The 1980s were not a particularly good decade for Hollywood films. It wasn’t the worst decade, (that title probably belongs to the 1950s) but coming off the highs of the 1970s, often referred to as the New Hollywood era, the decade of Reagan and Rambo comes across looking like an underachieving sibling. There are various reasons for this, primarily economic.
The cinematic boom of the 1970s that enabled filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and William Friedkin to make pictures such as The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and The French Connection was birthed by a near collapse of the studio system in the mid-1960s. Between the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 1980s, many of Hollywood’s major studios were taken over by corporations but the executives responsible for them had not yet settled on a vision for how the studios should be run. They turned to young filmmakers, many fresh out of film school, and enabled them to produce movies that spoke to an audience that had endured the cultural shifts of those challenging times. Although the perception of 1970s filmmakers enjoying total creative freedom is somewhat exaggerated, they were able to produce a body of work that was unprecedented and remains a high watermark of American film.
Just as financial circumstances opened new doors for filmmakers, financial priorities also shut them. In the late 1970s the blockbuster success of Jaws and Star Wars signaled to studios what kinds of profits could be generated by films based on fantasy and spectacle. At the same time several high profile passion projects, such as Heaven’s Gate, failed very loudly at the box office, leading studio executives to assert more control over production and a new studio system was born. Where the previous Hollywood studio system had been guided by figures like Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck, moguls who had actual filmmaking experience, the new studio system of the 1980s and beyond was guided by figures like Barry Diller and Rupert Murdoch, who had achieved tremendous business success but who had little or no interest in filmmaking. As a result the studios abandoned the smaller, more personal projects that 1970s filmmakers had generated and put an emphasis on creating blockbuster box office successes. This resulted in trends like serialization of popular films and an emphasis on generating revenue through ancillary markets with tie-in products and other promotions. This led to an overall downturn in the quality of Hollywood’s product throughout the 1980s. Although directors like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese, and Barry Levinson continued to produce impressive films, many of Hollywood’s prestige pictures from the 1980s paled in comparison to the films generated in the previous decade. Commercial and critical hits like Gandhi and Out of Africa have not aged well and they lack the boldness of movies like Network or Apocalypse Now.
Yet, artistry was not lost. The emphasis on fantasy and spectacle occurred simultaneously with a renaissance in special effects and the 1980s were distinguished by an excellent crop of fantasy and science fiction films. This trend was led by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas who directed and produced a string of hits that included the second and third Star Wars films, the first three Indiana Jones pictures, the Back to the Future trilogy, Gremlins, and Willow. Other filmmakers emerged and built on the foundation that Spielberg and Lucas had established but they also drew from the cultural and filmmaking advances that had been made in the 1970s that allowed for greater latitude in on-screen sexuality and violence. As a result, horror, science fiction, and fantasy filmmakers of the 1980s were able to take genres that had often been regarded as silly or juvenile and created complex and mature stories that made them the true heirs of New Hollywood. These filmmakers included James Cameron with The Terminator, Aliens, and The Abyss, John Carpenter with Escape from New York and They Live, and David Cronenberg with Videodrome, Scanners, and The Fly. Other notable science fiction, horror, and fantasy pictures were produced throughout the decade including the Nightmare on Elm Street series, Brazil, Dune, Legend, Robocop, Batman, Predator, and the bulk of the original Star Trek series. These films were among the most popular pictures of the 1980s and many of them are now regarded as classics.
Although notable science fiction and fantasy films were produced throughout the 1980s, the year 1982 holds special significance as a number of extraordinary science fiction, horror, and fantasy films were released in this twelve month period, several of which became standard bearers for their genres. On today’s episode of Sounds of Cinema I examined several of those genre films from 1982, evaluating their merits, examining what made them so special, and exploring how they’ve influenced later movies. Here is another look at those films plus a few others that didn’t make it into the episode.
Blade Runner was not a blockbuster hit at the time of its original release and it is one of the films that really benefited from post-theatrical revision. It has since proven to be one of the most influential science fiction pictures of all time and its inspiration can be seen in movies like 1984, The Matrix, The Fifth Element, and Inception and the television series Battlestar Galactica. This is a dense film but it is also a smart one.
Paul Schrader remade the 1942 classic as an erotic story of horrific self-discovery. Although it makes some leaps in the storytelling it is a unique film and a good example of how 1980s filmmakers benefited from the latitude of the 1970s.
Conan the Barbarian
Conan the Barbarian inspired a lot of forgettable fantasy films that followed such as Barbarian Queen and Red Sonja but echoes of Conan are observable in more recent films like The Scorpion King, the 2010 remake of Clash of the Titans and even The Lord of the Rings. It remains an amusing fantasy film even if it is something of a guilty pleasure.
Directed by George A. Romero and written by Stephen King, this anthology of horror stories acknowledged the history of horror comics while paving the way for the TV shows Tales from the Crypt and American Horror Story as well as the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez double feature Grindhouse.
The Dark Crystal
The Dark Crystal was an attempt by Jim Henson and Frank Oz to move puppetry beyond The Muppets. This never led anywhere but this film remains a cult classic.
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial is one of the most essential films of Steven Spielberg’s filmography and its influence can be observed in films that followed shortly thereafter like Starman and Cocoon but also in later films such as WALL-E, The Iron Giant, and Spielberg’s 2001 film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. But beyond its cinematic influence, E.T. remains a draw because its optimism and love will reduce even the most stoic viewer to mush.
Friday the 13th Part III
There isn’t much to the third installment of Friday the 13th that distinguishes it from earlier or later films in the series, although this film does introduce the hockey mask and it was originally shown in 3-D.
A lot of Halloween fans were angry and confused by this film because it does not include Michael Myers. Instead, the filmmakers attempted to shift the series in a new direction, turning it into a Twilight Zone –like story. More recently this movie has gained a cult following and it is worth a look.
The New York Ripper
Directed by Lucio Fulci, The New York Ripper is one of the more difficult slasher films to sit through, partly because of its violence but mostly because it isn’t very good. However, The New York Ripper gained cult status when it was added to the UK “Video Nasties” list and was banned in the country. The following video is NSFW.
Another slasher film that isn’t very good except for its kitch value, Pieces was identified by Hostel director Eli Roth as one of his favorite films.
Poltergeist remains an excellent film that will scare its audience. It is also quietly subversive, suggesting that affluent suburban society is built on the dead. Its influence can be observed in the many recent haunted house pictures like Drag Me to Hell and Paranormal Activity.
The Secret of NIMH
The Secret of NIMH was the first directorial feature for Don Bluth, who went on to make The Land Before Time, An American Tail, and All Dogs Go to Heaven. The Secret of NIMH is a darker movie than a lot Disney’s animated features and it is an ambitious if incomplete story.
Slumber Party Massacre
One of the more interesting entries in the slasher genre, Slumber Party Massacre simultaneously ridiculed and satisfied the clichés of these films more than a decade before Scream. Fans of 1980s horror should definitely seek it out.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The Wrath of Khan is the best of the Star Trek films and it remains one of the highpoints of American science fiction and fantasy filmmaking. Its influence can be seen in television shows like Firefly and films like X2 and the 2009 reboot of Star Trek.
Although contemporary cinema has been taken over by CGI, The Thing remains a strong case for practical effects and it ranks with Alien and Jaws among the great monster movies. But this is more than just an alien attack movie. This is a story about paranoia and how people react in a crisis and because of that subtext the film is far more frightening.
TRON is flawed but it is technically important as it was among the first films to meld computer graphics with live action and it opened doors for a lot of films that would come later such as The Last Starfighter, The Lawnmower Man, and The Matrix. The way TRON tapped into the intersection of computer technology and the human experience makes it amusingly prescient.
Pink Floyd’s The Wall was released just a few years after the premiere of MTV. In the years since the relevance of the music video has waxed and waned and waxed again but despite the latest trend of musicals and pop music documentaries we’ve never seen a project quite like The Wall since, which is a shame.