Monthly Archives: August 2021

A Most Underrated Year: Revisiting the Films of 1981 (May)

Friday the 13th Part II (5/1/81)
The Four Seasons (5/22/81)
Bustin’ Loose (5/22/81)
Outland (5/22/81)
Death Hunt (5/22/81)
Polyester (5/29/81)

May 1981 could be considered the month that the so called “sure things” ended up surely disappointing. Star driven films, acclaimed directors and timeless characters failed to live up to critical and box office expectations, but a couple of those under performing films might still be worth a look forty years later. And the releases that were notable in May 1981 included a horror sequel, two comedies, an adventure drama with two iconic leading men, an outrageous cult classic and an understated sci-fi film with a classic Western feel.

The less memorable films released in May 1981 included director Ed Bianchi’s The Fan (May 15) starring Lauren Bacall as a famous actress (Sally Ross) stalked by a delusional fan (Douglas Breen) played by Michael Biehn. The film vacillates between a dramatic thriller and a graphic slasher film but misses the mark on both with a muddled, bloated script that wasted the cast’s talent, and a heavy handed score that too often overstates the dramatic tension. It was unable to recoup its $9 million budget with a meager $3 million box office return. Happy Birthday to Me (May 15) is what you would expect of an early 80’s horror film, but accomplished director J. Lee Thompson (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear) elevates it from the typical slasher film with production value that exceeds most of the other horror films of 1981. But the story is overdone and the large cast of soon to be victims adds scenes that ultimately slow the pace of the film. It more than doubled its budget with a $10.6 million box office, but earned mostly negative reviews. The Burning (May 8) has three slasher tropes in the first ten minutes: a sleepaway camp, a prank gone wrong against an innocent person who, now horribly disfigured, will take his revenge out on the camp. Lower budget films have better production value than what The Burning put on the screen for its $1.5 million budget (what looks like stock footage of lightning at the 13 minute mark was especially out of place). And with a mediocre script for a derivative story, there’s little of note save for the opportunity to see the film debuts of Jason Alexander and and Holly Hunter.

Continuing our look back on the films that didn’t quite hit the mark in May 1981, director Noel Nosseck’s street racing drama King of the Mountain (May 1) starring Harry Hamlin and Dennis Hopper is one of the more frustrating examples. Despite Nosseck’s expertly crafted racing sequences with solid cinematography by Donald Peterman (Flashdance, Point Break, Men in Black) and editing by William Steinkamp (Against All Odds, Out of Africa, Scent of a Woman), King of the Mountain is weakened by unnecessary, one-dimensional, cliché characters and a script that veers off course by taking up too much time on the non-racing elements of the story. Ironically, the supporting characters are given more to work with in the script than star Harry Hamlin who plays Steve, an unambitious mechanic who puts his life on the line and his money where his mouth is as the top street racer on Mulholland Drive. While it likely wouldn’t have spawned a franchise, King of the Mountain could have been a breakthrough film in the early 80’s for the then cinematically underrepresented subject of illegal street racing.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (May 22) was expected to be one of Summer 1981’s tentpole releases, but ended up as May’s critical and financial bomb. Negative publicity from the copyright owner’s lawsuit against 1950’s Lone Ranger star Clayton Moore combined with first time leading man Klinton Spilsbury’s difficult behavior on set led to PR and production demons before the film’s release. Despite opening in over 1,000 theaters, legendary cinematographer but first-time director William Fraker’s The Legend of the Lone Ranger earned $12 million against its $18 million budget and was outgrossed by notable films The Four Seasons, Bustin’ Loose and Outland in a crowded May 22nd weekend. Revisiting it forty years later, the slow pace, underwhelming story and Spilsbury’s uninspiring and unconvincing performance (his lines would be dubbed in post production by actor James Keach) as one of the 20th Century’s iconic heroes doomed The Legend of the Lone Ranger to obscurity. But the 1981 action figures by Gabriel are collectors items, with mint-in-box figures selling on eBay in some cases for upwards of $100 each.

Turning to May 1981’s notable films, Steve Miner’s directorial debut Friday the 13th Part II (May 1) was released one year after the immensely successful original film, earning over $6 million its opening weekend although its cumulative box office gross of $21 million was a less-than-stellar one-third of the original’s box office. Five years after the events of 1980’s Friday the 13th, new counselors in training at Camp Crystal Lake are terrorized and murdered by the subject of their ghost stories: Jason Voorhees. Despite Part II (and subsequent films) directly tying to the plot of the first Friday the 13th, the subsequent box office drop after a strong opening weekend could be a reflection of the sequel not meeting the expectations set by the classic original. But despite Friday the 13th Part II’s inability to match the first film’s cumulative box office and fan enthusiasm, it’s still notable for continuing the lucrative film series and marking the debut of the iconic Jason Voorhees that would be the (hockey masked) face of the franchise.

Death Hunt (May 22) is a film that I feel deserves a second look forty years after its initial run. Directed by Peter Hunt (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), Death Hunt is a fictionalized account of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s pursuit of a solitary trapper in the Yukon Territory of 1931. Charles Bronson plays Albert Johnson, a trapper who runs afoul of a group of toughs led by Hazel (Ed Lauter). When they approach Johnson’s cabin for retribution, he kills one of them in defense. But Hazel and the gang’s discovery of Johnson’s cache of ammunition leads them to report him to the RCMP as the region’s reputed serial killer and the murderer of one of their gang. Sergeant Millen (Lee Marvin) is tasked with questioning him, but things quickly devolve and a manhunt is underway. Death Hunt recouped only half of its budget with a $5 million cumulative gross. But despite the lackluster reviews and box office, I would consider this film a must see simply for its two old school, tough as nails stars Bronson and Marvin playing opposite each other.

Bustin’ Loose (May 22) starring the great Richard Pryor had the highest opening box office in May 1981 ($6.6 million in 828 US theaters) and a cumulative gross of $31 million. Pryor plays professional thief Joe Braxton, who is spared jail time for a parole violation but is tasked by Vivian Perry (Cicely Tyson) to drive her school’s special needs students cross country from Philadelphia to Washington state in a broken down school bus. Her fiance, Joe’s parole officer Donald (Robert Christian), is against Vivian’s move and threatens Joe with jail time if he isn’t back by a specified date. Joe isn’t exactly good with kids and lets them know he’s not going to take any grief from them, but quickly realizes they’re tougher than they look. The kids are victims of emotional trauma that Vivian selflessly tries to heal, and Joe finds himself emotionally drafted into looking out for their physical safety and emotional well being. Overall Bustin’ Loose is a slightly below average comedy from Pryor compared to 1977’s Which Way is Up? (a remake of Lina Wertmuller’s classic Italian film The Seduction of Mimi) and his classic collaborations with Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976) and Stir Crazy (1980). While the story capitalizes on Pryor and Tyson’s on screen chemistry, at times it plays more like a sitcom than feature film and can’t find the right balance between edgy and heartwarming. Even though Bustin’ Loose may not hold up as well forty years later, it’s notable for its success during it’s initial theatrical run and Pryor’s performance.

Outland (May 22), written and directed by Peter Hyams (2010: The Year We Make Contact, Running Scared, Timecop), is a science fiction film (along with Blade Runner) with a premise grounded in Earth’s contemporary problems represented in a futuristic interplanetary setting. Outland deals with corporate exploitation of resources and a drug dealing operation on a mining colony located on Jupiter’s moon Io. Outland has consistently been referred to as a western in space, drawing comparisons to the classic western film High Noon starring Gary Cooper. Sean Connery plays William T. O’Niel, newly assigned marshal to the Con-Amalgamate mining colony, who uncovers a less than secret drug operation for an amphetamine that is killing miners. When it becomes clear to the general manager Mark Sheppard (Peter Boyle) that O’Neil won’t compromise his integrity and give in to their persuasion to turn a blind eye, a target is placed on his back and the clock counts down to the shuttle arriving with the hit men hired to kill him. But as Outland’s movie poster shows, O’Niel is ready for the fight. There’s something awesome about seeing a shotgun fight in space, especially when it’s Sean Connery as the lawman fighting for his life.

John Waters’ Polyester (May 29) is a campy comedy that spoofs suburban family life with more than a few jabs at the so called moral righteousness of the era. Divine plays Francine Fishpaw, a suburban housewife and matriarch of a dysfunctional family that endures community protests for owning the town’s adult theater. As the “normal” one of the family trying to keep it together, Francine is pushed over the edge by her cheating husband and delinquent kids in an equal opportunity offender that parodies wholesome suburban dramas and informational films of the 1950’s. It’s more polished than Waters’ 1972 cult classic Pink Flamingos, and filled with Waters’ notable wit, outrageous characters and purposely over the top acting. Waters’ script and direction allows the audience to lower its guard, revel in the campy story and acting, and truly appreciate Polyester for what it is…whatever that is. And who could forget Polyester’s olfactory gimmick of Odorama?

The Four Seasons

Release Date: May 22, 1981
Starring Alan Alda, Carol Burnett, Rita Moreno, Jack Weston, Len Cariou, Sandy Dennis and Bess Armstrong
Written and Directed by Alan Alda, Cinematography by Victor J. Kemper, Edited by Michael Economou

The Four Seasons, written and directed by Alan Alda, had the second highest opening weekend in May 1981 behind Richard Pryor’s Bustin’ Loose. It ultimately grossed over $50 million against its $6.5 million budget to place it in the top ten of that year’s box office, but what makes The Four Seasons’ cumulative box office gross more impressive isthe fact it only played in 623 theaters. By 1981 Alda was well known for his starring roles in the TV series M*A*S*H (he also directed 32 episodes) and the films Paper Lion (1968), Same Time Next Year (1978) and The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), but his film directorial debut of his screenplay for The Four Seasons showcased his ability to craft an expertly balanced comedy and capitalize on the talents of an accomplished cast. The chemistry in their performances brings a realism to their on screen friendships that is grounded in the emotional ebbs and flows of marriage, middle age and friendship.

The film begins in springtime as three couples, best friends, hop in a car for a trip outside New York City to a country house for a weekend of cooking, drinking and laughter to the score of Antonio Vivaldi’s Spring concerto. Jack (Alan Alda) is a lawyer married to magazine editor Kate (Carol Burnett); Danny (Jack Weston) is an dentist and culinary expert married to artist Claudia (Rita Moreno); and insurance salesman Nick (Len Cariou) is married to homemaker and novice photographer Anne (Sandy Dennis). None of them can pinpoint the moment that brought them together as friends, but their appreciation for each other is evident in Jack’s toast to their friendship, and their needling his need to accent every moment with his words. After an afternoon of one too many drinks and an impromptu fully clothed jump in a lake, Nick opens up to Jack about his unhappy and uninspiring marriage to Anne. In spite of Jack’s advice to seek counseling, he will ask her for a divorce. Nick’s desire for emotional support takes a hit when Jack doesn’t validate his feelings, but instead considers Anne’s well being over Nick’s.

By summer, they’re boating in the Caribbean on Jack and Kate’s new sailboat, but the dynamic has an uncomfortable air with Anne’s “replacement” by Nick’s new (and young) girlfriend Ginny (Bess Armstrong), who brings Nick the excitement he’s been craving. Her genuine pleasantness can’t help but confuse Jack, Kate, Danny and Claudia’s feelings towards her and their guilt over Anne. On one hand they’re skeptical of Nick’s attempt at a new life (with a tinge with envy over his and Ginny’s sex life), but on the other they really have nothing to dislike Ginny for. They understand and empathize with the need to keep things alive in a marriage, and as a group accept Nick’s new path. But by the time Autumn comes around, Ginny’s new place in their friendship takes a hit when they travel to a college Parents Day to see Nick’s daughter and Jack and Kate’s daughter and encounter Anne. She puts on a brave face around the “friends” that cut her out of their lives, lives that were more intent on keeping the group’s good times going rather than being there emotionally for a friend in need. Claudia and Kate open up to Anne and admit it was wrong and unfair of them, but promise to see her more and help with her career.

No spoilers here. Each season brings new challenges to the dynamic of the group’s friendship, and a greater awareness of their personal emotional states. The Four Seasons has a great script and direction by Alda with cinematography by Victor J. Kemper (Dog Day Afternoon, And Justice for All, National Lampoon’s Vacation) and editing by Michael Economou. Alda’s cast of actors are so in tune with their characters and in sync in their scenes they have no problem convincing an audience of their friendship, even when that friendship doesn’t keep up with their own personal progressions in life. Each character is given their “moment” in the film to vent their frustrations with life, marriage and sometimes each other, which makes The Four Seasons feel a little too “talky” at times. But Alda’s script keeps the audience engaged, maybe because as we get older we recognize some of the less comfortable conversations and situations represented in the film. The Four Seasons reminds us that friendships can fade over time, but the ones that endure do so because true friends can drive each other crazy and still stick by each other at the end of the day.

Next Up: Fante’s Inferno continues its retrospective with the films of June 1981, the month that started the first (and possibly the best) summer movie season.

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