The first month in what was to be a very notable year for film wasn’t exactly…well, notable. January was generally known as one of the two months of the calendar year (along with August) in which studios dumped their worst films for release, and January 1981 was no exception to this tradition. That month’s schedule of forgettable low budget horror movies (Scream, Blood Beach) and under performing wide releases (The Incredible Shrinking Woman) hardly forecast what would turn into a solid year of cinema.
Joel Schumacher’s The Incredible Shrinking Woman (released January 30) grossed $20 million and is probably the most remembered film from that month, but in my opinion it doesn’t crack the list of notable films of 1981. Based on 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Lily Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a suburban wife and mother whose body can’t stop shrinking due to exposure to chemicals in household products. Despite the film being a solid showcase of Lily Tomlin’s talent in which she plays several characters, ultimately the film doesn’t hold up due to an uneven string of scenes that parody an America dominated by advertising and consumerism too hard and to the point of caricature where an audience isn’t engaged in the message or the characters.
In contrast, director Robert Butler’s lower budget comedy Underground Aces, with an ensemble cast that includes Dirk Benedict, T.K. Carter, Melanie Griffith and Robert Hegyes, hasn’t exactly made its way up to cult status over the last forty years. It’s one of the forgotten films of 1981 (think 1976’s Car Wash but set in the valet garage of a hotel), but a surprisingly well crafted comedy with a style and humor that’s of its time, although some elements of Underground Aces’ story and characters would not hold up by today’s standards. Worth noting: cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth would go on to DP several classic films of the 1980’s: Blue Thunder, The Breakfast Club, Stand By Me and The Running Man.
Release Date: January 14, 1981
Written and Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neal, Michael Ironside and Patrick McGoohan
Cinematography by Mark Irwin, Edited by Ronald Sanders
The first standout film of 1981 is David Cronenberg’s Scanners, which premiered in the U.S. on January 14th. Cronenberg’s two previous films ranged from the gory horror of 1977’s Rabid to the psychological terror of 1979’s The Brood. 1981’s Scanners is a “psionic” thriller that is heavy on drama and suspense but with a controlled, methodical style. That’s not to say that Scanners is a subdued film, as evidenced by car chases, gun fights and just the right amount of gory special effects including a memorable head explosion. Cronenberg injects an old school style of mystery and suspense, and ramps up the tension with charged scenes involving the scanners telekinetic power, represented primarily by a heavy musical score, sound effects and the talents of the cast.
Scanners begins with a disheveled and disturbed Cameron Vale (played by Steven Lack) acting erratically in a shopping mall, taking other people’s cigarettes and food without giving any thought to his behavior or their stares. But when he hears a woman’s dismissive comments about him he projects a telepathic burst that causes her to seizure but also exposes him to the undercover agents tasked with finding his kind. He’s knocked out by a tranquilizer dart, and wakes up strapped to a bed in a research facility located in an abandoned industrial building which is run by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who informs Cameron that he is a scanner, a telepath capable of reading, controlling and destroying people’s minds. Dr. Ruth (yes, Dr. Ruth…) wants Cameron to stay at the facility as one of his subjects to teach him to use and control his telekinetic power.
In an auditorium at the company ConSec, a presenter announces he will telekinetically scan each member of the audience. He warns them of the adverse side effects of scanning, but one man, Darryl Revok (played by Michael Ironside) agrees to be the first subject and joins him in front of the audience. Revok calmly goes along by thinking of something personal for the presenter to telepathically connect to, but it’s clear that Revok is more in control of the scan, putting them in a telepathic tug of war that leads to the presenter’s head exploding. Revok is quickly taken at gunpoint, but subtly “scans” a doctor to inject a tranquilizer into his own hand rather than Revok’s. Shortly after, as Revok pretends to be out cold in the back of a ConSec car, he telepathically controls the driver of one of the company vehicles to crash, which creates a diversion and allows him to control and overpower his captors in order to escape.
These events prompt ConSec’s new head of security Greg Keller to propose dropping the scanner program which Dr. Ruth is heading. According to Ruth, the list of 236 known scanners in their program has been compromised by an underground, subversive scanner group led by Revok. Ruth recruits Cameron to infiltrate the subversive scanners, but Keller’s concerns run deeper than skepticism, and his self interests push him to secretly meet with a yet to be revealed contact that is meant to thwart Cameron’s efforts.
No spoilers here. Despite the low tech approach to many of the telepathic elements of the film, Cronenberg wrote and directed an engaging story with cinematography by Mark Irwin (The Dead Zone, Dumb and Dumber, Old School) and editing by Ronald Sanders (The Dead Zone, The Fly, Naked Lunch). At times Cronenberg’s script can be a little too heavy on the exposition and dialogue, and the low tech, music heavy telepathic sequences take a little getting used to (and some suspension of disbelief), but Scanners is a solid thriller that gets into your head, with Cronenberg effectively representing the cacophony in Cameron’s mind and the scanners’ desperation for answers and control.
February 1981 had more notable films than the anemic month of January, bringing out a police drama (Fort Apache, The Bronx), a thriller (Eyewitness), a beloved international road movie (Goodbye Pork Pie), and an under appreciated animated film (American Pop). But despite the quality of these releases, the overall U.S. box office continued to lag save for Fort Apache, The Bronx’s $29 million domestic gross. The Canadian horror film My Bloody Valentine qualifies as a guilty pleasure, and two other films released in February 1981, the underwhelming action thriller Sphinx directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton, The Poseidon Adventure) and the misguided comedy reboot Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen starring Peter Ustinov in the title role (which even back then was cringeworthy and offensive), failed to meet to expectations and were the bombs of the month.
My Bloody Valentine, directed by George Mihalka, is set in a small mining town where a deranged killer has returned after twenty years to go on a killing spree leading up to Valentine’s Day. The killer, a former miner who lost his mind and resorted to cannibalism to survive a cave in, leaves boxes of candy with the hearts of his victims and warnings to cancel the town’s first Valentine’s Day dance in twenty years. The mayor and police chief cancel the dance to thwart the killer’s promised bloodbath, but a group young of miners and their girlfriends won’t have their night taken from them and hold their own party at the mine. And as you would expect, they’re taken out one by one. This film is filled with typical horror tropes (the legend of a local killer, the younger generation not taking it seriously and just looking to have a good time, shots from the killer’s POV, messages left with his latest victims warning of future killings) but solid cinematography, direction and editing resulting in a higher production value than January’s painful to watch Scream. But the film’s strong start quickly devolves in the second act due to the script’s one dimensional characters and weak dialogue that plays more like a horror spoof forty years later. And while not making the notable list for 1981 My Bloody Valentine could be a guilty pleasure in a horror movie filled night with friends.
New Zealand’s classic road comedy Goodbye Pork Pie directed by Geoff Murphy is a film that’s sadly off the radar in the U.S. due to the fact it’s incredibly hard to find on streaming services and DVD. But in spite of this, it’s a film that I vividly remember and enjoyed watching on cable TV around 1983, and I was happy to find Goodbye Pork Pie on the list of 1981’s releases for me to include in this retrospective. The film begins with Gerry (Kelly Johnson) using the money and ID from a dropped wallet to rent (technically steal) a car and drive to Auckland. While on the road in the film’s classic yellow Mini, Gerry picks up the heartbroken John (Tony Barry) who is trying to get to Invercargill to win back his girlfriend Sue (Shirley Gruar). Police chases and hilarity ensue. This is exactly the type of film I love to find: a low budget film with a fun story, memorable characters, and cinematography that makes the most of its locations. The full version of Goodbye Pork Pie is available here.
Eyewitness directed by Peter Yates (Bullitt, The Deep, Breaking Away, Krull) and starring Sigourney Weaver and William Hurt is February 1981’s sleeper pick. Hurt plays Daryll Deever, an office building janitor who witnesses the aftermath of a gang style hit on a Vietnamese businessman during his cleaning rounds. He tries to stay out of the investigation but ambitious television reporter Tony Sokolow (played by Weaver) tries to get the story out of him. It’s a classic 80s thriller with noir-ish tones and a straightforward plot that doesn’t overachieve. And though it didn’t recoup its $8.5 million budget, it’s still an enjoyable thriller with a great supporting cast that includes Christopher Plummer and James Woods.
American Pop is another great example of director Ralph Bakshi’s incredible animation in a career that includes Fritz the Cat, Wizards, and The Lord of the Rings. American Pop is a journey through American music history told through the lives of four generations of a New York family navigating their way through the tenements of 1911 to the mean streets of the 1970s. Bakshi’s brings back the rotoscope animation style that he used in 1978’s classic The Lord of the Rings, which perfectly complements this musical drama. To this day American Pop is a step above his other non-fantasy films Heavy Traffic and Hey Good Lookin’ and is considered one of Bakshi’s best works even if it didn’t find an audience during its initial release. I hesitate to call American Pop a rediscovered classic because of how revered it is among animation fans forty years later. It’s a film worth seeking as a testament to great traditional animation and the genius and talent of Ralph Bakshi.
Fort Apache, The Bronx
Release Date: February 6, 1981
Starring Paul Newman, Ken Wahl, Rachel Ticotin, Ed Asner, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier
Directed by Daniel Petrie, written by Heywood Gould
Cinematography by John Alcott, Edited by Rita Roland
Released on February 6th 1981, director Daniel Petrie’s Fort Apache, The Bronx is a police drama from the era of the “good old bad old days” of early 80’s New York City, with the burned out buildings and demolished blocks of the Bronx, the inescapable graffiti, and the lack of services needed to keep the city clean and safe. The film’s opening title makes it clear the film is from the perspective of the police officers to prepare the audience for a warts and all portrayal of their jobs and their beat.
The film begins with two officers sitting in their patrol car on duty in an industrial part of the Bronx. They’re approached by prostitute Charlotte (Pam Grier) who tries to sweet talk them into some business but they politely decline. But she has other things in mind as she pulls out a revolver and shoots them dead in their car. Several local kids come out of the abandoned storefronts and buildings and quickly loot the dead bodies for their guns and badges.
At the South Bronx’s 41st Precinct, seventeen year veteran officer Murphy (Paul Newman) shows his young partner officer Corelli (Ken Wahl) the ropes, and explains how the borough gets notoriety based on the cop killings and insurance fires shown on the news. They respond to a suicidal tenant in an apartment building, grabbing him just as he is about to jump off the roof, and take him to local hospital despite the fact it doesn’t have a psych ward. Nurse Isabella (Rachel Ticotin) processes him and catches the eye of the older Murphy. As Murphy and Corelli cruise for a lunch spot, they spot a purse snatcher and chase him through the park. The fortysomething Murphy can’t catch up to him and he gets away. Murphy’s colleague officer Morgan (Danny Aiello) asks why he didn’t just shoot the purse snatcher since they could have dropped a knife on him and called it self defense. Murphy disregards the advice, but not without a tinge of disgust.
Captain Dugan (Sully Boyar) is retiring from the 41st Precinct and is replaced by the “by the book” Captain Connolly (Ed Asner). Connolly arrives for his first day on the job in a precinct that’s lacking in discipline, starting with the desk sergeant who when chastised for not screening visitors, informs Connolly that he’s 22 years on the job and is happy to retire at half pension before he takes any crap from him. As the jaded Captain Dugan fills him in on the 41st Precinct (dubbed Fort Apache for being an outpost in hostile territory) Connolly is more interested in which officers are corrupt and the questionable disability claims and absences, calling Dugan out on the precinct’s lack of motivation. Dugan refuses to take the blame for the city’s failures that led to the borough’s struggles with high unemployment and crime, and wishes Connolly the best.
Murphy is the over the hill cop that should have moved up higher in the force. Corelli is the young ambitious cop who is embracing the changes of the 80s, taking in self help books and wanting to work his way up to detective. They spot a pimp beating up Charlotte and separate them, telling them to keep their drama off the street. The pimp pulls out a few bills as a thank you, but Murphy makes it clear he won’t accept the payoff by taking it out on his luxury car. Murphy tells Corelli he won’t be owned over a couple of bucks, but Corelli reminds him they live in a world they didn’t make.
Corelli and Murphy respond to an ambulance call but the building they’re called to is dark and looks abandoned, raising their suspicion. They knock on a family’s door and they’re sent to the back of a crowded, dark apartment to a sick girl’s bedroom. Only she’s not sick: she’s having a baby. She’s 13 and hid it from her family but now she’s in labor. Murphy and Corelli close the bedroom door and Murphy, who’s been through this before, talks her through the delivery. They bring the young girl and her newborn to the hospital, where Murphy tells Isabella that was his 17th delivery. She invites him to come back at the end of her shift to take her for a drink.
Murphy takes Isabella to a local bar frequented by the precinct, but he’s unable to get her to open up about herself. Murphy tells her that he made detective once, but lost his position when a criminal he busted got off light and his lawyer got Murphy bumped back down to beat cop. He could stop a hood, but not a lawyer. They head back to his place, but he soon realizes Isabella isn’t exactly who he thought she was.
Murphy is no boy scout, but his years on the force has built in him a sense of commitment to the job and the community he serves, even if it is tempered by jaded wisdom. He’s prone to voicing his opinions a little too strongly, not endearing him to Captain Connolly, but doesn’t rock the boat with his fellow officers. But when he and Corelli witness a fellow officer cross the line and murder an innocent bystander, the game changes and Murphy is forced to decide whether or not to inform on him.
No spoilers here. Fort Apache, The Bronx is a non-stop ride along with a strong cast down to the character actors and a story that shows the police as outsiders in the borough they’re tasked to protect. Director Daniel Petrie directed television from the 50’s through the 70’s, and at times Fort Apache, The Bronx feels less cinematic and more in the style of a television episode, but he keeps the drama high both inside the 41st Precinct and in the streets of the Bronx. Cinematographer John Alcott’s camera work is more understated than his previous work on Barry Lyndon and The Shining, but he films the urban landscape honestly and gets the most out of each shot. Unfortunately a few of the characters are over the top, and the story develops too many plot points to all be adequately resolved in the third act, making me wish there was an additional thirty minutes in the film to flesh out more of the characters and their motivations, especially Pam Grier’s enigmatic Charlotte whose actions in the opening scene set the tone for the film. But at the end of the day, this film belongs to Paul Newman, who plays the tired, jaded Murphy with a steely eyed pathos that draws you in to one of the decade’s better cop dramas.
So two months into 1981’s underrated year of film, there are five notable films to revisit and rediscover. Things started to pick up in March with films like Thief, Diva and Cutter’s Way, which will be covered in our next post!