Those ’80s Films… Even the Best of Them

Quentin Tarantino is solid. He doesn’t let the PC police faze him, or ideology get in the way of his art. Recently he’s gone after ’80s films, much in the same way I have; I’m convinced now that he and I are kindred souls. From two of his recent interviews, he says:

“The ’50s and the ’80s were the worst time for American movies. In the ’50s it was just the way society was. In the ’80s it was self-censorship, in response to the ’70s, where film makers went as far as they could. Everything in the ’80s was suddenly watered down. In ’70s films characters weren’t necessarily the heroes, but they were compelling and interesting. In the ’80s you couldn’t say shit if you had a mouthful. In the ’80s the most important thing about main characters was that they were likeable. And even a film that pushed the envelope and tried to do chancy things, it could do so for only part of the film before it pulled back and ‘apologized’ for it…”

“The decade of the ’80s was the decade of ‘they won’t let you do that’. We’re going through the ’80s Part 2 now [in the 21st century], except there’s more of a McCarthy-esque blacklist aspect to it. In the ’80s film makers just did it to themselves, whereas today people are doing it to you as a film maker. And it was only happening in America in the ’80s; everywhere else in the world was bold cinema. And that’s the kind of film I wanted to make when starting my career [in the early ’90s]. When I was told ‘they won’t let you do that’, I said, ‘Well, who are they?’ And I never let that stop me, and by doing that, I and others changed film making in the ’90s. [Starting with Reservoir Dogs.] The ’90s films stopped being ‘politically correct’ [by ’80s standards], and started taking risks again.”

I came of age in the ’80s and simply can’t watch most of the films I grew up on. They’ve aged horribly and I wonder how I ever enjoyed them. By pre- or post-’80s standards they come off as censored or sanitized in the way Tarantino describes, with facilely (and predictably) happy endings. They tend to be family friendly, aligning with the family-value era of Ronald Reagan. Chris Maltezos wrote a dissertation called “The Return of the 1950s Nuclear Family in the Films of the 1980s”, in which he focuses on two particular ’80s films, Ordinary People and E.T., noting the re-emerging importance of father figures, and the lasting bonds between children and their parents. I’ll make similar observations in my case studies below.

But let me preface this by saying that obviously not everything from the ’80s was bad. The rot hadn’t fully set in until ’83. Some films from ’80-’82 were brilliant extensions of ’70s-style cinema. Think of The Shining (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Evil Dead (1981), Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), Conan the Barbarian (1982), and Blade Runner (1982). Many of those are masterpieces, and all are ’70s films at heart. (Whereas Conan the Destroyer (1984), Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and The Evil Dead 2 (1987) are “pure ’80s”, and as awful as their predecessors were excellent.)

There were good films between ’83-’89 too, but they were exceptional, and not entirely free of ’80s tropes. Even the best film makers couldn’t escape the baggage. The self-censorship that Tarantino speaks of is quite evident when you watch them today. I’ll focus on three films I deeply admire (Near Dark, Blue Velvet, and After Hours) and then one that almost everyone loves but I don’t (Aliens).

Near Dark (1987)

Kathryn Bigelow’s horror-western is the perfect vampire film — or almost. There’s no seductive glamorizing of the bloodsuckers; it’s a very violent and nihilistic tale and holds up well against the typical dreck horror of the ’80s. But there is the happy ending that sticks out: Caleb has been given a blood transfusion by his father (who does transfusions with farm animals) which saves him and makes him human again. After the nasty showdown with the other vamps — and Mae almost burns to ash in the sun — she too is given a transfusion by Caleb and returns to humanity. The epilogue points to their happy future under the roof of Caleb’s father, where vampire horrors will be a distant memory.

Had Bigelow made this film in any other decade, I guarantee she would not have conceived this cheesy ending. In a ’70s horror film like this Caleb and Mae would have stayed vampires, and one (or both) of them likely met a tragic end — dying in the sun, stake through the heart, whatever. As a ’90s film, Caleb and Mae would have also stayed vampires, and perhaps left the other vamps that had been Mae’s family, to go rogue as a lover duo. The film is so great that you can forgive the conclusion catering to nuclear family values, but it does stand out awkwardly from a post-’80s perspective.

Blue Velvet (1986)

The darkest and most perverse anti-’80s film of the ’80s is, for my money, Blue Velvet. If there’s any director who refuses to self-censor in any time, it’s David Lynch. And yet even he — in even this hideous tale of mean sexual brutality that pulls no punches — ends Blue Velvet in a non-Lynchian way that panders to the nuclear family. After the mystery is solved and Frank Booth is killed, all is well that ends well. In the epilogue, everyone is gathered on a sunny day at the home of Jeffrey’s father. Jeffrey’s girlfriend Sandy looks out the window and sees that the robins of her dreams have come to the yard. She has forgiven Jeffrey for all his subterfuge. This scene is juxtaposed with Dorothy, who after her captivity and sexual abuse under Frank is now free and reunited with her young boy: happy for the first time in ages, restored to motherhood and mental health.

I should emphasize that I like Blue Velvet‘s ending. Not all happy endings are bad; some are well earned, and unlike Near Dark’s, Blue Velvet‘s is genuinely moving. It’s an earned payoff to all the suffocating despair that came before. Nonetheless, I doubt that Lynch would have written this ending had he made Blue Velvet in any other decade. Had it been a film of the ’70s or ’90s, Jeffrey would have walked away at the end, alone and shattered by everything he’d experienced. Lynch’s track record speaks for itself: Blue Velvet is his only film with “all is well that ends well”.

Consider: Eraserhead (1977) was ’70s nihilism from start to finish. Wild at Heart (1990) and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) were flat repudiations of the family-centric ’80s. In Wild at Heart, Lula’s mother tries to have Lula’s boyfriend killed, and in the end, Lula is finally able to reject her mother as she reunites with her boyfriend Sailor; the photograph of her mother sizzles and vanishes, signaling Lula’s liberation from the woes of her biological family. Fire Walk With Me is about Laura Palmer’s sexual abuse at the hands of her father, who in the final terrible scene murders Laura. (Laura’s mother is dysfunctional too.) These films are impossible to imagine on screen in the ’80s.

Next came Lost Highway (1997), with a nihilistic ending about a man’s permanent imprisonment in denial. Soon after that Mulholland Drive (2001), which finished on Diane being terrorized by hallucinations of her parents, causing her to shoot herself in her own bed. That’s about as anti-nuclear family as one can imagine, and the kind of depressing ending we expect from Lynch.

Even Lynch’s G-rated Straight Story (1999) (G-rated films are family-friendly by definition, so this one would hardly count much anyway), while ending on a man reunited with his brother after years of estrangement, doesn’t portray that ending as exactly happy. His brother looks at him but is unable to say anything; and the film abruptly ends. The Straight Story is an odyssey; the ending is an ambiguous epilogue that leaves questions open about the possibility of a reconciliation.

After Hours (1985)

In Martin Scorsese’s case the self-censorship involves a genre shift. Never in the ’80s did he make anything like Mean Streets (1973), Taxi Driver (1976), or Raging Bull (1980) (the last of which was a 70s film to the core, despite its release in 1980). We’d have to wait for the ’90s and beyond to get Goodfellas (1990), Cape Fear (1991), Casino (1995), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Gangs of New York, (2002), The Departed (2006), Shutter Island (2010), and The Irishman (2019).

What we got instead from Scorsese was what the ’80s had in abundance: comedy and sports: The King of Comedy (1982), After Hours (1985), and (for sports) The Color of Money (1986). These were capped off by a horrible imagination of the historical Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ (1989) (which should have been a comedy like The Life of Brian). The ’80s decade was the undeniable nadir of Scorsese’s career. The Color of Money was especially mainstream for him, showing Tom Cruise playing billiards in the blandest most conventional narrative.

But I do like After Hours. It’s a comedy that hits my sweet spot; a very dark one about a guy who gets sucked into a surrealist nightmare. He loses his money, causes a suicide, becomes a suspect in a bunch of robberies, and turns the neighborhood against him. It’s edgy and nervy by ’80s standards, though hardly by Scorsese’s own standards. But these are the limits he apparently allowed himself. He couldn’t have made a Goodfellas or a Cape Fear in the ’80s. Cinema was too sanitized for that stuff.

Aliens (1986) — as compared to Alien (1979) and Alien 3 (1992)

And now for a film I don’t like: Aliens. It’s really just Alien on steroids, throwing umpteen of the horrors against a bunch of mercenaries who sign on to risk their lives anyway. Alien was a masterpiece of ’70s sci-fic terror. Aliens is a crowd pleaser with a happy ending (by Alien-franchise standards), with its most likeable characters — Ripley, Hicks, and Newt — surviving against every odd. Ripley is a maternal figure in Aliens who saves the innocent child.

Alien 3, for all its problems, is at least a return to ’70s seriousness. It’s bleak and misanthropic, with no likeable figure save Ripley, and even she’s a bit hard to warm to this time around. The opening scene — right from this starting point, I knew I’d like Alien 3 — reverses the happy ending of Aliens, by killing off Hicks and the child Newt whom Ripley went through Hell and back to save. As if to give the ’80s a deliberate finger, Ripley’s surrogate family is obliterated from the get. The ugly depths of the human condition are on display everywhere in the film. Charles Dutton plays a rapist and killer of women whose faith makes him a very unlikely hero, though a very interesting one. Ripley herself dies at the end.

To the repeated claims that Aliens is the rare sequel that’s better than the first film, I say hogwash. It’s not even close, and I even prefer Alien 3 to Aliens. David Fincher is leagues ahead of James Cameron, and he made his film a stalk-and-slash horror in the same vein as Alien,‭ ‬with Ripley having few weapons to rely on. He tried to bring back menace to the franchise, and while he only half succeeded (the dog-like alien wasn’t especially scary), he still made a decent film. All Cameron made was a blockbuster tailored for ’80s sensibilities.

2 thoughts on “Those ’80s Films… Even the Best of Them

  1. I think the ’80’s did comedy pretty well. A lot of the best ones hold up without dating themselves other than the styles shown on screen. Partially I think, due to the whole politically correct movement only really beginning. For someone who came of age in the ’70’s the optimism of the ’80’s could definitely be jarring, but I do miss that optimism every day when I look at the news

  2. Interesting post. I’m not a film fanatic by any means (I play more video games and read more books than I watch movies/TV) but I do recall enjoying the 80s movies that I watched.

    Terminator – the first two at least – were amazing, The Thing was FANTASTIC, Indiana Jones wasn’t my thing but I still think it’s objectively a well-made film, Rain Man was good, Aliens was good, Conan was good, Bill & Ted was funny, Ghostbuster was great, and I know you disagree but my favorite Star Wars movie was Return of the Jedi. Oh and if we’re going to go outside of American cinema, then Castle in the Sky and Grave of the Fireflies are some of my favorite movies ever made! Although… one movie I never really enjoyed was Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Ferris’ personality rubs me the wrong way.

    It’s funny to see how much you dislike James Cameron lol. I like his films, though admittedly they do tend to be “crowd pleasers.” I have to read your post on Avatar now! (For my money, I thought it was a beautiful movie with a mediocre storyline; an overall decent experience)

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