What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here.
Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional serieshas shown onseveral occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.
Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.
Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again.
Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.
What is it: Independent film pioneer John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film, an intense, almost unbearably voyeuristic look at the disintegration of a middle-aged couple’s marriage told over the course of one free-wheeling night of affairs, drunkenness and messy, messy lives. A sharp break from more formal storytelling in film, Faces often feels like it’s being made up on the spot, threatening at any second to collapse on itself. It was and still is divisive – Pauline Kael hated it, but Roger Ebert called it “astonishing.” “He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live,” Ebert wrote. The way we live is, of course, messy, unorganised and often makes no sense to us. Cassavetes tried to show us ordinary life in a way sometimes called “cinematic jazz.” A cult taste at the best of times, Cassavetes died too young but his fingerprints can be seen all over film today – The New Yorker has said that he “may be the most influential American director of the last half century.”
Why I never saw it: I grew up on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg and it took me years to broaden my cinematic tastes a bit. “Cassavetes” was one of those arty names that always seemed to float just beyond the horizon, daunting by its sheer reputation. Would I like this stuff? Would he be someone like Robert Altman or Kurosawa, who blew me away and showed me whole ways of thinking, or would he be someone like Fellini, who I still haven’t quite managed to crack?
Does it measure up to its rep?Faces is more than 50 years old now, and yet it’s still confrontational and raw. There’s a reason Cassavetes’ work is still pored over and analysed today. He attempted to show us real life in a way that feels totally improvised (but wasn’t). He made movies his way, outside the studio system. Faces was a tiny production, made in glittering 16mm black-and-white with an endlessly probing camera that anticipates today’s reality TV. It ended up getting nominated for Oscars and riding the wave of groundbreaking movies circa 1967-68 like Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate that were slowly breaking down Hollywood’s ossified ways. But Faces is far more punk rock than The Graduate’s sly and polished Simon and Garfunkeled cynicism.
Faces is a story that’s as old as time – a couple get tired of each other, experiment with other people, then end up back where they started – but it’s the way Cassavetes tells this story that makes it feel like the audience is eavesdropping on something they weren’t meant to see. With game actors like the astounding Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and (in other films) Peter Falk and Ben Gazarra, Cassavetes built up a company of like-minded souls who wanted to use cinema to probe into the heart and mind.
Cassavetes pushes you, with his scenes of drunken, plotless hijinks or gritty, intense arguments, to the point where you sometimes ask yourself why you’re sticking with this movie, only to find as the credits roll that you can’t stop thinking about it. Faces demands you engage with it, question it, not half-watch it while scrolling on your phone. These days, that feels like a challenge.
His characters often do inexplicable, nasty and self-sabotaging things. And we often do that in real life, too – good god, the number of times I finish up a day thinking, “Why did I do this thing? Why did I act that way?” Cassavetes used film to try to explain the human spirit, an impossible and yet endlessly fascinating task.
Faces tests your patience – every Cassavetes film I’ve seen seems overlong at the time, but you aren’t ready for them to end. The controlled chaos of their production is the antithesis of tightly-controlled blockbusters, and movies like Husbands or A Woman Under The Influence leave you feeling vaguely battered, half-drunk yourself, and yet… somehow happy to be alive, to be here on this endlessly complicated world, flawed and broken like everybody else in Cassavetes’ cinematic universe.
Worth seeing? Absolutely, but if you’re one of those people who want movies to entertain and only entertain, you may give up the ghost. Stick with it, and you’ll be left with a movie that both frustrates and haunts you, and may just end up sucked down the Cassavetes wormhole.
What is it: First off, before we get into Ishtar, let’s talk about how awesome Elaine May is. With the late Mike Nichols, she was half of Nichols and May, a hilarious and subversive comic duo who took America by storm in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with their dry, improvisational wit inspiring folks like Steve Martin and David Letterman. A lot of their stuff is still pretty darned funny today. After Nichols and May ran their course, Elaine May became a screenwriter, director and wry actress in her own right – her fingerprints are all over movies as a writer and “script polisher” including Tootsie, The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Reds and Heaven Can Wait.
May’s work as a film director never got quite as famous as her former partner Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) but her small filmography – just four movies as director – is a treasure trove of askew, insightful comedy that’s well worth hunting out. You’ve got Walter Matthau in the 1971 black romantic comedyA New Leaf, a perfect little offbeat love story between spoiled rich jerk Matthau and May herself as a ditzy botanist; the twisted hit man buddy comedy/drama Mikey and Nickywith a fantastic John Cassavetes as a man having a nervous breakdown and Peter Falk as his best friend; and her masterpiece, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, starring the late great Charles Grodin and an absolutely luminous Cybill Shepherd in one of the meanest, most biting romantic satires I’ve ever seen. May was a pioneer for women in filmmaking – when she signed a deal with Paramount to make A New Leaf in the late 1960s, she was the first female director in decades to break that glass ceiling, in a world where female directors were as rare as snow leopards in a desert. But she also fought with the studio bosses from her first film to her last, culminating in her being fired from Mikey and Nicky and actually stealing some of the film canisters and hiding them in a garage in a bit that sounds like it was ripped straight from an Elaine May movie.
And then there’s 1987’s Ishtar, her fourth and final film as a director, a word that became shorthand for “box office disaster.” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were massive stars at the time, and an epic road trip buddy comedy starring them as hack musicians caught up in a Cold War-era spy plot seemed like it’d be a box office bonanza in the heady 1980s. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. May, still around at 89, never directed another major Hollywood movie again, although she did continue working as a screenwriter and occasional actress and these days she’s widely remembered for her career highs rather than the occasional lows.
Why I never saw it: While I’m a connoisseur of fascinatingly bad movies – I proudly own Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room and Toxic Avenger – Ishtar was seen as more of a bloated classic Hollywood misfire than a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I only finally got to it recently because I’ve been watching May’s utterly charming earlier films, and it felt like it was time to finally come to terms with the one that basically ended her directing career. The reason Ishtar flopped are many, but it basically boils down to money and hubris. May had a reputation as an indecisive and somewhat spendthrift director, which worked for smaller character-focused work like The Heartbreak Kid, but Ishtar was one of those big booming ‘80s comedies where excess was part of the furniture. Throw in the big egos of Beatty and Hoffman and the studio heads, and autopsies of Ishtar show it’s clearly a case of far too many cooks labouring over a rather mediocre, overstuffed dish.
Does it measure up to its rep? So how bad is this film, anyway? At the time of its release in 1987, you’d have thought Ishtar was a child-eating serial killer, so bad was its press. Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful” and endless reams of newspaper and magazine copy focused on the wasteful big budget and production dramas. But while there have been efforts to reclaim Ishtar in the years since as some kind of underrated gem, in reality it’s somewhere in between. Distanced from all the drama about budget and production, it’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s also a clunky patched-together beast that lacks the tight focus of a twisted buddy comedy like May’s Mikey and Nicky.
Here’s the main problem – you’re asked to buy Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two of the world’s biggest movie stars, as sad-sack loser songwriters convinced of their own genius. Their star power overwhelms the premise. Hoffman comes off marginally better – “overconfident loser” is part of his whole vibe – but Beatty, much as I like him, is simply not plausible as a fumbling dimwit. Beatty can play losers – the iconic Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s doomed gambler in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the corrupt politician having a nervous breakdown in the terrific Bulworth – but he’s not right for this role at all. When the movie focuses on Hoffman and Beatty as failed musicians performing their terrible songs, it’s fitfully amusing, but when the action shifts to Morocco, where they’ve somehow managed to land a few gigs, it turns into one of those very ‘80s spy action comedies with a convoluted, confusing plot about lost magical maps and duelling factions in the Middle East. A little bit racist now in its ogling of the culture and traditions of a “foreign land” (a scene where Hoffman starts screaming in pidgin Arabic does not age well), Ishtar loses what little grounding it had when it goes to Morocco. I will admit the recurring gags with a blind camel are pretty good, though.
Ishtar has the bones of a decent movie in it – recast Beatty with someone like an ‘80s Michael Keaton, trim the Morocco adventures and focus more on two loveable loser songwriters, and it might work, but then it’d probably be a different movie entirely. Elaine May’s comedy is at its best when it picks at the recognisable foibles and flaws in everyday life and exaggerates them. When you start having Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in a pitched gun battle with helicopters in the Moroccan desert, you lose that. Regrettably, May’s career took the brunt of the Ishtar fallout and the resulting backlash hurt women directors in general, which seems more than a little unfair as it sounds like Warren Beatty and others own a fair bit of the blame as well.
Worth seeing? More of an interesting failure rather than a world-shattering bomb for the ages, it’s a compromised, uncertain comic romp lacking the focus of May’s other films. If you’re making a pilgrimage through history’s “biggest bombs” it’s worth seeing, but on its own merits the pleasures are sporadic at best. I’d definitely start with The Heartbreak Kid if you want to get a better feel for May’s witty charms. Ishtar may have bombed, but Elaine May’s career was more like that of a shooting star.
What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’sNightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair.
Why I never saw it:Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs. At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far.
Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film.
Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you.
What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”
Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run.
Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal.
Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride.
What is it: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” A time capsule of swinging ‘60s London, it’s the movie that made Michael Caine a superstar and broke many longstanding movie taboos in its frank depiction of a bed-hopping Lothario and the damage he leaves in his wake. Caine’s Alfie is an unapologetic cad juggling multiple women with a casual sexism that’s pretty savage more than 50 years later, yet despite his character’s nastiness Caine also charms – it’s the birth of one of the cinema’s greatest stars.
Why I never saw it: First things first – I’ve always liked Sir Michael Caine, who brings authority and intelligence to pretty much everything he does, even A Muppet Christmas Carol. However, my exposure to him began with middle-aged Caine – the first movie I remember seeing him in was Blame It On Rio (1984), nominally a very ‘80s teen sex comedy about a man having a mid-life crisis affair with his best friend’s daughter. It’s highly creepy stuff in hindsight, yet what sticks out (besides the plentiful nudity that first caught teenage me’s eye) is Caine’s nuanced, frazzled performance, far better than the movie itself merits. I later grew to dig Caine in such ‘80s flicks as his hilarious turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and particularly his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet it’s taken me years to really dig into the great run of 1960s/70s movies that made Caine’s career – the astonishingly gritty Get Carter, the classic heist flick The Italian Job, the marvellously intricate duel of wits that is Sleuth. And there’s 1966’s Alfie, his first enormous hit, which in some ways feels as ancient as Victorian times to today, but still has plenty of bite.
Does it measure up to its rep? Alfie is a product of its time – post-war London, men who don’t bother with birth control, country clinics for tuberculosis patients and women who come second to men in almost every arena. It’s got a bit of a reputation as a light-hearted swingers’ comedy romp, but it’s really more of a drama – like Saturday Night Fever, another movie that is far darker and more cynical than its frothy reputation. Alfie dumps women at a moment’s notice, refers to them as “it”, and fathers two children that we know of with little consideration for his lovers. Frequently breaking the fourth wall to laddishly address the audience, Alfie at first seems a charming jerk, but we soon see the damage he leaves behind. The emotional heart of the movie is a harrowing abortion sequence involving the wife of one of Alfie’s friends (a terrific Oscar-nominated performance by Vivien Merchant). What makes Alfie linger is Caine’s performance, which balances swaggering arrogance and snarky wit with just the faintest glimmers of self-analysis. He’s a confident Cockney bastard, and you often hate him, but Caine gives him more depth than say, Robert Redford or Peter O’Toole might have. There’s something a bit reptilian about Alfie, a sense that something is always held back. Alfie gets his comeuppance, in a way, but you’re still left with the impression he hasn’t really changed enough, or paid for the pain he dealt out. By 2020 standards, the world of Alfie is a time capsule, but there’s still a lot of Alfies out there today breaking hearts on Tinder and treating women with the same casual disdain Alfie did half a century ago.
Worth seeing? Absolutely. Go in expecting a reflection of the world of 1966 which is pretty rough’n’tumble compared to today’s expectations of relationships, but underneath it all, a lot of how men and women interact today is still as cruel and callous as Alfie himself. It’s also the birth of a charismatic, unforgettable movie star, whose long career has always married Cockney confidence and charm with a hint of something darker, self-contained and possibly unknowable.
What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it.
Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable.
Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.
What is it: The biggest box-office hit of 1984, it turned Eddie Murphy into a superstar. Axel Foley is a street-smart Detroit cop who goes to Beverly Hills to uncover the truth about a friend’s murder. Hijinks ensue.
Why I never saw it: If you’d asked me, I would have thought I’d seen Beverly Hills Cop. After all, it was EVERYWHERE in 1984 when I was a wee tween. Yet when Mr. 16 and I decided to watch it the other day, I realised unless I’ve completely and utterly blanked it from my mind, I’d never actually seen one of the biggest hits of my childhood years. (I’m fairly sure I have seen Beverly Hills Cop II, which I think I confused with the first one.) I felt like I had seen it because it was simply in the air. It’s hard to state just how big Eddie was in 1984, the summer of Ghostbusters and Walter Mondale-mania. (Was that a thing?) My brother owned the soundtrack on cassette tape, but because BHC was R-rated, I, a mere sprat of 12, never saw it in theatres and missed out on videocassette, a medium by which I date myself horribly. Yet like every kid in 1984, I knew the plinky keyboards of Harold Faltermeyer’sAxel F earworm, which pops up in the movie approximately every 30 seconds.
Does it measure up to its rep? Eddie Murphy’s material is hit-or-miss for me. He’s full of charm, but a lot of his stand-up comedy has dated a lot worse than his idol Richard Pryor (the movies Raw and Delirious are unwatchable to me today, all preening ego and lots of rank homophobia and sexism). Yet in movies like 48 Hours and Coming To America he’s one of the great comic actors. He singlehandedly makes BHC worth watching with his ultra-confident, cocky cop who’s got an answer for everybody.
It’s also worth noting that it was by far the biggest blockbuster of 1984, and the first time a black actor headlined such a smash hit. BHC doesn’t make racism a dominating plot point, but there’s certainly an awful lot of subtext here (Axel Foley keeps getting arrested by cops, for instance). He’s the smartest guy in the room, outsmarting all the by-the-book white cops and crooks. Eddie’s Foley takes the proud black heroic figures from blaxploitation movies of the 1970s like Dolemite and Shaft and plugs them into a more mainstream action blockbuster. It was a winning combination. But seen 35 years on, BHC doesn’t seem quite so revolutionary – and it’s genuinely a bit baffling that the boilerplate script actually got an Academy Award nomination. The murder mystery at the centre of the plot lacks any tension, and most of the other actors are blown off the screen by Murphy. Strip Eddie out of the movie and replace him with Sylvester Stallone (who was originally set to star) and you’ve got Cobra.
Worth seeing? It’s worth a watch, but I don’t consider it anywhere near as much of a classic as ’84’s other big hit comedy Ghostbusters is in my heart. (Then again, maybe if I’d seen it at the same age as I first saw Ghostbusters, I’d feel differently.) Beverly Hills Cop is an entertaining ride for a cop action-comedy, and it’s full of ‘80s fashion and excess, but to be honest, other than Murphy’s still-dazzling charisma, there’s nothing here that hasn’t really been done better elsewhere.
What is it: One of the most famous horror movies of all time, Tobe Hooper’s grim ’n gritty 1974 The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a low-budget smash, changing the horror genre forever and inspiring Halloween, Friday The 13th, Evil Dead and a million other ‘slasher’ movies. It sets the template for countless gore-fests, with a small group of sexy young people running afoul of a house full of murderous redneck serial killers in rural Texas, notably the chainsaw-wielding maniac “Leatherface.”
Why I never saw it: Look, I’m a big horror movie fan. Monster movies, Universal classics, John Carpenter, Evil Dead, Hammer horror, you name it… except I don’t really care for slasher movies. There have been some great “slasher” flicks I dig, like the original Halloween and the fantasy-tinged Nightmare on Elm Street series, but to be honest, I’ve never liked horror that leans too much into sadism (I know, a bit hypocritical). The whole “torture porn” genre of Saw and Hostel type movies that are direct descendants of Chainsaw Massacre are not my bag at all. So even though I’m keen to fill in the gaps in my movie watching ledger, there was something kind of offputting about Texas Chainsaw Massacre for me that took me a while to get to it.
Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely. Chainsaw sets up its mood of intense wrongness from the opening scenes. It’s a movie where death and evil seems to lurk behind every tree. It takes a little while to “get going,” and there’s a fair bit of rather bad acting by the amateur cast until the carnage starts, but when it does, Chainsaw turns into a white-knuckle ride of sheer horror until the very final moments. The last 30 minutes or so, as lone survivor Sally flees for her life and escapes by the thinnest of margins, is unrelenting in its intensity. It doesn’t let up, and the viewer echoes the shocked, dazed trauma of Sally (Marilyn Burns) by the end. You feel pummeled, haunted by glimpses into an abyss. Chainsaw doesn’t attempt to explain its killers, to give them any motivation beyond sheer madness, and that’s scarier than anything else.
How it’s different than I thought: Well, despite the carnage left in its wake, the original Chainsaw Massacre isn’t a terribly gory movie. The horror mostly comes from suggestion – we don’t actually see that chainsaw carving up kids, but what we do see is in some ways more terrible. It is a very scary, haunting movie, without a doubt, but it’s not wall-to-wall blood.
Worth seeing? Yes, for its place in film history, its intense sense of mood and place, and for plunging deep into the depths of depravity – but I don’t really feel the urge to see it again any time soon. Once was enough to look into this darkness. Your mileage may vary.
What is it: Like most people who’ve found themselves somewhat against the grain in life, I dig The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It’s pretty much the definition of a cult classic, still playing in midnight shows around the world 44 years after its 1975 release. Seeing it in a vintage theatre in high school was one of my great cultural awakenings, and fittingly, I saw it again in a theatre just this past Halloween in a terrific benefit showing here in Auckland, complete with New Zealander creator, writer and co-star Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien in attendance. I don’t do the costumes – nobody wants to see me in fishnets – but there’s something truly wonderful about a Rocky Horror screening, with everyone flying their own personal freak flag and screaming crazy stuff at the screen for a bizarre little film that somehow sticks with you.
And then there’s Shock Treatment.Shock Treatmentis the little-known 1981 quasi-sequel to Rocky Horror, again written by O’Brien and directed by Jim Sharman. It’s loosely the tale of Brad and Janet (recast, woefully) taking part in a surreal TV game show experience and being “reinvented” into superstars. But in execution, it’s kind of a mess.
Why I never saw it: Even today, Shock Treatment is pretty obscure. My main vague memory of it was the cool, eye-catching poster design (above). You can find it with a bit of searching on YouTube, though.
Does it measure up to its rep? Disappointingly, yes. Shock Treatment is a film that isn’t quite sure what it’s trying to say. You can’t really create a cult hit when you’re trying so hard to. Shock Treatment is a muddle of early ‘80s glam-pop, a satire of reality TV, and a tale of empowerment. Unfortunately, it’s a little too similar to Rocky Horror in that it’s again a tale of Brad and Janet finding their bliss. Unlike Rocky Horror’s smooth, straightforward plot, a mish-mash of horror movie cliches, Shock Treatment is maddeningly hard to follow.
A charismatic foil like Tim Curry is badly missed here, although O’Brien’s creepy Dr. Cosmo is one of the better things about the movie, but he’s not in it enough. Rocky Horror stars Patricia Quinn, Charles ‘No Neck’ Gray and Little Nell also show up in small roles. Recasting Brad and Janet was a bad idea (bizarrely, the events of Rocky Horror are never mentioned, leading you to wonder if it’s a reboot or a prequel or what). Jessica Harper is a very stiff Janet who only comes to life in the movie’s final act, while Cliff De Young’s Brad Majors is awful – his entire performance is lacking the wit and insight Barry Bostwick’s Brad brought to a single line in Rocky Horror: “It’s beyond me / Help me mommy.”
All in all, Shock Treatment feels too much like hard work. Many of the songs are pretty enjoyable, but like most of the movie, they’re overproduced and chaotic. Rocky Horror is a strange beast of a film too, but it’s consistent and genuinely warm at times. Shock Treatment never invites you in, and you never feel like you want to shout back at the screen.
How’s it different than I thought: While it’s wacky and strange, Shock Treatment is never as transgressive as Rocky Horror. It mocks lots of things, like Reagan’s America and TV game shows, but it never really bares its fangs.
Worth seeing? If you’re a die-hard Rocky Horror fan, it’s worth checking out. Once. But nobody’s going to be throwing rice at the screen for this one.