Dystopian games shows, doomed adaptations and bizarre horror sequels. VHS Revival brings you all the retro movie news from November ’87
November 1987 was a weapons-heavy treasure trove for action movie fans. The Cannon Group would release its fourth instalment of the Charles Bronson-led Death Wish series on November 6. Death Wish 4: The Crackdown would ditch original trilogy director Michael Winner, resulting in a reduced-budget, limited release. Winner refused to return for the sequel after clashing with Bronson during the filming of Death Wish 3, a future cult instalment that took the character’s eye-for-an-eye John Wayne act to absurd extremities, a fact that displeased the actor greatly.
Cannon had also begun belt-tightening thanks to a series of big-budget flops such as Pirates, Masters of the Universe and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, after attempting to recreate the success of their solitary box office smash in the Stallone-led vigilante clone Cobra. Thanks to a background in producing bargain-basement scripts and a history of haphazard productions, Golan-Globus’ attempts at mainstream glory failed to materialise.
Churning out more of the same, Death Wish 4 would see protagonist Paul Kersey seeking retribution against a Los Angeles drug syndicate after the death of his girlfriend’s daughter. The movie would take the series in a decidedly more caricaturistic direction at the request of producers Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus, who were looking to make a “mindless movie with non-stop action”. Maybe I’m missing something here, but hadn’t they always?
Critically, Death Wish 4 didn’t pull up any pillars, but the consensus would cite it as the best of all sequels — presumably because it was the least offensive following the hugely cynical Death Wish II, a movie that glamourized the violence it was supposed to be condemning as Michael Winner desperately sought a hit following a career-low downturn.
Death Wish 4 would gross just shy of $7,000,000 at the box office from a $5,000,000 outlay, a minor cash injection in light of recent losses, but the movie would truly flourish in the VHS market after Cannon secured a $2,000,000 advance with Media Home Entertainment for what would prove the bestselling entry in the series.
Also released on November 6th was Sir Richard Attenborough’s Apartheid epic Cry Freedom. Starring Denzel Washington as charismatic South African Black Consciousness Movement Steve Biko, a real-life activist who was killed by police having been detained by the South African Government, and was the first movie produced by a major Hollywood studio to star acclaimed Australian actor John Hargreaves.
Based on two books by South African journalist and anti-apartheid activist Donald James Woods, CBE, the film’s production crew were placed under surveillance by South African security police during filming, Attenborough’s decision to shoot the movie in October deliberately misinterpreted by the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC), who falsely claimed that the director/producer was attempting to instigate a Russian-sponsored revolution.
So confident were MCA/Universal of the film’s political and creative clout that studio executive Lew Wasserman predicted a clean sweep at the 60th Academy Awards, a ceremony ultimately dominated by Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic biographical drama The Last Emperor.
Early screenings of Cry Freedom seemed to confirm Wasserman’s bold predictions, though the film would have to settle for three nominations — Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington), Best Original Score and Best Original Song (George Fenton and Jonas Gwangwa). Washington would lose out to Sean Connery as ill-fated fictional Irish cop Jim Malone in Brian De Palma’s prohibition era crime film The Untouchables.
Cry Freedom would receive mostly positive reviews. Rita Kempley of The Washington Post would laud Washington’s turn as an “Oscar-caliber performance”, though the same publication’s Desson Howe was less convinced overall, particularly the Woods character, portrayed by Kevin Kline, who he described as the film’s “major flaw”. Ironically, Kline would bag the Best Supporting Actor Oscar the following year for his superlative turn as the insecure and deeply jealous assassin Otto in hit British comedy A Fish Called Wanda. Janet Maslin of The New York Times would also praise the film for its picturesque cinematography.
Cry Freedom tanked financially, recouping a mere $5,899,797 in the US and Canada. $15,000,000 in international rentals would later soften the blow, but a budget of approximately $29,000,000 resulted in a significant loss for Marble Arch Productions and Universal Pictures.
Cheers favourite Shelley Long, who had recently left the series to concentrate on her movie career, got off to the worst possible start with the deeply forgettable fantasy romcom Hello Again, released to damning reviews in the first week of November.
Described by Vincent Canby of The New York Times as “a high-concept comedy with a terminally low laugh content”, the movie tells the story of a Long Island housewife, brought back from the dead after choking on a chicken ball, who must find love before the next full moon in order to avoid being sent back to the spirit world. Hello Again is notable for being Gabriel Byrne’s first American film, though the experience almost soured him to the industry for good, the actor later claiming that his time working on the film almost led to him quitting the business.
Long had experienced previous success in comedy roles during her time on Cheers, including major roles in Leslie Dixon’s Outrageous Fortune alongside Bette Midler and Richard Benjamin’s Tom Hanks vehicle The Money Pitt. She would even turn down lead roles in Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Working Girl and My Stepmother Is an Alien, before 1989’s poorly received Troop Beverly Hills once again relegated her to television duties. The actress would reprise her role in Cheers in 1993 for the series finale.
Charting at number 2 with an opening weekend of $5,712,892 in the US, Long’s mainstream popularity was enough to make Hello Again a modest hit, the film managing a not-too-shabby $20,419,446 domestically.
Dirty Dancing heartthrob Patrick Swayze would plunge the low-budget depths of dystopian sci-fi in Lance Hool’s post-apocalyptic action movie Steel Dawn, also released on November 6.
The story of a lone warrior who aids a group of settlers being hassled by a murderous gang, the movie borrows liberally from the Mad Max series, particularly 1981’s Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, which proved so influential it would inspire a whole host of similar knock-offs following its release, including Escape from the Bronx, Warriors of the Wasteland and sleaze director Joe D’Amato’s cult absurdity Endgame.
Described as a “futuristic rehash of Shane” by critic Leonard Maltin, Steel Dawn tanked at the box office, recouping only $562,187 of its estimated $3,500,000 production budget. Film.com’s Eric D. Snider wrote of the movie, “[Steel Dawn] has a very simple plot, so the only way to stretch the material into 90 minutes is to spend some time with the characters and watch them inhabit their strange, futuristic world. But the movie also has very simple characters who are devoid of personality and are not fun to spend time with, and the movie has also refused to set up their strange, futuristic world in any kind of detail.”
According to Hool, speaking on the Steel Dawn‘s The Making Of, the western and sci-fi genres weren’t his only influences: “What I’m trying to do is pull out from my bag of tricks, from all the westerns I was involved in, because I sort of see it as a futuristic western. To me it’s a challenge to bring as many film forms into this picture as possible. By that I mean a little bit of the samurai films, a great deal of the western films, and some of the modern things that are so popular with with the action thing. We don’t have any guns and we don’t have any cars stunts but we’re trying to mix those in as well.”
Future American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis’ debut novel Less Than Zero was also adapted for the screen, finally hitting theatres on November 6, 1987. Criticised by the author for bearing no resemblance to his devastatingly detached story of a nihilistic generation without purpose (a stance that he later softened), the film was originally optioned for as little as $7,500 prior to the book’s publication in June 1985 under the impression that the project would be financed by 20th Century Fox.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer was initially hired to write the screenplay, his version much closer in tone to Ellis’ novel, though touchy subjects such as protagonist Clay’s casual drug use and bisexuality were considered too extreme for mainstream audiences in the midst of an AIDS epidemic and prejudice resulting from America’s ‘Gay Panic’.
Having been assigned to Risky Business producer Jon Avnet, who completely missed the point of Ellis’ commentary on the moral dangers of privilege and set out to transform “a very extreme situation” into “a sentimental story about warmth, caring and tenderness in an atmosphere hostile to those kinds of emotions”, the movie presented Clay, who would later return in Ellis’ belated 2010 follow-up Imperial Bedrooms, as a different character entirely.
Film historian Leonard Maltin was quick to emphasise the studio’s commercial tampering, claiming that the movie had been, “sanitized into pointlessness”, though he did question the source material’s suitability for the screen, suggesting that, “an entirely faithful adaptation would have turned everyone off.”
The same could have been assumed of 1991’s American Psycho, a novel so controversial it was quickly pulled from shelves following its release, though director Mary Harron was able to portray what was a deeply misunderstood story in a way that was palatable for mainstream audiences, focusing more on the source material’s wit than it’s profound violence.
Starring 80s Brat Packers Andrew McCarthy, Jami Gertz, Robert Downey Jr. and James Spader, Less Than Zero would chart at number 4 with an opening weekend of $3,008,987, managing a total domestic gross of $12,396,383 ― a huge disappointment for 20th Century Fox, who at least managed to keep the budget from exceeding $8,000,000 in a notoriously thrifty endeavour.
Having already established himself as a science fiction icon in franchise-spinning movies such as James Cameron’s The Terminator and John McTiernan’s jungle-bound genre mash Predator, Arnold Schwarzenegger would land the lead role in Paul Michael Glaser’s Stephen King adaptation The Running Man, starring alongside Alien‘s Yaphet Kotto and Hispanic firecracker Maria Conchita Alonso.
By November 1987, Arnie was well on his way to becoming the most recognisable movie star on the planet, and King’s dystopian nightmare about a man forced into a deadly reality TV show in order to support his sick daughter had all the prerequisites to boost Arnie’s credibility even further. It’s something of a shame that they chose to deviate so heavily from the source material. In hindsight, The Running Man has a Kitsch charm that works as a memorable time capsule for Reagan’s ’80s, with naff sets, gaudy costumes and the kind of Hollywood finale that makes fickle fare of the movie’s anarchic source material, but at the time it was not so well received.
Altering the novel’s global setting, the movie would confine its protagonist to a network studio, lending the production a small-time feel, while its futuristic speculations never seemed to stretch beyond 1987. The fact that Schwarzenegger’s Ben Richards sported a larger-than-life physique also robbed the movie of credibility as the book’s protagonist was much more of an underdog, a scrawny prole who better fit the story’s totalitarian themes. The book was later described by King as being “as far away from the Arnold Schwarzenegger character in the movie as you can get.”
Original director Andrew Davis was fired one week into filming and Arnie put the blame squarely in the lap of his replacement, citing Glaser’s subsequent hiring as a mistake and claiming that he “shot the movie like it was a television show, losing all the deeper themes”, a comment which is hard to refute. Ironically, real-life game show host Richard Dawson would steal the show as disingenuous slimeball Damon Killian, the ratings-obsessed host of The Running Man, and the film as aged surprisingly well with its commentaries on celebrity culture and fake news autocracy.
Despite the movie’s poor reception, Schwarzenegger would go on to solidify his place as sci-fi’s biggest attraction, starring in money-spinning efforts Total Recall and Terminator 2: Judgement Day to become Hollywood’s most lavishly paid superstar.
Also known as Howling III: The Marsupials and The Marsupials: The Howling III, 1987’s Australian horror movie Howling III, the only PG-13 instalment in the series, was released on November 13 to very little fanfare.
Director Philippe Mora would return to the series following the absurdly new wave Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf aka Howling II: Stirba ― Werewolf Bitch, a movie starring a seriously against-type Sybil Danning and a not-too-happy Christopher Lee, who would later apologise to The Howling director Joe Dante for taking part in the movie when hired for 1990’s Gremlins 2: The New Batch.
Mora was so keen on making amends for his previous outing that he would raise the finances for the film himself, and would approach his second sequel as a standalone film with absolutely no references to its predecessors. Howling III tells the story of a female werewolf, on the run from her sexually abusive stepfather, who falls head over heels with a movie industry insider. As you can probably imagine, it’s all rather strange, though connoisseurs of the weird and wonderful will no doubt get a kick out of it.
Dave Kehr of the Chicago Tribune would outline the film’s inadequacies in no uncertain terms, suggesting that Howling III, “seems destined to languish in dusty obscurity on the higher shelves of less discriminating video stores.” Richard Harrington of The Washington Post was slightly less cruel, writing, “‘Howling III’ is much better than the shoddy ‘II’ but nowhere near as sharp as the Joe Dante original… Mora’s got some intriguing strands to weave together, but the film has no internal rhythm.”
Howling III would make $31,740 on an estimated budget of between $1,000,000 – $2,000,000.
For a generation of kids, Jeffrey Bloom’s adaptation of V. C. Andrews’ 1979 cult psychological horror Flowers in the Attic was one to remember, though admirers of the novel feel rather differently, and with good reason.
Protective of her most lauded work, Andrews ― who established an unholy matrimony of Gothic horror and family saga during a career that, under her original name and the posthumous moniker Andrew Neiderman, spanned six decades ― demanded script approval after selling the rights to producers Thomas Fries and Sy Levin, and would turn down a total of five scripts before eventually settling on eventual writer/director Bloom’s (this didn’t include Wes Craven’s version, which was rejected by the studio for its portrayal of the source material’s incestuous elements).
Andrews’ decision proved to be one made in vein. Since Bloom lacked full control of the film’s content, significant changes were made by both Fries Entertainment and New World Pictures, who ditched several important themes and plot points, including the incestuous relationship between the story’s older siblings, the very theme that drove sales for the author’s hugely popular novel.
Starring a 17-year-old Kristy Swanson, who Craven would cast in Deadly Friend that same year, another adaptation disfigured by executive meddling in what was the director’s first big studio outing, Flowers in the Attic is the troubled tale of a religious fanatic who agrees to house her daughter and grandchildren under the proviso that they live in seclusion in the attic so her dying husband will never know of their existence. Jeffrey Bloom had no involvement with the final edit of the film, which featured a different ending entirely.
Based largely on comparisons with Andrews’ novel, Flowers in the Attic was criticised across the board, with Bloom wrongly taking much of the flack, Variety claiming that the director had “taken the narrative and squeezed the life from it.” Ironically, Craven was accused of doing the same with Deadly Friend, critics feeling that the director was a one-trick pony who was unwilling to step out of Fred Krueger’s shadow when in reality it was the studio who wanted more Krueger-esque moments. Sometimes it pays to lay off on the presumptions.
Flowers in the Attic managed a US domestic gross of $14,039,217, a reasonable return for such a low-key outing.
And so onto the following year’s big Oscar winner, Bernardo Bertolucci’s critically acclaimed The Last Emperor. The first film made in and about China with Chinese Government cooperation since 1949, the shoot was given precedence over Queen Elizabeth II’s visit, preventing her from visiting the Forbidden City, where the film’s epic coronation scene was being filmed. To everyone’s surprise, the Chinese government imposed absolutely no restrictions on what was a monumental project both creatively and politically. A total of 19,000 extras were used over the course of the movie.
The Last Emperor is a biographical drama focusing on the life of the last emperor of China, Puyi, chronicling his rise to power and subsequent imprisonment and political rehabilitation under the Communist Party of China. Starring John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole and Maggie Smith, Bertolucci’s opus would bag an incredible 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound and Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium. The film was based on Puyi’s 1964 autobiography The Last Manchu: The Autobiography of Henry Pu Yi, Last Emperor of China.
As a theatre release The Last Emperor was something of an anomaly. It was twelve weeks before the movie finally entered the US Box Office top ten, charting at number 7 the weekend prior to being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. It would then stay in the top ten for ten consecutive weeks, peaking at number 4 twelve weeks later after finally winning the Oscar for Best Picture. If it were not for the film’s late surge, The Last Emperor would have been the second Best Picture winner up to that point to not enter the US top five, joining 1984’s biographical drama Amadeus.
Roger Ebert, who was a huge advocate for Bertolucci’s film, emphasised the importance of its grandiose production, writing, “Bertolucci is able to make Pu Yi’s imprisonment seem all the more ironic because this entire film was shot on location inside the People’s Republic of China, and he was even given permission to film inside the Forbidden City — a vast, medieval complex covering some 250 acres and containing 9,999 rooms (only heaven, the Chinese believed, had 10,000 rooms). It probably is unforgivably bourgeois to admire a film because of its locations, but in the case of “The Last Emperor” the narrative cannot be separated from the awesome presence of the Forbidden City, and from Bertolucci’s astonishing use of locations, authentic costumes and thousands of extras to create the everyday reality of this strange little boy.”
Despite the movie’s critical acclaim and awesome spectacle, The Last Emperor managed a US domestic gross of only $43,984,230, though incredibly, the film, produced independently by British producer Jeremy Jack Thomas, CBE, cost only $23,800,000 to make.
International-singing-phenomenon-come-actress Barbara Streisand would become the first female to earn $5,000,000 dollars for a single film for her role as a call girl fighting for the right to stand trail in Martin Ritt’s courtroom drama Nuts. After murdering a client in self-defence, lead character Claudia Draper’s parents move to declare their daughter mentally incompetent and have her sent to a mental institute indefinitely in order to avoid a public scandal.
On an incredibly interesting side-note for fans of Zucker/Abrahams hilarity, murder victim Allen Green was future funnyman Leslie Nielsen’s final straight role, the actor asked to reprise the character Det. Frank Drebin from the hugely innovative and cruelly brief 1982 TV show Police Squad! for a feature length version that would become known as The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! The rest, as they say, is history.
Co-starring Richard Dreyfuss as attorney Aaron Levinsky and silver screen veterans Maureen Stapleton and Karl Malden as Streisand’s fictional parents, the film rights to Nuts were purchased by Universal all the way back in 1980, who later sold the property to Warner Bros. after becoming concerned with the play’s controversial themes.
Original director Mark Rydell would quit the project after clashing with screenwriter Tom Topor, whose 1979 play of the same name the film is based on, about the screen adaptation’s creative direction — the second time he had quit a Streisand project.
Rydell initially passed on Streisand back in 1982 because he was unwilling to wait for the actress to finish shooting American musical drama Yentyl, a movie Streisand would write, direct, produce and star in. Dreyfuss also initially turned down his role and the only thing preventing Dustin Hoffman from taking his place were his artistic and salary demands, which Warner Bros. were unwilling to bow to. Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and Al Pacino were also linked to the role of Levinsky at one time or another.
Nuts was universally panned. Janet Maslin of The New York Times described the film as, “…exceptionally talky and becalmed, the central question none too compelling, and the visual style distractingly cluttered…”. Roger Ebert was similarly nonplussed by the movie, calling it, “…dreary, cliched,” and “weather-beaten”, though both praised Steisand’s stand-out performance, for which she received a Golden Globe for Best Actress.
Nuts managed a US domestic gross of $28,866,028 on a budget of approximately $25,000,000.
Future Arrested Development star Jason Bateman made his silver screen debut as the star of tepid teen comedy Teen Wolf Too (see what they did there?), released on November 20 to universal critical derision.
The sequel to Michael J Fox’s similarly maligned Teen Wolf, which, Fox aside, proved the death knell for the majority of it upstart cast back in 1985, with only James Hampton and Mark Holton, Scott Howard’s fictional father and friend Chubby, respectively, reprising their roles.
This time around Todd Howard (Bateman), cousin of Fox’s Scott, is accepted into university on a full athletic scholarship, even though he has no interest in, or is even particularly good at sports in general. So how did he get in, I hear you ask? On Coach Bobby Finstock’s recommendation. See, coach — who in a classic soap opera switcheroo in now played by Paul Sand instead of Jay Tarses — is hopeful that Todd has inherited the werewolf gene that made his cousin such a formidable basketball star.
Finstock’s goal is to channel Todd’s animalistic potential and turn him into his most fearsome pugilist, thereby transforming the school’s woeful boxing team into genuine contenders (I’m sure the athletics commission will have a field day with that one). It’s just a shame that Todd is more interested in becoming… wait for it… a veterinarian. Of course he his!
Suffice to say, things get a little hairy in a movie that is so hopelessly formulaic it almost smacks of self-parody.
In her nine sentence review of the film for The Washington Post, Rita Kempley would write, “The beast emerges in “Teen Wolf Too,” a ho-hum, humdrum sequel to the Michael J. Fox werewolf comedy “Teen Wolf” — a woof-woofer that hardly deserved an encore. But just like beard stubble, this hirsute genre just keeps on coming back, a proven moneymaker for producers and a metaphor for preadolescents who are about to turn into adults — monsters just like their parents.”
Teen Wolf Too would manage an underwhelming gross of $7,942,821, and was very lucky to do so.
No only was Dr. Spock Leonard Nimoy’s dysfunctional feelgood comedy Three Men and a Baby the most successful movie released in November, it was the most successful released in 1987. Period.
The film’s success can largely be attributed to its central cast, all of whom were at the peak of their commercial powers when the film was released on November 27. Magnum PI‘s Tom Selleck and Cheers‘ Ted Danson were household names in TV world and beyond, portraying the kind of characters who would become like friends, and Police Academy‘s Steve Guttenburg, despite releasing arguably the worst in the series only months prior in Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol, was at the very zenith of his mainstream fame thanks to smash hits such as John Badham’s family sci-fi comedy Short Circuit. Since the three high-profile stars were used to giving orders rather than receiving them, tensions would arise on set, leading Guttenberg to say of Nimoy, “Leonard was a good director, and being an actor, he knew the problems actors face, although sometimes I think he forgot.”
The film also appealed very specifically to 80s sensibilities. The story of three successful New York bachelors who have their party lifestyle turned upside-down after a mystery lovechild is left on their doorstep, the film sees our three untamed players bowing to pseudo-fatherhood and ultimately enjoying it, all of it tied together by a subplot involving drug dealers, kidnapping and a missing batch of heroin. The movie also stars Nancy Travis as baby Mary’s estranged mother, and is a remake of the French 1985 comedy Trois Hommes et un Couffin (Three Men and a Cradle).
Three Men and a Baby is notable for featuring one of cinema’s most renown urban legends, one that scared the absolute bejesus out of me as a watching tyke. In a scene in which Jack’s mother pays Mary a visit, the image of what appears to be a little boy is seen standing in the background, leading to a rumour that the figure was the ghost of a kid who had died in the apartment prior to filming. In reality, the ‘boy’ was a cardboard cutout of Jack in a tuxedo, but for a while whoever began the rumour ― presumably a publicist ― had millions of us fooled.
Praised for it heartwarming performances, Three Men and a Baby would make an incredible $240,000,000, an anomaly for a film outside of the expensive blockbuster mode. The movie cost Touchstone Pictures and its associates approximately $11,000,000 dollars to make and would even spawn a reasonably successful sequel in 1990’s Three Men and a Little Lady.
Late November saw the return of Director John Hughes following Brat Pack smashes Weird Science and The Breakfast Club. This time, Hughes would team up with Saturday Night Live’s John Candy and perennial funnyman Steve Martin for festive road movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is arguably the director’s greatest ever achievement.
Critically, the movie was very well received. Though dwarfed at the box office by Three Men and a Baby, it would become the second-highest grossing movie of November, exploring adult themes that were something of a departure for a filmmaker otherwise synonymous with teenage angst flicks. Both Candy and Martin would cite Planes, Trains and Automobiles as their favourite film they ever starred in.
The story of a cynical ad man’s unwilling relationship with a salt of the earth companion from hell, the movie is essentially an odd couple farce, but its refusal to make caricatures of its leading men elevates it above the standard formula, featuring a heartbreaking twist with enough emotional punch to keep your toes warm at a time of family and sharing. John Candy was a known depressive who struggled to live up to his jovial onscreen image, and Hughes would channel that wonderfully for the actor’s finest career role as the bumbling Del Griffith.
One of the film’s standout moments sees a bedraggled Neal Page (Martin), at the end of his tether due to an endless deluge of unfortunate incidents, embark on a priceless F-bomb rant at the endless smile manning the desk of the car rental firm that messed up his journey. During the sixty second tirade, Martin uses the F-word an incredible eighteen times, leading to the film’s otherwise surprising 15 certificate. It may come as no surprise, then, that Hughes’ inspiration for the movie was a real-life trip from New York to Chicago, via Wichita, Kansas, that lasted for an incredible five days.
One of Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies”, Planes, Trains and Automobiles would become one of the best-loved comedies of the decade. It would also mark the beginning of the Hughes-Candy axis, the two collaborating on a series of films during the late 1980s, including She’s Having a Baby, The Great Outdoors and Uncle Buck.
Candy was scheduled to star as a voice actor in Disney’s Pocahontas in the summer of 1995, but his character was scrapped following the actor’s tragic death on March 4, 1994 following a massive heart attack. His impact on mainstream comedy during the 1980s should not be underestimated.