Gallipoli (August 7)
Heavy Metal (August 7)
They All Laughed (August 14)
An American Werewolf in London (August 21)
Prince of the City (August 21)
Body Heat (August 28)
August had traditionally been one of two months of the year (including January) in which studios would dump their low expectation releases, almost as a self fulfilling prophecy to their box office underachievement. But while August 1981 contained more than its fair share of clunkers, a few soon to be classics were surprisingly part of the mix. In all there were sixteen U.S. releases that month, with horror and sex leading the box office with An American Werewolf in London, Private Lessons and Body Heat taking the first three spots in domestic receipts. For a traditionally weak month of movie going, the top ten grossing releases still brought in almost $140,000,000 at the domestic box office, with six of these films making August 1981’s notable list. But this is August that we’re covering, so first the not so notables…
Slasher films Student Bodies (August 7), Deadly Blessing (August 14) and Hell Night (August 28) collectively earned over $15 million domestic. Director Wes Craven’s Deadly Blessing led them at over $8 million, with a solid story but somewhat overbearing performances. An Eye for an Eye (August 14) is what you would expect of a police action thriller starring Chuck Norris. And with a cast that includes Christopher Lee and Richard Roundtree, it got the job done and more than doubled its $4 million budget. First Monday in October (August 21) starring Walter Matthau and Jill Clayburgh was a political comedy set in the U.S. Supreme Court. The film was pushed up by several months for its August release to coincide with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s appointment to the Supreme Court a month earlier, but the weak plot involving corporate malfeasance led to an ultimately bland comedy that only earned $12 million. The Night the Lights Went Out In Georgia was a country music themed drama starring Kristy McNichol and Dennis Quaid as Amanda and Travis, siblings traveling to Nashville to further their musical careers. But the talented Travis is his own worst enemy, unable to keep himself out of trouble, while Amanda is the only one that believes in him. It earned $14 million at the domestic box office and doubled its $7 million budget.
Chu Chu and the Philly Flash (August 28) was the month’s outrageous (and not in a good way) comedy starring icons Alan Arkin and Carol Burnett in the title roles. Arkin plays a washed up former baseball player and Burnett plays a Carmen Miranda impersonator who both get caught up in an overdone and implausible plot involving government documents. Directed by David Lowell Rich, it was one of August 1981’s biggest bombs, earning just over $200,000 against its $7 million budget. Condorman (August 7) was Disney’s foray into the superhero genre, but despite the budget and production value, from the opening credit sequence to the closing credits the film is just silly. Michael Crawford stars as Woody Wilkins, the creator and artist of the successful comic book character Condorman who gets in over his head in a good old fashioned Cold War spy game with KGB agents Natalia Rambova (Barbara Carrera) and Krokov (played by the always great Oliver Reed). Fans of comics and the superhero genre will bristle at Crawford’s two dimensional, caricatured representation of a comic artist and his characters. The film’s $14 million budget made great use of the locations (which at times reminded me of June 1981’s For Your Eyes Only), but the weak script and effects led to an almost $10 million loss. There was nothing to save this film.
Private Lessons (August 28) starring Sylvia Kristel was the third highest grossing film of August 1981 with $26.3 million at the domestic box office. But despite its financial success, it’s a shallow, lackluster addition to the wave of 80’s teenage sex comedies that were popular in the first half of the decade. Films such as Losin’ It, Class and My Tutor were produced to bring the teenage wish fulfillment fantasies of high school boys having affairs with 30 something women to the big screen. While these films weren’t exactly known for their contributions to cinematic history, Private Lessons was on the bottom tier of the early 80’s sex comedies. Sylvia Kristel (best known for the Emmanuelle series of erotic films) plays Nicole, the new maid working and living in the Fillmore home and the object of 15 year old Philip “Philly” Fillmore’s fantasies. Nicole seduces Philly and they begin an affair that to even Philly’s nervous surprise might be too good to be true (with especially cringeworthy scenes by today’s standards). Adapted by Dan Greenburg from his 1968 novel “Philly” and directed by Alan Myerson, Private Lessons is shot and plays like a low budget B-movie (the acting is especially low grade), with little to show for its $2.8 million budget.
Tarzan, the Ape Man (August 7) was director John Derek’s showcase of his wife Bo Derek after she had achieved international acclaim in 1979’s 10. Set in 19th century Africa, Derek plays Jane Parker, the headstrong and newly rich daughter of explorer James Parker (Richard Harris), who she has tracked down during his search for a legendary ivory graveyard. Her arrival at his camp is unexpected (he was expecting a cannon delivery), their relationship already strained by his abandonment when she was a year old and her mother’s recent death. Working their way through the jungle, they hear the cries of the Tarzan, who according to James is a hundred feet tall white ape. Overall the film has good cinematography and an even pace, but even with the talents of the great Richard Harris the story is flat and Tarzan’s introduction is anticlimactic. Despite the negative reviews Tarzan, the Ape Man earned $36.5 million domestically against its $8 million budget, making it the #2 top earning film of August 1981, though it’s the kind of film that makes you walk out from the theater wondering why you spent your hard earned money on the ticket.
Honky Tonk Freeway (August 21), director John Schlesinger’s (Midnight Cowboy, Hamburger Hill) ensemble comedy has William Devane playing Kirby T. Calo, the Mayor of Ticlaw, Florida, a town that takes pride in its roadside attractions. But when they’re about to get bypassed by the newly constructed interstate highway, Ticlaw turns to desperate measures not to lose their tourists. Unfortunately strong production value and the talented cast bring very little depth to the overall story. It earned $2 million domestically against its $18 million budget. More time should have been devoted to William Devane’s character than the ten minor characters, who by the midpoint of the film still hadn’t reached Florida. Honky Tonk Freeway is also a film out of its time, one that in tone and pace is more aligned with 70’s comedies such as Thank God It’s Friday or Cold Turkey. More surprising than director John Schlesinger wasting his talent on this unengaging film was the similarity in parts of film’s score to that of 1981’s classic comedy Stripes (both of which were composed by Elmer Bernstein).
And now the notable films of August 1981:
They All Laughed (August 14) is a well-intentioned romantic comedy written and directed by Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, What’s Up Doc?, Paper Moon) about two New York City private investigators who fall in love with the married women they are paid to follow. It’s an upbeat film that captures the good in the New York City of its day, which is a refreshing change from the crime ridden and post apocalyptic New York City shown in films such as Wolfen and Escape From New York. Being a Bogdanovich film, They All Laughed channels an earlier cinematic era with dialogue and “meet cutes” reminiscent of a Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. The film is crafted with heart and is carried by a strong cast that includes Audrey Hepburn (what a dream it must have been to direct her!), Ben Gazzara and John Ritter, as well as the talented supporting cast of Colleen Camp, Blaine Novak (who co-wrote the film) and the angelic Dorothy Stratten (in her final film role, released one year after her tragic murder in 1980). Bogdanovich, still in mourning over Stratten (they had been in a relationship at the time of her death, which he goes into in depth in the excellent documentary One Day Since Yesterday) bought the film back from the studio in order to re-release it himself. It didn’t come close to recouping its $8.6 million budget, leading to personal financial disaster for Bogdanivich. While the story lags at times and should have taken more time to fully flesh out the main characters, They All Laughed deserves to revisited for its charm and the performances of its ensemble cast, especially Gazzara and Hepburn’s scenes.
In director Sidney Lumet’s Prince of the City (August 21), Treat Williams plays NYPD Detective Frank Ciello, a Special Investigations Unit detective who works narcotics but (along with his partners) takes advantage some of the shady opportunities that are made available to them, whether it’s using drugs taken from a bust to pay informants or pocketing some of the ill gotten money. When he’s approached by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Cappalino (played by Norman Parker) to weed out corrupt cops in the NYPD, Ciello stonewalls him at first. But after seeing the effects of heroin on an informant he pays with the drug for information, Frank has a change of heart and cooperates with the investigation, but under the strict rule that he will not turn in his partners. As the investigation continues, and the hundreds of wiretapped conversations pile up, Frank soon realizes he’s a cog in a machine with few people he can trust to watch out for him. No director does a New York City cop story like Sidney Lumet. Francis Ford Coppola’s and Martin Scorsese’s New York based films have an operatic tone, while Lumet’s films are street level. He knows how to shoot every corner and angle of New York City to bring out the most for the shot. Prince of the City is about 30 minutes too long, which may have turned audiences off, but overall the film is an engaging police drama with a memorable first starring role for Treat Williams. It barely broke even at the box office, but is a film that should be revisited.
Body Heat (August 28), written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado, Grand Canyon) continued 1981’s successful string of neo-noir classics– From the opening credit sequence you know the film will live up to its title. William Hurt plays Ned Racine, a nickel lawyer who gets caught up with Matty Walker, a lonely woman from the right side of the tracks played by Kathleen Turner in her breakout film debut. Matty is exactly the type of person Ned should know better than to get involved with: mysterious and married with an older husband (played by Richard Crenna) who’s rarely around. The story doesn’t waste any time, and before long they’re in her empty home and he’s gotten himself involved in a level of trouble he should have expected: Matty wants her husband dead. Ned is quickly in over his head, learning that lust is a hell of a drug, and there are always too many tracks to cover. Hurt and Turner play perfectly against each other, with Kasdan’s snappy dialogue hitting the right tone of 40s and 50s noir giving the film a genuine a throwback quality. Composer John Barry’s (Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, eleven James Bond films) score hits just the right tone, and Bill Kenney’s (Rocky IV, Rambo II and III) production design and Richard H. Kline’s (Camelot, Soylent Green, Star Trek: The Motion Picture) cinematography practically make you feel the heat in the air and the ice in the drinks. This film brings everything together the way The Postman Always Rings Twice should have. It earned $24 million domestic against its $9 million budget.
Gallipoli directed by Peter Weir (The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness, Dead Poets Society) is in my opinion not only one of the best World War I films ever made, but also the best film of 1981. Set in 1915 Australia, Frank Dunne (Mel Gibson) and Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) play runners that quickly grow from competitors to close friends when they travel across the continent to enlist in the Army to serve in World War I, despite their difference in motivations. Archy feels a sense of duty, lying about his age to join up against his family’s wishes while Frank doesn’t think it’s their country’s war to fight. Archy enlists with the Light Horse, but Frank can’t ride a horse and is rejected. Eventually Frank and his friends Billy (Robert Grubb), Barney (Tim McKenzie) and Snowy (David Argue) join the infantry. Archy and Frank soon find themselves reunited in Egypt as they train for their deployment to Gallipoli. Frank leaves his mates in the infantry to join Archy with the Light Horse and they soon have to adapt to life in the trenches against the army of the Ottoman Empire. Though it only earned $5.7 million in the U.S., Gallipoli is the most complete drama of 1981, with a fantastic cast (Mark Lee truly held his own as the lead) and a story written by David Williamson (The Club, The Year of Living Dangerously) that draws on friendship, duty and the horrors of trench warfare during World War I. The ending still gives me chills to this day. With all of the notable films of 1981 to watch, Peter Weir’s Gallipoli should be near or at the top of any list.
The 1980s were a great time for animation (of the traditional, hand drawn variety) and Heavy Metal (August 7) is no exception, standing out as one of the great, animated cult classics of the decade along with American Pop (February 1981), Fire & Ice (1983) and the criminally underrated, nearly forgotten Rock & Rule (1983). Heavy Metal is an animated feature film inspired by the illustrated sci-fi and fantasy stories of Heavy Metal magazine. Written by Daniel Goldberg and Len Blum and directed by Gerald Potterton, the film begins with a mysterious green orb, the Loc-Nar, brought back to Earth from space by an astronaut. The Loc-Nar melts him in front of his terrified daughter and proceeds tells her of its influence throughout space and other worlds, represented in the film’s subsequent scenes that differ in animation style much like in the magazines. On an artistic or technical level, Heavy Metal is not the best animated film of the 80’s (and like the magazine has sometimes received criticism for its stories skewing too heavily toward a male audience), but the film’s edgy stories ranging from dystopian to horror to scifi (with a little comedy along the way) make for a memorable ride.
An American Werewolf in London
Release Date: August 21, 1981
Starring: David Naughton, Griffin Dunne, Jenny Agutter, John Woodvine
Written and Directed by John Landis; Cinematography by Robert Paynter; Make Up Effects by Rick Baker
In director John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (August 21) American students David (David Naughton) and Jack (Griffin Dunne), on a three month backpacking trip through Northern England to Italy, stop in a Yorkshire pub filled with locals that don’t welcome strangers. After taking the not so subtle hint that they’re unwelcome, they’re sent out into the cold, rainy night with the warning to stick to the roads, avoid the moors, and beware the moon. David and Jack quickly veer off the road and are pursued by a very loud, growling wolf. Unable to get back to the road in time, Jack is attacked and killed, but as the wolf starts on David, the townspeople shoot it dead. But before passing out, David sees the wolf transformed to a human. David wakes up scarred in a London hospital three weeks later, but when questioned by police his memory of being attacked by a wolf conflicts with the official report: that he and Jack were attacked by an escaped lunatic that was shot by the locals in their defense.
During his hospital recovery he’s haunted by nightmares progressing from dreams of himself running in the woods stalking prey, to his family being murdered. He’s visited by the bloodied but quite cheerful corpse of Jack, who tells David they were attacked by a werewolf, turning David into a werewolf and dooming Jack to walk the earth undead until the werewolf’s curse is broken. In order for him to truly die the last werewolf’s bloodline must be destroyed: David. Jack tells David he must kill himself before he kills others. The good news: his nurse Alex Price, played by Jenny Agutter (Walkabout, Logan’s Run) takes him in upon his discharge and they begin a relationship. The bad news: there will be a full moon in two days. But in the meantime David’s doctor Hirsch (John Woodvine) drive up north to the Slaughtered Lamb pub to see if David’s on to something about being attacked by a werewolf.
An American Werewolf in London is the best horror film of 1981, with a story and cast that strike the perfect balance between horror and quirkiness. David Naughton carries the weight of David the character throughout his progression from guilt for Jack’s death, disbelief at his circumstances, and his responsibility for his lycanthropic actions. Jenny Agutter’s performance as Alex keeps him grounded through his descent, and Griffin Dunne’s Jack steals the movie as the glue that keeps the story moving forward (also keep an eye out for a young Rik Mayall in the Slaughtered Lamb). But it’s Rick Baker’s makeup effects, especially in Jack’s post mortem scenes and David’s transformation that put An American Werewolf in London in a superior class of the genre compared to 1981’s low budget slasher films, earning him his first of seven Academy Awards for Best Make Up. My only critique is the overbearing soundtrack of moon related songs (including several renditions of Blue Moon) that takes away from Elmer Bernstein’s score. While An American Werewolf in London didn’t match the box office success of director Landis’s earlier hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers, it earned $30 million at the domestic box office against its $5.8 million budget and was a successful transition for Landis to the horror genre.
Next Up: Fante’s Inferno revisits the films of September 1981!