My Top Movies of 1981

1. Raiders of the Lost Ark

2. An American Werewolf in London

3. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior

4. Reds

5. Gallipoli

6. Ms. 45

7. Modern Romance

8. Thief

9. Time Bandits

10. Southern Comfort

11. Escape From New York

12. Stripes

13. The Funhouse

14. Heavy Metal

15. Outland

16. For Your Eyes Only

17. Blow Out

18. Diva

19. Cutter’s Way

20. The Aviator’s Wife

1981 Round-Up

The Burning (1981)

Tony Maylam directs Brian Matthews, Leah Ayres and Jason Alexander in this bog standard rip-off of Friday the 13th.

This has become a cult item more out of some ‘before they were famous’ notoriety than any real qualities. You get to see George Constanza’s butt… and when he’s not mooning, he has a full head of hair. Baby faced Helen Hunt plays a background character. Prog wizard Rick Wakeman does an intrusive score. One of the producers, Brad Grey, ended up CEO of Paramount. Two of the other producers are The Weinstein. They co-wrote it… or at least watched Friday the 13th and made notes. The two notes they forgot to make were have a regular killings… nothing happens for a very long time… And to not make nearly all the young men quite so default rapey. But hey… what more could you expect from Harvey? The aggressive sexual politics are murky even for a cocaine era slasher. Only Tom Savini’s underused gore FX are worth remembering.


Stripes (1981)

Ivan Reitman directs Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Warren Oates in this losers join the army comedy.

The opening twenty minutes of Stripes have barely anything to do with basic training and are among Murray’s funniest work. He has an electric chemistry with Ramis. There’s not a throwaway line or improvised expression he doesn’t rinse for maximum value from. And then they sign up and the comedy becomes pleasingly rote… undeniably sexist for sure… but good formulaic crowd-pleasing fast food. And it was 1981, give it a pass, my man! The problem I had with this viewing is the DVD I ordered is an “Extended Cut”. Someone has edited back in two extra scenes and a long sequence that Reitman sensibly knew in post-production just did not work. Sitting through 18 minutes of Cheech & Chong cast offs aren’t the end of the world but they consequentially make the less joke orientated action finale also drag after all that extra weight. More annoying is the DVD doesn’t offer the option of just watching the theatrical version. Still there’s plenty of bad taste fun to be had, sardonically undercut by Murray’s expertly non-committal commentary. Stripes has the right amount of boobies, pratfalls and pranks to fall on the safer side of the Police Academy border. And I have a massive nostalgic yearn for it.

Recruiter: Now, are either of you homosexuals?
Winger: You mean, like, flaming, or…
Recruiter: Well, it’s a standard question we have to ask.
Russell: No, we’re not homosexual, but we are willing to learn.
Winger: Yeah, would they send us someplace special?


Cutter’s Way (1981)

Ivan Passer directs Jeff Bridges, John Heard and Lisa Eichhorn in this thriller where a Vietnam vet and a drop-out become embroiled in a murder involving an oil magnate.

I say ‘thriller’, this neo-noir is far more preoccupied with the characters going about their abrasive, boozy and horny days than bringing any resolution to the mystery. It is very much a piece with The Long Goodbye. We see John Heard’s blow hard cripple self destruct, the alcoholic wife he is dragging down with him give up and their mutual himbo friend who doesn’t particularly care about the crime he was tangentially a party to. There’s a very melancholic love triangle and weary indictment of the free love movement. Ten years on, these guys don’t stand for much more than failing to admit they want to feel like heroes or get paid by a half arsed blackmail scheme. We are left to figure out whether their motivations are mercenary, whether justice is just a self delusion for them to rail against “the man” one last time with an aggressive shrug. The ensemble acting is decidedly full fat but often very affecting and Passer’s diagnosis of America contains the same bile as Peckinpah at his scabrous best. One thing Cutter’s Way gets bang to rights, that so few thrillers do, is just how inaccessible the One Percent are, they really can break the law with little risk of avengers getting in the same room as them. A forgotten gem for fans of moody wallows.


Hell Night (1981)

Tom DeSimone directs Linda Blair, Vincent Van Patten and Peter Barton in this slasher where four hazed undergraduates must stay the night in a cursed mansion as part of a Frat initiation.

A favourite of Quentin Tarantino’s for reasons that only QT really knows. It starts with some potential; a solid gothic setting, the idling victims’ fancy dress outfits are pleasing, the added wrinkle of the outsiders pranking them gives the first few stalks a bit of ‘is it or isn’t it’ tension. Yet the acting is atrocious and only the final five minutes really gets you sitting up. Colourfully filmed by former gay porn helmer DeSimone, this is more galling than a The Burning in that you can see that Hell Night has all the elements and technical know-how to be a lot better than the end product really is. Rather than being a soulless rehash cash-in, a bit of love and inspiration was put into this, but the results are almost as poor.


The Beyond (1981)

Lucio Fulci directs Catriona MacColl, David Warbeck and Cinzia Monreale in this Italian demonic horror where a woman renovates an old hotel that houses the entry into the Seventh Circle of Hell.

Unrelenting nasty. Some of the most elaborate prolonged deaths this side of torture porn. Tarantulas chew faces, bodies melt, guide dogs savage. Histrionic, discombobulating, nonsensical. Fulci abandons plot and drags us through a nightmare plot. We are in hell and Fabio Frizzi’s demented, ornate score is our only salvation. So the dubbed performances aren’t good, and the whole enterprise is held loosely together by your desire to see every character die in some fetid Grand Guignol, The Beyond hits a spot with some late night boldness.


Prince of the City (1981)

Sidney Lumet directs Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach and Lindsay Crouse in this police corruption epic where a dirty cop begins wearing a wire, under the promise his investigation will not touch his partners.

Solid but maybe my expectations were a little too high. Treat Williams gives a variable performance that usually feels a setting or two off from what the scene truly needs. His ‘Daniel Ciello’ is an amalgamation of a real cop who got trapped in the same process… not the most likeable character – crooked, vain, seeking danger and consistently weak willed. Much like Serpico, you kinda wish the whistleblower wasn’t quite the fucking emotional screwball. We are on his rollercoaster for three hours and the first hour is quite indirect and unsettling. We are chasing junkies and breaking down, coming in and then acting like cock of the walk. Eventually he starts wearing a wire and the plot sharpens and grips. Then he is stuck in an almost Kafka-esque nightmare where as star witness to over 40 separate court cases, the entire legal establishment of New York tries to crucify him for perjury. This last hour is the juicy meat, as you really have no idea who to trust. An extended sequence where ten prosecutors discuss the rights and wrongs of charging Ciello now his value has been used up echoes the rare high verbal intelligence of 12 Angry Men. At three hours, it is a definite schlep after the rocky, uncertain start but the summit is worth reaching. Eye-catching and accomplished character actors like Jerry Orbach and Lindsay Crouse pop in and out, giving relatively complex parts depth and mystery but never stick around long enough for you to get a true fix on their strange moralities. Natalie commented that these days it would be a mini-series. In that format you wouldn’t care that for every scene that is dynamic, there’s two others that seem to retread the same ground over and over again. While nowhere near Lumet’s apex, it has all the qualities of one of his five star classics, just over indulged.


Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here

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