This is Part 2 of a trilogy of articles. Read Part 1 here.
Welcome back. In Part 2, I’ll briefly finish off 1980 and plunge headlong into 1981 as the new year takes the Magic Hour experiment up a notch…
The rest of Magic Hour for 1980 belongs to the Horror film. Stanley Kubrick brought his unique approach to the genre with what many consider to be one of the pinnacles of horror films with The Shining. Like most Kubrick films, one of its strengths is the fact that, as the story unfolds; you really can’t predict what is going to happen next. His unconventional style of filmmaking breaks from horror film conventions in many ways.
One of my favorites is his reworking of the “Boo! Moment”. In most horror films, there is the moment where the protagonist is not paying attention and literally backs into the antagonist who is only revealed in frame at the last second to jump-scare the audience but in Kubrick’s hands this gets turned around when Shelley Duvall discovers the mad, rambling typing of Jack Nicholson’s character. She’s too engrossed in her discovery to be paying attention to anything else. Another director would have had Nicholson suddenly appear over her shoulder, creating the “Boo! Moment”. Instead, Kubrick goes with an over the shoulder shot of Nicholson observing Duvall and slowly walking towards her, replacing a simple jump-scare with drawn out dread. This innovation hallmarked the entire film for one of the most effective and original horror films ever made even while it still uses familiar horror tropes like old Indian burial grounds, ghosts and an old haunted mansion (in this case a hotel).
Remember how Disney was ready to step out of its comfort zone? Well that could be expressed by this next film and what my friend perfectly summarized with this statement: “Holy shit! Disney made a horror movie!” That’s right.
Nothing exemplifies the creative experiments of this time more than the family friendly studio trying its hands at this most unlikely of genres with The Watcher In The Woods. Shot by director John Hough who also directed The Legend of Hell House, this was to be Disney’s version of The Exorcist believe it or not. Even with significant studio tampering which toned down the intensity and an alternate ending released the following year, this still remains an incredibly atmospheric horror film with some intense and truly scary moments that include a mysterious disappearance, child possession, a séance, ghost-like images in mirrors and Bette Davis. It even has a science fiction twist which for me, actually works and the most surprising part? This is only the FIRST OF TWO horror films to be released by The House of Mouse, three years apart.
1981 took the experimentation of genre films to another level, bringing new sub-genres into the fold even expanding to animation. This was a creative explosion using big budgets. The horror genre brought us multiple werewolf tales in two of the finest uses of make up effects of the time. The Howling, another horror film; was directed by Joe Dante and would tread an interesting line between satire of horror films in general and werewolf films in particular and a true atmospheric horror tale. In my opinion, it succeeded. It’s hard to be tongue and cheek and genuinely scary at the same time but this film pulls it off. Genre staple Robert Picardo is effectively terrifying as a serial killer/lycanthrope who revels in his altered, primal state. Its greatest accomplishment to me however, is the design of the werewolves themselves. These are the best-designed and realized werewolves ever created. Rick Baker was the original make-up effects artist but left to work on another werewolf film, turning over duties to Rob Bottin which explains the similarity in the two films transformation scenes. This design was so iconic that Stephen King himself “borrowed” it for the illustrations in his novel, Cycle of the Werewolf.
Remember that other film Baker left The Howling for? Well, that one came out pretty good as well. An American Werewolf In London, like The Howling the year before; showcased the most famous monster transformation ever shown and is still imitated to this day even in an age of CGI. Rick Baker and John Landis took what Rob Bottin did on The Howling and ran with it, adding a more detailed and longer lycanthropic morphing with stronger psychological underpinnings. What’s great about this film as compared to modern films featuring werewolves is that it doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the werewolf myth (I’m looking at you, Underworld). More than any other monster, the werewolf truly mutilates its victims with a primal zeal.
This showcased beautifully in Griffin Dunne’s death scene as well as the chaos and death caused by the creature in the big Piccadilly Circus finale. The design of the creature is original and very different from what we saw in The Howling, yet just as effective and terrifying. Lastly, David Naughton gives a wonderfully empathetic performance in a story that is probably the best examination of ”The Werewolf Curse” we’ve seen yet. His nightmares are truly disturbing and the actor sells it with his reactions upon waking. John Landis deftly navigates the tone of the film between realism and a lighter comedic tone to make for one of the best horror films of the ‘80s. Remember, this was a director who was known for Animal House and The Blues Brothers.
This year brought us a new genre that, over the previous history of film; audiences had barely glimpsed: the Fantasy Film or as it was called then Sword and Sorcery. Between Dragonslayer, Excalibur and Time Bandits, we can see the foundations laid for a genre that would explode in the 2000s. In these films lay the seeds of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
In fact, John Boorman’s idea of a King Arthur- film was turned down by United Artists who offered him Lord of the Rings instead but when Boorman turned in a three hour, one film script; it was seen as too costly and Excalibur was made instead. Thusly, much of the design of Excalibur was originally intended for the Tolkien adaptation. Ponder that the next time you watch it and think of what could’ve been. In the end, this was Adult Fantasy.
Grim, brutal and epic all at the same time, Excalibur is a wonderful mix of the harsh reality of Medieval Europe and Epic Fantasy. The mud caked sword battles in the rain, the realistic armor and the overcast, dark countryside of Ireland all echo what we would see in the HBO/George R.R. Martin adaptation 30 years later. The magical elements are almost hallucinatory and beautifully designed.
Again, as was common practice in Magic Hour; the cast grounds the fantastic events with many new faces that we would become very familiar with in the years to come like Liam Neeson, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Gabriel Byrne. This approach to fantasy films would be extended into the next year as well.
Disney’s experimental streak would continue this year with Dragonslayer, a co-production with Paramount. Again, this would be seen as one of the experimental failures of the time but has since become a cult classic. Another realistic approach to fantasy, the production’s philosophy of rejecting the more romanticized conventions of medieval society can best be summed up by screenwriter Hal Barwood: “Our film has no knights in shining armor, no pennants streaming in the breeze, no delicate ladies with diaphanous veils waving from turreted castles, no courtly love, no holy grail. Instead, we set out to create a very strange world with a lot of weird values and customs, steeped in superstition, where the clothes and manners of the people were rough, their homes and villages primitive and their countryside almost primeval, so that the idea of magic would be a natural part of their existence.”
This design extends to one of the best and most realistic dragons ever designed for a film. Vermithrax Pejorative is both beautiful and scary. The scenes of him flying were an eye-opener of special effects innovation in 1981. This dragon went on to inspire George R.R. Martin himself and is even mentioned by name in the fourth episode of the HBO series. What sinks the film ultimately is the “Star Wars Narrative” again with Peter MacNicol playing basically a curly haired version of Luke Skywalker with Ralph Richardson doing a Fantasy- imitation of Obi Wan Kenobi right down to an early death scene. There are some original elements in the story with the lottery subplot highlighting the unfairness of the caste system but overall, the unoriginal story is in contrast to such an original design approach on all other levels.
Time Bandits is the last fantasy film of this year and was a smash hit at the time. Today, it stands as a wonderfully inventive film with a primary cast made up of little people and a 10- year old boy. Something else I’m betting you couldn’t get away with today. Again, a director known for mostly comedy, Terry Gilliam in this case was given a larger budget to realize a fantastic world and bombards the viewer with the innovative set design and story elements that he had refined in his Monty Python days. One thing you can say about this film is that you really can’t tell where it’s going next which makes for a lot of fun intermixed with some pretty deep philosophical musings about the nature of reality and the relationship between good and evil. Even the ending is a darkly unexpected surprise.
Science Fiction continued its adult theme with what I consider to be one of the most underrated films of the 80’s: Outland. Essentially “High Noon in space”, this film features a wonderful production design that is very reminiscent of Alien. This film introduced two elements that were very innovative for the time. In the midst of Star Wars and Alien, this is a film with no robots or aliens. Just people. In a way, it makes the movie more frightening knowing that the enemy isn’t a xenomorphic extraterrestrial but just another person that looks like you and me.
The other thing that struck me at the time is the use of traditional firearms as opposed to the high tech laser guns seen in everything since 1977. James Cameron (a close friend of the director Peter Hyams) would later use this to even greater effect in Aliens. These two choices in narrative greatly ground the film in its’ gritty “Dodge City” realism. The film is also heavy on gory death scenes that remind one of how dangerous the environment of space is to human beings. Unfortunately, audiences at the time didn’t appreciate it and the film made back just a little more than its production cost. Another Magic Hour experiment that failed.
Science Fiction saw another dark western that year in the form of the Mad Max- sequel called The Road Warrior here in the states. Where Outland was High Noon, this was “The Man With No Name” transported to an apocalyptic future. Considered one of the greatest sequels and action films ever made, this has something in common with The Empire Strikes Back. Like that sequel, George Miller’s continuation of Mad Max is a great example of how you take a low budget film and expand upon it when given a larger budget without sanding down the rough edges that made the first film such a hit. Like Empire it embraces the world the first film created and shows us more of it in more detail. Add to that, more innovative concept design which by this point in film seems routine. The motorcycle gang with their punk look and football pads is still imitated today.
In 1981, Magic Hour included two action films as well. Escape From New York was a low budget offering from John Carpenter featuring another dystopian future but unlike The Road Warrior, this future is a paranoid, oddball vision of our world turned upside down by corrupt politics. This is the science fiction equivalent of The Parallax View or All The Presidents’ Men.
Carpenter himself explains the subversive nature of the idea being inspired from watching the Watergate scandal unfold: “The whole feeling of the nation was one of real cynicism about the President. I wrote the screenplay and no studio wanted to make it. It was too violent, too scary, too weird.” This was in 1976, but just a few years after Star Wars, the same studios were feeling a little more daring in this altered climate of trying out new ideas. Magic Hour it seems, gave Escape a second chance. Kurt Russell gives us the second great anti-hero of this year along with Max Rockatansky and his name is Snake Plissken. In this character and in the tone of the film itself, we can see this new adult version of science fiction starting to have fun with its own concepts. This innovative future landscape is also one of the forerunners of “cyberpunk” along with some other films of this time. William Gibson himself sites this movie as one of the inspirations for his novel Neuromancer. Like Star Wars, this film reveled in experimentation on a small budget and proving to be a huge financial success in much the same way.
The other action film of that time also introduced us to a new iconic character, not quite an antihero but another wonderful tweaking of past movie conventions. This time we get a riff on the James Bond series combined with a big budget updating of 30’s adventure serials with Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With this film, the combined forces of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford introduce us to Indiana Jones who’s essentially James Bond with bad luck. Of all the Indy Films, this one is the grittiest, most violent (not gory, that’s Temple of Doom) and most energetic of the series. It also happens to be the best action film ever made. As comic book- inspired as this world is, the production design and performance of Ford especially, ground us again to make it all feel tangible and possible. It’s the little moments Ford creates with the character that makes the audience identify with him and make him feel like a real person. Think of the moment when Indy has just knocked out the mechanic of the flying wing and is slowly sneaking up on the pilot when the huge German guard calls for him to step down and fight. First off, this would never happen to any of the suave spies of the 60’s films. Second, Indy’s reaction was something unexpected and wonderfully fresh as he wearily holds up his hand in a “yeah, yeah, just give me second” gesture. It’s a small moment but groundbreaking for action heroes and a style that would be endlessly imitated for decades to come in the likes of John McClain, Riggs and Murtaugh and countless others. As was common of this time, a fresh, innovative concept gave rise to a new sub genre that studios continue to mine to this day.
There were two huge experimental films this year. One live-action and the other, animated. The live-action film was about as experimental as one could get. Remember the “Dawn of Man”- sequence in 2001? Imagine extending that into a feature film. That’s what we have with Quest For Fire. Like 2001, this film plays with traditional narrative to tell a very simple, straightforward story of a Cro-Magnon tribe from 80,000 years ago in crises when they lose there only source of fire. This is an amazing feat of visual storytelling from director Jean-Jacques Annaud (The Name Of The Rose, The Bear, Seven Years In Tibet). For its entire running time, not one word of any recognizable language is heard, only the language of the various tribes in the film, the main one being created by the author of A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess. The story is told entirely through performance, action and how the characters interact with one another.
Surprisingly, this film has many moments of humor, jeopardy and pathos. By the end, I found myself truly invested in these characters and found them pretty likeable. I loved the existential frame of mind it put me in when I realized that it doesn’t matter if it’s a caveman fighting to save his community or a man in the 20th century trying to escape his dead end job, human struggle is always there. It just changes form and in the end the most important thing is our relationships with each other.
You have to love a film that is so unique that its’ big event in the third act is man figuring out the missionary position. It seems simple but the film frames it as the evolutionary leap it may have been when you realize that ALL other animals on earth do not look at each others face during sex and how the human need for contact created this more intimate version of out of an act who’s sole purpose is procreation. The most amazing thing about this film though, is the Box Office. This was a hit in 1981. An anthropological study of early man with no discernible dialogue made a tidy profit and received rave reviews. That is something I’m almost certain, would not occur in 2015.
The final Magic Hour Film of ’81 is what probably opened the American mind to the idea of animation being not just for children. This new, adult take on science fiction gave us Heavy Metal that year. Before North America raved over adult Anime like Akira and Ghost In The Shell, there was this interesting take on the French magazine “Metal Hurlant”. A kind of Graphic Novel, short story publication; this film brought some of the stories from the magazine alive along with some original ones written by Alien’s Dan O’ Bannon. Full of graphic violence, sex, nudity and a heavy metal soundtrack; this was new territory for the American movie going public and would signal the beginning of something new in animation, opening the genre beyond Disney and Looney Tunes. Despite being somewhat juvenile and sexist at times and having an uneven pace and narrative, the film was something new and a financial success.
Oh yeah, there was also Heartbeeps. Andy Kaufman plays a robot. Great. So, anyway….
That’s it for 1981 which left a lot of genre fans breathless but that’s nothing compared to the last year of Magic Hour so come back for Part 3 where I’ll close this out. In the meantime, please discuss the merits of these in the talkback and as usual, bring up any films you think I might have missed.