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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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It’s easy to talk too much about cinema in rarefied terms of its themes and value as pure art, but I think it is important to remember that it also serves a valuable purpose by cheering people up when times are especially hard, as they are at the moment. The world feels like a tough old place at the moment. Will this rain never cease? It is enough to make one permanently miserable. This is before we even get to the ceaseless glare and noise from the giant billboards everywhere, or the perpetual whine of the cars zipping about overhead. It is no wonder that virtually anyone who can afford the fare and pass the medical is choosing the emigrate to one of the outer space colonies, even if they are stuffed with homicidal androids. At a time like this one has to get one’s pleasures where one can, such as in the form of a revival of Ridley Scott’s eerily accurate dystopian thriller Blade Runner, originally released in 1982.

The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, shortly after a group of synthetic human beings – known as replicants – have illegally arrived on Earth. They appear to be trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which originally created them, for reasons which are not immediately clear. The business of finding and eliminating replicants is entrusted to a special corps of investigators known, for no very obvious reason, as blade runners. The blade runner initially assigned to this case is murdered by one of the replicants at the start of the movie, and as a result jaded former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford with an unflattering haircut) is essentially blackmailed into taking over.

Deckard’s investigation is made a little more complicated by an encounter with Rachael (Sean Young) a woman at the Tyrell Corporation’s HQ who eventually proves to be another replicant herself – just one who believes herself to be human. Is the distinction between natural and artificial humanity really as clear cut as his job requires him to believe? Rachael takes badly to the news of her true nature and drops out of sight, giving Deckard another target to locate. He ploughs on with the case regardless.

Meanwhile, the surviving replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), persist in trying to get to Tyrell himself. They have been constructed with a drastically limited lifespan and their time is almost up. Can they find of way of extending their existence before the blade runner catches up with them?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner – it must be at least three or four – and, to be honest, of all the different versions of the film that have been in circulation over the years. On this occasion we were treated to The Final Cut from 2007, which is one of the ones without Harrison Ford’s voice-over. This is obviously a film of significant cultural importance, and I have never watched it and come away thinking it was outright bad. But at the same time I’ve never quite been able to see what all the fuss is about. I know at least one person who says this is their favourite film of all time (I once encountered them smoking a very nervous cigarette outside the cinema as they waited for the sequel to start), but… it always leaves me oddly indifferent. I have struggled to have a strong opinion about it of any kind. Part of the reason I went to see this revival was the hope that encountering it on the big screen might help me to finally connect with it.

And did this happen? Well, not really. There was obviously some additional amusement value this time around, simply because the film’s vision of the future is (joking apart) so much at odds with how things have actually turned out – although it turns out it was spot on about all this rain we’ve been having lately. Overall, though, no matter which version I see, I always have the same response to Blade Runner, which is the same one I have to a lot of Ridley Scott films, especially the early ones: this is a director obsessed with the visual impact of his films, to the point where the actual narrative suffers badly.

I don’t deny that Blade Runner is one of the most visually and striking and dense films of its time, and very influential as a result of this – although, as I have noted in the past, all of these dystopian urban hell-scapes ultimately find their roots in Lang’s Metropolis. The screen is packed with fascinating incidental detail, rather as in the first couple of stellar conflict movies, but this being a Scott movie the camera is inclined to dwell on these vistas rather than treat them as a casual backdrop to the ongoing narrative. Impressive though the look of the film is, it still strikes me that some of the imagery is remarkably clumsy in its symbolism: the theological subtext of Roy’s quest to meet his maker is quite obvious before we get to the point where he starts inflicting stigmata upon himself, and the moment with the dove is about as subtle as a brick through a window.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making a very pretty film, as long as the pictures don’t start eclipsing the story. Arguably, here they do: the plot, on reflection, is remarkably thin, with Deckard in particular coming across as a rather drab and only borderline sympathetic (not to mention competent) individual. Ford does his best with the material, but Deckard does recede into the scenery a bit. It probably doesn’t help that the typically offbeat elements of the character from Philip K Dick’s original book have almost all been excised (in the novel, Deckard is unhappily married to a wife obsessed with acquiring robotic animals, which represent a status symbol in their society – he spends a lot of the novel worrying about whether the bounty he will get for killing Roy and the others will allow him to buy her the replicant sheep she has her heart set on).

As a result, the film is dominated by Rutger Hauer’s striking (and one might even say career-defining) performance as Roy. As he himself admits, this is a character who does some very questionable things, but he still comes across as a vivid, sympathetic individual, perhaps the only one in the film. As noted, the film’s focus on the visual and aesthetic elements means that its more philosophical ideas get rather neglected – a shame, as this is the very purest kind of SF, reflecting on what it really means to be human – but Hauer manages, almost single-handed, to make you think about this.

So, well, maybe I did see something in Blade Runner that I didn’t before. I must confess I am one of those people who always preferred the original version anyway – the voice-over by Ford gave the film a kind of identity as a Chandler-esque private eye pastiche, which I thought gave it a sense of identity and a level of accessibility it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise possess. As a piece of visual art, and in terms of its production design, this is obviously a hugely successful and important film. But as a conventional drama it frequently feels underpowered and rather hollow; the surface detail is remarkable but beneath it there is a distinct lack of substance.

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The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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One major religion tells us that when we die, we are summoned before a senior spiritual personage and asked to justify our existence – what did we contribute to the common good? Did we leave the world a better place than we found it? The cynical suggest that this is just a myth made up to encourage the oppressed and down-trodden to lead lives of dubious virtue, keeping their noses clean and generally being obedient in the hope of receiving a reward in the next life.

The question, of course, is one of how you justify your existence, and surely this doesn’t just apply to people. The simple and reductive answer, as far as films go anyway, is to say that a film’s purpose is to make money for its producers. I’m not so sure about that. Possibly my prejudices are showing but I don’t think the fact that the various Transformers films have added umpty-tump million dollars to the bank accounts of their makers comes close to making up for all the misery and horror they are responsible for. Conversely, though – could it be possible for a film not to do all that well at the box office yet still have made a worthwhile contribution to the sum total of human happiness, irrespective of how good it is?

Which basically brings us to John McTiernan’s 1986 film Nomads, one which seems to be promising a lot but ends up delivering… Well. The film is set in Los Angeles, where we initially encounter young ER doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Ann Down), recently moved to the city. In the ward one night she meets another new arrival, Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), although this is not immediately apparent, mainly because Pommier is a frothing, raving nutcase, who whispers in a mysteriously French manner in her ear before trying to bite her and then dropping dead. Zut alors.

Well, Flax is bemused by Pommier’s case, learning he was a distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist who recently settled in LA to teach in a university there. So what’s he doing turning up in ER, off his head and about to cark it? The answers, when they come, mainly take the form of strange visions which afflict Flax, allowing her to relive Pommier’s last few days and the strange mystery he uncovered that ultimately led to his death.

As everyone knows, you can’t trust estate agents and the house Pommier and his wife (Anna-Maria Monticelli) have bought was previously the scene of a horrific murder. As a result it seems to have become something of a magnet for the local weirdos, who dress like punks and goths and drive around in a big black van, never stopping anywhere for long. (One of them is played by Adam Ant, another by the cult actress Mary Woronov.) In the flashback, Pommier becomes fascinated by them (not, it must be said, for any particularly compelling reason) and ends up following them around the city. He witnesses them casually committing a murder and various other antisocial acts, and is disturbed to discover they don’t show up on film when he attempts to photograph them.

The answer is logical and obvious – it’s the 80s! They’re punks! They drive around in a van! They don’t photograph! They’re obviously vampires! Reader, mais non. (Although this might have been a better film were the answer mais oui.) Pommier eventually figures out, with the aid of a handy exposition-nun, that the gang of weirdos are actually evil Eskimo desert-spirits, infesting Los Angeles. Well, of course they are. It turns out you can have an Eskimo desert-spirit, you just have to be a bit flexible with your definition of a desert. And a spirit. And possibly an Eskimo.

The problem is that Pommier has now attracted the attention of the evil spirits (known as Einwetok, apparently), they are keen to claim his soul in order to maintain the secret of their existence. Can he and his wife escape them? (Anyone who’s been paying attention should already know the answer.) And will Flax’s own investigation imperil her life?

Nomads is, it must be said, a not especially good and honestly rather silly film, but it is clearly a second cousin to rather more impressive fare – it’s not a million miles away from other 80s fantasy-horror films, especially those with a James Cameron connection. There are various elements of this film which do recall The Terminator and especially Near Dark, even though it’s not anywhere close to the same standard. Elsewhere, it does incorporate all the things you would associate with a certain kind of laboriously stylish 80s movie – heavy use of drum machines and synth music, and indiscriminate slo-mo when you’re not expecting it.

All this, of course, is less noticeable to the average viewer than the fact that the film stars a fairly young Pierce Brosnan (this was his first lead movie role), playing a Frenchman. It is not entirely clear why McTiernan decided to make his protagonist French, but it certainly gives Brosnan a chance to have a go at an allo-mon-amee-ah-am-from-Paree accent. Now, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot; he was a very good James Bond and I find him to be a very likeable screen presence in general. But he does a convincing French accent about as well as he can sing. (And one has to wonder why the two French characters appear to spend most of their time speaking English to each other.) It is quite hard to get past the accent and assess the rest of the performance (one notes Brosnan was still young and keen enough to say yes to a nude scene, though it is tactfully lit and framed).

He kind of drops out of sight in the closing stages of the film, anyway, as the focus of the story switches more to Flax and Pommier’s widow. Again, one has to wonder what the merit is of the rather complicated flashback structure which McTiernan has opted to give the film – it doesn’t seem to be contributing much, cluttering the narrative rather than deepening it. I suppose it does enable the final twist of the movie (although this is using the word ‘twist’ very generously), but I’m not sure this is enough.

Nomads starts off showing signs of promise but unravels into incoherent silliness long before the end. You have to admire its attempts to be a gore-free piece of stylish, atmospheric horror-fantasy, but it just ends up being bemusing; it’s certainly not frightening in any way. Nor is it quite bad enough to be a fun slice of shock. However – it got Pierce Brosnan started in movies, and that’s no bad thing, and apparently Arnie was sufficiently impressed by it to hire John McTiernan to  direct Predator (which in turn led to him doing Die Hard and other rather distinguished films). So while this may be a bad movie, it did eventually lead to some rather good ones.

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It is, obviously, much easier to make a good film worse than to make a bad film better, but that doesn’t mean the degradation process is never without points of interest. In the past we have discussed the phenomenon of the ‘American edit’, in which a foreign movie (usually something fairly disreputable to begin with) was sold to the States and had new scenes added with Caucasian performers to make it a bit more appealing to the supposedly xenophobic folks of the Land of the Free. I always think of this as a phenomenon from the 1950s and 1960s, but it did linger on much later – the late-90s remake of Yonggary was heavily re-worked and released in the US as Reptilian, for example. A bit earlier than this, the world was troubled by R.J. Kizer and Koji Hashimoto’s Godzilla 1985 (I will leave you to guess what exact year saw this film released).

This is the American edit of a Japanese film known either as The Return of Godzilla or Godzilla 1984, the fifteenth film in the unstoppable franchise. It is somewhat notable for being the first Godzilla movie following a nine year gap in production, following Terror of Mechagodzilla, and was characterised by a conscious attempt to lose some of the more campy elements that had overtaken the series as it had progressed, with a return to a more antagonistic Godzilla and no monster tag-wrestling. Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? Well, Constant Reader, I have The Return of Godzilla on VHS somewhere and all I can say is ‘Fine in theory’, for while the film’s attempts to be serious are laudable, it has a somewhat sluggish plot and struggles to find itself a decent climax (this seems to be a flaw in all Godzilla movies which don’t have another monster in them for him to fight, and – if we’re honest – even some that do). Nevertheless, for all of The Return of Godzilla‘s flaws, it’s still superior to Godzilla 1985.

Just as The Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, ignoring the intervening fourteen films, so Godzilla 1985 is a sequel to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! – not the current-at-time-of-writing, rather fun movie with Charles Dance and Ken Watanabe, but the 1956 American edit of the 1954 film. Now, this is a movie I haven’t seen, but it seems like the main difference to the original – at least, the only one anybody talks about – is the addition of scenes in which Raymond Burr, playing an American foreign correspondent in Tokyo, occasionally looks out of the window and shouts ‘It’s a monster!’ down the telephone. Burr’s character, quite reasonably in 1956, is named Steve Martin.

Godzilla 1985 opens very much like its progenitor, with a fishing boat caught in a storm at sea. Finding themselves almost forced onto the rocks of  a bleak and remote island, the crew are naturally alarmed when the island starts to break apart, letting out a familiar roar as it does so. Half a world away, Raymond Burr wakes up with the bleak stare of a man who has seen something dreadful. Probably the script for the rest of his scenes in this movie.

Well, next we meet square-jawed young journalist Goro (Ken Tanaka), who happens to be the one to find the missing trawler. One might very well ask what the air-sea rescue services are doing, but not if one is familiar with the plotting in this sort of movie. Goro goes on board and finds most of the crew are dead and look rather dessicated – he is attacked by a gribbly giant insect (the culprit) but rescued by a lone survivor (Shin Takuma), who tells him of the ship’s encounter with Godzilla. (Godzilla 1985 never bothers explaining what the gribbly insect is; in the original it is revealed that this is a mutant sea louse which is normally a parasite on Godzilla’s skin.)

The Prime Minister of Japan is duly informed that Godzilla has returned; exactly where he has returned from, and how, is not really discussed (beyond the suggestion, late on in the film, that the first Godzilla’s body was never recovered). His aide hopefully suggests that there is no reason to think Godzilla will attack Japan again – clearly another man unfamiliar with this kind of film. Meanwhile, Goro’s story on Godzilla is being suppressed by the authorities, and he is sent off to interview a brilliant but conflicted scientist who is an expert on the monster. Who should he find working in the scientist’s office but the sister of the survivor (Naoko Sawaguchi)? Never knowingly underplotted, these films. Needless to say he ticks off the government by informing her of her bro’s whereabouts.

Thankfully, the plot progresses as Godzilla is taken hungry and proceeds to snack on a Soviet nuclear submarine in the ocean off the coast of Japan. This raises international tensions, as you might expect, and the Pentagon take an interest. This makes a change from their usual interest, which seems to be in caramel-flavoured carbonated soft drinks, judging from how prominent the products of the Dr Pepper corporation are, in and around the Pentagon’s rooms and corridors – we are definitely in the realm of the preposterous when it comes to the product placement in this movie. The top brass decide to call in the only American witness to the first Godzilla’s rampage in 1956, a man known only as… Martin.

Enter Raymond Burr, looking grave. Hello, he says, my name’s Martin. Is that your first name or your surname, Martin? would be the logical question. But no. Clearly not wanting to raise the awkward issue of him having the same name as a white-haired banjo-playing comedian, the Pentagon adopts a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as to what Steve Martin’s first name actually is (he’s even listed in the end credit as Steven Martin), and together the senior staff and he proceed to… well, blather a lot.

Godzilla eats a nuclear power plant? They blather about it. He pops up in Tokyo bay and shrugs off the usual efforts of the JSDF? Blather. The Japanese deploy their new weapon, the Super X flying tank, equipped with cadmium missiles to neutralise Godzilla’s nuclear metabolism? Blather. They do nothing that actually impacts on events back in Japan, mainly because these scenes were shot a year after the rest of the film was finished.

The one exception to this is when the captain of a Russian ship, damaged by Godzilla when he appears near Tokyo harbour, triggers the launch of a nuclear missile from a Soviet weapons satellite, thus threatening all of Tokyo with obliteration. The Americans heroically intercept the Russian nuke with one of their own. The thing is, that in the original film the Russian missile is fired by accident, and this version has been re-edited to make the Russians into bad guys. It is a rather clumsy hack of the plot to make the film more consonant with Reagan-era values, and still doesn’t quite mesh with the consistently anti-nuclear weapons, anti-superpower stance of the Japanese version – for once, the Japanese actually manage to put Godzilla down, but the radiation from the exploding missiles over Tokyo revive him in time for the final act of the movie.

It isn’t even as if The Return of Godzilla is a movie which can easily absorb this sort of jiggery-pokery, for, as mentioned, it is a clumsy beast it its own right – although perhaps not quite as clumsy as its star, for the wobble-headed Godzilla in this movie shows every sign of having been at the sake. There are some quite impressive scenes of Japanese tanks, planes, artillery and laser cannon taking their usual ineffectual pop at Godzilla, and the battle with the Super X would work well as a supporting set piece – but overall the film feels sluggish, and while its method of actually getting rid of Godzilla is inventive, the climax is very flat indeed. You can see why New World Pictures (architects of the US edit) planned to play up the campy elements of the story, but apparently Raymond Burr refused, feeling it was important to preserve the seriousness of the central metaphor of the Godzilla story.

Well, an admirable stand, but I can’t help thinking that the best way to preserve the integrity of this story would be not have made the American edit in the first place. If you want to watch a version of this film, watch the Japanese one first: The Return of Godzilla shares this along with its illustrious forebear, even if it lacks most of its other qualities.

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At one point during the recent trip to New York, Significant Other and I found ourselves enjoying the truly spectacular views available to visitors to Roosevelt Island, looking south and east towards Manhattan and the bay. I was particularly impressed by the fact that so many iconic buildings were in such close proximity to each other, and – feeling, as ever, that knowledge is best shared – thought I would pass on a few pertinent facts about their history.

‘There’s the UN building, which was demolished by Godzilla in Destroy All Monsters in 1968. Just behind it you can see the Empire State Building, which was vandalised by King Kong in 1931. And there’s the Chrysler Building, which was decapitated by the army while fighting Godzilla again in 1998, and also where Q the Winged Serpent was roosting in 1982…’

That tell-tale glazed quality which people so often develop when talking to me about not-entirely-mainstream movies had crept into Significant Other’s eyes, and it occurred to me that while nearly everyone knows what’s what if you mention Godzilla or King Kong, when it comes to a movie like Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent), you have kind of gone down the rabbit hole a bit. If the movie has attracted a bit more attention recently, it is for the lamentable reason that its creator, Larry Cohen, recently passed away.

Cohen was the kind of film-maker who never really achieved anything more than a kind of cult status, even though his name was frequently on films and TV shows that most people have heard of: he created and wrote the first episode of The Invaders, but moved on when the producers decided to focus more on sci-fi action adventure than the paranoid thriller he had envisaged; he also wrote episodes of Columbo, The Fugitive and NYPD Blue, and a lot of exploitation movies, such as It’s Alive – possibly the greatest killer mutant baby film ever made – Phone Booth, and Captivity. Cohen’s favourite of his own movies was apparently Q, though, and it is easy to see why:  put together in under a week after Cohen was fired from another film but left with a pre-booked hotel room in New York, the film has a kind of mad energy about it which is very engaging.

Q opens with a cheerful scene of a man cleaning the windows of the Empire State Building, forty floors up: apparently this role was played by the building’s actual window cleaner, presumably because no-one else would go out in the harness. Anyway, the man’s attempts to flirt with an office worker run into trouble when something swoops down on him. His decapitated corpse slumps against the window, gorily. Hard-bitten cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are soon on the case, but find themselves baffled by the absence of the key body part. ‘I don’t know! Maybe his head got loose and came off by itself!’ cries Shepard.

Meanwhile, small-time crook, would-be jazz pianist and all-around craven coward Jimmy Quinn finds himself pressured into participating in a diamond robbery by his underworld associates (the target of the heist is a company named ‘Neil Diamonds’), but things go awry and he finds himself on the run from both the police and his former colleagues. While attempting to visit his lawyer, whose offices are in the Chrysler Building in midtown Manhattan, he finds himself up in the building’s iconic art-deco spire – but he is not alone there, as he discovers a number of bloody skeletons and a large nest containing an even bigger egg…

People are continuing to vanish from the tops of high buildings – we are treated to various scenes of people in the street reacting unconvincingly to fake blood and viscera raining down on them from the sky – and Shepard’s investigation has linked up with another case: that of various people turning up mutilated (skin flayed off, heart cut out, and so on). He comes to the conclusion that an Aztec death cult is operating in New York and has summoned an avatar of the god Quetzalcoatl into existence – it is this dragon-bird-god which is chewing its way through the city’s high-altitude populace. But can he persuade his superiors of this? And just what is it going to take to persuade Jimmy to give up his information about the location of the monster’s lair? (A heap of money, the copyright on all the photos of the creature, and having his picture taken with Rupert Murdoch, apparently.)

A movie like Q should, obviously, be a disaster: the story sounds like a rejected Kolchak script written by someone who’s eaten too much cheese, while the film’s central conceit – an enormous monster flying around present-day New York without anyone noticing, snatching people off rooftops and devouring them – is clearly far beyond the scope of a budget of only $1 million. However, the monster itself, while used very sparingly on screen, is a pretty good one – if there are problems, they arise more from the iffy back projection than the stop-motion special effects themselves.

More important to the film’s success is the way that it is clearly meant to be a tongue-in-cheek, deadpan comedy as much as a serious film. I don’t think anyone, himself included, would ever have described David Carradine as one of the world’s greatest actors, but his chilled-out demeanour and laconic line-readings are exactly right for some of the dialogue he has to deliver – he goes from the stock arguing-with-his-pen-pushing-boss scenes to discussions about deeply unorthodox theology and somehow his performance is pitched just right for both. Carradine is superficially taking it seriously while really not taking it seriously at all, which is basically this film in a nutshell: the script does just the barest minimum possible to explain why millions of people haven’t noticed a dragon flying around New York (apparently the monster makes sure people are blinded by the sun when they look in its direction: hmmm), but you buy into it because you don’t really have any other choice.

On the other hand, the extraordinary thing about Q is that Michael Moriarty seems to be taking the whole thing so seriously it almost becomes ridiculous in an entirely different way. This is, as noted, a tongue-in-cheek horror movie about window cleaners and high steel workers being snatched by a huge flying monster, and yet Moriarty turns in the kind of performance that – in a different genre – could well have attracted awards nominations. He seems to think he’s in a John Cassavetes movie or something like that, obviously giving his absolute all to make Quinn a plausible character. The clash of acting styles between him and Carradine should be very ugly, but again somehow it works.

Now, there are some elements of Q which are great because they work so well, and there are some elements of it which are great because they’re so knowingly cheesy, but this does not quite result in an entirely great movie. The two main plot threads, about the monster’s reign of terror and Quinn’s various travails, are both fine, but there’s an additional storyline about an Aztec cult carrying out human sacrifices which never quite feels fully fleshed out; the way this plot line is resolved also feels like a bit of an afterthought.

This is fairly small potatoes compared to the sheer entertainment value the rest of the film provides. It is gory, sometimes crude, and unashamedly an exploitation movie, but also enormously fun. This isn’t really a message movie, but the plot is obviously tied up with the power of prayer – and it really does seem to me that the existence of the film, especially given its sheer quality, is some kind of miracle.

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For a very long time, it was almost axiomatic that you could likely go your whole life without ever coming across a decent Stephen King adaptation; opinions were divided as to whether this was down to some inherently hard-to-reproduce quality in the man’s massively popular doorstep-novels, or simply because he was just really unlucky in his adaptors. People don’t seem to go on about this quite so much anymore, though this surely isn’t because there’s been a sudden spike in the quality of the films involved – maybe everyone’s expectations are lower. Or it may be because at least a couple of movies based on King have achieved a certain kind of critical respect – The Shawshank Redemption was regularly topping polls as one of the most popular films in the world, not that long ago, while the consensus with regard to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining has also become markedly more favourable since the movie’s 1980 release.

This is a movie which King himself seems to have a rather ambivalent attitude about, once observing that Kubrick was just a bit too much of a cerebral rationalist to be able to come to grips with a story of the supernatural (which is what he wrote). Whether The Shining is a movie about supernatural events is just one of the many questions clustering densely about it; the real issue, if you ask me, is the extent to which Kubrick intended the film to provoke quite as much debate as it has done.

Jack Nicholson plays Jack Torrance, a struggling writer, who as the film starts agrees to take the post of winter caretaker at the beautiful but very isolated Overlook Hotel, in the mountains of Colorado. The job will mean being effectively cut off from civilisation for five months, but Jack rationalises this as giving him a good opportunity to get stuck into writing his new novel. He is bringing along his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and son Danny (Danny Lloyd); there are suggestions of past tensions in the family, not to mention that Danny seems to have some rather unusual faculties of his own.

The hotel’s head chef Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) is quick to spot this, telling Danny that they share something called ‘the shining’, a psychic ability. Unfortunately, according to Hallorann the hotel itself has a similar sort of supernatural sentience, one perhaps shaped by – or responsible for – some rather traumatic and bloody events that have occurred there in the past. (The fact it was built on an Indian burial ground may also have something to do with it.)

Well, the family moves in, and initially all seems well: Jack works on his book, Danny plays in the hotel, and Wendy… does stuff too (King’s complaint that Kubrick reduces the character to a weak and irritating non-entity does seem to me to be justified). But soon it becomes apparent that other forces may be at work: Danny has terrifying visions, while Jack begins to find himself losing control of his anger and resentment towards his family, and perhaps even coming unstuck in time…

We should probably begin by addressing the question of whether The Shining is, indeed, one of the most terrifying horror movies ever made. I can only give my own personal opinion on this one, but I would have to say no – I find it to be a curious and rather mesmerising film, but not actually particularly scary (indeed, a couple of moments presumably intended to shock are actually quite funny). The film has the same kind of extremely measured and calculated quality as Kubrick’s previous film, Barry Lyndon, which is admittedly very atmospheric but unlikely to generate much in the way of thrills or scares.

I am not sure that Kubrick’s decision to make the film quite so carefully ambiguous really works, either – it is never made entirely clear what exactly is going on. With the exception of a couple of events (one of them admittedly quite a key one, the release of Jack from the store room), there is no clear-cut evidence that supernatural forces are at work in the hotel – people could just be having hallucinations brought on by a psychological breakdown (although there does seem to be some reality to Hallorann and Danny’s ‘shining’ abilities). Even if one accepts that the malevolent ghosts of the hotel do have some kind of objective existence, the nature of their interest in Jack is never completely explained – Kubrick himself, in a rare moment when he was in the explanatory vein, suggested that Jack Torrance is the reincarnation of a former inhabitant of the hotel they were seeking to ‘reclaim’, but there’s not much evidence for this on screen.

Nor is the beginning of Torrance’s descent into madness really established: one minute he’s enjoying long lie-ins, and being generally mild-mannered and pleasant with his family, the next he’s staring out of the window at them with apparently murderous intent. Apparently a scene depicting Torrance discovering some old clippings about the hotel’s history and apparently being inspired by them, thus establishing the connection between man and place, was written but cut by Kubrick. I suppose this is also the place to comment on the wisdom of casting Jack Nicholson in this key role – he certainly gives a bravura performance, especially as the film goes on, but – given Nicholson’s general screen persona and acting style – it’s hardly a surprise when the character goes mad, nor does he particularly seem to fight it.

Then again, Torrance’s going crazy is one thing that everyone watching The Shining can agree upon. There is not much else, for the film is filled with curious little examples of what are either deliberate contradictions or simple continuity errors – the name of the previous caretaker is different on the two occasions it is mentioned, for instance, while furniture appears and disappears mid-scene. The interior lay-out of the hotel makes no topographical sense (there are impossibly large rooms and windows where no windows can exist). Kubrick seems to make such a point of certain elements of the film – for instance, Duvall spends most of it wearing clothes of the same colours, while there are unusually lengthy dissolves between scenes – that you can’t help thinking it must all mean something, that there is some kind of Shining code, which – once cracked – will allow you to figure out what the film is really about.

Then again, I recently watched Room 237, and I’m probably being influenced by it: this is the documentary that gave a number of especially dedicated Shining-watchers an opportunity to put forward their various wildly diverse and utterly irreconcilable theories about the film. Odd as it may seem, I’m not sure there is a particular interpretation of this film which is the ‘correct’ one – the point of it seems to be suggestive and ambiguous, without ever allowing the viewer the luxury of genuine certainty. You can see how that might potentially produce a genuinely unsettling and disturbing horror film, but The Shining is not it (for me, at least) – this is a substantial film (in every sense), but only in terms of its impressionistic power to mesmerise.

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