Film Review: Altered States (1980)

Release Date: December 25th, 1980
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron)
Based on: Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
Music by: John Corigliano
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore, John Larroquette, George Gaynes

Warner Bros., 103 Minutes

Review:

“Fight it, Eddie. You made it real, you can make it unreal.” – Emily Jessup

I was pretty excited to see Altered States pop up on FilmStruck, a mighty fine streaming service. It’s a film I have wanted to see for a very long time but it wasn’t very accessible.

The film deals with an abnormal psychologist who gets a bit too addicted to his work and pays a hefty price for it. His work involves seeing what will happen if he mixes hallucinogenic drugs and an isolation chamber. What we get to experience is a man tripping his balls off, seeing some strange and really messed up shit. However, each trip gets more and more intense and the man starts to have physical changes. He starts regressing and at one point becomes a savage neanderthal. He even goes so far as to regress into primordial matter.

Calling this film unique and bizarre is a serious understatement. It is those things but it embraces the weird so genuinely and effectively that even if this tale is quite fantastical, you are sucked right into it.

I think the real reason why this picture works so well is the skill of its director, Ken Russell. By this point, he had already directed three Oscar winning films: Women In LoveThe Devils and The Who’s Tommy. This film would also go on to win Oscars for Best Sound and Best Original Score. But it was Russell’s uncanny vision and his ability to manufacture such vivid and intense images throughout this film that prevented this from turning into some hokey, LSD-laced, run of the mill sci-fi thriller.

William Hurt was exceptional as the psychologist, Eddie Jessup. Every single scene felt believable and he sold everything that was happening to him on screen. Not bad, as this was actually his debut film. He also had help from a young Bob Balaban, as well as Charles Haid, who became my favorite guy in the movie.

Eddie’s family was comprised of Blair Brown, who played his wife, and Drew Barrymore, as his daughter. This was also Barrymore’s debut film. We also get to see a very young John Larroquette play an x-ray technician and there’s a small role for George Gaynes, as well.

The special effects are good for its time and the hallucination sequences are amazingly orchestrated.

There are a slew of films that deal with scientists going mad over their own experiments. There are also a slew of films that are serious mind fucks. Altered States is one of the best, though. And after finally watching it, I can see where other films were inspired by it. It is a great “body horror” film and it will make you uncomfortable at times. In some regards, I think it’s comparable to earlier David Cronenberg films, as well as 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other body horror flicks from the era: VideodromeThe FlyScannersFrom BeyondEraserhead, The Thing, etc. Also, Jacob’s Ladder.

Film Review: The Last Dragon (1985)

Also known as: Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon
Release Date: March 22nd, 1985
Directed by: Michael Schultz
Written by: Louis Venosta
Music by: Bruce Miller, Misha Segal
Cast: Taimak, Julius J. Carry III, Chris Murney, Leo O’Brien, Faith Prince, Glen Eaton, Vanity, Mike Starr, Ernie Reyes Jr., Keshia Knight Pulliam, Jim Moody, Esther Marrow, Chazz Palminteri, William H. Macy, Carl Anthony Payne II, Ron Van Clief (uncredited)

Motown Productions, TriStar Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

“I’m gonna get you, Leroy, because I am the Shogun! I will not rest until everybody knows the Shogun is the master!” – Sho’nuff

The Last Dragon is a weird enigma and frankly, there is nothing else quite like it.

The story is about a boy named Leroy and how he becomes a kung fu master. His friends and students call him Bruce Leroy and there is a good amount of old Bruce Lee movie footage thrown into the picture for good measure. Between this and No Retreat, No Surrender, Bruceploitation was still alive and well more than a decade after the man’s death.

Leroy draws the ire of an evil kung fu badass named Sho’Nuff, who is played by the immensely awesome Julius Carry, who I would become a lifelong fan of after his role on the underappreciated television series, Brisco County, Jr. In fact, regardless of Carry being the badass bad guy, I love this movie mostly because of him and the very young Ernie Reyes Jr.

The two main stars of the picture are Taimak as Bruce Leroy and the ’80s pop star Vanity as Laura, who was essentially like an old school MTV VJ. You also get small roles from William H. Macy, Chazz Palminteri, Mike Starr and two of The Cosby Show‘s kids: Keshia Knight Pulliam and Carl Anthony Payne II. Legit martial arts star Ron Van Clief handled the fight choreography and had a small uncredited role.

While this isn’t a musical, it is a film that is very music heavy. One of the villains is an evil music producer that wants his girlfriend to become a massive star. In fact, I thought her song was pretty good within the context of the movie but Vanity seemed to be completely disinterested in it, which made the villain lash out and become even more villainous. Honestly, the bad song wasn’t really that different than most of the mid-’80s pop that fills the movie. Had she just played the music video, she could have saved herself and her friends a lot of stress.

The thing that makes The Last Dragon so unique is that it is a weird mix of kung fu, ’80s music, teen comedy and is a visual explosion of over the top ’80s style. The film almost feels like a fantasy that takes place in a world similar to ours but much cooler, where everything is accented by neon lights and chrome.

The Last Dragon is a pretty cool experience but it feels pretty dated. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in the modern era but for fans of ’80s cheese, it’s a nice cornucopia of ’80s style, music and humor. Plus, it is just a cool movie that’s a whole lot of fun.

Film Review: Terror Train (1980)

Also known as: Train of Terror
Release Date: October 3rd, 1980
Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
Written by: T.Y. Drake
Music by: John Mills-Cockell
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Vanity (credited as D.D. Winters)

Astral Bellevue Pathé, Sandy Howard Productions, Triple T Productions, 20th Century Fox, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Well, you know what they say: cold hands, warm heart.” – Mitchy

This was the second film I watched in a New Year’s Eve slasher double bill that I hosted at my house. The first was New Year’s Evil.

Terror Train is the better of the two pictures. The main reason is that it is more imaginative. Also, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis while she was at the height of her run in the slasher genre. Plus, the killer uses different disguises, one of which looks like movie critic Gene Shalit dressed as a train conductor, as seen in the film’s poster.

While you pretty much know who the killer is and why he wants to kill these college kids, you still aren’t entirely sure if the killer is the horrible victim of the prank gone bad in the opening of the film. There are some swerves, here and there, and the overall plot is decently constructed, which is more than you can say for most slasher pictures.

This movie also features a very young David Copperfield. Obviously he plays a magician but those bits where he does tricks are pretty cool to see. I have always liked Copperfield and seeing him perform within the movie is a an extra treat.

One thing I like about this picture is the atmosphere. The film is pretty dark throughout but there is vivid lighting and a sort of mixture of neon highlights and a chiaroscuro lighting and shadowing style. The movie has a kind of subtle neo-noir vibe to it but it is probably more of a call back to the Italian giallo style of the ’70s. Those giallo pictures were very early versions of what would evolve into the standard slasher film framework.

Terror Train has this cool characteristic where it sort of pulls from classic horror, film-noir, giallo and even German Expressionism in the use of shadows and angles to create a feeling of disorientation. I don’t necessarily think that any of that was intentional, at the time, it is just a film that came out during a transitional period and wears its influences on its sleeve whether it knows it or not.

The film itself isn’t as exciting as its stylistic flourishes but it is still a slightly better than average slasher flick in a time when these films were pumped out like E. L. Fudge cookies at the Keebler factory.

Jamie Lee Curtis is good in this and you also get to see her play opposite of Hart Bochner, who is probably most remembered as that yuppie douche Ellis in Die Hard.

Film Review: New Year’s Evil (1980)

Release Date: December 26th, 1980
Directed by: Emmett Alston
Written by: Leonard Neubauer, Emmett Alston
Music by: Laurin Rinder, W. Michael Lewis
Cast: Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, Grant Cramer, Chris Wallace

Golan-Globus Productions, Cannon Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

“I’m a man of God, not a man of violence!” [stabs biker] – Richard Sullivan

For New Year’s Eve, I decided to have a New Year’s themed slasher double bill in the theater that is my home. Some friends and I watched this, as well as another 1980 slasher movie that also takes place on this holiday, Terror Train.

New Year’s Evil is a fairly entertaining slasher flick but it is hardly a classic and fails in certain areas.

One problem I have with the film is that there isn’t a lot of mystery as to who the killer is. It is pretty obvious that the men in the main character’s life are responsible. You immediately know that her son is a total freak with mommy issues and he even mentions that he is going to call his father when he’s upset over how his mother has blown him off while she is preparing for a big night.

As slashers go, the killings aren’t that great and really, the slasher himself isn’t great either. There isn’t a lot of imagination here, just slashing and some occasional boobies. Granted, this film came out very early in the slasher genre’s height in popularity and some tropes weren’t as established as they would be in the years that followed.

I do like this film for its ’80s MTV type feel. The music is cool, the party looks great and there is a good level of ’80s cheese, as this was a film that really felt like it represented a cultural shift between the punk rock ’70s and the new wave ’80s.

This is a good movie to kill some time with, especially for a slasher aficionado that hasn’t yet seen it. It’s a bit underwhelming and a bit too drab for something that looks so lively and colorful on its surface. Still, it’s not a complete waste of time.

Film Review: The Shining (1980)

Release Date: May 23rd, 1980
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Diane Johnson
Based on: The Shining by Stephen King
Music by: Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Danny Lloyd, Joe Turkel, Philip Stone, Tony Burton

The Producer Circle Company, Peregrine Productions, Hawk Films, Warner Bros., 146 Minutes (premiere), 144 Minutes (US cut), 119 Minutes (European cut)

Review:

“Here’s Johnny!” – Jack Torrance

My big Halloween treat this year was getting to see The Shining on the big screen!

People often ask me what the greatest horror movie of all-time is. The Shining is always the first motion picture to pop into my mind and frankly, it has always been my favorite. John Carpenter’s The Thing is a very close second.

The reason I love this film so much is because it is a masterpiece. It is perfect in every regard. The direction, the acting, the cinematography, the music, the sound, the lighting, the whole overall ambiance: everything.

Some people, Stephen King included, were critical over the fact that Stanley Kubrick didn’t include some of the elements of King’s novel. King was even instrumental in the film being remade as a miniseries for television in the 1990s but that version falls short in every way. While this is based off of King’s writings, the film is very much a Kubrick picture and to be honest, Kubrick is the stronger artist of the two, especially behind the camera, because do you really want to try and compare King’s directorial effort Maximum Overdrive to The Shining?

Books and film are two different mediums and even then, The Shining film is better than The Shining book. Besides, walking shrub animals just wouldn’t fit into this film in a believable way.

As great as Jack Nicholson has always been, it is hard to think of a film where he shined more than he did here, pun intended. As Jack Torrance, Nicholson became the top movie monster, as far as a singular performance goes. Sure, he might not look as cool as Dracula or Freddy Krueger but he is much more terrifying and has a presence that no other actor has matched in a horror picture.

Shelley Duvall also nailed her role and honestly, she has never been better than she was in The Shining. A lot of her performance was enhanced, behind the scenes, by Kubrick terrorizing her on set. He did this in an effort to generate an authentic performance and it worked. His technique was harsh but it wasn’t any different than what many auteur directors have done in the past. I can’t think of a better actress for the role and Duval really is the character of Wendy. She’s terrified, frail but sweet in a way that your heart goes out to her and you wish you could go into the film and pull her and Danny away from mortal danger.

The film also has a few character actors sprinkled in. There is Scatman Crothers, who plays Mr. Holloran, an older cook that has the power to “shine” like the child Danny. His death still bothers me every time I watch the film because all he wanted to do was help Wendy and Danny escape the hell they were trapped in. Joe Turkel, most known as Tyrell from Blade Runner, plays the hotel bartender. Tony Burton, Apollo Creed’s trainer from the Rocky films, also has a small role as the owner of a garage.

While this is considered a ghost story and a haunted house movie on the grandest scale, it is more about madness and isolation. While the Overlook Hotel is incredibly haunted and ghosts appear to steer Jack into his state of madness, you feel as if none of this wouldn’t happen if the family wasn’t trapped in this massive snowed in lodge, by themselves for five months. You also get the feeling that Jack was already going to lose his mind and just needed a little push. It is also a film about abusive relationships taken to the extreme.

The film is full of violence, a good bit of gore and grotesque things but it is so artistic in the application of its imagery that everything seems to have some sort of deeper meaning than what is seen on the surface. People have been debating the “hidden messages” in this movie for years. There is even a whole documentary that analyzes that stuff. It’s called Room 237 and I already reviewed it here. It’s not great but for fans of this film, it is still a fun experience.

The Shining is a perfect motion picture. Some people take issue with the way Kubrick handled certain parts of it. Some people also think that it is lacking in substance. It really isn’t something that should be compared to King’s style or other haunted house stories. It is as unique as Stanley Kubrick was. It is the most terrifying tale that the auteur director has ever crafted and horror films like this just don’t exist anywhere else.

Film Review: The Fog (1980)

Release Date: February 1st, 1980
Directed by: John Carpenter
Written by: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Music by: John Carpenter
Cast: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, John Houseman, Janet Leigh, Hal Holbrook, Nancy Loomis, Charles Cyphers

Debra Hill Productions, AVCO Embassy Pictures, 89 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t know what happened to Antonio Bay tonight. Something came out of the fog and tried to destroy us. In one moment, it vanished. But if this has been anything but a nightmare, and if we don’t wake up to find ourselves safe in our beds, it could come again. To the ships at sea who can hear my voice, look across the water, into the darkness. Look for the fog.” – Stevie Wayne

I was never a huge fan of The Fog but for some reason, I like this film a lot more now. I did enjoy it when I was younger but it wasn’t something I felt the need to revisit as often as the typical slasher films of the day. This has slasher elements to it but it certainly is not a clone of HalloweenFriday the 13th or anything else similar.

This is a quintessential John Carpenter flick. It also stars just about all of his top dogs except Kurt Russell and Donald Pleasence. You do have Adrienne Barbeau, in what is my favorite role of hers, as well as Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins and Carpenter regulars Charles Cyphers and Nancy Loomis. The cast also boasts Hal Holbrook, who starred with Barbeau two years later in Creepshow. We also get to see Janet Leigh, Curtis’ real mother who is most remembered for Psycho.

The threat in this film is a mysterious fog that rolls into a small coastal California town. The fog carries some swashbuckling zombies that want their gold back. The nautical zombies don’t actually swashbuckle, instead they use their blades like a slasher would.

Barbeau plays a single mother who owns a lighthouse where she broadcasts over the radio. From atop the town, she can see the fog rolling in and tries to give the town a play-by-play on what is happening but ultimately, the ghosts come to haunt her as well.

I like this film a lot and I think it is underrated, even if it did get a crappy remake in 2005.

Unfortunately, the swashbuckling ghost zombies aren’t the most unsettling thing about the picture. Something about the Tom Atkins and Jamie Lee Curtis hookup was just bothersome to me. I like both actors but when this was made Curtis was 21 while Atkins was 44. As a 38 year-old man, I can’t even talk to a 25 year-old girl and find anything in common with her, just sayin’.

The Fog is a solid movie. It also has one of the best scores that John Carpenter has ever produced. It uses its fog and lighting effects perfectly and the monsters are damn cool.

Film Review: Shogun Assassin (1980)

Also known as: Kozure Ōkami (Japan)
Release Date: November 11th, 1980 (United States)
Directed by: Robert Houston
Written by: Robert Houston, David Weisman
Based on: Lone Wolf and Cub film series
Music by: W. Michael Lewis, Mark Lindsay
Cast: Tomisaburo Wakayama, Kayo Mautso, Akiji Kobayashi

New World Pictures, 90 Minutes

Review:

“They will pay… with rivers of blood!” – Ogami Itto

For fans of Wu-Tang Clan, especially of the Genius/Gza’s Liquid Swords album, will recognize a lot of the dialogue and narration from this film. Also, it appeared in Kill Bill vol. 2 and quite obviously had an influence on the Kill Bill films, as the sword cuts causing geysers of blood to burst out of people was borrowed by Quentin Tarantino in those movies.

Shogun Assassin is actually a re-edit of two of the Lone Wolf and Cub series of films from Japan. This film uses twelve minutes from the first film and then is fleshed out with the majority of the scenes from the second picture. With both those films coming out in 1972, this film does look visually dated for 1980, when it was released.

This film was directed by Robert Houston with creative input from his partner David Weisman. Weisman was the director of 1972’s Ciao! Manhattan and was a protege of Andy Warhol.

Additionally, the film’s star Tomisaburo Wakayama is the brother of Shintaro Katsu, who was known for playing the famous cinematic samurai Zatoichi over the course of twenty-six films.

Needless to say, this film had some interesting origins and connections.

The plot is pretty simple. The main character Ogami Ittō is the Shogunate Decapitator. He fears nothing, not even the shogun. The shogun fears him however and sends ninjas to kill him. The ninjas kill his wife and Ittō cuts them down. He then travels Japan on foot pushing his toddler son around in a carriage. Almost every five minutes they are ambushed by ninjas. Throughout the movie, anyone they encounter could be a ninja in disguise waiting to strike. There is a constant tension throughout the film and it is primarily made up of battles and action sequences.

Shogun Assassin is violent and bad ass. However, I may be in the minority here, as it doesn’t have much of a long lasting effect and after a few encounters, the over the top violence runs its course and isn’t as effective. Blood geysers and limbs flying everywhere is pretty much guaranteed every time our hero crosses another human being in his path.

I like Shogun Assassin but it has never been a film I’ve been in love with. I would, however, like to see the Lone Wolf and Cub movies in their original context in order to compare them to this.