiet understatement. There’s not a trace of shtick about him. And I love how Scorsese doesn’t force anything. Look at Langford watching Rupert on the showroom TVs after he escapes Masha. We just see his face and he doesn’t say anything. What is he thinking? He’s angry, I think we can take that much for granted. But is there some grudging respect for Rupert there? Or even sadness? I can’t read his expression, and I love that I can’t.

*. Two lines stand out for me as having particular resonance. The first comes when Rupert is having dinner with Rita and he tells her that a “guy can get anything he wants if he pays the price.” What a touching credo, and one that is so ingrained in our modern ethos. But of course it isn’t true. Riches and fame are distributed randomly. Rupert works hard and believes in himself, and his stand-up isn’t terrible (though it’s not ready for prime time either). But it just isn’t going to happen for him. What does happen to him then?
*. The other line I keep thinking about comes during Rupert’s confrontation with Jerry at the latter’s house. Jerry says he’s not going to listen to Rupert’s stuff because he has a life. Rupert says he has a life too and Jerry says “that’s not my responsibility.” I think we all immediately think that’s right, but then we may wonder where our responsibilities for each other begin and end. Or do we have any?
*. The celebrity and the incel raging in his mother’s basement are at either end of a polarity, but they share a divorce from that social connection I mentioned earlier, or any sense of personal responsibility. It’s telling that Jerry is a loner too, with no wife or kids anywhere in sight. Scorsese found one of the most interesting questions raised by the film to be that of what fans want from celebrities. Obviously what Rupert wants is a foot in the door, but beyond that he wants to be Jerry. What I think Jerry understands as he looks at the row of TVs he can’t hear, is that to some extent he already is. It’s just that one of them is living the dream and the other the nightmare. And that’s not Jerry’s problem, or responsibility, but ours.

Demons (1985)

*. Oh boy! It’s guilty pleasure time.
*. There were a lot of trashy video treasures in the 1980s, but few with the same appeal as Demons with all of its crazy Euro weirdness. It’s an Italian production, filmed in Berlin and Rome but seeming to take place in an alternate dimension that the mystic Metropole cinema opens onto. Directed by Lamberto Bava (Mario’s son) and produced and co-written by Dario Argento, it has several hallmarks of the Italian horror films of the period (notably the colour and gore), yet maintains a unique quality.

*. It’s loopy in ways that defy explanation or understanding. Are the demons going to take over the world? Where are they coming from? What is the connection between the demon outbreak and the movie about the kids breaking into Nostradamus’s tomb? Is the cinema a gateway to another realm? Who is the man in the mask? Why is the usher in the green dress made to seem so sinister at the beginning only to be turned into just another victim?
*. The audience for the night’s entertainment are an eclectic bunch, including a blind man whose wife is cheating on him (this is apparently meant as a joke, though blind people do attend movies), and a pimp daddy with two foxy ladies on his arms. They don’t seem like the kind of crowd who’d be likely to go to see such a movie as Nostradamus’s Tomb, but then the ticket didn’t make it clear what was on tap.

*. Demons is very bad in all sorts of enjoyable ways. The dubbing is atrocious, and some of the voices are so out of synch you get several seconds of dialogue being spoken without anyone’s lips moving. That dialogue is, in turn, laughable, with one of the best lines being the cokehead gang member wondering if the demons are after his snow. Dude!
*. The plastic gore effects consist mainly of bodies dissolving or melting like wax into sludge. The action is utter nonsense, culminating in the hero tearing around the theatre on a motorbike while cutting down the demons with a samurai sword. There’s a great heavy metal soundtrack. What’s not to like?
*. The only complaint I have is that it could have been something more. The premise of a haunted movie theatre has a lot of potential that goes unrealized. I mean, look at how much ink has been spilled talking about the end of Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), which actually seems to be doing something similar to what’s going on here.

*. I sort of agree then with Kim Newman’s conclusion: “The promising subject matter is rather botched as Bava opts for a misjudged Night of the Living Dead rerun, throws in an inept selection of Heavy Metal hits on the soundtrack and fails to find any ironic angles in the story.”
*. All of which is only to say that it’s not as good as it might have been. And yet just it’s just that glimpse of potential that sets it apart from most of the other Eurotrash of this period. The Metropole itself strikes me as evocative of something deeper. It’s a magical place both mysteriously walled in and yet subject to random invasions from the outside world (a helicopter falling through the roof!). Then, once you finally escape the theatre, you find that the world outside has changed. What does it all mean? Probably nothing. But I find it suggestive.

No Way Out (1987)

*. Kenneth Fearing’s novel The Big Clock had an unbeatable premise for a suspense thriller: an innocent man forced to investigate himself by the very man he knows was the real murderer. Unfortunately, the 1948 adaptation wasn’t anything to get excited by. If they’d only lost the title, and changed the setting from the New York publishing world.
*. No Way Out happily corrects both failings. There’s no big clock, real or metaphorical, and instead of a giant publishing conglomerate we’ve moved to the Pentagon. I think this second change was a stroke of genius — having the hero take on the bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex as part of a plot to cover up a political scandal is both entirely believable and ups the level of danger. Tom Farrell really doesn’t have any way out. Washington is a company town, after all.
*. A long list of actors turned down the leading roles here, but it sort-of made Kevin Costner a star (it came out right after The Untouchables, which also helped). If only he’d quite while he was ahead.
*. I semi-jest. Costner is well cast here, as is the cute and vulnerable Sean Young as Susan. They work well together. Even the make-out scene in the back of the limo has a bit of ’80s heat. Without any help from the soundtrack, I might add. I originally thought the song that plays, “No Way Out,” had been written for the movie but apparently it first appeared on the 1983 Paul Anka album Walk a Fine Line. The best I can say for it is that it fits the period, along with Young’s hairstyle and Costner’s treasure trail.
*. Gene Hackman as Secretary of Defense David Brice doesn’t have to do much but he does it well, enough so that he was asked to do the same role again ten years later in Absolute Power. Will Patton is more potent as the villainous enabler Scott Pritchard. Though again the homosexual angle is played way down, you can tell there’s something more than just blind obedience in Pritchard’s devotion to Bryce.
*. I really liked this when it first came out. It plays a little tamer today, but I think it’s still a good thriller. The chase scene seems like something the studio might have insisted on, as it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. The twist ending also turned a lot of people off. Richard Schickel even thought it spoiled the whole movie. I didn’t mind it at all. It’s a bit gratuitous and silly, but it doesn’t wreck anything. The novel ended on an abrupt note, which had to be sensationalized in the earlier movie. But here Costner doesn’t have a wife to fall back on for a happy ending. Once Susan is killed off there’s no longer any conventional resolution for the story possible. What we get here fits.
*. I think the dating is what holds it back today. Those reams of paper piling out of the dot matrix printer were a real throwback for me. And while I don’t mind the ending in dramatic terms, it’s a throwback too, to the days of Cold War espionage and different threat matrixes. Maybe in another twenty years or so the 1980s will have aged a little better and this will be recognized, like The Big Clock, as a movie worth coming back to. Today, however, it may still be too familiar. It’s well done though, which gives me hope that it just needs some time.

Code of Silence (1985)

*. There’s a scene near the beginning of Code of Silence that I think is worth seeing. It’s basically just filler, showing Sergeant Eddie Cusack (Chuck Norris) throwing some karate punches and kicks at a sparring partner holding pads. But what it shows, better than any of his choreographed fight moves, is just how fast, and how good Norris, a karate champion, really was. I was more impressed by this than anything else in the film.
*. There actually isn’t a lot of martial arts action in Code of Silence. This is probably due to the film’s origins. It was written to be Dirty Harry IV: Code of Silence, but Clint Eastwood turned it down (making Sudden Impact the next Dirty Harry movie instead). Then it was pitched as a project for Kris Kristofferson (who also turned it down). It wasn’t supposed to be an American chop socky. Or, put another way, it wasn’t supposed to be a Chuck Norris movie.
*. That the script had been hanging around for a while without being produced makes the fact that it was sold for a whopping $800,000 all the more amazing. $800,000! In the 1980s! As one story reported at the time, this was “more than the total cost of a lot of Chuck Norris movies.”
*. Now add to this the fact that the screenplay is garbage. The basic story is just a handful of clichés thrown together. Norris is an honest cop who goes by the sobriquet “Stainless Steel.” There is a gang war in Chicago. One of the mobsters has a beautiful young daughter that Norris has to protect from another mobster (played by veteran bad guy Henry Silva, who is literally just showing up here to get a paycheque). There’s no real story but just these basic elements. Plus Norris, the vet, is paired up with, you guessed it, a new kid he calls “kid.” And this after he even tells the chief “Listen, I don’t have time to be nursemaiding a rookie, I don’t need a partner.”
*. So on that level the script is trash. But it’s also filled with trash dialogue, has a disjointed plot, and is without any meaningful structure. Take the scene where a couple of hoods try to hold up a bar filled with off-duty Chicago police. It’s a quick comic piece, but the failed heist serves no purpose in relation to the rest of the story at all.
*. Then, Norris later shows up at the bar and meets an old friend named Dorato (Dennis Farina). Dorato is with a couple of good-looking young women who he introduces to Eddie this way: “Eddie, I want you to meet a couple of friends of mine. This is Ruby. She’s a dental hygienist. She’s very oral. And this – this is Marlene. She works for a proctologist. Don’t turn your back on her!” Ha-ha! Isn’t that funny? No? Well, is it “gritty” or “realistic” (words often tossed at Code of Silence)? No? Well is it worth $800,000 then?
*. The scene between Eddie and Dorato at the bar is immediately followed by a heart-to-heart talk Eddie has with his rookie sidekick, who is agonizing over whether he should be honest at an inquiry into the murder of a civilian by his previous partner or participate in a cover-up. In the course of the conversation he gets to speak lines like this: “I really want to be a good cop. But sometimes it gets so scary, you know?” and “I see that boy’s face every time I close my eyes.”
*. It may not be the fault of the screenwriter, but how much sense does it make for Diana to leave a busy street and run down a deserted alley when being pursued by a gang of hoods? And how does the bad guy manage to drag her along, running, with him holding only a knife on her?
*. You may be wondering why I’m even bothering complaining about a movie like this having a garbage script. Well, in part it’s because of that huge price tag. But it’s also a way of scratching my head a bit about the movie’s reputation. This, I think, is largely due to two factors.
*. The first is our response to how well Norris does. I have a hard time crediting much of Norris’s acting, and in all fairness he never made any claims for himself (or his action peers) in this regard. But I would sign on to what I think is the general opinion that this is his best performance. This is mainly because he doesn’t try to do too much. He stays quiet and doesn’t emote a lot. Which is fine for the role and he acquits himself well. But that’s as far as praise goes.
*.  I’d also add as an aside that Eddie Cusack is a big step up from the beer-fueled Texas Ranger Lone Wolf McQuade (see my notes on that one here). Eddie doesn’t much care for science or art, but he’s not a total meathead. That’s another thing Code of Silence has going for it.
*. The second reason behind the film’s inflated reputation has to do with a pair of very influential (even more influential at the time) film reviewers who just happened to be based in Chicago. Call it the homer effect.
*. Both Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert praised, excessively, the film’s use of of Chicago locations, and commented on the fact that director Andrew Davis was from Chicago. Indeed in his review of a later Davis movie, the very similar Above the Law, Ebert would refer to Code of Silence as not just the best Chuck Norris movie ever made but one that “contains the best use of Chicago locations I’ve seen.” Really? There have been so few movies shot in Chicago?
*. At least Siskel, while praising the film’s authenticity, admits that it “isn’t in the same league as The French Connection.” Shut your mouth! Ebert, however, really went overboard, giving it 3 1/2 out of four stars and writing the following: “this is a heavy-duty thriller — a slick, energetic movie with good performances and a lot of genuine human interest. It grabs you right at the start with a complicated triple-cross, and then it develops into a stylish urban action picture with sensational stunts.” And he doesn’t stop there, adding: “The screenplay doesn’t give us the usual cardboard clichés; there’s a lot of human life here, in a series of carefully crafted performances. For once, here’s a thriller that realizes we have to care about the characters before we care about their adventures.” Please.
*. I think I’ll stop here, as I’ve already written about ten times more on this movie than I thought I would. Given the time and the people involved it’s slightly better than what you’d expect, but that’s a very low bar to clear. The guys jumping off the elevated train was a good stunt. The police robot tank was stupid. Watching it today I couldn’t remember if I saw it when it came out. I think I did, but I can’t be sure. A week from now I’ll probably have trouble remembering it again.

The Unseen (1980)

*. The Unseen. They didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with a title for this one, did they? I guess Junior is unseen for most of the movie because he’s locked up in the basement, and indeed Stephen Furst is credited as playing “The Unseen,” but . . . that’s about it.
*. But then, let’s face it: they didn’t put a lot of work into this one period. Basically there’s this weird couple keeping Junior in the basement and when a trio of young women spend the night at their house Junior, who can travel through the building’s vents, gets out and kills a couple of them.
*. The movie is a bit of an oddity. Junior apparently kills the women by accident, since he’s not really a bad guy. And it’s never clear why he’s being kept in the basement. It’s a big enough house, in a remote location, so you’d think they’d let him out every now and then.
*. Maybe it’s all because Junior’s dad is crazy (and Sydney Lassick, I want to say, is actually pretty good in the part). At least there’s a wild American gothic back story inolving incest and patricide that would suggest as much.

*. The girls are all winsome and disposable, but at least not as hateful as the usual crop of bodies in a dead teenager movie. Why is it raining out at the end? To get Barbara Bach’s blouse wet. But she’s in the basement! No problem. Where there’s a will, and a leering audience, there will be a way. In the event, she’ll be degraded even further when she escapes, having to drag herself through a field of mud.
*. Written and directed by Danny Steinmann, who didn’t want his name on it so he’s credited as Peter Foleg. His previous movie had been a hardcore porno called High Rise, where he used the alias Danny Stone. Apparently he was upset about cuts that were made to this film that took out a lot of the scares. I doubt anything of value was lost. But the MPAA also did a job on his Friday the Thirteenth: A New Beginning, and he kept his name on that one. So go figure.
*. Aficionados of Grade Z chum may find something in this. I thought it was very dull as well as nonsensical. Lassick copes manfully with a ridiculous script but everyone else appears to be struggling. I’d advise taking a pass unless this is your kind of thing.

Your Face (1987)

*. Is there any point digging deeper here? To look beyond the surface of things? Your Face is a short animated piece, an early example of what would become Bill Plympton’s signature style. A man croons of his lover’s face while his own face twists and bloodlessly deconstructs in various ways, the warping and the contortions providing a perfect visual counterpart to the vocals (“Your face is like a song”). It’s being sung by Maureen McElheron but then slowed by a 1/3 to give it a sense of wax melting as well as a more masculine cast.
*. So sound and image are drawn together in a hand-drawn choreographed dance. It’s inventive, funny, and at times even knowing, as when the face goes through metamorphoses hinting at various periods in the development of modern art. But then the face is swallowed by what seems to be the ground, with a loud gulp and a slurp of the lips during the end credits. As if to say there was really nothing to this but an exercise in bringing to life a sketch pad of studies of the human phiz. An accomplished diversion. So accomplished it would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award.
*. Is there a message to it though? I can read one into it. I think it’s having fun with how ridiculous we make ourselves in chasing after love. Like birds doing a dance or some other form of courtship ritual we sing a song or flutter our plumage in some way, with no idea of how silly it all seems from an objective point of view.
*. But is anyone listening? The song plays like a videogram or YouTube video addressed to some unnamed (and faceless) spectator. Perhaps we can imagine he’s singing to us. But whatever the intended audience we see the singer at the end being gulped down by what I’ve said seems to be the ground. But maybe it’s the film swallowing its own tail. Has the singer been looking in the mirror all this time, making faces while singing alone? Now that really would be tying himself in knots.

Children of the Corn (1984)

*. Technically, it’s Stephen King’s Children of the Corn. I’m not sure what King thought of it though or how much he was involved. He isn’t interviewed in the documentary on the Anchor Bay DVD release and his name is only mentioned once, indirectly, on the commentary track (with director Fritz Kiersch, producer Terrence Kirby, and actors John Franklin and Courtney Gains).
*. The story (which was first published in Penthouse) is expanded on quite a bit and has a completely different ending. Burt and Vicky aren’t an attractive young couple just starting out their lives together but are instead on their way to breaking up. They are taking a cross-country road trip to save their marriage but they both seem to know that isn’t going to work. This was probably changed because movies prefer happy people. It’s hard to like characters who don’t even like each other.
*. Movies also prefer happy endings, so the ending of the story, with both Burt and Vicky murdered and the cult going on its merry way, is jettisoned. Again, I don’t know how involved King was with any of this. He apparently did write a script but it was rejected for an adaptation he didn’t approve of. They still really wanted King in the credits though, as by this time his was a name to conjure with.
*. One thing you might turn to the story for is some explanation of how the children have managed to stay hidden away in the town of Gatlin for three years. Presumably they are harvesting all that corn themselves. And turning it into ethanol. Meanwhile, just by changing some road signs the town has vanished so completely that nobody can find it. Not government services or utilities. Not family members wondering whatever happened to in-laws or cousins. It’s just gone.
*. Well, reading the story won’t help clear this matter up. The children there have been in control of the town for twelve years without anyone noticing. As Burt reflects at one point, “What seemed to have happened in Gatlin was impossible.” “How could such a thing be kept secret?” he wonders. “How could it go on?” Answer: He Who Walks Behind the Rows works in mysterious ways. This is one of those things that’s just a given in order for there to be a story.

*. I remember not liking this movie much when it came out. And I’ve always wondered why it was turned into such a long-running franchise when even the original wasn’t a blockbuster. It did take a while for the first sequel to appear (Children of the Corn II: The Final Sacrifice in 1992). Suffice it to say that the studio (which was also driving the Hellraiser franchise into the ground) was taking the low road to a bit of easy money. But that’s another story.
*. Watching it again now, I like it a bit more than I did at the time. It actually gets a fair bit of mileage out of its tiny budget (Kiersch says $1.3 million, $500K of which went to King, so less than $800K, which is nothing). It’s well directed, keeping most of the violence off screen, and it holds our interest. For such a cheap movie most of it looks suprisingly good. Still, I think it would be largely forgotten today if not for the fact that they rolled aces in the casting of Franklin and Gains as the odd couple of teenage psychopathy, Isaac and Malachai. Who can forget these two? Franklin (who was actually 23 at the time) with his Vulcan haircut (courtesy of a commercial he was shooting for a Star Trek video game) and Gaines as the ginger Mick Jagger. Is it any wonder they’re the only members of the cast on the commentary and in the “making of” documentary? They’re the stars.

*. Ah, yes. Once again the city people have left the highway to travel the back roads, and end up getting lost out in the country. Not the wilds, or a forest somewhere, but just the country. A small town. That’s terrifying enough.
*. Kiersch says he thought of it as a B-horror, which it is, but then says his models were Plan 9 from Outer Space and The Day of the Triffids. Hm. Can’t say I see it. And I’m not sure why I’d want to see it. How flattering a comparison is Plan 9?
*. The DVD box declares this to be “The original that started it all.” Well, that’s what originals do. And I like the noncommittal “it.” I take it that this refers to the long string of sequels, which almost nobody saw and few people remember today. King himself didn’t keep track of their number. Blame “it” all on this movie, people!
*. The basic idea is nothing new. The children of the corn are the children of the Village of the Damned. Because ankle-biters are rarely that scary in themselves they have to hunt in packs. It takes a village. Or at least a gang. Hence the Midwich Cuckoos. Or the kids in Devil Times Five, the psycho-spawn in The Brood, the bloodthirsty brats in the Sinister movies, or the whole island of pubescent maenads in Who Can Kill a Child? (remade as Come Out and Play). The premise is, however, an inversion of the usual King starting point, which is terrorized tots. I guess the revived Gage in Pet Sematary is another outlier, but more often in King it’s children who are threatened by adults.
*. I guess Jonathan Elias, who did the score, was listening to The Omen and liked that chanting business. I don’t think it fits. King has a major hate on for organized religion, but I found the evil force here a confusing thing. Why does it adopt so much Christian imagery, ritual, and language? Is there a connection between He Who Walks Behind the Rows and the God of the Old Testament? Why does the gopher demon care if the kids are listening to music or playing games? I didn’t think pagan cults were such puritans.
*. The ending has been much ridiculed. I don’t know. It was a microbudget movie so how surprised can we be that the ending looks cheap? I think they probably did the best they could under the circumstances. I wish it made more sense, but I wouldn’t make fun of the execution.
*. I won’t go so far as to say this is a cult favourite of mine, but watching it again today I appreciate it a lot more and can see why it’s stuck around. As a franchise, however, it went downhill fast and stayed there.

The Cannonball Run (1981)

*. Why hasn’t this movie been remade? Or why has it taken so long to remake? I ask for a couple of reasons
*. In the first place, it’s a terrible movie that nevertheless made a ton of money and generated its own sequel just a few years later. That’s a combination that screams remake to most studios.
*. Second: it has dated, but in obvious ways related to fashion that can be easily corrected. I don’t think the concept has gone out of style. On the DVD commentary, producer Paul Ruddy remarks that “if you had this movie out today it would be just as successful, this exact movie.” Director Hal Needham immediately agrees: “Oh, I think so.”
*. On the review show Sneak Previews Gene Siskel, who thought The Cannonball Run “unbelievably bad,” would only disagree in the matter of execution. As he put it: “if there’s a sure-fire formula in American movies it’s the car chase cross-country, it always works, until this one. They blow the easiest formula in the history of American movies. Films like The Gumball Rally, Grand Theft Auto, Deathrace 2000, these are no-brainer films. And they blow this.”
*. It’s also true that some parts of the formula here have had continued success in our own time. We still have car chase movies that do well, as witness the Fast and The Furious franchise and its cast of “highway scofflaws and degenerates” (as they are dubbed here by the racemaster). We also have contemporary examples of these all-star cast movies working, as we’ve seen with the Ocean’s films. So doesn’t The Cannonball Run deserve a remake, whatever meaning you want to put on “deserve” in this context?
*. In some ways it also can be considered a bit ahead of its time. All of the self-reflexive winks, for example, with Roger Moore playing a guy who thinks he’s Roger Moore playing James Bond. Or, when Dom DeLuise suggests getting a black Trans Am for the race, having Burt tell him “that’s been done before” (a reference to the Smokey and the Bandit movies). Or Peter Fonda in a cameo as a biker. And there’s also the business of running outtakes and bloopers during the end credits, which Needham claims to have invented.
*. Those end credits are representative, however, of what I disliked the most about The Cannonball Run. They’re evidence of the fun everyone was having on set, which is often an indication that a production is overly self-indulgent or even out of control. Think of Beat the Devil, or those Ocean’s movies I just mentioned. You get the same feeling while listening to the commentary, as Ruddy and Needham keep laughing at a bunch of stuff that isn’t funny at all.
*. Roger Ebert thought all of this in bad faith. “The Cannonball Run is an abdication of artistic responsibility at the lowest possible level of ambition. In other words, they didn’t even care enough to make a good lousy movie. Cannonball was probably always intended as junk, as an easy exploitation picture. But it’s possible to bring some sense of style and humor even to grade-zilch material. This movie doesn’t even seem to be trying.”
*. I’m not so sure. They don’t seem to have been trying very hard, but I think they thought they were at least giving the audience what it wanted (and, apparently, did). When Needham says that “in this kind of movie you’ve got to be ridiculous to hold people’s attention and entertain them” I think he’s being honest. As he is when he says, “if you can’t think of anything else to do, blow up something.” We even get the old cliché of a car exploding into a fireball after just being nudged.
*. A more targeted criticism would be to say that it was just a cash grab. That’s what Burt Reynolds thought anyway, when it made him the highest-paid actor in history for getting $5 million for four weeks work. “I did it to help out a friend of mine, Hal Needham, and I also felt it was immoral to turn down that kind of money. I suppose I sold out, so I couldn’t really object to what people wrote about me.”
*. Another example of the bottom-line thinking is all the product placement. Lots of brand names are featured throughout and DeLuise even sings a couple of commercial jingles. And Needham was totally unapologetic for this, proud of exploiting all the endorsements.
*. Apparently the script had a lot of improvisation and at times there doesn’t seem to be anything connecting the various episodes at all. We’re just magically whisked from one to another. For no reason at all Burt and Dom are in a plane, which they land in the middle of a town somewhere just so Dom can pick up more beer. Then they take off again. There’s no continuity running through any of this.
*. A great trivia question to spring on your friends: Who actually wins the race? I believe it’s Adrienne Barbeau’s team — we see her being the first to punch the clock at the end — though I don’t think it’s ever mentioned. I guess it was never all that important.
*. So why not do it all over again? They’d have to work on making it more politically correct, but it could still be done. And done better. This is a movie that a lot of people have fond memories of — I think of Captain Chaos in particular — but most of it is just terrible. The rest only looks good in the rear view mirror, but I think the brand could be pimped out for another rodeo.

Smokey and the Bandit II (1980)

*. When discussing Burt Reynolds it’s often said that there’s a Good Burt and a Bad Burt, the latter being most easily identified by his moustache. The Good Burt played well in good movies. The Bad Burt was in far more popular movies where he was . . . well, all he needed to be.
*. Watching Smokey and the Bandit II I found myself wondering whether, if you’d only seen Reynolds in movies like Smokey and the Bandit or The Cannonball Run, you would think he could act at all. I think the most you would be able to say is that he had charm. But that charm wore off in a hurry, even when treated in a winking, self-referential manner, as it is here (a manner that, I think, is also supposed to be charming).
*. But as I say, Burt was just doing what he was supposed to do. And in his defence, he thought this sequel nothing but a stupid cash grab (which it was). His co-star, Sally Field, would consider it the worst movie she ever made. Critics came down hard. Roger Ebert called it “basically just the original movie done again, not as well.” Not nearly as well, I would say.
*. To give you some idea of just how stupid and thoughtless it is: how are we supposed to believe that the Frog we knew and loved in the first movie has gone back to marry Junior? They couldn’t think of any other way to reintroduce the same characters except to replay the exact same situation?
*. Nobody seemed to care. In the face of the critical brickbats director Hal Needham took out ads in the trade papers featuring quotes from negative reviews alongside a picture of himself sitting beside a wheelbarrow full of cash.
*. That same spirit of cynicism finds its way into the film. Everyone has their price. Even the fellow running the animal park isn’t going to let Charlotte give birth on his grounds until the Bandit pays him off. Yes, the Bandit calls him a putz later, but he’s no different from anyone else in the film.

*. Ebert didn’t know why the elephant had to be taken to Texas. They never say, but I assume she’s to be the mascot at the Republican convention. What I couldn’t understand is why the Burdette’s want to help out. How do they profit from pre-empting the Governor, whose responsibility this is? I feel like something got left out of the script here.
*. There’s not much more to say. Dom DeLuise shows up as a gluttonous (naturally) Italian doctor with an accent he soon tires of. Mean Joe Greene flips the sheriff’s car, causing Buford T. Justice to expostulate “I knew this would happen as soon as they started that bussin’ shit!” Then we meet Buford’s brother, who is a flaming queen named Gaylord. And I thought this was kind of sad, because there was a time when Gaylord was a normal, or at least not uncommon name before it became a slur.
*. The highlight here is a giant smash-up derby between transport trucks and squad cars in the desert. It makes no sense at all, and has no point, but we get to see lots of cars smashed up in different ways while Snowman and the Bandit go “Wah-hoo!” “Woo-hoo!” and “Woo! Woo! Woo!”
*. How awful were those tight jeans? Burt’s are even tighter than Sally’s. At the time this was the style. One can and should be thankful that the bellbottoms from the first film have gone away, but fashion is cruel.
*. There was a chance they might have done something interesting here with the whole idea of the Bandit having become a legend in his own mind — “one of the most beloved grass-root folk heroes in America!” — but this is so underdeveloped I couldn’t really figure out why they were bothering with it. This isn’t a movie that wants to poke fun at itself, and I don’t know why not. Maybe it’s too busy laughing at us.
*. It was not quite the end of the line. There would be a Smokey and the Bandit Part 3, but Reynolds would only drop in at the end of it in a cameo and Field had moved on. It’s sometimes regarded as one of the worst movies ever made. So just a small step down from this.

TerrorVision (1986)

*. There seems to be a generational effect when it comes to nostalgia, relating to the amount of time it takes for something that was once cool and then passed out of fashion to come back again and be seen as camp, kitsch, cool, or even in a few exceptional cases classic. In the 2010s the 1980s enjoyed such a rediscovery.
*. Even in the 1980s, however, there was a sense of self-awareness about just how ridiculous the 1980s were. TerrorVision is evidence. If you were looking to send up that decade you could do a lot worse than just cutting and pasting this mess.
*. TerrorVision was an Empire International release, and qualifies as one of their less restrained efforts, which tells you something. Charles Band’s company was behind a lot of the sillier horror-comedies from this period, including titles like Re-Animator, From Beyond, and Ghoulies. TerrorVision, however, really goes off the rails.
*. It’s less well known than those other movies I mentioned, and I think for good reason. It begins with a monster being put into a garbage disposal unit on the planet Pluton, from which it’s accidentally beamed to a satellite receiver on Earth. The monster then proceeds to egress from television screens, leading a lot of cheesy chaos.
*. If you thought scary things coming out of your TV set got started with Ringu then you didn’t live through the ’80s, which gave us this movie as well as Poltergeist, Videodrome, and Shocker. Where the idea first began I’m not sure, but I’d be willing to bet sometime in the 1950s. It was in the ’80s however, with the advent of VHS and satellite receivers, that people really started getting anxious about what was coming into their homes.

*. TerrorVision could have been, if not good, at least a lot better. There’s the family of stereotypes: a little boy who no one believes has seen a monster (while his parents just want to put him back on his meds), a New Wave daughter dating a metalhead boyfriend, a crazy grandpa, and swinger parents (with Mary Woronov reprising this role from Eating Raoul). And there’s a slimy dumpling of a monster that devours its victims by sort of melting them down into puddles of goo.
*. On the horror-comedy scale TerrorVision tilts heavily toward comedy, with most of the humour being very loud and broad. Today it’s hard to find anything funny in it at all. Indeed, it would be much funnier if they had played it straight. That’s part of the generational effect I mentioned.
*. But if TerrorVision tilts toward comedy it tilts even more toward incoherence. The thing about hysterical movies like this is that they have to maintain some sense of artistic control or else they just feel like they’re falling apart. TerrorVision feels like it’s falling apart. The main joke seems to be that TV is toxic garbage. It’s noteworthy that part of the architecture of Pluton includes a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise (which I noticed right away because I had that model hanging from my ceiling when I was a kid). The point being, I think, that Star Trek was just as much a piece of crap as the slimeball that Pluton beams to Earth. When the alien appears in a kind of PSA, begging us to turn off our TV sets or we’ll be devoured we understand the point he’s making. Look at what channel 69 did to the parents.
*. That is, however, a simple joke and it isn’t developed in an interesting way. In fact nothing about TerrorVision is interesting, or funny. When silliness is just silliness it starts to wear on us pretty quickly, and TerrorVision outstays its welcome by more than an hour. Even television in the ’80s wasn’t as bad as this. Honest!