An A to Z of 1980s Cult Movies - Part 2
In May 1977 a little movie called Star Wars came out and, along with its eagerly-awaited sequels in the early ‘80s, developed one of the biggest cult fan bases in the galaxy. Now the franchise is in the clutches of an evil empire it seems terribly corporate, making it easy to forget that fan-love for the original trilogy was the first big underdog victory for the nerds which made a massive contribution to geek culture of today.
Another major leap forward (or should we say fast forward) for fandom in the ‘80s was the rise of Betamax and VHS, allowing us to watch whatever took our fancy whenever we felt like it. What many of us wanted to watch was scary movies and horror became the dominant mode for cult flicks, with the “video nasty” hubbub only adding to the genre’s lurid appeal.
Even for non-horror fans, there were plenty of weird and wonderful movies to choose from, and the proliferation of home rental helped the ‘80s become the first cult decade. We’re still rewatching it today with endless reboots, remakes, and (increasingly handed down) nostalgia. Not that I have a problem with that, because the ‘80s were a golden era for anyone with access to a video club card. Last week we took a look at A-M in Part 1, this week we finish the alphabet with N-Z...
N is for… THE NEVERENDING STORY
The ‘80s was packed with fantasy adventures, many of which just teetered on the scary end of family viewing; I remember absolutely bricking it over the vile Skeksis in The Dark Crystal and the giant spider in Krull was the stuff of nightmares. But none were as strange or dark as Wolfgang Petersen’s The NeverEnding Story.
Adapted from the first half of Michale Ende’s novel of the same name, it had lovable fantasy creatures like the Rockbiter and Falkor, the friendly dog-dragon that helps our young hero on his quest. What sticks in the mind is the scary stuff; the knight getting zapped into a skeleton by two towering sphinxes, the terrifying wolf creature, and the devastating moment when the protagonist’s horse gives up the will to live in the Swamp of Sadness. To top it all off, you had the “Nothing” threatening to consume the whole world of Fantasia.
It’s tough stuff, soaked in existential dread and production design far gloomier than anything coming out of America at the time. The director attributed this bleak European sensibility to the film’s relative failure in the U.S. market, while it still became a hit internationally. Since then it has become a cult favorite, only somewhat brightened by Limahl’s earworm title track that still plays on a daily basis on the radio where I live in the Czech Republic.
O is for… OPERA
Italian horror meister Dario Argento made his name as one of the key directors of Giallo in the ‘60s and ‘70s and is perhaps best known for Suspiria, the luridly-coloured tale of a young dancer attending a ballet school run by a coven of witches. Argento had a successful ‘80s, too, with the gory murder mystery Tenebrae and the absolutely bonkers Phenomena, which had Donald Pleasance hanging out with a chimp.
One of Argento’s strongest and most suspenseful works came towards the end of his golden period with Opera, another murder mystery set inside an Italian theatre house. The film is so memorable because it introduces an especially cruel gimmick; the killer makes the young female protagonist watch a series of murders by taping needles under each eye, forcing her to keep them open.
It’s a sadistic but neat comment on the nature of watching horror movies. Who hasn’t covered their eyes or hidden behind a cushion when things get too scary? What if you couldn’t close your eyes and had to watch the whole thing, no matter what?
P is for… PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE
Pee-Wee Herman must be one of the strangest ever children’s TV hosts; a pedantic, squeaky-voiced, sometimes spiteful man-child played to perfection by Paul Reubens, a fellow graduate of The Groundlings alongside Cassandra “Elvira” Peterson.
Before he took to the screen in the surreal but absolutely brilliant Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Reubens developed the character on stage before moving on to The Pee-Wee Herman Show for HBO. After some high-profile appearances on David Letterman’s show and selling out Carnegie Hall in 1984, the next step was the big screen.
Tim Burton, with his natural affinity for weirdos and outsiders, was the perfect fit for Pee-Wee’s first cinematic outing, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. It was Burton’s full feature directorial debut and he couldn’t have been more at home in a kitschy spoof on the kind of nostalgic Americana that David Lynch would lacerate with Blue Velvet the following year.
Pee-Wee is something of an acquired taste, but when it works, it really works. Tim Burton was on a winner with his first collaboration with Danny Elfman, who provided the zany helter-skelter score. Highlights include Pee-Wee’s morning routine in his wild Rube Goldberg playhouse (there was a lot of that in the ‘80s, see also: Back to the Future, The Goonies, etc.) and many strange encounters as he tries to recover his stolen bike, from phantom truck driver Large Marge to winning over a gang of bikers with his special Pee-Wee dance to “Tequila.”
Q is for… Q: THE WINGED SERPENT
Regular readers of the blog will know that I rarely pass up a chance to sing the praises of Larry Cohen, so here I go again. Although in my defence, “Q” is a really hard letter to fill in an A-Z!
With enjoyably dated stop-motion special effects, Cohen and his pals evidently had great fun creating a gory spoof of the classic city-stomping monster movies of the ‘50s. The Big Apple is terrorised by Quetzalcoatl, a vast winged Aztec God that decides to make its nest at the top of the Chrysler Building.
Part of the joke is how a creature of that size can go unnoticed for so long in one of the world’s busiest cities, preying on oblivious pedestrians and workmen from its lofty perch. The movie also benefits from an eccentric performance from Michael Moriarty as a small-time crook who can help the cops track down the beast… if they cut him a deal. Moriarty would also work wonders with his loose freeform style in The Stuff a few years later, Cohen’s consumer satire-meets-melt movie.
R is for… REPO MAN
Some movies nail a specific attitude so well that they become their own self-contained universes, and that can definitely be said for Alex Cox’s Repo Man. Emilio Estevez stars as an aimless angry teen who falls in with Harry Dean Stanton’s cynical repo man, on the trail of a classic car containing the deadly remains of aliens.
Set in the dead-end hinterlands of Los Angeles, Repo Man matches Reagan-era teen disenfranchisement with ‘50s UFO paranoia, blunt satire, and off-kilter dialogue (“Plate of shrimp!”). Add to this a wall-to-wall soundtrack including Iggy Pop, Black Flag, the Plugz, and the Circle Jerks, and you’ve got yourself a bona fide refugee from the tail end of punk’s glory days. Cox went on to direct Sid and Nancy with Gary Oldman as Sid Vicious, but even that didn’t catch the vibe as well as Repo Man. In the ‘80s, only perhaps Return of the Living Dead matched it for nihilistic eat-shit-and-die attitude.
S is for… SCREAM QUEENS
The dominance of horror movies in the ‘80s also saw the rise of the Scream Queen, from Jamie Lee Curtis (the Halloween series) to Heather Langenkamp (A Nightmare on Elm Street), via Felicia Rose’s haunting performance in Sleepaway Camp. For many cult aficionados, however, the holy trinity are Barbara Crampton, Linnea Quigley, and Kelli Maroney.
As Wes Craven’s Scream pointed out, ‘80s horror movies often meant gratuitous nudity and not many did it better than Crampton, who had an excellent set of lungs befitting her royal status as a top screamer and a game-for-anything attitude. Two of her most notable roles came in Stuart Gordon’s gloopy H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, Re-Animator and From Beyond, also starring cult icon Jeffrey Combs. Perhaps her most eye-opening scene was her character receiving unwanted cunnilingus from a severed head in the former movie. The trio would complete a Lovecraft trilogy of sorts with Castle Freak in the ‘90s.
Quigley didn’t have such notable roles but the indelible impression she made as a death-obsessed punk called Trash in Return of the Living Dead was enough to earn her Scream Queen status on its own, before going on to low-grade junk like Sorority Babes in Slimetown and Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers.
Of the three, Maroney stood apart with her far more wholesome appearance, usually playing a nerdy outsider. She was also the best actor of the three, a real winning presence in Night of the Comet and teaming up with Crampton to almost save the mediocre killer robot flick Chopping Mall. She would later join forces with Quigley for a piece of fan-service schlock called Scream Queen Hot Tub Party.
T is for… THE TOXIC AVENGER
Troma Studios, headed by cartoonish president Lloyd Kaufman, have been going since the ‘70s, churning out a steady stream of trash with gaudy titles that are often more entertaining than the films themselves. In all that time, they have produced one genuinely good movie, The Toxic Avenger.
Mitch Cohen stars as a snivelling dweeb who is tormented by a gang of demented gym freaks and takes an unfortunate swan dive into a vat of toxic waste. He mutates into the hulking toxic avenger and sets about cleaning up the scum-ridden streets of Tromaville, NJ, working his way up to the seedy corrupt mayor.
The Toxic Avenger is puerile, gross, cynical, smutty, moronic, and ultra-violent; yet, if you have a high tolerance for trash, it is also a very strong piece of visual storytelling with a vibrant sense of its own identity. The film is improbably the best superhero movie made between Richard Donner’s Superman in 1978 and Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989, and Toxie has gone on to become the figurehead of the studio, starring in several sequels and spawning an unlikely cartoon series for kids. Thankfully the touted remake starring Arnold Schwarzenegger never came to pass.
U is for… UHF
There has been a lot of love for “Weird” Al Yankovich lately thanks to the endearingly goofy semi-biopic Weird with Daniel Radcliffe last year, so there has never been a better time to catch up with the back catalogue of one of the ‘80s most unlikely stars. The accordion-playing polka fanatic first rose to fame with a comedy record for The Dr. Demento Radio Show in the ‘70s when he was just 16. That was just a taster of what was to come; in the ‘80s, he broke into the charts with parody songs like “I Love Rocky Road” (a take on “I Love Rock and Roll”) before crashing the early MTV party with “Eat It,” riffing on the Michael Jackson hit “Beat It.”
Yankovich’s success led to a movie deal, starring in UHF. The movie did not fare well at the box office and received poor reviews, which of course set it up to become a cult favourite among fans.
V is for… VAMPIRES
Like their old werewolf pals from the Universal days, vampires also had a great decade in the ‘80s with a string of cult classics. An early contender is Tony Scott’s The Hunger, which took a thoughtful arthouse approach to the nature of immortality before, out of nowhere, turning into a wet T-shirt contest between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve.
Fright Night is an endearingly knowing vampire-next-door horror comedy, while Tobe Hooper’s nutty Lifeforce gives us nudie energy-sucking vampires from outer space. Vampire’s Kiss is an early indication of how wild and crazy Nicolas Cage could go, while Kathryn Bigelow showed her credentials with the lean and mean Near Dark. Perhaps most beloved of the bunch is the pure blast of ‘80s nostalgia that is The Lost Boys, combining solid vampire scares with kids-on-bikes adventure, not to mention an interlude with an oiled-up sexy sax man that really pins it down as a relic of its decade.
W is for… WITHNAIL and I
As portrayed by teetotaller Richard E. Grant, the splenetic, alcoholic, terminally unemployed actor Withnail became the patron saint of British students-in-squalor and half-cut wastrels. Bruce Robinson’s booze-soaked and bittersweet black comedy is based on his own impoverished experiences in the late ‘60s, following two would-be thesps as they briefly trade in their dismal digs in London for an equally cheerless holiday in the Lake District.
With endlessly quotable dialogue (I probably quote it at least once a day), wonderful performances, copious booze and drug use, and a built-in drinking game, Withnail and I became a personal find for many after a disappointing cinematic release before growing in stature as one of the finest British comedies ever made.
X is for… XANADU
Just two years after becoming a global superstar playing Sandy in Grease, Olivia Newton-John missed the boat completely with her disastrously mistimed Xanadu, a roller disco musical that hit screens after the disco craze was already over. As a result, it found itself jostling for the top prizes at the first Golden Raspberry Awards alongside Can’t Stop the Music starring the Village People. In her defence, roller disco movies were actually a thing around the time; Roller Boogie, starring Linda Blair, made decent money, and Skatetown, U.S.A gave Patrick Swayze his first film role.
As for Xanadu, it flopped hard at the box office and the movie is just horrible. The sight of 70 year old Gene Kelly giving us that cheesy old grin while roller skating is enough to give anyone nightmares, as are Newton-John’s strangely geriatric dance moves. Needless to say, it falls resolutely into the “so bad it’s good category.”
Y is for… YELLO
If there are a few words that best sum up the ‘80s, they are probably:
How or why the music of Yello, the Swiss electronic duo of Deiter Meir and Boris Blank, became the unofficial soundtrack of the decade will perhaps remain a mystery. Yet their two best-known singles, “Oh Yeah” and “The Race” became ubiquitous in Hollywood movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Secret of My Success, Uncle Buck, She’s Out of Control, and K-9.
As film critic Jonathan Bernstein wrote of “Oh Yeah” in Ferris:
The song would go on to further success as the perfect theme tune for Duffman in The Simpsons, as well as appearing on many more movie soundtracks.
Z is for… ZOMBIES
George A. Romero may have created the modern zombie movie back in 1968 with The Night of the Living Dead, but it wasn’t until the ‘80s that the shufflers got to express themselves a bit and, you know, live a little.
As such, there were some real innovations in the genre. Romero himself boldly gave us a loveable talking zombie who could use a gun in Day of the Dead, while Dan O’Bannon’s punk black comedy The Return of the Living Dead introduced the idea of the undead feasting on human brains. Fred Dekker’s goofy but effective Night of the Creeps toyed with the possibilities of what might actually cause the dead to return as flesh-hungry ghouls, introducing some horrid space-slugs that can reanimate corpses.
0 - 11 is for… Nigel Tufnel’s amp in THIS IS SPINAL TAP
What is the most quotable cult movie of all time? I guess it depends on your preferences but Caddyshack, Withnail and I, and The Big Lebowski all have a shout in that argument. Then you have This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner’s delirious “rockumentary” about an ailing British hard rock band that has since had real-life bands all testifying to its veracity.
The joy of Spinal Tap is how, no matter how ludicrous their situation gets, it never feels less than completely believable… apart from maybe that bit about spontaneously combusting drummers. If you want some idea of how authentic it is, check out the documentary Anvil! The Story of Anvil about hapless Canadian rockers who somehow manage to out-Tap Spinal Tap.
I had to shoehorn the film into the list because when it comes to quotable dialogue, few examples have infiltrated everyday lexicon as much as Nigel Tufnel’s immortal line “these go to eleven.” It has become a catch-all phrase for something going bigger, louder, above and beyond, and you can hear it spoken today by people you know damn well have never even seen This is Spinal Tap.
So there you have it, my final picks on the A to Z of ‘80s Cult Movies. Naturally there are dozens, if not hundreds, of worthy entries I had to leave out, so let us know your favourites!