Category Archives: 1980s

Henry V (1989)


*. In my notes on Olivier’s Henry V I noted David Thomson’s comment about how there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with, and that for that reason he remains “helplessly loyal to Olivier.” I said there that I thought this was probably true, but that for me Kenneth Branagh’s film would always have such a place. I’d only add here that this Henry V also holds a special record in my personal movie-going history, being the only film I went to see, upon its release, three times. I was an English student at the time and it just seemed like the best thing ever to me.
*. I still rate it very, very highly. I think it’s the best of all of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and that he really never did anything near as good. Seeing as he wasn’t even thirty here, there’s something a little sad about that.


*. As remarkable an achievement as this film was for Branagh — and it marked his directing debut — I’d say he has to share accolades with composer Patrick Doyle, whose first film score this was. This is, in my opinion, one of the four or five very best scores ever written, especially if you consider it in total and how well it works with the rest of the film. It’s not overstated, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is because it feels large. How on earth it escaped even being nominated for any major awards is a complete mystery to me. Who picks these things? But, as with Branagh, I’m not sure Doyle ever did anything else as good (though his overture for Much Ado About Nothing is a masterpiece).
*. I take it that the long dolly shot over the battlefield with the Non Nobis arrangement playing is meant to recall the electric dolly shot that covered the cavalry charge in Olivier’s film. A nice pairing that.
*. It’s usually described as being a more realistic take on Shakespeare, and the first thing that’s meant by this is mud. Not the single wet spot on the sunny emerald Technicolor green of Olivier’s illuminated battlefield but rather a Passchendaele-like mud bowl that the combatants wallow in.


*. More than the mud, however, the film’s realism resides in its language. You may never hear Shakespeare delivered as naturalistically as it is here, and at such speed and with such obvious relish. You can almost feel Branagh’s delight in rolling the words around in his mouth. And this works because Henry, being a king, is a performer. He knows it, and everyone around him, all the way down to the boy, knows it. When he’s bellowing at the walls of Harfleur or rallying the troops before Agincourt it’s understood that it’s all just a show. But playing the part of a king well was a king’s job, back in the day when it was a job.


*. Branagh also amplifies the language in two ways. The quiet scenes are played in close-ups, which exaggerate small gestures (a nod, a roll of the eyes, tears), while the louder, more confrontational parts are emphasized by frequent cuts to the speaker’s audience. It’s the same principle as the laugh track, where seeing or hearing the response to the speaker’s words on screen helps direct or amplify our own response. This is something Branagh does throughout, both when dealing with groups of people (the English soldiers Henry rallies) or in one-on-one verbal assaults (the poor herald Montjoy has to keep looking humbled after being dressed down again and again).


*. The Eastcheap gang were played pretty much as buffoons by Olivier, and here they’re far more sympathetically drawn. The thing is, as a group they’d been in decline throughout this trilogy of plays, and now with Falstaff dead there’s a real air of morbidity hanging over them all. With even Nell and the Boy dying in the end, Pistol isn’t just diminished but returning to a diminished world. He’s finally been written out of History.
*. Derek Jacobi’s Chorus works quite well, in modern dress, perhaps because we’re likely to recognize him as one of those talking-head presenters, David Starkey maybe, in some History channel docudrama. Remarkably, it never takes us out of the play.


*. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly political interpretation — unlike Olivier’s, which was very much a film of its historical moment. Though, as befits the more realistic presentation, the war is presented as something engineered through the operation of power politics, with the scheming bishops in league with Brian Blessed’s Exeter, a character whose bluff and hearty exterior belies a shady, manipulative warmonger. Dramatically, these opening scenes are surprisingly fresh and edgy, and have only taken on a greater resonance in a time that now has some more recent experience in the selling and marketing of imperialist wars.


*. I think all of this makes the film very Shakespearean, meaning full of ambiguities and complexities. Olivier never wanted us to mistake that we were watching a play, but a play that was expanding to encompass a wider stage. Branagh’s film wants us to see the world as a stage, which it is when dealing with such a subject as this anyway.
*. As with any really successful film, the stars were in alignment. Branagh and Doyle both making electric debuts, a supporting cast including a number of veteran stalwarts (I particularly like Paul Scofield), a full chemistry set with Branagh wooing Emma Thompson, and just perfect execution in nearly every production department. You don’t even notice that the battle scenes seem to all be taking place in the same little mud hole, the action is kept so fluid and crowded. There’s nothing like the cavalry charge from Olivier’s film, but has a Shakespearean battle ever been as expertly constructed as this? I can only think of what Welles did in Chimes at Midnight, and nobody’s ever topped that.
*. That Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s best and most film-friendly plays also helps. But I guess I have to fall back on what Thomson said as for why this may be my favourite Shakespeare film. I might not have been born with it, but I was born for it. In nearly thirty years I don’t feel any diminishment in its hold on me and I’ll likely remain helplessly loyal.


The Dresser (1983)

*. Based on a 1980 play by Ronald Harwood, which was based in turn on Harwood’s own (post-WW2) experiences as dresser to the actor Sir Donald Wolfit. As is often the case with adaptations supervised by the author (Harwood co-produced and wrote the screenplay for this film version) it actually takes more liberties than you might expect in moving beyond being just a filmed version of the play, and some of the location stuff of England being bombed looks really good. Does it add much to the story aside from a nice backdrop? Does it help for us to see Sir having his market meltdown instead of just being told about it? That I’m not so sure about.
*. Also sticking through the jump from stage to screen was Tom Courtenay, who played Norman during the play’s initial theatrical run. Again I wonder if this was the best move. The thing is, my own sense is that Courtenay overplays the role in a manner more fitting on stage than on screen. I do like him in the part, but wonder if director Peter Yates might have wanted him to dial it down a bit.
*. Then again, Courtenay was playing opposite Albert Finney as Sir, and Finney was dialing it up too. I wonder how deliberate this was (I was wondering about a lot of things watching this movie). Yates could excel with actors playing cool. Think of Steve McQueen in Bullitt or Robert Mitchum in The Friends of Eddie Coyle. But here he wanted large. Like Sir flagging down a train in a station.
*. Adding to this sense that Courtenay and Finney are coming on too strong is the fact of their ages. The play seems to me to be about two elderly figures. Sir, who is at death’s door, is even drawn in a way that suggests dementia. But Finney was only 47 and is too hale and hearty for the part, while Courtenay was roughly the same age. In contrast, when Richard Eyre did a TV version in 2015 he did it with Anthony Hopkins and Ian McKellen in the leads. Hopkins and McKellen are roughly the same age as Finney and Courtenay, but their version was made over 30 years later, when they were in their mid- to late-70s. Is 77 the new 47? I don’t think things have reached that point yet.

*. I prefer the 2015 version, but think this one is definitely watchable. Of course it was catnip for critics and got all sorts of awards attention. Even though I don’t really see it as a play “about” the theatre world so much as being about codependent relationships. Norman is more of a nurse than a dresser, utterly committed to propping Sir up and keeping him going, perhaps feeling that this gives him a kind of power. The kind of power one attains by debasing himself before his idol. I like the scene where Sir makes him go out in front of the audience to make an address. Does Sir see this as a punishment? Does he relish Norman’s humiliation? And does Norman enjoy it a bit himself? After all, imagine him going on the same stage as Sir!
*. Roger Ebert saw the dynamic at work clearly: “Much of mankind is divided into two categories, the enablers and the enabled. Both groups accept the same mythology, in which the enablers are self-sacrificing martyrs and the enabled are egomaniacs. But the roles are sometimes reversed; the stars are shaken by insecurities that are subtly encouraged by enablers who, in their heart of hearts, see themselves as the real stars. It’s human nature.” So Norman is upset that he doesn’t get so much as a mention in the dedication of Sir’s memoirs. But is his anger heartfelt? There is a masochism that drives the codependent personality. They want to be used, and Norman is. His only reward is to be taken for granted.
*. I think that downbeat message fits with the anticlimactic ending here. I’ll confess that when I first saw it I was surprised when the credits rolled. Was that it? But I think that abruptness makes the point. With Sir gone, that’s really all there is. Norman doesn’t have a story of his own. What will he do now? Is there anyone left who cares?

Jaws: The Revenge (1987)

*. Jaws: The Revenge (officially there is no numeral in the title, though it’s popularly known as Jaws 4) is a bad movie. Indeed it’s status as a bad movie is notorious, so much so that it is regularly included in lists of the worst movies ever or best-worst movies. How well does its reputation, meaning this reputation for badness, hold up?
*. I’d start out by saying that it had some things going for it. In the first place, while Jaws 3-D had been a terrible movie it had also done well at the box office and the franchise was by no means dead yet. Also quite remarkable, in a good way, is the casting of Lorraine Gary’s Ellen Brody as the hero of the film. I think everyone sitting in the theatre in 1987 would have assumed that Sean Brody was going to inherit the family mantle of shark-killer, and it’s a genuine surprise when he gets gobbled up in the film’s first kill, leaving us with a middle-aged mom as the next Brody up. She’ll have a lot of help, to be sure, but she’s the Mama Bear.
*. That’s about all the credit I can give Jaws: The Revenge though. Gary, who was at least serviceable in her previous appearances in Jaws and Jaws 2 is inexplicably awful here. In the original Peter Benchley novel she had a steamy affair with Hooper but that was cut for the film. Then she was supposed to be courted by the real estate sleazeball in Jaws 2, and that was also cut. But here she’d read the script and was delighted at being romanced by Michael Caine, which was one of the reasons she signed on. And this time she finally gets her groove on.
*. Roy Scheider said that Satan himself couldn’t have got him to appear in this one (he’d been dragged much against his will into Jaws 2). What’s more surprising is that even Dennis Quaid refused to be involved, reprising his role as Mike Brody from Jaws 3-D. His part would be taken by a hirsute Lance Guest, who would in turn be buddied with Mario Van Peebles, affecting a lamentable island accent.
*. Then there’s Michael Caine dropping in to play the beachcomber-pilot-gigolo Hoagie. His pronouncements on the film are now famous. “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” “Won an Oscar [for Hannah and Her Sisters], built a house, and had a great holiday. Not bad for a flop movie.” So just here to pick up a paycheque, and still he’s the only bright spot on the ocean.
*. To be a great bad movie, however, more is necessary than just incompetence. This is provided here by the weird premise, which suggests that Ellen now has some sort of psychic connection with the shark. Something that, of course, makes no sense because it’s obviously not the same shark as in any of the previous films. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be the same shark that kills Sean in the beginning that has followed Ellen to the Bahamas. Maybe all the sharks in the ocean have it in for the Brody clan?
*. I jest, but the story is even more bizarre than this. According to early drafts of the screenplay, from which the novelization was later derived, the shark is guided by a voodoo curse laid on the Brody family by a witch doctor named Papa Jacques. The “revenge” in the title then is not Ellen’s or the shark’s but the revenge of Papa Jacques. But since the witch doctor was left out of the movie we’re not left with any explanation as to what is going on. Which, come to think of it, might be better.
*. The rest of the movie is just crap. As has often been pointed out, Ellen has flashbacks to events she never witnessed, which is much sillier than the unfairly maligned flashbacks that the dog has in The Hills Have Eyes Part II. The shark this time out actually looks even more fake than any of the previous outings. It’s huge, rubbery pink lips reminded me of the Great White in John Singleton Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark. Despite being enormous it has no trouble squeezing into shipwrecks that don’t look to be as big as it is, from stem to stern. The point-of-view shots also indicate that it spends most of its time swimming with its head lifted out of the water. As for how it dies at the end, I couldn’t tell you. Something to do with a radio-controlled explosive? I’m sure they just wanted to blow the damn thing up and all go home.
*. So it’s a bad movie. A good bad movie? Well, most of it is actually pretty dull. While it’s very stupid, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud stupid. I watched it this time just to complete my coverage of the franchise. I never want to see it again. It’s not that good-bad.

Jaws 3-D (1983)

*. That’s right. It was originally released as Jaws 3-D. Not Jaws 3 or Jaws III. Which puts this movie right up there with Amityville 3-D. Because 3-D was cool in 1983, don’t you know. At least Friday the 13th Part III kept its dignity. Not something I ever expected to hear myself say.
*. 3-D was (and is) a useless stunt that has almost no application in this movie (co-writer Richard Matheson: “it had no effect whatsoever. It was a waste of time”). It also does nothing to save Jaws 3-D from being a disaster of a shark flick from start to finish. Indeed, the big 3-D scenes are just laughable now, climaxing in the shark sloooooowly smashing its way into the control room (a scene that would be revisited, slightly more effectively, in Deep Blue Sea). David Brown and Richard Zanuck, producers of Jaws and Jaws 2, had thought that the only way to go with a third film was to make a spoof or parody. The studio thought otherwise, and got something worse.

*. It seems as though everyone involved tried to disown any involvement in it after the fact. I like Dennis Quaid’s defence the best. He plays Mike Brody (son of Amity police chief Martin Brody) and claims he was high on cocaine in “every frame” of the picture.

*. There was some continuity. Joe Alves, who’d been the production designer on the first two films, makes his directorial debut. Carl Gottlieb was back as a credited screenwriter, though apparently the script was the work of many hands.
*. The usual sequel inflation has taken place. This shark is now huge, a veritable whale said to be at least 35 feet and capable of swallowing grown men whole. It’s also the most lethargic shark in the series yet, making Bruce seem hyperactive in comparison. There are whole scenes where it just seems to sit in the water, scarcely moving.
*. One of the big differences between this and the previous films is that it’s got a lot more underwater action. This is not a plus. Scuba movies are usually pretty dull because people move really slowly underwater and we can’t see their faces. I thought this was one of the big strikes against Thunderball, and this movie is no Thunderball.
*. The idea here wasn’t terrible. Basically Brody’s sons have grown up, with Mike running SeaWorld, an aquatic park in Florida that the giant shark invades. The cast are a grab-bag of ill-matched toys. Louis Gossett Jr. is the park owner. Simon MacCorkindale plays some British big-game hunter who wants to take on the shark. And, well, at least they try. Though they might have saved themselves some pain and asked Dennis for a bit of blow to get them through the experience.
*. Remarkably it not only didn’t kill the franchise but actually did well at the box office. And that is the only positive thing that can be said for it (if you want to consider that a positive). This is a huge step down in quality even from Jaws 2, and a truly terrible movie. Though many believe that even worse was to come. Next up: Jaws: The Revenge.

The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985)

*. This movie is almost universally reviled, though it does have a few champions. I’m not going to defend it here but just address a couple of the points that come up most often in what’s been said about it.
*. In the first place, it’s often remarked how surprising it is that Wes Craven turned out this turkey around the same time as he was making A Nightmare on Elm Street. The chronology is significant. Craven wrote and shot this movie before Elm Street but then the project was stuck in limbo because of budget issues. Then, after Elm Street went on to become a hit the studio asked him to go back and finish it. Unfortunately they didn’t want Craven to shoot any more footage, so he had to pad things out to 90 minutes by including flashbacks to the events of The Hills Have Eyes.
*. Not a great way to make a movie. And indeed Craven thought it was garbage. As I think everyone else did too, including Michael Berryman, who returns as Pluto. I don’t think it even had a theatrical release. Still, it’s hard to figure why this was such a dud when Elm Street was so fresh and creative. My guess is that Craven never wanted anything to do with it and was only taking the job to make money. It shows. Hack work can still be really good, but you can tell when a director doesn’t have his heart in a project, and since Craven was writing the script too the movie was doubly snake-bit.
*. The other point that’s usually trotted out about, and against, this movie is that the dog from the first movie, a German Shepherd named Beast, experiences one of the flashbacks. People hoot at this, and I think Craven may have thought of it as a joke, but I’m not sure what’s so crazy about it. Dogs are intelligent animals. Indeed, I thought Beast the smartest “character” in the original film (as he is again here). Dogs have memories. They can remember people for years. They can also dream in some fashion, as anyone who has watched a sleeping dog twitch its paws in its sleep can testify. So why is it so crazy that the dog here has a flashback? Beast remembers when he attacked Pluto in the first movie, which seems a likely thing for him to remember when he catches that character’s scent here. I don’t find this far-fetched at all. I was more mystified by how Pluto learned to ride a dirt bike so well.
*. I’ve often read reviews of The Hills Have Eyes that mention its sense of humour. I’ve tried to see this in it but have never come up with much. This movie, on the other hand, has more obvious comic flourishes, providing further evidence both of the way Craven was moving (toward Elm Street and Scream) and that he didn’t take this movie seriously. It even begins with some voiceover narration saying “The following film is based on fact.” Meaning it’s based on the fact that there was a previous movie called The Hills Have Eyes. None of which was based on fact.
*. The plot is a real mess. Bobby from the first film is introduced talking about his experiences in the desert to a psychiatrist. Then we find out that he’s invented a new kind of fuel to supercharge motorbikes. And is linked with Ruby, now living a normal life under the name of Rachel. Then the motorbike crew (which includes a Black couple looking for a disco in the desert and a blind girl in love with one of the bikers) hop on a bus and head out to the same desert as the first film, only without Bobby, leaving one to wonder why they even bothered to re-introduce his character in the first place. In any event, they take a shortcut because they missed Daylight Saving Time. Don’t you hate it when that happens? Ruby/Rachel warns them but before long they’re in crazy country being picked off by Pluto and Jupiter’s big brother, a guy named the Reaper.
*. I think that’s all about right. But to be honest, I wasn’t paying much attention. In most ways it’s a retread of the first film, which is something Craven doesn’t even try to hide. He even has the bad guy fall into a nearly identical trap at the end, despite his protestation that “Reaper don’t get fooled like Papa Jupe! Oh no!” Oh no? Oh yes.
*. If it’s similar in outline to the first film it has none of the same edge. No threatened baby. No cannibalism. No mock crucifixion. Just a bunch of nonsense that, as I say, I had a hard time staying interested in. Plus the lighting is execrable and it’s hard to see what’s going on.
*. “Depressingly shoddy” was the verdict of Kim Newman. I’d just call it ugly, dark, and dull. Not a movie to hate, or to laugh at, but just to avoid.

Hopscotch (1980)

*. In his Criterion essay on Hopscotch Bruce Eder calls it “the only ‘feel-good’ realistic spy film ever made.” I’d quibble with this. For starters, I have a hard time seeing it as being in any way realistic. The basic premise is far-fetched and the way it plays out goes even further. While more down-to-earth than the zanier spy spoofs of the 1960s, it’s not that far removed, at least to my eye, from Charade and Arabesque.
*. For Eder’s “feel-good” I might also substitute genteel, mature, or cozy. As screenwriter Brian Garfield (adapting his own novel) put it, “I wrote it with a very specific aim in mind and that was to show that it’s possible to do an exciting story with lots of suspense and adventure in which nobody gets scratched let alone killed.” So sort of like a Disney spy movie for grown-ups. But grown-ups who are young at heart. Barrels of oil tipped out of the back of a truck, making the cars in pursuit slip and slide into a ditch? Good fun!
*. I haven’t read Garfield’s novel but apparently it is not comic. Nor was the less-than-cozy novel he’s best known for writing, Death Wish. So this really was a change of pace. Efficient but unglamorous field agent Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) doesn’t even carry a gun, and wouldn’t use one if he did. He gets his kicks above the waistline, sunshine.
*. As for the maturity, what can we say about a spy movie where the spy in question wears argyle sweaters, listens to Mozart, and has prostate issues? And one where his main motivation is, according to Garfield, mere boredom.

*. It’s hard to be negative about a movie that, in the estimation of director Ronald Neame, “never pretended to be anything except a lighthearted comedy.” The presence of Matthau made me think of Charade, and the way Isobel (Glenda Jackson) uses the word “charade” a couple of times can’t have been a coincidence. But even Charade, which was a bit of fluff, was a darker movie than this.
*. Eder talks a bit about how against the grain this was for the time. Spy movies had been taken over by violent, cynical, and paranoia-laced thrillers in the manner of Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), and John Schlesinger’s Marathon Man (1976). I guess by the time the decade turned over to the ’80s we’d become more optimistic. Credit Reagan. And so, Eder again, Hopscotch was not “a simplistic anti-establishment movie — a close look at the plot reveals it as not so much against the concept of the CIA as against what the CIA was perceived as having become, in the hands of bureaucrats like Myerson (Ned Beatty).”
*. The way I would put it is that the CIA isn’t presented as evil so much as incompetent. They are bumbling bureaucrats and Keystone Cops. Sam Waterston seems a decent enough guy, but in being so he is totally out of place. Now the question of whether stupidity and incompetence may be a greater threat than corruption and conspiracy is still a live one, but I don’t think it’s one that Hopscotch addresses.
*. Not that I can complain about that. As Neame says, it’s a nothing more than a lighthearted comedy. Looking for any deeper message or meaning to it is pointless. It’s still enjoyable forty years later. But if I’m being honest, totally forgettable too. Roger Ebert: “Hopscotch is a shaggy-dog thriller that never really thrills us very much, but leaves a nice feeling when it’s over. . . . It’s a strange thing to say about a thriller, but Hopscotch is . . . pleasant.”

Dead & Buried (1981)

*. A couple of preliminary points. First, Dead & Buried is a movie with a bit of a twist ending, or a couple of twists, and I’ll be talking about them here so consider yourself warned.
*. Second: I love the work Blue Underground puts into their special editions. This one comes as a 2-disc DVD with three commentary tracks and a bunch of other extra features. But, and I’m sure I’ve said this before, if you’re going to go through all this trouble why not have subtitles, or at least closed-captioning? Even the most bare-bone DVD releases usually have closed-captioning.
*. Now, on to the movie.

*. Potters Bluff, Maine. Though I thought Rhode Island was mentioned at one point. In any event, it was shot in Mendocino, California. A very foggy Mendocino. Even foggier indoors than outside at night. This was done quite deliberately by photographer Steven Poster, as he explains on his commentary track. All kinds of steps were taken to diffuse the lighting, from hanging a giant sail from a crane to block out the sun in the opening scene to using a smoke machine indoors. The point was to have the audience leaning forward in their seats trying to see what was going on before springing a surprise at them. It’s not an effect I care for, but it is a distinctive look.
*. “A New Way of Life.” Ho-ho. Potters Bluff (yes, another giveaway) is a town with a Fulci-esque feel to it, a feeling only deepened by the fog and woeful dubbing. Not that the dialogue is worth much anyway. Note the way the concerned mother repeats the line about needing a “cold compress” for her kid’s head while exploring the spooky old house. Why not check the fridge? Sure to be a cold compress in there, even if it looks as though the power hasn’t been on for years.
*. They had to dub that scene because of the presence of a child actor who wasn’t allowed to shoot at night. This meant the house had to be covered in a tarp, which made things very noisy because the location then had to be ventilated (requiring the sound to all be put in later). But then many other scenes seem badly dubbed as well and I don’t know what was going on with them.
*. Commentary tracks can be really helpful. The legendary Stan Winston did the effects here, and it was one of his first theatrical projects. The effects are generally very good, and I only thought the doctor’s death stood out as being below par. But Sherman explains this: Winston didn’t do the fake head of the doctor because (as I understand the story) that scene was added later at the request of the studio, who wanted more gore. It’s too bad, as the head is clearly a dummy and it really strikes a wrong note.
*. The DVD box tells us that it’s a movie that’s from “the creators of Alien.” I’m never sure what exactly is meant by the elastic term “creator.” It doesn’t refer to Stan Winston, who worked on Aliens but not Alien. Instead, what is meant is that the script was by Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon, who wrote Alien. Though apparently it was all Shusett here and O’Bannon had actually wanted his name taken off the credits. Not because he didn’t like the film but just because he didn’t think any of it was his work.
*. As far as the script goes, I think it’s a good concept, working very much like an extended Twilight Zone episode or Tales from the Crypt comic. I could see it as being one of the stories in Creepshow.

*. Thinking of how much it looks like Creepshow made me think of various other connections. I already mentioned Fulci and I had to wonder if the needle-in-the-eye scene was inspired by the splinter-in-the-eye from Zombie (or Zombi 2). Carpenter’s The Fog had come out just the year before, and its seaside town overrun with murderous ghosts might have also been in play. Then there is the central conceit of the protagonist (Sheriff Dan here, played by James Farentino) not knowing who he really is, which may remind you of Carnival of Souls, or later characters like Harry Angel and Malcolm Crowe.
*. Though there are all these connections, Dead & Buried still feels fresh. Part of this may be due to when it came out, a time when theatres were saturated with slasher flicks and horror cinema had reached a kind of nadir. But more I think is due to the character of the town’s “official coroner-mortician” Dobbs, played by Jack Albertson in his final role.
*. Dobbs has his progenitors as well. Sherman says that the horror film he was most inspired by was the 1953 House of Wax, and Dobbs is clearly an artist-madman in the same vein, even using many of the same materials as Vincent Price. But Dobbs is also a comic figure, perhaps a leftover of early drafts of the script where the movie was imagined as more of a dark comedy. And he is also a sleazier kind of artist, with his library of Super 8 snuff films and Platonic necrophilia. His zombies, after all, are “even more beautiful than the living,” which is a doubly-charged boast since he is one himself.
*. The other element that gives Dead & Buried an extra bit of juice is the ambiguity with which the zombie townsfolk are presented. In the first place we may wonder how many people in Potters Bluff are zombies. It’s impossible to say for sure because not all of them know if they’re alive or dead (though surely they should be, since the dead all need frequent touching up). Then there is the question of their moral character. Sherman describes them as mere puppets, and directed the actors to play them cool and not villainous. They kill their victims in what seem to me to be cruel ways, but even this may be by direction, in order to conceal cause of death. By the end we’ve come to see them as being, like Janet, sympathetic figures, a sad community of the dead who care for each other. And has Janet found release in being finally dead and buried? Or will she wake up tomorrow morning and make Dan breakfast?
*. I’m not being entirely facetious. Why is she going on about what’s going to be for dinner at the end? She sounds like Bobbie having her mechanical meltdown at the end of The Stepford Wives (1975).
*. One of the selling points of the film today is that it has Robert (Freddy Krueger) Englund in a bit part as a tow-truck driver. One of the featurettes included with the DVD is an interview with him as well. Which is fine because he’s an interesting guy to listen to, but I can think of a half-dozen other people who might have had more to say.
*. Despite the deluxe Blue Underground treatment I don’t think Dead & Buried is a classic. It is, however, a fun little movie with some style and originality. Poster comments on how a lack of experience made them more likely to take chances, and I think there was a real attempt to make something good. Sherman had a strict colour scheme worked out, for example, which he enforced to the extent of changing the taillights on the cars so that bright reds would be kept out. There were also some impressive long takes, some of which ended up being pruned.
*. I’m not sure these efforts panned out, at least in terms of making this a better, or scarier, movie. As with the fuzzy picture, it was all deliberate but I don’t think the results had quite the effect they wanted. I guess the picture quality adds something to the atmosphere, but to me it just looks blurry. The colour scales are dull. The effects in the final graveyard scene are disappointing. I wanted to see whole faces falling off! I wanted House of Wax plus!
*. Still, it is a movie that I think lasts, mainly on the back of the weirdo Dobbs and his perverse battle with the indignity of death. That Albertson himself was dying adds a poignancy to the proceedings. Many if not most actors go out on less distinguished notes.

The Fly II (1989)

*. The Fly II didn’t receive many positive reviews. In fact, it was panned. And I remember not thinking much of it at the time. Returning to it thirty years later I have to say I appreciate it a lot more. It’s not bad at all.
*. Why the change in opinion? For one thing, I think the critics who dumped on it may have been giving Cronenbergr’s The Fly a bit too much credit for being something more than a creature feature. Yes, Goldblum and Davis are strong as the leads, so we do buy into their relationship (which was a real one at the time). But it’s still a monster movie, with their characters taking a back seat to the make-up in the end. The same kind of story plays out in The Fly II, and while it dials up the gross-out effects I think it does so less than is imagined. Director Chris Walas (who’d been the effects man on The Fly) “specifically avoided” going full gore. We even have to start off with a version of the shocking maggot-birth scene from the first movie in large part because that’s all the gross stuff we’re going to get for a while.
*. Another reason for my changing evaluation of The Fly II is my increased appreciation for practical effects. As Walas says on the commentary, CGI does some things remarkably well but there’s “something about the reality of the moment that it just hasn’t captured yet.” And while Walas didn’t want to just make an effects movie he obviously didn’t have any issues with returning to what worked well the first time. This movie would have been so bad with CGI, especially the CGI they had in 1989. Instead we get some really good stuff (Martin in the cocoon, the man’s head dissolving in acid vomit and the other head being crushed by the elevator) mixed in with some merely OK parts (the mutant dog and transformed Bartok, primarily).
*. I also really appreciated Eric Stoltz playing Son of the Fly. As an aside, I’m not sure why they didn’t call this Son of the Fly. On the DVD commentary track Walas says that he tried to have a different title and “would have preferred Son of the Fly,” but this was “back in the day when sequels had to have a 2 in them.” Well, at least he got Roman numerals. That’s class.
*. Back to Stoltz: he’s very relatable without the goofiness or charisma of Goldblum. But then that wouldn’t fit with this story, which I find to be darker. Martin Brundle is a victim of his father’s original sin, and it’s hard to imagine him happy at the end (even in the deleted ending, which leaves him fishing off the dock with Beth). Let’s face it, he had a pretty traumatic, if accelerated, childhood.
*. I’ve read that Keanu Reeves, Josh Brolin, and Vincent D’Onofrio were all considered for the part of Martin as well. You always hear stories like this. I think it’s likely that everyone tries out for or is interested in every part at some point in their career.
*. The rest of the cast are role players. Daphne Zuniga is the girl. Lee Richardson is the usual cruel corporate head, going by the name of Bartok (a Cronenbergian moniker if ever there was one, just as Simon Fraser University provided an authentic Cronenberg location). Gary Chalk is slimy as the security chief Scorby. They all take a back seat to the monster.
*. It’s fitting that the DVD commentary has Walas conversing with monster memorabilia curator Bob Burns. They spend a lot of time talking about growing up as “monster kids” and their shared love of monster movies, which Burns sees this as being an old-fashioned example of. To which I’d say Yes, and perhaps a bit of No.
*. The script is actually pretty tight. I like the way the young Martin’s helmet that squirts water returns at the end with his ability to spew vomit. And the way the fate of the dog is worked back into the story. At first I took the bonding between Martin and the dog to only be a typical pat-the-dog bit of business, but it’s not superfluous. Beth’s fly-fishing was also a meet cute that worked.
*. There’s real darkness at the end too. Indeed, it’s quite a bit darker than the first movie. I say that despite the far-fetched notion that somehow Martin can re-integrate by being genetically spliced with Bartok. But it’s the fate of Bartok that is the kicker. Walas doesn’t mention Tod Browning’s Freaks on the commentary, but the ending here seems to me to be a pretty clear nod to the end of that nightmare, with Bartok in the role of the transformed Cleopatra. And just as with Freaks I think it may have been too much for audiences. There seems to be a line, not directly related to gore or shock value, that even horror audiences don’t want to go over. There may be a rule that the punishment of the wicked not be so severe that we feel poetic justice has transgressed moral bounds.

The Fly (1986)

*. My DVD box cover for The Fly has a pull quote calling it “a true Cronenberg masterpiece.” This it is, which is a little odd given that it began as a less personal project and not something he’d dreamed up on his own. Still, like a band covering a song and making it their own, he certainly took it over.
*. The script helped. At the beginning of his commentary Cronenberg says he thought it “felt, in fact, so much like me that I was kind of surprised, I’d never really seen a script that had so many things in it that felt like me, to me.” In other words, he was a great fit for the material.
*. Sticking with that script, as well as most of the promotional material, let’s mention the line “Be afraid, be very afraid.” Apparently this was suggested by producer Mel Brooks (yes, that Mel Brooks), and it would go on to become a very popular tag line that would crop up in other contexts over the following decades and be nominated as one of the greatest lines ever in one of those silly AFI polls. All of which goes to show that classic lines are funny things, depending almost entirely on context. Because what’s so special about “Be afraid, be very afraid”? Who would think that was a great line if they just read it? A great screenwriter, William Goldman once said, has to imagine the dramatic and visual context for their dialogue, which is what transforms lines like this, or “You’ve got to be kidding,” or “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” into something memorable.
*. The practical effects by Chris Walas are first-rate (leading to Walas going to the top of the credits and being picked to direct the sequel), and the design elements are excellent, capped with those transporter pods patterned after the engine cylinder on Cronenberg’s Ducati Desmo motorbike. I also wonder how much those pods might have been influenced by the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States. The two movies have a lot in common.
*. When he saw the original film as a kid Cronenberg was upset both that the fly had such a big head (he could see no logical reason for this) and that the fly-vision effect where the screaming Hélène is duplicated dozens of times was not actually how an insect’s composite eyes work. I don’t think these things upset many people though. Meanwhile, a change he insisted on that really did make dramatic sense was allowing Seth to continue to be able to talk up till the very end. This allows his character to continue to develop and reveal itself and gets rid of the clumsy business of having to type notes out all the time. A win-win.
*. Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis worked so well together they’d get married the next year. What I like the most is how light they play it. Goldblum’s Seth Brundle keeps cracking jokes throughout his metamorphosis (I love his line “Oh, that’s disgusting” when he first vomits on his food in front of Ronnie), and this actually makes him more threatening at the end. Davis, meanwhile, was only known as a comic actress before this, which is something Cronenberg liked.

*. The original was one of those minor genre classics that didn’t seem to have any extra meaning. In 1986 it had become necessary to read more into these things, and some critics concluded that Seth’s sickness was a metaphor for AIDS. Cronenberg didn’t understand this, as the movie is pretty explicit in linking his transformation to cancer, a longstanding bugbear of his. Brundlefly is another instance in his oeuvre of a body turning against itself, making a man into a monster.
*. Also Cronenbergian is the linking of disease with sex. Brundle’s experiment in gene splicing leads to a wave of “cocaine exuberance” (Cronenberg), with a buff Goldblum (who was pumping up between takes) becoming a gymnast and superman both on the bars, at the bar, and in bed.
*. Speaking of the bar fight, that’s Canadian heavyweight champion George Chuvalo getting his wrist snapped. He was also killed with an ice cream cone in Prom Night III: The Last Kiss. Not a lot of respect for someone who was never knocked down in 93 professional fights, including two against Muhammad Ali.
*. I like how Stathis Borans (John Getz, who Cronenberg had liked in Blood Simple) is redeemed at the end. He certainly starts off being quite the sleazy heel. With a beard in the fashion of I believe nearly every Canadian male at the time.
*. Yes Stathis Borans. And Geena Davis plays Veronica Quaife. These are Cronenberg names.
*. One of the last great monster flicks done with all practical effects. Cronenberg’s commentary: “Who knows how this would be done in the modern era. I mean certainly there’s a man in a rubber suit playing the scene and it’s obvious. Of course there are many ways to do that now, where you might have the actor acting a completely computer-generated character, although doing the acting himself would have been more extreme or more effective in the sense of body shape that an actual human body could not have. But there’s a sort of immediacy and physicality and a realness to the man in the rubber suit routine that’s very effective as well. So I suppose it might look very, mm, tacky and a few other things to a modern audience but at the same time there’s an immediacy and a physical presence that you don’t get with CGI and I would wonder in about twenty years’ time how something like this will compare with the way CGI looks to a future audience because CGI also has its drawbacks and it too might look quite tacky and primitive in twenty years, or even fewer years than that.” Damn right.
*. It seems perverse to me to make a movie like this with only three significant parts and basically one set. But Cronenberg knew this minimalist theatricality would work, especially with the soaring score by Howard Shore backing it up. Indeed, I think it was later made into an opera with Shore’s music, but I don’t know when or for how long it played.
*. The maggot birth is a showstopper, and did in fact end the movie in some early drafts of the script. It’s so shocking that Cronenberg even gets away with the old wake-up-screaming gag. As it stands the film ends quite abruptly but in a way that I think is completely satisfying. As Cronenberg explains, there was no where else to go so we get “the same ending as The Dead Zone basically, although in this case the woman actually does the mercy killing.” I think he was right. Do we really need a coda? Why do so many movies end with these superfluous send-offs anyway? And don’t get me started on post-credit scenes.
*. In sum, the material, the moment, and the man all met together to make this a thoroughly successful reinvention of a classic. I’ll say it’s not a personal favourite of mine, and not even my favourite Cronenberg, but at the same time I can’t think of anything it does wrong and there are many things it unquestionably gets right. A true Cronenberg masterpiece then, and not just one for his fans.

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.