Film Review: Dragonslayer (1981)

Release Date: June 26th, 1981
Directed by: Matthew Robbins
Written by: Hal Barwood, Matthew Robbins
Music by: Alex North
Cast: Peter MacNicol, Caitlin Clarke, Ralph Richardson, John Hallam, Peter Eyre, Sydney Bromley, Chloe Salaman, Ian McDiarmid

Paramount Pictures, Walt Disney Productions, 109 Minutes

Review:

“[to Galen] It’s a shield. I made it. Might keep the fire off of you, might not. You know, you’re an idiot. You’re going to die tonight. You’ll be ripped, limb from limb. This is the last time I’ll ever speak to you!” – Valerian

I never saw DragonSlayer, which is kind of odd, as it is in a genre I watched a lot of as a kid. I think that I saw trailers for it but it never excited me enough to rent it from the video store.

I wanted to check it out now because I’ve been watching a ton of sword and sorcery and fantasy films from this era. Overall, this wasn’t a disappointment but for the most part, it was pretty drab and uneventful.

But on the flip side of that, I was pretty impressed with the special effects, especially for 1981.

All the dragon stuff comes off remarkably well for the time. I thought the final battle was really entertaining, even if it was pretty hokey and had some noticeable flaws seeing this almost 40 years later in HD. But they’re the sort of minute visual flaws that would’ve been hidden by the technology of the time and I can’t really come down on the film for that. But I find it to be worth mentioning, as this is one of many films that has had its magic ruined or exposed by finding itself remastered in high definition for modern eyes.

The scenes that employ large dragon props and animatronics all work really well though, even today. The scene where the dragon is stalking the virgin in his lair towards the beginning of the film is still pretty chilling and effective.

I also liked Peter MacNicol in this. He was charming and it was fun seeing him much younger than the role I most associated him with, which is Dr. Janosz Poha from Ghostbusters II. Also, the Emperor himself, Ian McDiarmid, shows up in this. And here, he’s actually using the light side of the Force.

DragonSlayer is fun in parts and it was imaginative and the effects were superbly executed. However, it’s slow moving with lots of unnecessary banter and a plot that is too simplistic to be stretched into a 109 minute motion picture.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other fantasy and sword and sorcery films of the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Film Review: Body Heat (1981)

Release Date: August 28th, 1981
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan
Music by: John Barry
Cast: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J. A. Preston, Mickey Rourke, Kim Zimmer, Jane Hallaren, Lanna Saunders

The Ladd Company, Warner Bros., 113 Minutes

Review:

“I’m really disappointed in you, Racine. I’ve been living vicariously off of you for years. You shut up on me now, all I have is my wife.” – Peter

Lawrence Kasdan is probably most known for being one of the writers that worked alongside George Lucas on the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But here, he not only writes but he directs. And it was his working relationship with Lucas that helped him get this film produced. In fact, Lucas put up some of the money himself, even though he’s not officially given a producer credit.

It’s interesting that Kasdan’s directorial debut was something so different than what audiences had known him for, which were primarily high adventure pictures. But Kasdan made a very true to form film-noir picture. But maybe it was too close and that worked against it; I’ll explain.

Kasdan’s story for Body Heat drew inspiration from the 1944 film-noir classic Double Indemnity. In fact, there are some pretty stark similarities but Body Heat is not a complete rehash and it certainly stands on its own, despite having very similar cues.

The film is really carried by the strong performance by William Hurt. Kathleen Turner stars alongside him as the typical femme fatale and while she’s pretty good, she comes off as more of a caricature of the femme fatale archetype than feeling like she is giving a genuine performance. But I don’t think that’s on her, as she’s proven how capable she is. I think it could be a combination of Kasdan’s direction and writing, as he was possibly trying to squeeze her into an image he had, as opposed to letting her put more of herself into the role.

Still, Hurt offsets the awkward clunkiness of Turner and the rest of the cast between Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke and everyone else, keeps the ship moving in the right direction.

The story is pretty good but it’s not anything new, especially if you’re a fan of the noir genre. Despite a few good twists and turns throughout this labyrinthine plot, nothing that happens is shocking and it is kind of predictable in retrospect. In fact, even though I enjoyed this, it didn’t give much of anything new to the genre it emulates.

In regards to it being a modernization of classic film-noir, it isn’t the first film to do that either. But if this is anything, it’s Lawrence Kasdan’s love letter to film-noir and for the most part, it’s a nice love letter that makes its point rather well.

Body Heat certainly isn’t forgettable but it’s a long way off from redefining what noir could be like Blood Simple and The American Friend did. But strangely, I did enjoy this a hair bit more than Blood Simple.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other neo-noir films of the era: Blood Simple, The American Friend and the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Film Review: The Last Chase (1981)

Release Date: April 10th, 1981
Directed by: Martyn Burke
Written by: A. Roy Moore, C.R. O’Christopher
Music by: Gil Melle
Cast: Lee Majors, Burgess Meredith, Chris Makepeace, Alexandra Stewart

Argosy Films, Canadian Film Development Corporation, Crown International Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“This man’s dangerous. This little joyride he’s on is undermining the entire balance of this country.” – Hawkins

Even for 1984 standards, this movie is of such poor quality that I was surprised to find out that this was released theatrically and not just made for TV as a CBS “movie of the week”.

The film stars Lee Majors and Burgess Meredith as two dudes way past their prime but unable to get rid of their youthful tendencies.

The Last Chase takes place in a dystopian future where crazy environmentalists rule society and have outlawed vehicles. Majors plays a former race car driver that has been secretly building a new race car in his garage for twenty years. Burgess Meredith plays an old man that used to be a fighter pilot back when jets were still in use. Majors and some teenage sidekick take his race car on a cross country joyride that angers the fascist government, who then sends in old ass Burgess Meredith to catch these speed demon criminals in a fighter jet.

Does the premise sound awful? It should, because it is.

So Meredith hunts down Majors, shoots at him and we get an elderly vehicular duel with a bunch of unnecessary non-action scenes thrown in to break up the tension that doesn’t actually exist in this picture. I’m not sure what the point of this movie was but at least I finally got to see a Penguin fly.

Anyway, this was featured on the original first season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and this isn’t one of the films that the revisited once the show went national on Comedy Central. That’s probably because it bored Joel and the ‘Bots to tears the first time.

Rating: 4/10
Pairs well with: Death Race 2000 and Cannonball, both of which are much, much better than this.

Film Review: The Road Warrior (1981)

Also known as: Mad Max 2 (original title), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (US)
Release Date: December 24th, 1981 (Australia)
Directed by: George Miller
Written by: Terry Hayes, George Miller, Brian Hannant
Music by: Brian May
Cast: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Mike Preston, Max Phipps, Vernon Wells, Emil Minty, Kjell Nilsson, Virginia Hey

Kennedy Miller Productions, Warner Bros., 96 Minutes

Review:

“Two days ago, I saw a vehicle that would haul that tanker. You want to get out of here? You talk to me.” – Max

The Road Warrior is a good example of a sequel being better than its predecessor. Some people might disagree but this was the best version of a Mad Max film until 2015’s Fury Road was released. But this is, in my opinion, the best of the original trilogy that starred Mel Gibson.

The world is pretty much destroyed in this film. While we saw a world on the brink of collapse in the first picture, by the time we get to this one, the world has been reduced to nothing but desert, as least as far as we know.

With that, the two most sought after commodities are water and oil. But here, oil is basically gold as those who can still run their machines, have a strong advantage over those who can’t.

The story sees Max discover a community that has a good amount of oil but they are being threatened by a vicious gang that looks more like barbarians than normal, well meaning people. The evil gang, led by Lord Humungus, keeps the community trapped behind their walls as they use their vehicles to run down anyone who comes outside. Max strikes a deal with the nice people being terrorized and we see him have to take on these vile villains in the most high octane way possible.

The Road Warrior is both barbaric and fantastical but still grounded in a sort of gritty reality. It came out just before the ’80s sword and sorcery trend took hold and while it has strong similarities to the genre, it doesn’t rely on magic and monsters but instead, machines and human monsters.

The movie feels otherworldly but not in a way that it doesn’t seem plausible or reflective of a possible future for humanity. Coming out during the Cold War, regardless of this being an Australian film, adds a natural heightened sense of fear. George Miller made something that effectively tapped into those societal and political concerns while also making just a badass action movie that has aged well, despite its weird fashion sense. But that ’80s punk meets new wave look also gives the film some of its charm.

While the film certainly doesn’t need to rely on Mel Gibson, his inclusion here adds and extra level of gravitas and personality to the picture. But I also have to give some credit to bad guy character actor Vernon Wells, as the mohawked savage Wez.

The Road Warrior is capped off by a twenty minute action finale that sees the greatest vehicular chase scene in cinematic history for its time. And frankly, it’s only really been upstaged by it’s later sequel Fury Road. I could say that maybe some movies have had better car chases but what gives this movie something special is how there is a variety of weird vehicles from cars, trucks, motorcycles and even a gyrocopter.

I love this movie. It’s one of the top action films of the ’80s and arguably, all-time. It’s simple, it’s tough and it gets the job done while surprising you along the way.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: all the other Mad Max films, as well as other post-apocalyptic car and biker movies, most of which were ripoffs of this.

Film Review: Nightmare (1981)

Also known as: Blood Splash, Nightmare in a Damaged Brain (alternate titles), Schizo (Australia)
Release Date: October 16th, 1981 (New York City sneak preview)
Directed by: Romano Scavolini
Written by: Romano Sacvolini
Music by: Jack Eric Williams
Cast: Baird Stafford, Sharon Smith, C.J. Cooke, Mike Cribben, Danny Ronan

21st Century Film Corporation, 97 Minutes

Review:

“Now Paul, you… you believed in these drugs. And, you rebuilt this man. And you did put him back out on the street. But now, he’s out there killing people. And we can’t have that. Now you find him… and you fix it” – Man with Cigar

Nightmare is an Italian slasher film shot mostly on the Florida Space Coast. Sadly, this isn’t a slasher picture that takes place at NASA but how cool would that have been in the ’80s? Like SpaceCamp meets Friday the 13th. I would’ve loved that shit.

Anyway, this primarily takes place on Cocoa Beach but there are a few New York City scenes as well.

The story follows a psycho that has been released to the public, he goes down to Florida and tries to fight his killer tendencies but he can’t. This all ties back to a horrific event from his childhood.

The film is far from spectacular but it is a good example of extensive gore used in a way that has some actual artistic merit to it. The gory scenes are very well done and as tasteful as they can possibly be. Yes, it is absolutely gratuitous but it feels like there is actual purpose behind it and it serves to have meaning to the plot and to character development. You’ll see what I mean when you get to the big reveal (a predictable one) at the end.

I can name dozens of slasher films that are better than this one and there isn’t a ton of killing but for whatever reason, this one does stick with you and it stands out, as it doesn’t try to emulate or blatantly ripoff other films in the genre, it explores different territory making it fairly unique. Also, I’m a Florida boy and I love the setting.

Strangely, being that this is an Italian film with a slasher premise, it doesn’t tap into the giallo style too much. The only thing remotely giallo, besides narrative similarities to that style and slasher films, is the vivid look of the blood once it really starts flowing. I think the director was more interested in trying to make something much more American feeling than replicating other, more famous, Italian horror directors. Kudos to him for that.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Don’t Go In the HouseBlood RagePieces and Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker.

Film Review: Final Exam (1981)

Also known as: Examen Final (Spain, France), Examen (Germany)
Release Date: June 5th, 1981
Directed by: Jimmy Huston
Written by: Jimmy Huston
Music by: Gary S. Scott
Cast: Cecile Bagdadi, Joel S. Rice, DeAnna Robbins, Sherry Willis-Burch, Ralph Brown, John Fallon, Timothy Raynor

Avco Embassy Pictures, Motion Picture Marketing, 89 Minutes

Review:

“People are killed every day for no reason at all.” – Radish

This film has characters named Radish and Wildman in it. What’s not to love, right?

Final Exam is one of the seventy dozen slasher films to come out in the early ’80s. It is also one of the most forgettable. It tries to be several things at once but fails at all of those things.

This is a film with multiple personality disorder. It wants to be a teen sex comedy and also wants to be a clone of everything better than it in the slasher genre. It doesn’t meld the two things together very well and it doesn’t do either of the two things very well either. It’s not funny, not scary and the biggest crime against it is that there is barely any blood in it.

Another problem with the film and I’m not sure if it’s an attempt to be artistic or just pure laziness but the slasher has no backstory, no name, no real motivation that you’re ever made aware of and looks generic as hell. He’s just some dude that looks like Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men but severely deficient in coolness.

The dumbest thing in this entire film is the sequence where some frat bros stage a fake terrorist attack on the school in an effort to create a distraction so their other frat bros can cheat on their exams. Seriously, these doofusauruses roll up onto the university lawn in a van and start machine gunning people and then steal the corpses of their victims. Of course, none of this is real, as the corpses come to life, laughing their asses off in the van. It’s a bizarre scene that just comes off as random nonsense that contributes to the overall nonsense that is this stupid movie.

Final Exam sucks. I love slasher films, even really bad ones, but this is such an awful pile of shit that the flies would rather commit suicide than hang around this massive mound of crude excrement.

Rating: 3.25/10
Pairs well with: Other college/school themed slasher pictures of the era: The ProwlerGraduation DayNight SchoolThe Dorm That Dripped BloodBlack ChristmasThe House On Sorority Row and The Initiation.

Film Review: The Prowler (1981)

Also known as: Most Likely to Die (working title), Pitchfork Massacre (reissue title), Rosemary’s Killer, The Graduation (alternate titles)
Release Date: November 6th, 1981
Directed by: Joseph Zito
Written by: Neal Barbera, Glenn Leopold
Music by: Richard Einhorn
Cast: Vicky Dawson, Farley Granger, Lawrence Tierney, Christopher Goutman

Graduation Films, Sandhurst, 89 Minutes, 87 Minutes (edited cut)

Review:

“I want you to be my date, Rose.” – The Prowler

I haven’t watched The Prowler in a long time but I did like it enough to rent with some regularity when I was a kid in the ’80s and ’90s. I also thought that “The Prowler” had a really cool look. The best slashers always have a cool outfit and a unique gimmick. This is the same reason why I love the bad guy in My Bloody Valentine. Like that movie, this is a film that isn’t spectacular but is made better by having a cool killer.

The film starts with a prologue that takes place in the 1940s. It is used to setup a connection between that time and modern times (or 1981 when the movie was released).

As is typical, someone is murdering young hot girls. It’s a big mystery and the murders are gruesome. You’ve probably seen this all before, maybe dozens of times, and there isn’t much to set this movie apart from its competition but slashers are rarely great and fans of these films don’t watch them expecting to experience a masterpiece like Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho.

Compared to some other films in the slasher genre, this one is a bit tame. Yes, there’s stabbings and gruesome murders but this is nowhere near as gory as some of the harder stuff out there. It certainly can’t compete with something like the Spanish slasher Pieces.

Surprisingly, this was a one and done slasher picture and didn’t churn out a bunch of sequels. But I guess that this early in the genre, studios were more into just making slasher pictures in general and not developing franchises. Friday the 13th only had one movie when this was made and A Nightmare On Elm Street was still three years away. The early ’80s were full of these one and done slasher pictures.

There isn’t much else to point out with this movie other than mentioning that it had two classic film-noir actors in it: Farley Granger and Lawrence Tierney. Modern film fans probably know Tierney best as Joe Cabot, the mob boss, from Reservoir Dogs.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: Other early ’80s slashers: The BurningPiecesMy Bloody ValnetineTerror TrainNew Year’s Evil, Happy Birthday to Me, The Mutilator, Sleepaway Camp, The House on Sorority Row, The Initiation, etc.