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July 3, 2012

1981 - The Year The Mike Made Contact

When Eric from over at The Movie Waffler asked me to take part in a little Blogathon he's got going on, I got a little psyched.  The topic, should I choose to accept it, is what he calls "The Year I Made Contact" - asking folks who love movies to talk about the movies from the year in which said movie lover was born. (Like, could I say movie a few more times?  Movie.  There, I did.)
If you wanna go straight to what other people said, click the baby!
When I got offered the chance to write about this topic, I took a moment to ask myself some questions. "Hey, The you think the movies from the year you were born had an impact on you?  Like, maybe there's some kind of magical juju in the air that wafted off the movie screen and made you The Mike you are?"  And I was like "Nah, man, that's crazy."  But then I looked at the list of movies I've seen from 1981 (thanks to my good friends over at Flickchart, I can do that kind of stuff easily) and I was like "Whoa, The Mike...1981 and you is like...a magical conjunction!"

(Don't worry, I have Valley Girl-ish conversations with myself all the time. It's totally tubular and also normal for me.  Just run with it.)

Back on topic - 1981.  As far as I can count, there are 50 movies from 1981 that I've seen. And I can say with little hesitation that every single one of them makes me at least a little bit excited.  They're not all excellent films, and some struggle to get anywhere near good, but I swear with all my Mikeness that every movie I've seen from that year has something unique and catchy and attention-grabbing about it.
Jillian Kesner in the kung-fu/exploitation cheese-o-rama Firecracker.
When I try to break down 1981 - which is seriously no easy task for me when I'm this stoked about movies that aren't even good like Firecracker or The Nesting or The Survivor - I see a few distinct categories of movies that fit my cinema lovin' persona.  I'm a little afraid to start this next part - because I know I'm going to forget to mention something my gut thinks is great - but here's a run down of what sticks out (the most) to me from 1981.
Heads will roll - but not float - in Eyes of a Stranger.
The Slashers
As I discussed when I covered The Slasher Movie Book a few weeks ago, 1981 was right in the middle of the slasher movie's "golden age".  There are a few movies from the year that I will watch despite their silliness - stuff like, Graduation Day, The Burning, Hell Night, and Eyes of a Stranger (Oh, man, Eyes of a Stranger is something else!) - but there are also some big dogs of slasherdom too.  Halloween II and Friday the 13th Part 2 both took their brands down defining paths, with the former introducing the family ties between killer and victims and the latter introducing the fully grown Jason.  Both films are highly flawed, but pretty iconic at times, with a couple of the best moments in either series hidden within.  Alongside those films are three of my favorite stand-alone slasher films, My Bloody Valentine, The Prowler, and Just Before Dawn.  These are three movies that represent exactly what the slasher was at the peak of its popularity, embracing the cliches while finding unique ways to make viewers love their kind of carnage.
The Non-Horror Stuff
I know I'm all about the genre stuff and the wacky stuff here, but there are a lot of 1981 movies I need to mention to feel OK about myself.  Some are pretty obvious - most anyone talking about 1981 will surely mention Raiders of the Lost Ark, which has to be the year's most popular and enduring film - while others were big hits at the time that are slightly obscure to the masses these days.  Films like Body Heat, The Cannonball Run, Stripes, and The Road Warrior are still loved in circles of movie buffs, but have primarily been relegated to "Movies that people pillage and update to make fresh young movies" status by greedy Hollywoodians and ignorant kids.
I will always miss John Belushi.
For me, there are a few lesser known films from the year that still stick out too.  The fantastic John Belushi, who's still my favorite comedian ever and kind of a hero to me, had his last two movies - the sweet and heartfelt Continental Divide and the zany and psychotic Neighbors - released in 1981, before his untimely death in 1982.  Another comedic favorite, Mel Brooks, released History of the World - Part 1, which is not among my favorite of his films, but is still a cracking spoof at times.  Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams, and Rutger Hauer starred in the ridiculously serious serial killer thriller Nighthawks, which stands tall as one of the greatest facial hair movies of all-time.  George A. Romero took a break from zombies with the renaissance fairs and motorcycles epic Knightriders - buoyed by a young and intense Ed Harris - and made a ridiculous premise stick out as one of his better post Dawn of the Dead films.
Hey everybody! It's Ron Perlman!
1981 also featured one of the most unique films I've ever seen; a film that I find endlessly watchable despite little facts like next to nothing happening and no comprehensible dialogue. Jean-Jacques Annaud's Quest For Fire, about cavemen who have to gain and protect fire back in the days long before matches is a one-of-a-kind epic that I dig.  I don't have a clue what it's saying most of the time - but I think I like what it means.  And it's pretty once you get past all the hair.
The Horrors That Aren't All Slashy
While the slashers dominated the horror scene of the early '80s in many regards, there are several horror movies from 1981 that shine in other ways.  But, like the slashers, not all of them are firing on all cylinders.  Ghost Story is swimming in atmosphere and has a dynamite cast of Hollywood legends, but has some pacing issues.  Similar concerns took some spotlight away from Wolfen, in which Albert Finney faces New York City werewolves that have something to do with a Native American ritual - which means the movie's slow and also batstuff crazy.  Oliver Stone wrote and directed (Seriously! Oliver Stone! I'm not making this up!) The Hand, in which Michael Caine (Seriously!) deals with the loss of his hand which is now killing people, a movie that I love dearly but have a hard time defending. Maybe it's the gorgeous Andrea Marcovicci that draws me in and tricks me, or maybe it's the fact that the film is a psychological look at the effect of Thing from The Addams Family going on a rampage.   Either way, I can't stop loving The Hand.

On the more successful side of 1981, we find a couple more interesting horrors.  I'm not the biggest fan of Joe Dante's The Howling - I think it lacks too much of the comedic charm of his other films and is kind of poorly cast - but it's a great throwback to The Wolf Man with Dee Wallace at the top of her game and some great special effects.  Dead and Buried, on the other hand, is exactly my kind of straight-faced horror film, as the combination of writer Dan O'Bannon and director Gary Sherman brings forth an atmospheric and genuinely scary small town horror film. 
Just go watch The Pit and tell me it's not creepy/awkward. I dare ya.
If you're a regular reader of this site, you know that the Midnight Movie of the Week is pretty much my signature post.  I've been running it for 130 straight weeks now, and I wasn't surprised when I learned that no less than six (6!) of the movies I've picked for what I think is a prestigious honor came from 1981.  Among these are two surprisingly shocking horrors featuring mini-sized terrors, The Pit and Bloody Birthday.  The Pit has a little boy who's controlled by his teddy bear and some cave-dwelling trogs, and it's a film that never stops being its own brand of entertaining crazy.  Bloody Birthday is more straight forward, with three evil kids doing evil things for the sake of evil, but it is unsubtle in every way and goes out of its way to show extreme violence around (and sometimes toward) little children.
Though it might not be strictly a horror film, Roadgames features Jamie Lee Curtis in an early role and sports one of my favorite sensational movie posters of all-time.  For the most part, the film is Stacy Keach playing Rear Window from the cab of a semi that's crossing Australia, which makes it one of the most rewatchable films in my collection.  It's been relatively forgotten - it didn't even make the cut in the discussion of Jamie Lee's early roles in Scream - but Richard Franklin's thriller has long been a favorite of mine.  It's also been Midnight Movie of the Week.

The Top Five
When I really - and I mean really, those last thirteen paragraphs were just me warming up - break it down, there are five movies from 1981 that stand out as the gems of the year to me.  (Yes, I know Raiders of the Lost Ark should be here too, but I'm leaving it to the smarter people...and I'm more of a Last Crusade guy, to be honest.)  Here's a brief look at each of them.
If I'm being snooty and not acknowledging Halloween as a slasher - sometimes I like to pretend that it's "above" the moniker since it started the fire burning - Happy Birthday to Me easily takes the bithday cake as my favorite.  Another former MMOTW, the movie only came to my attention because one of those "The Day You Were Born" things my mom hung outside my bedroom had it listed as a popular movie of the time, and I found that terribly ironic.  It's perhaps the Lawrence of Arabia of slasher movies - I swear it's almost two hours long! - but it's got awesome kills, goofy characters, and all the '80s cheese you need. And the kids make references to classic movies, which makes me long for the days when we weren't being force fed so much new crap and we still remembered things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame or High Noon.  But that's another topic for another day...
Part of the reason I'm not so wild about The Howling might be the fact that I am wild about An American Werewolf in London.  I know it would be the nice thing to do if I accepted both movies for what they are - and I do still dig The Howling, dammit! - but An American Werewolf in London just sticks out to me as such a perfect film.  As I once wrote in a piece for the Flickchart Blog, it is truly a "one of a kind" movie with the perfect mix of comedy, action, and horror.  It too pays tribute to The Wolf Man in a great way, and it never keeps me from smiling.
The Evil Dead needs no introduction to most horror fans.  I feel terribly blessed that I, despite my age, found the original film first - unlike most of my classmates in school, who met Ash in Army of Darkness.  The Evil Dead still intrigues me on many levels, as it's one of the most immersive movie experiences I've ever been a part of.  Some remember the series for Bruce Campbell and the gags of the later films - and sometimes I do too - but the original Evil Dead deserves mad love for being a non-stop attack on the viewer.  
Another movie that I love for its bleakness - man, when you get down to it, 1981 was all about how we're doomed - is Brian De Palma's Blow Out.  John Travolta and Nancy Allen star in what looks like an average thriller, but the twists and turns of the plot lead up to a fantastic conclusion that is perhaps the most heart-breaking thing ever filmed.  It's full of De Palma's trademark sleaze and features a psychotic John Lithgow and a slimy Dennis Franz, which makes it the kind of film (Another past MMOTW!) that just traps my eyeballs and never lets them go.
Lastly, we reach the man I admire more than almost anyone - Snake Plissken.  You may call him a fictional character who was played by Kurt Russell, but I call him an ideal.  I call him an institution. I call him the spirit of everyone who's ever been fed up with having to go along with society's expectations and I call him the champion of every man who ever just wanted to sit down and be done with the crap.  I honestly call him a hero.
Escape From New York isn't the best movie of the year by any technical regard, and some may even say it's a little light in the plot department.  Some even knock the one-note antihero, but they miss the things that makes me love Snake Plissken and this film so dearly.  You might see Escape From New York as a silly film that guessed wrong about 1997, but I see it as a statement about society that features a character who has the resolve to stand up against anything.  As I said when I named it Midnight Movie of the Week on a decidedly low day, Escape From New York gives me a satisfaction about my course in life.

Snake Plissken is certainly my champion of 1981, but as I look back at the year I find so many movies to love that represent just what it is I love about movies.  They're not the happy-go-lucky movies that most people prefer - but those aren't the movies that I'm here for.  In an almost fatalistic way, the films of 1981 and I share many of the same opinions on what cinema can be, and this chance to look back at that year's films has been a thrill for me.
Don't forget to click the baby!
As I mentioned at the beginning of this thing - which I really thought would be shorter! - you can check out the rest of the The Year I Made Contact Blogathon over at The Movie Waffler.  So head on over and see what's up. If you have your own site, check in over there and join the party.  Or, you can just tell me what you think of your birth year (or what you think of 1981) in the comments below.  The possibilities, like my love-filled ramblings about 1981, are nearly endless.


The Movie Waffler said...

Wow '81 was a hell of a year. Nice to see Road Games get some props, I really think Franklin is the most under-rated director ever. Stay away from those tralalogs!

Christine Hadden said...

This was a great post, and congrats for being born in is arguably one of the best years in horror.

I won't mention the year I was born, but suffice it to say I have Rosemary's Baby, (the original) Night of the Living Dead, and (the original) Planet of the Apes to claim..

Alex Jowski said...

1981 - great year. I just re-watched Friday the 13th Part 2 last night and movie trailers were a whole lot different in 1981 than they are now.

Murtaza Ali Khan said...

A great assemblage of movies... sadly, I haven't watched many of them but your great post inspires me to do so :-)