GLORY OF THE 80’s: Whisper to a Scream

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Time once again for another entry in our ongoing series, GLORY OF THE EIGHTIES. Every week, I highlight the films that were released to theaters on the corresponding weekend 35 years before. It should be noted that this series also has a companion, a thorough look at the films of the 1970s, which Jesse Hoheisel has started on his own page.

RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA

  • What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals? 
  • In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?

The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.


This week sees us finally emerging from the January dumping ground and getting some pretty big releases. This includes the film that would become the first cult favorite of the decade and turn Richard Gere into a bona fide star. AMERICAN GIGOLO’s polished sheen was a statement on what the 1980’s would be offering up for the next few years. Which is appropriate since we’ll be looking at a few films where the plot hinges on the volume and importance of one’s voice. MY BRILLIANT CAREER involves a woman’s right to be heard amongst a male dominated, repressive society. SILENT SCREAM features a woman who doesn’t utter a sound, but whose tortured mind is evident whenever you see her. THE SHOUT features an antagonist who proves the power of one’s voice can be fatal.

Also this week, the great Anne Bancroft directs her first and only film, a comedy with a very maudlin edge. Animals compete in athletic events in a film that was shown on cable back in the days when R-rated movies were off-limits to daytime audiences. And finally, we have another slasher film that would beat competitors to the punch in presenting a Santa Claus killer. 

All of these hit theaters the weekend of February 1, 1980. Here we go!

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AMERICAN GIGOLO – Julian (Richard Gere) is the most high-priced, sought after male escort in Los Angeles. Mainly serving the City of Angels’ lonely older women, he never gets any complaints. He’s well-read, intelligent, has expensive tastes and is attuned to women’s needs. But then, two things cause Julian’s world to unravel. He becomes romantically involved with Michelle (Lauren Hutton), the wife of a powerful senator. This relationship naturally angers the senator and his allies. Even worse, an ill-advised rough trick has led to Julian being framed for another woman’s murder.

MTV gets much of the credit for the neon sheen that engulfed certain films of the 1980s, even though things were rolling before video killed the radio star. AMERICAN GIGOLO is the first film of an early-80’s chic motif that would continue in films like SCARFACE and BODY DOUBLE and on television shows like MIAMI VICE. Indeed, the art direction by Ed Richardson is a highlight, as Julian surrounds himself with smooth, sexy scenery, showing us how Julian is conceited enough to believe the world adapts to him.

But it is in Julian that I found most of the trouble with AMERICAN GIGOLO. Gere is committed to his performance. But for such a knowledgeable and supposedly irresistible character, I find Julian to be an astonishingly dull person, in both the fantasy he projects to his clientele and the materialistic rogue he is in his daily life. He is only matched in dullness by Michelle, so in a way they are indeed meant for each other. I grew increasingly bored and disinterested watching them.

Paul Schrader is one of the greatest screenwriters ever and his directing efforts are always interesting. This is not to say they always work. Despite its reputation, I’m prepared to say that AMERICAN GIGOLO did not work for me, at least not on this initial viewing.  Disappointing.

 

SOMETHING ELSE: If AMERICAN GIGOLO leaves you cold, why not track down Schrader’s increasingly elusive LIGHT SLEEPER? Like this film, it deals with a powerful man in an illegal business whose world comes undone when he finds himself a pawn of higher powers. It’s an excellent and underrated film, featuring great performances from Willem Dafoe and Susan Sarandon.

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ANIMALYMPICS – What we have here is a feature-length animated film in which animals of various continents (not countries) compete in a massive Olympiad. The film is narrated by various animal newscasters as they follow the athletes in their events and interview them. It’s all a lampoon of the over-the-top Olympic Fever that sweeps the world every few years. And yet, there are a couple of arcing storylines that show that while the spirit of competition runs high, there are some things that are more important.

ANIMALYMPICS boasts some real talent. Four top-notch performers provide all the voices: Gilda Radner, Billy Crystal, Harry Shearer and co-writer Michael Fremer. Those are some impressive names right there. Graham Gouldman of the great AOR band 10cc provides a lively soundtrack. The film was directed by Steve Lisberger, who just two years later would go onto direct the even more ambitious TRON.

And ANIMALYMPICS is ambitious. It began as a pitch for two separate half-hour specials for NBC, one for the winter games and another for the summer games. Unfortunately, only the winter games special aired. In 1980, the summer games were held in Moscow and 65 countries including the United States boycotted the event when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Lisberger took the two specials and created new content, turning ANIMALYMPICS into a full-length feature. The film never played theaters but was one of the first features to premiere on HBO. Even when HBO expanded beyond its original nine-hour daily schedule (look it up!), ANIMALYMPICS could be seen for years.

ANIMALYMPICS holds up surprisingly well today. It’s got lots of action and cute animals for the kids, but it’s also funny and inventive enough for adults. It also sports some inventive hand-drawn animation techniques that are still worth examining.  Recommended.

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FATSO – Dominick DiNapoli (Dom DeLuise) is a single, overweight man who from an early age was taught to associate food with love and approval. Hence, as an adult he is in danger of ending up like his 39 year-old cousin who he’s just finished burying. Dom’s sister (Anne Bancroft) makes him see a specialist to get his eating under control. Dominick goes on a strict diet and joins a support group for overweight people. All of this makes Dominick even more miserable. Things turn around when he meets a plain girl named Lydia (Candice Azzara, who almost played on ALL IN THE FAMILY instead of Sally Struthers – if only) who steals his heart.

Today, being overweight in a film means a constant barrage of fat jokes and shows like THE BIGGEST LOSER shame people into misery. FATSO was the only film directed by Anne Bancroft and it could have been something really special. After all, millions of people continue to have weight problems and it seemed like she wanted to treat this more intelligently than most people would.

This is why while Bancroft’s husband Mel Brooks helped to get the film made, he is not listed as executive producer. Brooks saw value in the project but didn’t want people to assume that the film would be a wacky film where DeLuise would be sitting down in chairs and breaking them, an expectation that may be doubled if Brooks’ name was in the promotional materials. Instead, FATSO became the first film released by Brooksfilms, a production company that would also produce films like THE ELEPHANT MAN, FRANCES, MY FAVORITE YEAR and THE FLY.

So, that’s one good thing about FATSO and probably the only nice thing I can say about it. FATSO seems to have gone to the opposite end of the comedy spectrum and sucked out any enjoyment or insight that might be gained from the material. The script is flat and people repeat the same dialogue over and over. The action switches from Dominick’s loud and dramatic Italian family to scenes where Dominick is morose and depressed. Worse yet, the third act is taken up by a crisis that obviously isn’t a crisis unless you’re a dangerously obsessive personality. It’s all wrapped up in the type of lazy resolution you may have expected from the era’s worst sitcoms. FATSO is dull, lifeless and sloppy. It’s comedy to slit your wrists to.  The Worst.

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MY BRILLIANT CAREER (1979) – Sybylla Melvyn (Judy Davis) is the child of a well-meaning mother and loser father in 1890’s Australia. She has a rebellious spirit and doesn’t understand why a woman must settle for married life. She is sent away from her dreary existence to live at her posh grandmother’s estate. But instead of being influenced by her thoroughly conservative grandmother, Sybylla instead finds opportunity in a better life. She announces to anyone who will hear that she has no intention of getting married and instead would like to pursue a career in the arts. People try to tame her, including the wealthy Harry Beecham (Sam Neill) with whom she is quite taken. But Sybylla continues a struggle to make her voice heard and achieves a sense of personal fulfillment in her life.

Gillian Armstrong’s MY BRILLIANT CAREER is a classic of not just Australian cinema, but cinema in general. The way she frames each scene recalls the type of palette Terrence Malick strove for in his early work as well as the opulence Scorsese would later present in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. Like that latter film, MY BRILLIANT CAREER shows the surface beauty of society, always with the knowledge that it is a world built on repression, hypocrisy and broken dreams. Davis is wonderful as Sybylla Melvyn as is Sam Neill as her would-be suitor, a three-dimensional character in his own right.

For centuries, women were conditioned to dream small or not at all, stifling their potential in an ongoing practice of emotional and psychological genocide. Men instituted the policies and managed to allow women to reinforce them. There can be no forgiveness for practices such as this, because God knows how many amazing and progressive voices were silenced by them. We have been deprived of a wealth of knowledge, just as we are whenever someone is denied the freedom of expression.

That’s more preaching and grandstanding than you’ll find in Armstrong’s film. Instead, she allows Sybylla to serve as the film’s voice. Unlike so many period pieces of the time, MY BRILLIANT CAREER moves at a stunning pace, supported by fine acting, direction and the brilliant voice of a very special woman.  Highly Recommended.

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THE SHOUT (1978) – While overseeing a cricket match at an insane asylum, the enigmatic Crossley (Alan Bates) tells his tale to a visitor (Tim Curry), while acknowledging that he is going to play fast and loose with the rules of storytelling.

Sometime before, Crossley encounters Anthony and Rachel Fielding (John Hurt and Susanna York). The two live in a small, isolated, English town. Anthony is an experimental composer while Rachel finds ways to pass the time as Anthony tinkers with his instruments. Crossley infiltrates their lives, staying with the couple and disrupting the dynamic between the two. He claims to possess special powers that he learned in his years spent amongst an Aboriginal tribe. He speaks of a way to make any woman his own and Anthony fears Crossley may be using this practice to seduce his wife. But Crossley is not one to be trifled with, as he also claims to have the power of a shout that can kill all who hear it.

THE SHOUT is a very odd, very English film from Jerzy Skolimowski (DEEP END, MOONLIGHTING). The atmosphere is foggy and dreamlike. The style is similar to the works of Donald Cammell, Peter Weir and Nicholas Roeg. Unfortunately, while the performances are all good and the attempt is interesting, THE SHOUT is a dreary slog. It’s not a complete misfire; however it does grow less and less interesting when we should instead be feeling the tension increase. The pacing makes us feel as though we’ve been trapped up in the film’s bizarre netherworld for longer than we have.

It should be noted that THE SHOUT boasts an enviable soundtrack if you’re a fan of progressive rock like I am. The score is composed by Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford, a.k.a. two-thirds of the band Genesis at the time this film was made. As for Anthony’s experimental music, that is supplied by the equally impressive Rupert Hine.

THE SHOUT is definitely worth a look. It was just a bit too restrained, padded and pastoral for my tastes.  Barely Recommended.

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THE SILENT SCREAM (1979) – So help me God, I had no idea that the name “Scotty” could be a girl’s name. But apparently it can. Nothing wrong with women of course, but thank God the kids in school weren’t aware of this or I’d have something else to hold against my parents.

Scotty (Rebecca Balding) is the main character of our film, just one of a handful of college students who can’t find on-campus housing. They all take residence at a house with a gorgeous seaside view. The house is overseen by the cold and reclusive Mrs. Engels (Yvonne De Carlo) and her son Mason (Brad Reardon), a John Denver-looking kid with Norman Bates tendencies. But is Mason the one responsible for the college students being murdered one at a time? Or is it more likely Mrs. Engels’ mute and psychotic sister Victoria, who is kept hidden in the attic?

THE SILENT SCREAM (the article “the” was dropped in the promotional material) is a rather reserved slasher film. It seems more concerned with creating suspense and giving the audience a few scares as opposed to tossing gore at the audience in a commercial bid to create a new horror icon.

Barbara Steele is just as amazing in this film as she was in BLACK SUNDAY, DANZA MACABRA and THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK. As I mentioned previously, the great scream queen does not utter a single word throughout this film. Nevertheless, a single turn or adjustment in her facial expression was enough to bring this critic to the edge of his seat and before sending me shrinking back into it again.

SILENT SCREAM is a solid effort from director Denny Harris, who doesn’t hit it out of the park, but certainly shows great promise. It’s a shame he never directed another feature, because he certainly had the goods.  Recommended.

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TO ALL A GOODNIGHT – It’s the Christmas holidays, but not everyone at the Calvin Finishing School for Girls is going home. A group of young students decide to stay at the school, because what better time to order up some rich boys to party with? But uh-oh, it looks like the party has another uninvited guest as a killer in a Santa suit begins slicing up the nubile schoolgirls and their dates.

Does that description sound pretty routine? That’s the idea. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT is a fast and cheap slasher flick, filmed in ten days at the dawn of the 1980s. The story has some turns to keep things interesting, but a lot of what would become fixtures of the slasher film show up here. You’ve got a horrible accident that no doubt provides the impetus for the attack. You’ve got a creepy gardener who could either be the killer or merely a prophet of doom. You’ve got the conservative adult who warns against the dangers of loose morals. You’ve got young women giving up their goodies to every other guy that crosses their path. And you’ve got the virgin whose purity almost insures that she will make it to the final reel. That’s a lot of slasher mainstays, so many that it’s easy to ignore that this film came out more than four months before FRIDAY THE 13TH.

And yet, it seems like the people behind the scenes knew this was material ripe for parody. Director David Hess was already a veteran of horror, known for playing the monstrous Krug in LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT. He would be hired on to provide variations on that role for flicks like HITCH-HIKE and THE HOUSE ON THE EDGE OF THE PARK. Hess had a good eye for how routine this stuff could be and hence, almost seems to be poking a little fun at the formula while providing the requisite amount of sex and violence. This all makes for an entertaining slasher film that nonetheless never insults its audience.

Incidentally, Hess wasn’t the only horror actor to be working behind the camera. The screenplay was written by Alex Rebar, who had just played the title role in THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN.

TO ALL A GOODNIGHT was recently released on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing. The picture is quite the revelation when compared to those old Media VHS tapes. Makes a great holiday film to add to the collection, if you have room in your stocking.  Recommended.

NOTE: The review for TO ALL A GOODNIGHT previously appeared in our “Jingle Bell Schlock” series.


That’s it for this week, but I still need your help! If you have any newspaper ads, clippings or information about 1980’s release dates in some area of the country, please send me an email at moviocrity@gmail.com. I will try to incorporate them in the series. Remember, we only have data on a couple of areas of the United States but are always looking to get as clear a picture as possible. You can help!

COMING NEXT WEEK!

  • George Segal and Natalie Wood struggle to keep their marriage alive!
  • Ali McGraw tries to kill her marriage to Alan King!
  • John Ritter fights crime as a modern caped crusader!
  • A double agent finds himself manipulated by two nations!

ALL OF THIS AND MORE, NEXT WEEK IN GLORY OF THE 80’S!

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