1980s Movies

by Tim Van Schmidt


Stardust Memories ***

Woody Allen as Sandy Bates…1 hr. 28 min…1980…Cool black and white photography and well-planned shots make “Stardust Memories” a visual treat if nothing else. It’s about Allen as a popular filmmaker invited to a retrospective of his work. This movie is personally interesting to me because I was visiting my new wife’s family in New Jersey where a lot of this movie was filmed. The main locales were in a town named Ocean Grove with scenes by the big old meeting hall and the boardwalk along the ocean. Memories of the shoot include being caught by Allen taking a photo with my little Instamatic camera. I’ll admit, watchers were told not to do so and I suffered a withering look from Allen. A few days later we observed the shooting on the beach from the boardwalk railing. I remember it being a cold, windy day. The opening of the film is particularly ingenious and ties in with the ending, but there’s a lot of neurotic fidgeting in between. Still, as a wry look at the film world suited for filmland students, this stands up as at least interesting thanks to the gorgeousness of the photography itself.


The Evil Dead ****

Why a “good” rating? It’s just gross-out fun, that’s why. This movie sends a raspberry out to conventional movies and lays on the fake gore thick and heavy. If you take this seriously, you are in the wrong frame of mind.

Directed by Sam Raimi…1981…85 min…featuring Bruce Campbell, Ellen Sandweiss, Richard DeManincor, Betsy Baker, Theresa Tilly.

Escape from New York ****

It takes a tough guy to save the President after crash landing in the middle of Manhattan, which in the near future has been turned into a maximum security prison. That’s why the police turn to an ex-soldier named Snake Plissken to glide in, land on top of one of the twin towers, retrieve the President- and his briefcase- get out and back before a bio-device kills him. Sweet assignment. Along the way, Snake experiences the weird netherworld of the prison- its characters and its dangers.

Directed by John Carpenter…1981…99 min…Kurt Russell (as Snake Plissken,) Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, Donald Pleasence, Issac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau.


The Thing ****

OK, so there are some pretty good gore and alien creatures scenes in this movie and these scenes are even a little over the top- so fantastic that it even makes you chuckle. But that is not what makes “The Thing” a good movie. What makes this sci-fi thriller a watchable production is the way the characters deal with the situation. The setting is in Antactica, on a research base, so the environment is forbidding at best, offering tension from the very start. But then add in an alien creature that survivies by replicating other living things and the fear and paranoia start piling up. The sense of fear is amplified by the undercurrent of a forboding soundtrack. In the middle of it all is a dark heroism that shoves aside personal survival in the name of stopping the invader from getting to the outside world. Kurt Russell plays McCready, a helicopter pilot who the others look up to for leadership in this crisis. Also featuring Wilford Brimley. Directed by John Carpenter. A great movie to watch during a December freeze.

Directed by John Carpenter…1982…109 min…featuring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, TK Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis, Thomas G Waites.

Conan the Barbarian **

Follows the brutal rise of an orphan turned gladiator turned thief turned warrior king. Despite the attempts to make this an epic adventure- with broad landscapes and lots of scenes crowded with extras- lousy scripting and insincere acting make this adaptation of the Robert E. Howard books leaden and uninspiring. Occasional special effects hardly make up for ineffective storytelling and cliche-driven action.

Directed by John Milius…1982…129 min…featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Earl Jones, Max von Sydow, Sandahl Bergman, Mako.

Blade Runner *****

Perhaps the best sci-fi movie ever made, Blade Runner successfully creates a future world full of believable sensory details. It’s a dirty, used future, crowded and busy, from the damp, dangerous streets to the high rise refuges of the rich and connected.

But then you add in a high-tech manhunt. It seems a small group of androids has high jacked a ship and landed on Earth- objective unknown. It becomes the job of a retired android-terminator to round them up and eliminate them. That, it turns out, is not so easily done because these androids are a top model, hardly distinguishable from humans, until they get you in a fight.

Directed by Ridley Scott…1982…117 min…featuring Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer, Sean Young, Edward James Olmos, M Emmet Walsh, Daryl Hannah, William Sanderson, Brion James, Joe Turkel, Joanna Cassidy.


The Day After ****

“The Day After” is most certainly science fiction. But there are no aliens, no space ships, no strange new planets to explore. Rather, this is hard science fiction, attempting to answer the question: what really would happen if nuclear war broke out? The answer, according to this movie, is certainly heart-rending to say the least.

I remember seeing “The Day After” on television when it was originally broadcast in 1983. Perhaps even more shocking than the movie itself was the fact that before the production aired, the Secretary of State was given a few moments to try to circumvent any panic that the movie might create. Nuclear weaponry was an extremely hot topic at the time, protests occurring regularly around the country, and apparently the government was concerned that a TV movie might foment more action.

“The Day After” takes place in Kansas, rather than in some major metropolitan area. This served to bring the horror of nuclear war closer to people who may have thought they were “out in no where.” According to one character, there was no “no where” left thanks to the proliferation of missles and silos throughout the country.

The introduction to “The Day After,” then, shows scenes of everyday life- mundane and common unless you consider what life would be like without any of that. However, as we meet the characters that populate this particular story, the tension mounts quickly. It seems that the Soviets- yes, at that time the Soviet Union was still a major enemy- begin things by shutting off West Berlin from the rest of the world, then they invade West Germany, then the shooting starts.

All of the normal stuff gets blown away- literally. The exchange of nuclear missles that ruins the world doesn’t take long to happen, but the rapid fire scenes of atomic explosions and the destruction they create seem to take forever. In a series of flashes, untold numbers of human beings are incinerated. Those who are left behind may have been destined for a worse fate as intense radiation ruins their bodies and they suffer slow, agonizing deaths.

In the midst of all of this is the story of several characters- a doctor, a farmer and his family, a soldier- and how they cope. But no matter who it is, it’s a horror show for sure. The blank stares of the nameless multitudes wandering around in the radiation tell the story just as well.

One of the most poignant scenes in the movie is when a young man finds a young woman he met during the catastrophe in the middle of a college gymnasium where severe radiation victims are sent to die. The camera pulls back after their exchange to reveal not dozens but hundreds and hundreds of people- too many to count, too many to conceive of rationally.

Though the quality of the filming seems dated- as are the hairstyles and clothing- this remains an extremely effective movie. I wept after seeing it again. Maybe it was just some release after some tension-filled days of real life, but figuring into that release is the thought of losing EVERYTHING brought on by “The Day After.”

No aliens? No crises in deep outer space? “The Day After” might be one of the most important science fiction movies of all. Its message is about life, what we hold precious and what cannot be replaced once stripped away.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer…1983…127 min…featuring Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, Steve Guttenberg, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Calvin Jung.

Scarface ***

The soundtrack for “Scarface” has aged badly and some of the horrible acts that occur during the rise of a drug kingpin are not as horrible as they seemed then compared to contemporary standards of screen violence, yet actor Al Pacino’s performance remains very strong indeed. Pacino is the kind of actor that is so well known, so recognizable that it’s hard to forget who is on the screen. But in this movie, his haggard face, heavily accented speech and slack-jawed facial expressions ably creates an indelible character above and beyond Pacino’s stardom. Then, when director De Palma revs things up for the nose-in-a-pile-of-cocaine, blazing gun finish, nobody is better at expressing the excess than Pacino.

Directed by Brian De Palma…1983…170 min…featuring Al Pacino (as Tony Montana), Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Steven Bauer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, F Murray Abraham, Paul Shenar.

Brainstorm ****

What if you could invent a machine that would record- and play back- sensory experiences? The question then becomes what is appropriate for recording- a roller coaster ride, sex or even death itself?

Directed by Douglas Trumbull…1983…106 min…featuring Christopher Walken, Natalie Wood, Louise Fletcher, Cliff Robertson.


Iceman ***

The reanimation of a prehistoric man frozen in ice is a miracle and a challenge for all concerned.

Directed by Fred Schepisi…1984…100 min…featuring Timothy Hutton, Lindsay Crouse, John Lone, Danny Glover.

Dreamscape ***

One thing that has not aged well with this production is the soundtrack by Maurice Jarre. The keyboard-based, percussive score wears very thin quickly- it is jarring and distracting.

But a lot about this 1984 movie has aged badly- the filming, the script and actor Dennis Quaid’s cockeyed grin. He’s grinning because he’s psychic and he’s a popular guy on the race track and in the scientific laboratory.

Though Quaid’s character is badly behaved, he is brought in on a big project where the mind of one subject can enter into the mind of another during a dream state. That sounds good, but that’s mostly what he and his co-workers do about it- a lot of talk. The final sequences- occurring in the President’s dream- are a rousing finish to a questionable ride in general. “The Cell” is a much better version of travel inside the subconscious.

Directed by Joseph Ruben…1984…99 min…featuring Dennis Quaid, Max von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, Kate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly.


My Life as a Dog *****

A thoughtful and realistic drama tempered with warm humor. The movie follows the plight of 12-year old Ingemar, whose mother’s health is quickly deteriorating. He and his brother are split up and Ingemar ends up in a small town full of colorful characters who accept him and include him in their various activities- from playing soccer and boxing to glassblowing, sculpture projects and even a ride in a “space ship.” Ingemar’s life remains very full and young girls like him. His occasional commentary during the course of the movie indicates that indeed he realizes that his fate could have been worse, still basic human need for maternal love gnaws at his confused heart. When the worst happens, Ingemar carries on with the help of those around him, but his sorrow runs deep. This indicates that perhaps this character, while so young, is also so sensitive and caring- much more so than his adult male caregiver who ogles women and goofs his way through life. That Ingemar is so immature emotional makes it all the more painful for him to deal with such complicated feelings.

However, this movie underscores a zest for life that is hard to deny. This comes from Ingemar himself, who despite his inner fears and pains, remains open to those around him. He tries to remain open to his mother during her illness and he stays open to those around him in his adopted town, even when they cross his line of comfort. One scene of pubescent nudity might offend tastes more accustomed to American film standards, but the maturity, wit and charm of this portrait of a young heart should supercede that concern. (1 hr. 50 Min. Criterion Collection 2003/1985.)

Brazil *****

A bizarre future world ruled by paper and procedure- with dire consequences if you step out of line. Part comedy, part mind twister.

Directed by Terry Gilliam…1985…132 min…featuring Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Michael Palin.

Return of the Living Dead


Directed by Dan O’Bannon…1985…91 min.

Kiss of the Spider Woman ****

With the intensity of a stage production, “Kiss of the Spider Woman” slams together two completely disconnected world views- one of a hard-line revolutionary and the other of a homosexual. The revolutionary is being held and tortured to extract information about his group. The homosexual has been convicted of consorting with “boys.” At first, the revolutionary keeps the homosexual at a distance, but after numerous acts of kindness, lets down his guard. The homosexual, simultaneously caring for his cellmate while working a shady deal with the prison warden, ends up changing as well.

Performances by both lead actors- William Hurt as the homosexual Molina, and Raul Julia as the revolutionary- are strong indeed, supported by lines that swing from the hard realities of living in a totalitarian society to the fantasies that end up keeping both men alive.

Directed by Hector Babenco…1985…120 min…featuring William Hurt (as Molina), Raul Julia, Sonia Braga.


The Color of Money ****

Gritty and greedy, “The Color of Money” reveals the tantalizing allure of pool playing, first from the street level, then finally on the tournament level. It’s about winning a game, but it’s also about winning money, which means keeping cool at times, even when you’re hot. Paul Newman plays Fast Eddie Felson, a character he played in the 1961 film, “The Hustler,” a man who can still play the angles even while his eyesight and reflexes are starting to fail him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, an arrogant young stud player who Felson takes under his wing just to get back into the game. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is Vincent’s tough, smart girlfriend. A lot of the action takes place in battered urban pool halls where bets and alcohol flow freely. Newman has a kind of graceful swagger throughout the movie and can still convey a lot just by flashing those steely eyes at the camera. Cruise is very young here and plays Vincent’s arrogance to the hilt. Helen Shaver. Forest Whitaker. Iggy Pop. Directed by Martin Scorsese. 1986.

The Fly ****

The great remake- Jeff Goldblum is Seth, the scientist who experiences an accident while using a teletransportation device, which turns him into a man-sized fly, hungry and disgusting. Geena Davis is the luscious love interest. Plenty of gory special effects!

Directed by David Cronenberg…1986…96 min…featuring Jeff Goldblum, Geena Davis, John Getz.


Empire of the Sun *****

Following the trials and tribulations of British nationals caught up in the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, this is an epic-length feature full of keen character development and finely crafted images. Director Spielberg often lingers on the surreal moments that swirl around the life and death struggles of people without much of a clue as to what’s going on.

Most riveting in this production, however, is the performance of a young Christian Bale as the boy Jim, separated from his parents and eeking out survival in a dentention camp. He doesn’t just appear on the screen, he dominates it with every ounce of energy he can muster. This goes along with his character, who seems to survive by staying in constant motion.

Directed by Steven Spielberg…1987…152 min…featuring Christian Bale (as Jim), John Malkovich (as Basey), Miranda Richardson, Nigel Havers, Joe Pantoliano, Masato Ibu, Ben Stiller.

Outerworld (Beyond the Rising Moon) ***

A genetically designed woman named Pentan rebels against her corporate “owners” and thwarts their efforts to gain control of valuable alien technology. The copy I streamed was of very poor quality, or this may have been the quality of the production to begin with, however, I found Pentan a compelling character and the story inventive.

Directed by Philip J Cook…1987…78 min…featuring Tracy Davis, Hans Bachmann, Michael Mack, Rick Foucheux, Ron Ikejiri.


They Live **

An interesting idea- a pair of glasses that allows a human to see the truth about invaders who have enslaved the world- but a leaden, clunky production and cast.

Directed by John Carpenter…1988…93 min…featuring
Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster.

Alien Nation ***

Once the aliens are here, then what? They must become a part of the society in general- and join the police force. Prejudice rears its ugly head and must be overcome.

Directed by Graham Baker…1988…91 min…featuring James Cann, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp.

The Blob


Directed by Chuck Russell…1988…95 min…featuring Kevin Dillon, Shawnee Smith, Donovan Leitch.

Encounter at Raven’s Gate **

Visually fascinating, “Encounter at Raven’s Gate” loses steam with vague story elements. You get a kind of sense of what’s going on- it’s a Sci-Fi flavored yarn about weird goings on in the Australian Outback- but really, the viewer remains as confused as the characters. “What just happened?” is a fair enough question for this one, but the creepy events- from birds falling dead from the sky to murderous insanity- at least create a consistently dark vibe.

Directed by Rolf de Heer…1988…94 min…featuring Steven Vidler, Celine O’Leary, Ritchie Singer


The Fly II **

The son of Seth grows up.

Directed by Cris Walas…1989…105 min…featuring Eric Stoltz, Daphne Zuniga, Lee Richardson, John Getz.

Leviathan ***

A deep sea mining crew stirs up terror at the end of a long shift. These aren’t particularly likeable characters, so you’re not particularly sad to see some of them get killed, but the claustrophobic feeling of the group being trapped in a tiny, pressurized space with a nasty, rapidly evolving creature helps keep the tension high. The monster isn’t the only problem, though, since there is also some corporate skullduggery thrown into the mix.

Directed by George P Cosmatos…1989…98 min…featuring Peter Weller, Richard Crenna, Amanda Pays, Daniel Stern, Ernie Hudson, Michael Carmine, Lisa Eilbacher, Hector Elizondo, Meg Foster.