Category Archives: 1980s

Café Flesh (1982)

*. I’ve written before (starting here) on how porn movies aren’t about people having sex but about people watching people having sex. It is an essentially voyeuristic form.
*. This is a point that reached its sardonic apotheosis in Café Flesh. The idea here is not unlike Behind the Green Door, with the movie presented as a hardcore floor show into which an innocent newbie from Wyoming is introduced. In terms of the hydraulics what we get is a series of artistic (or, if you’re feeling snobby, pseudo-artistic) vignettes being acted out on stage in avant-garde fashion. I remember performance pieces in the ’80s that looked like this, without the sex. I don’t know if they still do.
*. The difference between this film and Behind the Green Door is that we’re in a bunker. This is post-apocalyptic porn. The “Nuclear Kiss” of World War III has divided the population into Sex Positives and Sex Negatives, with the former group constituting only 1% of survivors (it seems the lucky 1% will always be with us). The Sex Negatives, or “erotic causalities,” are people who “want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill.” They can, however, get some vicarious kicks by watching the Positives perform at clubs like this.
*. But are the zombies in the audience, who are shown in frequent cutaway shots, having a good time? They look to me more like the devil at the end of Devil in Miss Jones, experiencing the torments of Tantalus in hell. Perhaps it’s a masochistic thrill. As Nick puts it, “torture is the one thing left I can feel.”
*. Adding to their perverse debasement are the taunts of Max Melodramatic, Joel Grey of this sexy cabaret (writer Jerry Stahl saw the club as “Cabaret-goes-New Wave . . . an irradiated Ship of Fools“). Played by Andrew Nichols, Max has a decent patter combined with the ickiness suitable for such a joint. Surprisingly, as with most of the cast here, he isn’t a total embarrassment in the acting department either.
*. There seems something allegorical about what’s going on. Stahl thought the club’s come-on was the audience’s (that is, our) own apocalyptic yearnings: “the fetish for fiery climax that gives some folks a secret frisson at the prospect of the Holocaust to come.” This made me think of the thrill-seekers at the end of Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, and it’s a provocative point. Is porn the afterglow of sex?
*. Danny Peary, writing in Cult Movies 3, found it “hard to believe it [Café Flesh] wasn’t made to comment on AIDS.” This would make it a part of the venereal horror that was taking off at the same time. In our own day, however, I read it more as an indictment of online thrills. As young people admit to having less sex while spending more and more time on social media or watching Internet porn, haven’t we come to resemble the zombified Sex Negatives? Those blank faces are instantly recognizable as the same that stare into cell phones even at public events. Today this would definitely be an online hangout, our parents’ basement as bunker. Especially since one of the few bits of our infrastructure actually designed to survive a nuclear war is the Internet.
*. It’s art, but is it porn? Meaning, does it arouse? Peary found the stylized costumes and sets to be erotic. The idea of Angel’s corruption and Lana’s awakening, the two of them taking on the Marilyn Chambers role from Behind the Green Door, has a thrill to it. What’s unerotic, at least to me, is the ironic presentation of sex. The performers are like parodies of the usual pistoning porn parts: more like props than flesh-and-blood people, made up in costumes that dehumanize and objectify them totally (a giant rat, a giant pencil, a mannequin typist). They are automata, or furniture with pubic hair.
*. Well, it could be argued that all porn is objectification. And the very theatricality the sex is presented with here may be a turn-on for some. It would lead to Gregory Dark’s New Wave Hookers (starring an underage Traci Lords) just a few years later, a film generally regarded as the start of the alt-porn movement, where being bizarre became part of the fun. But those days are gone now.
*. To stick with Peary for just a bit longer, it’s interesting how he sees a sex-positive message in the ending, with Lana leaving the audience, no longer just being a spectator but fulfilling herself sexually on stage. But Nick is banished from the club, no longer allowed to even watch. So where do we stand? Are we in or out?
*. Directed by Stephen Sayadian under the pseudonym Rinse Dream, a man who’s been credited with creating his own genre of “surrealist nightmare art-porn.” Alongside Café Flesh his best-known films are Nightdreams (as co-writer) and Dr. Caligari. He seems to have circled around porn for most of his career, imagining creative new directions for it to go in. The results he achieved in the ’80s were at least interesting, psychologically insightful, and even touchingly human at times. Nightdreams, for example, looks like it was the inspiration for Andrew Blake’s Night Trips, and with its mix of voyeurism, technology, and sex it’s as prophetic as this film today. Blake’s movie, on the other hand, is just as artistic in its own way, and is better porn.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

*. This remake of the cultish classic 1953 film of the same title divided a lot of people when it came out. I think that’s probably as it should have been, as the original version was a weird movie that opinions are still split on today. I would have been disappointed if they’d just played it safe.
*. No movie made in the ’80s was going to be able to duplicate the dream-like weirdness of the 1953 version, but at least in the early going here I thought this one did a good job, having a unique feel of its own while being studded with references and in-jokes tying it back to the original. The best of these has the actor Jimmy Hunt, who played David in the original, back as one of the two cops who go to investigate the crash site the morning after. As he walks the hill he says “Gee, I haven’t been up here since I was a kid.” There are a few other cute parts like this. But what the alien head in the glass bubble was doing in the school’s basement is beyond me.
*. I like almost all the players. Hunter Carson (Karen Black’s son) does well in the part of David. He played the kid in Paris, Texas and (trivia alert) the original Bud Bundy in the pilot for Married . . . with Children (which I don’t think ever aired). I see from his filmography that he’s kept working, but I don’t think I’ve caught him in anything since this.

*. Timothy Bottoms is great as a dad whose concern would be off-putting even if he weren’t being controlled from the mother ship. Karen Black is the woman who is just too humanly weird to ever be duplicated by an alien. It’s Louise Fletcher though who steals the show as the possessed and obsessed teacher who is going to get her hands on “David Gardner” if it’s the last thing she does. About the only casting decision I wasn’t totally on board with was James Karen as the general. He’s jut too obviously comic and loopy.
*. Directed by Tobe Hooper, who was coming off of Lifeforce, a really good movie that bombed for Cannon. This movie would bomb as well, and Goland and Globus apparently hated it and thought Hooper had misled them. Hooper seems to have been one of those guys who had a hard time catching a break after his initial success with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Which is a shame, because he had real talent.

*. The creature effects were by Stan Winston and I think they’re wonderful. The monsters are likened in the script to Mr. Potato Heads, and I really liked seeing creatures that looked realistic, a bit different, and that weren’t CGI. The head alien looks a bit like the belly-mutant in Total Recall, but that movie came later so you have to give Winston credit here as well.
*. But like I say, it divided people. Those who hated it, really hated it. I liked it though. At least the first half is very good. The back end turns into more of a routine action flick and I’ll admit that’s where I lost a lot of interest. The first part of the movie does a great job balancing creepiness and humour, but they give up on that at the end as well.
*. They do, however, keep the bizarre dream-within-a-dream twist from the original, though it doesn’t have the same punch. Because we’d been here before and knew what was coming? Maybe. It just felt too pat this time around.
*. Part of the weirdness may relate to the target audience. Winston was working on Aliens at the same time, which had a lot more violence and bad language but which still appealed to kids. Put another way, this is a family film, in a genre where I think everyone (including kids) would have been expecting something a little stronger. As it is they just have to make do with Louise Fletcher eating a frog.

Critters 2: The Main Course (1988)

*. Hey! You know that batch of alien eggs they revealed at the end of Critters? Well, you’re never going to guess what happened . . .
*. OK, you probably don’t need to guess what happened. You knew what was going to happen. And in Critters 2 it happens. This is Critters 2: The New Batch. Or The Main Course. Whatever.
*. But don’t give up hope. It’s really not as bad as it sounds. Much like Critters, it’s a formulaic ’80s horror-comedy that puts enough of a spin on the material to at least hold one’s attention for almost 90 minutes. Note I didn’t say that it’s interesting. I don’t think it rises to that level. But it does hold your attention.
*. So the herd of Critters actually looks pretty neat. The way the one shape-shifting alien bounty hunter turns into a Playboy centerfold is worth an eyeroll at its cheesiness. And the giant Critterball at the end is inspired. That’s a lot more than I was expecting.
*. I’ve read lengthy accounts online seeking to explain the Critters (or Krites). Which is weird since they don’t seem to be presented in any consistent way. They eat absolutely everything, which made me wonder why they were even bothering going after humans. The way they seem to reproduce like Tribbles is never explained. In Critters 4 Charlie says the eggs take six months to hatch, but that can’t be right on the evidence here. In the first movie a giant Critter appears, but that’s the only time we see one of them. Just as the Critterball would be dropped in the next two movies and only reappear in Critters Attack! For the most part though they just seem like pests. Why were they being sent to a prison asteroid at the beginning of the first movie then? None of this adds up for me.
*. Gone are the stars from the first film: Dee Wallace and M. Emmet Walsh. Though Walsh’s character is still here, being played by another actor. Instead we have to get by with the return of Scott Grimes (Brad), Terrence Mann (Ug), and Don Kieth Opper (Charlie).
*. Horror aficionado Mick Garris has the helm in his feature debut. He was a fan of Critters and said he wanted to make a sequel that was scarier. It isn’t, and I’m not even sure where it tries to be. It seemed to me to be trying to be funnier. Also debuting is David Twohy with his first script credit. He went on to write The Fugitive, Waterworld, and G.I. Jane, before writing and directing all of The Chronicles of Riddick films (to date).
*. The last film in the franchise to have a theatrical release. From here things would really drop off with Critters 3 and 4 (a diptych filmed simultaneously). But hate on them all you want, these little furballs did keep rolling.

Critters (1986)

*. Probably the first response anyone had to Critters when it came out was that it was a rip-off of Gremlins. This is something that director Stephen Herek (whose debut this was) has denied, saying that the script had been written before Gremlins went into production.
*. So, fair enough. But the thing is, Critters is such a typical production of the mid-’80s comedy-horror mill that I don’t know if there’s anything to be gained by shooting down such rumours. It’s a lot like Gremlins. Or Ghoulies. There are nods to E.T., including Dee Wallace playing the mom with a son who heats up a thermometer to get out of school. And it’s a movie where aliens land near a small Kansas town and terrorize a family homestead. There’s the gag where one guy gets drawn beneath a car to be mangled and we cut immediately to a woman pushing food into a sink’s garbage disposal unit. There’s a scene where a man tries to escape up some basement stairs and a monster catches him by the leg. There’s M. Emmet Walsh as the town sheriff. There’s a final shot where we see Critter eggs that have survived the destruction of their spaceship, allowing for the inevitable sequel.
*. That said, Critters is still a lot of fun. It’s clichéd but quick, and adds just enough wrinkles to the mix to keep things interesting. I like how the lead bounty hunter transforms himself into a big-hair ’80s rock star to mix in with the locals. And while the Critters (or Krites, or Crites as they are rendered by the subtitles) aren’t very impressive when we finally get to see them, they do have some neat attributes, like the ability to fire poison quills and a form of locomotion where they roll themselves into balls. While their behaviour is certainly gremlin-like (witness the scene where they tear apart the bedroom), they’re different enough from gremlins.
*. Fame and stardom are odd. If you had seen this movie, Leprechaun, and Eight Legged Freaks back-to-back-to-back, who would you have put your money on becoming a star: Nadine Van der Velde, Jennifer Aniston, or Scarlett Johannsson? Each actor was playing a similar role, and I think Van der Velde is just as good here as the others were in their debuts. But perhaps she wanted to do other things. She went on to produce and write quite a lot. Watching her here though, I don’t see any reason why she couldn’t have been as big a star. Leonardo DiCaprio would get his start in Critters 3, so obviously there was no stigma or curse attached to the little furry beasts.
*. Despite the sequels, and a 2019 reboot, I don’t think this is a movie that a lot of people know about today. It’s very much of its time, and even when it came out it didn’t do great box office (though it made money). Still, among the wasteland of ’80s horror it stands out as one of the more creditable efforts. A movie I’ll ever watch again though? Probably not.

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989)

*. It seems fitting that Halloween 5 came out in 1989. It has that feel of the end of the ’80s. I don’t think this is just because of the generic New Wave girls either. The Halloween franchise, along with ’80s horror in general, was winding down.
*. I said in my notes on Halloween II (1981) that it was a very tired, half-assed effort, which was all the more remarkable for being only the second film in the series. Halloween III: Season of the Witch then tried to go in a new direction, but that turned out to be a short detour. Halloween 4 brought Michael Myers back to do his (only) thing, and was quite successful. So, if you’ve been following me this far, Halloween 5 plays a bit like Halloween II, being another tired-feeling retread of tropes that had just recently been revived.
*. What are those tropes? The POV shots. The promiscuous teens being cut down in flagrante delicto. The glimpse of Michael, the masked Shape, from a window. Donald Pleasence, not looking at all well, emoting for the ages while delivering the same lines about Michael’s blank evil. Cats (live and dead) jumping out at us. People running around screaming “Help me! Help me!”
*. I’m not sure Halloween 5 has much of a story or even purpose behind it aside from all of this recycling. Apparently they started making it without a finished script, which is something I can certainly believe. Despite all the formulaic elements it’s amazing how chaotic a movie this is.
*. This is the second movie built around the character of Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris), the niece of Michael Myers. And immediately we start going off the rails. Why make Jamie mute? I get the psychological block, as far-fetched as that is, but I mean what does it add to the film? Even Harris was unclear on the purpose, since she can still write important messages. But then when given that opportunity Jamie doesn’t want to say anything. It’s all very confusing.
*. Then there is the psychological link that Jamie shares with Michael. What is the point of this? One suspects they were thinking of something along the lines of The Eyes of Laura Mars, but they didn’t get it. Similarly, it seems director Dominique Othenin-Girard was going after a Psycho-like medial caesura with the murder of Rachel (Jamie’s mom), but Ellie Cornell thought it an odd decision and her death itself is presented in a perfunctory way (stabbed in the shoulder with a pair of scissors?).
*. Lurking in the background is the Man in Black with the silver-tipped boots. Who is he? According to the documentary on the making of the film he wasn’t mentioned in the script at all but was just dropped in to hopefully tie things together in some way or to help make sense of what was going on. Mission not accomplished. He just adds to the confusion. Plus his identity wouldn’t even be explained until The Curse of Michael Myers, which was up next.

*. Here’s a horror cliché that I don’t think gets enough attention. It’s right up there with the people who find themselves locked inside a house (something that may go back to the first Halloween). If it’s the middle of the night, where is all the light coming from that’s pouring in the windows from outside? Look at the scene where Loomis confronts Michael on the staircase. That’s not a streetlight. Those are stadium lights beaming in from outside. Where is it coming from? A lot of movies do this (I think I pointed it out in my notes to Don’t Breathe), but people usually let it go without comment. It’s something that bugs me.
*. The idiot plot is one thing, but it’s disturbing that the dog here is smarter than any of the people in the movie. The people really are that stupid.
*. You know you’re in trouble when you start imagining a better movie than the one you’re watching. About halfway through Halloween 5 I was thinking that it would have been a lot better if Dr. Loomis had actually been the killer all along, and Michael Myers was just some alter ego of his who died in the looney bin years ago. No such luck.
*. I don’t know if Halloween 5 is the worst film in the series — there’s some stiff competition — but I think it’s my least favourite. Not only did I not enjoy it, I positively hated it most of the time. There isn’t a single good kill. There’s no suspense or humour. The plot is a total mess. And finally there’s way too much running about and screaming at the end. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, even knowing that there would be no end for some time yet. Or ever.

Scanners (1981)

*. There can’t be many directors whose work divides fans and critics so radically as that of David Cronenberg. I don’t mean over the question of whether he’s any good or not, but over the question of what constitutes the good Cronenberg and what’s not worth bothering with.
*. In putting my own cards on the table I’ll repeat a point I’ve made many times before, both in my book on Canadian fiction and several other places. Most artists have a period of about ten years where they do most of their major work. I find this is the same for film directors as it is for poets and novelists. It usually comes in the front part of their career. With that in mind, I would put Cronenberg’s most creative years, or big decade, as running from 1979’s The Brood to 1988’s Dead Ringers. In other words, I like the early Cronenberg. Some of his later work is interesting, but I never want to see Crash or Maps to the Stars again.
*. That said, these early films do have their drawbacks. They are cheap and show it. At times they approach “so bad they’re good territory.” But they really are good. In Scanners I get the sense that Cronenberg was actually trying to jam too many ideas into the frame, but I still find it fascinating even forty years later.
*. The so-bad-they’re-funny parts can be quickly addressed. Stephen Lack’s performance as Cameron Vale has been universally panned, and with cause. Lack is actually an interesting artist in what is his day job, but he’s terrible here. I couldn’t even buy him as an oddity.
*. Then there are the improbabilities in the plot. I could (just) get on board with the homeless derelict Vale being transformed into a corporate spy extraordinaire, but the business about his being able to mentally hack computers from a phone booth because the network is just like a human nervous system was a bridge too far. Not to mention the way his mental powers not only make the computers blow up but also down power lines and turn gas stations into fireballs. You have to laugh at all of that. But then, this was a time when people using computers wore lab coats.
*. All of this, however, somewhat constitutes the Cronenberg aesthetic. In his review of Scanners Roger Ebert says something that I find very perceptive in this regard: “We forgive low-budget films their limitations, assuming that their directors would reach farther with more money. But Scanners seems to indicate that what Cronenberg wants is enough money to make a better low-budget movie.”
*. Setting the production bar where he does, Cronenberg can be counted on to deliver entertaining fare that, while it may draw on various sources (Kim Newman cites the run of ’70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and the psychic mumbo-jumbo of The Fury), always ends up feeling distinctive and unique.
*. Part of it has to do with his use of locations, or more precisely his way of turning everyday locations into uncanny spaces. Like a lecture hall, or even a food court at the mall. He has moments that make him seem like a discount Antonioni here, delivered with a garish genre inflection.

*. From the look of the film alone you could probably identify its auteur, but there are other fingerprints as well, including the familiar theme of medical science and technology run amok. All these scientists whose cures are worse than the disease. Or whose cures are the disease. The ephemerol kids are thalidomide babies, or LSD burn outs, so if you want there are those extra kinds of readings available. Political? Well, apparently Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok!) thought he was playing Che Guevara.
*. Apparently Cronenberg was writing a lot of the script on the fly, but because it was working out themes he was so thoroughly invested in this was something he could get away with.
*. It’s also to his credit here how he makes something out of what could very easily have been unintentionally hilarious: scenes of people making faces (grimacing, twitching, jerking their heads and having their eyes bulge) while supposedly engaged in psychic combat. There are really only the two big effects scenes where we actually see the kind of damage the scanners can do to a human body. The rest of it has to be mostly implied.
*. If Stephen Lack is a disappointment, Michael Ironside takes this movie over and makes it his own, even against Cronenberg’s visuals, Dick Smith’s special effects, and Howard Shore’s score. Just as he almost did, playing against Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, in Total Recall. How did this guy not become an even bigger star? He doesn’t have to over-emote to just chew a script to pieces.
*. Hands up if you identified Dr. Paul Ruth as Patrick McGoohan. I don’t think I would have caught him without a credit in a hundred viewings. I’m sure it’s mostly the beard, but still.
*. I know people who think the world of this movie, and (probably more) who think it’s just terrible. It’s not my personal favourite, that might be The Brood, but it has a place among the other works of what I like to think of as Cronenberg’s major phase. Major in the sense of most imaginative and creative — ironically or not, the years where he was just starting out and had the least to work with.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake and one can understand why. It seems so obvious that a better movie could be made out of such a premise. But at the same time any improvement, and maybe that should be in quotation marks, would mean making it into something else entirely. You can’t spend more money and make a better low-budget movie than this.

The Delta Force (1986)

*. “Liberal Hollywood” isn’t a total canard, as it’s probably true that the film business tilts somewhat to the left. That said, there has always been a link between Hollywood and the Republican party as well, from Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger. As the latter name suggests, action heroes may be a natural fit with right-wing politics. Think also of names like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis.
*. But among all the action stars of the 1980s it would be hard to get any further to the right than Chuck Norris, whose political views have tracked with the most extreme directions taken by the Republican party even into the age of Trump. But even in the ’80s many of his movies had a more obvious political message than those of his peers. In Missing in Action, for example, he got to go back and do Vietnam right, one-upping Stallone, and in The Delta Force we see Operation Eagle Claw getting a do-over, complete with a scene where our hero goes back to rescue a fallen comrade. America wasn’t leaving anyone behind this time!
*. As the Delta warriors bug out from the desert there’s a significant passage of dialogue where Norris’s character (McCoy) complains about how “they” screwed up the operation by going against his advice. He adds: “I spent five years in Vietnam watching them doing the planning, and us to die.” In other words, it’s all the government’s fault. Again. And if there’s any theme that unites today’s right more than its hatred of government I don’t know what it is. Bruce Willis: “I’m a Republican only as far as I want a smaller government, I want less government intrusion. . . . I hate the government, OK? I’m apolitical. Write that down. I’m not a Republican.”
*. I bring all this up as a way of introducing The Delta Force as an overtly political movie. In fact, I would call it propaganda. I don’t mean that pejoratively; I’ll allow that there may be good propaganda, and that a propaganda movie need not be a bad movie. I only use the label as a way of understanding what it’s about. It’s a cheesy action flick to be sure, but one that plays a lot of jingo tunes.
*. That message is one of American-Israeli solidarity. “Israel is America’s best friend in the Middle East” is an actual line of dialogue in the film. We shouldn’t be surprised by this, as co-writer and director Menahem Golan is an Israeli and the movie itself was shot in entirely in Israel. That’s where The Delta Force is, literally, coming from.
*. The story was a timely one in 1986, as the film was based on the hijacking of a TWA flight only the year before. Despite the timestamps used to give it all a sense of documentary realism, however, the script goes in for melodrama. The singling out of Jewish passengers on the plane was something that happened, but it’s introduced here in an incredible way. Could the hijackers have been that shocked that an American flight from the Eastern Mediterranean to New York had — gasp! — some Jews on board? Then there is the bit with the Holocaust survivor whose wife tells us that it is “all happening again.” And a little girl who pleads “Please don’t take my daddy! Daddy take me with you!” And a noble Catholic priest who volunteers to go with the Jews because Jesus was a Jew, etc. This is all laying it on pretty thick.
*. By coincidence I was listening to the DVD commentary track for All Through the Night while I was writing up these notes. Here’s what director Vincent Sherman had to say about propaganda: “You can do propaganda if it’s done well, if it’s done right. If it’s done in the context of the story and not just stuck in, but seems part of the story, and part of the character, then there’s no resentment to it. But if it’s obvious propaganda then you have trouble. Audiences turn away from it.” The Delta Force is obvious.
*. I’m not sure, but it may be that Golan thought he was making an important movie here instead of just another piece of crap. It has this important political message. It’s over two hours long. It has an all-star cast, with Martin Balsam, Robert Vaughn, Shelley Winters, and George Kennedy all putting in appearances. And Robert Foster, who I didn’t even recognize, playing the terrorist. He gives one of those really good performances in a bad movie that make you respect an actor’s professionalism and craft.
*. As for Lee Marvin, this was his last movie and I thought at times he didn’t appear in great shape. He also has wildly shaggy old-man eyebrows. Do you think they might have asked somebody to trim them? Luckily he doesn’t have to do too much but say things like “Take ’em down” and “One minute to go-time.” But at least he was game. “There aren’t too many firm film offers these days that guarantee money up front,” he later said.
*. As for Norris, in the words of Golan: “We look at Chuck as having the potential of a Clint Eastwood . . . His acting talent is getting better. He’s in the right style, and he’s very popular.”
*. Well, he was very popular at the time. But the bit about his acting talent getting better was only wishful thinking. Norris is no actor, and he’s at his best when he’s asked to do very little. I really didn’t find him convincing in this role at all, and what’s more disappointing is the fact that he doesn’t get to perform much in the way of martial arts. Which is, after all, the only thing he does well.
*. Alan Silvestri’s score is quite good, and would later get used as the fanfare for car-racing events on television. It is, however, overused. After an hour of it I think I’d already had enough, but then they seem to have just put the main theme on repeat for the whole back end of the movie.
*. Whatever his good intentions, I don’t think Golan could resist making just another stupid shoot-’em-up. There’s a car chase through some narrow streets that throws in about as many clichés as you can imagine. Norris hangs out of the passenger side of the van that’s being chased by the terrorists and shoots at them. Then he shoots out of the back window of the van after it gets blown away. The racing vehicles shear the open door of a car off. A vehicle smashes into a pile of watermelons. The cars go driving down a stairway. Vehicles crash and then inexplicably explode into massive fireballs. Did anything get left out?
*. So there’s the car chase. And lots of icky Arabs. And good guys walking through hails of bullets unscathed (except for one token fallen warrior), taking down bad guys while shooting from the hip. The icing on the cake, however, is Norris’s motorbike, which fires missiles forward and backward. This really pushes the movie over the line into silliness, undercutting any seriousness we might have been wanting to take its political message with.
*. Of course the good guys win, celebrating by cracking open some Bud and singing “America the Beautiful.” As I said, it’s a movie that wears its heart (if that’s the word) on its sleeve. Unfortunately its politics are an awkward fit with its trashiness, and instead of being a serious political thriller it quickly turns into another really dull Cannon action movie. Chuck Norris was in a number of flicks that were better than this, which should tell you everything you need to know about how bad it is.

Polyester (1981)

*. Polyester marks a kind of halfway house in the career of director John Waters, a baby step up from pure exploitation trash like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble and indicating a turn toward what he would later describe as a “futile attempt at mainstream entertainment” (or at least “my version of a mainstream movie”). With later movies like Hairspray, Cry-Baby and Serial Mom the shock value would be dialed way down, which would lead to broader critical and public acceptance.
*. Was this a falling off? I guess that’s up to personal taste. I find I can return to the earlier films more often than his mainstream efforts, most of which I don’t think I’ll ever bother seeing again. But I wonder how much the direction Waters’ later career took puts those early efforts in a new light. I don’t think Waters really wanted to be respectable, but he did want to be commercial. He’s never been shy about owning up to the fact that he wanted his movies to make money. Would he even object to being called a sell-out? I don’t know if he’d consider that an epithet.
*. The times were changing too. As Waters also acknowledges, by the time of Polyester the golden age of trash was over because there were no more taboos to be broken. Not only that, he claims Polyester was the first of his films that wasn’t made to be a midnight movie because midnight movies had disappeared as well. I’m not entirely sure about this. In 1981 I think there were some still around. They were definitely on their way out, but they hadn’t disappeared yet.

*. I think another thing that helps the earlier movies out is that the production values fit the talent level. Not to put any kind of point, however fine, on it, but Waters’ crew of Dreamlanders were hopeless actors. At times they were just people he literally picked up off the street. Edith Massey is the most obvious example. She’s a character, but not an actor, and doesn’t belong in any kind of professional-grade movie. Waters keeps praising her on the commentary track for “really trying,” but so what? She belongs in a freak show like Pink Flamingos, but is out of place here. And even Divine is pretty limited. He can ham a part up, and has the star’s ability to command attention, but his acting is a joke.
*. As Waters moved into the mainstream his targets also became easier and more obvious. Mocking square, bourgeois, or middle-class suburban culture was too easy, but it was what he’d come to. Though it’s not so much nouveau rich bad taste that he wanted to mock as the desire, even compulsion, people have to adopt the trappings of that lifestyle as so much moral camouflage. It’s what people want that defines and condemns them.
*. One thing this means is that Francine Fishpaw is less sympathetic than she seems. Sure she’s not the monster audiences had come to identify with Divine from her previous roles, but in her desire to be part of “a normal American family” she is a target of scorn and ridicule. Just like Elmer taking up oil painting and Lu-Lu macramé, the cliché of art as therapy, is a joke in bad taste. Even Francine’s crush on teen heartthrob Tab Hunter is a sick dream, deserving of a tragic denouement.
*. There are a bunch of things in Polyester that I think miss. I didn’t understand the business where they drive around swatting minorities with a broom, and on the commentary track Waters admits this part doesn’t work (though he also says that it’s something he actually remembers doing). The AA meeting also struck me as a one-joke bit that had been shoehorned in. The hay-ride with the nuns I didn’t get at all.

*. Odorama. A meta-joke on William Castle gimmickry. It’s interesting how devices like this, suggestive of a more immersive audience experience, are in fact so alienating, always taking us outside the film.
*. Where I find Waters holds up best is in his little moments of acid observation. For example the way Francine’s husband showers affection on his dog while treating Francine like shit. Or Lu-Lu’s insistence on having an abortion. When Francine tries to tell her that her baby is a part of her, Lu-Lu angrily responds “It’s stealing part of me, you mean. I can feel it like cancer, getting bigger and bigger like the Blob. One day it will rip me open. And it will be there in my life, ready to rob me of every bit of fun I deserve to have!” That’s so over-the-top and so honest and real.
*. I like Polyester well enough for what it is. The downsizing and domestication of Douglas Sirk melodrama, with Francine’s breakdown threatening a trip to the snake pit, is effectively droll. Like me, you may want more than drollery from Waters, but times were changing and pop culture was turning into something satire-proof. As he puts it at one point on the commentary, the targets of Waters’ scorn had become his audience. But how can we all be in on the joke? Who are we going to laugh at?

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1981)

*. The contemporary reviews of The Postman Always Rings Twice were almost universal in praise. Critics thought it a very good movie. But . . .
*. But, they’d go on to say, it wasn’t a classic. Meaning it didn’t measure up to the 1946 version with John Garfield and Lana Turner. Such a judgment is worth thinking about.
*. The first thing we might say is that this film isn’t a remake of the 1946 movie. There are some ways that the novel was first adapted that have been retained just because they were practical at the time and still are (for example the scene where Cora dictates her confession is played in both movies with Frank in a wheelchair, whereas in the novel he’s strapped onto a stretcher). Instead it’s more a return to the original source, James M. Cain’s 1934 novel. We may think of John Carpenter’s The Thing, which wasn’t a remake of The Thing from Another World but a more faithful adaptation of their shared source, the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell.
*. The second thing to consider is that this is, in just about every objective way you can think of, a better movie than the earlier version. Jack Nicholson is well cast as the seedy loser Frank. David Mamet handled the script. Bob Rafelson directed and Sven Nykvist shot it. That’s a lot of talent.
*. Then there’s Cora. I said in my notes on the 1946 version how it was really Lana Turner’s movie. But Jessica Lange is a much better actress, and can more than hold her own in the sexy department as well. She was actually making a kind of comeback here after, in her own estimation, her debut in King Kong set her career back about four years. I think she’s sensational.
*. So then, a very good movie. A much better movie in almost every way. But. But. But was it too good for its own good?
*. I think it was. Here’s Pauline Kael’s take, and I think she got it: “Taste and craftsmanship have gone into this Bob Rafelson version of James M. Cain’s hot tabloid novel, but Rafelson’s detached, meditative tone is about as far from Cain’s American tough-guy vernacular as you can get. The impulsiveness and raw flamboyance that make the book exciting are missing, and the cool, elegant visuals (Sven Nykvist is the cinematographer) outclass the characters right from the start.”
*. Put another way, Cain’s novel was trash. Classic trash, but trash. The 1946 movie rolled with this. Lana Turner was trash. Classic trash. She belonged in that movie. Cain thought she was perfect. This Postman is better made and more authentic, but misses this. Instead it’s more of a love story, and even where they try to stick closer to the novel they land in trouble. Why bother bringing the lion-tamer woman (Anjelica Huston) back in? She just doesn’t fit in a movie like this. Kael found her appearance “a highly expendable episode,” and again I think that’s right.
*. But then something always struck me as being off with the structure of Cain’s story in the first place. It’s curiously shapeless. It doesn’t even matter that the movie ends here with the car accident, skipping over the legal proceedings in the final act. Because the story could really end at any point. That’s just the way it feels.
*. So, oddly enough, this is a movie that I think lasts for the same reason as the first did. We remember Lange in what was a terrific star turn — in the eyes of David Thomson “still, arguably, her most complete and disturbing performance.” The rest of it is very good too. But.

Missing in Action (1984)

*. First things first: let’s try to get these movies in their proper order. You might think, as I certainly did, that Missing in Action was a clone or rip-off of Rambo: First Blood Part II (the one where Rambo goes back to ‘Nam). But First Blood Part II actually came out a few months after Missing in Action. It was, however, based on a script (by James Cameron) that was originally written for First Blood Part II. So Cannon rushed it into production so as not to get sued.
*. You also might think that the next Missing in Action movie (Missing in Action 2: The Beginning) was a prequel. Which it was, but it (The Beginning) was actually made back-to-back with Missing in Action and I’ve read that it was actually the first part they shot. Cannon just decided to release Missing in Action (the real sequel) first because they thought it was a better movie.
*. The only real takeaway from this is that all of these movies came out within a year of each other, basically re-fighting the Vietnam War so that, in Rambo’s words, America would get to win this time. They also sought to cynically cash in on the widespread belief that there were American POWs languishing in Vietnamese prison camps at the time.
*. The question of whether there were (or are) MIAs being held in Vietnam is one that people still argue over. Needless to say, this movie accepts their existence, while also dismissing a trumped-up charge against the American hero Braddock (Chuck Norris) of war crimes. So it’s a political movie, playing out along pretty well-worn lines. I won’t get into that here. It’s the kind of story that was criticized in some circles as a dangerous right-wing fantasy, but I guess some people found it comforting or cathartic. Norris wanted to “instill a positive attitude” about Vietnam, and was pleased to see audiences standing and cheering at the end. It was huge at the box office.
*. As for the movie itself, it’s not very good even at being generic. The one oddity is that the two chief villains are killed off at the end of the first and second acts, leaving Norris free to just blow things up in last half hour. Buildings explode into fireballs. Bad guys can’t hit anything with their rifles and mortals but good guys drop bad guys while running and shooting from the hip.
*. Norris himself had by this time settled comfortably into what was his one role: a soft-spoken tough guy characterized by beard, blue jeans, and beer. M. Emmet Walsh goes along for the ride and gets to die a hero’s death (after curiously telling Braddock that he will see him in hell).
*. As with most of Norris’s efforts, Missing in Action is characterized mainly by its blandness, a quality its star projects, if not personifies. Aside from its political angle I can’t see where it’s of much interest at all. Since I don’t want to enter into its politics, I’ll just leave it at that.