A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

One of those films that just got past me, I’d never seen A Nightmare on Elm Street until picking up the original VHS online recently.  I went with the VHS as this original pre-cert version is apparently the only uncut UK release.  I had seen the second sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (which I remember liking) on its original cinema release but that remained my only exposure to the series.  Nowadays of course the first film is considered a horror classic, Freddie Krueger is an icon (though he’s just “Fred” Krueger in the titles here) and writer/director Wes Craven is considered one of the masters of the genre.  Let’s say I had high expectations.

Sadly, if this ever really did seem like a great movie, the years haven’t been kind.  That’s not to say it doesn’t have its moments and in places it shows signs of real horror movie class but even at its strongest it goes back and forth between creepy and inept.  The concept is a great one, a variation on the usual “teens in danger” slasher flick.  A group of kids from the same neighbourhood start having nightmares in which they’re being stalked by the same monster, a freakshow-faced hat-wearing razor-clawed psychopath.  Turns out their dreams are haunted by the demonic ghost of a dead serial killer.  That villain too – the aforementioned Freddie Krueger , as played by Robert Englund – is an undeniably great movie monster but here just too often comes across as a bloke in a lame Halloween costume.

Talking of Halloween, there’s obviously a John Carpenter influence here, which can only be a good thing.  It’s most apparent in Charles Bernstein’s synth soundtrack, which although not in Carpenter’s league at least helps establish an atmosphere (end title song Nightmare by 213, however, sounds like a bad demo that can only have been included by accident).

The biggest downside is the acting which, including that of a young Johnny Depp, is ropey throughout despite the best efforts of Englund and Hollywood stalwart John Saxon.  The writing doesn’t help, with Craven’s awful dialogue leading to some truly cringe-worthy mother/daughter interactions.  There’s also an odd moment with a talking digital watch which is worth looking out for (as if Craven had thought “There’s bound to be talking watches by the time this is released.  I mean, come on, they’ve got calculators on them now.  Calculators!“).

Of course, the film looks good and there are great scenes.  In particular the two iconic bedroom “kills” – one Exorcist-like sequence has a character being thrown about the ceiling, another ends with a bed erupting in a fountain of blood.  By the final act though, it’s all definitely falling apart.  A montage which is supposed to take place over just twenty minutes sees the heroine expertly carrying out about a day’s worth of DIY (part of a sequence which has gained in unintentional humour by having become the apparent inspiration for much of Home Alone) and the actual denouement is just silly.

As a piece of pop culture history, A Nightmare on Elm Street is definitely worth checking out.  You might, like me, want to see what all the fuss was about – just go in with your expectations suitably tempered.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street: original pre-cert ex-rental VHS, picked up online for £8.00 in decent playable condition.

 

The Ultimate Warrior (1975)

There was none of your internet when I was a wean, none of your streaming, your satellite or cable TV, or indeed your video tape cassettes.  The telly was three channels, eventually four; great late-night movie programming, for sure, but that was your lot.  Much of my enthusiasm for films, particularly sci-fi and the likes, was stoked by reading about them.  I’d pore over the features in my dad’s back issues of Photoplay (the Empire of the ’70s) while all but memorising the likes of Denis Gifford’s Monsters of the Movies and especially Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now.

Sci-Fi Now was published on the back of the upsurge in popularity of “fantastic” genre films in the wake of the then recent successes of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  A slim volume – basically an extended essay on science fiction movies and their history – it served as my introduction to The Final Programme, Fantastic Planet, The Cars That Ate Paris, Death Race 2000, A Clockwork Orange … the list goes on.  There were loads of pictures too, most of them on the enticing side of weird.  I was fascinated by these movies, most of which I wouldn’t see for years.  Which brings me to The Ultimate Warrior – Frank is enthusiastic about Robert Clouse’s post-apocalyptic thriller (“an excellent and atmospheric movie”) while noting that the film’s violence was “pervasive and not for the squeamish”.

So, recently I sat down to watch The Ultimate Warrior for the first time.  Over the thirty-plus years since I first read it I’ve seen many if not all of the films from Frank’s book which had sparked my interest, most of them years ago and some of them now firm favourites.  It seemed unlikely that The Ultimate Warrior could live up to that kind of expectation.  As it turns out, while I won’t say it sits beside the very best in the genre, it’s a good film.

New York city of the near future (well, 2012) has been overrun with gangs and general lawlessness in the years following a worldwide ecological disaster which has rendered all food crops non-viable.  One city block is controlled by Baron (Max Von Sydow) who heads a peaceful community numbering among its members his pregnant daughter (Joanna Miles) and her husband, a botanist who has developed fertile plant seeds.  Also in the ranks is a young Stephen McHattie.  The rest of the neighbourhood is controlled by William Smith, whose villainous character is saddled with the name Carrot.  Yul Brynner stars as Carson, a sort of wandering mercenary who throws in his lot with Von Sydow’s group as their head of security.  He is tasked by Baron to take his daughter and son-in-law – and more importantly the crop seeds – to an island safe haven.  Cue plenty of fighting and a lengthy game of cat and mouse through the disused subway system as Carrot gives chase.

Firmly in the “deserted city streets” school of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, the film looks good and is competently directed by Enter the Dragon helmer Clouse.  Yul Brynner is good if oddly cast in a very physical role.  The jazzy score struggles to settle – slightly mismatched to the visuals in places, in others, such as a street chase scene, lending greatly to the atmosphere.  The film’s inconsistencies come close to derailing it – protagonists Brynner and Von Sydow – with their respective Russian and Swedish accents – are supposedly from the USA, the biological pandemic which has brought civilisation to its knees seems also to have somehow rendered guns and motorised transport unusable and the strange introduction to Brynner’s character – he stands motionless in the street for days until someone hires him – goes unexplained.  It seems to be setting up some kind of mystical martial arts hero as per the film’s title but once he’s on board with the Baron’s people, Carson is a perfectly normal guy – just one who’s particularly useful with a knife.  Surprisingly, the film isn’t nearly as violent as Alan Frank’s observations in Sci-Fi Now might have us believe.  While there is some grisly imagery, much of the actual cut and thrust, as it were, occurs off-camera.

There is a hint of optimism in there but with its bookending montages of stationary-shot landscapes and its largely grim view of human nature, The Ultimate Warrior is a downbeat, slightly melancholy film.  That atmosphere lends it weight beyond its limitations.

Tapes for my VCR: The Ultimate Warrior

Original UK Warner’s big box pre-cert release. Online purchase for £11.00

Alan Frank's Sci-Fi Now

Alan Frank’s Sci-Fi Now. Not sure if this is my original copy – it rings a very vague bell that I had to pick up a replacement in the dim and distant past.

Love You Till Tuesday (1969)

It’s been a cruel few weeks for music fans.  David Bowie’s death was, for me, robbed of some of its impact coming so soon on the heels of Lemmy’s.  Although I was a fan of Bowie’s work, it was more from a position of admiration than any real kind of emotional connection or visceral appeal (unlike Motörhead).  Nonetheless, he made at least two of my favourite albums (Scary Monsters and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, if you must know) as well as co-producing one of my absolute all timers, Lou Reed’s Transformer.  And the iconography is undeniable – he was David fucking Bowie.

I wasn’t sure what I could write about him or which release to look at but I’d recently picked up a copy of this late ’60’s curio.  It’s something of an oddity which is fitting, more so when considering the sheer variety which characterised his career.

Love You Till Tuesday was conceived as a promotional film by Bowie’s management in 1969 after his first label dropped him.  It seems likely that it was meant for some kind of cinema distribution, probably as a supporting short (that used to be a thing).  In the end it never surfaced, at least not until this 1984 video release.

Nine songs feature in the 28 minute running time, some drawn from Bowie’s Deram debut album plus new recordings Ching-A-Ling, When I’m Five, The Mask and Space Oddity.  Directed by Malcolm J. Thomson (his only directing credit).  The music is typical childhood-and-love obsessed English psychedelic pop of the day, with a more polished Syd Barrett flavour.

Visually, this is mostly Bowie plus an occasional minimal cast miming in a parade of ’60s’ fashions, often against a stark white background.  That’s “mime” in the sense of “lip synch” but also, at one point, in the full-on Marcel Marceau way of things which makes for an … uhm … fascinating (?) watch on the spoken word piece The Mask.

When I’m Five sees Bowie acting in the slightly cringeworthy manner of an infant to a cloying lyric while Let Me Sleep Beside You is a great pop rock number with a straight forward performance clip complete with prop guitar.  Ching-a-Ling features Bowie in backing vocal/rhythm guitar mode and is a pleasant enough piece of psych/folk-pop kitsch, a showcase for Hermione and Hutch (Bowie’s then girlfriend and music partner respectively, presumably under the same management).

The original version of Space Oddity jars a little due to familiarity with the classic version.  The music production is rougher and rootsier, there’s a flute solo, and the visuals are almost cynically “groovy” with sexy spacebirds and that.  Still it’s interesting and is the highlight here, worth checking out by dint of originality if nothing else.

Although of interest largely as a curiosity, Love You Till Tuesday does point towards Bowie’s future groundbreaking tendencies.  I’m not aware of another project quite like this one from the period, and the “video album” – which is essentially what this is – was still more than a decade away.

Tapes For My VCR - David Bowie Love You Till Tuesday

Original 1984 Spectrum sell-through release, about £4 online.

Vamp (1986)

College fraternity pledges Keith (Chris Makepeace) and AJ (Robert Rusler) go on a road trip to book a stripper for their frat house.  Together with “friend for a week” Duncan (Gedde Watanabe out of Gung Ho) they have a run in with Billy Drago in a white fright wig before happening on a dodgy looking strip club with cockroaches for bar snacks, a creepy manager, a psycho bouncer and a cute waitress/stripper (Dedee Pfieffer).  Oh, and loads of vampires, led by Grace Jones’ Katrina.

Richard Wenk’s Vamp is a minor horror-comedy cult classic which I’d somehow managed to miss over the years.  It’s good cheesy fun – funny in places, creepy in others, its neon lit nighttime street settings combining with the synth heavy soundtrack for a gothic, even goth, atmosphere.  There’s a great, bird-flipping death scene in there and one of the best creepy child-vampires you’re likely to see. The cast is good with Dedee Pfieffer particularly engaging while Grace Jones’ vampire turn is a memorable one, her Katrina pitched somewhere between Nosferatau and Metropolis.

What’s most remarkable about the film though is its very clear influence on later movies.  Drago’s street gang is an obvious template for Keifer Sutherland’s vampire gang in The Lost Boys and as a monster-movie riff on the teen college comedies of the day, it’s no great stretch to say Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes Vamp a debt.  As to a strip club run by vampires?  From Dusk Till Dawn, surely – right down to meeting the queen vamp during a dance sequence (we first encounter Katrina using her powers to mesmerise the audience during a mental ’80s performance art piece).  More surprisingly perhaps, I think it’s fair to say that Watanabe’s Duncan is surely a loose template for both Zach Galifianakis’ and Ken Jeong’s characters from the Hangover movies.

Vamp finds itself at the better end of the horror comedy scene of the ’80s and ’90s.  It does however leave certain questions unanswered – why would a group of vampires keep open oil drums and naked flames next to their coffins?  And, just how difficult was it to hire a stripper in 1986?

Vamp

Original UK big box ex-rental, £10 online.

Stone Cold (1991)

In the most ’80s movie ever to come out of the ’90s, massively mulleted undercover cop Joe Huff infiltrates a biker gang while wearing as few shirts as possible. He has a huge leather goth coat, which is odd, he favours some frankly disturbing thong underwear, which is strange, and has a pet lizard called Fido, which is unusual.  Every ’80s/’90s action movie cliche puts in an appearance here, including a bare knuckle pit fight, covert meetings in pole dancing clubs, the hanging-on-to-the-bonnet-of-a-moving-car bit, everybody shooting everyone else and blowing shit up.  Shit really does blow up a lot in Stone Cold – in fact it must surely be one of the last great “vehicles bursting into flames for no apparent reason” flicks – a lost art today.

This was one of several “star-making” action movies released by the major studios in the early ’90s, presumably off the back of the similar launch of Steven Seagal’s film career after he was plucked from the relative obscurity of the fringes of Hollywood by Warner Brothers in 1988 . Seagal’s Nico [Above the Law], co-written by the star and virtually an expanded showreel right down to a semi-autobiographical intro, went on to be a minor hit in the US and led to a run of box office successes.  For a while after that, these tailor-made star turns must have seemed like no-brainers though they never panned out quite so successfully.  The likes of martial artist Jeff Speakman and jobbing actor/writer Thomas Ian Griffith had their own “Next Big Thing” projects (they’re on the Tapes for My VCR shelf – watch this space!) but first up was American Football player Brian ‘The Boz’ Bosworth. 

The Boz.  Glaswegian readers can stop sniggering in their own time.  No hurry.

Here, as Huff – undercover as John Stone – the fledgling star is pitted against a quality cast of bad’ns.  William Forsythe does that character he does (i.e., Richie in the same year’s Out for Justice) and a surprisingly ripped Lance Henriksen puts in a great scenery-chewing turn as biker gang leader Chains, at one point recalling his father’s dying words as “Don’t, son!  That gun’s loaded!”  Although not in retrospect destined to be the next great action star (it would be five years before he made another film), Bosworth himself is not too bad in a straight ahead action role, while, hot off the back of a couple of B-gems, Action Jackson and Dark Angel, director Craig R. Baxley puts his background in stuntwork to good use.

Stone Cold is full of would-be iconography, most notably a long steadicam shot after the film’s ‘copters-and-machine-guns climax, following Bosworth walking away from the obligatory mayhem, bloody and of course shirtless, as the credits roll.  Oh, sorry, spoiler alert: he doesn’t die.  Earlier scenes borrow liberally from the biggest action stars of the day, the opening set piece in a supermarket lifting simultaneously from Stallone’s Cobra and Seagal’s Hard To Kill, the pit fight lifting from Van Damme’s AWOL and Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian.  Even the box art is a Terminator knock off.  The plot lacks logic and, as mentioned, is cliche-ridden.  However there is a knowing quality here which, while hardly postmodern deconstruction, is enough to keep you onboard through a breathless pantomime of brawling, motorbike chases and lots of explosions.

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

UK big box ex-rental in good order from Amazon for about £8. This is the “generic cop thriller” side of the reversable box art (boo!).

Tapes For My VCR Stone Cold 1

Other side of the reversable box art: it’s a Terminator movie (yay!).

Night of the Comet (1984)

For this post, I had been going to put together a proper “Halloween special” with a double-bill of appropriate titles I’d missed on their first go-round.  Unfortunately, the other film, 1988’s Leviathan, turned out to suck really quite a lot, so I’ll give writing about it a miss. Ah well. Happy Halloween anyway …

Deep in the heart of the 1980s, cinema employee Reggie, out of The Last Starfighter, and her younger sister Sam, out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High, unknowingly survive a Doomsday event only to find themselves in a largely deserted city, what with much of the population having turned to dust.  During trips to the mall, the local radio station and so on, they encounter zombies, psychotic stockroom workers, shady scientists, that guy out of Star Trek Voyager and Juliette Lewis’ dad.

Written and directed by Thom Eberhardt, Night of the Comet certainly serves as an ’80s time capsule – but it’s also a very cool little movie in its own right.  The properly ’80s cast of Catherine Mary Stewart (as well as … Starfighter she was in Weekend at Bernie’s), Kelli Maroney (not only Fast Times … but also Chopping Mall) and Robert Beltran (okay, Voyager was mid-’90s but he was in Lone Wolf McQuade) is engaging and the film is visually arresting.  The post apocalyptic vibe is driven home with lense filters, the sky having turned red in the aftermath of a comet’s passing, while the effective use of empty streets recalls The Omega Man and dozens of zombie flicks to follow.  There’s some social satire in there and a few proper horror moments with everything working on a “cheesy ’80s schlock” level – the mainstream pop soundtrack certainly helps – and as a Joe Dantesque send up of ’50s and ’60s B-movies.  The villainy is top notch with the stockboys from the mall all tooled up and nihilistic-like (“I’m not crazy – I just don’t give a fuck!”) and Geoffrey Lewis providing a scenery chewing turn as the sinister head of a lab where survivors are kept as sources of clean blood.  For, you know, evil research.

I’m glad to have found this one.  I was only vaguely aware of it prior to this viewing – I had, presumably, seen the box in video stores back in the day but had never read up on it. Night of the Comet is well worth checking out – zombies,Doomsday/post apocalyptic sci-fi, ’80s teen comedy and smart pastiche – somehow it manages to convincingly tick all of those boxes.

Night of the Comet

Original pre-cert small box release, online purchase, about eight quid all-in.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Other side of the reversable box art.

Fatal Games (1984)

An insane javelin-thrower is picking off the elite of the promising young athletes at an elite school for young, promising athletes by, insanely, throwing javelins at them.  You know the drill: Look!  A psycho-killer!  Quick love, pop your top off!

In the hands of one-time-only director Michael Elliot, slasher movie Fatal Games is so ineptly executed you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a largely unfunny spoof of the genre.  The usual tropes are all in place but are somehow rendered even sillier than the norm.  For instance, there are lots of shower scenes to facilite copious scream queen nudity – genre legend Linnea Quigley is in there somewhere in an early role – but the equivalent scenes for the male characters (“scream kings”?) has them showering with their underpants on, begging the question: was this somehow easier than shooting from the waist up or do American males actually keep their pants on in shared showering situations?

Now, Tapes For My VCR is usually all about what I’ve been calling “celebratory criticism”.  The featured videos are certainly not all classics but I hope to find something there of value.  Also, I generally don’t do that “so bad it’s good” thing – that level of sneering is just not for me.  So then, why review Fatal Games?  It has virtually nothing to recommend it.  In fact, it’s an utter bag of complete arse.  Admittedly, much of the javelin-based carnage and the unmasking of the killer do hit some heights of mildly enjoyable absurdity – and at one point the gold standard is set for unintentionally funny fictional newpaper headlines – but it’s not enough to save it.

The one thing that really made this stand out as worth writing about is something unique to the tape format and therefore apropos for a VHS-centric blog.  With impeccable timing, during the “dramatic” unmasking of the killer, there is a sudden burst of vintage ’90s UK telly – I think it was Bugs starring Jesse Birdsall.  Just a few seconds’ worth before cutting back to what I’ll loosely term the “action”.  A quick check afterwards shows that, unusually, the cassette has an intact recording tab.  Oops.  Some weary soul presumably hit the record button by accident while resuming playback, armed with a fresh cup of tea and the resolve to watch the film to its bitter end as the rental was two quid.  I considered sending it back (it was a recent eBay purchase) but really, that telly clip was one of the highlights, so what the hell.

Nice to think that a dreadful film could be rendered marginally more entertaining today by a remote control fumble from thirty years ago.  Only on tape … you won’t get any of that with your BluStreamingDVDRays.

Fatal Games

Ex-rental, online purchase for about a fiver all-in.