Category Archives: 1981 Movie reviews

Happy Birthday to Me-1981

Happy Birthday to Me-1981

Director-J. Lee Thompson

Starring-Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford

Reviewed March 4, 2017

Grade: A-

Happy Birthday to Me is a 1981 slasher film that I fondly remember scaring the living daylights out of me as a little kid-clearly too young to be watching a film of this nature, but sneaking into my parents bedroom with my brother to catch this film. Certain that the film helped shape my passion for the horror film genre, I hold a fondness for it- critics be damned. My opinion is that the film is a small treasure in the land of 1980’s slasher films, containing a neat whodunit and a grotesque ending.

Melissa Sue Anderson, clearly desiring to break out of her nice television persona thanks to the wholesome Little House on the Prairie, is cast in the lead role. Happy Birthday to Me also achieves some merit since the film is directed by acclaimed British director, J. Lee Thompson (Cape Fear). Anderson carries the film quite well in a challenging part. Glenn Ford co-stars as a Doctor.

Virginia Wainwright is a pretty and popular senior at exclusive Crawford Academy- a school for elite, rich kids. In fact, she is part of the “Top Ten”, the most popular and richest kids in the school. The ten friends meet nightly at the local pub. One night, Bernadette, one of the top ten, is murdered by an assailant on her way to meet her friends. This murder sets the tone as, one by one, the others are subsequently killed off, sending the school and local townspeople into a frenzy of panic. To thicken the plot, Virginia was involved in a horrible car accident four years earlier, which killed her mother, and caused Virginia to only have sparse memories of the accident. This piece is key to the film’s mystery.

There are many comparisons I can make to slasher classics that heavily influenced Happy Birthday to Me, but the most prominent must be 1978’s Halloween. The character of Virginia is very similar to Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), in their somewhat virginal, good girl characters, and both have an almost identical hairstyle! Also, Happy Birthday to Me successfully uses the killers point of view as the camera frequently serves as the perspective of either the killer or somebody lurking around spying on someone else. The film also just “looks” similar to Halloween.

The whodunit aspect is the most effective of all the qualities of the film. There are a multitude of likely suspects and the film does not shy away from this, purposely casting doubt on several characters- could it be the creepy Alfred, who carries around a pet mouse and creates a fake head of the murdered Bernadette? Or the suave French student, Etienne, who snoops in Virginia’s bedroom and steals a pair of her panties? Finally, could it be Head Mistress, Mrs. Patterson, a harsh, no-nonsense woman harboring resentment for the snobbish, elitism that exists at her school?

When the killer is finally revealed a measure of pure shock and confusion will undoubtedly transpire- how can this be? But by the time the ultimate finale is played out all will make sense. The conclusion does disappoint slightly in the implausibility factor, and the original ending is much more logical and compelling than what was actually in the final cut- rumors have run rampant that the screenplay of the film was rewritten numerous times well into the production- never a good thing. So, the motivations of the actual killer are quite weak, but the buildup is amazing.

Not to be outdone by the whodunit, the kills themselves are superlative: a shish kabob to the throat, falling gym weights, a scarf caught in the spokes of a bike, and the traditional fireplace poker are done in macabre and fantastic fashion. We always see the killers gloved hands and we are aware that the victim is friendly with the killer, so we continually try and deduce who it could possibly be.

The gruesome “Birthday party” finale is gruesome and gleeful at the same time. Each murder victim is propped up around a dining room table, each with a party hat on and all in various forms of dismemberment or blood soaked from their murder wounds. It is a grim and hilarious reveal. The murderer parades out of the kitchen wielding an enormous birthday cake, cheerily singing “Happy Birthday to Me”. This is one great finale.

Happy Birthday to Me is a wonderful trip down memory lane and the film still holds up as a key, perhaps overlooked part of the slasher genre that should be rediscovered by fans and followers everywhere.

Blow Out-1981

Blow Out-1981

Director-Brian De Palma

Starring-John Travolta, Nancy Allen

Reviewed December 31, 2016

Grade: A-

The follow-up to the 1980 masterpiece that was Dressed to Kill, Brian De Palma carves a web of intrigue and mystery with Blow Out, a film starring some of the same cast members from Dressed to Kill and from 1976’s Carrie. Certainly comparisons can be drawn to the trio as they are all in the psychological thriller/horror vein- notwithstanding, the predecessors are the superior films. Blow Out is not quite on the level with those masterpieces, but is still a worthy effort and a must-see for fans of De Palma’s work.

John Travolta and Nancy Allen are the stars of the film-recreating their chemistry from Carrie. In that film, the pair are the clear villains, but in Blow Out they are the heroes and have a rooting value. Dennis Franz appears as a shady thug and John Lithgow is superb as the dastardly  Burke, hired to commit a crime, and enjoying it all too much.

Travolta plays Jack Terry, a sound effects technician, working and living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He works on low-budget horror films, and is highly respected for his craft. Alone in a remote park, recording sound and video, he records a car careening off a bridge into a creek. He saves Sally (Allen) from the sinking car and this is the point in the film where the intrigue takes off. The driver of the car is a governor and he has died- Sally was having an affair with the governor and his aides are intent on covering this up. To make matters more complicated, Jack has detected a gunshot on his recording-just before the crash, leading to obvious foul play.

I adore the beginning sequence of the film- my favorite. The film begins as a slasher film, unbeknownst to the audience. A collection of dizzy college girls dance, drink, and shower, as the cameras are placed outside of the dorms. We see all of the action through the glass windows, then the steady cam is used from the killers point of view. This is a highly effective scene and rather humorous too. Inevitably, a creepy killer appears in the shower to butcher one of the college girls until the real beginning of the film actually starts. This aspect is clever on the part of  De Palma. Why not trick the audience early and keep them guessing?

Also compelling is the villain of the film- Lithgow. Typically playing  sweet-nature characters, it was interesting to see him as a maniacal killer- and reminiscent of the crazed killer from Dirty Harry, in his harried, grotesque facial features. One particularly chilling scene involves the murder of a prostitute at the train station. I like this scene because the audience gets to know her a bit before she meets her fate- adding a level of empathy for the victim.

Enjoyable are the location sequences of Philadelphia, which give authenticity to the film. Specifically, the train station. Grizzled, dirty, and bustling, the locales set the tone of the film.

The chemistry between Travolta and Allen is decent, though I found more chemistry between them in Carrie. I did not care for Allen’s use of an accent- intended to be a Philadelphia accent, it seemed a New Jersey one to me and simply does not work at all in the film. This distraction is the only weak point of the film.

All in all, Blow Out is a very good film. It combines mystery, political intrigue, and the famed De Palma stamp- which in itself is worthwhile enough to watch. Blow Out contains a dream-like element- as Carrie and Dressed to Kill before it did, which only enhances the mystique. The not so happily ever after ending is superb.

Halloween II-1981

Halloween II-1981

Director-Rick Rosenthal

Starring-Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence

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Reviewed October 31, 2016

Grade: A

The follow-up to the surprise 1978 cult classic, independently made Halloween- directed by legend John Carpenter,  Halloween II was made in 1981. In real life it is three years later, but in the film picking up immediately where the original left off in a chronological sense- the infamous night Michael Myers came home to brutalize the town where he killed his sister years earlier. This is an excellent plot point that makes this film successful as it takes the viewer immediately back to that infamous night. Halloween II is one of my personal favorite film sequels.

Despite not directing Halloween II, John Carpenter, along with Debra Hill, both wrote the script so that they are, thankfully, heavily involved in the production of this film, giving it authenticity and familiarity. So much so that Halloween and Halloween II can be watched back to back- like one long film.

Michael Myers path of destruction continues in the sleepy, suburban town of Haddonfield, Illinois. This point looms large in this fantastic sequel and we are treated to a direct transition from original to sequel. The events switch from babysitter territory to the community hospital as new characters- mostly doctors, nurses, and ambulance people are introduced to the story, Laurie’s friends are sadly deceased.  Certainly, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasence) are the main stars of the film and by the climax take center stage.

As a recap- the determined Loomis shot Michael Myers several times as he tumbled off of a balcony to his presumed death. In spectacular fashion, the original Halloween brilliantly set the stage for a sequel, as Myers survives and disappears into the night-whereabouts unknown. Now hours later, Laurie is transported to Haddonfield hospital for treatment.  While there, the hospital staff do their best to protect her, but are subsequently offed one by one by the crazed killer, who finds his way into the (conveniently!) deserted hospital.

A great quality to Halloween II is that it is gorier than it’s predecessor. More characters are sliced and diced in unceremoniously brutal fashion. One has her blood drained, another is stabbed in the eye with a syringe. Yet another is repeatedly dunked into scalding water. And then there is the traditional knife in the back.

In contrast to many other slasher films, the supporting cast of characters are quite likable and they are given little back stories of their own- a great touch. Bud- the wise cracking ambulance driver is dating Nurse Karen. Jimmy, a handsome orderly, takes a shine to Laurie. Mixed in with the clearly heavy horror are nice comic moments, as when Nurse Janet ineptly tries to assist the hospital security guard- the bumbling Mr. Garrett, with a walkie-talkie, or when Head Nurse Mrs. Alves scolds the staff for being tardy. We grow to care for these characters, in their little night-shift family, so that their inevitable demises hit home.

The chilling music- so instrumental to the success of the original- is slightly modernized into more of a keyboard style sound. This gives a slicker, more commercial appeal. Not to take away from the brilliance of the original score, but it is nice to hear a change- giving a fresher, more contemporary sound, rather than simply copying the same music.

Admittedly, Halloween II is not quite on par with Halloween, but that is asking the impossible. Halloween is a masterpiece, but Halloween II holds its own and is more than adequate as a sequel having large shoes to fill. Thanks to many of the same creators involved, it does not lose its edge nor its relevance all these years later.

My Bloody Valentine-1981

My Bloody Valentine-1981

Director-George Mihalka

Starring-Paul Kelman, Lori Hallier

Top 20 Horror Films-#20

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Grade: A

Reviewed May 15, 2016

My Bloody Valentine is a perfect slasher film to watch on the romantic holiday of Valentine’s Day or, in fact, any day during the cold and snowy month of February. The film sort of loses something if watched during summer or any other time of the year, since the dark and harsh feeling of the film is perfect atmosphere if watched appropriately.

In my opinion, My Bloody Valentine is an underrated gem of the early 1980’s- just as Black Christmas was to the 1970’s- and both ironically are heralded so by directors such as Quentin Tarantino. Other less gritty films of this nature received greater exposure and commercial success, but I am proud to name My Bloody Valentine as one of my Top 100 favorite films. Both are also “holiday themed” films.

The plot is basic, yet layered, with a unique setting. Rather than a creepy house, a summer camp, or some other tried and true device, we have the ingenious coal mine setting- immediately fraught with great potential. Think about it- a coal mine is dark, suffocating, creepy, with countless secret passages, the fear of being lost, and running out of oxygen. It is also underground where help can easily be unobtainable. The town is aptly named Valentine Bluff (how clever) so Valentine’s Day is a major holiday. The Mayor and police chief figure prominently in the story and the use of town history makes the film engaging.

Typical for the slasher genre we have a bunch of horny teens, partying to the max, who decide that the coal mine is the perfect place to throw a Valentine’s Day party, and they do so with gusto. There are a few middle-aged characters with meaty stuff to do, and the main plot is of the whodunit sort. The killer’s get up is simply genius. He (or she) is wearing a miner’s outfit, completely dark, with an oxygen mask, which elicits a heavy breathing sound adding to the great atmosphere that My Bloody Valentine contains.

One of my favorite scenes involves the offing of Mabel Osbourne, the earnest, sweet-natured party planner, who excitedly is preparing the annual Valentine’s day town dance. She marvels at receiving a box of chocolates with a wonderful poem until she reads the poem. “Roses are red, violets are blue- two are dead and so are you”! Poor Mabel then has her heart removed and it is sent (gift wrapped naturally) to the Mayor and police chief. The scene is both horrific and comical.

My Bloody Valentine is a favorite of the genre for me and actually cascades that genre with its bloodiness, fun storytelling, and wicked charm.

Escape from New York-1981

Escape from New York-1981

Director-John Carpenter

Starring-Kurt Russell, Adrienne Barbeau

Top 100 Films-#76

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Reviewed January 27, 2017

Grade: A

Escape from New York epitomizes a great action film to me. Too often, action films are filled with run of the mill characters, are plot driven, and are mediocre stories that lack creativity. I adore Escape from New York, however. The creativity and amazing direction by John Carpenter allow the film to soar high above what is typical for this genre. The unique premise sets things off immediately as we follow the mission of ex-con Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) to save an important figure in peril.

In futuristic 1997, we learn that due to skyrocketing crime throughout the United States, New York City has been fenced off and turned into a maximum security prison. All of the most hardened and demonic criminals have been isolated on Manhattan island to fend for themselves- free to kill or be killed as they like. The rest of the country is presumably crime free- though we never see the rest of the country. The President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) is taken hostage when Air Force One crashes on Manhattan island. Snake is injected with a poison that will kill him in twenty-four hours unless he successfully rescues the president and returns him alive and well.

I love this film because it is strictly Carpenter’s vision. Due to the success of 1978’s Halloween, he was given creative freedom and a big budget to film in St. Louis (doubling for New York). The film contains eerie synthesizer music (reminiscent of Halloween and Halloween II) which sets the tone exceptionally well. The dark and abandoned sets are wonderful and capture a futuristic world oh so well.

The audience will undoubtedly become enraptured as Snake’s mission is literally do or die- if he does not save the president he dies. As Snake arrives atop the World Trade Center via glider, now post 9/11, this scene takes on a haunting quality. Snake then immerses himself into the gloomy world of Manhattan facing all sorts of dangers along the way. Punk rock looking creatures scurry around the city- many insane, and Snake meets odd character after odd character in his quest to save the president. His main ally is Cabbie, played by Ernest Borgnine.

The villain of the story is Duke, not well cast nor well developed in my opinion, but this can be overlooked because of his super rad Cadillac and his two fascinating accomplices- Maggie (Barbeau) and Brain (Harry Dean Stanton). The lavish sets include the New York Public Library and Grand Central Station- I love that there are so many iconic New York City locales featured- the fact that they are not actually shot in the genuine areas does not bother me. The art direction is done so well that I was fooled.

Escapism fare to be sure, but a unique entry in the action genre. Thanks to fantastic direction and a likable star, escape from New York succeeds.

An American Werewolf in London-1981

An American Werewolf in London-1981

Director-John Landis

Starring-David Naughton, Griffin Dunne

60020844

Reviewed July 2, 2015

Grade: B-

A melding together of British-American horror and comedy, An American Werewolf in London provides entertainment while being campy and silly comedy. While two American buddies, Jack and David, traverse the countryside of England with backpacks in tow, a spring break jaunt of sorts, one is viciously attacked and killed by a strange werewolf setting off a series of strange occurrences that play out over the remainder of the film. From this point the film is told from the perspective of one of the males as the other appears to him in visions warning of his inevitable demise into a werewolf.

An American Werewolf in London does not intend to mock the genre of horror, but is certainly campy and over-the top. Despite cult classic accolades being thrust upon the film, it is not among my favorites. I would have preferred it tilt more towards the horror classification rather than the comedy because it comes across as some sort of a spoof as the main characters overact. The film has a silly quality to it. It is light fare instead of dark or morbid and even the kills are meant to be fun, not horrific. In a way it is almost cheesy and that is not a compliment.

This is not to say that the film is completely subpar. It is decent, but not very believable and I think that is a distraction and a missed opportunity. However, my favorite characteristics of this film are the makeup/special effects and the musical score which features such fitting treats as “Moondance”, “Bad Moon Rising”, and “Blue Moon”. Sense an intelligent theme? The makeup, especially during the reanimation sequences are creative and still impressive today considering the film was made in 1981.

In addition, the best scene of the film is undoubtedly the “Slaughtered Lamb” scene when Jack and David stumble upon the aptly named pub filled with interesting, blue-collar looking locales. When one of the tourists inquires about a mysterious five-pointed star on the wall the pub dwellers become angry and cold leading the young men to be confused and intrigued. This scene is filled with interest and I only wish the pub characters had more of a chance to shine as they seem benevolent and filled with potential backstory. I would have enjoyed learning more history about these folks. Sadly, the focus is by and large on Jack and David and a poorly constructed love interest- Nurse Alex Price, who is not to be taken at all seriously and played for one-dimensional laughs.

A lighthearted, sort of fun late night flick, An American Werewolf in London is a cult film, though I would not agree with the cult classic distinction.

Mommie Dearest-1981

Mommie Dearest-1981

Director-Frank Perry

Starring-Faye Dunaway

Top 100 Films-#44

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Reviewed November 20, 2014

Grade: A

Camp, camp, camp! By this point in film history Mommie Dearest and this description go hand in hand, but when made in 1981, it was meant to be a much more serious film than it turned out to be. Sadly, due to a few very over-the-top lines, it is forever inducted into the halls of cult classic memory. Based on the scandalous tell-all book written by Christina Crawford (Joan’s adopted daughter), Mommie Dearest tells the story of Joan Crawford, Hollywood screen legend, from her heyday in the 1930’s, until her death in 1977, and mostly focuses on the tumultuous relationship with Christina- played as an adult by Diana Scarwid. Convinced a baby was missing from her life and unable to conceive after several miscarriages with a former flame, Crawford’s beau at the time, an attorney, wrangles a way for her to adopt both Christina and later, Christopher Crawford. Dealing with her mother’s demands and abuse, Christina goes from happy little girl to rebellious teen sent to live in a convent and later struggling to find her way as an actress in New York City with no financial support from Mom. The film also wonderfully describes the career of Crawford- from highs (winning the Academy award for Mildred Pierce) to lows (being cut from MGM and reduced to screen tests). The film also recounts Joan Crawford’s continuing battles with booze and neuroses.

From start to finish the film belongs to Dunaway as she simply becomes Crawford- the eyelashes, the mannerisms, every detail is spot on. Unfortunately for Dunaway, due to the unintentional comedic view of this film, she was robbed of an Oscar nomination, shamefully so. In fact, the film was awarded several Razzie’s- a derogatory honor given to the years worst films. Dunaway must have put her heart and soul into this performance. During the infamous wire hanger scene, Dunaway looks frightening as her face, caked with cold cream, reveals a grotesque mask- reminiscent of Batman character The Joker- as she shrieks at her daughter in the middle of the night, during a drunken tirade, after finding beautiful clothes on wire hangers. She then trashes her daughter’s bathroom insisting it is already filthy. One shrieks with gales of laughter as Crawford berates her maid Helga for not scrubbing beneath a potted plant, only to insist, “I’m not mad at you Helga, I’m mad at the dirt”. In another haunting scene, Joan throws a birthday party for Christina complete with a merry-go-round, balloons, presents, and the paparazzi. Joan’s attire is a little girl dress matching young Christina’s- a morbid foreshadowing of the competition that is to exist between them as the years go by. The secondary characters are merely an extension of Dunaway’s character and do their best to support her- her harried live in assistant, Carol Ann, played by Rutanya Alda, both of her love interests, lawyer, Greg Savitt, played by Steve Forrest, and later, Pepsi-Cola mogul Alfred Steele, played by Harry Goz. The actors do their best with the material given and are neither exceptional nor flawed. None of these supporting characters have any backstory other than to react to Crawford’s drama and, if written better, may have given the film a bit more depth.

The look of the film is pleasing- Crawford’s house is beautifully decorated with lavish furniture and the colors throughout the film are both bright and vivid. The now legendary lines of “No wire hangers ever!”, “Christina! Bring me the ax!”, and “Don’t f### with me fellas, this ain’t my first time at the rodeo” are hysterical in their melodrama and effect. Crawford is clearly portrayed as an obsessive-compulsive, demanding, control freak. One may debate the authenticity of the claims Christina made against Joan Crawford until the end of time. Not the masterpiece it was intended to be, the film can be enjoyed viewing after viewing for some campy silliness, with one hell of a great performance by Dunaway mixed in.

The Evil Dead-1981

The Evil Dead-1981

Director-Sam Raimi

Starring-Bruce Campbell

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Reviewed July 30, 2014

Grade: B+

For its time The Evil Dead was a unique, creative, visually impressive horror classic and far different from the wave of mediocre slasher films from this time period (1981). In the story, five teenagers head to a remote cabin in Tennessee for spring break. From the beginning of the trip there is trouble- they are almost killed in a head on collision, their car almost falls into a rickety bridge, and finally, at the cabin, they stumble upon a haunted book. From this point, even stranger event begin to develop and the haunting, crazy action begins.

Director Sam Raimi does an excellent job from a visual standpoint- the camera racing through the woods from the demons point of view is very effective and scary. The ambiance is creepy- fog, mist, smoke, and the lighting are great. The film has all the elements- darkness, remote cabin, woods coming alive for a genuinely scary horror flick. Yes, the film seems a bit campy watching it now, but at the time the special effects were brilliant.

My personal favorite is the long shot of the twitching dismembered body and the various, hysterically funny chattering and gibberish among the demons. The ending of the film is very well done.