Tag Archives: 1986

CAPSULE: FROM BEYOND (1986)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Barbara Crampton, Ted Sorel, Ken Foree

PLOT: A pair of mad scientists develop a device that activates the dormant human pineal gland, allowing them access to “the beyond.”

From Beyond (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: From Beyond is a solid little cult-y 1980s B-horror, but it just barely cracks the “weird” barrier. As wild as it seems when Jeffrey Combs is running around with a penile pineal gland waving from his forehead, in terms of strangeness, Beyond is a dim echo of Gordon’s prior Lovecraftian update, Re-Animator (1985).

COMMENTS: Let’s just get this out of the way first: From Beyond has to be the pinkest horror movie ever made. I don’t know what the Beyond is like, but based on the light that streams from its world into ours when the barrier between the two is breached, I am guessing that it’s a gay disco. An aquatic gay disco, since those who come over from the other side are wet and glistening, and the native inhabitants, whom you can see floating around our dimension once your pineal gland has been stimulated, look like eels and jellyfish. To From Beyond‘s credit, this crazy coral color scheme works; because we’ve never seen gooey monsters from beyond flushed by a hot pink incandescence before, it’s genuinely abnormal. Lots of things about From Beyond are abnormal, in fact, like the pineal-irradiating Resonator made from a couple of giant tuning forks and one of those plasma balls you can buy from Spencer’s gifts. Or Jeffrey Combs, somehow zombified after his hair has been sucked off by a giant worm, slurping people’s brains out through their eyeballs (what’s his motivation?) Or the evil pink blob-head from Beyond using his psychic powers to convince Barbara Crampton to don a skintight black leather corset and matching thong (I think I understand his motivation). From Beyond finds a near perfect tone for this sort of material. It’s completely absurd, but it always takes itself seriously, trusting the audience to sort out the humor from the horror without big signs pointing at the jokes. Shamelessly made to capitalize on the success of 1985’s Re-Animator, From Beyond is another modernized, R-rated H.P. Lovecraft adaptation with nerdy Combs as an apprentice mad scientist and sexy Barbara Crampton as the love interest (Crampton and Combs were the Bogie and Bacall of slime-spewing, boundary-pushing mid-1980s H.P. Lovecraft adaptations). Here, Crampton is given a larger and more serious role as a criminal psychiatrist whose obsession with the strange case turns her into something of a mad scientist herself—although she still provides plenty of eye-candy once she lets her hair out of that bun and ditches the glasses and buttoned-up-to-her-chin blouse. Combs is a competent actor, but there’s not much to his character here. Gordon had not yet figured out that this actor is wasted unless he’s playing some variation of Herbert West, a malevolent nerd with a God complex, rather than just some good-natured schlub in a Miskatonic U. T-shirt. Although From Beyond pales a bit in comparison to its immediate predecessor—and it would have taken a miracle to recreate Re-Animator‘s mix of carnage, black comedy and general outrageousness—this one is still a good time for horror fans looking for cheap thrills delivered with otherworldly panache.

Shout! Factory’s new From Beyond release on its Scream! Factory sub-label ports over all the special features from the old MGM edition (including the commentary with Gordon, Combs, Crampton, and producer ) and adds several new interviews, along with a second commentary from scriptwriter Dennis Paoli, who reads some of Lovecraft’s original story. This “Collector’s Edition” is available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack only (neither format is currently being sold separately).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…lacks the single-minded weirdness of Gordon’s first film, but it does establish him in the tradition of Hollywood horror directors who really try – directors including James Whale, Tod Browning and Roger Corman.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Barry Letts

FEATURING: Kate Dorning

PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from ‘s dreamlike 1966 version to ‘s stop-motion nightmare interpretation—that seeing an authentic retelling of this Victorian fairy tale aimed at kids is almost a shock to the system. It serves as a reminder that, as much as Surrealists love to appropriate Carroll for their own nefarious ends, the prototypical “Alice” is kiddie fare, not entertainment for grown up weirdophiles.

COMMENTS: With so many competing interpretations of Alice in Wonderland out there, it’s difficult to find a compelling reason to recommend this straightforward adaptation that originally aired as four separate episodes on British television. On the plus side, it is one of the most accurate filmed versions of the story, staying true to Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue and neither omitting any major episodes nor (as is often done) folding in popular incidents and/or characters from the Wonderland sequel “Through the Looking Glass.” This production attempts to breathe new life into the old story by setting some of Carroll’s nonsense poems to music; but, although the classical-styled compositions are competently rendered, they’re hardly memorable and, like much of the show, feel a little stodgy. Each episode is framed by a sepia-toned introduction featuring Carroll at a picnic making up the story for the historical Alice and her sisters; this ploy is fairly neutral, though some may appreciate the attention to the backstory. Cast as Alice, Kate Dorning is appropriately wide-eyed, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s not a little girl. I can’t find the actress’ date of birth, but she is clearly at least in her teens here, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she had already entered her second decade when she played the role. Her performance sometimes reminds me of those children’s shows where adults play childlike characters and talk directly to the camera, which brings us to the main issue with this production: the children’s’ TV-show budget. Although I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had available, there is inevitably a blasé “good enough for kids” sort of vibe to the proceedings. The presence of the green screen is often frightfully obvious: Alice’s stiff tumble down the rabbit hole and the Cheshire cat’s dissolve to a smile are particularly cringe-inducing. The animal characters (White Rabbit, Dodo, Frog and Fish footman, etc.) wear masks that, while well designed, are stiff and rubbery. A few of the setups do manage to find ways around the budgetary limitations, as when the poem/song “Father William” is dramatized as a shadow play performed by acrobats. In general, however, the filmmakers don’t have the means to recreate Wonderland, and they are too dedicated to literally showing actual hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on toadstools to devise a stylized rendition that could come in under budget. If you can overlook the unspecial effects, and tolerate the songs, this Alice is worthwhile as an authentic rendition of the text that will probably hold the interest of younger children. Of course, Disney’s animated offering, while less accurate, is far more enchanting for youngsters, who aren’t interested in scholarly fidelity to the text anyway. It almost seems that the BBC felt obligated to produce a straightforward, canonical Alice to atone for the fact that Jonathan Miller’s experimental 1966 adaptation was their lone take on this national classic. This rendition is more respectable, but less magical; and that hardly seems in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Director Barry Letts and producer Terrance Dicks were mainly known for their involvement with “Dr. Who,” and several actors from the Who troupe show up here. In fact, a survey of the blogosphere suggests this release may garner as much attention from curious “Who” fans as from “Alice” devotees.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “Pip Donaghy makes for a weird Mad Hatter, but really, there shouldn’t be any other kind. Despite the fact that it’s dated and a bit creaky in terms of its production values, this adaptation of Alice In Wonderland generally works quite well.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

CAPSULE: KING KONG LIVES (1986)

DIRECTOR: John Guillermin

FEATURING: Peter Elliot, George Antoni, Brian Kerwin, Linda Hamilton

PLOT: As the title explains, Kong didn’t die at the end of the previous film, and this time round he gets a girlfriend—one his own size for a change. Do they live happily ever after? No, of course not. Mean-spirited people attack them with assorted military hardware. Much hilarity ensues!

Still from King Kong Lives (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The only weird thing about it is that somebody thought it was a good idea to spend $10,000,000 (and that’s in 1986 money) coiling out this howling clunker.

COMMENTS: The 1976 remake of King Kong was never exactly a masterpiece, but it cost $24,000,000 and made $80,000,000, and in Hollywood, that’s what counts. So, ten tears later, producer Dino De Laurentiis (whose industry nickname “Dino De Horrendous” wasn’t altogether unjust) gave the director of the first film, John Guillermin, a crack at the sequel. The catch? As attentive readers will have noticed, his budget was less than half what they gave him previously. Since it was universally agreed that one of the major failings of the first film was the inadequacy of the special effects used to portray the 50-foot ape, and this film starred two of them, how well was it ever going to pan out?

But even apart from the many, many dire effects shots featuring poorly-made model scenery, barely adequate ape suits, and a giant animatronic hand so stiff that Kong appears to have arthritis, just about everything in the movie is woefully misjudged somehow or other. In the film’s sole concession to realism, ten tears have passed between films, just as they have in reality (which conveniently allows them to forget about every character in the first film whose surname wasn’t Kong). Throughout this time Kong—who, you may recall, had been riddled with machine-gun bullets until, obviously dying, he fell off the World Trade Center—has been comatose, kept alive by a vast custom-built life-support system. Why? Don’t ask, and then you won’t mind when they don’t bother to tell you.

Equally obviously, if a huge animal falls a quarter of a mile onto a hard surface, its heart is the only bit that’ll suffer. Unfortunately, as Linda Hamilton’s veterinary surgeon character explains, that artificial heart the size of a Volkswagen they’ve worked so hard on is useless, because being in a coma for ten years means that Kong has lost a lot of blood (???), so the operation can’t be performed without a blood donor. “Only one thing can save him.” she solemnly intones: “A miracle!” Cut to Brian Kerwin wandering around Borneo for some unrelated reason, then literally stumbling across and effortlessly capturing a cute fifty-foot Lady Kong whom nobody had ever noticed before. Gosh, that was a lucky break!

(By the way, if you’re wondering why she’s called “Lady Kong” instead of the more logical “Queen Kong”, there was an existing movie with that title that’s even sillier than this one, though copies are very hard to come by.)

It has to be admitted that the early footage of Linda Hamilton conducting the transplant with enormous surgical instruments, including a sort of buzz-saw on a pole, are spectacularly surreal—the indelible image has to be Kong’s heart being lifted out with a crane. Sadly the rest of the film doesn’t come close to living up to them.

The apes fall in love, bad people mistreat them, they escape, she’s recaptured, but by now she’s pregnant. Will her tall, dark, handsome lover-boy come to the rescue, despite all those tanks…? Alas, the producers don’t understand a very basic point about this kind of movie; which is that, if you have two fifty-foot monsters, they really ought to fight, rather than coyly flirting accompanied by mawkish soundtrack music.

Since Kong is now unequivocally a good guy (and the budget is so much lower), his rampages cause very little mayhem until the final scenes, which is a major problem in a rampaging monster movie. What little death and destruction we do see is mostly inappropriately comic. The human characters are so one-dimensional as to make even the Kongs look convincing, and feisty-yet-fluffy Linda Hamilton’s nude scene should probably last more than one second (but maybe that’s just me).

This could have been a classic ridiculous movie. Sadly, it’s not quite expensive enough to give us the crazy ape action we paid to see, and not quite cheap enough to abandon all shame and just go for it anyway. Not really satisfying on any level, and for much of its running time, downright dull. That’s presumably why it grossed less than half its budget. As the young people say nowadays, meh.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The problem with everyone in ‘King Kong Lives’ is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

THE EARLY FILMS OF ROBERT DOWNEY, SR. (A PRINCE): BABO 73 (1964), CHAFED ELBOWS (1966) AND NO MORE EXCUSES (1968)

Looking at the ultra-conventional career of Sherlock Holmes/Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr., it’s hard to imagine that this talented but timid McMoviestar was sired by a disreputable ultracool beatnik hepcat. Indeed, if not for the implication of the “Jr.” designation and the genetic necessity of fatherhood, the average moviegoer would have no idea that a exists. But exist he does, and a strange life has he led. To those who know him at all, Downey is known as a director of obscure cult films and Hollywood flops (including his first Hollywood flop, the sacrilegious but Certified Weird vaudeville Jesus western Greasers’ Palace). But even before hitting the relative mainstream with his breakthrough film Putney Swope, a satire about a Black Power advocate who accidentally becomes head of a Madison Avenue advertising firm, the elder Downey had led a fascinating life. By age 29, Downey pere had lied about his age so he could enlist in the army, been court martialed, won a Golden Gloves amateur boxing championship, played semi-professional baseball, and written and directed his first underground movies, mostly shot in Manhattan without permits, guerrilla-style. “After being thrown out of the house, four schools, and the United States Army, I discovered that I was on the right track,” said Downey.

Still from Babo 73 (1964)To the extent you could say that Downey’s anarchic early films followed a pattern at all, that template was established in his first extended work, the 56-minute political satire Babo 73 (1964). The story follows Sandy Studsberry, the meek “President of the United Status” as he deals with an invasion from the Red Siamese and the antics of his own crazy cabinet, led by Chester Kitty-Litter. All the attributes of early Downey make their appearance here: absurd anything-can-happen plotting, amateur acting, dubbed audio, scenes filmed in public spaces, slapstick Continue reading THE EARLY FILMS OF ROBERT DOWNEY, SR. (A PRINCE): BABO 73 (1964), CHAFED ELBOWS (1966) AND NO MORE EXCUSES (1968)

CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

Tenku no shiro Laputa; AKA Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING (U.S. Dubbed Version): James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Cloris Leachman

PLOT: A girl who falls from the sky and an orphaned boy search together for a legendary floating

Still from Castle in the Sky (1986)

city while being chased by flying pirates and a secret airborne government agency.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s an enthralling and magical children’s adventure, Castle in the Sky is also one of the more conventional fantasies in the catalog of a director whose work only flirts with weirdness.

COMMENTS: Castle in the Sky plays so much like an adaptation of a classic Western children’s book that it’s a surprise to learn that Japanese Hayao Miyazaki wrote the story basically from scratch. (The base concept of the floating city of Laputa is borrowed from Johnathan Swift’s Gullivers Travels, so a European literary connection does exist). Castle is epic in scope, featuring lost cities, magical artifacts, hidden destinies, and deadly giant robots; and yet, it’s all told from a child’s-eye view. After a lengthy earthbound prologue, most of the important action happens in an airy imaginary realm: not just in the floating city itself, but also in a stratosphere full of massive floating battleships, eternally aloft propeller-driven pirate vessels, and dragonfly-shaped personal aircraft. Its the kind of imaginary universe that doesn’t require too much suspension of disbelief for kids, who simply assume that adventures like these take place over their heads and above the clouds every day. Although pint-sized, the boy hero, Pazu, is emancipated and on equal footing with grown-ups: he has a full-time job working in the mines and, as an orphan, he’s self-sufficient and lives on his own. Similarly, female lead Sheeta is also free of parents, and is perfectly capable of taking out those taller than she is with a well-placed wine bottle to the back of the head. The fact that there’s a hero for kids of either gender to identify with rates as a plus, though feminists who are keeping count may note that Pazu comes to Sheeta’s rescue a bit more than the other way around. Little girls will doubtlessly see Castle as the story of Sheeta Continue reading CAPSULE: CASTLE IN THE SKY (1986)

CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: ,

PLOT: A dreamy teenage girl must rescue her kidnapped baby brother by journeying to the Goblin City at the center of a bizarre labyrinth.

Still from Labyrinth (1986)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the MC Escher-inspired set-design, the unexpected sexual tension between teenaged Connelly and fruitily-dressed goblin king Bowie, and a devout cult following, Labryinth is ultimately just too close to a mainstream Muppet fantasy to place on a List of the 366 Weirdest movies. We’ve passed over slightly stranger movies in this genre—the visually similar Henson-directed The Dark Crystal and the thematically similar Henson-produced MirrorMask—and, although I think Labyrinth is a better film than either of those, it’s difficult to justify certifying this one when its companion films don’t even get to sniff the List.

COMMENTS: In The Wizard of Oz, Judy Garland’s breasts were famously flattened out with tape so the 16-year old could play a pre-pubescent girl. Labyrinth takes a different strategy: 14-old Jennifer Connelly plays exactly her age, portraying a hormonally testy girl-woman caught at the stage where her attention starts to shift from stuffed animals to the well-stuffed pants of strutting rock stars. That shot of rising estrogen distinguishes Labyrinth from other Oz/Alice in Wonderland fairy tale variations, giving it a subtext that goes over the heads of the tots in the audience but leaves adults with additional nuggets to ponder (and no, that’s not another reference to Bowie’s stretch pants).

There’s an impressive amount of imagination on display here, starting with Henson’s puppets, who reveal an almost limitless variety (each individual goblin looks like a representative of its own species) and a nearly human expressiveness (to be honest, the puppets out-act both Connelly and Bowie). The girl’s three companions—the cowardly dwarf Hoggle, the bestial Ludo, and Sir Didymus, the comic relief knight/terrier—are all worthy additions to Henson’s Muppet menagerie, and there is a zoo full of eccentric Wonderland-esque supporting creatures, including walking playing cards, Continue reading CAPSULE: LABYRINTH (1986)

50. GOTHIC (1986)

“I passed the summer of 1816 in the environs of Geneva. The season was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire, and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts, which happened to fall into our hands. These tales excited in us a playful desire of imitation. Two other friends (a tale from the pen of one of whom would be far more acceptable to the public than anything I can ever hope to produce) and myself agreed to write each a story founded on some supernatural occurrence.  The weather, however, suddenly became serene; and my two friends left me on a journey among the Alps, and lost, in the magnificent scenes which they present, all memory of their ghostly visions. The following tale is the only one which has been completed.”–Mary Shelley, preface to Frankenstein

DIRECTED BY: Ken Russell

FEATURING: Natasha Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Myriam Cyr, Timothy Spall

PLOT: Romantic poet Percy Shelley takes his lover, Mary, and her stepsister Claire to visit Lord Byron and his biographer, Dr. Polidori, at the poet’s sprawling Swiss estate.  The fivesome spend the evening playing games and drinking laudanum, until the topic of conversation turns to ghost stories.  They decide to hold a seance to materialize their worst fear, with unanticipated success: or, are they just having a group hallucination?

Still from Gothic (1986)

BACKGROUND:

  • The meeting in the film between Percy Shelley, Byron, Mary Godwin Shelley, Dr. Polidori and Claire Clairmont did take place, though the party actually spent the entire summer of 1816 together, not just a single night. Mary Shelley (then Mary Godwin) did conceive the idea for her novel “Frankenstein there, after Byron suggested that each member of the party write their own supernatural tale. Many other details of the character’s backstories are accurate: Byron did impregnate Claire, and Mary did bear a stillborn child by Percy.
  • The story of “Frankenstein”‘s genesis was mentioned in the prologue to The Bride of Frankenstein, and similar stories of the meeting between Byron and the Shelleys were told in the movies The Haunted Summer (1988) and Rowing in the Wind (1988).
  • The painting which hangs over the mantelpiece in the guest bedroom, which is recreated in live action in a dream sequence, in is based on John Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare.”
  • The movie was the first major feature produced by a division of Virgin Media (known for producing and distributing their pop music). Many of the technical crew had a music video background. Virgin shut down its motion picture production and distribution operations after 1990.
  • Julian Sands came to Gothic fresh off a prominent role in Merchant-Ivory’s Oscar-winning A Room with a View. After this role he wound up specializing in horror films like Warlock (1989) and its sequels.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Breasts with eyes.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  After setting up its premise, Gothic becomes a series of phantasmagorical set pieces that allow Ken Russell to indulge his penchant for perverse visuals and excessive Freudian symbolism.


Trailer for Gothic

COMMENTS: For better and worse, Gothic‘s hallucinatory structure allows director Ken Continue reading 50. GOTHIC (1986)