It's been a while since I've done an 80s Movie Sampler. Things have been so busy that it's been difficult for me to find the time to go down the cinematic Memory Lane of the 1980s, but I wanted to remedy that with my latest article.
This Sampler will be covering 80s titles beginning with the letters D and E, but before we get to them, there's one title I forgot to include in An 80s Movies Sampler: C. I don't know how I could've forgotten this, especially as one of the movie's cast members, Scott Schwartz, is a Facebook friend of mine, but before the Ds and the Es, I have to acknowledge A Christmas Story.
Almost four decades out from its' initial release, A Christmas Story is an established classic of holiday cinema. The tale of young Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) and his quest to get a Red Ryder BB Gun for Christmas, A Christmas Story is a timeless classic. We've all had to deal with annoying childhood bullies. We've all tried to curry favor with our teachers. We've all said things we aren't supposed to. Finally, we've all hoped for a certain gift to come our way, either for Christmas or for a birthday. A Christmas Story is relatable for all audiences because it truly captures the joy and the pain of being a child.
Every cast member of A Christmas Story delivers a memorable performance. From Peter Billingsley as Ralphie to Darren McGavin and Melinda Dillon as the parents to Zack Ward as the bully Scut Farkus, every actor brings the humor and heart of the screenplay to life. I, of course, have to give a shout-out to Scott Schwartz as Flick, Ralphie's friend who's tricked into getting hsi tongue stuck to a flagpole. I've met Scott in person several times, even interviewing him on the red carpet of the Hoboken International Film Festival in 2019, and he's a man who knows how to have fun. He loves pro wrestling, comedy, adult films and retro pop culture. If you attend a major pop culture convention, you might see Scott there helping the show's staff or representing guests when he's not being a guest himself. Say hello to him. He's a cool guy.
We now begin the article proper with the first D title on the list, Daffy Duck's Quackbusters.
This last Looney Tunes compilation film is also one of the last times Mel Blanc would voice the beloved Looney Tunes characters. The plot, put briefly, is that Daffy Duck inherits a fortune from deceased millionaire J.P Cubish, with the provision that the money be put to a good use. Daffy decides to start a ghostbusting service with the help of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, yet greed gets the best of the duck in the end.
Quite a few people feel this last of the Looney Tunes compilation films is also the least of them. They'll point out, for example, how Mel Blanc's voice work in the newly animated sequences is in stark contrast to the vintage material, or they might feel the plot is chasing trends. No matter how you put, Daffy Duck's Quackbusters has quite a divisive reputation.
Speaking for myself, though, this was the first of the Looney Tunes compilation films I can recall watching, and I thought it worked quite well. I didn't mind the voice differences, mainly as I was paying more attention to the comedy, but I feel that Mel Blanc, even near the end of his life, still put effort into his voice work. The classic Looney Tunes are still good for a laugh, but the new linking material is pretty funny as well, especially the final gag where, as it turns out, perhaps you CAN take it with you.
Moving from animated comedy to live-action drama, we come to the next title in our sampler, 1985's Dance With A Stranger.
Based on a true story, Dance With A Stranger tells the story of nightclub entertainer Ruth Ellis (Miranda Richardson), who falls in love with the aristocratic David Blakely (Rupert Everett), yet can never truly be part of his world. Her love turns to a deadly obsession that makes her the final woman to be executed by hanging in Britain.
Dance With A Stranger tells a powerful story about human emotions. We've all had a taste of lives that we see as better than our own, but when we're left alone with our feelings about seeing new worlds, how do we feel? Speaking for myself, in 1999, a neighbor invited my family to visit her at a fancy home she was watching while the owners were on vacation. I thought it was a fantastic house, and I was fascinated by everything from the walk-in shower to a jacuzzi situated above a pool.
I was hoping to be able to live in a house like that someday myself, but although I haven't come anywhere close to having that kind of money, I just hang on to those fond memories. I wouldn't kill to live a life like that. Ruth Ellis did, and her story ended tragically. Part of me wishes that Ms. Ellis had sought out therapy instead of pivoting to violence. Therapy can salve wounds that violence can't. Perhaps Ruth might have lived out a quiet and humble life if she'd gotten mental help.
Going from acclaimed drama to camp classic action, we now come to Death Wish 3.
This sequel finds architect and vigilante Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) back in New York City and dealing with a new batch of violent thugs, led by the malevolent Manny Fraker (Gavan O'Herlihy). Mistaken for the murderer of an old friend of his, Paul gets the all-clear from police lieutenant Shriker (Ed Lauter) to carry on, as long as the police get the credit for stopping the crimes. Kersey agrees, and stops at nothing to bring Manny and his gang to justice.
Death Wish 3 is a camp classic of popcorn action. A favorite of syndicated channels showing lots of movies in the 80s and 90s, and still a frequent presence on cable channels like AMC, Movies! and ThisTV, Death Wish 3 is a movie many love because, although it may come across as silly, it's fully committed to its' premise. Paul Kersey is a one-man army, and although his actions are like something out of a video game, many people do love video games.
Films like Death Wish 3 are a big reason why I love 80s movies so much. They are what they are. Most of them aren't trying for irony or deconstruction, both of which would become popular from the 90s onward. They just put both hands on the wheel and the pedal to the metal, driving off to wherever their whims would take them. We need more movies like that.
I've interviewed two cast members from Death Wish 3, Marina Sirtis, who played Maria Rodriguez, and Barbie Wilde, who played Fraker's Girlfriend, and they both had interesting stories to share about this movie. Check them out when you have a chance.
Staying with Cannon Films, we move along alphabetically to 1986's The Delta Force.
The Delta Force is really two movies in one. It combines a 70s disaster movie, complete with veterans of that genre like George Kennedy and Shelley Winters, with a bone-breaking 80s action movie about a crew of tough military types led by Chuck Norris and Lee Marvin. The movie was inspired by the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985, but the movie took a lot of liberties with the story.
The Delta Force is another movie that many of my generation first saw in syndication on channels that would later become affiliates of either The WB or UPN. The way these stations packaged the movies in those days gave you something to look forward to in the evenings, and they made movies like The Delta Force into events for younger audiences. I don't know enough about middle Eastern politics to speak to that aspect of the story, but the action scenes are memorable.
The most awesome kill in the movie is when Scott McCoy (Chuck Norris) fires missiles from his motorcycle to kill a terrorist. I'm able to separate my love of film violence from my peaceful nature in real life. People who love violent movies, whether they're action or horror, often turn out to be very kind and loving in real life. They'll support charities for noble causes, or they'll utilize the characters as ways to express themselves for positive ideals. We'll see more of that when we discuss some horror-oriented material in the future.
Moving from international intrigue to stateside dramedy, we now come to 1985's Desperately Seeking Susan.
This movie tells the tale of Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette), a lonely and bored rich New Jersey housewife who seeks adventure and meaning in her life, finding it in following the personal ad romance of the adventurous Susan (Madonna) and her rock star boyfriend Jim (Robert Joy). A trip to New York City leads to a case of confusion where Roberta ends up living Susan's life, while Susan tries to figure out how to get her life back. On top of that, both Roberta and Susan get mixed up in a jewelry theft plot that could get them killed.
I first purchase Desperately Seeking Susan on VHS in 2000 with one of my first paychecks from my first paying job. I could now buy my own material instead of relying on my mom to buy it for me, and Desperately Seeking Susan just jumped out at me. I was already a fan of Madonna's music, and when I saw this movie, I found myself fascinated by how it turned New York City into a kind of storybook landscape.
Of course, in reality, New York in the 1980s was more defined by the classic tabloid headline "Headless Body In Topless Bar". It was a dark and dangerous place, but Desperately Seeking Susan made it look like a lot of fun. It showcased thrift stores and out-of-the-way show business establishments and nightclubs, and made it seem almost like you would want to visit there. That's the power of cinema.
Also, if you have six-and-a-half hours to spare, check out the YouTube channel Audiobooks For The Damned for a reading of the novelization of Desperately Seeking Susan after you've seen the movie. The novelization expands on so much of the story, and Amy Mullin's narration really brings the story to life.
Going from New York in 1985 to California in 1988, we now come to a stone classic of 80s action cinema, Die Hard.
Die Hard is, of course, the classic tale of New York cop John McClane (Bruce Willis), who visits his estranged wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) during the Christmas season and ends up being the only thing standing between a group of thieves posing as terrorists and a fortune that's vaulted up at his wife's new job. Helped on the outside by LAPD officer Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), and hindered on the outside by what TV tropes would call Jurisdiction Friction, as well as a sleazy news reporter, John has to work to save not only the day, but his marriage as well.
Although I still love watching Die Hard to this day, I must admit that I now have some difficulty in doing so. The reason why is because people take the debate of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not too seriously. It used to be a fun thing to debate, but as with many fun things, being debated year after year has caused people to get upset and beligerent. Even the movie's cast and crew don't agree on whether it's a Christmas movie or not, with Bruce Willis calling it not a Christmas movie, but a Bruce Willis movie, at his Comedy Central Roast, while the movie's screenwriters, Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, say it is.
Me? I split the difference and go by what TV Tropes would call it, An Ass-Kicking Christmas, which is a term for action movies that take place during the Christmas season. It's a term that fits many movies, including some more that will be coming up in future 80s Movie Samplers, and I think that's the best way to describe Die Hard. Maybe one day more people will come across TV Tropes and discover the trope An Ass-Kicking Christmas, and then we can all be on the same page. It would be a lot more peaceful than the social media arguing that happens at Christmas every year.
Moving from California in 1988 to Chicago in 1983, the next movie on our list is the Dan Aykroyd comedy Doctor Detroit.
In this movie, Aykroyd plays Clifford Skridlow, an uptight academic with poor social skills. During a night on the town, Skridlow meets a pimp named Smooth Walker (Howard Hesseman) and his harem of girls, having a whole lot of fun in the process. Walker is in debt to a gangster named Mom (Kate Murtaugh), and when he goes on the run, Skridlow assumes the identity of Doctor Detroit, a fictional criminal created by Smooth, and gradually loosens up while battling against Mom and her forces, all the while trying to keep his academic side intact alongside the school he teaches at.
I first rented this movie in the late 2000/early 2001 time period during one of the weekend sleepovers I would have with my friend Joe. We rented a lot of 80s movies from the video store, and Doctor Detroit really stood out for me. It's an interesting film because the character of Skridlow is a fundamentally decent man, and although he ends up playing the role of a pimp, he treats his charges in a respectful manner. That's a very unusual idea, but Aykroyd makes it work.
Also, as with several movies both previously mentioned in 80s Movie Samplers and still to come in the future, James Brown makes a memorable appearance, this time as a performer at a Player's Ball who leads the pimps and hookers in a dance number set to a rewritten version of "Get Up Offa That Thing" to celebrate Doctor Detroit. The sheer joy of Brown's performances comes through magnificently in this scene. James Brown could always liven up a room with his music, and this movie is more proof of that.
From Chicago in 1983, we go back to New York. 1989's the number, another Summer, sound of the Funky Drummer, letting you know that it's the classic Spike Lee joint Do The Right Thing.
Do The Right Thing is a classic of 80s cinema, telling the story of racial tensions in a Brooklyn neighborhood on a very hot Summer day. Director and writer Spike Lee also plays Mookie, a pizza deliveryman working for Sal (Danny Aiello), a kindhearted man with two unfortunately racist sons. Local activist Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) expresses irritation with the pizzeria's Wall Of Fame being covered in pictures of Italian performers, despite being in a predominantly black neighborhood, while Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) is blasting PublIc Enemy's Fight The Power out of his massive boombox. As day turns to night, Sal's racist side comes out against Buggin' Out and his friends, leading to violence and death.
The movie's title comes from a line by Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), an older gentlemen who offers others advice in spite of his own troubles. Seeing this movie will make you wonder what doing the right thing would be if you were in a similar situation. Would you try to listen to your better angels? Would repressed anger and bile come flying out of your mouth? Would you commit an act of violence to right a wrong, or would you commit an act of violence out of sheer anger? These are questions that don't leave the mind easily, and neither does this movie, which I feel is the best movie of 1989. I only wish that the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would've agreed.
From Brooklyn in 1989 to California in 1986, we now return to comedy with Paul Mazursky's classic comedy Down And Out In Beverly Hills.
This movie tells the tale of the Whitemans, a dysfunctional family who made their fortune through wire hangers. The heads of the household, Dave (Richard Dreyfuss) and Barbara (Bette Midler), have lost passion in their marriage, while their son Max (Evan Richards) uses art to communicate with his parents, and their daughter Jenny (Tracy Nelson) has an eating disorder and other personal issues compounded by being sent to a private school. When Dave rescues a homeless drifter named Jerry (Nick Nolte) from drowning, Jerry utilizes some tall tales to help improve the lives of his new benefactors.
Down And Out In Beverly Hills is one of the first movies I purchased with my own money from my first job. I'd seeen clips of it in Disney specials in my younger years as this was the first R-rated movie Disney released under their now sadly defunct Touchstone Pictures label, and a clip of Bette Midler in a mad chase was part of the also now sadly defunct Great Movie Ride at Disney's Hollywood Studios, also known as Disney-MGM Studios in the 80s and 90s. I didn't see the movie in full, though, until I bought it on VHS in 2000, and I loved it.
The movie told a very interesting story about how you never know how your life can be changed by another person. Jerry's usage of tall tales about his life before meeting the Whitemans allows the family a chance to begin again and become better people. Even when it all comes crashing down at the end, with Jerry confessing the reality of his past, the Whitemans and Jerry have still developed enough of a bond that they can't let each other go easily. Whether that's a good idea or not is never stated, but open endings can be just as enjoyable as a happy ending or as thought-provoking as a sad ending. How does the story end? You'll have to figure that out for yourself.
Returning to the Cannon Films library, the next movie in this sampler is 1987's Down Twisted, directed by Albert Pyun.
This movie tells the tale of a waitress (Carey Lowell) whose willingness to help a friend in need lands her in the middle of a deadly heist plot. Her only protector is a mercenary (Charles Rocket) whom she ends up falling in love with as they try to take down the thieves of an ancient treasure. Their journey takes them from California to Mexico, with lots of action and some dark humor along the way.
I first came across Down Twisted while doing an IMDB search on Carey Lowell, an actress whose work I find to be very underrated. I was intrigued by the plot, but I had difficulty tracking the movie down as it hasn't been released on DVD or Blu-Ray, and I don't have a VCR anymore. Thankfully, with the help of my friend and fellow Pop Geeks author Adam, I was able to get a VHS copy of Down Twisted converted to DVD, and I really liked what I saw. Lowell looks great and gives a wonderful performance, and Rocket? Seeing this movie made me wish his life turned out better.
Charles Rocket was poised to be a star of Season 6 of Saturday Night Live, but ended up catching heat alongside most of the other cast members, and not good heat. The reception of that season was not good, and it was only made worse when Rocket dropped an uncensored F bomb at the end of an episode. It's rumored that a documentary on SNL in the 80s led Rocket to commit suicide when he was approached about appearing in it after some career troubles he had. I wish Charles Rocket were still around. I would've loved to have interviewed him about SNL, Down Twisted and so much more, including a movie that will be coming up when we get to the E titles.
Staying in 1987, we come to the second Dan Aykroyd movie in this sampler, the comedic adaptation of Dragnet.
Aykroyd plays Joe Friday's nephew, also named Friday. He truly takes after his uncle, which places him in stark contrast to his new partner, Pep Streebeck (Tom Hanks), a casual, relaxed and slobbish new officer. The two must put aside their differences to rescue The Virgin Connie Swail (Alexandra Paul) from an evil plot masterminded by two more opposites, the corrupt Reverend Whirley (Christopher Plummer) and skin magazine magnate Jerry Caesar (Dabney Coleman).
Dan Aykroyd is on the autism spectrum, as I am also, and he's an inspiration to me. Aykroyd's work as Friday could be interpreted as playing the character on the spectrum. Friday has a rigid code of conduct. He strictly sticks to a set of routines. He has difficulty getting to know people as people. All of these are things I've experienced in my own life, and seeing Friday gradually learn to relax reminds me of my own journey to become more open-minded and accepting. It's a wonderful thing to eventually arrive at.
I've also interviewed a cast member from this movie, Jack O'Halloran, who plays a criminal named Emil Muzz. For his stories from the set of Dragnet, and many other films, check out this interview I did with him in 2016:
We now go to films beginning with E, and they don't get any bigger than 1982's E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.
E.T is the classic story of young Elliott (Henry Thomas), a child of divorce who feels a great sense of loneliness. One evening, he crosses paths with an alien from a planet of boatanists who was left behind on their visit to Earth. Elliot and the alien, whom he soon dubs E.T, form a bond in multiple ways, and once Elliott figures out that E.T wants to go back to his home planet, he and his siblings must figure out a way to accomplish that, all while keeping E.T a secret from their mother Mary (Dee Wallace) and working to keep him away from government forces.
E.T is one of the movies that immediately springs to mind when you think of 80s cinema, but it's also a very timeless picture. The themes of looking for connection, finding friendship, and trying to figure out what home entails are universal ideas, and E.T portrays them in a very unique light. A small neighborhood becomes a wide landscape for adventure as a small family's children help to protect an unlikely new housemate. It's an emotional rollercoaster, and when it's over, you feel sad, but you also feel hopeful.
A side note: Many people wonder why E.T can't heal himself if he's able to heal plants and people. I say it's because, as mentioned before, E.T comes from a planet of botanists, and botanists are doctors, albeit of plants. A doctor cannot heal themselves of a deadly sickness. A doctor cannot reach into their own heart to stop a murmur, or open their own body to get out a cancer. That's why it isn't a plot hole to me that E.T can't cure himself from the illness that's killing him. That technology hasn't been invented yet.
For more stories from E.T, check out my 2018 interviews with Dee Wallace, who played Mary, and Robert Short, the visual effects artist who counts E.T among his many credits: