The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the cinema of a single year (guess which one!) The chosen year is mostly arbitrary, but it’s been a fun experience so far. I’m still working through a backlog of films watched earlier in the year, so these reviews are bound to be a bit fuzzy. I’ve made pretty good progress so far, and am hoping to do the usual Movie Awards and Top 10 sometime this summer. For now, here are six 1978 flicks, these perhaps less obscure than the movies from the last recap:
- Death on the Nile – Hercule Poirot returns, this time taking a luxury cruise down the Nile river. Naturally, a newlywed heiress is found murdered under suspicious circumstances. Can Poirot solve the mystery before the ship arrives at its destination? A sequel to the more famous 1974 production of Murder on the Orient Express (helmed by Sydney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot), this one doesn’t really carry over any of the creatives from the earlier film, but still comports itself well in comparison. Director John Guillermin is more of a journeyman director than Lumet, but here he’s perhaps hitting above his weight (while Lumet wasn’t doing his best work on Orient)… or perhaps it’s just that the cruise down the Nile affords more picturesque atmosphere, and the ship presents more varied environs. Peter Ustinov also does admirable work as Poirot; not hamming it up as much as Finney, but still presenting the calm fastidiousness and passive aggression of the character well. Along for the ride is a talented cast of side characters, including Bette Davis trading barbs with Maggie Smith in a tuxedo, which is something to behold.
Angela Lansbury and Mia Farrow are there too, as is Olivia Hussey (perhaps only of note to genre nerds like myself, but it was neat to see her in something else). The story itself, based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, works well, lots of twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps a bit overlong, but once everything’s established, it moves at a brisk enough pace. Solid stuff, well crafted. ***
- The Boys from Brazil – A wannabe Nazi hunter played by a larval Steve Guttenberg stumbles upon a sinister plot put together by none other than Josef Mengele to rekindle the Third Reich in 1970s Brazil. It’s a good example of the Nazis in South America plotting mayhem trope, but despite some kooky twists and a trio of scenery chewing performances by elder statesmen actors Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, and James Mason, it all feels a bit inert. The plot has some weird components, but there’ve been plenty weirder, and it feels like the long-ish runtime dilutes the premise too much (that, or we’ve see far too many of this sort of cuckoo nutso Nazi tales and thus put the pieces together far quicker than anyone else in the movie). It’s a sturdy little thriller and well worth checking out, but I suspect you’ve seen many of these elements before. **1/2
- The Inglorious Bastards – A not so straightforward men-on-a-mission in WWII flick made in Italy, it stands in contrast to Force 10 From Navarone (covered in my last recap). It’s a little more freewheeling and mean-spirited, as evidenced by the fact that the men on this mission are all slated for prison. They get lucky when a German attack disrupts their convoy, and are able to escape from both the Allies and Axis forces, attempting to make their way to neutral Switzerland. Along the way, they get entangled with the French Resistance and become reluctant heros. Or something like that.
While Force 10 From Navarone felt formulaic and staid, this is more suffused with the chaotic 70s energy mixed with who-gives-a-shit grimy exploitation panache. It’s easy to see why this attracted the attention of someone like Quentin Tarantino, who clearly took inspiration (though not plot or story) from this movie. It’s not as star studded as something like Navarone, but folks like Bo Svenson and especially Fred Williamson keep our crew of criminals likable enough that we never really turn on them. Director Enzo Castellari doesn’t get as much play as his brethren in Italian horror (Bava, Argento, Fulci, etc…) but you can see that same Italian flare here, and you better believe I’m gonna watch more Castellari (up next: 1990: The Bronx Warriors looks like a ton of fun.) This is a solid little romp through war torn Europe with a couple of bombastic action setpieces, and I really enjoyed it. ***
- Midnight Express – A youngish guy is caught attempting to smuggle drugs out of Turkey. The Turkish courts decide to make an example of him, eventually sentencing him to more than 30 years in prison (in a legal process that is really torturous, as it starts as a 3-5 year sentence that is extended right before he’s set to be released). There are only two ways out of the mess: 1. legal appeals and 2. escape, termed the Midnight Express. It’s based on the true story of Billy Hayes, though it’s pretty obvious that some of the scenes (particularly towards the end) are fabrications made for the sake of dramatic expedience (i.e. typical filmic adaptation of real events stuff). That being said, the story at its heart is genuinely involving and powerful. While Hayes did a dumb thing, the sentence and conditions of the jail are pretty extreme, and you can’t help but put yourself in his place. The opening, where Hayes is caught, is fantastic and tense, but things slow down a bit in the second act as he adjusts to prison life. Brad Davis plays Hayes in a pretty melodramatic way, which works during the initial portions of the film, but becomes a bit strained by the end. It’s not a bad performance and the movie does fine, but I found something lacking, especially in that middle portion. Of note in the supporting cast is a young Randy Quaid, playing a bit of a hothead (apparently not much of a stretch!) It’s not exactly a pleasant movie and it has its flaws, but it ultimately works. **1/2
- Attack of the Killer Tomatoes! – Tomatoes have become intelligent and mounted a revolt against humanity. Cheap spoof of B-movies has its charms and a couple of laughs, but isn’t exactly a good movie. It’s outrageous and some of the gags actually work, but many really don’t. This is one of those movies that a lot of people know about, but few have actually watched all the way through. I suspect I may have had fonder memories of this if I had caught up with it when I was 12 or something and the premise is genuinely goofy and fun… but you already know that just from the title of the film, and I’m not sure the actual movie can sustain that premise. Maybe if I was in a different mood I’d like it better, and again, I like the premise and some of the gags, but it’s not exactly inspiring me to revisit it anytime soon. **
- Starcrash – Yet another Star Wars ripoff, made in Italy and starring Caroline Munroe (best known for her role as a Bond Girl in The Spy Who Loved Me, but fans of horror know her from the likes of Maniac and Slaughter High), Christopher Plummer (most recently seen as a scummy bank robber in The Silent Partner), a fresh-faced David Hasselhoff, and typical “that guy” Joe Spinell (who would work with Munroe again on the aforementioned Maniac). As with most other Star Wars ripoffs, the plot here is almost nonsensical, the dialog laughable, and the performances wooden (the Italian practice of dubbing, even when the actors were originally speaking English, doesn’t help). It’s ultimately more trippy and woozy than Star Wars, though I don’t know if that makes it any better. There’s lots of special effects and miniatures work, which looks decent enough, though this is clearly a low budget affair. The production design is more reminiscent of older serials and 50s Sci-Fi movies, which doesn’t really hold up, but has its charms. Interestingly, the fighting is a little more gruesome. While Star Wars was a mostly bloodless affair (even when stormtroopers are being gunned down), this one kinda makes you feel the laser burns. At one point, a dude whips out a lightsaber and just slaughters a whole group of people in reasonably graphic fashion. Munroe doesn’t get a ton to do other than wear fantastic space bikinis and the like (which, to be sure, she’s great at, even if it’s pretty incongruous; at one point she gets caught by the space police and sentenced to “hard labor”, where her prison uniform is a… space bikini.) Spinell looks pretty great as the main villain, and is suitably menacing, if a bit silly (like the whole film). Also of note is Marjoe Gortner as Munroe’s kinda partner in crime. He has a weird sorta charisma about him that is almost repulsive; then I found out that he’s kinda famous for being a former Child-Evangelist who made a documentary about the “Religion Business” and so on. Weird dude. It’s far from a good movie, but in its own way, it’s far from a bad movie too. I guess? It’s not a movie that I’d recommend, but it has some fun bits for dorks doing a sorta anthropological study of the impact of Star Wars on cinema… **
Current tally of 1978 films seen: 55 films (pretty much caught up with the backlog, so we’re back on track)