1984 was an odd yet pivotal time. The year of George Orwell’s immortal futuristic nightmare (copies of which, unsurprisingly, sold briskly back then), it can be viewed as the true midpoint of the eighties, with many of the pop culture elements associated with the decade having either run their course (new wave rock, valley girl chic) or not yet come into vogue (hair bands, mullet haircuts). As for the movies released in 1984, they haven’t dated quite as poorly as those of the late eighties (it’s a fact that eighties movies in general date faster than those of just about any other period), but the classics are scant.
Revisiting my favorite movies of ‘84 I find they now tend to play like glorified student films (POLICE ACADEMY, BACHELOR PARTY, NIGHT OF THE COMET), mediocre TV pilots (BEVERLY HILLS COP, SPLASH) or unintentional comedies (THE KARATE KID, RED DAWN, STREETS OF FIRE), while those films that seemed particularly shitty back then (SUPERGIRL, DUNE, SHEENA) haven’t gotten any better in the ensuing years.
As for the horror movies of ‘84, they pretty much follow suit. There was DREAMSCAPE, C.H.U.D., SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, RAZORBACK, TERROR IN THE AISLES, FRIDAY THE 13th: THE (so-called) FINAL CHAPTER, FIRESTARTER, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and CHILDREN OF THE CORN–hardly a stellar line-up, with the “best,” or at least most resonant, of them being NINJA III: THE DOMINATION! That’s pretty sad.
Yet, hard though it may seem to believe, there were five horror-tinged movies released in ‘84 that were quite successful, and even iconic. Let’s see how these now 30-year-old productions have held up…
INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM
I’m probably destined to be alone in this opinion, but I say this is the best of the INDIANA JONES movies. It’s not without flaws, mind you: the special effects are often inexcusably shitty, with some of the least convincing matte compositing (partially accomplished by a young David Fincher) you’ll ever see, and the heroine, played by Kate Capshaw, may well be the most annoying in film history. Yet if you can endure those things this 30-year-old film actually holds up fairly well.
Its intensity hasn’t dimmed, with the climactic mine chase, goofy and excessive though it is (who knew a mine car could ride on two wheels?), outdoing most any modern action movie sequence in skill and invention. And we mustn’t forget the pic’s horrific edge, which made it quite controversial in its day, and led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. That probably explains why I like the movie as much as I do. With its depictions of bodies hanged, skewered, crushed and burned, along with the eyeballs in the soup and the still-beating heart ripped out of the guy’s chest, I say it’s a better horror movie than its director’s earlier, more concerted genre effort POLTERGEIST.
Yes, this Joe Dante directed, Steven Spielberg produced film has many annoyances common to Spielberg productions of the 80’s, most notably a number of masturbatory in-jokes (such as the movie theater playing “Watch the Skies” and “A Boy’s Life,” the original titles of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and E.T.), but it remains a raucous blast of mean-spirited mayhem.
In fact, this a rare example of a movie whose content was arguably enhanced by the fact that it was made in 1984 (just check out the like-minded Dante/Spielberg follow-ups GREMLINS 2 and SMALL SOLDIERS, neither of which had a fraction of the impact). Its contents were indelibly marked by the mix of Reagan-era optimism and cold war tension that suffused the era, resulting in classic moments like the kitchen-set Gremlin massacre and Phoebe Cates’s outrageous “I hate Christmas” monologue, both accomplished with a streak of pitch-dark humor that has lost none of its bite.
It seems impossible to believe nowadays, but it’s a fact that GHOSTBUSTERS was once an outrageous, exciting, falling-down funny and even scary film. That’s how my 11-year-self reacted to it, at least!
You know the story: three shifty brainiacs (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis) create a “Ghostbusting” service, and get lots of business due to the fact that a Lovecraftian something is looking to enter our world through a NYC building. The ghosts in this movie are remarkably laid-back, rarely ever hurting anyone directly, while Gozer the inter-dimensional entity and his underlings are extremely deferential, always questioning people about their identities and intentions (and believing whatever they answer), and even allowing the Ghostbusters to pick their own agent of Armageddon.
As with a lot of eighties flicks, this one insists on bludgeoning us with its soundtrack tunes (in those pre-DVD days soundtrack albums were viewed as the ideal method of cross-promotion), including such forgettable ditties as “Savin’ The Day” by Alessi, “Magic” by Mick Smiley and the title song by Ray Parker Jr., surely one of the most obnoxious recordings of a decade that saw more than its share of obnoxious music.
Such things only add to the suffocating blandness of the film, which unlike the two previous entries fully deserves its PG rating. A pleasant enough nostalgia piece it is, but in today’s movie-scape GHOSTBUSTERS would be lucky to land a straight-to-DVD release.
A film its own director now dismisses as a “curiosity,” yet I find that THE TERMINATOR remains fairly potent. True, the low budget is painfully apparent throughout, but that was always a problem (those ridiculous model spaceships didn’t look any more convincing back in ‘84 than they do now).
I still say the Terminator represents the best acting Mr. Schwarzenegger has ever done, while the young James Cameron acquits himself well directorially by focusing on action above all else (it’s a fact that a well crafted action sequence never dates). Yet the film’s power stretches beyond its mayhem, as evinced by the uncompromisingly bleak yet entirely appropriate ending, and the fact that so much of the movie’s dialogue and concepts have entered the popular consciousness. It was THE TERMINATOR, let’s not forget, that bequeathed the immortal line “I’ll be back,” as well as Skynet the evil computer system, which people still invoke whenever some potentially ominous technological advance occurs.
A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET
The best thing about this film nowadays is that it’s superior to all of its sequels (admittedly not saying much!) and its 2010 remake. It marked the introduction of Freddy Krueger, played by Robert Englund as a shadowy presence who kills teenagers in their dreams–a far cry from the extroverted jokester the character became. Freddy was very much a figure of fear here, and he and the film did indeed seem quite terrifying back in ‘84. Now? Well…
The acting, as is typical of low budget horror flicks then and now, isn’t always up to par (there’s a reason the lead actress Heather Langenkamp hasn’t done much outside the NIGHTMARE… universe, and Johnny Depp’s film debut is far from auspicious), and the hairstyles are quite distracting (with Johnny D. once again bearing the brunt of the blame). The budget-lite special effects seemed ingenious back in the day but now look pretty cheesy. So does the ending, which leaves the door wide open for a sequel that unfortunately enough arrived in the form of A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE.
Yet I’ve never quite forgotten the initial charge of surreal images like the talking body bagged corpse and Freddie’s elongating arms with their razor blade fingers that screeeeeeeeech along walls. It’s just a shame that my nostalgic memories of it are the best I can say for this movie, which like INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM, GREMLINS, GHOSTBUSTERS and THE TERMINATOR will never have the same charge it once did.