The Howling (1981)
Written by John Sayles and Terence H. Winkless
Directed by Joe Dante
1981 might have been the year of the werewolf between this film and An American Werewolf in London and lesser-known Wolfen. Special effects, both makeup and puppets, had improved to the point that movies could showcase spectacular transformation scenes, something older werewolf movies had always made a highlight of their runtime. Seeing the werewolf transform falls into that same category as Bruce Banner switching to the Hulk. There’s something oddly cathartic about watching a person’s body transform into an agent of chaos. Those werewolf transformations are on full display here, with the film reveling in their visceral detail. It’s also a fun, campy horror flick, just the type of thing Joe Dante has always been a master at making.
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Mommie Dearest (1981)
Written by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry, and Frank Yablans
Directed Frank Perry
Mommie Dearest is a film entangled in so many worlds & perspectives. On the surface, it’s an adaptation of Christina Crawford’s memoir of growing up as the daughter of actress Joan Crawford. It was seen as a “so bad it’s good” movie and won the Golden Razzie in its release year. The film has become a cult classic, particularly embraced by the drag community due to Faye Dunaway’s over-the-top performance. Even Paramount realized a couple months into the release that the picture was being seen as a comedy more than a serious biopic and began advertising it as a piece of camp. It’s a strange film to watch because it’s centered around a child’s emotional and physical abuse, yet it’s delivered so outlandishly you can’t help but crack up.
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Written by Michael Weller and Bo Goldman
Directed by Milos Forman
In 1905 the United States was in a period of change. This is known as The Gilded Age when rapid economic growth for some Americans experienced a significant increase in wages. This was due to the explosion of industrialization across the country and led to many European immigrants traveling across the Atlantic with the promise of a better life. Black Americans benefited as well and began to see some increase in their wealth yet were still subject to Jim Crow laws. White Americans, as always, took more than everyone else and were able to grow their middle class and create some of the first Captains of Industry, multi-millionaires whose wealth gave them immense power. This time was also known as Ragtime, named after the popular musical style which featured a syncopated rhythm. As with almost all popular music in America, it was originated by Black people before becoming popular nationwide.
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This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Written by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Directed by Milos Forman
The United States has had a profoundly complicated relationship with mental health for the entirety of its existence. Mired in the regressive repression of religion, it was seen as proper to punish those with mental illness for behaviors outside of their control and often their understanding. What existed even further beneath the veneer of tough Christian love was a focus on conformity and the expulsion of the aberrant. Those who would not conform to societal norms were verboten, sent off to die inside mental hospitals where they would be brutalized into complete psychological oblivion. This ideology inspired author Ken Kesey to write his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Late nights sitting up with patients at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital led Kesey to believe these people were not insane. Instead, they did not behave within the conventions society had deemed proper, and so they had to be extricated from public existence.
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The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Written by Paul Mayersburg
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
The year before Star Wars was an important one for science fiction. Once George Lucas released his blockbuster science fantasy film, anything set in space or alien worlds would be changed forever. Three major science fiction films were released in 1976: Logan’s Run, Futureworld (the sequel to Westworld), and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Each movie represents a kind of science fiction story that didn’t see much traction in the 1980s, though DNA from the Westworld franchise can be seen in films like The Running Man and Jurassic Park. The Man Who Fell to Earth was made by a very esoteric filmmaker, Nicolas Roeg. For my Horror Masterworks in October 2020, I rewatched and reviewed his Don’t Look Now. This would be his fourth theatrical feature and become a cult classic like the rest of his work.
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Planet of the Apes (1968)
Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Based on the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, Planet of the Apes, the movie goes in a very different direction while holding to some of the same basic themes & ideas. In the book, the story is told through the framing device of a couple vacationing in their space yacht coming across a transmission from a human soul who claims to have landed on a planet of apes. The film’s screenplay was penned by Rod Serling, the mind behind The Twilight Zone; however, he portrayed the apes as advanced in technology beyond modern-day humans. That was going to be cost-prohibitive. The script was rewritten by Michael Wilson, with the apes being framed in a smaller, more rustic society.
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Mortal Kombat (2021)
Written by Greg Russo and Dave Callaham
Directed by Simon McQuoid
I was never a Mortal Kombat fan. In our house, we had an NES for the longest time and only upgraded in the late 1990s to a Playstation. I haven’t really enjoyed the fighting games I have played. It’s a genre that doesn’t appeal to my sensibilities. I get bored with those kinds of games a few minutes in but can click away for hours at Civilization or some tycoon management sim. However, because I was the right age for it, I know a decent amount about Mortal Kombat just through culture osmosis. I can’t say I had any expectations for this adaptation, and it definitely met the bar I set for it.
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Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)
Written by Melvyn Bragg & Norman Jewison
Directed by Norman Jewison
I hate Jesus Christ Superstar. This is mainly because of Dame Sir Lord Andrew Lloyd Weber (shout out to my Comedy Bang Bang Fans out there). I cannot stand this man’s musical theater work. I don’t like Cats or Phantom or Joseph or any of the stuff he’s ever made. It feels grossly over-produced and gaudy in a way that is a complete turn-off to me. Jesus Christ Superstar (or JCS) has not aged well and feels like a relic of the 1960s/70s hippie movement. Even then, it doesn’t feel genuine, but a co-opted facsimile of the hippies. I don’t think the film does much to redeem the musical. It looks fine, but it is certainly not one of Jewison’s best.
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In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Written by Stirling Silliphant
Directed by Norman Jewison
In the Heat of the Night was a huge film in terms of its pop-culture resonance for a few decades, yet it is almost forgotten in our current age. I was aware of the seven-season television sequel that premiered in 1988. I recently discovered Sidney Poitier continued to play the character of Virgil Tibbs in two sequels. There are also seven novels in the Tibbs series. Now I’m sure not all of this media is as great as this movie, but it’s so strange for a character to have been that prominent only to have entirely vanished from the cultural discourse. As presented in this film, the character is so compelling that I have to believe the following productions just didn’t live up to the bar set by In the Heat of the Night.
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The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966)
Written by William Rose
Directed by Norman Jewison
In the 1960s, the Cold War was at a wild peak. Just three years before this film, the United States & Cuba went through a terrifying week of possible nuclear war. In the 1940s & 50s, dozens of Hollywood screenwriters, actors, and other people in the industry were labeled as communists or sympathizers to the Soviet Union. Jewison never really hid his left-leaning political views but knew to reveal them slowly as he became a more prominent director in Hollywood. For The Cincinnati Kid, he worked with blacklist screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. on the script. Going even further was this film, a comedy that reveals Americans’ twisted ideology during this manic period. Jewison still finds empathy for these people and seeks to find a place of mutual understanding.
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