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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

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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It falls to few people, no matter how naturally talented they are, to be good at everything. (This feels entirely just and comes as something of a relief to those of us who frankly often struggle to be good at anything.) And so there is surely something reassuring about the fact that, despite a massively successful and influential career as a novelist, author, essayist, critic, and memoirist, Martin Amis will still be remembered as a crappy writer of SF movie screenplays.

To be fair, he only had one go at this, and the experience seems to have been sufficiently unpleasant to put him off having another try. The film in question is Saturn 3, directed by Stanley Donen and released in 1980 under the auspices of Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment. Amis apparently used his experiences on the movie as material for his novel Money, which I haven’t read; Saturn 3, on the other hand, I have experienced, as both a movie and a tie-in novel.

saturn 3

(Not that it matters much, but I once interviewed the writer of the Saturn 3 tie-in – this was not the major focus of our chat – who was a fellow named Stephen Gallagher. Gallagher, a bit like Amis, went on to do many much more distinguished and interesting things, but as he is primarily a genre writer he is not nearly as celebrated for them. His main recollection of the Saturn 3 job was that he was writing the novelisation before the film was actually finished – I think this is standard practice – and had only a copy of the shooting script to work from, along with a photo of one of the sets and another of the film’s robotic antagonist. My recollection is that the book changes the end of the film subtly but considerably, but as I’ve observed before it’s not unheard of for tie-in writers to quietly try and improve on the original script.)

Your first sense that things are going somewhat adrift with Saturn 3 comes very early on, when it is revealed that Kirk Douglas, superstar of the Golden Age of Hollywood, is only second billed on the movie. The coveted top spot is given instead to Farrah Fawcett, star of TV’s Charlie’s Angels. Hmmm. Rounding out the cast is Harvey Keitel, sort of (yes, this is another of those British movies which recruited an almost entirely American cast in an attempt to secure a US release).

In time-honoured post-stellar conflict post-Alien style, the film begins with a hefty model spaceship crawling from the top of the screen to the bottom, more than slowly enough for the viewer to discern that they are in for some duff special effects in the course of the next 88 minutes. All is not well inside the ship, either, for Captain Benson (Keitel), disgruntled at being barred from a mission on the grounds of mental instability, decides to murder his replacement and impersonate him on the job. (As this is the premise for the whole movie, you just have to accept how ill-thought-through and implausible it seems.)

Benson is soon rocketing off to Saturn’s third moon, Tethys, which is the location of a hydroponics research station operated by a couple named Adam (Douglas) and Alex (Fawcett). Both of them have been isolated for a long time – Alex has never been to Earth – and perhaps don’t notice that Benson is acting a bit strangely (nor that Keitel is obviously, and rather distractingly, having all his dialogue dubbed by Roy Dotrice).

The couple, who to judge from the film spend much more time in bed together than actually doing any hydroponics research, are displeased to learn that Benson’s mission is to oversee the construction of a shiny new robot which will make the station much more efficient and allow one of them to be reassigned elsewhere. But it turns out they have bigger problems. Hector the robot, who appears to be half-Terminator, half-anglepoise lamp, is programmed by Benson using a direct brain interface, and is inadvertently getting all of the captain’s homicidal tendencies and lustful thoughts about Farrah Fawcett in addition to his basic training. Trouble is bound to ensue…

Hard to believe it may be, but there was once a time when a film like Saturn 3 (current Rotten Tomatoes rating: 18%) could be broadcast as the BBC’s big Saturday night film. I should know, I was there: 8.20 p.m. on September 6th, 1986. My main memory is of acute surprise when the film turned out to have much more nudity and gore in it than I had expected (this must have been before they instituted the 9 o’clock watershed on UK TV). Apparently Lew Grade envisioned Saturn 3 as being a slightly disreputable exploitation movie (you can see how the plot might lend itself to this sort of approach), but Stanley Donen (who took over when original director John Barry was dismissed) presumably wanted something a bit more high-minded.

And so we end up with something which is neither intelligent or especially fun to watch. In addition to some of the most dubious spaceship models and special effects of its period, the film notably fails to present a coherent or convincing vision of futuristic society – this is obviously a second-wave SF knock-off film, post-Alien, but unlike that film and other ones deriving from it, you get no sense of recognition of the world or how it functions. Amis tries to create a sense of time and place by dropping cod-futuristic expressions and slang into the script (the base is ‘shadow-locked’ for most of the movie, which is why no-one can call for help, while the ageing Adam (Douglas was in his early sixties at the time, which if you ask me is too old to be doing nude fight scenes) is approaching his ‘abort time’, whatever that is), but it just feels intrusive.

Without much of a wider context having been established (the film’s Wikipedia page claims that it occurs in a future where Earth has become immensely overpopulated, but there’s barely any reference to this in the actual movie), Benson’s attempts to get his hands on Alex (‘You have a beautiful body. Can I use it?’) just feel contrived and leery for all his assertions that this is how it’s done back home. There’s an attempt at conjuring up some kind of sexual tension between the three leads, but the weak script and the lack of chemistry between any of them scuppers this (the most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Keitel and the prop robot).

Luckily, this is not a long movie and relatively soon we come to the bits with the robot on the rampage. I suppose it’s a testament to the achievement of Isaac Asimov that he managed to banish the ‘killer robot’ story from respectable SF (this was his intention with his ‘laws of robotics’ stories). Saturn 3, which is one of the purest ‘killer robot’ stories in cinema, is therefore something of an aberration. Nevertheless, the film’s most effective sequence comes near the end, with the human characters stalked through the base by Hector (who, being a clanking seven-foot machine, develops an almost supernatural ability to sneak up on them). There is not much in the way of characterisation or context here, but it does function on a cinematic level.

The rest of the film doesn’t, really. There is an identifiable story going on, there is the most basic kind of characterisation, and the film doesn’t contain the more egregious violations of the laws of physics that some more distinguished professional film-watchers would have you believe are present. But it never engages and never persuades, and the story isn’t fun enough to make you overlook its various shortcomings. A rather ugly and primitive movie; the kind of thing that gives incompetent SF a bad name.

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It has become almost facile to point out that the demise of the traditional western – as a significant part of the cinema landscape, anyway – occurred almost simultaneously with the rise of science fiction and fantasy films to the position of box office dominance they enjoy to this day. The conclusion to be drawn is very nearly as straightforward – it’s not quite that SF movies have simply replaced westerns, but that both genres meet the same need and appeal to the same audience. Or, to put it another way, there’s a certain type of action-SF movie which is basically a western in disguise.

The disguise is seldom as perfunctory as in Peter Hyams’ 1981 film Outland, however. Hmm, you may be thinking, where is this Outland place and why did they decide to make a film about it? Well, I have to tell you that this seems to be an example of film-makers not being able to agree on a good title and reaching a consensus on a duff one instead. The film was made under the title Io, which as any fule kno is a volcanically-active moon of Jupiter, but apparently the big brains of the production were concerned that non-astronomically-savvy audiences might read the title as either 10 or Lo, hence the change.

 

I will happily agree that Io is not a great title, but at least it’s accurate (personally I would have called the movie High Moon, because sometimes you just can’t be crashingly obvious enough). The film is set in one of those non-specific not-all-that-distant futures where the outer reaches of the solar system are being explored and exploited; people apparently go for many years without ever visiting Earth (the journey from the Jovian region to Earth apparently takes a year in cryo). Io is being mined for titanium and the story takes place in one of the mining outposts, mostly concerning the chief lawman of the place, Marshall (or Marshal, depending on where you look) Bill O’Niel (Sean Connery).

O’Niel has only recently taken up his post and is still receiving apparently mock-stern lectures from the outpost’s manager, Sheppard (Peter Boyle), about how he needs to be flexible in his approach to the job and cut the hard-working miners some slack. To begin with O’Niel is more preoccupied by the fact that his wife can’t hack rattling around yet another space outpost and has left him to go back to Earth, but his cop instincts are triggered when he comes across a string of suspicious deaths – workers cutting open their spacesuits while outside, or not even bothering to wear them.

(Outland is notable for its enthusiastic championing of the notion that if you go into a hard vacuum without a spacesuit, either your head or your torso will explode. Apparently this is just one of those myths, but it does allow the special effects department some fun. One of the people whose head explodes is John Ratzenberger, best known for playing Cliff in Cheers, but eminently spottable in small parts in many famous late 70s and early 80s films, thanks to a stint based in London.)

Normally the remains of these ‘accidents’ are quietly disposed of, but O’Niel eventually manages to lay his hands on the body of a worker who apparently goes mad. With the help of the outpost’s medic, Dr Lazarus (Frances Sternhagen), O’Niel discovers that all the dead men had been taking high-powered amphetamines, allowing them to work longer and harder but eventually frying their brains.

It transpires that Sheppard and even some of O’Niel’s own men are in on the racket – the drugs increase productivity, which is all Sheppard and his bosses really care about. Their assumption is that O’Niel, like his predecessor, can be bought off, because only a fool would risk his life by taking on Sheppard and the men behind him. But this does not sit well with O’Niel, who finds himself compelled to hang onto his principles and take a stand (or, this being a Connery movie after all, a shtand).

One day someone will write about Outland and not draw comparisons between it and Alien. But that day has clearly not yet dawned. The aesthetic of the two films is almost identical, to the point where they could quite easily share a continuity: the mining outpost is a grimy, cramped, industrial warren of corridors, controlled by faceless and uncaring corporations.

The setting of Outland is important as it’s the only thing which gives it its SF credentials. The story itself is that of one principled man attempting to put an end to drug racketeering despite the odds being stacked against him – it could really be set anywhere. Even the drug racketeering is on one level just plot fluff, setting up the central conflict of the movie, which is not so much Connery versus the drug dealers as Connery’s sense of self-preservation versus his stubbornly principled streak. What is he really hoping to achieve? Nobody would blame him for taking bribes or running away…

This owes, of course, a big debt to High Noon, although Outland only really closely resembles the earlier movie for a chunk of its second half: a far-from-subtle digital countdown indicates how long before the space shuttle carrying professional killers will arrive at the outpost.

To be honest, though, I found these scenes and the eventual fight between Connery and the hitmen to be rather laborious, though fairly well-mounted; much more interesting are the earlier scenes in which O’Niel uncovers the extent of the corruption around him and realises just what a sticky spot he’s in. There is some really good material here, including some top-class moral outrage, and Connery plays it for all that it’s worth. I find that in a lot of Sean Connery’s later appearances, his tendency is just to play it very broad and just do the same lovable twinkly performance, but this is a proper acting job from the big man.

His main support comes from Sternhagen as the grumpy doctor, and she is also very good. This is a well-played film throughout, to be honest, and a reasonably well-written one. The film’s visual effects and model work are pretty good, but you can tell that the director and the screenwriter are also working hard to keep the film focused and credible.

I first saw Outland on TV in the late 80s and do recall that I wasn’t especially impressed by it: good production designs, but a bit dull. I think I would revise that opinion now – this is a solid film with a compelling central story and performance, but let down slightly  by its climax. And I do think it’s telling that Hyams admitted later that he only really wanted to make a western – the outer-space setting was just the only one that the studio felt was commercially viable. You can tell that none of the major talent involved was really that interested in making a science-fiction film, because in a very real sense they didn’t. Nevertheless, this is a watchable thriller with some distinctive elements.

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