Category Archives: 1980s

The Stuff (1985)

*. Larry Cohen died just a week after I finished writing up these notes. This lends what follows an air of retrospective. Where does he rate, based on his total body of work? For originality, intelligence, and commercial instinct (a rare combination) you have to give him high marks. In his first edition of Nightmare Movies (published in 1988) Kim Newman includes Cohen in a separate section discussing individual horror auteurs, and begins by complaining of how he hasn’t received the critical attention he deserves. At the time, Newman saw Cohen as “still a developing, surprising talent”: “all Cohen’s movies are lively, packed with off-beat and unusual ideas, well acted and laced with quotable dialogue.”
*. But by the time of the next edition of Newman’s book (2011) there was little to add. Cohen had basically stopped directing at the end of the ’80s. As it turned out, The Stuff would be his last important work. Though I thought his episode in the first season of Masters of Horror, “Pick Me Up,” was one of the series’ best.
*. There is another side of the ledger when it comes to Cohen. As a filmmaker he strikes me as having a level of competence below that of Roger Corman. Newman calls The Stuff “so haphazardly assembled that the director seems to be on holiday.” Editing and sound are sometimes so far out of whack as to be hilarious, and I don’t get the sense Cohen cared all that much. The Stuff would be followed up by It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, which is one of the worst movies I have ever seen and that may be taken as further evidence of a growing indifference to the quality of his work. Might we also see in it the seeds of his getting out of the business of directing altogether? Perhaps all he really wanted to do was write.
*. I think we have to take the good with the bad. The Stuff is a mess from start to finish. The effects, and this movie is full of effects, provide the most striking range of incongruities. As a director Cohen’s reach always exceeded his grasp, but (surprisingly given his low budgets) he rarely falls on his face. Some of the special effects here are laughably bad, but others impress. You never know what you’re going to get from one scene to the next.
*. Overall, however, I enjoyed all the pre-CGI trickery on display, from the model work to the process shots to the prosthetics. Hell, they even threw in the upside-down room from A Nightmare on Elm Street. But at the same time there were a number of shots I wish they had left out. So like I say, you take the good with the bad.
*. The premise is typical of the paranoia horror that was the subtext to a number of movies in the ’80s. A possibly sentient yogurt bubbling up from the depths of hell proves to be addictive. In time, our addiction consumes us, leading to the deathless ad line here: “Are you eating it, or is it eating you?” We may say the same of many items found in the developed world’s diet.

*. Its main inspiration is taken from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the scene of Mo and Nicole looking down on the “mining” operation seems a direct quote), but we can also think of Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) and They Live (1988) for more contemporary satires of consumerism. It’s not something we see as much of these days, and I’m not sure why. Have we just learned to accept that the Market is always right, and that there’s something elitist or non-patriotic in criticizing consumer choices? Even when those choices have been manipulated by evil corporations? But note that even here we see the (black) market triumphant in the end. The Stuff doesn’t actually need Nicole’s marketing genius behind it. It sells itself.
*. Does this movie work without Michael Moriarty? I don’t think so. It’s odd, but after thirty years his performance stayed in my memory more than any of the big effects scenes. His low-key approach to the crazy proceedings grounds the film and stops it from becoming mere slapstick. This might have been a film that got out of hand without him. Even with him it comes very close. I’m not sure the introduction of the militia unit at the end really fits with the rest of the film, though they do make for curious heroes.
*. I mentioned that I still remember this movie thirty years after last seeing it, which is no small accomplishment for any film given the way I forget things. I even had the jingle still in my head: “Enough is never enough, of The Stuff!” Many of the details I’d forgotten, but the basic plot had stayed with me. So maybe Cohen wasn’t “still a developing” talent at the time. Maybe this was all there was. He made a handful of indelible films — It’s Alive, God Told Me To, Q, and The Stuff — that are holding up just as well if not better than the work of his better-known peers, and the fact that there are so many calls for The Stuff, which was not a hit, to be remade is a tribute to its continuing relevance.

Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)

*. So there’s this cop, you see. Actually he’s not a cop, but a semi-mythical frontier figure known as a Texas Ranger. Name of Walker. No, that’s not right either. Name of McQuade. J. J. McQuade. Chuck Norris.
*. Even the toughest thugs and gangsters on the border grow still at the mention of the words “Texas Ranger.” This McQuade is a bad-ass who likes to power around the border in his mud spattered Ram Charger, living off a diet of Pearl Beer. Pearl Beer and nothing but. When he cracks one open it’s like Popeye ripping the lid off a can of spinach.
*. As a cop his methods are . . . unorthodox. But he gets results. Even though his so-called superiors are always busting his ass for not being more media friendly. His marriage has broken down but he’s still on good terms with his ex and his daughter. It’s just that being a cop was too hard when it came to having a relationship. You know how it is.
*. Luckily for him, this means he’s available for a random hot babe (Barbara Carrera) to fall in love (and in bed) with him at first sight. She’s easy on the eyes and she can clean house. Too bad she already belongs to a mean dude who smokes a cigarillo and who also knows karate (David Carradine). Hell, the mean dude even drives a car with a license plate that says CARATE.
*. McQuade works best on his own. A bit of a “lone wolf,” you might say. Though he does have an older mentor figure named Dakota (L. Q. Jones). But then admin saddles him with a rookie partner, who’s also Hispanic. McQuade just hopes the kid won’t get in his way. He also hopes the damn Feds sent out by Washington don’t get in his way either.
*. Some bad guys are up to some bad things. Like smuggling weapons . . . somewhere. To terrorists. Maybe. The Ranger is on their case, but then they push his daughter off a cliff and send her to the hospital. And kill his mentor. And kill his dog! That’s going too far. Now it’s personal. But first the chief has to put him on leave. He doesn’t want the Ranger turning this into a vendetta.
*. So McQuade and the kid and the black FBI guy (the only Fed you can trust) head south of the border to take out Mr. Carate. This they do with machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, a crossbow, and lots of karate kicks. Bad guys go flying through the air from explosions. Good guys dance between hail storms of bullets. The black FBI guy gets gut shot, but it’s no big thing. He can walk it off. The babe gets killed, dying in McQuade’s arms. Damn. Now it’s really personal. McQuade and Mr. Carate draw their weapons on each other but then toss them away so as to settle this mano a mano. Then McQuade blows Mr. Carate up, because it was written into Carradine’s contract that his character couldn’t be bested in hand-to-hand combat.
*. You can tell from this synopsis why Chuck Norris went on to become such a figure of fun in later years. There’s being an action star and then there’s a career built on cookie-cutter stuff like this.
*. But while Norris is a terrible actor, and his movies generally range from bad to very bad, Lone Wolf McQuade is pretty easy to take. The whole thing is done up as a kind of homage to spaghetti Westerns, down to Francesco De Masi’s score, so highly derivative of Morricone. The mix of martial arts and the Western had been done before with David Carradine playing the monk Caine in the television series Kung-Fu. Basically the masters of the martial arts are now gunslingers, and vice versa. Kurosawa had raided the genre, Leone had ripped off Kurosawa, and now there was no telling East from West.
*. The fight scenes are reasonably well handled. And if they’re over pretty quick at least they’re not edited all to hell like so many other martial arts movies. Norris and Carradine wanted to do as much of the fighting themselves as possible, and I think that helps.
*. The script, as I’ve outlined, is just a string of clich├ęs. Apparently John Milius had a hand in it, and it sounds like something he didn’t spend a lot of time on. He didn’t get a credit for writing but was listed as a “spiritual advisor.” Whatever that means.
*. Just before they fight Carradine says to Norris “I’ve waited a long time for this.” Like what? 48 hours? I think that’s as long as it’s been since they met.
*. OK, I do have to admit that driving his truck out of its grave Bat Out of Hell style was great. If I were rating movies on a scale of 1 to 10 that scene alone would be worth a point.
*. They were clearly setting McQuade up to be a franchise hero, though it would take a decade for Norris to return as Walker, Texas Ranger. But the years didn’t matter. He’d always been a dinosaur.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)

*. Jason Takes Manhattan has a special place for me in the canon of Friday the 13th films in that it’s the only one that I saw in a cinema upon its theatrical release. You may judge me accordingly. And by that I mean judge me harshly.
*. It’s also usually regarded as the worst film in the franchise, both among critics and that segment of the general public that cares about such things (meaning fans). This is not, I can personally attest, a revisionist view. We all thought it was shit at the time.
*. There is some legitimate debate over whether this low estimation is because it’s just a shit movie or because the title was so misleading. Jason spends little time in Manhattan, with most of the film’s action taking place on a rusty freighter that has been refitted, rather improbably, as a cruise ship. At least it has a sauna and a disco on board. A bunch of high school grads are taking the ship to NYC. A creepy crew member (the only crew member?) appears at odd times to say things like “This voyage is doomed” and “He’s come back and you’re all going to die.”
*. Of course, the audience is already aware of this because we know that Jason is a stowaway on the Lazarus (get it?). He proceeds to kill almost everyone on board. He then later pursues the survivors through the streets of Manhattan before being dissolved, apparently, in toxic goo.
*. So the story makes even less sense than the previous instalments. The score is less interesting, with none of the signature notes and a very dated theme song (“The Darkest Side of the Night”). They only shot in New York for a couple of days and as far as famous landmarks go only made use of one brief sequence in Times Square. Most of the film was shot in Vancouver, so the streets of the Big Apple are just so many steamy, garbage-strewn alleys.
*. I mentioned how good Jason looked in the previous film, The New Blood. In this version they weren’t trying as hard. Despite Kane Hodder reprising his role they didn’t bother with the rotting physical body and his face isn’t nearly as well done. Basically he’s just a burly guy in a hockey mask.

*. I appreciate that director Rob Hedden wanted to do something different. “The biggest thing we could do with Jason is to get him out of that stupid lake where he’s been hanging out,” he said. Mission accomplished. The script was apparently the result of bolting together two different concepts: Jason on a ship and Jason in a big city. Unfortunately, nothing much is done with either premise and we’re still just watching a string of unrelated killings.
*. As had become usual, these killings were edited to pass the censors. Based on the outtakes I don’t think much was lost though, and only one remains very interesting, with Jason winning a rooftop boxing match with a devastating KO punch.
*. That this is also a very silly scene, ending on a comic beat, gives you some indication of the tone of the film. Let’s face it, we’re all cheering for Jason to thrash the punks he runs into in New York, just as we’re pulling for him to kill mean Mr. McCulloch. But sticking with the latter, I think if you spend the entire movie building up a heel he needs to be given a more spectacular send-off than being drowned in the slum version of a butt of malmsey.
*. It’s not just that the two parts of the film — on the ship and in New York — are only awkwardly linked. The rest of the plot’s construction seems equally flawed. I couldn’t understand how Rennie’s repressed childhood trauma linked her psychically to Jason, as seems to have happened. I also questioned the way Jason reverts to an earlier form at times. What was the significance of that? Was the young Jason supposed to represent his innocent self? Because he seems just as vengeful as the adult version. But then there doesn’t seem much consistency in his appearance among his various youthful iterations either.
*. Oh well. It’s not like anyone would have expected this to be any good. I sure didn’t in 1989, though now I can’t remember just what it was that lured me into the theatre. It had a great poster. Maybe that was it.
*. I may like it a bit more than I did thirty years ago, which is not to say that I misjudged it back then. The passage of time, however, has brought out more of its goofy ’80s charm. It remains a really dumb movie though and I can’t think of any reason to go back to it aside from nostalgia.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)

*. There’s not much point hating on a late entry in a lousy franchise that was by this time far removed from its not-so-lofty peak. I’ve always tried to find some good in these Friday the 13th films, and I remember being somewhat amused by them as a young man. But The New Blood is a weak entry with little to recommend it.
*. The only new wrinkle this time out is that the last girl figure, Tina (Lar Park Lincoln), has psychokinetic powers. Director John Carl Buechler frankly describes her as “a clone of Carrie.” This actually makes for a fun battle between her and Jason in the final act as she goes all Carrie on him and he is (as always) indestructible. If this sounds a bit like a trial run for Freddy vs. Jason (2003) that shouldn’t be surprising because they were planning at the time on having the two franchise heavyweights face off against each other in a crossover film but the studios couldn’t come to an agreement.
*. Up until the final fifteen minutes, however, this is dull stuff. I can’t think of a Friday the 13th movie where the kills are more perfunctory. As had become usual by this time a lot of the gore had to be taken out to placate censors, but even so most of the kills are just the usual slashings and skewerings. There was a nice bit with a sleeping bag that made me think of the classic scene in Prophecy, and a scene that had to be cut of Jason crushing Ben’s head with his bare hands, but aside from that there’s nothing to get excited about. The circular saw is often cited by fans, but I think it just looks silly.
*. Just as perfunctory are the characters. They are the usual types — the nerd, the preppie, the pothead, the black couple, the slutty rich bitch — but even being this crudely drawn I found them nearly indistinguishable. Usually these people are only so much fresh meat (or “new blood”) anyway, but this movie took my disengagement to a new level.

*. Jason, however, played by Kane Hodder in his first turn under the mask, has never looked better. He’s apparently been rotting at the bottom of Crystal Lake for about ten years, so despite his burly physique he’s also showing signs of zombie-like decomposition, with a visible rib cage front and back. His clothes are covered in a layer of muck and he’s also got a chain wrapped around his neck. When his mask comes off he looks even more zombie-ish, and I mean that in a complimentary way. For the most part he’s just doing the usual Jason things — crashing through windows, throwing other people through windows — but he’s looking good doing it.
*. The script is crap but it does manage to hit with one great line when the nerd, who is an aspiring author, is rejected by the rich bitch. “Rejection? Fine. I can take it. I’ve been rejected by some of the finest science fiction magazines in the continental United States!”
*. So up until the fight between Jason and Tina I would rate The New Blood below average for the franchise. The ending, however, does a lot to redeem it. This was something new for a slasher film. To be sure there’d been feisty and resourceful last girls before, usually in the first part of a franchise (Nancy Thompson in the original Nightmare on Elm Street comes to mind), but I don’t think there’d been anything like Tina going toe-to-toe with one of these superhuman killing machines. Note how, after she discovers that Jason has killed her mother, Tina immediately goes chasing after him!
*. On the commentary Lincoln mentions how she thinks Jason probably enjoys the challenge of fighting someone who is his equal, and I think she has a point. It’s fun seeing these two go at it, and I’d also add that, while nothing spectacular, the psychokinesis effects are pretty good. This is never a scary movie — it’s too formulaic to either care about or be surprised by — but it turns into a decent little action thriller in the end.

Night Shift (1982)

*. A movie full of not-quite debuts.
*. It wasn’t Ron Howard’s first feature film working behind the camera, but it was his first Hollywood studio film (and he’d done some TV-movies as well). It also wasn’t Michael Keaton’s first film, though it was the part that made him a star. Shelley Long had been on TV a lot. Going down the list of credits, it wasn’t even Kevin Costner’s first movie (he’s Frat Boy #1 here, but had appeared in Malibu Hot Summer the year before), or Shannon Doherty’s (she plays one of the Girl Guides).
*. It wasn’t Henry Winkler’s debut either, though again you’d be forgiven for thinking it was at the time. There can’t be that many people who had seen The Lords of Flatbush. He was, however, the biggest star in the cast because of his role as the Fonz on Happy Days.
*. It’s easy, but nonetheless fair I think, to ascribe the general small-screen feel of Night Shift to the fact that all of this talent was coming from television. This isn’t a big movie, and is content to mainly play within its handful of sets (the morgue, the jail, the different apartments). Sets, I would add, that very much look like sets. How many hallways in apartment buildings have we seen on sitcoms that look like the ones here?
*. Another near first: I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched on video after getting a VHS tape machine in the ’80s. Watching movies at home without commercials seemed almost magical then.
*. What also seems magical: the fact that Chuck (Winkler) is investing his hooker clients’ money in accounts that are returning 17.5% (you can read the numbers on his computer). Oh, those interest rates! I remember them going up even higher than that in the ’80s.
*. There is one first. That’s the first recorded version of “That’s What Friends Are For” being sung by Rod Stewart over the end credits. It seems a bit downbeat, however, to wind the movie down with.
*. As for the film itself, I can’t think of much to say. I think this was the first time I’ve seen it since the days of VHS, which is over thirty years ago now. I guess it’s kind of a sweet in a very conventional way. Winkler is Caspar Milquetoast. Long is the hooker with a heart of gold. Keaton I can still enjoy, but he’s only playing a type as well.
*. What sort of type? The American dreamer with endless entrepreneurial schemes for making it big. Night Shift is a movie dealing with adult subject matter but it doesn’t have much to say about the morality of what’s going on. In so far as it does glance in that direction it only suggests that conventional morals are for squares. Making money has its own, transcendent, morality. Is Belinda going to have to go back to work at the end? She will if Chuck can’t support her. And Billy . . . there’s no saying what depths he was likely to fall to after being fired as a towel boy. I hope his idea for microwaveable clothes took off.

The Dante Quartet (1987)

*. Film presents the illusion of continuity through the rapid projection of consecutive images. In this experimental work by Stan Brakhage there is no continuity, at least of this type, as it is composed of stretches of film that have been hand painted and otherwise altered in a way that can’t really be called animation because of that missing sense of flow. But then, the images aren’t static either. As you might imagine, it’s a weird experience.
*. Is there a linear progression to the imagery? I won’t say narrative, but what I mean is that if you rearranged the images in whatever random way you wanted would it make a difference? I can’t imagine anyone outside of the most devout students of such a film as being able to notice the difference. The different sections have some common characteristics, but there’s no sense of a direction to any of it.
*. That might seem kind of obvious, but the allusions in the titles and Brakhage’s own thoughts on the subject of Dante suggest that he thought there was some kind of narrative, or at least argument, here at work, however condensed or metaphorical. From hell (Brakhage’s own break-up) through purgatory and onto a sort of heaven. I confess it’s a movement I have trouble seeing, and I don’t think anyone not so alerted to it would be able to identify any such connections, beyond perhaps the “Hell Spit Fluxion” section being darker and more circumscribed (because presented on a smaller film stock).
*. At best what we’re getting here are colours that may be taken as corresponding to emotional states. Chaos reigns throughout. It’s a silent film, but I find a soundtrack helps. Though isn’t introducing music cheating a bit? Without continuity or representation, isn’t a visual rhythm all this movie has?
*. Perhaps the meaning is all subliminal, in the ghosts of images that some see lurking beneath the shapes of paint. It’s not entirely random, or shouldn’t be, seeing as Brakhage apparently spent six years producing these six minutes. But while it’s very pretty, and evocative of lots of things, it stops short of the goals I think it set for itself. I really enjoy it, but like any work of art without direction it doesn’t seem to go anywhere.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

*. OK, you probably know the story behind this movie. Michael Myers seemed to have died pretty conclusively at the end of Halloween II, so John Carpenter had the idea of making subsequent films as stand-alones that would present scary stories with a Halloween theme. The series would take on the character of a horror anthology, of which Season of the Witch was to be the first instalment. As things turned out it would also be the last, since audiences just wanted more Michael Myers. Even critics were mystified, and perhaps, without admitting as much, disappointed.
*. Sticking with that critical response for just a second, Roger Ebert made a howler of a mistake in his review, saying that the lab technician is sifting through the ashes of Michael Myers (incinerated at the end of the previous film) when in fact she’s going through the ashes of the robot who blows himself up after killing the toyseller. Overall, Ebert missed the boat badly here, calling it “one of those Identikit movies, assembled out of familiar parts from other, better movies.” I don’t think this is fair at all. There are certainly homages present, particularly to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but I would rate this as about original a horror film as you could get at the time.
*. The original screenplay was written by British legend Nigel Kneale but he wanted his name taken off of it when they added a whole bunch of gore he hadn’t wanted (Kneale’s brand of horror is decidely lower key). Oddly enough, Rick Rosenthal was also upset when more gore was added to Halloween II. What did these people thinking they were getting into?
*. I actually like the gore in this movie. The kills are extreme, but they make a point about the supernatural strength of the killers by having them tear people’s heads off or crush their skulls with their bare hands. Later we will find out that they are robots. Then, the way that the heads melt down and spawn various bugs and snakes evokes the supernatural in a different way, while providing the movie (and indeed the entire Halloween series) with one of its most iconic moments.

*. I remember shaking my head when Tom Atkins chucks his mask neatly over the security camera. What are the chances he could have made such a throw? As it turns out, the chances were very poor. It took them more than 40 takes to get the shot.
*. I wonder how many real people there are living in Santa Mira. The bodyguards are all robots, as is everyone working at the factory (Conal Cochran’s imported labour force is what the town drunk complains of). I suppose the cops are too. But if everyone in the town is a robot they wouldn’t need to announce a curfew, would they? This is probably not a point worth puzzling over, but it made me curious.
*. The plot is bananas, which bothers some people. I found it . . . different, and just shrugged at its implausibility. I mean, a druid (Dan O’Herlihy) who has a town full of androids steals one of the megaliths from Stonehenge and brings it to the U.S. so that he can put pieces of it into Halloween masks? I wasn’t taking any of this mix of “advanced and antique technology” seriously. How could anyone? You just have to go along with it.
*. If you do go along with it I think it moves pretty well and provides decent entertainment. I enjoyed all the parallels to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I thought using the captured family as test subjects was hilarious. The corporate satire worked well, reminding me of what would be done a few years later in The Stuff (1985), with the robots in gray flannel suits being an especially nice touch. I liked O’Herlihy as the villainous CEO wishing Dr. Challis a happy Halloween. And finally I loved the ending, with the way Atkins roars into the phone recalling “Look to the skies!” or “You’re next! You’re next!”
*. In brief, I can say without hesitation that I liked Season of the Witch a lot more than Halloween II, which was just a bore. In fact, I might even call this my second-favourite instalment in the Halloween franchise, rating it only below the original. But really such a ranking is meaningless since this is the one Halloween movie that isn’t like any of the others, to the point where many people don’t consider it to be a Halloween movie at all. Which is fair enough and not a judgment I’d disagree with. I’d just call it cheap and silly but still more interesting and at least as well done as most of the other generic horror crap that was being made in the ’80s. Though not a personal favourite, it is a movie that I’ve found worth watching again, which is more than I can say for most of its peers.

Halloween II (1981)

*. John Carpenter didn’t want to make a sequel to Halloween. However, since it was one of the most profitable films of all time, and he felt he hadn’t seen enough of those profits, he signed on. Unfortunately, he felt “there was no more story to the idea,” and basically just put together what he felt, justifiably, was an inferior script while drinking a lot of beer. He didn’t direct, passing the reins to Rick Rosenthal (whose first feature this was), though he was involved a lot in the production.
*. Even with a better script I think this movie was doomed. It’s not just the story here that’s tired. The direction is utterly lifeless. I can’t imagine a horror movie feeling more inert. Even the jump scares (a cat leaping out of a dumpster, the old hand-on-the-shoulder gag) fail. There’s no attempt at building suspense. Michael just looms up behind people and kills them. That’s it.

*. The dialogue is drippy, with the leering by-play between the ambulance medic and the nurse being bad even by the low standards of the genre. Donald Pleasence’s Dr. Loomis repeats, several times, the same vague diagnosis of Michael’s evil he made in the first movie. Jamie Lee Curtis spends most of the movie asleep or huddled in a fetal ball. She also inexplicably loses her voice at an inopportune moment.
*. None of it works. I don’t think Rosenthal was the right fellow for the job, as he just seems to have the timing all wrong. That’s why the jump scares don’t work. Or look at how long the camera just sits on Jimmy as he lies in that pool of blood. It’s a nice shot, sure, but why hold it for six seconds? It stops the movie in its tracks.

*. Worst of all is the way Michael’s invincibility has become a bad running joke. “Why won’t he die?” Laurie complains at one point. Good question. Go ahead, shoot him as many times as you want. He’ll just get back up again. Hell, even drilling him with bullets through both eyes only temporarily blinds him.
*. There was some conflict over the amount of gore that Carpenter felt had to be added in order to keep up with what was going on in the genre post-Halloween. Despite this, I wasn’t that impressed by it back in the ’80s and it strikes me as a remarkably tame movie today. Inflation has that effect.
*. Look, Halloween II isn’t a terrible movie. It’s just that I can’t think of a single good thing to say about it. It’s a big yawn. The franchise ball was rolling though, and there were going to be a lot more.

The Funhouse (1981)

*. The opening is both familiar and weird. The killer’s POV, the black gloves, the girl stepping into the shower . . . check. And we know this is a set-up so it’s no surprise that it all turns out to be a joke being played on her. But . . . by her brother? Who is maybe 8 years old? How creepy is that?
*. As an aside, that’s child actor Shawn Carson playing Joey, and he would return to the fairgrounds just a couple of years later in Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange how these things work out.
*. The combination of familiarity and weirdness continues throughout The Funhouse. Most of the time it’s a not-very-interesting dead-teenager movie, of the kind that were coming out in a rush at this time in an attempt to cash in on the success of Friday the 13th. It has all the elements you’d expect. Just look at the four leads: the jock (tight t-shirt), the slut (tight red pants), the nerd (big glasses), and the virginal last girl (but not so virginal she isn’t ready to go all the way with a dude named Buzz at a sleazy fair). You can even tell in advance what order they’re going to be dispatched in.
*. But there are surprising elements as well. The killer may be less a psycho than a freak. Like Frankenstein’s monster, whose mask he wears, he is an object of pity. Despite his father’s suggestion of his having cannibalistic tendencies, he seems a sympathetic figure. And even his father, who is a bad man (Kevin Conway, playing all three carnival barkers), is practical in his approach to murder. He just wants to get rid of these pesky kids and move on to the next town.
*. How scared of the killer can we be when he appears in such a silly looking mask and, instead of being beaten by his father, is ordered to beat himself up? How can you not laugh at that scene?
*. Maybe the funhouse is just a strange place where strange things happen. I mean, just look at how much bigger it is on the inside than the outside. How does it have so damn many levels to it? It’s not like it can have a basement.
*. It’s not even a gory or particularly violent movie. There are really only a couple of deaths that are shown on screen, and the others are often hidden in the dark or are mostly kept out of frame. In all of this there seems a real confusion as to what kind of a movie was being made.
*. I’d like to think someone thought of The Funhouse as a horror-comedy, but I suspect there was little intentional about the humour. The movie seems like too much of a grab-bag of ill-assorted odds-and-ends. The plot, for example, is full of extraneous material. Why introduce Joey as such a major, even creepy character when nothing is done with him later? He can’t be a red herring, and at the same time there’s not enough to his role to allow us to identify with him. What is the significance of his sister’s earlier line to him about getting even with him later? I can’t figure this out. Nor is it clear why so much time is wasted introducing all the different carnies.
*. Perhaps they just didn’t have enough material. That’s the sense I had: of a fair-ground ride that had to be somehow stretched out to 90 minutes. Some of what they threw into the mix is, as I’ve said, weird. Most of it, however, is just pointless.
*. Tobe Hooper. I guess enough has been said already about the disappointment of his career after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Maybe he was just an odd fit for big studio productions. Even here there was apparently a lot of interference. Meanwhile, I’ve heard he turned down directing E.T. in order to do this film. He might have already suspected that it was going to be Spielberg’s movie anyway. If not, that’s a lesson he’d learn making Poltergeist.

Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989)

*. Right from the beginning (I’m looking at the original English-language newspaper advertisement) Tetsuo: The Iron Man was compared to the work of David Lynch and David Cronenberg. I still see it discussed this way, almost as a critical default setting. In fact, reading over various reviews and commentaries online I don’t think I found more than a couple that didn’t mention at least one of the Daves.
*. I don’t get it. I don’t see any visual relationship between this film and the work of Cronenberg or Lynch. None at all. You can say it’s like Eraserhead because it’s in black-and-white, or like Cronenberg because it deals with body horror (a rather wide-ranging term) but that’s it. Writer-director Shin’ya Tsukamoto has called himself a disciple of Cronenberg and there are thematic connections to be made. The fetishization of technology is of a piece with what we saw in Videodrome and would see in Crash. But those are common enough themes and, as I’ve said, these films don’t look the same or move in the same way.
*. Just sticking with movement, there’s nothing like the crazy editing we see here in the work of the Daves. If anything their films are characterized by a languid sense of pacing. This movie is manic from start to finish. Pacing is a big part of any film, and any director’s sense of style, and here Tsukamoto is worlds apart from Lynch and Cronenberg.
*. I don’t even think the thematic connection to Cronenberg can be pushed very far. This is because I’m unclear what themes are being explored in Tetsuo. The most common interpretation that I’ve seen has it that it’s meant as a commentary on the regimentation of Japanese society, but the metal man (the meaning of “tetsuo”) doesn’t take on the bureaucracy or corporate capitalism. He’s just a monster. And anyway, doesn’t the fact that the salaryman becomes crazier and more rebellious as he becomes more mechanical undercut such a message? Isn’t this movie about embracing, however perversely or violently, our transformation into a form of technology?

*. Instead of trying to interpret it, I see it mainly as just another bit of Japanese zaniness. It’s off the wall and all over the place with scenes of sex and violence so extreme they don’t even register because they’re so silly. It has some shock value and nicely evokes the industrial grotesque but it doesn’t carry a message any deeper than a Toho monster movie, or an episode of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which are the analogs I was most reminded of by the slugfest at the end. Is the final hybrid creature a giant cock, as is usually suggested? This is something else I don’t see. It looks more Dalek than dick to me. The giant drill strikes me as more naturalistic, mainly in the way it seems to operate with a mind of its own.
*. The first time I saw Tetsuo was in a version without subtitles, which is how I think it was initially played on the festival circuit. I don’t see how it makes much difference. Most people who watch it today head online for help in understanding the plot. I’ve had recourse to the same aids, and while what I’ve learned is sometimes interesting I don’t know how far to trust these sources. The synopses that I’ve read seem to explain more than we can safely assume from what’s on screen. And so there are parts of the film where I’m still not sure what’s going on.
*. This isn’t to belittle Tetsuo. I’d rather watch this again than Crash any day. It took Tsukamoto a grueling 18 months to make, and you can really feel that odd juxtaposition between the care he took with it and its frantic, hyper-kinetic qualities, between its art-house and grindhouse origins. I don’t find it as weird as a lot of other people do. To me it looks like a lot of experimental or avant-garde film from 70 years ago, only with a punkier soundtrack and more blood. At just over an hour it becomes repetitive, but it’s still a movie to enjoy and even delight in, and one that introduces a new sensibility.