British director Alan Parker’s work has been critically neglected of late; his 1984 film Birdy shows him at the top of his game, directing Nicolas Cage and Matthew Modine in a off-beat but moving drama about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Having been boyhood friends, Al (Cage) and Birdy (Modine) returns from Vietnam with emotional and physical scars that affect their relationship; Birdy is in hospital, and seems intent on realising his childhood dream to fly. Al is trying to bring his friend down to earth, but understands that Birdy’s dream of taking wing is potentially bad for his health. Adapted from a book by William Wharton, Birdy keeps the Vietnam flashbacks to the minimum, but focuses patiently on the friendship between the two men, topped of with a great final scene (and line) that wraps the story off with offhand aplomb.
Yasmina Reza adapted her own play for Roman Polanski’s overlooked domestic comedy drama from 2011. Bookended by understated scenes depicting their children at play, Carnage never attempt to defuse the theatrical originals of the material, and is all the better for it. Two affluent NYC couples Michael and Penelope (John C Reilly and Jodie Foster) and Alan and Nancy (Christoph Waltz and Kate Winslet) are drawn together to smooth over a mild playground assault, but their politeness gives way to an afternoon of explosive argument. All four actors are on top form, and Polanski seems to revel in exploding the myths of polite society as a full on screaming match that provides top-class entertainment.
Peter Yates was a surprising choice to helm a space epic in the wake of Star Wars; his 1983 film Krull has a wonderful production design to play with; those wondering what Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune might have looked like should take a swatch at some of the scenes, from the giant glass sider to the eye-popping fortress that holds Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony). Colwyn (Ken Marshall) sets out to rescue her, with Liam Neeson, Alan Armstrong, Robbie Coltrane, Todd Cathy and Bernard Bresslaw amongst his merry band of warriors taking on laser-firing robots with bows and arrows. A silly romp that gives outer-space a uniquely British flavour Krull didn’t hit the spot enough to spawn a sequel or franchise, but it’s a good-looking fantasy romp that’s alternative viewing for sci-fi fans.
Adapted from a sci-fi novel by Harlan Ellison, A Boy and his Dog is an unusually imaginative sci-fi movie from 1975. Actor briefly turned director LQ Jones also wrote the screenplay with Alvy Moore; the story takes place in an apocalyptic wasterland and concerns Vic (Don Johnson) who traverses the remains of planet earth with his telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntyre). Vic is lured into an underground bunker where there are plans to harness his virility for pre-creational purposes, and A Boy And His Dog sticks to its independent guns by having the survival of the human race low on Vic’s priorities. With dialogue taken often verbatim from Ellison’s novel, A Boy and His Dog is a smart antidote to big-budget sci-fi; it makes its points with satirical verve.
Dan Curtis contributed a notable entry to the TV movie stakes with Trilogy of Terror, a straightforward portmanteau film that rises to a memorable climax that’s taken a place in pop culture history. Karen Black excels as a series of women in jeopardy in tales written by William F Nolan and Richard Matheson; the first, Amelia, sees her play a self-conscious teacher who is taken advantage of by an unscrupulous student, and plots her revenge. The second raises the stakes with Black portraying both Millicent and Therese, sisters with very different personalities who hide a dark secret. Both stories are well paced and performed, but it’s the final story, in which Julie (Black) engages in a battle of wits against an African tribal doll, that steals the show. Black’s opening monologue on the phone to her mother sets a creeping unease, and some clever creative decisions make the doll’s threat surprisingly tangible; the final shot is the stuff of nightmares and still casts a genuine chill in this accomplished and influential horror film.
Any alternative history of American cinema should include this surprisingly raw studio thriller from 1980; James Brolin plays Sean Boyd, a tough cop who has alienated many of his fellow policemen by taking a hard line on corruption. He’s forced to confront his contemporaries when his daughter is kidnapped in error; the culprit Gus Soltic (Cliff Gorman) doesn’t realize that it’s not the daughter of a wealthy industrialist he was hoping to use for an extortion plot. The first half of Robert Butler’s film, adapted from a novel by William P McGivern, is a terrific chase sequence in and around New York’s Central Park, with Boyd battling to get his daughter back. The second half is less sensational, but still taut, and cop and quarry get closer. The Night of the Juggler is something of a social document of NYC circa 1980; street gangs, porno stores, and police corruption ideally embodied by the perennially sweaty Dan Hedaya.
Richard Ayer’s film from an original script by prestigious British novels Ian McEwan was catnip to the chattering classes in 1983; made for Channel 4 television, it was released in cinemas and seemed to represent the mood of the time in the UK. Parts of the film were captured against real backgrounds, with the Falkland’s war in the background and scenes filmed at the Conservative party conference. This Medium Cool verisimilitude extends to the characters; Jonathan Pryce is James Penfield, a journalist who is facing up to his own financial and spiritual bankruptcy; Rosemary Harris, Tim Curry and Frank Finlay are amongst the gallery of characters who he bounces off. The Ploughman’s Lunch has a title that refers to the simple meal that workers used to enjoy; this film represents the kind of unequivocal, intelligent television that Britain used to make before it sold out to game-shows and reality television filler.
Jules Dassin was a master director (Rififi, The Naked City, Topkapi), and combining him with a major star (Richard Burton) and an up-and-coming starlet (Tatum O’Neal) for a meditation of life and love must have seemed like a great idea. Circle of Two, however, is a misfire of such spectacular proportions that it ends up as near comic genius. Burton plays Ashley St Clair, a painter in his sixties who shuns the canvas for afternoons watching sex-film at his local cinema. Amongst the patrons is Sarah Norton (O’Neal) who is keen to get away from her overprotective family and her stalker boyfriend, and hopes to fashion a romantic idyll with St Clair. Dassin clearly understands that a relationship between a 15 year old and a 60 year old has exploitation potential, even if the connection is chaste and not sexual, and plays in the direction of good taste, washing Circle of Two in glutinous photography, lush music and dialogue that aims to demystify the artistic process but instead provides comic delight in it’s literary floweriness; the monumentally awful ‘Ach, said Bach’ recurring line of dialogue will haunt impressionable audiences forever.
Striking as the appearance of Boris Karloff in the original 1931 Frankenstein film is, the film itself is pretty hard going; the camera barely moves, and early scenes are like a filmed play, stiff as a board. Allowed to revisit his creation in 1935, James Whale’s sequel is a much jollier affair, with Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) goaded by rival Dr Pretorius (a rampant Ernest Thesiger) to create a mate in the iconic form of Elsa Lanchester. Whale plays things for dry but genuine laughs, and there’s fascinating special effects when Dr Pretorius unveils the tiny bottled creatures he’s been nurturing. A sequel that’s not cut from the same cloth as the original, The Bride of Frankenstein is probably an improvement.
The last of the Amicus portmanteau films is a genuine curiosity, mixing pop music performances with stories by R Chetwynd-Hayes. The wraparound story sees Hayes (John Carradine) vampirised by Eramus (Vincent Price) and introduced to a nightclub that’s akin to the Star Wars cantina. A horror film seemingly aimed at kids, it includes such child friendly items as songs from Scottish Springsteen BA Robertson and UB 40, a lengthy striptease section and three full-blooded horror stories; one examines a mysterious creature called The Shadmock who offers a job to Angela (Barbara Kellerman), a family vampire story in which Richard Johnson is tracked down by Donald Pleasance, vampire hunter, and a creepy finale in which a horror director (a haggard Stuart Whitman, presumably another children’s favourite) is trapped in a village inhabited by Humghouls. As the synopsis suggests, this is a very eccentric film, peppered with familiar faces (Simon Ward, Britt Ekland, Patrick Magee) and marking something of a sea change in the history of horror; by the 80’s, horror was less about old-stagers than doing it for the kids. And even if Price’s speech about the dangers of nuclear power seems a little apropos of nothing, Stevie Lange’s song The Stripper is a belter.