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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

How about this for a Christmas movie? It is almost instantly apparent that Jeffrey Mandel’s 1989 movie Elves is not one which is troubled with more money than it knows what to do with. The cheapo titles, synth soundtrack, and generally cruddy production values all instantly send a message that this is a movie which can only aspire to the bargain basement. A great cinematic experience this is not.

It would take an astonishingly witty, inventive and engaging narrative to distract the viewer from the effects of the micro-budget. This is what you get: three young women head into the woods, apparently intent on performing some kind of pagan ritual as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (I really wouldn’t bother trying to follow the logic of this). None of them actually seem like the kind of person who would actually be interested in paganism, as they are simply horror-movie-stock-girls, interested in shopping and boys. But there you go. Anyway, main character Kirsten (Julie Austin) cuts her hand by accident while doing the ritual, shortly after which they all go home. But something unearthly (not to mention rubbery and somewhat cheap looking) is stirring where her blood fell to the ground. Yes – it’s an elf!

(I must qualify this by saying that most of the characters describe it as looking like a troll, rather than an elf, and I have to say ‘elf’ is not the word that springs most readily to mind whenever the monster comes on. It’s probably also worth pointing out that for a movie called Elves, there’s only actually one elf in it. On the other hand, the elf – which appears to be some kind of puppet – is not as bad as you might expect, by which I mean it is just very bad rather than actually appalling.)

Anyway, the elf has homicidal tendencies and follows Kirsten home, where it attacks her, scratching her before running off. Her callous mother (Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants) has none of this, and blames Kirsten’s cat (this sets up another winning moment when Lund attempts to flush the live cat down the toilet). Her wheelchair-bound, thickly-accented grandfather (Borah Silver) perhaps knows more about what’s happening than he’s letting on, though…

Well, it’s back to the old routine for Kirsten and her friends, which mainly involves working and hanging out at the local mall (which is very tiny and dimly lit). Needless to say the homicidal elf turns up here as well, and when the mall Santa Claus tries it on with Kirsten, the elf takes exception to this behaviour. The lubricious Santa is ambushed backstage and fatally stabbed in the crotch. (Am I giving you enough of a sense of what a really classy film this is?)

Well, they need a replacement Santa now, obviously, and the job goes to a character who’s an alcoholic former cop who’s down on his luck, played by Dan Haggerty. Haggerty is best remembered for playing kind-hearted mountain-man Grizzly Adams for many years, so at least he has the right kind of beard for the role. The new Santa is soon in post, taking the opportunity to sleep on the premises (which saves on rent).

So Santa is in the building when the three girls decide to get together with their boyfriends at the mall one night. Unfortunately, the boyfriends never turn up, for they are ambushed and dealt with by a squad of neo-Nazi agents who have come in search of the elf and the young women responsible for summoning it up.

There follows a protracted and surprisingly leisurely sequence in which there is a gun battle in the (small, dimly lit) mall between Santa and the neo-Nazis, while the rubber puppet elf menaces the young women. This does seem to go on forever and the most frightening moment in my viewing of the film came during it, when I looked at my watch and realised the film still had another forty-five minutes or so to run.

Well, anyway, Santa and Kirsty manage to escape the neo-Nazis and the elf, and the plot, such as it is, becomes clearer. This is all part of a long-in-the-works Nazi plan, which Kirsty’s grandfather is a part of, to create a true master race of beings who are part-human, part-rubber elf. Kirsty, apparently, is the last pure-blooded Aryan maiden the Nazis are aware of (this has involved a spot of inbreeding in her family tree, something the film casually drops in because… well, by this point, why not?). If the elf can get it together with Kirsty on Christmas Eve (again, such a classy and well-thought-through plot), nothing can stop the spawning of a world-conquering race of Nazi monsters…

So, just to recap: you’ve got pagan rituals, rubber elves, a gun-toting Santa, and a secret Nazi plan to conquer the world using hybrid monsters. And yet for some reason, people still go on about It’s a Wonderful Life as the archetypal Christmas film. That said, the Christmas-themed horror movie has a bit of a pedigree – the tradition includes Black Christmas, after all. ‘Pedigree’ is not a word you’d probably choose to describe Elves. It is more of an ugly mongrel.

It’s a bit like a slasher film and a bit like a monster movie and a bit like an exploitation film; if they’d actually had a decent budget this would either have ended up as something ridiculously camp and knowing or simply very nasty and unpleasant indeed. As it is, while the film often seems to be trying to play the knowingly-ironic card, it’s simply not accomplished enough on any level to make this work: it’s just too primitive and crude to play those kinds of games with the audience. Pretty much the only element of it which does not seem to be challenging the viewer to switch off with its sheer badness is Dan Haggerty’s performance, which is… well, the guy has presence, and seems to be taking it all much more seriously than it deserves.

In the end Elves has a sort-of coherent story (though the climax is confusing), even though the tone of the thing is wildly variable and never particularly convincing. When it comes to this kind of film, I feel that I’m not so much giving a review as issuing a warning: this is another case of a film which sounds like it might be mad, campy fun. It’s not. It’s just grim and crude and mean-spirited – nasty, brutish, and not nearly short enough. Happy holidays.

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There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

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One of the things I’ve been doing over the last few months to keep myself occupied and stay sane is (brace yourself for delight) write a book. My chosen topic relates to the writer H.P. Lovecraft, a writer of early 20th century horror stories, and one of the things it occurred to me to include was a brief overview of the various movies based on or influenced by Lovecraft’s writing. To be honest, the latter category probably contains more distinguished films than the former: it includes, arguably, every version of The Thing, Annihilation, Hellboy (and many other del Toro movies), and so on. Actual Lovecraft adaptations tend to be cheaper and creaker, beginning with The Haunted Palace, and going on to include the likes of Die, Monster, Die!, The Unnamable, and plenty of obscurities with titles like Cthulhu Mansion, Castle Freak, and Dagon. In the end I gave up on trying to be comprehensive – it’s not even as if there’s a universally-respected reference work on the subject, as the most prominent candidate – entitled Lurker in the Lobby: The Guide to Lovecraftian Cinema – has been the recipient of mixed reviews, to say the least.

Despite having spent my time in the trenches when it comes to this kind of thing, there was still a very obvious omission: one of the most obvious cult movies based on Lovecraft’s work, Stuart Gordon’s 1985 film Re-Animator. (This garnered Gordon such a following that he has gone on to become possibly the most prolific adaptor of Lovecraft to the screen: some of the films mentioned up the page are his.) Happily, the movie – which for quite a long time never turned up on terrestrial TV, simply because of the levels of gore in it – popped up on one of the high number channels just the other day.

As the short story the film is based on is set in real Lovecraft country – which is to say, mist-haunted New England – I was slightly surprised when the opening scenes of the movie turned out to take place at a university in 1980s Switzerland. Something is terribly wrong with respected academic Dr Hans Gruber: he seems to be having some kind of seizure, followed by his eyeballs exploding (if nothing else this sequence does set the tone for the rest of the movie very accurately). Needless to say, Gruber expires shortly afterwards. Suspicion falls on visiting American student Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), who insists that rather than murdering Gruber through some dangerous experiment, he in fact brought him back to life!

And we’re off into an appropriately garish credit sequence, which is extra-confuzzling for the cine-literate (or even not so cine-literate) viewer, as the score of the film is very blatantly ripping off that of Psycho (so it’s not as if they’re just copying some obscure movie with bland and nondescript music). It’s perhaps a slightly more poppy, upbeat, burlesque version of the Psycho theme, but even so I’m astonished that writs didn’t fly in the direction of credited composer Richard Band.

Anyway, we find ourselves back in the States, at Miskatonic Medical School, where youthful Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is pursuing his medical studies and romancing the daughter (Barbara Crampton) of the Dean (Robert Sampson). Dan’s life gets a bit more complicated when he rents his spare room and basement out to Herbert West, who has miraculously managed to get out of Europe without being subject to major criminal charges. Now West is looking to continue his experiments into the prolongation of life, despite the scorn heaped upon him by his tutor, Dr Hill (David Gale), and recruits Dan to help him.

Dan and Megan (his girlfriend) are less than thrilled when West uses their pet cat as one of his experimental subjects, raising it from the dead but also transforming it into a hissing, savage, manic terror. When Dan attempts to tell the Dean about what West is up to, the Dean promptly dismisses the idea and kicks them both out. This only serves to strengthen their determination, and they sneak back into the school morgue late at night, intent on using West’s re-animation serum on a human subject…

The odd thing about Re-Animator is that its roots in Lovecraft’s short story Herbert West – Re-Animator are absolutely clear, yet the tone and style of the film couldn’t be more different from it. The movie is really a textbook example of a rather odd subgenre known as splatstick, essentially a splatter movie (the sine qua non of which is graphic, extravagantly gory special effects) played for laughs: a hyper-active descendant of the grand guignol. It captures the essence of Lovecraft’s outrageously overblown prose surprisingly well, for all that it is still clearly a gonzo 80s comedy-horror film, clearly owing a debt to The Evil Dead amongst others. After the exploding eyeballs before the opening credits, the film calms down, but the gradual escalation of the level of gore throughout the film is surprisingly shrewdly done. The film is pitched with impressive skill, with the horror and comedy elements apparently in lockstep.

It’s still a startlingly extreme film in some ways – quite apart from the moment where one character is obliged to wrestle with a reanimated intestine, there’s another where a naked female character is leched over by the decapitated head of the villain (his headless corpse thrusts the severed bonce into rather intimate areas of her personal space). Part of me suspects that Lovecraft would still have abhorred its crassness and crudeness, though. The source short story is a bit of an outlier as far as the Lovecraft canon goes – for all that it introduces Miskatonic University (one of the key locations in Lovecraft country), it’s not really a part of his wider cycle of cosmic horror stories, arguably being written as an exercise in self-parody. Nothing wrong with that – though it’s hard to tell the difference between a self-parodying Lovecraft and the author in full flow in earnest – but it is also one of the stories in which Lovecraft’s much-criticised racist attitudes are given their fullest articulation. Gordon, thankfully, incorporates none of this, resulting in a movie which may be highly objectionable to many viewers, but isn’t actually bigoted.

I have to say I rather enjoyed it and was very glad to finally see it: it’s played with energy and conviction by the cast (it’s easy to see why Jeffrey Combs has gone on to enjoy a good career as a cult actor), and written and directed with flair. It is still such a spectacularly icky film that I can imagine a lot of people just being repelled by it. And that’s fair enough. But if you can take the pace, and the subject matter, it’s a lot of fun.

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The past was indeed a strange and very different place. The year must have been 1982-ish, give or take a year either way, and I was at my local two-screen cinema somewhere in Lancashire. I have no idea what I was there to see, but I distinctly recall being fascinated by one of the displays advertising a coming attraction: not a poster, but one of those free-standing cardboard things that you still used to occasionally see for big movies before everything went to hell. This one depicted – well, it was a man in a business suit, I suppose, or the upper part of his arms, and torso, and shoulders, and neck. The head was absent, and it was clear that this was not due to the display being damaged: the reason this guy was in the display was because his head had literally exploded, and this was made quite clear.

Lord knows what my parents were doing at the time, because I’m utterly certain they would not have been down with me checking out advertising for films where people’s head’s detonated. And Lord knows what the cinema staff, and indeed the film’s distributors, were thinking of, putting advertising material about the place which was so appallingly graphic. The image fascinated and stuck with me, even though it would be over a decade before I actually saw it. The name of the film was Scanners, directed by David Cronenberg.

The film opens with a homeless man, whose name we eventually learn is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), wandering through a large shopping mall. He stops for a burger; two women look at him with distaste. One of them is abruptly struck down with a seizure of some sort – we see in Vale’s expression shock, horror, guilt, pain. Two men seem to recognise Vale; they pursue him and tranquilise him, taking him to a secret facility.

Elsewhere, a military-industrial corporation named ConSec is holding a demonstration of the abilities of a man known as a ‘scanner’: scanners apparently have a suite of telepathic and telekinetic powers, although the film is appropriately vague about exactly what they are capable of. The scanner invites a volunteer from the audience to come up and scanned, as part of the demonstration: stepping forward is a man we later learn has the non-specifically ominous name of Revok, and he is played by Michael Ironside (a prolific, culty actor possibly best known for his work with Paul Verhoeven in films like Starship Troopers and Total Recall). The demonstration does not go according to plan, I think it’s safe to say, as it turns out that Revok is also a scanner, and much more powerful than ConSec’s man: soon enough, it’s headbanging time (after pondering how to achieve the notorious exploding head effect, the special effects man apparently just told the rest of the crew and blasted a prop head full of raw meat with a shotgun at point-blank range).

This occasions a certain amount of disquiet amongst the higher-ups at ConSec, not least because all the scanners they have been working with have chosen to sever contact with the company. Head of the scanner development programme, the regrettably-named Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), suggests that Revok is establishing his own underground network of scanners and it might be a good idea to try and infiltrate this with a scanner operative of their own. For this undertaking Ruth elects to use Vale, whom has only recently been identified as a scanner and thus is unknown to Revok and his followers – in theory at least. But Revok already has his own spies in place, and Vale’s mission leads him into peril, as well as to the secret behind the existence of the scanners…

For a movie which is to some extent defined by a single spectacularly gory moment, it’s worth pointing out again that the bit in question comes really very early on in the film – the film’s other big set-piece (as displayed in the poster) comes at the climax, and is also very gribbly. Between these two scenes, however, Scanners doesn’t often look much like a horror movie: it resembles a spy movie or political thriller much more closely, as Vale seeks out contacts, infiltrates secret societies, is pursued by assassins and discovers dark secrets. There is very little of the fascination with psycho-sexual themes which colours earlier films like Rabid and Shivers. Then again, Cronenberg has always been a kind of restless talent, bringing his own approach to a variety of different genres.

The horror movie and the conspiracy thriller come together in Scanners in the sense that this is a movie about control, both in the explicitly personal sense – the primary talent of a scanner seems to be their ability to hijack the nervous systems of those around them, causing all sorts of nasty physiological effects – and also in a wider and more political way. It’s clearly deeply suspicious of big business, both the military-industrial complex but also big pharma – one of the ways in which the film resonates with the real world is that it’s revealed the appearance of scanners is the result of pregnant women being prescribed a sedative called ephemerol, their children being born with the scanner faculty. The parallels with the scandal of thalidomide are too obvious to need going into detail. Ordinary people and their lives just seem to be treated as raw material by the vested interests of the world. It’s a bleak and downbeat vision – Vale’s mentor, Dr Ruth, meets the usual fate of mentors towards the end of the movie, but he is also revealed to be a compromised figure: the creator of ephemerol, and a man with a rather ambiguous relationship with the scanners he is responsible for.

In some ways Ruth comes across as the most interesting character in the story, although this may just be because he is played by Patrick McGoohan, always an intelligent and idiosyncratic performer (as is quite well-known, Sean Connery was only cast as James Bond because McGoohan turned the part down due to what he saw as Bond’s promiscuity). McGoohan gives the film ballast and gravitas which some of the other performers possibly lack, although Ironside is as charismatic as ever.

In the end Scanners is more a movie of ideas than anything else: Cronenberg is reasonably effective in handling the thriller narrative and the plot develops satisfyingly, but some of the characters are not especially well-developed and it’s less of a visceral horror movie than its reputation might suggest. It ends on a curious note of ambiguity, with conflict between benevolent and aggressive scanners resolved, apparently through some kind of psychic synthesis. It’s another interesting notion, one of many in the film, but one could have wished for the director to have turned up the dial in terms of both horror and plot elements. He arguably did just this in his next film, Videodrome. Scanners itself is reasonably effective as a horror-thriller fusion, but one is left with a sense of potential left unexplored.

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Yes, it’s true: my significant other turned up with Dirty Dancing on DVD for our latest interlude together (at the risk of over-sharing, we are in one of those long-distance relationship things, currently made even complicated by the viral situation). ‘How wonderful,’ I said when she broke the news of this surprise. This is a movie we have occasionally discussed in the past, the conversation usually running along the lines of ‘I can’t believe you’ve never seen this movie!’ – ‘I find this fact to be entirely credible’, and so on.

Given some of the horrors (literal and metaphorical) I have inflicted on Significant Other over the years, I could not refuse to watch this one small movie with her without experiencing considerable negative relationship feedback. So down we sat, and after all the reasonable bodily restraints had been clamped and locked into place, we were off: Emile Ardolino’s 1987 legendary (it says here) classic (ditto) Dirty Dancing.

The movie kicks off with credits running over grainy footage of people dancing in a way which I would characterise as intense but not necessarily ‘dirty’ per se. From here we are off into voice-over land as our main point of identification, a character named Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey), waxes nostalgic about the summer of 1963 and her family’s trip to what looks like a pretty grim resort hotel somewhere in upstate New York. She is youthful and innocent, and the apple of her father’s eye. Said father is played by Jerry Orbach, in a role which does not stretch him much – on the other hand, none of the acting here requires a great deal of pliancy, as most of the characters have been issued with one expression or posture (two at the most) which they assume throughout the movie as required. In Grey’s case this involves just standing there with either a look of glimmering burgeoning sexual awareness in her eyes or angst and outrage at some injustice or other. For Orbach it is basically paternal pride or disappointment.

Anyway, not long after arriving at the resort, Baby’s holiday takes a different turn when she stumbles, almost by accident, into the throbbing demi-monde of the below-stairs staff, who appear to spend all their spare time engaging in suggestive dancing. Masters of this shadowy realm are show-dancer and tutor Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and his female opposite number Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). Rhodes’ character’s signature move is go about attempting to kick people in the eye socket while dancing with them; Swayze’s is to perform whole-body pelvic thrusts, which Baby seems to take a particular interest in.

Well, the plot thickens (or at least manifests) when it turns out that Penny has been impregnated by a snobby waiter at the hotel, and can’t take the time off to go and have an abortion without losing her job (and costing Johnny his). But wait – could somebody learn the routines and dance with Johnny, thus letting Penny slope off somewhere and get herself seen to? Could be!

I knew all the things about Dirty Dancing that a reasonably culturally-literate person who’d never actually seen the movie could be expected to know: setting, rough thrust of the plot, the odd well-worn line of dialogue, some people standing in a lake, the song from the finale, and so on. Given the film’s impressive reputation, though, I was expecting something a bit more polished and, well, substantial than the thing I actually ended up watching.

What Dirty Dancing most reminds me of is the kind of movie that was being aimed at teenagers at around the time it was made – or even a few years earlier: an exploitation movie aimed at a teen audience, with a strong moral message, plenty of popular tunes, and nothing too likely to outrage the sensibilities of any parents who might inadvertently find themselves watching it. For a film which is supposedly searingly erotic, this struck me as very tame stuff indeed, with only a handful of moments (and much of the subplot about the abortion) that made it feel like a movie from the 80s rather than the late 50s. On the other hand, the nostalgia element of the movie is one of its most successful – the goings-on at the hotel are amusingly shabby and unimpressive, although the odd classic tune makes it onto the soundtrack.

Of course, at fairly regular intervals, some sort of melodic time warp seems to manifest in the Catskills and music from the actual 1980s starts playing in 1963, usually just in time for Swayze and Grey to start dancing to. Needless to say I did not find this especially immersive, but on the other hand it was much of a muchness with a film which I honestly found to be unexpectedly primitive in a number of departments, primarily the script and direction. For a romantic melodrama (let’s not argue about it, this is a melodrama) there isn’t much sizzle going on, and no sense of developing romantic tension between the two leads: Grey abruptly declares her interest in Swayze, with no real foreshadowing. The burgeoning womanhood of Grey’s character is likewise not handled with any real subtlety: she goes from frumpy mouse outfits to something rather abbreviated and clingy in the space of a montage sequence. The romance plot is resolved and Grey and Swayze’s happy ending assured by a supporting character acting like a complete idiot for no reason other than the pacing of the film demanding it.

However, you may be pleased to hear I am still in a relationship and this is largely because I did find Dirty Dancing to be fairly entertaining to watch, albeit not in the way its makers were probably hoping, and this was enough to satisfy Significant Other. There is something oddly pleasurable about clunky and obvious storytelling, weird continuity and melodramatic plotting – I found the climactic sequence to be especially entertaining, particularly the moment where a bit of dodgy editing makes it look like a guy with a trumpet is playing a sax solo.

Even so, I think this is a movie which you have to be a thirteen year old girl to really appreciate, and (spoiler alert) this is not a constituency to which I have ever belonged. Thirteen year old girls have the right to have their own movies just the same as the rest of us, and while I could hope they received something better than Dirty Dancing, I suppose it will do for them in a pinch. It’s one of those films which suggests that a movie can be a classic while still not actually being any good. Or perhaps that’s too harsh: this is a hard film to dislike despite its various deficiencies. Harmless, silly fun.

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A German woman writes:

Being the girlfriend of one of the biggest movie fans and film bloggers in Great Britain really gives you some special responsibilities. Your beloved regular correspondent has a special relationship with all kinds of King Kong movies and died a few deaths while watching Peter Rabbit a couple of years ago, but now I think the time has come to give him a real challenge. You know what heroes do for their girl: they jump out of helicopters, they swim through ice-cold water and they carry the girl they love into the sunset. Or they watch a chick flick with their lady!

If you are a man who wants to score points with your woman, please think about watching one of the most romantic movies, absolutely beloved by women everywhere. For those of you who like facts, it is not just my opinion that Dirty Dancing is the women’s movie. A survey from May 2007 listed Dirty Dancing as number one on the list of women’s most watched films, above the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music and Pretty Woman [I expect it just edged out The Human Centipede: Full Cycle – A].

If you have ever asked yourself what women do when they get together in a group [Frankly, that falls into ‘best not comtemplated’ territory for me – A] while you drink beer with your friends [Bit sexist – A] [Nothing wrong with a good cliche – GW], here is the answer: we put a lot of cream on our faces, wear cosy pyjamas, eat quite unhealthy food and watch Dirty Dancing for the forty-seventh time.

In 1987 this movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was released in the US on the 21st of August. The director was Emile Ardolino who also made Sister Act. He won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for 1983’s He Makes Me Feel Like Dancing. The main song, ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ won a Golden Globe, the Oscar for Best Song, and a Grammy award. [Yeah, but Peter Rabbit won an AACTA gong, which shows how much you can trust awards ceremonies – A] Let’s not forget that lead actor Patrick Swayze sang ‘She’s like the wind’ which he co-wrote with Stacy Widelitz.

What is the movie about, you may ask, especially if you are similar to your regular correspondent and haven’t seen Dirty Dancing. Maybe films from this time may seem old and obscure to adults in their twenties (I myself have been officially 28 for over ten years). Dirty Dancing did celebrate its thirtieth anniversary a few years ago, after all. It may seem to you like a very old movie. [GW seems to think the regular readership of this blog is teenage boys, which I strongly doubt – though if you are a teenage boy reading this, drop us a line and say hello – A] Let me give you a bit more historical context.

The movie was released in Germany in 1988. At this time Germany was divided into East and West Germany following the Second World War. [Light-hearted film review blog – A] Berlin in particular was a divided city – can you imagine? A wall through the whole city. [This is turning into The World at War – A] When I visited a city in East Germany for the first time in November 1989, I remember seeing a poster for Dirty Dancing at a cinema.

Back to the movie. It is early summer in 1963, in America. Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey with her original nose, before having the plastic surgery which showed that we girls and women should think twice before having this sort of procedure) [Miaow – A], her parents (Kelly Bishop and Jerry Orbach), and her sister (Jane Brucker) are on their way to a holiday in a resort called Kellerman’s. At this time there are big social divides between the guests and the employees. The waiters who are in contact with the guests are mostly students doing a holiday job to finance their study. All the other employees are effectively second-class citizens or worse.

Guests spend their time playing different games during the day, taking part in competitions, playing golf or taking dance classes. In the evening every day is a big elegant dinner, perhaps a bit like on a modern cruise, but without the ship. Johnny Castle (Swayze, 34 years old and a former dancer) is a dance instructor. His dance partner and friend Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is pregnant by one of the waiters, Robbie (Max Cantor). He doesn’t want to help her. She would like to have an abortion, but doesn’t have enough money. Baby discovers this situation and asks her father for the money, without telling him the reason.

At the same time Johnny and Penny are due to give a show dance, so Baby agrees to fill in for her, practising for days with Johnny before the performance. The abortion goes wrong, leaving Penny in a lot of pain, and Baby has to call in her father, who is a doctor. He thinks Johnny made Penny pregnant and is angry with Baby for not telling him the reason why she borrowed the money. He also orders her to stay away from Johnny. But she meets with him secretly and their relationship starts to get intimate.

A bored older woman (Miranda Garrison, also the film’s assistant choreographer) wants to get intimate with Johnny, too, but he rejects her offer and in revenge she accuses him of stealing her husband’s wallet. The owner wants to fire Johnny, but Baby gives him an alibi. The real thieves are caught, but now Johnny is fired for having a relationship with Baby. He has to go.

As you can imagine the overall mood is not great now. On the last day of the holiday there is a big talent show for all the guests. Robbie [For no obvious reason – A] admits to Dr Houseman that he got Penny pregnant, which leads to Houseman angrily withdrawing the medical school recommendation he had provided. Johnny arrives with a few other dancers and announces that he is the one who traditionally dances the last dance of the season, and he’s going to do so this year too, with Baby. They get on stage and dance successfully. Baby’s family is stunned by her talent. Slowly everybody starts to dance and Dr Houseman apologises to Johnny for being dismissive of him earlier.

And where are the watermelons? They appear when Baby meets Johnny for the first time. If you have ever been in an awkward situation where you thought ‘why did this happen to me?’, think of this scene and you will immediately feel happy again.

(While writing this review it was my pleasure to do some research, and I learned the crew had to battle with extreme weather conditions and high temperatures. People passed out, and Patrick Swayze hurt his knee doing his own stunts. All of this delayed the shoot, they had to spray the Autumn leaves green again, and the famous scene in the lake was filmed in October.)

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I’m not entirely sure of exactly when I first became aware of Clive Barker’s existence, but I’m quite certain that the first time I laid eyes on him was when he participated in a BBC documentary entitled The Studio That Dripped Blood, a tribute to Hammer Films. This was made in 1987, around the same time Barker was making Hellraiser. What has stuck in my memory were his musings on Hammer’s 70s travails and what could have mitigated them a bit – perhaps the launch of another successful series of films…?

I mention this because within a year or so of that interview, Barker was involved in his own horror franchise – well, I say ‘his own’, but part of the deal involved in getting Hellraiser made was that he sold all rights to the film and its characters: his participation in the sequels was basically as a consultant, and one gets the impression the producers of the later films gave him the minimum input necessary to ensure he was willing to have his name somewhere in the credits.

Nevertheless, is there an echo of the Hammer approach in some of the Hellraiser sequels? To their credit, Hammer tended to avoid straight retreads, looking instead to move the characters and concepts on and explore different situations. This is certainly also true of the first follow-up, Hellbound: Hellraiser II (directed by Tony Randel), released in 1988.

Central to the new story is Dr Channard (Kenneth Cranham), a brain surgeon who runs his own lunatic asylum (yes, I know, but we’ve barely touched the surface of this film). Channard is obsessed with the Cenobite-summoning puzzle boxes, one of which was crucial to the plot first time round, and so it is an astonishing coincidence that it is to his clinic that Kirsty Cotton (Ashley Lawrence) is brought following her traumatic encounter with the forces of darkness. She is in a bad state and so, it would seem, is geography itself, as her family home was in London in the first film, but is now apparently under the jurisdiction of trigger-happy NYPD cops (still only really on the surface, folks).

Channard listens to her story and persuades the cops to let him have the gory mattress on which Kirsty’s stepmother Julia (Clare Higgins, mostly) met her demise. By getting one of his patients to mutilate himself on the mattress and thus spill even more blood, he succeeds in resurrecting Julia, sans skin (it’s not Higgins under the rather-impressive flayed-alive make-up and prosthetics, but Deborah Joel). Julia and Channard strike a deal – if he will help her make herself a bit more presentable, then she will help him explore the realm within the puzzle box and introduce him to the dark power that reigns there…

Kirsty, meanwhile, has been getting nightmarish messages, apparently from her father, who is trapped in the hellish world of the box. Can she free him without falling foul of Julia and Channard? Not to mention Pinhead (Doug Bradley) and the other Cenobites, who are feeling a bit cheated after she escaped from them in the previous film. Perhaps Channard’s collection of box-related research can provide a useful clue as to the Cenobites’ origins and weaknesses…

I talk sometimes about the concept of the Good Bad Movie, by which I mean a movie with no great aspirations to be anything more than (often pulpy) entertainment, but one which is assembled with skill, imagination and energy. I’m not sure calling Hellbound a Good Bad Movie really does it justice in either respect: this is a tremendous, awful movie. The cognitive dissonance alone is almost enough to give you vertigo.

Perhaps I’m alone in this, but the Channard role is one which I can imagine Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee playing had the film been made fifteen years earlier. Kenneth Cranham is a very able actor with definite gravitas, and you can see him doing his best to try and lift the movie and give it a touch of class. The problem is that the script just doesn’t give him – or anyone else, for that matter – much to work with in terms of characterisation.

Or plot, come to that. One of the remarkable things about this film is that it is as watchable as it is, given the almost total incoherence of the story. The question of what country we’re in is of only marginal importance compared to the comprehensive lapses in logic, plotting and characterisation throughout the film. There’s no real sense of anyone having a character arc or a throughline – stuff just happens, seemingly at random. For example, Kirsty is supposedly trying to rescue her father from hell – until it turns out he’s not there (or at least, not in the one inside the box), at which point the issue of what happened to him is sort of forgotten (possibly Andrew Robinson didn’t want to come back or they didn’t want to pay his fee). Never mind fridge logic, even while you’re watching it you find yourself noting all the ways in which it simply doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.

And yet in a strange way this isn’t the terminal problem it would be for a less extreme movie. Rather than a conventional narrative, the film is almost a stream-of-consciousness experience, giving something of the impression of a visceral, surreal nightmare. There is a series of events which do connect with each other, but it does seem like the visual impression left by the film was the over-riding concern. And in this they were very successful, for the relentless grotesqueness of it, and its extravagant goriness, mean this is one film which does have an impact on an aesthetic level if no other. Make no mistake: this is a grisly, graphically violent film from beginning to end, revelling in images and sequences which border on the obscene – but there is a real intentionality behind this. It’s not being done for effect – in a weird way it’s the whole point of the film. Whatever its shortcomings, it’s not lacking in vision or conviction.

Do I seem ambivalent about this film? If so, then it’s because I am. As a piece of storytelling it’s horribly dysfunctional, even moreso than the original film (which, as I’ve said, I don’t think is a particularly distinguished horror film). But it does have that extraordinary surreal ghastliness to it – the very primitiveness of much of the production actually contributes to this – which would almost inevitably be diminished in a story which made more sense. I’ve no idea if this was intentional or not, or just a piece of good fortune on the part of the production.

As I may have said before, I’m not a particular fan of the Hellraiser franchise – I don’t think any of the films are particularly good, but I can appreciate Doug Bradley’s screen presence at least. Conventional wisdom is that the first film is the best one, and by standard criteria it probably is. However, this was the one which made the strongest impression on me when I first saw it, simply because it is so strange and so extreme. I still don’t think that necessarily makes it a good film, but there is a lot about it I find commendable, even if I would struggle to actually recommend it. Few other films manage to be so successful creatively and yet at exactly the same moment really bad.

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I have a pretty good memory when it comes to films: I can probably tell you which cinema I first saw every film of the last twenty years in, and in some cases which screen within that cinema. When it comes to things I have only seen on TV, well, then I can probably have a good guess at when and where. So – Dawn of the Dead would have been on videotape, on a long Monday afternoon just before Christmas 1997, The Legend of Boggy Creek would have been on a Thursday evening in the autumn of 1981, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed would have been on a Saturday morning in the summer of 1988 (again, videotaped).

The Blues Brothers would have come my way in the early summer of 1989, I think, on the same VHS as a recording of Beverley Hills Cop, but in this case I have no idea why. I didn’t record it, a friend of mine did, and he ended up lending it to me. I don’t know why; I wasn’t particularly aware of the film and certainly wasn’t burning to see it.  At the time I don’t think it had quite the same cult status it has since acquired. But my friend was (and remains) someone of strong enthusiasms, particularly when it comes to comedy and music, and I can imagine him foisting it on me with his usual energy.

The film (directed and co-written by John Landis) is amiable and straightforward, anyway, opening with the reunion of the titular siblings when one of them (John Belushi) is collected from prison by the other (Dan Aykroyd), having just done time for robbery (the crime was necessitated by the need to pay the members of their band, for – as you might expect – the Blues brothers are musicians).

Well, the nun in charge at the orphanage where the duo grew up is unimpressed by their moral development after all these years, but a more serious problem is looming: the orphanage has a considerable outstanding tax bill and will be closed down unless it is settled in a matter of days. Nevertheless, this all seems a bit out of the brothers’ hands until Jake Blues (Belushi) has a religious experience at the local church and realises that God has given him the mission of redeeming himself by saving the orphanage. All the brothers have to do is get their old band back together and play a fundraiser to raise the money the nuns need! What could be simpler?

Quite a few things, to be honest, as circumstances conspire to put the Blues brothers and their associates on the wrong side of a large number of people, including the Chicago police department, the American branch of the Nazi party, a bad-tempered country and western band, and Jake’s ex-fiance (Carrie Fisher), who keeps popping up and trying to kill them with military-spec weapons. But they are on a mission from God…

The cult status of The Blues Brothers is not really surprising given it contains such an eclectic mixture of styles, genres, and people. It’s a knockabout, somewhat profane comedy; it contains some impressively spectacular stunts and chases; it’s a musical. It is also generally accepted to be the only movie derived from Saturday Night Live it’s worth bothering with. As well as Belushi and Aykroyd, the cast features names like John Candy, James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Aretha Franklin. It feels very much like a bizarre one-off in the annals of cinema.

Well – maybe, but I think there is something significant in one of the final scenes of the  film, in which the brothers foist their tax money onto a hapless clerk. The clerk is played by one S. Spielberg, before he grew his beard, only four films into his own directorial career at the time. At the time the most recent one was an only moderately-successful comedy entitled 1941, in which both Aykroyd and Belushi prominently appeared (without ever really sharing a scene).

The Blues Brothers doesn’t have the complex, multi-stranded structure of 1941, nor are most of its gags quite as sophisticated – but, on the other hand, it doesn’t have the relentless, breathless pace that can make 1941 an offputting experience for the uninitiated. But the two films do share a similar kind of freewheeling brashness, almost an interest in taking all the machinery and techniques of late 70s film-making and putting them to work in the name of comedy. The Blues Brothers has a kind of swagger and playfulness that seems to me to be very much like that of 1941 – but where the Spielberg movie often feels like it’s on the verge of turning into a cartoon, The Blues Brothers says goodbye to the real world early on (probably around the time Carrie Fisher attacks the duo with a rocket launcher and they blithely pick themselves up and go on about their business).

By the end of the movie, Landis’ more-is-better approach, while initially exhilarating – vast numbers of police cars being trashed, and so on – is beginning to have diminishing returns, but I would still probably say the film peaks about the right time. It does know when to go pedal to the metal with slapstick comedy and when to take a break and include a musical number.

It’s hard to shake the impression, with this kind of film, that it’s basically just the product of a deep-seated desire on the part of comedians to be proper rock stars. It’s probably to the film’s credit that Belushi and Aykroyd don’t do any real singing themselves until nearly halfway through, and when they do it’s in a comedy sequence (the band find themselves having to perform to a surly and unappreciative country and western crowd and have to make some unusual song choices). Before this all the heavy musical lifting is done by supremely qualified guest stars like James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, in what are mostly diegetic song sequences.

Certainly it’s the music which helps to make the film as successful and entertaining as it is – and here again we find ourselves considering the film’s origins at the end of the seventies, a decade which had seen the beginnings of a new kind of Hollywood. Many great films from the seventies and early eighties indulge in homages to the golden age of American film-making – it’s there in the Casablanca-style trappings of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the Howard Hawks references in some early John Carpenter films. For all the profanity and occasional crassness of The Blues Brothers, there’s something similar going on here in the way it celebrates classic American music, up to the point of giving Cab Calloway his own number.

So maybe The Blues Brothers isn’t such a one-off as it first appears: it connects to a number of trends and movements in mainstream American cinema of the time – of young directors pushing the boundaries of genre, while still retaining a kind of reverence for the past. Now it feels like a bit of a period piece itself: Dan Aykroyd still looks young and thin, while John Belushi… well, whether or not it’s indeed better to burn out than fade away, Belushi seems to have lived as though he believed it. The Blues Brothers is possibly the best known of the films he left behind, and whatever its flaws as a movie, it’s an enormously likeable memorial.

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As I have noted in the past, one of the few reassuring universal truths is that nobody is brilliant at everything, and even those who are brilliant at something are almost never brilliant at it all the time. This surely comes as a great reassurance to those of us who are never especially brilliant at anything, at any time. It can still be a bit disconcerting, however, to come across an instance of someone who is usually reliably brilliant – this piece is not scoring highly so far for its range of vocabulary – turning in subpar work.

Still, it happens. It would almost be invidious, and certainly unacceptably negative, to give too many examples, and so I shall just move briskly on to our main topic for the day, and the source of this observation, which is Pedro Almodovar’s 1989 movie Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (title en Espanol: ¡Átame!).

Now, as regular readers will know, in the course of the last year I have gone from having only a vague awareness of Almodovar’s work to becoming a bit of an enthusiast, and I feel like I am starting to get a feeling for the kind of general trajectory of his career: a gradual increase in the sophistication and confidence throughout the 1980s films, followed by the imperial phase movies of the late 90s and early 2000s – then perhaps a little bit of a wobble, before consolidation in his current position as one of the most respected names in world cinema.

Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! is a film which doesn’t really fit into this pattern, simply because it’s not very good. It did, however, lead me to contemplate what it is we mean when we talk about good and bad movies. Certainly it is a more polished and coherent movie than, say, Dark Habits, and the key roles are better acted. And yet I find it to be a poorer film. Perhaps the key difference is between weakness of conception and weakness of execution – I find the latter easier to forgive than the former.

The movie opens with a young man named Ricky (Antonio Banderas) being released from a psychiatric institution, which the director clearly finds rather distressing as she is much taken with the lad: there is a note of over-the-top campness here which suggests a much broader film than this actually turns out to be. His first act upon getting out is to find some chocolates and track down the location of a young actress named Marina (Victoria Abril), with whom he had a one-night stand some time earlier.

She is coming to the end of making a horror movie for wheelchair-bound director Max Espejo (Francisco Rabal) – there is possibly an attempt to suggest this is a Spanish take on an Argento-style giallo movie – and looking forward to a break. However, she is nevertheless pounced upon by Ricky when she returns to her apartment, tied up and informed that he will keep her like this until she does the sensible thing and falls in love with him as completely as he is devoted to her…

Looking back upon my life, I now realise that the key factor responsible for my lack of romantic success in my younger years was my ASD, but second to that was probably my deeply misguided belief that copying Roger Moore’s lady-killing moves from his James Bond films would naturally lead to similar results. I can only be grateful that things didn’t get any worse, as they might well have done if, rather than the Bond series, I had taken my cues from films like Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and other films from what I can only describe as the ‘coercive romance’ subgenre.

By this I mean movies where the male character contrives to put himself in a very controlling position with regard to the female character, but she falls in love with him anyway. Sounds pretty niche and unpleasant, right? Presumably pitched as a wish-fulfilment exercise for a certain kind of male viewer with limited social skills? Well, you might think so, but that’s a pretty good description of the premise of Passengers, which I have seen some women favourably compare to the much more conventional romance Titanic. It’s far from the only film based on the same idea: namely, that women will forgive a man anything as long as his devotion to (or, to put it another way, obsession with) her is strong enough. Is there another trope which makes it quite so clear that the film industry is still largely run by and for men?

It’s still a bit disconcerting to find Almodovar’s name on a film based around such a dubious central idea, but I can imagine how a worthwhile (if still inevitably provocative) film on the topic could be attempted – but it would have to be in part a spoof or deconstruction of the whole notion of coercive romance, perhaps demanding the kind of ironic sensibility and knowing playfulness Almodovar often employs so well. Unfortunately, this is one of his films where these qualities are much less in evidence: the central relationship is handled very ‘straight’, and the film-within-the-film is meant to be a commentary on the story, this is handled with much too light a touch (there’s a line suggesting romances and horror stories are sometimes indistinguishable).

And, crucially, it just doesn’t convince. Antonio Banderas and Victoria Abril are both very capable and charismatic performers, but the key moment of the film – when Marina submits to her growing attraction to Ricky – feels sudden and unwarranted. Normally Almodovar makes a virtue of the melodramatic nature of his stories, and the outrageous plotting, but here it doesn’t work: they don’t feel like a natural part of the film’s ethos, but something limited to just this one scene in order to make the film function as a romance.

Compounding the problem is the way that Almodovar concentrates on the central relationship quite strongly, with the result that many other potentially interesting characters and ideas are shuffled off to the fringes of the film – Rabal’s character is an interesting one, as is Marina’s sister (played by Loles Leon), but neither of them get very much to do. This feels like one of the director’s more straightforward films, in terms of its thesis – all the usual unconventionality seems to have been converted into the weirdness of the central relationship, although this is still unusually graphic for what’s theoretically a romance: a graphic sex scene, a couple of scenes with people on the toilet, and a startling moment where Marina finds a new use for a bath toy all conspired (it is suggested) to ensure Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! got an X certificate on its initial American release (something usually reserved for actual pornography).

Maybe they had a point, I don’t know. Perhaps I am letting the fact that I find the idea at the centre of this film objectionable colour my opinion of it too much. Maybe it is possible that by insanely kidnapping a woman, threatening to kill her, and keeping her tied up, you can eventually kindle the flames of love between you and her. But I still think this is a long shot, and to suggest it’s a dead cert is not just misleading, it’s arguably irresponsible, especially when the film doesn’t even suggest it has its tongue in its cheek: the happy ending feels entirely sincere. Whatever touches of quality the film has as a piece of cinema – and these are inevitably present – it’s hard to get past the problem at the heart of the story.

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For a while there I thought I wasn’t taking this Almodovarathon idea nearly seriously enough, with weeks often going by between my watching the different films in question. But that was when I rather foolishly thought the world would only be on pause for a few weeks, maybe a month or so: I’m quite glad I didn’t rush through them all, to be honest, because I would have run out a while ago.

And so I find myself watching the first Pedro Almodovar movie to acquire any sort of cultural traction in the UK (by which I mean, of course, that it warranted a mention in the cinema review section of Radio Times): Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, released in 1988. It has been pointed out that this film has not quite been optimally translated into English, certainly when it comes to the title. The Spanish title is Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, and apparently (snappy though the extant English title is) ataque de nervios more accurately means an attack of nerves, or panic attack.

Certainly there are a lot of stressed women in this film, chief amongst them being Pepa (Carmen Maura), a reasonably successful actress (she gets recognised in the street and asked to do commercials, in both cases because she plays ‘the killer’s mother’ in a popular crime TV show). She also has a gig doing the Spanish dub of various foreign movies, and it seems that it is here she has met Ivan (Fernando Guillen), one of those charming, silver-fox kind of older dudes who ladies seem to go for. Pepa and Ivan have been an item for some time, but now it seems they have split up – Pepa, however, urgently needs to speak to him about a pressing personal matter.

Pepa’s futile search for Ivan is the core of the movie, and she grows increasingly frustrated and perhaps a bit erratic as the film goes on and he seems to be actively trying to dodge speaking with her. Other elements of her life start to pile up on her, making things even more confusing and complex: her young friend Candela (Maria Barranco) turns up at her flat, confessing that she has unwittingly become romantically involved with a group of Shi’ite Muslim terrorists; a young couple, looking to lease the flat, arrive for a viewing and – in a typically outrageous piece of Almodovar plotting – it turns out that the young man (Antonio Banderas) is actually Ivan’s son. Ivan’s mentally unstable ex-wife arrives, and so do the police, not to mention a phone repairman (Pepa has been taking her frustrations out on the handset). It seems like the only person not wanting to talk to Pepa is Ivan himself…

At one point a minor character, who’s just had the events of the movie summarised for him, looks blank and says ‘You’ve got to be pulling my leg’: this is blatantly a black, screwball farce, and the director seems to be revelling in how preposterous it all is. That said, it does take a little while to get up to speed, and the first act is something of a slow start, where it’s unclear exactly what kind of film this is supposed to be and how we are supposed to respond to it. Or perhaps this is another sign of Almodovar’s increasing confidence and deftness as a director: as we first meet and get to know Pepa, she does seem genuinely upset and the film looks like it may be dealing with relatively serious issues. But once all this is established and we’ve become invested in Pepa and her situation, the tone of the film noticeably lightens and the pace picks up. Before long there are tongue-in-cheek gags about Islamic terrorism, a running joke about a jug of gazpacho soup spiked with sleeping pills, and by the end Almodovar can cheerfully include a car chase involving a gun-toting mental patient on a motorbike and it somehow feels like much of a piece with what has gone before.

The combination of outrageous plotting, vivid characterisation, and colourful composition does seem to me to mark this as the film in which Almodovar’s classic style first comes together – needless to say, several members of his unofficial rep company also appear in the movie. Chus Lampreave gets a small part as the Jehovah’s Witness concierge of Pepa’s building, Banderas gets a nice, but relatively minor role, and the film is essentially carried by Carmen Maura, who gives another one of those strong-but-quietly-vulnerable performances which are practically another hallmark of Almodovar’s style.

As the title suggests, this is a film almost exclusively about the actions and concerns of its female characters, and it’s told from their perspective. The men are almost exclusively feckless, useless, or actually stupid, almost without exception a source of problems for the women around them. Pepa’s success at the end of the film, when it comes, is not that she finally manages to track Ivan down and have the conversation with him she’s been desperately wanting all film: it’s that she realises what a waste of space he is and decides he’s no longer worth her time, as a result becoming much less stressed and unhappy.

It’s an appropriate note for the film to close on, and entirely fitting for a film with a definite (if initially well-hidden) feminist subtext to it. The end of the film satisfies, even if, as a whole, it is not quite as masterfully assembled as some of Almodovar’s later films would be: the focus is not initially clear, and the director is not quite as slick as he would later become in selling his more outrageous turns of plotting to the audience. Nevertheless, this film is a lot of fun, once it gets going: it is still a bit rough around the edges, but in its tone, style, and outlook, it is the earliest Almodovar film that I’ve seen which genuinely feels like it anticipates the likes of All About My Mother and Talk to Her. Even if it’s not quite up to their standard, it’s still well worth watching.

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