Fante’s Inferno now has a YouTube channel and my first video has published!
Episode 1 will post this week. Please check it out and subscribe!
Fante’s Inferno now has a YouTube channel and my first video has published!
Episode 1 will post this week. Please check it out and subscribe!
Release Date: September 25, 1981
Starring: Keith Carradine, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, T.K. Carter, Franklyn Seales, Lewis Smith, Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown), Les Lannom, Brion James, Peter Coyote
Written by: Michael Kane, Walter Hill, David Giler
Directed by: Walter Hill
I love rediscovering an obscure film from the 80’s that still hits on all cylinders decades later. When my family first got cable TV in 1981 it gave me exposure to quality (and some not so quality) films that I normally would not have been introduced to at our local cinemas. Southern Comfort, directed by Walter Hill, is one of those great films that was easy to find on cable TV back then but became harder to find over the years. With the film’s recent availability on Amazon Prime, it was time to revisit it.
Walter Hill is best known for The Warriors and 48 Hours, but his impressive list of films includes hard hitting dramas (Hard Times, The Driver), a beloved comedy (Brewster’s Millions), an action film (Red Heat) and less conventional dramas like the neo-noir Streets of Fire and blues themed Faustian tale Crossroads. But the 1981 drama/thriller Southern Comfort is a solid film that inexplicably slipped through the cracks over time despite an engaging story and great cast.
The film begins in 1973 Louisiana. Army National Guardsmen are on maneuvers in the bayou. Captain Poole (played by Peter Coyote) assembles a squad of eight men for a standard recon mission. Their morale is apathetic at best and it doesn’t get any better with arrival of Hardin (played by Powers Boothe), a transfer from Texas who wants to put in his time and get home to his wife. Stuckey (played by Lewis Smith) tries to lighten the mood by firing blank rounds from his machine gun at Poole’s second-in-command Sergeant Casper (played by Les Lannom), which shows the amount of respect they have for him (and also makes a viewer wonder why the surrounding troops didn’t respond to it as a threat – my one caveat with the film). Spencer (Keith Carradine) boosts the men’s motivation when he tells them he has hired several prostitutes to wait for them at a rendezvous point at the end of their recon mission.
Several hours into the recon mission Captain Poole realizes their course has been blocked by a river that rose with the winter rains. Their choice is to continue forward to find their rendezvous point or backtrack to base and start the recon all over again. At a trapping post, faced with a river they are unable to cross and the entertainment waiting for them at their eventual rendezvous point, they “requisition” three canoes from local trappers who aren’t around to give permission. At the suggestion of straight laced high school coach Bowden (played by Alan Autry but credited as Carlos Brown), the squad leaves one canoe behind with a note explaining where they will find the other canoes. But despite the soldiers’ best intentions the trappers are not happy with a group of outsiders interfering with their property.
The group is halfway across the river when the French speaking Cajun trappers angrily make their presence known. Reece (played by Fred Ward) manages to get a few rude words out in French. Poole attempts to explain they’ll get their canoes back, but the situation spirals out of control when joker Stuckey fires a couple of dozen blank rounds at them. The trappers, unaware they are blanks, return fire and shoot Poole in the head, killing him. Leaderless and lost, the guardsmen now need to survive in unfamiliar territory without live ammunition.
Fear and infighting within the group set in. Spencer reveals that Reese has his own box of live ammunition. Casper orders him to turn it over to distribute among the squad but Reese is more than willing to give Casper a bullet to the head to keep his stash. Hardin sneaks up behind Reese with a knife to his throat and the bullets are turned over. Casper does his best to keep order and lead the squad, but despite his experience and knowledge of military procedure, he’s unable to command the respect of the men.
The next day they find the trappers cabin and capture the only inhabitant, a one-armed trapper (Brion James). But the group has different ideas as to how their new prisoner should be treated. After Simms (played by Franklyn Seales) cracks him across the jaw he’s unwilling to talk. Bowden’s composure erodes and he’s hellbent on payback. Oblivious to the supplies they could have collected, he sets the trapper’s cabin on fire and nearly kills all of them when a storage of dynamite goes off. With even less live ammunition they continue through the bayou dragging both a prisoner and Poole’s lifeless body. They can’t find the highway and they take it as a morbid sign when they encounter eight dead rabbits (one for each of them) hanging in their path.
Without a compass, Spencer and Casper disagree over which direction to go. As they attempt to get their bearings, a group of hunting dogs attack them with Stuckey and Cribbs (played by T.K. Carter) getting the worst of it. The squad is now the hunted, descending into fear, despair and paranoia with each deadly trap they encounter. When they’re not feeling the presence of their hunters, the squad begins to turn on itself. Bowden cracks and is tied up so as not to become a danger to himself and the squad. Reese tries his own methods of interrogation on their prisoner which leads to a knife-wielding showdown with Hardin. With no end to their ordeal in sight, Casper’s quoting of the manual finally turns the men against him and they follow Spencer.
No spoilers here. Walter Hill’s direction and cinematographer Andrew Laszlo’s photography of the bayou puts the audience right in the middle of the squad’s nightmare. It’s the portrayal of the “local’s” desire to protect their land and way of life that effectively brings out the growing fear and desperation of the guardsmen (a few shots are not for the squeamish). It’s too easy to compare Southern Comfort to the critically acclaimed Deliverance (unfortunately even the film’s poster is guilty of this), but Southern Comfort stands on its own as a powerful psychological drama that keeps the audience engaged to the very end.
Southern Comfort is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on Amazon. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support!
Release Date: April 1981
Starring: Lee Majors, Chris Makepeace, Burgess Meredith, Diane D’Aquila, George Touliatos, Ben Gordon, Alexandra Stewart
Directed by Martyn Burke; Written by C.R. O’Christopher, Roy Moore and Martyn Burke
I’ve always been a fan of dystopian films with classics like Blade Runner, Red Dawn, 12 Monkeys, Escape From New York, The Road Warrior and Children of Men topping my list of favorites. I’ve enjoyed many other examples of the genre over the years, but when Martyn Burke’s The Last Chase fell on to my cinematic radar recently, my faint memories of this 1981 film may have pre-qualified it for the “guilty pleasure” category. I’d been a fan of Lee Majors since The Six Million Dollar Man aired on TV in the 70’s, and I remember enjoying The Last Chase enough to watch it repeatedly back when it was in heavy rotation on cable TV, but I knew going into this latest screening that my memory of the film may not live up to the reality of how it would hold up 35 years later. So I went into The Last Chase for a fun ride and a little nostalgia but surprisingly, despite the film’s age and several dated elements, I found the film very engaging today.
The film begins with a Porsche race car pulling up to a racetrack, out of gas. Former racer Frank Hart (Lee Majors) tries to fill up his car, but the pumps are locked. The track is abandoned save for Fetch, an old track employee, who tells Hart there’s no more gas to be had and other basic supplies are starting to run low. Hart breaks open the pump, siphons out what little gas he can get for his station wagon and tows his racer home, the only driver on the empty highway. All cars have been made illegal and had to be turned into the government a week earlier. But Hart is in no hurry to obey any orders.
Harts career ended in the 80’s after losing control in a race that led to a fatal accident between two fellow drivers. An epidemic from an unknown source struck the U.S. and Hart’s wife and son succumbed. Field hospitals are overcrowded, oil supplies have been cut off, and Martial Law is in effect to control a population still suffering from the epidemic. But as Hart says in his opening monologue, “those of us that survived learned to cope with changes.”
Twenty years later Hart works as a spokesman pushing propaganda for the mass transit authority of now auto-less Boston, living a quiet life among the obedient workers in a totalitarian system that runs counter to his personal nature and the America he knew. He’s been surveilled by the government for his difficulty adjusting to the new system and is brought in for questioning by local authorities. His non-conformist attitude doesn’t earn him any points with high level bureaucrat Santana (played by Diane D’Aquila) who doesn’t have patience for a free spirit stuck in the old days. His scavenging car parts from confiscation yards and several accrued offenses makes him automatically scheduled for a hearing and possible sentence to a rehabilitation center, the system’s new name for prison. When faced with this threat, Hart coolly replies, “Lady, you’ve too goddamn many laws.”
Adding to Santana’s frustrations, her department’s computer system is hacked by prep school student Ring (played by Chris Makepeace). Ring is also an outsider that has trouble conforming to the social hierarchy of his school. He is ostracized and bullied by his fellow students but gets even by using his expertise in chemistry to set off homemade explosives on campus. When he’s not causing mayhem on campus, he sneaks away to a computer he has hidden in the attic of his dorm to hack into the government grid.
Back home, as Hart replays the video of his racing accident just to see a clip of his late wife, a broadcast from Radio Free California (an independent “free” territory) breaks into the TV feed, telling citizens that the residents of California have “returned to the land” and to their machines to escape from the oppressive regime that now controls America. This inspires Hart to break out the race car that’s been buried in pieces under his garage, working at the transportation authority by day and assembling it at night with one week to go before his trial.
Fed up with the propaganda he’s been forced to feed young audiences (“like a reformed sinner preaching to the congregation”) and the system that put him there, Hart turns tide during a speech to a group of prep school students and extols the virtues of cars, freedom and private ownership. His impromptu speech catches the attention of Ring, who sends Hart a direct message to his home that he is not alone. Hart is subsequently suspended from his position at the transportation authority with jail time very likely for his offense.
That night, as Hart looks over an old road atlas in his home, he catches Ring breaking in. When the police show up moments later, Hart assumes it’s to arrest him for his imminent trial, but they’re actually trying to track down the runaway Ring, who’s third attempt at hacking Santana’s department computer was traced back to his boarding school. Hart covers for Ring and the police leave, but he makes a critical error when he benignly tells the officers he was waiting for his family to come home. When Santana reviews the police report moments later, she catches this irregularity and orders the police back to Hart’s home to arrest him.
With the police pounding on his door, Hart fires up the racer to hit the road to Free California, but Ring jammed the garage door opener to strong arm Hart into taking him along. Desperate to get out before the police can stop him, Hart agrees to let Ring join him on the escape. The police set up a barricade blocking Hart’s route on the outskirts of Boston, but he outflanks them by taking a long unused hidden tunnel out of the city and the police golf carts can’t catch him.
Word of Hart’s escape in an illegal race car quickly reaches Washington, and Hawkins (played by George Touliatos) is dispatched to oversee how Santana’s bureau handles his capture. Calm and collected with an eerie confidence, Hawkins draws on his old school experience and quickly begins calling the shots over the unprepared Santana. She naively believes that they will easily capture Hart once the car runs out of gas. But Hawkins politely explains that the car will not run out of gas because all old gas stations have underground tanks in which there are two to three inches of gasoline the internal pumps could not reach. With a special pump (which was established in the opening scene of the film) Hart would be able to siphon enough gas for the 3000 mile race to California.
Hawkins tasks Santana’s assistant Morely (played by Ben Gordon) with tracking down former Korean and Vietnam War jet pilot J.G. Williams to convince him to fly again in an attempt at neutralizing Hart. Morely finds Williams (played by Burgess Meredith) in a modest apartment divorced, depressed and drinking. A former highly decorated Air Force pilot still stinging from the abuse he received upon his return from Vietnam, Williams’ skepticism is heightened with the words “Your government needs you.” But Morely’s offer to have him fly a jet fighter again makes him put down his whiskey bottle and return to active duty for the first time in over forty years. After restoring an old F-86 jet fighter, Williams takes to the skies and the chase is on.
No spoilers here. I revisited The Last Chase as a result of the faint memory of watching it several times on cable TV around 1982-1983. There was nothing specific to the film or its message that drew me to it recently, just simple curiosity. The film’s message of “eco-totalitarianism” and the loss of individual freedom was lost on me back then, it was simply a chase film to me. While some might judge the film today as ham-fisted propaganda (its message would resonate loudly today with a Libertarian audience), as a dystopian film it works to solid effect. The computers were crude by today’s standards, but they were used to good enough effect in the film because the idea behind what they were capable of (local police camera surveillance, satellite surveillance) are more believable today vs. 1981 because of the extent to which we now have surveillance technology in use. Ironically, even with the dated representation of Santana’s surveillance system, today’s audience would be more accepting of this story element.
Lee Majors vs. Burgess Meredith. Race car vs. jet fighter. Liberty vs. totalitarianism. I’m glad I rediscovered The Last Chase. The film’s opening scenes are a little clunky, especially with the unnecessary voice over, and there are a couple of scenes where a fair amount of suspension of disbelief is necessary. But 35 years later I still enjoyed the film and have a greater appreciation for the story and the cast (Diane D’Aquila and George Touliatos are particularly good). It’s easy to unfairly judge the film on some of the more dated elements, but overall The Last Chase is a fun ride.
With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 25th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.
The combat film has always been one of my favorite cinematic genres, with Peter Weir’s Gallipoli, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One, and of course Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan ranking highly among my all time favorite films. Memorial Day Weekend in my home also includes a screening of the amazing Band of Brothers.
Every year I check the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for the best military themed films and documentaries to watch over the holiday weekend. As always, Turner Classic Movies has several classics in their lineup this weekend. Amazon Instant Video has an elaborate selection, but unfortunately few of those titles are available on Amazon Prime (though you can never go wrong with Band of Brothers, The Civil War, and Patton). Netflix doesn’t have as many feature film options as Amazon Instant Video, but has a good selection of documentaries. Here are some highlights:
On Turner Classic Movies (all times Eastern):
6:00 AM – Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
5:30 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – Glory (1989)
12:45 AM – The Horse Soldiers (1959)
6:00 AM – Sahara (1943)
12:00 PM – The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)
2:00 PM – Bataan (1943)
6:00 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)
6:45 AM – The Green Berets (1968)
8:00 PM – Battleground (1949)
10:15 PM – Patton (1970)
The Longest Day (1962)
Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)
The Civil War (1990)
The First World War From Above (2010)
Vietnam in HD (2011)
Amazon Instant Video:
Band of Brothers (2001)*
The Pacific (2010)*
Medal of Honor (2008)*
The War: A Ken Burns Film (2007)*
The Civil War (1990)*
American Sniper (2014)
Lone Survivor (2013)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
All Quiet On the Western Front (1930)
Sergeant York (1941)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
The Big Red One (1980)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Great Escape (1963)
The Longest Day (1962)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
The Green Berets (1968)
The Steel Helmet (1951)
* = Available on Amazon Prime
Release Date: December 6, 1985
Starring: John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca DeMornay, John P. Ryan, Kenneth McMillan, T.K. Carter, Kyle T. Heffner
Directed by Andrey Konchalovskiey; Screenplay by Djordje Milicevic, Paul Zindel and Edward Bunker based on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa
Some movies are meant to be watched during the winter months. John Carpenter’s classic 1982 horror film The Thing is the first one that comes to mind. And with a snowstorm working its way through New York last night, I was looking for a film that suited my environment. One that stuck out on Netflix was the 1985 drama Runaway Train starring Jon Voight (Midnight Cowboy, Coming Home), Eric Roberts (Star 80, The Pope of Greenwich Village) and Rebecca DeMornay (Risky Business, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle). Here’s a film that I vividly remember not seeing when it was released in theaters and subsequently on cable back in the 80’s. I still don’t understand why I let this movie slip through the cracks since it had the elements of a hard hitting drama and a solid cast that would have been more than enough to get me to screen it at least once back then. Luckily for me it’s currently available on both Netflix and Amazon Prime, so better late than never.
The story begins at Alaska’s maximum security Stonehaven Prison, where according to assistant warden Ranken (played by John P. Ryan) the average sentence is 22 years. Ranken has a particularly sadistic streak for hardened inmate Manny Manheim (Voight), keeping him welded shut in his cell for three years after several previous escape attempts. When Ranken is ordered by a Federal court to allow him out of his cell, Manny makes the most of the opportunity and plans a new escape with his brother Jonah. Ranken fully expects Manny to make another attempt over the wall, and welcomes the opportunity so he can finally take Manny out permanently. During a prison boxing match, an inmate attacks Manny with a knife as Ranken stands in the rafters with a guard ready to shoot, but Manny sees through his game and eggs Ranken on to take his best shot. Jonah is injured defending Manny and ends up in the prison hospital, unable to make the escape.
Fellow inmate and former boxer Buck McGeehy (Eric Roberts) helps Manny slip by the guards by hiding him in a laundry cart, and decides to join Manny in his escape. From the outset, the older, wiser Manny has to deal with the raw, impulsive Buck. They work their way out the prison through the sewer, but it’s the dead of winter and they have to run several miles to a rail depot in order to hop a train to freedom. While raiding an employee locker room for warmer clothes, Buck leaves his prison shirt (with inmate number) behind. While this oversight is more than enough to get Ranken on their tails, they have another twist of fate in store for them. Manny picks the best looking train of the lot, and they hop on to the rear car to hide. But as the train departs, the conductor suffers a fatal heart attack, leaving Manny and Buck completely unaware they are on a death ride.
The railroad company’s dispatch office is notified of the runaway train and dispatchers Frank Barstow (Kyle T. Heffner) and Dave Prince (T.K. Carter) attempt to stop the train through their computer system. But the brakes have burned off and the train, which has just collided with the caboose of an oncoming train, is accelerating toward a chemical plant. They are ordered by company representative Eddie McDonald (played by Kenneth McMillan) to derail the train, unaware that anyone is on board. As the train approaches the derailment point, someone on board sounds the horn and the company is forced to get the train back on the main railroad line. Sara (Rebecca deMornay), a railroad employee, was napping on the train and woke up to realize the conductor had overridden the brake system and they are on course for a collision. But danger also lurks behind them as Ranken is hot on Manny and Buck’s trail.
No spoilers here. This is a great movie and deserved the acclaim it received, particularly the Academy Award nominations for Voight (Best Actor) and Roberts (Best Supporting Actor). Voight brings out his inner Charles Bronson as Manny, and the dynamic between his character and Roberts’ Buck is the glue that binds the action sequences so the film isn’t just a non-stop adrenaline rush. Manny not only keeps Buck in check from the moment they escape Stonehaven, but also tries to beat some sense into him so he doesn’t get caught later on down the road. This monologue is the perfect example of the generation gap between them:
The supporting cast also makes the film more than an action movie. Kenneth McMillan (Ragtime, The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of my favorite character actors of all time, is fun to watch as the stressed out company representative Eddie MacDonald; Rebecca DeMornay’s character Sara is a departure from her more famous roles in Risky Business and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and holds her own against two escaped convicts; but John P. Ryan’s performance as Ranken stole the movie and added a hunter/hunted dynamic to the story that reminds the audience of the danger that is waiting for Manny and Buck even if they make it off the train alive. Concidentally, the scenes of Ranken giving chase reminded me of the character Kraven the Hunter from The Amazing Spider-Man comic books.
I definitely won’t let another 30 years go by before enjoying Runaway Train again, and will include it on my list of winter films going forward.
Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer moviegoing with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.
Release Date: August 10, 1984
Starring Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Powers Booth, Harry Dean Stanton, Charlie Sheen, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey, Darren Dalton, Brad Savage, Doug Toby
Directed by John Milius; Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius
John Milius’ 1984 action/war drama Red Dawn is a movie that I’ve enjoyed on many occasions since I first saw it on cable TV back in the mid-80’s. I was too young to see it during its theatrical release, and I was probably more interested in the non-action films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom that wonderful summer. Despite missing it in theaters back in 1984, Red Dawn is one of those films that I stop and watch every time I come across it on TV regardless of how far into the movie it is. Each screening leads to a new discovery for me, whether it’s the impact from a line of dialogue, a nuance of a performance or a hidden gag by director John Milius. Many scenes in Red Dawn still stand out for me as some of my cinematic favorites, and the film ranks very high on my personal list of favorite war films.
It’s an peaceful small town morning in Calumet, Colorado. Jed Eckert (Patrick Swayze) drops off his brother Matt (Charlie Sheen in his first film role) and friend Arturo (Doug Toby) at the local high school before heading off to his job at the town gas station. History teacher Mr. Teasdale (Frank MacRae) gives a lecture on Genghis Khan (complete with a drawing of the Mongol overlord that is actually a caricature of director John Milius – a nod to his passion project to produce and direct a film on Genghis Khan), but his lesson is interrupted when paratroopers mysteriously drop in behind the school. No sooner than he steps out of the building to find out what is going on, he is shot by a Russian soldier and it’s clear to everyone that Calumet is under attack. Bullets rain on the school and RPGs blow up a school bus as the students try to escape. Jed’s truck roars into the school parking lot and grabs Matt, Arturo and three other students Robert (C. Thomas Howell), Danny (Brad Savage) and Daryl (Darren Dalton) as the Soviet and Cuban armies take over the town. They drive to Robert’s father’s sporting goods store and stock up on food, guns and supplies before hiding out in the mountains.
Their plan is to hold out in the mountains until it’s safe to return to Calumet. After a month, the boys are low on food and have to take the risk of going back into town. They walk through the aftermath of an American defeat and realize how desperate the situation has become. Soviet tanks roam the streets, martial law has been imposed, books are burned, and Alexander Nevsky plays in the local cinema (with free admission). They learn that Jed’s father and many other men of Calumet have been deemed too dangerous and have been sent to a re-education camp located at the town drive in where they are beaten and bombarded with Soviet propaganda.
On their way back to the mountains they stop at the home of Mr. Mason (played by Ben Johnson) and learn that Calumet is now part of Occupied Territory and that Robert’s father was killed for aiding them. He gives them a radio and asks Jed to take his granddaughters Erika (Lea Thompson) and Toni (Jennifer Grey) with them. But their mountain hideout is soon exposed when they kill three soldiers that found them by accident. Cuban Colonel Bella (Ron O’Neal) steps up activity in the mountains and orders retaliation. The sight of their fathers death by firing squad forces the teenagers to take the offensive and use the invaders own weapons against them. They start a guerrilla war against the Soviet and Cuban occupiers, and with each small victory they let their enemy know who they are: the Wolverines. Downed Air Forced Lieutenant Colonel Tanner (in a great performance by Powers Booth) joins them and gets them up to speed on the state of the war:
Red Dawn shouldn’t be categorized as simply an action film. I’ve always seen it as a war drama with a solid script and carried by a strong cast. The action scenes are just as hard hitting today as they were 30 years ago, and the dramatic scenes are more emotionally powerful than I remembered from previous screenings, with Patrick Swayze’s performance standing out the most. Milius and Reynolds crafted a story that stresses the importance of family bonds, members of a community sticking together in challenging times, and fighting to persevere. Ric Waite’s cinematography captures the beauty of the heartland and the home the Wolverines are fighting for, and Basil Poledouris’ strong, emotionally uplifting score sets the tone throughout the film.
Over the last three decades, every screening of this film was always met with enthusiasm among me and my friends. But a recent screening of the fantastic documentary Milius opened my eyes to some of the harsh criticisms of Red Dawn upon its release, and the effect it subsequently had on director John Milius’ career. If anything, I have an even greater appreciation of Red Dawn and John Milius for bringing it to the screen. Sure some of his messages might be a little less than subtle and the viewer needs a certain amount of suspension of disbelief that a group of teenagers can take on the Soviet and Cuban armies. But at the end of the day, Red Dawn is a fun ride and a great “What If?” story of a dystopian America at the dawn of World War III.
Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie going with a look back at the films of the Summer of 1984.
Release Date: June 8, 1984
Directed by Ivan Reitman; Screenplay by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, Sigourney Weaver, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, William Atherton, Annie Potts
For the three years that I’ve been writing my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982, 1983 and now 1984, whether it’s the summer’s biggest blockbuster or one of the smaller hidden gems, there’s always been that one film in each year’s summer lineup that I look forward to reviewing the most. The Summer of ’84 had a very strong lineup of high grossing crowd pleasers (particularly Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins), but the film that stands out the most from that summer is Ivan Reitman’s classic supernatural comedy Ghostbusters.
When I first saw Ghostbusters on the Summer of ’84’s lineup, my first thought was “How the heck has it been thirty years?!” (a sentiment shared by many of my friends). It doesn’t feel like that much time has passed because countless screenings of Ghostbusters over the years have kept it fresh in my mind. I’ve seen the film more times than any other released during the Summer of ’84 and I still quote some of the more memorable lines (say “Don’t cross the streams” to anyone over 40 and they’ll immediately get the Ghostbusters reference).
The film begins with a librarian experiencing an encounter with a ghost in the New York Public Library. Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) drags Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) from his shady student research experiment to investigate the occurrence with Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis). They encounter the ghost first hand, and return to their office at Columbia University to find their equipment being removed and their funding cut off due to questionable research and dubious results. Confronted with the prospect of never working in academia again and having to find work in the private sector, Venkman proposes they strike out on their own and start a company dedicated to catching ghosts. Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) contacts the Ghostbusters when she opens her refrigerator and finds another dimension and a demonic dog. Smitten, Venkman takes a personal interest in her case. After a slow start, business picks up with a high level of paranormal activity in New York City, but they’re shut down by the EPA for unlicensed equipment and the ectoplasm hits the fan.
The last time I saw Ghostbusters was during the pre-CGI era and its effects were still pretty cutting edge. Going into this week’s screening I had to prepare myself that the effects of Ghostbusters, while amazing back in the 80’s, would look dated by today’s standards. Watching Ghostbusters again this week I realized my reservations were unfounded. The film is just as enjoyable today because it’s the story and the cast that make this movie great. The effects are secondary to Aykroyd and Ramis’s script, Reitman’s direction and a talented cast. Bill Murray is the anchor of the Ghostbusters as Dr. Peter Venkman but the rest of the cast doesn’t take the back seat, with each actor elevating the comedy by adding their own genius: the everyman quality of Dan Aykroyd’s Dr. Ray Stantz, the late, great Harold Ramis’ deadpan Dr. Igon Spengler, to the supporting characters played by Sigourney Weaver as the Ghostbusters client and Venkman’s love interest Dana Barrett, her dorky accountant neighbor Louis played by Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson as their newhire Winston Zeddmore, and William Atherton as the arrogant EPA bureaucrat Walter Peck.
I remember watching Ghostbusters in the theater back in June of 1984. It opened the same weekend as Joe Dante’s Gremlins, which is surprising considering even with that direct competition and their neck and neck battle for the weekend box office ($13.6 million for Ghostbusters to $12.5 million for Gremlins) Ghostbusters still grossed over $200 million as the top grossing film of the summer and the #2 grossing film of 1984. It’s easy to see why both films were favorites of my generation, they’re both fun movies that were perfect for summer. But in the long run I understand why Ghostbusters would prevail as the more popular film because it was more accessible to an adult audience, while Gremlins feels like more of a guilty pleasure.
I may have seen Gremlins in the theater first, but that didn’t take away from the enjoyment of watching Ghostbusters that wonderful summer. One thing I enjoyed the most when I revisited Ghostbusters this week was that I was able to pick up on a number of one-liners that would have been over my head at age 12. I also enjoyed the fact that for the first time since June 1984 I was able to see Ghostbusters as it was meant to be seen in letterbox format rather than the pan and scan version that was on cable TV and home video for over 20 years. I was able to overlook the dated special effects because despite the supernatural/paranormal aspect of the story, the movie wasn’t as heavy on the visual effects as I thought. Had the film been shot today (or rather, when the reboot is filmed in the next couple of years), CGI would have dominated the screen and at the end of the day would only look fake. In spite of CGI’s ability to create a whole world out of a green screen shot, in many cases it only ends up being a distraction rather than a seamless effect because it just doesn’t look “right.”
On that note I have to say it was quite refreshing to see New York City as it was in 1984. The establishing shot of New York Public Library at the beginning of the film is hidden by scaffolding because maintenance work was actually being done on the facade at that time. If shot today the scaffolding would have been magically removed by CGI and a majority of the cityscape would have been painted in. I loved just seeing New York as it was shot on a hard negative, particularly that every corner of Manhattan you saw in Ghostbusters wasn’t dominated by a bank, pharmacy or Starbucks.
I guess the main purpose of my revisiting Ghostbusters this week wasn’t to see if it still holds up 30 years later, because every screening of this classic comedy has been equally enjoyable for me over the years. What I really found myself thinking more than anything was the lost opportunity to get four comedic geniuses back together for a third installment of one of the great comedies of the 80’s. Murray, Ramis, Aykroyd and Reitman are at the top of their games for Ghostbusters, which makes the fact that they’ll never all be in Ghostbusters 3 all the more heartbreaking for fans of the first two. There’s been talk of Bridesmaids director Paul Feig in discussions for a reboot of Ghostbusters, possibly with an all female cast. As funny as that film might be, and as much money as it might gross, it wouldn’t provide the same sense of anticipation of a sequel or the nostalgia of the joy of watching the first two Ghostbusters films. In my humble opinion the Ghostbusters are Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. Without them and Ivan Reitman, a reboot just doesn’t have the soul of a beloved original. And without them, who you gonna call?
For the last two years my retrospectives on the films of the Summers of 1982 and 1983 allowed me to revisit some of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the 80’s and enjoy them on a new level as a 40 something. In some cases I would approach a film with a sense of trepidation, wondering if you truly can go back and enjoy an old favorite on the same level 30 years later. At the end of each series, I learned that many of these films withstand the test of time and sometimes you really can go back.
I truly thought each “Summer Of” retrospective would be the last. After The Summer of ’82 I didn’t think there could be another lineup of summer films that could compare to Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Road Warrior, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, TRON and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial. It was a magical summer for fans of fantasy and sci-fi films and there hasn’t been another like it. But I had enjoyed writing that retrospective so much that I had gone through withdrawal and for the next year hoped for another opportunity to revisit a summer’s worth of films. That void was filled with my retrospective on The Summer of ’83 which included a lineup of films that have been personal favorites of mine for over 30 years. Even as I closed out that series, I didn’t think I would have an opportunity to write another “Summer Of.”
Then I saw the lineup for the films of the Summer of ’84 and realized another retrospective was possible.
The Summer of ’82 was about a lineup of the best fantasy and sci-fi films of the decade (Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian). The Summer of ’83 was about a lineup of my personal favorites (WarGames, Fire and Ice). The Summer of 1984 was still heavy on the adventure and sci-fi films, including some of the most crowd pleasing films of the decade as well as a few cult favorites:
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (5/23/84)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (6/1/84)
Conan the Destroyer (6/29/84)
The Last Starfighter (7/13/84)
Red Dawn (8/10/84)
Once I saw this list, I knew I had to revisit them again.
I’m taking these retrospectives year by year, but if the films of the Summer of ’85 etc. bring out the same sense of nostalgia for my original movie-going experiences, I’ll keep them coming.
With Memorial Day coming up on Monday May 26th, I’d like to take this moment to thank all veterans and active members of the armed forces for their service and sacrifice.
Every Memorial Day weekend I scan the TV listings, Netflix and Amazon Instant Video for some of the best military themed films to watch. More than a few of the films listed below have been included on previous Movies For Memorial Day posts (Sergeant York, Band of Brothers, Gallipoli, The Big Red One, and The Best Years of Our Lives to name a few), but I also try to find a few lesser known films as well. This year it’s an even mix of old favorites and new additions. And while the films scheduled on Turner Classic Movies have made up the majority of my recommendations over the last couple of years, this year’s list is mostly made up of films available on Amazon Instant Video and Netflix.
On Turner Classic Movies (all times listed are EST):
Saturday, May 24th
1:45 PM – The Steel Helmet (1951)
3:15 PM – Objective, Burma! (1945)
Sunday, May 25th
12:00 PM – Mr. Roberts (1955)
Monday May, 26th
7:30 AM – Sergeant York (1941)
6:00 PM – The Fighting Sullivans (1944)
8:00 PM – Twelve O’Clock High (1949)
10:30 PM – The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
On Amazon Instant Video:
Medal of Honor (2008)*
Taking Chance (2009)*
Fixed Bayonets! (1951)*
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
The Longest Day (1962)
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
The Big Red One (1980)
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
The Green Berets (1968)
We Were Soldiers (2002)
Hamburger Hill (1987)
The Fighting 69th (1940)
* = Amazon Prime
Ken Burns: The War (2007)
On Thursday April 17th my hometown movie theater, the Mamaroneck Playhouse, closed its doors and will eventually be torn down for condos. Built in 1925 as a vaudeville theater, it’s been the center of Mamaroneck’s business district for 89 years. The news was a surprise to everyone back home, with property owner Bow Tie Cinemas breaking the news to local officials only the night before. According to the company, the playhouse wasn’t economically sustainable, but Mamaroneck residents (and former residents such as myself) are skeptical of that claim considering it’s a first run theater in a vibrant business district, surrounded by a variety of restaurants and parking.
The films I’ve seen there over my lifetime range from blockbusters (E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), to the obscure (Raise the Titanic), to some titles better forgotten (lest I be judged…). Even though the last film I saw there was back in 2001 (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion), most of the films I’ve written about on Fante’s Inferno were originally screened at the Mamaroneck Playhouse.
I’ve seen the theater evolve from a single screen with balcony seating to a four screen multiplex almost 35 years ago. Most of the films I’ve seen there were in the 80’s, but my favorite era of the Mamaroneck Playhouse was the mid-to-late 70’s when it was still only one screen. Not necessarily because the movies were better, but because of the old school memories of the ushers walking up and down the aisles, shining their flashlights into the faces of anyone who dared to talk during the movie or put their feet up on the seats. At one point in my early years attending that theater, they actually sold comic books on a spinner rack in the lobby. By 1980 it was chopped up into four separate theaters, a crime in and of itself for altering the classic interior.
In honor of the now closed Mamaroneck Playhouse, here are a few of my favorite films screened there over the last 42 years:
Released in theaters in 1975, but screened as part of a double feature with Jaws 2 at the Mamaroneck Playhouse in the Summer of 1978.
When I think back to the night I saw this film back in 1980, I’m reminded of how even the greatest comedy is funnier with the laughter of others around you.
Flash Gordon (1980)
This was a fun movie to see in the theater back in 1980. A lot of folks in the theater didn’t quite “get” it, but those of us in the sci-fi/D&D crowd appreciated it on every level, from the production design and special effects to Queen’s still amazing score.
Time Bandits (1981)
My introduction to the films and genius of Terry Gilliam. Still one of my all time favorite films.
The Goonies (1985)
A fun movie, and a great movie memory. Four friends sitting in the front row of a matinee in an empty theater during the start of summer vacation. A coke in one hand, a bag of Twizzlers in the other. When I think of summer moviegoing, that’s the first memory that comes to mind.
By the time my brother and I were finally able to see the X-Men on the big screen, we had waited about 20 years from when an X-Men film was first announced. It was worth the wait.
The picture above is how I will always remember the Mamaroneck Playhouse. My main concerns over the theater closing its doors are less nostalgic than they are cultural. The business district lost its book shop several years back, and now its movie theater is gone. Sure, higher ticket prices, home video/theater systems and the lower standards of movie theater etiquette have kept people home in recent years, but one element of moviegoing enjoyment has been the sense of community. I remember one Saturday night back in the early 80’s when it seemed like half of the audience was made up of our friends and neighbors. Despite the access to many amazing and obscure films since I’ve moved to New York City, that’s one feeling I haven’t been able to experience as a moviegoer here.
I haven’t seen a movie at the Mamaroneck Playhouse in over a decade, so I can’t attest to the recent condition of the theater (though recent reports on the closing reference less than ideal conditions in the theater). With 20+ years of cinematic memories there I feel a sense of personal loss, but I also feel the loss for the current and future residents of Mamaroneck who won’t be able to experience seeing a movie there followed by a slice of pizza at Sal’s Pizzeria across the street. At least Sal’s is still there.