Killer Klowns, Maniac Cops and the return of George Lucas, VHS Revival brings you all the retro movie news from May 1988
Initially planned as a low-key project funded by Channel 4 UK, the aptly named neo-noir thriller Stormy Monday, released to very little fanfare on May 1, was ultimately recast to feature American actors after writer/director Mike Figgis’ screenplay was picked up for stateside financing.
Described as a homage to the iconic British crime thriller Get Carter, the similarly gritty Stormy Monday stars Tommy Lee Jones as an irredeemably corrupt Texas businessman looking to buy-out a UK nightspot in a bid to redevelop land using laundered money, something Sting’s club owner and Geordie tough, Finney, is more than a little resistant to. The movie co-stars a young Sean Bean as a jazz enthusiast who grows smitten with Melanie Griffith’s surreptitious corporate moll and James Cosmo as a heavy hired to run Finney out of town by any means necessary, a role that was turned down by Christopher Walken.
Set on the neon-laced streets of 80s Newcastle, the film would receive plaudits for its stylish aesthetics and haunting score, the latter composed by former rock musician Figgis, who manages to maintain an almost ceaseless sense of paranoia in a film of incisive performances and murky half shades.
The movie also acts as a commentary on Britain as a dying empire and the influence of American culture in the wake of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s globalization alliance. In 2001, Figgis would direct The Battle of Orgreave, a warts-and-all documentary which explored Thatcher’s unscrupulous tactics during the UK miners strike and the propagandist role played by the British media.
Despite recouping as little as $1,791,323 from its $4,000,000 outlay, Figgis’ debut, which received mostly positive reviews, was enough to kick-start his career across the pond. In 1990, Figgis would direct underrated American crime thriller Internal Affairs, later included in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made. Five years later, Figgis would receive two Academy Award nominations (Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay) for the critically acclaimed drama Leaving Las Vegas, a film for which Nicholas Cage would bag the Best Actor Oscar.
Though Stormy Monday quickly fell under the radar, it would provide the inspiration for the 1994 UK television drama Finney, future Walking Dead star David Morrissey replacing Sting as the show’s titular protagonist.
When it comes to out-there genre mashes, few are as absurd (or as satisfying) as Mark Goldblatt’s buddy cop action zombie comedy Dead Heat, released in US theatres on May 6th. Starring B-movie stalwart Treat Williams as the ironically named Roger Mortis (as well as sounding like rigor mortis, mortis is actually the Latin word for “death”), the movie tells the story of two LAPD detectives on the trail of a scientific syndicate who revive undead corpses using a high-tech device known as the Resurrection Machine, their aim to turn them into loot-grabbing criminals.
In an unfortunate turn of events, Mortis is locked in a compression chamber and transformed into a zombie himself, which gives him and his jocular partner, Doug Bigelow, 12 hours to get to the bottom of the whole ordeal as decomposition looms. Heading the syndicate is Vincent Price’s gloriously hammy Arthur P. Loudermilk, a mad scientist who invests his ill-gotten gains in a project that promises to provide California’s aging elite with eternal life.
Bigelow is played by former Saturday Night Live comic Joe Piscopo, a breakout star who, along with international icon Eddie Murphy, is notable for reviving the show’s popularity in the wake of its most creatively barren period. Bigelow plays the jokey galoot to Williams’ understated sleuth in a movie that, despite its endearingly laughable flourishes, lacks the satirical bite to truly set it apart, though its high-concept silliness proved more than enough for cult ‘bad movie’ nuts (myself included). Interestingly, the late, controversial British comedian Bernard Manning auditioned for the role of Bigelow but ultimately lost out.
So impressed with Dead Heat were distributor New World Pictures that they quickly approached writer Terry Black about the possibility of scripting a sequel. Black, who had worked on films such as The Terminator and Rambo: First Blood Part II, explained that a sequel may prove difficult since the majority of the original film’s characters were dead. “You’ve got a resurrection machine… you figure it out,” replied one executive.
Another buddy film with a twist released on May 6 was James Glickenhaus’ long-forgotten crime drama Shakedown, though action fans outside the US will know it by the title Blue Jean Cop, a term used to describe an opportunistic police officer who steals from drug dealers. The film stars Peter Weller as a legal attorney who turns to Sam Elliot’s renegade cop, Richie Marks, while defending a crack dealer accused of murdering a cop who is suspected of being dirty.
Ironically, Weller and Elliot didn’t particularly get along to begin with, though tensions eased during filming, the two finally becoming friends after the fact. Looking to exploit Lethal Weapon‘s groundbreaking buddy formula, rookie screenwriter James Borelli was brought in to capture the Riggs and Murtaugh magic where possible, though in accordance with Writers Guild rules, his input, which Glickenhaus felt was considerable, ultimately went uncredited. Borelli would write one more screenplay in a career that barely got off the ground thereafter.
Shakedown, which managed a gross of $10,068,039 on a budget of approximately $6,000,000, suffered from distribution problems after the De Laurentiis Entertainment Group filed for bankruptcy and immediately folded. Warner Brothers almost pulled the distribution trigger on US shores but abandoned the project, the film eventually rescued by Universal Pictures. It was Universal’s idea to ditch the Blue Jean Cop title for American audiences.
Despite being released amid an abundance of buddy cop pictures, Shakedown was reviewed rather favourably. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times would credit the film’s action sequences, writing, “[Shakedown is] an assembly of sensational moments, strung together by a plot that provides the excuses for amazing stunts, and not much else. But then not much else is needed.”
As action junkies may have noticed while reading this, Shakedown was the first of two movies released inside of a year that paired Elliot with a partner named Dalton. The other being…
May 13th, Friday the 13th, heralded the return of one of horror cinema’s most enduring characters. Friday the 13th Part VII, the fifth instalment to feature Jason Voorhees as the franchise killer, almost didn’t happen for a plethora of reasons, Paramount close to pulling the plug on the series as early as 1984 amid pressure from high-profile critics, parents groups and the Motion Picture Association of America. But such a low-risk franchise was too much of a temptation for the production company, even as box office numbers began to stagnate.
Creatively, it was those die hard fans keeping the series alive who would pay the price. Subtitled The New Blood, Friday the 13th Part VII is one of the most edited-for-gore entries in the series, thanks in no small part to executive producer Barbara Sachs, who initially envisioned the film as a serious take on the material and a potential Oscar winner.
Sachs, who clearly had no understanding of the property, clashed with former make-up effects artist and eventual director John Carl Buechler, making her presence felt after the two had clashed for financial reasons. Sachs would grow so petty she eventually got involved creatively, criticizing Jason’s Universal Monsters design and even forcing Buechler to re-shoot certain scenes for reasons that were inexplicable.
Initially, Paramount had approached booming indie company New Line Cinema, riding high as the new kings of horror, with the idea of a Freddy vs Jason crossover, a concept that wouldn’t see the light of day for fifteen years after the two failed to reach an agreement. That same year, New Line, who would buy the rights to the ‘Friday’ property prior to 1993’s high-concept debacle Jason Goes to Hell, released A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 4: The Dream Master, which with a US domestic gross of $49,369,899 remained the most fruitful instalment in the series until Freddy vs Jason finally came to fruition in 2003.
Contrarily, The New Blood, which would pit Carrie clone Tina Shepard against newbie portrayer Kane Hodder in a telekinetic showdown, posted the lowest figures of the series to date with a gross of $19,170,001. Criticized for its anemic, soap opera vibe, The New Blood would later be dubbed Frigay the 13th due to the sexual persuasion of the majority of the film’s cast. Despite the resulting lack of sexual chemistry, the film has garnered something of a cult following in the decades following its release.
Hodder, renown for his marauding style, would go on to portray Jason a record four times between 1988 and 2001.
Hot on Jason’s heels on May 13th was a new addition to the slasher cannon. Arriving at a time when oversaturation had left the sub-genre somewhat stale, Maniac Cop‘s Matt Cordell, a supernatural brute in the Jason mode, would go on to form his own short-lived franchise, starring in a trilogy of movies in the space of four years.
Though the original Maniac Cop was more in the grindhouse mode, the sequels were much more self-aware, the exceedingly violent Maniac Cop 2 taking more than a leaf out of zombie Jason’s book. Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence would grow even more bizarre, though the derisory move of recycling an audacious amount of footage from previous entries sullied it for many.
Maniac Cop tells the story of a murdered ex-cop who returns from the dead to snuff out the corrupt officials who orchestrated his downfall (and anyone else who happens to get in his way). Written by maverick filmmaker Larry Cohen (The Stuff) and directed by exploitation favourite and real-life nephew of former middleweight champion Jake LaMotta, William Lustig (Maniac), the movie was shown in 50 theaters, managing a domestic gross of only $671,382, but would fare much better on the rental market a year later.
The actor tasked with ending Cordell’s brutal killing spree was genre legend Tom Atkins, who’s typically likeable as whiskey-swilling detective Frank McCrae, a man who lives and breathes his profession with a pulp charm that proves hugely endearing. The film also stars cult Evil Dead icon Bruce Campbell, who would return for the first sequel in a brief cameo role.
Maniac Cop‘s eponymous villain was played by B-movie legend Robert Z’Dar, an actor Lustig was eager to cast after catching his indomitable turn as a serial killer in Max Kleven’s The Night Stalker, a film loosely based on real-life home invasion killer Richard “The Night Stalker” Ramirez, who ran roughshod over Greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area between June 1984 and August 1985.
“[Z’Dar] was frightening,” Lustig would explain. “And when it came to casting Maniac Cop he was always in my mind. I didn’t know him and had the casting person bring him in and frankly, the day I was to meet him, I was a little nervous because he made such an impression on me.”
In an interview featured on the Synapse Films’ Special Edition DVD of Maniac Cop, the late Z’Dar would say of his most infamous character, “I love the idea that you have to sell your character based on body language only…I keep thinking of the persecution. Me as Matt Cordell. He’s a great cop who was just totally screwed by his own system. And I think that’s why he became so twisted. Hell, he’s killing good people!”
After unprecedented success with the original Star Wars trilogy and various high-profile collaborations with the likes of Steven Spielberg (The Indiana Jones series), George Lucas and Lucasfilm, fresh off the DC Comics debacle that was Howard the Duck, went back to their roots by reworking classic themes of good vs evil with Ron Howard’s Action Adventure Willow, released on May 20.
Switching sci-fi space aliens for a classic fairy tale full of elves, fairies and trolls, Lucas would nonetheless stick with what he knew thematically with the tale of a young farmer tasked with protecting a precious baby from Jean Marsh’s wicked Queen Bavmorda. “The underlying issues, the psychological motives, in all my movies have been the same,” Lucas would say. “Personal responsibility and friendship, the importance of a compassionate life as opposed to a passionate life.”
In order to bolster the everyman heroics intrinsic to Willow, Lucas would cast former “Wicket the Ewok” portrayer, Warwick Davis, as the film’s titular protagonist. “A lot of my movies are about a little guy against the system, and this was just a more literal interpretation of that idea,” Lucas, who would also cast Val Kilmer as helpful mercenary Madmartigan, would explain.
Originally titled “Munchkins”, Willow was initially conceived way back in 1992, but was put on hold while Lucas, a visionary proponent for modern special effects, waited for the technology to become advanced enough to achieve his vision. The task of bringing Lucas’ $35,000,000 project to life ultimately fell to Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic, Willow’s form-altering spell achieved using the burgeoning digital morphing technology after the use of stop motion animation and optical dissolves were considered too technically challenging.
Willow received two Academy Award nominations for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects, losing out to Robert Zemeckis’ groundbreaking live-action/animated comedy mystery Who Framed Roger Rabbit in both instances, though Industrial Light and Magic, who worked on both movies, still went home with the Oscars.
Despite coming close to such accolades, Willow received middling reviews for its over reliance on special effects technology, many feeling the film sacrificed story for visual fancies. As The Washington Post’s Desson Howe would write, “Rob Reiner’s similar fairytale adventure The Princess Bride (which the cinematographer Adrian Biddle also shot) managed to evoke volumes more without razzle-dazzle. It’s a sad thing to be faulting Lucas, maker of the Star Wars trilogy and Raiders of the Lost Ark, for forgetting the tricks of entertainment.”
Willow managed less-than-dazzling box office returns of $57,269,863.
America’s short-lived infatuation with all things Australia went out with a particularly loud bang in the form of John Cornell’s blockbuster comedy sequel Crocodile Dundee II, which, thanks to the inimitable charms of flavour of the month Aussie actor Paul Hogan, managed an incredible opening weekend of $24,462,976. The film, which would co-star a returning Linda Kozlowski as Mick “This is a knife” Dundee’s main squeeze, Susan Charlton, would rake in an eye-watering $239,606,210 worldwide.
This time around, Hogan’s magnetic fish out of water, now something of a celebrity in the eyes of journalist Kozlowski’s high-flying acquaintances, takes on the Colombian drug cartel after Linda’s ex-husband is murdered. Utilising his salt of the earth, outback methods, Mick enlists the help of enigmatic soul brother, Leroy Brown, after Sue is taken hostage, events ultimately leading back to Aussie home turf. While there, Sue discovers that Mick actually owns land twice the size of New York State, including a gold mine, a crude reminder or America’s obsession with wealth during the Wall Street 80s.
Despite Hogan’s knock-out star appeal and returns that were comparable with the original movie, critics were less than enamoured with what would quickly become a fading novelty. The film, which would sacrifice the original’s gentler approach for increased violence (in PG terms), was described by The Washington Post’s Hal Hinson as, “about as laid-back a movie as you’re ever likely to nap through,” adding “The actors take forever to recite their lines, and scenes unfold as if the filmmakers had rented the screen by the month… “[Cornell] seems not to have understood that for Dundee’s heroic laconicism to work, the world around him has to have some energy, it’s got to move. But Cornell doesn’t know how to create pace or movement. He directs as if he were swinging in a hammock.”
Others were less cynical, Kevin Thomas of the LA Times claiming that the film was, “almost as much fun the second time around.” He would also praise Hogan, who remains the lifeblood of the whole stranger in a strange land concept, writing, “As an adventure, it’s nothing special, yet it’s an inspired and good-humored presentation of one of the freshest, most likable screen personalities to emerge in the past decade.”
In an era of increased animal rights activism, the Dundee character would come in for criticism following the first movie, which seemed to celebrate his status as a crocodile poacher. In response, the second movie would instead portray Dundee as a maverick fisher who uses dynamite to catch fish in the New York Harbour, because that’s much more humane.
Crocodile Dundee would make the leap to franchise trilogy with 2001’s belated follow-up Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. It wasn’t very good.
On the subject of trilogies, the irrepressible John Rambo would return to war on May 20 with his most misguided, jingoistic instalment to date, Rambo III a far cry from the relatively sobering post-Vietnam musings of First Blood back in 1982, a movie which explored the fallout of America’s failed war. The original Rambo personified the struggles of former soldiers to re-adapt to a society that was suddenly distrusting of US spun patriotism following the very public protests of hippie counterculture and the Civil Rights Movement.
After making the leap from conflicted patriot to hypermasculine icon of Reaganite America in the awkwardly titled Rambo: First Blood Part II, a sequel that saw our newly-merchandised warrior return to the jungles of Vietnam to rescue American POWs being held at an enemy base, Rambo III sees our hero clashing heads with the Soviet Union as a one-man killing machine, picking up where Rocky IV left off as a Cold War propaganda vehicle of comical proportions.
Coaxed out of retirement and a preposterously anonymous life as part of a Buddhist monastery (the kind that allows Rambo to partake in deadly hand-to-hand combat), Rambo this time heads to Afghanistan after long-time friend and mentor Col. Trautman (Richard Crenna) is kidnapped by the Soviets, resulting in the kind of mindless, unrepentant violence that made an arcade shooter seem tame by comparison.
Affairs were made even sillier thanks to a case of extremely unfortunate timing. By the time Rambo III hit theatres, The Cold War was on its last legs, the Berlin Wall on the verge of being toppled, so the film’s anti-commie sentiments came across as dated and somewhat hypocritical. Meanwhile the Afghans, who would be similarly demonized as we entered Gulf War territory, are instead promoted as moralistic freedom fighters, so it’s safe to say the film aged badly rather quickly. Rambo III is the hypocrisy of war in a microcosm.
With a then record-breaking budget of $63,000,000, Stallone, who raked-in more than $300,000,000 with Rambo: First Blood Part II, was no doubt underwhelmed by Rambo III‘s more than healthy returns of $189,000,000. Known for his zeppelin-sized ego and wild extravagances, the actor would ask for a $12,000,000 Gulfstream jet as partial payment for his involvement with Rambo III. He got it too.
May 27 saw the release of one of the wackiest cult films of the 1980s. Written, directed and produced by the legendary Chiodo brothers, the siblings responsible for the wonderful, tongue-in-cheek puppets featured in Critters, sci-fi horror comedy Killer Klowns From Outer Space tells the story of an evil rabble of extraterrestrial clowns who travel to Earth to terrorize small-town America with the intention of harvesting its human inhabitants.
The three brothers, who were able to create the film’s cast of garish villains for very little cost, began their love affair with movies early in life, making their own stop-motion films in the family basement before having their outlandish debut green-lit. “We were lucky,” Charles Chiodo would recall. “We did get our first feature film. We did a lot of shorts, we did a lot of small things. We did a demo for the Chiodo Brothers reel that was the segue to get us into filmmaking. That led to an [ABC-TV] After-School Special… we came up with an idea for Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and we pitched it to one company, TransWorld Entertainment, through a friend of ours, and it was really kind of magical, just being at the right place at the right time with the right project. And they bought it, right out of the gate. One pitch, one meeting, and they said, “Let’s do this!'”
The movie is famous for composer John Massari’s mindbending score, which would garner a cult following of its own right due in part to its one-time rarity. The score was later ‘re-imagined’ along with famed composer Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead) and a respected Hollywood orchestra for the soundtrack’s 30th anniversary in 2018. Interestingly, the iconic track used for the introduction of ‘Klownzilla’ was originally intended for the trailer to Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, but was rejected for commercial reasons. The film’s title track “Killer Klowns” was written and performed by American punk band The Dickies.
Originally pitched as ‘Killer Klowns’, the film’s title was extended to distance it from the waning slasher genre, and the movie, described by famous critic Leonard Maltin as “vividly designed,” is much more colorful and creative, playing its absurdist concept to the absolute hilt. The film’s long-mooted sequel, The Return of the Killer Klowns from Outer Space in 3-D, spent decades in development hell and was finally scrapped by Disney following its 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox. The sequel was also pitched as a TV series.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space, which managed $1,800,000 domestically, fared much better in the rental arena the following year thanks in no small part to some eye-catching promotional material (see below) and a block-knocking trailer that has stayed with me to this very day. As a watching kid, those Klowns were seriously creepy.
They were also strange beyond comprehension. Even after the movie wrapped, it had its internal doubters, and understandably so from a commercial standpoint. When John Massari returned the music master tapes to the studio, he was mocked by the accounting department, who dismissed the movie outright, suggesting that it would die a quick death. “Well… YOU don’t get it!,” he replied. “There are people that will LOVE this movie.”
He was right too.