1980s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie, Scifi

Aliens (1986)

Director / Screenwriter: James Cameron

By Roderick Heath

If Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) sounded in abstract like a movie unlikely to leave much of a mark on cinematic culture upon release, the sequel seemed if anything even more ill-starred. Alien had been a big hit, but attempts to make a sequel soon became bogged down in changing executive regimes at Twentieth Century Fox, lawsuits, and wrangling over returning star Sigourney Weaver’s salary. Despite having emerged as a potential major star thanks to Alien, Weaver had only had one major success since, with her strong if not essential supporting turn in Ghostbusters (1984). A potential answer to the question as to who would make the film, at least, provided when an employee at Brandywine Films, the production company of the first film’s producers and co-writers Walter Hill and David Giler, was on the lookout for interesting new scripts and found a pair by a young filmmaker named James Cameron. Cameron, a graduate of the film schools of Roger Corman and Italo-exploitation, had submitted a potential sequel for First Blood (1981) and his own original sci-fi work called The Terminator, and was busy trying to forget his first foray as director, Piranha II: The Spawning (1982). Hill and Giler, who had taken a chance with Scott and would continue later to hire interesting new talents for the series like David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Joss Whedon, fed Cameron a basic idea of thrusting the first film’s heroine Ripley into a situation with some soldiers. Cameron hit the ground running in developing the project, but was considered too green to take on directing duties until he made The Terminator on a low budget with maximum industry and potent results.

Cameron was officially hired to make the Alien sequel, given a large but, even by the standards of the time, hardly enormous budget of $16 million, with his then-girlfriend Gale Ann Hurd, who had produced The Terminator, taken on in the same capacity. Cameron’s osmotic knowledge of sci-fi, which caused problems for The Terminator, also drove his interest in portraying spacefaring soldiers in the mould of writers like Robert Heinlein and A.E. Van Vogt. The sequel was filmed at England’s Pinewood Studios, and the 31-year-old Cameron upon arrival found himself facing a lot of scepticism from the British crew, as The Terminator hadn’t yet opened in the UK. Cameron’s own relentless approach to filmmaking, soon to become notoriously onerous, also ruffled feathers, but the film came in, as studios like so much, on time and budget. Aliens was finally released seven years after the first film, an eternity by pop culture standards, particularly in the 1980s. Nonetheless the film proved an instant smash with audiences, and one that would soon enough prove perpetually influential, to the degree that it doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say that Hollywood’s been trying to make it again and again for the past 35 years and never quite succeeding. All anyone who was young and impressionable thought when they first saw it, most likely on video, was that it was awesome.

Arguing over whether Alien or Aliens is the better film is one of those topics movie lovers enjoy fighting over, but what’s certain is that Cameron managed the very rare trick of emulating a great model in a manner that both suited his own sensibility and logically expanded on the original. Indeed, the significant problem that beset subsequent entries in the series was in the inability of any single entry to pull the same trick. Cameron had the unenviable task of mediating Scott’s stylistic approach, which had invested the first film with much of its unique power, and find something new to offer the audience through bringing his own sensibility to bear. The simple addition of an S to the title was all the promissory needed, as simple a declaration as any possible: where before there had been one alien, and the situation matched it, now there would be many, and Cameron follows through on the expectation to expand upon the world and the nightmares Scott depicted. The opening seems to take up where the first film left off, with Ripley drifting through deep space in the Nostromo’s shuttle, the Narcissus, ageless in cryogenic sleep. The craft is intercepted by a much larger salvage vehicle, with a remote robotic unit cutting through the escape hatch and scanning the shuttle before salvagers enter and find Ripley and the Nostromo’s cat Jones still alive. This prologue is exacting in returning the viewer to the mood and method of Alien, not just in the careful recreation of the shuttle set and the hushed, eerily romantic strains of James Horner’s scoring mimicking Jerry Goldsmith’s work, but in the rueful and world-weary comment by one of the rescuers, “There goes our salvage, guys,” immediately recapitulating that this is a universe inhabited by working stiffs where the profit motive looms large and deep space is hardly an escape route from the mundane, where the possibility of rescuing someone is a secondary concern when rounding up a drifting spacecraft.

Cameron continues to follow Scott’s model at first, artfully building a mood of quiet dread where for a vast chunk of the film little seems to happen, although of course every moment of charged intensity without payoff eventually gains it counterweight in thriller action. Such an approach to storytelling in a blockbuster feels all but impossible today, but it’s part of Aliens’ greatness, testifying to a near-vanished moment when crowd-pleasing on the biggest level could also still involve patient, careful storytelling and directorial conditioning. In the theatrical cut of the film, a full hour passes before any actual alien is seen on screen; well over an hour in the “Special Edition” director’s cut assembled for laserdisc in 1990, which stands now as the essential version. Cameron does break from Scott and follows a lead more reminiscent of Brian De Palma in a fake-out dream sequence early on, in which what seems to be the authentic memory of being told by Burke (Paul Reiser), a representative of the company that owned the Nostromo, that she was rescued after 57 years in cryosleep, in the medical bay of a huge space station orbiting Earth: Ripley’s probably real panic attack becomes a nightmare in which she imagines herself impregnated with one of the alien beings which starts to hatch inside her as it did in her fellow crewmember Kane, until she abruptly awakens, panicked and sweating, in the real medical bay. This dream both illustrates the deeply traumatic impact of Ripley’s experiences and provokes the audience’s presumed memory of the first film’s most infamous scene.

As made particularly clear in the Special Edition, Cameron’s script works initially to undercut any hope Ripley’s homecoming will be as positive as the last frames of Alien suggested. She finds herself jobless, disgraced, doubted, and wracked by traumatic nightmares, without friends or family to recognise her upon return, a relic and an exile torn out of her moment. Even her daughter Amanda, who was a young girl when she left, has since grown old and died, a wizened face gazing out at her still-young mother from a pixelated image, time, fate, and identity all in flux. As Burke comes to give Ripley this news, Ripley seems to be sitting in a garden, delivered into nature to recuperate, only for her to pick up a remote control and switch off the large TV screen feeding the illusion. Cameron’s wry visual joke here about technology and falsified environments feels oddly connected with his own extended act of providing such illusion in the fantasy world of Avatar (2009). Soon Ripley is unable to keep her temper when thrust before a review committee who plainly don’t buy her story about the infiltrating alien and seem more concerned by the destruction of the Nostromo and its cargo, and to an extent one can see their point. Finally Ripley is found to have acted negligently, has her flight officer licence cancelled, and learns to boot from the committee chair Van Leuwen (Paul Maxwell) that the planet where the Nostromo’s crew found the alien spaceship and its deadly cargo, now known as LV-426, has now been colonised and is undergoing terraforming.

Aliens immediately recapitulates the cynicism of Alien towards the company, whose canonical name, Weyland-Yutani (suggesting in very 1980s fashion the future convergence of American and Japanese corporate interests into one all-powerful gestalt), was first revealed in the Special Edition, scapegoating Ripley and reducing her to a menial with a tenuous grip on existence. Burke introduces himself by assuring her that “I’m really an okay guy,” which is a pretty good sign he isn’t: although he does seem at first like a solid advocate for Ripley, he nonetheless uses a practiced line of clichés in the course of trying to manipulate her into helping him when it appears she was right all along. Cameron allows images of the cast of the previous film to appear on the computer feed scrolling behind Ripley during the meeting, a salutary touch. But another of Aliens’ qualities is that it’s well-told enough to be a completely stand-alone entity, as the film carefully lays out Ripley’s survivor guilt and contends with the consequences of a situation in a manner most similar types of movie gloss over whilst also offering enough sense of what happened to make her fear as well as the continuing plot entirely comprehensible. Cameron alternates visions of Ripley awakening in stark, body-twisting terror with moments of glazed stillness as Ripley smokes and stares off into nothingness. One nice, barely noticeable touch sees her mane of wavy hair as sported in the first film still present in early scenes but later shorn away to a more functional do, suitable as Ripley is by this time working a labourer in the space station loading docks.

The Special Edition also sports an early visit to LV-426, allowing a glimpse of the colonist outpost, dubbed Hadleys Hope – the outpost’s place sign has “Have a nice day” scrawled in graffiti over the stencilled lettering. Futuristic all-terrain vehicles trundle by the pre-fab structures, buffeted by wind and dust in this tiny island of human civilisation located amidst roiling volcanic rock forms, located someplace between a Western movie town and the outer precincts of hell. A conversation between two administrators (Mac McDonald and William Armstrong) establishes their jaded and frazzled state of mind in running this pocket of habitation whilst an important plot point is conveyed: some company honcho has sent a message asking for a grid reference far out in the planetary wilds to be checked out, so wildcatter mining couple, the Jordens (Jay Benedict and Holly De Jong), have gone off in search of it. Of course, the Jordens come across the all-too-familiar wrecked horseshoe spaceship. I’ve always found this portion of the director’s cut interesting but ungainly: effectively atmospheric, it gives a glimpse of Hadleys Hope as a functioning zone of labour and community, with convincing touches like the playing children who invade the control area of the otherwise tediously functional outpost, and a glimpse of the Jordens as an example of the kind of people who would choose such an existence – tight-knit, working class, adventurous. But it dispels the highly effective sense of mystery and discovery sustained in the theatrical cut, has noticeably weaker acting, and it goes just a little too far in coincidence in presenting Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn), later to prove an essential character, as being at the epicentre of the nascent crisis. Newt screams in horror as she beholds the sight of her father with a facehugger gripping his head with remorseless biological purpose whilst her mother urgently sends out a mayday.

An unstated amount of time passes before Burke comes to Ripley’s domicile with a representative of the Colonial Marines, Lt. Gorman (William Hope), and tells her that contact with LV-426 has been cut off, and they want her to come with them as an advisor as a unit of Marines are sent to investigate. Ripley is at first, understandably, determined to not to go, resisting Burke’s arsenal of pop psychology cliché (“Get out there and face this thing – get back on the horse!”) and the offer of protection from the armed forces that Ripley already, plainly half-suspects might be vainglorious. Only another wrenching nightmare and a long, hard look in the mirror convinces Ripley there’s only one way out of labyrinth for her, and that only after calling up Burke and seeking assurance that the plan is to exterminate the aliens. Cut to the Marines’ spaceship, the Sulaco, cutting through deep space: the name, taken from a town in Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo, extends that running gag and the connection with Conrad’s grim contemplation of hearts of darkness and corporate-imperial enterprise. Cameron apes Scott’s creation of mood and tension by recreating the quietly gliding camera movements Scott explored the Nostromo with, now scanning the Sulaco’s interior. James Horner’s scoring, like Goldsmith’s employing horns and woodwinds to illustrate the eerie absence of life, interpolates faint drum taps that match the sight of military hardware dormant. One quality that invests Cameron’s early films with much of their populist muscle is the respect and feel he had, certainly earned in his time working as a truck driver in his early 20s, for working class characters, strongly defined by their little social units and camaraderie. It’s a quality Cameron shared with John Carpenter, his immediate forebear as the hero of neo-B movies, although with Cameron it’s arguable this quality arguably hardened into a kind of shtick by the time of Titanic (1997) and Avatar, and where Carpenter’s sensibility led him to increasingly ironic considerations of genre storytelling, Cameron knew which side his bread was buttered on. Nonetheless this lends weight to Cameron’s glancing portrait of life LV-426 and the attitudes of the grunts of the Colonial Marines, as well to Ripley herself. Weaver herself noted that Aliens is essentially one great metaphor for Ripley overcoming her trauma, albeit in a way that thankfully avoids overtness.

It’s important for Cameron that Ripley, originally portrayed in Alien as an officer who makes a slightly snooty impression on her more plebeian crewmates and irks others with her cautious mentality even as circumstances prove her right, here falls basically to the bottom of society as well as mental health. Burke, whilst assuring her there’s nothing wrong with it, tries to plants hooks in Ripley by commenting on her newly tenuous existence. What he doesn’t know, nor Ripley herself, is that her fall also occasions her rise, with particular consequence in the climax, where her specific skill and talent learnt on the loading docks arms her for the ultimate battle with her personal demon. The detachment of Gorman’s Marines, awakening along with Ripley and Burke from cryosleep, is quickly and deftly sketched individually and as a functioning team, particularly the dominant if not necessarily most genuinely strong personalities, including the motor-mouthed, enthusiastic Hudson (Bill Paxton) and the formidable Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), as well as the quiet, calm Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the no-nonsense sergeant Apone (Al Matthews). The Marines are reassuring in their confident certainty of their own toughness and competence, and also their generic familiarity, combining classical war movie archetypes and modern sops: the unit includes women, a touch that illustrates Cameron’s cunning retrofitting of old movie templates for a new audience as well as suiting his own sensibility – Apone, who jams a cigar between his teeth within moments of awakening, is right out of a Sam Fuller. But the most crucial point of emulation is Howard Hawks, as the core team fuses together in to a functioning unit once the authority figures are dead or counted out and prove more effective once reconstituted as a semi-democratic whole. Ripley could be said to play the part of the traditional Hawksian woman, except Cameron inverts the old emphasis: she doesn’t have to adapt to the group, but the group fails because it doesn’t adapt like her. Cameron disposes of any dissonance as Hudson teases Vasquez, as she immediately starts doing chin-ups, with the question, “Have you ever been mistaken for a man?” to her immortal riposte, “No. Have you?”

The soldiers patronise Ripley not as a woman but as a civilian, something she gauges immediately, and she takes a certain wry, challenging delight in showing off when she clambers into a robotic loading suit that resembles an anthropomorphic forklift and casually handles a heavy load, much to Apone and Hicks’ approving amusement. Cameron drops in effective, intelligently accumulating character touches that give depth to the Marines, from Hicks falling asleep during the bumpy descent to the planet, to Vasquez and Drake (Mark Rolston) displaying their deep sense of camaraderie as masters of the big guns, drilling in choreographed movement and sharing their own sense of humour, and shades-wearing, ultra-cool shuttle craft pilot Corporal Ferro (Colette Hiller) spouting surfer lingo as she steers her craft down through the stormy clouds of LV-426. There’s also the android (“I prefer the term artificial person myself”) Bishop (Lance Henriksen), present as a standard member of the team. At one point Gorman gets Hicks and Hudson’s names mixed up, a hint at the speed with which the unit was formed that can also be taken as a wry acknowledgement of the difficulty in telling a bunch of young men with buzz cuts apart and of Gorman’s lack of deep investment in noticing the distinction. Hudson himself has an edge of bratty braggadocio that first vanishes when Drake forces him to give aid to Bishop in his party trick display of speed and precision with a knife, but resurges as he regales Ripley with the splendours of these “ultimate badasses” and their arsenal of cutting-edge technological weaponry. The soldiers and their tag-alongs eat before getting mobilised, and another facet of social tension manifests: the grunts notice Gorman doesn’t eat with them, another early sign he’s not going to prove much of a leader. Ripley, remembering Ash from the Nostromo, reacts with virulent unease when she realises what Bishop is, despite his Isaac Asimov-quoting reassurances.

Later, during a briefing for the unit, Gorman generically describes the creatures Ripley has encountered as a xenomorph – exterior-changer – in some official taxonomical flourish that has become since the general name for the malevolent species. After preparing for deployment, the unit is dropped into LV-426’s atmosphere and upon landing find Hadleys Hope seemingly deserted, with signs like half-eaten meals, in a nice nod towards the mystique of the Mary Celeste, betraying the suddenness of what befell the colonists. The Marines soon turn up signs that prove Ripley’s story, particularly patches of metalwork eaten through by the xenomorphs’ spilt acidic blood, and occupy the command centre which was hastily fortified for a last stand. Whilst exploring the deserted domicile, movement detected on their sensors proves to Newt, now bedraggled and deeply traumatised, but also having managed to survive thanks to her intricate knowledge of the domicile’s air duct system, gathered in her years playing in them. Ripley quickly takes on a motherly role for Newt. The team discover two live specimens of the “facehugger” strain that implants larvae in living hosts, kept in plastic tubes in the centre’s Med Lab, with a surgeon’s notes queasily reporting a patient died having one specimen removed. Finally the Marines, trying to find the missing colonists by looking for their subcutaneous tracking chips, locate them seemingly all congregated together in a space under the gigantic atmospheric plant, a fusion reactor-powered array busily making the planetary atmosphere breathable. But when the Marines venture into the plant, they quickly find signs they’re entering a xenomorph nest, and the one living human they find amongst the many eviscerated victims they find fused to the walls quickly dies as one of the larval aliens explodes from her chest. Within moments the unit is attacked by swarming xenomorphs, quickly reducing their ranks and setting the remnant to flight, and it falls to Ripley’s quick thinking to save them.

One aspect of Aliens, relatively minor on the dramatic scale but important to the deep impression made by its overall look and texture, was Cameron’s strong feel, bordering on fetishism, for both a realistic technological milieu, and for military lingo and tough-hombre attitude. Some of the hardware, like futuristic guns mounted on steadicam harnesses and the robotic loading suit, still remain exotic, but other touches, from the Marines’ helmet-mounted cameras to video phones, have become familiar, and all still seem part of a coherent vision of a future that’s at once hi-tech but also rough-and-ready, everything designed for hard encounters on far-flung rocks. That the Marines would use a “drop ship” to shuttle them to and from the planet rather than land a cumbersome spaceship like the Nostromo on LV-426, provides both a logical-feeling aspect of the mechanics of the enterprise whilst also echoing both World War II landing craft and helicopters in the Vietnam war, and also, eventually, provides an important component of the plot. The drop ship itself disgorges an Armoured Personnel Carrier, which the Marines use as a mobile protective base of operations. The visual sheen of Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, with omnipresent steely blues and greys, suggests that the atmosphere itself has soaked up the cobalt-hued lustre of gunmetal and industrial colossi, and the first sight Ripley and the Marines have of LV-426 is of the enormous atmospheric processor installation, powered by a fusion reactor, looming out of the grimy haze, and Hadleys Hope beyond, blurry and smeared in being seen through cameras.

Cameron’s use of such mediating technology also gives Aliens flashes of estranged menace, as the signs of battle and carnage the Marines find once they penetrate the interior of Hadleys Hope, bearing out Ripley’s accounts, are mediated through grainy, fuzzy camera feeds. The oft-emulated scene of Gorman steadily losing all connection and control as the Marines are attacked and the mission turns to lethal chaos intersperses immediate footage and glimpses conveyed through the way their cameras capture incoherent flashes of action and, in the cases of those grabbed or killed by the xenomorphs, blacks out: the technology, which seems to embrace and unite the humans, instead only testifies to their breakdown and impotence. This sequence, which sees the film finally combust after its long, nerveless build-up, cleverly reproduces a key aspect of Alien in the idea of the responses to the xenomorphs being limited by situation, as the nest is directly underneath the plant’s cooling systems, which means that firing off powerful weapons could critically damage the reactor and result in a nuclear explosion. Given the unexpected signs of sentient intelligence the xenomorphs display, too, this might not be a coincidence. This means the team is left almost defenceless as the aliens pounce, save flame throwers and Hicks’ shotgun (“I like to save this for close encounters.”), although Drake and Vasquez, having contrived not to hand over all their ammo, start blasting away wildly as the attack comes.

Cameron and the design team gave the xenomorphs a slightly different look for the film than the sleek anthropoidal shark look of the original model, kicking off a motif in the series where the creatures adapt to their environment. Here they’re distinctly more demonic with a more veinous-looking exterior, hobgoblins surging out of dark reaches they’ve decorated to suit themselves, an environ festooned with eviscerated corpses in a vision of a Dantean hellscape. They discover one living woman (Barbara Coles) who, as Ripley did in her dream earlier in the film, begs her would-be rescuers to kill her, but they’re too late to stop the larval “chestburster” alien from erupting from her chest. The Marines immediately incinerate it with a flamethrower, but this has the unfortunate effect of stirring the other xenomorphs from their nooks. Gorman, pale and sweating and delirious in his horror, quickly proves incapable of a response, so Ripley leaps into the seat of the APC and charges through the corridors of the processor plant, Horner’s furiously martial scoring booming out in announcing the gear change from cosmic horror to rumble-time action. Ripley’s frantic driving in her compelling sense of mission, APC careening against walls, and Gorman’s attempt to intervene only sees him fought off by Burke and then knocked silly by falling containers. Ripley crashes through a partition and reaches the Marines, but not in time to save Drake, who takes a face full of acid blood when Vasquez blasts a xenomorph about to launch on him. As it tries to force open the APC doors, Hicks jams his shotgun in a xenomorph’s mouth and cries “Eat this!” before blowing its head off – an all-time great cheer-out-loud flourish that deliberately makes mincemeat of one of the most disturbing aspects of the xenomorphs as seen up to this point, their double jaw.

One of Cameron’s most important storytelling inflections that recurs throughout Aliens is evinced here in near-throwaway fashion, as Hick’s heroic action nonetheless results in spraying acid blood burning Hudson’s arm. This motif of rolling crisis where gestures and actions constantly result in unintended consequences drives much of the story in a manner that feels realistically chaotic whilst also forcing it onwards in compulsive motion. Ripley manages to barrel the APC out through the plant door after running over a xenomorph that tries to break through the windscreen to get at her, at the cost of shattering the APC’s transaxle. The Marines call in Ferro and the drop ship to come pick them up, but a xenomorph gets aboard the ship and kills the crew, resulting in the drop ship crashing and colliding with the atmospheric plant, setting in motion exactly the inevitable nuclear meltdown they feared. Later in the film Vasquez and Gorman’s final action of blowing themselves up to avoid being eaten and take a few xenomorphs with them offers a moment of valiant kamikaze grace, but also causes another accident that forces Ripley to even more dangerous and strenuous actions.

Aliens tends not to be thought of as a horror movie, unlike Alien, which more obviously straddles the narrow gap between that genre and sci-fi. And yet it has just as much horrific imagery and atmosphere as its precursor, and indeed goes a few steps further, like showing the results of people getting sprayed with the acidic alien blood, and the imagery of the hive festooned with dead, eviscerated colonists. As well as the obvious Horror cues Alien subsumes – the “haunted castle” space ships, the blasted alien planet, the lurking monster, the presence of Ripley as an early and defining “final girl,” the strongly Lovecraftian tilt of the imagery and ideas – it exemplifies how Horror is a style or genre defined by tension derived from the fallibility of the feebly human before forces beyond their control. By contrast, action as a genre is defined by the dispelling of such forces through exemplars of human resilience and toughness: filmmakers don’t have some big, tough muscleman turn up in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) or Halloween (1978) to kick the fiend’s ass, precisely because such stories require the heroes to be distinctly more vulnerable than the avatars of evil. Aliens can also count classic horror films like The Birds (1963) and George Romero’s Dead films as precursors in the theme of fighting violent inhuman besiegement.

But of course Aliens is also a war movie and an interstellar western, and the argument between the immobilising dread of horror and the proactive furore of these other genres is part of what makes Aliens endlessly engaging as a grand nexus of various storytelling traditions and inflections. As legendary as the film’s heroic beats have become, they wouldn’t be at all effective if Cameron wasn’t also so committed at walking his characters up to the edge of the truly nightmarish. The disparity can be traced to the divergent urges expressed in the roots of the two genres. Both go back to stories told around tribal campfires in a far-flung past. In such oral traditions, horror is based in the kinds of stories told to keep children close to the circle of light, warning balefully of the gleaming eyes watching from the dark, whereas those other genres are based in the tales told about great warriors and leaders, the defenders of the tribe, the ones strong enough to go out into that dark. Something Aliens does better than just about any other example I can think of is find the interlocutor of the two in the image of a protecting parent.

Cameron’s approach to the war movie, whilst containing character types going back to silent films like The Big Parade (1925), is nonetheless shaped by his own and his original audience’s cultural moment. Aliens presents a strongly nudging subtext for a popular understanding of the Vietnam War: the Marines, confident in their edge of both machismo (even the women) and technological superiority, as they descend into an environment which their foes, who prove far more intelligent and dangerous than expected and motivated by more coherent, communal urges, are all too good at exploiting. Cameron emphasises the motif through both casting – Matthews, in a casting touch anticipatory of R. Lee Ermey in the following year’s Full Metal Jacket, had been a real-life US Marine, and knew the required attitude inside out – and details like the future-but-not drop ships and the subsumed banter and attitude of Vietnam-era American soldiers. Cameron had success writing the post-Vietnam revenge and homecoming fantasy of Rambo: First Blood Part II and to a certain extent Aliens can be read as its distaff variation, with Ripley fulfilling the role of resurgent natural warrior. But Aliens feels closer to the more considered metaphorical meditation Cameron had woven into The Terminator, where Biehn’s Kyle Reese was easily read as a damaged returned veteran.  Aliens came out in the same year as Oliver Stone’s Platoon, and the two films’ similarities include a soldier’s-eye sense of disdain for officer school training grad lieutenants.

Aliens feels its way around all this in portraying Ripley’s reconstruction from PTSD-riddled human cargo to the essential and emblematic action heroine. Ripley’s place in finally and persuasively creating an archetype scarcely seen so unfettered since folkloric figures like Boudica, Kahina, or Jeanne Hachette has been very well covered ever since, but it’s worth noting on some of the things Cameron and Weaver manage to do through her that made her so vital. As noted, Cameron presents a largely gender-egalitarian world, mediating the traditional Hawksian testing of the outsider on the level of civilian versus soldier and grunt versus officer, cutting out any of the usual jockeying and bickering or tendencies towards what is now called “girlboss” politicking. Ripley’s wisdom, as in the first film, is a mere edge of awareness and forthrightness, and what seems to be her chief liability, the crippling horror of her prior experience with the xenomorph, proves to be a great advantage too, able to recover more quickly from the dizzying blows of their attacks and already knowing what kinds of behaviours will save lives and which will get them all killed. A crucial moment comes when she reacts to the horrible death of the cocooned survivor, recreating her own image of herself from her dream as impregnated and doomed, as Ripley grips her own stomach and grimaces in terrible sympathy. As far as catharsis goes, this is about as rough as it gets, but it nonetheless immediately precedes her resurgence as a fighter.

To this Cameron added a faith that Ripley’s specifically feminine qualities were potent virtues rather than discomforting appendages to be denied or ignored in the course of enabling her. Alien suggested maternal instinct in Ripley in her choice to save Jones at the risk of her own life, and to a certain extent Cameron merely elaborates on this streak in reiterating the lengths Ripley will go to to save those she cares about and in subtly reproducing the original film’s basic plot beats. Nonetheless Aliens is much more specific, and particularly in the Special Edition makes it clear that for Ripley such instinct is because being a mother is a significant and immediate part of her identity. This signals why she’s able to form such a quick and intense bond with Newt, and also underlies her instinct to race to the rescue of the Marines. It’s also apparent even in small but consequential gestures as when Ripley orders Newt to leave the APC’s command space when the cameras show the Marines exploring the hive and seeing colonist bodies festooning the walls: as well as the awful spectacle in and of itself, in which Ripley amusingly resembles a dutiful parents warding a child off from something verboten on TV, Ripley also knows well Newt might see her parents and brother amongst them.

Newt herself is in part a nod to the kinds of urchins who attach themselves to soldiers in classic war movies, whilst presenting an ideal surrogate daughter for Ripley in the way too she is an uncommon, alternative kind of survivor: at one point Ripley admonishes the ranting Hudson with a reminder that Newt found ways to subsist for weeks without help or training, so surely the ultimate badasses can take a few lessons. Newt wields a mixture of the authentically childlike – picking up the Marines’ idiom and gestures (“Affirmative!”) with mimicking delight – and an edge of premature awareness and gravitas, in her certainty that the Marines’ firepower “won’t make any difference” against the aliens, and her nudging reminder to Ripley that her doll Casey isn’t cursed with scary dreams unlike herself and Ripley because “she’s just a piece of plastic.” It’s a measure of the depth of Weaver’s performance, and probably the reason why she gained a Best Actress Oscar nomination for the role, a rarity for such a genre movie, in that she’s coherently able to shift between more fearsome postures and gently coaxing maternal interactions with Henn’s Newt, in utterly convincing vignettes like her murmuring ruefully, after dabbing away some dirt on the girl with some cocoa when she’s first discovered, “Now I’ve done it, I’ve accidentally made a clean spot here – now I guess I’ll have to clean the whole thing.” Newt is of course also, like Jones, a plot device, providing a motive for Ripley to not only survive, but to take the kind of risk usually reserved to heroes of classic mythology.

Meanwhile the rest of the humans interact with a deft combination of acting and writing to the point where they’re more precisely drawn than many another film’s lead character, from Paxton’s brilliant slide from posturing wiseass to whiny hysteric before finally going out in a blaze of authentic glory, to Goldstein’s strident Vasquez demanding of the injured Gorman, “Wake up, pendejo, and then I’m gonna kill you!” Henriksen, a familiar enough character actor in movies including Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), had been the star in Cameron’s Piranha II: The Spawning and his initial proposed casting for the role of the Terminator. Cameron’s fondness for him was justified as playing Bishop finally boosted him to cult acting hero status, in part because he expertly walks a line of studied blandness that sustains the question as to whether Bishop is another cyborg monster like Ash – he has a similar awed regard when studying their anatomy – or a good guy. The answer finally comes when he makes a quip, “I may be synthetic, but I’m not stupid,” when he volunteers for a risky mission only he can likely pull off, and it’s impossible to doubt him henceforth, even when he seems to abandon Ripley and Newt to their fate.

Biehn, hastily brought aboard the movie to play Hicks after James Remar was forced to drop out, finished up playing a similar role to the one he had in The Terminator as an ideal male hero who nonetheless finishes up too battered and scarred to be of much help to the heroine as she faces evil alone. Hicks however isn’t a damaged case like Kyle Reese was, but rather a quiet, intense dark horse who clearly isn’t eager to be the star: “Yeah…yeah,” he murmurs ruefully after Ripley points out he’s now in charge, a marvellous little moment for Biehn. But within moments, after being incidentally belittled by Burke, Hicks readily commits to command and to implementing Ripley’s suggestion of aerial nuclear bombardment of the area – “Only way to be sure” – in a way that suddenly confirms he’s the rare character both smart enough and sufficiently untroubled by ego to know the right idea when he hears it, and so is precisely the leader the crisis needs. The crash of the drop ship foils this plan, and obliges the team to fortify themselves in the command centre, sealing up every conceivable door, pipe, and conduit, planning to wait out the 17 day interval before another rescue mission is sent. But Bishop soon tells them they can’t wait that long: the drop ship’s crash damaged the atmospheric processor and it’s now on a countdown to explosion. Bishop agrees to venture outside to patch into the outpost’s transmitter and remote pilot a second drop ship down from the Sulaco. During the wait, Ripley and Newt find themselves trapped with two freed facehuggers specimens, and are only rescued by the Marines in the nick of time. Ripley knows full well this must have been orchestrated by Burke, who she already knows both ordered the search for the alien ship and wants to take the specimens back to Earth, and saw a good way of getting what he wants whilst silencing Ripley. And, incidentally, everyone else.

The reveal that Burke is a villain isn’t at all surprising, as it was pretty compulsory for a 1980s genre film to have an asshole yuppie. It could be said his presence dials down the Kafkaesque portrait of corporate insidiousness in Alien to something more containable: rather than operating on the company’s behalf Burke’s self-defence suggests it’s his own opportunism driving his actions. Still he’s the avatar of the same forces at work, and Reiser makes the character effective in the way he carefully shades Burke’s purposefully inoffensive façade with his unblinking believe-you-me stare and air of practiced facetiousness, a film of sweat greasing his upper lip as he labours to keep up his bullshit in the face of the Marines’ murderous anger. His execution is only staved off by a sudden power outage, a failure that tells Ripley the xenomorphs are on the move with purpose, much to Hudson’s disbelief (“They’re animals, man!”), but quickly confirmed by the team’s motion detectors. Cameron’s use of the detectors, pulsing with ever-increasing pitch and squirming blurs on their readout screens confirming the horde’s approach, to generate tension is peerless, whilst also returning to the ambiguity of technology as a filter for experience. The relentless march of the monsters towards the command centre remains invisible and illogical as they seem to be right upon the humans but without any sign of them, until the penny drops and Ripley turns her gaze upwards towards the panelled ceiling – the one, forgotten conduit for invasion. The pure essence of the monster movie and everything the mode encompasses comes in the next moment: Hicks is boosted up to lift a panel and turn a torch down the duct, glimpsing the hellish vision of a horde of xenomorphs crawling inexorably closer.

Aliens created a template that young and eager genre filmmakers, and some not-so-young ones, would imitate exhaustively in years to come. The hard, chitinous look imbued upon the tech and environs would be endlessly imitated along with the plot patterns and lines of defiant dialogue. Cameron’s editing of the action scenes is quick almost to the point of being subliminal in places, generally to mask limitations of the special effects but also amplifying the sense of the blindsiding speed with which situations turn on a dime from anxious calm to life-and-death conflict. And yet it’s also still entirely lucid and precise in filming and framing. Cameron’s repeated, forceful use of point-of-view shots goes beyond the fascination with layered media, and provides much of the film surging, immediate energy – barely noticed in the rush of events as when he cuts between Burke’s viewpoint as he shuts the door sealing off himself from Ripley and Newt and theirs as they see the door close, and repeated with more bravura towards the end as Cameron adopts Bishop’s pilot’s-eye-view as he barrels the drop ship through plumes of smoke and fire amidst the jutting steel forms in fleeing the atmospheric processor. The sequence of Ripley and Newt trapped in the Med Lab is particularly great in exploiting what the audience both knows and doesn’t know as well as offering a moment of pure situational thrill-mongering. Cameron reiterates the constant motif in the film and its predecessor involving waking and sleeping and the blurred ground between dream and nightmare, as Ripley, who has fallen asleep with Newt who by habit hides under her bed from the very real monsters, awakens and spies the toppled tubes that contained the facehugger specimens, shifting from an idyllic portrait of her bonding attachment into imminent danger and threat, as well as invoking the basic parental role, as the person whose presence allows a child to sleep untroubled.

Ripley quickly finds they’ve been locked in, and Cameron cuts to a shot of Burke switching off the security camera in the Med Lab unnoticed by the Marines. Hicks has given Ripley one of the pulse rifles after showing her how to use it, but it’s been lifted and left on a table outside. Ripley has to find a way of attracting attention, a problem she solves quickly enough by setting off the fire alarm. Hicks and the other Marines dash to the rescue, but how long it will take them to get there is unknown. Ripley has gained their attention, but has made the situation even more nightmarish as infernal red fire lamps glow, the harsh siren buzzes and robs any advantage of listening for the creatures, and water pours down: will the water slow down the facehuggers, or do they love it? For those who had seen Alien, the facehuggers are known to be swift and akin to an instant death sentence once attached, but just how fast they can move and whether they can be outwitted is still moot. Cameron builds to the sear-itself-into-your-cortex shot of the facehugger scuttling after Ripley with obscene multi-limbed motion before it springs on her, wrapping its tail about her neck, Ripley trying to find off its furiously wriggling form, whilst Newt manages to pin the other one’s tail against the wall as it comes for her. Only then does Cameron cut to the sight of the Marines outside, having arrived in the meantime: their appearance is both logical but also a non-sequitir, a startling break from the suffocating moment of dread. Hicks tells the others to shoot out the plexiglass window before launching himself through it in a moment of fearless bravura, and the Marines earn a moment of heroic effectiveness as Hudson saves Newt whilst Hicks, Gorman, and Vasquez untangle the one on Ripley and toss it into a corner to be blasted to bits.

The final invasion by the xenomorphs likewise exploits the red emergency lighting to signal the change from placidity to hellish urgency, as monstrosities drop from the ceiling and erupt from the floor. Burke momentarily prevents the team’s retreat by locking a door, seemingly hoping the team will be killed so he can meet up with Bishop and escape, only to find himself trapped with one of the monsters. It’s a measure of the craftsmanship brought to bear in the film that this sequence manages to evoke the authentic chaos of such a battle as the jangling monsters spring and surge in the bloody red light, whilst also capturing iconic vignettes for its heroes – Hudson taunting the xenomorphs as he guns them down, Vasquez blasting them with her grenade launcher, with Horner’s most epic strains blasting all the way. Hudson, Vasquez, and Gorman all die in the rear-guard defence. Cameron allows each to go down as the reborn absolute badass they always sought to be, fighting to the last round with all their ferocity and grit brought to bear, Hudson dragged into the abyss still screaming out curses at the monsters, Gorman blowing himself and Vasquez up when he realises they’re trapped and can’t escape.

But it’s also worth noting that their gestures are also self-defeating, dying in part by their own heroic pretences as well as the monsters, as none of them quite has the sense to follow Newt at top speed: the little girl holds the key to their salvation in knowing the way through the air vents to the landing field. In this regard Cameron echoes something of the romantic fatalism of H.G. Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear (1953), and indeed its source novel with its last line describing its ill-fated hero as one killed by his own ferocious determination to live. The way Vasquez wails, “Oh no!” after she’s crippled by some of the xenomorph blood, is a perfect signature for her character, registering both fury at herself and terror in finally being crippled, before the simultaneously stirring and ironic sight of her and Gorman locked together in a moment of perfect fulfilment in the second before Gorman’s grenade goes off, and they vansish in a fireball. Problem is, this götterdamerung for warriors results in a shockwave that makes Newt fall into a vent and plunge to a lower level in the building, demanding Hicks and Ripley pursue her. By the time they reach her she’s been snatched away to the hive by a xenomorph, and Hicks is badly burned by acid blood killing another. Ripley manages to help Hicks reach Bishop as the drop ship arrives, but insists she has to back into the hive to rescue Newt. Cue perhaps the all-time greatest variation on a standard action movie vignette, as Ripley arms herself to the teeth in preparing for the venture whilst Bishop flies her into the atmospheric processor, which is beginning to show signs of destabilising in the face of imminent meltdown.

Everything up until this point has been great, but Aliens kicks to a higher level, reaching the innermost core where those divergent ancient storytelling traditions fork, in this sequence. This is of course in large part to the converging elements of cinema – Weaver’s performing, the shooting and editing, Horner’s big brass-and-drum scoring – but also because of the way everything seen before in the film and its predecessor unites into one, pure spectacle. Much like the following year’s Predator, the climax dispenses with all social-animal preliminaries and gets down to a basic, primal rite, the hero who must venture into the bear’s cave and risk tooth and claw. But with the corollary that Ripley’s motive is not symbolic or general, but a specific, deeply personal expression of maternal urge that overrides every other instinct in the existential manual. The deep-flowing fairy tale motif returns as Ripley uses flares like the breadcrumb trail in Hansel and Gretel, whilst on a more mythic level she combines in herself Theseus and Ariadne heading into the Labyrinth on the hunt for the minotaur, Perseus and Andromeda, St George and the princess. The processor plant, glimpsed as Bishop flies into it, has become a gothic monstrosity, spitting lightning and fire, the most literalised edition of William Blake’s vision of dark satanic mills as the blight of industrialism conceivable. All classical storytelling kneaded into modern psychological theory, and it’s working on that level too, as Ripley has also found the overriding urge that makes all inner demons ineffective. At the same time, Cameron lets the audience see Ripley thinking as well as acting: the weaponry she assembles – taping a flamethrower to a pulse rifle, readying the flares – is, far from heedlessly vainglorious, instead utilising every particle of knowledge she’s gathered about her foes and their home, from their physical traits to their numbers, which by this point if hardly decimated must be greatly thinned, and with the majority of the remaining host left behind in the abandoned command centre. In short, even as Ripley finally becomes an action hero unbound, she’s still very much the character she’s been portrayed as, quick on her mental as well as physical feet. If Cameron had by and large eased back on the protean erotic imagery Scott wielded by way of H.R. Giger’s art in the earlier part of the film, he brings it back with a more sickly, suggestive edge in the sight of Newt swathed in hardened cocooning gel that looks like ejaculate, a xenomorph egg peeling open in rather penile fashion, giving this vignette a coded quality of a wrathful mother coming to save her child from a paedophile.

The symbolism inverts nonetheless as Ripley successfully locates Newt and tears her free only to stumble upon the monstrous queen, a great bony crone with a gross, pendulous egg-sack spitting out monstrous seed. Ripley has found her own interspecies doppelganger – the queen’s squarish jaw even seems to have been deliberately moulded on Weaver’s – as another fiercely protecting mother, but this one diseased, spawning misbegotten devils. The two communicate in gesture, as Ripley gives a spurt of fire from her flamethrower, just enough to make clear to the queen she’ll set fire to her eggs if she lets the xenomorphs lurking in the wings come out, and the queen bids them retreat. The tentative little truce ends when one of the eggs opens: Ripley gives a tilt of her head, grits her teeth, and starts blasting. It’s impossible not to share Ripley’s raw, punishing, near-mindless expression of exterminating rage, and yet as with the Marines earlier, her warlike self-purgation is self-defeating, as she wastes most of her arsenal destroying a hive that will be blown up anyway in a few minutes, making herself very close to a victim of new warrior bravura. Tellingly, Ripley aims all her rage and grenades at the queen’s vestigial egg-sack rather than her exoskeletal body, and after Ripley flees with Newt, the alien queen rips free of the sack and follows, bent on vengeance. Ripley finds Bishop seems to have flown off with the drop ship, seemingly confirming Ripley’s anxiety about Bishop, and in the moment of ultimate confrontation with both parental and childhood fear, Ripley tells Newt, “Close your eyes, baby,” as the alien queen emerges from the shadows of an elevator. Except, of course, Bishop suddenly flies the drop ship into view and scoops up the two humans, before fleeing at top speed, just managing to escape the colossal explosion that consumes Hadleys Hope and everything around it and zooming back into the stars.

Cameron makes a dry nod towards a Spielbergian take on a cinematic fairy-tale motif, as he shifts from the cataclysmic vision of the explosion to the sight of the drop ship zooming up into the stars, Horner’s music now offering gently melodic, resolving sounds at a juncture that for most movies would mark the end of the bad dream. But this being Cameron, of course, he has a trick up his sleeve as he did with the emerging cyborg in The Terminator and with the same basic concept of an inimical form of intelligence simply refusing to observe the niceties of what a human would justifiably call enough, as well as repeating and expanding upon the finale of Alien. Right at what seems to be the hearty final moment of conciliation between Ripley and Bishop, who’s delighted by her praise, the hiss of burning acid and Bishop suddenly contorting in pain announces a last act as the alien queen crawls out of a landing gear bay, having skewered Bishop on its horny tail, before ripping him in half. Being as he is an artificial person Bishop doesn’t expire from such treatment, but the vision of both Hicks and Bishop left too injured to help Ripley not only demands she find a way to battle the monster alone but also carries potent metaphorical aspects – Cameron’s viewpoint of a fatally injured idea of masculinity, exposed in both the classical hero Hicks and the motherly, slightly fey male Bishop, whilst playing nice in that they’re both nobly wounded rather than toxic and imperious like the Terminator, nonetheless demands a new kind femininity evolve to take its place, and with the suggestion that the last act of all wars is ultimately fought by women, those who have to deal with the subtler but more pernicious monsters it unleashes.

Bishop’s sundering is also a bravura moment of visual ruthlessness, a shock twist that resembles Ripley’s discovery of the alien on the Narcissus in the previous film and also a last, needling reminder that the material is still mean stuff. Whilst the alien queen hunts for Newt, who tries to hide under the docking bay floor gratings, Ripley emerges wearing the power loader suit, augmented to a level of power equal to the monster. Okay, altogether now, three…two…one: “Get away from her, you bitch!” An unnecessarily rhetorical flourish, probably, given we’ve already seen the idea illustrated thoroughly, but still one of the most delightful moments in the genre film canon, and the signature for Ripley: this isn’t Ripley the damaged survivor or Ripley the hysterical berserker but the ultimate version, powered up with steel fists, completing the journey in now making clear it’s the monster that should be scared. Later, in Titanic and Avatar, Cameron would more conspicuously re-devote himself to what could be called new-age editions of imagery and themes echoing out High Romantic art and literature of the 1700s and 1800s, where artist-heroes rewrite reality with passion, flee collapsing idols, and bestride pristine wildernesses, a twist that might have seemed odd given his penchant for technology as a device both liberating and frightening.

But it becomes clearer in watching Cameron’s oeuvre that the dark side of technology lies in its potential, indifferently destructive effect on living systems, the appeal of it lies in restoring the kind of heroic agency associated with classical art forms. Thus Ripley repurposes a tool, one associated previously with her humiliation and reconstruction, into a new kind of knightly armour, able to step up to the nastiest demon lurking in Beelzebub’s caverns and sock it in the face. Finally, in the titanic struggle that follows, she manages to dump the creature into an airlock and blast it out into the same void as its predecessor, although not before the queen, with its species’ characteristic will to survive, keeps hanging on to Ripley to the bitter end. Finally Ripley seals up the ship as the bifurcated Bishop clings onto the flailing Newt, who finally, unthinkingly anoints Ripley as “Mommy!” as they’re finally united. Cameron returns to the fairy-tale motif for a final image of mother and daughter delivered back to their dreams, perhaps no better than before, but at least now just dreams.

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1980s, Auteurs, Fantasy, Horror/Eerie, War

The Keep (1983)

Director / Screenwriter: Michael Mann

By Roderick Heath

The Keep’s very first shot, as if tracing the path of a falling angel, describes a seemingly endless downwards pan, descending from grey, storm-ridden sky to jagged pine forests clinging to the flanks of soaring mountains, before finally settling on a convoy of grey-painted Wehrmacht trucks labouring their way up a narrow mountain pass, set to the throbbing, alien textures of Tangerine Dream’s score evoking both the roll of thunder and the chugging of the straining motors and mimicking the narcotising effect on the German soldiers rolling up the road. A cigarette lit in ultra-close-up, a shot of caterpillar tracks churning along the gravelly road, swooning visions of the mist-drapped mountain peaks. Immediately, director Michael Mann, making his second feature after Thief (1981), deposits the viewer within a dreamlike space, offering a classical Horror genre setting and motif in journeying from the mundane world into one of oneiric remove, but wrapped not in traditional genre style cues, but a hard shell of burgeoning 1980s high style cinema. The year, a title card informs us, is 1941, with the Nazi onslaught reaching its climax with armies closing in on Moscow. In this place, the Dinu Pass in the Carpathian Mountains, Captain Klaus Woermann, embodied in rugged, sagging melancholy by Jürgen Prochnow, leads his men into a tiny Romanian hamlet clinging to the jagged walls of the pass’s highest reaches, to occupy and garrison an enigmatic medieval fortification there.

Actually entering the village, penetrating a veil of mist to behold a medieval hamlet, sees Mann shifts to slow motion and the score to spacy, mysterious strains as Woermann surveys this piece of another, older world cut off from the sturm-und-drang of the warlike moment and, seemingly, whole other intervening centuries. And the Keep itself, a featureless trapezoidal block of grey brick, looming over the village and a deep gorge. One of Woermann’s men complains about this unimportant detail when Germany’s soldiers are near to total victory, but Woermann assures him the real fighting is over and Germany is now master of Europe: “Does that enthrall you?” he enquires with theatrical enthusiasm. Woermann’s own ambivalence over fighting in a war that most certainly does not enthral him is something that resolves even as his situation becomes ever more mysterious and terrible. Woermann and his men enter the Keep and begin setting up their garrison. But Woermann notes, however, the building is not a defensive structure, but designed like a prison. The walls are lined with 108 silvery, crucifix-like markings that the Keep’s caretaker, Alexandru (Morgan Sheppard), warns are not to be touched, a taboo he insists upon with deadly seriousness although he doesn’t know why and can’t report any bad events in the Keep save the general refusal of visitors to stay through the night: “Then what drives people out in the middle of a rainy night?” Woermann questions. “Dreams?” the caretaker replies.

Since the time of its release, The Keep could scarcely seem more benighted. Despised by F. Paul Wilson, author of its source novel, it was also soon disowned by Mann, furious at the way Paramount Pictures threw the film away after losing faith in the project. Special effects master Wally Veevers died during production, leaving the planned spectacular finale in uneditable disarray. Finally the film proved a calamitous bomb at the box office and was generally dismissed by critics, although many Horror genre fans and scholars grasped its unique and fascinating aesthetic. Mann’s active role in keeping the film hidden away, refusing to let it be released on DVD for many years, only helped its slow accruing of near-legendary mystique for anyone who could catch it on TV or had access to its early VHS and laserdisc releases. The Keep has evolved into one of my absolute favourite films, and its evident flaws are an indivisible part of its compelling makeup. After success with the telemovie The Jericho Mile (1979), Mann made a terrific debut as a feature filmmaker with Thief, a movie that commenced Mann’s career-long aesthetic preoccupation with trying to blend classical genre cinema with a hypermodern, dramatically distilled approach, trying to place as much of the weight of the storytelling and ambience fall on his rigorously constructed imagery that often nudges a kind of neo-expressionistic minimalism. This approach generally suits his preference for tough, stoic heroes, beings who still have some of the toey instinctiveness of forest animals even in the densest urban jungle.

When, for his second film, Mann chose to make a Horror movie, he took a similarly essentialist approach, trying to make a movie describing the idea of a Horror movie as much as the thing itself. He stripped out almost all of the background lore of Wilson’s novel and trying to convey a sense of dread and lurking menace through careful visualisation, to make a fable of pure menace and mood. Mann shot most of The Keep in Shepperton Studios whilst building the Romanian village and the Keep’s exterior in a Welsh quarry, but Mann’s notorious later habit of causing budget overruns with his exacting shooting style was apparently already emerging. But, again as he would later, Mann’s exacting reach for effect justifies itself. The early shots see him weaving his style in a series of elusive directorial flourishes: that opening shot conveys place and time but relentlessly pushes the eye down a vertical access, giving little sense of the surrounds. A lake surface mirrors back the sky, turning the grand space into a trap. Woermann’s first glimpses of the village are dreamy, punch-drunk, barely liminal. The Keep itself is hardly glimpsed apart from the looming grey gateway, with only two proper wide exterior shots of the structure in the whole film. This approach lets Mann skirt location and special effects shortfalls, of course, but also conditions the viewer to a zone unmoored from any sure sense of geography and spatial stability, just as Woermann beholds a scene out of the Middle Ages, unmoored in time.

The Keep itself presents a cultural, architectural, and military conundrum: the locals who maintain it have no real idea of how old it is, who pays for its upkeep, or what its purpose it ever served. Woermann’s soldierly eye notices that for what seems to be a defensive structure it’s built inside out, with easily scalable exterior walls and the largest, strongest stone blocks inside, more like a prison. Rumours start to grip Woermann’s more avaricious men, including Pvt Lutz (John Vine), that the crosses are made of silver and other treasures might be hidden in the Keep: Lutz tries to break off one of the crosses only to receive watch detail for a week from the irate Woermann. During the night, as Steiner stands bored and lonely watch, one of the crosses begins emitting an eerily bright blue light, and looking closer at it Lutz realises that this cross does indeed seem to be silver. He fetches another man on watch, Otto (Jona Jones), and the two men claw out the great granite block the cross is affixed to, revealing a narrow tunnel that Lutz crawls into. Mann’s stylistic oddness continues in this sequence, as he distorts the avaricious franticness of the two soldiers with slow-motion shots of them running to and fro amidst hazily backlit shots, all bound together in strange manner by the use of Tangerine Dream’s theme “Logos” on the soundtrack, imbuing a propulsive mood, if retaining a spacy, alien texture inherent in that classic synthesiser sound, of a unit with Mann’s recurrent passion with intensely rhythmic image-audio match-ups, the flagrant anachronism of the scoring heightening the disorientating texture.

Lutz crawls into the passage and dislodges a block, only to almost fall into a vast, dark space beyond, saved because he had Otto tie a strap to his waist. In one of the greatest shots in all of fantastic cinema, Mann’s camera retreats a seemingly infinite distance away from the soldier’s dwindling torch into the furthest depths of the abyss, a space which contains mysterious ruins of some ancient structures. Once the long pullback shot finally concludes, a surge of light swoops into the frame and coalesces into ball of light that rises up to meet the faint torchlight. Otto is almost pulled into the tunnel by a sudden, violent jerking, and when he drags his comrade out, finds only a steaming, headless trunk, before being flung away with bone-shattering force as a mysterious power floods out of the shaft and infests the Keep. Mann cuts with headlong force to the antipathetic force stirred to action: Glaeken Trismegestus (Scott Glenn), awakening in a bed somewhere in Greece, eyes glowing and surging energy drawing into his body, stirred by the eruption of the entity in the Keep. Glaekus rises from bed, packs his belongings including a long wooden case, and heads to the docks of Piraeus where he bribes a fishing boat captain to take him to the Romanian coast: Mann films the boat’s voyage into dawn light in a languorously beautiful vignette.

Walking the line between intriguing hints and frustrating vagueness is always a tricky art, and for many Mann went too far with The Keep. But it’s precisely the film’s allusive sense of arcane and ageless struggle, and its near-ethereal, carefully reductive vision of perfect forms of good and evil, that makes it something unique, the hints of cosmic battles and unknowable history at the heart of the story, a vast mythic-emblematic Manichaeism pointedly set against the more immediate and definable evil of Nazism, the heart of darkness nested inside the European übermenschen dream. Paramount might well have hoped the film would prove a Horror movie variant on the supernatural anti-Nazi revenge fantasy of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most broadly and obviously, the film presents a variation on the classic motif of a haunted castle. Wilson’s novel presented a Lovecraft-tinted rewrite of that founding tome of modern Horror, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a work that’s retained much of its popularity for the way, published just before the dawn of the 20th century, it charted so many of the oncoming age’s faultlines. Wilson made more literal the connection between Dracula and the paranoid impression of dread power and evil rising in the east of Europe it articulated, by moving the setting to World War II and drawing together crosscurrents of folklore and politics at the moment.

Mann, whilst divesting much of the novel’s superstructure, had his own take on the same idea evidently in mind. In particular, Mann seemed interested in investigating through visual and thematic refrains the link suggested by German film historian Siegfried Krakauer in his book From Caligari to Hitler between the psychic anxieties communicated in the imagery of classic German Expressionist films and the oncoming fascist mentality. The German Expressionist era was replete with contradictions, like future Nazi Paul Wegener’s obsession with the Jewish myth of the Golem that caused him to make two films on the subject, and the Nazi leaders’ worship of the monumental aesthetic laid down by the half-Jewish Fritz Lang. Krakauer’s ideas had their highly dubious aspect, but Mann found how to put them to dynamic use, making The Keep perhaps the closest thing anyone has made to a truly modern take on the Expressionist Horror style, and tethering it to a story that specifically offers meditation on the Nazi mindset and questions of how to resist it. The story purposefully unfolds simultaneous to WWII’s supreme tipping point of the furthest Nazi advance during the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the drama enacted in the Keep is both far more intimate than the war and far larger, a confrontation of primeval forces.

Mann’s casting notably has the Eastern European characters speak with American accents, to emphasise their distinctness from the Germans, who are played by a mix of British, Irish, and German actors. Mann also shifted away from the novel’s use of vampirism, which he found silly: once the entity trapped within the grand cavern is unleashed into the Keep, it begins killing Woermann’s men by absorbing their life essence, leaving charred and withered corpses. The entity, appearing after a time as a writhing pillar of fog around a stem of skeletal parts and blood vessels, builds substance out of its harvested victims. The idea of a monster slowly assembling itself a physical form echoes back to Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and would be used again in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999). Woermann’s messages of distress soon bring not relocation as he hopes, but an SS Einstaz Kommando detachment under the command of Sturmbahnführer Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne), which steams into the village, takes a number of hostages, and shoots them before their horrified fellow villagers. Kaempffer promises of more retaliation against them if any more Germans are killed. The irate Woermann, who is ordered by Kaempffer not to interfere, points out that Kaempffer has just killed citizens of an allied state.

Kaempffer nonetheless begins using all his arrogant prowess as a bully and killer to get to the bottom of the mystery, using terror tactics to root out presumed partisans. “Something else is killing us,” Woermann states in riposte: “And if it doesn’t care about the lives of three villagers? If it is like you? Then does your fear work?” When some mysterious words appear carved in a wall of the Keep near another dead soldier, the village priest, Father Mikhail Fonescu (Robert Prosky) recognises that the words are not written in any living language, and suggests the only way Kaempffer might get them translated is to find Theodore Cuza (Ian McKellen), a scholar and expert in Romanian history and linguistics, who grew up in the village and once made a study of the Keep. Problem: Cuza is Jewish, and has recently been rounded up for deportation. Cuza and his daughter Eva (Alberta Watson) are at that moment sitting in a depot with other Jews, Gypsies and sundry undesirables awaiting transportation. Cuza is crippled by a degenerative disease that makes him look far older than he really is, and Eva acts as his carer.

Kaempffer’s command brings them both to the Keep, where the SS commander taunts Cuza with talk of place he was just about to be taken to, a place with two doors out, one of them a chimney: “So you had better find a way to be of use to me in three days.” Cuza recognises the language of the writing on the wall as a language dead for 500 years, and reads, “I will be free,” a message Kaempffer immediately interprets as a rebel declaration. Woermann tries to assure the Cuzas that he might be able to sneak them out of the Keep to a safe hiding place if they can buy enough time by keeping Kaempffer satisfied: “But then again you may not,” Eva comments sceptically. Eva soon attracts the lascivious eye of a couple of the German soldiers, who track her through the Keep after she comes to get food in the mess, and assault her in a dark, lonely corridor. Mann pulls off another of his weird yet potent visual flourishes as he pans down from Eva’s body, suspended between the two would-be rapists, to the leather boot of one soldier, an almost fetishistic contrast of the soft and feminine with macho brutality. As with the appeal to greed that helped set it free, the assault on Eva only stimulates the entity’s appetite as well as its cunning: the entity, now a ball of fire and smoke reminiscent of the one that pursues the hero of Night of the Demon (1957), surges through the Keep’s innards and falls on the soldiers, who disintegrate messily as the entity absorbs them.

Mann lingers on the image of the entity, now with two burning red eye-like orbs attached to a glowing brain stem, peering out of a writhing pillar of mist, carrying Eva with tender-seeming care back to her and her father’s room, a particularly strange distillation of the classic image of the monster and the maiden, whilst the scoring imbues the vision with the overtone of angelic deliverance. The stunned Cuza nonetheless retains his wit and will sufficiently to tell the entity to release his daughter. The entity speaks to Cuza, accusing him of collaborating with the Nazis: Cuza responds vehemently that he’d do anything to stop them, so the entity reaches out and touches him, giving him a shock of energy. When he regains consciousness, Cuza finds that he’s been restored to full health and mobility, and he realises why quickly enough: the entity wants his help to escape the Keep, which still entraps him. When he again encounters the entity, whose name, Molasar (Michael Carter), is only uttered once in the film, the mysterious being refers to the Jews as “my people” and vows to destroy the Nazis if Cuza will help him escape the Keep: Cuza agrees to find a mysterious energy source hidden in the grand cavern, an object Molasar describes as the source of his power and must be removed if he is to leave the Keep’s confines.

Mann’s enigmatic approach to the entity and the supernatural drama emphasises the humans in between ultimate good and evil as enacting gradations. “You believe in Gods, I’ll believe in men,’ Cuza tells Fonescu, and yet both material and emblematic conflicts have to play out to their bitter end. Where Thief had mooted Mann’s fascination for self-enclosed, self-directing protagonists, The Keep introduced his other career-long obsession, one with with doppelgangers, characters sharing similar traits and characters who often find they have surprising kinships, yet are doomed to clash violently because they’ve become, or were born, disciples of opposing creeds. It’s a preoccupation Mann would notably take into Manhunter, which revolves around the hero’s capacity to enter into the mindset of his repulsive quarries, and Heat (1995), where the cop and criminal have more affinity for each-other than anyone else, as well as The Last of the Mohicans (1991), where the heroes and villains are linked but also perfectly distinguished by their responses to loss of home and habitat. Mann would extend his recurrent imagery and implications to the point where he’d shoot Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat (2015) in a way that would make him look strikingly similar to Glenn in this film. In The Keep Mann’s preoccupation is presented in a set of generically rigid yet unstable binaries: Woermann and Kaempffer, representing Nazi Germany’s armed forces and yet divided by completely different characters and philosophies, contrasted with the atheist Cuza and Orthodox priest Fonescu, who’s desperate to do anything to keep his learned friend safe, and gives Cuza a crucifix as a gesture of protective feeling: Cuza hands the cross on to Woermann. In the course of The Keep, the link between the overt evil of the Nazis, particularly Kaempffer, and the entity as manifestation and overlord of their diseased ideals, is constantly reiterated; Woermann likens the twisted psyches of the Nazis to the illogical forms of the Keep’s architecture, and the entity itself no mere stand-in for their sick fantasies but the secret source of them.

As the film unfolds the affinities evolve and twist: Fonescu, under the influence of the evil in the Keep, degenerates into a ranting fanaticism for his creed like Kaempffer, whilst Cuza’s physical prostration is mimicked by Woermann’s moral impotence. At the same time the shaded oppositions cast Woermann as a pawn of the necessities of patriotism in the same way the entity turns Cuza into his Faustian representative: Cuza’s desire to smash the Nazis is realised but as he flexes his fist in his new strength he unconsciously mimics a fascist salute. Behind each set of mirroring protagonists, the eternal champions of light and dark, converging in the Keep. Glenn’s Glaeken is glimpsed making his way to the Dinu Pass, frightening and intimidating a pair of Romanian border guards at a checkpoint when his eyes again flash with brilliant energy as he warns them not to touch the case he has strapped to his motorcycle, a marvellously eerie vignette. Fittingly for a character intended as the pure incarnation of good, the otherworldly Glaeken is also presented as the ne plus ultra of Mannian hero figures: mostly silent, he dominates purely by corporeal presence and baleful charisma, communicated by a stare that seems to x-ray people even when not radiating supernatural energy. Mann had Glenn base his character’s odd, halting, ritualistic speaking style on the vocalisation of electronic musician Laurie Anderson. Glaeken turns up in the village at last making claim to a room in the inn which has been promised to Eva, after Woermann and Cuza outmanoeuvre Kaempffer in getting her out of the Keep. Glaeken the eternal warrior seems to have been left to wander the earth until needed to exterminate Molasar once and for all, and he quickly seduces Eva.

Mann’s debt to William Friedkin as a source of influence on his style – one that would reverse for To Live and Die In L.A. (1986), much to Mann’s displeasure – is apparent in The Keep through borrowing of Tangerine Dream’s pulsing, estranging sonic textures and a visual preoccupation with machines in motion from Sorcerer (1977), and subsuming that film’s subtler sense of atavistic powers working behind the mask of inanimate yet strangely motivated things. Mann’s style is its own thing, that said, to a radical degree. Mann contrives glimpses of grotesque and perplexing things, like the discovery of a dead soldier under the carved words comes in an obliquely framed glimpse of the man’s head fused into the wall, one staring eye amidst a charred black face, and Eva realising she can’t see Glaeken’s reflection in a mirror in what seems a perfectly intimate moment. The colour palette of Alex Thompson’s brilliant photography is mostly reduced to a sprawl of slate greys and blacks and misty whites, tellingly broken up only by the red of the SS Nazi armbands and the glowing eyes of Molasar. The film is full of disorientating jump cuts and discordant camera angles, work to sever a clear sense of chronology and context, as precise measures of time and place cease to be relevant as if within an explosion of the innermost Id, whilst relating back to classic genre cinema and the sense imbued by works from Lang through to Val Lewton of a world gone mad: indeed the cumulative sense of isolated paranoia closely resembles Isle of the Dead (1945), with which it shares a wartime setting and invocation of imminent doom in an isolated locale that seems to have slipped off the edge of the world’s physical and psychic maps.

Molasar meanwhile poses as a saviour to please and manipulate Cuza, who’s desperate to find a way to halt the Nazi onslaught: the Molasar costume, designed by Enki Bilal, an artist for the storied sci-fi and fantasy comic book Heavy Metal, was designed to be reminiscent of Wegener’s Golem with its dark, lumpen, bulbous, stony form, and Molasar, like the Golem of myth, promises to be a righteous weapon defending the faithful and victimised, only to prove a destructive monster. Molasar needs a man like Cuza to release him because, as Glaeken later mentions when he confronts Cuza, only an uncorrupted soul can even approach the imprisoning talisman. McKellen, who after playing D.H. Lawrence in Priest of Love (1981) was having a brief moment as a major film actor long before his eventual resurgence in the mid-1990s, wields a noticeably plummy American accent, but ultimately gives a galvanic, impressively corporal performance in playing an intellectual hero who nonetheless experiences his world physically in his relationship with his wrecked body and frustrated will, and whose transfiguration from angry cripple to empowered and determined avenger has suggestions of both spiritual and erotic overtones – “He touched my body!” he tells Eva in describing his encounter with Molasar. This echoes again in Glaeken’s seduction of Eva, an act that has the flavour of ritual, the lovers become vessels connecting the immortal and mortal, sacred and earthly, flesh and alien substance, culminating in the couple forming themselves into a cruciform.

Prochnow was undoubtedly handed the part of Woermann because of his similar role as the intelligent and humane U-boat captain fighting for an evil cause in Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1981), although Woermann’s ultimately quite a different character, and Prochnow gives a subtly apposite performance. Where the captain was endlessly tough and resourceful in defence of his men and his command whilst maintain open cynicism for their cause, Woermann is already bursting at the seams when he arrives at the Keep, haunted by witnessing SS men slaughtering people in Poznan, and by the wish he’d fought in the international brigades in Spain and had taken a stand against Nazism before it consumed his and everyone else’s lives. His punishment for his failures of nerve is to be stricken with ineffectiveness in protecting his men, relieved only by upbraiding the icily revolted Kaempffer, who ultimately diagnoses Woermann in turn with “the debilitating German disease – sentimental talk.” Woermann describes Kaempffer’s version of strength as having become literal in the Keep, a force of evil beyond imagining, the manifestation of all the sick psyches that have been given guns and carte blanche to slaughter. The clashes between Woermann and Kaempffer are unusually potent rhetorical vignettes thanks in part to the intensity of the two performers, inhabiting archetypal roles, the classic liberal and the perfect fascist: Woermann ferocious in his denunciations of evil but lacking the necessary edge to be truly effective, Kaempffer all too willing to do anything to make the Nazi ideal real, and willing to murder anyone who stands in opposition, including, ultimately, Woermann.

Their clash reaches its climax when Kaempffer furiously shoots Woermann in the back, just as Woermann, hearing his men screaming as Molasar assaults them, grabs up Fonescu’s cross, and he dies with it in his bloody hands. Kaempffer, plucking the cross from Woermann’s bloody hands, heads out into Keep’s atrium only to find all the remaining Germans killed, some fused into the walls, others scattered in smouldering chunks across the floor, their war machines twisted and melted, as if Molasar has become some Picasso-like modern artist working in the medium of stone, steel, and flesh to create mangled interpretations of warfare. Kaempffer is confronted by Molasar, causing him to drop to the ground wailing for Jesus to protect him, brandishing the crucifix. Molasar seems momentarily afraid of the icon, which resembles the talisman that holds him in the keep, so Kaempffer gathers up enough of his customary arrogacne to stand and face the thing. “What are you?” he demands. “Where do you come from?” the amused hulk asks: “I am you.” He takes the cross from Kaempffer, crushes it, and casually sucks the life from him with the same pitiless ease with which Kaempffer murdered, the Nazi releasing a bone-chilling shriek as he does. This is a brilliant moment where even the utterly despicable Kaempffer earns a flash of cringe-inducing empathy in the face of such pure, inhuman malevolence.

Mann’s hope to make a parable about fascism might well have been a tad pretentious, but he succeeds within the film’s dream logic as Mann paints in visual textures the symbolic drama he’s describing. Molasar literally feeds off the darker desires in the men who release him, and in turn stirs people to more and more destructive acts. Kaempffer’s total embrace of Nazi ideology and methods makes him the human equivalent of Molasar, aiming to build “the next thousand years of history” on the bones of necessary sacrifice, but Molasar even uses Cuza’s own best qualities against him by posing as a messianic saviour figure simply by appealing to his righteous anger and hunger for revenge. The blackened, shrivelled, charred bodies of the Germans ironically resemble holocaust and atomic bomb victims, the casual victims of the war’s unleashed apocalyptic logic. Mann’s depiction of the Keep’s architecture, a strange space of uncertain angles and spaces above the mammoth, black, atavistic cavern, presents an ingenious visualisation of what Woermann describes as “twisted fantasies” of Nazism, growing out of the Nietzschean abyss, the abyss that looks back and sees right through all civilised and intelligent pretences. In this manner, Mann expands on Kracauer’s key concept of the Expressionist cinema movement as directly expressing the collective neurosis gripping Germany after World War I, which finally malformed into susceptibility to Nazism.

Mann’s concept of the Keep nods then back to the Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919) and Metropolis (1926), films that offered their stylised physical world as discrete emanations of human will and mind, beset by insane and sclerotic sectors. The Keep’s interior recalls the cavernous zones of Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1923), and the windmill in James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) where the good doctor performed his experiments, with alternation of spaces vast and cramped, soaring and warped, fashioned with rough and inhospitable brickwork. In most classic Expressionist Horror the weird world presented in them was the world nonetheless for the characters who exist in them, except notably in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari which laid down the template but also revoked it by presenting the key drama as the ravings of a madman. Mann does something similar in the opening moments of The Keep by emphasising Woermann’s act of seeing the village and the Keep, presenting his drama as subliminal, with a sense of passing through a discrete veil between waking and oneiric states, and everything encountered beyond there is operating on an unreal level. Whilst Kracauer’s thesis that Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari expressed a collective wish for a paternal dictator to restore shape to reality remains largely unconvincing, Mann puts it good use, correlating the perverse mental projections of the Expressionist style with the reality-distorting influence of Molasar. At the same time The Keep is also a movie that was, in 1983, a work defining a stylistic moment in moviemaking, which it quite obviously belongs to with its obsessive use of diffused lighting effects and backlit shots, as well as the dreamy slow motion and music: Mann follows Das Boot not just in casting Prochnow but in annexing its blithely anachronistic electronic score.

It’s often hard to exactly pinpoint in a compromised work like The Keep where exactly directorial intention and jarring interference diverge: what is apparently true is that Mann was forced to cut the film down from two hours to just over an hour and half. Eva’s swift seduction by Glaeken is often taken to be one sign of editing, but frankly it seems to me like one of the more purely Mannian elements of the film: near-instantaneous fusion of lost and needy souls is common in his movies, like John Dillinger’s swift claiming of Billie Frechette in Public Enemies (2009). There are however snippets of interaction between Eva and Glaeken in the film’s trailer that certainly suggest their scenes were cut down. The rough transition around the one-hour mark more clearly demonstrates interference. What’s presumably supposed to be the insidious infiltration of the village by Molasar’s influence comes on far too suddenly, particularly Fonescu’s pivot from kindly, good-humoured friend of Cuza to a ranting loony who barks zealous scripture at him. Soon after, in a moment difficult to parse on initial viewings Eva goes to Fonescu for aid only to find he’s sacrificed a dog on the altar of his church and is drinking its blood from a goblet. There was also a scene of Alexandru being murdered by his sons with an axe.

Given Mann’s stylisation, however, the jagged editing and resulting elisions really only reinforce the generally unmoored mood of the tale, the sense of obscene things lurking in the corner of the eye and numinous forces working relentless influence on the merely human. What was lost from the film through cutting, as well as some of the integrity of the last act, was Mann’s attempt to film the idea of evil as a miasmic influence, meant to mimic the fascist sway picking at the stitches of society and stampeding the world towards barbarian ruin. On the other hand, most of that stuff is supernal to the essential drama: Kaempffer and Woermann’s deaths transfer the weight of the story on Cuza and Eva. Moreover, it’s apparent that when faced with cutting the film, Mann often chose to jettison plot sequences to concentrate on moments commanding his bleary and submerged sense of atmosphere – that long shot of the fishing boat sailing into the dawn, for instance, kept instead of a moment taken from the book where Glaeken kills the captain of the boat who tries to doublecross him. Glenn, the top-billed actor, is nonetheless barely in The Keep for most of its first half, and even when he does arrive at the Keep he remains detached, ambiguous: authentic good is as alien as pure evil.

Glaeken seems to wield some sort of psychic power over Eva, brushing a hand over her eyes to make her sleep as they together in bed, a subtler but equally coercive force to the one Molasar wields. Glaeken senses through Magda the nature of her father’s compact with Molasar, and when Cuza takes a chance to leave the Keep with the German guards insensible under Molasar’s influence, Glaeken warns him about Molasar’s true nature and need. Cuza refuses to believe him, and drops hints about his presence to Kaempffer, who immediately sends some of his men to bring him in. When Eva frantically protests the arrest and gets into a tussle with the soldiers, Glaeken, to protect her, begins tossing the soldiers about like nine-pins, only to be machine-gunned: splotches of luminous green blood appear all over his torso and he refuses to die, until he plunges into the ravine and finishing up sprawled on a ledge where the Nazis presume him dead. Molasar’s subsequent slaughter of the remaining Germans clears the way for Cuza to descend into the cavern and locate the talisman, which he then carries back to the surface, whilst Glaeken revives and begins climbing the jagged ravine wall.

Mann offers one of his signature sequences here, a mesmerically constructed climactic running montage set to intensifying music, later exemplified by the likes of the hero’s Iron Butterfly-scored dash to the rescue in Manhunter and the clifftop chase in The Last of the Mohicans. Mann cuts between Glaeken hauling himself up the ravine face, still covered in glowing green blood (a touch notably recycled by Predator, 1986), whilst Cuza retrieves the talisman, which Molasar can’t even look at. Cuza climbs up through the cavern, a vast, eerie space filled with unknowably ancient ruins and signs of mystique-ridden history, all set music sampling operatic choruses and a church bell-like propelling rhythm. Striding down a corridor as he re-enters the Keep, Cuza’s progress is marked by the crosses on the wall glow in reaction to the talisman’s passing. Glaeken, after escaping the ravine, opens the case he carried to the Keep and removes what appears to be a simple metal tube, actually a weapon capable of destroying Molasar. This passage is one of Mann’s greatest units of filmmaking, and reaches its apotheosis as Cuza reaches the atrium, only to meet a dazed Eva, who tries to stop him removing the talisman. Molasar, watching on as the two struggle, commands Cuza to kill her and continue out.

As if in humanistic rewrite of the Abraham and Isaac myth, Cuza turns on the monster and demands of it, “Who are you that I should prove myself by killing my daughter?” before insisting that if the talisman is Molasar’s, he should be able to take it out himself. This marvellous climactic moment closes the loop on the moral drama before the supernatural battle can occur, as Cuza’s faith in men is proven right by his own deed, refuting the famous test of Abraham’s faith whilst sticking up for the nobility of the reasoning person. McKellen’s challenge to the monster, shouting “Take it!” with the ferocity of hero facing down a demon, is every bit as epic as McKellen’s confrontation in the guise of Gandalf with Balrog in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring some seventeen years later. Infuriated, Molasar reduces Cuza to his crippled state again, but before he can kill Cuza and Eva, Glaeken walks in with his cosmic bazooka, fitting the talisman into its muzzle and unleashing energy rays that charge the crosses and drive Molasar back into the Keep. Of all the sequences in The Keep the finale was the most crudely curtailed by Veever’s death, production quagmire, and Mann’s own creative uncertainty. What was intended to be an epic showdown was reduced to a straightforward scene where Glaeken, despite knowing that “when he goes, I go,” as he tells Eva earlier, nonetheless confronts Molasar with the intention of annihilating him.

Mann interpolates flash visions that hint at alien origins for Glaeken, whose physiognomy changes to match Molasar’s (Molasar already resembling Glaeken in turn in his complete form, nudging the refrain of dualistic kinship), and a close-up of his eyes as he wields the energy weapon sees a kind of mesh grid has been exposed on them. When Molasar tries to hit his foe with an energy pulse as Glaeken glances to make sure the Cuzas are safe, Glaeken responds by blasting a hole through Molasar, who returns to a formless state and is sucked back into the cavern. Glaeken, after giving a last, forlorn gesture to Eva, is then sucked in after him, disappearing through the cavern door amidst blinding white light. And yet, once again, apart from the rather jagged edit in the brief combat of the two beings, the climax feels more consistent with the movie as it stands than a more drawn-out fight would have. The proper climax of the story we’ve been told is Cuza’s challenge to Molasar, proving that Molasar cannot ultimately corrupt everyone. Glaeken’s arrival merely delivers the coup-de-grace, although this comes complete with a memorable vision of his weapon gathering power, pulling in energy with a rising whir before unleashing primeval force.

Mann instead, typically, places the weight of the scene’s power and meaning on the intensity of the gestures and visuals, particularly in Glenn’s deliberately stone-faced yet delicately plaintive characterisation as Glaeken finally proves he’s a true white knight, fearlessly eliminating the evil despite knowing it will cost him everything, leaving behind Eva screaming in dismay. A TV reedit of the film, screened a few years after The Keep’s theatrical release, sported a restored coda based on the novel’s ending, in which Eva descends into the cavern and finds Glaeken still alive there, restored to mortal form. This was excised from the theatrical release, an odd move in itself, as presumably movie studios would usually take the more clearly upbeat ending. The movie proper instead concludes on an enigmatic note, as Fonescu and other villagers, now free of the evil influence, rush to help the Cuzas, and Mann offers a final freeze frame of Eva staring back into the Keep, as if hoping, or sensing, Glaeken is still within, still existing in some form. Again, Mann’s choice here prizes evocation over literalism, with the surging, soulful music and the image of Eva capturing an iconic impression, of triumph bought at a cost, and love as strong as death. The Keep is undoubtedly an untidy, misshapen work, but it’s also a uniquely potent and densely packed work of brilliance, and to my mind close to ideal of what a Horror movie should be.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Fantasy, Historical

Conan The Barbarian (1982)

Director: John Milius
Screenwriters: John Milius, Oliver Stone

By Roderick Heath

Conan the Cimmerian was created by Robert E. Howard, a Texan writer who committed suicide at a young age after writing a string of stories about his ancient warrior hero, mostly published by the fabled pulp magazine Weird Tales in the early 1930s. Howard took inspiration from the rugged landscapes of his native state, particularly around the Rio Grande, whilst his vision of a primal champion in Conan was synthesised from a stew of classical and scholarly sources and anthropological theories of dubious worth and validity. His Conan roamed the vast spaces of Eurasia in an epoch, as the memorable opening narration of the film puts it in slightly paraphrasing Howard, “between the time the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas,” battling not just other warriors but also monsters, sorcerers, sacrificial cults, and many a tyrannical ruler. Rising from an obscure background as the son of a village blacksmith to become a famed pirate and mercenary and eventually capturing his own kingdom, Howard’s Conan was nonetheless also an intelligent and chivalrous figure, a figure who, like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, condensed both stubbornly evinced humanity and instinctive natural potency into a singular frame, inhabiting two zones of being at once.

Howard’s stories retained a cultish following amongst sci-fi and fantasy writers, with talents like Poul Anderson, Robert Jordan, and L. Sprague de Camp all writing their own stories featuring the character. The famous cover art Frank Frazetta supplied for such extensions to the mythos helped keep the cult alive, soon backed up by comic books in the 1970s. The success of Star Wars (1977), which fused science fiction with fantasy and captured the imagination of a generation, sparked a brief moment when producers and studios became interested in fantasy films again. This resulted in some lovably cheap and inventive emulations like Terry Marcel’s Hawk the Slayer (1980) and Don Coscarelli’s The Beastmaster (1982), and a pair of truly great entries in John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) and Conan the Barbarian. John Milius, the most notoriously eccentric, intense, and intransigent member of the Movie Brat director generation, chose to take on the challenge of bringing Conan to the big screen after shooting his plaintive surfing tale Big Wednesday (1978), and he talked entrepreneur-producer Dino De Laurentiis and the rights owner Edward R. Pressman into joining forces to produce it. An equally intense and wilful, if politically rather dissimilar young Hollywood talent in Oliver Stone, fresh off his breakthrough success writing Midnight Express (1978), had written a script for Pressman. But his purportedly post-apocalyptic take was potentially far too expensive, and Milius fought to revise it.

When it came to who should play the lead, the filmmakers faced the problem of finding someone who could physically inhabit the role of a brawny ancient warrior and act well enough to carry the film. Pressman had kept one man in mind since watching the bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron (1978), an Austrian immigrant who had taken out the Mister Universe title four times, and projected unique charisma despite his thick accent and mouthful of a name – Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan the Barbarian, a big hit on first release that soon spawned its own wave of imitations and rip-offs, has retained despite critical sniffiness its own, special, seemingly ever-growing cult status. One particular, elusive aspect of Conan the Barbarian’s appeal is the way what seems to be its faults prove eventually to be part of its unique power. Rather than offering a straightforwardly action-packed, campy fantasy-adventure, Milius set out to create a movie that plays essentially as a fantastical bildungsroman, an attempt to encompass a hero’s growth from small boy to a man gaining full maturity in the sense not only of physical strength but also mental freedom and moral choice.

This puts Conan the Barbarian in a zone with other great works of fantastical metaphor, like Tolkien’s alternating visions of individual and communal questing and the original Star Wars trilogy’s portrait of adolescence giving way to adulthood: Conan the Barbarian has a very similar motif, but goes further in following its protagonist into the consequences of that adulthood. Milius was certainly assimilating aspects of his friend George Lucas’ hit, borrowing the voice of Darth Vader James Earl Jones to play another dark father figure to his emerging hero, albeit one tweaked to Milius’ sensibility. One accidentally self-imposed hurdle Conan the Barbarian has to surmount is that its early scenes are so vivid in their soaring, violent, operatic evocation of prehistoric lore and drama the rest has a hard time living up to them. The opening narration, voiced by Akiro (Mako Iwamatsu), later revealed as a wizard and eventual helpmate of Conan’s, makes like an ancient storyteller with his throaty voice heard over a field of pitch black, beginning his account of the great hero’s life in “the days of high adventure.”

The opening credits, scored by Basil Poledouris’ designedly awesome main theme “The Anvil of Crom,” portray Conan’s father (William Smith) forging a sword, as his wife (Nadiuska) and young son (Jorge Sanz) look on and help work the billows, in a scene bathed in the light of furnace flames and molten metal. The glowing blade is doused in snow at dawn and the last artisanal features added to complete a masterpiece of craftsmanship, at least by the standards of Conan’s Cimmerian tribe living snowy folds under soaring mountains: the sword is creation not merely of martial artistry but a nexus of cultural and communal expression, implement and totem, tool and artwork. One rite gives way to another as father imparts the lore of their tribe’s god Crom and the Riddle of Steel to his son as they sit on a mountain peak, boiling clouds rushing overhead. The Riddle of Steel, supposedly a piece of arcane wisdom left on the battlefields of ancient gods after some grand Titanomachy, actually has nothing to do with metallurgy and everything to do with humanity, and grasping the answer is the process of a lifetime, immediately setting the terms of Conan’s life, even as his father advises the only thing he can ultimately trust is a good sword.

This lesson proves timely as Conan is about to lose all contact with his roots. A band of mounted raiders, led by the mysterious warlord Thulsa Doom (Jones) and his henchmen Rexor (Ben Davidson) and Thorgrim (Sven-Ole Thorsen), riding out of the wintry forests and attack the Cimmerian village, slaughtering all in sight, including Conan’s father, mauled to death by dogs after being wounded in the battle. Conan’s mother readies to defend her son, but Thulsa pacifies her with his oddly limpid, empathetic-seductive mesmerist’s gaze before, in a uniquely shocking moment, casually decapitating her, her headless body swaying away from Conan’s grasp before the boy even realises what’s happened. Conan is taken in chains with the rest of the village children and sold into slavery, driven across the frigid landscape and into a vast, craggy desert region where they’re chained to a huge wheel driving a millstone and forced to keep it turning day in and day out. Milius simply and brilliantly conveys the passage of time in montage as the number of slaves pushing the wheel depletes, whether dying from exhaustion or sold off, but Conan remains and grows, ironically refashioned from a small orphaned boy into a hulking, powerful man through his captors’ cruelties, until he’s pushing the wheel alone.

Here we gain our first glimpse of Schwarzenegger, lifting his shaggy-maned head as he stoically pushes the machine. Conan is bought by a gladiator trainer, Red Beard (Luis Barboo), who pitches him into death matches with vicious duellists for the pleasure of raving audiences. Conan’s great strength and instinctive fighting talent quickly turns him from combat grist to beloved champion, but Conan lacks any sense of his existence beyond the pleasure of victory and the crowd’s cheers. Soon Red Beard takes him east to be trained in swordcraft, and there he’s also introduced to less immediately practical aspects of life, including reading and being given slave girls to impregnate. Conan seems to be forged into the perfect weapon for service to other warriors, glimpsed sitting chained and cross-legged in the camp of some Mongol warlords, a tamed beast perfectly annunciating a blunt and brutal warrior credo. But Red Beard soon takes him out of camp and sets him free, for reasons Akiro in voiceover can only speculate over, as if his owner sensed something untamed, despite his pet status, residing yet in Conan, demanding freedom even without knowing it.

Fleeing wild dogs across the wilderness, Conan falls into a hidden pit and finds himself in an underground chamber, part of some lost ruin of a fallen civilisation, possibly Atlantis, where a long-dead king still sits on his throne, patches of skin and bone still attached to dusty bones. Conan takes the king’s sword and finds it, despite its caking of dirt and age, far superior to any other sword he’s seen, able to cut the shackles still on his ankles away. This long introduction, taking a half-hour to unfold, is particularly notable in managing to convey Conan’s stages of early life whilst playing almost as a silent film. Only a few scattered lines of dialogue and passages of Akiro’s narration are heard, and even those are essentially unnecessary. Milius displays total mastery over cinematic storytelling, creating the mystique of Conan and his family and conveying the nature of the tragedy that comes upon them on an iconographic level, everything rendered larger-than-life and classically vivid. The spur of Thulsa’s raid, his desire for steel weapons, registers in the crucial gesture of Rexor gifting him the sword Conan’s father died wielding, the same one he was forging at the start, whilst his gifts of supernatural power are evinced in his act of murderous mesmerism. Conan’s growth on the wheel and schooling in a cruel, combative life in the gladiator pits is as close to perfect as visual exposition gets.

Whilst the simultaneous emergence of Peter Jackson’s adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and the first Harry Potter films finally made fantasy film a powerful pop culture mode befitting the age of blockbusters and prestige television, it was long a notoriously difficult genre to sell. Ever since the monumental sets, huge battles, and amazing steam-puppet dragon featured in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924), it was plainly a genre fit for expansive cinematic visions armed with big budgets and significant production values. But fantasy was also a fairly esoteric genre rarely embraced with great passion by mainstream cinema audiences to a degree where producers and studios felt much confidence in making such epics. Occasionally major works like The Thief of Bagdad (1940) were made, whilst scattered international entries drew on various local mythic traditions like Alexander Ptushko’s versions of Russia folklore and Japanese films like The Birth of Japan (1958), but for decades Ray Harryhausen’s beloved stop-motion movies drawn from legends and the Italian peplum genre offered one, epitomised by Mario Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (1961), with fervently colourful visions achieved on low budgets, were the only regular examples seen by mass audiences. But this sustenance came at a price, ghettoising the genre for a long time as a zone of wooden musclemen, cheap sets, and tacky monsters, made chiefly for very young audiences.

Conan the Barbarian stood for a long time as one of the few, true examples of a well-produced, highly ambitious fantasy film, and one that represented a rather more mature, or at least more pubescent, wing of the genre at that. Where on the page works like Tolkien’s great sprawls of mythopoeic imagination, built on the example of writers like Lord Dunsany and E.R. Eddison, epitomised the loftiest reaches of the High Fantasy style, Howard’s early Conan stories helped codify a fierce, weird, violent and sexually aware variation, the so-called “Sword and Sorcery” style. That style would eventually inspire eccentric riffs like Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné tales, and birth more recent, sophisticated and morally complex works like Andrzej Sapkowski’s The Witcher cycle and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels, with their emphasis on vast world-building, cruel realism mixed with familiar tropes, and slatherings of sex, violence, and satirical humour. With Conan the Barbarian Milius managed to perfectly reproduce and amplify the visual lore of the early Sword and Sorcery style presented through illustrations from the likes of Frazetta and Boris Vallejo, one where scantily-clad musclemen and amazons clad with glowing bronze skin battle dragons in strange and teeming landscapes, amidst a mythical past replete with orgies, dancing girls, musclemen, concussive combat, and all the other paraphernalia of macho onanism.

Milius and Stone’s efforts with their script nonetheless took Conan some distance from Howard’s original concept. Some characters are amalgamations of those found in the stories, like Valeria, who assimilates many aspects of the pirate queen Bêlit, and Thulsa Doom was borrowed from another of Howard’s properties, the King Kull stories. Howard’s Conan was never enslaved and maintained his liberty jealously, whereas the film essentially concerns itself with Conan relearning a sense of his own identity and mission after being schooled in ruthlessly pragmatic things. Milius’ portrayal of Conan as sometimes callow and crude, essentially an overgrown boy on an emotional level, once he’s actually let loose in the world, sits somewhat at odds with the character’s gallant and sophisticated streak in the books. There is a creative reason for this in terms of the film’s overall design, of course, as the journey towards full manhood is Milius’ subject here: Conan is becoming himself, complete as a fantasy projection as a certain ideal of elemental manhood. Milius remakes Conan in the image of his own protagonists, including the hero of his screenplay for Jeremiah Johnson (1972), who thrives beyond civilisation and learns to survive terrible losses, and the surfers of Big Wednesday, who similarly discover the pain of aging is necessary as they leave behind their immature traits and rise to the state of mystic kings in their battle with nature. As in Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan embarks on a mission to bring down a self-appointed messiah. Like the title character of Dillinger (1973) and Sheikh Raisuli of The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan becomes at once outlaw and a momentary manifestation of the eternal romantic hero, creations out of time that only manifest when history and societies have entered a state of flux.

Conan’s path begins to take shape when he comes across the hut of a solitary witch who seems to promise knowledge that can guide him, demanding her price of having sex with her. This seemingly easy price proves rather more steep when at the point of orgasm she transforms into a vampiric creature: Conan manages to hurl her into the hearth, whereupon she becomes a fireball that flees into the night, her cackling laugh heard all the while. Before her transformation she directs him to the city of Zamora, “crossroads of the world.” In the morning Conan finds a man chained up behind her hut, Subotai (Perry Lopez), who claims to be a great warrior but fell for the same trap as Conan. The two men are fast friends and allies, becoming thieves to live whilst Conan pursues his quest to track down Thulsa Doom through his twinned snake symbol. Eventually he learns this is now the emblem of the Snake Cult of Set, a rapidly spreading religious cult attracting young adherents but with a reputation for foul rituals and nocturnal murder. Conan and Subotai decide to break into one of the cult’s towers hoping to rob the jewels kept within, and meet up with Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), another thief, and they quickly make an alliance. The trio successfully rob the sect’s treasures whilst one of the female cultists is prepared for sacrifice to a huge snake living in the tower’s basement, which, unknown to Conan, is supervised by Rexor. Conan is forced to kill the snake rites before he and Subotai flee whilst Valeria runs interference, with Conan pausing to snatch a medallion emblazoned with the cult’s symbol. After escaping, Conan and Valeria become lovers.

Woven in amongst the high and elemental drama are flourishes of humour that keep the film from becoming too onerous whilst resisting feeling shoehorned or removed from the rest of its finite texture. One of Conan’s swordmasters, after slapping his face in censure for a poor move, suddenly swivelling and kicking another trainee in the testicles for grinning at Conan’s humiliation. Later, Conan and Subotai wander about Zamora, stoned on “black lotus,” recalling the heroes of Big Wednesday in their foolish-innocent exploration of the world, and in a gag pinched from Cat Ballou (1965) Conan groggily punches out a camel. “Success can test one’s mettle as surely as the strongest adversary,” Akiro dryly notes in narrating as the three thieves use their riches to indulge hedonism until Conan faints face-first in his soup, a jokey moment that nonetheless reasserts the basic preoccupation with Conan’s story as a journey through life. More immediately, indulgence robs their keen edge, leaving them easy targets when some guards sent by the King of Zamora, Osric, come to round them up. Osric, played in in a peach of a seriocomic cameo by Max von Sydow, seems to be berating the captive trio but actually wants to congratulate them: Osric loathes the snake cult and is happy the thieves have offended its mysterious leader and his minions. With his own daughter (Valérie Quennessen) recently seduced into the cult’s ranks and their assassins sowing havoc, Osric offers Conan and company his fortune simply to travel to the cult’s base, the Mountain of Power, and kidnap his daughter back. Valeria and Subotai want to run away with their riches, but Conan sets out alone in the belief he will find his nemeses. And sure enough, he does: quickly found out as he tries to infiltrate the cult, Conan is brutalised and brought before his foe.

The intoxicating fantasy allure of Conan and his world is, of course, the dream of unfettered freedom and perfect self-reliance. Milius’ shots of Conan and Subotai running cross vast landscapes, driven on from locale to exotic locale by the sweep of the photography and Poledouris’ romantic strains combine to create the kinds of cinematic visions it’s easy to want to live within. Similarly, Milius distils Conan and Valeria’s love affair into a series of wordless shots that see them moving from first gestures of tenderness – Conan caresses her palm with a huge jewel stolen from the temple – to sexual pleasure, happy companionship, and finally a crucial image of Valeria gathering Conan’s head to her chest, making it perfectly plain that they’ve fallen deeply in love through her look commingling ardour and shock, the surprise of two lonely, hardened souls finding each-other, a moment counterbalanced by the forlorn sight of Valeria awakening to find Conan gone. The quality of warmth and good-humour connects Conan and his small but growing band, and imbues the relished violence and gaudy trashiness with more than mere ornamental amusement: the essential isolation of the characters in a lawless, careless world is a constant refrain, and the assailed likeableness of the heroes is vital.

If The Terminator (1984) would fully cement Schwarzenegger as a movie star by cleverly exploiting his formidable and alien side, Conan the Barbarian nonetheless gave him his starring break. Whereas in The Terminator the façade of Schwarzenegger’s body would be peeled to reveal steel and mechanics, an illusory construct betraying the breakdown of natural reference points in a specifically modern fashion, Conan the Barbarian shows us rather the perfect body being built, woven in muscle and sinew, as the product of subjugation and adversity, a fantasy ideal of masculinity beheld in its primal cradle. And yet Schwarzenegger’s casting was most canny in comprehending his potential appeal was based not simply in his honed physique and stature but in the almost childlike aspect to his persona. The boyish enthusiasm he expressed even in talking about adult things in Pumping Iron, and which would later make him beloved to young fans for which he represented a sort of cartoon vision of their own ideals of adulthood, informs his Conan on a fundamental level. The character retains a quality of innocence amidst bloodshed and depravity, the violence of his severing from his roots and the segregation of his life from the common run in maturing leaving him bewildered by the world at large, his driving need for revenge long defined by the distraught and immoderate quality of an orphaned boy.

The potentially discomforting scene when Conan is given a slave girl to breed with by the swordmasters is marked by Conan’s appeasing gentleness in calming the fearful girl and wrapping her in a blanket, a gentlemanly act that ironically makes her entirely pliable, and Conan’s expression of curiosity slowly becoming lust reveals some of Schwarzenegger’s nascent skill in gestural acting. The quality of innocence returns at crucial intervals, particularly during his affair with Valeria, plain in that key moment of mutual recognition and also in Valeria’s sorry appeal to Conan not to go after Thulsa, confessing all her feelings of longing whilst surviving alone: despite their strength and guile as survivors, they’re both eternal exiles. Conan gains another oddball friend when he encounters the wizard Akiro (who wouldn’t be named on screen until the sequel, Conan the Destroyer, 1984), living in a haunted, deserted burial ground of ancient titans on a stretch of coastal plain. Conan and Akiro’s point of bonding is found when the wizard tries to ward off his hulking visitor with warnings of his supernatural power, only to earn Conan’s sceptical laughter, and they connect in their mutually sarcastic sense of the absurd.

Akiro explains he keeps the spirits inhabiting the mounds company with his mystic arts in exchange for the peace and solicitude he gains from living in a taboo spot where even Thulsa Doom won’t bother him. When Conan takes leave of him, he poses as one of the cultists heading to the Mountain of Power. Here Milius indulges some satire on hippiedom and religion in general with the dippy, flower child-like cultists and empty mysticism. “What do you see?” one monk asks him he as she directs him to look into a sacred pool: “Err – eternity!” Conan replies, to the monk’s slightly bewildered approval. An uglier edge to the satire manifests as a male monk tries to seduce Conan under the cover of spiritual ministry. This vignette courts homophobia, but also makes a lucid point about exploiters and abusers hiding within officially benign and beneficent organisations like churches. This idea is reiterated on a more ambitious and crucial scale as Thulsa Doom emerges as the head of the cult, preaching an embracing but apocalyptically cleansing faith to the young cultists he attracts, whilst actually practising foul and egomaniacal arts behind the scenes.

The cult of Set is revealed to be an apparatus designed to snare vast amounts of wealth, power, sexual partners for his core enclave of followers including Rexor and Thorgrim, and human foodstuff for Thulsa who proves something not exactly human. In this portion of the story Milius nods to his steeping in noir sources, including something Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse, in presenting the cult as opportunistic gangster sleazes, mixed with likeness to manipulative faux-gurus like Charles Manson and Jim Jones; Conan and friends’ rugged individualism and practicality provides the only firm counterbalance. Milius opens the film with a popular quote from Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” – which might be gilding the lily a tad, but it’s also an idea it certainly weaves into its texture, most literally in the mill wheel montage and connecting the rest of the story and its characters. The Riddle of Steel, as Thulsa eventually explains it when he and Conan finally meet again, is connected to this: “Steel isn’t strong, boy – flesh is stronger…What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?” Thulsa illustrates his point by encouraging one of his slavish adherents to jump from a cliff face to her death, the power of the mind to convince itself that reality isn’t real when gripped by a powerful idea from without, exposing the deepest nerve of Conan’s formative trauma and the ultimate end goal of his journey as gaining sufficient strength of mind to threw off Thulsa’s mesmeric control, and the things it represents.

The vignettes within the film, which gift titles to Poledouris’ compositions, have a symbolic specificity that signals a sense of the stages of life enacted through Conan’s journey. The wheel of pain. The gift of fury. The tree of woe. Wifeing. All feel like places we’ve all visited from time to time – tiring labour to survive, spurs to strive, pains to be shed, intimate happiness to be gained. Thulsa nominates himself for the role of Conan’s true, spiritual father and Darwinian mentor in forcing him to grow into a powerful man. Thulsa, finally coming into proper focus during his confrontation with Conan after his capture, gives Jones his chance to deploy satanic majesty in the character’s outsized charisma and air of enigmatic potency, shifting with musical precision from note to note as he admonishes Conan like a teacher chastising a naughty student, beams in conspiratorial glee at Conan when he proposes answering the riddle of steel and then exulting in his own strength as a controller of minds and bodies, before finally condemning Conan to be crucified. Jones’ voice, muffled in his famous work as Darth Vader, here gets to resound in all its plangent dimensions: who else could pronounce the words “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe” so well? Conan’s ordeal on the tree, which sees him snapping a vulture’s neck with his teeth when it stars gnawing on him, is a desperate passage that almost costs him his life, stranded on the twisted bough on a stark and baking plain. Finally he’s saved by Milius’ love for David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), that is, by Subotai appearing in the distance and nearing at a run that still feels painfully slow, and Conan starts a febrile laugh that conks out as he falls unconscious, at the very limit of his reserves.

Like all his Movie Brat alumni, Milius had a private roster of beloved movies he would repeatedly reference, wound deep into the texture of his films. This aspect of Conan the Barbarian is particularly notable as Milius tries to create a film sustaining the same self-mythologising texture as certain outsized and legendary epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959). The millwheel sequence nods to Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949), another film preoccupied with the nexus of physical and moral strength. Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) with its intensely rhythmic and stylised evocation of the past is also repeatedly nodded to (Prokofiev’s score for the film was actually used in Conan the Barbarian’s teaser trailer), and Milius directly recreates some shots from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) whilst taking licence from its basic plot of a sundry band of outsiders battling a malignant army with modest but lethal craft. Of course there’s also the assimilated legacy of every sword-and-sandal flick ever made, as well as many a Western, Sergio Leone in particular.

Another, less expected but insistently referenced touchstone is Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Whilst Kobayashi’s stylised and artificial approach to evoking the past was contrary to Milius’ attempts to conjure a vivid and three-dimensional world, nonetheless something of the same aesthetic runs right through Conan the Barbarian, most specifically in the way Milius shoots Conan’s encounter with the witch woman, signalling transformation in the same way as the “Yukionna” chapter with a shift to a cold blue light, and more direct reference comes later when Akiro paints Conan’s body all over with sacred symbols a la the “Hoichi the Earless” chapter. Some part of Conan the Barbarian’s more singular achievement lies is Milius’ rigour in trying to convey a sense of landscape and setting as concrete and palpable, almost a living thing in its own right, delivering in a manner fantasy cinema had long deserved but never quite received before. The film was shot in Spain by Jeremiah Johnson’s cinematographer Duke Callaghan (with some work by Gilbert Taylor, who dropped out of the production), a cliché locale to film fantasy and historical landscapes by that point, and yet Milius managed to make it feel unfamiliar, a place ripped out of some dark Jungian bole.

From the jagged, snowy mountains of the opening to the sun-baked plains and zoom shots across a wind-tossed sea into the setting sun, Milius made great use of Spanish locations, where ancient Roman and Moorish structures readily supplied Cyclopean ruins, helping deliver the ambience of a world perched between an unknowable legendary past and something more familiar, an ambience that is fascinatingly crucial in much fantasy fiction because past civilisations so often felt just as haunted by their ancestors as we do ours. Conan the Barbarian’s sense of grandeur and galvanising physicality is worked through Milius’ visual language, mostly purveyed through wide and master shots so as to better drink in the athleticism of his actors, with little of the kind of cheat editing used today to make actors look like great fighters. And to give them context in their surrounds, both the locations and the detail and solidity of Ron Cobb’s sets, with a sequence like the heroes’ crashing Thulsa’s orgy unfolding in a painterly fashion, replete with odd, did-I-really-see-that? touches. Watching the film back in the days of VHS and TV-cropped prints was always to lose something because of Milius and Callaghan’s use of deep-focus, widescreen framing.

One of the few others films I can think of to conjure such a rarefied sense of a fantasy landscape as Milius’ film is Ronald Moore’s The Silent Flute (1979), which was adapted from a project begun by Bruce Lee trying to illustrate spiritual concepts inherent in the kind of Zen philosophy attached to martial arts. Milius’ themes are of course earthier, his rugged individualist and Libertarian ideals illustrated in the only kind of setting where they’re vaguely tenable. Part of Conan’s journey is learning how necessary his allies are after his obsessiveness almost gets him killed, saved by Subotai because he and Valeria followed him, and Akiro does his best to keep his soul and body together with mystic healing, whilst warning that the powerful spirits living amidst the mounds will try to claim Conan. Valeria and Subotai literally fight off death in the form of the creepy animated spirits that flock around Conan and try to make off with his body, until his eyes flicker open in the dawn light after a long, dark night of magic and terror. Valeria’s promise to Akiro that she will pay the toll for keeping Conan alive to the spirits later prove to have very real consequences.

Milius chose his lead performers because the film needed physical types, including Davidson and Thorsen who were taller than Schwarzenegger and looked intimidating enough to be threats to him. Bergman, a dancer who had appeared in Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), earned a few more fantasy roles thanks to her part here, including the villain of Red Sonja (1985) and the title character in the bizarre She (1985). Her acting limitations quickly became clear, but she’s still nonetheless one of the great elements of Conan the Barbarian, first appearing out of the shadows and squaring off against Conan and Subotai with a sinuous sense of the sword and immediately presenting a potent, female kind of toughness linked with a depth of feeling that’s still rather rare-feeling in movies. She saunters through the rest with her virile physicality, bouncing off walls during sword fights and leaping from the top of the Tower of Set with a laughing cry of joy in impudent survival, and eyeing two opponents and slapping her sword against her palm like a scolding mother. Despite a couple of flat line readings she’s mostly excellent at inhabiting Valeria as a character, with her unconventional, lived-in beauty and expressive eyes full of feeling in her love scenes, her flashes of deep passion and fearfulness running under the warrior. Lopez, a professional surfer and pal of Milius, was saddled with having much of his dialogue as Subotai dubbed by another actor to stilted effect, a touch that ironically helps the film keep touch with its peplum and spaghetti western forebears, and also unnecessary as his real, not inapt voice can be heard in a crucial late scene.

As with many of Milius’ works it’s easy to fetishize the many instances of bluff machismo: lines like Conan’s statement about what is best in life to the Mongol warlords (actually a variation on a historical quote from Genghis Khan) have achieved a free-floating life in the annals of awesome cherished by fans with varying degrees of irony. But also as ever in Milius’ work there’s also a uniquely elegiac streak, flashes of intensely romantic poetic feeling throughout. Of course, the outstanding support he gets throughout comes from Poledouris’ score, which is one of the best ever composed for a film. Poledouris was another surfing buddy of Milius’ and one who had studied under Miklos Rosza. He rose to the challenge of providing Milius with a score to provide the connective tissue for his dialogue-light film. His big, Rosza-esque score is wound deeply into the film’s intensely rhythmic structure, like the two long sequences where Conan, Valeria, and Subotai infiltrate enemy lairs with sneaky art before all hell breaks loose, and the incredible twinned sequences of the raid on Conan’s village and the build to the final fight.

Conan’s recovery from his ordeal is signalled when he returns to exercising with his sword, and soon he and his friends prepare to snatch away the Princess, who has become Thulsa’s glaze-eyed and monomaniacal priestess, officiating at his ceremonies with hands wrapped in snakes a la ancient Minoan art. Sneaking into the underground lair beneath the Mountain of Power, they witness scenes of gleeful depravity and sleaze: Thulsa’s henchmen lounge in an orgy pit amidst acres of pliable, slavish flesh, whilst the acolytes are served up stew filled with body parts, whilst Thulsa, the Princess seated at his feet, transforms into a serpentine creature as if all the better to lord over the mortals and indulge his appetites. Milius and Poledouris turn this scene into an odd kind of dance number with the actors moving in choreographed fashion as Conan, Valeria, and Subotai nimbly creep round the edges of this spectacle before attacking, whilst the scoring provides a bolero-esque rhythm offsetting the sick glamour of the bad guys doing bad guy things. When the time finally comes the invaders hack up guards and grab the Princess, Thulsa in snake form slithering away before Conan can attack him. The heroes fight their way out successfully, but Thulsa, using one of the snakes he has such mystical affinity with as an arrow (!), manages to plant one in Valeria, and she dies in Conan’s arms.

As if in recognition and salute, the spirits of the mounds allow Conan to light a fire where usually none can burn for Valeria’s funeral pyre, the pyre erupting in a spectacular fireball that signifies Valeria’s annunciation even as it certainly also gives away their location to Thulsa, so Conan, Subotai, and Akiro begin preparing for the inevitable fight when Thulsa and his warriors come for them. Valeria’s death and funeral, channelling Bêlit’s in the stories, also echoes the death of Jeremiah Johnson’s wife as a moment of crucial loss that signifies Milius’ hero is condemned to forge ahead alone on the most fundamental level but still retaining her memory as a source of strength, signified most literally in the climax when Valeria appears as a glittering Valkyrie long enough to save Conan from Rexor who almost overwhelms him. Anticipation mounts as the heroes build their traps and defences around the mounds, smartly mediated with a meditative pause as Conan and Subotai muse on their exiled, rootless, violent lives and Conan recalls the fresh wind of spring in his homeland.

Poledouris’ music surges to ridiculously awesome heights in a sequence patterned after the charge of the Teutonic knights in Alexander Nevsky, as Thulsa’s mounted raiders appear on the horizon and charge in for battle, their looming, steel-clad forms and thundering steeds intercut with Conan making a memorably pithy appeal to Crom to grant him revenge: “All that matters is that two stood against many…and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” Fortunately, Crom seems to be the kind of god who helps those who help themselves. The waiting Conan and Subotai, with some clumsy but effective aid from Akiro, manage to evade and bring down most of the henchmen in a bloody tumult, Thorgrim finishing up skewered upon a mantrap and Rexor finally broken, along with Conan’s father’s sword which is still his weapon of choice, by Conan with the Atlanetean steel, after that timely interruption by Valeria’s shade.

Thulsa, standing off from the fight manages to lose not only his best men but his most loyal adherent when he tries to kill the Princess with one of his snake-arrows only for Subotai to stave off the shot. Her faith dashed, the Princess allies with Conan to lead him into the Mountain of Power and help him cut his way through what’s left of Thulsa’s guards. The ending is anticlimactic in a way in lacking any further explosion of action, but it deals a subtler kind of power in stripping Thulsa’s aura of power, rather than offering a last blast of action, whilst also sharpening to a point the story’s similarities to Apocalypse Now and setting the seal on Conan’s journey as he must destroy a wicked priest-king who’s set himself up in a zone of atavistic non-reality, and resist the temptation to supplant him. He sneaks up on the evil sorcerer just as Thulsa is ordering his adherents to go back to the world and unleashed an orgy of self-sacrificial destruction and slaughter, a touch extending the interesting likeness to known cultish dynamics.

Thulsa attempts to stall Conan’s revenge by arresting him with his mesmeric power and appealing to him as his spiritual son, only for Conan to catch himself on the brink of falling under his spell and immediately hacking Thulsa’s head off, tossing it down amongst his followers like so much garbage, finally breaking the grip of awe Thulsa had on him from childhood. Whereupon the cult disbands, tossing their candles into the mystic pool, leaving Conan and the Princess alone. The Princess bows down to him, ready to accept him as replacement god. Conan elects instead to burn down Thulsa’s temple as a final statement not simply in destroying Thulsa’s legacy but in claiming agency for humankind. The final glimpse of Conan anticipates his canonical ascension to kingship in his own right, “destined to wear the jewelled crown of Aquilonia upon a troubled brow,” in his future, a fated end that also signals his eventual shift into the second and most burdensome part of his life journey, something like fatherhood.

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1980s, Auteurs, Crime/Detective, Horror/Eerie, Thriller

Dressed To Kill (1980)

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Director/Screenwriter: Brian De Palma

By Roderick Heath

Brian De Palma was the first of the so-called “movie brats” to emerge, a young technical wizard who won a prize at a science fair whilst still in high school for a project titled “An Analog Computer to Solve Differential Equations.” Whilst studying physics at college he fell under the spell of cinema and soon changed his major. Collaborating with drama teacher Wilfred Leach and producer Cynthia Monroe, De Palma pieced together his first feature, The Wedding Party, at 23 years of age, employing two young, then-unknown actors, his friend Robert De Niro and Jill Clayburgh. The film wouldn’t see release for six years, so in the meantime De Palma developed his craft with documentaries, particularly The Responsive Eye (1965), about an art exhibition, and Dionysus in 69 (1969), an account of a radical theatre group staging Euripides. His return to feature cinema, Greetings (1968), became a cult object in recording the weird and woolly environs of Greenwich Village bohemia, whilst Murder a la Mod (1968) exhibited the first glimmerings of De Palma’s love for making horror films and violent thrillers, if still within the official brackets of an arthouse-experimental sensibility.

De Palma soon began climbing the slippery pole towards mainstream stature with Sisters (1973), a darkly funny remix of Hitchcockian motifs that signalled De Palma’s unique and sly way of balancing his ironically parsed theorems of cinema with a capacity to serve the genre film market. His gaudy, would-be breakout film Phantom of the Paradise (1974) failed at the box office only to once again gain cult status, and it wasn’t until his film of Stephen King’s novel Carrie (1976) that De Palma arrived as a commercial force. Dressed To Kill, one of De Palma’s biggest hits from the height of his career and possibly his greatest film purely from a formal viewpoint, is also one of his most layered and illusive works in an oeuvre littered with densely composed exercises in cinema aesthetics. Part film fetishist tribute-cum-assimilation of Hitchcock and the Italian giallo subgenre and its notables like Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Sergio Martino, and Giuliano Carnimeo, it’s also a darkly humorous piece of sociological and sexual satire, and a particularly twisted piece of autobiographical meditation on De Palma’s part, a hall-of-mirrors gag that dares the viewer to separate fantasy from reality, art from artist.

The opening scene, like much of De Palma’s cinema, works like a musician’s variation on a theme, referencing both the legendary shower murder of Psycho (1960) and De Palma’s opening for Carrie, which trod with faux-sentimental/exploitative sensuality through the burgeoning dreamworld of a high school girls’ changing room only to violate the image with a handful of red menstrual blood, the shock of sexuality registering in its most primal fashion disturbing both the evoked prurience of ‘70s cinema culture and the strictures of the title character’s religious background. Dressed To Kill kicks off with busting other taboos, presenting frustrated upper-middle-class housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) showering with languorous sensuality, fixing on her husband whilst he shaves, and begins masturbating in a swirl of soap and steam and erogenous delight. De Palma mocks the grammar of soft-core porn and erotic showmanship, Dickinson gazing at her husband who doesn’t notice/audience who can’t help but watch, with Pino Donaggio’s score pouring romantic syrup on the images filmed in estranging slow-motion, busting the basic niceties of mainstream cinema in going for unavoidable shots of Miller’s hand caressing her crotch. The fantasy is cruelly severed as a dark, masculine figure surges out of the steam and grips her in a violent, seemingly murderous embrace.

This shock gives way to Kate emerging from sleep to find her husband Mike (Fred Weber) on top of her in the marital bed, giving her what Kate later describes to her therapist as one of his “wham-bang specials,” a bout of uninspired humping concluded with a patronising pat on the cheek. Fantasy sexuality collides with its reality, the onerousness of brute masculinity clasping Kate in her dream and dragging her back into banal fact, whilst also presaging her imminent intersection with a murderer. Kate contends with another disappointment as her teenage son Peter (Keith Gordon) is preoccupied with a computer he’s building on his school vacation, and wriggles out of coming with her on a trip they’d planned to the Metropolitan Art Museum. Kate leaves him to it after extracting a promise to not work all night, and heads off to an appointment with her therapist, Dr Robert Elliott (Michael Caine). Kate confesses her frustrations and resentments to the smooth, solicitous Elliott, who readily admits to finding Kate attractive when she prods him on the issue.

Obsessive tunnel-vision is of course one of the constant threads of De Palma’s cinema, usually manifesting in terms of desire – characters, usually male, too preoccupied with women, although here reversed both in Kate and her hunt to get off, and Peter, whose laser-focused geekiness distracts him from the business that preoccupies everyone else to a greater or lesser degree. “I moaned with pleasure at his touch, isn’t that what every man wants?” Kate says to Elliott, speaking of Mike, to Elliott’s advice that she stop dissembling and properly own her sexuality and her anger. Kate’s visit to the Met Gallery presents an opportunity to do just that she realises a good-looking stranger wearing sunglasses, whose name is cursorily given later as Warren Lockman (Ken Baker), is trying to pick her up. This sparks a lengthy game of flirtatious hide and seek as she oscillates between responding and shying away from this potential adventure, he initially driven off when she accidentally exposes her wedding ring, she momentarily freaked out when he plays a joke on her with a glove she dropped and he retrieved. The tryst finds fruition when, after thinking he’s left, Kate spots him in a taxi cab outside the museum waggling the glove at her. Moving to retrieve it, Kate is instead pulled into a sexual encounter on the taxi’s back seat.

The starting point for this epic sequence, which unfolds almost entirely without dialogue and achieves a pure play of visual exposition and associative storytelling, is Madeleine’s visits to the art museum in Vertigo (1958), much as her arc in the film mimics Marion’s in Psycho, and also sideswipes Argento’s The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) in making a knowing connection between the rectilinear framings of artworks and the space and form perturbing content of modern art and the director’s manipulation of the cinematic frame. The focus is however inverted in one vital aspect, the lonely lost woman no longer a remote love object but a being seeking out satisfaction, groping her way through to actualisation in that regard, whilst the motif of following and finding is given its own, ironic, post-sexual liberation-era remix. In an interview later De Palma would irritably deny this sequence was based on Hitchcock, stating it was rather rooted in his own adolescent days trying to pick up girls in art galleries. De Palma, I think, was being half-truthful here. What the sequence instead depicts is something I’m sure every young creative person has done: moving through their private reality whilst reconfiguring it mentally in the mould of favourite art, whilst also giving it newly ironic context.

Kate’s movements are necessarily the camera’s hunt, supplanting the usual tactic of the giallo and slasher movie styles where the camera viewpoint becomes rather that of the killer. The audience is presumed to be aware that we’re watching a thriller but the hunt here has no obvious sense of suspense beyond the depiction of Kate’s blend of anxiety and excitement in seeking out a lover. The act of picking up/being picked up is transformed into a thriller experience in itself, the surging tides of contradictory emotion becoming the essence of the sequence rather than the appeal to displaced eroticism attached to the killer’s desire to tear the beautiful illusion to pieces that drives the more standard slasher movie. De Palma weaves in visual gags, some overt – Kate’s immediate position before a painting of a woman staring back sceptically at the beholder as if challenging to action, neighbouring a painting of a reclining gorilla aping her current opinion of her husband and which reminds her to write in her shopping list “nuts.” Others slyer, like positioning Kate in a frame with the bottom half of a female nude, keeping in mind both her sexual need and De Palma’s smirking satire on the disparity of painting’s sanctioned comfort for nudity and the penalisation of filmmakers who offer the same.

Kate’s dropped glove both grazes standard romantic fiction lore, the lost personal item that presents the opportunity for a gallant gesture, and giallo movie protocol, where gloves are totems of a killer’s presence. The pick-up artist touches Kate’s shoulder whilst wearing the glove, trying to make the first association work but instead provoking the second. Meanwhile photographer Ralf D. Bode’s camera tracks and moves with sinuous care around the museum corridors, illustrating Kate’s roving through a system of gates and passages, stops and permissions, at once sexual and algorithmic, echoing Peter’s computer with its capacity to both hold and carry binary numbers, whilst also recalling the jokes about computer dating in Greetings. The gestures that finally resolve the tension of the sequence as well as signalling something else in the works again involves Kate’s gloves: Lockman waves one to her from the waiting taxi window whilst the other one, the camera panning from Kate’s fce over to the captured object: only to the repeat and attentive viewer does a vital detail emerge, the sight of a long-haired woman wearing sunglasses and a black raincoat in the midst of this shot, on the pavement between steps and car. Kate has already thrown down her other glove in vexation. As Kate is drawn into the taxi by Lockman, her expression of affected gratitude smothered in a violent kiss, the dropped glove is retrieved by an unseen person.

This whole sequence might well be counted as De Palma’s single greatest achievement, a multivalent piece of filmmaking that piles up meanings as plot-enabling suspense sequence, character study, extended sex joke, essay on cinemagoing and art appreciation, and lecture on film grammar and history. In the taxi, the movement resolves with a transgressive act as Kate’s world is rocked by Lockman’s deftly seductive touch which nonetheless has a resemblance to a crime – the sudden silencing, being dragged into the cab and molested, Kate’s moans of excitement. Meanwhile De Palma weaves in the first of several nods to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), a film De Palma was initially slated to direct, as the cab driver ogles the spectacle unfolding on his backseat, part of the texture of a film that gleefully perpetuates the mythology of New York in its bad old days as a place where all kinds of human perversity spilt into the streets. “There’s plenty of ways to get killed in this city if you’re lookin’ for it,” Dennis Franz’s quintessential Noo Yawk cop Detective Marino states a couple of reels later, and Kate’s search for Eros is also naturally stalked by Thanatos.

Kate is ushered into Lockman’s apartment building – a near-subliminal, enigmatic vignette sees Kate momentarily distracted by the doorman overseeing a furniture delivery, containing no apparent meaning except as a flash of the ordinary highlighted with special meaning for Kate as well as possibly suggesting how her stalker gets into the building after. Post-coital languor is Kate’s reward but this movement of the film isn’t yet over, as she rouses herself from Lockman’s bed, dresses, and leaves. Further items of clothing now supplant the gloves as totems that provoke fretting and backtracking: Kate remembers her panties being stripped off in the cab, now lost to fate, but it’s her wedding ring, left on the bedside stand, that foils her clean getaway. Kate dies not for a moral transgression, but because she does not commit to her liberation. Kate has already had all romantic illusions coarsely dashed as she has paused to write a note offering a farewell missive to Lockman, only to catch a glimpse of a letter from the NY Department of Health warning him he has a venereal disease. To a great extent Kate’s brutal murder a few minutes later simply dramatizes the world-ending fear the sight of the letter provokes, of her transgression, her few minutes of adventurous bliss, potentially having consequences that will shatter the structure and stability of her life.

Kate flees Lockman’s apartment and gets into the elevator, whereupon De Palma finally urges the audience’s direct attention on a detail hiding in plain sight, tracking down the corridor towards the fire escape door where the stalker hides. Kate seems to be keeping ahead of her pursuer, but stopping the elevator to return for her ring delivers her directly to the stalker, waving a colossal straight razor in her face and cornering her in the lift. Kate’s murder is a Grand Guignol spectacle of the highest order, her attacker slicing her with precisely punitive blows. Again, of course, De Palma is offering his own twist on certain models – Psycho’s shower scene, a similar elevator assault in Carnimeo’s What Are these Strange Drops of Blood Doing On Jennifer’s Body? (1972) – whilst doing so in quotation marks. De Palma’s murder is exactingly aestheticized, blood spattering on the lit numbers of the elevator controls, clean gashes not releasing torrents of arterial spray by elegantly daubed crimson despoiling her chic white outfit, her attacker, vaguely feminine yet held out of focal range beyond the all-too-immediate razor blade, carefully and teasingly withheld from the camera’s knowing.

Kate’s death demands the narrative focal point change, and a new heroine is immediately nominated in the form of Liz Blake (Nancy Allen), a professional escort accompanying her latest john to an apartment only for the elevator doors to open upon the sight of Kate sprawled and lifting a hand in a pleading gesture. The john dashes off whilst Liz reaches out to grasp Kate’s hand, only for the flash of light on metal to lead her eye to a mirror that reveals the killer is still in the elevator, hiding behind the door and ready to slash Liz’s hand. This shot is the pivot of the entire movie in linking the two major narrative movements and heroines in a moment where latent threat has become actual, and yet the appearance of revelation is also another sleight of hand that conceals. The killer drops the weapon and Liz retrieves it before the elevator continues its journey, only for a maid to see the bloody razor in her hand and scream in terror, hiding from Liz as she frantically tries to explain. Liz flees in serach of a cop whilst Kate’s arm is glimpsed jutting from the elevator in the lobby, the doors foiled in trying to close, lending a ghoulish simulacra of life to the very dead woman’s body.

Liz contrasts Kate in obvious ways whilst supplanting her as official damsel in distress and seeking heroine, younger and accustomed to using her sexuality for profit, tapping her clients for stock tips and cheerfully bullshitting her escort service in pretending to need cash for her mother’s operation when really planning to invest it in a hot tip. Just about every gesture regarding sex and gender in the film is, in its way, conscious of its performance. The game of role-playing and false appearances is given its wryest variation as Liz plys prim and coy with Marino, the detective assigned to investigate Kate’s killing, only for the purposefully coarse and aggressive detective to abandon the game and brand her: “Let’s face it, you’re a whore. Oh, a Park Avenue whore, but you’re still a whore.” Marino’s office and the police station around it becomes a narrative plaza where the players in the whodunnit meet, Elliott encountering Peter and Liz, although Marino ain’t no Poirot, the detective’s brash cynicism used to provoke displays of resistance and forms of cooperation the subjects might not recognise as such. Elliott’s smooth, apparently perfect professional rectitude and concern for his patients seems to be confirmed as he expertly rebuffs Marino’s attempts to extract information on his patients, as Marino seems to think Kate might have attracted the attention of one of Elliott’s other, crazier clients.

Meanwhile Peter, officially stranded as a grief-stricken relative and hapless collateral damage, reveals his own streak of perverse invention as he uses a homemade listening device to eavesdrop on Marino and Elliott talking. This display of ingenuity and determination has its own masochistic dimension as the seemingly callow and unworldly Peter forces himself to listen to the detective’s crude and reductive but relevant attempts to understand his dead mother’s behaviour. The transfer of narrative focus onto Liz and Peter sees the film become in part a satirical update on old-school young adult detective tales, Liz as a very grown up Nancy Drew and Peter a nerdy Hardy Boy, mixed with a wistful edge of mutual longing for what the other has, Peter trying to become a man in seeking out his mother’s killer whilst Liz snatches at an opportunity to play the innocent again as she’s repeatedly confronted by visions of bloodshed and terror. De Palma stages a jovial nod to old-school mystery tales as Liz draws another cab driver (Bill Randolph) into her attempt to lose a mysterious pursuer in a chase through Manhattan’s streets. Liz doesn’t learn until the end of the film that Marino has assigned a policewoman, Betty Luce (Susannah Clemm), to keep tabs on her, and Luce in overcoat and sunglasses is almost indistinguishable from the killer. Meanwhile Elliott visits a fellow psychiatrist, Dr Levy (David Margulies), and warns him about his potentially murderous client, only for Levy to strike unusually guarded and uncertain postures in dealing with him.

Dressed To Kill’s almost algorithmic structuring with its four, distinct, extended movements involving mini-reboots and variations that finally circle back to the beginning, presents also a series of structural traps that the character are varyingly aware of, some of them environmental, others social, biological, mental. The film’s driving plot conceit is of course another nod to Psycho, but it also glances off the rest of the film’s simultaneously sarcastic and earnest explorations of contemporary mores a la 1980, a moment locked between the insouciance and gamy adventurousness of the ‘70s zeitgeist and ‘80s with its reactionaries and reality TV inquiry/homogenisation: not for nothing does a significant portion of the film revolve around an episode of Phil Donahue’s trendsetting confessional talk show. A vignette from Donahue’s show in which the interviewer talks with a trans woman, who merrily explains her life of compensating macho endeavour and confesses to being “a devout heterosexual,” offers both a clue to the unfolding mystery whilst also disowning its darker inferences. Elliott and Liz are offered in split screen as the clip unfolds, itself a joke about divided identity and gender. Meanwhile Elliott keeps getting phone call from a disturbed patient who calls herself Bobbi, who claims to be “a woman trapped in this man’s body,” and confesses to killing Kate with Elliott’s stolen razor. Soon after, Liz thinks she is being tailed by “Bobbi,” and tries to elude her first by getting a taxi driver to outrun a pursuer, and then descending into the subway.

Dressed To Kill relishes the tabloid flavour of its concerns even as it converts them into deliriously artistic cinematic effects. Indeed, it created a stir in its day from several quarters, who were nonetheless tone-deaf to the way it mines it all for extreme metaphors and crazy comedy based in games with cultural coding. De Palma’s native celebration of Manhattan at a time when it had a reputation for being an open sore of the city sees both its grit and its glamour, alternating the leafy brownstone climes of Elliott’s office with the steam-wreathed, neon-gilded sleaze of the downtown where Liz is tracked by the killer. It is, in its own oddball way, just as amusingly romantic a vision of the city as Woody Allen’s Manhattan (1979), just as the film as a whole is as much of a riff on sex and dating in the modern, urban world as Greetings. De Palma evokes a common kind of white anxiety of the day only to use it for puckish comedy, as a gang of fly-dressed black dudes think Liz is teasing them when she crowds close to a subway platform when she’s being pursued by “Bobbi,”; they get annoyed and start harassing her in turn. Liz runs to a policeman on a stopping train, instantly inverting the cliché as the cop is also black, bemused and annoyed when the assailants elude his line of side. Once the cop gets off the train the dudes start tracking Liz again, only to then be scared off by the sight of “Bobbi” attacking Liz, performed manhood found wanting in the face of genuine violent demonstration.

“Bobbi”’s attack on Liz is another ingeniously visualised scene but in a manner completely different to the more operatic effects elsewhere in the film – Liz’s flight through the train takes her through linking vestibules only to find herself caught in one with “Bobbi”, razor the only thing catching the light in the dark. The attack is foiled by the sudden intervention of Peter, appearing from the next carriage: teenage nerd fends off the ferocious murderer with a spurt of homemade mace. The action here is coherent but also successfully achieves a spasm of frantic movement, playing a foregrounded game with witnessing and its limitations, and also doubling again as a sort of sly sex joke, as young Peter blows his wad for the first time to good effect. De Palma offers Peter as a version of himself at that age, using him as a springboard to weave in autobiographical details and recurring obsessions. The film as a whole can be described as a fantastical enlarging up on a vignette from his youth where his mother supposedly had him use his homemade surveillance equipment to see if his father was having an affair. This is conflated with metafictional meanings: Gordon tells Elliott, as the good doctor tries to counsel him in the police station waiting room, that Ted is not actually his father, his real one having been killed in the Vietnam War, and so positing Peter as a generational inheritor to the angst of De Palma’s early protagonists in Greetings and Hi, Mom! (1971).

Gordon, who would eventually become a director with more than few De Palma-esque traits, deftly plays Peter as both grief-stricken kid and newly determined young man, the tight tilt of his jaw after he chases off “Bobbi” confirming his quick growth in a fearless fighter of evil even as he’s still the kind of guy who will entirely innocently ask a hooker to come to his home if she’s feeling nervous. Liz, by contrast, inhabits entirely adult realms, a young but very worldly woman who knows with scientific precision how to get a rise out of men in several senses of the phrase. De Palma’s shooting throughout utilises the expanse of the widescreen frame with sense of instability and dialectic even when not using overt tricks like split frame, often using dioptre shots to keep multiple plains of action in equal relevance. This is most obvious in serving an expository purpose when Peter times patients entering and leaving Elliott’s office so he can set up camera surveillance, or when Liz takes care to part the curtains of Elliott’s office so the watching Peter can see in whilst keeping Elliott mesmerised with her erotically-charged anecdotes, but continues throughout with a charge of ambiguity, as in shots of Peter listening in to Marino and Elliott’s conversation about his mother, different portions and layers of the frame containing their own distinct dramatic registers.

This unstable sense of space shifts when “Bobbi” attacks Kate, whereupon a game of focal planes begins, the looming razor in focus and the wielder beyond and behind out of focus. Dressed To Kill certainly takes up the challenge of Hitchcock’s great triptych of films about voyeurism and unstable appearance, Rear Window (1954), Vertigo, and Psycho, as well as the formal games of perception and details seen but not observed Argento played in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage and Deep Red (1975). But De Palma also works to transmute them. De Palma’s use of slow motion and split screen effect, for instance, entirely contradict those celluloid heroes’ fastidious method and faith in the edit of the heart of cinematic viewing. De Palma uses such devices to prolong and expand, to linger, to fetishistically celebrate rather than merely deploy the crucial image. Most particularly, the incapacity of De Palma’s heroes to quite understand what they’re seeing, and through them the audience, is part of the film’s deeper texture, just as it had been in some of De Palma’s early work.

This is particularly obvious in the finale where Peter contends with the visage of the lurking killer that seems to appear in two different places at once, manifesting out of thin air in the distant blur of Elliott’s office and also right next to him as a looming, immediate presence: for a few brief, dizzying moment reality loses all structure and life takes on dream logic, logic which then becomes the entire texture of the film’s very last movement. As such Dressed To Kill contrasts something like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), which sublimates the same strong giallo influence into a Hollywood cinematic tradition but to very different ends, creating a zone where the audience is obliged at the outset to share the killer’s viewpoint and buy into his mystique. Both represent formal games with what the director wants the audience to know, of course; the presumed end-game of the classical horror-thriller is to unmask the killer for maximum shock effect, but for some time that end had become increasingly supernal. That signature trope of giallo, the black-gloved hands of an enigmatic presence, presents the undeniable fact of the killer but conceals gender and stature. Halloween presents the horror movie killer as achieving mythic blankness, at one with the audience in conspiring to erase the object of its gaze, where De Palma heads in the opposite direction, fragmenting his sources of evil, confronting his heroes with the limitations of seeing and knowing.

Of course, the upshot of all this is that Elliott himself is “Bobbi”, his trans identity rendered paranoid and murderous by schizoid traits, the ineffably decent and helpful psychiatrist supplanted by his maniacal alter ego who desperately wants to suppress his masculine side. De Palma apparently originally sought Sean Connery to play Elliott: undoubtedly having James Bond himself play “Bobbi” would have taken the gender satire to an even more extreme place, although then the nominal formal game would have been even harder to play. Caine was ultimately a smart piece of casting, bringing a light touch to the role of the seemingly solicitous and conscientious doctor constantly teased and upbraided by his own mirror, whilst also playing off an ironic aspect of his star persona. Caine the 1960s heartthrob who had risen to fame as the womanizing Alfie (1966) had nonetheless often in his early stage acting days found his career limited by a perception he looked camp, and so playing Elliott allowed Caine to play games with this schismatic performative life. “Bobbi” herself is a constructed being: the voice heard on the telephone provided by De Palma’s constant early collaborator William Finley, whilst the physical being alternates between Caine and Clemm.

The climax sees Liz, pushed by Marino’s threats to arrest her for Kate’s murder, conspiring with Peter to enter Elliott’s office by pretending to seek his help, so she can pilfer his appointment book and locate the supposed killer client. Liz’s spiel to Elliott starts as an acting exercise as she recounts disturbing and dirty dreams (“And I know dirty – believe me, this was dirty.”) shading into seduction as Liz strips off her overcoat to reveal all too undeniable feminine charms swathed in black lingerie, like a burlesque on a porn film’s take on the ritual Hollywood audition. Meanwhile Peter watches from outside in the rain with binoculars, incidentally turned into a voyeur, forced to strip off his glasses and wipe them down in frustration mid-gawk. What seems to be a smirking acceptance of basic desire as Elliott smiles at himself in the mirror before starting to remove his clothes at Liz’s challenge instead proves the cue for “Bobbi” to emerge and try to kill again. The mysteriously bilocating killer confuses Peter’s gaze in the strobing lightning and rain before he’s grabbed by a lurking figure; inside the office the real killer lurks in wait for Liz, who beholds Peter thumping on the window in warning whilst the figure, actually Luce, tries to restrain him. Luce saves the day by shooting Elliott through his office window.

The rush of action here gives way to another of De Palma’s multivalent directorial gestures, offering a lampoon of the tabloid god’s eye view camera movement in surveying post-battle carnage Scorsese used at the end of Taxi Driver, by way of a glance at Liz standing glaring in shock at the red blood on her hands whilst still of course swathed in black lingerie, a fetishist image that also calls to mind the title of Bava’s foundational giallo film Blood And Black Lace (1963). The shot resolves on Elliott lying sprawled on the carpet and weeping, solving the mystery at last and converting cinematic pizzazz finally into a space of unexpected pathos. The shot’s dreamy slowness and the surge of Donaggio’s music, the spectacle of Liz’s shock at the blood on her hands and Elliott’s weeping pain more in being exposed and forced to confront his sundered identity more than in being shot, all refuse to offer a sense of relief or winding down, but instead present an arrested spectacle of damage and pathos, the wreckage left even as the plot seems to be resolved in one binding and clarifying gesture.

But De Palma still isn’t finished, passing through two wry scenes where the story is “explained,” Levy giving specious diagnoses and Marino explaining sheepishly if not apologetically as to the confusion Luce’s presence caused and his miscalculation in trying to manipulate Liz into doing his job for him. Liz then expostulates to Peter as they meet in a restaurant the details of a sex change operation with the mounting glee of provocateur as some old biddy listens in with expressions of mortification. The film resolves in what proves to be an extended dream sequence in which Liz conjures up the threat of Elliott, imprisoned in the bowels of Bellevue, strangling a nurse and dressing in her clothes to escape, tracking Liz to Peter’s house and hovering beyond at the threshold of the bathroom in wait as Liz, in the shower, realises she’s trapped and tries to retrieve Ted’s razor for defence. De Palma expands here on the famous dream sequence at the end of Carrie but in a far more elaborate and spectacular manner. De Palma clearly signals we’re watching a fantasy even before he gives the game away as Elliott, after strangling the nurse, strips off her uniform to reveal white lingerie, the mirror-image of what Liz wore in his office, unwrapped with delight whilst fellow inmates, a collective of thronging geeks and gibbering weirdoes, watch in delight from high vantages as if we’ve stumbled into some Ken Russell version of Poe’s The System of Dr Tarr and Professor Feather.

Cut to a signature De Palma point-of-view shot, the unseen killer lurking in the bushes outside Peter’s house, before finding Liz in the shower. Liz catches sight of the nurse shoes sticking out into view beyond the bathroom door, and begins a quiet, wary attempt to leave the shower and grab Ted’s razor from the medicine cabinet. Only for the killer to suddenly, somehow vacate the shoes, and appear behind Liz to cut her throat. Liz awakens, screaming, reacting in fear as Peter charges in to check on her. Dressed To Kill’s circuit closes just where it started, Liz in Kate’s bed, dreaming of sex and murder in the shower. This sequence at once allows De Palma to fully engage his most baroque impulses, particularly the long, soaring overhead crane shot of Elliott stripping the nurse whilst his audience – the film viewers – watch in delight from above, and the spasm of random, oneiric action at the very end. Here Dressed To Kill surrenders to perfectly enter into a state of dream logic, particularly in the killer’s final defiance of space, the sense of threat invading Liz’s mind and firing her fight-flight reflexes even whilst now seemingly safely cocooned within suburban normality, a place De Palma plainly has no trust in to deliver us from evil. Dressed To Kill saw De Palma branded and pilloried for his perceived sins and also hailed as a great cinematic voice, but most usefully it also propelled him on to other career heights through the 1980s, whilst its success helped inspire a particular Hollywood variety of giallo film distinct from the slasher movie craze, including movies like Richard Marquand’s Jagged Edge (1985), Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991), and Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992).

Standard
1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Horror/Eerie

Grizzly (1976) / Alligator (1980)

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Directors: William Girdler / Lewis Teague
Screenwriters: Harvey Flaxman, David Sheldon / John Sayles

By Roderick Heath

The colossal success of Jaws (1975) immediately provoked exploitation filmmakers the world over to imitate Steven Spielberg’s foundational blockbuster just before a great sea-change in the way B-moves were sold took hold in the changeover from grindhouses and drive-ins to home video. Italy’s exploitation industry took up the challenge with particular gusto, churning out movies like Tentacles (1977), Orca (1977), and The Last Shark (1980), with other entries coming from locales as diverse as Mexico, with Tintorea (1978), and Australia, in the form of Russell Mulcahy’s Razorback (1984). But the best Jaws riffs generally came from closer to the source. Up-and-comer Joe Dante whipped together Piranha (1976) for Roger Corman, with a script by earnest young novelist turned film player John Sayles, who would return to the theme four years later with Alligator. William Girdler, another enterprising young director staking a space for himself in the exploitation movie zone through the early 1970s, offered his take with Grizzly. All three films wielded their own particular spin on the Jaws template, pleasing crowds by happily indulging levels of gore beyond what Spielberg’s relatively clean-cut film offered, but also in weaving their own creative enquiries and elaborations on the big hit’s subtexts.

The two hemispheres of Jaws’ storyline managed without underlining to describe the situation of the United States in 1975, still smarting over Watergate and Vietnam. The basic narrative tension in Jaws revolved in its first half around the spectacle of conscientious and practical response to a blank, near-existential threat being stymied by competing interests that demand the illusion of stability and control, in the form of the Amity Island town grandees who foil the police chief’s reaction to a string of shark attacks for fear of scaring off tourists. This was balanced in the second half by another kind of transfixed compulsion, in the shark fisherman Quint’s obsession with expiating his terror of the animal and proving his dominance, pathological, war-damaged machismo duelling with a cunning enemy and hijacking the hunt to his own, increasingly deranged ends, before finally all narrative and social complications are stripped away, leaving a raw tale of Jungian terror. The film had mostly tossed out the subplots involving local government ties to racketeering in Peter Benchley’s source novel and kept the potential Vietnam allegory on a low simmer.

To a great extent those choices helped Jaws – the portrait of political ostrich-playing, for instance, has retained a relevance all too apparent at the moment through its very lack of too much melodramatic inflation and concentrating instead on the banality of corruption. But it certainly left other filmmakers with plenty of room to move within the strictures of a fool-proof blueprint. The post-Vietnam blues, still waiting for an official, high-class catharsis that would arrive, at least in cinema, with The Deer Hunter, Coming Home (both 1978), and Apocalypse Now (1979), nonetheless first found full expression in Piranha and Grizzly, with Piranha offering up its titular critters as weapons of war accidentally unleashed upon the petty tyrants and tin-pot entrepreneurs of America-on-the-make, whilst Grizzly offers one of its central triptych of heroes as a former chopper pilot who readily compares his latest adventure with his wartime experience. Rather than repeat the motif for a film released on the cusp of the Reagan era, Sayles’ script for Alligator instead offers up panoramic social satire and wish-fulfilment poetic justice in amplifying the theme of venality and blowback for the body politic. Grizzly commences with a deadly hairy beast attacking and slaying two young female campers amidst the lush and dappled forest of a popular state forest.

Contending with an unusually large post-season influx of visitors raiding the souvenir stands, enriching the restaurant and lodge owners, and tramping the trails, the chief park ranger, Kelly (Christopher George), has been deploying his thin-stretched team of rangers to try and keep an eye on all the campers. Soon they find the two mutilated bodies, one of them buried in a shallow pit, consistent with a bear stashing away food for later. Soon the huge and voracious bear kills two of Kelly’s rangers, Gail (Vicki Johnson) and her boyfriend Tom (Tom Arcuragi), several more campers, and a mother (Susan Orpin) who lives adjacent the park, also mutilating her young son. The park’s resident naturalist Arthur Scott (Richard Jaeckel) quickly discerns from the evidence on hand that the bear is not only a male grizzly, long thought to have been wiped out in the area, but a species thought to be extinct, a huge prehistoric holdover that’s been hiding in some primal forest abode until now. Grizzly repeats the motif of the dedicated public servant struggling with malfeasant and obfuscating authority, in this case the park manager Charley Kittridge (Joe Dorsey), who insists on keeping the park open and invites in a horde of hunters to deal with the bear, an action that only provokes more carnage.

Grizzly was produced independently and despite its hazily north-western setting filmed in rural Georgia, during an early golden era for such movies in the Horror genre. The budget was about $750,000, and yet Grizzly tries its utmost to look and sound like a blockbuster, sporting opening credits offered over shots of Don flying his helicopter patterned after the opening of The Towering Inferno (1974), and with composer Robert O. Ragland alternating a lush pastiche of John Williams with a more folky, wistfully evocative sound. Co-producer Harvey Flaxman got the idea for the movie after encountering a bear on a family camping trip and immediately seeing how a killer bear movie could cash in on Jaws. Flaxman wrote the script with fellow producer David Sheldon, and they interested Girdler, who was on the rise in Hollywood thanks to his success in the Blaxploitation field, with The Exorcist knock-off Abby (1973) and the action-thrillers The Zebra Killer (1973) and Sheba, Baby (1974). The film paid off big time, making nearly $40 million at the box office and setting a record for an independent film success until Halloween two years later. Girdler would quickly follow Grizzly’s success with another killer animal movie, Day of the Animals (1977), and then a relatively classy bestseller adaptation, the dizzyingly ridiculous and entertaining The Manitou (1977), before dying tragically in a helicopter accident whilst scouting locations aged just 30.

Girdler’s small body of films is nonetheless marked out by their cheery energy, a remarkable capacity to convey genre canards and long storytelling bows with a straight face, and firm sense of narrative thrust. Grizzly comes at the viewer much like the title beast, wild, shaggy, and surprisingly fast on its feet. Part of the film’s charm from today’s perspective lies in its very mid-1970s look and sound and incidental sociology, complete with scoring that manages to be melancholy and jaunty all at once, lots of good-looking young extras in denim and flannel on the trails, and many slow zoom shots in and out from burning sunsets over dark woods with that feel for the outdoors only movies from that period seem to wield. Grizzly obeys basic slasher movie principles in having most of the bear’s victims be attractive young women. The various bear attacks are staged with a deft blend of suggestion and gore, like the opening that sees one of the female campers raising a hand in fear as the bear looms over her, only for its great swiping paw to send her severed arm flying off into the bushes. The second girl hides from the monster in a ranger’s hut only for the bear to break in and rip half her face off with a great blow. Girdler can’t entirely paper over the disparity between the huge, mighty, but rather well-groomed Kodiak bear used in some shots and the man in a bear costume used in others.

In the film’s most snort-inducingly gratuitous scene, Gail decides to strip down to her underwear and bathe under a waterfall when it seems that the bear is not in the vicinity, only to be nastily surprised when the animal turns out to be hiding behind the torrent. Another victim is snatched out of her tent as she prepares to bunk down with her husband. Tom, heartbroken, resents Kelly for leaving him out of the hunt, but the bear comes to him and topples the tower to get at him. Finally Kelly, Scott, and a helicopter pilot often employed by the park, Don Stober (Andrew Prine), set out to track the monster down. George, Prine, and Jaeckel were all well-weathered actors with much experience in Westerns; George’s best-known role was as the rival gunslinger who provides John Wayne’s slyly smiling, surprisingly honourable foe in Howard Hawks’ El Dorado (1966), a role that suggested star potential that largely remained unfulfilled. But here he’s a very enjoyable lead as Kelly is offered as a bit of an eccentric, teasing his girlfriend with his shifting accounts of what led him to be a forest ranger, as well as a sensible and much-liked authority figure who can build up a righteous head of steam when provoked, as Kittridge repeatedly insists on doing. Kelly is also defined by his efforts to be direct and honest with people about their viability in dangerous situations as a marker of his skill as a leader, assigning Tom against his objections and desire to be in on the ground hunt to man a watchtower in knowing Tom lacks sufficient bushcraft, and risking offending his girlfriend when refusing to let her accompany him.

Said girlfriend, Allison Corwin (Joan McCall), is a photographer and the daughter of the park’s restaurant owner, who finds herself getting rather more deeply immersed in the action than she’d like when she trips over the buried corpse of one of the early victims and finds herself covered in dark, dank blood. The film’s snapshot of the mid-1970s milieu grazes not just the post-‘Nam zeitgeist but also feminism as a new wrinkle in the eternal landscape of both the forest and male-female relations. On The Manitou Girdler would embrace a feminist twist enthusiastically as the seemingly victimised heroine suddenly becomes an all-powerful conduit of the cosmic feminine, but Grizzly is cruder and more confusedly macho, if with some nuance. Kelly digs Allison’s strength of character and independence, and there’s a good scene where Allison helps council Kelly talk through a bout of self-recrimination after Gail’s death: “There’s something I’m not doing,” Kelly declares in his frustration to Allison’s reply: “Sure, you’re not killing the bear.” But when she announces her intention of joining him on the hunt he eventually feels obliged to lay down the law in refusing to take her, contending with her increasingly irate protests at first with honesty (“You couldn’t handle it…okay, maybe I couldn’t handle it.”) and then a final, breezy facetiousness that makes it clear he’s not going to be emotionally blackmailed into cowing (“Dammit, Kelly!” “I’m glad you see it my way.”).

The central trio of Kelly, Scott, and Stober have their own issues and spiky ways of relating. The drawling, limpid-eyed, wryly cynical Stober constantly teases Scott for his excessive confidence in his ability to track the bear without becoming lunch, whilst Scott sees the bear as just another example of the wildlife he seems rather more fond of than people. Scott is introduced barking in frustration when his beeping radio scares off a deer he’s trying to photograph; later, as Stober flies Kelly over the forests in search of the bear they think they spot it only for this to prove to be Kelly using a bearskin for camouflage as he tracks it. The film pauses for a creepy monologue delivered by Stober, recounting a local Native American legend about a tribe that suffered from a feverish illness and fell prey to a pack of grizzlies who gained a taste for human flesh. This scene, patterned after Quint’s Indianapolis monologue in Jaws, hints Stober himself might have Indian heritage and so feels a special paranoid connection to the bear not simply drawn from his ‘Nam days but as the incarnation of a primeval, even mystical threat lying in wait in the forest.

Later, Stober offers a meditation on his service experience as he and Kelly load up to go to war again, including packing a surplus hand-held bazooka: “Y’know, in ‘Nam I zapped about a hundred – maybe two hundred gooks. People. Called ‘em gooks so it wouldn’t get personal. But it did get personal, anyway, so I stopped countin’ and tried to stop caring. Y’know, now I don’t kill nothin’ no more, not even flies.” Not so much The Deer Hunter as The Bear Hunter. Meanwhile Kelly keeps butting heads with Kittridge until the attack on the mother and son makes it plain the professionals need to take over and the fight must be taken to the beast on its own ground. Despite the blatant, almost beat-for-beat appropriation of Jaws’ structure, the relaxed sense of the characters and their interaction that permeates the film and elevates it along with Girdler’s handling. Even the yahoo hunters, who might easily have been caricatured, are given a certain amount of humanisation as one group capture a bear cub and try to use it as bait for the bigger monster, and then acquiesce agreeably to Kelly’s leadership after they ask to join the hunt.

Girdler generates the right phobic feel for the forest once the heroes venture into it, often keeping his camera close on his actors so the sense of threat seems to close in tight from every direction, building to a sublimely odd moment as Kelly, seated by the campfire on watch whilst Stober sleeps, stares into the shadows beyond the campfire, nerves tingling from the sense of being watched right back from the blackness. Girdler has rather too much fun with his horror scenes in toying with audience expectations, and one quality it shares with Alligator is a certain delight in the freedom of a B-movie to leap in where a classy movie like Jaws only skirts. Tom seems safer than his colleagues in his tower only for the grizzly to topple it with a few determined shoves. One strong suspense sequence depicts one of the weekend warrior hunters (David Holt), tramping alone through the woods only to encounter the bear and realise he has no chance of bringing it down. He flees the pursuing monster with increasing desperation and frantic gymnastics. Luckily, he manages to plunge into a river and be washed away to safety.

The bear’s assault on the young boy resolves with a startling glimpse of the lad left legless while the bear consumes his mother. Late in the film, trying to track the bear on horseback, Scott is ambushed by the monster which decapitates the horse he’s riding, and mauls Scott before burying him. Scott, tattered but still alive, awakens and crawls his way out of his own grave, only for him to be immediately confronted again by the returning monster, which kills him properly this time. Scott’s death jolts Kelly and Stober, and the film, into a rather more sombre mood in time for the finale, where the duo chase the bear down in Stober’s helicopter, only for the beast to attack and damage the machine as it lands, forcing them to battle it out on the ground. Stober makes a heroic stand, shooting at the bear to distract it from the trapped Kelly, only for the bear to wheel about and crush Stober in a terrible, very literal bear-hug. Kelly, unable to turn the bear even as he fires bullet after bullet into it, takes up the bazooka and blows the animal to fiery fragments.

The last shot, a slow zoom out that surveys the battleground, offers no sense of triumph but rather a note of melancholy as Kelly ignores the burning carcass of the bear and walks over to Stober’s body, Ragland’s harmonica score playing plaintively as the end credits role. The film keeps in mind that Kelly has lost many of his friends and colleagues by this point, claimed by the bad bush somehow in the seemingly tranquil embrace of the American landscape itself. How very ‘70s of even a likeably absurd movie about a killer bear to finally prove a downbeat and nuanced meditation on the cost of war. Grizzly kicked off its own subgenre of killer bear movies, followed by the weirder, near-hallucinatory Claws (1977), which amplified the invocation of Native American folklore by making its monster bear also possibly a manifestation of a demon god, John Frankenheimer’s blend of environmental drama and straight-up monster movie Prophecy (1979), where the beast is a mutated travesty caused by mercury pollution, and later entries like Into the Grizzly Maze (2015) and Backcountry (2014).

Alligator follows some of the same beats as Grizzly, whilst being a much more sophisticated movie. Hero David Madison (Robert Forster) is like Stober dogged by survivor guilt, although his trauma is linked instead to being a policeman, with the memory of a partner’s murder thanks in part to his own rookie fearfulness, compounded when he loses a young colleague, Jim Kelly (Perry Lang), consumed by a freakishly large alligator that attacks them as the two policemen search the sewers of Chicago. Alligator is built around director Lewis Teague and screenwriter John Sayles’ appropriation and relocation of an old but beloved urban myth, one that held blind albino alligators, former pets flushed down to grow in the sewers of New York when they became too large. Sayles’ script immediately and cheekily rhymes the origin story of the title critter with the eruption of political violence in the Chicago streets. A news radio report on the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots can be overheard whilst an irate suburban father (Robert Doyle), furious with the pet baby alligator his reptile-crazy daughter Marisa (Leslie Brown) has brought back from a trip to see gator wrestling for leaving tiny turds all about their home, unceremoniously flushes the tiny animal down the toilet. Thus the alligator is immediately implied to be a misbegotten creation that literally becomes an underground agent, a toothsome beast chewing at the underside of the city until it bursts into view.

To underline the connection between the metaphorical monster and the lingering socio-political fallout, Alligator casts Forster, star of Medium Cool (1969), which portrayed the riots in such fervent and alarming immediacy, as the world-weary detective who becomes the beast’s singular foe. Madison and Kelly descend into the sewers whilst investigating a string of apparent mutilation murders that see body parts collecting at the sewer treatment works, connected in some unexpected way to the discovery of the carcass of a dog that seemed to have grown to a bizarrely large size between disappearance and death. Madison has encountered a pet store owner, Luke Gutchel (Sidney Lassick), who has a lucrative if vexing sideline snatching stray dogs and selling them to a rich and powerful pharmaceutical company headed by Slade (Dean Jagger), whose prospective son-in-law and chief researcher Arthur Helm (James Ingersoll) is developing a growth drug. Consuming the remains of these test animals, which Gutchel dumped regularly in the sewer, has helped the alligator not only survive but grow to a fantastic size and develop an insatiable appetite to boot.

Alligator takes a snap at many an annoying social phenomenon in American life circa 1980, mocking the tabloid press in the form of prototypical trash journalist Thomas Kemp (Bart Braverman), portraying the Chicago Mayor Ledoux (Jack Carter) as a boob hopelessly enslaved to his own political interests and dedicated to brownnosing Slade, targeting the unethical practices of the big business types, and indicting the police as enthralled to power despite their best intentions. The structure of Sayles’ script, which connects the sewer and the street to corporate and political offices in a chain of corruption, malfeasance, incompetence, and potential lunch meat, incidentally presents a rough sketch for the screenwriter-turned director’s later panoramic societal studies like City of Hope (1993), Lone Star (1996), and Silver City (2004), whilst more immediately laying out the aspects of urban satire, sociological sting, and genre riffing that would inform Sayles’ early cult hit Brother From Another Planet (1984). Teague, for his part, had started his directing career on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in the mid-1960s, but followed a meandering career route until he started working for Corman, making his name on the gangster film The Lady In Red (1979).

Alligator, despite only doing mildly good business compared to Grizzly, proved a calling card that would thrust Teague towards a spell as a major director, handling the Stephen King adaptations Firestarter (1984) and Cat’s Eye (1985) as well as The Jewel of the Nile (1986), a sequel to Robert Zemeckis’ Romancing the Stone (1984), although his career would just as quickly lose momentum after the Reaganite action thriller Navy SEALS (1987) bombed. Teague’s direction rockets long, nimbly countering the often very funny and textured character business with the necessary genre thrills, offering a flavourful sense of the urban landscape (amusingly, despite the Chicago setting the film was shot largely in Los Angeles and Missouri). Alligator gleefully describes a fetid zone in the sewers where rats and mouldering carcasses are littered, dank alleys are piled up with garbage, where dirty corporate secrets are forged by golden boys, tossed away by schlubby underlings, and the shrubbery around mansions hide very rude surprises. The film looks a lot like Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and other low-budget but well-made genre films of the period and shares with them a specifically gritty lustre, with Joseph Mangine’s cinematography short on colour texture but high on vivid contrast, bright sunlight and deeply pooled blacks.

One of Teague’s best directorial gestures confirms the presence of the alligator stalking Madison and Kelly in a chilling yet easy-to-miss manner, as the gator’s jaws are momentarily caught in flashlight glare in the dark of the back of the frame behind the oblivious cops. A later sequence in a dark and menacing ghetto alley is shot like a scene from a ‘50s noir film. Alligator constantly nudges film buff awareness of the material’s roots: whilst it certainly exists as another Jaws cash-in, Alligator makes a point of emulating 1950s sci-fi creature features as a more piquant reference point, in particular borrowing the plot of Jack Arnold’s Tarantula (1955) with the same concept of a dangerous animal made huge by experimental drugs, and visually referencing the sewer battle with the giAnts in Gordon Douglas’s Them! (1954) and the great saurian monster stomping down the city streets in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Alligator at least has Madison as the eye for its particular storm. Madison is one of the great movie heroes, quickly but lovingly characterised by Teague, Sayles, and Forster as a sort of intellectual émigré turned institutional hangover, depressed and touchy about his thinning hair, ensconced in an apartment littered with old magazines and records and books on New Age esoterica, festooned with poster for the trippy fantasy artist Ramón Santiago. “You were wrong weren’t you,” Marisa comments after he confesses he took her at first for a “real tight-ass,” “When I first met you I thought you were a man whose apartment would look just like this.”

Just as Alligator plays as a kind of absurdist spiritual sequel to Medium Cool, Quentin Tarantino would make his Jackie Brown (1997) such to Alligator in directly basing Forster’s character Max Cherry on Madison, down to a line about him taking action in regards to his hair problem. Early in the film Madison and Kelly expertly take down a livewire nut who turns up at their precinct station claiming responsibility for the murder and with what looks like a bomb strapped to his body, with Madison launching into a delightfully jaded rant to distract him: “I used to be a left-hander, they made me into a right-hander. I wanted to be a priest, they made me into a cop. You wanna blow the joint up? I don’t care what you do, I stopped wanting to be a cop about last week.” Kelly springs on the man and holds him prone whilst Madison checks out the bomb and finds it’s just a clock radio. This proves not just a great character vignette but also, naturally, introduces a story device, as Madison will later adapt the fake bomb into a real one to take on his toothy foe.

Madison finds himself disbelieved when he reports the monster in the sewers after Kelly’s death, even by Marisa, who’s grown up into a respected herpetologist (played as an adult by Robin Riker) when Madison’s boss, Police Chief Clark (Michael V. Gazzo), takes Madison to consult with her. Madison finds himself the object of suspicion particularly after Kemp publishes a lurid article on the incident, but Kemp himself falls victim to the alligator when he gets wind of Madison’s story and goes into the sewer. Kemp’s death is another cleverly shot vignette, as the reporter’s camera keeps taking photos as he’s consumed by the monster, strobing flashes illuminating the terrible struggle in friezes of desperation. The camera is recovered and the photos seem to prove Madison’s story, so he and Clark get down to directing a joint effort by cops and National Guards to flush the alligator into a trap. The operation fails as the alligator breaks out through the pavement in an inner city area and begins marauding, ripping the legs off sundry cops. The Mayor brings in a professional hunter to track and kill the beast, Colonel Brock (Henry Silva), but the alligator proves adept at eluding its trackers, hiding in various bodies of water like a park lake and backyard swimming pools. Madison forges an alliance with Marisa to locate the alligator their own way, tracking down its nest in the sewer.

Whereas most of the other Jaws rip-offs settled for reproducing its social theme as a kind of rhythmic necessity, Alligator has its own brand of fun with the conceit, offering the beast as both the diseased offspring of a diseased society and its deus-ex-machina punishment, whilst Madison tries ever so shaggily to do his job as a keeper of cop lore. One is eager to see Helm get chewed up right away thanks to his habit of experimenting on puppies and his habit of cutting their larynxes to keep down the noise in the lab, even before it becomes clear he’s responsible for the whole affair. Madison is sacked by Clark when he digs too deep and establishes the connection between the Slade experiments and the alligator. The theme of blowback for cronyism and corruption climaxes in a mirthfully gruesome set-piece where the alligator invades a spectacle of ruling class arrogance, entering the Slade mansion grounds during the wedding of the tycoon’s daughter to Helm. The animal quickly turns the wedding into a scene of bloody chaos, snacking on maids, slamming its tail into sundry guests, launching them and dining tables around like confetti, before chewing up Helm and the Mayor, who Slade locks out of his limousine in his panic, only for the great lizard to then furiously crush the car and the mogul within.

Teague has a funny poke at the kinds of make-work business often thrust upon movie extras when Clark is seen talking over his car’s CB radio whilst some uniformed cops literally beat the bushes in the back of shot, only for Clark to turn around and bawl out, “Dammit, he’s not hiding in the bushes!” The film reaches some sort of sick apogee in a scene where some kids costumed as pirates at a dress-up party drag one of their number out to make him walk the plank into the backyard pool, only to obliviously hurl him right into the maw of the gator, red red blood boiling in the pool, whereupon his accidental executioners go running back to mom. Cops chasing after the beast in speed boats finish up crashing into him, boat spilling men into the water, one particularly luckless chap dragged into another boat minus his legs. Alligator is boosted not just by the excellent writing and strong direction but a surprisingly great cast crammed with underutilised character actors, beginning most evidently with Forster but also including Lassick as the affable but seedy Gutchel and Gazzo as the hard-pressed Clark. Even Jagger, who looks like he was about a million years old by this time, gets in a few good lines as the elder Slade, and Mike Mazurski appears in a cameo as the Slade Mansion’s gatekeeper.

Thanks to both Sayles’ writing and Silva’s acting, Brock provides a truly hilarious lampoon of he-man posturing and the great white hunter mystique. His hunt for the monster is punctuated with plenty of canny media performance, flirting shamelessly with a TV reporter (Sue Lyon, in her last screen role before quitting acting) by mimicking an alligator mating call, patronising Marisa (“Well now you can get back to your books.”), and reporting the beast must be “a big mutha” when he finds a huge pile of dung in an alley. His deathless credo: “If I couldn’t get myself killed chasing it, what fun would it be?” Brock pays some local black teens to be his native bearers and guides and teases them for not wanting to follow him down a dark lane (“No backbone? Must be the environment.”), only for the alligator to ambush him and consume him whole whilst one of his aides snatches up his rifle and speeds off. Alligator continues to balance such mischiefs whilst maintaining its unusually rich and nuanced take on basic heroic characterisation, with Madison’s kindled romance with Marisa well-played by Forster and Riker, their relationship evolving in a series of spasmodic gestures. Madison is initially irked by Marisa’s coolly professional disbelief of his accounts, and Marisa later disconcerted when Madison, who’s used to subsisting within a space of private grief, spurns her attempts to counsel him after Brock’s death (“Don’t understand me so quick.”). To make up with her, Madison visits her at home the next day and encounters her garrulous mother Madeline (Patti Jerome), a woman so talkative Marisa suggests letting her loose on the alligator.

Great little vignettes are stitched in throughout the film, like Madison awakening from a looping, red-soaked nightmare reliving of Kelly’s death to see his dog with its head in a carton of Chinese food and of the plastic-bedecked lizards used as dinosaurs in Irwin Allen’s The Lost World (1960) on his TV. “Freud said the police are to punish society for their own illicit desires,” Marisa notes, to Madison’s riposte that “This guy never worked the kamikaze shift in east St. Louis.” When the gator breaks out of the sewer, he interrupts a game of street baseball played by some neighbourhood kids, one of whom dashes back to his flat and steals away one of his mother’s bread knives to go do battle with the creature whilst his mother protests in vain whilst refusing to hang up the telephone. Where Grizzly stuck the possibility in the too-hard basket, Alligator has no compunction in offering Marisa as a smart and canny woman aiding Madison in his mission who blooms herself from uptight-looking lab rat to adventurer with Farrah Fawcett hair, although ultimately Madison must venture into the sewer alone with his improvised bomb, anointed as a shabby urban Beowulf.

The climax sees Teague whipping up suspense with some hoary but entirely effective devices as Madison races to set the bomb and elude the gator in the midst of a cloud of methane and climbs up to a manhole cover only to find it won’t move, because a little old lady waiting for a garbage truck to move is parked above, Marisa desperately tries to convince her to back up, the countdown of the bomb’s LED display intercut with Madison’s efforts to scramble free of the manhole, before the explosion rips apart the alligator and sends plumes of flame up into the street. “We got him,” Madison and Marisa concur as the gaze down into the smoky pit, only for Teague’s camera to descend into the sewer and sound a note of karmic reboot as another baby alligator is flushed into the sewer, under a scrawled piece of graffiti that declares, “Harry Lime Lives!,” both a great film buff gag and also one that pays heed to The Third Man’s (1949) high-and-low panorama of moral rot, but played in reverse, the spawn of the age’s iniquity born in the dark of the sewer and ready break out. Of the two films, Alligator is ultimately highly superior to Grizzly and indeed one of my favourite films of its kind. But both movies ultimately retain the charm of a bygone era when it came to disreputable entertainment flecked with flashes of intelligence and humour, and remain great fun.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Film Noir, Scifi, Thriller

The Terminator (1984)

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Director: James Cameron
Screenwriters: James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd, William Wisher (uncredited: Randall Frakes)

By Roderick Heath

Night. Dark. Ruination. Los Angeles, 2029. Monstrous metallic death machines traversing an apocalyptic landscape of twisted metal and structures, piled skulls crushed under caterpillar tread, laser beams slicing brilliance through the dank night. Darting human figures dodging the blasts. Instantly The Terminator plunges the viewer into a zone imbued with two contradictory impulses, at once ablaze with kinetic immediacy and vibrancy, and also haunted, moody, oneiric. A title card announces “the machines rose from the ashes of nuclear fire” and the battle between them and mankind’s survivors raged for decades, but will be decided in the past, “tonight.” The machinery of the present day – garbage trucks, front-end loaders, diggers – ape and presage the monstrous cast of the futuristic marauders. Spasms of brilliant energy discharge. In the two spots about the city, where the rubbish flits upon mysterious urges and the brickwork glows electric blue, naked men appear amidst a ball of white light. A version of birth rebooted for a new way of conceiving life and death. Two kinds of body disgorged from these pulsing portals, one hulking and glistening with honed perfection, the other curled in a foetal ball, smoking sores and scars on his body like the stigmata of future reckoning. The hulking man surveys Los Angeles’ nighttime sprawl and encounters a trio of punks, mechanically repeating their mocking words before making a clear and direct demand for their clothes. The price for resistance proves hideous.

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James Cameron, the kid from Kapuskasing, Ontario, found the answer to his dualistic mentality in movies. The former student of both Physics and English dropped out of college and educated himself in special effects techniques and wrote stories whilst working as a truck driver. But it wasn’t until he saw Star Wars (1977), announcing an age where his twinned fascination for technology and creative endeavour could find expression, that Cameron properly decided to become a moviemaker. Cameron made a short film about battling robots, Xenogenesis (1978), with some friends. Like many young wannabe filmmakers before him, Cameron got his break with Roger Corman, joining his low-rent studio New World Pictures. He quickly gained a reputation as someone who could get the budget up on screen, working on trash-cult movies like Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1978), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), Escape from New York (1981), and Galaxy of Terror (1981). Cameron was hired as special effects director on Piranha II: The Spawning in 1981, a sequel to Joe Dante’s darkly witty 1978 film, but the sequel was being produced by Italian schlock maestro Ovidio Assonitis. Assonitis sacked the original director after clashes and Cameron got a field promotion to take command of the shoot, although he too eventually would be fired and the movie patched together by Assonitis.

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The resulting film was dull and silly, although it betrayed hints of Cameron’s sleek visual talent. During a bout of food poisoning Cameron contracted as the production wrapped up, he had a nightmare about robotic torso chasing him about with stabbing protuberances. Cameron turned his dream into a script with the help of writer pals Randall Frakes and William Wisher, and went into a producing partnership with Gale Ann Hurd, Corman’s former assistant. Cameron was determined to direct the project, but he couldn’t get backing from studios around Hollywood. Cameron and Hurd finally gained backing from the British Hemdale Pictures, and made his debut for the tidy sum of just under $7 million. Whilst Cameron went to England to shoot Aliens (1986), The Terminator proved a startling hit, a signature icon of the age of VHS and seed for a franchise that’s produced five sequels to date on top of a TV series, all of highly varying quality. Cameron found epochal success with Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009), which anointed him as the all-time box office champion twice in a row, only to be recently, finally dethroned by Avengers: Endgame (2019), a film which to a great extent can be regarded as both a clear descendant and pale imitation of the kind of sci-fi action movie Cameron made king.

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The Terminator’s opening reels betray Cameron’s nascent epic sensibility with the immediate onslaught of potent imagery matched to a script unafraid of thinking big even whilst creatively adapting it to a tight budget, whilst gaining immeasurably from an authentic feel for place. Cameron turns downtown LA into a neo-noir zone splendid in its seamy and desolate hue, where the homeless and wretched litter the streets and cops cruise in their own paranoid battle with mystery in the night. Early scenes of the film parse fragments of information to distinguish the Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn) and their distinct yet fatefully joined missions, as the former casually unleashes terrible violence to get what it wants, whereas Kyle only strips the trousers off a hapless derelict (Stan Yale), and nimbly eludes the cops whose attention he attracts. Reese manages to overpower one cop and bewilders him by demanding to know what year it is, before fleeing within a department story and exiting dressed. Cameron quickly has Reese don a long overcoat to underline his noir hero status whilst arming him with a shotgun he steals from a cop car and readily joining the other night flotsam stalking the LA downtown in the wee hours. Daylight brings the mundane sight of young waitress Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) riding a scooter to the diner where she works with her roommate Ginger (Bess Motta) and tries valiantly to get through days clogged with frenetic work and humiliation.

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Sarah’s name has been rendered totemic without her knowing, as both future visitors have searched the phone book for her name. The Terminator enters a pawn shop and kills the owner (Dick Miller) to obtain his horde of quality guns, before heading on to the home of one Sarah Connor, shooting the woman repeatedly at the front door. Ginger alerts Sarah to the bloodcurdling apparent coincidence when it’s reported on the news. That night, as Ginger prepares for a night in with her boyfriend Matt (Rick Rossovich) Sarah decides to head out on the town but soon becomes convinced she’s being followed as she spies Reese trailing her, she takes refuge in a dance club called the Tech-Noir, and when she learns that a second Sarah Connor has been killed she calls the police, who warn her to stay put. But she also calls Ginger, just as the Terminator has killed her and Matt, and he heads to club. Just at the point where the Terminator is about to shoot Sarah, Reese unleashes his shotgun, filling the Terminator with wounds that should be fatal, but only plant the man on the ground for a few moments. Reese and Sarah flee and Reese explains that the hulking man is a type of cyborg, sent back to kill her to prevent her giving birth to her son John Connor, beloved in the future as the great leader of the human resistance, and Reese was dispatched in pursuit to stop it.

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Whilst relatively limited in comparison to his immense later productions, The Terminator still stands as the Cameron’s best film to date, and, taken with its immediate follow-up Aliens, helped bring something new and galvanising to post-Star Wars sci-fi cinema. Cameron didn’t invent the sci-fi action movie, but he certainly perfected it. The Terminator matches the qualities of the title entity as a lean, precise, utterly driven unit of cinematic expression. Cameron managed something unique in the context of 1980s low-budget genre cinema. That zone was replete with inventive movies that often purveyed a weird and subversive attitude in comparison to the more high-profile releases of the age even whilst mimicking their trends: 1984 offered some strong entries in the same stakes including Repo Man, Trancers, The Philadelphia Experiment, and Night of the Comet, but none have left anything like the same cultural footprint. Perhaps that’s because The Terminator avoided the waggish edge those films had: whilst hardly humourless, The Terminator takes itself and its ideas with deadly seriousness and contours all into a cool, kinetic style, perfect for compelling an audience without yet hearing the call of the bombast and filed-down edges of multiplex fare.

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Cameron established immediately that he knew how to not just set up an interesting and bizarre story but how to keep it moving with headlong force and concision. The name of the Tech-Noir club nods to Cameron’s aesthetic mission statement, in fusing fatalistic thriller intensity with the chitinous sheen and intellectual flickers of sci-fi. Cameron incidentally revealed fetishism for malevolently cool hardware, and his fascination for the mindset of the battle-hardened. Cameron’s confusion in this regard might well have even helped his eventual conquest of the mass audience. Cameron’s initial purpose with The Terminator was to make up for a severe lack he perceived in sci-fi cinema: the lack of a robot movie that summarised the iconic power of the concept that had so often decorated the cover of pulp magazines. The vision of tingling paranoia and evasion amidst a grubby midnight world after the mediating opening title sequence carefully likens the world Reese lands in as a sector of the present day a visitor from a grim future like Reese can recognise and operate within. The glimpses of that future allowed throughout the rest of the film involve much the same game of eluding and pockets of poor and filthy people subsisting as they’re hunted by hostile forces.

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Then there’s the reason behind Reese’s arrival: the artificial intelligence (unnamed in this film, dubbed Skynet in the sequel) that sent the Terminator back into the past for a pinpointed assassination, an entity constructed for defence logistics that suddenly became self-aware and tried to wipe out humanity. The intelligence’s last-ditch plan after being defeated in a long insurgency reveals an amusingly robotic logic that can only perceive in limited terms: Skynet perceives its enemy, John Connor, as a variable to be erased, rather than one nexus for the human will and energy inevitably turned against it. Cameron’s engagement with the post-apocalyptic subgenre strained to remove direct political references, as the artificial intelligence’s intervention subverts the Cold War that had heated up again in the early Reagan era by portraying both the USA and the Soviet Union as the mere incidental arsenals for the machine’s plot: te superpowers’ illusion of control is mere grist for the ghost in the machine. But the portrayal of the results of Skynet unleashing such destruction still kept company with a spasm of bleak and portentous portrayals of such events around the same time in fare like The Day After (1983) and Threads (1984). Reese’s methods involve something like urban guerrilla warfare, ironically looking less acceptably normal than the Terminator itself as he wanders the streets with glazed eyes, filthy pants, and sawed-down weapon tucked under his arm and plastic explosives cooked up with household products in a motel room.

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In concept The Terminator is only a degree removed from a thread of speculative cinema ranging contending with the idea of urban guerrilla warriors from Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat By The Door (1973) through to the Mad Max films and variants like Enzo Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, as well as works tussling with thrillers rooted in post-Vietnam angst like Black Sunday (1977) and First Blood (1982). Cameron had even written a script, eventually much-revised, for Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984). Cameron’s fascination with the fallout of the Vietnam War, an aspect still echoing loudly in his work by the time of Avatar, comes into focus here as Reese is offered as a veteran still at war even whilst returned to the ‘normal’ world. Cameron would back it up with Aliens in offering a blunt metaphor for the American grunt’s-eye-view experience of the war, whilst The Terminator leans heavily on time travelling warrior Reese as an analogue for a damaged veteran still carrying on the war on the home front. Such recognisable affinity was given a new charge by Cameron’s exacting technique and careful aesthetic, and well as the edge of his sci-fi conceptualism, suggesting all such conflicts are a trial run for the coming ultimate war. Reese’s experience is also imbued with Holocaust overtones as he displays the identifying tattoo, cast with chilling aptness in bar code, he retains from years in the AI’s disposal camps where survivors like Reese were used like sonderkommandos. Reese recounts how John Connor helped organise the prisoners, break out, and begin their war, leading to a hard-won victory where only Reese’s mission remains the last, strangest fight.

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Cameron’s grasp of time as a fluid and dimensional rather than a purely linear concept helped give the film, and its follow-ups, room to breathe in terms of cause and effect: “One possible future,” Reese tries to explain to Sarah before admitting he doesn’t grasp all the technicalities, implying regardless that the version of the past he’s landed in might not lead back to the same future, but probably will as long as the variables are still in place. That’s why the storyline erects a straightforward paradox as Reese becomes Sarah’s lover and father to her child, the man who will eventually find it necessary to send him back in time. Despite the many heady and imaginative elements fed into it, The Terminator shows Cameron sticking with established formulae when it came to make low-budget genre cinema in that moment. The film freely blends the basic pattern of the slasher style of horror movie with a style of thriller built around car chases and gunfights. Sarah Connor is a standard final girl in many respects, defined by her relative lack of worldly and sexual confidence compared to hot-to-trot Ginger who bangs her boyfriend with her Walkman turned up loud, channels nascent maternal instincts into her pet iguana, and slowly grows from frayed everywoman to resilient survivor. Like Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, and other slasher monstrosities, the Terminator moves with the steady remorselessness and lack of human register of fate itself, and repeatedly comes to life again for fresh onslaughts after it seems to have been laid low.

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The key difference is that those monsters rely on a supernatural mystique whereas the Terminator is a comparatively rationalised force. The way Cameron employs the slasher killer figuration allows him to exploit its key value – it’s a narrative style cheap and easy to stage and blessed with straightforward velocity – whilst also extending the psychological tension in Reese’s inability to establish his veracity until the Terminator provides proof, by which time it’s too late. Cameron also signalled the slasher mode’s end by pushing it into a new zone that would prove much more difficult to imitate because it required more special effects and makeup input, and audience would seek something more clever and substantial from then on. Schwarzenegger’s cyborg devolves from ultimate specimen of manhood to one losing bits of skin and flesh, slowly revealing the underlying robotic form, until only the mechanical being is left. Cameron also pushed against the grain of the slasher style in situating the drama squarely in an urban world where the forces of authority are ultimately revealed to be just as powerless before the marauding evil, and toying with the underlying moralism of the slasher brand. The Terminator offers a story in which, for a saviour to be born, the heroine must enthusiastically engage in premarital sex. The film toys constantly with imagery of birth and tweaked religious impulses. John Connor’s initials clearly signal his messianic function, and he’s the spawn of a figure that falls from the sky and comes to give Sarah the new gospel.

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Cameron readily admitted to emulating Ridley Scott and George Miller, assimilating the cyber-noir of Blade Runner (1982) and the rollicking ferocity of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981). Interestingly, even as Cameron sublimates of Blade Runner’s atmosphere and ideas, he strays closer to Philip K. Dick than Scott’s film did in one crucial aspect: Dick’s original theme was that however close the facsimile of the replicants was to the human, ultimately they remained creatures without souls, without transformative empathy. Another of Cameron’s inspirations, the 1960s anthology TV series The Outer Limits, would eventually prove a thorn in his side. The ever-prickly Harlan Ellison, who had written two notable episodes of the series with similarities to Cameron’s eventual story, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier”, would sue Cameron and his studio for plagiarism, a contention that was eventually settled out of court against Cameron’s objections: Ellison received a vague credit. To be sure, the basics of The Terminator do resemble Ellison’s episodes, although a great deal of sci-fi often borrows and remixes ideas in such a fashion, and the way Cameron develops his variations on the same themes proves quite different.

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Another strong antecedent is Michael Crichton’s Westworld (1973), with its similar basic plot of a marauding killer android. Crichton’s film presaged The Terminator and some other ‘80s sci-fi-action hybrids in its visual motifs, introducing a post-human viewpoint as the deadly machine stalks its foes utilising point-of-view shots overtly placing us in a post-human way of perceiving the world’s textures. And, of course, the ace in the hole proved to be the casting of the former bodybuilder turned actor Schwarzenegger in the lead role. Schwarzenegger, who had become an odd kind of movie star appearing in the documentary Pumping Iron (1977), had been acting off and on since the late 1960s, and with Conan the Barbarian (1982) was promoted to leading man. Whilst that film had been a fitting vehicle for Schwarzenegger in emphasising a childlike quality within the hulking form, The Terminator went one better in turning all his liabilities as an actor into strengths. Cameron had intended the Terminator to be played by someone like the actor Lance Henriksen with whom he’d worked on Piranha II. The cyborg was supposed to be, after all, an infiltrator, without characteristics that would normally draw the eye.

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Nonetheless he found the entire project gained a new and specific gravity thanks to his star’s presence. Schwarzenegger’s grating Austrian accent, slowed down and levelled in a monotone, became perfectly unified with the character, as in his famous threat/promise to a cop at a duty desk, “I’ll be back,” before driving a car through the front doors. His line deliveries became then chiselled little runes depicting the awkward interaction of a machine mind and human custom, most amusingly illustrated when, trying to ward off a nosy hotel janitor, he punches up a selection of retorts and choose “Fuck you, asshole.” Schwarzenegger’s body meanwhile encapsulated the idea of bristling, unswerving threat and force: where Cameron’s initial concept was to utilise the cognitive dissonance between the form wielding deadly force and its impact, casting Schwarzenegger erased it, as he looked like he might just be able to ram his hand into a man’s chest and rip his heart out. A good deal of the film’s signature mood is illustrated simply by the image of the Terminator cruising the city streets in a stolen cop car, a renegade influence that nonetheless readily adheres to an image of pure authority, face bathed in red and green light, eyes promising cold execution.

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Although he ultimately came out of it with the least lasting credit amongst the major figures of The Terminator, a great deal of the film’s quality is due to Biehn, who perfectly embodies the future warrior, every nerve and muscle in his body honed by decades of brutal warfare and twitching with tormented survival instinct, and yet still retaining a streak of fractured romanticism. Cameron allows him a veritable Proustian streak as he constantly drifts into reveries of the future past, all of them invoking moments of trauma, as when he recalls battling robots monsters only to be trapped inside a toppled and burning truck, but also signalling the things that keep him human, as in the last flashback/forward where he retreats into an underground bunker where fellow survivors persist and settles to dream upon a photo of a lovely woman taken in another world, an image he clearly adores: it is, of course, a photo of Sarah gifted to him by John.

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This sequence is perhaps my favourite in the film as it offers Reese’s memory through a lens of the dreamy remove shading again into nightmare. Cameron evokes Reese’s feeling of peculiar hominess in the grim hovel he shares with other people, a sense of intimate shelter contending with such bleak jokes as a mother and child staring at a TV that proves to house a warming fire and people hinting rats for food. The abode is despoiled when penetrated by a Terminator that cuts loose with a laser canon, Reese’s memories fixating on the glowing red eyes of the murderous cyborg glimpsed through the murk and the photo of Sarah blistering and blazing in the fire. Upon waking, Reese finds that Sarah has dreamt of dogs, the barking sentinels that warn of a Terminator, somehow having shared some portion of his liminal space. Sarah herself is the first of Cameron’s many, celebrated gutsy heroines, although pointedly she doesn’t start as one, complaining that “I can’t even balance my chequebook” in response to the suggestion she’s the mother of the future. Cameron makes the idea of biological function both an ennobling prospect and a cross to bear as Sarah finds herself tethered to this aspect of her female being, whilst Reese, however heroic, serves his function as drone protector and inseminator and then dies, purpose spent.

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The film’s most recent extension, Tim Miller’s Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) honourably attempted to allow the alternative of a woman not being simply defined by the man she might birth but become a leader in her own right, but whilst this ticked a rhetorical box it spurned the weird force of Cameron’s initial metaphor for maternity itself, considering every woman as the mother of the future, surprisingly little tackled in the sci-fi genre and a major aspect of The Terminator’s nagging novelty: it found a way to make motherhood seem inherently heroic. This ironically essentialist take on gender functions contrasts the mechanical way of assembly lines and the Terminator’s perfectly self-sufficient body that is nonetheless functionless beyond dealing out death, a most perfectly inflated and reductive evocation of a certain ideal of masculinity. The film’s first sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), would stretch Cameron’s thinking further to the point where he offers Sarah a few years down the line as having become Reese, just as wiry and honed and ablaze with terrible, maddening awareness.

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The film’s more earthbound and familiar aspect is provided by an array of supporting characters, most of whom fall victim to the Terminator, including Ginger and Matt. The cops tasked with investigating the spate of Sarah Connor homicides are Traxler (Paul Winfield) and Vukovich (Henriksen), a splendid pair of workaday non-heroes with palates deadened by bad coffee and cigarettes and existential miasma, and the police psychologist Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who interviews Reese and rejoices in the brilliant complexities of his psychotic delusion. Such men try their best to defend a reality they don’t realise is crumbling, and come supplied with running jokes like Traxler’s lack of interest in Vukovich’s anecdotes. Sarah and Reese are arrested after surviving another battle with the Terminator, with the possibility of alternative explanations for what’s happened presented to Sarah. Just after Silberman leaves the station the Terminator comes crashing in, blasting his way through the small army of police with cold efficiency, including Traxler and Vukovich, whilst Sarah and Reese take the chance to escape custody. The police station slaughter is another of Cameron’s nerveless action sequences, the Terminator’s ruthless brutality and efficiency finally described at full pitch, calmly gunning down cop after cop and shrugging off bullet wounds, hobbling his foes by knocking out the power and then proceeding with his infra-red vision. This scene also incidentally underlines the Terminator’s badass lustre in his complete indifference to adult authority, one clear reason perhaps why so many kids and teens immediately adored it.

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Cameron’s technical expertise certainly helped him in forging momentous images on a budget, his technique incorporating a cunning use of slow motion in the sequence when Reese and the Terminator converge on Sarah in the Tech-Noir. This seems to match the Terminator’s seemingly more distended sense of time and action when seen from his viewpoint. There’s also Cameron’s signature use of filters, particularly steely blues and greys with patches of lancing reds, and the use of plentiful Ridley Scott-style smoke and steam diffusion. Amongst its many precursors, the film The Terminator most resembles in mood and visual palette is Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978), another work in a zone of urban noir albeit one lacking sci-fi aspects, similarly propelled by the feeling that its characters are akin to the last living survivors of an apocalypse and yet still persist within the stark and alien textures of nocturnal LA. One significant aspect of the film’s identity is Brad Fiedel’s then-cutting edge electronic scoring, with its throbbing, metallic textures, revolving around a main theme at once ominous and plaintively evocative: the scoring feels perfectly of a unit with the film’s underlying struggle between the mechanistic and the emotional, describing all the blasted landscapes and desperate humanity.

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Reese underlines the absolute relentlessness of the Terminator to Sarah, its complete imperviousness to all forms of reason and dissuasion. The film draws its galvanising pace from the depiction of such unswerving programming. When it does grab some effective moments of downtime, islands of peace must be bought with moments of incredible exertion and frenzied survival will. Humans need things the Terminator doesn’t, and only geography and the maintenance of its camouflage limit it. The notion of the robot made to look human was hardly new – it has a clear precursor as far back as Metropolis (1926) – but Cameron’s vivid illustration of his version, in the mangling of the Terminator’s appearance, offered a newly gruesome depiction of the machine within, the grown human apparel discarded through its many battles until revealing shining metal and a glowing red eye, the organic one that covered it plucked out with Biblical readiness when damaged. Such subterfuge becomes unnecessary as the Terminator zeroes in on its prey. “Pain can be controlled,” Reese tells Sarah, a sign that to function in terrible extremes the human must aspire towards a Terminator-like state to survive cruel realities, but limits to all such remove are eventually found. The human urge to vulnerable connection inevitably sees Reese and Sarah have sex in a motel room they retreat to, after Sarah beholds Reese’s body with all its scar tissue and his mind with all its quivering, innocent need.

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Narrative efficiency reasserts itself with cold humour as Sarah calls up her mother to reassure her about her safety and her mother’s voice extracts her location from her, whereupon Cameron shows the other end of the call, panning past signs of violence to find the Terminator on the phone performing an imitation. This lapse sets up the film’s climax as the Terminator arrives at the motel, with Sarah and Reese warned by a barking dog and fleeing just ahead of the cyborg, which pursues them on a motorcycle. Reese tries to fend off their pursuer with his improvised explosives, but is clipped by a bullet, and both chased and chaser crash on a freeway overpass. The Terminator, after being dragged under a semitrailer, commandeers the truck whilst Sarah has to drag away the injured Reese, but Reese manages to blow up the truck with one of his explosives, and the Terminator stumbles out amidst the flames, collapsing as its flesh burns away in blackened flakes. The lovers embrace by the flaming wreckage, only for Cameron to stage his own variation on the famous, carefully framed revival of Michael in Halloween (1978) as the now entirely denuded cyborg skeleton rises from the wreckage and resumes the chase. Cameron’s penchant for nesting surprising new stages in his climaxes had its first and most sensible iteration here, as once again the constant assaults of the Terminator obey its own logic and capacity to the limit, as well as his intelligence on a plotting level which always tries to make the various crises grow out the previous ones. The terrifying difficulty of halting such a foe is illustrated again and again, and the film’s finally tragic aura stems from the accruing certainty that it can’t be stopped without countenancing hard loss.

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Hard loss comes indeed as Sarah and Reese flee within a factory and, desperate to keep the cyborg away from Sarah, Reese gets close enough to stick his last explosive into its armature, blowing it to pieces but getting himself killed, and Sarah badly injured, in the process. Even this still doesn’t stop the monster as the bedraggled torso keeps after Sarah, dragging itself along with one good hand, the organic and mechanical beings now both crippled, mimicking each-other’s motions as they drag themselves across the floor and through the gullet of a hydraulic press, as mutually entrapped as the Coyote and Roadrunner who, at root, they strongly resemble. Sarah’s final destruction of the Terminator by catching it in the press and crushing it is both the end of the narrative and the culmination of Sarah’s evolution, saving herself with warrior grit and kissing off her great enemy with the ultimate reversal of role, “You’re terminated, fucker.” Hardly the birth of the action heroine, but certainly the modern breed’s debutante party. It’s fitting that, after all the thunderous action and surging drama, the coda returns to meditate upon the film’s rarer quality, that aspect of menacing yet yearning genre poetry. Sarah, now travelling the desert in a jeep with a dog for company, is sold the photo that will become Reese’s icon by a Mexican kid, now revealed to be the image of her meditating on Reese himself in an eternal loop of longing and pain. Onwards she drives and vanishes into Mexican mountains, the storm clouds blowing in suggestive of the oncoming apocalyptic threat, one of the great final movie shots.

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The Terminator’s influence still echoes through action and sci-fi cinema, including its own birthed franchise. Following a relative commercial slip with the undersea alien tale The Abyss (1989) Cameron would take up his debut again and reiterate it as Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released seven years after the original, this time on a record-breaking budget and riding a wave of hype and expense the likes of which Hollywood had scarcely seen since the days of 1950s widescreen epics. In the meantime the Cold War had ended and the Vietnam-age angst of the original had dwindled. Cameron did his best to intensify the nuclear angst with a punishing vision of LA’s destruction in a dream sequence, but the newly positive mood of the moment was reflected in Cameron’s depiction of his heroes forestalling the rise of Skynet and the destructive war. So Cameron deflected his narrative’s stress points into concepts more rooted in societal observation particularly in describing the feckless lot of the moment’s young folk, as represented by the teenaged John Connor, trapped between disinterested representatives of square society as represented by his dimwit foster parents and a new, ruthless Terminator now disguised as a policeman and entirely subsuming the image of authority, and ruined radicalism as embodied by Sarah, whilst recasting Schwarzenegger’s Terminator from embodiment of brute masculinity to an ironically idealised father figure. The film’s excellence as spectacle, with groundbreaking special effects and tremendous action setpieces couldn’t quite hide the degree to which Cameron often settled for lightly riffing on his original script and recycling a settled template. But taken as a pair the two films remain one of the great diptychs in popular cinema. The rest of the sequels are a matter of taste.

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1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Western

Silverado (1985)

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Director: Lawrence Kasdan
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, Mark Kasdan

By Roderick Heath

In memoriam: Brian Dennehy 1938-2020

Miami-born, West Virginia-raised Lawrence Kasdan had ambitions to become a filmmaker since childhood. Determined to break into 1970s Hollywood with the aim of becoming a director, he nonetheless made his play as a screenwriter. Kasdan spent stints as a teacher and advertising copy writer before he landed an agent with a screenplay called The Bodyguard, a work that would take another seventeen years to hit movie screens. The first script he had produced was the romantic comedy Continental Divide (1978), shepherded by Steven Spielberg in one of his early forays into producing. The film wasn’t a great success but clearly Spielberg was impressed by Kasdan, as he and George Lucas tapped Kasdan to write both Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strike Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), swiftly establishing Kasdan as a talent equal to the challenge of the blockbuster age, a keen and canny wordsmith and a member of the Movie Brat tribe with a deep affection for genre fare of yore. Kasdan was swiftly rewarded with a shot at directing. Despite his skill at fleshing out fantastical material, Kasdan’s own taste was more earthbound and old-school, and he would challenge himself often during his directorial career to revive waned genres like film noir, westerns, and screwball comedy with a modern edge and relevance, and finding varying levels of success.

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Kasdan’s directorial debut, the lean and mordant neo-noir Body Heat (1981), instantly grabbed him attention, and his follow-up, The Big Chill (1983), a comedy-drama rooted in Kasdan’s experiences in studying former ‘60s student radicals settling into comfortable middle age, was hugely successful and admired at the time although it eventually became a pop culture punchline. Kasdan’s later career slowly waned as he made a few too many middling comedies and smug, touch-feely dramedies. For his third film, Kasdan resolved to take a shot at reviving the Western. After the general box office catastrophe that met Heaven’s Gate (1980) and The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981), the Western had been declared dead, but Kasdan felt it only needed a loving hand determined to remind the mass audience what a fun genre it could be, harking back to fare like The Big Country (1958) and The Magnificent Seven (1960). Silverado is probably the high-water mark of Kasdan’s directing work, albeit one that was only mildly successful at the box office, ironically because the studio was so excited by the wild audience reaction at test screenings it was sent to theatres without a proper build-up. It even helped spark a sputtering revival for the Western, initially in the teenybopper shoot-‘em-up Young Guns (1988), and more substantially as Kasdan’s young acting discovery Kevin Costner would go on to score an Oscar-garlanded hit with Dances With Wolves (1990) and give impetus for a handful of new entries in the 1990s. Most of those didn’t land with audiences, however, and Silverado itself, despite its best intentions, might well reveal why the genre couldn’t truly return.

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Kasdan executed the film with a sprawling sense of the genre’s visual and storytelling lexicon, but still made it adhere to his own, more personal fascination with a gallery of motley characters drawn together in because of a shared cause and experience. The film starts memorably and deliberately on a claustrophobic note, with a sequence that feels close to the climax of Blood Simple (1984). Emmett (Scott Glenn) is a man sleeping in a dark and tiny cabin, when someone starts shooting through the walls at him. Emmett manages to grab his rifle and fire back, killing his attackers, and he steps outside with the reveal that the cabin is perched on a ridge above a glorious landscape of valleys and snow-capped mountains, a great moment for cinematographer John Bailey. Kasdan nods to the famous opening of The Searchers (1956) here whilst also performing his own, specific piece of visual legerdemain, releasing the Western from a cage of dolour and reduced horizons. Emmett has just been released from prison, and he’s making his way back to the town of Silverado, where some of his family reside, with the ultimate intention of reach California with his younger brother Jake (Costner). As he crosses a stretch of desert, Emmett encounters a man laid out on the sand. This is Paden (Kevin Kline), who reports he was held up and robbed by some men he was travelling with, and left without water to die. Paden seems an amiable man, perhaps out of his depth, although anyone would look like a twit in such circumstances. Emmett helps him out of the desert.

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When they reach a frontier hamlet, Paden sees one of his attackers, and hurriedly buys a poor pistol with his last dollar. He shoots the thief, revealing his brilliance as a gunman, and reclaims his horse. Another man passing through town, Cobb (Brian Dennehy), vouches for him: Cobb and Paden were once partners in an outlaw gang together, but Paden is determined to go straight. Paden continues travelling with Emmett, until they reach a more substantial town, Turley, where Emmett expects to meet up with Jake. As they eat in a tavern, they watch in interest as a black cowboy, Malachi ‘Mal’ Johnson (Danny Glover) comes in and orders a drink, only to be brusquely told by the owner to leave, and a couple of local heavies take pleasure in backing him up. Mal instead pummels all three, only to attract the attention of the town’s very English, very strict Sheriff, Langston (John Cleese), who runs him out of town. They soon learn that Langston has Jake in prison awaiting hanging for killing a man in a gunfight, which Jake swears was self-defence. Emmett resolves to break Jake out, and Paden tells him he doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the law again, so they part amicably. But Paden spies another of his robbers, this one wearing his signature hat, and when the thief tries to shoot him Paden guns him down, which gets him thrown into the same cell with Jake. The duo work together to escape and link up with Emmett.

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The way Kasdan introduces and develops Paden signifies his clever and witty approach to reclaiming the Western. Paden is first seen stripped to his long-johns, and speaks not with a hard-bitten western accent but a polite and bewildered lilt, a seemingly absurd figure who might be at home in McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) or The Missouri Breaks (1975) or any number of other mud-and-blood Westerns, or even Blazing Saddles (1974). He’s mocked by his former fellow bandits for having dropped out of their number because concern for a dog triggered his capacity for empathy. Casting Kline, better known as a comic actor, compounds the initial miscue. But once Emmett helps him to civilisation, Paden begins reclaiming both his possessions and his pride, reassembling himself and the aura of his breed piece by piece, unveiling his near-supernatural talent with a six-shooter and an unyielding and fearless streak, hard to provoke but truly fearsome once activated. His progression makes literal Kasdan’s purposeful shift from recalling the shambolic and cynical strain of the genre seen in the ‘70s and moving back in the genre’s history to restore the figure of the Western hero in all his glory. This motif threads through the film’s first third, at the same time Emmett, Paden, Jake, and Mal form together into a band and make their way to the titular town, their amity fused by their shared and complimentary talents and their common experience of various forms of injustice, of which Mal’s struggle with racism is the most blatant example, although Emmett, Jake, and Paden all face their own versions.

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The storyline, once the plot proper kicks into gear, actually uses the same basic plot as Heaven’s Gate in dealing with a range war sparked by a greedy cattleman, only in a less virulently anti-capital and more crowd-pleasing way. The opening credits, with Bruce Broughton’s grandiose, Alfred Newman-esque score thundering over shots of Emmett riding past vast and gritty-beautiful landscapes, situates the characters in a purely mythical movie zone. The films swiftly racks up a vivid sense of the genre’s classic motifs – the monumental landscape, the tough but decent heroes unveiled in all their badass brilliance. That said, Kasdan resists getting po-faced and square in restoring the classical Western grandeur, deploying a loose comedic edge to give familiar figures and ideas a new instability, particularly with an offbeat approach to casting, putting actors largely known for comedy in serious parts and vice versa. This extends to Cleese’s ingeniously droll and aggravating performance as Langston, bullying and railroading people with a very proper English manner, Basil Fawlty with a six shooter, and the diminutive Linda Hunt as Stella, the female bar owner who becomes Paden’s best friend but needs a raised platform behind the bar to serve drinks. Jeff Goldblum enters the film with his customary rubbery intonations as a gambler named Slick who seems at first like he might be an ally to the heroes but proves instead a villain. Most vitally, Kasdan gave young Costner, whose mature screen persona would often be dismayingly stolid, the part of jovial, livewire, fast-shootin’ Jake, making him an instant star.

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The film’s first third consists of a series of rolling challenges to the heroes that also draw them together, in a freewheeling and picaresque fashion that nonetheless obeys a particular logical flow. We move from Emmett rescuing Paden to Paden and Jake busting out of jail together with a goofy ruse, with the aid of Emmett, who blows up the town gallows to distract Langston and his deputies, and then with the intervention of Mal, who covers their flight from the sheriff with such frighteningly good marksmanship Langston decides his jurisdiction ends well short of the county line. This segues into a calculatedly iconic depiction of the four heroes riding abreast across the countryside with Broughton’s heroic theme swelling, all without a hint of irony. One the road to Silverado they come across a wagon train that’s been robbed by thieves posing as trail hands. Emmett and Mal’s altruism inspires them to go after the thieves, whilst Paden is more motivate by gaining the approval of one of the women of the train, Hannah (Rosanna Arquette), although she’s married to the bullish Conrad (Rusty Meyers), who, suspicious of the gang’s motives, elects himself to accompany them. The thieves prove to be part of a larger gang led by Dawson (James Gammon), but a successful combination of Emmett and Paden’s ruse and Mal and Jake’s shooting allows them to snatch back the train’s cashbox in a breezy, near-slapstick action sequence. Conrad holds the heroes up at gunpoint and demands the cashbox from them, but he is gunned down by one of the thieves.

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Eventually the four heroes arrive with the wagon train in Silverado, where they go their separate ways: Mal to join his father Ezra (Joe Seneca), who owns his own ranch, Emmett and Jake to visit their sister Kate (Patricia Gaul), who’s married to the local land registrar J.T. Hollis (Earl Hindman) and has a son. Paden pays court to the widowed Hannah but is turned off by her professed determination to build her parcel of land into a great ranch. He soon finds Cobb is not just a local business owner but also the Silverado sheriff, positions he’s reached because he’s also the chief enforcer for the great local cattle rancher Ethan McKendrick (Ray Baker). Paden takes a job running the gaming in Cobb’s saloon the Midnight Star, managed by Stella, after Cobb fires and gut-punches the man who was in the job, Kelly (Richard Jenkins). Kelly vengefully tries to shoot Cobb but Cobb blows him away. Emmett has reasons to be wary of McKendrick, because he was in prison for shooting the cattle baron’s brother in self-defence. McKendrick professes to be satisfied by Emmett’s incarceration, but Emmett quickly learns the horse he’s riding, taken from one of the men who tried to kill him at the opening, has McKendrick’s brand, telling him McKendrick ordered the attempted hit. McKendrick is trying to take over all the nearby territory, terrorising the smaller land owners, including Ezra, who’s had his cabin burned down and now hides in a cave, and Mal’s resentful sister Rae (Lynn Whitfield) has moved into the town and become a prostitute. Upon Mal’s return he and Ezra stand up to McKendrick’s goons, but pay the price when Ezra is ambushed and shot dead.

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Silverado was reportedly cut down from a greater running time prior to release, and it tells in places, but it doesn’t entirely excuse the film’s lumpiness. The way plot strands and characters pile up suddenly a good distance into the running time robs it of the gallivanting charm and pace established early on, and even a screenwriter as skilful and adroit as Kasdan can’t easily negotiate the speed bump. There’s enough raw material for a film twice Silverado’s already solid length, assembling elements at a frantic pace to build up a storyline busy enough to engage all of his heroes and justify the inclusion of an array of assorted classical genre tropes. In this regard it stands in contrast with the economic structure Kasdan managed for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and unlike that film, which so sleekly performed osmosis on generations of pulp adventuring it emerged diamond-hard, Silverado rather makes you more conscious of Kasdan’s attempt to rope together clichés. Such multiplying is also proof of Kasdan’s honourable desire to offer his fun with substance, fleshing out his heroes and providing each of them with a strong stake in the drama, even the professionally disengaged Paden.

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It’s also plainly a style of drama Kasdan liked, the narrative with a panoramic sense of character and their individual straits which he visited in quite different keys in The Big Chill and later with Grand Canyon (1991) and Dreamcatcher (2002). Moreover, the film shifts gear from a romp to a more concerted melodrama as the heroes face Cobb and McKendrick, ruthless and competent villains determined to protect their interests. But some elements, particularly Paden and Emmett’s attentions to Hannah, don’t have the time to go anywhere. Hannah’s obviously been included as a sop to a more contemporary female ideal, she doesn’t really add anything to the film, unlike Whitfield’s Rae, who’s crucial to the plot and describes a neat character arc in herself. Pointedly perhaps, just about the only aspect of a good classic Western Kasdan fails then to encompass is a good romance, with Jake’s affair with good-natured saloon waitress Phoebe (Amanda Wyss) a very minor aside, whilst Paden’s quick but fierce platonic friendship with Stella ironically comes closest as a meeting of ironically inclined lost souls. Kasdan does better in racking up a number of swiftly and neatly described enemies, including Tyree (Jeff Fahey), another member of Paden and Cobb’s old gang and a more feral personality itching for a chance to take on his old comrade, and lesser imps like Slick. A string of events pitch the story towards crisis point. Ezra is murdered. In a crafty scene, Emmett is glimpsed in a regulation activity for a Western hero, practicing his shooting in a suitably quiet and deserted area. Once he empties all his guns, McKendrick’s goons suddenly spring out of hiding and attack him, only for Mal, who’s been hiding since his father’s death, to intervene and save Emmett who suffers a bad blow to the head from Tyree riding repeatedly over him. Mal is then captured and jailed by Cobb. McKendrick and more goons break into J.T.’s registrar office to burn all the land deeds, killing J.T. shot and kidnapping his and Kate’s son Augie (Thomas Wilson Brown), whilst Jake vanishes, presumed dead.

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Early in his directing career, Kasdan revealed a genuine knack for spotting star talent, and his first three films launched a handful of big names. One great and obvious pleasure of Silverado is its excellent cast. Indeed there are few movies that include such a large percentage of my favourite actors, most of whom are given carefully crafted roles, and even the relatively small parts sport actors of the calibre of Seneca, Gammon, and Brion James filling them out. Even Costner is terrific in an atypical role as the jaunty, irrepressible Jake, a strong contrast to Glenn’s weathered intensity as his brother and Glover’s everyman grit. Dennehy wields enough bluff charisma to light up Manhattan. Only Kline feels slightly uneasy in his part. He’s good when playing Paden’s courteous side and portraying crisis of conscience when push comes to shove. But when Paden’s dangerous streak is roused, Kline aims for lethal focus in his glare but achieves only woodenness. When Glenn as Emmett resolves to go out and fight, you believe it, but Kline looks like he’s biting his tongue on a witticism: deadpan is not the same as seriousness. Paden is pushed into a quandary as he tries to obey his desire to avoid trouble but finds his friends in trouble and Cobb and McKendrick’s war intensifying and costing innocent lives. When he signals his displeasure to Cobb after trying to extinguish the fire consuming the registrar office and learning of Augie’s kidnapping, the sheriff responds by making veiled threats on Stella’s life to hold Paden in check. Paden and Stella get drunk together and Stella realises this.

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Kasdan’s desire to balance aspects of the revisionist urge with a more classical and grandiose sensibility would see him return to the Western with the much undervalued Wyatt Earp (1994), on that occasion with Costner in the lead for a darker and more interrogative attempt to weld the two hemispheres, epic and expansive in form but psychological and troubled in details. Silverado notably only avoids dealing with Native Americans in ticking off genre clichés, whereas Costner with Dances With Wolves would make the issue central: between the two films they revealed that a neo-Western had to either entirely ignore Native Americans or commit wholly to examining their plight. Silverado patterns itself more after the type of Western that exploited the genre for a mythical stage for depicting social problems in microcosm: every Western town with its open main drag became a free-floating ahistorical island where moral drama was reduced to an essential scheme. Kasdan doesn’t entirely neglect this aspect despite the film’s generally high-spirited tone even. Many an old Western had the crooked sheriff and the bullying landowner, but Kasdan nudges the template along to make the heroes all outsiders to varying degrees, and where the social order often portrayed in the old westerns is made more explicitly a battle of those outsiders against corrupt blocs of power.

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Consequentially, Kasdan’s west can encompass black heroes and tough and unusual women: the emphasis on the Johnsons as black landowners threatened by racists and bullies is historically pertinent and little treated in the genre, and the subplot of Mal and Rae’s mutual resentment, as Mal returns from running off the big city, is the most substantial in the movie, and leads to Rae, after spurning her brother, trying nonetheless to save Mal from jail and getting clipped by a bullet for her pains. Kasdan works a strong if obvious visual idea in the climactic shoot-out framing Paden before the town with the white-painted church prominent in the background, whilst Cobb is pictured poised on the edge with the wild landscape behind him, suggesting one has become symbolic of the community whilst the other is the barbarian meeting his end. Part of the problems with Kasdan’s method of doubling up tropes lies in the very fact that he doesn’t quite use Dennehy, who was born to play a sagebrush feudal lord, effectively as a tyrannical figure, with villainy spread over Baker’s much less vivid and interesting McKendrick.

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This kind of imprecision chokes off the film’s melodramatic potential just when it should be building to a pitch. The relationship between McKendrick and Cobb likewise lacks a sense of their dynamic as very different men with the same purpose in contorting the world to their will, and the impact of their reign over the town is, ironically, not as sharply described as Langston’s over his. And that leads into something that goes subtly awry with Silverado despite the general excellence on display. Kasdan never quite finds the live nerve of real emotional danger and ferocity. Whilst he provides each of his heroes with a strong spur to action, the stakes tend to drown each-other out. Instead Kasdan constantly provokes awareness that so much that’s in the movie because he wanted it in there. Such trope-harvesting movie has a habit of assimilating genres to a point where they extinguish them. Witness the way Star Wars has long since subordinated the entire space opera tradition, and who knows when anyone will try to make a pirate movie that doesn’t lurk in the shadow of Pirates of the Caribbean.

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And yet Kasdan ultimately did a remarkable job of taking the most low-tech of genres and giving it a scale that didn’t feel out of place amidst ‘80s blockbusters, and he succeeded in his core desire, to make a Western that didn’t feel like a solemn chore, a lesson too many attempts since it was made haven’t kept in mind. Once Kasdan reaches clear ground to let his heroes off the leash again, the spectacle comes on hard, particularly with an excellent set-piece where Emmett and Mal ride to take back Augie at McKendrick’s ranch, with Paden finally and fatefully riding up to join them, before unleashing one of McKendrick’s cattle herds as a weapon by stampeding them through the homestead. A great gun battle ensues as the heroes take on McKendrick’s private army, with Jake reappearing and joining the fight, and Emmett managing to penetrate the McKendrick manse and save Augie whilst McKendrick himself flees to town. The heroes give chase, cueing the best of Kasdan’s shots that aim blatantly for instant genre iconography, as the quartet split apart on the separate paths into Silverado, with Augie watching them from a ridge as the incarnation of boyish admiration beholding mythologised grown-up bravery.

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Today, in this regard, Silverado feels less like a revitalisation of the Western than a very early trial run for the popularity of superhero movies, envisioning the Western hero ultimately more as the realisation of a young person’s fantasy rather than an adult’s in the way, say, Sergio Leone’s films are, nor grand panoramas of social identity in the manner of John Ford’s. The distinction is minor, perhaps, but consequential. The battle that unfolds around Silverado gives all the heroes a crowning moment whilst also piling up different kinds of action resolution. Mal knifes Slick as he threatens the wounded Rae, Jake takes out multiple foes at once with brilliantly cocky moves, Emmett battles McKendrick on horseback and gets revenge when his nag kicks McKendrick’s head in, and Paden confronts Cobb at last for a classical shoot-out. Dennehy’s man-mountain falls before Kline’s gangly animal lover, and the epilogue sees the men parting ways with Paden now the anointed sheriff, the fitting end-point of his journey from the desert, whilst Mal and Rae return to the land and Emmett and Jake ride into the sunset in search of the next horizon. It’s ultimately true that Silverado tries too hard. But it’s a grand kind of trying too hard.

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1970s, 1980s, Action-Adventure, Auteurs, Drama, Sports, Uncategorized

Rocky (1976) / Rocky II (1979) / Rocky III (1982) / Rocky IV (1985)

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Directors: John G. Avildsen, Sylvester Stallone
Screenwriter: Sylvester Stallone

By Roderick Heath

Rocky’s genesis and success is deeply entwined with the story enacted in the movie series it birthed, and a fundamental aspect of its mystique and popularity. Sylvester Stallone, born in Hell’s Kitchen in 1946, had suffered from partial paralysis in his face from a difficult birth, a debilitation he patiently tried to entirely erase as he became an actor. Stallone’s peculiarly dichotomous image had roots in his background, with his mother founding a gym for women in the mid-1950s and powerfully influencing her son’s celebration of physical prowess, even as Stallone proved himself no dunce in attending the University of Miami. His early acting days were harsh, and raw desperation drove him to appear in the porn film The Party at Kitty and Stud’s (1970). Stallone recovered to find scattered but eye-catching jobs in films like Bananas (1970), The Prisoner of Second Avenue, Death Race 2000, and Farewell, My Lovely (all 1975), usually as tough guys and thugs. Tired of being relegated to such meathead roles, Stallone resolved to write himself a leading part. He found his theme when he watched heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali defend his title against the white journeyman Chuck Wepner, who surprised many by lasting 15 rounds against the great master.

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Inspired, Stallone wrote a script, taking the basic premise of an unrated contender taking on a terrifying champion, and cobbling together bits of popular boxing lore, encompassing figures like Jim Braddock, Rocky Marciano, and particularly Rocky Graziano, whose autobiography Somebody Up There Likes Me had provided Paul Newman with his own breakthrough starring vehicle in 1956. He also knew his old movies about boxers and fighters along the lines of The Champ, Flesh (both 1932), Kid Galahad (1937), Golden Boy (1939), and Gentleman Jim (1942). Stallone’s script was initially, relatively muted with the original ending having Rocky throw his fight after deciding he didn’t really like boxing. But as the production moved along, and Stallone’s do-or-die project became a more tangible proposition, it evolved into a hymn to the ideals of persistence and hardiness in the face of adversity. In the mid-1970s film milieu, that kind of old-fashioned sentiment was unfashionable, but Stallone proved he was in the same place as the mass audience. As the Bicentennial rolled around in the immediate post-Watergate hangover, the hunger for something thrilling and affirmatory proved rife. Stallone’s script was good enough to gain a lot of studio interest as a possible vehicle for an established star, but Stallone insisted he play the role. Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, producers attached to United Artists, were able to take risks on movies they made provided the costs were kept restrained, and they gave Stallone his shot on a $1 million budget.

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For a director, they turned to John G. Avildsen, who had served a sturdy apprenticeship as an assistant director before becoming a director in his own right and was best known up to that point for Joe (1970) and Save The Tiger (1973), quintessential works of the early decade as restrained and moody character portraits contending with the battered American psyche of the time. Save The Tiger had even netted a Best Actor Oscar for Jack Lemmon. Avildsen proved perfectly in tune with what Stallone’s script offered, able to apply a potent sense of verisimilitude and muted realism to a story that ultimately offered crowd-pleasing pleasures. Rewards were immediate: the film was a huge hit, and pitched against flagship works of the American New Wave’s height like Taxi Driver, All The President’s Men, and Network at the Oscars, Rocky emerged the victor. Stallone was vaulted to popular stardom. In the immediate wake he evinced warning signs of hubristic self-confidence in directing, writing, starring, and singing in the vanity vehicle Paradise Alley (1978), badly denting his standing even as he was just getting going. Stallone decided to make Rocky II, again directing as well as starring and writing. This proved another huge hit and cemented him as the biggest star of the next decade, particularly once he gained his other signature role as John Rambo. To date there have been eight films featuring Rocky Balboa as a character, and all of them are worthwhile to some degree, but it’s the first four films that constitute the most fiercely beloved portion of the series.

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Even in physical terms Stallone was a contradiction, his large limpid eyes and long, equine nose in his youth like an Italian princeling out of a renaissance portrait, jammed onto a stevedore’s frame. Rocky and Rambo became almost diametrically distinct yet closely joined concepts defining Stallone’s screen persona, the genial, covertly ferocious man rooted in community and the angry but stoic outsider, connected only by their gifts for mayhem, and embodying oddly complex and contradictory ways of conceiving patriotism. Rocky is carefully deployed as a figure out of a very specific enclave, the working-class Italian neighbourhoods of Philadelphia. Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa is introduced on a telling note in the opening scene of his first film, fighting Spider Rico (Pedro Lovell), with Avildsen’s camera zooming back from a painted Jesus icon on the grimy venue wall to encompass the fighters in the ring below, immediately establishing a semi-ironic affinity: boxers bleed for the crowd’s sins, serving the function of sublimating and wielding the pent-up aggression of the fans and very occasionally rewarded by becoming a true faith. Rocky seems almost lackadaisical in the bout until Rico delivers a gash to his scalp that infuriates Rocky, and he pounds his opponent into the mat. From the start Rocky is characterised as a man whose real potency remains latent but impossible to repress once incited, an essentialised rendition of the self-image of a vast number of men.

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Pushing 30, Rocky’s problem isn’t that he lacked talent but seems to have missed the kind of kinetically exploited anger and will that fuels champions, as well as facing a general prejudice against left-handed “southpaw” boxers. Although he’s well-known and liked around town, Rocky has become a figure of familiarity to the point where his latest victory is met with the most casual interest. Even Rocky’s nominal trainer, gym owner and elderly former pug Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), is so unenthused by him now that despite his victory he strips him of his locker, a humiliation Rocky can scarcely be bothered protesting, Rocky makes his living working as a standover man for loan shark Tony Gazzo (Joe Spinell), but is such a soft touch he lets men he’s supposed to rough up go with partial payments. Rocky maintains a shambolic friendship with the rotund and resentful meat packer Paulie Pennino (Burt Young), and tries to charm Paulie’s painfully shy younger sister Adrian (Talia Shire), who works in a pet store and sold Rocky his beloved turtles. As Rocky and Adrian stumble towards a relationship, Rocky receives a life-changing offer out of the blue, made by fight promoter Miles Jergens (Thayer David) on behalf of the heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers). Desperate for an opponent after other contenders scurry for the woodwork and seeing the chance for a great publicity coup, Creed wants to take on a Philadelphia fighter as an exercise in Bicentennial showmanship, and chooses Rocky strictly for his great nickname, “Italian Stallion.”

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“Sounds like a monster movie,” Creed chuckles as the sound of the match-up, and certainly by the time the fourth and fifth instalments in the franchise rolled around many a wag felt sooner or later Rocky would take on Godzilla. But Rocky’s largely low-key, even ambling pace in its first two-thirds is matched to a stringent realism, and even the finale’s note of triumph is restrained by technical failure. Part of Stallone’s cunning lay in how carefully he rooted the drama in a sense of characters who prove much larger than they seem, battling those who generally prove much less awesome than they appear. Avildsen’s camera, with the great Bill Butler as DP, surveys grimy surrounds in that classic blotchy, moody 1970s colour. Paulie is Rocky if he lacked even a singular talent, used to feeling his flesh and spirit sag amidst the hanging meat carcasses, just as childlike as Rocky in some ways but with barbs, often verbally abusive to Adrian and erupting in shows of frustrated aggression. Adrian is deeply repressed and makes a bond with Rocky, as she compares the advice he often received, to work on his body because his mind was no good, to the opposite advice her own mother gave to her. The characters are adrift in a blue-collar environment that’s portrayed both in a harshly gritty fashion, filled with litter and crumbling infrastructure and patches of snow on wasteground, replete with seedy arenas for building and wasting flesh, and also extremely romantic, where everyone knows everybody and close-harmony singers hang about on street corners.

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Much of Rocky feels in close accord with Avildsen’s work on Save The Tiger, following around a character in near-picaresque encounters as he faces with sullen apprehension a moment in his life he experiences as pivotal even as it just seems to involve more of the same, the stern spiritual economics of persistence and taking punishment. The only real signal we’re not just watching something along the lines of early ‘70s bummers like J.W. Coop (1972) is at the outset as the title sweeps across the screen, Gone with the Wind-style, with Bill Conti’s instantly rousing trumpet fanfare resounding, clearly declaring we’re not just watching some bum roaming around Philly but setting the scene for an Olympian contest. Part of what makes the film work is how carefully Avildsen mediates the transition from the passive to the active as embodied by Rocky. The Rocky films would become beloved and mocked equally for their training montages, but Avildsen builds very slowly to such a point, first portraying Rocky’s early exercise efforts in laborious detail, scoffing down a glass full of raw eggs and heading out for jogs on frigid mornings. When Paulie first ushers Rocky into the abattoir and the boxer realises the potential for training by punching the meat carcasses, it comes with a sense of ponderous, punishing violence, Rocky’s knuckles left bloody and raw even as he works up the force to crack the ribs of the carcasses. A TV news crew shoots Rocky doing this, and Apollo’s canny trainer ‘Duke’ Evers (Tony Burton) watches with some apprehensive attention, but can’t attract Apollo’s interest.

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The ingenuity of Rocky as a character was in fusing his raw corporeal strength and fighting grit to a personality that’s eternally innocent, a goombah who knows what he is and yet constantly struggles to transcend it. A memorable vignette early in the first film sees Rocky trying to give a straight talk to a neighbourhood girl, Marie (Jodi Letizia), who hangs out with the rough local urchins. Rocky tries to illustrate the way reputations supplant actual people, until Marie tells him, “Screw you, creepo!”, and Rocky wanders away laughingly accosting himself with the insult. His attempts to strike a spark with Adrian nonetheless revolve around his rambling persistence, leading to a first date Paulie manipulates them into making. Gentle character comedy – Rocky gently pleads at Adrian’s bedroom door for her to consider coming out with him after she retreats in shock when Paulie springs the date on her, only for her to emerge entirely prepped for a night out – blends with a portrayal of tentative connection and finally painfully revealed need as Rocky bribes a Zamboni driver to let Adrian skate in an empty rink, before inviting Adrian into his shabby apartment. Adrian hesitates at the threshold before entering and almost dashes again as Rocky desperately appeals for her to stay, before the final melting clinch. Gloriously well-observed and trenchant as a distinctly unidyllic romance that is of course actually ideal, Rocky and Adrian’s coming together is also the subtle cue for other transformations about to spur Rocky towards greater things.

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As a character and conception, Rocky is a brilliantly definite creation standing in contrast to an irritating tendency in more recent heroic tales to make protagonists as blank and broadly worthy as possible. He’s offered as an example of a truism, that truly physically strong and imposing men often project a gentle persona. Rocky swiftly becomes as familiar as a friend in his traits and actions and reactions, his background and situation tangible, his specific mannerisms, his habits of talking around challenges and provocations and deflating verbal aggression and projection of earnest geniality that so strikingly contrasts the pith he unleashes in the ring. And yet he easily becomes an emblematic archetype. He’s there on screen readily accepting identification with anyone, anyone who’s been bullied or outcast, down and out, felt their potential waste and their souls wrung out, knowing they have the stuff to go the distance and only requiring one true chance. Rocky is again close to a secular Jesus in that regard, taking all the pops on the chin for us. Even in the most recent series entries, Creed (2015) and Creed II (2018), revolving around Rocky’s acting as trainer to Apollo’s illegitimate son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), Rocky still dominates despite not being at the centre of the story because of what is by now the almost reflexive skill Stallone wields in inhabiting such a well-defined character, where the younger man is more defined by the things the filmmakers don’t want him to be.

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That’s especially frustrating as Apollo as inhabited by Weathers made for a surprisingly strong character too, one whose similarities to Rocky, and his differences, are totemic throughout the first four films. Many sports films negate opponents or present them as ripe assholes, and indeed that’s a direction the third and fourth episodes would readily turn in. Rocky’s grounding in the mid-‘70s zeitgeist also invoked some cultural animosities as well, with it all too easy to see Rocky as a great white hope thrown up against the juggernaut of black pride and power that Ali so forcefully identified with even whilst nimbly retaining his media star stature. Stallone quietly and cleverly deflates that sort of reading even if her perhaps still benefited from it, as he portrays Rocky watching Creed on TV in a bar. Apollo is gifted with a similar talent for media performance to Ali, and the bar owner grouchily and racially berates him as a clown, to Rocky’s offence: Rocky knows very well how good a boxer Apollo is, and offers him unqualified respect that’s oblivious to other issues. Clearly intended as an avatar for Ali, Apollo is nonetheless a rather different creature, apolitical and driven more by intense pride and ego and lacking any clear sense of communal grounding beyond his awareness that such clannishness can be financially exploited to make the match lucrative, envisioning himself as more an entrepreneur of sport than a rough-and-tumble warrior.

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One running theme of the series would become the problem of not simply achieving but avoiding the pitfalls of success. Apollo, as offered in the first two films, is not vilified but certainly embodies those pitfalls, stung to repeatedly try to swat the small Italian fly but failing to comprehend the danger lurking in a rival driven by naked hunger and spirit. Apollo’s fancy gyms and parade of sparring partners prove of less worth than the gritty, almost primal techniques Rocky and Mickey favour. Apollo’s great project in the first film is to exalt himself in the guise of patriotic celebration. He dresses up as George Washington crossing the Delaware as he enters the arena for the bout against Rocky. Apollo’s self-identification with America – he even wears stars-and-stripes shorts in the ring – carries schismatic import. His spectacle can be seen as black mockery of and subsuming of white patriotism in sectarian triumphalism, and at the same time a kind of democratic parable warning that the essence of American life is the underdog, not the fat-cat, and that regard the wheel’s always in spin as to who holds what role. Rocky IV would later signal that Apollo’s patriotic fervour isn’t facetious but rather entirely earnest, and his felling at the hands of the hulking Russian Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is offered as a vivid metaphor for the bloodied American nose of Korea and Vietnam.

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It’s tempting to read the schism between Rocky and Apollo as Stallone wrestling with his own nature and contradictions, the canny, driven, conservative, self-made self-promoter and the struggling, belittled outsider, the arch professional and the man unsure of his place in the cultural firmament. Apollo’s slow transition from Rocky’s great foe to his pal and mentor and then finally as spurring martyr is an essential aspect of the classic quartet. The climactic bout of the first film sees Apollo shocked when Rocky knocks him down for the first time in his career, turning it from a lark to a proper fight, and soon the two men are delivering savage blows, Rocky cracking Apollo’s ribs and Apollo breaking Rocky’s proudly hawkish nose. The rematch, which sees Rocky finally, properly besting Apollo, still only comes by a thin margin after they knock each-other down and Rocky gets to his feet quicker. When Apollo steps up to train Rocky in Rocky III, he ushers Rocky out of the homey precincts of Philly to the even grittier climes of black Los Angeles, at last spotlighting the place Apollo clawed his way out of, and furthering a kind of cultural exchange in a tale of interracial cooperation, even as the uneasy Paulie makes such witticisms as, “You can’t train him liked a colored fighter, he ain’t got no rhythm.”

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The closeness of Rocky and Apollo in prowess and talent is underlined again at the end of Rocky II as Rocky wins by the narrowest of margins, as the two men knock each-other to the ground and Rocky is able to get to his feet. The motif of their close-matched machismo is finally brought to a comedic head at the very end of the third film as they arrange a secret bout far away from media purely to satisfy themselves as to who’s the best, the film fading out on a freeze-frame of the two launching mirroring punches at each-other. Rocky’s eventual amity with Apollo contrasts his fractious relationship with Paulie, who browbeats his sister and wields a baseball bat around the living room in unleashing his toxic mixture of resentment and anger aimed at others but really conveying his own self-loathing. Mickey as a character, and Meredith’s scenery-chewing bravura in the part, was one of Stallone’s plainest attempts to recapture old Hollywood flavour: the gruff and grizzled old-timer played by one, armed with folkloric traditions and disdain for hype, resplendent in wool cap and coming armed with theatrically worn hearing aid.

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As with Rocky’s friendship with Paulie, sharp undercurrents of anger and frustration define Rocky’s ultimately paternal relationship with Mickey, who answers when Rocky finally snaps and demands to know why Mickey rides him so much, that Rocky had real promise but never capitalised on it. Mickey nonetheless tracks him down to his apartment after learning of the arranged fight and offering to share his wisdom, cueing a scene of pathos as Mickey digs out ancient, yellowed newspaper cuttings recounting his great bouts in a distant past, whilst Rocky, still smouldering in resentment for the old man, ignores him and then chases him out of the building with his bellows, frustration and resentment finally released, before finally dashing out to catch Mickey and agreeing to the partnership. Mickey’s death in Rocky III comes shortly after he reveals to Rocky he’s tried to keep him away from truly dangerous opponents, an act blending aspects of care and treachery, as it only put off the moment when Rocky would have to truly test his champion standing and deepest resources of courage.

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Rocky’s shot at success is nonetheless closely entwined in narrative and character progression with his relationship with Adrian, one arming him and inspiring him with new potency for the other, and the first film’s iconic ending as Rocky and Adrian embrace in obliviousness to the bout’s technical outcome. Shire was perfectly cast as the apparently mousy woman who proves Rocky’s equal when she finally unleashes on Paulie and remains, despite interludes of fear, her mate’s rock-solid supporter. Another matchless aspect of the film’s power was Bill Conti’s score, with Rocky’s fanfare resembling Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and the driving theme “Gonna Fly Now,” a rather oddball piece of film music in fusing big orchestral sweep matched to choral vocals and touches of pop, soul, and rock, a multigeneric stew that perfectly articulates the film’s celebration of American alchemy. As the moment of the fight approaches, Rocky’s renewed verve and fight-ready prowess breaks into clear ground, dynamically illustrated in one of the most famous, copied, and lampooned sequences in cinema, as Avildsen depicts Rocky pushing his body to new heights in a montage of exercises, climaxing in him running through the streets on a cold Philadelphia morning, past smoke-billowing factories and railway lines and along streets piled with garbage, the lean and fluid intensity of Rocky’s new body contrasting the blight all about him.

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There’s a touch of genius in the way this sequence converts the film’s driving ideas into thrilling visual statements. Rocky jogging with bricks in hand with the rising sun behind as Bill Conti’s heroic fanfare rings out suggest the birth of new tidings. Avildsen films Stallone running along the waterfront, a sailing ship moored in the background as if mindful of an immigrant nation’s seaborne past, Rocky suddenly picking up speed as if the further he goes the more power he becomes, before making his iconic dash up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Variations on this sequence would inevitably recur in most of the subsequent films. One difference between the first iteration of this scene and the later ones however is the aspect of sarcasm in Rocky’s postures of triumph as he reaches the summit and dances before the dawn, Stallone deftly showing even in such an unimpeachably inspiring moment that Rocky knows very well he’s still just one lone man play-acting his triumph. The most joyous and effective variation comes in Rocky II where Rocky this time is pursued through the streets by a horde of young fans cheering him as he makes his dash, the lone warrior now folk hero.

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The climactic bout of Rocky is no elegant ballet of technique but instead an intense slugfest Rocky forces Apollo to participate in, a dialogue not just of duelling personalities but ways of comprehending life through action, taking cues less from Ali’s match with Wepner or event the near-mystical artistry of the Rumble in the Jungle than his notoriously grim brawls with Ken Norton and Joe Frazier. Apollo still wins the first fight by a split decision, but it’s Rocky who emerges as the hero. Rocky II takes off immediately after the first film as Rocky and Apollo are both rushed to hospital to recover, where Rocky asks Apollo if he gave him his best and Apollo replies that he did. Rocky enjoys the fruits of his success but spends his purse quickly and unwisely, and because of damage to one of his eyes he doesn’t want to fight again. Rocky is soon reduced to working in the same meat plant as Paulie, whilst Adrian goes back to the pet shop despite being heavily pregnant. Paulie prospers in taking over Rocky’s old beat as Gazzo’s debt collector, and buys Rocky’s beloved sports car off him after Rocky gets sacked from the plant. Apollo, increasingly stung by a general belief Rocky really won the fight, decides to goad his foe back into the ring, provocations both Rocky and Mickey eventually feel are too cruel to ignore.

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Rocky II sees Stallone nudging the material into a zone where what was previously earnest, convincing, and low-key began to give way to shtick and formula, and trying many a broad ploy to make Rocky seem even more likeable and straightforwardly good. The former standover man is now playing with kids in the street and begging for blessings from the old Italian local priest. What would soon become the ritualised killing-off of familiar, beloved characters for the requisite emotional juice was presaged when Adrian falls into a coma when there are complications with her pregnancy, intensifying Rocky’s unease in returning to fighting. This climaxes in a happily corny hair-on-your-neck moment when, after awakening and with their son Robert Jnr safely born, Adrian asks one thing of Rocky: “Win.” The second match-up of Apollo and Rocky proves a radically different affair as Mickey has trained Rocky to fight in right-hand style in order to protect his eye, only to unleash his pulverising left hooks in the last round to finally claim victory. The climactic bouts in the first three sequels have a similar shape as Rocky absorbs intense punishment much as he and his loved-ones feared, only for Rocky to gain strength as his foes cannot keep him down, and soon he’s actively taunting them with their failure and luring them into self-destructive overreach.

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Rocky made Stallone but to a certain extent proved a millstone for Avildsen, who was changed forever from a maker of artful character studies to a director constantly tapped for his ability to make rah-rah narratives work, in subsequent efforts like three Karate Kid films, Lean on Me (1989), The Power of One (1992), and Eight Seconds (1994). Avildsen only returned to Rocky for 1990’s lumpy, if perhaps undervalued Rocky V, which more or less took the series full circle. Rocky II clearly saw Stallone claiming full auteur status in the series, and meditating on his breakthrough success and folk heroic standing, and the difficulties negotiating with it. Rocky’s fast ascent and equally quick descent mimic Stallone’s immediate experience, and the film sustains the honest emotional tone of the first film by feeling palpably rueful in this regard, as well as asking the right questions about how a guy like Rocky would sustain himself after such a life twist. Stallone portrays Rocky attempting to earn money through appearing in commercials but failing because he’s a poor reader and can’t work off cue cards, which feels like a pointed dramatic translation of Stallone’s own difficulties in being taken seriously as an actor after overcoming his facial tic. Despite being a relatively green director Stallone proved himself entirely capable of mimicking and augmenting Avildsen’s style, although the film has an odd, slouchy pace at points.

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Rocky III and IV are by contrast tighter, flashier bits of filmmaking, almost to a fault, with Stallone knowing well that the essentials of the characters are now so locked down he doesn’t need to waste too much time reiterating them. If the first Rocky is the “good” movie in terms of its modest and substantial intensity, then Rocky III is the highpoint of the series as pop entertainment, the most emblematic and purely enjoyable, for several reasons. Before he got a bit too montage-happy on Rocky IV, Stallone here grasped the way Avildsen’s montage work could condense story: like its heroes, once the breaks into clear ground, it can just get on with things in the most kinetic and visually fluid fashion. One vital new flourish was the Chicago rock band Survivor’s gleefully cheesy, thumping new anthem “Eye of the Tiger,” played over an opening montage showing Rocky’s successful defences of his title, interspersed with vignettes showing Rocky becoming a newly slick and confident player, now even readily making credit card commercials. Another was casting former bodyguard Lawrence ‘Mr. T’ Tureaud as the fearsome new contender, ‘Clubber’ Lang, a verbally aggressive and ferociously physical boxer.

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If Apollo represented a depoliticised, well-scrubbed take on Ali’s popular image, Lang seems more like a compendium of the less charitable caricatures of Ali, actively contemptuous of opponents and wrapping his colossal ego and resentment in coded race resentment: “This country wants to keep me down,” he declares in picking a fight with Rocky, “They don’t want a man like me to have the title!” He also sharply contrasts both Rocky and Apollo like the embodiment of their own dark sides. Where both of them have more or less defeated the aspects of their fighting drive like resentment and anger over their roots and experiences of classism and racism, Lang weaponises both as part of his annihilating persona. Rocky is doubly spurred because Mickey keels over and dies from a heart attack amidst the convulsive tension and furore before Rocky takes on the feral contender, long in the offing but finally provoked by Lang’s behaviour, and he then loses his match-up with Lang partly because of his worry for Mickey as well as from losing his edge. Apollo steps into the breach to train Rocky, taking him to Los Angeles to learn in the environs that made Apollo. This time around, Stallone’s personal metaphors highlight his awareness that stretching out the series risked turning it cartoonish – not that that stopped him – as Rocky is first glimpsed battling giant wrestler Thunderlips (Terry ‘Hulk Hogan’ Bollea). The rest of the film’s angst over whether Rocky really still deserves champion presages Stallone’s efforts to try and prove himself a lasting star beyond the character, and his difficulty in finding good vehicles beyond Rocky and Rambo would dog him long after.

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Rocky III’s narrative proper opens with Stallone tracking a drunk and dispirited Paulie around the old neighbourhood, getting himself jailed for smashing a pinball machine with Rocky’s face on it. Rocky comes to bail him out and after insulting and trying to punch him Paulie finally asks him point-blank for a job, and Rocky readily agrees. This vignette has a box-ticking aspect to it but also carries a sharp sense of the way success radically changes relationships and also how it can make great life problems much less complex, and so even as the series becomes more crowd-pleasing and fantastical it retains a sense of how personality and sociology combine. Stallone’s wonderfully slick style on Rocky III verges occasionally on self-satire, particularly as Rocky and Apollo train together with lots of long, luscious close-ups of their heaving muscles and emphasis on their friendly rivalry that it borders on soft-core interracial homoeroticism, reaching an apogee when Rocky finally beats Apollo in a footrace and in celebration splash about together in the surf. Given that Rocky and Adrian’s relationship has by this time become fixed in stone, their relationship is much less vivid and central, although Adrian is given a crucial speech as she helps Rocky leave behind his lingering guilt and fear and again lends him new velocity.

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In Rocky III the climactic bout isn’t one about the fighting spirit of great boxers but a quest to slay a particularly vicious dragon. Rocky this time unwaveringly returns Lang’s gorgonizing stare, and after taking and shrugging off a few of Lang’s most lethal blows Rocky expertly turns his foe’s size and ferocity against him by revealing new staying power as well as refined strength and nimbleness, and then pounding him to pieces. In Rocky IV, Rocky’s resurgence and evolution are complete, now a rich and widely loved man, slicker in speech and confident in the world with Adrian and young Robert at his side. It’s Apollo who’s facing frustration in retirement that finds an outlet when Drago, visiting the US with his smug Soviet apparatchik manager Nicolai Koloff (Michael Pataki) and his wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen), provokes his patriotic pride. Apollo arranges a match-up against Drago, although the Soviets want to fight Rocky, only for Apollo to receive a fatal beating from the Russian hulk. Determined to avenge his friend and take up the symbolic contest, Rocky agrees to head to the USSR to fight Drago despite Adrian’s certainty he’ll end up like Apollo, taking Duke with him and this time training in the harsh Russian landscape.

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With Rocky IV Stallone leaned into the notion that his kind of resurgent Hollywood blockbuster was a weapon in endgame Cold War cultural contest, something many critics and commentators saw as inherent in the re-emergence of morally straightforward and expensive B movies as the Reagan era ascended. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1984) had already explicitly revised Stallone’s other alter ego from outcast warrior at odds with his own society, rooted in the waning Vietnam-age angst, to avenging angel settling old scores with arrogant external enemies, underlining and even perhaps helping to author a shifted zeitgeist. Rocky, as Stallone’s more conscientious persona, tackled the same idea more generously. Rocky IV is perhaps the film most emblematic of a popular concept of a 1980s movie, replete with music video-like montage inserts that provide visual emotional shorthand, complete with one in which Rocky drives his car at night whilst conjuring up demonic visions of a strobe-lit Drago. Rocky is reborn as a yuppie who buys a pet robot for Paulie, and now turns his attention from domestic struggle to geopolitical forums. Now Rocky’s fighting pith needs blood sacrifice to bring it to the boil.

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Drago is offered as the near-monstrous incarnation of a paranoid American concept of Soviet prowess, scrubbed of emotion and human frailty, trained with space-aged precision and liberal doses of steroids, his face festooned on huge Stalinesque propaganda banners: the übermensch as state project. Drago’s wife, with her hair short-cropped and blonde like his, suggests a slightly different model of cyborg. Clearly by this point the series had lost a great deal of touch with its initially earthy sensibility and had embraced a new, campy, high-style approach. And yet there’s still a strand of the old thoughtfulness, as Stallone alternates Drago and Rocky’s perspectives as fighters plunged into disorienting new arenas filled with dazzling lights and surrounded by forms of hoopla they don’t quite understand. Before his fight with Apollo, Drago is depicted as solitary and bewildered amidst the splashy pre-bout show featuring James Brown and Vegas showgirls, and Apollo prancing about dressed as Uncle Sam. Rocky by contrast stumbles out into an arena filled with booing Commies and the full spectacle of political import as a Gorbachev lookalike and other Presidium members settle to watch the presumed inevitable victory of their man. Stallone portrays the cold war antagonists as studies in clashing aesthetics, first signalled in the credits as two boxing bloes emblazoned with their national liveries collide and explode, and then reiterated, Americana seen as gaudy, flashy, vulgar, and lively, Soviet spirit as monumental, monolithic, and possibly more potent in its lack of such wooliness.

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The contrast is illustrated most vividly as Stallone returns to the classic training montage but this time intercutting Rocky’s exertions with Drago’s. The Soviet man is ensconced in futuristic gyms and tested with machines as well as injections of mad-scientist drug cocktails, whilst Rocky gets down and dirty in the world of a Russian peasant, running along frozen roads, hefting about farm equipment, and finally dashing up mountain flanks to bellow out his foe’s name in vengeful intent. Stallone’s showmanship is at a height of glorious absurdity here, inflating the notion of real manliness as the product of toil rather than calculation to the nth degree. There’s also a ghost of topical commentary on the general suspicion that Eastern Bloc countries had been using performance enhancing drugs on athletes for years before sports organisations began actively stamping it out. Ultimately, though, Rocky IV’s method keeps it from being as deft as the third film as the montages pile up and the dramatics prove largely supernal and rote. Adrian quickly makes up with Rocky and lets him get back to his push-ups, and the death of Apollo, a singular galvanic figure in the franchise, is quickly left behind. It’s also rather tempting to see Rocky IV’s subtext as less political parable and more a portrayal of Stallone’s amused anxiety at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recent emergence as a rival bemuscled action star: Drago is essentially a stand-in for the Terminator and Lundgren’s mock-Slavic drawl evokes Schwarzenegger’s accent.

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Ironies abound around Rocky IV: as the shortest and most abidingly formulaic of the series, one that even commits the crime of omitting Conti’s key themes, it’s also perhaps the most fiercely loved for its hyperbolic purity. The basic notion driving the series, the relatively little guy taking on an intimidating enemy and finding it vulnerable, is pushed to its limit as Rocky gets into the ring with the towering Lundgren, who delivers his inimitable threat, “I must break you,” with haughty dispassion, and Rocky goes through his a-man’s-gotta-do paces with grim commitment. Rocky finally impresses the Russian audience so profoundly they start cheering for him, proving crowds everywhere love an underdog. This in turn so infuriates the frustrated Drago he finally exposes himself as a failure by both communist principles and sporting ones as he angrily tells the audience he fights for himself. Rocky finally flattens him and then delivers a conciliatory message, in his own inimitable fashion, based in the changes in his attitude to the crowd and vice versa mean that “everyone can change.”

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It’s both absurd and entirely fitting that Rocky turns his big lug charm and intrinsic humanism to defusing political tensions and forging national outreach, with the fadeout on the image of Rocky literally wrapped in the American flag. The next four films in the Rocky-Creed saga would commit to reining in the pop-movie excess of Rocky IV to a more quotidian frame again, eventually seeing Rocky resettled as a fairly average Joe back in his old neighbourhood, after being nearly bankrupted by a corrupt accountant in Rocky V. Turning to training, the fifth film sees Rocky foster a young fighter who then betrays him, leading to a literal street fight between the two men Rocky manage to win. The middle-aged and widowed Rocky returned for a surprisingly good show of battling a champion in a gimmick bout in Rocky Balboa (2006), and even revisited the Drago legacy in Creed II with a newly shaded sense of generational suffering and anger. As a series the films have half-accidentally become something unusual, a portrait of a character and the actor playing him marching through the stages of life, steadily losing his loved-ones but gaining new ones as well. This fits well with Rocky’s symbolic cachet. But it’s hard not to wish the series, and life, could’ve ended with Rocky at his peak, the guy who always has one last pile-driving punch to aim at fate’s chin.

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1980s, Comedy, Crime/Detective, Scifi

Repo Man (1984)

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Director/Screenwriter: Alan Cox

By Roderick Heath

Writing about Repo Man might be like trying to dance a Picasso or sing about the Taj Mahal. So why am I trying, you ask? Hey, up yours, anyway.

Alex Cox could either be described as one of cinema’s true rebels, a man who determinedly forged his own, uncompromising path when he proved too much for Hollywood, or a filmmaker whose stubborn attitude prevented him from living up to his great early promise, leaving him with one certain sui generis classic and a couple of other cult objects to his name. Given his tell-it-to-me-raw punk affiliations he might well accept both descriptions in equanimity. Cheshire-born Cox, after a stint as an Oxford law student, turned to studying filmmaking. Doubting he was going to get anywhere in the ‘70s British film industry, Cox winged away for a stint at UCLA and made the short artist-versus-the-world film Edge City/Sleep is for Sissies. Cox’s first feature, Repo Man, which he originally hoped to bankroll on a tiny budget, was realized thanks largely to former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, who acted as his executive producer and talked Universal Pictures into ponying up a $1 million budget. Repo Man slowly groped its way out of initial obscurity to becoming an underground hit thanks in part to the popularity of its soundtrack album stirring up an interested audience, setting Cox up for a brief spell as a potential major filmmaker.

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Cox’s follow-up, Sid and Nancy (1986), gave Gary Oldman an early push to stardom and applied a potent blend of authenticity and stylization to recount the legendary tragic punk romance. His career went awry as Straight to Hell (1986) and Walker (1987) were greeted as clumsy, self-indulgent attempts to get polemical and blend familiar genre modes – spaghetti westerns and road movies in the former case, war movies and historical biopics in the latter – with jagged po-mo aesthetics and harsh, blatant political commentary on Reaganite policy in Latin America. He next made Highway Patrolman (1991) in Mexico. Those films, like Cox’s generally ultra-low-budget output since, have maintained a small but fervent cadre of proponents. From today’s perspective it feels even more unlikely that an imported anarchist spiv like Cox even managed to get Repo Man made, never mind parlay it into a brief accord with studio filmmaking. But Repo Man remains a glistening gem, cult cinema about as pure as it gets. In many ways it’s an updated spin on ‘60s free-for-all satire with spiritual and procedural links to the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Lester’s early films, Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1972), Christian Marquand’s Candy (1968), and Bob Rafelson’s Monkees-perverting Head (1968), which might partly explain why Nesmith was able to grasp Cox’s vision. The old lysergic template was given a punk-era makeover, and produced soothsayer art, as Repo Man anticipated the age of the internet with startling precision.

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The age of democratized information. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good information, relevant, interesting, fulfilling, just information. Repo Man, in its way, is like plugging your mind directly into the stream of internet downloads; a frightful, glorious, semi-comprehensible overload of stuff. Accumulating in the brain like pieces of animal and plant in sedimentary silt, bits of things, shards of art, memory, politics, philosophy, design. All was churned together with the full panoply of Cox’s artistic and socio-political obsessions, as well the pinpointing perspective of an acerbic outsider. Like the age it portrays and the one it anticipates, Repo Man is in search. In search of a viable code, in search of meaning, wading through that sediment of endless information half-heard and quarter-understood, trying to put the pieces together in a manner that works. It takes place in a landscape cast over with the scattered rubble of the Cold War, religion, the New Age, pop culture, post-‘50s paranoia, and sci-fi positivism, and grasps to convey a clashing, riotous mix of different social and philosophical groups; punks, hippies, suburbanites, fascists, revolutionaries, whites and Mexicans and blacks, rich and poor and in-between, all charted with the concision of a Victorian realist novel, if not the method.

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The opening credits are backgrounded by green outlines of ordnance maps spotlighting places of specific association in the legend of American nuclear imperialism, zeroing in on Yucca and Los Alamos. The opening scene purveys essentialist American iconography as an unstable and dreamlike conglomeration – a Chevy Malibu with its jaunty, crisply coloured lines bespeaking of some place that always in a blithe mid-‘60s American summer, a highway motorcycle cop clad in fascist steeliness, a trunk full of the same glowing, annihilating stuff that carved a path through the macho men in Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), scorching the hapless cop down to his briefly highlighted skeleton and his smoking boots. The Malibu is driven by J. Frank Parnell (Fox Harris), a nuclear scientist who claims to have invented the Neutron Bomb, armed with an insane smile, one lens missing from his sunglasses, and a trunk full of alien corpses stolen from New Mexico, giving off mysterious energy sufficient to vaporise anyone opening the hatch.

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The gritty sprawl of Los Angeles’ industrial zones, much fetishized by filmmakers in search of hip climes hunting for authenticity in the ‘80s, found their rarest auteur in Cox, and their great documenter in imported cinematographer Robby Müller, cut loose in the American wilds as every indie up-and-comer’s heroic shooter of seedy, sun-kissed glamour. The boxy empty warehouses with the faintest patina of art deco style, the freeway stretches and overpasses painted strange hues by street lighting, high-rise buildings glimpsed away in the distance like a neo-Stonehenge for money worship amidst a city otherwise preoccupied with all its tribal business. Our “hero” Otto Maddox (Emilio Estevez) is introduced as a punk archetype, a young man frustrated with shitty jobs and pointless schooling. He tosses in his job as a supermarket shelf stacker in a fit of pique after his coworker and sort-of-friend Kevin (Zander Schloss) drives him to distraction singing a 7-Up jingle and the boss Mr Humphries (Charles Hopkins) chews him out for various infractions. Seeking fellowship with his punk friends who get wasted and screw in Kevin’s parents’ house, Otto instead finds himself driven from all solace when, after briefly breaking off making out with his girlfriend Debbi (Jennifer Balgobin) to get beer, returns to find his pal Duke (Dick Rude) has taken his place. Otto returns home to try and extract a payment of $1,000 his father promised in a bribe him to stay in school, only to find his burnt-out, pot-addled ex-hippie parents have given it all to a television evangelist Reverend Larry (Bruce White) to send bibles to El Salvador in exchange for having their names inscribed on “The Honor Roll of the Chariots of Fire.”

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Wandering in depression and solitude, Otto encounters Bud (Harry Dean Stanton), a man sitting in a car who offers him money to drive another car, which he claims to be his wife’s, out of a bad neighbourhood. Otto gets into the car and starts it up, only to be assaulted by a furious man, forcing Otto to drive away at speed. Bud works for the Helping Hand Acceptance Corporation, a repossession service, reclaiming cars from owners who have missed their payments. When he realises what business Bud is in, Otto pours out a can of beer on Helping Hand office floor, a gesture of contempt that instead impresses Bud and others in its commitment. “I’m not gonna be no Repo Man” he says; the company’s Girl Friday secretary Marlene (Vonetta McGee), only for her to coolly inform him as she hands him a wad of cash: “Too late – you already are.” As the paradigm of aimless, disaffected youth rather than someone who is by intellectual or even natural leaning a rebel, Otto is of course totally ready to fall for the first thing to come along to satisfy his urges for sex, money, power, and belonging. Whilst his friends Debbi, Duke, and Archie (Miguel Sandoval) take off on a life of crime, Otto is schooled in the Repo Man creed, a lifestyle where the antisocial vicissitudes are as alluring as the fiscal recompense. Kevin’s efforts to act the good little employee with ambitions play out as a fragmentary subplot, as he becomes a naive pump jockey and is last glimpsed briefly dazed and battered on a hospital gurney, Cox offering his and Otto’s tales as his answer to De Sade’s Justine and Juliette.

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The essence of Cox’s sardonic mythos lies in the ambivalent attitude that is the Repo Man way, which both exemplifies an all-American sensibility whilst also charting underlying faultlines, a fantasy of an ancient way somehow persisting in the ruined modern landscape. Otto initially takes the Repo Men for sleazy representatives of narc capitalism, only to find them ruled by a uniquely clannish sensibility with a charge of unexpected cool, cavalry roaming the urban badlands out to punish the deadbeats, living by their wits and doses of greedily snorted speed. The Repo Men take themselves for contemporary versions of the Lone Ranger, risking assault and even death. They lead lives practically indistinguishable from criminals, doing drugs to stay awake, concocting intricate ruses to rip off cars, keeping a step ahead of cops and gun-wielding owners. Unsurprisingly, they idolise John Wayne, even when Miller declares “John Wayne was a fag,” and tries to inform that that he once got hired by the Duke to install two-way mirrors in his bedroom and came to the door wearing a dress, details the Repo Men dismiss: “Plenty of straight guys like to watch their buddies fuck!…I know I do.”

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Bud, a lanky, high-strung, blow-loving maverick, sees himself as the exemplary Repo Man. He anoints himself Otto’s mentor and conceives of his job in an overtly high-minded, even philosophical way, evoking everything from the Bushido to Isaac Asimov as he declares the basic credo as he conceives it: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle or the personal contents thereof nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm – it’s what I call the repo code, kid.” Such a warrior ethos is informed by necessities; keeping alive, keeping cool, doing the job well. Bud loathes any code not run to the same pragmatic standards as his own (“No commies in my car!…No Christians either!”), Hawkeye in a hot Pontiac. Venture capitalism as a sort of moral mission: if a man has to risk his body and soul in life, that risk might as well be represented by reward, and reward might as well be money. Bud pursues repo-ing not just for the pay but also because it allows him soil to nurture his need to remain removed from the mass of humanity. The job gives him satisfaction in his loathing people in debt (“If there was just some way of finding out what they owe and makin’ ‘em pay,” he muses ruefully whilst surveying slum dwellers) and, by extension, the world of credit and plastic that has replaced the world of thrift, work, and honour. He’s a hothead who hates his rivals the Rodriguez Brothers because he sees them as the degeneration of his profession. Part Repo sage, part burnt-out middle-aged bore, Bud is the best at his job but wants to get the hell out of it and be the guy with the lot instead of the guy who just brings the cars in.

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Not every Repo Man adheres to the same ethos. Lite (Sy Richardson) offers the black perspective, no-nonsense and expedient, warding off threatening debtors with blank cartridges, hotwiring vehicles, and schooling Otto in seamier tricks of the trade like tossing a dead rat into the car of female targets: unfortunately one reacts coolly to this ploy and squirts mace in his face for his pains. “Only an asshole gets killed for a car.” The Helping Hand encompasses a cross-section of types; besides Otto, Lite, and Bud, there’s sweaty, laugh-at-his-own-jokes boss Oly (Tom Finnegan); Miller (Tracey Walter), a hippie mechanic with a line in esoteric musings; Otto Plettschner (Richard Foronjy), the rent-a-cop fascist who “died in two World Wars” and whose first name suggests the sort of creature Otto might become with the right incentives; and Marlene the double-agent secretary with a line in Blaxploitation action moves. Marlene’s in with the Helping Hand’s great rivals, the Rodriguez brothers, Lagarto (Del Zamora) and Napoleon (Eddie Velez), Pancho Villa-esque alternatives to the Repo Men, complete with quasi-revolutionary outfits as they become Guevara-like urban guerrillas in the closing scenes. When the Helping Hand crew elect to settle their hash during a nocturnal encounter on the road, the Rodríguezes easily rattle them by threatening to sue for injury and damages. The apparently madcap plotlines begin to bundle together when the government agents tracking down Parnell and the Malibu post a reward of $20,000 for return of the car, a prize all the Repo Men leap at, and everyone has their moment in possession of the literally hot car.

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Cox’s use of repossession, the grimy, coercive end of the capitalist centipede, as a vehicle for exploring arch individualism is smart-assed enough in itself. Around this motif he wraps an acidic negation of consumerist values. All the food and drink products seen in the film are bluntly packaged with descriptive names rather than fancily labelled: when Bud suggests to Otto they get a drink, the next shot is of cans simply labelled Drink. Cox goes several steps further to consider an epoch where everything has to a certain extent become commercialised and alienated from its original nature. Christianity has been pulverised into self-mockery, as Otto’s cranially-nullified parents watch the phony televangelist without blinking. The Scientology-mocking ‘Dioretix’ book presents “the science of mind over matter”, adopted variously by Repo Men and FBI agents, is a pseudo-scientific religion perfect for the new-age mindset that tends naturally to believe in things unseen because why not. Science proper is busy creating neutron bombs that “destroy people.” Country, repressing the truth, monitoring your life, employing torturers, perverts, and homogenous minions. Otto wanders the streets of LA seeing men in hazmat suits retrieving corpses, the collateral damage in an ongoing apocalypse. Hippiedom, represented by Miller is beautiful but written off as a form of benign madness, a contrary blot in the corner whilst harbouring keys to the universe. The United Fruitcake Outlet, cover for an organisation for alien conspiracy nuts, waits patiently and hopefully for transcendence to come in the form of relief to come of aliens. Which, funnily enough, it does.

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Otto encounters one of the UFO faithful, Leila (Olivia Barash), as she’s dodging the government agents. Leila and others in the UFO are trying to make contact with Parnell, intending to get the aliens publicised, dreams of dissident glory written up in tabloid ink. Otto chuckles mercilessly at the whole set-up but still sees in Leila a comely lass of just about equal age and level of horniness. Otto’s come-ons lack finesse but finds Leila’s certainly up to screw in the backseat of a repo car in broad daylight out the front of the UFO headquarters. Otto has both enormous cynicism but also a youthful lightness to the way he treats life, like his fumbling attempt to get Leila to give him a blow-job when next he visits her; when she slaps him he can’t help but laugh. Otto’s values, though fractured amidst the random bizarreness of his existence, slowly gain form. He believes in fairness, which he shows by offering to not take a car he thinks belongs to a poor old black lady and then, when he finds it actually belongs to her big musician son and his band of equally big friends, tries to rip it off. Only they catch him and beat hell out of him. When he won’t say who did it to the Repo crew, they in turn beat him up to get the name because it’s their code this should never happen. So Otto gives the name of Humphries, his ex-boss at the supermarket, cueing one of the film’s most bluntly hilarious jolts of black humour as the Repo team visit Humphries’ house and clobber him with a baseball bat. Meanwhile Leila is taken prisoner by Agent Rogersz (Susan Barnes), the haughty, pinstriped dominatrix of the government team trying to track down Parnell who comes across: in a nod to Dr Strangelove, she has an artificial hand to which the punks bow down like a pagan fetish.

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Meanwhile Walter’s sublimely kooky Miller, the hippie repairman and shaman for Helping Hand, performs healing rites for the battered Otto and delivers monologues composed of sci-fi accented mysticism involving flying time machines, blended with contemplations of Jungian synchronicity as an expression of the cosmic unconscious, all recounted as he burns up junk in a rail yard. He does so to Otto’s bemused and cynical interest: “Did you do much acid Miller – back in the hippie days?” Miller’s illustration of synchronicity involving “plate” or “shrimp” or “plate of shrimp” gains a throwaway refrain later as a diner window sign advertises, yes, “plate ‘o shrimp.” Such finite yet precise detailing flows all the way through Repo Man, a film which sees no essential distinction between big particulars and small in a manner that’s akin to a narrative cinematic version of certain modernist art styles, perspective removed, only the map of mysterious relations left. The wonder of it all is that for all the rambling, often scarcely connected flow of individual sequences in the film, its plot ultimately unfolds with a deft sense of mechanism, the fragmentary becoming a unique whole in much the same way that the alien power in the Malibu evolves from destructive to transcendental force. Miller’s raving about “threads of coincidence” becomes the stuff of Repo Man’s story. But what gives the most ironic and clandestine form to the story is the way Cox delivers a version of an Arthurian Grail quest, with the Repo Men as the most devolved version of the Knights of the Round Table, Otto as spaced-out Galahad to Miller’s Percival and Bud’s screwball Lancelot.

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The joke of the federal agents all having the same blonde quaff is reminiscent of the interchangeable jocks in The Graduate (1967), albeit weaponised with acid political inference. The White Superman is under assault from all directions; from youth, the Counterculture, the Underculture, all the non-Gringos, whilst the Establishment’s hordes look they’ve been constructed en masse by Mattel, is too busy trying to keep a lid on the Great Secret of alien life, far too shocking and discomforting to be broadcast on the news between the commercials. Cox sees all theoretically polarised factions as actually porous in nature, because humans are collections of impulses and divided natures, each attitude containing its antithesis. Otto the punk joins the square-dressing Repo Men. The feds mock Marlene and the Rodriguez Brother’s failure to run down Rogersz like they were Repo Men themselves. Leila the radical conspiracy theorist happily signs up with the feds’ mission and tortures Otto. All of them are ultimately driven to look for ideal missions suiting their personal wants and instincts, and what draws them to one group isn’t so far from what might draw them to any other. Leila, excited by the subversive thrill of excavating hidden evidence of alien life and all the pseudo-religious implications therein, is of course attracted to being a fascist.

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Then there’s Parnell, rescuing the alien remains for Leila, hoping to redeem himself in the act except that he’s too far gone, flesh leeched by poison, brain sliced and diced, at once high priest of the western death-dream and victim, obsessed by radiation with apocalyptic delight and fear. He’s been to the mountaintop of modernity, having endeavoured to create what he describes as something “so monstrously immoral just working on the thing can drive you insane.” Parnell’s job was to weave the spectre that seems to hang over the entire scene, as if life on Earth has a limited shelf-life, or at least men will make sure it has one. Perhaps it’s also true to the film’s punk ethos that it also mocks punk itself mercilessly. Otto himself quickly falls from the faith when the blithe, unruly punk ethic bites him on the backside. The young barbarians gather to gyrate and smash glass in post-apocalyptic locales. Otto’s friends degenerate into bandits who sound like poseurs, the poshly accented Debbi and the preppie-sounding Duke, who in a shocked moment vows a really criminal act: “Let’s go get sushi – and not pay!” Otto knows damn well that not only is modern life rubbish but as a hopeless middle-class stowaway he’s part of it too. “Society made me what I am,” Duke gasps whilst dying; “That’s bullshit,” Otto replies with realistic contempt, “You’re a white suburban punk, just like me.” “But it still hurts,” Archie protests in his dying gurgle, summing up the whole problem.

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Repo Man gained a lot of its immediate cred from the soundtrack, with a chugging punk surfer-noir theme by Iggy Pop added late and the spacey guitar tracks by The Plugz gifting the film some of its unique texture, at once louche and spry in propelling the movie with aspects of aural lampooning as well as mood-weaving. Repo Man came out amidst the strong moment for unusual, cultish, low-budget projects that was 1984, as the independent film movement was gathering steam. Jim Jarmusch’s breakout with Stranger Than Paradise presented kin in pokerfaced cool; John Sayles’ Brother From Another Planet anatomised contemporary society with sci-fi metaphors. Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas offered a simultaneous survey of the American landscape shot by Muller and featuring Stanton in all his bedraggled glory. Much as fans of all three movies might hate to admit it, Repo Man also had affinities with Ghostbusters in making sport of the post-counterculture meltdown and rise of yuppiedom amidst a tale of fantastical cosmic collisions, and with James Cameron’s The Terminator, tearing about the tech-noir LA streets dodging time travellers and metaphorical Cold War-age fallout. If science fiction’s success in the Star Wars age had come at the expense of largely losing the socially critical veneer it had wielded throughout the previous decade, Repo Man helped restore the balance, point the way forward to similar mixtures of urban gothic and satirical screed in the likes of Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop (1986) and John Carpenter’s They Live (1988). Hell, there’s even some of The X-Files in there.

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Cox’s style, inimitable as it was, would also have definite impact on Quentin Tarantino’s early work in freely mixing deadpan realism closely attuned to LA’s street feel, genre film quotes redeployed in quotidian contexts, black humour, and surf guitar music twanging on the soundtrack. Similarly, Cox had already gotten to places where David Lynch was going in stewing together retro Americana and surrealist blindsiding, pre-empting the absurdist theatre of Mulholland Drive (2000), if with a far more playful bent, and aspects of his TV show Twin Peaks, down to the association of atom-age sin with contemporary dislocation. The formal chic of Muller’s photography with its acrylic textures undoubtedly helped imbue Repo Man with its oddball poise. Flashes of surprisingly intense and kinetic filmmaking, like a liquor store shootout and a chase in an underground carpark, are contrasted with many a shot where the camera sits removed at a cool distance from the actors and action to accentuate the absurdist flavour. One essential example arrives late in the film as the heroes flee a hospital with feds pursuing, the camera remaining rooted to the spot in filming the flurry of action, only for the Malibu, releasing bolts of blue energy that strike down the feds, cruising by as a brief and tantalising glimpse of the utterly surreal. Cox takes a squared-off perspective on roadsides and house fronts so often it becomes a system of sorts, the viewpoint of the Repo Manas cruising along the road, surveying the facades of the everyday, both compelled and repelled by the geometry of LA and its ideals of possession, eyeing the shiny objects parked without.

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The film has an inexhaustible supply of brilliant, throwaway comedy skits and vignettes laden with bemused and mysterious texture. Otto being berated for knocking over garbage bins by an old English lady (Dorothy Bartlett). An agent screaming, “Not my face!” as Marlene prepares to thump him with a chair. A scooter-riding gang trundling up a midnight street to the quoted strains of “Born to Be Wild,” and a refrain of “Ride of the Valkyries” accompanying Duke, Debbi, and Archie as they flee a drug warehouse they’ve raided, Archie pausing to shake hands with a derelict man on the way. “Born to be Wild” resurges later with cruel good humour as Otto tries to take off with the musicians’ car, only to realise the back wheels are jammed on props. Miller ministering to Otto after he’s beaten up by the musicians with mystic chants and ribbons. The Circle Jerks, of which Schloss was a member, appearing as a lounge act warbling atonal and cynical ditties in vicious mockery of the old crooner style. Duke gets gunned down when he and Debbi rob a liquor store, sparking a gunfight that also sees Bud wounded. Duke is already dead, flash-fried by the alien radiation when the crew steal the Malibu. They stole the car off the Rodríguezes, who stole it off Parnell, who then regains his ride after Archie’s death. Otto finally spots the Malibu and chases it on foot until Parnell stops and gives him a ride. The scientist him with radiation factoids and explains how he got lobotomised to slow his overheated brain down, before suddenly expiring from a haemorrhage.

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Throughout all the craziness runs the spasmodic blend of amity and frustration that defines Bud and Otto’s partnership, not quite friends, not quite surrogate father and son, more different versions of the same generational task, each as rudely unfinished and unique as the other, evoking Ethan and Martin in The Searchers (1956), a film Cox would later make a pseudo-sequel-cum-interrogation in trying to explore his fascination. Taking at first to being Otto’s mentor, Bud ends up exasperated: “I thought I could teach you something!” Bud, tired and hungry for enough money to become the boss, is scarcely a model of world-conquering success himself, a prototype already outmoded, and in the very end it proves Miller rather than Bud who takes Otto for the next, greater step in his journey. However Bud’s method of handling things proves revivifying; where Otto finds the Malibu, Bud just rips it off and waves his gun at anyone who disagrees, and when he falls with a belly full of machine gun bullets, only calmly asks for a cigarette. Otto has a young man’s quick sense of the absurd balanced by his longing for something authentic and worthy. He is as often bewildered and out of his depth as is he is knowing and cynical; indeed he’s largely a weak and silly hero (like when he explains to Duke that he never came to see him in juvie because “I was working!”) specifically because he’s also young. But he is, ultimately, a pure grail seeker, ultimately worthy to travel with Miller in the Malibu because of his willingness to keep seeking something uncompromised which overpowers all his other instincts.

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The riotous climax lays waste to the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in reclaiming the transcendental encounter with alien powers for the fantastical revolution for social outcasts, whilst the representatives of state security and other institutions wither and cringe before the might of such energy as represented by day-glo paint and gaffers tossing around ice cubes. The radiation-suit-clad feds burst into flames and even the good Reverend Larry bleats “Holy sheep-shit!” as the energy fries his bible. It is ultimately Miller’s vision that wins through, his kooky reports of time machine flying saucers that proves pertinent. Where Bud makes a last stand (“I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees!”) and get shot for his pains, it is Miller the cracked mystic who ultimately knows what to do with this star vessel, the man on the scene with the understanding. He invites Otto to come with him to the stars. “What about our relationship?” demands Leila. “Fuck that,” Otto replies before climbing aboard. The glitter of the LA skyline glimpsed from a flying car is wonder enough. Nothing left to do but look up and charge into the void. One of the great movie finales, and one of the great movie beginnings.

Standard
1980s, Action-Adventure, Comedy

Airplane! (1980) / Top Secret! (1984)

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Directors/Screenwriters: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker
Coscreenwriter on Top Secret!: Martyn Burke

By Roderick Heath

Known collectively as ZAZ, the writing and directing team of brothers David and Jerry Zucker and pal Jim Abrahams started their careers in that comedy Mecca, of Madison, Wisconsin, where they were key members of a satirical sketch troupe called the Kentucky Fried Theatre. The burgeoning American, Canadian, and British fringe comedy scenes of the 1970s became a proving ground for so many of the talents who would become stars in in the 1980s, but ZAZ were some of the relatively few from such scenes who found their place behind the camera. They graduated to the big screen in collaboration with John Landis on the 1978 film The Kentucky Fried Movie, and soon were given the chance to make their own movie. The trio decided, rather than simply offer a string of sketches as they had in their previous outing, they would present a mostly coherent lampoon of a specific type of movie and use it as a scarecrow to hang their jokes on. ZAZ, with their encyclopaedic sense of pop culture and authentic streak of movie buff fondness for the sorts of films they would nonetheless ransack for camp and kitsch, decided to take a whack at sending up the disaster movie genre that had been huge business throughout the 1970s for Hollywood. The resulting concoction, Airplane!, released in 1980, was a hugely profitable hit and quickly became enshrined amongst the most beloved comedy cult films.

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By comparison, ZAZ’s 1984 follow-up Top Secret!, a panoramic swipe at spy, war, and Elvis movies, gained a comparatively muted response and lingered more quietly on video store shelves and occasional TV showings, although it too eventually gained veneration. The trio also stumbled with their attempt to create a TV series, Police Squad! (1982), but gained their revenge when they adapted it as a movie, The Naked Gun (1987), and scored another popular hit that birthed two sequels. After tackling a script written by others on Ruthless People (1986) whilst still a team, the trio split to take on solo directing works: Abrahams tackled Big Business (1988), Welcome Home Roxy Carmichael (1990), and the more ZAZ-like Hot Shots! films (1991, 1993). Jerry Zucker proved the most willing to go off-brand with the supernatural romance Ghost (1990) and Arthurian tale First Knight (1995), before stalling with Rat Race (2001), a tribute to one of the ZAZ stylistic influences, Stanley Kramer’s It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). David directed the first two Naked Gun entries, worked with the creators of the very ZAZ-like TV series South Park on BASEketball (1998), and later took over the Scary Movie franchise from the Wayans brothers, before undoing himself somewhat with the right-wing patriotic screed An American Carol (2008).

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With Airplane!, ZAZ reinvented the movie parody genre, one that had only known sporadic stabs anyway over the years, and which was generally left to television, which could speedily assimilate and produce a send-up and move on. A good feature-length lampoon, by contrast, had to amass decades’ worth of clichés and points of reference to work. Bob Hope had made his name in movies poking their tongues out at other movies, with the likes of the horror movie burlesques The Cat and the Canary (1939) and The Ghost Breakers (1940), the Western-disassembling farce The Paleface (1950) and its Frank Tashlin-directed sequel (1952). Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963) had made sport of the gothic horror revival of its day and the Carry On films had often revolved around making fun of familiar genres, from historical epics to spy movies. ZAZ spurned however the relatively traditional approach of many of these, for they also channelled the bristling linguistic and behavioural anarchism of the Marx Brothers, frenetic zaniness of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’ (1941), the free-for-all aesthetic of MAD Magazine, the protean, associative strangeness of Looney Tunes, and the provocative black comedy of Harvard’s National Lampoon, which was also trying to leverage a turn to the big screen around the same time as ZAZ.

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ZAZ’s immediate forerunners as Jewish wiseacres turned comedy auteurs had been Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, who had many of the same influences. Allen had leveraged his own movie career with genre-specific send-ups like What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966) and Take The Money And Run (1969), whilst Brooks, with the Western survey Blazing Saddles (1974), had kicked off his own popular imprimatur as a movie satirist with a willingness to distort cinematic reality through a jarring blend of retro mores and contemporary attitude, even with meta-movie twists in Blazing Saddles. Where ZAZ went one better than him was in adopting an ever faster pace of gag deployment, and in adding an extra zest of panoramic social satire. One reason for ZAZ’s success in this regard lay in their eager embrace of simultaneous styles of humour: Airplane! maintains its giddy rush of gags simply by trusting that one funny thing is as good as another. For lovers of older movies, the impact of the ZAZ style, like that of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000, can be a mixed blessing, as it can be hard to appreciate the particular pleasures of the sorts of movies they aimed at without feeling a little hectored. And yet, unlike the Monty Python team, who with their films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and Life of Brian (1979), liked to deconstruct stories in time with assaults on social conventions, ZAZ maintained a less cynical affection for the movies they liked to pull apart, and honoured despite their sarcasm the basic story logic of such models.

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Undoubtedly, the greater part of Airplane!’s success lay in the way it offered a machine gun volley of jokes without rhyme and scarcely any reason, a velocity of laughs that made Brooks look positively lackadaisical. But the pace of humour disguised other, deftly organised principles. One smart move was in avoiding directly mocking any particular entry in the ‘70s disaster cycle, instead taking as its basis a lesser-known progenitor to give it a proper narrative backbone. Arthur Hailey, who had written the novel Airport that was filmed in 1970 and kicked off the disaster movie craze, had dabbled in the theme of aerial crisis years earlier, with the Canadian TV play Zero Hour, adapted into a film starring Dana Andrews in 1957. That film, with its story of a war-damaged flying veteran pressganged into landing a passenger plane after its aircrew go down with food poisoning, offered a perfect narrative structure, because it allowed the disaster situation to be at once static and open-ended. Airplane!’s power derives from the way, despite every impediment it throws in his path both plot-wise and comedic, it still credits protagonist Ted Striker (Robert Hays) with a traditional hero’s journey as he tries to overcome self-doubt and trauma and win back his stewardess girlfriend Elaine (Julie Hagerty) in the course of saving the day, an aspect enabled by Hays’ skill in both delivering deadpan humour and evoking everyman empathy. But perhaps the deepest source of Airplane!’s specific pep lay in its driving sense of ironic contrast, between the slick neatness of Hollywood narrative and the bizarre lilt of modern American life circa 1980.

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The Kentucky Fried Movie had already unveiled ZAZ as a team with a delight mixed with derision for the commercialised accoutrements of the ‘70s lifestyle obsession, spawned from the team’s old habit of leaving their VCR recording late-night TV and making sport of the esoterica they found that way—Zero Hour being such relic. Airplane! is obsessed with many of its characters as free-floating bodies of unhinged wont, from Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) as a discerning reader of Modern Sperm magazine and advanced-studies purveyor in paedophilic overtures, to his wife in bed with her equine lover, and the rank of people delighting in a chance to deal out some brute force to a hysterical woman. The famous early gag of two announcing voices on a Los Angeles airport PA system, whose disagreement over what the various zones are for soon shades into an argument over the woman getting an abortion, exemplifies this aspect: drab functionalism warps into a deeply personal spat over the fallout of sex and intimacy, inspired by aspects of Airport. ZAZ consciously set up two ways of experiencing movies in opposition. The old, square, WASP style was represented by the cadre of actors once regularly cast as stern and serious types, including Leslie Nielsen, Graves, Lloyd Bridges, and Robert Stack. They collide with a more contemporary landscape, one infected with a polyglot of rich and perverse players. Stack’s adamantine action man Rex Kramer, once a battler of enemy nations during “The War,” is now reduced to calmly hacking his way through a score of pestering new age proselytisers.

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The Airport films had already displayed distinct aspects of knowing camp, which made sending them up, like the Roger Moore-era James Bond films, a difficult task as they were already in essence self-satires: nobody could take Helen Reddy as a singing nun entertaining a deathly ill Linda Blair seriously. Airplane!’s dichotomous strategy helped it pull off the trick. Many ‘70s disaster movies fed parasitically on a faded ideal of movie glamour and star power, casting former big-name performers and finding creative ways of killing them off. ZAZ by contrast dug up actors to get them to repurpose their images, ironically doing better by such actors and even transforming Nielsen and Bridges into late-career comedy stars. This approach rewarded viewers who also remembered and delighted in those old, cheesy movies, and even ones that weren’t that old – Nielsen’s presence was directly inspired by his contribution to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) – but worked just as well if you didn’t: I dare say that as a kid watching Airplane! (when I knew it by its Australian release title, Flying High!) was the first time I’d encountered many such performers and conventions, thus also making it a kind of miniature film school. It also contrasted the more traditionally comedic, hammy, neo-vaudevillian shtick Brooks was keeping alive. Not that Airplane! suppresses that shtick as an influence. The film’s most perpetually quoted exchange, “Surely you can’t be serious!” “I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley,” is so pure in channelling those roots you can easily imagine Groucho and Chico Marx uttering it, but it’s given a very specific quality here via Nielsen’s utter conviction in delivering the punchline. Only a highly professional actor with decades of experience in the soul-weathering art of making terrible dialogue sound vital could truly do it justice.

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Some of this explains why immediate precursors to Airplane! didn’t gain nearly so much traction. Neil Israel’s Americathon (1979) had a very similar pitch of exacerbating zeitgeist trends with a strong dose of randy, post-yippie smart-assery, but it had an inverse proportion of political and lifestyle satire to pop culture joking to Airplane!, and its shots at the latter aspect were too vaguely observed to offer the same frisson. James Frawley’s The Big Bus (1976) beat Airplane! to the punch in mocking the disaster movie craze with a very similar approach including casting self-satirising stars and mixing in a panoply of genre movie influences. Indeed, it took on some common touches with enough effect ZAZ didn’t have to bother with them, like the smarmy lounge singer act, but played a much cleaner game and lacked the later film’s all-encompassing licence. ZAZ’s twists tend not to just take a cliché and reproduce it for smirking recognition but build on it, like the notion of a couple of non-English-speakers in the midst of disaster causing contention for the crew here offered via the two black men (Norman Alexander Gibbs and Al White) who speak only in incredibly dense jive argot. This is then given further layering by making the unlikely translator for their native language Barbara Billingsley, the mother from Leave It To Beaver, and then having them regaled by The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno (1974) songstress Maureen McGovern in the guise of a singing nun whose version of “Respect” inspires profuse vomiting.

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One further aspect of Airplane!‘s special brilliance lay in the way ZAZ revealed themselves as proper filmmakers, with ready ability to balance comedic performance with cinematic movement. They shift nimbly between set-ups to give each joke its necessary space in a way that strongly contrasts the tendency of today’s comedy filmmakers like Paul Feig to indulge rambling pseudo-improvisation and any-shot-will-do indolence to contain the humour. Some of Airplane!’s best gags, like an airline mechanic (Jimmy Walker) tending to the plane like a gas station hand in the background of a functional scene, or a mockery of beatifically smiling faces leaning into frame as they listen to a beautiful song including one man descending from overhead, depend on a poise of visual exposition beyond many comedy directors. Airplane!‘s willingness to go off-brand in sourcing its laughs, if one that from a certain standpoint refuses to obey any ground rules and so seeming a touch mercenary, nonetheless helped to free up its reflexes rather than merely offer a checklist of honoured cliches. As well as disaster movies Airplane! sidesteps to take swipes at old war movies and then-recent hits, most hilariously illustrated by Ted’s flashback recollection of meeting Elaine in a seedy nightspot, the Mogambo, “populated by every reject and cutthroat from Bombay to Calcutta – it was worse than Detroit.” This sequence ticks off such familiar flourishes of the old movie dive bar as the sexy sauntering legs accompanied by saucy jazz (the owner of the legs here blowing a lick on a trombone) and two soldiers getting into a fight over a card game (except the uniformed battlers here are a pair of girl scouts).

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This skews unexpectedly into a mockery of John Travolta’s famous dance scene from Saturday Night Fever (1977) as genuinely ebullient as it is pitiless in excavating the postures of contemporary urban warrior fantasy encapsulated in the model, as well as its dodgy showmanship, knowing full well the Travolta vehicle sold the notion of the modern cowboy as a duellist on the range of slick moves and quick sex. Airplane! incidentally depicts once-suppressed subcultures becoming conversant with each-other, an idea made into literal jokes with the Jive dudes and the sight of a nun and a kid each reading a magazine on the other social subset’s lifestyle, but extended throughout the narrative more implicitly as ZAZ obey Terry Southern and Lenny Bruce’s project for American satirical comedy as an unveiling of the basic hungers of US society in a way unadorned by high-flown cant. Johnny (Stephen Stucker) is deployed later in the film to wield shafts of camp anarchy (“Fog’s getting thicker!” “And Leon’s getting laaarrrrgggeeer!”). In perhaps the film’s funniest and filthiest sustained gag, Elaine has to refill the plane’s inflatable Automatic Pilot (Otto) in a literal blow-job that leaves the intruding Rumack bewildered and concludes with both lady and dummy smoking in suggestive bliss. This scene works as a totally random excursion into sexy humour but incidentally offers a sharp capsule summary of the Airport series’ preoccupation with contemporary sexual mores: Elaine getting it on after a fashion with Otto is also an act of sensual liberation commensurate with Ted’s recovery of his manly mojo.

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Some jokes don’t fly so well now. Ted’s account of his and Elaine’s stint trying to school a remote African tribe takes a poke at white self-congratulation as Ted suggests his “advanced Western teaching techniques” help the tribe learn basketball when they clearly, instantly grasp and master the game, but also feels a bit graceless in taking on racist cliché. ZAZ’s tilts at ‘70s licentiousness also mediate the looming spectre of ‘80s Reaganism. The many pot-shots at the about-to-be-President, including a running joke based on his 1940 film Knute Rockne, All-American (“Go out there and win just one for the Zipper!”) bespeak ZAZ’s suspicion that the desire to vote for Reagan was also the desire of an America tiring of contemporary lunacy to live in an old movie. Indeed, David Zucker’s later conservative turn suggests he might have empathised with it even then. The mid-film pause for a sing-along as stewardess Randy (the splendid, astonishingly underemployed Lorna Patterson) comforts heart transplant patient Lisa (Jill Whelan) sees her belting out Peter Yarrow’s internationalist anthem “River of Jordan,” an affirmation of general idealism hilariously undercut by not noticing she’s knocked out Lisa’s IV tube. Here ZAZ identify with lacerating exactitude not just silliness of the model scenes in Airport 1975 (1974) but also the way the ‘60s version of poptimism became supplanted by Me Decade obliviousness.

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Similarly, Kramer’s rampage through the pestilential proliferation of airport badgerers depicts exhaustion with the whole panoply of consciousness-raising and social issue-mongering. Airplane! ends gleefully with Ted landing the plane safely and the pompous Kramer continuing to explore the nature of trauma over the radio (“Have you ever been kicked in the head with an iron boot?”) past the point of necessity, and the lifestyle aspect is given its last wink as Otto gains an inflatable mate and takes off to the wild blue yonder. Elmer Bernstein’s ingenious score gives the film a deal of cohesion as he imbues even absurd scenes with a dramatic tenor equal to that of the square-jawed old actors, and sends the film out with a grandiose march that underlines the carnivalesque sense of all-American good-humour. Top Secret!, when it arrived four years later, was already contending with a different social landscape. The old-fashioned values ZAZ had made fun of were regaining currency in mainstream movies; Ted Striker’s redemptive arc soon became that of John Rambo and John McClane and Martin Riggs. The kinds of old spy and war movies the story was based in had already been bundled together with extra lashings of action and spectacle as well as wry knowing in the Indiana Jones films.

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The film’s Elvis stand-in, Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer, making his movie debut), has made his name performing trend-riding, sub-Beach Boys hits. The opening credits depict a music video for his hit song “Skeet Surfin’”, a ditty explaining the pleasures of blasting clay pigeons whilst hanging five, complete with random shots slicing off beach umbrellas and bringing down hang-gliders. Nick is invited to East Germany to participate in a cultural festival being held by the local Commie Nazis as a last-minute substitute for Leonard Bernstein. The festival is being staged as cover for a plot to unleash a device that can wreck NATO warships, a device invented by the imprisoned Dr Paul Flammond (Gough). Flammond’s daughter Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge) is an agent in the underground although he thinks she’s in the Stasi’s hands. Nick becomes involved when he saves Hillary from an assassin during a ballet, arrested by the authorities and imprisoned, where he encounters Flammond and learns of the plot. He and Hillary make contact with a resistance cell led by an agent who proves to be Nigel (Christopher Villiers), the man Hillary grew up with whilst shipwrecked on a desert island but whom she presumed to be dead. Together they launch a mission to rescue Flammond from prison, but of course someone in the resistance ranks is a mole.

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The relatively substantial plot and carefully developed visual and verbal parodying clearly advances on Airplane!. But there remains a similar free-form mix of jokes, with gags based in such random epiphanies as revealing men’s ballet costumes, with a ballerina prancing upon a raft of bulging crotches. One of the most magnificently odd sight gags in movie history comes half-way through when Nick and Hillary sit in a park with a giant statue of a pigeon, upon which flying men land and defecate. Other jokes are based in more specific reference points: Omar Sharif’s spy character Cedric is trapped and crushed in a car a la Goldfinger (1964) only to turn up later stumbling along encased in the crumpled metal. The standard moment in Westerns where some horses are stampeded to forestall pursuit here sees Nick shooing off a herd of waiting pushbikes. Ian McNeice appears as Cedric’s underground contact who poses as a blind seller of novelties and party tricks, several of which he inflicts on the hapless spy in the name of covering their communication. Despite the German setting, Nigel’s underground cell is filled with French resistance warriors whose names are all Francophone clichés: “This is Chevalier…Montage…Detente…Avant Garde…and Déjà Vu.” “Haven’t we not met before, Monsieur?” The unfortunate member Latrine constantly turns up in a state of bloodied suffering.

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The horrors of repression and torture are often found to be less terrifying than some more prosaic forms of torment — after a terrible dream of being back in High School, Nick is blissfully relieved to awaken and see he’s only being whipped by Stasi thugs. Said thugs are a terrifying prospect: “Bruno is almost blind, has to operate wholly by touch. Klaus is a moron, who knows only what he reads in the New York Post.” Top Secret!’s relative failings in comparison to its predecessor take a little teasing out. Whilst it offers a similar survey of familiar actors mocking their stock personas, including Sharif, Jeremy Kemp, Peter Cushing, and Michael Gough, most of their contributions aren’t as sustained or clever. Whilst Top Secret! still takes a time-out for a send-up of a recent popular hit, in this case The Blue Lagoon (1980), it’s a reference point that offers no similar opportunity for a discursion as dynamic as the Mogambo dance. Where the very end of Airplane! gives the film’s comedy and its relative straight aspects a perfectly entwined send-off, Top Secret! seems more to just stop. Whilst the film still contains some good riffs contending with sexual mores and perversities (the Anal Intruder) and satirical jolts, it lacks the cohesive comic substrata that aspect offered in the earlier film.

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That said, other aspects of Top Secret! improve on Airplane!. The running jokes are developed with more patience and sneaky wit, like the constant difficulties with language and translation in regards to both languages and spy codes. The choice of tethering a send-up of films based in geopolitics to the fantasy vision of Elvis Presley’s movie vehicles (particularly Harum Scarum, 1965), with their implicit promise of carefree deliverance through worshipping the beautiful idol of rock’n’roll, turns Top Secret! into a sustained interrogation of America’s place in the world at the height of renewed Cold War tensions. Top Secret! offers American leadership in the post-WWII era as a sustained act of show business. Nick repeatedly makes an impact upon the hidebound East German establishment by dint of his rocker showmanship, beating a Soviet tenor to the punch in performing for a ritzy audience, winning over everyone except the fuming military chiefs (even the elderly house band quickly adapts to a rock ethos) and rocking out a pizza parlour when the resistance fighters demand proof he’s not Mel Torme. Nick’s performance at the festival sees him cranking up James Brown’s theatrical desperation with gestures like trying to hang and gas himself. By contrast the East German anthem is a hymn of sinister caution (“Forget it, the guards will kill you, if the electrified fence doesn’t first”) set to the music from a Wisconsin high school’s song.

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The cultural satire here echoes a lot of overt propaganda issued around this time about the west’s free and easy attitude compared to the browbeaten tenor of the eastern bloc, with the twist from ZAZ that acknowledges Nick’s espousal of freedom was considered quite a distance from what a lot of western leaders felt desirable too just a few years earlier. By implication ZAZ consider Hollywood moviemaking and pop music potent forms for creating a mythology for combating repressiveness whilst also perhaps blinding people to the west’s own failings in this regard. That’s a frontier of satire ZAZ mostly shy away from, except when Hillary, explaining her own father’s narrow brush with political collapse as an immigrant to the US: “He was one of the lucky ones, he managed to escape in a balloon during the Jimmy Carter presidency,” and decries how disengaged US youth is: Nick can only protest in counterpoint that his high school history class once spent a week in Philadelphia. The alarm over Reagan’s rise mooted in Airplane! is now solidified: Cold War politics are now plainly being administrated as if in an old movie in broad strokes of morality. Meanwhile the returned Nigel delights Hillary as she measures up various parts of his anatomy and aggravates the nonetheless understanding Nick, although Nigel seems to be harbouring pretty happy memories of being ravaged by the sailors who rescued him from the island. Of course, Nigel turns out to be the mole in the unit, obliging him and Nick to fight it out.

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By comparison with Airplane!’s targeting of films still fresh in the public memory, ZAZ felt Top Secret! might have stumbled in comparison by taking movies greatly receded in pop culture’s rear-view mirror. This aspect nonetheless reveals the second film as a work more deeply ensconced in a film buff’s sensibility, and casual gags hide riches for fellow travellers. Like Cushing’s Swedish book store owner, first glimpsed with a huge bulging eye glimpsed through a magnifying glass only to lower the glass and prove to actually have a huge bulging eye: this works as a casually surreal visual joke but also happens to recreate and mock an image from a couple of Cushing horror vehicles. A glimpse of a looming telephone Kemp’s army bigwig picks up turns out to actually be ridiculously large rather than a product of dramatic forced perspective. Whilst Airplane! showed ZAZ had abilities as visual jokesters, Top Secret! is a much freer, far more deftly staged work of physical comedy and moviemaking style, closer to the style of Richard Lester (to whom Top Secret! nods by tossing in a singing horse that warbles “A Hard Day’s Night”), with some touches even approaching the likes of Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati, with reaches of staged comedy Airplane! only briefly reached for in moments like the plane crashing through a terminal window.

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The film’s very start offers the sight of Cedric and a German soldier battling atop a train, with Cedric ducking to allow his foe to be swatted off by a bridge only for the bridge to crumble around the soldier. Nick’s introduction sees him trying to paint the rural landscape from his train window and proving to have skilfully recreated the motion blur. The Resistance’s battles with the Germans sees the hulking, cigar-eating Chocolate Mousse (Eddie Tagoe) knocking out squads of enemies with improbably good shooting. Later he causes a German armoured car to swerve off the road with his shooting, although it takes the car slightly tapping a parked Pinto to cause a devastating explosion. A stop at a train station as Nick and his manager Martin (Billy J. Mitchell) sees the platform itself start rolling away leaving the stationary train and a passenger chasing after it, in a poke at the set-bound action of a lot of classic Hollywood movies. Kilmer and Gutteridge perform a ridiculous traditional dance whilst arguing politics, a very Brooksian touch. The to-and-fro dashing of the Resistance fighters pauses to become a Broadway kick routine. A German soldier tossed off the prison battlements hits the ground only to shatter like a plaster statue. One of the best violations of the fourth wall in any movie comes when Nick rattles off all the improbable events that’s befallen him and Hillary, and she acknowledges, “Yes, it all sounds like the plot of some bad movie.” Whereupon she and Nick stand stiff and awkward with their gazes turning ever so nervously towards the audience.

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Kilmer’s physicality and authentic movie star lustre are invaluable to the movie’s energy, Kilmer performing Nick’s dance moves and dashing through the comedy action scenes with a gusto no other film’s ever asked of him, not even his sorry outings as Batman and The Saint. His performance of “Straighten Out The Rug” in the pizzeria sees Nick do a breakdance spin so well he saws a hole in the floor, whilst dancing guys swing rag doll partners around their heads. Kilmer is almost too much the real deal for a burlesque. The brilliantly strange climax sees Nick and Nigel fall off a truck as they fight it out and plunge into a river where they engage in an underwater fist fight in a sunken Western saloon, a sequence that must have taken some extraordinary effort to achieve. Nick knocks out his foe and strides out through the swinging doors to the Bonanza theme. The very end feels abrupt in a way that suggests problems with editing, and indeed ZAZ did leave a lot on the cutting room floor, but it does honour its models again as Hillary contemplates with sad wisdom, like many an old war movie heroine before her, whether to stay in the fight or wing away to a new life: “Things change. People change. Hairstyles change. Interest rates fluctuate.” The fight for freedom in a world where an actor or TV celebrity can be elected president goes on.

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