We kick off November 1980 with a grindhouse classic
Plus a great and under-seen Ray Sharkey performance
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…
Ronald Reagan defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in the general election by a landslide.
Iraqi President Saddam Hussein declared holy war against Iran.
John Lennon’s eagerly awaited Double Fantasy album arrived in stores.
And Dallas finally answered the question of “Who Shot JR?” with 83 million people watching.
November was a rough month for ten-year-old me in terms of new movies.
There were certainly things to be excited about in November of 1980, but not many. I still remember walking into the record store and seeing the giant display for the Popeye soundtrack. I loved Robin Williams and there was something about the idea of him playing that character that immediately seized my imagination. I bought the soundtrack immediately and took it home and fell madly in love with everything Nilsson did on that record.
I also remember hearing the news that Steve McQueen had passed away and seeing that the news had a real impact on my father. So much of what I was digesting at that point was either because of my parents or in reaction to my parents, and I presume that’s how a lot of us found our way to pop culture. There’s the stuff they share with us, and there’s the stuff they restrict from us, and both things serve as spotlights. The more into something my parents were, the more curious I was about it, and if they were completely opposed to something, that also made me curious. With movies, my parents were cautious about what I was or wasn’t allowed to see, and I frequently found myself losing the battle when I would try to talk them into taking me to see something.
With books, though, it was a totally different policy. Once I had a library card, my parents told me that I was allowed to check out whatever I was interested in reading. I guess the rationale was that I wouldn’t really make it through something that was above my reading level. Thing is, I started reading at the age of three. By first grade, I was reading regular novels. I was voracious, and I definitely read things that I didn’t know how to fully process way earlier than I saw equivalent content in movies. Sometimes if my parents wouldn’t let me see a film, I’d read the book instead, and that led to me picturing much wilder versions of films than what was actually made and released.
On one occasion, though, it led me to read the wrong thing entirely and, in the process, I was rewired by an author. I was dying to see the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. I’m not sure why, since I hadn’t really seen any Monty Python at this point, but there was something about that poster and that trailer and the reviews that got their hooks in me. I begged. I cajoled. I made my case based on what major critics were saying. And I got absolutely nowhere. My parents weren’t having it.
So one day I’m at the library and I see a book and for some reason, my brain connects dots completely the wrong way and I think “Oh, this is the book that Monty Python movie was based on, so if I read this, I will basically have seen the film. I win!” I check the book out, and the librarian gives me her customary, “Are you sure about this?” and I assure her that I am totally sure about this and I take the book home and within twenty pages realize how very, very wrong I was about (A) the book’s connection to the movie and (B) whether or not I was ready.
John Irving’s The World According to Garp had been published a few years earlier, but it was still raw and wild and boundary-shredding when I read it, and it rewired me instantly. Things I had never even considered suddenly had names and faces attached to them. Roberta Muldoon was the first time I even vaguely considered what life for a trans person in America would be like, and perhaps the first time I even truly understood that there were trans people. Adult sexuality was terrifying and existed on a wide spectrum in Garp’s world, and gender politics seemed volatile and dangerous. I loved his book even if I didn’t totally understand it all at that point, and it felt to me like a graduation into a larger world. While it would be another four or five years before I finally made my way back to Monty Python, I would argue that John Irving at age ten was formative in a far more subversive way than Python ever could have been.
There was only one movie released this month that I was eager to see, and I don’t think it was during November that I saw it. Roger Ebert had been talking about Gates of Heaven on his show for well over a year by this point, and the film finally got a commercial theatrical release. I hassled my mother about it and when the film opened in Chattanooga, we did indeed go to see it. It was the first documentary I ever saw, and it felt like a bit of a turning point in terms of what I could get my parents to go see with me. There were films they sat out not because they felt like they were inappropriate but because they couldn’t imagine why I would be interested, and it wasn’t until I got access to the full stock of a video store that I started to really explore the boundaries of my own interests. Gates of Heaven was a milestone for me, and even if it wasn’t as great as it is, I would have a soft spot for it just for that reason.
So let’s jump right in for the relative calm before the storm that is the final month of the year, and kick things off with a movie that I’m pretty sure every mom and pop video store in the US had to carry by law…
The Boogey Man
Suzanna Love, Ron James, John Carradine, Nicholas Love, Raymond Boyden, Felicite Morgan, Bill Rayburn, Llewelyn Thomas, Jay Wright, Natasha Schiano, Gillian Gordon, Howard Grant, Jane Pratt, Lucinda Zeising, David Swim, Katie Casey, Ernest Meier, Charles David Richards, Claudia Porcelli, Catherine Tambini
cinematography by Jochen Breitenstein and David Sperling
music by Tim Krog
screenplay by Ulli Lommel and Suzanna Love and David Herschel
produced by Ulli Lommel
directed by Ulli Lommel
1 hr 22 mins
A young girl witnesses a brutal murder, and the murderer becomes trapped in a mirror. When she releases him as an adult, the murders resume.
An inelegant synopsis for a brutally ugly movie. There is a level of technical polish here, both in the cinematography and the score, that disguises the emotional ugliness of the movie. The film opens with a scene that feels like it was designed to turn up everything from the opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween, and if there is any single film that feels like Ulli Lommel’s aesthetic inspiration, it’s Carpenter’s megahit. It’s clear that The Amityville Horror was also a huge inspiration, right down to the design of the farmhouse where much of this film is set, and he’s awfully fond of the way Argento uses color. Still, even when all these disparate influences are so obvious, there’s something about the combination of all of this that is hard to shake.
The film opens with a little boy and a little girl watching their mother have sex through a bedroom window. Things get a little freaky when mom pulls a stocking over the boyfriend’s face. He sees the kids, though, and he freaks out. He ties the little boy to a bed, then goes back to finish what he started. The little girl cuts her brother free and he takes the knife and goes to kill the boyfriend, while the little girl watches the entire thing happen in a giant mirror on the bedroom wall.
We jump forward in time to that little boy, all grown up, living now with his sister, who witnessed that whole thing. They live on a farm with their aunt and uncle, and the sister, Lacey, is now married with a boy of her own. Her brother Willy has been silent since the night of the murder and Lacey has plenty of trauma of her own that she’s still dealing with. Her therapist recommends that she return to the site of the incident to confront her feelings, but when she does, she sees something in the mirror that she saw the incident in originally, and she breaks it. In doing so, she sets free the vengeful spirit who can now infect anyone who touches any pieces of the broken mirror, setting off a wave of extremely violent murders.
It is a genuinely shocking film in terms of gore, unapologetically nasty. The film doesn’t really make logical sense, and it doesn’t seem terribly concerned with that. This is a grindhouse movie through and through, and if you just want a video nasty, it might satisfy. I think the film’s biggest misstep is just how anonymous and dull the killer is. If Lommel had come up with an iconic or even interesting design for the character, something more than “greasy dude with pantyhose on his face,” this might have earned its infamy. As it is, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone beyond the most dedicated of cinematic dumpster divers.
Running Scared aka Desperate Men
Ken Wahl, Judge Reinhold, Annie McEnroe, Bradford Dillman, John Saxon, Pat Hingle, Lonny Chapman, Tom McFadden, Tim Brantly, Mary Lawson, Lisa Felcoski, Francine Joyce, Malcolm Jones, Tom Tully, Roger Pretto, Jorge Gil, Ken Rahgers, John Leeward, Dan Chandler
cinematography by Willy Kurant
music by Roger Kellaway
screenplay by David Odell
story by Paul Glickler
produced by Paul Glickler
directed by Paul Glickler
1 hr 36 mins
Two guys on the way home from their time in the Army accidentally take photos that get them branded as spies, and they are forced to run for their lives through the Florida Everglades.
Running Scared was meant to be the big jump from hard and softcore porn to legitimate filmmaking for writer/director Paul Glickler. It was not.
Glickler had his biggest success, arguably, with The Cheerleaders in 1973, but he and his co-producer Richard Lerner made a really stupid mistake with the copyright registration, and it cost them when people were able to make sequels without paying them. I don’t judge anyone for any path they took into the film industry, and when you look at Running Scared, it’s clear that Glickler’s trying to make something more than just an exploitation film. He just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off.
The film is set in early 1961, and two soldiers are just wrapping up their time in the Army. They’re on their way home to Florida from Panama, and they catch a ride on a C-47 that makes a stop on a Caribbean island. LeRoy (Judge Reinhold) and Chaz (Ken Wahl) get out to stretch their legs, and LeRoy tries out an infra-red camera he stole from his posting. He doesn’t know what it is, so he thinks it’s broken, and he ends up leaving behind evidence that he was taking pictures. That’s a problem because the base they’re on is top-secret and that infra-red photo ends up containing evidence of an impending invasion of Cuba led by John Saxon and Bradford Dillman who are convinced that LeRoy and Chaz are pro-Castro spies.
Complicated set-up, and for a while once the guys reach Florida, the film downshifts into a kind of aimless comedy about them trying to settle into civilian life. Reinhold’s playing the crazy one here, and he gives LeRoy a deranged energy that is at least interesting. Wahl’s a blank, as he often is. Annie McEnroe shows up as Sallie Mae, a girl who picks Chaz up when he and LeRoy are separated. She takes him to LeRoy’s family home, where the soldiers who are chasing them eventually show up, disrupting LeRoy’s family’s moonshine business. The film becomes an action-comedy at that point, with some fairly elaborate chase sequences through the Everglades. The film straddles this weird line because you can tell Glickler’s working hard to keep this from being the kind of softcore sleaze he’d made before. It’s a fairly chaste film overall. But there’s a sleazy quality to the actual production that feels like there should be some kind of exploitation something going on here. It’s like they forgot to put in “the good parts,” and so you’re left with an exploitation film that doesn’t actually exploit anything. The bare-bones early-‘60s nostalgia doesn’t really benefit the film at all, and it’s not like Glickler’s got something to say about the era. This was the last film Glickler made, and in general, unless you really want to see Reinhold or Wahl in these early roles, this one’s not worth the effort.
Ray Sharkey, Tovah Feldshuh, Peter Gallagher, Paul Land, Joe Pantoliano, Maureen McCormick, John Aprea, Richard Bright, Olympia Dukakis, Steve Peck, Leonard Gaines, Deney Terrio, Charles Guardino, Michael Mislove, Kenneth O’Brien, Michael Perrotta, Sylvia Shemmell, Myrna Smith, Afreeka Trees, Owen C. Davis, Jamie Fallin, Larry Van Claggett, Jeffrey Tanner, Renata Vanni, Howard Gordon, Tammy Alverson, Frank Bongiorno, Jed Brien, Jimmy Carter, Kim Cordes, JoJo D’Amore, Cheri Ferlice, Mallie Jackson, Shelley Kirkwood, William Vincent Kulak, Anthony Marciona, Buddy Micucci, Alan Muir, Tony Munafo, Don Munson, Margery Nelson, Jack Neville, Thorne Nogar, James Saito, Sam Shamshak
cinematography by Adam Holender
music by Jeff Barry
screenplay by Edward Di Lorenzo
produced by Gene Kirkwood and Howard W. Koch Jr.
directed by Taylor Hackford
1 hr 57 mins
A songwriter becomes an entertainment manager and producer and molds not one but two promising young singers into full-blown ‘50s pop idols.
If Running Scared is empty nostalgia by someone who is trying to cash in without understanding why, The Idolmaker is nostalgia as pure popcorn. It doesn’t mean a lot, but it’s wildly entertaining in the meantime.
While this never really feels like it is soft-selling the story it tells, this is a squeaky-clean PG, a fictionalized version of the life story of Bob Marcucci, the guy who helped discover Frankie Avalon and Fabian. Taylor Hackford’s film doesn’t tell the story you’d expect at first, focusing on Vincent Vacari, played by Ray Sharkey in what may well be the most fully-realized and even restrained work he ever did. Vince is the supporting character in most versions of this story, but here, it’s all about him and the way he shapes the careers and destiny of two different singers. First up is Tommy Dee (Paul Land), who is a saxophone player when he first meets Vince. Then, once Tommy blows up and thinks he doesn’t need Vince, there’s Caesare (Peter Gallagher), a busboy who Vince decides to make even bigger. Vince is incredibly sharp and he’s constantly thinking about how to be famous and in the end, it doesn’t matter who he makes famous as long as he gets to put his theories into practice.
I wish the movie’s soundtrack either used real ‘50s tunes or that any of it actually sounded like the ‘50s, but that’s a minor quibble. This thing hums along from start to finish, sleek and charming and sexy, and while it feels kind of old-fashioned in some ways, there’s a confidence to that. At first, Vincent’s got to figure out how to get into the system at all, how to get people to listen to Tommy Dee, and the fun of the film is watching him scramble and adjust and think his way through each new problem. Tommy turns out to have a knack for performing, one that Vincent’s able to shape, and more than that, Vincent learns how to use people, including Tovah Feldshuh as the woman he loves. When Tommy decides that he’s the only reason for his success and that he knows better than Vincent does, there’s a moment where Vincent isn’t quite sure what to do. But he’s a fighter, and the film’s second half is all about watching him fight back, watching him prove that he’s the one who put Tommy on the charts in the first place.
In real life, Fabian was so pissed off by this movie that he sued Bob Marcucci, and he ended up winning Bob’s piece of the film and a formal written apology in the trades. While I’m sure that was satisfying, that only makes me think that the film must have gotten somewhat close to the mark. In the end, Hackford made the right choice to fictionalize it instead of trying to tell a “true” story, and Fabian should have left it alone. What this film gets right is the way stardom in general works, or at least the way it worked at a particular moment in American pop culture. While I think the film belongs to Sharkey, I think Gallagher is equally good as the second star who Vincent builds. When he finally figures out who he is onstage, it’s a big fat cornball movie moment, and I bought it 100%. This is a crowd-pleaser, a movie about the difference between understanding star charisma and having star charisma, and it’s absolutely electrifying when it all comes together at the end. I love the coda that suggests Vincent might find a more manageable success playing his own songs, but the movie knows just how seductive that big stage is, and just how painful it can be to come that close to it while knowing you’ll never be the one those cheers are for.
As debut movies go, this one’s rock-solid, and it marked Hackford right away as a down-the-middle populist who is capable of grace even as he delivers on the promise of the popcorn.
Tomisaburô Wakayama, Kayo Matsuo, Minoru Ôki, Shôgen Nitta, Shin Kishida, Akihiro Tomikawa, Lamont Johnson, Marshall Efron, Sandra Bernhard, Vic Davis, Lennie Weinrib, Lainie Cooke, Sam Weisman, Mark Lindsay, Robert Houston, David Weisman, Gibran Evans, Reiko Kashahara, Akiji Kobayashi, Taketoshi Naitô, Tokio Oki
cinematography by Chikashi Makiura
music by W. Michael Lewis and Mark Lindsay and Kunihiko Murai and Hideaki Sakurai
English screenplay by Robert Houston
original screenplay by Kazuo Koike
story by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
produced by Robert Houston and Shintarô Katsu and Hisaharu Matsubara
directed by Robert Houston and Kenji Misumi
1 hr 25 mins
A samurai and his son go to war against a Shogun and all of his followers.
If they gave Academy Awards for posters, that should have been the winner in 1980.
I mean, look at it. The tagline. The graphic design. The movie that promises seems too good to be true. And yet, that’s the movie you get when you watch this one. There is something irresistible about the basic idea behind Lone Wolf and Cub, a Japanese manga that was created by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima in the ‘70s. It tells the story of a Shogun’s executioner who is betrayed by his Shogun and driven into exile. He goes on the run with his baby son, and the two of them leave a trail of destruction and chaos in their wake. Watching The Mandalorian become a global sensation over the last few years, I was struck anew by just how much juice there is in that structure. It doesn’t surprise me that the manga was quickly adapted into a six film series, or that the series caught the attention of American distributors.
Robert Houston and David Weisman bought the rights, and it was Houston who largely supervised the process of combining the first two films in the series into one severely-condensed movie. It’s actually kind of impressive how well Houston was able to mash the two films, Sword of Vengeance and Baby Cart at the River Styx into something that feels like a semi-coherent single narrative. The finished product is narrated by Daigoro (Akihiro Tomikawa), the baby, telling this story of how he and his father got revenge on the murderers of his mother. Basically, his father Ogami (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is a death machine, incredibly deadly with a sword as well as any other weapon or object he lays hands on, and when he won’t work for a particular Shogun, he has to go on the run. The film has to bend itself into some narrative knots to introduce Lord Kiru and the Masters of Death, who become the antagonists for the majority of the film, but this isn’t really about plot. It’s about the bloody swordplay and the wild visuals, and on that front, Shogun Assassin more than delivers.
For many people, this is best-known as the movie that The Bride and Bibi watch together when they’re reunited at the end of Kill Bill Vol. 2, and that’s a cheeky, appropriate nod by Tarantino. There’s something kind of comforting about Shogun Assassin even though you’ve got heads and arms being hacked off and gallons of blood spraying everywhere. You’ve got a synth score here from one of original members of Paul Revere & The Raiders, and a voice cast that seems to really give a shit about giving good performances (I especially love young Sandra Bernhard as the Supreme Ninja), and while I prefer the uncut original versions of these films, I think they made something singular and kind of spectacular with this mash-up, and it served as an important gateway drug for a lot of American film fans who were led to a greater appreciation of Japanese culture of all kinds after their first exposure to this “greatest hits” rocket ride of a movie.
The Space Movie
Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, Yuri Gagarin, Alan Shepard, Valentina Tereshkova, German Titov, Ed Bishop, John F. Kennedy
music by Mike Oldfield
screenplay by Tony Palmer
produced by Richard Branson and Simon Draper
directed by Tony Palmer
1 hr 18 mins
A documentary about NASA and the Apollo 11 mission produced ten years after the moon landing.
There was a time when footage shot in outer space was still relatively rare, and even if you’d seen it on TV, there was a good chance that the TV you saw it on was terrible. I spent a big chunk of my childhood in Florida, and then just outside Houston, so the space industry was a big presence, and something that fascinated me deeply. When this made its debut at the Cannes Festival in the summer of 1980, it was the first time some of this footage had ever been seen.
Keep in mind, this was just ten years after the moon landing. Tony Palmer had a long career working in both music and film, and this feels like an organic combination of the two. Mike Oldfield, best known as the creator of “Tubular Bells,” which most people know as the theme to The Exorcist, was Palmer’s collaborator here, and the two of them put together something that plays less like a conventional documentary and more like a meditative tribute to the effort it took to get men into space and, eventually, onto the moon.
Palmer was best known for his rock music documentaries, and the film 200 Motels that he made with Frank Zappa is a great example of how he would work, trying to foreground the personalities of his collaborators to showcase who they were as artists. I’ve never seen his acclaimed series All My Loving, but it was a landmark that showcased some of the era’s best artists like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon. This time, the artists he’s showcasing are not only the astronauts but the engineers and technicians and mechanics who put them into space. This film is fascinated by the nuts and bolts work of putting men into space, and in some ways, Palmer’s film feels like a precursor to what Godfrey Reggio did a few years later in the brilliant Koyaanisqatsi. There is plenty of NASA cross-talk on the soundtrack, but the moments where it really comes together are the moments where it’s almost pure image and sound, like a space-themed Fantasia. Mike Oldfield used bits and pieces from several of his albums here, and it just makes me wish he’d done more film work. There are plenty of great documentaries where you can see other versions of this footage, but there’s something celebratory about the entire mood of the film without it feeling like pure propaganda.
I’ll have the second half of this month for you on Friday of this week, and that’s where the real meat of November’s hiding. I told you, though, this whole month feels like a sort of weird hiccup before the insane movie orgy of December.
We’ve got two films with basically identical titles next time as well as a disco musical that you have to got see to believe. If you’re not a subscriber, though, you won’t get to read any of it! Subscribe now and I’ll see you back here then!