What was in the water in 1981?
Recently I was doing some research on a project with genre roots, requiring me to look into all manner of horror, fantasy and sci-fi movies and I saw a curious pattern emerge. Although I was pulling from anything, anywhere that made sense in film history, movies from 1981 kept popping up all over the place. Now I’ve often cited 1994 as a great movie year (“Pulp Fiction,” “Natural Born Killers,” “Ed Wood,” “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Crow,” and “Quiz Show” all came out that year), but looking at this list, 1981 might take the medal for my favorite movie year, and it’s because of the deluge of game-changing genre films that audiences got to see.
At the time, I was a young boy and with a few exceptions (“Time Bandits,” “Dragonslayer, “Excalibur”) I had to wait for HBO or home video to see most of these. I would argue that the existence of home video, in fact, made most of these movies the classics that they are today.
Recently an industry stalwart told me that “genre is hot,” meaning “get off your ass and sell some horror movies or something.” It’s encouraging to hear, but even more encouraging to see that there was a time when genre wasn’t just hot, it was boiling over and setting culture’s agenda for decades to come. Here are the ones that meant the most to me:
Yes, yes. I’m opening this list with a sequel (the only one on the list, I assure you). I’m a fan of George Miller‘s 1979 low-budget indie “Mad Max,” just like any red-blooded genre geek but truly “The Road Warrior” influenced an entire generation of filmmakers and film viewers, all while getting us used to hearing what Australians sound like (“Mad Max” was notoriously dubbed before arriving in America to shield our ears from the funny talk).
Simply put, “The Road Warrior” is the single-most-imitated action movie made in the last 30 years. That plus Miller’s ability to hard-wire the worldwide energy crisis into the DNA of a car chase movie gave the film political resonance without feeling preachy. It just tapped our fears, slammed them on a custom-mod car, and ran them into a wall at 80mph (or kilometers, if you will, Mr. Miller).
David Cronenberg has always been the primo purveyor of body-horror this side of Japan, replete with the most cringe-worthy (in a good way) themes that can be committed to celluloid. Today, he has morphed into another David Cronenberg and this one is an introspective, thoughtful, and subtle director whose work (“A History of Violence,” “Eastern Promises“) feels more like great literature than his splat-tastic voyages from yesteryear. I love both David Cronenbergs’ work, and yet I cannot help but remember my personal introduction to his unique oeuvre. I’m talking about an exploding head. And not exploding because Rambo shot a combustible crossbow into it, exploding because Michael Ironside willed it. Bravo, Mr. Ironside, and with the exception of the miscasting of the wooden, appropriately named Stephen Lack in the lead role, this movie holds up to this day.
I know what you’re thinking because I thought the same thing – “The Road Warrior” AND “Escape from New York” were the same year?! Pretty amazing, although they both came from a rich tradition of post-apocyliptic movies like “A Boy and His Dog” (1975) and “The Warriors” (1979). Kurt Russel’s one-eyed, limping, and brilliantly antiheroic Snake Plisskin is the model badass whose personal dourness underscores society’s cynicism at the time, and fits in perfectly in a decimated Manhattan which was only a little more filthy than the real NYC of the early 1980’s.
John Carpenter directed this movie in his prime – after “Halloween,” but before “The Thing” and way before the slump he hit in the 1990’s, one we all hope he puts behind him with his new movie “The Ward.”
No good conversation about the almost-never-right horror/comedy genre is complete without discussing this John Landis classic – and while we’re on the subject, an almost equal amount of deference must be paid as well to special effects makeup wizard Rick Baker who masterminded the most famous werewolf transformation in film history.
But the most noteworthy aspects of this classic are both its script by Landis himself and its cast – David Naughton (previously only known for singing the “Dr. Pepper” song), Griffin Dunne, and Jenny Agutter – all of whom perform the dark tragicomedy without so much as a wink to the audience, yet fill their characters with very real gallows humor. Less than a decade later came the advent of CGI and one of the casualties was the werewolf movie. And this is one of the best.
But wait… There was another landmark werewolf movie in 1981? Yes, yes there was. Roger Corman alumni John Sayles (writer) and Joe Dante (director), along with genre megastar Dee Wallace and SFX makeup genius Rob Bottin made an utterly different take on the lycanthrope. Whereas “An American Werewolf in London” is about becoming something horrible that cannot be controlled, “The Howling” is about accepting our bestial nature and all the pain and pleasure that comes with it (or rejecting it). Bottin’s transformation is, pound for pound, every bit as riveting and repulsive as Baker’s London jaunt, and even though this sequel-machine goes for more of a comic-book version of reality, it doesn’t do so at the expense of solid performances all the way around.
Sam Raimi directed his first feature at the age of nineteen for a reported budget of $375,000 (I’d previously heard $65,000 but we all know Wikipedia is never wrong), and immediately placed himself, producer Robert Tapert, and star Bruce Campbell in the center of the horror world in what many consider to be a golden age of a kind of monster-horror. Shooting on 16mm film with innovative camera techniques and an education culled from The Three Stooges, Raimi created a moving comic book like no other and invented the Deadites, a creepy Lovecraftian race of demons with the ability to possess Bruce Campbell and make him do terrible things to himself. The 1987 sequel “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn” is, in my opinion, is a better-realized and more anarchic and fun viewing experience but Raimi set a high bar for himself here, and at a very low budget.
1981 came 1 year late for the generation-redefining “The Empire Strikes Back,” but right on time for George Lucas‘ only other good idea (he’s been running dry for a while now), executed by a devil-may-care Steven Spielberg who reinvented the serialized hero and (on a different level than George Miller) the action movie in general. The movie continued the Spielberg/Lucas tradition of inventing, then reinventing the blockbuster movie and at least in 1981 this had to do with creating a great script with great characters and eyepopping spectacle courtesy of Lucas’ own Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). It’s a true testament to this film how much of it now feels like a cliché, but that’s only because the action scenes and landscape of this film are so enduring.
Lucio Fulci is a tough director to pin down as he made 56 features in every conceivable genre, but he’s best known for his work in the Italian-specific horror subgenre known as “Giallo” (which basically means “pulp”). Within that genre he made several landmark films including 1979’s “Zombie” which featured an underwater zombie fighting a real shark. It’s the most insane thing ever put on film.
As for “The Beyond,” like a lot of lower-budget horror films, it’s often the ideas that are more horrifying than the execution of those ideas. And that’s something that Italian filmmakers at the time seemed to have fully mastered. Like a truly disturbing dream, when you recount, for instance, a scene in which spiders eat a paralyzed man’s face… Well that description stays with you. The execution can’t really live up to it, but it’s still a pretty cringe-inducing scene.
Terry Gilliam‘s first non-Monty Python solo outing (yes, I’m calling “Jabberwocky” a Python film even though it is not) did for the fantasy genre what “The Road Warrior” did for action. It thoroughly modernized it, anarchized it, infused it with a sense of post-punk up-yours, and used modern movie technology to do things that no other filmmaker had ever tried. Although Gilliam is still a beloved filmmaker to this day, he has yet to top the staying power of his first two films – this brilliant flight of fancy and “Brazil,” his dark love letter to George Orwell.
“Time Bandits” had it all – little people, giants, God, Satan, Katherine Helmond, Robin Hood, a minotaur, and some dizzying Gilliameque visuals before we had great adjectives to describe them like “Gilliamesque.”
As a kid, I remembered this movie as the one where the crow eats the corpse’s eyeball and that was really it. True story.
There has never before been, nor do I expect there ever to be, a better and more thorough retelling of the Arthurian legend than John Boorman‘s epic and gory sword-and-sorcery fest. This movie discovered Gabriel Bryne and uncovered dame Hellen Mirren (at her creepy best). It’s epic, mythic, creepy, and for a story telling the original “knight in shining armor” myth, it’s surprisingly dark. Nigel Terry‘s King Arthur feels jealousy, anger, and real fear. I can put up with the 80’s-looking cinematography, so long as Robert Addie‘s Mordrid is that creepy.
At once having so much in common and so much not in common with “Excalibur,” Matthew Robbins crafted the ultimate serf story in “Dragonslayer” – a film about how miserable and filthy the middle ages were and how one young man (an amazing Peter MacNicol) chose to rise above his station in life and protect his community from a “Lottery” like system in which a young woman was fed to the local dragon every so often. The film works at once as a brilliantly naturalistic work of fantasy, a character study, and one of the best spectacle films of its time. A technique called “go-motion” was first used in this film and though it’s basically a better-mousetrap version of stop-motion, I’ll put the critters in this film up against the best CGI dragons ever created.
This film was sadly unappreciated in its time and hasn’t weathered the storm as well as it deserves, but at least Mathew Robbins seems to be keeping busy with Guillermo Del Toro, so that can’t be bad.
Yes, there were even MORE genre films worth watching in 1981 if you can believe it.
I’ve never been a giant fan of the “slasher” genre, that being the genre (or “formula,” even) of “let’s introduce five attractive young people and then have a creep with a sharp/blunt object off one of them every ten minutes.” That being said, Tobe Hooper‘s post-“Salem’s Lot,” pre-“Poltergeist” slasher film has some evocative carnival imagery and some decent suspense, but it doesn’t date as well as much of his other work. Definitely worth seeing, but modern eyes add a layer of jaundice to films like this – ones that were more a product of their time.
Long before a team of plastic surgeons had their way with her face, an otherworldly force had its way with Barbara Hershey. As a kid watching every horror film ever made on cable and home video, this one possibly traumatized me the most – and for obvious reasons (I’d never seen a naked woman have that happen to her). There are visuals in this film which nobody on earth would have the balls to even try to do today. I mean, not “zombie vs. shark” ballsy, but when you try, with 1980’s (or let’s be honest, 1970’s) technology to show an actual incubus raping a woman… There are some difficult challenges to get around. ‘Nuff said.
If you’re like me, you may have been asking all along, “where was zombie auteur George A. Romero in 1981?” Well, he was making… Let’s call it his own version of “Excalibur.” This movie about motorcycle performers who model themselves after the knights of the round table is entertainingly weird and certainly one-of-a-kind. And it features a young, strapping Ed Harris who still sported much of his own hair, but something doesn’t quite work. Let’s call it a “noble misfire” and move on. At this stage of his career, Romero was getting it more right than wrong, and this film is worth seeing just to fully appreciate the filmmaker but it’s not exactly a “classic,” per se.
Pennies from Heaven
Yes, a musical. Deal with it. Herbert Ross‘ dark, dreary, weirdly funny musical “Pennies from Heaven” is often considered a misstep for both its director and its burgeoning star, a young Steve Martin. And even if it was a flop, it was but a bump in the road for both of them. So why include it here? Well, it’s a musical and yet it goes against every convention of the screen musical, right down to an implied rape scene. Like every movie on this list, it played with its genre in a masterful and confusing way, allowing itself to go to dark and naturalistic places most mainstream movies wouldn’t go. And if it didn’t reinvent the musical for audiences per se, it certainly influenced other musicals down the road to try something a little out of the box. I’m talking about you, “Moulin Rouge.”
Previous to this film, Wes Craven had made “The Last House on the Left” and “The Hills Have Eyes,” both of which are considered classics to this day but this film is not. I think in the often-uneven Craven canon, it gets lumped in with movies like “Deadly Friend” and “Shocker,” films where Craven may have been overreaching for commerciality before he hit the perfect formula with his “Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Scream” franchises. Still, I’d say that this Sharon Stone-featuring, Amish-country set horror flick is underrated, even if it fails to hold up perfectly today.
By the way, is it me or do many of these movie posters feel like remnants of a lost art that nobody does anymore? It’s weird that with all of the design technology and photoshop that we have these days, most movie posters are just a closeup of a movie star’s face with little design beyond that.
Note: in 1981, Dario Argento was smack in between “Inferno” and “Tenembre.” So he was probably shooting “Tenembre” in 1981, but no completist of this period of genre filmmaking could leave Dario out.
Also it should be noted that the actual movie called “My Favorite Year” came out in 1982. Almost a perfect play on words, missed it by that much.
Lastly, I know it doesn’t literally apply here because it’s from 1977, but you should watch Fulci’s “Zombie vs. Shark” sequence from “Zombie” anyway. It’s effing crazy.