Friday, February 12, 2016

1984 in Film: The Outliers

by Patrick Bromley
We've spent the week talking about a lot of the best and most memorable movies from 1984. These movies are neither.

So many of the movies released in 1984 seemed designed to find live on VHS and endless reruns on cable, and not only because this is how I saw the majority of them. The films listed here aren't my favorite movies released that year -- far from it -- but they do help round out what makes it such a singular year in film history. There were genres and subgenres that were huge in '84 and then never again. It was, in many ways, the beginning and the end of an era.

There were six movies widely released to theaters between June 1 and June 8, 1984. Five of those were Once Upon a Time in a America, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Streets of Fire, Ghostbusters and Gremlins. The sixth movie? Beat Street, one of several breakdancing movies released that year and a film that can be credited with introducing rap and hip hop music to a wider audience. Grittier and more authentic than its Cannon Films counterparts, Beat Street isn't much of a movie from a story/character perspective, but there's a ton of great music and dancing and a production design that appears to have influenced the entire Yo! MTV Raps culture and aesthetic in the late '80s.
Dancing movies were super popular in 1984, probably because of the success of Flashdance one year prior. The biggest and best remembered of all of them is Footloose, but there was also the aforementioned Beat Street, plus Breakin' and its sequel, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, released the same year. The least well known among them is probably Body Rock, starring future Snake Eater Lorenzo Lamas as Chilly, a breakdancer from the streets of New York looking to make it big. Where Beat Street feels authentic, everything about Body Rock is comically overproduced movie nonsense. If you're someone who enjoys watching bad movies ironically, you'll love Body Rock.
Having won Oscars for Rocky and established himself as an action star in First Blood, Sylvester Stallone was looking to conquer another, more elusive corner of Hollywood: the musical comedy. Teaming with director Bob Clark and country superstar Dolly Parton, Stallone mugs and sings his way through Rhinestone, a bizarre misfire that represents him at the height of hubris (rumor has it he turned down Romancing the Stone and Beverly Hills Cop to make Rhinestone, and the world is better for having the Stalloneless version of both). He rewrote the screenplay by Phil Alden Robinson, which he had a terrible habit of doing in those days; Robinson reportedly thought about taking his name off the movie. The movie is not quite as bad as its reputation would suggest, as both Stallone and (especially) Parton are able to coast on star power. But songs like "Drinkenstein" are why Sly never had a real recording career. I know Frank Stallone, and you, sir, are no Frank Stallone.
Video games and home computers had really caught on by 1984 (perhaps getting a boost from the success of WarGames one year prior), which might be why we got movies like The Last Starfighter and Cloak & Dagger and Electric Dreams, in which Lenny Von Dohlen and a computer voiced by Bud Cort both fall in love with Virginia Madsen. I haven't seen Electric Dreams in years, but I remember watching it by myself as a kid one Saturday afternoon and literally sobbing when it was over to the point that my mom had to console me. I think it was my first real understanding of death -- that at a certain point, we are just shut off and are no longer there despite having been there just moments before. Thanks a lot, romantic comedy. At least we'll always have the theme song by Giorgio Moroder and Phil Oakey, which I love and will always leave on even if it reminds me of the death of my own innocence. Together in electric dreams indeed.
If aliens ever come down to Earth and demand to see the ultimate example of an '80s sex comedy, they'd do right to check out Hardbodies, a truly moronic testament to fitness and fucking originally made for the Playboy Channel but distributed theatrically by Columbia Pictures, who I guess loved what they saw? Come to think of it, the movie actually seems to have been made by aliens: Grant Cramer (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) stars as a beach bum who is hired by three gross old dudes to help them sleep with younger women. It's as repellent as it sounds, "saved" by its willingness to be completely stupid and weird touches like having all-female hair band Vixen play at a party. It was a big enough hit to warrant a sequel two years later, which is way more meta but lacks the brainless charm of this one. I'd almost be willing to call Hardbodies innocent if it wasn't so sleazy.
Speaking of dopey comedies, 1984 also saw the release of Meatballs II, the in-name-only sequel to Ivan Reitman's 1979 summer camp comedy. Richard Mulligan plays the owner of a camp struggling to stay open against the rival camp across the lake. Naturally this is settled via boxing match. Also, Kim Richards tries to get a glimpse at a penis (sorry..."pinky") and there is a rubber alien named Meathead on hand to send up E.T. I'm certain the movie has its fans, but even as a kid I knew it wasn't very good; it was only my crush on Kim Richards that got me through repeat viewings on HBO. Somehow, the Meatballs franchise accomplished what the Halloween series set out to do with Season of the Witch, releasing four different and totally unrelated films connected only by their setting.
Between making two legitimate teen movie classics, Valley Girl in 1983 and Real Genius in 1985, Martha Coolidge directed Joy of Sex in 1984...sort of. She was reportedly fired off the film when she opted not to use more shots of nudity (the movie was released under the National Lampoon banner). Though named for Alex Comfort's famous 1972 sex manual, the movie has nothing to do that book; Paramount bought the rights so they could use the title and then spent years trying to turn it into a movie (various incarnations included Charles Grodin, John Belushi, Penny Marshall and John Hughes) before settling on this one, in which teenager/Martha Coolidge muse Michelle Meyrink thinks she is dying of cancer and sets out to lose her virginity. Like a lot of '84 sex comedies, this one is unfunny and really only worth seeing for Meyrink's leading lady turn -- even if it does tone down the quirks that make her work so special in movies like Real Genius, Permanent Record and even '84's own Revenge of the Nerds.
Raunchy sex comedies were everywhere in '84, whether they were the mainstream ones like Nerds and Bachelor Party or the less-know future late-night cable staples like Weekend Pass and Hot Dog...The Movie. One that I can remember playing with great regularity on HBO was Gimme an 'F' (aka T&A Academy 2, aka Cheerballs). All three of those movies make the movie sound way dirtier than it actually is, as it's a rather chaste story about a cheerleading competition and the dreamy guy (Stephen Shellen) who makes a bet with the camp director that he can turn the (ugly) Ducklings into winners of that year's competition. All of the trappings are there for a stereotypical sex comedy: camp vibe, cheerleaders, horny co-eds, but the most sexualized scene in the film is a long (loooong) solo dance by Shellen's double clearly inspired by Flashdance. It has one funny line about peeing in a balloon; otherwise, it's a sex comedy that's neither sexy nor funny.
Though they had been working for a while in the years leading up to 1984, this was the year that made Jon Cryer and Demi Moore movie stars thanks to No Small Affair, a barely-remembered and ultimately unsuccessful comedy romance about a 16-year old boy who begins a relationship with a 22-year bar singer. In a case of life imitating art, Cryer and Moore began dating during the filming of the movie. Though the movie began production with Matthew Broderick and Sally Field in the leads -- casting that makes more sense given the age difference on which the plot hinges -- something wasn't working and the footage with scrapped, the leads recast and a long tradition of Jon Cryer being seen as a knockoff replacement Matthew Broderick. In this instance, he really is.
While Hollywood got its big-budget adaptation of Tarzan in 1984's Greystoke, us fans of also-rans were much more drawn to Tanya Roberts in Sheena the same year. I can't imagine what anyone saw in this one.
The same year she tried for mainstream success as the female lead of Bachelor Party, Tawny Kitaen took the first few steps down her eventual career path by playing the title character in Just Jaekin's adventure comedy/exploitation film The Perils of Gwendoline (aka The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik Yak, aka Gwendoline). She plays the titular Gwendoline, who accompanies a soldier of fortune into the jungle where they are accosted by an all female bondage tribe who want to make the man mate and then kill him. It's bizarre and kinky and best viewed as a curiosity, though Kitaen is very charming not because of her nudity but in addition to it.
More oddball fantasy came courtesy of David Carradine in The Warrior and the Sorceress, a movie that feels like it arrived two years too late. By 1984, most of the fantasy films were lighter and more kid-friendly (he says just having mentioned The Perils of Gwendoline), but this one feels like a holdover from 1982 -- it's super violent and filled with nudity like an issue of Heavy Metal come to life. Essentially a remake of Yojimbo in which a miscast Carradine pits two warring kingdoms against one another, the movie has a real Sword and the Sorcerer/Deathstalker vibe to it for better and for worse. If you're me, it's for better.
1984 can also be remembered as the year that Troma as we know it was born with The Toxic Avenger. Though the indie studio had already been around for a decade at the time that its flagship film was released, they were known more for sex comedies like Squeeze Play and The First Turn On. With The Toxic Avenger, Troma found their sweet spot, mixing gory horror, raunchy comedy, leftist politics and a cartoonish comic book sensibility. This is the movie that would define Troma over the next 30+ years, with Toxie himself become the face of the company and later inspiring three sequels as well as his own cartoon series, action figures and Marvel comic series. It's the movie that hooked me on Troma for life.
My introduction to a number of horror movies came courtesy of 1984's Terror in the Aisles, which somehow got released to theaters despite being a glorified clip show strung together by "hosts" Donald Pleasance and Nancy Allen. The narration is lame, many of the clips featured aren't even from horror movies and there's no organization to any of it -- the structure appears to be "here are a bunch of scenes from horror movies!" If you're a fan of the genre, you've already seen all these movies. If you're not, why would you want to watch a horror highlight reel? Still, I saw this movie a lot as a kid and some scenes (like the transformation in American Werewolf in London) are burned in my brain not from seeing them firsthand but from seeing them as part of this movie. Our friend and regular co-host Heather Wixson falls asleep to this movie every night because she is a huge weirdo.
Few films from 1984 are as culturally or historically important as Missing in Action, which was the first film in a long relationship between Chuck Norris and Cannon Films. The movie, in which Norris goes back to Vietnam to rescue POWs, was rushed into production to beat Rambo to theaters (and avoid a lawsuit in the process). It was originally meant to be the second movie in the Missing in Action franchise; Missing in Action 2 was shot concurrently and actually takes place during the Vietnam war, making it a prequel in its released form. Once the Cannon brass saw how much better Missing in Action was than what would become Missing in Action 2, they opted to put it out first. Of course it's better. It's directed by the underrated Joseph Zito, a guy who knows how to make excellent low-budget genre trash. This same year he also directed Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, still my favorite of all the Friday films. Joseph Zito is the man.
Cannon was busy elsewhere in '84 releasing The Exterminator 2, the follow-up to 1980's The Exterminator in which Robert Ginty once again plays a vigilante single-handedly cleaning up the streets of New York, this time going up against Mario Van Peebles as bare-chested gang leader X. The movie went through two directors, is largely shot (re-shot, actually) in Los Angeles and star Ginty wears a welder's mask through most of the movie so that he could be played by a stunt double, as he was off shooting another movie. What I guess I'm saying is that aside from Van Peebles' batshit over-the-top performance, The Exterminator 2 isn't up to the high standards set by The Exterminator.
Finally there's Runaway, the Michael Crichton-directed sci-fi thriller which features Tom Selleck as a futuristic cop who belongs to a special unit devoted to hunting down robots (no, it's nothing like Blade Runner, why would you even say that?). He and his partner are called in to investigate the first reported robot homicide, which brings them into the sphere of supervillain Gene Simmons in his first non-KISS starring role. Now here's a movie that could only have been made in 1984: it's got fears of conspiracy, technological anxiety, Selleck cashing in on his Magnum P.I. fame and a musician trying to cross over into film (remember this is the year that saw Sting in Dune and Prince in Purple Rain and Rick Springfield in Hard to Hold, so it makes sense that Gene Simmons would want to get in on the act as well). It's goofy, it's sometimes campy and it's got The Demon being attacked by robot spiders.

And with that, we very nearly wrap up 1984 week. Don't forget to join us for F This Movie Fest 5 this Saturday at Noon CST for five more of 1984's finest!


  1. What's most important about and what separates Beat Street from Breakin' and Breakin' 2 (well, besides Cannon) is that it finally gave mainstream audiences a look at what was for the most part an authentic look at the Hip Hop movement in the place it belonged, NY, the birthplace of Hip Hop. Breakin' was all west coast fluff, Wildstyle did it but no one saw it at that time and beat Street gave these Hip Hop artists a platform. The Beat Street Breakers vs The Bronx Rockers were really Rocksteady vs the New City Breakers. Everyone from Kool Herc (the founder of Hip Hop) to Melle Mel to The Treacherous Three were represented. It still stands as one of the most important studio films to showcase Hip Hop in a relatively honest light. I just feel it shouldn't simply be glossed over. Beat Street is on Blu Ray next week from Olive, btw.

    1. Update on the Blu Ray in case any one cares, there is a German region free with DTS Master Audio (although not nearly as good artwork). I'm not confident that the Olive release will have 5.1 as they rarely do. Fingers crossed though as this films deserves it and I would like to support the US release.