Tom Jolliffe celebrates the cinematic delights of 1987…
The 80’s mark a special period in cinema for me. It’s predominantly an age thing. I grew up throughout the 80’s, soaking in some fantastic films. It was a rising golden age of blockbusters which took the foundations of what guys like Spielberg and Lucas launched in the late 70’s, as that stark, gritty and dramatically challenging output that delivered some of the best films of all time (The Godfather and more), gave way to more crowd pleasing, optimistic fare. The cinematic landscape went from the likes of The French Connection, The Conversation, and Chinatown to the more light-hearted Star Wars or Jaws.
As blockbusters swarmed the cinemas and multiplexes began spreading, audiences demanded entertainment. That trend has carried on and intensified and it’s truer than ever in these days of Marvel adaptations. The 80’s got me into cinema. That passion developed through childhood fantasy favourites and by adulthood I could extend my tastes further to indulge in perhaps more intellectual fare. As it stands my tastes are eclectic to put it mildly.
So now I feel is a good time to focus on the delights that 1987 had to offer. It’s a nice round 30 years in the past, but also an important year as it marks the earliest cinema trip that I can recall. The film in question was my childhood favourite, which launched a life long appreciation of the one and only Dolph Lundgren. That film was of course, Masters of the Universe. Now by this time there was a whole cornucopia of fantasy films doing the rounds in theatres and on video. For a kid, with no discernible notion of technical, structural or dramatic quality control, anything that had a few sets, costumes and preferably a muscle-bound hero was the bees knees. I couldn’t spot the flaws in films like Legend, and I couldn’t even spot the flaws in a slew of Italian made Lou Ferrigno starrers that included Hercules and Sinbad of the Seven Seas. Adulthood and nostalgic repeat viewings lead to discovering that certain films you adored, were in fact, utter shit. Sometimes ridiculously so.
Masters of the Universe in retrospect it turns out wasn’t a great film. That said it’s got charm and I still love it, whilst there’s a numbingly repetitive production line element to many modern blockbusters that have seen retrospect go full circle and begin to make films like Krull and Masters now look better. Suddenly where adulthood illuminated certain flaws, a growing monotony in modern blockbusters now highlights hidden nuggets of charm and gold and even in retrospect now, one can fully appreciate the sheer, whole-hearted, theatrical scenery chewing of Frank Langella as Skeletor. He takes the role so seriously in fact that it goes beyond what might have been disastrously laughable overacting to inspired brilliance. So yeah, this film launched a passion for film in me. It took me away from the TV world (spent largely indulging in He-Man and Transformers) and into the world of film. Pure escapism at its finest and at 6 years old with a newly found ability to concentrate enough to take in a 90 minute film in one go, it meant the flame was lit, and still burns brightly.
Aside from Masters of the Universe, 1987 was a thoroughly “good journey” indeed (that was a Masters reference that any good fan of the film will get and the vast majority of you won’t). This is a year absolutely packed with films that took up repeat viewings as I turned from young lad, to teen and through to adult years. Some I discovered early (and earlier than I should have) and some a little later.
Lethal Weapon ruled my VHS for large periods. It’s one of the definitive action films. If you ask me about ultimate action films, Lethal Weapon is my definitive example of the buddy film. It’s immense. The action is tight, the film is loaded with pure Shane Black brilliance. Line after line of acerbic awesomeness. Yet beneath all that, and beneath the clear, infectious chemistry between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover there’s an edge and there’s some drama. Everything that happens in the film, you invest in and it’s exciting and Martin Riggs (Gibson) is a fascinating character and it all culminates in a showdown between he and the “albino, jack rabbit, son of a bitch” Gary Busey (who is a henchman for the ages in this).
Another timeless, infinitely repeatable gem from 87 is another I saw at a young age. Predator is purity and simplicity at its finest. It takes a basic concept in one main location, and chucks in a group of easily identifiable and memorable characters and then ratchets up the tension to 11. Arnie has rarely been better. I mean he never gets much credit as an actor and Dutch isn’t exactly Hamlet, but he plays a morally straight bastion of manhood, who has the unenviable task of being the leader of a mixed group of crazy, or burned out mercenaries. Arnie commands the film brilliantly. The action is fantastic, the Predator make-up FX iconic and the music from Alan Silvestri is also classic. Ahnuld also had the enjoyable The Running Man out in the same year. Then of course another film that clocked a lot of VHS mileage, loaded with excessive violence, swearing and zingers was RoboCop. Like other Paul Verhoeven films at his best it perfectly balances trashier elements with a little heart and Peter Weller is the definitive RoboCop, a Frankenstein monster injected with pathos.
One thing that makes a film stick long in your memory is great lines. The previous suggestions of course have that in abundance. The Princess Bride I actually discovered a little later, in the 90’s if I recall. Maybe in the late 80’s I was too busy catching up with Lethal Weapon etc, carefully “borrowed” from a friend’s older brother. Anyway I did get round to it, and of course it’s a film for the ages. As a kid it’s a fantasy flick loaded with adventure, giants, a princess and monsters. It’s the balls. As an adult it’s hilarious, witty, devilishly satirical and one can appreciate the jokes a little more. The film is brilliant but the performances are on point and Mandy Patinkin in particular really does offer an emotional connection to the story. The whole thing is jovial, funny, but works dramatically too because there’s something very invested and genuine in his performance as Inigo Montaya (“My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”).
87 was also the definitive year of the vampire with two stand out films in The Lost Boys and Near Dark. The Lost Boys is the populist one, whilst Near Dark is definitely the more cult vampire offering and still remains a film that has escaped peoples attentions. I love both films I have to say. The Lost Boys has a great soundtrack, cast, it’s great fun and once again, has a whole host of memorable lines. Near Dark is aesthetically a little darker and more interesting. It’s more understated in some ways and it’s basically Twilight, if Twilight was good. The score from Tangerine Dream is atmospheric and otherworldly (as their music, very much in their movie pomp through the 80’s, tended to be). It also features the late, great Bill Paxton in fine form.
Aside from vamps there were of course a whole host of horror films. John Carpenters film for the year was The Prince of Darkness, whilst the sequel train delivered Evil Dead 2 (inventive, funny, stylish and brilliant) and A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 (the most well received of the sequels). 87 also saw the launch of the Hellraiser franchise with the original and best. Superman IV: Quest For Peace was certainly a horror, of different sorts. As a kid I loved it and saw no flaws. Of course in the cold light of adulthood it’s clearly a disaster. Cheap, lazy, disastrous and alongside Masters of the Universe would represent the begin of a rapid decline in Cannon Studios. Two of their most ambitious tent pole blockbusters would ultimately suffer significant budget cuts prior to production and ended up bombing at the box office. Despite the budgetary cuts they still remain two of Cannons most lavish productions, but the studio had promised so much more during pre-sales and couldn’t deliver.
Comedic offerings were also plentiful. Aside from Princess Bride, the year also saw The Coen’s firmly establish themselves as important creators with Raising Arizona. Mel Brooks delivered yet another hilarious and well observed spoof with Spaceballs. Every kid my age had seen and loved Spaceballs and again, even to this day it’s endlessly repeatable and I can easily quote at least one line a month in every day life. Innerspace and Three Men and a Baby are classic examples of those films you watched first on TV, and then subsequently every couple of years when they’d re-appear. The latter especially hasn’t aged brilliantly but it’s still got a certain charm to it. Harry and the Hendersons and Overboard are further examples of good TV watches. The comedic offering of the year though must surely be Planes, Trains and Automobiles. I could honestly watch this film once a week for the rest of my life. It’s perfection and the finest example of just how great Steve Martin can (and should always…) be. The heart of the movie lies with John Candy, who even some 23 years after his death is much missed. Arguably the most genial actor ever. It is impossible not to find Candy endearing, in almost every film he’s made, but not more so than as Del Griffith.
In a fine year for pure entertainment and fun (even with dashes of dramatic heft) it was perhaps a quiet year in terms of really stand out dramas but there were still a few good and great films. Full Metal Jacket is an undoubtedly brilliant film from a master film-maker (Kubrick). Empire of the Sun is one of Spielberg’s more overlooked films which bought Christian Bale to the attention of audiences. Fatal Attraction would become iconic as Glenn Close added the sort of character and intensity to a role that may usually have gone to a more conventionally attractive, if less skilled actress. What she did was elevate the now archetypal bunny boiler film (in what set a mould) to iconic status. The Untouchables is pure De Palma at his stylised best. It’s a fine film which may pale against the output of similar films a decade previous, but still remains highly regarded and is one of the definitive 80’s gangster films. Elsewhere, Angel Heart is a sorely overlooked, if inconsistent film that features a brilliant De Niro and a young potential filled Mickey Rourke who was not far off career implosion (and long before his redemption in The Wrestler).
On paper, and there are many more I could touch upon, it’s clear that 1987 was a great mix, leaning heavily on crowd pleasing. Like any year there is the odd disaster, but even so, 1987 seems to have a few more charming mishaps. Let us know your favourite film of 1987.