June 1980 begins with a strange mix of films including MAD magazine's only bigscreen effort
Plus the film that introduced me to the idea of a "former PLAYBOY Playmate"
The premise is simple, but the task is not. Every single movie released in the United States during the 1980s, reviewed in chronological order, published month by month.
Buckle up, because this is The Last ‘80s Newsletter You’ll Ever Need…
CNN went on the air for the very first time, beginning the age of the 24-hour-news cycle.
The US brought back the draft. The Mets drafted a young Daryl Strawberry.
David Letterman’s first TV show for NBC premiered in its daily morning time slot.
And finally, in LA, Richard Pryor set himself on fire in an explosion while freebasing cocaine.
Starlog was a science-fiction magazine, devoted to the TV shows and movies that were rapidly becoming my favorites, and my parents seemed perfectly happy with Starlog in the house. The same company published Fangoria, which they decidedly were not fine with, but Starlog? No problem.
It was Starlog that introduced me to the notion of Playboy, though. They published some coverage for a movie called Galaxina, and I can understand why they thought it fit their magazine. It’s a very silly science-fiction spoof. It also stars Dorothy Stratten, who was best known at that point as a Playboy Playmate. I knew we had Playboy in the house, but I hadn’t really paid attention to it. It always kept in my dad’s room, away from my reading stacks, but when I read the Galaxina coverage, I decided I wanted.. nay, needed… to know what a Playboy Playmate was. Oddly, the movie ended up being fairly innocuous by T&A standards, but all it took was Stratten’s casting and that coverage to spark my curiosity. Then biology took over and the magazine became important for its own reasons.
Magazines were a constant topic of debate in my home. One of the most controversial was Mad, which infuriated my father for some reason. I had to go to the public library to read the magazine every month, and I did because I loved it. I loved the movie parodies, which were often my first exposure to movies I couldn’t actually go see. When my dad would find a copy in the house, it would go straight into the trash. When I saw that Mad was releasing a movie, I knew I didn’t stand a chance of seeing it with my parents. I also knew I couldn’t even bring it up to them, and I played my cards just right. I got to go with my friend one Saturday, and our sense of triumph lasted all the way through the moment we actually saw the movie, which was bafflingly terrible even to a bunch of ten-year-olds.
My parents were happy to take us to movies often during the summer, and we saw a ton of things that month. I remember one day when we went to go see Bronco Billy, then got something to eat, then saw Fame in the late afternoon. That was fascinating to me because it was so clear that my dad picked the first film and my mom picked the second. I was starting to tune in to the movie stars or the genres that were important to each of them, and I was curious to understand why. My dad was a giant Clint Eastwood fan, but this was a period when Eastwood was experimenting with his own image, so it wasn’t always clear what we were getting into when we went to see his films. I thought Every Which Way But Loose was goofy, and at that age, goofy seemed just fine to me. Bronco Billy was something totally different, and I wasn’t sure what I thought of it. It made an impression on me, though, and certain scenes stuck with me.
Fame, on the other hand, landed on me hard. I have a theory that kids love watching movies about kids who are a little bit older than they are because it offers them a glimpse of what they’re about to go through. I thought the world of Fame was amazing and I found the film absolutely engrossing. I managed to talk my mom into seeing it a second time with one of my aunts, and they both had an amazing response to it. I was learning that as a habit, seeing something a second time so I could watch someone else react to something. It was a big habit for me, and it probably helps that movie tickets were so cheap.
Even so, it was amazing we ever found time to see anything twice. Once I got bitten by the bug, I agitated constantly for us to go to the theater. We went to see Wholly Moses! and The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark as a family, and I went with my mom and dad to see Urban Cowboy, which was way more adult than I was ready for. I think they expected something more akin to Saturday Night Fever or Grease and were surprised by how dark the film was. They were into the soundtrack in a major way, though, and had actually been to Gilley’s when we still lived in Texas. They also made a soundtrack-based decision when they took my sister and I to see Can’t Stop The Music!, and I think the film’s rating caught them off-guard. The explicit gay content was not what they expected at all. By far, it was the most exposed dong we saw in any film that month, including Herbie Goes Bananas.
Once again, I found myself fixated on posters for films I couldn’t see. The poster for The Stunt Man weirded me out, and I couldn’t figure out what kind of movie it was based on that art. I liked it, even though I found it confounding. I remember being freaked out by the poster for The Hearse, and The Island was another one of those posters that promised something amazing, even though I couldn’t get anyone to take me, or even to describe it to me. And for some reason, my parents decided against taking me to Rough Cut, even though I was already a Burt Reynolds fan.
One of the most incredible moments of the month was with my dad’s mother. Each of my grandmothers was very different, and I always thought of Tig as the “cool” grandmother. She was a church organist, a widower, a chain-smoker, and she had a withering wit. She did not suffer fools lightly, and when the two of us would hang out together, she treated me like an adult more than anyone else in my life. One evening, she and I went to go see The Blues Brothers together. I was worried at first that I had overplayed my hand, that she was going to be mad at me, but as soon as the music kicked in, all my worries went away. Like I said, she was a church organist, and the James Brown number had her damn near playing along on the seats in front of her. When the movie was over and Tig was driving me home, she told me that we would keep the film as “our little secret.”
For the rest of the time I knew her, I could make her smile with the mere mention of an Orange Whip. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I still hold the film so dear.
The Day Time Ended
Jim Davis, Bentley Mitchum, Dorothy Malone, Marcy Lafferty, Natasha Ryan, Scott C. Kolden, Roberto Contreras
cinematography by John Arthur Morrill
music by Richard Band
screenplay by Wayne Schmidt & J. Larry Carroll & David Schmoeller
story by Steve Neill
produced by Steve Neill and Wayne Schmidt
directed by John ‘Bud’ Cardos
1 hr 19 mins
A family on the edge of the Mojave Desert encounters UFOs, monsters, and dimensional rifts thanks to a rare triple supernova.
John “Bud” Cardos was a stuntman, an animal wrangler, and on this particular occasion, a director. Like many filmmakers working in the exploitation world, he worked that many jobs more out of necessity than any particular gift, and on The Day Time Ended, it definitely feels like he’s in over his head.
There are several exploitation labels that we’re going to discuss over and over during this decade, and the name Charles Band is one of those that will come up repeatedly. By the time he produced this film, he had already given the world films like Laserblast and Tourist Trap, and he was working to build his own production label for low-budget genre fare. This was shot in the late ‘70s and then gradually finished, and it must have already looked like a relic when it hit a few theaters in 1980. The film has profoundly shabby effects work and a cast that can kindly be called “not great.” I can live with that if the story’s interesting, but this is a mess, a weird grab-bag of ideas and scenes that all feel unconnected. One thing that became painfully clear in the wake of Star Wars and Close Encounters is how little people understand what makes science-fiction interesting, slapping these awful stories in genre wrapping and hoping that’s enough for audiences who don’t know any better. This eventually becomes a time-travel movie of sorts, but it ends like a pilot for a series that absolutely no one would watch. Many of the behind-the-scenes folks who would eventually build Empire Pictures were involved here, and it feels like a (very) dry run of stuff like Subspecies and Tracers.
Sallee Young, Harry Reems, Deborah Alter, Kathryn Clayton, Bryan Charles, Edward Talbot “Chip” Matthews, Mark Justin, Robert Brooks Mendel, Douglas Price, Stephen Blood, Bosco Palazzolo, J. Kelly, John Green, Bill Martin, Jay Belinkoff, Mark Del Castille
cinematography by James R. Tynes
music by Richard Tufo
screenplay by Alex Rebar
produced by Arthur Jeffreys and Mike Smith
directed by Arthur Jeffreys
1 hr 27 mins
A woman tries to recover from the aftermath of her violent rape, but when she is attacked a second time, she snaps and takes bloody revenge.
I am not a big fan of rape revenge movies. I am fully onboard with the sentiment… anyone who commits that act deserves every terrible thing that could ever happen to them… but the genre tends to be an excuse to show graphic nudity and sexual content in the most vile of all possible contexts, and the vast majority of exploitation films that include rape do so in a purely exploitative manner. I eventually reached a breaking point as a film reviewer when I was trying to watch yet another “hey, there’s been an apocalypse, so now there’s lots of rape!” movies and I just found myself ground down by it all.
Demented is unusual within the genre and while I’m not sure I’d recommend it, I think it stakes enough original ground that it should be better known than it is. Overall, it is a relentlessly cheap film, and the presence of Harry Reems in a major role is just one of the aesthetic choices that make this feel like it could erupt into a porn film at any moment. Sallee Young plays Linda, a woman who survives a brutal attack at the opening of the film. Her attackers are arrested and sent to prison and she begins the difficult process of trying to heal. For a while, the film is a drama about how hard it is for her to put her life back together after the trauma, and it feels like more of a low-rent drama. When a new group of men break into her home, Linda takes control, wreaking havoc on her would-be attackers. Normally, these movies are structured to give the victim direct revenge on the men who harmed her, but this film posits that all men are the problem, and as directed, makes a pretty good case for it. Every guy in this film is terrible, and it almost feels like there’s some dark comedy going on here. It’s so heightened as to almost feel like satire.
I wish Young was a stronger performer. I think with a stronger cast, this might have landed harder and made its points more effectively. Tech credits are shabby throughout. The film’s got an odd score that I like, although I’m not sure it totally works for the film. Considering how little I’ve ever heard about this movie, it feels like it has more to offer than some of the better-known movies we’ll cover this month, even if it doesn’t totally transcend its grimy genre roots.
Stephen Macht, Avery Schrieber, J.D. Hinton, Dorothy Stratten, Lionel Mark Smith, Tad Horino, Ronald Knight, Percy Rodrigues, Herb Kaplowitz, Aesop Aquarian, Angelo Rossitto, Nancy McCauley, Fred D. Scott, David A. Cox, Peter Schrum, Susan Kiger, Marilyn Joi, Rhonda Shear, Bartine Burkett, Heather O’Connell, Michael D. Castle, George E. Mather, Hugh Warden, Frank Ferro, Daniel Vincent Audet, Darwin Benjamin, Robert L. Brossman, Michael Denis Brox, K.C. Durkin, Drederick C. Gazelle, Michael Margargal, Chuck McAmish, Jeffrey McGrail, Stan Partin, Teri Powers, Robin Torell, Jacqueline Jacobs
cinematography by Dean Cundey
screenplay by William Sachs
produced by Marilyn J. Tenser
directed by William Sachs
1 hr 35 mins
In the year 3008, the crew of the Infinity is sent on a mission to retrieve the mystical Blue Star.
Believe me when I say that the plot synopsis above gave me absolute fits to write because Galaxina is nearly plotlesss. William Sachs is a genuinely terrible filmmaker whose films all have this amazing sense of inertia, no matter how many exploitation elements he throws at things. You can tell from the opening crawl of this film what the main reason was that this got made, and there’s a lot of Star Wars all over this movie. It’s a broad parody in many ways, with jokes that directly reference Star Trek, Alien, and more, but it’s also trying to be a real science-fiction comedy telling an original story, and the one thing that is impressive about the film is just how bad it is at both things it’s trying to do. Like John Carpenter’s Dark Star (which this film borrows from shamelessly with its Rock Eater subplot), this feels like it falls into a strange gap between genre, but where that feels like a sci-fi film where the laughs don’t quite work, this feels like a comedy that never even remotely offers any laughs.
This is the kind of film where the Captain of the spaceship is named Captain Butt, the kind of film where people try to kiss a robot and get sparks for their troubles, the kind of film where there’s a bartender with pointed ears named Mr. Spot. They rip off the Star Wars cantina scene not once but twice. It’s such a thumpingly obvious film that it’s hard to even pity laugh at things. The film’s biggest recurring punchline is just people saying “Oh, shit.” Stephen Macht plays Sgt. Thor, who has fallen in love with Galaxina (Stratten), the robot in charge of keeping the ship running. Stratten, despite being the title character, doesn’t have much to do, and in the majority of the film, she doesn’t even speak. Maybe she was funny. Maybe she had the range to do real drama. We will never know, and this movie doesn’t offer her any opportunity to prove any of those things.
Quick note about William Sachs: he loved to claim that he was responsible for saving the movie Joe in post-production. Considering the track record of John Avildsen, the director of that film, and the track record of William Sachs, I’m going to go ahead and give Avildsen the benefit of the doubt here. Sachs never directed a film that was even halfway worth watching, and just because he was “post-production supervisor” on one decent film, he doesn’t get to claim authorial responsibility. Not cool, man. Not cool.
Trish Van Devere, Joseph Cotten, David Gautreaux, Donald Hotton, Med Flory, Donald Petrie, Christopher McDonald, Perry Lang, Fred Franklyn, Olive Dunbar, Al Hansen, Dominic Barto, Nicholas Shields, Chuck Mitchell, Allison Balson, Jim Gatherum, Tanya Bowers
cinematography by Mori Kawa
music by Webster Lewis
screenplay by William Bleich
based on an idea by Mark Tenser
produced by Mark Tenser
directed by George Bowers
1 hr 39 mins
A woman moves into her dead aunt’s house and gets her freak on with a ghost while she is stalked by a mysterious black car.
That may be a bit of a spoiler, but The Hearse is a very silly film, and there’s really no way to spoil it. As a kid, I often got this confused with The Car, but that film actually works. In this film, Jane (Trish Van Devere) moves from San Francisco to a remote house where her aunt used to live. As soon as she arrives, she starts to see her aunt’s ghost, a mysterious black hearse, and Joseph Cotten clearly and inappropriately creeping on her. That would be a lot for anyone, and Jane doesn’t do great with it.
There’s a new man in her life, though, played by David Gautreaux, and the two of them embark on the hottest affair a PG film can handle. There’s also a much younger man who is clearly interested in her, and honestly, this film is way hornier than you would guess from that title. Way more energy is spent on the attention paid to Jane by Cotten’s character, by the young handyman, by her weird new lover, than on anything actually scary. Eventually, devil worship comes into the picture, but I don’t want to imply that there’s anything focused or coherent about the sort of grab bag of horror movie clichés that this entirely scare-free movie dumps on the audience. By the time the film reaches its limp “twist” ending, if you don’t see where it’s been going (slowly) for the previous 75 minutes, this might be your first film ever.
George Bowers, the film’s director, had a long career as an editor, and he worked on films I genuinely adore like The Stepfather, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and A League of Their Own. As a director, though, his career was a little less storied. This was his feature debut, and we’ll discuss his other three films between now and 1985. He mainly worked in exploitation, and by coincidence, he was also the editor on a film that was released the same day as this one, Galaxina, which we discussed above.
Patti D’Arbanville, Michael Biehn, Tony Rosato, Angelo Rizacos, Martin Doyle, Claude Philippe, Matt Craven, Jack Blum, Keith Knight, Michael Zelniker, Robin McCulloch, Sean McCann, John Rutter, Bronwen Mantel, Karen Stephen, Stephanie Miller, Mitch Martin, Jacoba Knaapen, Thomas Kovacs, Matt Birman, Susan Harrop, Norman Taviss, Bena Singer, Len Watt, Roland Nincheri, Rudy Stoeckel, Alexander Godfrey, Richard Rebiere, Stephen Bloomer, Thom Haverstock, Timothy Webber, Andrew Semple, Stephen Mayoff, Helene Udy, Erin Kalacis
cinematography by René Verzier
music by Paul Zaza
screenplay by Andrew Peter Marin
story by Stephen J. Miller
produced by Pierre David, Claude Héroux, and Stephen J. Miller
directed by Les Rose
1 hr 35 mins
When a kid is expelled from military school, he finds himself leading a war against a motorcycle gang at the public high school he is forced to attend.
If the first name you see in a film’s titles is “Pierre David,” you better buckle up, ‘cause things are about to get super Canadian.
I’m fascinated by the histories of local indie cinema around the world and by the way some things get exported and other things don’t. One of the reasons I had to be clear at the start of this project is that I’m only covering the films that were released in the U.S. is because the number of films I’d have to cover would increase exponentially. Claude Heroux, one of the producers of the film, built his business making “maple syrup porn” films, French-language nudie films from Quebec that took advantage of the way censorship laws changed at the end of the ‘60s and the start of the ‘70s. Pierre David worked on small dramas and comedies that were also French-language for the most part. The two of them decided to try to break into the much-larger English-language market, and Hog Wild was the result.
In a lot of ways, this feels like a precursor to Porky’s and the other teenage sex comedies that dominated a good chunk of the decade, but it’s rated PG, and it feels like an exploitation film with no actual exploitation taking place. There are some familiar faces here, right at the start of their careers, but Michael Biehn is so bland he’s almost invisible here, still young and unformed. Tony Rosato is playing the John Belushi role as Bull, a biker gang leader who speaks in mumbles that only his gang can understand, and I must confess a total confusion on my part about how Rosato managed to land roles on SCTV and Saturday Night Live. He’s always seemed hammy and obvious to me in everything he’s done, and that’s true here as well. Biehn plays Tim, a kid who is kicked out of military school, forcing him to return to public school. He tangles with a biker gang for mistake and he falls for Angie (Patti D’Arbanville), who is Bull’s girlfriend. There’s a back and forth as Tim puts together his own group of misfits who end up standing up to Bull and The Rustlers. It’s not quite a snobs vs. slobs scenario, but the basic impulses are the same.
One of the things that distinguishes good from bad comedy in the ‘80s is whether they’re building the comedy around characters or gags. I rarely think films that are designed to be non-stop gags work, because I am more entertained by well-observed character humor. These aren’t characters in this film, but rather character types, and there’s almost nothing here that feels like it is based on real human behavior. Still, it managed to establish David and Heroux as producers who could play on an international stage, setting the career of David Cronenberg, so all hail Hog Wild, I suppose.
The Mountain Men
Charlton Heston, Brian Keith, Victoria Racimo, Stephen Macht, John Glover, Seymour Cassel, David Ackroyd, Cal Bellini, William Lucking, Ken Ruta, Victor Jory, Danny Zapien, Tim Haldeman, Buckley Norris, Daniel Knapp, Michael Greene, Stewart East, Terry Leonard, Steven Chambers, Bennie E. Dobbins, Suzanna Trujillo, Melissa Sylvia, James Ecoffey
cinematography by Michel Hugo
music by Michel Legrand
screenplay by Fraser C. Heston
produced by Andrew Scheinman and Martin Shafer
directed by Richard Lang
1 hr 42 mins
Bill Tyler and Henry Frapp travel the Old West together and attempt to make a life as fur trappers even as the world around them changes, squeezing them out.
One of the things I find most interesting about this project is looking at the weird coincidences regarding release dates. I mentioned that the director of one of the movies in today’s edition also edited another of the titles. Turns out Stephen Macht is in two of the films that hit screens today, marking this as possibly the biggest day Stephen Macht ever had as an actor. He plays the main antagonist here, Chief Heavy Eagle, and he spends most of the film engaged in a game of one-upmanship with Bill Tyler (Charlton Heston), a trapper who makes the mistake of offering shelter to Running Moon (Victoria Racimo) when she runs away from the Chief, who she says has been abusing her.
At this point, Heston’s career was on the wane, and his son Fraser Heston seemed to single-handedly keep the aging icon working. He’s fine here, I guess, but he’s never really been especially funny, and this feels like it’s aiming for that same loose-limbed vibe as something like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn’t remotely feel like it would be in Heston’s wheelhouse. Designed as a love letter to the genre that had been very good to Heston, it feels like a weird mix of tones, almost a broad comedy at times even though there’s some strong material in it. Brian Keith plays Henry Frapp, Tyler’s partner in misadventure, and while I don’t think the film really works as a whole, Keith has an easy chemistry with Heston that does offer up some genuine pleasures. When the film does try to play serious, it doesn’t feel as confident as during the more rollicking stuff. It’s visually striking, and some of the supporting players do interesting work like Seymour Cassel and a very young John Glover, but overall, it rarely seems to have anything to say about the end of this particular time and place, and the shaggy storytelling can’t hide the way most of these characters feel like they were ordered from a “How To Make A Western” catalog.
Movies like this are the reason audiences were so tired of the genre at this point, cranked out and overly familiar. This was the theatrical feature debut of Richard Lang, who was a longtime TV veteran by that point, with both TV movies and plenty of episodic work under his belt, including a stint on The Brian Keith Show. Amazingly, this is not his only film in 1980, which makes it feel like he was working on a TV pace even after he made the jump to theatrical movies.
Up The Academy
Wendell Brown, Tommy Citera, Hutch Parker, Ralph Macchio, Harry Teinowitz, Tom Poston, Ian Wolfe, Antonio Fargas, Stacey Nelkin, Barbara Bach, Leonard Frey, Luke Andreas, Candy Ann Brown, King Coleman, Rosalie Citera, Yvonne Francis, James G. Robertson, Rosemary Eliot, Louis Zorich, Robert Lynn Mock, Tyrees Allen, Eric Hanson, Kenneth White, Patrick McKenna, Robert Scopa, John R. Gallagher, Jack N. Stewart, John C. Ryberg, Charles Lloyd Kephart, James D. Coddington, William J.L. Bunting, Sheri Ann Hoffhines, Annette Katafiasz, Allyson Downey, Barbara Lindsay, Linda Myers, Brenda A. Rohr, Barbara Wisbey, Tanya Boyd, Ernest Vishneske, Myra Benson, Mike Cheswick, Robert Downey Jr., Ron Leibman
cinematography by Harry Stradling Jr.
screenplay by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses
produced by Danton Rissner and Marvin Worth
directed by Robert Downey Sr.
1 hr 27 mins
Four totally different young men meet in military school and stand up to the abrasive Major Liceman.
Hog Wild was all about a kid being thrown out of military school, while on the same day, one of the biggest brand names in American comedy in the late ‘70s decided to release a film about four teenage boys who are all forced to attend the Weinberg Military School by their shitty dads. It’s funny that Hog Wild’s poster was designed and illustrated by the great Jack Davis, since Up The Academy was the only film ever designed as a big-screen vehicle for the Mad magazine brand.
Giant blockbuster Hollywood hits drive people crazy when they happen. You see dozens of people who decide that they could have the exact same hit if they somehow deconstruct the film’s success, imitating it carefully and completely. National Lampoon’s Animal House was a phenomenon when it was released, using the magazine’s established brand name as a sort of stamp of approval on a comedy movie that wasn’t necessarily produced by the same people who made the magazine. Mad had a standing deal with Warner Bros for many years but couldn’t figure out exactly what to do until Animal House was released. They were hardly the only ones to immediately ape that snobs vs. slobs formula, but to be fair, it wasn’t really them who did this. It was a script Warner developed and they just gave it to Mad to rubber-stamp. They put their brand name on it, they threw Alfred E. Neuman into the film in a very weird cameo, and they allowed Warner to use them in the advertising. They were so embarrassed by the response to the film that they had all reference to the magazine excised before it originally hit home video.
While Animal House wasn’t directly created by the same people as the magazine, it was drawn from stories originally published in Lampoon, and it successfully captured the sense of humor that made the magazine so important and culturally connected. Mad magazine was savage satire, written by guys who cut their teeth in the advertising world, incredibly smart about the way movies and TV worked and calling out overused tropes before people even used the word. Director Robert Downey, whose breakthrough film was Putney Swope, a briliant and acidic look at the advertising world, seems like the perfect match on paper for the sensibilities of Mad’s “usual gang of idiots.” Sadly, there’s really nothing here that works, and the film leans on stereotypes and cheap shots to score points. Ugly, dumb, and mean, Up The Academy isn’t the worst comedy of 1980, but it’s certainly in the running. Small wonder Ron Leibman, who plays the film’s primary villain, demanded that his name be taken off of it. It’s a miracle anyone took a screen credit, frankly.
Okay, that is a seriously strange group of films. This may be the first of these newsletters where I can’t honestly recommend a single one of the movies I’ve discussed. Still, this is just the start of June 1980, and there are some huge titles ahead this month. The influence of Animal House can be felt in many of the comedies in today’s installment, but the star and director of that film were hard at work on a movie we’ll be covering in just six short days.
Before that, though, we’ve got two totally different quasi-spiritual follow-ups to two of the biggest cultural hits of the late ‘70s as well as more truly weird and hard to define movies as the new decade struggled to figure out an identity.
We’ll have four full issues to cover this month, so be sure you check your inbox every three days. If you’re not subscribed, now’s the time because there won’t be any more freebies until December. We’re almost halfway done with our first year of this big crazy project, and it’s just starting to get good!