Tag Archives: Thriller

Southern Comfort (1981)

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.

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The Summer of ’83: WarGames

Fante’s Inferno celebrates summer movie-going by revisiting the films of the Summer of ’83.

WarGames

WarGames Movie Poster

Release date: June 3, 1983

Directed by John Badham; Written by Lawrence Lasker and Walter F. Parkes

Starring Matthew Broderick, Dabney Coleman, John Wood, Barry Corbin, Ally Sheedy

See the trailer here.

Shall we play a game?

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 TribulationsWarGames 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.

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The Summer of ’82: The Thing

Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of the Summer of 1982, considered to be the greatest movie summer for fantasy and sci-fi fans.

The Thing

Directed by John Carpenter; Screenplay by Bill Lancaster based on the story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr.

Starring: Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, T.K. Carter, David Clenn0n, Richard Mazur, Thomas G. Waites, Joel Polis

The trailer can be seen here.

I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s The Thing since the mid 80’s, and I don’t remember it having as big of an impact on me as several of the other films that were released during the Summer of ’82.  Over time I may have dismissed The Thing as an Alien-esque knockoff, but watching it again this weekend I realized how little I remembered about this film and how wrong my initial assessment was.

Back in ’82 I was too young to really appreciate this film as a psychological thriller.  As a ten year old I cared more about the special effects and gore.  This time around I was able to truly appreciate the performances of the entire cast, particularly Wilford Brimley and Donald Moffat.  The scenes of confusion, paranoia, and survival had more of an impact on me as a viewer than the gory sequences.  I thought Kurt Russell was the epitome of badass as Snake Plissken in Escape From New York, and his character of R.J. MacReady in The Thing oozes the same confidence.  Maybe a little too much at times.  Considering the fact that they’re dealing with a shape shifting alien that can easily take over their bodies, he seemed a little too much in control for me to find his character believable today.  Although Keith David did give him strong competition in the badass category when he broke out the flame thrower.

One thing I loved about The Thing was the pace of the film.  The opening shot of alien’s ship in distress as it entered Earth’s atmosphere was quick and effective.  The sequence of the Norwegians chasing a Siberian Huskie along the frozen landscape of Antarctica in an attempt to kill it adds to the sense of mystery.  The introduction of the staff at the American scientific base quickly and effectively sets up their situation in Antarctica (boredom and isolation) without wasting too much time on exposition.  Alien ship crash lands on Earth, dog chased along the frozen landscape, Norwegian gets shot.  What the heck is this group in for?

The gore and special effects were great for the time, but the autopsy scenes creeped me out more than the alien working its way through the members of the camp.  One thing that really surprised me watching it with today’s sensibilities is that these characters were way too comfortable with exposure to germs and blood (MacReady inspecting what could be contaminated clothing without gloves, and Windows simply wiping the blood off of a scalpel before cutting his own finger with it).  These little things actually got me to cringe more than the gory scenes.

Based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. (who is considered the father of modern science fiction) The Thing was the second adaptation of his story on film (the first was The Thing From Another World in 1951).  John Carpenter had been at his A game for years by 1982, but his storytelling reached a whole new level with The Thing.  In my opinion the heightened sense of isolation, paranoia and distrust among the characters makes it hold up better today than Halloween and The Fog.  Bill Lancaster’s screenplay keeps us guessing as we try to figure out who in the group was the next one to be infected by the thing.  At one point I thought to myself that this story could have also worked as a stage play.  Prior to watching it this weekend, I expected a lot more gore and a lot less psychological drama and was pleasantly surprised when the opposite played out.  Each scene makes you wonder when and how the axe will fall on these guys.  I enjoyed it back then, but watching it again 30 years later turned out to be more enjoyable than I expected.

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