It seems strange that my top three favourite first viewings from last year all turned out to be American studio films from the 1980s, but... what can I say? It certainly wasn't deliberate, and hopefully my choices are sufficiently off-beat to avoid playing into some kind of ‘Stranger Things’ childhood nostalgia-fest. Needless to say, the ‘70s, ‘60s, ‘30s, ‘40s all retain an equal quantity of my love. The ‘50s have to work a bit harder, but I still like ‘em plenty, and what’s that, do I spy the ‘90s crying over in the corner..? Hey, I had to actually live through you, you bastard.
Well, uh, anyway - I hope you get something out of all this, and thanks as always for sticking around – it’s appreciated.
1. Miracle Mile
(Steve De Jarnatt, 1988)
Steve De Jarnatt’s ‘Miracle Mile’ is a film that had a huge effect upon me, and yet it is one that is very difficult to discuss, on the basis that it is a movie which I feel viewers should ideally go into cold, unaware of the Big Central Event which sets the stage for one of the more ruthless and implacable narrative hand brake turns to have ever been executed within commercial cinema.
So, if you’re reading this and you haven’t seen ‘Miracle Mile’, and for some reason you feel inclined to trust my judgement on these things, then please by all means just go and acquire a copy of the film and watch it straight away. Do not stop to read ANY plot synopses or reviews along the way, do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect £500. It won’t necessarily be a ‘fun’ experience for you, but it will, I hope, be a rewarding one.
And whilst you’re doing that, I’ll just spend a few more paragraphs here dancing around the elephant in the room – presumably the same one which accounts for film’s bland and unrepresentative marketing materials, its initial failure at the box office, and the fact that it’s taken over three decades for it to gradually acquire the kind of word-of-mouth cult following it so richly deserves.
So - let’s just say that there have been some very intense and upsetting films made over the years exploring the same core subject as ‘Miracle Mile’, and, despite my own crippling anxiety regarding the subject in question, I’ve even watched some of them. None of them however have hit me quite as hard as ‘Miracle Mile’, simply because, well… I think it’s at least partially because, rather than the grim, quotidian reality conventionally demanded by such things, De Jarnatt’s film takes place within that gleaming, ‘80s movie L.A. we all know so well. A happy, colourful zone of escapism, full of wise-cracking dialogue, loveable mid-table character actors doing their thing, and zany, high octane events which don’t really matter all that much. Then, that phone call happens, and suddenly it all really matters, for everyone. Just as it still could, for all of us here in the ‘real’ world, at any minute.
Somehow, throughout all the growing panic and audacious tonal shifts which follow, ‘80s movie L.A. – and in particular, De Jarnatt’s’s hymn to the very particular corner of Los Angeles that lends the film its title, and his clear love and empathy for the people who find themselves dwelling within it – still persists.
We are still, somewhere in the back of our minds, watching the quirky, funny and touching romantic comedy which would have played out had the events of the film’s more innocent opening half hour been set in motion on any other day of the 20th century. And indeed, it’s quirky, and funny, and touching – only on this particular occasion, it’s also harrowing and terrifying and almost impossible to accept. It’s that unrepeatable mixture that will really get to you, and will never let you go.
2. Vice Squad
(Gary A. Sherman, 1982)
I seem to have found myself forced into using the loathed term ‘neo-noir’ in one of my write ups below, so let me simply say that THIS, my friends - THIS is where the true legacy of Film Noir could be found back in the 1980s, not in some damned movie full of curling cigarette smoke, bad saxophone music and dames in black stockings (though there are certainly plenty of the latter, now that I think about it).
Back in 1972, underappreciated director Gary Sherman carved his initials into the heart of British horror with the inexplicably brilliant ‘Death Line’ (aka ‘Raw Meat’), and a decade later on the other side of the world, he returned to work his magic once again, turning a lurid, throwaway genre movie into…. well, an extremely memorable lurid genre movie, at the very least.
The very apotheosis of all those ‘80s movies in which desperate cops stalk an impossibly filthy, neon-splattered world of synthetic fabrics and illicit sex (Abel Ferrara’s ‘Fear City’, Katt Shea’s ‘Stripped to Kill’ and Robert Vincent O’Neil’s ‘Angel’ all feel like close cousins), this “night in the life of the Hollywood vice squad” type affair gets pretty damn heavy pretty quickly when a psychotic, cowboy-styled pimp named Ramrod (an absolutely out of his mind Wings Hauser) does a number on one of his girls with a coat hanger-derived torture instrument colloquially known as the ‘pimp stick’.
The aftermath at the morgue finds hard-boiled-to-the-point-of-mania cop Gary Swanson almost literally rubbing the nose of conflicted single mother / street-walker Princess (Season Hubley) into the face of her deceased friend, reluctantly convincing her to help the cops take down the hated and feared Ramrod for good, instigating what could reasonably be described as a “night of terror” for the long-suffering denizens of the Sunset Strip.
Working from a set-up like this in the early ‘80s, most directors would have taken the opportunity to fall back on some heavy duty, crowd pleasing exploitation, and indeed, ‘Vice Squad’ is certainly a visceral, envelope-pushing viewing experience, taking a pretty deep dive into the grisly world of street prostitution, with both the events depicted and the dialogue used to discuss them veering into pretty explicit territory.
Much in the spirit of that old chestnut about ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ not actually featuring much graphic violence though, when you pull back and consider the movie from a safe distance, ‘Vice Squad’ is actually remarkably restrained. Astonishingly given its era and subject matter, the film doesn’t even include any female nudity, and most of the nastiest incidents of violence against women take place off-screen – a decision which must surely have been a deliberate choice on Sherman’s part, taking those similarly hoary old truisms about showing the results of violence rather than celebrating its instigation, and about what you don’t see being more powerful than what you do, and daring to actually put them into practice.
All of which might sound a bit dull and worthy, but believe me, there’s so much GREAT STUFF going on in ‘Vice Squad’ that not even the most hyperactive gore hound is going to get a chance to rue the absence of ‘New York Ripper’ style grue. The pacing is relentless, the scripting is ruthless, and the visuals, music and performances are all absolutely wild (particularly from Hauser, who cements his reputation as an unparalleled ‘80s b-movie maniac here, leaving no co-star, prop or piece of scenery unmolested).
As in the best 40s/50s noir, almost every new scene brings us into contact with a handful of bizarre and unforgettable supporting characters, each seeming as if they could have wandered in from their own, equally entertaining movie – from the elderly kung fu master playing chequers with the clerk of a pay-by-the-hour hotel, to the gay biker gang Ramrod visits buy his weapons from, lounging around on their cycles in full Tom of Finland gear. Heck, even the cops who work with Swanson are an admirably diverse and eccentric bunch – a wise-cracking kid with corn-rows, a black lady in a 1920s style Sunday Best hat, a big dude with a Chuck Norris moustache and a red track-suit…? ‘Dragnet’ this ain’t.
The film’s action choreography (if we can even apply that term to what basically feels like total chaos) is also fairly astonishing, almost every stunt / gag provoking a “holy fucking shit, they actually did that?” response from the first-time viewer, even more-so given that the assorted carnage is painstakingly photographed by none other than Stanley Kubrick’s main man John Alcott – a cinematographer who clearly understood that bringing the essence of noir to the new terrain of the ‘80s was more about diffusing blasts of unnatural, over-saturated colour into pitch black pools of shadows than merely buying a bunch of venetian blinds and hoping for the best.
“Why do you do it?”, a battered and bloodied Hubley asks the brooding Swanson from her ambulance stretcher at the film’s conclusion; “You’ll never change the streets.” Cue rising crane-shot, taking us high above the cop cars and ambulances crammed into the back alley which accommodated the final showdown, as heavy metal blares on the soundtrack and the credits begin to roll. I’ll confess, I actually punched the air.
Then, just when I thought ‘Vice Squad’ couldn’t possibly get any better, the song credit scrolled past for the film’s absolutely demented hair metal anthem The Neon Slime – “performed by Wings Hauser”. Yes, that was Ramrod himself on the mic, shredding his throat like some unholy cross between Dave Lee Roth and Captain Beefheart. Wings, you absolute god.
(Paul Schrader, 1982)
Perhaps I’ve just been labouring under a misapprehension all these years, but, based on my experience of other films written and/or directed by Paul Schrader, he’s always struck me as a filmmaker very much concerned with tackling Big Issues of one kind of another – urban alienation, social inequality, inter-generational conflict, religious and political extremism, fractured masculinity. You know, serious stuff.
I can only assume therefore that his artistic sensibilities were taking the holiday of a lifetime when he rocked up to direct this big budget studio remake of the 1942 Lewton/Tourneur classic - a supremely ludicrous venture which happily jettisons both the dense thematic/psychological underpinnings of the original and its oft-celebrated subtlety, instead delivering one of the most gleefully excessive, unapologetically crazy, style-over-content genre movie the 1980s had to offer (which is saying something).
More than anything, Cat People 1982 struck me as a kind of American version of an ‘80s Dario Argento movie. An odd comparison, I’ll grant you, but -- the super-slick visuals, ‘yuppie art gallery’ production design and gratuitous, ultra-stylised sex and violence; the totally arbitrary yet beautifully realised New Orleans setting and heavy, colour-coded gel lighting; the brain-breaking attempts to string together a bunch of OTT set-pieces into a convoluted plotline that’s basically just a load of utter bollocks; even the thunderous intrusions of Giorgio Moroder’s none-more-80s, “check out my new keyboard” score – IT’S ALL HERE.
Much as I love the arbitrary lunacy of ‘Phenomena’ and ‘Tenebrae’ though, even Dario never dared give us the awe-inspiring / hilarious [delete as applicable] sight of Malcolm McDowell and Nastassja Kinski as brother and sister, prowling through the torrid night in various states of undress, doing their very best high school acting class “move like a cat” routines, complete with growling, purring and swiping their ‘claws’. Glorious, glorious nonsense.
Lycanthropic fantasies as a sublimated expression of sexual repression and cultural alienation? Fuck that! It’s all on the surface here! These guys turn into BLOODY GREAT PANTHERS every time they shag somebody, no two ways about it – and in those sweaty Louisiana nights, there’s plenty of shagging going on, needless to say. McDowell’s even been murdering hookers and keeping their cannibalised remains in his basement, fergodsake… until someone has the foresight lock him up in the zoo that is, and even then he manages to tear some guy’s arm off at the shoulder joint. Whoa there!
Naturally, the cursed siblings can only find peace if they give in to the inevitable and shag each other, but although Big Malc’s all for it (he still seems to be in ‘Caligula’ mode here, pretty much), happy-ending-through-incest was never going to be as simple as that in a production bankrolled by Universal Pictures, right..?
Complete with several ham-fisted attempts to recreate famous scenes from the original (the swimming pool scene is identical, BUT TOPLESS) and electricity on the set presumably provided by Val Lewton spinning in his unquiet grave, this thing is an eternal camp classic just waiting to happen. Help the cause – stock up on booze and invite your friends round to watch it at some point this year; a fine time is guaranteed for all.
4. The Crying Game
(Neil Jordan, 1992)
Following my belated realisation that Neil Jordan is a writer/director very much worth paying attention to after watching his – I cringe even as I write this but no other easy, two-word description seems quite as appropriate - neo-noir masterpiece ‘Mona Lisa’ (1986) a couple of years back, I finally got around to catching up what is probably his best known / most successful movie during 2019, and it didn’t disappoint.
Of course, there are uncontacted tribes deep in the the Amazon who have already been appraised of this movie’s much-vaunted “big twist” by this point, but it is to the film’s credit that, in and of itself, said ‘shocker’ (which, happily, has become increasingly less shocking year on year since the original release date) feels neither gimmicky nor salacious, being both extensively telegraphed beforehand for those who care to take heed, and indeed integral and natural to the story Jordan is telling.
Essentially reshuffling the deck of ‘Mona Lisa’s conflicts and character relationships, Jordan here places them in a more expansive and ambitious context than his earlier film, telling an enthralling yarn which matches its spiritual predecessor in terms of the all-important emotional gut punch. Venturing fearlessly into an intimidating quagmire of Big Issues – gender and sexuality, race, class, national identity, Northern Island and the tangled morality of republican terrorism – Jordan maintains his balance in a manner that feels nigh on miraculous, avoiding the myriad pitfalls of bathos, polemic, hang-wringing or out-right offence and instead tearing raw chunks of subjective insight and human drama from his subject matter in a manner that only the tightly guarded parameters of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller will allow.
Though ‘The Crying Game’ may dial back on the poetic / magical realist elements of ‘Mona Lisa’ in favour of a slicker, late ‘80s action thriller glamour, Jordan’s direction nonetheless remains on point, his strange, outsiders-eye-view of London remains fascinating, and Ian Wilson’s photography gleams with a weird mixture of fantasy and mundanity equal to that experienced by the film’s characters. Speaking of whom, how Stephen Rea managed to not become an A-list big hitter after his performance here is simply beyond me (and I can only assume first time actor Jaye Davidson simply chose not to, perhaps wisely under the circumstances).
Of course there are a few missteps and odd decisions along the way, things which could have been delineated a bit better here and there for the purposes of one demographic or another, but basically, this remains a bona-fide great movie; retaining its ability to take a mainstream audience far beyond their usual comfort zones, it deserves to live on far beyond its own highly specific cultural moment.
(I also can’t help but mention that the opening and closing credits constitute possibly my favourite use of pre-existing popular songs in film history, which certainly helped sweeten the deal.)
5. To Have and Have Not
(Howard Hawks, 1944)
Straight from the “can you believe I’d never got around to watching this before?” file. Bogart, Bacall, Hawks, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hoagy Carmichael – let’s face it, this line-up of early 20th century genii could probably have filmed a custard pie fight and transformed into a timeless work of art, so the fact that they instead turned their attention to a shamelessly opportunistic attempt to repeat the success of ‘Casablanca’ is just dandy.
It’s mainly the Bogie & Bacall show of course, and what a show it is – fireworks of raw lust singing viewers’ hair over seven decades later, as they bestride the screen like cooler-than-fuck hard-boiled angels. The whole movie in fact is an example of golden age Hollywood filmmaking at its absolute peak, gliding by on an opiated wave of smart, provocative, exotic, action-packed entertainment value; a fever dream of heroism and romance with a sharp enough edge to keep even the world-weariest of grown-ups under its spell.
In-and-of-itself, ‘To Have and Have Not’ could be # 1 with a bullet on a list like this, but how are we critic-y types to deal with a stone-cold classic movie that is forever doomed to be diminished by its status as a cynical rehash of an EVEN MORE classic movie? Comparing Hawks’ film back to Curtiz’s masterpiece, we might observe that the political context here seems weak and tacked on by comparison, whilst the final act resolution feels rushed, smug and generally unsatisfactory (especially in comparison to ‘Casablanca’s Best Movie Ending Ever). Likewise, the tendency to fill the supporting cast with actors who feel like less charismatic stand-ins for Rains, Lorre and Greenstreet doesn’t exactly help matters, but at the end of the day, if your attempt to rip off ‘Casablanca’ ends up almost as good as ‘Casablanca’, you’re still going to come up smelling of roses.
6. One Cut of the Dead
(Shin'ichirô Ueda, 2017)
From June 2019:
“If you’ve not yet seen this high concept Japanese indie mega-hit, let me simply say that you probably should, because it’s wonderful.
Beyond that however, it is the very definition of a film that is almost impossible to write about without spoiling the surprise, so what follows is less of a conventional review, and more just a couple of quick pieces of advice for potential viewers:
1. Though it is being marketed as a zombie film, I’d probably tag this one more as a family drama, disguised as a film-about-filmmaking, disguised as a zombie film, so - keep your monster kid expectations in check.
2. Though the opening half hour might well cause you to question why you’re bothering to watch this thing, stick with it and you will be richly rewarded.
3. Likewise, if you, like me, tend to experience motion sickness when watching shaky-cam handheld footage, this opening act will soon become a horrendous, stomach-churning nightmare. Once again though, please keep it together and keep your eyes on the screen, because blessed relief awaits at the thirty-minute mark, and you’ll be disappointed if you missed some important details whilst staring at your shoes feeling nauseous.
And finally, I will note that, despite its low budget origins, this film’s achievements in the oft-overlooked fields of pre-production planning and continuity are quite possibly unparalleled in the medium, and, I believe, deserve to be recognised with some kind of gigantic medal and a hearty round of applause from the entire international film community.”
7. 13 Steps of Maki: The Young Aristocrats
(Makoto Naitô, 1975)
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that, over the past few years, I’ve developed a pretty massive cinematic crush on Toei’s high-kicking ‘70s karate star Etsuko Shihomi, the earliest and awesomest protegee of Sonny Chiba’s esteemed Japan Action Club, and after watching her in a movie like this, I’d respectfully ask – WHO WOULDN’T?
In a time and place where it was the lot of young women appearing in movies to be routinely stripped, beaten and variously mistreated on screen in order to earn their precious few minutes of strutting around in cool outfits kicking ass, Shihomi stood second only to the sainted Meiko Kaji in overturning these expectations, using her dynamite screen-fighting skills and off-the-scale charisma to flip the usual abuse-to-retribution ratio, retaining her dignity and stepping toe-to-toe with Toei’s familiar rogue’s gallery of male action performers / punching bags in the process.
A wild n’ woolly hybrid of the Toei’s outgoing ‘pinky violence’ and incoming karate lines, ‘13 Steps to Maki’ is probably the best showcase the studio ever assembled for Shihomi’s talents, and its exuberant, hyper-kinetic execution makes a strong case for the otherwise little-known Makoto Naitô as a director capable of handling this kind of thing almost as well as all-round exploitation movie godhead Norifumi Suzuki.
A streamlined delivery mechanism for high velocity pop-art violence and sleaze, the movie’s eighty breathless minutes fly by with head-spinning velocity – wildly attired sukeban gang fights, roaring bike chases, random yakuza sadism, eye-popping, Shaw Bros-inspired martial arts spectaculars, bonus Women In Prison segment – it’s all here, and it will all most likely end with Et-chan leaping ten feet in the air and knocking some punk’s teeth out, as the jump cuts hit like horn stabs and those squeaky trumpets blare triumphantly on Shunsuke Kikuchi’s obligatory crime-funk score. Fantastic!
Alongside such towering works of genius as Suzuki’s ‘Sex & Fury’ (1973) and Kazuhiko Yamaguchi’s ‘Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope’ (1975), ‘..Maki’ represents Toei’s mid-‘70s action/exploitation formula at the absolute peak of its powers – another sterling example of the wildest movie studio in history firing on all cylinders.
(Thanks to the estimable Pulp International for uploading the otherwise unobtainable poster scan for this one.)
8. Blow Out
(Brian DePalma, 1981)
For the first two thirds of its running time, this is hands-down De Palma’s best film, easing back on the OTT tastelessness which defined his other (highly enjoyable) ‘80s thrillers and replacing it with a thoroughly engrossing, consummately scripted melange of conspiracy / political paranoia tropes (both real and cinematic), adding surprisingly engaging, mature performances from John Travolta and Nancy Allen in the lead roles, and doubling down on all of the technical wizardry, pain-staking attention to detail and multi-layered, meta-textural gamesmanship we’d expect of De Palma at the peak of his powers. (Fantastic work here too from Vilmos Zsigmond and Pino Donaggio in their respective capacities, needless to say.)
Seriously, until the last few reels I thought this one was shaping up to be a stone-cold, A+ classic, wondering why it is not more widely regarded as such. And then…. well, let’s just say that myself and my viewing companions were all pretty stunned by how badly the film seems to drop the ball in its final act, more or less totally abandoning the carefully wrought conspiracy plotline and instead going for a rote, Hitchcockian save-the-girl-from-the-psychopath finale, rather haphazardly staged amid a recreation of Philadelphia’s Liberty Parade, and culminating in a bungled, emotionally confusing and deeply unsatisfactory raspberry of an ending.
Unlike my companions, I maintain that the good bits of ‘Blow Out’ are sufficiently good to avoid a kneejerk “FUCK this movie” type response based purely on its conclusion, but still… jeez. Talk about ‘uneven’.
Never mind what I think though – I’d be very interested to hear other people’s take on ‘Blow Out’. Reading reviews and listening to a podcast episode on the film after viewing, I was surprised to learn that many thoughtful and insightful commentators seem totally cool with the final act, not even raising it as an issue, or even including the ending amongst the highlights. What gives, folks? Would a second viewing help me come to terms with it, do you think? Thoughts welcomed in the comments, as ever.
9. Deadbeat at Dawn
(Jim Van Bebber, 1988)
Wherein young Jim Van Bebber succeeds where just about every film school drop-out before him had failed, turning the Raimi / Bava / Anger / Chang Cheh inspired visions clogging up his fevered noggin into pulsing, luminescent, blood-drenched reality, transforming his home town of Dayton, Ohio into a seething, exploitation movie Valhalla in which heavy metal-attired gang bangers settle martial arts blood feuds at the local cemetery, throwing star assassinations are not uncommon and psychotic, Mansonite outsiders rant and rave, lost in their own nightmare world of red-tinted, dungeon-like blue collar bars.
Throughout the film, there’s an uneasy disjuncture between fantasy cinematic wish fulfilment – epic kung fu battles, ‘Evil Dead’ gore, grappling hook-assisted armoured car heists – and a disturbingly grim strain of desperate, poverty stricken reality, as best exemplified by Van Bebber’s character’s unhinged, Vietnam vet father, lurking in his rat-infected ruin of a tower block apartment, mainlining smack and shrieking tearfully when his son snags his last beer.
Amateur sound recording and some, shall we say, variable performances from the crew of misfits our hero persuaded to appear in his magnum opus tend to emphasise the latter aspect, but pop culture fantasia and ugly, gutter-punk reality soon collide head-on in a flat out terrifying turn from Marc Pitman as the acid-fried, Tex Watson-esque psychopath who rather horridly murders Van Bebber’s girlfriend. He's... really something.
Conveyed by the director with exemplary skill and dead-eyed self-belief, all of these unlikely incidents, whether traumatic and troubling, ludicrously cartoonish or merely puzzling, are driven home with the power of a punch to the gut, not so much transcending the film’s status as a zero budget, rust-belt vanity project as simply reminding the braver segments of the film-viewing public that, in the right hands, a zero budget, rust-belt vanity project can still knock them senseless, lodging its tormented imagery deep within their brainpans, ready to creep up on them in the dark of the night. So, uh, yeah - thanks for that Jim.
10. He Ran All The Way
(John Berry, 1951)
From May 2019:
“Looking back with almost seventy years hindsight, it seems deeply ironic that, whilst the McCarthyite assertion that Hollywood movies were subliminally spreading dangerous communist sedition has generally been judged by history as wrong-headed, paranoid hysteria, close textural analysis of a film like ‘He Ran all the Way’ might have helped give credence to all of HUAC’s worst fears.
As the final film on [Thom] Anderson’s chronological list, ‘He Ran all the Way’ can be seen to represent the last gasp of ‘film gris’ before the blacklist shutters slammed down. As Nick Robey’s fist grabs at the air and his wild eyes close for the last time, it also bids farewell to one of the best – and certainly one of the most influential – actors of the noir era.
That’s quite a weight of historical significance for a quick n’ nasty low budget thriller to shoulder, but the movie itself is more than solid enough to take the load. Standing alongside ill-starred classics like ‘Gun Crazy’ (1950) and Ida Lupino’s ‘The Hitchhiker’ (1953), it is one of the very best crime movies to have emerged from this particular time and place.”