Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

Being an international figure is all very well, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’re viewed the same way all over the world. My assumptions on this topic took a well-deserved whacking a few years ago when I was discussing politics with a bunch of NGO officials in the Kyrgyz Republic. Not surprisingly, recent Euro-Asian history came up and the way in which different politicians are viewed – and I mentioned in passing the positive opinion of Mikhail Gorbachev which still prevailed at that point. To my surprise, mention of his name was greeted, if not quite with bared teeth and snarls, certainly a real chilliness. Many citizens of the former USSR, especially those sections which have not prospered, viewed and still view Gorbachev as very nearly a traitor. Nevertheless, he was and remains an iconic figure in recent history and culture, and perhaps it is here we may discover a hint as to what it was that motivated and inspired him.

Very little about Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV (originally released in 1985, not long after Gorbachev had come to power) indicates that this was a big-budget prestige project, not least the way that it opens (after a daft moment where US and USSR-themed boxing gloves bang into each other and explode) with a lengthy reprise of the end of Rocky III, wherein Stallone puts the beatdown on Mr T and bonds sweatily with his friend and rival Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).

Various slightly bemusing scenes of the extended Balboa family at leisure ensue: sentimental not-quite-comedy, mostly focusing on Rocky’s grumpy brother-in-law Paulie (Burt Young). The main hook for these moments is Rocky’s birthday present to Paulie: a wobbling, chrome-plated, mantis-headed domestic robot, like something out of a gimmicky sitcom. To say these scenes strike a very peculiar note is an understatement.

Luckily, the main plot is soon in session, with the arrival in the USA of enormous Soviet android Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren, making his American movie debut). Drago’s backers in the Soviet government have sculpted him into an unstoppable pugilistic force and he is here to demonstrate his superiority over the bloated capitalist Americans. (Lundgren doesn’t actually get much dialogue beyond things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I must break you’; most of the exposition goes to Brigitte Nielsen, who’s playing his wife (but was actually married to Stallone at the time).)

First up into the ring is not Rocky himself, however, but Apollo Creed. I must confess that until very recently I’d never actually seen Rocky IV all the way through – but I had caught the second half on a couple of occasions. I had always dismissed the film as a load of Reaganite nonsense, based on that, but there are actually flickers of a potentially interesting movie at this point. Rocky questions why Apollo, who has long been retired, feels the need to take on Drago in this way, even if the Russian is the pushover Apollo has declared him to be.

Apollo’s answer is that he can’t accept the prospect of getting older and becoming less than the man he once was: he talks of the warrior’s code, and the need to keep fighting until you can no longer fight. It’s a strikingly resonant theme, and Weathers’ performance is great – in fact, Carl Weathers is probably the best reason for watching Rocky IV, giving Creed something of the presence and charisma of Muhammad Ali, the man he was based on. Of course, for this to follow the classic story structure that has just been set up, Apollo has to be punished for this flaw in his character, and so – following a tacky spectacle in Las Vegas – he is duly beaten to death in the ring by Drago, eventually dying in Rocky’s arms.

With the death of Apollo, all glimmers of intelligence and thoughtfulness are snuffed out of Rocky IV, and it proceeds to not be the film you’re expecting (in terms of a functioning drama about coming to terms with mortality) and simultaneously be exactly the film you’re expecting (in terms of Reaganite nonsense). For the scenes with Apollo to have any value – and I stress again they contain the best acting and dialogue in the movie – the rest of the film would have to be about Rocky slowly coming to the conclusion that there is another way to live, that he doesn’t have to keep doing what he does, and he is not compelled to go off to Russia and risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago.

The film is not nearly so brave or interesting, and instead concerns Rocky going off to Russia to risk brain damage and death in a rematch against Drago (Rocky V indicates that serious brain damage did indeed result, but this has kind of been forgotten about in the subsequent films featuring the character). This is strikingly cack-handed storytelling, and what makes it worse is that most of the rest of the film fails to engage with this story in any meaningful way – there’s the odd sentimental scene between Rocky and the people in his camp, but most of the rest of it is handled by a succession of montage sequences.

The rematch is arranged via a montage (Rocky has to give up his title to go and fight, which you would have thought might merit a scene or two, but no), then Rocky and his team arrive in Russia in another largely dialogue-free sequence. This is soundtracked by another Survivor song with almost exactly the same bassline as ‘Eye of the Tiger’, entitled ‘With a Burning Heart’. You get the impression that the soundtrack songs were bought as a job lot, as not long after there’s a very similar song called ‘Heart’s on Fire’ to accompany the next lengthy montage. Boxing arenas and sinister Soviet labs excepted, Russia is depicted exclusively as snow-covered wasteland in which Rocky must train for the fight (as the Soviets have neglected to provide him with a flight of steps to run up, he makes do by running up a mountain instead). There’s some predictably unsubtle coding going on in this scene: Rocky chopping wood and bench-pressing sleighs is intercut with Drago surrounded by high-tech equipment and a team of scientists, the implication being that Rocky is an authentic, self-made individual, while Drago is just a tool who has been artificially manufactured by the Soviet state (it’s heavily implied he’s on steroids).

And then we’re off for the grand finale, which is Stallone and Lundgren knocking seven bells out of each other at great length in Moscow (on Christmas Day, no less), before an audience of Soviet military officers, proles, and senior party officials – even Gorbachev himself is there (or someone cast for a strong resemblance to him, albeit without the birthmark which seems to have fascinated so many western onlookers). To be fair, the opening section of the final bout is rather excitingly staged – Rocky takes a beating, Drago complains to his handlers it’s like hitting a lump of iron, then our hero finally manages to land a significant punch and the match becomes more level – and then we’re off to Montageland again until the final round.

This is not the kind of film to wrong-foot its audience with a downer ending or anything especially unexpected. Suffice to say it concludes with Stallone draped in the Stars and Stripes, making one of the rambling, borderline unintelligible speeches which punctuate the Rocky series. After concluding that he and Lundgren giving each other blunt-force cranial trauma is at least preferable to nuclear war, he suggests that, ‘If I can change… and you can change… then perhaps everyone can change.’ There is massed applause at this point, with even faux-Gorbachev rising to his feet and clapping. There you go, folks: the seeds of glasnost and perestroika, sown by Sylvester Stallone beating Communism in a boxing match.

Except – it doesn’t hang together. The Russian audience may have changed – by the end of the match they are cheering for Balboa – but Rocky himself hasn’t appreciably changed at all. He’s still a big lunk who finds his fullest means of expression by punching people in the head. There’s nothing to suggest he has learned anything from what happened to Apollo Creed – the very fact he’s there fighting at all suggests exactly the opposite.

The jingoistic Cold War trappings are what make Rocky IV faintly risible to watch nowadays, but what makes it a really flawed and not very good movie are the fact that it fluffs its moral premise and subtext so very badly well before the end. Did Apollo Creed die for nothing? Nearly – but if nothing else his demise inspires Rocky to go and fight Drago. So is this then a movie about personal revenge, rather than standing up for the values of the American system? It really doesn’t work as a coherent, satisfying narrative – or as jingoistic flag-waving nonsense, for that matter.

Possibly this is why Stallone decided to re-edit Rocky IV a couple of years ago. No doubt this was done in the wake of the success of Creed II, a film which is essentially a sequel to this one. Apparently Paulie’s robot disappears entirely, along with most of Brigitte Nielsen’s performance (possibly she got to keep the footage in the divorce), and the focus is entirely on Rocky’s relationship with Apollo. I must confess to a genuine curiosity about the revised version of Rocky IV, quite simply because the really disappointing thing about the original version is not that it is bad, but that it showed signs that it really didn’t need to be.

Read Full Post »

In the past we have occasionally touched on the odd phenomenon of what happens to movie titles when they crash through a language barrier of one kind or other. It seems to me to be greatly preferable to leave things be and not make any changes at all, if the alternative is films ending up with titles like The Indestructible Iron Man Fights The Electronic Gang (one of the Asian titles of A View to a Kill) or Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It Anymore (an alternative name for the 1986 comedy Tough Guys).

I suppose you can sort of understand why Wim Wenders’ 1987 film Der Himmel uber Berlin got retitled for its English-language release: The Heaven Over Berlin strikes me these days as a rather evocative and thoughtful title for a movie, but back in the 1980s if you mentioned Berlin to anyone it probably had a rather different set of associations. Getting an audience to go and see what’s undeniably a German art-house film probably demanded a different approach, and so the film received the title it got back then and has just recently been re-released under: Wings of Desire.

The setting is, as mentioned, Berlin, a grey and divided city nearing the back end of the 1980s – or perhaps that should be two Berlins? Not just the East and West Berlin of temporal geography, but two versions of the city on different metaphysical planes, one home to all the usual humanity you might expect (and filmed in glorious colour), the other a monochrome world which hosts (and I use the word with precision) angels, tasked with overseeing, or witnessing, the lives of men, women, and children – something which is made considerably easier by their supernatural powers of telepathy, or possibly clairvoyance.

The main angels in the story are Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander), and much of the film is relatively plot-free, the camera simply accompanying one or other of the duo as they carry out their appointed taask. Tableaux of city life unfold on the screen, the interior monologues of whoever’s on screen murmuring away as the angels pass unseen amongst them. It’s quite hypnotic and occasionally very moving; something about the conceit generates an enormous sense of humanity and compassion. Intermingled with this are a number of continuing threads – a trapeze artist named Marion (Solveig Dommartin) has to come to terms with the news that her circus is closing, while visiting American movie star Peter Falk (played, not entirely surprisingly, by Peter Falk) ruminates on various philosophical concerns of his own. If the presence of Falk playing himself (in one sequence he is followed by a crowd of fans chanting ‘Co-lum-bo!’) isn’t off-kilter enough, a later scene includes a live performance from a very young Nick Cave and his band (Cave was apparently based in West Berlin at the time and a fixture on the city’s cultural scene).

Much of the film is unrepentantly arty and it all seems very unlikely as the source material for an American remake with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. And yet such a film exists (1998’s City of Angels). Needless to say, the remake is mostly drawn from the final movement of Wenders’ film, which adopts a rather more conventional narrative mode: Damiel grows weary of his role as an eternal onlooker, and seeks the full breadth of human experience, including a relationship with Marion. It does feel like the beginning of some sort of slightly offbeat romance or romantic comedy, but it is here as a conclusion to the film, and as such it works rather effectively.

Prior to this the film is… well, I told the woman of my life (who is of German extraction) that they were showing this classic piece of West German cinema locally and asked if she wanted to go and see it, and she sort of grimaced at me, having already tried to watch it once before. If gripping narratives are your thing, watching Wings of Desire is unlikely to be a particularly happy experience – most of the film is ruminative, stately, and not particularly concerned with providing a singular storyline for most of its duration. Some of the dialogue between the angels, in particular, comes across as especially stagey; the dialogue (often more accurately a series of monologues) in the scenes depicting the lives of the mortal characters is much more naturalistic.

That said, naturalism isn’t really the name of the game here, as you might expect – the film’s debt to a whole range of classic cinematic fantasies is clear from the start (the list starts with A Matter of Life and Death and proceeds from there). Any threat of things becoming too portentous – which is a danger – is countered by the film’s unexpected (and presumably entirely made-up) revelations about the biography of Peter Falk (the actor was apparently cast at the suggestion of Claire Denis, who I know is a respected director these days but still seems to specialise in really dingbat ideas). Even Falk thought the film was a bit crazy but he certainly seems to be enjoying himself in it.

There is certainly something pleasingly upbeat and life-affirming about Wings of Desire, as is often the case with stories about exotic outsiders who become enamoured with what initially seem to be just very ordinary lives. It’s not at all what you’d expect from a film set in a divided Berlin, which is not to say that the shadow of the wall does not loom over the project. Much of the film concerns the angels bearing witness to the individual experiences of the people they encounter – there’s an Eleanor Rigby-ish sense to some of it – and the divisions and separations between them are surely reflected in the larger division of the city itself.

I suppose, in the end, it’s a film about the value of human experience – the film’s strongest card is Ganz’s performance, and his shift from cool detachment to almost palpable joy as he elects to pursue a mortal existence. You can’t help but be dragged along and conclude that life is really not that bad and something to be savoured. This may not be the most profound message ever committed to celluloid, but it’s still a worthwhile one, and Wenders handles it with enough wit and warmth and style to make this a satisfying film, worthy of its reputation and a return visit to the big screen.

Read Full Post »

Sherlock Holmes purists are inevitably on a bit of a sticky wicket when it comes to movie adaptations of their hero’s exploits – the very first such movie, Sherlock Holmes Baffled from 1900, is a 35-second gimmick film, and you could argue that many more recent outings for the character (the Guy Ritchie films, for instance) were pretty gimmicky too. As well as Robert Downey Jr.’s Kung-Fu Sherlock, recent years have seen Old Sherlock (Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes), Anime Sherlock (The Empire of Corpses), Worthless Rubbish Sherlock (Will Ferrell in Holmes & Watson), and Garden Ornament Sherlock (Sherlock Gnomes).

When you look at it that way, the 1980s were actually a fairly strait-laced time for adaptations featuring the character – the original copyright still being in effect may have been a factor. There was, of course, the very impressive TV series with Jeremy Brett, and also Peter Cushing’s final outing as the character in The Masks of Death. Pushing the envelope a bit, on the other hand, were Rodent Sherlock (Basil the Great Mouse Detective) and Young Sherlock (er, Young Sherlock Holmes – a film which I’m actually really fond of). Mixed in with all of these, and perhaps most unlikely of all, is Stupid Sherlock, in Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue.

A brief glance at this film’s particulars indicates something a bit odd on the cards before we even get to the plot: it’s an ITC production, one of the very last of a line that included such schlocky fun as The Eagle Has Landed, The Medusa Touch, Saturn 3, Capricorn One, The Boys From Brazil and Hawk the Slayer, but directed by Eberhardt, whose highest-profile movie prior to this was the cult sci-fi semi-spoof Night of the Comet (aka Teenage Comet Zombies). The omens are curious and not entirely promising.

The movie opens with an attempted break-in at one of London’s foremost museums, but the robbery is foiled and the culprits apprehended after the intervention of Sherlock Holmes (Michael Caine) and his faithful assistant Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley). Holmes proudly declares the case closed, but when Scotland Yard and the press have all gone, Watson berates him furiously: ‘A case isn’t closed until I say it’s closed!’

The conceit of the film is this: Dr Watson is actually a brilliant detective, who for reasons of professional propriety found himself obliged to credit his successes to a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. The public clamour to learn more about Holmes forced Watson to hire an actor to embody his creation – his eventual choice being one Reginald Kincaid, a lecherous, boozy, and generally slightly debauched idler.

Watson finally tires of Kincaid getting all the credit for his work, and generally being disparaged as a fool by everyone around him, and sacks him as Holmes, planning on a series of new stories focussing on himself as ‘the Crime Doctor’. But the Strand magazine just wants more Holmes stories and Watson is forced to take him back, especially when representatives of the government insist that only Sherlock Holmes can help them with the problem of some stolen printing plates which will allow the thief to destroy the economy of the Empire by producing a limitless quantity of dodgy fivers…

The thing about Without A Clue is that the central joke only really works if you’re already deeply familiar with the premise of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the characters in them: the very existence of the film is a testament to the deep penetration of Conan Doyle’s work into our culture. It’s not necessarily the kind of film – almost a spoof, not to put too fine a point upon it – which you would expect to be the work of dedicated Sherlockians, but apparently the writers really knew their stuff and the original script contained many more references to the canonical stories. Only a few of these remain: the fiendish Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman) has in his employ one John Clay, and the opening robbery likewise seems to have been inspired by The Red-Headed League. The net seems to have been cast wider than the short stories, too – one plot element shows every sign of having been swiped wholesale from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and an offhand line about Holmes-Kincaid catching the Loch Ness Monster sounds very much like an in-jokey reference to that film.

Nevertheless, for all that it’s an out-and-out comedy, it does seem to have come from a genuine place of love for Sherlock Holmes, which is perhaps why it’s a much more likeable film than many supposedly serious efforts which show zero sensitivity to the actual tone and texture of the original stories (see, for example, the Asylum’s 2010 Sherlock Holmes, aka Sherlock Holmes Vs Dinosaurs).

There seems to have been a very definite effort to make the film appealing to as wide an audience as possible: most of the comedy is very broad indeed, and it’s by no means above employing slapstick pratfalls and corny sight-gags if the situation allows it. But it’s not just a gag dustbin – the running gags make sense, and a lot of the jokes inform one of the film’s main themes, namely Watson’s irritation at being overshadowed by his creation (there is, perhaps, a bit of a subtext where Watson is essentially a proxy for Conan Doyle, whose irritation with the popularity of his most famous creation and attempts to kill him off are well known). At least one gag has not aged well, to the point where some members of a modern audience might find it objectionable, but on the whole this remains a consistently funny and inventive film.

Much of this is thanks to a bravura comic turn from Michael Caine as Kincaid – not, perhaps, a natural choice to play Holmes (even at a slight remove), but well capable of leading a film like this one. Ben Kingsley is saddled with the role of straight man for much of the film, but manages to get some laughs out of Watson’s exasperated eye-rolling and sighing. The rest of the playing is competent and well-pitched; Paul Freeman plays Moriarty as a villain straight out of central casting, but then many supposedly serious Holmes films are guilty of doing exactly the same thing.

There’s a relentless jolliness about Without A Clue which I could imagine some people finding a bit wearing; it also resembles the kind of cut-price bonnet-opera which many studios ended up making in the 1980s. Nevertheless it does have a weird charm and energy to it; on top of which it’s genuinely amusing and, in its own way, respectful of the source material. The result is a Sherlock Holmes film which isn’t exactly great, but certainly entertaining and rather hard to dislike.

Read Full Post »

About ten years ago, I found myself unexpectedly required to accompany a fairly large contigent of teenagers from, shall we say, a Mediterranean nation, on an excursion around some of the more popular tourist sites in and near Salisbury. I was required to occasionally put a sort of pedagogical gloss on proceedings for contractual reasons. And so I found myself in the car park of a major neolithic monument, preparing to extemporise an educational lecture on what all the ragazzi – oops – were about to see. What to say? Well, it was obvious.

‘In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains – hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.’

It went down rather well, actually, although this – and the fact no-one complained about me more than normal – is probably due to the fact that cult American comedy films of the 1980s have made little penetration into the cultural landscape of southern-European schoolteachers. For myself, I can only put my ability to recite at length from Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap – for this is what we’re talking about – down to the fact that it has lodged itself deeply in pop culture, that I have a brain condition, and that it is simply so damn quotable.

‘You can’t really dust for vomit.’ ‘These go up to eleven.’ ‘There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ ‘I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.’ And it goes on and on.

Despite all that, I’d barely heard of Reiner’s film before its British TV premiere on New Year’s Eve 1991, but it seems to have become something of a fixture since then: it was only a few months later that the Tap somehow landed a slot at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley. ‘We would like to cut our set short tonight by about thirty-five songs… Freddie would have wanted it this way.’

For anyone still wondering, This is Spinal Tap purports to be a documentary film recording a not-untroubled American tour by the veteran British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. In addition to extensive footage of the band in concert, performing such immortal hits as ‘Big Bottom,’ ‘Sex Farm’, and ‘Hell Hole’, we are granted real insights into the relationships and creative process of band members such as David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). As the new album fails to sell and the record label (‘Polymer Records’, which of course is entirely different to Polydor Records, who actually distributed the film’s soundtrack) appears to lose confidence in the band, creative tensions within the group build up to a climax. Is a split on the cards, or can they keep things in perspective? (Probably too much perspective.)

Response to the film from people actually within the music industry seems to have fallen into two camps – some metal musicians not quite understanding what’s funny about the film, given how closely it tallies with their own experiences (research in the early 90s suggested that if the Tap are based on any particular real-life band, it’s the Barnsley rockers Saxon) – and others suggesting that it is, in fact, an uncannily accurate depiction of life on the road, and indeed the only rockumentary worth watching.

Saying that the actual accuracy or otherwise of the film is immaterial, and that it’s the fact it’s so consistently funny whch is important, is to rather miss the point – the film is so funny largely because it is so plausible and detailed. So much information is provided about the history of the band – their origins as a London skiffle group in the mid 1960s, a brief flirtation with psychedelia at the end of that decade, their changing line-up down the years (in terms just of keyboardists, we hear of Jan van der Kvelk, Dicky Laine, and Ross MacLochness, even though they don’t really appear in the film, while the group’s lengthy roll-call of deceased drummers has acquired an almost shorthand or folkloric quality) – that it’s not surprising that Spinal Tap seems to have taken on a life of its own. Despite starting off as a spoof, the Tap have released their own albums and played live shows. The band were so close to reality to begin with that it’s not surprising the line between fact and fiction ended up blurred.

The conceit is helped by the fact that the film doesn’t really feature any famous faces – when I saw it, probably the most familiar performer to me was Patrick Macnee, who briefly appears as the head of Polymer Records) – and while McKean in particular has gone on to have a fairly prominent career as an actor (a recurring role in The X Files, as well as being a regular on Better Call Saul), the lead actors are still weirdly not-recognisable in character even today.

Many of the jokes are indeed silly, and even bordering on the stupid: there’s something almost Pythonesque about the film’s willingness to mix the clever and the dumb. But somehow it never quite kicks you out of the story – the performances are that well-pitched. We should also bear in mind that, while the script is credited to Reiner and the three main band members, the whole thing was in fact improvised, and edited together out of dozens of hours of footage.

What puts the final gloss on the film is the way that a storyline ultimately emerges that is genuinely quite moving, in its own way – David and Nigel fall out as the film progresses, with Nigel temporarily leaving the band. Their eventual rapproachement – the realisation that, despite everything, playing music together is what they want to do – is a really touching moment, and ends the film on an emotional as well as comedic high. It’s things like this that make This is Spinal Tap a great film as well as a great comedy.

Read Full Post »

Complaining that some of the final films of the great old horror legends are a bit unworthy of their presence almost feels like missing the point, given that (arguably) one of the reasons these actors are so celebrated is because they were performers of genuine charisma, talent, and technical virtuosity, who happily put all that to work in the service of rather variable, usually low-budget genre movies. Nevertheless, of all these performers – and I am thinking, of course, of Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and perhaps Donald Pleasence – only Lee lived long enough to see many directors who grew up on his films become successful figures, and reaped the benefit of numerous great roles in his final years as a result.

Nevertheless, when it comes to a movie like House of the Long Shadows, your expectations understandably become higher, as soon as you see the poster (or failing that the credits). Pete Walker’s film achieves the notable coup of assembling Cushing, Price and Lee, together with John Carradine. All the lines on the map of classic horror movie acting converge here, one way or another – the only other film to come close is Scream and Scream Again, which had Price, Lee, and Cushing in it, albeit never all in the same scene.

However, it soon becomes clear that the great men are all playing character roles: the lead character, Ken Magee, is played by Desi Arnaz Jr. Magee is an American novelist visiting London to see his publisher (another veteran actor, Richard Todd). After a disagreement over the value and quality of some of the great old classic novels, particularly Wuthering Heights, Magee and his publisher make a bet – if Magee can produce the completed manuscript of a publishable gothic novel in twenty-four hours, he’ll win $20,000. So he can work undisturbed, and perhaps soak up a little atmosphere, the publisher offers him the chance to work at a remote country house in Wales known as Baldpate Manor (the actual name being in Welsh and thus unpronounceable by anyone else). So off he trots.

(Quite apart from anything else, I feel obliged to raise an eyebrow over the whole writing-a-novel-in-24-hours stunt. How long’s a novel? NaNoWriMo suggest 50,000 words is a reasonable word-count, which is still on the short side compared to the average book. Now, on the most productive day of my life, I managed to write roughly 15,000 words in about ten hours. So the idea of writing a whole novel, of any real quality, in twenty-four-hours, is surely bunkum. But there’s a sense in which this is amongst the least of House of the Long Shadows‘ problems.)

Magee arrives at Baldpate and soon discovers he is not alone: there are a couple of creepy old caretakers (played by Carradine and Sheila Keith) and an attractive young woman (Julie Peasgood) who says she’s been sent to warn him he’s in danger and should leave. (Who is Sheila Keith, you ask, and how has she blagged a way into the distinguished company of the other character performers in this film? Well, apart from appearing in Crossroads and various comedy shows, she was a regular in Pete Walker’s other horror movies: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, and so on.) Magee rightly twigs that at least some of this is a distraction organised by his publisher to ensure he loses the bet.

But soon, and many would say none too soon, other eccentric characters start showing up at the manor: Cushing arrives, supposedly as a lost motorist, while Price makes a grand entrance as the heir to the property and Carradine’s son (the dates don’t really work, but go with it). Price manages to deliver a fairly indifferent first line – ‘I have returned’ – so it’s genuinely very funny, and suddenly the whole film seems to be lifted onto a higher level for a moment. Finally, Christopher Lee arrives as someone thinking of buying the house.

It turns out that Magee has arrived in time for the reunion of the Grisbane family, for the first time since 1939 – Cushing turns out to be Price’s younger brother. But it is a not entirely joyous occasion: the family have reassembled to release the youngest Grisbane brother, who has been locked up in the attic for forty-odd years since committing a terrible murder as a teenager. However, it seems that he has already escaped, and is on the loose in the vicinity, intent on vengeance against his brothers and father…

Well, quite apart from all the gothic tropes – which are quite cleverly woven into the script – House of the Long Shadows contains no fewer than three significant twists, of which two are infuriatingly risible and one is so obvious you will see it coming a mile off. This film has a terrible ending. In fact, it has several terrible endings in quick succession. But in a weird way, the rotten ending isn’t as much of a joy-killer as it could have been, because the rest of the film is pretty dreadful too.

I would have been prepared to suggest that the whole script was assembled just as a vehicle to get this particular group of actors together – but oddly enough that isn’t the case. This is just the most recent of many adaptations of the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which may explain why the film feels so old-fashioned and chintzy in its plot and structure. As we have already noted, the premise is hard to take seriously, and it doesn’t get any more plausible as it continues. It’s just possible that the film might have worked better if it had really tried to emphasise the campness and archness of the story; the big-name quartet certainly have the talent. But maybe the constraints of the film – it’s clearly been made on a very low budget, with a tiny cast – precluded even that.

There is undeniably some pleasure to be had in seeing Lee, Cushing and Price together on screen – but these are essentially supporting roles, in the end, and too much of the film is given to Arnaz Jr and Peasgood to carry. Occasional diversions into the gory territory of early-80s horror effects are also a bit of an issue. The film is ultimately depressing rather than funny or scary – there have been many disappointing low-budget horror movies, but few which have made such little use of such tremendous potential.

Read Full Post »

For a film to become a genuine object of nostalgia, one important factor is that – ideally – it shouldn’t have any dodgy sequels dragging down its reputation in a sort of guilt-by-association way (or at least, no high-profile ones). Well, it’s an idea, anyway, and bearing it in mind it will be interesting to see if people’s attitudes to Top Gun change from this point forward. We have discussed in the past the notion of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel; if James Cameron is pushing it with a 13-year gap between the first and second Avatar films, what are we to make of the 36 year wait for a Top Gun film? But perhaps this is a discussion best saved for when that movie is the one in our crosshairs (the blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant is very keen to see it, hence the fact I’ve finally got around to watching the original).

Top Gun, released in 1986 and directed by Tony Scott, is remembered for many things, including its aerial photography, Tom Cruise’s teeth, Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, Tom Cruise’s underpants, the fact the US Navy treated it as the world’s most lavish recruitment video, and – possibly – a profoundly homo-erotic subtext. (It also established Cruise as a major star, if you really care about that sort of thing.) But it seems to be fairly overlooked as the film which really launched Tony Scott’s career as a director – his previous film The Hunger didn’t make much of an impression, and it was this one which paved the way for a successful (if not always critically popular) career turning out (for the most part) good-looking mainstream thrillers. (Scott never had quite the versatility of his brother Ridley.)

Certainly it’s the look of the film that strikes you from the start: jet fighters taxi about in silhouette, surrounded by support crew, the sky is a rich yellow-orange, it’s all very glossy and attractive. We eventually figure out we’re on an American aircraft carrier in the ‘present day’ (i.e. the depths of the Reagan Era) in the Indian Ocean, where those pesky Commies keep flying where they shouldn’t. A tense stand-off ensues between a flight of American jets and some (fictional) MiG-28s; unorthodox flying from pilot Maverick (Cruise) sees them off, but the squadron’s lead flier Cougar is severely rattled by the incident and needs coaxing down out of the sky.

A rather identikit scene follows in which Maverick and his sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards in a wispy moustache) are dragged over the coals for their undisciplined behaviour by the commander, but, because the premise of the film is predicated on this, he is still obliged to send them off to Top Gun school, where the Navy’s elite fighter pilots receive advanced tuition.

Whatever shortcomings Maverick may have in terms of shortness, he makes up for them with an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, which does not initially endear him to either his classmates at the school (his most prominent rival is Iceman, played by Val Kilmer) or the instructors (the film is given a bit of heft by the presence of Tom Skerritt in a rather more luxuriant moustache and Michael Ironside, who is clean-shaven). Maverick, however, is more concerned with getting in the good books of civilian tutor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), even if she is a little bit older than him (what can I say, maybe Maverick’s former buddy isn’t the only cougar in the film). Can Maverick win the Top Gun prize and convince the Navy, not to mention the rest of the world, as to how brilliant he really is?

Well, yes, of course he can. One interpretation of Top Gun is that it’s essentially the story of a man who begins the film utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ends it with that confirmed and praised by everyone around him. Perhaps I’m just being very British but that kind of character arc is a bit of a hard sell for me: I’d find someone like Maverick very hard work to be around (then again I find quite a lot of people hard work to be around, and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that: Maverick doesn’t have it all his own way, and experiences the requisite major wobble at the end of the second act of the film, at which point he duly contends with a bout of self-doubt. What is telling, however, is that he’s never really called upon to reflect on any flaws he may have in his own character – said wobble, even though it the results in the (inevitable and rather predictable) death of Goose, is not his fault; everyone goes out of their way to say as much. Any griping about Maverick could just be sour grapes or jealousy on the part of the gripers; the film is always on his side. The result of this is that some parts of the film feel a bit unpalatable nowadays, due to their boisterous jockishness – the sequence near the start, for instance, when Maverick takes a bet on whether or not he can have sex with McGillis on the premises of the bar where they first meet.

So the story is pretty slim and mostly about how great Tom Cruise (and/or Maverick) is. (The much-discussed gay subtext to Top Gun seems to me to be one of those things which is only there if you look for it: there are a lot of men in towels, and the love interest is called Charlie, but even so – it’s not as if all of the ‘evidence’ really stands up. The scene in which McGillis is supposedly dressed as a man and wearing a baseball cap looks the way it does because this was a reshoot done weeks later and the actress had different hair.) However, one must not underestimate just how appealing the general aesthetics of the film are, nor the fact that there are some decent character turns occurring amongst the supporting cast.

The element of Top Gun which everyone seems to agree about is the aerial photography, which is indeed highly impressive and often quite exciting. Anyone wanting to watch jets going back and forth very fast in the sunlight will have no cause for complaint here. What I would suggest is that Scott and his editors haven’t quite figured out a way to present an actual dogfight in cinematic turns – there are lots of cuts between planes whizzing about in different directions and the heads of the actors in the cockpits, but in order to know what’s actually going on you’re fairly dependent on following the dialogue (and even here it is more a question of tone than detail).

Nevertheless, I can see why this film did so well at the time, although I remain to be convinced that so many years on we really need a sequel to it. For the time being (a period we can now realistically measure in days) it remains a well-liked piece of superficial, cheesy, 80s kitsch, the closest thing to Dirty Dancing it’s acceptable for a man to like. I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but I did sort of enjoy it.

Read Full Post »

I was talking to my nephew the other day about the difference between a ‘good’ sequel and a ‘bad’ sequel (and he even managed to stay awake); a good sequel exists because someone has had a good and original idea about doing something new with the material, probably moving the story on, and either expanding or deepening the world of the story (maybe even both). (The example I suggested was The Empire Strikes Back.) A bad sequel, on the other hand, is just there to revisit the key elements of the original for the purposes of making more money. (And at this point the majority of the stellar conflict films made in the last six years or so came up.)

The weirdest thing about Dominique Othenin-Girard’s Halloween 5 (aka The Revenge of Michael Myers) is that very occasionally it really does feel like someone attempting to do a ‘good’ sequel. This is what sometimes happens well into a franchise or series – some ambitious young talent is brought in, possibly from an entirely different film-making background, to freshen things up and use some brave new ideas. What often happens, however, is that the producers or studio get frit, because the daily rushes look just a bit too ambitious, fresh, and brave, and the final cut invariably attempts to drag things back to familiar territory, often at the expense of things like coherency and logic. The result is usually a very bad sequel indeed.

This is what happened to Halloween 5, I think. That said, as the film gets underway it feels more like a mid-period Hammer sequel than ever before: the end of the previous film is revisited, which previously seemed to show the antagonist’s apparent demise – however, the secret of how they survive into the new movie is also revealed.

The previous film ended with Michael Myers being repeatedly shot by the police and falling down a mineshaft (which, in the recap, someone then throws dynamite into: I think this constitutes excessive force under the terms of most police handbooks). However, he crawls off just in time and is washed out of the mine into a river, which carries him off. The odd thing is that the film feels like it’s almost urging us to root for Michael and cheer when he survives; he’s the only character we’ve properly seen so far and he does seem very much like the underdog (for the first time in the series so far).

Anyway, Michael crawls out of the river and into the dwelling of someone who appears to be a hermit, where he collapses. The implication is that he is then in a coma for nearly a year, no doubt receiving the top-quality medical care and general support that all hermits are famous for providing, before waking up on ‘Halloween Eve’ the following year. (Just go ahead and call it Halloweeneen, why don’t you; dearie me.) There’s a quick shot of a tattoo on his wrist which eventually proves to be just simply confusing, before he murders his host, masks up, and picks up where he left off in the previous film. The sheer mass of odd creative choices and things which are just plain dumb and stupid get the film off to exactly the wrong kind of start.

Anyway, the focus of the film is still Michael’s pursuit of his niece Jamie (still Danielle Harris); she is in a clinic for the pathologically upset after having possibly-or-was-it-all-a-dream stabbed her stepmother at the end of the previous film; Halloween 5 fudges the question of exactly what happened to an unforgiveable degree. Still hanging around in Haddonfield is Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), although the events he’s been caught up in (in addition to making his burn scars change between movies) also seem to have driven him completely nuts. (That, or too much red wine has inspired Pleasence to take it way over the top.)

I say ‘the focus’, but after a while everything becomes rather centred on Michael Myers’ pursuit of a teenage girl named Tina (Wendy Kaplan), for no particularly convincing reason – the main character of the previous movie, Rachel (Ellie Cornell), is unceremonious shifted off-screen, another creative choice which is simply rather baffling. This is all very slasher-convention-congruent and rather reminiscent of something out of a Friday the 13th movie, right down to the bit where a couple of teens enjoying some whoa-ho-ho in a barn are interrupted by someone wielding agricultural implements.

It may come as no surprise if I reveal that the closing sequence of the film, which doesn’t have much connection to this, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either, but the sheer brazen oddness of what happens might well be; an ominous figure dressed all in black has been stalking Michael and Loomis around town for most of the movie (his stature as an emissary of the Dark Powers is somewhat undermined by the fact he travels on the bus); he has the same tattoo as Michael. Suffice to say the connection between this mysterious personage and Michael Myers is central to the ending of the film, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t really have one.

This is, as you may have guessed, the point at which the ‘occult curse’ storyline really becomes prominent in the Halloween series, but on the other hand it seems like most of the exposition relating to this has been cut out by nervous producers, in favour of pedestrian and un-scary scenes of Michael Myers killing unsympathetic teenagers and tooling around Haddonfield in a stolen muscle car he shouldn’t really be even able to drive (though to be fair he does something similar in the original movie).

You almost feel sorry for the director, if this is the case: the series certainly needed a new direction by this point. (Whether the occult curse angle, or indeed the more humanised version of Michael Myers Othenin-Girard was also keen on introducing, are actually notions with any mileage to them is a different question, of course.) You certainly feel sorry for Donald Pleasence, who delivers virtually all of his dialogue with the same bug-eyed expression and in the same raspy whine; it’s as if he got sick of being the only person in one of these films actually bringing any class to proceedings and just decided to fit in with all the others.

The most remarkable thing about Halloween 5 is the way it manages to make Halloween 4 look like a coherent and thought-through movie. The difference is between something pedestrian, predictable and dull, and complete mess. So maybe the message is that sometimes you should be grateful when things are merely really bad, rather than absolutely dreadful. Which even for a horror movie is a rather downbeat message; depressing rather than actually scary. Then again, that’s a good summation of Halloween 5, unfortunately.

Read Full Post »

Looking back on it now, there’s something very odd about the fact that I and my family decided to watch Hugh Wilson’s Police Academy on its British TV premiere back in 1986 (the film came out a couple of years earlier), and – with the benefit of hindsight – perhaps also something odd about the fact we enjoyed it so much. It was the TV equivalent of an impulse buy: I distinctly recall that I was on the way to bed when the commercial advertising it came on. I laughed, my sister laughed, our father laughed: then, to my amazement he asked ‘Shall we tape that?’ It was, quite properly, showing well after our bedtime, as neither of us was even a teenager at the time. I said yes, not quite able to believe what was happening (I had a similar experience over twenty years later when he suddenly went out and bought a Wii). We found a spare video tape, and…

Well, you know, the Police Academy films have taken a lot of stick for being crass and repetitive and (most damningly) not funny, but the first film is… well, it’s better than all the others, at least. At the time it had a definite frisson around it, the product of the knowledge that I was watching something a bit too old for me (this was an R rated film in the States, almost certainly a 15 in the UK). This many years on, however, revisiting it with my pretend-critic’s hat on was… interesting.

The set-up is straightforward enough, and was apparently inspired by reality: the mayor of an unnamed US city (this coyness may have something to do with the fact the film was actually made in Canada) decides to remove all barriers on who is allowed to become a police officer, leading to a vast influx of screwballs, flakes, and nutcases applying to the titular institution.

Prominent amongst their number is Mahoney (Steve Guttenberg), a pathological trouble-maker who the audience is clearly intended to find roguishly charming, along with Thompson, a rich girl looking to challenge herself (an early role for Kim Cattrall, before she became a Romulan traitor and moved to New York), a giant florist (Bubba Smith), a mild-mannered overweight guy (Donovan Scott), and many others. Mahoney is here as part of a deal to keep him out of prison and can’t quit; instructor Lieutenant Harris (G. W. Bailey) is under orders to make the training process as gruelling as possible to ensure as many ‘unsuitable’ cadets walk out as he can manage. Chaos threatens to engulf the training programme as Mahoney attempts to get himself thrown out by carrying out various outrageous pranks; the personalities of many of his fellow trainees result in much oddness as well.

It is, as you can probably tell, not so much a plot as a receptacle – the temptation to say ‘dustbin’ is very strong – for throwing various gags into; much of the film has an episodic quality, a little bit like the Zucker-Abrams-Zucker films in the way it keeps the jokes coming – the principle presumably being that if one joke fails to land, the next one inevitably will. It’s not quite as relentless as Airplane! or one of the Naked Gun films, but on this occasion it just about works.

British viewers of a certain age will find it very reminiscent of one of the early Carry On films, particularly Carry On Sergeant; the premise is virtually identical, though this movie is less essentially kind-hearted. Any resemblance is most likely a trick of the light, anyway: it seems the making of Police Academy was characterised by a dogged struggle between the director and the writers and producers; Wilson trying to make the film less crass and sleazy, all the others (to quote one of them) trying to ‘keep the flatulence in’. (This is why some scenes, such as the one where Lt Harris gets his head rammed up a horse’s backside, are unexpectedly coy.) Wilson himself recalls trying to make the obligatory T&A scenes, amongst others, ‘as artistic as possible.’ There is not much sign of him having succeeded, but the film at least feels a bit more restrained than similar films of the same era like Porky’s or Bachelor Party (interesting to speculate on the direction of the parallel worlds where Tom Hanks or Bruce Willis played Mahoney; both of them were considered for the role).

This is still a very hit-or-miss film which probably derives too many of its jokes from casual racism or homophobia, and it’s very obvious that many of the characters are one-dimensional, one-joke cartoon characters. Not that it doesn’t still have its moments – David Graf’s swivel-eyed gun-nut Tackleberry is consistently amusing, and the sequence in which the academy’s commandant (a magnificently vague George Gaynes) is obliged to deliver a speech while receiving the oral attentions of a call-girl someone has concealed in his lectern manages to be funnier than it is filthy (chalk one up to Wilson’s desire to leave as much as possible implied). We can probably thank the director for the fact that some of the characters are just a little bit better drawn than you might expect, providing the occasional moment which is genuinely poignant or affirmatory.

On the other hand, some of the ensemble are just saddled with very thin material; you can see why Kim Cattrall didn’t come back, and why they got shot of counterfeit lothario George Martin (Andrew Rubin), too. However, the film’s structure may not be innovative, but it is sturdy, and the switch to a more action-plot-focused climax provides a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the story.

Much of Police Academy is still very funny, provided you’re okay with the extremely broad humour and rather dated attitudes on display; some of it is not, of course, but the film is pacy and likeable enough to keep most viewers on board (I would have thought). The fact that it inaugurated a franchise which made over $500 million despite being largely awful (at the time of writing, half the films enjoy the uncoveted 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) is not its fault.

Read Full Post »

That leap beyond the second sequel is an important step for a young film franchise: you’re not just settling for being a trilogy, you’re potentially in this for the long haul. It is not surprising that many series take some time to reflect before coming back for a fourth instalment – Jurassic Park took fourteen years, the Indiana Jones series nearly twenty (and many people still feel the eventual decision may have been the wrong one in this case).

The Halloween series took a relatively brisk six year break between third and fourth outings – grit your teeth, but it also switched from Roman numerals (Halloween III) to the more regular kind (Halloween 4) at this point. Given that this series seems to have been a reliable income stream for the Akkad family, who were loathe to give it up, one suspects the delay was initially due to logistical concerns, and ended up having something to do with the value of releasing a film for the tenth anniversary of the original.

Apparently John Carpenter initially wanted to do a ghost story for the fourth film; whether this had anything to do with a proposed script about a spectral Michael Myers being summoned into existence in a fear-wracked Haddonfield, I’m not sure, but Moustapha Akkad opted not to take any chances and commissioned another screenplay much closer in tone and substance to the first two films. The result was Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, directed by Dwight H Little.

So we end up with Michael Myers, who has been comatose for a decade after being repeatedly stabbed, shot, and blown up in a gas explosion on Halloween night 1978, being transferred by ambulance from one institution to another. Unfortunately one of the medics overseeing the move makes the mistake of mentioning that Michael has one sole surviving relative, a little girl living back in Haddonfield. Needless to say this perks our man up, and soon he is ramming his thumb through someone’s skull like he’s never been comatose at all.

Yes, we are told that Laurie Strode has died off-screen in a car crash, leaving behind a young daughter named Jamie (played by Danielle Harris, who is nearly as cute as the in-joke behind her character’s name). She is living with a foster family, and has a dislike of Halloween (unsurprisingly, given it seems to be public knowledge that her uncle is ‘the bogeyman’). Her foster sister (Ellie Cornell) is Rachel, and she is one of those decent and virtuous but slightly dull final girls fairly and squarely in the lineage established by Laurie Strode herself. Rachel and Jamie prepare for Halloween, unaware as they are that Michael is coming to town.

Equally unaware that Michael was due to be transferred was good old Dr Loomis (Donald Pleasence), who has made his own impressive recovery from being stabbed and blown up in Halloween II; Pleasence has some burn-scar make-up on one cheek that makes him look a bit like he’s still playing Blofeld, and also does a limp. When he learns that Michael has escaped again, Loomis delivers another variation on his usual ‘He’s not human… pure evil… they should have listened to me!’ speech and sets off in pursuit.

And you can probably write most of what ensues for yourself, given a passing acquaintance with the first two films in this series – in fact, whatever you come up with will probably be rather more imaginative and interesting. The cycle of slasher movies Halloween had inaugurated had arguably peaked by 1988, when Halloween 4 came out – Friday the 13th Part VII came out a few months before this film, indicating a certain degree of market saturation – and there is a definite sense of creative exhaustion about the film. It’s not so badly done that it’s completely risible, it’s just often very predictable and not especially tense, scary, or cinematic.

Even the bits that are surprising aren’t necessarily positive features. There’s a definite sense that Michael Myers has transformed from a figure who is terrifyingly simply because his crimes are so inexplicable, to a single-issue monomaniac with a weird compulsion to hunt down his surviving family members. He also displays a surprising degree of tactical thought in this film, carrying out a de facto pre-emptive strike against the Haddonfield PD and also taking out the town’s power grid (needless to say, this is achieved by throwing a hapless lineman into the works).

While this is going on, we keep cutting back to the doings of Rachel and Jamie – particularly Jamie, who is mixed up in a teen soap-opera subplot where her boyfriend (who doesn’t exactly seem like a catch) takes the first opportunity to get a little jiggy with her friend, the sheriff’s daughter. Needless to say they meet the fate of anyone who gets amorous in a mainstream slasher movie, and even the T&A is unexpectedly tame (the whole movie is surprisingly well-behaved – apart from the thumb-through-the-skull scene and a bit where Michael tears a man’s throat out with his bare hands, there’s so little explicit violence in this movie it could almost have been made for TV). Soon enough Michael catches up with his niece and the stage is set for a low-octane chase.

Given the fact the film is silly, dull, and often not scary, I was quite surprised to learn that Halloween 4 is considered by some serious critics to be the second-best film in the series. To me it just seems the purest kind of knock-off, inferior in every way to the first film, and not as cinematic as the second one. Donald Pleasence remains a terrific presence – he’s the only reason to see the film, really – but he’s so much better than everyone and everything around him that in a funny way he’s the one who becomes incongruous.

The film’s one and only interesting idea is alluded to early on, when Jamie chooses a Halloween outfit suspiciously similar to the one Michael wore twenty-five years earlier, the night he killed his sister. This is setting up the conclusion of the film, which is a little too laborious to count as a twist ending, but is certainly striking and offers some potentially interesting new directions for future episodes. You can sense the series losing touch with all the things that made the original film so great, but such is the nature of the franchise business, I fear. Halloween 4 was not born out of a desire to do anything interesting or creative, but just to extract more money from a lucrative property. It may have made money back in 1988, but these days the film looks just about as bad as you might expect.

Read Full Post »

Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »