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:
Directed by Clive A. Smith; Written by Peter Sauder, John Halfpenny and Patrick Loubert (Story)
Starring Susan Roman (Angel), Gregory Salata (Omar), Don Francks (Mok); vocals by Debbie Harry (Angel), Robin Zander (Omar) and Lou Reed (Mok)
Rock & Rule is an animated film that I initially planned on including in my retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83, but didn’t get to in time. Although it had a theatrical release in Canada in August 1983, it had a very limited release in the U.S. but developed a cult following when it ran on cable TV. It’s amazing how vividly I remembered Rock & Rule even though I only saw it once in my life prior to this week’s screening, and that was back around 1985 on cable TV during a marathon game of Dungeons & Dragons. The details and the quality of the film stuck with me over the years, and each time I watch a traditional hand drawn animated film, I’ll measure it up against Rock & Rule.
The opening credits set the film’s tone as dark clouds part to the sounds of thunder, lightning and the heavy synthesizer of composer Patricia Cullen’s score. As I watched this, my first thought was “Does it get more 80’s (in a good way) than this?”
Fading rock superstar Mok (who looks like he was modeled after Mick Jagger and/or Keith Richards) travels the world seeking the voice that will sing the Armageddon Key and open a doorway to the underworld. He finds that voice in Ohmtown, where bandmates Angel, Omar, Dizzy and Stretch play an empty dive club. Mok invites them to his mansion, drugs Omar, Dizzy and Stretch, and kidnaps Angel when she refuses to leave her band. Angel’s bandmates snap out of it and follow Mok’s zeppelin to Nuke York to save Angel.
This film was better than I remembered, and what struck me the most about Rock & Rule when I screened it this week was how the film’s production hit on all cylinders. The animation and photography of Rock & Rule combined classic techniques developed by Disney in the 1940’s with the state of the art computers available in the early 80’s. But what’s most impressive is the level of musical talent associated with Rock & Rule. Debbie Harry. Lou Reed. Cheap Trick. Earth Wind & Fire. Iggy Pop. None of them could be accused of phoning it in for a cartoon. They went all out in the songs they contributed, and their enthusiasm for the film is evident in the documentary The Making of Rock & Rule. I only have one criticism of the film: the animation of the characters in the scenes in which they were singing had a lack of movement that took away from the energy of the music.
When I think of the animated films I’ve enjoyed over the years, several that immediately come to mind are Heavy Metal, American Pop, Watership Down and Fire & Ice. As much as I still enjoy each of those films, Rock & Rule holds up better than all of them thirty years later. It had great animation, a cool score, and a great soundtrack. Unfortunately for all of this praise, the reality is that Rock & Rule didn’t find a theatrical audience due to lack of interest by U.S. distributor MGM. But despite the lack if distribution and low box office, 30 years later Rock & Rule is still well crafted movie and a must see for fans of animation.
Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.
Fire and Ice
Release Date: August 28, 1983
Directed by Ralph Bakshi; Screenplay by Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway based on characters created by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta
Starring Randy Norton, Cynthia Leake, Steve Sandor, Sean Hannon, Susan Tyrell, Maggie Roswell, Stephen Mendel
It’s fitting that I’m winding down my retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83 with Fire and Ice because it was the last film I saw in theaters as that summer ended. With that screening in the final week of August 1983, two and a half months of movies, comic books, video games and hanging out with friends segued into to the beginning of the upcoming school year. Watching Fire and Ice again this past weekend not only brought back the memory of that last week of summer vacation, but also how the film and Frank Frazetta’s artwork influenced me at the time.
The film is about the war between the evil Queen Juliana of Icepeak and King Jerol of Firekeep. Juliana and her son Nekron cover the earth with a wave of glaciers, decimating Jerol’s army as it inches closer to overtaking Firekeep. Juliana and Nekron send a delegation to Firekeep under the guise of eliciting Jerol’s surrender, but kidnap his daughter Teegra in order to force her into a marriage with Nekron. Teegra escapes from her captors and meets Larn, a survivor from Jerol’s army. Teegra is recaptured by Juliana and Nekron’s sub-humans, and Larn attempts to rescue her from Icepeak with the help of Darkwolf.
There’s surprisingly little dialogue in the film’s 81 minutes, but the action is non-stop. Fire and Ice gives life to the fantasy worlds depicted in Frank Frazetta’s incredible paintings (in one shot in the film, Darkwolf is reminiscent of Frazetta’s iconic painting of the Death Dealer), and the animation techniques used in of Fire and Ice blew me away back in 1983. All of the character action was rotoscoped – live action was filmed, then each frame traced onto animation cels, lending a more “realistic” effect to the animation. This film is one of the reasons I still prefer hand-drawn animation over today’s computer generated animation, and I enjoyed watching The Making of Fire and Ice for the parts of the behind-the-scenes film that show the process of rotoscoping as Bakshi directed live actors in the scenes that would be traced for the final animated sequences.
Watching it again made me wonder why Bakshi et al didn’t include more scenes with Darkwolf. Each of his scenes brought out more of the Frazetta-esque feel, heightening the action and excitement of the film, especially going into the final battle at Icepeak. The character of Teegra is drawn in the classic Frazetta style seen on many a fantasy novel cover. Watching Fire and Ice this past weekend, I laughed when I remembered that during my second screening of the film in August 1983 the projectionist intentionally made one scene between Teegra and Larn out of focus because my friend Rob and I were the only people in the audience and he didn’t think it was appropriate for two eleven year olds to watch.
I was impressed at the level of talent involved in Fire and Ice’s production: director Ralph Bakshi had a strong track record of films prior to Fire and Ice (Fritz the Cat, Wizards, American Pop, The Lord of the Rings, Heavy Traffic, Hey Good Lookin’), Frank Frazetta was the absolute master of fantasy art, and writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway had written great comic book stories for Marvel and DC. But the names that truly surprised me in my research were those of two of the film’s background painters: James Gurney (Dinotopia) and Thomas Kinkade.
The August 1983 release of Fire and Ice also coincided with my first attempts at picking up a paint brush. My two favorite paintings by that time were Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and Frank Frazetta’s The SilverWarrior. My weekly routine included checking out the fantasy and science fiction sections of our local Waldenbooks, and it’s safe to say most of my paperback book purchases were based on the cover paintings more often than by the author or story. I can’t imagine how many hours of the Summer of ’83 I devoted to buying art supplies at the old Larchmont Art Shop and sitting at my drawing table with a set of acrylics and canvas boards trying to copy the works of Frank Frazetta and Bill Sinkiewicz in the hopes of one day painting covers to fantasy novels and comic books. What I would give to relive one of those carefree summer days again.
Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of 1983.
Release Date: July 26, 1983
Directed by Peter Yates; Screenplay by Stanford Sherman
Starring: Ken Marshall, Lysette Anthony, Freddie Jones, Alun Armstrong, John Welsh, Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane
This is a review that I’ve been looking forward to since I began this retrospective on the films of the Summer of ’83, but not for the reasons you would expect. Most of my reviews involve revisiting films I enjoyed or may have missed in the theaters upon their initial release 30+ years ago to see if they still hold up, but back when Krull first hit theaters on July 26, 1983 I distinctly remember not enjoying it.
By the Summer of 1983, I had been raised on a steady diet of fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer (both of which still hold up in my book) and Krull didn’t measure up to those films when I first saw it at age 11. But since then, other nostalgic fantasy/sci-fi fans I encounter always talk about how much they loved Krull as kids. Was there something I missed? So I went into this week’s screening with an open mind to see if it indeed was a good film on par with its cinematic peers of the early 80’s.
The film begins with a mountain-like vessel traveling through space and landing on the planet Krull. “The Beast” leads his army of Slayers in conquering the planet. Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) are about to be married, merging their fathers kingdoms in order to fight The Beast’s army, but the ceremony is broken up by the Slayers, their armies killed and Lyssa is kidnapped. Left for dead, Colwyn is healed by Ynyr (Freddie Jones) and retrieves a weapon known as the Glaive before he can attempt to rescue Lyssa. Colwyn recruits a group of escaped convicts on his journey to find the Black Fortress and Princess Lyssa.
The opening credits of the film had me impressed with the level of talent that collaborated on Krull, particularly director Peter Yates and composer James Horner, but the excitement I felt during the opening credits slowly turned into disappointment once the opening line of the film was delivered, and continued as the film progressed. The main source of disappointment for me was with Krull’s script, which is a pastiche of elements from successful fantasy/scifi films that came before it. Prior to Krull, screenwriter Stanford Sherman wrote for the 60’s classic television series Batman and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and later one of my favorite movies as a kid, Any Which Way You Can starring Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately Krull’s weak story has a ripple effect on the rest of the talent involved with the production beginning with director Peter Yates.
Yates’s drama The Dresser (also released in 1983) is a film I enjoyed particularly for actor Tom Courtenay’s performance in the title role. Going into Krull, I had expected Yates to bring out impressive performances in the cast as he had with Albert Finney and Courtenay in The Dresser, but Sherman gives the characters little in terms of depth, and his uninspiring dialogue gives the actors little to work with. Yates’s use of the camera for the location shots is surprisingly static, and the imposing mountains of Cortina in Italy fall flat with shot compositions containing little action.
I was very happy to see James Horner’s name as the composer of the film. His distinguished career includes the incredible score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and his score for 1991’s The Rocketeer is one that I break out on occasion when I need a burst of inspiration. Beginning with the opening credits, his score for Krull is powerful and heroic but unfortunately it keeps that same tone throughout most of the film and there are moments the audience needs a breather.
And so, 30 years later I now realize why I didn’t enjoy Krull back in 1983: in my opinion every line of dialogue, every effect, fight scene, etc. overachieved and subsequently fell flat in the attempt to create an epic fantasy film. The individual parts just didn’t gel, and instead of an epic story Krull plays out as more of an introductory level Dungeons & Dragons module.
Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Release Date: July 29, 1983
Directed by Harold Ramis; Screenplay by John Hughes based on his short story Vacation ’58
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Anthony Michael Hall, Dana Barron, Imogene Coca, Randy Quaid, Jane Krakowski, John Candy, Christie Brinkley
National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of the films that I looked forward to the most going into this retrospective. Even though I tend to concentrate on fantasy, sci-fi and comic book films I have to include a classic comedy now and then. There are movies that you enjoy, there are movies that you watch many times over, but every so often there’s that one movie that you just seem to empathize with. National Lampoon’s Vacation is one of those movies, and 30 years later it still gets an audience to laugh at its classic scenes and cringe at the memories they bring back of our own summer family vacations. I’m sure most folks over the age of 40 hear a few bars of Lindsay Buckingham’s Holiday Roads on a long distance drive.
Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) plans a cross country drive from Chicago to California with wife Ellen (Beverly D’Angelo) and teenage kids Rusty and Audrey (Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron). He’s convinced himself (but not his family) that a road trip to Wally World (a theme park based on Disney World) will allow them to experience the bonding and quality time they wouldn’t experience by flying. The trip starts on the wrong foot when the Antarctica Blue Sport Wagon they ordered from the car dealership hasn’t arrived and the only car available for them is the frumpy, olive green, wood paneled, eight headlighted Road Queen Family Truckster. Along the way their car is vandalized in St. Louis, they’re stuck with Ellen’s annoying Aunt Edna in the back seat, money runs out and a wrong turn totals their car. But, as the ever patient Ellen says, “With every day there’s new hope.”
The film has great cast led by Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, but it’s the supporting actors in their cameos that add the extra layers of humor that keep the laughs going: James Keach as the highway patrol officer that goes from threatening to crying in a scene that is both hilarious and just wrong at the same time, John Candy as the Wally World security guard dragged into Clark’s breakdown, and Randy Quaid as Ellen’s ne’er-do-well cousin Eddie that suckers them into driving Aunt Edna from Kansas to Phoenix. It was a treat to see comedic icon Imogene Coca as Aunt Edna in Vacation, but her role provided only a fraction of the comedic gold she brought to TV viewers on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows in the 1950’s and I wish there was a little more written for her. But the scene stealer throughout the film is Clark’s muse of the road played by Christie Brinkley. Is there anything more 80’s than Christie Brinkley and a red Ferrari?
In under two hours, director Harold Ramis is able to pack in urban plight, teenage drug use, underage drinking, animal cruelty, death and a midlife crisis on the Griswold family’s road trip to Wally World. John Hughes’ screenplay was based on his short story Vacation ’58, and soon after his career as a director would explode with 80’s teen classics like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The running gag in the subsequent three Vacation films (European Vacation, Christmas Vacation and Vegas Vacation) was the casting of different actors to play Rusty and Audrey. Anthony Michael Hall and Dana Barron will always be the Rusty and Audrey movie fans will remember, and it would have been fun to see them reprise their roles in European Vacation. Barron was supposed to return as Audrey in the second film, but when Anthony Michael Hall had a conflict starring in Weird Science (also directed by John Hughes), the role of Audrey was re-cast as well.
I wasn’t able to see National Lampoon’s Vacation in the theater back in 1983 due to its R rating (although the film is very tame by today’s standards), but it’s a film I watched on many a Saturday night with my friends and cousins throughout the mid-80’s. Back then we appreciated the humor at face value, but 30 years later we now approach the film with a sense of empathy. Back then, the farthest my family ever drove on our vacations was Montreal, with most of our summer trips taking place in Lake George, NY. Our version of the Road Queen Family Truckster was a midnight blue 1977 Ford Granada with burgundy pleather interior. But as fun as those trips were, without fail, just before putting the car in gear for the drive back home, my father would end the trip with, “Next year, I’m taking a vacation by myself!”
This year, my faithful sidekick and I flew out to Colorado and spent a week and a half driving through Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska before flying back to New York. It was my first time in that part of the country, and the most surreal part of the trip was the lack of cars on the road compared to the Northeast. Highlights of our trip included Devils Tower, Custer National Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands with a few roadside attractions along the way like the giant Campbell’s Soup Can in Colorado, Dinosaur Park in South Dakota and a giant coffee pot in Wyoming. This was our first real road trip together, and after 30 years of watching Clark Griswold experience everything short of locusts in National Lampoon’s Vacation I couldn’t help but wonder what lay ahead of us on the road. But along the way, a miracle happened: nothing. No broken down car, no bad weather, no short fuses (okay, there was that one time I missed a turn and went nuclear a la Clark in the classic “Can we go home” scene). But it went as smooth as can be and it was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had. Coincidentally, next up is a road trip in Europe…
Overall National Lampoon’s Vacation was as I remembered it, although the pace felt a little slower this time around. And while each scene made me laugh and gain a greater appreciation for the Ramis and Hughes’ style of humor, my older self began to see Clark in a different light. He was no longer just that nerdy dad who’s best intentions tend to make everything worse. At the end of the day, Clark goes through each of those great lengths, much to the chagrin of his family, just to bring them all closer together and have them experience a little bit of fun that they might remember when they’re older. And watching National Lampoon’s Vacation again 30 years later, I simply smiled and looked forward to the day I’d be behind the wheel of my own version of the Family Truckster, family in tow, on a quest for fun.
30 years later, these words spoken by Joshua still have a chilling resonance.
I’ve seen John Badham’s Wargames at least 20 times since my first screening at the Larchmont Theater in June 1983. It’s one of my favorite films of that particular summer and a perennial favorite since. Watching it again this week reminded me not only of what a great film WarGames is, but also of how it coincided with my Golden Age of computing in the 80’s. Back in 1983 the green text on the black monitor of my school’s TSR-80 was as high tech as it got for me (until I moved up to the Commodore 64 and its Royal Blue start screen), but I really enjoyed the days of playing the Infocom classics (Zork, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Planetfall, Ballyhoo), Montezuma’s Revenge and Trolls and Tribulations. WarGames is a time capsule of early 80’s computing, but the film still keeps me on the edge of my seat down to the final minutes. Even with a young Matthew Broderick as the protagonist WarGames doesn’t feel like a teen adventure and holds its own as a well made Cold War thriller.
WarGames begins in the bunker of a nuclear launch site as two launch technicians (played by actors Michael Madsen and John Spencer) arrive for their shift. Their arrival at the launch facility is no different from any two average Joes arriving at the office for a day’s work. But once the alarm sounds, they methodically go through the launch procedures, checking and confirming codes until they learn they must deploy the nuclear warhead. Spencer’s character hesitates, and the scene ends with Madsen’s character holding up his revolver to get his partner to comply with their orders. It’s soon revealed that the launch sequence was a test by higher ups to gauge the success rate of the crews following through on their orders to deploy their missiles. Chief engineer John McKittrick (played by Dabney Coleman) uses this as an opportunity to install a supercomputer (the WOPR – War Operation Plan Response) to take the place of launch technicians and provide a failsafe against the possibility of human hesitation.
I recently took a trip to South Dakota with my faithful sidekick, and coincidentally one of our stops was the Minute Man Nuclear Missile Site near the Badlands national park. Unfortunately the tour of the launch site was booked for the day, but we got to see a picture of it in the visitor center. It looked exactly like the launch facility in the opening scene of WarGames so I asked the Park Ranger on duty that day if any films were shot there after it was “retired.” She advised that the site has never been used as a movie location, but launch facility set created for WarGames was accurate and identical to Minute Man. With the exception of Michael Madsen pulling out a gun on John Spencer, even the launch sequence in the film was accurate.
Enter David Lightman (played by Matthew Broderick), a high school student and computer whiz who would rather use his talents as a hacker than apply himself in school. He purposely gets his teachers to send him to the principal’s office so he can look up the passwords to their network and hack into their system. During dinner with his parents, he learns that computer game company Protovision will be releasing a new line of games. David can’t wait for them to be released, so he attempts to hack into their network and get early access to the games.
After days of research and long nights trying to crack Protovision’s network through a back door in the system, a benign remark by his friend Jennifer (played by Ally Sheedy) provides David with the logon and password he needs to break in. But instead of hacking into Protovision, David has unwittingly hacked into the WOPR (also known as Joshua). He is greeted by Joshua, who thinks that David is his creator Dr. Stephen Falken, and suggests a game of chess. David insists on playing Global Thermonuclear War, however the “game” is actually the program used by the WOPR to simulate nuclear attacks.
David and Jennifer’s game sets off alarms at NORAD, and the staff headed by McKittrick and General Berringer (played by Barry Corbin) believes they are under nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. The “threat” disappears when David shuts off his computer, and NORAD quickly learns that it was only a simulation. They track the break in from David’s hometown of Seattle. David quickly realizes the gravity of the situation when the simulated attack makes the evening news. He disposes of the evidence but is still being contacted by Joshua. The FBI takes David in for questioning at NORAD, but despite his insistence that he thought he was simply playing a game, McKittrick doesn’t believe his story and has him detained on suspicion of espionage. He uses his tech savvy to sneak out of NORAD (which requires a little suspension of disbelief) and sets out to find Dr. Falken (played by the great John Wood) and prevent Joshua from starting a nuclear war.
What still makes the story accessible despite the dated equipment is Badham and Broderick’s representation of the fun and blank slate of the early days of home computing without dumbing it down with unrealistic graphics. One of the caveats I’ve always had with computer/tech themed films is how the functionality of computers, networks, etc. are “jazzed up” to make computers more cinematic. There’s a little bit of that with regard to David’s conversations with Joshua, but the simple typed lines of text typed onto an old school monitor ensure that WarGames doesn’t overachieve with regard to the functionality of early computers.
I already had a DVD copy of WarGames when the 25th Anniversary DVD was released in 2008. Normally I would have been happy with my first copy, but this new edition had a Making Of featurette that made the purchase a no-brainer. Despite my appreciation for WarGames and its rank among my all time favorites, I hadn’t actually researched the making of the film.
I didn’t know that John Badham had replaced Martin Brest (director of Scent of a Woman and Meet Joe Black) early in the film’s production. Badham had received acclaim for the era defining 70’s classic Saturday Night Fever and had another hit film, Blue Thunder starring Roy Scheider released one month prior to WarGames. Brest had Broderick and Sheedy initially playing their roles with a darker tone, but fortunately Badham lightened it up. The beginning of the film needed the infusion of teenage innocence and cluelessness in order for the story to unfold more effectively. The playfulness in Broderick and Sheedy’s early scenes really add to Broderick’s performance when McKittrick’s mistrust and threats hit David in the gut.
But one piece of information about the production that truly blew me away was how the producers had originally considered John Lennon to play the role of Dr. Stephen Falken. While I think WarGames was near perfect as is, it would have been amazing to see how Lennon would have played the role. Screenwriters Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes’ tight story combined with Badham’s direction and a fantastic, believable cast takes the audience on a great ride down to the final moments of the film.
WarGames made me and my brother beg our father to buy our first computer. I still remember the day he drove us to Caldors department store and completely trusted us to make that purchase without balking at the price. The Commodore 64 required a keyboard and disk drive purchased separately, and your TV would be the monitor. The salesman asked if we also wanted the modem to go along with it. I instantly thought of David Lightman using his modem to hack into Protovision. Fortunately we didn’t add the modem to our purchase and we stayed at Defcon 5.