1978 Project

The Horror Films of 1978

About a year ago, I embarked on the 1978 Project, a deep dive into the films of a single year (guess which one?!) There were indeed some horror heavy hitters that year, including the likes of Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the surprisingly good remake), and Magic. The problem here is that I’ve already seen all of those classics (some for the 6WH itself). Plus, I’ve already covered some of the smaller stuff too. Highlights include Coma, The Fury, and The Eyes of Laura Mars. So what we’re left with is obscure, but actually pretty interesting. I don’t think any of these will rival those classics, but I’m glad I caught up with them.

The Six Weeks of Halloween: Week 4 – The Horror Films of 1978

The Grapes of Death – A woman gets stranded in mountainous wine country where there happens to be an outbreak of zombieism. That’s pretty much it, and I think you can fill in the rest. It’s an atmosphere-heavy, episodic film, with our heroine bumbling from one infected vineyard to the next, encountering people in all stages of the zombie sickness. Also, they’re french zombies, so there’s lots of angst and ennui to go around. Like most zombie movies, there’s some ham handed social commentary, this time it’s that pesticides are, like, really bad. It feels a bit tacked on, with bits at the very beginning and end, like director Jean Rollin realized he had made a pretty simple zombie flick and needed to inject something “important” in there. Because zombies are the blankest of slates, it’s pretty easy to project whatever thematic elements you want onto the story. So a quick scene of people spraying pesticids and boom, you’ve got yourself an eco-terror flick.

I suppose I’m being a little hard on this movie, but it is actually quite well made. The landscapes and vistas in whatever wine region they filmed at are gorgeous and well photographed. The makeup and gore effects are also well done. The disease manifests as blister like welts all over the body which pulse and ooze and it’s all very gross (as it should be). It’s not exactly Dawn of the Dead (which features some of Tom Savini’s best effects), but it gets the job done.

The Grapes of Death

Like a lot of episodic films, some of the episodes are better than others. There is one sequence where Brigitte Lahaie is a sorta uninfected queen of the zombies. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the dreamlike atmosphere is effective and, like, Brigitte Lahaie is nice to look at too. (Apparently she was an adult films actress who successfully made the transition to mainstream.) Ultimately, it’s par for the zombie course. If you’re into that sort of thing, you may like the uncommon French arthouse aesthetic applied to the usual low-art zombie tale. I found myself respecting the film on an intellectual level without getting too worked up. **1/2

The Evil – A doctor buys an old dilapidated mansion with the intention of renovating it for his practice. To help clean the place up, he enlists friends and volunteers. Naturally, there’s a reason the place hasn’t been occupied for decades and our hapless heroes get trapped in the house by an unseen malevolence.

This starts out as pretty standard, by-the-books haunted house stuff. A little slow to start, but it picks up once the ghost starts his attacks. He seems to enjoy setting people on fire, but there are some other methods mixed in for good measure. Richard Crenna plays the stubborn, unbelieving doctor and gets plenty of opportunities to overact. Some other members of the cast, notably Andrew Prine, try their best to keep up with Crenna’s hammy performance and mostly succeed. Joanna Pettet plays Crenna’s wife, who is a little more open-minded and figures out what’s going on pretty quickly. Which is fortunate, because Crenna’s pig-headed character is pretty much the cause of most of the problems.

The Evil

For most of the movie, I was thinking that this was fine, but it needed an extra little something to push it over the edge into “good” territory. Until the ending, which goes a little off the rails into batshit bonkers territory. In, uh, a good way. I won’t spoil it, but it’s the sort of thing that will either work for you or make you burst out laughing. Either way, it helps make the movie something a little more unique, even if there are better evil-locked-in-its-prison stories out there. It’s a love it or hate it ending that will make or break the film for you. Fortunately, I kinda loved it. I just wish it didn’t take so long to get there. **1/2

The Legacy – An architect heads to England for a mysterious job with her boyfriend. They stumble into a sprawling mansion in the English countryside where a rich patriarch has assembled the potential heirs to his legacy. His… satanic legacy! This is an odd, messy little movie that doesn’t entirely make sense… but I do kinda like it? It has a pretty great cast and is directed by Richard Marquand, he of Return of the Jedi. I can’t say as though he’s a groundbreaking auteur or anything, but he’s competently shot a visually interesting little film.

The Legacy

It’s got lots of fun elements. Wealthy satanists! Nazi factory owners! A sinister nurse who is also somehow a cat?! Actually, lots of cats! Cats galore! A sensitive 70s horror movie theme song! Crossbows?! Rings that, once put on, won’t come off! The smoldering power couple of Stepford Wife Katharine Ross and Roadhouse bouncer Sam Elliot! Wait a sec, is that… Roger Daltrey from The Who?! Did… did he just choke to death on a ham bone?! You bet he did!

Look, I’m not sure if this is a “good” movie, but it sure is a strange agglomeration of haunted house movies, satanists, kinda reminiscent of The Omen (without any evil kids), you know, that sort of thing. The ending here isn’t quite as banana-pants as The Evil, but it is certainly an eye opener and the whole thing is all just very 1970s. I certainly had fun with it, but your mileage may vary. **1/2

So there you have it. Keep an eye out for Wednesday’s post where we’ll cover a couple more 1978 movies. I’m sure I’ll also have a couple others in the traditional Speed Round at the end of the Six Weeks marathon as well…

The 1978 Project: Part VI

The 1978 Project is a deep dive into the movies of a single year (guess which one!) As of right now, I’ve seen 66 movies made in 1978 (and am now caught up in reviewing each one). I keep discovering new pockets of films I want to watch, so there’s still a solid 10-20 left to go, but here’s the last 7 I’ve watched:

  • Convoy – A group of truckers led by the inimitable Rubber Ducky (all the truckers have goofy names like Love Machine, Widow Woman, and Big Nasty) run afoul of an abusive sheriff and form a mile long “convoy” in order to escape the forces aligned against them. Director Sam Peckinpah, in need of a success, basically took on this Smokey & the Bandit ripoff mostly because he didn’t really have any other options left at that point in his career. It falls pretty squarely into the trucker and C.B. radio craze of the 70s and while Peckinpah was able to add some of his own flavor to the proceedings, it’s ultimately just as cheesy and goofy as the other trucker-sploitation flicks that this imitates. You could certainly map traditional Western genre tropes to these trucker movies, which might have been the draw for Peckinpah. The truckers are the noble outlaws, the Sheriffs are corrupt lawmen, trucks are horses, and so on. I suspect Peckinpah’s big contribution was to incorporate the subplot about a politician who attempts to co-opt the convoy’s popularity for his own purposes, which does add a dark note to an otherwise silly story. Peckinpah’s visual preferences are also well represented here, particularly the cramped, sweaty environs of the truck cabins and general gritty tone. This film has its moments and it’s a diverting enough affair, but it’s nothing particularly special unless you’re a huge fan of trucker/C.B. cinema or a Peckinpah completest (which, to be fair, are both worthy pursuits, though not necessarily mine). **1/2
  • Slave of the Cannibal God (aka Mountain of the Cannibal God) – Sergio Martino‘s take on the jungle cannibal jamboree, it’s the standard tale. A woman charters a trip into the nefarious jungle to find her missing husband. Naturally, the jungle is filled with cannibals and it’s not long before star Ursula Andress (most famous for being the first Bond girl, but she has a long list of grindhouse credits) is strapped up on the chopping block. Look, it’s not delicate, subtle cinema, but it’s pretty entertaining.

    Slave of the Cannibal God

    Andress is always fun and it’s nice to see larval Stacy Keach (bordering on unrecognizable) as the experienced woodsman. I’m not an expert on the sub-genre, but this seems like a decent take on the Italian cannibal flick that is perhaps understandably overshadowed by the more controversial entries like Cannibal Holocaust, but it’s got some twists towards the end that sorta recall the nonsensical turns in Giallo flicks and I kinda like that. Apparently this was the highest budgeted Italian Cannibal movie and the only one to have internationally recognizable stars. It’s also one of the few that wasn’t outright banned in most countries, and thus is more accessible these days (Is it thus missing a badge of honor? Eh, probably not…) It’s still gorey as all get out, and while I’m sure we could come up with some sort of grand pretension about these types of films, it’s mostly about the gore and prurient interests, and Martino’s visual prowess pulls it off in fine style. **1/2
  • Heaven Can Wait – Not to be confused with Heaven Can Wait, the 1943 comedy of errors about a man who dies and tries to convince the devil that he belongs in hell (I really enjoyed that Ernst Lubitsch movie, watched as part of the 50 Under 50 project). This 1978 movie also deals with the afterlife, but is otherwise completely different. An overanxious angel accidentally sends a quarterback to heaven, only to realize that the quarterback wasn’t supposed to die yet. To make up for his mistake, the angel finds another body for the quarterback to inhabit, that of a recently murdered millionaire.

    Heaven Can Wait

    The millionaire’s wife and accountant, who were the attempted murderers, are naturally confused by this development. The become even more so when the millionaire decides to buy the LA Rams and become their quarterback, just in time for the Super Bowl. It’s certainly got some silly screwball tendencies, but there’s a more sophisticated core at work here, a balancing act that I’d attribute to writer Elaine May, even though Warren Beatty made this movie happen. It’s got some nice comedic touches, and I love the way Beatty interacts with his would-be murderers in ways that confound them, but it eventually settles into a more dramatic story that I found genuinely involving and pleasantly surprising. I didn’t realize this was nominated for an Oscar, a rare comedy to be recognized in that way, and it makes for a fun change of pace to the more somber, dramatic nominees in 1978 (which we’ll cover in more depth soon enough). ***
  • Koko: A Talking Gorilla – A documentary about Dr. Penny Patterson and her work with Koko, a gorilla who has been taught sign-language. It consists of standard talking-head interviews where people discuss the complexities of Koko’s use of language, and actual footage of Patterson interacting and speaking with Koko. There’s lots of interesting ideas about language and consciousness that are thought provoking. The interactions captured on film are great, if repetitive (especially in the middle of the film), but it’s hard not to fall in love with Koko and it’s nice to see the way Koko and Patterson develop a relationship. It’s not formally inventive or anything, but it’s great subject matter and well worth checking out. ***
  • Foul Play – Goldie Hawn gets caught up in a criminal scheme involving albinos, dwarves, and a plot to assassinate the Pope. Along the way, she has the help of Chevy Chase as the bumbling but competent detective, Burgess Meredith as the lovable landlord, and Dudley Moore as a… pervert. As a romantic-comedy-action-thriller-mystery, it’s completely serviceable, even if it doesn’t manage to do any of those genres justice. Apparently a big success at the time, having Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase as leads helps a lot. Not a lot of chemistry there, to be sure, but they’re pretty charismatic on their own, I guess. Everything’s just a hair off here. The convoluted assassination plot involving dwarves and albinos and the Pope has the potential to reach madcap proportions, but it never quite pulls together for what should be a cascading series of revelations and confrontations. Instead, it just sorta limps to the finish line. The comedy never quite gels either, and the action/thriller components are sorta undercut by the other elements (the car chase towards the end of the film, for instance, is a total drag and it goes on forever). It sounds like a blast, so I did find it a little disappointing, but it’s ultimately just fine. **1/2
  • Someone’s Watching Me! – John Carpenter’s made-for-TV movie about a woman being stalked by a stalking stalker. Carpenter would go on to direct Halloween not long after this, and you can see his craft evolving here. It’s got more of a Hitchcockian feel to it than Carpenter’s other work, and the reliance on the telephone as an element of suspense recall Mario Bava and Bob Clark. Lauren Hutton does good work as the lead, and Carpenter puts her through the paces well enough. It’s clearly a limited production, but as 70s TV movies go, it’s a pretty solid line drive. Ultimately, it’s probably more for Carpenter completists than anyone else, but there are worse things to be (this is kind of a theme in this recap). **1/2
  • Coming Home – A woman whose husband is fighting in Vietnam begins work in a VA hospital and falls in love with a paralyzed veteran. Jane Fonda plays the woman at the center of the love triangle and she’s a fine actress, I guess, but her infamously outspoken anti-Vietnam activism always kept me at arms length from this movie. There’s a lot to respect about it, a distinctly more feminine perspective on the vietnam war (it contrasts nicely with 1978’s other Vietnam movie, The Deer Hunter), but I also tend to prefer later takes on the war (Coppola’s Apocalypse Now wasn’t far off, but Stone and Kubrick’s efforts had the benefit of perspective, I think). No one element felt overbaked (even the love triangle, which isn’t nearly as cliched as you might expect) and the performances are all excellent, but it never really gelled together for me when you collect all these elements together. It’s worth stressing the performances. Fonda does good work, but Jon Voight really stands out as the paraplegic vet (his closing monologue is a highlight of the film) and while Bruce Dern doesn’t get as much time as the husband, he really turns up the juice when he comes back from the war with a nervous, wiry energy that I don’t think could be duplicated by anyone else. Unfortunately, big performance showpieces like this often don’t work as much for me. I have similar issues with the aforementioned Deer Hunter, which also has great performances but is otherwise pretty plodding, with the exception of one masterful scene. It probably deserves a better place in the Vietnam war movie canon, but it didn’t particularly work on me. I’m glad I watched it though, and I’m clearly in the minority on this one. **

This brings me up to date on my progress so far. Things have slowed a bit as the most accessible movies have been watched at this point, and now I’m trying to scrape up copies of out-of-print movies or I’m starting to tackle some things I want to watch, but which seem to have difficult subject matter, etc… Again, I still have a solid 10-20 more 1978 movies I want to catch up with before doing the traditional awards/top 10 &c.

The 1978 Project: Part V

The 1978 project is a deep dive into the cinema of a single year, undertaken on a whim late last year. As it turns out, this is somewhat good timing, as tons of 2020 films are getting delayed, so it’s nice to still get a feel for a single year, even if it’s not this year… and honestly, it’s much easier to get a feel for the current year because, you know, you’re already living it. I have no idea when I’ll finish this project, but I’ve been making steady progress. Current status: I’ve seen 62 films made in 1978. I still have at least 10 films I want to check out, if not more. It’s about the journey, not the destination. Speaking of which, let’s see what I’ve been watching whilst in lockdown:

  • I Wanna Hold Your Hand – Robert Zemeckis’s feature directing debut about Beatle mania and six teenagers from Jersey who make the trek to NYC to see The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. The only problem? They don’t actually have tickets for the show. It’s basically a nostalgic “one crazy day/night” story reminiscent of American Graffiti, except this is much more focused and all the little episodic bits tie together better. This little sub-genre experienced a sorta heyday in the 80s, but has remained with us in various incarnations to this day. It’s also notable that most examples of this sort of thing are not led by teenage girls, which this definitely is (though a couple of boys are along for the ride).
    I Wanna Hold Your Hand
    I tend to like, but not love, these sorts of movies, but this one is definitely one of the better examples. The use of the Beatles really serves to crystallize what could easily have fallen into a fractured narrative with no cohesive point. The tone is also perfectly calibrated. Zemeckis isn’t parodying or mocking Beatle mania, nor is he especially praising it. It’s just a thing that existed, and while the goal of getting to meet the Beatles might seem silly, it’s not like it wasn’t a common desire at the time. Zemeckis takes the time to show that the screaming throngs of teenage girls outside the Beatles’ hotel all had their own stories and hangups and reasons to be there, and the result is a playful little film that doesn’t feel forced or cloying (as Zemeckis would later do with Forrest Gump), but remains sweet and a whole lot of fun. ***
  • Up in Smoke – The first Cheech and Chong flick and landmark stoner comedy holds up reasonably well, I guess, but this duo has never really been my thing. They get into wacky adventures and do drugs and it all feels disjointed and pointless… but then, no one is claiming this is high art (though maybe it is, um, “high” art). Some of the bits work well enough and I chuckled a few times, and I like the concluding rock show where Cheech is running around in a tutu playing guitar… but it’s not like I’m gonna rush out and watch the rest of the Cheech and Chong oeuvre. **
  • The Lord of the Rings – Ralph Bakshi’s animated take on the Tolkien classic has a tortured history, and unfortunately that kinda sinks the movie. Bakshi clearly didn’t have the budget to pull off what he was attempting, and there were apparently lots of studio shenanigans and meddling in play. The animation doesn’t look particularly great. There’s a mix of traditional 2D animation and rotoscoping, and the latter comes in a variety of quality ranging from not that bad (I thought it looked ok for wide shots or landscapes) to absolutely horrendous (the barely animated film of extras wearing off-the-shelf gorilla masks pretending to be orcs). The transition between the two styles can be jarring too. A lot of that can be chalked up to budgetary constraints, but even the general designs aren’t that attractive, and the decision to condense the first two books into one narrative leads to an awkwardly plotted, rushed, and yet somehow simultaneously plodding experience. Much of the battles and chases take forever to get through, even as the narrative plows forward. Naturally, it ends on something of a cliffhanger and Bakshi’s follow-up was never produced (though there was a Rankin-Bass attempt to resolve the narrative a couple years later). Bakshi’s movies have a bit of a cult following, and I can kinda see why, but now that we have Peter Jackson’s take on the trilogy, this just pales in comparison.
    Lord of the Rings
    Even considering that Jackson clearly has some affection for Bakshi’s adapatation (he lifted some scenes directly from the animated version, particularly when the Ringwraith catches up with the hobbits on the road), the live-action films are far better paced and look much better. It’s worth a watch for completists and Tolkien nuts, but probably not much interest to anyone else. *
  • Fedora – Billy Wilder’s penultimate film winds up being something like Sunset Boulevard Redux, covering similar themes, perhaps updated for the 70s. Unfortunately, what that means is that the film demands comparison to an all-time classic and can’t help but fail to live up to that standard. That being said, it’s an interesting little ride, and Wilder’s not-so-flattering portrait of Hollywood and its inhabitants works well enough, even when transported to Europe. A down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer attempts to lure the famously reclusive but world-renowned actress Fedora out of retirement. But he’ll have to get past her retinue of well-meaning but possibly abusive hangers-on. It’s not quite as clever or twisty as it wants to be, and it drags in the second act, but it’s still a fun ride and the ending is engaging if not entirely surprising. If it’s a failure, it’s an interesting one. **1/2
  • Autumn Sonata – A mother-daughter showdown between an absentee concert-pianist mother and mousy caretaker daughter. Also known as “The Meeting of the Bergmans”, with Ingmar Bergman directing Ingrid Bergman (no relation) in the waning chapters of both of their careers. It starts slow, with the mother arriving for a visit and the daughter seemingly glad to have her… but things gradually become more tense, perhaps even passive aggressive. It all boils over when a lifetime of pent-up resentment and anger gets released one night.
    Autumn Sonata
    This is not normally my thing, but once that second half started, I couldn’t help but fall into the rythms of the movie. It’s talky and melodramatic, but you can’t help but fall for it. Ultimately, I’m not sure how much I really understand about these characters, though it’s hard not to feel for them. Ingmar famously deploys closeups in his directing, and he uses them to good effect here, making the accusations and emotional baggage nearly inescapable. Ingrid Bergman is certainly the more famous actress and she’s great as the overbearing yet oblivious mother, but I was more impressed by Liv Ullmann as the deservedly angry daughter. Her initial meekness and all the niceties of her interactions takes a big turn mid-way through the film, with Ullmann nearly hyperventilating in anger and resentment, and she pulls it off well. Ultimately, I can’t help but respect this movie, even if I don’t especially “enjoy” it or even understand it that well. ***

I’ve got a few more flicks in the hopper, but I’ll leave it at these five for now… look for another recap in a few weeks!

The 1978 Project: Part IV

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.
    Death on the Nile with Bette Davis and Maggie Smith in a tux

    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.
    The Inglorious Bastards

    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)

The 1978 Project: Part III

Back in September, I started a deep dive into the cinema of 1978. This was mostly on a whim and 1978 was chosen just because it was the year of my birth (i.e. it’s still pretty arbitrary), but it’s been an interesting exercise so far. Since September, usual blogging traditions have somewhat gotten in the way, especially the Six Weeks of Halloween (which at least had some 1978 entries) and the recap of 2019 movies. Now that we’re clear, I’ve built up a pretty steady backlog of 1978 flicks to cover, so strap in. These are the older ones that I watched in Decemberish timeframe, so recollections might be a bit more sparse, but here goes:

  • The Silent Partner – Elliott Gould plays a sullen bank teller who is able to anticipate a bank robbery and works things so that he ends up with the money while the blame goes to the robber. Realizing he’s been conned, the robber (played by Christopher Plummer) tracks Gould down to engage in a game of cat and also-cat. With Susannah York along for the ride as the love interest and John Candy in an early role. Special notice goes to Gail Dahms-Bonine, the buxom blonde who works at the bank and wears t-shirts with bank-themed innuendo (i.e. “Penalty for early withdrawal” and “Bankers Do It With More Interest”). A decent enough 70s thriller that doesn’t have much else on its mind, Gould has charisma but the character as written is a bit of a cold fish. Not as smart as he thinks he is, but smarter than the robber, who is far more ruthless. It’s an interesting battle of wills that only occasionally breaks suspension of disbelief. It’s a fun little flick, if not exactly mindblowing. ***
  • Message from Space – Kinji Fukasaku helmed this Japanese Star Wars ripoff. It has a nonsensical plot that’s almost not worth describing at all, solid special effects for low-budget 1978 Japan, great costumes and production design, and a soundtrack that apes Star Wars except when it turns into surf-rock.
    Message From Space

    Highlights include the Darth Vader analog wearing a Shogun-esque costume (his mother is the Emperor, which was a nice touch), the Battlestar-esque ships mixed with ships with, like, space-sails and shit, like something out of Master and Commander but in space (anyone remember Spelljammer? No? Just me? Ok then). Sonny Chiba and Vic Morrow provide some recognizable faces and you’ll recognize a lot of stuff copied from Star Wars, which makes it feel familiar even if it’s completely bonkers. Worth a watch for fans of batshit insane cinema, but not exactly “good” but then, what does “good” even mean in this context? **1/2

  • Force 10 from Navarone – Straightforward men-on-a-mission in WWII flick is pretty entertaining, if a bit derivative. It doesn’t really do anything new with the story, and previous films in this arena are certainly better (i.e. the original Guns of the Navarone or Where Eagles Dare are far better), but there’s something to be said for a well executed formulaic film like this, and it’s a decent enough watch. Seeing the likes of a young Harrison Ford (just off Star Wars), Robert Shaw, Carl Weathers, and a bunch of “that guys” like Richard Kiel and Franco Nero help out considerably, but again, it doesn’t really stand up to previous iterations on similar stories (or, as we’ll see later in this series of posts, other 1978 men-on-a-mission movies). **1/2
  • The Avenging Eagle – You know what, I might have to have a separate top 10 of 1978 for martial arts flicks, because there are just tons of great entries in 1978. I wasn’t expecting much out of this one, but it was a really fun flick with great action sequences and decent enough performances.
    The Avenging Eagle

    The story involves two guys running into each other on the road to their respective tasks of honor, or something like that (one of them is seeking to atone for dishonor). Initially distrustful of one another, they eventually gain an unconventional respect for one another. Again, fantastic fight sequences scattered throughout, and they stand up to the heavyweights in the genre. Plus the villain has metal claw hands, which is fun. ***

  • The Redeemer: Son of Satan! – A priest (or maybe a demon or a priest possessed by a demon, or something like that) lures a group of former classmates to a high school reunion, traps them in the building, and starts killing them off one by one, citing their sins as justification. It sounds like it would an interesting sorta proto-slasher (or at least a proto Slaughter High), but it’s far more surreal than that. This might really click with a certain type of viewer, but it did not click very well with me. There’s some interesting visual tags here and there, but there’s a fine line between surreal and nonsense, and this veers a little too far towards nonsense, and the characters aren’t especially likable, which makes the whole affair fall a little flat. Maybe the film thinks it’s explaining things enough, but it didn’t really make much sense, and the scares were pretty rote and unmemorable. The only thing that really strikes me, a few months later, is the opening and closing shots of the film. I have no idea what they mean, but they kinda work? I dunno, it’s not the worst movie, but it’s not something that’ll climb very far on the 1978 rankings… **
  • Girlfriends – This slice-of-life, angst and ennui of a 20-something woman in NYC has become something of an indie cliche in recent years, but this sort of thing was exceedingly rare back in 1978. This is emphatically not my style of movie, but I’ll say this: I liked this a lot better than I liked Frances Ha (which clearly models itself as a sorta modernized Girlfriends). It’s hard to deny the sincerity and genuine affection the film has for its characters and the way they grow apart and together, change, and evolve. It’s not really my thing, but it’s well done and I’m glad I watched it. **1/2

We’ll follow this up with another post on 1978 flicks soon, so keep your eyes open for that. I mean, you can still blink. And you’ll probably need to sleep before I post the next one. Just, you know, do normal things with your eyes, but at some point, you’ll be able to point them at another post on 1978 movies, which I’m sure you (and the other 3 people who still read blogs) will be spellbound.

Current tally of 1978 films seen: 53 films (I covered 6 in this post, but another 5 are already in the hopper for the next post…)

The 1978 Project: Part II

For the uninitiated, the 1978 project is a deep dive into a specific year in cinema (guess which year!) Now that we’re past the Six Weeks of Halloween (which was not without movies qualifying for the 1978 Project), I figure it’s time to catch up with some other 1978 movies.

  • China 9, Liberty 37 – A gunfighter is saved from the hangman, but only if he agrees to murder a miner who has refused to sell his land to the railroad company. This is the plot to approximately 40% of all western movies, but coming as it does towards the end of the spaghetti western run, the film is more poetic and reflective than usual. Of course, this also makes it slower moving, but it’s clearly far more interested in the characters, which are more fleshed out than you’d expect. Warren Oats plays the miner (and former gunslinger) with a wistful edge and Jenny Agutter does great work as his wife, trapped by circumstance. Fabio Testi certainly looks the part of the young gun, but his accent detracts from an otherwise solid performance. The love triangle that develops between the three isn’t exactly breaking new ground either, but the character work adds some sense of distinction. Director Monte Hellman certainly has a keen eye, taking full advantage of the spaghetti western tropes in composing his landscapes and blocking his scenes. If you can find a decent transfer of the film (i.e. not the one on Amazon prime, which is SD and cropped/pan-and-scan), it looks great, almost painterly at times. Pino Donaggio turns in a solid spaghetti-style score too, full of harmonicas and guitars. Ultimately a well made take on a standard western story, the plot doesn’t quite sustain itself, but its other qualities make it worthy of a watch. **1/2
  • Days of Heaven – Terrence Malick’s elegiac dreamscape defies any real plot description. Oh sure, there’s a love triangle, a light critique of labor in the early 20th century, and some grifting schemes, but they’re muted at almost every opportunity. Instead, we get 94 minutes of impeccably photographed landscapes and people. Indeed, most of the film was shot using natural light during the “magic hour”, an insane decision that lead to a production schedule where they only really filmed for, like, 20 minutes a day. Ennio Morricone’s score is also great and fits seamlessly with the film’s dreamlike tone.
    Days of Heaven

    The result is gorgeous, of course, but it’s in service of fairly pedestrian musings on love, labor, and life. The film is punctuated by a long running narration, which is quite odd. It’s not sloppy exposition, which is good, but the line readings aren’t particularly inspired either, and it feels like the film is reaching for profundity that isn’t really there. Or maybe it is. The film is filled with so much beauty that it’s hard not to lose yourself in the landscapes and breathtaking nature photography. The locust sequence in the latter portion of the film is particularly effective, and it presents something visually different from the whole. It’s the sort of film that lets you project your own themes on top of the light ones presented, which I suspect is why it has been so well received. I tend to prefer something a little tighter, but if you’re going to eschew substance in favor of style, this is the way to do it. **1/2

  • Grease – Australian good girl moves to American and falls in love with a greaser over the summer, but when they unexpectedly wind up attending the same school, worlds will collide, Jerry. Will they overcome peer pressure and their friends’ expectations to keep the romance going? I’m not a big fan of musicals, but I can definitely see why this has such a devoted following.

    It seems to have come out at the perfect time, riding the wave of 50s nostalgia that ran through the 70s, as well as star-making turns from John Travolta (already on the rise from Saturday Night Fever, this cemented his ascent) and Olivia Newton John. The story is pure fluff, hinting at some darker themes but downright joyful compared to the era’s trend of more dour takes on traditional stories. It’s cheesy and wholesome at the same time, making it appealing to just about everyone. This sort of thing isn’t really for me, but I can appreciate what’s going on here well enough. ***

  • Death Force – A trio American soldiers in Vietnam come up with a side hustle of smuggling cocaine in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers killed in action. Two of the soldiers betray the third, shooting him and throwing him overboard. Only he doesn’t die… he washes up on some remote Pacific island populated by two imperial Japanese soldiers who have been stranded there since the end of WWII and still think it’s their duty to occupy the land (not knowing the war had ended, like, 25 years previous). Anyway, our betrayed hero learns the art of the Samurai from his new Japanese friends, gets rescued, then goes on a rampage with his Samurai sword, taking out every gangster he sees. So yeah, this is a pretty bonkers little exploitation flick. It’s not conventionally good, but it’s quite entertaining if you get on its wavelength. Obviously low budget, the filmmakers go with the flow and present their limitations almost as if they were some sort of aesthetic choice. The result is perhaps more unintentionally funny than poignant, but it’s got a heart in there somewhere. This isn’t going to show up on my top 10 or anything, but it’s a fun little flick and worth checking out if you enjoy trash. **
  • Coma – A young doctor uncovers a rash of mysterious events at her hospital. A steady stream of relatively healthy patients are coming in for routine surgery and experiencing inexplicable “complications” that result in comas. She becomes obsessed with investigating and exposing the potential conspiracy. This is a sturdy little mid-tier conspiracy thriller adapted by Michael Crichton from a Robin Cook novel. While the story was not written by Crighton, it touches on many of the themes Crighton clearly loves, and he’s actually a pretty solid director, able to ratchet up the tension in both obvious and non-obvious ways throughout this film. Geneviève Bujold turns in a great performance as the surgeon turned investigator here, and she clearly drives the entire movie despite the appearance of Michael Douglas as her boyfriend (an early role for him, clearly not the superstar he’d later become, he does well in this supporting role).

    While not strictly a horror film, there are several tense sequences (a chase through the hospital in which Bujold hides amongst cadavers is quite effective) and particularly creepy imagery (the coma patient storage facility features some very memorable visuals) that lend the film some genuine scares. Ultimately, we’ve seen this sort of medical conspiracy before, but this is a good, early example of the trope and while it’s not exactly groundbreaking or adventurous cinema, it’s a very well executed thriller that’s well worth checking out. **1/2

Current tally of 1978 films seen: 43 (20 of which were watched in 2019).

The 1978 Project: Part I

Part of a deep dive into the films made in the year of my birth: 1978. This post is covering several films I watched while the idea was only gestating, so I’m going mostly off of memory here, except for a couple movies I only watched in the last week or so…

  • The Shout – Hazy thriller in which an itinerant man (Alan Bates) injects himself into the lives of an experimental musician (John Hurt) and his wife (Suzannah York). Bates claims to have mystic aboriginal powers, notably the titular “Shout”, which he says has the power to kill anyone who hears it. Hurt, being a musician, becomes enamored with this idea, but Bates is sorta using it to disrupt Hurt’s marriage and you know what? The plot here is almost beside the point.
    The Shout

    This is much more of a mood piece, with an ambient soundtrack (provided by the less-famous members of the band Genesis) and bizarre framing device to set the tone. At times cryptic and hypnotic, but it can also sometimes feel pointless and hollow. Great performances all around, though Bates’ quiet menace is clearly the standout, and the visuals work pretty well too. I have mixed feelings about this one. Not usually my sort of thing, but I still found it to be an interesting discovery. **

  • The Last Waltz – Canadian-American rock group The Band ended their touring career with a spectacular blowout in 1976, featuring numerous celebrity guests including Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, and plenty of others. None other than Martin Scorsese filmed the concert and incorporated some interviews with The Band, releasing the whole package in this concert documentary. Generally, there’s not a whole lot to do with a concert-based film, and while the interviews interspersed throughout are fine, they don’t really sell the movie. The music itself is the real standout, and boy is it a spectacular series of guest appearances. I didn’t really know what I was getting into with this, and half expected it to be a sorta talking-heads documentary where a bunch of famous musicians opined on The Band’s influence, etc… But it turns out that they actually just join The Band onstage and play songs. And it’s great! Scorsese clearly knows what he’s doing and it it looks good too, but again, its not really the formal filmmaking that makes the movie; it’s the sheer number of huge stars that show up at this show that makes the whole thing worthwhile. I really enjoyed it much more than I thought I would and I’m glad that someone of Scorsese’s caliber was around to document it… but it’s clearly a document and not an actual “experience”. Of course, what document could ever really capture what this experience must have been like? ***
  • Eyes of Laura Mars – A provocative fashion photographer (Faye Dunaway as the titular Laura Mars) begins having visions of murders seen through the eyes of a serial killer. The killer is orbiting Mars’ life, killing those involved in her work. A young Tommy Lee Jones (sporting a bitchin’ black turtleneck and jet black mane of hair) plays the police detective on the case. Rene Auberjonois and a larval Brad Dourif have worthy supporting roles. Tons of red herrings, approaching a sorta schlocky American take on Giallos, but not quite getting there, opting for more restraint and soft edges. It’s got small doses of sleaze, but not enough to really catapult it into competition with Exploitation or Giallo (and by this, I don’t mean that the film is any less valuable, and indeed it seems better received than it would have been if it really leaned into those elements). The final twist isn’t that hard to see coming, but also somehow feels a little off, like it doesn’t quite fit (that, at least, is very Giallo). Thematically, there’s some exploration of art and influence in culture, both explicitly in the text (Laura Mars’ work touches on the intersection between violence and sexuality in ways that are controversial) and implicitly in the way the story is told. The pacing drags for a while in the middle and I’m not entirely sure it sticks the landing, but it’s still a fascinating little slice of 70s filmmaking. **1/2
  • Game of Death – Bruce Lee’s final film, he died during filming, leading filmmakers scrambling to assemble something usable from available footage. To accomplish this, the filmmakers use every trick in the book, ranging from mildly clever to face-palmingly dumb to breathtakingly tasteless. This is a movie that actually contains an actual shot of Bruce Lee’s actual corpse. That’s… disgusting. As a result of all this, the plot is disjointed at best, and Lee isn’t in lots of the movie, or is shrouded in shadows or some other trick used to get around the lack of footage. All of which is a real shame because the films finale, set in a pagoda, features some great action setpieces.
    Game of Death

    Basically a series of boss fights where Lee dons the famous yellow jumpsuit (homaged by Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman in Kill Bill: Vol. 1) and fights his way through several henchmen, including the, uh, much, much taller Kareem Abdul Jabbar. Ultimately the film is more interesting as the result of a historical trainwreck than as a film by itself. It’s an ethically and morally corrupt attempt to cash-in on a dead movie star, but there are some transcendent moments in the film too. This makes traditional ratings here kinda hard, but let’s just go **

  • Xenogenesis (short) – A 12 minute short film co-directed by James Cameron and Randall Frakes, this is the sort of thing that fans of Cameron would get a kick out of. Some of his most famous ideas from The Terminator and Aliens have their roots here. It’s also pretty clearly inspired by Star Wars (which came out the year before). As a piece of filmmaking, it’s pretty clunky, starting with a big chunk of voiceover exposition laid over still shots of artwork, then moving to a live action encounter between a pair of explorers and a spaceship security robot thing. Some of the visuals are striking (sometimes approaching a sorta proto-TRONlook), and the technique on display is pretty good considering the shoestring budget. You’ll recognize the robot as a similar design to the Hunter Killer tanks from The Terminator and the idea of a woman in an exoskeleton saving the day was clearly repurposed in Aliens. It’s short and it works fine, but it’s really only of interest to Cameron completists (but if you are one of those, then you’ll enjoy this). **
  • Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow – After trying (and failing) to make Jackie Chan the next Bruce Lee, the studios let Chan do his own thing, which basically meant incorporating more comedic elements into his films. This movie is Chan’s breakout effort, teaming up with legendary fight choreographer and director Woo-Ping Yuen (normal Americans probably know him best for his work on The Matrix, but he’s huge in Martial Arts cinema). Chan plays an orphan adopted by a man who runs a martial arts school. Chan’s character is a lovable, good-natured punching bag who is picked on by the rest of the school. One day he runs into an old man being attacked and rushes to help. Grateful, the old man teaches Chan the Snakefist style. Chan is then able to stand up to the bullies at his school, but then learns that adherents to the Eagle’s Claw style are attempting to wipe out all the Snakefist masters, including his old friend.
    Snake in the Eagles Shadow

    This is a standard Martial Arts plot and not really the point, but it’s pretty well packed with excellent action set pieces and well choreographed fights. Woo-Ping Yuen’s intricate style pairs well with Jackie Chan’s trademark improvisational nonsense (well, that’s a misnomer because Chan’s trademark style is neither improvisational nor nonsense, but it appears that way and is a big part of his charm). This is clearly an early, not quite fully formed Jackie Chan, but it’s still a great movie. The actor Siu-Tien Yuen plays the old man who trains Chan, and he’s fantastic (and also, he’s the real-life father of director Woo-Ping Yuen). Finally, this film has the greatest death scene in all of cinema history. Good stuff and maybe my favorite discovery yet. ***

  • Drunken Master – Jackie Chan followed up his success by reteaming with both Woo-Ping Yuen and Siu-Tien Yuen for what might be his most famous early work, the one that really catapulted him into stardom. However, Chan’s character is a bit less likable here, playing the spoiled son of a famous Kung Fu instructor. He causes trouble everywhere, in some cases justified (as when he defects a local merchant from another spoiled brat), and in others emphatically not (as when he tricks a girl into hugging and kissing him, though at least in this case the girl’s mother kicks the crap out of him in a great scene). Fed up with his kids antics, the father sends him off to train with his great uncle, a teacher notorious for strict training methods and discipline. Eventually, Chan’s character starts to wise up, learns his new teacher’s secret style of “Drunken Boxing” and uses it to help defend the family clan from an assassin. Like Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, this is a very well executed martial arts movie. The trio of Jackie Chan, Woo-Ping Yuen, and Siu-Tien Yuen work really well together and that chemistry shows up onscreen. Filled with more of Chan’s patented slapstick and intricate fight choreography, including the creative and entertaining Drunken Boxing style, this is another film with a high density of action sequences, and they’re all fun to watch. Chan’s character is a bit of a dolt, but it is fun watching him get beat up for it. It’s funny, there was a recent story about how The Rock and Jason Statham have lines in their contract about how they can’t lose a fight in a movie, the number of punches they can take, etc… Meanwhile, in the two Jackie Chan movies covered in this post, Chan is getting his butt kicked pretty consistently, which of course allows him an arc to grow and fight back. There’s a few sequels to this movie, but I honestly enjoyed this one the best. Indeed, I’m not sure which of these I like better… ***

That’s all for this first update. I’m sure I’ll get to some 1978 stuff during the Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, but the next formal update will probably be sometime in November/December.

Introducing the 1978 Project

Last year, I made a resolution to watch 50 movies made before 1950. It was a fun and illuminating exercise, but I never really settled on a plan for this year (though I have noticed that my viewing has loosely gravitated towards something along the lines of a catch up on 1950-2000) because it’s not like I always want to have some formal project or something. However, one thing that I thought might be interesting was to watch a bunch of movies made in the year of my birth: 1978. I’ve been further prompted along by film writer Catherine Stebbins’ recent release of her Top 10 by Year for 1978, which is an interesting project (she’s also made a fancy shmancy ‘zine that’s available for purchase). At the end of this, I won’t be releasing a zine on etsy or anything, but maybe I can do something akin to the standard end of the year Kaedrin Movie Awards and Top 10 posts I’ve been doing for the past decade or so.

Obviously, I’ve already seen quite a few films from 1978 (as of right now 32, though some of those are included below because I only watched them recently), but there are tons of movies I have yet to see or maybe should revisit. So here’s the current watchlist, broken out into small categories, because why not?

Alright, now that we’re finding killer bee movies, let’s just leave it at that. I will most likely not get to all of the above and will probably watch something not on the list at some point as well. As of now, no concrete timeline on this either, but it’s a safe bet that I won’t finish up until Spring at the earliest… But this is all good enough for now. Look for a quick update soon, but then we hit the Six Weeks of Halloween, which will certainly have some 1978 stuff, but lots more (as per usual)…