Category Archives: 1980s

Revenge (1989)

Director: Ermek Shinarbaev

Well, wasn’t THAT awesomely difficult to love. When you boil Revenge (also known as The Red Flute for no reason that I can discern, since I don’t recall any such object even appearing in the film, let alone being relevant to the story) down to its basic plot—a rural teacher kills one of his students in a rage, the child’s father gives birth to another son so that he can take revenge for him—you do it a genuine and amazing injustice. I mean, yeah, that is what happens, and yet there’s more to it… Revenge occupies an odd place both as a story and a production, appearing near the end of the Soviet Union when perestroika was inspiring a new wave of sorts in Kazakhstan, set mostly in Korea and starring Kazakh actors speaking Russian. Which I suppose is not really different from, say, Hollywood films set in foreign lands where everyone speaks English, but it was weirdly disconcerting here… plus, although the film is actually concretely set between 1915 and the mid/late 1940s, there’s a strange abstractness to the film’s apparent temporal setting; indeed, almost the only thing I can remember that really grounds it in the 20th century is a scene near the end with a truck. Otherwise I can’t recall any mention of either war that took place in that timeframe; you’d almost swear it was meant to be some piece of timeless folklore or something. Revenge is far from immediately ingratiating, being more inclined to a sort of poetic indirectness—had the director not specifically stated the film is at least in part about the forced repatriation of the Korean population of Sakhalin after WW2 I’m not sure I would’ve guessed that fact—and a few moments of animal cruelty are wince-inducing. It is, however, frequently stunning to actually look at—it has one of the most astounding crane shots I’ve seen, and really beautiful use of natural light. I liked the film more than otherwise, I think, but I’m going to need at least one more viewing to get more from it, cos I’m sure there’s more to get.

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The Howling (1981)

Director: Joe Dante

The other werewolf movie of 1981 (yes, there’s Wolfen, but apparently there’s some debate about whether or not that’s actually about werewolves as such), which I must confess to not liking anywhere near as much as American Werewolf in London. Indeed, Rick Baker, the latter film’s make-up/FX man, actually started working on this one before Landis said “hey, I’ve finally got money for my werewolf movie” and poached him for it, leaving Baker’s erstwhile assistant Rob Bottin to handle the lycanthropy on this one. And, to give the young man credit, he did a terrific job on a fraction of the budget of AWiL; the werewolf transformation about two-thirds of the way through is the highpoint of both films, and Bottin’s work holds its own quite capably in its own way. I also rather like the concept of the Colony in this film being a sort of resort where Patrick Macnee’s doctor is trying to kind of rehabilitate the resident werewolves and bring them into the modern world. And it looks remarkably nice, too, there’s a really good use of colour and light and judicious application of fog. So why didn’t I like it more? I don’t know… maybe there’s just something not terribly exciting about it, or maybe it’s the not awfully interesting characters. Maybe it’s the somewhat weak humour, which in this case extends mainly to naming characters after directors of vintage werewolf and other horror films. Maybe there’s something I’m not getting. Maybe it was just me and whatever mood I was in (you can never entirely rule out my useless brain and its vagaries). It’s good. I’m just not blown away by it.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

Director: John Landis

So that’s one of the more substantial holes in my acquaintance with horror cinema filled at last… I can’t think of any good reason why AAWiL has eluded me until tonight, cos it’s not like it’s an obscure thing; I’ve always known about it, it’s one of the more famous horrors of the early 80s, it’s never been exactly hard to get, I’ve recorded the fucking thing off SBS twice… but no, until tonight, it was just one of those films I’d never got around to seeing for no real reason. My loss, cos it’s an awful lot of fun. At heart there’s actually something kind of old-fashioned about the story, and I don’t think that’s just because Landis wrote it over a decade before he actually filmed it, I think it might’ve seemed that way had he made it in 1971 rather than 1981… there are a few explicit references to the 1941 Wolf Man, so the film does kind of overtly look back to the Universal films. It’s things like the somewhat bizarre sense of humour (like that Muppet Show excerpt) and the surprising amount of time star David Naughton spends naked (the film’s IMDB trivia page has a delightful detail about why Landis had to be careful about getting Naughton’s tackle in shot) that mark it out as something more modern, but I think it’s the film’s focus on character that’s most notable; I was actually surprised by how comparatively minimal the werewolf action is… it’s nearly an hour before we get to the groundbreaking transformation scene (still pretty stunning), and though the climactic havoc at Piccadilly Circus is terrifically pulled off, it’s also relatively brief. The time spent building the characters up, though, is well spent; Naughton is great as this sort of everyman guy in a pretty fucked situation, which is worse than usual cos Landis adds a neat twist whereby Naughton has to face the spirits of the people he killed on his first rampage and listen to them debate about how he should kill himself (cos his death is the only thing that will let them rest in peace). It’s almost like the werewolf isn’t a tragic enough figure as it is. Great stuff that I really should’ve seen years ago.

Zombie Holocaust (1980)

Director: Marino Girolami

And now for some classic Italian zombie action, albeit using the word “classic” loosely… This would’ve been much more accurately named Cannibal Holocaust, but a certain obscure and barely known other film had already scooped that title by appearing in cinemas just a few weeks earlier, which goes to show how timing can indeed be everything… oh well. This came near the end of a long career for Girolami, who apparently started as an actor in 1941 if his IMDB credits are right; as well as siring future director Enzo G. Castellari, he seems mostly to have worked in comedy as far as I can tell, with a handful of other genre titles, so I’m buggered if I can work how he came to make this. I daresay he had not much idea, either; the whole thing seems to have come from producer Fabrizio de Angelis, who’d looked at the box office returns from the recent crop of zombie films and cannibal films, and decided there was probably money to made from a film with zombies and cannibals. The only thing was, in the end result, we don’t actually see our first zombie until, oh, about 49 minutes into this 84-minute film, and they don’t actually do an awful lot.

But if you’re here for the cannibals, there’s plenty; indeed, the whole film stems from the discovery of a Southeast Asian cannibal dining on corpses at a New York hospital. The investigation regarding same leads eventually to the island said cannibal came from, where a bit of mad doctoring has been going on, which is where the zombies finally come in (being the products of said mad doctoring). This is really not a very good film, and yet there’s something bizarrely entrancing about it that I can’t explain. It’s absolutely derivative and does nothing terribly original apart from the outstanding and applause-worthy use of an outboard motor engine as a weapon, and for all of that something about it remains watchable. Maybe it’s a “so bad it’s good” thing cos I can’t really think of many positive things Zombie Holocaust has going for it, and I found myself enjoying it anyway. Can’t work it out.

Oasis of the Zombies (1982)

Director: Jess Franco

Apparently whatever money Eurocine refused to stump up for Jess Franco to make Zombie Lake, they were evidently willing to put up for this instead. Either that or Franco himself just gave in and made do… Anyway, he certainly made do without a new idea for this one, cos he basically just repeats the Nazi zombie thing from that film, except instead of a nice French village we have a nice (I suppose) North African oasis… In 1943, an Afrika Korps unit shipping a stack of gold is ambushed by French forces near said oasis and wiped out in a barrage of dusty stock footage from an older Italian war film; ever since, the Nazi dead have been haunting the oasis. Of course, this isn’t enough to stop various folks from trying to get their hands on the loot, including the son of the French captain who led the attack on the Nazis in the first place. However, at least Zombie Lake‘s French version clearly stated it was actually set not long after the end of the war despite not always looking like it, Oasis doesn’t… and by the film’s internal logic it should clearly be taking place around 1962 or 1963, but it is very clearly not doing that at all, it’s quite obviously the early 80s. (To say nothing of the Nazi zombies’ notably not exactly Third Reich military standard haircuts.) This is a not exactly minor issue that I frankly found insurmountable; in other Franco films you have a sense of things literally being otherworldly, but there’s no comparable justification for what was clearly just someone not thinking. Plus the zombie makeup is dreadful—one zombie is clearly just a skull on a stick, not even an actor—probably the worst since, well, Burial Ground just the previous year, and not quite so conducive to humour. The human characters… who really gives a shit. Yeah, not one of uncle Jess’ finer moments. On the upside, though, at least the moustache Antonio Mayans wears here is less terrible than the one he wears in Sadomania

Megaforce (1982)

Director: Hal Needham

And this kind of combines aspects of the last two films in a way, particularly the way it loudly screeches exactly when it was made… also, it was a co-production with Golden Harvest—part of an attempt by Raymond Chow to break into the US market in the early to mid 80s—and it was also kind of an attempt at a family-friendly action flick that would have a good deal of shit blowing up but no one actually getting killed. The real difference between Needham’s film and TS’s though, is the cost; apparently it cost something like $20 million as opposed to the far smaller sums spent on those films… wherein lay the problem, though, cos it only made back about $5m (whatever else may be said against Deathcheaters, it evidently did good box office) thanks to competition from other big films like that second Mad Max film. And it was a critical bomb, too, which got three Razzie nominations, a BOMB from L. Maltin, and to this day still scores 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Needless to say, a planned sequel did not happen.

Actually, what it felt like to me was a rather long pilot for a TV series in the vein of The A-Team; it’s a fairly comic book plot, with one country attacking another and Megaforce—a sort of G.I. Joe/Action Force kind of multinational “phantom Army of super elite fighting men whose weapons are the most powerful science can devise”, as the opening text—being brought in to deal with them. That’s about it. It’s a jumped-up TV show. It plays like one, sounds like one, even the opening credits feel meant for a TV show somehow (even though TV in 1982 was still 4:3 and not 1.85 widescreen). And one thing it somehow doesn’t really feel is expensive; that budget would now be worth about $52 million, and, well, it’s hard to see where all that went (sure as hell wasn’t on blue-screening). Pretty good explosions, I’ll grant it, but even so.

The Naked Gun (1988)

Director: David Zucker

I’ve written before about “comfort food” films, and for me the TV equivalent of those is the outstanding Police Squad! series from which the Naked Gun films sprang. Only six episodes long, not all of which even got aired when the series was first broadcast, so it doesn’t even take long to watch. I’ve always called it the show that was too smart for American TV cos it demands you pay attention to it or else you’ll miss some of the best jokes (and yes, that was the actual reason given for its premature cancellation); I was still discovering things I’d missed on previous viewings twenty years after I first discovered it. I commend it wholeheartedly, it’s a show that keeps on giving. With hindsight, of course, given that it was a notorious flop, it seems at least a bit amazing that it got turned into a film series some years later, although let us be glad that it did, obviously…

Rewatching The Naked Gun this afternoon for the first time in a lot of years after having watched Police Squad! many times in that same period, however, I suddenly realised how unlike its parent it kind of is. It’s very much stuck in the late 80s in a way the show wasn’t, though equally the film doesn’t have the show’s mission to satirise a particular period TV style either (the film is dated more than the show by its own period references; cf. the gallery of villains in the pre-credits sequence), and the big screen gives the opportunity for material that they couldn’t have done on TV at the time (“sexual assault with a concrete dildo!!!”). But there’s also a general difference of approach, the film is more slapstick and plot-driven than the show was, maybe not quite as smart all round as the show. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se—a 22-minute TV episode and an 85-minute film are not the same thing after all—and though they recast a few characters from the show, ZAZ were wise to retain Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin; he fully inhabits Frank here just like he does on TV, and I really hope the mooted reboot never happens cos I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. Even if it does run out of puff somewhat in the climactic baseball scene, Naked Gun is still terrific. Delightful to watch again. And, just like the series, I noticed jokes in it I’d never picked up on before too…

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner

There’s a lovely story on this film’s IMDB trivia page observing that “After the film opened, several people told Rob Reiner that they loved the film, but he should’ve chosen a more well-known band for a documentary”. It’s that sort of film which somehow inspires people to completely ignore the end credits which kind of give away that it’s nothing of the sort… and it apparently struck terror into the hearts of more than a few musicians back in the day, who saw too much reality in it; indeed, there would be a few bizarre parallels, like Black Sabbath’s “Stonehenge” mishap (which apparently happened before the film’s release but after the scene had already been written for the original demo reel of the film). Even now there’s something proverbial about it; while it may have been satirising the music and musicians of a particular period, I’m sure there are still plenty of artists out there who should treat it as a cautionary tale.

Watching it again tonight, though, I’m kind of intrigued by how, you know, non-documentary it actually is. I dimly recall my first viewing of the film (no idea when that was, except that it was in the VHS age, so probably mid/late 90s?) and noting just how “acted” the later scenes (particularly Nigel’s return to the band) felt. I can’t think of a better way to describe it, other than there’s probably some semiotic terminology that does describe the behaviour of the usual documentary film but Spinal Tap doesn’t really behave that way. It plays better at being a “documentary” than, say, A Mighty Wind did, but I still can’t believe people actually thought it was one. Though I suppose that’s testament to how well it is played; although even more of it than I previously thought is clearly “acted”, the deadpan is still kind of perfect throughout, no one acts like they’re in on a joke or anything. Anyway, whether or not it succeeds at convincing you it could be a real doco, Spinal Tap is frequently screamingly hilarious, and isn’t that what matters more? Of course it is. Enjoyed this rather more than I did whenever I first saw it, which is even better…

The Meaning of Life (1983)

Director(s): Terry Jones [& Terry Gilliam]

This happened to be on TV tonight, so, despite it having always been my least favourite of the Python films I watched it. And it’s still my least favourite Python film, nothing’s changed on rewatching, except that where I previously thought the “supporting feature”—Gilliam’s Crimson Permanent Assurance—was the best thing about the film, I kind of rediscovered tonight just how much better it is than the rest of the film. Conceptually ingenious and screamingly funny in a way the rest of Meaning of Life isn’t. The “feature presentation” itself is watchable (well, maybe not the Mr Creosote business), and bits of it are kind of tremendous (particularly some of Eric Idle’s songs), but… I don’t know. Certainly it was something of a step back from the previous two films, back to the sketch-based structure of the TV series and away from the continuous narrative of Holy Grail and Life of Brian (which they very rarely attempted on TV)… but it doesn’t work the same here, part of which is that the film doesn’t really use Gilliam’s animation skills like the TV series did, and part of it is that most of these sketches wouldn’t have been allowed to crap on at this length on TV. And, of course, part of that is because most of this wouldn’t have been allowed on TV at all… yet the Python team’s avowed delight at not being restricted by television constraints somehow didn’t really transfer into the sort of thing it could’ve been, there’s something calculated and sniggering and a bit juvenile about the offensiveness on show that stops it from being as really dark as they seemed to think it was. Still, like I said, bits of it are good—even if it can’t quite live up to its opening, some of the earlier scenes are fun—and it did remind me that being chased off the top of a cliff to one’s death by a horde of attractive women wearing nothing but roller derby helmets and pads isn’t exactly the worst way you could check out from this vale of tears…

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)

Director: William Shatner

In which the Trek creative team managed to pretty much squander the goodwill the series had managed to build up so far. What went wrong? Well, the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha offers a number of possibilities, including the mediocre response to the Next Generation TV series (which had started in between films) and various behind the scenes issues including a threat of legal action from Gene Roddenberry—the series creator who’d been increasingly sidelined by the studio since the initial film and had been unhappy with all the others made after it—plus studio interference (Shatner wanted a fairly dark film, Paramount wanted it kept light like the previous film) and inadequate budget (which harmed FX and pre-production). And, frankly, the fact that the crew were getting visibly older (Kelley & Doohan both pushing 70 by then) probably didn’t help much. However you break down the blame, in any case it’s hard to argue that this film is a marked step down in overall quality from the films that came before it, though I would argue it’s still not as bad as the first one (I’d much rather rewatch this over the first film). Basically, the primary issue is that it’s just kind of flat overall, and the attempts at humour are particularly weak; the basic story (Enterprise is hijacked by Spock’s religious fanatic brother to go in search of God) actually isn’t bad—though the similarity between it and a never-made Roddenberry script seems to have been what triggered the putative lawsuit—but the execution leaves something to be desired. The end result has been somewhat written out of Trek history after Roddenberry huffily declared it “apocryphal”; it apparently went straight to video in some countries and earned a few Razzies as well. I’m… not 100% convinced it’s that terrible—Sybok’s confrontation with Kirk, Spock & McCoy and their “pain” is, I think, really well done, much the best thing about the film—and, like I said, I still think it’s better than the first film, not least because it’s half an hour shorter…