Film Review: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Release Date: August 10th, 1980 (Venice, CA premiere)
Directed by: Jimmy T. Murakami, Roger Corman (uncredited)
Written by: John Sayles, Anne Dyer
Music by: James Horner
Cast: Richard Thomas, Robert Vaughn, George Peppard, John Saxon, Sybil Danning, Darlanne Fluegel

New World Pictures, 105 Minutes

Review:

“Nanelia, the Akira believe that no form ends until all the lives that it has touched are ended, until all the good that it has done is gone.” – Shad

For a very low budget film that is obviously one of many ripoffs of Star WarsBattle Beyond the Stars is actually… kind of good.

Now you can’t go into this expecting Star Wars quality, this is, in fact, produced by Roger Corman “The King of B-Movies”. But this still works for what it is and doesn’t have a bad look for the time, it just feels more like Battlestar Galactica or Buck Rogers in the 25th Century than A New Hope.

However, it is better than those two iconic shows, as it has the special effects of James Cameron and a score by James Horner. Corman was able to attract these two men and squeezed some magic out of them just before they would go on to have bigger and better careers, a few years later. Cameron would make The Terminator and Aliens not too long after this and Horner did the iconic score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

It’s that early James Cameron magic that actually turns chicken salad into chicken shit here. Reason being, his ship designs were great and each has its own unique and cool look. Plus, the visual effects, primarily the outer space stuff, is better than what was the standard for the time. We were still a few years away from good 3D animation, as would be seen in 1984’s The Last Starfighter.

Corman also pulled together a decent cast with veterans Robert Vaughn, George Peppard and John Saxon. We also got Sybil Danning, who surprisingly, kept her shirt on the whole movie. Well, she was showing off her tantalizing bits, as much as she could without making this an R-rated film.

The only real downside was seeing Richard Thomas as the film’s young hero. Not to knock Thomas but it’s just hard seeing John Boy from The Waltons being some sort of space faring badass. But I guess Luke Skywalker was a rural farm kid so why not try to use John Boy in the same sort of role?

This is still an enjoyable movie but you really have to be into ’80s sci-fi cheese of the highest caliber.

I’ve always sort of cherished this picture because I saw it at such a young age and it was on television a lot back in the day. It has not aged well but if I’m being honest, it already felt behind the times by the time 1985 rolled around, just half a decade later.

Rating: 6/10
Pairs well with: Other low budget Star Wars “homages” of the late ’70s/early ’80s: StarcrashThe Black HoleThe Ice PiratesSpace Raiders, Star Odyssey, etc.

Film Review: Superman II (1980)

Release Date: December 4th, 1980 (Australia)
Directed by: Richard Lester, Richard Donner (uncredited)
Written by: Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman
Based on: Superman by Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster
Music by: Ken Thorne
Cast: Gene Hackman, Christopher Reeve, Ned Beatty, Jackie Cooper, Margot Kidder, Valerie Perrine, Terence Stamp, Susannah York, Jack O’Halloran, Marc McClure, Sarah Douglas, Marlon Brando (appears only in the Richard Donner Cut)

Film Export A.G., Dovemead Limited, International Film Productions, Warner Bros., 127 Minutes (original cut), 116 Minutes (Richard Donner Cut)

Review:

“Come to me, son of Jor-El, kneel before Zod!” – General Zod

In all honesty, I like Superman and Superman II just about the same. II gets a bit of an edge though just because I like the story better and the threat in the film is a credible threat, as it pits Superman against an adversary that matches his power level.

While I love Lex Luthor, the character, and I also love the mind versus might rivalry, the Gene Hackman version of the character just doesn’t hit the right mark. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Hackman and his character in these movies but he doesn’t feel like the Lex of the comics I grew up with. He is to Luthor what Cesar Romero was to the Joker. He’s damn entertaining and enjoyable but he’s lacking the darkness that’s needed to truly be villainous.

General Zod, however, is an incredible opponent. He was created for this film series but he was so damn good that he would go on to be in the comics. Terence Stamp really brought some much needed testosterone to the table and his minions, played by Sarah Douglas and Jack O’Halloran, were pretty cool villains as well. Man, I was crushing hard on Sarah Douglas when I was a kid.

I also really liked the romance in this movie and usually I don’t care about that crap in these sort of films. I just like how Clark and Lois’ relationship blossomed and how it was really tested and pushed Superman into having to make an incredibly hard decision, which he then had to try and fix because saving the world is his destiny, even if that means he can’t love a human. Yeah, the story around this was actually weird and nonsensical but the point of it and the challenge made me accept it.

Getting back to Lex Luthor though, his role in this film seemed pretty pointless. Once again, he was the top billed star but it’s like they had nothing for him to do. He breaks out of prison, leaves poor Otis behind, breaks into Superman’s house and then aligns himself with Zod, who didn’t need Luthor’s help at all, let’s be honest. Luthor is just sort of wedged into the film just because they had to have a name as big as Gene Hackman’s, after Marlon Brando’s Jor-El was killed off in the first picture. I should note that Brando did film footage for the film but he wanted more money than the producers were willing to pay, so it was edited out of the final cut. He does appear in the Richard Donner cut of the film though.

This chapter in the Superman movie saga is a great extension of what the first movie was. Really, they just feel like two halves of a whole. The movies did a lot of their filming simultaneously because the producers knew there would be a sequel. Some of the filming on II got put on hold though, as it was holding up the production of I and the studio wanted to make sure it wasn’t going to miss its Christmas time release. There was a lot of conflict, behind the scenes, and Richard Donner was fired after directing most of II. He wasn’t given credit for his work and Richard Lester took over. Lester would also go on to direct the terrible Superman III, showing that he wasn’t as skilled as Donner. On a side note, the Richard Donner Cut was released years later, which most people seem to enjoy more.

Despite the backstage politics, this still ended up being my favorite film in the franchise.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: Superman: The Movie, the 1980 Flash Gordon.

Film Review: Saturn 3 (1980)

Also known as: The Helper (working title), Saturn-City (Germany), Kronos III (Greece)
Release Date: February 15th, 1980
Directed by: Stanley Donen, John Barry (uncredited)
Written by: Martin Amis, John Barry
Music by: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Farrah Fawcett, Kirk Douglas, Harvey Keitel

ITC Entertainment, Associated Film Distribution, 88 Minutes

Review:

“Now tell me. Can you talk? Or are you malfunctioning?” – Benson, “I AM NOT MALFUNCTIONING – YOU ARE” – Hector

This film has three actors and a killer robot. Well two actors, a robot and Farrah Fawcett, who isn’t as robotic as the robot but is clearly overshadowed by the two other actors in this: Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. Fawcett was the top billed star however, as she was at the absolute height of her career when this came out and she got her boobies out, which was something to behold when I was way too young to see this film for the first time.

I remembered this movie feeling incredibly cheesy and it does have a lot of cheese. However, it is also better than my memory’s recollection of it.

This film is pretty damn dark for looking like it was made on leftover sets from Battlestar Galactica. The robot is creepier than most of the killer robots from the time period. However, the story behind the robot and why it is a killer is more interesting than what similar films did, as he actually has a backstory and you fully understand why he is out for blood.

This film has a lot of narrative layers to it, which was impressive for a 1980 sci-fi film with an obviously small budget. There is some real philosophy in this movie, which was way over my head as a kid.

Harvey Keitel was a great slimeball in this but he wasn’t as disturbing as his role in Taxi Driver. But he did bring some of that darkness into this and he was great as the villainous Benson.

Kirk Douglas was typical Kirk Douglas as the more heroic male character of the two and he just came off as he always does, as a real man’s man.

Fawcett was also pretty impressive when you compare this to her most famous role as one of Charlie’s Angels. She got to be dramatic in this and showed signs that she could perform well beyond just being a TV sex symbol. I wouldn’t say that she ever became great but had her career continued on an upward trajectory, she wouldn’t have been half bad.

Saturn 3 looks fantastical and lighthearted in its style but it is a pretty dark movie with some disturbing undertones to it. It’s definitely worth checking out if you like sci-fi films of its era.

Rating: 6.75/10
Pairs well with: Outland, The Black HoleFlash Gordon (1980), The Last Starfighter, Dune and the original Battlestar Galactica TV series.

Film Review: Altered States (1980)

Release Date: December 25th, 1980
Directed by: Ken Russell
Written by: Paddy Chayefsky (as Sidney Aaron)
Based on: Altered States by Paddy Chayefsky
Music by: John Corigliano
Cast: William Hurt, Blair Brown, Bob Balaban, Charles Haid, Thaao Penghlis, Drew Barrymore, John Larroquette, George Gaynes

Warner Bros., 103 Minutes

Review:

“Fight it, Eddie. You made it real, you can make it unreal.” – Emily Jessup

I was pretty excited to see Altered States pop up on FilmStruck, a mighty fine streaming service. It’s a film I have wanted to see for a very long time but it wasn’t very accessible.

The film deals with an abnormal psychologist who gets a bit too addicted to his work and pays a hefty price for it. His work involves seeing what will happen if he mixes hallucinogenic drugs and an isolation chamber. What we get to experience is a man tripping his balls off, seeing some strange and really messed up shit. However, each trip gets more and more intense and the man starts to have physical changes. He starts regressing and at one point becomes a savage neanderthal. He even goes so far as to regress into primordial matter.

Calling this film unique and bizarre is a serious understatement. It is those things but it embraces the weird so genuinely and effectively that even if this tale is quite fantastical, you are sucked right into it.

I think the real reason why this picture works so well is the skill of its director, Ken Russell. By this point, he had already directed three Oscar winning films: Women In LoveThe Devils and The Who’s Tommy. This film would also go on to win Oscars for Best Sound and Best Original Score. But it was Russell’s uncanny vision and his ability to manufacture such vivid and intense images throughout this film that prevented this from turning into some hokey, LSD-laced, run of the mill sci-fi thriller.

William Hurt was exceptional as the psychologist, Eddie Jessup. Every single scene felt believable and he sold everything that was happening to him on screen. Not bad, as this was actually his debut film. He also had help from a young Bob Balaban, as well as Charles Haid, who became my favorite guy in the movie.

Eddie’s family was comprised of Blair Brown, who played his wife, and Drew Barrymore, as his daughter. This was also Barrymore’s debut film. We also get to see a very young John Larroquette play an x-ray technician and there’s a small role for George Gaynes, as well.

The special effects are good for its time and the hallucination sequences are amazingly orchestrated.

There are a slew of films that deal with scientists going mad over their own experiments. There are also a slew of films that are serious mind fucks. Altered States is one of the best, though. And after finally watching it, I can see where other films were inspired by it. It is a great “body horror” film and it will make you uncomfortable at times. In some regards, I think it’s comparable to earlier David Cronenberg films, as well as 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder.

Rating: 8/10
Pairs well with: Other body horror flicks from the era: VideodromeThe FlyScannersFrom BeyondEraserhead, The Thing, etc. Also, Jacob’s Ladder.

Film Review: The Last Dragon (1985)

Also known as: Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon
Release Date: March 22nd, 1985
Directed by: Michael Schultz
Written by: Louis Venosta
Music by: Bruce Miller, Misha Segal
Cast: Taimak, Julius J. Carry III, Chris Murney, Leo O’Brien, Faith Prince, Glen Eaton, Vanity, Mike Starr, Ernie Reyes Jr., Keshia Knight Pulliam, Jim Moody, Esther Marrow, Chazz Palminteri, William H. Macy, Carl Anthony Payne II, Ron Van Clief (uncredited)

Motown Productions, TriStar Pictures, 107 Minutes

Review:

“I’m gonna get you, Leroy, because I am the Shogun! I will not rest until everybody knows the Shogun is the master!” – Sho’nuff

The Last Dragon is a weird enigma and frankly, there is nothing else quite like it.

The story is about a boy named Leroy and how he becomes a kung fu master. His friends and students call him Bruce Leroy and there is a good amount of old Bruce Lee movie footage thrown into the picture for good measure. Between this and No Retreat, No Surrender, Bruceploitation was still alive and well more than a decade after the man’s death.

Leroy draws the ire of an evil kung fu badass named Sho’Nuff, who is played by the immensely awesome Julius Carry, who I would become a lifelong fan of after his role on the underappreciated television series, Brisco County, Jr. In fact, regardless of Carry being the badass bad guy, I love this movie mostly because of him and the very young Ernie Reyes Jr.

The two main stars of the picture are Taimak as Bruce Leroy and the ’80s pop star Vanity as Laura, who was essentially like an old school MTV VJ. You also get small roles from William H. Macy, Chazz Palminteri, Mike Starr and two of The Cosby Show‘s kids: Keshia Knight Pulliam and Carl Anthony Payne II. Legit martial arts star Ron Van Clief handled the fight choreography and had a small uncredited role.

While this isn’t a musical, it is a film that is very music heavy. One of the villains is an evil music producer that wants his girlfriend to become a massive star. In fact, I thought her song was pretty good within the context of the movie but Vanity seemed to be completely disinterested in it, which made the villain lash out and become even more villainous. Honestly, the bad song wasn’t really that different than most of the mid-’80s pop that fills the movie. Had she just played the music video, she could have saved herself and her friends a lot of stress.

The thing that makes The Last Dragon so unique is that it is a weird mix of kung fu, ’80s music, teen comedy and is a visual explosion of over the top ’80s style. The film almost feels like a fantasy that takes place in a world similar to ours but much cooler, where everything is accented by neon lights and chrome.

The Last Dragon is a pretty cool experience but it feels pretty dated. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea in the modern era but for fans of ’80s cheese, it’s a nice cornucopia of ’80s style, music and humor. Plus, it is just a cool movie that’s a whole lot of fun.

Film Review: Terror Train (1980)

Also known as: Train of Terror
Release Date: October 3rd, 1980
Directed by: Roger Spottiswoode
Written by: T.Y. Drake
Music by: John Mills-Cockell
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Ben Johnson, Hart Bochner, David Copperfield, Vanity (credited as D.D. Winters)

Astral Bellevue Pathé, Sandy Howard Productions, Triple T Productions, 20th Century Fox, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Well, you know what they say: cold hands, warm heart.” – Mitchy

This was the second film I watched in a New Year’s Eve slasher double bill that I hosted at my house. The first was New Year’s Evil.

Terror Train is the better of the two pictures. The main reason is that it is more imaginative. Also, it stars Jamie Lee Curtis while she was at the height of her run in the slasher genre. Plus, the killer uses different disguises, one of which looks like movie critic Gene Shalit dressed as a train conductor, as seen in the film’s poster.

While you pretty much know who the killer is and why he wants to kill these college kids, you still aren’t entirely sure if the killer is the horrible victim of the prank gone bad in the opening of the film. There are some swerves, here and there, and the overall plot is decently constructed, which is more than you can say for most slasher pictures.

This movie also features a very young David Copperfield. Obviously he plays a magician but those bits where he does tricks are pretty cool to see. I have always liked Copperfield and seeing him perform within the movie is a an extra treat.

One thing I like about this picture is the atmosphere. The film is pretty dark throughout but there is vivid lighting and a sort of mixture of neon highlights and a chiaroscuro lighting and shadowing style. The movie has a kind of subtle neo-noir vibe to it but it is probably more of a call back to the Italian giallo style of the ’70s. Those giallo pictures were very early versions of what would evolve into the standard slasher film framework.

Terror Train has this cool characteristic where it sort of pulls from classic horror, film-noir, giallo and even German Expressionism in the use of shadows and angles to create a feeling of disorientation. I don’t necessarily think that any of that was intentional, at the time, it is just a film that came out during a transitional period and wears its influences on its sleeve whether it knows it or not.

The film itself isn’t as exciting as its stylistic flourishes but it is still a slightly better than average slasher flick in a time when these films were pumped out like E. L. Fudge cookies at the Keebler factory.

Jamie Lee Curtis is good in this and you also get to see her play opposite of Hart Bochner, who is probably most remembered as that yuppie douche Ellis in Die Hard.

Film Review: New Year’s Evil (1980)

Release Date: December 26th, 1980
Directed by: Emmett Alston
Written by: Leonard Neubauer, Emmett Alston
Music by: Laurin Rinder, W. Michael Lewis
Cast: Roz Kelly, Kip Niven, Grant Cramer, Chris Wallace

Golan-Globus Productions, Cannon Films, 90 Minutes

Review:

“I’m a man of God, not a man of violence!” [stabs biker] – Richard Sullivan

For New Year’s Eve, I decided to have a New Year’s themed slasher double bill in the theater that is my home. Some friends and I watched this, as well as another 1980 slasher movie that also takes place on this holiday, Terror Train.

New Year’s Evil is a fairly entertaining slasher flick but it is hardly a classic and fails in certain areas.

One problem I have with the film is that there isn’t a lot of mystery as to who the killer is. It is pretty obvious that the men in the main character’s life are responsible. You immediately know that her son is a total freak with mommy issues and he even mentions that he is going to call his father when he’s upset over how his mother has blown him off while she is preparing for a big night.

As slashers go, the killings aren’t that great and really, the slasher himself isn’t great either. There isn’t a lot of imagination here, just slashing and some occasional boobies. Granted, this film came out very early in the slasher genre’s height in popularity and some tropes weren’t as established as they would be in the years that followed.

I do like this film for its ’80s MTV type feel. The music is cool, the party looks great and there is a good level of ’80s cheese, as this was a film that really felt like it represented a cultural shift between the punk rock ’70s and the new wave ’80s.

This is a good movie to kill some time with, especially for a slasher aficionado that hasn’t yet seen it. It’s a bit underwhelming and a bit too drab for something that looks so lively and colorful on its surface. Still, it’s not a complete waste of time.